PATRICIA CLARK AND THE PAINTERS:  Chapter 2 

In French, the sign along the roadside simply read:  DANGER MORTAL!  These were posted all along the winding coastal roads going out from the port at Le Palais.  They covered most of the island.  They were a very real warning as many of the island roads curved right along the coast, with precipitous and precarious views down from the cliffs, and across the inlets and bays.  There were no guardrails.   

We visited there in the summer of 1995 with our friend, the painter Holly Hughes and her mother Wanda, who at that time was the studio/office manager for the contemporary American painter Ellsworth Kelly.  Wanda was armed with a map that had been given to her by Ellsworth so that we might find the ‘village’ where he had lived after WWII.  Little did we know what a sight we were approaching?     

Claude Monet
“Tempête, côtes de Belle-Ile”
1886
Oil on canvas
65.4 cm. x 81.5 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Over the years on Belle-Isle, the largest of the Breton Islands, many artists found in the isolation, the savage waves and tides, the inspiration that they were searching for.  Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, the actress Sarah Bernhardt and her companion the painter Georges Clairin, the Irish painter John Peter Russell, were all attracted to this special place, and later of course, so was Ellsworth Kelly.

During the fall of 1886, from 12 September to 25 November to be exact, Claude Monet lived and worked on Belle-Isle.  During this time he produced a series of 39 paintings, exploring the weather and the wildness of this place. 

Not to be outdone by the painters, the contemporary poet Patricia Clark from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently visited Paris and many of the great museums there.  She noticed in particular the paintings by Monet at the Musée D’Orsay, and the potential for an ekphrastic experience.  When I asked Clark about this, this is what she said: 

“As for the poem about Monet’s Rochers — we did not go out to the place, alas! Would love to see it. I believe (memory is slippery!) we saw the painting at the Musee D’Orsay. My method — such as it is! — is to buy postcards of paintings that really move me. . . . Then there’s a catalog. But I know I have a postcard of this painting.”

“I think what drew me to it is that it’s not an image I’d seen that much. It seems rougher and less ‘pretty’ than many Monets. I kept it in front of me and then one day, I started to write about it. That’s about as much as I recall — of course, a writer can’t help but layer their own issues over what they look at — so that’s what happens, doesn’t it? I hope that comes through.”[i] 

Claude Monet
“Les rochers de Belle-Île”
1886
Oil on canvas
25 7/8″ x 32 1/8″
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Reims

“Les Rochers de Belle-Ille”

                  (after the painting by Claude Monet)

“No beach here—just the sea
swirling in blue

deep blue and green

Both the sea and the rocks
show age

It’s a tired scene of their
coming together

each hour and day

The water’s force, erosion
of all the softest parts

leaving only solid rock

This you could be
crushed upon—the hardest

knowledge of all—

What is impervious to you, quite
solidly indifferent

No escaping the sea

throws you repeatedly on the rocks
of all you’re stupid about—

self-ignorance, deception, lies—

Instead someone calls this a scene,
a landscape, seascape—

yes, but first:  crags of the mind, and soul.”[ii]

Claude Monet
“Rochers a Belle-Île at Port Goulphor”
1886
Oil on canvas
26” x 32 3/16”
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Following the end of WWII, from 1948 to 1954, the American artist and veteran Ellsworth Kelly visited and lived in several areas of France.   In July 1949 he even rented a house on Belle-Ile-en-Mer for the summer and part of the fall.  He had fallen in love with France and with its artists, especially Claude Monet and Henri Matisse. 

In 1965 Kelly returned to Belle-Isle with a specific purpose, to re-visit certain sites that Monet had painted and witness them directly, not just metaphorically.  Later in his life, 2005, he returned to Belle-Isle for a last series of drawings, not abstracted from the rocks, but directly created from the sources.[iii]

Ellsworth Kelly
“Port-Goulphar, Belle- Île”
2005
Pencil on paper
49.5 cm x 62.2 cm
Estate of the artist.

