Thursday, December 03, 2009

What's Best?


When I was a teenager I watched two of my older brothers have a heated argument over a pick-up truck. One of them was arguing for what he thought was the "best" truck, and the other claimed that there was no such thing, that the only thing there was, was the truck that was best for him. At the bottom of it was one brother telling the other that his truck sucked.

The rest of my family was bored and annoyed by the pissing match, but I was anything but. I knew that one was being a jerk and the other was taking the bait and being defensive. Still, the excuse for the argument fascinated me, and it fascinates me still.

See, I believed the brother with the shitty truck, but no one else did. Everyone else thought that there was such a thing as the "best" truck. They totally believed that, and the brother with a masters in philosophy and a law degree was left to piss in the wind while the one who never finished high school and was most likely high won the day.

Now I have been pissing in the wind on this one my whole life. There is no talking to people who think that there is an official best, and worse, that they know what it is, and worse still, that they know what's best for you. Like my brother who never finished high school. He knew. Never mind that he should have been on the other side of the argument, being the stoner and all. But if you asked me, knowing what is best for you is the secret to happiness. If you asked me, knowing what is best for you is the secret to life.

A few years after that argument I met Richard Tuttle, and he was talking about the same thing, only articulation wasn't his strong suit. In all fairness it is not an easy subject, and just yesterday I felt like an idiot trying to explain it to someone.

Tuttle introduced the idea of what's right into the conversation, exchanging right for best, as in " what's right for you." I sure wanted to know. I listened to him so hard it made my head hurt, and then I tried to explain it in an article I wrote about him for a local newspaper. Needless to say I made a hash of it.

Somehow it comes off as a defensive argument, like it did with my brother. There's what everybody knows, and then there's stubborn you. That's how I felt yesterday. And that's it in a nutshell; the whole world represents the objective truth, what everybody thinks, and up against that is the subjective, you, little ole you, what you think. Good luck with that.

You do it your way and to hell with you. It will be more than your piss in the wind. So how could you possibly be happy after that? How could you possibly be happy bucking all those who know what is best, and best for you? Reminds me of a Stones jingle: a man comes on the television...can't get no...

A few years ago, actually more like 15, I took this whole thing a step further. I started listening to something deeper when making important choices in my life. I started listening to the same little voice I listened to while painting. Not the official voice, the trained voice, the objective truth voice, but the other one, the one that just liked something because it felt like it.

No surprise, that little voice was just what was left of my voice period. After parents and siblings and teachers and bosses and friends and girlfriends and books and television and mentors and you name it. My little voice was my voice and I needed to start listening to it not just in a crisis or when push came to shove, inotherwords when I was forced to, but every day. Every minute of every day.

I started doing that. I made decisions that felt right for me, not because they were good on paper, but because they were good to me. People in positions of power will not approve of this. Having a mind of your own will get twisted into something bad. Doing what feels right to you will be twisted into something selfish. But you have to believe. You have to learn to hear your voice and listen to it and have faith in it. The consequences may be difficult. You may lose people you thought loved you; you may upset people who professed to have your best interests at heart.

On the other hand you may find yourself in a job that everybody else thinks is great. You may find yourself in a relationship that everybody else thinks is great. Pleasing yourself would mean changing your job maybe, or your work, or your relationship. If you do this you risk angering those who know what's best for you. But if they love you, if they are your true friends, they will understand.

If they love you and respect you they will trust you to know what's best for you and they will let you make the mistakes which will invariably happen. You won't always get it right, but you would be surprised. If you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need...

OK, I know I have a tangle of stuff here that is making me sound like an idiot again. There's the subjective vs objective choice, the whole lemming thing vs what I called as a teacher "it's ugly but it's mine," and then there is the how you know aspect, which probably sounds a lot like what people call judgment vs intuition. Throw in the group vs the individual and yes, they are all the same thing when you get right down to it, including the consequences the individual must face in dealing with the group.

The problems for the individual only begin when they learn to listen to their individual voice, which is not only what the artist depends on, it is what society depends on from the artist. Hamlet has always been an artist's guy. His soliloquy, well, that is the question for every artist. It is what Richard Tuttle was wrestling with when I met him. He was the "ugly but it's mine" artist and he thought I was too concerned with conventional ideas of beauty. What he didn't factor in was that I had grown up in Rome while he had grown up in New Jersey. We had different stuff in our blood. Ironically he committed the crime of thinking he knew what was best for me, an about-face or violation of his own core belief.

Happens all the time. He thought I was going through the objective to find the subjective, he drew it like going one way around a circle instead of say, the other, finding the objective through the subjective; finding the world around you by listening to the voice inside you instead of finding the voice inside you by going through the world around you. Looking inward vs looking outward. I think Richard Tuttle discovered looking inward, like a convert, twice born, where as I was born that way. It might make sense to balance the two, of course, but that is something else.

Still, you get the idea. Right? There's Frank Sinatra's "My Way," and then there's "My way or the highway, Buster!" There's the "no I in team," or as Michael Jordan put it, "but there's an I in win, coach!" That's the thing. At the back or front or bottom or top of every group there is an individual. It is really their way! Where the buck stops. Chief. Chiefs and indians. Coach and team. Alpha or beta. To be or not to be. The pack or the path. Their voice or yours! Their truck or yours! What's it gonna be, boy? What's it gonna be?

-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Where Art Happens

Recently someone asked me why I don't teach my children "art." I was after all, they argued, an excellent art teacher at some top schools on and off for over twenty years. My last teaching stint was at RISD in the Foundation program a dozen years ago, and I quit to be with my family when my second oldest was born.

I've written before about the greatest lesson I learned as a teacher: how important it was to embrace the notion that you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink. When I was a young teacher I assumed that it was my job to get the horse to drink. My oldest helped me as much as anyone to let go of that assumption. He is now a painter and getting his masters at Columbia, and if I had tried to teach him anything he would be in banking.

These days I have taken this idea of "preserving the horse's right to drink when it feels like it" a step further; let the horse find his own way to the water! Or not! I tried to explain this to my friend. Yes, I have always shared the belief that you can't teach art, and was a teacher only to preserve this freedom. Which was why I quit teaching when I did; because I was uncomfortable with the charade. But now I really believe it. No way you can teach art, no way, and the very idea is offensive.

So of course this person asked me "then why art school?" I answered, "simple, art school gives you a chance to be doing the thing you love to do without worrying about the real world, and it allows you to be surrounded by people who care about what you care about."

No one learns anything in art school. Anything of value at any rate. At least not directly as a result of teaching. They learn by doing, by accident, by example. You can't teach that.

It always kills me when people talk about outsider and self-taught artists. Everybody is self-taught when it comes to art. Encouragement is the only thing that can make a difference, frankly. I got a lot of encouragement as a young artist, but I never learned anything from a teacher, not from Severini, not from Exeter, not from RISD, not from Richard Tuttle or Charles Seliger or Leon Polk Smith. Yes, they all encouraged me. Some wise person once referred to teaching as passing the poison. Truer words were never spoken. I spent two years detoxing when I got out of RISD. I was lucky, though, because I kept painting(the other day someone told me 1 in 10 kept at it after RISD). Nonetheless I'm sure I have poison in me still.

My kids get to see me painting in my studio. They get to see and be around the art in our home and gallery. They make stuff all the time. Over the holiday my oldest was home from school and he had everyone making collaborative drawings. Without question I was the weak link, the one who needed to get with it, the one who needed an attitude adjustment, the one who needed to lose the kind of excess baggage that we only pick up in school.

