IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN:  CHARLES SHEELER AND WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

“We looked upon the French with a certain amount of awe because we thought they had secrets about art and literature which we might gain.  We were anxious to learn, and yet we were repelled too.  There was a little resentment in us against all the success of the French.  The time had come for us to talk on our own terms.  We felt this.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Buttresses, Chartres Cathedral”
1929
Gelatin silver print
9 5/8” x 7 9/16”
Gift of the artist
Museum of Modern Art, New York

“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.”[ii] 

Here are two important statements by 20th Century Americans:  the first from William Carlos Williams and the second from Charles Sheeler.  They became friends almost immediately after meeting for the first time and remained so for years to follow.  Sheeler was concerned as a painter and photographer with discovering an American vision and a local, immediate subject matter.  Williams, in his search for a poetic voice and an American idiom in his writing, incorporated everyday subjects and images, always insisting to ‘say it, no ideas but in things!’[iii]

In her early book on Charles Sheeler, Constance Rourke noticed the mutual interest in painting and poetry and the personal affection that had been established between the painter Charles Sheeler and the poet William Carlos Williams.  They travelled in some of the same social and aesthetic circles:  in Philadelphia within the Louise and Walter Arensberg family of influence, and New York, both were included in the circle built around the Steiglitz Group, which also included the artists Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth. 

Elizabeth Black Carmer
“William Carlos Williams, Charles Sheeler and
Carl Carmer at the Carmer’s Octagon House”
1961
B&W photograph
26” x 21”
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

“A new intercommunication between artists and writers had begun of which this lasting friendship was a symbol.  Williams, Wallace Stevens, and a few other ‘new’ poets had read some of their work at one of the Independents exhibitions.  Some of Sheeler’s drawings and photographs were reproduced in Broom. . . . Each group was tending more often to look at the work of the other, to consider it, stay with it, give it the warmth of immediate discussion.  Exchanges of ideas were taking place that might not be reflected directly in either painting or writing but could provide something in the way of a generative force for both.”[iv]

And here is one of Williams’ early observations regarding Sheeler’s work:  “Romance, decoration, fullness—are lost in touch, sight, a word, to bite an apple.  Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything.  Carte blanche.  Sheeler!  That’s rich. . . .”[v]

Charles Sheeler
“River Rouge Plant”
1932
Oil on canvas
20” x 24 1/8”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Sheeler, in his capacity as a professional photographer, worked for several publications in the Conde Nast Group, as well as documenting the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Arensburg family private collection.  Williams also knew of the Arensburg circle of artists, realists and surrealists amongst them, and of the importance of the local avant-garde.  These are interesting parallels in their lives and activities.  Today however, writers and artists often see this as the glorification of the industrial object, or as nostalgia, or realism so real, that it becomes surreal. 

Charles Sheeler
“Rolling Power”
1939
Oil on canvas
15 “ x 30”
Smith College Museum of Art
Northampton, Massachusetts

The Descent of Winter 10/30

“To freight cars in the air
all the slow
         clank, clank
         clank, clank
moving above the treetops

the
         wha,   wha
of the horse whistle

         pah,   pah,   pah
         pah,   pah,   pah,   pah,   pah

         piece and piece
         piece and piece
moving still trippingly
through the morningmist

long after the engine
has fought by
                           and disappeared
in silence
                  to the left”[vi] 

Sheeler took great advantage of his many photographic essay commissions not just to document industrial sites in the East and the Mid-West, but to also collect valuable images for his own studio work in both drawing and painting.  Variations on many of these themes appeared in his work throughout his lifetime and they have continued to provide inspiration for several artists in younger generations.   

Charles Sheeler
“Criss-Crossed Conveyors—Ford Plant ”
1927
B&W Photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

Contemporary painters such as Donald Sultan and Robert Moskowitz have benefitted from this insight that is contained in Sheeler’s work:  an intense perception of the man-made environment and landscape.  Recent curators and art historians have also noticed this, especially those writing about the Industrial Sublime[vii] and Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine.[viii]   It is an ongoing aesthetic.          

