No, this is not about The Boxtops, nor Joe Cocker’s cover of their mournful rock ballad from 1967, although there is a reference to a Broadway musical from 1953. This concerns any number of artists who moved to New York City during the early and middle years of the 20th Century. They came especially from the Mid-West. David Smith was one of them, having been born and raised in Decatur, Indiana. Often feeling homesick, there is a certain letter, in the form of a sculpture, which he imagined writing home.
Smith first worked in offices in Washington, DC and New York, and later as a welder in a steelworks. He was simultaneously energized by the life and pace of the east coast and demoralized by the loneliness and solitude that he found there. “Yet lonesomeness is a state in which the creative artist must dwell much of the time….”1
This instantly reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke and the advice he had written in a letter from Rome on 14 May 1904 to his younger poet friend: “This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”2
David Smith was doubly aware of this I think. While many of his contemporaries were easily falling into camps based solely on media or subject matter, his stated goal was that this work was an attempt to bridge the gap between painting and drawing and sculpture: a most difficult project.
There are several examples of this work: severely linear pieces that often contain, or are made up of, an arrangement of attenuated forms and glyphs. A great example of this is a beautiful piece in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “The Egyptian Barnyard” and often described as a drawing in steel, or in this case, welded silver.
Although his work has often been held up as great formalist abstraction, there are specific examples of content inherent in many of Smith’s pieces. For instance, these figurative gesture drawings of the dancer Martha Graham.
There are also photographic references to his daughters running and tumbling through their back yard, portraits of other artists and characters, and even several pieces inspired directly from Alberto Giacometti’s early masterpiece “The Palace at 4:00 AM.”
Over the years, writers such as Cleve Gray3 and Edward F. Fry4 have provided hints as to the content of “The Letter.” In 1967 at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art it was Mr. Gray who lectured on David Smith, whose biography he had just finished editing. In one of the earliest exhibitions I had visited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was the David Smith Retrospective of 1969 that made a lasting impression. Finally, during my freshman year in art school in Baltimore, an early winter 1965 visiting artist lecture by David Smith himself still rings true to me in all that he said.
In order to decipher this letter, we can see in the drawing study a salutation in the top left corner and a signature at the lower right. In between we have the written body made up of a series of scrap railroad hardware “h’s” and “y’s” and “o’s” forming a message. The particular wording of this letter itself is borrowed from a 1953 song that was included in the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”
In short, two young girls, sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood from Columbus, Ohio, arrive in Greenwich Village determined to make it in the city, one as a writer, the other as an actress. From their basement apartment, they are shaken by blasts from the nearby construction of a new subway line, as well as late night knocks on their door by ‘customers’ of the former tenant known as Violet. They are stricken with homesickness, and musically ask: Why oh why oh, did we leave Ohio? This reference did indeed become the content of David Smith’s “Letter.”
“OH WHY, OH WHY OH, DID I EVER LEAVE O HI OH?”
“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”
1 Clark, Trinkett; The Drawings of David Smith; International Exhibitions Foundation; Washington, DC; 1985; p. 20.
2 Rilke, Rainer Maria; Letters to a Young Poet; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1934 & 1962; p. 53.
3 Gray, Cleve, ed.; David Smith by David Smith; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York, New York; 1968.
4 Fry, Edward F.; David Smith; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; 1969.
In French, the sign along the roadside simply read: DANGER MORTAL! These were posted all along the winding coastal roads going out from the port at Le Palais. They covered most of the island. They were a very real warning as many of the island roads curved right along the coast, with precipitous and precarious views down from the cliffs, and across the inlets and bays. There were no guardrails.
We visited there in the summer of 1995 with our friend, the painter Holly Hughes and her mother Wanda, who at that time was the studio/office manager for the contemporary American painter Ellsworth Kelly. Wanda was armed with a map that had been given to her by Ellsworth so that we might find the ‘village’ where he had lived after WWII. Little did we know what a sight we were approaching?