Who knows where art happens? And that is the beauty of it; no one.



-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, November 16, 2009

Charles Seliger (1926 - 2009)

This is my first attempt at writing something about the passing of Charles Seliger. I made a hash of it. It is not in my nature to throw things away, and also to quit looking for the good in things, so I'll leave it up for the time being.


Six weeks ago my friend the painter Charles Seliger died of a massive stroke he suffered while attending an opening at Michael Rosenfeld, his gallery. He sat down in the office, complained of some dizziness and hearing problems and then it happened. Strokes are apparently like an earthquake, once they get started there is no stopping them. When this one was over, Charles Seliger was dead at eighty-three.

I had been composing a letter to Charles in my head for weeks when I heard the news. A letter he never got. Like everyone I was stunned. Months earlier I had picked up a little catalogue from Peggy Guggenhiem's place in Venice, La Collezione, that had both Charles and Gino Severini listed together on the same page. I had been given private mural instruction from Severini as a boy in Rome; I had known and learned from Charles for 30 years and my house is filled with paintings he had so generously gifted me over that time. The catalog is over fifty years old and signed by Guggenhiem, twice. I thought he would get a kick out of it. He had shown with her at Art of This Century when he was just eighteen. A few years ago the Venice museum gave him a show and really fĂȘted him and he loved it. He told me in great length how he spoke to a group of school girls who sat crossed-legged on the floor in their uniforms and listened with rapt attention as he told them his stories of art.

Charles Seliger was an artist and a painter all his life. It was his life. It was not a parade, and he did not parade like so many artists. Nor was it an act of struggle or rebellion. It was so much a part of his life that he was happy to share it with the life around him. He had a family. He had a job! And he painted. He was not a bohemian. He was an artist. Artist as poet, explorer, gardener, astronomer, composer, and botanist. Artist as painter.

Charles Seliger was not like other artists. He worked differently. For this reason not everyone gets him. He could easily be considered one of the great painters of our time; that is, if like I said, everyone got him. I have probably written about Charles more than anyone, and I only just figured this out. After he died! Like any artist he loved hearing someone speak intelligently about his work. He would have really loved this.

Charles Seliger was in many ways a paradox. I've known a lot of artists who worked really hard to cultivate some mysterious and enigmatic persona; he did not. Never mind that he lived in the burbs, worked for a corporation, had a family, was incredibly well read and capable in any number of areas. He was absolutely unique and unusual as an artist.

When some people look at his work they see something that seems very tame. They can't get past what looks obsessive-compulsive, like the gilded lily. They see a highly detailed and yes, lovingly articulated abstract image that seems quiet like the man himself. How could such a quiet man be an artist? How could such a quiet man die of a stroke?

This quiet man, gentle man, had something fierce inside him. A fierce beast upon which his work was firmly built. The beast was at the bottom of him and at the bottom of his work. Call it fire, some primal brute force, call it what you like. It was and is there, in the work. Most artists either have it or don't. If they have it, it usually has its way in the work. The artist is loathe to do what Seliger did, loathe to sublimate the beast for fear of killing it. Yes, the beast and the lily are really two aspects of the same thing. Charles risked the unthinkable; he did in fact, not gild the lily but instead carefully and to great purpose brought that fierce something into the light. And while he gave the beast its run; however, he did not let it run amok. He let it cut the trail of the work; the rest was something else. The rest was what Charles Seliger aspired to, but he knew that the beast was first. He had the sense to trust it, listen to it, and then the sense to also trust something else, something higher. In effect in gilding the beast he was making the lily.

Charles Seliger would have surprised most people with his powerful emotions and longings and passions, all of which ran to great heights and depths. How could they know this about this resolutely modest, polite, kind, gracious, and erudite man. But his paintings told the story, and for those who could listen, it was all right there. Find the beast in his paintings and you find their roots; there is the place to look first. It is easy to get dazzled and lost in the leaves that reach for the sky, but what is so fascinating about the work is where it starts!

Every single one of Charles Seliger's painting began as the fierce beast. A vital, earthly, virile/fertile, ecstatic, excitable beast that he set about not just taming, but elevating. This was his lifelong challenge. Charles Seliger had a vision. He looked at his life and the life around him and he figured out that a life like Jackson Pollock's might burn bright, but also burn fast, too fast. Charles knew Pollock, showed with Pollock. Pollock was a cautionary tale if there ever was one, and Charles got the message. I know this because I got the same message and followed his lead.

No, Charles Seliger was in it for the long haul. He rolled the dice. He gambled that if he laid down a stable life, he could paint for a very long time and that that would allow him to paint a life's work and climb all the way to the stars. He knew that what he wanted to accomplish would take a lot of time and a very long time. What he would sacrifice in immediate career gratification was nothing compared to the loftier and more far reaching ambitions he had for himself and his work. So he left New York City, the art metropolis, and moved out to Mount Vernon and got down to the business of life and art, in that order!

Now when we think of people who work with beasts, we think of lion-tamers and cowboys who break horses. But Charles was much more than that. Charles was like something extraordinary from C. S. Lewis. He was like Aslan, the lion god, and his Narnia! Charles Seliger's beasts were full-fledged ones, larger than life and straight from some primordial ooze. And like the artist he was, he shaped them, and tamed them, yes, but more importantly he didn't just make sure that he didn't break their spirits, he sang the song like Aslan that raised their spirits, that made theirs shine bright and soar the heavens! Seliger painted amazing paintings that no size could contain. He carried the first-hand lessons of Surrealism and automatic and then all-over-painting through his sixty-five years of work to produce vast but small paintings that encompassed at once the void and the great expanse. Each one the song of life; life beyond any space we can imagine, inner or outer, each one a song of life like we have never heard, of paradise and perfection. Each one a great burst of imagination and spirit.

Trust me, other artists aren't doing this. What they are doing is more like basic plumbing. What Charles Seliger did he accomplished at a little easel in his upstairs bedroom at night. Always inspired. Hugely prolific. Small paintings, yes, but he had the wisdom to appreciate that a little Charles Seliger could go a long way. With each painting he acted out his own story; with each painting he performed his own metamorphosis from base to precious metal--the alchemy of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. Yes, this was it. Charles Seliger was making butterflies! See this, perhaps with the caterpillar instead of beast, if you prefer, and you see his paintings! It is this process that really tells the story. It is the process he wants you to experience, unconsciously.

Charles Seliger was a man of small stature with a giant trapped inside that through determined devotion became a higher being; a mild-mannered Clark Kent turned Superman the great artist. This was his path, this was his struggle, this was his dream. His paintings, every single one of them, tell the story of something wild and free, something completely irrational on one level, that evolves stroke by stroke into something beautiful, something divine, something made of love and goodness and light, that in the end couldn't be more reasonable, as reasonable as the man himself.

Charles Seliger made small paintings. He didn't have to, although from a practical point of view they served his purposes. No, they were a concerted effort to check the beast. The small canvas reeled him in, disciplined him as he so disciplined himself, kept him from flying too close to the sun. No, he had even bigger fish to fry. He wasn't playing for glory or even immortality, he was playing for the divine, the holy, the unattainable, the wholey spiritual, the face of God. The company of God. They always talk about heaven having a hell of a band, but most artists are bound for purgatory. Charles kept his head down. I think he got what he wanted. His paintings were too good for this earth. And our loss is heaven's gain.

