“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you: fly between the two! Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold. Keep to the center of their wheel. Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword. Take me as your guide and follow!”
“But Icarus grows excited. He forgets the advice. Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea. Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world? Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea. He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair. He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in. ‘O Sun! Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire. Once more he kicks on the wind! Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind! Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]
We know of course, how this is going to end: wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below. Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.
The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course. It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets: from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.
Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag. Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote. Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf. I read through the entire collection several times that semester.
I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time. He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance. Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.
II LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991. (p. 122).
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.
“And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood
above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God if Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the
south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”[ii]
The Jacob’s Ladder
“The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence for angels’ feet that
only glance in their
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next giving a
lift of wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past
The poem ascends.”[iii]
There are many literary references and historical illustrations to the passage of people and angels traveling between Heaven and Earth. There are also contemporary examples such as the one above by Denise Levertov and one at the end of this essay by Bob Dylan. In literature these draw upon the Old Testament story of the Dream of Jacob. In music there is a major source for this in the great American Southern Baptist spiritual: “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
Every rung goes higher and higher.
We are brothers, and sisters, all.”[iv]
It was one of the first African American spirituals to become popular with both black and white citizens of the south. There is no record of when it was written or who wrote it, but it came into being sometime between 1750 and 1825, and was known as a call and response song amongst slaves. The ladder quickly became one of many symbols for the means of escaping slavery.
As is typical with folk traditions, this song was handed down through generations and verses were added and changed to reflect more recent times. Significant versions from the 20th Century include recordings by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and most recently by Bruce Springsteen during his “Seeger Sessions.”
In the visual arts as well, this imagery has wide ranging uses, from medieval manuscript illuminations to pieces of surrealism and even to contemporary sculpture. The “Dream of Romuald with the stairs of the Monks” from an Italian book illumination at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris is a reference to the story of Jacob’s Ladder. Many early 20th Century artists incorporated this imagery into their work, from realists to surrealists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Joan Miro and most recently, Martin Puryear, who has used the ladder form in his sculpture dedicated to Booker T. Washington.
Finally, a young artist here in Indiana has for several years been employing severe and unusual views of many ordinary and everyday objects. Having studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Sarah Jones has always had an eye for the unique angle of things.
The dramatic placement and situation of certain objects is combined with her own personal point of view towards these things. Her paintings above and below best illustrate this, as does her own statement regarding how they came about.
“The paintings came about after a summer spent in the four corners region. I was working on a ranch in Durango, CO and took weekend trips to places like Mesa Verde, Taos, and Albuquerque. It was my first trip west of the Mississippi and I was fascinated by the differences in landscape and even quality of light compared to Indiana. The images which inspired the paintings were taken at Taos Pueblo. The sky was SO blue. The light was SO bright. The shadows were SO strong. I loved the clean lines of the buildings and the shadow patterns made by ladders leaning against the adobe buildings. They formed lovely right angle triangles: building= side 1, ladder = side 2 and shadow of ladder falling across the ground = side 3.”[v]
Finally, I am reminded of a certain theme that runs through much of the writing of William Carlos Williams: primarily in his epic poem “Patterson” and secondly in an essay on the work of the artist Charles Sheeler. He mentions several times that we should “Say it! No ideas but in things!”[vi] And further, he observes that “It is in things that for the artist power lies….”[vii] So, it is in both poetry and painting that a single object might become a powerful image.
“May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young”[viii]
[i] Translated as “The Dream of St. Romuald and the Ladder of the Monks” this is a piece from the Wildenstein Collection of historic manuscript illuminations at the Marmottan-Monet Museum in Paris. One historian, Peter Damian, has noted that St. Romuald’s Dream is also a conflation of the legend of Jacob’s Dream.
[ii] “Genesis 28:11-17” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinburgh; 1952; p. 21.
[iii] Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2002; p. 25.
[iv] Springsteen, Bruce; “Jacob’s Ladder” The Seeger Sessions; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1998 & 2006.
[v] Jones, Sarah; An artist’s statement regarding her “Ladder Paintings” as contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer, 16 May 2017.
[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6 & 9.
[vii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1969; p. 234.
[viii] Dylan, Bob; “Forever Young” Planet Waves; Audio Recording, Columbia Records and Sony Entertainment; New York, New York; 1974 & 2004.