Over the years on Belle-Isle, the largest of the Breton Islands, many artists found in the isolation, the savage waves and tides, the inspiration that they were searching for. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her companion the painter Georges Clairin, the Irish painter John Peter Russell, were all attracted to this special place, and later of course, so was Ellsworth Kelly.
During the fall of 1886, from 12 September to 25 November to be exact, Claude Monet lived and worked on Belle-Isle. During this time he produced a series of 39 paintings, exploring the weather and the wildness of this place.
Not to be outdone by the painters, the contemporary poet Patricia Clark from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently visited Paris and many of the great museums there. She noticed in particular the paintings by Monet at the Musée D’Orsay, and the potential for an ekphrastic experience. When I asked Clark about this, this is what she said:
“As for the poem about Monet’s Rochers — we did not go out to the place, alas! Would love to see it. I believe (memory is slippery!) we saw the painting at the Musee D’Orsay. My method — such as it is! — is to buy postcards of paintings that really move me. . . . Then there’s a catalog. But I know I have a postcard of this painting.”
“I think what drew me to it is that it’s not an image I’d seen that much. It seems rougher and less ‘pretty’ than many Monets. I kept it in front of me and then one day, I started to write about it. That’s about as much as I recall — of course, a writer can’t help but layer their own issues over what they look at — so that’s what happens, doesn’t it? I hope that comes through.”[i]
“Les Rochers de Belle-Ille”
(after the painting by Claude Monet)
“No beach here—just the sea swirling in blue
deep blue and green
Both the sea and the rocks show age
It’s a tired scene of their coming together
each hour and day
The water’s force, erosion of all the softest parts
leaving only solid rock
This you could be crushed upon—the hardest
knowledge of all—
What is impervious to you, quite solidly indifferent
No escaping the sea
throws you repeatedly on the rocks of all you’re stupid about—
self-ignorance, deception, lies—
Instead someone calls this a scene, a landscape, seascape—
Following the end of WWII, from 1948 to 1954, the American artist and veteran Ellsworth Kelly visited and lived in several areas of France. In July 1949 he even rented a house on Belle-Ile-en-Mer for the summer and part of the fall. He had fallen in love with France and with its artists, especially Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.
In 1965 Kelly returned to Belle-Isle with a specific purpose, to re-visit certain sites that Monet had painted and witness them directly, not just metaphorically. Later in his life, 2005, he returned to Belle-Isle for a last series of drawings, not abstracted from the rocks, but directly created from the sources.[iii]
It is a landscape that would challenge one’s imagination. From the earliest visitors to contemporary painters and poets, one can only wonder how they felt when approaching these vistas for the first time. Looking out on this frighteningly beautiful land, with its bays, inlets, needles, rocks, and steep cliffs, it is no wonder that this entire region of France would come to be described as Finistère: the end of the earth.
[i] Clark, Patricia; in an e-mail response to this writer; 9 January 2021; 9:52 AM.
[ii] Clark, Patricia; Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2020; pp. 36-37.
[iii] Bois, Yve-Alain, and Sarah Lees; Monet/Kelly; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; Williamston, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2014.
In ancient times, as these stories, tales, and histories were spoken and traded, collected and written down, it was Homer who ultimately composed the epic poem The Iliad. In so doing, he chronicled the adventures of the Greek army, the sack of Troy and the heroic wanderings of the many participants across the seas.
In one section especially, he described at length the great warrior Achilles as he was preparing for his battles in the Trojan Wars. Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who had foreseen these upcoming events, commissioned the blacksmith Hêphaistos to forge a shield, with many layers and stories illuminated on its face. He, Achilles, would have a choice of living a long life in peace and relative obscurity, or going into battle, with imminent death awaiting, but having his name become legendary. We all know which of these paths he took.
It was Homer’s description of this amazing shield, going into great detail on all levels, which we accept today as the first and most important example of the ekphrastic tradition. In reading The Iliad over the years since that time, many artists and poets have tried to explicate these details, in both analytical and romantic ways.
