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.”
“In the Palace at 4 A.M. you walk from one room to the next by going through the walls. You don’t need to use the doorways. There is a door, but it is standing open, permanently. If you were to walk through it and didn’t like what was on the other side you could turn and come back to the place you started from. What is done can be undone.”[i]
In a drawing of the interior of his studio in 1932, we can see an in progress state of this sculpture sitting squarely in the middle ground. Alberto Giacometti completed the “Palace at 4:00 AM” sometime in 1933 and by 1936 it had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection.
“This object took shape little by little in the late summer of 1932; it revealed itself to me slowly, the various parts taking their exact form and their precise place within the whole. By autumn it had attained such reality that its actual execution in space took no more than one day.
It is related without any doubt to a period in my life that had come to an end a year before, when for six whole months hour after hour was passed in the company of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, magically transformed my every moment. We used to construct a fantastic palace at night—days and nights had the same color, as if everything happened just before daybreak; throughout the whole time I never saw the sun—a very fragile palace of matchsticks.
At the slightest false move a whole section of this tiny construction would collapse.
We would always begin it over again.
I don’t know why it came to be inhabited by a spinal column in a cage—the spinal column this woman sold me one of the very first nights I met her on the street—and by one of the skeleton birds that she saw the very night before the morning in which our life together collapsed—the skeleton birds that flutter with cries of joy at four o’clock in the morning very high above the pool of clear, green water where the extremely fine, white skeletons of fish float in the great unroofed hall.
In the middle there rises the scaffolding of a tower, perhaps unfinished or, since its top has collapsed, perhaps also broken.
On the other side there appeared the statue of a woman, in which I recognize my mother, just as she appears in my earliest memories. The mystery of her long black dress touching the floor troubled me;
it seemed to me like a part of her body, and aroused in me a feeling of fear and confusion. All the rest has vanished, and escaped my attention. This figure stands out against the curtain that is repeated three times, the very curtain I saw when I opened my eyes for the first time . . . .
I can’t say anything about the red object in front of the board;
Although Giacometti’s statement is a piece of surrealist writing in and of itself, it is a very lyrical story. As is the original sculpture. Its effect on the art world was almost immediate. At least three pieces by David Smith can trace their roots to this piece: “Home of the Welder” from 1945, “Interior for Exterior” from 1939, and “Interior” from 1937.
Between 1935 and 1966 the sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed a total of twenty stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Sometime in the early 1940’s the choreographer approached the sculptor, proposing that he design the stage set for a new ballet. She insisted that he accompany her, right then and there, to the Museum of Modern Art to view Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “The Palace at 4:00 AM.” Noguchi knew in an instant what Ms. Graham was asking of him and the quality of space that she was looking for. He agreed immediately to a stage design based on this piece and working with the composer Aaron Copeland the three of them produced one of the most important ballets of the 20th Century: “Appalachian Spring.”[iii]
The influence of this piece has continued to this day and has crossed over many boundaries and disciplines. In his novel of 1996, So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell uses this sculpture as both a reference and a structure for his writing. He weaves it in and out of the story in the same way that his characters, two young boyhood friends, weave their own way through growing up in the small town in Lincoln, Illinois.
“When, wandering through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand and look at it—partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful”
“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than the actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.”[iv]
[i] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1996; pp. 131-132.
[ii] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; p. 44.
[iii] Graham, Martha; Blood Memory: An Autobiography; Doubleday; New York, New York; 1991; p. 223.
[iv] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; pp. 25-27.
“Edward Hopper’s art is highly provocative and often disturbing. His contemplative figures appear to be alienated from society and to occupy a world devoid of interaction and communication. They never smile or frown, and their attitudes and expressions suggest unapproachableness. These introspective figures convey an inner turmoil that can provide questions about relationships, the roles people play in society, and the meaning of life.”[i]
When studying several of Hopper’s sketches for this painting, it becomes clear that he was really searching, working out the space and placement for the lobby and the people inhabiting that space. Five or six different figures were placed in various positions within the composition, including one, a desk clerk, who is hidden in the background behind a lamp in the office. Figures of both men and women are substituted for each other in order to achieve the balance that he desired.
For many years of my teaching career, we would visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art and draw directly from the objects in their collection. There are several works by Edward Hopper housed there, including “American Landscape,” “New York, New Haven and Hartford” and the “Hotel Lobby” from 1943. Especially important in this learning process is to discover the underlying architecture of any work of art, not just the surface illusions. Two such examples are shown above and below this paragraph. Drawings made on the spot in the museum and showing both space and movement and the tonal juxtapositions that occur in the original. They were completed by Darryl W. Hardwick during the summer session of 1976.
The poet Raymond Carver in his collection titled Ultramarine of 1987 took on a similar subject. Not directly written after this painting, the parallels however are so striking that one might do a double take. A quiet, perfectly still scene, with the various characters going about their daily routines. Structured and written to lead us into this particular space. Introspective, with the possibility of great turmoil.
“In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo”
“The girl in the lobby reading a leather-bound book.
The man in the lobby using a broom.
The boy in the lobby watering plants.
The desk clerk looking at his nails. The woman in the lobby writing a letter.
The old man in the lobby sleeping in his chair.
The fan in the lobby revolving slowly overhead.
Another hot Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, the girl lays her finger between the pages of her book.
The man leans on his broom and looks.
The boy stops in his tracks.
The desk clerk raises his eyes and stares.
