MUSA MCKIM AND RAYMOND CARVER: MODERN DETAILS

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. 

Constantin Brancusi
“Bird in Space”
1928
Bronze
54” x 8 ½” x 6 ½”
Collection:  Museum of Modern Art, New York

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. 

Arnold Newman
“Igor Stravinsky, New York City”
1946
Black & White Photograph
12 1/16” x 22 5/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

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] 

Philip Guston in collaboration with Musa McKim
“I thought I would never write anything down again.”
(UNDATED)
Pen & ink drawing on paper
19” x 24”
The Estate of Musa Guston

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.

Robert Moskowitz
“Untitled (Empire State)”
1980 
Graphite and pastel on paper
106” x 31 1/4”
Collection:  Mr. and Mrs. Robert K. Hoffman,
Dallas, Texas

“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] 

Robert Moskowitz
“Painting (For Duke Ellington)”
1977
Oil on canvas
90” x 75”
Collection of Mary and Jim Parton, Great Falls, Virginia

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.

JOYCE, WHAT KIND OF NAME IS THAT?

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith’s Window, 23rd Street”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“conversation with the kid”

“who’s the guy on the glass?
that’s joyce.
joyce, that’s a girl’s name.
that’s a name.
well, what’s with him?
he watches over me.
he only got one eye.
a guy like him that’s all he needs.”[i]

The poems of Patti Smith are simultaneously cutting and fanciful, getting at a certain truth even as they weave myths, fantasies and contemporary literature together.  There are several statements made by Smith that remind me of another artist’s work, the contemporary painter Robert Barnes.  Whether in a poem by Smith or a painting by Barnes, we definitely witness a series of visual ambiguities and associative shifts taking place.

“a coronet of stars
ornament of the tame
no one to bow to
to vow to
to blame
how did i die?
i tried to walk thru light
with tangled hair
not yet prepared
for the valley of combat.”[ii]   

Judy Linn
“Patti Smith as Bob Dylan”
(Copyright) 1971
B&W Photograph
Collection of the artist

“dog dream”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
if you speak
of it to him
it’s the only
time Dylan
can’t look you in the eye”

“have you seen
dylan’s dog
it got wings
it can fly
when it lands
like a clown
he’s the only
thing allowed
to look Dylan in the eye”[iii]

They both, Patti Smith and Robert Barnes, have their idols and inspirations, an assortment of creative and eccentric characters.  For Barnes these include:  James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Craven, Jeremy Bentham, and Tristan Tzara.  And Smith:  again James Joyce, William S. Burrows, Jean Genet, Andre Breton, Arthur Rimbaud, and Bob Dylan.  Magicians and tricksters they are, in both words and images.  Smith masquerading as Dylan, and Barnes often using the analogy of the slight of hand embodied in the old time ‘table cloth’ trick!

“dishes crank on my nerves”[iv] 

Robert Barnes
“Regency Room”
1981
Pastel on Masonite
23 7/8” x 23 7/8”
Larry and Evelyn Aronson, Chicago, Illinois

During the fall of 2015 the Indiana University Art Museum held a retrospective of Robert Barnes’ work, “Grand Illusions:  Late Works 1985-2015.”   This was such a powerful show, and it was the second such exhibition of his work that I have seen in person.  In his remarks at the opening Barnes mentioned several influential books including:  “The Golden Bough” by James George Frazer, “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves, and “Ulysses” by James Joyce.  Using these examples, he noted how a subject unfolds as it is invented in his paintings.  A narrative transformation of sorts takes place.[v] 

“Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey” was the earlier exhibition organized by the Madison Art Center in Wisconsin, which travelled to the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, and several other national locations.  The main essay for this catalogue was written by the Chicago critic and curator Dennis Adrian, and set about describing and defining many of the issues and ideas that flow through this work.

“The complex, shifting, and many-layered sense of a larger reality has important correspondences in Barmes’s (sic) various literary and artistic enthusiasms.  Among the most significant of these is his love and regard for the writing of James Joyce.  In fact, Barnes’ method and effects are like the continuous unreeling present in Joyce’s Ulysses, where the events of Leopold Bloom’s day are experienced by both him and the reader as shifting and overlapping elements of feeling, observation, memory, fantasy, imagination, conflation of past and present…all of which are rooted in the structure, incidents, and characters of Homer’s Odyssey.[vi]  

