“Between the gathering of food and its consumption there is an interval when it is on display. To this arrangement of eggs on the sideboard, as may be, brought in from the henhouse. . . apples and pears from the orchard, a string of fish from the river, a brace of partridges flecked with blood, a basket of squash and beans from the garden, the Dutch gave the name still life around the middle of the seventeenth century.”1

William Bailey
“Still Life with Seven Eggs”
c. 1965
Oil on canvas
24” x 30”
Collection: Harold Mailand, Indianapolis, Indiana.

“Over the years (William) Bailey’s still lifes have changed. In the 1960s a few eggs appeared on a tabletop. Then a few utensils were added. Gradually, over the next fifteen years, as the utensils took over the eggs vanished, except for the occasional appearance of one, as affectionate reminder perhaps of humble beginnings. The early paintings made up mainly of eggs seem, when compared with the recent paintings, casual in disposition. And the tabletops seem nowhere as ample as they do now. Increasingly they have become sites, and their objects have grown in size. Coffee pots are towers, bowls are colosseums, other containers are houses or forts, and between them shadowy piazzas, dreamlike passageways. And then they are nothing of the kind, but themselves, as they were, parts of an elaborately orchestrated picture that is much more powerful and assertive than its individual pieces. What began with a few eggs on a table has become an image of immense inaction, an apparition of fixity and quietude.”2

In the selections above, two contemporary writers, Guy Davenport and Mark Strand, provide important observations on contemporary still life painting. Throughout the history of art the still life however, has constantly been overshadowed: as the great classical themes in painting were always monumental narrative histories set in deep and panoramic landscapes, making the arrangement and presentation of domestic objects only a footnote, of little meaning or consequence. The writer and critic Guy Davenport would argue with me on this point: “We must not, however, imagine that still life is inconsequential or trivial. Composers work out ideas in string quartets—Beethoven’s and Bartok’s experimental forms for discovering what can be done with harmonies and tempi—that have become masterpieces. There are artists like Chardin and Braque for whom still life was their major form of expression, as there are poets who have excelled only in the sonnet and the short lyric.”3

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
“Still-Life with Pipe and Jug”
c. 1737
Oil on canvas
32.5 cm x 40. cm
Musée Louvre, Paris, France

Along with Davenport and Strand, there have been many other contemporary examples of writing about still life, or as it is known in French, nature morte. For me, one influential example was a catalogue for the “Big Still Life” exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York in 1979.4 Frumkin’s proposal was to challenge gallery artists and a few invited friends to paint large sized images of a variety of traditionally intimate subjects. James McGarrell’s submission was a veritable tour de force of this idea.

James McGarrell
“A Fine Excess with Chardin Quotation”
Oil on canvas
45 1/4” x 93 1/4”
Allan Frumkin Gallery and the Estate of the Artist

The poet Mark Strand has written chapters in catalogues and small books on both Edward Hopper and William Bailey that read like prose poems about the artists. There is also Guy Davenport’s book of essays on this very subject, “Objects on a Table.” Also, there are the writings of the poet and critic John Ashbery who was always attentive to this subject, especially with his colleagues Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher.

Jane Freilicher
“In Broad Daylight”
Oil on canvas
70” x 80”
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas

Here are Ashbery’s observations regarding Freilicher’s paintings: “Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art. There are always new and surprising full passages where you couldn’t imagine another artist coming to the same decisions, which are invariably the right ones. Her subjects are often the same—still life or landscapes, sometimes viewed through a window—but the way of painting is constantly different, fresh, and surprising. Her work is rich in meanings that continue to resonate with us even after we have moved on and are thinking of something else. It is one reason why we value art and part of what makes her a great artist.”5

Some would say that these things are just objects on a table. Sometimes in art school they were referred to as table-top landscapes. Random placements of things, occupying our field of vision. Right at eye level. Although appearances may often be random, happenstance and arbitrary, this is not the case. As every painter knows, it is indeed a calculated risk to place one certain object next to another. It is the ancient idea of the just placement of things. And the poet Mark Strand, a classmate of William Bailey at Yale, has always been keen on this idea.