“Then, running round the shield-rim, triple-ply, he pictured all the might of the Ocean stream.”[i]
In the eighteenth century Alexander Pope set out on a personal project to create a modern translation of Homer’s Iliad. It stretched out over a twelve-year period, and he supported himself during this time by selling subscriptions to this as a series. Along with this writing project, he attempted to reconstruct the design of Achilles’ shield, paying close attention to Homer’s descriptions. The drawings and diagrams that he created are now in the manuscript collection of the British Library. They give an excellent glimpse into this fictional work of art, and the Ocean stream that runs around its shield-rim.
Homer continues to describe the richness and imagination of the decoration for Achilles’ shield. In the lines below he lays out the scheme for this project, including several realms and worlds in which the story takes place.
“Durable fine bronze and tin he threw into the blaze with silver and with honorable gold, then mounted a big anvil in his block and in his right hand took a powerful hammer, managing with his tongs in his left hand.”
“His first job was a shield, a broad one, thick, well-fashioned everywhere. A shining rim he gave it, triple-ply, and hung from this a silver shoulder strap. Five welded layers composed the body of the shield. The maker used all his art adorning this expanse. He pictured on it earth, heaven, and sea, unwearied sun, moon waxing, and the stars that heaven bears for garland: Plêiades, Hyades, Orion in his might, the Great Bear, too, that some have called the Wain, pivoting there, attentive to Orion, and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.”[ii]
Later in history, the artisan John Flaxman was commissioned by the firm of Rundell, Brigge & Rundell in London to take Homer’s description of this shield, using the original Greek text and Alexander Pope’s translation, and using his own illustrations to reconstruct this great work of art. It includes all of the realms and landscapes as they are described, as well as the people and all of the characters as they interact, in both war and peace. To our modern eye, and mind, this shield may have been beautiful, however, it also would have been huge, impossible for a single warrior to wield.
Coming closer to our own time, both W. H. Auden and Cy Twombly bring this imagery up to date. A contemporary rendering of this story by Auden alternates shorter and longer lines in its retelling. The following selected stanzas show Achilles’ mother, Thetis, looking over the shoulder of the blacksmith Hêphaistos during the process of the making of the shield. She seems to be checking on its progress, with special attention to the inclusion of the many details that will go into this narrative.
Auden however, sets a darker tone than the purely heroic one, including this description: “An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead.” Coming full circle, so to speak, the contemporary artist Cy Twombly re-visits this theme with a very energetic and abstract depiction of the shield. Insane scribblings perhaps, yet they are lyrical and beautiful, graphic expressions with the pure kinetic energy that enlivens Achilles’ shield.
The Shield of Achilles
“She looked over his shoulder For vines and olive trees, Marble well-groomed cities And ships upon untamed seas, But there on the shining metal His hands had put instead An artificial wilderness And a sky like lead.”
“She looked over his shoulder For ritual pieties, White flower-garlanded heifers, Libation and sacrifice, But there on the shining metal Where the altar should have been, She saw by his flickering forge-light Quite another scene.”
“She looked over his shoulder For athletes at their games, Men and women in a dance Moving their sweet limbs Quick, quick, to music, But there on the shining shield His hands had set no dancing-floor But a weed-choked field.” “The thin-lipped armorer, Hephaestos, hobbled away, Thetis of the shining breasts Cried out in dismay At what the god had wrought To please her son, the strong Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles Who would not live long.”[iii]
[i] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; p. 454, lines 607-608.
[ii] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; pp. 450-451, lines 479-497
[iii] Auden, W. H.; Collected Poems; Modern Library; New York, New York; 2007; pp. 594-596.
Somehow in the course of events we have been led to believe that the ‘modern’ has come to mean only formalist abstraction and minimalism. A smaller and smaller world defined by a very tight description. There are however, several important modern writers and artists who have paid special attention to the details of modern life, seeing in them the larger world and how these details might speak to us.