Donald Sultan
“Veracruz, November 18, 1986”
1986
Latex and tar on tile over Masonite
Matthew and Iris Strauss Collection,
Rancho Santa Fe, California

“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.  When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant. . . . Its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own intrinsic form.  The effect is beauty, what in a single object resolves our complex feelings of propriety. . . .”

Charles Sheeler
“Stacks in Celebration”
1954
Oil on canvas
22” x 28”
Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio

“When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.  It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”[ix]

Robert Moskowitz
“Stack”
2000
Pastel on paper
50 5/8” x 22 1/2”
Lawrence Markey Inc.,
San Antonio, Texas


[i] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 49.

[ii] 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).

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1946 & 1992; p. 6.

[iv] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 50.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253. 

[vi] Williams, William Carlos; Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 246.

[vii] Botwinick, Michael, et al; Industrial sublime; Empire State Editions, Fordham University Press; Yonkers, New York; 2014.

[viii] Lucic, Karen; Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1991.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; I Wanted to Write a Poem:  The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet; (Edited by Edith Heal); New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1978; pp. 78-79.

BATTLE OF LIGHTS: CONEY ISLAND & BROOKLYN BRIDGE

For how many years have these two landmarks, Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, attracted the attention of poets and painters?  Many have tackled this subject.  When we read Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ or Hart Crane’s ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ there are many elements that remind us of other works by artists like John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella.  Contemporary poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joseph Stanton have also made mention of these sites. 

Most recently, and very importantly, we have images from the contemporary photographer Dudley Gray, whose work clearly shares many of these same aesthetic concerns.  In fact, many of Dudley Gray’s images have been published over the years, and the writer Janel Bladow has had this to say in describing his work in OMNI Magazine: 

“The cables of the Brooklyn Bridge…become flamboyant, spidery abstractions.  Around Manhattan other buildings, bathed in vivid colored light, brightly beam the urban nightscape.  These marvels of design sparkle like precious jewels.”[i] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist  

“Without altering the physical structure of the cityscape, artist Joseph Strand and photographer Dudley Gray can change the mood of the city.  Their urban illuminations transform today’s skyline into stunning abstract light sculptures of the future.”[ii] 

However, we must go back in time and follow a progression of these words and images.  In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman describes some of the very spots that would later become the views people would have when crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  In fact, throughout this poem Whitman makes reference to the generations of the future who will experience these sights. 

“The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,

On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each     side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,

On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,

Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.”[iii]

“Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour      high;

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.”[iv]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge, on the Bridge”
1930
Watercolor on paper
21 3/4” x 26 3/4”
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois  

One of these others from fifty or one hundred years hence would surely be the painter Joseph Stella.  Stella has always been a difficult artist to categorize.  Although he was a very figurative painter he was not close to the American realists and regionalists so popular during the early years of the 20th Century.  Although he was a modernist, he would not be classified as a colonial cubist, as others were during that same era.  He is appealing to us today for these very reasons. 

Stella’s body of work includes almost classical portrait drawings of his contemporaries such as Edgar Varese, Marcel Duchamp, and Katherine Millay.  Amongst his most important, and famous images, are paintings from the “New York Interpreted” series, especially the works in reference to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge.  And finally, there exists another body of work that includes many references to natural objects and fantasies. 

Another literary reference should be added here:  Joseph Stella wrote several manuscript notes regarding his individual paintings.  They were written fragments, translated from the Italian by Irma B. Jaffe, and included in her book dealing with the symbolism in Stella’s work.[v]  These written statements by Stella are in themselves quite serious and lyrical.  They do not just describe, but provide a literary parallel to his paintings.  They are just as mystical as his paintings, equal to them, and excellent examples of the ekphrastic process in their own right.