It is an icon, some would even call it a cliché, one of the many great sculptures from the ancient Greeks that have been handed down to us through Roman copies. It has, however, lasted throughout all of these years, and no doubt will continue. It may not be relevant, but it was and is influential. During all of its history artists have studied these pieces and writers have been inspired by them, including a most important San Francisco Bay Area poet.
From classical Greek sculpture to Goya, from Marc Chagall to Charlie Chaplin, and even from Morris Graves to Edward Hopper, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always written about a variety of artists. He also speaks of both the detail and the overall, both the immediate and the historical. He notices the calipers in the hands of the sculptor as well as the ramifications for an articulated detail that carries us over the centuries.
“Discobolus” or the “Discus Thrower” is of course a marble copy of the original bronze Greek sculpture by Myron. And, at one time or another, it has made its way, through academic castings and copies, into almost every art school in the world. This is where Vincent Van Gogh first encountered it in a drawing class in Antwerp in 1886.
“Students at the Antwerp academy were expected to work three or four days on a single drawing, so that during his six-week stay Van Gogh probably executed about a dozen sheets. We know both from his letters and from eyewitness accounts that he copied several different sculptures, but this study from a cast of the Discus Thrower (ca. 450 B.C.) by Myron of Eleutherai is the only example to have survived.”[ii]
Most recently, from Pop Art to the Post-Modern, we encounter themes and variations played out in an art historical context. Ned Rifkin in writing about the artist Robert Moskowitz’s borrowing of sculptural imagery from Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” to Rodin’s “The Thinker” and even to the Roman copy of the “Discus Thrower” has observed:
“Moskowitz reduced the barely recognizable image to a hard edged outline. . . . It becomes. . . its vestigal shadow and reads not as an experience of form in space but as a sign.”
“Certainly, the artist is making a statement about self-consciousness while also reinventing the form. It definitely uses that known image and says, ‘What does it mean now?’” [iii]
[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1958; p. 79.
[ii] Ives, Colta, Susan Alyson Stein, et al; Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings; The Metropilitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2005; p. 126.
[iii] Rifkin, Ned; Robert Moskowitz; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Thames and Hudson; New York, New York; 1989; p. 42.
“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]
Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915. She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives. She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father. Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house. She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.
Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young. Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.
Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.
“The Day Lady Died”
“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]
Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered: “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]
[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.
[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.
[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987. (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.
He started out manning the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York right after finishing up graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1951. He soon became an Assistant Curator and later an Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture.
He would often take off for lunch and scribble notes in the park while he ate a sandwich, or he would walk around the block, stop in at the Ollivetti Shop pretending to test out the latest typewriter and type out 10 or 15 lines on a sheet of paper and then return to his office. “Lunch Poems” he would later call them.[i]
Although his degrees were in creative writing, Frank O’Hara had a keen eye and a contagious smile and soon met many of the other younger painters and poets in New York. Amongst his new circle of friends and associates were Grace Hartigan, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, Michael Goldberg, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell. He would often collaborate with several of these painters, especially Larry Rivers, Michael Goldberg, and Grace Hartigan. One important example of this was the series of Hartigan’s paintings and O’Hara’s poems titled “Oranges” exhibited and published through Tibor de Nagy in 1953.[ii]
“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER”
“I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
‘Sit down and have a drink’ he
says. I drink: we drink. I look
up. ‘You have SARDINES in it.’
‘Yes, it needed something there.’
‘Oh.’ I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. ‘Where’s the SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters. ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There shoud be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”[iii]
[i] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 2014.
[ii] Perloff, Marjorie; Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1998, pp. 76-77.
[iii] Allen, Donald, ed.; The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London; 1995; pp. 261-262.
To a hair’s breadth
Antonin Artaud, 1947[i]
In conversations with many of his friends over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language….”[ii]
It truly was a new world of signs and images that Matisse was creating. Even as he was recovering from several surgeries late in life and confined to his bed or wheelchair, he kept working. The philosopher Henri Focillon described this as a carving out of space or as the work of art creating its own space in the life of forms. The Beat Generation poet Ed Sanders has also described this as ‘those scissors flashing in the world of forms’ or as a ‘cutting’ form.
As Artoud described this process it is a project dealing with arrangements to “a hair’s breadth.” Later it would be suggested by Sanders that he wants it adjusted “This way and that, Minutitudinous!”