Addison Parks




-- Post From My iPhone

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Expanding Kandinsky



Perception is a funny thing. Most of the time we would rather not think about it. Disturbing. Demanding. Destabilizing. One good way to recognize how it changes, and that it does change, is to think about age; if you're 10 years old then 30 seems incredibly old, and then when you're 50, it seems even more incredibly young. Our perceptions change so fast and all the time, and most of the time we don't have a clue.

Take the Kandinsky show at the Guggenhiem. It could be too much. Hard to believe, but it could be. You have a hard time taking it in. Too many people, too many paintings. Nevermind that you're on a bias, slanting up or down, going up or down hill. The problem of looking at painting in the Guggenhiem is legend. The best thing about it is the worst; you can see a lot of paintings at once. You can't take them in in that one at a time way some museums offer, each painting a private viewing experience up close and personal, bread crumbs on the way to a greater understanding of art or artist.

Instead what we really get is like peering from the rim of the Grand Canyon, and then slogging down the designated path. It is totally linear, no bouncing around from gallery to gallery, but instead a gauntlet of art, at arms length, like standing in so many little swimming pools, leaning, one leg shorter than the other, weight always on your right leg, the way that they say that the leg you favor will lead you in circles in the desert. Circles and circles of art. Circles and circles of Kandinsky. Dizzying. And that is what I was left with, more than experiencing any one painting, it was the cumulative experience. It was seeing a coil of them from across the way, exponentially, the trail of abstraction spiraling through space, a strand of colors and shapes and marks from the balcony of the opposite side, taking it in the way an emperor must have gazed upon his empire, a presidium, a sum, an expanse. Expanding Kandinsky.

That is Frank Lloyd Wright's gift. An altered perception; seeing painting a way you're never seen it before, for better and for worse.

What did I get out of the actual work this time? In particular? It was how often Kandinsky used black to nail a painting down, to complete it, to resolve it, to bring it to fruition. The opposite kind of metamorphosis of the butterfly in one sense, but in the end the results are the same: they fly! Abstract color and shape float across the picture plane as free as the wind, like colored clouds and leaves floating softly down a summer's breeze; and then black is applied like a kind of clamp to hold it all in place. Quite remarkable. If not a little disappointing.

What else? Around 1923 Kandinsky used a compass to make his circles. There are holes in their centers. Surprising. Apparently he abandoned the practice shortly thereafter.

And just a reminder: he started his career as a lawyer. He was also Russian, spent half his life in Germany, moving to France to escape the Nazis in 1933, enjoying his last five years as a French citizen. How his perceptions must have changed. Communism, the Nazis, Paris, and the rise of a New York art world. Blue Rider to Bauhaus, brioches and Broadway.

Even though the endless parade of paintings exercised a gravitational pull down the long and winding rows that was something like a slow motion drive by shooting of canvas and paint, again it was the view of Kandinsky that will stay with me: the windows of color and light across the way, not just the spiritual in art, but what I imagine is the powerful Russian folk spirit that was the heart and soul of so many artists that emerged from that part of the world at that time.

They all shared that sweetness with the rest of us, and in that way that sharing is showing, showed us another way to live, to perceive life, to celebrate life. They brought their culture through art, through painting and literature and music, and enriched our lives. Kandinsky abstracted that for us. Literally. He was just painting maps. Directions to a beautiful place he once knew.


-- Post From My iPhone

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Say Something!


I'm sure you've all heard this, from your mother or your teacher or your spouse: if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Words to live by. No harm done. Genteel. Polite. Thoughtful. Considerate. Safe. We can all agree on this, no? And live happily ever after!

NOT! These have never been the words I live by, and not for the obvious reason. The obvious reason being that: OMG, something bad is going to be said. Something that is going to make people upset, uncomfortable, offended. No, that is not my thinking at all.

If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something! That's right! Unless we're talking about something that is evil, find something nice to say. Hey, Satan, nice cape!

Seriously. I wasn't brought up with the "if you haven't got anything nice to say don't say anything at all" wisdom. Shocker. So if I ever heard it I didn't think much about it, ignored it, but on some level always knew it was cockeyed to say the least. Here's why.

Once you've established that no one says anything if they don't have anything nice to say, what have you got? ALL SILENCE BECOMES NEGATIVE! All silence becomes damning. Every time someone sees you and is silent you're thinking, do I smell bad, did I do something, am I bad? People brought up in this world with this philosophy interpret all silence as judgment that is critical, disapproving, and negative. Never mind that it ruins silence. Never mind that what is really going on is pure evil of another sort, laziness, the failure to get off your butt and find something nice to say. Absolutely. Think about it. If you are one of these people that has deluded yourself into believing that this idea of not saying anything bad makes you a nice person, think again. It makes you a first class jerk!

Do I need to answer the question about how this applies to art and artists? I don't think so. They very act of making art is an expression of appreciation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that what an artist does is what they care about. Dot dot dot. What they care about is what they appreciate. Art is the appreciation business. Has been since someone could draw on a cave wall. The artist bridges the gap between self and life/world/nature/dreams/others through art. They ask the question do you feel what I feel, think what I think, see what I see, etc, etc, etc. Well? Do you?

Yes. Art is a force. It is an action. It initiates a response, a reaction, or resistance. Maybe, according to physics, these things are equal. Great art generally creates all of these things and history plays this out. Great art provokes both response and resistance. Love and hate, or, which is more accurate, love and FEAR.

This idea of saying nothing at all is fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of offending. Fear of your own enthusiasm. Let's face it, every artist wants a response. Charles Giuliano, the retired Boston art critic , photographer, old friend and former colleague, once said that to be ignored is the worst thing that can happen to an artist; so I know that he and I at least agree on this one thing. Ha!

So I say, find something to say! If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something nice to say! Life is a two way street. Love is a two way street. Art is a two way street. You like it when other people go to the trouble of finding something to say, and you HATE it when they don't. You HATE it when they come into your studio and don't say anything. Of course you interpret that as negative judgment. If they don't give you a yes, a wow, a thumbs up, but instead act like: what? Or worse, that there was nothing there, well, that sucks, doesn't it. Everyone feels this way. And still, these are the very people that often pass the poison. They want to be a one way street. They love getting a response from someone, but can't give a response in return. They are the problem. They are dropping the ball. Art is energy, and energy begets energy, and when you don't say anything, when you are silent, you stop the flow of energy.

This raises other questions of course, like, well, what if I really don't have anything nice to say? What if I really don't like something? Well, my answer to that is WHY? Ask yourself why? Are you threatened on some level.

I'll give you a difficult and embarrassing personal example. I don't hate a lot of work, but lately I found myself really hating the work of this one artist. Now what I should say up front, is that I don't really hate their work at all. I probably like it just fine and could easily find lots of nice and worthwhile things to say about it. What I hate, what I really hate, is that all these people love this artist's work for what I believe are the wrong reasons. Because it isn't modern art, thank God! What a relief! Because it is cute, like gift soap. Because they think it's pretty and that's that. No challenge. I hate that the world might be turning its back on the art I love. The art of Pollock and de Kooning, the art of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, the art of Kandinsky and Popova and even Picasso. Yes, I love Picasso. There, I said it.