Joseph Stella
“The Brooklyn Bridge:  Variation on an Old Theme”
1939
Oil on canvas
70 1/4” x 42”
Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York, New York

“Seen for the first time, as a weird metallic Apparition under a metallic sky, out of proportion with the winged lightness of its arch, traced for the conjunction of Worlds, supported by the massive dark towers dominating the surrounding tumult of the surging skyscrapers with their gothic majesty sealed in the purity of their arches, the cables, like divine messages from above, transmitted to the vibrating coils, cutting and dividing into innumerable musical spaces the nude immensity of the sky, it impressed me as the shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America…the eloquent meeting of all the forces arising in a superb assertion of powers, in Apotheosis.”[vi]

Joseph Stella
“Battle of Lights, Coney Island”
1913-1914
Oil on canvas
39 7/16” x 29 5/16”
Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust,
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska,
Lincoln, Nebraska

Jumping ahead to contemporary literature, recent references have appeared to both Coney Island and Far Rockaway by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The very first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind, purchased in San Francisco in 1970 or so; and the most recent one was A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which I purchased just after his reading here in Indianapolis at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus on 7 February 2000. 

We learned that night, that he had been continually writing, adding to, and expanding upon many of his earlier themes.  Even though he had spent so much time at the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, he seemed to be making several references to his earlier years:  the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and any number of childlike antics on sidewalks just below the bridges and elevated train tracks.    

The Junkman’s Obligato

“Let us arise and go now 
into the interior dark night
of the soul’s still bowery
and find ourselves anew
where subways stall and wait
under the River. 
Cross over
into full puzzlement. 
South Ferry will not run forever. 
They are cutting out the Bay ferries
but it is still not too late
to get lost in Oakland. 
Washington has not yet toppled
from his horse. 
There is still time to goose him
and go
leaving our income tax form behind
and our waterproof wristwatch with it
staggering blind after alleycats
under Brooklyn’s Bridge
blown statues in baggy pants
our tincan cries and garbage voices
trailing. 
Junk for sale!”[vii]

John Marin
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1912
Watercolor and charcoal
18 5/8” x 15 5/8”
Alfred Stieglitz Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Poets of a younger generation have also taken on these ideas and images, including the writer and art historian Joseph Stanton.  With his writing, Stanton creates imaginary places and even museums with various ‘wings’ housing his personal collection of ekphrastic masterpieces, including this reference to Josef Stella and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Josef Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge

“On his first painting of it,
lines of force slant this way, then slant that,
flickering a cacophony of blue and white
above a blossom of blood;
while the spine articulates—
in tiny, elegant detail—
the sequenced towers. 

Passing the frisson futurism
in subsequent pictures,
Stella settled to a symmetry
a quintessential modernism
that became the way he crossed
this bridge every subsequent time
he came to its soaring contradictions—

Josef Stella
“Brooklyn Bridge”
1919-1920
Oil on canvas
84.7” x 76.6”
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut

medieval gothic are its massive piers
and yet the machined-aged cables of steel,
the taut song of its wiring mechanique,
is what lifts our spirits, transports us,
as we walk the interior passage,
unique to this suspension,
a path that makes our walking seem

a transit towards an altar,
an altar that turns out to be
the City of Brooklyn,
a place worthy of worship in its way,
but cruel, ungraspable. 
‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’
sayeth the gospel of Thomas Wolfe.”[viii]                           

Thinking again about modernism and the “wiring mechanique,” Janel Bladow has summarized perfectly the effect of light falling on the Brooklyn Bridge, while quoting Dudley Gray:  “To Gray, light caresses structure.  ‘It’s like a love affair between light and steel.  Colors run from hot purples to cold blues.  Buildings suddenly acquire both intense identification and peaceful beauty in one dazzling moment.’”[ix] 

Dudley Gray
“Brooklyn Bridge Illuminations:  Cables”
COPYRIGHT 2003
Color photograph
Collection of the artist 

TO BROOKLYN BRIDGE

“Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.”[x]


[i] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[ii] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 70.