“In both Joyce and Barnes, the ‘subject,’ so to speak, is created and even invented freshly for us, but it also contains, through parallels of structure, allusion, or direct reference, a connection with other realms of experience, ‘actual,’ artistic, or both….The elements in Barnes’ paintings which feel like the record or recollections of some specific actuality help to create a forceful presence for his abstract inventions and the curious forms which we seem to recognize but cannot identify, that is, the things which we know about perceptually but cannot name.”[vii]   

Robert Barnes
“James Joyce”
1959
Oil on canvas
96 1/4” x 72”
Private Collection, New York

More recently, I wrote to Robert Barnes to ask him about his work and especially his interest in James Joyce.  He graciously responded:   

“When I attended the University of Chicago in the fifties I was fortunate to have as a friend the poet Paul Carroll who wanted to be James Joyce!  We had as a drinking companion an Irishman who was then the answerman for the now defunct Chicago Daily News!  He was at one time an actor at the Abbey Theatre in the old country!  If we bought him drinks he would recite complete Irish plays (all the parts)!”

“At one time he undertook the reading of Ulysses!  He could do the plays verbatim but read Joyce from a book!  He claimed it had to be read with an Irish accent and I believe he was right!  It took him several evenings and lots of booze but was well worth it and gave me a life long love of things Joycean!”

Nancy Morgan Barnes
“Portrait of Bob (in front of his painting Molinard-Grasse)”
2000
Oil on panel
Indiana University Art Museum,
Bloomington, Indiana

“I have been fortunate in to have encountered inspiring people at the right time (it seems magical)!  Even without an Irish accent I think it a good idea to read Ulysses aloud or at least part of it….it is a life changing experience!”[viii]

Racing through a day in Dublin, in a stream of consciousness, Ulysses proceeds with abandon to its conclusion.  Its characters and stories often parallel the paintings of Robert Barnes.  Not only in his painting of Joyce, but in many other subjects, Barnes has created a cast of invented characters and self-portrait equivalents that exist within the spatial logic of both painting and poetry.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Joyce family often used a local Dublin painter for family portraits.  This task went to Patrick Tuohy, who required James Joyce to sit daily for almost a month.  With tensions building between the artist and the writer as the work went on, Joyce became increasingly irritable, and it has been noted:  “…he was impatient with the artist’s pretensions:  ‘Never mind my soul.  Just be sure you have my tie right.’”[ix]

Patrick Tuohy
“James Joyce in Paris”
1924
Oil on canvas
24” x 19 3/4”
State University of New York, Buffalo, New York

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.
In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”[x]   


[i] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 13.

[ii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 163.

[iii] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; pp. 22-23.

[iv] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. 53.

[v] A discussion between Robert Barnes and Michael Brooks that took place during the opening ceremonies of the “Robert Barnes:  Grand Illusions, Late Works 1985-2015” exhibition at the Indiana University Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana.  From my notes taken during that program, 25 September 2015. 

[vi] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[vii] Adrian, Dennis; “Robert Barnes 1956-1984 A Survey;” The Madison Art Center; Madison, Wisconsin; 1984; p. 10. 

[viii] Barnes, Robert; from an e-mail correspondence with this writer on 24 March 2020, at 11:53 am.

[ix] Joyce, James; Ulysses; Everyman’s Library; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London, and Toronto; 1997; p. xxviii.

[x] Smith, Patti; Early Work:  1970-1979; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1994; p. x.

MONDRIAN DANCING

“The geometries in the paintings—the center line and other divisions—are the main fascinators…. Working with wholes and parts has always been important…. It is important that on each side of the middle line there is a good, solid form. Where divisions become more complex, it is a matter of making certain that each section has individual solidarity as well as a working contribution to the wholeness of the picture.”[i]

mondrian
Piet Mondrian
“Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow”
1937-1942
Oil on canvas
23 3/4” x 21 7/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

 

“But let us note that art—even on an abstract level—has never been confined to ‘idea’; art has always been the ‘realized’ expression of equilibrium.”[ii]

The importance of the inter-relationships between the whole and its parts, the expression of equilibrium, and the underlying architecture of any work of art have always been important elements in the making of a painting.  The statements above illustrate these concerns from two very different artists:  the first one from Susan Rothenberg and the second from Piet Mondrian.

Even though a painting by Susan Rothenberg may seem to have nothing in common with one by Mondrian, in the middle 1980’s Rothenberg paid him a tribute with a series of new paintings.  Younger artists of that era, associated with the New Image and Bad Painting exhibitions, seemed to rediscover certain forms of imagery and gesture, which reinvigorated painting after it had recently been declared dead.  The meaningful gesture and a renewed sense of the plastic possibilities of painting energized this new work.