It is a landscape that would challenge one’s imagination.  From the earliest visitors to contemporary painters and poets, one can only wonder how they felt when approaching these vistas for the first time.  Looking out on this frighteningly beautiful land, with its bays, inlets, needles, rocks, and steep cliffs, it is no wonder that this entire region of France would come to be described as Finistère:  the end of the earth.


[i] Clark, Patricia; in an e-mail response to this writer; 9 January 2021; 9:52 AM. 

[ii] Clark, Patricia; Self-Portrait with a Million Dollars; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2020; pp. 36-37.  

[iii] Bois, Yve-Alain, and Sarah Lees; Monet/Kelly; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; Williamston, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press; New Haven and London; 2014.

BARBARA FRITCHIE AND THE AMERICAN FLAG

In American history classes in high school we learned of the story of a woman who insisted on waving her country’s flag during the Civil War even as a Confederate general was leading his troops in retreat through the town of Frederick, Maryland and back into northern Virginia.  We knew her name to be Barbra Fritchie, but several other spellings were used, including Frietchie and Frietschie.

“Barbara Fritchie”
Steel plate engraving
1867[i]

At that time, Miz Fritchie was ninety years old, and although she occasionally cheered on Union Army troops, it may have been a woman in nearby Middletown who actually waved the flag in this particular incident as Confederate soldiers passed by.

To add to the confusion, John Greenleaf Whittier had only heard of this incident through other reports and constructed his narrative from a distance.  Although Lee is mentioned early in the poem, it was Stonewall Jackson who was actually leading Lee’s army.  Flags may have also been waved at A. P. Hill and Ambrose Burnside as their armies passed through this area during those times.  Be that as it may, Whittier’s poem honoring Barbara Frietchie became a tribute to the local community in Frederick as well as an inspiration to abolitionists across the land.  

In more recent times, several contemporary artists have taken up this theme: weaving and waving the American flag in and out of their work.  It is not just a gimmick, and it does eliminate some of the clichés that surround the use of the American flag.  These pieces re-establish some of the flag’s symbolic potential and point to the irony that its use implies in these current times.  Three such artists are:  Sonya Clark, Donald Lipski, and Thornton Dial.  The descriptions written concerning these pieces, as well as the artists’ own statements provide lyrical interpretations regarding this work. 

Discussing the process of un-weaving, combining and re-weaving certain flags for an exhibition at the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles in 2020, Sonya Clark stated:  “We are at a chapter in our history that once again acknowledges how racial injustice is deeply woven into the fabric of this nation.  We are at a turning point. We must unravel those strands of injustice.”[ii] 

In an essay accompanying a Donald Lipski exhibition at the Fabric Workshop in 1991, the poet and critic John Yau observed:  “In his most recent work—Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?—Lipski continues to apply a wide range of specific, usually repetitive processes, to the American flag.  In ‘Flag balls,’ with the help of others, he rolled thousands of yards of continuously printed flag material into giant spheres.  In doing so, he extends the process in which a flag achieves a greater dimension, reminding viewers that we are all part of a larger pattern.”[iii] 

And last, but not least, there is the very title that Thornton Dial chose for the piece included in his exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2003.  It beautifully summarizes and states the purpose of his work:  “Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together.” 

So here is the entire poem, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, on the flag waving done by Miz Barbara Fritchie during the Civil War, interspersed with examples of these three contemporary American artists.                

Sonya Clark
“these days this history this country”
2019
Unwoven and rewoven commercially printed flags
(American & Confederate Battle Flags)
10” x 7”
Image © Sonya Clark, 2019

Barbara Frietchie

“Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,

The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple- and peach-tree fruited deep,

Fair as a garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain wall,—

Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,

Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet.”

Donald Lipsky
“Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?  Flag Ball #2”
1990
Muslin 
(One of thirteen balls, each 32” in diameter)
Courtesy of The Fabric Workshop
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced: the old flag met his sight.

“Halt!”— the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
“Fire!”— out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.

Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf;

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;

The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:

‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.

All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.

Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.

Barbara Frietchie’s work is o’er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids no more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewall’s bier.