SUNDAY NIGHT “Make use of the things around you. This light rain Outside the window, for one. This cigarette between my fingers, These feet on the couch. The faint sound of rock-and-roll, The red Ferrari in my head. The woman bumping Drunkenly around the kitchen . . . Put it all in, Make use.”[i]
“Don’t forget when the phone was off the hook all day, every day.”[ii]
“When, at 12:24, I look at the clock that isn’t running and it tells the same time as the clock that is”[iii]
As we read the above observations, both Musa McKim and Raymond Carver look directly at the world surrounding us: a telephone lying off its hook, a broken alarm clock, a bag of sugar, or just the sun creating a glare on a sheet of white paper. Many of the same things that would catch the eye of an artist. The abstract form and shape of a grand piano, or the abstracted movement of a bird in space. All are examples of minimal imagery with maximum power that both poets and painters would employ.
Brancusi’s sculpture, straight out of a folk tradition, but unrecognzable to the Parisian elite, later became the sophisticated form that synthesized beauty, abstraction and content. There is the catch: abstraction and content. At first no one saw Brancusi’s pieces as birds, neither in space nor in flight. Today, however, they have become a symbol of just that.
Not unlike the sculpture of Brancusi, the orchestral pieces of Igor Stravinsky synthesized classical music with jazz, folk and even the primal. Traditional painting had also gone through a similar synthesis of realism, cubism and pure plastic painting.
In the 1950’s and 60’s many young art students were taught by American abstract artists. Process and abstraction formed the content of most of the work at that time. But later, outside of academia, these artists were also confronted by the dilemma of what to do now? They were well versed in process, but struggled to find content. One artist however, set the most impressive example. Philip Guston at his Marlborough show in 1970 envisioned the end of one aspect of this process, and opened the gates and possibilities to new forms of imagery. Making use of the things around him.
By looking at certain details occurring in the world he single handedly opened the doors for himself, for poets, and later artists to come. These included Clarke Coolidge, Musa McKim, Raymond Carver, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg and more.
“I thought I would never write anything down again. Then I put on my cold wristwatch.”[iv]
In the mid 1960’s Robert Moskowitz produced a series of small paintings of a simple corner of a room. Quiet, minimal, very abstract and infused with a new sense of content and space. Where the simplest shape or form of a thing could clearly speak.
He would later take this process, including both personal and universal images, and juxtapose them in subtle but provacotive ways. A corner of the Flatiron Building, or the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Towers, for example. A simplified assortment of visual images, not unlike the sparse and provacotive language used by Raymond Carver and Musa McKim.
“Talking about her brother Morris, Tess said: ‘The night always catches him. He never believes it’s coming.’”[v]
“When on TV I see my sister in a bit part in an old movie”[vi]
“Three men and a woman in wet suits. The door to their motel room is open and they are watching TV.”[vii]
“And below in the street they are rattling the Coca-Cola bottles”[viii]
His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes “Duke Ellington riding in the back of his limo, somewhere in Indiana. He is reading by lamplight. Billy Strayhorn is with him, but asleep. The tires hiss on the pavement. The Duke goes on reading and turning the pages.”[ix]
[i] Carver, Raymond; “Sunday Night,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 53.
[ii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
[iii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[iv] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 121.
[v] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 64.
[vi] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[vii] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 65.
[viii] McKim, Musa; Alone With the Moon; The Figures; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; 1994; p. 105.
[ix] Carver, Raymond; “His Bathrobe Pocket Stuffed With Notes,” A New Path to the Waterfall; The Atlantic Monthly Press; New York, New York; 1989; p. 66.
Nothing extraneous. Everything working. With muscles tense, movement over every inch of the surface, the figures themselves create the space in which they exist, taking the place of time. Timeless.
The Priest Laocoön was a seer in the Temple of Apollo. He had two sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus. One story has him ostracized from the temple for breaking his vow of celibacy. Another describes his ill-fated warning to the assembled people of Troy against accepting a suspicious gift from the army of Greece: the Trojan horse. In either case, it is an ancient Greek sculpture that brings this story to life.
“… Of our men
One group stood marveling, gaping to see
The dire gift of the cold unbedded goddess,
The sheer mass of the horse.”