Or as Matisse himself has noted “The artist’s role is not to translate an observation, but to express the impact an object makes on his own nature: the shock, the initial reaction.”[iii]
“A work of art is situated in space. But it will not do to say it simply exists in space: a work of art treats space according to its own needs, defines space and even creates such space as may be necessary to it. The space of life is a known quantity to which life readily submits; the space of art is a plastic and changing material.”[iv]
THE CUTTING PROW: FOR HENRI MATISSE
“The genius was 81
Fearful of blindness
Caught in a wheelchair
Staring at death
But the Angel of mercy
Gave him a year
To scissor some shapes
To soothe the scythe
And shriek! shriek!
The peace of
There was something besides
Of cutting a beautiful shape—-
Each thing had a ‘sign’
Each thing had a ‘symbol’
Each thing had a cutting form
to scissor seize.
‘One must study an object a long time,’
the genius said,
‘to know what its sign is.’
The scissors were his scepter
Was as the prow of a barque
To sail him away.
There’s a photograph
which shows him sitting in his wheelchair
bare foot touching the floor
drawing the crisscross steel
a shape in the gouache
His helper sits near him
Till he hands her the form
To pin to the wall
He points with a stick
How he wants it adjusted
This way and that,
The last blue iris blooms at
The top of its stalk
Ah, keep those scissors flashing in the
World of Forms, Henri Matisse
The cutting of the scissors
Was the prow of a boat
To take him away
The last blue iris
Blooms at the top
On a warm spring day
Ah, keep those scissors flashing
In the World of Forms, Henri Matisse
Sitting in a wheelchair
Bare feet touching the floor
Angel of Mercy
Pushed him over Next to Plato’s door
On this date in history, 31 December 1869, Henri Emile Benoit Matisse was born. Although he studied for and passed the law examination in 1888, it was following an attack of appendicitis in 1889 that is mother gave him a set of paints during his recovery. By 1891 he had decided to abandon his law career and to study painting. In Paris he first began studies with Adolphe Bouguereau, but left the Academie Julian in frustration and ended up in the class of Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Moreau’s studio encouraged expression and filled the needs of many young artists, including Albert Marquet, Georges Roualt, Henri Manquin, Jules Flandrin, and Charles Camoin. It is here that Matisse began a life long process of experimentation and invention. By 1905 he and his compatriots Maurice Vlaminck and Andre Derain were accused of being ‘wild beasts’ and during the teens his experimentation was debated on whether it was too cubist, or not cubist enough. “The French Window” and the “View of Notre Dame” both from 1914 proved to be pushes into abstraction and invention completely different from what anyone else was doing at that time and for years to come.
Later during the era between World War I and World War II, Matisse would explore pattern space and abstraction through the use of textiles and architecture, and he would employ drawing and painting in this search for certain signs, which were abstracted from the things surrounding him in the studio.
In 1941 an illness and cancer surgery resulted in damaged abdominal muscles confining him to either his bed or wheel chair. When others would have been happy to just repeat and imitate themselves, he invented one last means of working: paper cut-outs that literally allowed him to carve with scissors and paper in space. The series of “Acrobats” and “Blue Nudes” were the ultimate results of these experiments.
The Blue Woman
“She dipped her hand in the sea.
It turned blue.
That pleased her.
She fell full-length into the sea.
She turned blue.
Blue in voice and silence.
The blue woman,
Many admired her
No-one loved her.”
Finally, in a collection of writings titled “Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century” the poet Ed Sanders paid tribute to Matisse and his paper cut-outs. Sanders wrote:
“He couldn’t paint, he couldn’t sculpt. He was confined to a wheelchair, and gripped with timor mortis. From his bed at night he’d draw on the ceiling with a long stick with crayon attached. Yet somehow he adjusted his creativity, finding a new mix of the muses, so that from the spring of 1952 through the spring of ’53, in his final creative months, Henri Matisse was able to produce some of the finest art of the century—works such as The Swimming Pool, Large Decoration with Masks, The Negress, Memory of Oceania, Women and Monkeys, and the smaller Blue Nude series. He thought he could scissor the essence of a thing, it’s ‘sign’ as he termed it, as if he had vision in Plato’s world of Forms.”[ii]
[i] Berggruen, Olivier, and Max Hollein; Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors; Prestel; Munich, Berlin, London and New York; 2006; p. 151.
[ii] Sanders, Ed; “Introduction to The Cutting Prow;” Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century; Coffee House Press; Minneapolis, Minnesota; 2009; p. 202.