With his arrival in New York City in 1940, Mondrian’s work began to change and respond to his new environment.  The Neo-Plastic aesthetic became a trans-Atlantic issue for a larger artistic community.  His direct influence on younger artists, especially in the United States, included Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky.

mondrian2
Charmion von Wiegand
“Untitled”
1946
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper on board
22” x 18”
Whitney Museum of Art, New York

 

During this time period Mondrian’s work had shifted from works he had brought with him when he emigrated from Europe into a new phase of New York paintings.  Even Lee Krasner acknowledged his influence and importance for American artists.  Mary Gabriel writes of this several times in her book Ninth Street Women, especially mentioning Krasner talking about meeting Mondrian in his studio, and two of his vices:

“Mondrian embodied restraint—physical and spiritual—but he had two secret vices:  coffee (he hid his pot so this weakness wouldn’t be discovered) and, inconceivably, dancing.  He had a Victrola and a stack of Blue Note jazz records to which he danced barefoot in his studio.  Though he had taken lessons in Paris to learn the fox-trot and the tango, he preferred improvisation.  One dance partner called him ‘terrifying.’”[iii]

mondrian3
Susan Rothenberg
“Mondrian Dancing”
1984-1985
Oil on canvas
78” x 91”
The Saint Louis Museum of Art,
Saint Louis, Missouri

 

In another literary vein, when the poet Charles Wright visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of its Visiting Writers Series on 29 March 2005, he made reference to a variety of artists, from Vasari and Michelangelo to Morandi and Mondrian, with Milton Avery and Wolf Kahn in between.  Meditations on the shapes and specific colors in these paintings, Wright wove individual descriptions and imaginings together into a lyrical whole and made a point of referring to specific Mondrian paintings.  Included below are two of his pieces, along with the paintings to which they refer.

SUMMER STORM

“As Mondrian knew,
Art is an image of an image of an image,
More vacant, more transparent
With each repeat and slough:
one skin, two skins, it comes clear,
An old idea not that old.”

“Two rectangles, red and grey, from 1935,
Distant thunder like a distant thunder—
Howitzer shells, large
drop-offs into drumbeat and roll.
And there’s that maple again,
Head like an African Ice Age queen, full-leafed and lipped.

Behind her, like clear weather,

Mondrian’s window gives out
onto ontology,
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]

mondrian4
Piet Mondrian
“Composition (No. 1) Gray-Red”
1935
Oil on canvas
22 5/8” x 21 7/8”
The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

SITTING AT DUSK IN THE BACK YARD AFTER THE MONDRIAN RETROSPECTIVE

“Form imposes, structure allows—
the slow destruction of form
So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,
Is the hard heart of the enterprise.
Under its camouflage,
The light, relentless shill and cross-dresser, pools and deals.
Inside its short skin, the darkness burns.

Mondrian thought the destructive element in art
Much too neglected.
Landscape, of course, pursues it savagely.
And that’s what he meant:
You can’t reconstruct without the destruction being built in;
There is no essence unless
nothing has been left out.

Destruction takes place so order might exist.
Simple enough.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.
Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
Pray uninterruptedly.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.

Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
It’s August.
The countryside
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.”[v]

mondrian5
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Red and Blue”
1933
Oil on canvas
16 1/4” 13 1/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

It was as if Mondrian had found his home.  The new environment and the company of artists and the hustle suited him to a tee.  Even though he sometimes isolated himself in order to work, he also explored and enjoyed this new vibrancy.  However, his death in 1944 left a void in all of this.  Another section of Ninth Street Women again mentions Lee Krasner’s memories of this time:

“Amid the unrelenting reports of death in the world, three in particular shook Lee.  Mondrian had died in late January 1944.  The sadness surrounding his passing was not just over the loss of a great artist, it was also over the circumstances of his death.  Mondrian had stayed up until four a.m. after an opening and had subsequently become ill.  Though bedridden for several days, in his humility he hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, and so he had remained alone in his stark white apartment with its myriad right angles until friends finally discovered he was sick and took him to the hospital.  It was too late.  He died five days later of pulmonary pneumonia.  Mondrian had had only one solo show during his lifetime, and that was in New York, where he said he had spent the happiest years of his life—because of the music.”[vi]

mondrian6
Susan Rothenberg
“A Golden Moment”
1985
Oil on canvas
54” x 48”
Collection of Eli and Edythe L. Broad,
Los Angeles, California

 

