THE LONG STEM OF CONNECTION

Bob Dylan shows up at The Factory for a screen test.  These are traditionally short, on the spot, spontaneous interviews, filmed and conducted by Andy Warhol himself.  Warhol is a bit dazzled that Dylan actually showed up.  Dylan a bit nonplussed, as he doesn’t really like Warhol’s paintings. 

Nat Finkelstein
“Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan at The Factory”
(Copyright Nat Finkelstein)
1966
B&W photograph
Courtesy of Idea Generation Gallery

Edie Sedgwick, supposedly introduced Dylan to Warhol sometime around 1965-1966, but it was Barbara Rubin, a filmmaker and a mutual acquaintance of both, who brought Dylan to the studio.  Having finished the screen test, Dylan received a personal tour of The Factory.  One account of the story has Warhol giving a painting of Elvis Presley to Dylan.  The other account has Dylan picking up the Presley painting, putting it under his arm, and walking out with it as payment for the screen test.  Warhol’s studio assistants were aghast, but did not quite know what to do at this point.  The kind of story from which myths are made.  Fortunately, the photographer Nat Finkelstein was there at The Factory, documenting the entire encounter. 

The painting was the large “Double Elvis” from the “Silver Elvis Series” produced by Warhol in silver spray paint and silk-screen, printed on rolls of canvas and cut to size by his assistants:  one, two, or three images to a panel.  In any case, the “Double Elvis” was strapped to the roof of Dylan’s station wagon and taken away!

Nat Finkelstein
“Bob Dylan with ‘Double Elvis’ strapped to the roof of his car in front of The Factory”
(Copyright Nat Finkelstein)
1966
B&W photograph
Courtesy of Idea Generation Gallery

Musical history, myth, and mystery all wrapped up in the long stem of connection, and Elvis Presley remains at the center of our attention.  Presley’s early renditions of classic blues songs such as “Milk Cow Blues” were really important influences on the young Bob Dylan.[i]  Presley’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were crucial influences on an entire generation of young Americans, including the poet David Wojahn, who was born in 1953 in St. Paul, Minnesota and studied at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona. 

Writing in his collection Mystery Train, Wojahn collected several rock & roll myths, all supposedly based on true incidents.  They were visions of musical stars and hangers on, often containing tragic outcomes:  Brian Wilson having a ton of sand delivered to his living room where he set his piano in order to compose several of his masterpieces; Bo Diddley being mistaken for Chuck Berry one night on Long Beach Island in New Jersey; and William Carlos Williams taking a break in his hospital day room just in time to see Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show one Sunday night. 

The poet Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Ilford in Essex, England, where she was raised and home schooled by her Welsh mother.  In 1948 she emigrated to the United States with her husband, the writer and activist Mitchell Goodman, in order to work and teach.  Levertov shared many literary and aesthetic concerns with her American counterparts from Black Mountain College to New York City.  Many of these younger poets especially, were drawn to the work of William Carlos Williams.  Of utmost importance were visions of the local and attention to detail, a new method on how to create a presence, and the physical measure of an object or a sound.

There are two modern poems that touch on these interrelationships, one each by Levertov and Wojahn.  Although they are of differing generations, they share an interest in the attention to certain details, and looking directly at the world around themselves.  Wojahn even uses a line “…missed connections, missed connections….” which seems to be a play on Levertov’s powerful portrait of Williams.  Here are the two pieces, from very different points of view, but featuring work that places them each within the aesthetic realm that was established by William Carlos Williams.

Geoffrey Clements
“Dr. Williams on the roof of the Passaic General Hospital”
1936
B&W photograph
Courtesy of the Rutherford Public Library,
Rutherford, New Jersey

Williams:  An Essay

“His theme
over and over: 

the twang of plucked
catgut
from which struggles
music,

the tufted swampgrass
quicksilvering
dank meadows,

a baby’s resolute—metaphysic
of appetite and tension. 

Not
the bald image, but always—
undulant, elusive, beyond reach
of any dull
staring eye—lodged

among the words, beneath
the skin of image:  nerves, 
muscles, rivers
of urgent blood, a mind

secret, disciplined, generous and
unfathomable. 
                           Over 

and over,
his theme
                  hid itself and
smilingly, reappeared. 

                                    He loved
persistence—but it must
be linked to invention:  landing
backwards, ‘facing
into the wind’s teeth,’
                                    to please him. 