[iii] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 3, p. 144. 

[iv] Whitman, Walt; “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Selected poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; Section 2, p. 143.

[v] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California, and New York, New York; 1994.

[vi] Jaffe, Irma B.; Joseph Stella’s Symbolism; Pomegranate Artbooks and Chameleon Books; San Francisco, California and New York, New York; 1994; (Unpaginated, printed opposite Plate 13).

[vii] Ferlinghetti, Lawrence; A Coney Island of the Mind; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1958; p. 56.

[viii] Stanton, Joseph; Moving pictures; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2019; p. 86.

[ix] Bladow, Janel; “Luminicity,” OMNI; New York, New York; Volume 2, Number 11; August 1980; p. 73.

[x] Crane, Hart, ed. Marc Simon; “To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane; Liveright Publishing Corporation; New York and London; 2001; p. 43.

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.

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.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN

“When we say that the artist imitates the poet or the poet the artist, we can mean one of two things:  either that the one takes the other’s work as his model, or that both work from the same model and one borrows his manner of presentation from the other.”[i]

“If . . . the poet and the artist must contemplate those objects common to both from the same point of view, the inevitable result is that their representations will correspond to one another in many points without there having been even the slightest imitation or emulation.  These points of agreement between contemporaneous artists and poets in regard to things that no longer exist may lead to mutual illumination . . . .”[ii]

Although the above observations were made by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing concerning ancient examples of sculpture and literature they could just as easily apply to a more modern example:  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[iii]

James Agee and Walker Evans were commissioned to produce a series of essays and images documenting rural life in the Southern United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.  After many stops and starts, negotiations with publishers and printers, and a very general concept and structure for this project, they set off touring the South and ultimately living with three sharecropper families.  A writer and an artist, sharing their experiences first hand, responding to the people, the landscape, the times, and to each other, Agee and Evans produced one of the most haunting and lyrical portraits of American life.

walker1
Walker Evans
“House of cotton sharecropper Floyd Borroughs, Hale County, Alabama”
1936-1941
Gelatin silver print
5 1/4” x 9 7/8”
The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“We lay on the front porch.  The boards were unplaned thick oak, of uneven length, pinned down by twenty-penny nails.  A light roof stuck out its tongue above us dark and squarely, sustained at its outward edge by the slippery trunks of four young trees from which the bark had been peeled.  There were four steps down, oak two-by-twelves; the fourth, when stepped on, touched the ground.  These steps were in the middle of the porch.  They led, across the porch, into a roofed doorless hallway, about six feet wide, which ran straight through the house and clove it in half.  There was a floor to this hallway, of wide unplaned boards.  Laid across beams too wide apart, they sagged beneath a heavy foot.  For ten feet toward the rear end they were only an inch from the ground.  At the end they lay flush on it.”[iv]

The title for this work seemed to be almost Biblical to me and I tried to search for its source.  It turned out to be from the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes.  So it is not included in modern editions.  It does however, recognize and praise the generations of mankind, from all walks of life and throughout time, drawing parallels between the ancient and the modern.

“Let us now sing praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations.

The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning.

There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles . . . .”

walker2
Walker Evans
“Bud Fields, Sharecropper’s Family, Hale County, Alabama”
March 1935
Gelatin silver print
7 5/8” x 9 5/8”
Gift of the Farm Security Administration,
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.

But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them . . . .

The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation declares their praise.”[v]

The original names of the farmers were Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs.  In order to protect and insure the privacy of these farmers and their families the names in the text were changed to Fred Gavin Ricketts, Thomas Gallatin Woods, and George Gudger.  The dates of the photographs also vary, from as early as 1936 to as late as 1941.  These were probably mix-ups in between the shooting, printing, and publishing times as well as museum and gallery cataloging.