So you see, I'm threatened. Not at all by the work, but by what I'm afraid of, that the work I cherish, the work I am passionate about, the work I believe in and am wowed about and appreciate, will die away, and all we'll be left with is gift soap. Crap. In fairness to this artist, they are clearly carrying the torch of an artist like Frida Kahlo, making art that is about intense personal interior experience. Is there a place for that? You'd better believe it! That is what it is all about. They just use a more literal kind of code. Figurative. I find myself hopelessly aligned with abstraction. I wasn't always. I used to paint like this person. I used to make egg tempera paintings that fed off of Botticelli. But my roots are in abstraction now, and it is from there that I grow for the time being.

See, and along the way I even found something nice to say about an artist I supposedly hate.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Richard Merkin 1938-2009



I owe Richard Merkin. A lot of people do. It is a debt we hold dear, and can never repay. It isn't so much the style thing that made him the artist and person/personality he was. And who can say if what he brought with him everywhere was that, was style? It may have looked like style, but I don't think it was. In the end what it was, unmistakably of course, was Merkin. But what was that other thing? Panache? I wonder? I think it was really something rather more simple, something more like spice, or garnish. Don't forget the garnish; life is dull without it. Without Merkin at RISD, art and life and love were a little too earnest, a little too serious, a little too posed. Merkin took posing and turned it on its ear!

Most of us have a reasonable fear of appearing the phony; Richard did not. I would have to say he was fearless beyond measure, and he could stare down anyone who might have thought him over the top without batting an eyelash. He was a true descendant of Cyrano de Bergerac! He could be at his most ridiculous and bring a kind of gravitas and bravura to it that instead made everyone else feel a little the fool. I am quite sure that I never once saw him without thinking to myself: what the hell is he wearing? The man had his own dress code! I don't know if you could say that he actually carried off life's charade, because it wasn't about that. No,that didn't matter to him. Making life grand was all that was at stake, and damn the rest! If the emperor was walking down main street in his underwear, it was Richard Merkin who made the parade a smashing success!

And it was his attention to the quality of his life that translated directly into his work; he made it interesting. And why not? That was the point. He claimed to have only painted a couple of hours a day so that the rest of his time could be spent living the life that went into them. He demanded the same of his students, and the effect was contagious. I never had him as a teacher but I knew his teaching. A painting is like a salad, he would say... And you could always recognize the work of his students: fun was the order of the day; play was rule number one; nothing if not invention! Of course, what he prized most in his own work or anyone else's was surprise, no surprise, and above all that certain je ne sais quoi! In French! Richard Merkin's work was colorful in the best sense and every sense, and so was he!

So Merkin invented a dream and lived it. Down to his hundreds of pairs of shoes! When he once said in a lecture that life was only interesting if you lived it in the basement or the penthouse, I was the little shit in the audience that asked what floor he actually lived on. The third. No matter. Mea culpa. The point was well made, and in my own way, I listened. In my own way, I have a little Merkin in me still. If we're lucky, we all do.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Clear

The way I look at it is that art is your basic letter home: this is what I saw today; this is what is on my mind; this is what happened to me; this is what is going on around me, etcetera. You're driving your car, and, you're looking down the road in front of you. You've got a horse, and you're keeping the cart behind it. You're on a journey and you are taking it one step at a time. Write home.

The purpose of clarity is to see with greater depth and accuracy; to see more. It is all very fine to argue for clarity for its own sake; but there is another end here, and that is to make if not the best judgment, at least better judgment, if not the right call, the call that gives you some hope of securing your dreams, achieving your goals, winning safe passage, finding your destination. Clarity is the first step, the right foot forward, setting out on your journey. Clarity is the beginning. But is not the journey, it is not an end in itself, it serves you, it is your friend, just like the truth is your friend, and even pain is your friend, because they help you along the way.

I have known so many people, teachers, or family, who argued for other things at the outset, and this has been a challenge. People unclear about clarity. They apparently had some luxury I never had. Marveling at ambiquity. Even fighting for the right to be wrong, on purpose. Showing up late or not at all. Deliberately shooting themselves in the foot, thinking that some net would catch them.

I recently had to look long and hard at a situation that would profoundly affect me as an artist. Ultimately I was able to find the clarity which allowed me to see far and wide, to apply my knowledge and experience to what I saw not just in front of me, but well into the greatest distance, on the furthest horizon. Not only can anyone else not see these things for us, they don't care to. They aren't even supposed to. We have to see them for ourselves. The consequences not only shape our lives, they become our lives.

When we're young we make decisions without clarity, or even worse, people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, who are supposed to give us their best, make decisions for us without clarity. Parents, teachers, counselors, doctors, etc. Decisions which affect our entire lives. Beware.

Something which remains unclear to our puritan American culture is the role of art, the role of the artist, and the artist's obligation to society, and their obligation to themselves.

Hence the letter home. Oddly enough when I was 8 years old my stepmother started grading my letters home. Even as a little kid I knew that this was wierd and so wrong. Anyway. There are a lot of people who seek out and hold positions of power who think that life, and art, are contests. Beauty contests, popularity contests. People who think that life is a race to be won. And again, a lot of them are our parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and politicians.

But when you're making art, when you're writing that letter home, remember why you're doing it. It is so easy to forget. You're making your way along your path, and you see things, feel things, think things, dream things, and things happen to you, and the ones you loves, and you imagine things, and you want to make things, and marvel at things, and even cry out at things, things like injustice, or suffering, or negativity; or you want to celebrate things, like the wonders and miracles of life; you want to put your best into these letters home; you want to share your life, your vision of life, and you want others to share it with you, to be glad you shared it with them, that your letter home became a part of their lives, enriched their lives, brought something which might bring peace or clarity or wonder or affirmation or strength or meaning to their lives. When you're writing home, of course, you might remember this. You might put aside this business of winning, of getting ahead in some real or imagined race, of showing how good you are, and instead be your best self, and do some real good, to bring all you have to bear, and share in the best you can, in your letter home.










-- Post From My iPhone

Friday, August 28, 2009

Goodbye Michael Mazur





I was in Al Merola's in Ptown tonight for the opening of Jim Balla's show of new paintings, and I asked Al if he had seen Michael Mazur at all. The day before I had driven by Mazur's home and studio and had peered in through the gate hoping to get a glimpse of him. Almost under his breath Al whispered that he had died last Tuesday. Some things you just never get used to. Even though I knew he was really sick, hearing that someone has come and gone is a blow.

I first saw Mazur's work in 1972. He had a show in the Lamont Gallery at Exeter where I was a senior and a painter. Having spent some considerable portion of my life in New England on and off since then, there were always two big guns who lived and worked and belonged to the region(not New York artists with a place in Vermont). They were Gregory Gillespie and Michael Mazur. They made being an artist up here seem possible. They made living and working outside New York and actually being a fulfilled artist and having a bright light seem definitely possible. Of course, they were the exception, and of course, they were exceptional. They also made it true. They made it ok for the rest of us who for one reason or another lived here too.

Never mind that here, Boston, or New England, didn't treat Michael Mazur that well. That is understood. It doesn't treat anyone well. That is part of its charm. He might have been a big shot somewhere else. He might have been celebrated. Here he was just someone else. Last Tuesday he died, and I just happened to hear about it late Friday.

I always liked his work, and thought he was under appreciated. Important arts people in Boston begrudged him his due. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they thought he was someone who made his mark as a printmaker first. Maybe they thought that he tried to come in the back door that way. I don't know. It doesn't matter. I liked his paintings more. Yankees prize craft and skill, so he made his mark early on as, yes, a printmaker, but since it allowed him an entrance, but not a proper entre, he just never fully arrived.