“Build up a bonfire under it,
This trick of the Greeks, a gift no one can trust,
Or cut it open, search the hollow belly!”
“Contrary notions pulled the crowd apart.
Next thing we knew, in front of everyone,
Laocoön with a great company
Came furiously running from the Height,
And still far off cried out: ‘O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?’”[i]
Writing in the Aeneid the poet Virgil related the story of Laocoön’s warning to his fellow citizens, the subsequent sack of Troy, and that infamous horse. Laocoön, sensing the horse to be hollow, struck it with his spear, echoing both inside and out. So either Apollo, or Minerva, sent serpents in retaliation for Laocoön’s warnings and his defiance of the gods. The research, dating, and other historical facts surrounding the telling of this story and the creation of the sculpture are, however, confusing.
Pliny the Elder attributed the commission of this sculpture to a team of three artists from Rhodes: Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus. They worked together seamlessly, interlacing the figures and serpents into a dynamic whole. It was thought to have been completed between 200 BC and 100 AD but those dates continue to be debated.
The original work was buried and lost after being in the Palace of Titus around 79-81 AD. It was later rediscovered during an excavation in early 1506 and brought immediately to Pope Julius II who had it placed in the Vatican Collection. His Holiness requested Michelangelo, who was working in Rome at the time, to inspect this newly discovered example of classical sculpture. Upon seeing “The Laocoön” Michelangelo declared it to be the most beautiful example he had seen from ancient times.
At first “The Laocoön” was attributed to the Romans as a copy from a lost original. Later it was theorized that it was not Roman, but truly a classical Greek composition. This debate continued without much clarification until the historian Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote an explication of this sculpture in his “Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” in 1766. Lessing describes this sculpture and looks deeply into it, while simultaneously analyzing Virgil’s poem.
These art historical speculations pose a problem for the student of ekphrastics: if it had been created earlier, then Virgil may have actually seen it and been inspired to write his account in the Aeneid. However, if it had really been a Roman composition, then it was much later than Virgil, and possibly an illustration of his telling of this story.
In any event, Lessing’s descriptions and speculations are in themselves important examples of the ekphrastic tradition. His observations search the surfaces of this piece of marble and look deeply into its meaning. Describing a facial feature in one example, and then writing regarding the anguish coming from behind the mask, Lessing gives us a meditation on the expressive possibilities in a work of art.
“Virgil’s Laocoön cries out, but this screaming Laocoön is the same man whom we already know and love as a prudent patriot and loving father. We do not relate his cries to his character, but solely to his unbearable suffering. It is this alone which we hear in them, and it was only by this means that the poet could convey it clearly to our senses.”[ii]
Lessing’s observations address the processes of both seeing and writing. In his essay he searches for significant details that are employed for creative expression and he, himself, debates the use of these details in order to tell the entire story. Which elements will work for the poet? Which ones for the artists?
“It is claimed that representation in the arts covers all of visible nature, of which the beautiful is but a small part. Truth and expression are art’s first law, and as nature herself is ever ready to sacrifice beauty for the sake of higher aims, so must the artist subordinate it to his general purpose and pursue it no further than truth and expression permit. It is enough that truth and expression transform the ugliest aspects of nature into artistic beauty.”[iii]
“The idea of having the father and his two sons connected in one entanglement by means of the deadly serpents is undeniably an inspired one and gives evidence of a highly artistic imagination. Whose was it, the poet’s or the artists’?”[iv]
“But only that which gives free rein to the imagination is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imaginations, the more we must think we see.”[v]
Early in the summer of 2017, during a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Cité de Paris, I came upon the following statement on one of the information tags in an exhibition and copied it down in my notebook:
“Tout l’art du passe, de toutes les époques, de tout les civilisations surgit devant moi, tout est simultané comme si l’espace prenait la place du temps.”
—Alberto Giacometti, 1965[vi]
This led me back to a book of “Interpretive Drawings” by Alberto Giacometti that included two of his drawings from “The Laocoön.” In English his statement reads: “In all art of the past, of all eras, and all civilizations that came before me, all share a common vision in which space takes the place of time.”[vii]
Not only did Alberto Giacometti go to this source in reference to the old masters, so did James Joyce when Stephen Dedalus comments on this very story in Ulysses: “Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope.”[viii]
And this is how Virgil described Laocoön’s confrontation with this beast:
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all.”