Although I have found examples of Walker Evans’ photographs from several collections including the National Gallery and the Library of Congress, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, they are all copyrighted through the Walker Evans Archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Below you will find a small portfolio of the photographic images and literary quotations from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  These are paired in such a way as to give a broader picture of this work, however, they are not a substitute for it in its entirety.  Only an introduction.

“Its west wall is the front of the house; its north wall, the hallway; its east wall, the partition; its south wall, the side of the house.  At the center of the partition wall is a fireplace.  At the center of the side wall and of the front wall is an exactly square window, about three feet each way.  At the center of the north wall a door leads into the rear bedroom.  The doors are very wide vertical planks, not paneled, but crosslaid with planks in a Z.  They are held shut by block wood buttons and are kept shut most of the time. . . .”

walker3
Walker Evans
“Fireplace, Burrough’s Bedroom, Hale County, Alabama”
1936
Gelatin silver print
9 15/16” x 8”
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“. . . The square shutters, hung on sagged and rusted, loud hinges, are less broad verticals.  Always at night and nearly always during the day they are drawn shut and secured, one by a leather strap over a nail, the other by a piece of rag over a nail.  When they are shut, the room is dark and has a special heat and odor of daylight darkness; but also there is a strong starlight of sunshine with slits and blades and rods of light through the roof and two outward walls and, looking through the floor, the quiet sunless daylighted grain of the earth can be seen, strange to see as at the bottom of a lake; and in this oddly lighted darkness, certain flecks of the room are brilliantly picked out, and every part of it is visible.”[vi]

“Overalls”

“They are pronounced overhauls.”

“Try—I cannot write of it here—to imagine and to know, as against other garments, the difference of their feeling against your body; drawn-on, and bibbed on the whole belly and chest, naked from the kidneys up behind, save for crossed straps, and slung by these straps from the shoulders; the slanted pockets on each thigh, the deep square pockets on each buttock; the complex . . .”

walker4
Walker Evans
“Frank Tengle”
1936
Gelatin silver print
7 13/16” x 4 13/16”
Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

“. . . and slanted structures, on the chest, of the pockets shaped for pencils, rulers, and watches; the coldness of sweat when they are young, and their stiffness; their sweetness to the skin and pleasure of sweating when they are old; the thin metal buttons of the fly; the lifting aside of straps and the deep slipping downward in defecation; the belt some men use with them to steady their middles; the swift, simple, and inevitably supine gestures of dressing and of undressing, which, as is less true of any other garment, are those of harnessing and of unharnessing the shoulders of a tired and hard-used animal.”[vii]

walker5
Walker Evans
“The Frank Tengle Family in Hale County, Alabama”
1936-1941
Gelatin silver print
10 3/4” x 13 3/4”
The Library of Congress,
Washington, DC.

“The family exists for work.  It exists to keep itself alive.  It is a cooperative economic unit.  The father does one set of tasks; the mother another; the children still a third, with the sons and daughters serving apprenticeship to their father and mother respectively.  A family is called a force, without irony; and children come into the world chiefly that they may help with the work and that through their help the family may increase itself.  Their early years are leisurely; a child’s life work begins as play.  Among his first imitative gestures are gestures of work; and the whole imitative course of his maturing and biologic envy is a stepladder of learning of physical tasks and skills.

This work solidifies, and becomes steadily more and more, in greater and greater quantity and variety, an integral part of his life.”[viii]

“And Ellen where she rests, in the gigantic light:  she, too, is completely at peace, this child, the arms squared back, and palms open loose against the floor, the floursack on her face; the soles of the feet facing:  her blown belly swimming its navel, white as flour; and blown full broad with slumbering blood into a circle:  so white all the outward flesh, it glows of blue; so dark, the deep hole, a dark red shadow of life blood:  this center and source, . . .

walker6
Walker Evans
“Squeakie asleep”
1936
Gelatin silver print
24” x 16”
The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

. . . for which we have never contrived any worthy name, is as if it were breathing, flowering, soundlessly, a snoring silence of flame; it is as if flame were breathed forth from it and subtly played about it:  and here in this breathing and play of flame, a thing so strong, so valiant, so unvanquishable, it is without effort, without emotion, I know it shall at length outshine the sun.”[ix]

 


[i] 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. 45.