A Golden Moment:  Mondrian sitting at a table/piano, about to play some jazz.  On this keyboard/table top, red and blue squares appear surrounded by white, while in the background a much larger passage of yellow covers part of the floor.  This is all very loose, very gestural, and supposedly the very opposite surface of a Mondrian painting.  Yet, when we have seen unfinished Mondrian paintings in both New York and the Netherlands, colored tapes appear, temporarily attached to the surface of the painting, even with some stripes painted out.  All lines and movements:  this is Mondrian, dancing with his paintings.

mondrian7
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (unfinished)”
1934
Oil and charcoal on canvas
21 7/8” x 21 7/16”
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“Having loved the surface for a long time, then one searches for something more.  And yet this is in the surface itself.  Looking through it one sees the inner.”[vii]

 


[i] Marshall, Richard; New Image Painting; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, New York; 1978; p. 56.

[ii] Blotkamp, Carel; Mondrian:  The Art of Destruction; Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1994; p. 9.

[iii] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. 81. 

[iv] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 61.

[v] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 122-123.

[vi] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women:  Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler:  Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. xx. 

[vii] Cooper, Harry, and Ron Spronk; Mondrian:  The Transatlantic Paintings; Harvard University Art Museums; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001; p. 24.

BUTTERFLIES IN THE OUTFIELD

Dedicated to the memories of:  William Weber (1947-1968) and Dr. Timothy Wiles (1946-2003).

butter
Grant Wood
“Spring in Town”
1941
Oil on canvas
26” x 24”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

I had known of the poet Elizabeth “Coco” Weber for many years and had the chance to work directly with her in 1999-2000 at the Indianapolis Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition “The Art of Combat:  Artists and the Viet Nam War, Then & Now.”  It was through this work that I also met and became friends with other artists, writers and educators such as Arturo Alonzo Sandaval, Michael Aschenbrenner, W. D. Earhardt, Timothy Wiles, and Yusef Kommunyaka.

Elizabeth Weber had been in contact with many other writers and veterans in order to reconstruct and clarify the life and memory of her brother Bill, who had been the Radio Operator for Charlie Company and had been killed by a sniper’s bullet on 12 February 1968 at My Lai 3.  His death was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that triggered his mates and their actions later on 16 March 1968 at My Lai 5.

Elizabeth Weber has spent many years since then writing about her brother Bill, their shared childhood experiences, and the deep loss to her family following his death.  This, coupled with imagery stretching from Minnesota to Kansas to Indiana, sets the stage for times and places that become clear, fade, and become clear again.

As an artist, I was reminded of the great American Regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood.  Landscapes where sheets hung on a line drying, where flags flapped in the breeze, and preachers were busy baptizing young people or burying old soldiers as they returned home one final time.

 

butter2
John Steuart Curry
“Baptism in Kansas”
1928
Oil on canvas
40 1/4” x 50 1/4”
Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, New York

Elizabeth Weber opens the second section of her poem “Kansas, 1920” with the lines:  “My father says hell glories on this earth.  Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about when they want something, like a church, or my brother.”

She reminded me later in a conversation that she totally understood the imagery that I had conjured up regarding these landscapes, however, she had in fact seen an installation by the contemporary artist Ann Hamilton at the Art Institute of Chicago.  An installation that I had also seen, of sheets mounted and stretched on tracks which circulated through the galleries of the museum, creating their own breeze, and weaving throughout the galleries.  I totally understood.  And that was exactly how she came upon the idea for the poem, Kansas, 1920.

 

butter3
Ann Hamilton
“Volumen”
Installation and documentation,
variable sizes and media included
in “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” at
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, 1995.

 

In The Outfield 

in memory of William Weber (1947-1968)

1
Across the street
one light is left in a restaurant.  A girl
rubs the counter so mold
won’t grow.  I watch her
like a sniper.  She cleans
everything once
and her heart is like mine.
One shot and she would fall
like the cloth she holds.
The light goes out—no light,
no girl, no heart.

2
I don’t know how
it was that day.
Perhaps the sniper sat
while the world throbbed into place.
Perhaps, brother,
butterflies swarmed in your eyes.
The sniper went to the heart:
He pulled the trigger.
It was all he could do.
The thin beat you heard
in your ears was just that—
blood that stops in a second
and turns black in the air.