Ptown was and is different, of course. He was a well respected artist here and last year shared the cover of Provincetown Arts with his wife, the poet,Gail Mazur. That is also telling, that last part.

Nature, the landscape, figured into Mazur's work on some level, no matter how abstract, even if it was just a sense of place. Maybe that was the reason he lived up here. Or maybe it was because, as he told me more than once, that he preferred writers to artists, and let's face it, New England is very writer friendly. Inotherwords he felt about people who did what he did pretty pretty much the same way everyone else around here does.

I didn't share Mazur's antipathy for artists, so it is with a certain ironic fondness, fondness that he apparently never knew, that I salute him, thank him, and bid him farewell. Good speed!




-- Post From My iPhone

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Moment


Occasionally something, or someone, or even somewhere wins me over so completely that my affection lasts forever, even when that moment never comes again. I love that something, someone, or somewhere in such a way that it becomes a part of me, a part of my history, a part of how I think of myself and how I think of my life. The sun came out so brightly at that moment that it sticks to me. I think it has something to do with all the things I call my favorites without realizing it.

There are works of art that just knocked me over. Made me want to run out into the night screaming. It is almost unbearable when something moves me that way. Like an electric current is coursing through me. Sometimes the current is not as violent as that, the excitement I feel is quieter and I am able to contain it without anyone knowing, but it is still the same. These things I remember forever, and my affection remains even when the thing itself is gone. I suppose this makes me a sentimentalist.

This ocurred to me because something I am reading which was certainly readable enough anyway surprised me by bursting out with sunshine despite itself that I felt I would burst too. I had to put the book down. Now it is grey again, but I will remember it for that moment, and I know I will always like it for just that.

It made me wonder if there were other things like that, and that was when I realized that I had collected so many things in my life for just that reason. Movies that I still liked for one amazing scene, 8 1/2 comes to mind. People I still liked because of one night or afternoon or dinner party. Or one dance! Or one kiss!

I suspect that there are places I still like the same way: one still deer at sunrise, one salt aired starry night, one thunderhead afternoon, one dove winged sunset caught in a belltower. Or just a perfect day. Cliches to be sure, but they singe our hearts and steal our breath for that moment.

There are things like this that I will not revisit for the simple reason that I do not want these memories spoiled and taken away from me. I won't go back to the Mykonos I knew almost 50 years ago because I know it will be ruined for me. I won't go back and look at the Carravaggios I was changed forever by because I am afraid that in fact I won't love them the same way I think I do.

But there are painters I still like because of one painting that lit up for me. There are people I still love for some special moment who I'm sorry to say hate my guts-- but their smiles live inside me. And then there are the exceptions, and there is the rub; the things I thought I would keep forever that I lost. The painting I went back to where the light was gone, so gone it looked like it had never known light. I hate these moments. My fondness cannot resurrect even the slightest glow.

Many of the things we love are steady and constant; like a Reese's Cup they deliver every time(although I hate to admit that even though a Reese's Cup doesn't deliver for me anymore--I still think it might). We get to enjoy them with regularity. When I told a friend of mine that I was disappointed by a Jasper Johns show a few years ago he said that he thought I had just outgrown the work. I didn't think such a thing was possible. Was Jasper Johns to be outgrown? Was Jasper Johns for the less mature of us? Was he puerile? I didn't think so.

So who does still deliver every time I see his work? I saw my favorite Van Gogh self-portrait recently. Unbelievably it belongs to Harvard. This I was sure would still knock me off my feet! It is the one with the pale green sea of turquoise surrounding and reflecting up into the head and face. This painting had always made me weak in the knees. Now it seemed alien. Like he was an alien; and wasn't that perfect? Didn't that just make sense! It explained everything! It comforted me, who has always been alien. Like the guy in my town from the other side of the world--how weird must he feel in the burbs of Boston!

So who does it for me day in and day out? Resnick? Yes. Always has. Picasso? Yep! I read Harry Potter every night to my kids, and we've almost finished the third time around all seven books and they still deliver. Vivaldi. Porfirio DiDonna. Yes. Gregory Amenoff. Why not. Matisse. Of course. Annie Lennox. Thank you very much. Van Morrison. Hurrah! The Princess Bride. Ditto! The African Queen. Bless you Rosie! These are just a few of those things that haven't come and gone like the weather-- bright and sunny one day and dull and gray the next.

But those other ones, the ones that won me over, they are different. I still keep them around. They might be stale bread, rock hard, and I can't count on them like fresh bread, like the steady ones, or new ones, but I like having them around. They are part of me.


-- Post From My iPhone

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What makes a difference?




Yesterday I picked up a copy of Somerset Maugham's Cakes And Ale at Tim's in Ptown. Signed by Maugham and Graham Sutherland, the illustrator. Tim was kind enough to pull it off of a shelf for me knowing I have a weakness for books signed by artists.The subject, interestingly enough, is what has been on my mind for a long time, but especially in recent days. What that is I will get to soon enough.

Before I do I would like to express my shock at what I encountered from Maugham right off. To put it simply: he eviscerated and ruined a peer and friend in print as pretty as you please as though he was making himself a cup of tea.

In painting a devastating portrait of a fellow writer he asked the question: what is the little talent you have worth, what is your soul worth, if you sell it to advance your career? I cannot help but wonder. It has been my experience that all these things people do to keep themselves in the public eye do little good. I know of artists who have sold their souls a dozen times over and it has done nothing to satisfy their lust for celebrity or fame. They merely become yesterday's news with the dawn of a new day.

You would have to think that it is really fate or luck or destiny, and that like quicksand, the more you struggle, the quicker you disappear. Maugham was cruel beyond measure, but he laid out in great detail what was on my mind. He didn't have to do it at Hugh Walpole's expense. He made an example of him. He also acknowledged his own hypocrisy in doing so, that he was also guilty of this crime, just not as good an example, and certainly not as much fun.

I say all this because there are those that think I am guilty of hiding my light under a bush for not promoting myself more, for not trying to sell my work, for not getting myself out there. I am deservedly embarrassed by all that I do in that regard, and to me it is considerable. It is not that I lack confidence in myself. Quite the contrary. For while I may have a high opinion of myself, I have zero reason to think that anyone else should share that opinion. I am certainly in no hurry to try to change anyone's mind. People should think what it pleases them to think for whatever reason they think it.

That I think and feel this way gives me the liberty to do my work, or not. Whatever happens happens. If I fulfill the promise others felt I had or surprise still others by achieving something beyond what they perceived was my talent is of no consequence; I must trust in and follow my own path. Life is not professional sports. You don't owe the fans anything!


-- Post From My iPhone

Permission to make something: Happen
















I have said this before and I never get tired of saying it: you only need permission from yourself to own your life and do what you dream. Which is to say: you don't need permission from anyone but yourself. If you want to paint or write or dance or make music or play baseball or be a doctor or lawyer or baker or even start your own business, then do it. It is not about being good enough or even good at all; it is about doing it. That is what "just do it" means, of course, but I think it gets lost in the context of advertising.

This morning this little boy I know said "I am awesome" after a stint of boogie boarding. It is a funny thing. It is also terrific. You figure if he can always feel that way he will be ok; that he can weather what life throws at him, land on his feet, and even flourish, which of course is what you want. By all means, have a good opinion of yourself, and make sure you deserve it. The world is not always kind to those with strong self esteem, but then, the world isn't always kind, period. And that's the point. The world would like you to be a slave there for its bidding, whatever that may be. Keep your high opinion of yourself and you just might preserve your liberty. Those who don't like you for it be damned!