“He broke off then
And rifled his big spear with all his might
Against the horse’s flank, the curve of the belly.
It stuck there trembling, and the rounded hull
Reverberated groaning at the blow.”[ix]
“…. But straight ahead
They slid until they reached Laocoön.
Twining about and feeding on the body.
Next they ensnared the man as he ran up
With weapons: coils like cables looped and bound him
Twice round the middle; twice about his throat
They wipped their back-scales, and their heads towered,
While with both hands he fought to break the knots,
Drenched in slime, his head-hands black with venom,
Sending to heaven his appalling cries
Like a slashed bull escaping from an altar,
The fumbled axe shrugged off. The pair of snakes
Now flowed away and made for the highest shrines,
The citadel of pitiless Minerva,
Where coiling they took cover at her feet
Under the rondure of her shield. New terrors
Ran in the shaken crowd: the word went round
Laocoön had paid, and rightfully,
For profanation of the sacred hulk
With his offending spear hurled at its flank.”[x]
[i] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); Vintage Classics and Random House; New York, New York; 1990; BOOK II, Lines 42-45 & 52-61, p. 34.
[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; The Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore and London; 1984; p. 24.
[iii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[iv] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 35.
[v] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; p. 19.
[vi] Carluccio, Luigi; Giacometti: A Sketchbook of Interpretive Drawings; Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; New York, New York; 1967. Giacometti’s statement regarding these drawings led me to revisit this book of his drawings copied from many historic works of art.
[vii] From an e-mail correspondence between this writer and Dr. Rosalie Vermette, Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Paris, France, and Professor Emerita, School of Liberal Arts, Indiana University and Purdue University at Indianapolis, 22 May 2018.
[viii] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, Toronto; 1934 & 1997; p. 301.
[ix] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 67-75, p. 35.
[x] Virgil; The Aeneid; (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald); BOOK II, Lines 290-310, p. 41.
From the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Museum of Modern Art in New York across town to the Whitney Museum of American Art, we can discover several iconic images of American life, all produced by the same artist: Edward Hopper.
Their sense of place and history not only documents an era in our national life, but also evokes the feel and texture of those years. These images have intrigued and inspired a variety of American poets and painters including both Edward Hirsch and Phillip Koch. They have also become iconic images that stand in for a much larger and more complex sense of our country: rooftops and storefronts, bridges and lighthouses, and of course railroad tracks and isolation.
For Phillip Koch many of these images are reminders of his own childhood and studies in art school, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana. Seeing and confronting Hopper’s paintings are one of the most important ways of learning, not only about them, but also about painting in general.
When I asked Phillip Koch about Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad” this was his response:
“I’ve loved that painting for years and in March of 2015 made a special trip up to Haverstraw, NY (just north of Hopper’s hometown of Nyack, NY) as I knew the building Hopper had worked from was still standing and little changed from his day. The house is high up on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. There is a railroad track just down the hill a bit from the house, and still farther down the hill a road where Hopper stood and envisioned his painting.”
“This is Haverstraw, vine charcoal, 10 1/2 x 14 inches, 2015, that I did from nearly the exact same spot where Hopper stood to do his House by the Railroad. I didn’t include the railroad tracks though they are still there and in use, just as in Hopper’s day. If you compare Hopper’s oil to my version, you can see Hopper felt free to invent some additional architectural features to make his structure more interesting (realist that he was, he loved to play around with his subjects and add and subtract forms at will.)”[i]
For the poet Edward Hirsch, Hopper’s paintings frame a mid-western sense of isolation: spatial and psychological conditions. Hirsch often personifies the typical American storefront, or an old house façade, giving them human expressions: these are some of the classic human conditions that poets constantly deal with, playing with only light and shadow and words and rhythms in order to intensify and exaggerate a mythical presence.