3
Dear Bill, the monarchs swarmed
without you this September.
Goldenrods blazed.
All I could do was stand
in the outfield and watch them
explode in the sky.[i]

 

butter4
John Steuart Curry
“The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne”
1928-1940
Oil on canvas
38 1/4” x 52 1/4”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

 

Kansas, 1920
“I am a girl who stands among sheets
drying one by one in Kansas daylight.
They starch to a white beyond the simple roll
of these hills to dazzle my eyes.
In sheets like these they wrapped my brother
who yielded his body in a killing
called war, as if that made it more right.
The hole they blew in his side explodes in my head.
It stays now, a place for the day to escape to.
In her grief my mother gave up his clothing,
his books and planes he modeled from balsa.
She gave them up to the sky in a black furl
as if the heat of that burning
could wipe out the hurt she felt.
All that’s left is a shirt I stole and keep
balled in my dresser away from my mother’s hands.
My sister gives herself to every man she can
as if that could fill the hollow spot my brother left.
She says she wants to take in all their anguish
and looks in their eyes for a matching emptiness
where she can place herself, but finds instead an ache
like a fist.

My father says hell glories on this earth.
Nothing more.  Salvation is what big men talk about
when they want something, like a church
or my brother.  Every night he carves
rounds of cottonwood into the smooth moons of napkin holders.
I call them cries without faces.
I stand here by these starching sheets and know wisdom
waits in the field with the corn.
Grow, says the sun, and it grows.
Bend, says the rain, and it bends.
Die, says the cold, and it dies.
As I bend to the weight of these sheets,
I watch them die a little each day with the wash
but come glorious in the sun,
bright flags against an empty Kansas prairie.”[ii]

 


[i] Weber, Elizabeth; Small Mercies; Owl Creek Press; Missoula, Montana; 1983; pp. 17-18.

[ii] Weber, Elizabeth; “Kansas, 1920,” The Burning House; Main Street Rag; Charlotte, North Carolina; 2005; p. 9.

STILL LIFE WITH A BRIDLE

“The Orpheus of the still life.  He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work.  Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it.  For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies.  But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation?  From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]

 

bridle
Jan van de Velde
“Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius”
1628
Engraving
21.6 cm x 16.6 cm
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise.  The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes.  In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of.  The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker.  It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects:  reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.

 

bridle-2
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top.  And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting.  In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes:  “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word.  One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]

 

bridle-3
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
1614
1’ 8” x 1’ 8”
Oil on wooden panel
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that:  “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii]  And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that.  I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.

My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition.  Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.

Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems.  Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles:  early or late, Greek or Roman, etc.  Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet:  “Paul Valery warned:  ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’  I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]

“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written.  I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts.  I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]

bridle-4
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept.  But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects.  It did not need to be defined or beautified.  This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary.  They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]

 


[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.

[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.

[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.

[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.

[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.

[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.

ONE WHO HAS BECOME ALL EYES DOES NOT SEE!

“This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature.  It is not what is seen.  It is what is known forever in the mind.”[i]

Writing in her own notebooks and journals Agnes Martin sets out her thinking in spare and poetic lines.  Not unlike her paintings.  Single lines, and then groups of lines, they add up to a wholeness in both vision and spirit.  And it raises questions:  where is painting and pattern in relation to nature?  Where is the balance, what is the distance between perfection and imperfection?  Do content and abstraction rule each other out?  These questions serve to articulate and refine our thoughts.  Through them we might discover that vision for an artist comes from within rather than from the outside.

 

agnes1
Agnes Martin
Untitled #9
1995
Acrylic and graphite on linen
60” x 60”
The Doris and Donald fisher Collection
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francsco, California

“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”[ii]

“I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet even on this shore.”[iii]

“Everyone recognizes the nature pattern of unequal and contesting or related parts.”[iv]

“I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect—completely removed in fact—even as we ourselves are.”[v]

 

agnes2
Agnes Martin
“With My Back to the World”
1997
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
60” x 60”
Museum of Modern Art, New York

The poet Edward Hirsch has written a series of spare and poetic lines about Ms. Martin’s work:  very minimal yet extremely observant.  I have heard him read several times, both here in Indianapolis and in Chicago, and I often feel like I can hear his voice when I read his work.  His lines are the perfect analogies for the shapes and colors contained in the paintings and drawings of Agnes Martin.  In his collection Lay Back the Darkness he has achieved a light and gracious balance.  Crucial to the ekphrastic tradition.