As soon as you give up your high opinion of yourself then you are vulnerable, ripe for the bidding of others. As soon as you store your light under a bush, someone else will steal it and use it for themselves. No one tells you this. Instead they would have you believe that the most noble thing you could do is lay down your life for the cause: THEIR cause!

Of course you are selish not to do their bidding! Selfish you! Now who are they going to get to do it, whatever it is, donkeywork or dreams, their donkeywork or dreams! But don't surrender! Don't buy into their logic or rhetoric or false morality. If you want to be a photographer, then be the best photographer you can be even if it means being the worst photographer on the planet, whatever that means!

We pass through this life but a short while; let your light shine!

I like to paint. Always have. It is a curious thing. I did it whether I could afford to or not. It gave me a way to process my experiences. It also gave me an opportunity to make something happen, to make a little magic of my own. Something alchemical or even, forgive me for saying: creative. Creativity is stripped of meaning these days, maybe has been for a long time, but at the bottom of it is the idea of making something happen, or just making something period. That is why I am generally reluctant to sell the things I like; I'm still trying to figure out what happened: what I made. That's why it makes perfect sense to me that an artist's work sells after he or she is dead.

Own your life. Accept the consequences of doing the thing that makes sense to you, the thing you love. The people who love you will love you for it. Be awesome!

A few posts back I had a less than sanguine moment. I was coming down with something. I lost my faith. I lost my faith in art and in myself. I had let myself spend too much time in the company of people who would have me do their bidding. Too much time in the company of people who didn't love me. I almost cut my hair!



-- Post From My iPhone




Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Summer art and some aren't pt2

OK. Time for a quick revision! Where to start?

It takes all kinds. Butchers, bakers, etc. Why not artists? It takes a grasshopper with a violin to make the ants dance. I've just been living around too many ants lately. Losing the faith.

That was the thing about Bush and company; they stole the message with guns and bombs. I knew then what I have apparently lost sight of recently; art is the province of the of the individual voice. Art is the boy alone in the crowd declaring the emperor to be naked. Art is the glass raised to life. Art is the sharp lense; art is muse beach; art is the mirror, the dream that shows where we've been, where we are, and where we're going. Art is the chalice that cradles our very being. It is the grail keeps it for our children. Art is the truth, and I believe that: and I just can't forget it.


-- Post From My iPhone

Monday, August 03, 2009

Summer art and some aren't







There is the lie, and then there is the edge, and it's a long way down. I heard the question posed at a UK camp for kids on the news. They were debating the tale about the emperor's new clothes, one I had just brought up to my own children the day before. The real question was whether there were some lies that if they worked for everyone were therefore good/ok? I wish I had heard the outcome.

My own narrow point of view is that it is always better to go with the truth. Of course that could be the biggest lie of all. And what about art? I just spent a week with my nephew who as an aspiring architect and designer thinks that art is total BS. He didn't say it in so many words, but he didn't have to. Is he intimidated by something he doesn't understand? Of course. But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

The funny thing about the way I think is that art is one of the few things that isn't BS. It is just what it is, and isn't trying to sell you anything. You just take it or leave it for a long as you like.

But who am I kidding? Maybe I have always loved art because I couldn't handle the plain old truth. I need something beautiful to make the truth easier to swallow. I needed my rose colored glasses.

Lately it seems that very soon we are all going to be fighting for our lives. Movies tell us so. The news tells us so. Even books are sending this message more and more. We seem on the brink of some sort of apocalypse if you would believe all of this stuff. It scares me for the kids. I thought Obama would bring peace and a return to culture and learning but it seems that could be worse than Bush, if that is possible, that it will be even more about power. Art will have very little place in a world where we are fighting for our lives.

During WWII my father did not fight like both my uncles. He designed anti-aircraft artillary in Cambridge, MA, while at Harvard. He was and still is a dove, and although he is a Republican, I believe him. But we weren't fighting for our lives. When that happens, do we abandon art, or embrace it even more? For myself, I would be fine with that, but not if my children were in danger. I'm ok with family first. I always knew that I would be an artist, and I always thought that would mean that I couldn't have a family. Now that I do, I wonder if I can really be an artist; sometimes in the face of my family, art seems like total BS, and the opposite is never true. I've always said that it was all about love and art; in that order. Now maybe I think that it is all about love, and that if art can live with that, then I can live with art.

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, July 11, 2009

There is no art in politics


After a day at the Met I was reminded of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; they do lunch really well. That should tell you everything.

They had another Bacon show. The Met does Bacon well. They have given him more tada than almost anyone, and no doubt for a variety of reasons. And they don't do a lot of tada! The Louvre does tada. Moma can do tada. The National Gallery does it really well! But these blueblood institutions generally work hard to keep art in its place. And nobody keeps contemporary art in its place like the Met. And then there's Bacon! And yes, he's part of the process!

It is well known what Bacon thought of his so-called peers. Nannynannypoopoo! So who better than this twisted Brit to help keep those folks down! Which isn't to say his paintings aren't of great interest; they are. Still, hard not to be amused by the politics. This is a museum that makes you walk up the steps and then presents you, after all the banners, with a train station of a front room! No, train stations do tada better!

Do I resent this? Being an artlover and all. I have better things to do with my bile. Still, there's Bacon...

-- Post From My iPhone

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Nielsen Closes

Yesterday was the last day of the last show at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston. After over four decades of service to the New England art community, they are closing their doors. No artist living in the region needed to be told what a sad day it was.

If you wanted to watch baseball, you went to Fenway; if you wanted to see painting, you went to Nielsen. Not the ICA, not the MFA, not Krakow: Nielsen. It wasn't always pretty, but you always got the real thing. The raw, beautiful, awesome real thing. It was up close, intimate, intelligent, engaging. They didn't just lay out a meal, a buffet; every show was a feast, a feast for almost half a century. I don't know how they did it. It must have taken a toll. And now they are gone.

Nielsen is famous for championing one artist. Porfirio DiDonna. He is their greatest success and maybe their greatest disappointment. But that is another story, suffice it to say that an art world hopelessly governed by fashion never pointed its fickle finger his way. A brilliant painter who died young, DiDonna got from Nielsen what every artist wants from their dealer: someone who believes in them completely and loves everything they do. A mother's love. There isn't an artist in New England who didn't want to show with Nielsen at some time or other. 

One of the things that made Nielsen special and unlike anyone else in the business anywhere in the world is that they were always sitting right there when you walked in the door. Nina Nielsen and her partner/director, John Baker. Until recently they never had more than a desk separating them from any artist, collector, art lover or crackpot walking in off Newbury Street(that could be all one person in my case). They were always available to talk about anything with anyone anytime. I've been in galleries all over the world, and that is uncommon, especially for a world class venue. Most dealers have an army of personnel that protect them from everyone. They are sometimes three rooms deep, behind locked doors. Nina Nielsen and John Baker greeted the world out front with incredible warmth every day forever and fed it a world class menu of painting and sculpture. No one ever went away hungry.

I came to Boston from Manhattan and parts unknown almost twenty years ago. Yes, I had written a cover article on Porfirio DiDonna for Arts that would have made any artist's mother happy, but in a town that tells you up front to go to the back of the line, they welcomed me into their family; they let me play.  One catalog essay, one invitation to show solo, one summer show, one sale, a few meals, and plenty of lively conversation. I'm very grateful for what they've done for art, for Boston, and for me.  I probably wouldn't have moved here if they hadn't been here, and now that they are closing, it will be strange without them. 