Over Barbara Frietchie’s grave
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;

And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!”[iv]

Thronton Dial
“Don’t matter how raggly the flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together“
2003
Mattress coils, chicken wire, clothing, can lids, found metal, plastic twine, wire, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on canvas on wood.
71” x 114” x 8”
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana


[i] Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan; Woman’s Work in the Civil War: a Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience; Zeigler, McCurdy & Co.; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1867; p. 10.

[ii] Clark, Sonya; From the artist’s statement for the “Democracy 2020 Exhibition:  Craft & the Election;” Craft in America Center; Los Angeles, California; 2020.

[iii] Stroud, Marion Boulton, et al; Donald Lipski:  Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue?; The Fabric Workshop; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1991; Unpagenated.

[iv] Whittier, John Greenleaf; “Barbara Frietchie;” The Atlantic Monthly; Boston, Massachusetts; October 1863. 

MARJORIE PHILLIPS & NIGHT BASEBALL

Several years ago, during a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was surprised to discover a painting by Robert Moskowitz, “Hard Ball III.”  This painting reminded me of my own love of baseball.  From childhood stickball games in the street, where fire hydrants, telephone poles, and man-hole covers served as the bases, and on to later years when we played in a summer league on real fields along the Mall and the Elipse just across the street from the White House in Washington, DC. 

 

Robert Moskowitz
“Hard Ball III”
1993
Oil on canvas
108” x 58”
Detroit Institute of the Arts,
Detroit, Michigan

The Washington Senators were of course our home town team.  One had to root, root, root for the home team even when they didn’t win, which was often, and a shame.  But it was always great, whether we were sitting right there on the first base line or out in left field waiting for hits from Mantle and Berra, or Runnels and Busby and Yost.  

Over the years my Dad and I both worked for a printing and photography company located at 19th and K Streets, NW:  he much earlier in his career, and I during the summers right after high school and on through art school.  The company was called Cooper/Trent after its two owners, and we were all baseball fans.   Mr. Cooper and Mr. Trent had season tickets at Griffith Stadium and would usually bring back souvenirs for us, a photograph signed by Stan “The Man” Musial of the Cardinals, and a baseball, signed by the entire Senators team.  I still have both of these, to this day. 

Photographer Unknown
“Stan Musial” (Publicity Photo)
c.1956-1957
B&W Photograph
11” x 8 1/2”
Private Collection, Indianapolis

But this is about something larger than these pieces of nostalgia.  It is about a history that is both athletic and aesthetic:  perfect for bridging the gap between painting and poetry, and as it turns out, two women have played an important part in this process. 

During the 1930’s and 40’s the artist Marjorie Acker Phillips accompanied her husband Duncan to hundreds of local baseball games.  Duncan Phillips of course, was the founder of the Phillips Collection of Washington, DC.  During these outings, Marjorie often carried a sketchbook and drawing materials with her and drew the field, the players, and the general atmosphere of that great old ballpark, Griffith Stadium. 

Later in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York, the poet Marianne Moore also became a baseball fan, especially of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella were some of her favorite subjects.  She was well aware of the contribution that Jackie Robinson was making to our history at that time, and I think that the sound of Branch Rickey’s name may have brought a smile to her face.   

“Baseball and Writing”  

“Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing. 
         You can never tell with either
                  how it will go
                  or what you will do; 
generating excitement—
a fever in the victim—
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. 
                  Victim in what category? 
Owlman watching from the press box? 
                  To whom does it apply? 
                  Who is excited?  Might it be I?[i]    

As the Phillips Collection developed and grew, Marjorie and Duncan Phillips moved out of their original home near DuPont Circle in Washington, and gave over the entire space to the museum.  The Phillips Collection became the first museum in the country dedicated to modern art.  It also provided an educational component in support of the works contained therein, and soon became known as a museum of modern art and its sources.  Works of art were grouped as they played off of each other:  from Ingres, Goya and Delacroix to Degas, Renoir and Cezanne, from Monticelli to van Gogh, with Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Georges Braque included in the mix.    

Over the years Marjorie Phillips’ work became more known and she continued to enjoy the games of the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.  Her painting “Night Baseball” depicts a moment during a Yankees/Senators game when Joe DiMaggio comes up to bat.  It is 1951, his last playing season.  Everything is still, and rather than depict an action, she chose instead the tension of waiting on the delivery of that pitch to home plate. 