I once asked him about this and if this ekphrastic example was based on a specific painting by Ms. Martin or rather a general group of them, taken together as a larger body of work.  He responded:

“Yes, my piece on Agnes Martin refers to a wide range of her line drawings.  There is a piece on ekphrastic poetry in the new issue of ‘American Poetry Review’ and the writer refers to the poem as a form of gallery poetry.  That actually makes sense.  It doesn’t refer to one single painting, the way, say, my earlier poem did, ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad,’ but rather surveys a whole landscape of poems.”[vi]

THE HORIZONTAL LINE
(Homage to Agnes Martin)

“It was like a white sail in the early morning.

It was like a tremulous wind calming itself
After a night on the thunderous sea.

She came out of the mountains
And surrendered to the expansiveness of a plain.”[vii]

“The beauty of an imperfection.

From its first pointed stroke
To its last brush with meaning
The glow of the line was spiritual.”[viii]

“The horizon was a glimmering blue band
A luminous streamer in the distance.

She remembered the stillness of a pool
Before the swimmers entered the water
And the colorful ropes dividing the lines.”[ix]

 

agnes3
Agnes Martin
“Untitled #2”
1981
Acrylic paint and blue pencil on canvas
72” x 72 “
Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

“Sacred dream of geometry,
Ruler and protractor, temper my anguish,
Untrouble my mind.

She would not line up with others
She would align herself with the simple truth.”[x]

And Agnes Martin, writing in her own notebooks, might have the final say in this matter:

“One who has become all eyes does not see.”[xi]

 


[i] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; Whitney Museum of American Art and Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1992; p. 25.

[ii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iii] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 26.

[iv] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[v] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 25.

[vi] Hirsch, Edward; From an e-mail correspondence with this author; 26 July 2017, at 9:49AM.

[vii] Hirsch, Edward; “The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin), Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 35.

[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 37.

[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 38.

[x] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; p. 39.

[xi] Haskell, Barbara; Agnes Martin; p. 24.

WAR, WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?

war1
Dick Durrance
“An American soldier with a VC skull”
1968
B&W Photograph
DASPO, US Army

 

From ancient Greek sculptures on the theme of “The Fallen Warrior” to Uccello’s sequence of three versions of “The Battle of San Romano” we have the beginnings of a great history of images of war.

In 1633 the artist Jacques Callot published his “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War.  In the early 19th Century, it was Francisco Goya who was inspired to work in this direction as he witnessed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain from 1808 to 1814, which resulted in his series of  “The Disasters of War.”

Even the French artist Henri Rousseau took up the subject in his 1894 painting titled:  “War, or The Ride of Discord.”  Although it had been more than twenty years since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 these events continued to haunt Rousseau’s ideas for paintings.

war2
Henri Rousseau,
“War, or The Ride of Discord”
1894
Oil on canvas
1.145m x 1.95m
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

 

From the earliest years of photography, during both the Crimean War and the American Civil War, to present day combat photographers and journalists, we have a continuing record of many important historical events.

war3
Mathew Brady
“Photographic outfit near Petersburg, Virginia,
used during the American Civil War”
1864
B&W Photograph
Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

 

The initial Armistice Day was offered as a celebration of the peace that came at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1919.  Unfortunately, this annual observance has now turned into a celebration of war, the exact opposite of its original intent.

Many recent artists and veterans have used a variety of media as a means of documenting and coming to grips with their wartime experiences.  However, it is the aftermath that becomes more confusing.  From a distance, there is a completely different perspective.

The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the United States Army Center of Military History all have important collections of works of art created by active participants and witnesses in the field.  More recently the Viet Nam Veterans Artist Group was formed and organized in Chicago, from 1981 to 1992 and has now grown and become known as the National Veterans Art Museum.[i]

war4
Karl Michel
“Loomings”
1983
Pastel on paper
34 3/4” x 25 3/4”
National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago, Illinois

 

Inspired by many of the artists whose work is in the collection of the National Veterans Art Museum as well as work from the United States Army Center of Military History, the Indianapolis Art Center curated an important exhibition of this work in it’s “Art of Combat:  Artists from the Viet Nam War Then and Now” in 2000.[ii]

Many veterans, as well as concerned civilians in the United States, have chosen this as a major part of their subject matter, including:  Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, Ric Haynes, David Shirm, Michael Helbing, Karl Michel and especially Michael Aschenbrenner in his “Broken Bone” series.  Although many of these artists were actual witnesses to the Viet Nam War, their current works are often reflections and memories of events sometimes lost, and sometimes regained.

war5
David Shirm
“What We Left Behind”
1992
Prisma color on paper
22” x 30”
Courtesy of the artist

 

Writers and musicians during the 1960’s also tackled these issues.  How could we forget the words of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die?”  A number of other examples include work by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Barry McGuire and Kemo Williams.  And especially, Edwin Starr’s “War!”