John Baker said it was strange to be in the gallery now that they had announced that they were closing. He said it was like being at his own wake. Alive. I was there to pay my respects and say goodbye, but it was weird. I wished I hadn't gone. I don't like funerals, mostly because the one person you would like to see isn't there. In this case they were there, and that was weird. You end up being grateful to talk about anything but the elephant in the room. You talk about stupid stuff. You don't talk about the deceased. We didn't even touch on the last show. I talked about buying art at auction. I was stupid. It was weird. My  other problem is that I cry when I'm sad. Always have. Lassie, Charlotte's Web, you name it. This made me sad, but I didn't cry, not this time, and I still haven't. It is a death to be sure. The only art sanctuary in the whole Northeast is gone. The only place you could go into and know that art was alive and well and mattered, and was all that mattered, is gone. If you want art now, you will have to make it yourself, find it yourself, look for it somewhere else; Nielsen is closed for business, for good. Thank you for the memories, and happy trails to you both. You will be missed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Love Me, Love Me Not

You have to pity the poor artist who is not an art lover. I've known a few. Where does that leave them? Hard to imagine. It becomes them against the world, the art world. Every artist is a rival, an enemy really, deeply; every work of art hanging anywhere becomes a loss, a failure, a travesty, a place they aren't. Sad thing.

I won't mention Richard Tuttle. There, I did it. He despised the artist art lover. Almost pitied the artist art lover. Can we make that one word? Artlover? No? Ok. Anyway, like I said, you've got to pity the poor artist who isn't an art lover. You can't get around the built in unhappiness; they are making something that they don't love. It becomes just an extension of the self that they love, but nothing more.

I don't know if I was an art lover or an artist first. Just for the record, yes, I call myself a painter. I used to believe that the term artist was reserved for those who achieved some lofty place and made something recognized as art. A term like genius. You just couldn't go around calling yourself an artist anymore than you could call yourself a genius. Well, I don't believe this anymore; in fact I think it is mean. One more exclusionary tactic by the gatekeepers. Assholes, sorry. One word.

I loved art as a first memory kind of thing. I watched my mother, who was a hell of a sculptor, making a giant head of her lover out of terracotta clay in her bedroom! My dad had abandoned us after they divorced. Went to Europe and bought himself a sports car. Two words. 

The head was extraordinary. It was of Arnold Steinhardt, the violinist. He had a large head himself. I was hooked right there. Transfixed. WOW! Art by example. Artist by example.

My mother had art in our house. Resnick. Kline. And yes, Chagall. I liked Chagall, and I still do. Got grief for it from the non art lovers who thought they were my teachers when they were just my jailers. 

My first loves were Franz Marc and Toulouse Lautrec. Hard not to like as a kid. Color and movement and animals and the dance of life. Like Chagall. Love and Art. And I carried a pad with me everywhere I went, as my mother would tell everyone. And I had my first studio in Rome at the age of ten, the windows above where they filmed Roman Holiday ten years earlier. Where I did my first mural. Where I received mural instruction from Gino Severini, the great Italian Futurist. Hooked. His daughter hung my paintings in their art collection, next to Calder and Fontana and her father. Hooked. One word.

So I didn't just draw and paint. I started hanging other people's things on my wall. I started celebrating what other people made, honoring their work, as a boy.  What could have been nicer it my mind, to be a part of this thing, this phenomenon, this experience, this celebration of life called art. Make it, share it, love it.

In art school things can get ugly. Not enough love to go around. Art students get ugly. Ugly but it's mine. RISD was like that. Sure, people had their heroes, but it was a ruthless competition, and of course you were judged by who were yours. Couldn't like Chagall. But I started collecting the work of my teachers and friends.  Still, the rallying cry at RISD was cool; fuck art, let's dance.

When I went to New York, I traded with everyone I could. And of course, I still have the Resnick. I rescued it from storage and restored it after my mother threw a shoe and missed another boyfriend. Looked at it everyday, and everyday it showed me something different. Still does. Remarkable. One word.

More later...


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quiet






Martin Mugar makes difficult paintings. He doesn't ask a lot of the viewer, but what he does ask doesn't come easy. Of course if you are attracted to their physical nature, their color, their texture, to the way they are made, then this isn't a problem; you're in. But if you're not in, if you're not inclined toward the way they posture themselves, the way they attempt to tempt you, yes, if you're not seduced by the candy-colored, taffy pulling fact of them, then you aren't going to get past that, and you will never be in.

Martin Mugar's paintings are not about the candy-colored taffy pull. That is the road to what his paintings are about. It is the candy-colored taffy pull road. It is how he gets there, not where he goes, or where he is going; and it is the road to where the work takes us; but...but it is not its destination.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. Either you go or you don't go. If all you've gotten from Martin Mugar's paintings is the candy-colored taffy pull, then you haven't gone. Period. If that's all you got then you didn't get anything. If that's all you saw, then you didn't see jack.

So what is it that is going on? What is it that is so difficult? Well, it's easy; Martin Mugar wants us to listen. Listen as in look. Look and listen. For the record, this is all anyone wants, but Mugar demands that we listen harder because his work is the sound of a butterfly flapping its wings. It is the sound of a flower petal falling. It is the sound of the tide coming in. These are sounds nobody hears. We are all deaf from the noise.

Don't think that this is oooouuu...about subtlety. That is the common misconception. Quiet and subtle are not always the same. This is not a value war. This is about perception in the larger sense. Artists challenge perception; their own and everyone else's. Martin Mugar is in love with the quiet. It is why he lives in New Hampshire instead of New York. It is why he likes to sail. It is why he likes to paint. He wants us to listen to his paintings and he makes it hard if all we're going to see is candy-colored taffy pulls. We can pull all we like. Not going to happen. He says he just wants the viewer to be patient, but what that really means is for the viewer to give him the time of day, and then he wants them to listen to his paintings the way he likes to listen to the wind filling his sails. He is gambling that if and when we do listen, his paintings will carry across the water and fill our sails as well.







Dennis Cowley is making this same bet. It is why the work is so compatible with Mugar’s. He is putting all his money on those of us who can see a million shades of gray, and everyone else, well, they can just do whatever it is they aren’t doing. Dennis Cowley spreads a silk cloth before us and gives those who have the time, who give him the time of day, a dejeuner sur l’herbe that is a feast like no other. Because on this silk cloth he dances his amazing dance, a Fred Astaire across the surface as nimble and as inventive as a summer breeze. It is a picture of what photography is all about to him, why he loves it, why he uses a dark room like a great chef uses his kitchen. Dennis Cowley purports to being an unbeliever, but it is only by the standard of today’s religion. If we look at his photographs, they are not really pictures of anything so much, they read as abstract shapes, but if we listen to them, well, really listen, we can hear his god, we can hear what he loves.

Dennis Cowley doesn’t talk loudly or a lot. He’s betting that if he listens, then we will follow his lead, and that if he speaks quietly, well, with all the noise, he might have a better chance of getting his message across. Picasso said something about art being like birdsong, something about that hearing its beauty is not only enough, but it. What it’s all about and maybe only about. There are those who believe gratitude is all you need to be fulfilled. It is connected to this. If you hear the birdsong, and are grateful for that in that truest, simplest way possible, then that’s it. The rest is crap. Dennis Cowley gives us a chance to see what he sees through his eyes. Just what that is depends on the photograph.

