THE MAN WHO SEES THROUGH STONE

“He sees through stone
he has the secret
eyes this old black one
who under prison skies
sits pressed by the sun
against the western wall
his pipe between purple gums

the years fall
like overripe plums
bursting red flesh
on the dark earth

his time is not my time
but I have known him
in a time gone

he led me trembling cold
into the dark forest
taught me the secret rites
to make it with a woman
to be true to my brothers
to make my spear drink
the blood of my enemies

now black cats circle him
flash white teeth
snarl at the air
mashing green grass beneath
shining muscles

ears peeling his words
he smiles
he knows
the hunt the enemy
he has the secret eyes
he sees through stone.”[i]

stone1
Philip Guston
“Head”
1975
Oil on canvas
69 1/4” x 74 1/4”
Estate of Philip Guston

Bad painting and badass poetry!  In street language it could be simultaneously an insult and a compliment.  In either case, both Philip Guston and Etheridge Knight would wear these descriptions proudly.  These two changed the way we see painting and poetry with straightforward, brutal imagery.

Rejecting his past lyrical abstractions for a newly found figuration, Philip Guston’s solo exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1970 was met with shock and derision by many fellow artists and critics.  Robert Storr noted the great cry from critics at that time:  Hilton Kramer writing in the New York Times accused Guston of being a “Mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.”[ii]  However, the doors that he single handedly opened allowed many younger artists to explore a greater range of ideas and imagery.  Neil Jenney, Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, and Elizabeth Murray were all clearly influenced by Guston’s late work.

stone2
Susan Rothenberg
“5 Eyes (study)”
1997
Oil on canvas
24 1/2” x 27”
Sperone Westwater, New York

Etheridge Knight’s first book Poems from Prison was published in 1968, one year before he was released from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.  He caught everyone off guard, but he did receive support from a great range of more established writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Bly.  Knight later established himself through readings and lectures and by offering a series of Free People’s Poetry Workshops in several cities including Minneapolis, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis.

The artists associated with both the New Image and Bad Painting movements have clearly benefited from Guston’s work, as well as a new generation of artists mostly living and working in isolation nowadays.  Some of these younger artists include Dane Patterson, Jacqueline Lou Skaggs, David B. Frye, Jason Cole Major, Carla Knopp, Steve Paddack and Christie Blizard.  Knight’s influence was also strong on poets and painters living in Indianapolis, especially on Francy and Steven Stoller.

“The artist is encouraged to speak only of the beautiful (himself and what he sees); his take is to edify the listener, to make him see beauty of the world.  And this is the trick bag that Black Artist must avoid, because the red of this aesthetic rose got its color from the blood of black slaves, exterminated Indians, napalmed Vietnamese children, etc., ad nauseum.”[iii]

“The act of painting is like a trial where all the roles are lived by one person.  It’s as if the painting has to prove its right to exist.  There are enough paintings in the world.  Life and art have a mutual contempt and necessity for each other.”[iv]


[i] Knight, Etheridge; “He Sees through Stone;” The Essential Etheridge Knight; University of Pittsburgh Press; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 1986; p. 10.

[ii] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 49.

[iii] Knight, Etheridge; “Writers Symposium,” Negro Digest; Vol. XVII, No. 3, January 1968; Johnson Publishing Company; Chicago, Illinois; p. 38.

[iv] Corbett, William; Philip Guston’s Late Work:  A Memoir; Zoland Books; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 11.

DEAD BIRDS

“His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes”

“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.

Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.

Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]

deadbird1
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Dead Bird”
1890’s
Oil on wood panel
4 3/8” x 10”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.

Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]

Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]

“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]

deadbird2
Susan Rothenberg
“Blue Bird Wings”
1989
Oil on canvas
65″x43″
Private collection

To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.

deadbird3
Leonard Baskin
“Dead Bird”
c. 1950’s
Woodcut
1” x 2”
Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Massachusetts

“Through the Boughs”

“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]

deadbird4
Kim Fuelling
“Fallen Bird”
c. 1998
Graphite on paper
8” x 10”
Courtesy of the artist, Zionville, North Carolina

“Application for a Driving License”

“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.

I am a good driver, nothing shocks me.”[vii]


[i] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes;” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 64-66.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1992; p. 7.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 9.

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; p. 19.

[v] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon, Selected Writings; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 137.

[vi] Carver, Raymond; “Through the Boughs;” A New Path to the Waterfall; p. 120.

[vii] Ondaatje, Michael; “Application for a Driving License;” The Cinnamon Peeler; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1997; p. 14.