“…Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die, ah, war-huh, good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it, say it, say it
War, huh
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing listen to me…”

war6
Michael Aschenbrenner
“Damaged Bone Series”
1990
Glass, fabric, wire and twigs
Variable dimensions
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“…it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away

Oh, war, huh good god y’all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing say it again….”[iii]

 


[i] Sinaiko, Eve, et al.; Vietnam:  Reflexes and Reflections; the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York; 1998.

[ii] Moore, Julia Muney, et al.; The Art of Combat:  Artists and the Vietnam War, Then and Now; Indianapolis Art Center; Indianapolis, Indiana; 2000.

[iii] Starr, Edwin; “War” (lyrics by Barret Strong and Norman Whitfield); 20th Century Masters:  The Millennium Collection – The Best of Edwin Starr; Audio CD, B00005R8E7; Motown Records; 2001.

THREE BATHERS, TWO HENRYS & ONE CEZANNE

It is a monstrous painting.  Huge when first encountered in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approximately seven feet high and eight feet across, impossible to be taken in all at once.  Cezanne worked on this subject through many years and versions, always searching for the solution he had imagined.

henry1
Paul Cezanne
“The Large Bathers”
1900-1906
6’ 10 7/8” x 8’ 2 3/4”
Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art

We can see from several smaller studies how Cezanne’s ideas developed and grew over time.  Two or three figures in one, three to five figures in another, numerous combinations and variations.  This work was really important to Cezanne, but it was even more important to artists who followed him.  Significantly amongst those in later generations were both Henry Moore and Henri Matisse.  Each of them had actually owned smaller versions of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”

henry2
Paul Cezanne
“Three Bathers”
c. 1875
Oil on canvas
12” x 13”
The Henry Moore Foundation

“I now own a small Cezanne Bathers painting, and in talking about it to friends, I have often said, ‘look what a romantic idea Cezanne had of women,’ and, ‘how fully he realised (sic) the three-dimensional world.’  I felt that I could easily make sculptures of his figures.”

“Stephen Spender in a letter to me said, ‘your idea of showing that you could make sculptures of the Cezanne figures is fascinating.  Why don’t you do it?’  Soon after his letter, I felt like proving it, and modeled each of the three figures in plasticine, taking about an hour in all.  My idea was to show their existence completely in space, and perhaps to photograph them or make drawings, as it were, from behind the picture, showing them from all sides and demonstrating that they had been conceived by Cezanne in full three dimensions.”

henry3
Henry Moore
“Three Bathers—After Cezanne”
1978
Bronze
1. 30.5 cm. (length 12”)
The Henry Moore Foundation

“I enjoyed the whole of this experience.  I had thought I knew our ‘Bathers’ picture completely, having lived with it for twenty years.  But this exercise—modelling the figures and drawing them from different views—has taught me more than any amount of just looking at the picture.”

“This example shows that working from the object—modelling or drawing it—makes you look much more intensely than ever you do if you just look at something for pleasure.”[i]

There is a popularly held misconception that artists are bad writers, although to this day we are constantly required to submit an “artist’s statement” for any and every thing we do.  However, from the number of letters written back and forth amongst artists, from entries written in their notebooks and journals, and explanations that many curators require from the artists they are celebrating, it is clear that visual artists are also very articulate with regards to the written word.

Here are two examples, from Henry Moore above and Henri Matisse below, reflecting their personal thoughts and observations on several versions of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.”  They write clearly and straightforwardly regarding these paintings, all the while rediscovering how important Cezanne’s work actually was.

Henry Moore has worked with the pure plastic sense of both painting and sculpture and the process of articulating form in space.  This is evident in all of his later work, and his many figurative pieces.

Henri Matisse is drawing from the Cezanne and searching for a more complete realization of a composition as seen over several years.  Amongst several examples this would lead to his great “Bathers by a River” of 1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

henry4
Henri Matisse
“Bathers by a river”
1909-1917
Oil on canvas
102 1/2” x 154 3/16”
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection
The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1899 Henri Matisse purchased “Three Bathers” by Cezanne from the Parisian art dealer Vollard.  He kept it in his possession until 1936 when he donated it to the Petit Palais in Paris.  On 10 November 1936 he wrote this letter to Raymond Escholier, the director of the museum:

“Allow me to tell you that this picture is of the first importance in the work of Cezanne because it is a very dense, very complete realization of a composition that he carefully considered in several canvases which, though now in important collections, are only the studies that culminated in this work.”