I have recently discovered, from an old article in the Washington Post, that Marianne Moore had actually seen this painting and wrote to Marjorie Phillips about it.[ii]  “Night Baseball” could have ended up in the collection of Miss Moore, unfortunately Marjorie Phillips had already given it as a gift to her husband Duncan, who placed it in his collection.  Supposedly, even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was interested in this painting, however it has remained in the Phillips Collection to this day.

It has been years since the Senators and Calvin Griffith left Washington, DC.  They are only memories nowadays.  However, newer painters and poets often remind us of those days.  As mentioned above, Robert Moskowitz has always chosen simple, iconic images for his work, transforming them into monumental statements.  Now, the poet Joseph Stanton, in the series “Painting the Corners” from his recent collection Things Seen, has taken a similar look at familiar icons, and this includes Marjorie Phillips’ painting “Night Baseball.”

Marjorie Phillips 
“Night Baseball”
1951
Oil on canvas
24 1/4” x 36”
Gift of the artist to the Phillips Collection
Washington, DC.

 MARJORIE PHILLIPS’ Night Baseball

“It’s the 1st of September 1951
and Joe Dimaggio
is about to take his last swing
in our nation’s capital. 
He’s up against the great,
but largely forgotten,
Connie Marrero,
El Guajiro de Labertinto,
El Premier of the Cuban stars,
four years older than Joltin’ Joe,
but still floating them up there,
one damned knuckle ball after another,
pitching with canny discernment
and elderly grace,
losing game after game,
for the hapless Senators,
despite his stellar ERA. 

The electrified white of his home togs
makes him seem a bright X,
marking the spot of green field
that waits under the glowering bruise
of the night sky
suspended above Griffith stadium
in this brief instant before the fateful pitch. 

Duncan Phillips has taken his wife
to witness the great Dimaggio,
another masterpiece for their gallery,
but Marjorie can see this night
as all about the weary pitcher,
spread-limbed as if on a cross,
arrayed against the base path
the too much celebrated Joe
will too soon circle. 

Oh, where have you gone,
Connie Marrero?”[iii]                          


[i] Schulman, Grace, ed; The Poems of Marianne Moore; Viking Penguin; New York, New York; 2002; p. 329.

[ii] Gildea, William; “Griffith Stadium Still Green and Alive;” The Washington Post; Washington, DC; 6 April 1985.  

[iii] Stanton, Joseph; Things Seen; Brick Road Poetry Press; Columbus, Georgia; 2016; pp. 106-107.

CHARLES SHEELER AND THE SHAKERS

“I know a good print when I see it.  I know when it is good and why it is good.  It is the neck of a man, the nose of a woman . . . . It is a photograph by Sheeler.  It is.  It is the thing where it is.  So.  That’s the mine out of which riches have always been drawn.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Window”
c. 1935
B&W photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

This is one of many observations made by William Carlos Williams regarding his long time friend Charles Sheeler.  Williams was constantly calling for an “intense vision of the facts”[ii] and considered a painting or a photograph or a poem as a thing to be shaped or carved out in the process. 

Williams noted this many times throughout his career:  from his early work, in several of his essays, and in his epic poem Patterson.  It even came up in his “Introduction” for Sheeler’s Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 where he observed:  “It is in things that for the artist the power lies. . . .”[iii]

Sheeler had a wide range of interests, not only through his professional work but also as an inquisitive and thoughtful human being.  He supported himself for many years as a documentary photographer both with Vogue and Fortune Magazines, as well as work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.    

These projects often paralleled his aesthetic interests, complimenting his studio work.  Modern industrial subjects such as the factories in Ballardvale, Massachusetts and the Ford Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan became important sources of inspiration for this work.  Simultaneously, he was interested in, and paid visits to historic farmhouses in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as communitarian sites such as the Ephrata Community in Lancaster County, and the Shaker Villages in both Mount Lebanon, New York and Hancock, Massachusetts.  He even began collecting certain pieces of antique furniture with which he furnished his own home:  folk art, ceramics, curved wooden boxes, and of course many Shaker chairs, cabinets, and tables. 