He loved
the lotus cup, fragrant
upon the swaying water, loved

the wily mud
pressing swart riches into its roots,

and the long stem of connection.”[ii]

Andy Warhol
“Double Elvis”
1963
6’ 11” x 53”
Silkscreen ink and acrylic on canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New York

W. C. W. Watching Presley’s Second Appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”:  Mercy Hospital, Newark, 1956  

“The tube,
                 like the sonnet,
                                       is a fascist form. 
I read they refused
                            to show this kid’s
                                                      wriggling bum.  
‘The pure products
                            of America. . . .’ 
                                                      etc. 
From Mississippi! 
                           Tupelo, 
                                       a name like a flower 
you wouldn’t want
                            beside you
                                             in a room
like this, 
              where the smells hold you
                                                     a goddamn
hostage to yourself,
                             where talk’s
                                                no longer cheap. 
Missed connections, 
                               missed connections—
                                                               a junk heap  
blazing there in
                        Ironbound,
                                        a couple kids
beside it,
               juiced on the
                                   cheapest wine.  Mid-
thought.  Mid winter,
                                and stalled
                                                 between TV screen
and window. . . .
                          This pomped-up kid,
                                                        who preens
and tells us
                  ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ 
                                             Kid, forget it. 
You don’t know
                         a fucking thing
                                                about cruelty yet.”[iii]


[i] Barker, Derek, ed.; “Bob Dylan’s Jukebox:  Songs that Influenced the Bard;” CD Recording; ISIS and Chrome Dreams Productions; Surrey and Warwickshire, United Kingdom; 2006.       

[ii] Levertov, Denise; Candles in Babylon; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1982; pp. 59-60. 

[iii] Wojahn, David; Mystery Train; University of Pittsburgh Press; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 1990; p. 27. 

A PAINTER OBSESSED BY THE COLOR BLUE

In 1993-1994 the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York organized and circulated an exhibition in honor of the American painter, Fairfield Porter.  This project drew heavily upon the museum’s own collection, which included 237 paintings and drawings from the Fairfield Porter Bequest.  The exhibition was presented at several other East Coast museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and traveled as far west as the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.     

Elaine de Kooning
“Fairfield Porter #1”
1954
Oil on canvas
48” x 31 7/8”
Estate of Elaine de Kooning

In writing about Porter, the art historian William C. Agee described, and helped to define, the position of this very independent artist.  “Above all, Porter should be seen in the tradition of American individualism.  In his insistence on the real and concrete nature of experience, on the distinctiveness and diversity, even the arbitrary nature, of facts, Porter proclaimed the triumph of the individual.  It was a triumph of the individual over technocracy and the state, of the singular over the general, of the real and vital over the standardized and the routine, of the natural over the artificial.”[i] 

It could also be said that Fairfield Porter sought the disciplined over the undisciplined, as both a painter and a poet.  He was difficult to categorize aesthetically and was often aligned with a varied community of other artists and writers both in and outside of the New York School.  Elaine and Willem de Kooning were both close friends and colleagues.  Others, such as John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, Jane Freilicher, and Rackstraw Downes were within a close circle of friends and influences.

As a poet, he practiced several literary forms and structures.  These included the sonnet, the sestina, and the technique of counting syllables.  He was also an important and prolific art critic, writing for both Art News and The Nation from 1951 to 1961.  Writing in The Nation on 6 June 1959 regarding Willem de Kooning’s exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Porter observed: 

“A painter of my acquaintance said of de Kooning, ‘He leaves a vacuum behind him.’”

“…de Kooning’s abstractions…release human significances that cannot be expressed verbally.  It is as though his painting reached a different level of consciousness than painting that refers to a theory of aesthetics, or that refers to any sort of program:  in short any painting that is extensively verbalized.  His meaning is not that the paintings have Meaning, like certain vast canvases notable for the difficulty of containing them in any given space.  Nor is their meaning that They Have Not Been Done Before.  Nor is it the romanticizing of nature, as with the West Coast abstractionists.  The vacuum they leave behind them is a vacuum in accomplishment, in significance and in genuineness.”[ii] 

Porter’s play with words, in both his criticism and his poetry, clearly comes out of an intense vision of the world around him.  Whether it is a comment on de Kooning’s paintings, or a dialogue with Kenneth Koch on sonnets and sestinas, Porter brings the very same intensity of seeing to the objects included in his own paintings:  still lives left on the breakfast table, or in the artist’s studio, or his children at play, or the family dog resting in the shadows of a summer’s day.

Fairfield Porter
“Self Portrait in the Studio”
1968
Oil on canvas
22” x 16”
Private Collection

A Painter Obsessed By Blue

“No color isolates itself like blue.  
If the lamp’s blue shadow equals the yellow
Shadow of the sky, in what way is one
Different from the other?  Was he on the verge of a discovery
When he fell into a tulip’s bottomless red? 
Who is the mysterious and difficult adversary?