What follows here, is Hirsch’s articulate and sensitive meditation on Edward Hopper’s great painting, “House by the Railroad” from 1925:
Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad
“Out here in the exact middle of the day,
This strange, gawky house has the expression
Of someone being stared at, someone holding
His breath underwater, hushed and expectant;
This house is ashamed of itself, ashamed
Of its fantastic mansard rooftop
And its pseudo-Gothic porch, ashamed
of its shoulders and large, awkward hands.
But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here
Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no
Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.
Now the stranger returns to this place daily
Until the house begins to suspect
That the man, too, is desolate, desolate
And even ashamed. Soon the house starts
To stare frankly at the man. And somehow
The empty white canvas slowly takes on
The expression of someone who is unnerved,
Someone holding his breath underwater.
And then one day the man simply disappears.
He is a last afternoon shadow moving
Across the tracks, making its way
Through the vast, darkening fields.
This man will paint other abandoned mansions,
And faded cafeteria windows, and poorly lettered
Storefronts on the edges of small towns.
Always they will have this same expression,
The utterly naked look of someone
Being stared at, someone American and gawky.
Someone who is about to be left alone
Again, and can no longer stand it.”[ii]
[i] Koch, Philip; An artist’s statement contained in an e-mail correspondence with this writer; 19 November 2017.
[ii] Hirsch, Edward; “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” Wild Gratitude; Alfred A. Knopf Publishers; New York, New York; 1986; pp. 13-14.
It was my first year of graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington and there was a field trip from there up to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. The major exhibition was a collection of Modern Masters from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, including Matisse’s painting of “Nasturtiums with Dance, II” from 1912. It remains one of my all time favorites, even to this day. However, what I was not totally prepared for was the extent of the permanent collection in Chicago.
So many pieces that I had read about in art history books and now saw in person: from Corneille de Lyon and El Greco to Cezanne, Renoir, Manet and Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. This experience brought back many memories, especially me youthful visits to the National Gallery of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Recently in reading more about this work, and the work of contemporary poets, I came across this insightful piece by Thomas Lynch surveying this collection in Chicago. It is like a walking and talking tour of the Impressionist wing of the Art Institute.
“Art History, Chicago”
“It’s not so much a Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as the point
of order according to Seurat –-
that bits of light and color, oil paints
aligned in dots become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look:
an assemblage of Parisian suburbanites
in Sunday dress, top hats and parasols,
are there among the trees beside the river.
There are girls and women, men and dogs
in random attitudes of ease and leisure.
A stretch of beach, boats in the blue water,
a woman with a monkey on a leash,
a stiff man beside her, a mother and daughter,
that little faceless girl who seems to look at us.
And everyone is slightly overdressed except
for a boatman stretched out in the shade.
He smokes his pipe and waits for passengers.
But I have never been to Paris.
I’ve never holidayed beside the Seine
nor strolled with a French girl in the gray morning
as in this Paris Street, A Rainy Day—
Gustave Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece
three galleries down in this collection.
So I do not know these cobblestones, this street,
this corner this couple seems intent on turning.
But I have walked with a woman arm in arm
holding an umbrella in a distant city,
and felt the moment quicken, yearning for
rainfall or a breeze off the river or
the glistening flesh of her body in water
the way this woman’s is about to be
that Degas has painted in The Morning Bath.
She rises from her bed, removes her camisole
and steps into the tub a hundred years ago.
History’s a list of lovers and cities,
a mention of the weather, names and dates
of meetings in libraries and museums
of walks by the sea, or through a city,
late luncheons, long conversations, memories
of what happened or what didn’t happen.
But art is a brush of a body on your body,
the permanent impression that the flesh
retains of courtesies turned intimate;
the image and likeness, the record kept
of figures emergent in oil or water
by the river, in the rain or in the bath
when, luminous with love and its approval,
that face, which you hardly ever see,
turns its welcome towards you yet again.”[i]
[i] Lynch, Thomas; Still Life in Milford; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1998; pp. 19-20.
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.
“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.”