“‘All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,’ said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.”[i]
Painters and poets are indeed the natural bearers of light. And, it would be difficult to overestimate the influence that Edward Hopper has had on later artists. Gail Levin has explained this very succinctly in her essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists.” She writes: “Many contemporary painters work on Hopperesque themes in a realist style that he would have respected. Cape Cod scenes by both Philip Koch and John Dowd have been compared to Hopper’s work. . . . Walter Hatke’s Room of the Sun (1979) was one of many pictures in which he explored painting sunlight in interiors in a way suggestive of Hopper’s focus on light, particularly in the latter’s celebrated Sun in an Empty Room (1963). Hopper’s themes reappear in the gas stations, street corners, and trains of George Nick, who studied with Hopper’s friend and admirer Edwin Dickinson….”[ii]
Hopper has also had an influence on several contemporary writers such as John Hollander, Tess Gallagher, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand and especially Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As a poet, Ferlinghetti has written about artists from every period. He often uses the analogy for being an artist as ‘walking on a tightrope’ and applies this to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Goya, from Morris Graves to Picasso, and from Marc Chagall to Edward Hopper. In fact, he has paid great attention to Hopper in several poems and the two collections titled “Pictures of the Gone World” and “How to Paint Sunlight.” In particular Ferlinghetti was inspired by a photographic portrait of Edward Hopper taken by Arnold Newman in front of Hopper’s house in Truro, Massachusetts in 1960.
[i] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; How to Paint Sunlight; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 2001; p. ix.
[ii] Lyons, Deborah and Adam D. Weinberg; Edward Hopper and the American Imagination; (including the essay “Edward Hopper: His Legacy for Artists” by Gail Levin); W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1995; pp. 115-116.
[iii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; “At the Hopper house” Pictures of the gone world; City Lights Publishing; San Francisco, California; 1995; #37.
“She’s big as a man’s fist,
Big as a black-pepper shaker
Filled with gris-gris dust,
Like two fat gladiolus bulbs
Grown into a burst of twilight.
Lumpy & fertile, earthy
& egg-shaped, she’s pregnant
With all the bloomy hosannas
Of love hunger. Beautiful
In a way that forces us to look
At the ground, this squat
Venus in her braided helmet
Is carved from a hunk of limestone
Shaped into a blues singer.
In her big smallness
She makes us kneel.”[i]
[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Talking Dirty to the Gods; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 17.
“This is harder than counting stones along paths going nowhere….” is how Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “The Dead at Quang Tri”[i] opens. It closes with the line “…the grass we walk on won’t stay down.”
This reminds me of the observation that Tim O’Brien made in one chapter of The Things They Carried when his platoon was being led to safety by an old man “…who had a tight rope walker’s feel for the land…” beneath his feet.[ii] This ‘papasan’ led them out of the jungle for five days through booby-trapped rice paddies, with no casualties during the entire trip.
I first heard Yusef Komunnyakaa read at the Indianapolis Art Centre in conjunction with “The Art of Combat: Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then and Now Exhibition,” 10 November 2000. Heard him speak three more times at the Butler University Visiting Writers Series and met him again during an opening at Snyderman/The Works Gallery in Philadelphia, on 7 September 2001.
Yusef’s voice as a writer comes out of the rhythm of both jazz and street language and a bit of South East Asian pidgen language. “Dien cai dau” was the local term used to describe a crazy person, but combined with “beaucoup” it meant a “really” crazy person. Like American soldiers.
Many of the local people, including the Buddhist monks, were often caught right in the middle: they wanted peace but both warring sides would squeeze them out leaving them no place and sometimes no alternative. No chance of walking anywhere on this earth. It was one certain Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who called the world’s attention to this growing frustration.
“When the motorcade rolled to a halt, Quang Duc
climbed out & sat down in the street.
He crossed his legs,
& the other monks & nuns grew around him like petals.
He challenged the morning sun,
debating with the air
he leafed through—visions brought him down to earth.
Could his eyes burn the devil out of men?
A breath of peppermint oil
soothed someone’s cry. Beyond terror made flesh—
he burned like a bundle of black joss sticks.
A high wind that started in California
fanned flames, turned each blue page,
leaving only his heart intact.
Waves of saffron robes bowed to the gasoline can.”[iii]
[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Dien Cai Dau; Wesleyan University Press; Middletown, Connecticut; 1988; p. 12.
[ii] O’Brien, Tim; The Things They Carried; Broadway Books; New York, New York; 1990; p. 33.
“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
ears peeling his words
the hunt the enemy
he has the secret eyes
he sees through stone.”[i]
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.
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.
The cataloguing team was walking back from lunch. Titus stopped in the west cloister and looked up at the windows of the Dutch Room. ‘I didn’t know there was a concert up there this afternoon.’
‘Concert?’ said Aurora, frowning. ‘What concert?’
‘Don’t you hear it?’ said Polly. ‘It’s nice. Really nice.’
‘But it’s Wednesday,’ said Aurora. ‘Concerts are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.’
‘Maybe we’d better take a look,’ said Titus. With Polly at his heels, he hurried up the stairs.
‘Don’t be silly, Titus,’ Aurora called after them. ‘There isn’t any music. I don’t hear a thing.’