If he were clever enough for the adversary
He should not have to substitute for blue,
For a blue flower radiates as only red
Does, and red is bottomless like blue.  Who loves yellow
Will certainly make in his life some discovery
Say about the color of the sky, or another one. 

That the last color is the difficult one
Proves the subtlety of the adversary. 
Will he ever make the difficult discovery
Of how to gain the confidence of blue? 
Blue is for children; so is the last yellow
Between the twigs at evening, with more poignancy than red. 

A furnace with a roar consumes the red
Silk shade of a lamp whose light is not one
Like birds’ wings or valentines or yellow,
Able to blot out the mysterious adversary
Resisted only by a certain blue
Illusively resisting all discovery.”[iii]

Fairfield Porter
“Island Farmhouse”
1969
Oil on canvas
80” x 79”
Private Collection

(Untitled)

         “In the blue still air
The spruce pollen shaken from the trees
         At the tenderest stir,
Moves in tall clouds before them
         To drift uselessly
Salting the moss and leaves underfoot,
         And settle promiscuously
On the table and chairs and cement
         In mustard ripples. 
The boys living in the next house
         Burst into giggles
At every careless observation,
         The food they cook
In vast quantities is quite inedible,
         Their faces look
As burned and tawny as the spruce flowers.”[iv]


[i] Agee, William C., et al; Fairfield Porter:  An American Painter; The Parrish Art Museum; South Hampton, New York; 1993; pp. 18-19.

[ii] Porter, Fairfield; Art in its Own Terms:  Selected Criticism 1935-1975; (edited and with an introduction by Rackstraw Downes); Taplinger Publishing Company; New York, New York; 1979; pp. 36 & 37-38.

[iii] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; pp. 75-76.

[iv] Porter, Fairfield; The Collected Poems, with selected drawings; (edited by John Yau with an introduction by John Ashbery); Tibor de Nagy Editions/The Promise of Learnings, Inc.; New York, New York; 1985; p. 11.

NIGHTHAWKS

night1
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941-1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/2” x 14 1/8” (irregular)
Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

Even from the beginning he knew that it was going to be a very important painting. He produced a series of preparatory drawings, both of the overall composition and each of the individual figures inhabiting this lonely corner diner.  No matter what his doubts or concerns were, Edward Hopper continued to work on the “Night Hawks” and completed it on 21 January 1942.  It was soon displayed in a local gallery where it was seen by both Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Daniel Catton Rich from the Art Institute of Chicago.  “Nighthawks” entered the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago within months of its completion, and for many visitors it has become one of the most important paintings in that collection.

Over the years the “Nighthawks” has inspired many writers and poets, and the Art Institute itself has published a book[i] celebrating the ekphrastic tradition, with its collection and the “Nighthawks” having significant roles in this process.  Even in beginning writing and composition classes we are directed to start with something that we know.  Direct observation and description are often followed by reflection or meditation, which then leads into metaphor and lyricism.  Here are examples from three contemporary writers:  Joseph Stanton, Joyce Carol Oates, and last but not least, Tom Waits.  Although each has written about the same painting, they have moved in very different directions.  Always incorporating a very important and uniquely American aesthetic principle, the transformation of the commonplace.

night2
Edward Hopper
“Nighthawks”
1942
Oil on canvas
33 1/8” x 60”
Friends of American Art,
The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks

“It is about 11 p.m.  It is 1942.  Edward and Jo have just seen The Skin of Our Teeth, off-Broadway.  They have sought the solace of a cup of coffee and a moment’s respite before the five-block walk back to Washington Square.  They have been here before and can call the counter man by name.  They sit near where he works at the slicings for tomorrow’s sandwiches, knowing he will ask about the play.  They want to talk about it.  Edward found it funny.  Jo thought it sad.”

“The man across the counter, who sits alone, is Mr. Antrobus, disguised as Thornton Wilder, but the Hoppers know nothing of this, nor that this scene is a continuation of the play, nor that it will become Edward’s most famous picture.”

“Edward and Jo talk about the Antrobus children and think, without sharing their thoughts, about the Hopper children that will never be.”

“Jo rides the high stool, turning over and over a matchbook that says ‘God is love’ on both sides.  Edward’s right hand, holding a cigarette, rests on the counter a fraction of an inch from Jo’s left hand, but they do not touch.”

