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.
“…even though I have so profound an admiration for the beauty of Chartres, I realize strongly that it belongs to a culture, a tradition, a people of which I am not a part….It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work.”[i]
I have often had a similar feeling as that expressed by Charles Sheeler above. As an American I have always felt that my voice and vision should grow out of my own country and experience. However, I had not counted on participating in a graduate art history seminar at Indiana University on Gothic Architecture and seeing, for the first time, a beautiful little book titled “The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt” that had been edited by Theodore Bowie.[ii] Many years later, searching through the ‘librairie’ at the Musee Cluny in Paris, I purchased a more recent and larger edition of the same title.
Villard de Honnecourt may have been an architect, or possibly an itinerant designer or draughtsman. Some historians have described him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the dark-ages. In any event, he did produce a sketchbook full of drawings and devices that changed how we see the world. They were at least a ‘pattern book’ or stylistic guide to the articulation of Gothic facades and interiors.[iii] These drawings by Honnecourt were not the only reason, but they were one of the reasons that allowed this new ‘gothic’ style to spread throughout Europe.
These little drawings are focused, insightful, powerfully structural, filled with character and attention to detail, and I always think of them immediately whenever I hear of the writer Raymond Carver or read about his short story “Cathedral.”
In this story, a young couple is surprised by a visit from a friend of the wife, an old blind man for whom she had worked several years ago. She did his reading for him and other chores. He was in town taking care of some business after the death of his wife and he wanted to ‘see’ them again.
The husband was a bit leery of this old man and his unexpected visit, as it was his wife who had been close to him. They had dinner and a few drinks and afterwards they watched a program on Gothic Cathedrals on TV. The wife had soon gone to sleep, leaving the two men in the living room, when the old blind man came up with this suggestion: would the young man teach him how to draw a cathedral? All that he really new about these things was what he had just heard on the TV program and didn’t know what they really looked like.
This young man, totally disoriented and slightly tipsy, searched the house for papers and pens and drawing materials and spread them all out on the living room floor.
“The blind man got down from the sofa and sat next to me on the carpet.”
“He ran his fingers over the paper. He went up and down the sides of the paper. The edges, even the edges. He fingered the corners.”
“‘All right,’ he said. ‘All right, let’s do her.’”
“He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. ‘Go ahead, bub, draw,’ he said. ‘Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you. You’ll see. Draw,’ the blind man said.”
“The blind man said, ‘We’re drawing a cathedral….Press hard,’ he said to me. That’s right. That’s good,’ he said.”
“‘You got it, bub. I can tell. You didn’t think you could. But you can, can’t you? You’re cooking with gas now.’”
“‘Close your eyes now,’ the blind man said to me.
I did it. I closed them just like he said.
‘Are they closed?’ he said. ‘Don’t fudge.’
‘They’re closed,’ I said.
‘Keep them that way,’ he said. He said, ‘Don’t stop now. Draw.”
“So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
“Then he said, ‘I think that’s it. I think you got it,’ he said. ‘Take a look. What do you think?’”
“But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.”[iv]
[i] Tsujimoto, Karen; Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Washington Press; Seattle & London; 1982; p. 85. (Statement made by Sheeler on his series of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, originally published in Constance Rourke; Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition; New York, New York; Harcourt, Brace; 1938; p. 130).
[ii] Bowie, Theodore; The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1959.
[iii] von Simpson, Otto; The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston; 1962; p. 198.
[iv] Carver, Raymond; “Cathedral” Where I’m Calling From; Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 306-307.
“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.
“Today he is hardly likely to find himself unless he is a non-conformist and a rebel. To say this is neither dangerous nor new. It is what society really expects of its artists. For today the artist has, whether he likes it or not, inherited the combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist, and bonze.”[i]
This is what Thomas Merton had to say about contemporary artists and writers. He had multiple points of view regarding this position: as a poet himself, as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Lexington, Kentucky, as a student of calligraphy and as a colleague and friend to others in the field, including Ad Reinhart, John Cage, D. T. Suzuki and Jacques Maritain.
In the beginning years of the 20th century Henri Matisse began thinking and writing about the importance of signs. He saw this especially in the pen and ink drawings of Vincent van Gogh, which were an early influence on him, as well as in certain examples of calligraphy from Oriental art.