“But as Titus and Polly reached the top of the stairs, it was plainly audible to both of them, plangent notes from some sort of harpsichord, a threadlike soprano voice running softly down a scale to the plucked accompaniment of a guitar.
‘It’s probably for some special visit,’ said Titus, striding along the corridor. ‘I didn’t know one was scheduled for today. I must have forgotten.’
But there was no trio of musicians in the Dutch Room, no milling throng of polite guests. And the music had stopped.’”[i]
This is how the writer Jane Langton described one of a series of strange events occurring in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Later, music would also be heard coming from the Early Italian Room, from the Spanish Cloister, and finally from the Chinese Loggia. A “sympathetic displacement of noises” it was suggested.[ii] All of this and other strange happenings, including a murder, occurred in her fictional account of this museum in Boston.
One of the first major purchases by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection was Johann Vermeer’s “The Concert.” She accomplished this at an auction in Paris in 1892 and it later became one of the highlights of this important and personal collection.
Unfortunately, we know of it today as one of the 13 pieces that were stolen from the Gardner by intruders dressed in security guard’s uniforms in 1990 and never recovered. The placement of objects throughout the museum is strictly enforced and the current empty frames illustrate the absence of these treasures.
This might remind us of a similar mystery occurring 56 years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic. A bungling Dutch constabulary spent the evening looking closer at a theft in a cheese shop than he did at another theft that had occurred in the cathedral directly across the street.[iii] It was the theft of the “Just Judges” panel and only the most recent of several incidents throughout history involving the “Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
In the panel of the “Just Judges” from the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece, we see all of the figures facing toward the center of the painting. There are several identifiable portraits amongst the riders: Jan van Eyck himself, his brother Hubert, and one of their patrons, Phillip the Good. They are a set of contemporary portraits of Netherlandish nobles in the roles of Old Testament figures including Philip the Bold in disguise as King Solomon. Sharing a pilgrimage, they form a cadre representing the most honest and just citizens.
These “Judges” show up later in history and mystery when they come to play a part in the novel The Fall by Albert Camus published in 1956. A former Parisian lawyer now holds court, so to speak, in a seedy bar in Amsterdam just after World War II. He has assumed the role of a ‘judge penitent’ of the contemporary world.
We are sitting in the café Mexico City, when this stranger intervenes with the bartender on our behalf in ordering the correct gin. It is Jean-Baptiste Clamence and he goes on to fill in some of the history of the bartender and the interior of this place. “Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down. Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.”[v]
“Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Lamb.’ That panel was called ‘The Just Judges.’ It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal. It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found. Well, here it is. No, I had nothing to do with it.”[vi]
“False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.”[vii]
Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigations should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617.278.5114 or email@example.com; or ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, www.artcrime.info; or INTERPOL, General Secretariat, 200 quai Charles de Gaulle, 69006 Lyon, France, E-mail: Contact INTERPOL.
[i] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; Penguin Books; New York, New York; 1988; p. 81.
In the New Testament both Matthew and Luke relate the story of Jesus being confronted and questioned by the Pharisees, who were pretending to be ‘teachers’ and trying to catch this young man in his own teachings. When questioned by his disciples later, Jesus described the Pharisees like this:
“. . . they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”[i]
It was a powerful image that caught the imagination of many Northern Renaisance artists, especially Pieter Breughel the Elder. Later still, it continued to influence writers such as Charles Baudelaire and William Carlos Williams, who included this subject in his final collection, Pictures from Brueghel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1963, just two months after that author’s death.
“This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red
in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward
across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog
where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man
is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few
pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire
the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous
to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster” [ii]
Paintings by Pieter Breughel and poems by William Carlos Williams have continued to inspire and influence artists and writers today. “Referring to a group of figural drawings he had begun around 1963, Willem de Kooning would say in 1975, ‘I draw while painting, and I don’t know the difference between painting and drawing. The drawings that interest me most are made with eyes closed.’”[iii]
They all looked like scratches, these drawings that de Kooning called ‘blind’ drawings. We first saw them in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center[iv] in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979. At the time, this exhibition was known as “Recent de Kooning” and featured paintings, drawings, and sculptures completed since 1969.
What we didn’t know at the time, was that de Kooning completed these drawings in a vertical format and later rotated them 90 or 180 degrees in order to further dissorient the viewer. When re-oriented to their original format certain details emerge: these details include several clear references to Breughel’s great painting, “The Parable of the Blind.”
You wouldn’t believe the number of art students who in studying this painting will draw all of the figures straight across the page from left to right, all in a line, and all horizontally. Totally ignoring the descending diagonal from the upper left to the lower right. This of course flattens both the movement and the composition.
One younger artist who noticed this right away was Casey Roberts. Examples of his brush and ink drawings above and below, clearly show that he saw this diagonal movement and took it to a contemporary conclusion. As long time faculty members in various art schools around the country we could all probably be described as the blind leading the blind. An all encompassing metaphor.
[i] “Matthew 15:13-14” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 770.
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; Pictures from Brueghel and other poems; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; p. 11.
[iii] Elderfield, John, et al; de Kooning a Retrospective; The Museum of Modern Art; New York, New York; 2011; p. 369.
[iv] Cowart, Jack, and Sanford Sivits Shaman; de Kooning 1969-1978; University of Northern Iowa; Cedar Falls, Iowa; 1978.