“Every painting is an answer to randomness, a metaphysical solution—each object has found its proper place in the scheme of things. And the arrangement, inasmuch as it is an ideal order, inspires belief. So that when a number of Bailey’s still lifes are seen at the same time, we are forced to experience the provisional nature of even the most extreme order. The painting, instead of being conclusive, becomes a revision, a judgment on the previous painting’s power to enchant and to subdue anxiety.”

William Bailey
“Piano Scuro”
Oil on linen
38 1/8” x 51”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“Bailey’s seemingly reductive world of pots and bowls on a table becomes complex. His objects are as basic as colors in their capacity to recombine into new figurational orders. In its studied reordering of ideal groupings, Bailey’s work is anything but repetitious. Objects keep reappearing, sometimes with their size or shape slightly altered, sometimes with the stations they occupy changed, and as a result their positions are diminished or aggrandized. Each change, we feel, is a new final chapter in the life of the objects. To miss these permutations in Bailey’s work is to resist what amounts to a critique of what passes for change in our culture.”6

1 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 3.

2 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 28-30.

3 Davenport, Guy; Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature; Counterpoint; Washington, DC; 1998; p. 10.

4 Frumkin, Allan; The Big Still Life; Allen Frumkin Gallery; New York, New York; 1979; (unpaginated).

5 From a portion of John Ashbery’s statement before his presentation to Jane Freilicher of the Gold Medal for Painting given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 18 May 2005.

6 Strand, Mark; William Bailey; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 32-34.


Amongst painters and printmakers, there is a great deal of admiration for the work of Giorgio Morandi.  Even from artists whose work does not necessarily look like a Morandi, there is still a genuine interest in and respect for this work and its subtle power.  Many artists often observe that he is a “painter’s painter” in the very best sense of these words.

Frank Gehry
“Winton Guest House”
Wayzata, Minnesota

However, I was later surprised to discover that many other professions share this admiration, including several poets and even one contemporary architect, Frank Gehry, whose Winton Guest House echoes several Morandi still life forms.  And let us not forget the Italian surrealist filmmaker, Federico Fellini, and his references to Morandi’s work in the classic film “La Dolce Vita!”

Federico Fellini
Film still from “La Dolce Vita”
Featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, et al.
Cineriz/Pathe Consortium Cinema

Earlier this year, on a visit with family and friends in Florida, I happened upon the Vero Beach Book Center hosting a reading by the Poet Laureate of Indian River County, Sean Sexton.  He also mentioned Morandi in several instances:  both his paintings and his etchings.  When I asked him about his interest in Morandi this is how he responded:

“The poem ‘Disparate’ lays out my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Morandi show . . . and observations from a noonday repast in the cafeteria, just a flight of stairs down out of the show. . . . The works collectively comprise something so completely outside convention and the sources that inspired them and succeed in what they present as a whole.”[i]

Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
Oil on canvas
Private Collection, Switzerland

“The girls in the museum cafeteria titter in
pleasant gossip, coiffed and garbed alike
in gold, cashmere, and silk.  Each face keeps
the same joy in this holiday escape from dailiness,
as their secret society, founded upon commiseration,
excludes a Venus in synthetic leopard wrap the next
table over, her long, raven hair mussed as if
she’d just stepped from a baroque bedchamber.
She has nothing to say to them (nor do they ask),
but sits attending an old, blind Tobit and his
wife sipping water and taking a frugal repast.