In these same years the poet Ezra Pound was sent a manuscript that had been written by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa who had been studying the origins of the Japanese and Chinese alphabets, whose characters had originally been drawings!
“Chinese poetry has the unique advantage of combining both elements. It speaks at once with the vividness of painting, and with the mobility of sounds.”[ii]
Ezra Pound called this the ‘ideogramic method’ and used what he had learned from Fenollosa to define and clarify the quality known as ‘economy of means’ that is so important to both painters and poets. This also led directly to the invention of ‘Imagist Poetry’ that is characterized by clarity and directness.
In letters and conversations with Louis Aragon throughout his lifetime Henri Matisse often explained that: “The sign is determined at the moment I use it and for the object of which it must form a part. For this reason I cannot determine in advance signs which never change and which would be like writing: that would paralyze the freedom of my invention.”[iv]
Aragon helped to ‘translate’ many of Matisse’s statements, paintings and drawings, into literature through his essay ‘Matisse en France’ from 1942-43 and the two volume ‘Matisse: A Novel’ from 1972.
Similar concerns can be seen in the works of Henri Michaux working in Paris and Thomas Merton working in Lexington, Kentucky. They were both interested in painting and poetry, through which they each investigated the use of signs.
“To abstract means to free oneself, to come disentangled.”
“The hand should be empty, should in no way hinder what’s flowing into it.”
“Only the ‘exact placement,’ the ‘just proportion’ matter.”[v]
More recently, in an interview with Janie C. Lee at the Whitney Museum of American Art on 21 May 1998, Brice Marden described some of his work in the “St. Bart’s 1985-86 Series” in this way: “The whole history of the life is right there on the surface. These drawings were all started as individual sheets in a book. Then I took the book apart and started putting them together in different sequences. Some I reworked, putting two sheets on
each page . . . . Top to bottom and across to the left. I was following the Chinese calligraphic method. It was easier for me because I’m left handed, so if I work from right to left, I don’t run the chance of smudging the ink or some marking. These were very early calligraphy-based drawings.”[vi]
The effects of Matisse’s experiments along with Fenollosa’s observations have been wide ranging: from the paintings of Henri Michaux to the calligraphies of Thomas Merton, to Brice Marden’s recent drawings and even to a few of my own students over the years, especially the work of Rene Gonzalez.
“Yes, I remember these drawings very well…they were an automatic drawing series. I had been studying a lot of Motherwell at that time and watched a documentary on his Reconciliation Elegy work. In it, he described a process where he would sit down with a stack of paper and ink and a brush and just knock out gestures with no edits or reworks. He could then look at 50 to 100 drawings on the floor and begin to select the ones he wanted to investigate further. The series of drawings I did went through a similar process and only a few were then selected as the actual compositions to my paintings. I believe they were either 8 1/2 x 11 or smaller but I do not remember.”[vii]
“The freedom of the artist is to be sought precisely in the choice of his work and not in the choice of the role as ‘artist’ which society asks him to play.”[viii]
[i] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; New Seeds Publishing; Boston & London; 2006; p. 100.
[ii] Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound, ed.; The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1936; p. 9.
[iii] This example has been published in both Fenollosa (p. 8) and Michaux (p. 43). It shows three characters, all containing legs. To the right the ideogram for ‘horse’ with four legs underneath. In the center is an ‘eye’ being carried by two legs. And on the left the image of a man. As both authors explain, these images taken together produce the line: “man sees horse.”
[iv] Schneider, Pierre; Matisse; Rizzoli International; New York, New York; 1984 and 2002; p. 576.
[v] Michaud, Henri; translated by Gustaf Sobin; Henri Michaux: Ideograms in China; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1975; (unpaginated).
[vi] Lee, Janie C.; Brice Marden Drawings; The Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1998; p. 19.
[vii] From E-MAIL communications between the artist and this writer on 14 January and 27 January 2017.
[viii] Lipsey, Robert; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; p. 100.
[ix] This last example is taken from Fenollosa (p. 40). It shows a ‘mouth’ on the lower right with words and tongue coming out of it. On the left is the figure of a ‘man.’ Taken together, they form the sign: “a man standing beside his word, truth.”
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.