“In the thirty-seven years I have owned this canvas, I have come to know it quite well, though not entirely, I hope; it has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance; for this reason, allow me to request that it be placed so that it may be seen to its best advantage.  For this it needs both light and adequate space.  It is rich in color and surface, and seen at a distance it is possible to appreciate the sweep of its lines and the exceptional sobriety of its relationships.”

“I know that I do not have to tell you this, but nevertheless I think it is my duty to do so; please accept these remarks as the excusable testimony of my admiration for this work which has grown increasingly greater ever since I have owned it.  Allow me to thank you for the care that you will give it, for I hand it over to you with complete confidence. . . .”[ii]

henry5
Paul Cezanne
“Three Bathers”
1879-1882
Oil on canvas
55 cm. x 52 cm.
Gift of Henri Matisse to the Petit Palais,
the City Museum of Paris in 1936

 


[i] Wilkinson, Alan, ed; Henry Moore:  Writings and Conversations; University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2002; pp. 307-309.

[ii] Flam, Jack; Matisse on Art; University of California Press; Berkeley, Los Angeles and London; 1995; p. 124.

AIN’T IT JUST LIKE THE NIGHT

“Here are some clues to The Meaning of Night.”  This is how the poet Linda Pastan begins her meditation on the painting of the same name by Rene Magritte.  It is somewhat of a challenge, as Magritte’s paintings are almost always enigmatic, offering few clear narratives or clues.  Although they are full with imagery and fantasy, they also leave the viewer, more often than not, with more questions than answers.

A dark gray beach scene inhabited by two men in bowler hats, bits and pieces of sea foam strewn across the beach, and a strange configuration, or is it an accumulation of female body parts, seeming to float near the center right of the composition?  It seems like a riddle of imagery but without any clear indication of where an answer might be found.  The secrets of the night are the true inhabitants of Magritte’s world.

magritte1
Rene Magritte
“The Meaning of Night (Le sens de la nuit)”
1927
Oil on canvas
54 1/2” x 41 1/2”
The Menil Collection,
Houston, Texas

 

Le Sens de la Nuit
         Magritte, oil on canvas, 1927

“Here are some clues
to The Meaning of Night:
pieces of bright foam estranged
from the sea; a woman wrapped
in a cage of wrinkled shapes;
the formal back of one man twinned
to the front of another—
or are they really the same man,
and could he be the undertaker of day?

If there is a meaning to night
is it contained here, or must we search
through the dreams that lap
behind our closed lids as we sleep
like the small waves in this painting
which, when the day is over
and the museum shuts down,
go back to the dark sea
they came from?”[i] 

Many artists and writers have alluded to, or incorporated directly into their work, the meanings and secrets of the night.  The nighttime references in these poems and paintings are just as lyrical and enigmatic.  Albert Pinkham Ryder’s nocturnal landscapes instantly come to mind, as well as others that might not be so obvious.

magritte2
Albert Pinkham Ryder
“Moonlit Cove”
1880’s
Oil on canvas
14 1/8” x 17 1/8”
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

 

In the early 20th Century Georgia O’Keeffe often used views of New York City at night, from in and around the Shelton and Radiator Buildings:  city lights reflecting off of the buildings and up into the sky while echoing radiators and heat pipes rattling throughout the night.

magritte3
Geogia O’Keeffe
“The Radiator Building—Night, New York”
1927
Oil on canvas
121.9 cm x 76.2 cm
Fisk University Galleries
Nashville, Tennessee

 

In 1968 Bob Dylan used this reference in the opening lines of one of his masterpieces, “Visions of Johanna.”  And later still the contemporary painter April Gornik used images of night in several of her hauntingly lyrical and monumental paintings.

magritte4
April Gornik
“Pulling Moon”
1983
Oil on canvas
76” x 80”
Courtesy of the artist.

 

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind”[ii]

 


[i] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p.5.

[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Visions of Johanna” from Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 207-208.

GIORGIO MORANDI AND THE TALKING ETERNITY BLUES

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.

morandi
Frank Gehry
“Winton Guest House”
1982-1987
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!”

morandi2
Federico Fellini
Film still from “La Dolce Vita”
1960
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]

morandi3
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1956
Oil on canvas
Private Collection, Switzerland

“Disparate”
“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]

morandi4
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.”

morandi5
Herbert List
“Portrait of Giorgio Morandi”
B&W photograph
1953
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]

morandi6
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1953
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.