Charles Sheeler
“Buildings at Lebanon”
1949
Tempera and graphite on pressed board faced with sized paper
14 5/16” x 20 1/4” 
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota 

William Carlos Williams even noted how his friend Charles Sheeler had taken certain objects and constructed an environment in which to live.  Williams writing in his autobiography stated: 

“The poem is our objective, the secret at the heart of the matter—as Sheeler’s small house, reorganized….”

“Charles Sheeler, artist, has taken the one rare object remaining more or less intact…and proceeded to live in it…and make a poem (a painting) of it….”[iv] 

“How shall we in this region of the mind which is all we can tactically, sensually know, organize our history other than as Shaker furniture is organized?  It is a past, totally uninfluenced by anything but the necessity, the total worth of the thing itself, the relationship of the parts to the whole.  The Shakers made furniture for their own simple ritualistic use, of white pine, applewood, birch—what they had.  Sheeler has a remarkable collection of this furniture.”[v]                

Charles Sheeler
“American Interior”
1934
Oil on canvas
32 1/2” x 30”
Gift of Mrs. Paul Moore,
Yale University Art Gallery,
New Haven, Connecticut

For several years Sheeler had been working on an autobiography, which he turned over to the writer Constance Rourke, who edited and organized it.  Rourke drew heavily upon Sheeler’s words, which became an important element in her monograph on this artist in 1939.  Later, the historians Faith and Edward Demming Andrews referred to this book in their article on Sheeler in “Art in America” that focused on his interest in the Shakers: 

“But as time went on he must have become more and more convinced that he wanted to do, through his medium, what the Shakers . . . had done in theirs:  to strip away all that was superficial, to find the essential, the absolute, the inner undisguised meaning, the final irreducible character in form.”[vi] 

Charles Sheeler
“Americana 31”
1931
Oil on canvas
36” x 48”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Milton Lowenthal,
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sheeler himself had many things to say regarding his interests and this collection.  They were historic artifacts by that time, but they were also very contemporary in feeling and form.  He stated that:  “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it.  I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”[vii] 

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Detail”
1941
Oil and tempera on Masonite
8.75” x 9.75”
Wallace M. Scudder Bequest
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey

“No embellishment meets the eye.  Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission.  The sense of light and spaciousness received upon entering the hall is indicative of similar spiritual qualities of the Shakers.  Instinctively one takes a deep breath, as in the midst of some moving and exalted association of nature.  There were no dark corners in those lives.”[viii] 

Charles Sheeler
“On a Shaker Theme”
1956
Oil on canvas
30” x 36”
Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation,
Wareham, Massachusetts

“—Say it, no ideas but in things— 
         nothing but the blank faces of the houses
         and cylindrical trees 
         bent, forked by preconception and accident—
         split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
         secret—into the body of the light!”[ix]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.     

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 231.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; p. 234.     

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 332-333.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 333-334.

[vi] Andrews, Faith and Edward D.; “Sheeler and the Shakers;” Art in America; New York, New York; Number One; 1965; p. 95.

[vii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[viii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6-7.     

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.

THE SHIELD OF ACHELLES

In ancient times, as these stories, tales, and histories were spoken and traded, collected and written down, it was Homer who ultimately composed the epic poem The Iliad.  In so doing, he chronicled the adventures of the Greek army, the sack of Troy and the heroic wanderings of the many participants across the seas. 

In one section especially, he described at length the great warrior Achilles as he was preparing for his battles in the Trojan Wars.  Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who had foreseen these upcoming events, commissioned the blacksmith Hêphaistos to forge a shield, with many layers and stories illuminated on its face.  He, Achilles, would have a choice of living a long life in peace and relative obscurity, or going into battle, with imminent death awaiting, but having his name become legendary.  We all know which of these paths he took.

It was Homer’s description of this amazing shield, going into great detail on all levels, which we accept today as the first and most important example of the ekphrastic tradition. In reading The Iliad over the years since that time, many artists and poets have tried to explicate these details, in both analytical and romantic ways.