[ii] Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; (translated by Edward Allen McCormick from the original of 1766); Laocoon:  An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry; pp. 45-46.

[iii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston and New York; 1941.

[iv] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 201.

[v] Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds.; “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach,” Chapter 44, Verses 1-15, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books; Oxford University Press; New York, New York; 1991; p. 148.

[vi] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 142.

[vii] Agee, James, and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 240-241.

[viii] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; pp. 291-292.

[ix] Agee, James and Walker Evans; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; p. 402.

THE DAY IT RAINED ON ANNE FRANK’S HOUSE

“So we walked in the pouring rain, Daddy, Mummy, and I, each with a school satchel and shopping bag filled to the brim with all kinds of things thrown together anyhow.

We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work.  You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn’t offer us a lift; the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself.

Only when we were on the road did Mummy and Daddy begin to tell me bits and pieces about the plan.  For months as many of our goods and chattels and necessities of life as possible had been sent away and they were sufficiently ready for us to have gone into hiding of our own accord on July 16.  The plan had to be speeded up ten days because of the call-up, so our quarters would not be so well organized, but we had to make the best of it.  The hiding place itself would be in the building where Daddy has his office.”

Thursday, 9 July, 1942.[i]

anne
Carel Blazer
“Front view of the house,
Victor (Kraler) Kugler’s office and business”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Above are some of the entries from Anne Frank’s Diary, made on the first day of her family’s hiding.  Below are the notes that she made a year and a half later.  One cannot imagine what they were really experiencing during those times, even after reading the Diary.

One summer Anne McKenzie Nickolson and I visited several major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels.  It was almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and security was evident everywhere, even walking down Vermeerstraat, or visiting the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, but especially while visiting the Anne Frank House Museum on 13 June 2002.  Somber.  It was not raining that day, nor was the sky grey, but still it was somber.

In just two days we visited three important museums:  the Rembrandt House, the Anne Frank House Museum, and the Vincent van Gogh Museum.  Each one was organized in chronological order, including Rembrandt’s studio and Anne Frank’s attic, so that going through them felt like walking through their lives.  Especially the photographs and posters still glued to the walls of Anne Frank’s room.

Coming out of the museum, we walked along the canals and around the block in order to completely see the outside of the house and annex.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city, tree lined streets and canals, with many references to its great artists and historical events.  Later, looking through the Anne Frank House Museum Guide Book, I found the axonometric diagram for both the house and the annex.  It is a beautiful rendering in its own right, and gives one a clear idea and sense of the place.

anne2
Eric van Rootselaar
“Anne Frank House, cross-section house and annex”
(Axonometric projection)
2001
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind on their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking:  ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’  And because I must not bury my head in the blankets, but the reverse—I must keep my head high and be brave, the thoughts will come, not once, but oh, countless times.  Believe me, if you have been shut up for a year and a half, it can get too much for you some days.  In spite of all justice and thankfulness, you can’t crush your feelings.  Cycling, dancing, whistling, looking out into the world, feeling young, to know that I am free—that’s what I long for, still, I mustn’t show it, because I sometimes think if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, or went about with discontented faces, where would it lead us?  I . . . . don’t know, and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, because then I know I should cry.  Crying can bring such relief.”