The woman quits writing.
The old man stirs and wakes up.
What is it?
Someone is running up from the harbor.
Someone who has the sun behind him.
Someone who is barechested.
Waving his arms.
It’s clear something terrible has happened.
The man is running straight for the hotel.
His lips are working themselves into a scream.
Everyone in the lobby will recall their terror.
Everyone will remember this moment for the rest of their lives.”[ii]
[i] Warkel, Harriet G.; Paint to Paper: Edward Hopper’s Hotel Lobby; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2008; p. 11.
[ii] Carver, Raymond; “In the Lobby of the Hotel del Mayo,” Ultramarine: Poems; Random House; New York, New York; 1987; pp. 75-76.
“I love the tools made for mechanics. I stop at the windows of hardware stores. If I could only find an excuse to buy many more of them than I have already bought on the pretense that I might have use for them! They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no ‘Art’ about them, they have not been made beautiful, they are beautiful.”
“Someone has defined a work of art as a ‘thing beautifully done.’ I like it better if we cut away the adverb and preserve the word ‘done,’ and let it stand alone in its fullest meaning. Things are not done beautifully. The beauty is an integral part of their being done.”[i]
A wrench, a brace or a pair of pliers, along with pencils and brushes, are all literal extensions of the human hand. Metaphorically, as artists we also speak of finding our own hand, or discovering one’s touch. Poets speak of finding their own voice. This is often a difficult process, which takes a lot of work. To accomplish this work, we use the tools that are near at hand.
This idea has echoes both across and beyond our borders. Whether it might be the great simplicity in a Shaker building or chair, or the profound Japanese insight into beauty, the tools that allow us to produce the hand-made object are of utmost importance.
In his great treatise on craftsmanship and the making of certain objects, Soetsu Yanagi wrote that: “They are made without obsessive consciousness of beauty; thus we catch a glimpse of what is meant by ‘no-mindedness,’ whereby all things become simplified, natural, and without contrivance.”[ii]
Similarly, Faith and Edward Demming Andrews have observed the work and the laws of the Shakers: “All beauty that has not a foundation in use, soon grows distasteful, and needs continual replacement with something new. That which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty.”[iii]
“The craftsmanship of the Shakers was an integral part of the life and thought of a humble but consecrated folk. They did not think of the work of their hands—in building, in joinery, in industrial pursuit of every kind—as an art, something special or exclusive, but rather as the right way of sustaining their church order, the ideal of a better society. For them the machine or tool was a ‘servant force.’ It was the purpose of work which was important. This led to a manner of work, which in turn gave a common character—an integrity, a harmony, a subtle but identifiable quality to all the labor of their hands.”[iv]
And in the end, it is a reminder to all artists that “The thing shines, not the maker.…and therefore whatever is made is lovely.”[v]
[i] Henri, Robert; The Art Spirit, Basic Books, New York, New York; 2007; p. 53.
[ii] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; Kodansha International; Tokyo, New York and London; 1972 & 1989; p. 203.
[iii] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; Indiana University Press; Bloomington and London; 1966; p. 15.
[iv] Andrews, Edward Deming, and Faith Andrews; Religion in Wood: A Book of Shaker Furniture; p. 14.
[v] Yanagi, Soetsu; The Unknown Craftsman; p. 200.
“The early sixteenth-century Belgian painter called, for want of his real name, The Master of the Embroidered Leaf.
Those dead birds on the porch when I opened up the house after being away for three months.
Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies. Not all of them were great. But there were 104 of them.”[i]
This terrible but beautiful image of a dead bird has always been one of the most haunting paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Just over four inches high it is an important example of works of art that are intimate in size and grand in spirit. Their effect remains with the viewer long after stepping outside of the museum.
Raymond Carver used this technique on several occasions in his work, especially in his collection A New Path to the Waterfall. Small statements, snippets really, are concise and to the point. 16th Century illuminations, dead birds on the front porch, or an incident involving Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington all incorporate the painterly criteria of ‘economy of means.’ Compression.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks with Teeth” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl in the Red Hat” at the National Gallery in Washington and Ryder’s “Dead Bird” mentioned above are all small in size but powerful in scale. Why should this be? Perhaps it was the desire of certain figurative painters and Imagist poets for the significant detail: to rivet the universal with the particular. Or, the suggestion made several times by William Carlos Williams throughout his epic poem Patterson to “Say it! No ideas, but in things.”[ii]
Whether it was the search for an American idiom or a single image out of the mass of chaos, Williams would ask of us: “What common language to unravel?”[iii] For both the poet and the painter it would be the process of finding one’s own vision or voice coming out of “…a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground…pulling the disparate together to clarify and compress.”[iv]
“Because the sun was behind them
their shadows came first and then
the birds themselves.”[v]
To make an image or an object one’s own is to have a signature that comes out of the process of creating that image. Idiosyncratic imagery, like that in Ryder’s painting, has been the trademark of a certain few artists: as in the work of Musa McKim or Leonard Baskin or Susan Rothenberg; Raymond Carver or Kim Fuelling or Michael Ondaatje. These images will speak for themselves, as any real painting or drawing or poem will.
“Through the Boughs”
“Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think, that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was, they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes. The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and won’t stop blowing. . . . Give me your hand for a time. Hold on to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was, those ragged birds cry.”[vi]
“Application for a Driving License”
“Two birds loved
in a flurry of red feathers
like a burst cottonball,
continuing while I drove over them.