“Then, running round the shield-rim, triple-ply,
he pictured all the might of the Ocean stream.”[i]

Alexander Pope
“Diagram for Achilles’ Shield” (MS 4808)
1712-1724
Pen and ink on paper
The British Library, London

In the eighteenth century Alexander Pope set out on a personal project to create a modern translation of Homer’s Iliad.  It stretched out over a twelve-year period, and he supported himself during this time by selling subscriptions to this as a series.  Along with this writing project, he attempted to reconstruct the design of Achilles’ shield, paying close attention to Homer’s descriptions.  The drawings and diagrams that he created are now in the manuscript collection of the British Library.  They give an excellent glimpse into this fictional work of art, and the Ocean stream that runs around its shield-rim.

Homer continues to describe the richness and imagination of the decoration for Achilles’ shield.  In the lines below he lays out the scheme for this project, including several realms and worlds in which the story takes place. 

                                                               “Durable
fine bronze and tin he threw into the blaze
with silver and with honorable gold,
then mounted a big anvil in his block
and in his right hand took a powerful hammer,
managing with his tongs in his left hand.” 

“His first job was a shield, a broad one, thick,
well-fashioned everywhere.  A shining rim
he gave it, triple-ply, and hung from this
a silver shoulder strap.  Five welded layers
composed the body of the shield.  The maker
used all his art adorning this expanse. 
He pictured on it earth, heaven, and sea,
unwearied sun, moon waxing, and the stars
that heaven bears for garland:  Plêiades,
Hyades, Orion in his might,
the Great Bear, too, that some have called the Wain,
pivoting there, attentive to Orion,
and unbathed ever in the Ocean stream.”[ii]  

Later in history, the artisan John Flaxman was commissioned by the firm of Rundell, Brigge & Rundell in London to take Homer’s description of this shield, using the original Greek text and Alexander Pope’s translation, and using his own illustrations to reconstruct this great work of art.  It includes all of the realms and landscapes as they are described, as well as the people and all of the characters as they interact, in both war and peace.  To our modern eye, and mind, this shield may have been beautiful, however, it also would have been huge, impossible for a single warrior to wield. 

John Flaxman (Commissioned by Philip Rundell)
“Shield of Achilles”
1821
Silver gilt
90.5 x 90.5 x 18.0 cm
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,
United Kingdom

Coming closer to our own time, both W. H. Auden and Cy Twombly bring this imagery up to date.  A contemporary rendering of this story by Auden alternates shorter and longer lines in its retelling.  The following selected stanzas show Achilles’ mother, Thetis, looking over the shoulder of the blacksmith Hêphaistos during the process of the making of the shield.  She seems to be checking on its progress, with special attention to the inclusion of the many details that will go into this narrative. 

Auden however, sets a darker tone than the purely heroic one, including this description:  “An artificial wilderness and a sky like lead.”  Coming full circle, so to speak, the contemporary artist Cy Twombly re-visits this theme with a very energetic and abstract depiction of the shield.  Insane scribblings perhaps, yet they are lyrical and beautiful, graphic expressions with the pure kinetic energy that enlivens Achilles’ shield. 

The Shield of Achilles

“She looked over his shoulder
         For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-groomed cities
         And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
         His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
         And a sky like lead.” 

“She looked over his shoulder
         For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
         Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
         Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
         Quite another scene.” 

Cy Twombly
“Fifty Days at Iliam:  Shield of Achilles”
1978
Oil, crayon and graphite on canvas
75 1/2” x 67”
Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“She looked over his shoulder
         For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
         Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
         But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
         But a weed-choked field.” 
“The thin-lipped armorer,
         Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
         Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
         To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
         Who would not live long.”[iii]


[i] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; p. 454, lines 607-608.

[ii] Homer; The Iliad; Everyman’s Library and Alfred A. Knopf; New York, London and Toronto; 1992; pp. 450-451, lines 479-497

[iii] Auden, W. H.; Collected Poems; Modern Library; New York, New York; 2007; pp. 594-596.

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.

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.