Friday, 24 December, 1943[ii]

anne3
Carel Blazer
“Back view of the house, location of the Secret Annex”
1954
B&W photograph
Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
The Netherlands

“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank”
                                                                        Linda Pastan

“It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
somewhere else
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
of continents.
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.”[iii]

anne4
“Entrance, visitor queues in the rain”
(File Photograph)
Vincent Van Gogh Museum
Museumplein, Amsterdam
The Netherlands


[i] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; p. 16.

[ii] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; pp. 123-124.

[iii] Pastan, Linda; “It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Carnival Evening:  New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 96.

A NUDE DESCENDING THE STAIRS

“Why?  Only because she had walked naked into my life?  In a painting?”[i]

“You came here so you could finally understand modern art?”[ii]  Who knows how many times this question has been asked, and inadequately answered?  Beginning with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and continuing into our current time, now including the Modernists and Post-Modernists.  These questions involving the definition of modern art come up several times in this story that revolves around a young nude woman who is portrayed as she comes down a staircase in a modern painting.

In his recent novel The Woman on the Stairs the writer Bernhard Schlink draws inspiration from a Gerhardt Richter painting for a story involving the interrelationships amongst an art patron and his wife, an artist and his mistress, and a young lawyer who is caught in the middle of all of this.  Threats of lawsuits are flying back and forth.  Discussions and negotiations are being held regarding the conservation of this modern masterpiece.  And, the lawyer has fallen in love with a nude woman descending a staircase.  I am not sure if there is a post-modern dilemma effecting the legal profession nowadays, but this situation certainly highlights that dilemma in the contemporary art world.

The industrial revolution brought with it the production of a new range of synthetic pigments for artists.  Scientific discoveries and theories brought to our attention how reality is made up of smaller and smaller elements and particles.  And photography brought a new interest in capturing the realistic moment.  Although many writers have proposed that photography also destroyed the need for painting, the final result was to free it, allowing painting to explore new paths of expression, no longer confined by realism and the mimetic.

One important historic example was the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments in capturing a variety of figures and animals in motion.  For example, his photographs of horses in motion proved once and for all that artists of the past had never correctly depicted the action of galloping horses.

nude
Eadward Muybridge
“Woman descending a staircase, sequence”
1887
Collotype on paper
7 3/4” x 14 13/16”
University of Pennsylvania Archives
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Muybridge’s studies of human figures walking, running, climbing and descending stairs also brought new light on these particular movements.  When Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase” was shown at the Armory Show in 1913 in the United States it of course created a stir as well as achieving unbelievable success.  In interviews afterwards, Duchamp stated how he had been directly influenced by Muybridge’s earlier work.[iii]

nude2
Marcel Duchamp
“Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”
1912
Oil on canvas
57 7/8” x 35 1/8”
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art

For the author Bernhard Schlink, various discussions and descriptions of this painting advance the story line of his novel.  They become a series of ekphrastic exercises, deftly woven into the development of the story.

In talking about the German painter Karl Schwind’s painting of the “Woman on Staircase” the model Irene Gundlach mentioned that:  “It was an answer to Marcel Duchamp.  Do you know Nude Descending a Staircase?  A cubist figure, breaking up in the moments of descent, a vortex of legs, ass, arms and heads?  Duchamp’s work was talked about as the end of painting, and Schwind wanted to show that a naked woman descending a staircase could still be painted.”[iv]

Further on she explained that:  “He wanted to keep the pictures he felt defined him as an artist.  That spoke to issues in contemporary painting:  what representation and abstraction can offer, their relationship to photography, how beauty and truth interact.”[v]

At one point, the lawyer remembered:  “I went into a bookshop, and asked for everything they had on Karl Schwind.  A few years before, the Frankfort Art Association had organized an exhibition and published a slim catalogue – that was all they had.  I know nothing about art and couldn’t judge if the paintings were good or bad.  There were pictures of waves, of skies and

nude3
Gerhardt Richter
“Ema (Nude on a Staircase)”
1966
Oil on canvas
200 cm x 130 cm
Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

clouds, of trees; the colours were beautiful, and everything was blurry, the way I see the world when I’m not wearing my glasses.  Familiar, yet distanced.  The catalogue listed the galleries that had exhibited Schwind and the awards he had won.  He didn’t appear to be a failure as an artist, bet he wasn’t established either – up-and-coming, perhaps.”[vi]