Morandi’s lonely bottles hang in galleries upstairs,
paintings in lush pink butter and almond paste,
and the most exquisite greys in art.  On a wall placard
is a quote from his ending days:
“If only you knew Longhi, how badly I want to work,
I have so many ideas I wish to develop…”
In quiet and solitude he kept at his métier, sharing
the family apartment with his three unmarried sisters,
seeking only the recognition of his peers—the leering Chardin,
rag tied round his bespectacled head, stolid Piero, mercurial
Caravaggio, and the intractable, enraptured, Cezanne.”[ii]

Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin
“Self-Portrait with a Visor”
c. 1776
Pastel on blue laid paper, mounted on canvas
457mm x 374mm
The Art Institute of Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois

Several years ago at the Butler University Visiting Writers’ Series I heard the poet Charles Wright read from his work.  I was impressed with the range and depth of his work, and especially several of his remarks mentioning both Piet Mondrian and Giorgio Morandi, two of my own personal favorites.

Giorgio Morandi’s work is often difficult on many levels.  For first time viewers it is so simple, even mundane, that they wonder what is the big deal?  For the experienced viewer, they become more complicated, utilizing formal devices and placement to create subtle but powerful tensions.  And for others, perhaps only painters and poets, these pieces become mystical.

This is such a powerful element in his work, that in one recent five-year period (from 2004 to 2009) there were three major exhibitions in celebration of his work:  at both the Metropolitan Museum[iii] in New York, the one Sean Sexton mentioned above, and the Phillips Collection[iv] in Washington, DC, and a small but highly successful presentation at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery, also in New York.

In the catalogue for that exhibition, Schoormans wrote:  “At first glance, the works may appear quiet, contemplative, but once the viewer engages with them, one realizes that they are anything but.  Instead, it becomes apparent that they seem to affirm only one thing:  that nothing is certain, and permanently subject to change.  Embracing this message, Morandi presents the viewer with endless variations, at times with the subtlest of shifts in tonal values and composition, and thereby he becomes the architect of a world as finely calibrated and rigorously constructed as any great work of art, or perhaps a piece of music – think Bach’s Well Tempered Piano:  a monumental under-statement, of riveting and stimulating beauty that allows us a notion of the sublime.”[v]

“Giorgio Morandi and the talking eternity blues”
“Late April in January, seventy-some-odd degree.
The entry of Giorgio Morandi in The Appalachian Book of the Dead
Begins here, without text, without dates—
A photograph of the master contemplating four of his objects,
His glasses pushed high on his forehead,
his gaze replaced and pitiless.”

Herbert List
“Portrait of Giorgio Morandi”
B&W photograph
Collection of Herbert List Estate,
Hamburg, Germany

“The dove, in summer, coos sixty times a minute, one book says.
Hard to believe that,
even in this unseasonable heat,
A couple of them appearing and silent in the bare tree
Above me.
Giorgio Morandi doesn’t blink an eye
As sunlight showers like sulphur grains across his face.
There is an end to language.

There is an end to handing out the names of things,
Clouds moving south to north along the Alleghenies
And Blue Ridge, south to north on the wind.
Eternity, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give this a take,
Eternity’s comfortless, a rock and a hard ground.

Now starless, Madonnaless, Morandi
Seems oddly comforted by the lack of comforting,
A proper thing in its proper place,
Landscape subsumed, language subsumed,
the shadow of God
Liquid and indistinguishable.”[vi]

Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
Oil on canvas
8” x 15 7/8”
The Phillips Collection,
Washington, DC.


[i] Sexton, Sean; “An Artist’s Statement” contained in an e-mail to this writer, 10 March 2019, 9:36pm.

[ii] Sexton, Sean; May Darkness Restore; Press 53; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 2019; p. 32.

[iii] Bandera, Maria Cristina, and Renato Miracco; Morandi 1890-1946; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and SKIRA; New York, New York, and Milano, Italy; 2008.

[iv] Fergonzi, Flavio, and Elisabetta Barisoni; Morandi:  Master of Modern Still Life; The Phillips Collection; Washington, DC; 2009

[v] Mattioli-Rossi, Laura; Giorgio Morandi Late Paintings 1950-1964; Lucas Schoormans Gallery; New York, New York; 2004; p. 3.

[vi] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 167.