“The café is a cool slice of flourescent light jutting into the darkness that is New York City night.  It is the prow of a ship riding the ghosted blue of doorways and the long, dangerous green of alleyways – shoals of shadow.”

“The war is everywhere and nowhere.  The casualty lists in the evening paper tick off the seconds till dawn.”

“Mr. Antrobus/Wilder – missing his haunted, imaginary domesticity – shoves his Times into his coat pocket, leaves a tip, and leaves.  He is thinking he will ride the last train out of Penn Station to a little, nonexistent suburb in New Jersey, where, in a little house near a pond, a little family he will never have waits crouching around a fire, while dinosaurs thunder down suburban streets and the terrible, ridiculous cold comes on.”[ii]

 

night3
Edward Hopper,
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
8 1/8” x 8”
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

EDWARD HOPPER’S NIGHTHAWKS, 1942

“The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest; she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand, thinking that
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him? Her heavy-lidded eyes,
pouty lipsticked mouth, she has the redhead’s
true pallor like skim milk, damned good-looking
and she guesses she knows it, but what exactly
has it gotten her so far, and where? — he’ll start
to feel guilty in a few days, she knows
the signs, an actual smell, sweaty, rancid, like
dirty socks; he’ll slip away to make telephone calls
and she swears she isn’t going to go through that
again, isn’t going to break down crying or begging
nor is she going to scream at him, she’s finished
with all that. And he’s silent beside her,
not the kind to talk much but he’s thinking
thank God he made the right move at last,
he’s a little dazed like a man in a dream —
is this a dream? — so much that’s wide, still,
mute, horizontal, and the counterman in white,
stooped as he is and unmoving, and the man
on the other stool unmoving except to sip
his coffee; but he’s feeling pretty good,
it’s primarily relief, this time he’s sure
as h*** going to make it work, he owes it to her
and to himself. . . . And she’s thinking
the light in this place is too bright, probably
not very flattering, she hates it when her lipstick
wears off and her makeup gets caked, she’d like
to use a ladies’ room but there isn’t one here
and . . . how long before a gas station opens? —
it’s the middle of the night and she has a feeling
time is never going to budge. This time
though she isn’t going to demean herself —
he starts in about his wife, his kids, how
he let them down, they trusted him and he let
them down, she’ll slam out of the g*******d room
and if he calls her Sugar or Baby in that voice,
running his hands over her like he has the right,
she’ll slap his face hard, You know I hate that: STOP!
And he’ll stop. He’d better. The angrier
she gets the stiller she is, hasn’t said a word
for the past ten minutes, not a strand
of her hair stirs, and it smells a little like ashes
or like the henna she uses to brighten it, but
the smell is faint or anyway, crazy for her
like he is, he doesn’t notice, or mind —
burying his hot face in her neck. . . . She’s still contemplating
the cigarette burning in her hand,
the counterman is still stooped gaping
at her, and he doesn’t mind that, why not,
as long as she doesn’t look back, in fact
he’s thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world
so why isn’t he happier?”[iii]

 

night4
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk and charcoal on paper
15 1/16” x 11 1/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)
“Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s Forty-Niner
There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade
And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance
Woolworth’s rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideways glance
Now the register rings, now the waitress sings

‘Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah’

Now well, the classified section offers no direction
It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud
Now the touch of your fingers lingers burning in my memory
I’ve been eighty-sixed from your scheme
Now I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene
Now I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair
Now the lead pipe morning falls, now the waitress calls
‘Eggs and sausage, another side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl with burgers and fries
Now what kind of pie?’

À la mode if you will
Just come in and join the crowd
Had some time to kill, yeah
You see, I just come in to join the crowd
Had some time to kill
Just come in to join the crowd
‘Cause I had some time to kill”[iv]

 

night5
Edward Hopper
“Study for Nighthawks”
1941 or 1942
Chalk on paper
7 1/4” x 4 7/16” (irregular)
The Josephine N. Hopper Bequest,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

 


[i] Hirsch, Edward, and the Art Institute of Chicago; Transforming Vision:  Writers on Art; A Bullfinch Press Book & Little, Brown and Company; Boston, New York, Toronto, London; 1994.

[ii] Stanton, Joseph; “Nighthawks” Imaginary Museum; Time Being Books; St. Louis, Missouri; 1999; p. 98.

[iii] Oates, Joyce Carol; “Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, 1942” The Time Traveler; E. P. Dutton; New York, New York; 1989; pp. 40-42.

[iv] Waits, Tom; “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)” Nighthawks at the Dinner; Audio CD B000002GYG; Asylum Records; New York, New York; 1990.