And finally, as the patron Peter Gundlach was speaking, he “ . . . told us about the article in the New York Times and the reports that followed in the German media.  The painting, Woman on Staircase, a fixture in Schwind catalogues, but never exhibited, about which Schwind had always been evasive, had a mysterious aura, and its sudden appearance in, of all places, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a sensation.”[vii]

“Then he laughed.  ‘In any case, you had a good eye, better than mine.  If I had suspected that the painting would one day be worth more than twenty million . . . .’”[viii]

 


[i] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; Pantheon Books; New York, New York; 2016; p. 98.

[ii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p.85.

[iii] Ramirez, Juan Antonio; Duchamp:  love and death, even; Reaktion Books; London, United Kingdom; 1998; pp. 257-258.

[iv] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[v] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.

[vi] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 14.

[vii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 116.

[viii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 113.

HOW TO DRAW A CATHEDRAL

“…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]

cathedral1
Charles Sheeler
“Chartres Cathedral”
1929
B&W photograph
9” x 7”
The Lane Collection, Charles Sheeler Archives
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

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.

cathedral2
Villard de Honnecourt
“Double Row of Flying Buttresses, Rheims Cathedral VI”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXIV])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
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.”

cathedral3
Villard de Honnecourt
“Exterior and Interior Elevations, Rheims Cathedral IV”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.LXII])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“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.”

cathedral4
Villard de Honnecourt
“North Tower of Laon Cathedral”
(The Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, [C.XIX])
1230
Pen & ink on paper
9.25” x 6.1”
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
“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.

LAY LADY DAY!

“Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies….”[i]

holiday
Sid Grossman,
“Portrait of Billie Holiday”
Gelatin silver print, 1948,
13 3/16” x 10 11/16”
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC.

Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough, born in Philadelphia in 1915.  She spent most of her childhood in Baltimore raised by relatives.  She took the name ‘Billie’ in honor of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the name ‘Holiday’ from Clarence Holiday, her probable father.  Her only training as a teenager was singing along with phonograph records at her aunt’s house.  She was discovered by John Hammond and made her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933.

Billie Holiday would later record and work with Louis Armstrong, Count Bassie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young.  Many of her contemporaries noted that she made each and every song her own, took them to unheard of heights and depths, bursting into the open air.

Her memory has been celebrated in the song “Angel of Harlem” by the rock band U2 and by the American sculptor Mark di Suvero in a monumental piece “For Lady Day” in south Chicago and perhaps most poignantly by the New York School poet Frank O’Hara upon reading of her death in 1959.

“The Day Lady Died”

“It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off
the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”[ii]

holiday2
Mark di Suvero
“For Lady Day”
1968-1969
30’ x 18’
Railroad tank car, I-beams and cable
Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park
Governor’s State University,
University Park, Illinois

Finally, in describing this piece in tribute to Billie Holiday and the emergence of a new sculptural space, the critic Peter Schjeldahl has obsered:  “The colosal ‘drawing in space’ with assembled elements—a specialty of the Manilow park, whose ‘For Lady Day’ by Mark di Suvero is a masterpiece of the mode—burst the boundaries of the traditional gallery and garden display and entered the open air.”[iii]

 


[i] U2; “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum; audio recording 422-842 299-2; Island Records; New York, New York; 1988.

[ii] O’Hara, Frank; Lunch Poems; City Lights Books; San Francisco, California; 1964 & 2014; p. 21.

[iii] Manilow, Lewis, et al; The Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park; Governors State University Foundation; University Park, Illinois; 1987.  (Including the essay “A Park for the Prairie God” by Peter Schjeldahl); p. 11.