These particular photographs were taken on the Cape. On the beaches of Wellfleet while he was a guest of the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown. They percolated in the camera but they came to life in his new dark room/studio in his new home town after New York, Marblehead. This is where he brings his magic to bear. This is where his lifetime of experience, his heart, his mind, his dancing feet fly across the stage. Yes, these are pictures of a beach, and they aren’t. If that is all we see, then we aren’t seeing much. We’re seeing the road sign, and not where it’s pointing. They are more like letting us roll in the sand, float on the air, the whisper of blade against blade, the smell of salt, and yes, the whoosh of moment in time and space. Dennis Cowley gives us a place to be where almost more than anything else, we can just be, be still, and hear whatever it is we need to hear. He doesn’t really ask that we listen, and if we don’t, well, it’s our loss. He provides the water. We drink at our own peril. What is fascinating is that he really doesn’t ask us to listen, invite us to listen, demand that we listen, or even tempt us to listen. No, what Dennis Cowley does is this: without being haranged, lectured, or courted, he gives us art that is that rare opportunity, the plain old basic once in a lifetime chance to just be ourselves, to be quiet, and relax, and listen, and yes, maybe stretch our legs a little.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Keep the faith; forget the rest!


Rule number 2 comes right after Rule number 1(which is that there are no rules). 

Rule number 2:make yourself; don't let anyone else make you anything, because they can't without your consent. Don't let anyone make you unhappy, or crazy, or the bad guy, or a guru, or a saint, or a black sheep, and especially: don't let anyone make you a rebel! Rebels are condemned to servitude. Slaves. B to the other's A. A goes left and B can only go right. That is the sad myth of the rebel. They will never be free; they will always be fighting for freedom, which of course means what: that they aren't free. This stuff bears repeating.

Art has always been the sanctuary of the rebel. Art attracts rebels like San Francisco attracts crazies. Where else can they go? But the rebel is a myth. The rebel is B to the oppositions A. The rebel is in opposition. Don't be a rebel! The rebel is the classic victim, just in denial. The rebel deludes themselves into thinking that they are powerful, when the opposite is true. They are the victim.

So many of us think everything is paper/plastic. That we have no choices. Just two options. Either/or. For or against. Paper/plastic. The classic Western dichotomy, although the Easterns have their version of the black and white polemic: yin and yang. The Greeks saddled us with this thing, this symmetry, this duality, this either or. But we have to consent to it to make it true, to make it our master. To say that it is the ultimate male construct probably goes without saying. It is the way our minds work best because it is the ultimate oversimplification, and the ultimate neurosis as a result. It is the ultimate mind game. Men have historically been frustrated by the failure of women and children to get on board with this. On board is part of it. It takes consent, or force.

It is the fork in the road. I'm really guilty of that one. I'm always talking about the fork in the road. It took my family to get me to get back to myself, to get back to my off-road self. Life often seems to place us at the fork in the road, but it is what one might call the established authority that wants us to accept this dilemma-oriented view of life. If we conform, make the correct choice, we are good, accepted, in the flock; but if we make the other turn, the bad choice, against the grain, then we are rebel, cast out. We are not free. Door one and we are embraced, door two and we get shunned. It doesn't matter what is behind either door, really. At a different time and place they can actually switch. 

Again, consent is the thing. I've told this story before. When I was a kid I didn't do my homework. I figured they took enough of my time when I was in school, and when I went home I had better things to do. I went in my studio and painted. At Exeter I did the same thing. It caused a stir. I skipped sports after lunch and went to the art building and painted. I made my own choice. I wasn't rebelling. I had something better to do. You have to just say get out of my way. People flip out. Teachers, headmasters, they flip out. Anarchy! What if everyone did that? That is always the argument, isn't it? Well, let's find out, no?

So was I oblivious? What is that? Can you be more aware by choosing a form of obliviousness? I believe we can choose to preserve qualities like innocence and this obliviousness. I think another word for these things might be faith. When you're out in the middle of the ocean or a lake, well, you could drown. What is going to get you to shore? Swimming hard, yes, but maybe not. If you can float, you can take your time and find your way. Floating is the best way to find your center, your breath, your faith. The "I can do this." You can't panic. You can't lose your breath. I know about this. I've drowned.


There is a cartoon of a guy in hell whistling and one devil says to the other "We aren't getting to this guy."  I've always related to it. I was that guy. It is the do your own thing no matter what or where you find yourself thing. It is survivors who didn't let surviving or the thing they survived define them; and these people are often described as people of faith. Faith is a hell of a thing, no pun intended. It is not rational. You get on a plane and it is a hunk of metal that sometimes goes down. Faith is not denial. Faith does not say we are not going to crash. Faith says, if we crash, then it has been a great ride! Faith does not mask reality. Faith accepts that thing about reality about which we have no control. I accepted the consequences of not doing my homework or not going to sports. You make your choices and you live with them. If other people are jumping up and down about it, well, that is their choice. We can't get caught up in what others are jumping up and down about no matter how much they try to make us.

So here comes my Richard Tuttle Asshole moment no. 322. It really bugged Tuttle that I didn't conform to these sorts of forks in the road. He would chuckle about my naive belief that I didn't have to be a rebel, that I just did my own thing. He called it me trying to change the system from within, which he didn't believe was possible.  Anyway, I wasn't trying to make that kind of change. The rebel kind. Richard was a rebel. So Richard would try to teach me some protocol. He even gave me a demonstration of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, complete with priceless tea bowls in his crappy 11th Avenue apartment where he lived like a hillbilly. He tried to impress upon me that if you didn't do the right number of turns of the bowl, you were insulting your host beyond belief. I didn't care. I wasn't impressed. Richard's neurosis was that once you know the rules you only have two choices; to accept or reject them. To go along or rebel. 

This sort of thinking is a trap of course. The great philosophical trap. It is a closed construct. You can't get on the outside according to the powers that be.  Faith here is absurd. Faith is anathema. It was to Tuttle. Bush thinking: you're either for us or against us. He, Tuttle, tried to teach me some reality, some "ways of the world" stuff,  some protocol, some etiquette, some manners that my parents had apparently overlooked. He was so frustrated that I failed to accept the logic of this "the way things are done" stuff that he thought was so inescapable, that he finally shunned me. His parting words were scribbled on a drawing he sent me:"I don't want to be your alter ego." How telling. How perfect. 

Of course  I never consented to be his alter ego, anymore than I ever consented to do my homework. This was not my idea, it was his. I couldn't make him be my alter ego. That required his consent. He set himself up as a guru all by himself. He misunderstood my curiosity. I never consented to the guru thing. I had something better to do. I was being his friend. One of many, of course. I often refer to him as my one and only mentor precisely because he turned out not to be a friend. I knew plenty of older artist friends who somehow thought that they were my mentors, but not so. I only thought of them as friends. I suppose it would be accurate to describe Tuttle as someone I once knew a little that talked with me a lot. And I liked that. I like conversation.

But...consent is the thing!

Make yourself. Don't let anyone make you anything. If that makes you weird to them, then so be it. It doesn't make you weird or a rebel because they call you that. This is your life. If you are an artist you can do what you like, what you believe, what you love, what you are curious about, what you can imagine, what you feel. You can do what you feel like. I grew up being constantly informed that doing what you felt like was bad and selfish, and having a mind of your own was not a good thing but instead a nuisance. 

I didn't conform to these people, but I didn't rebel either. I just did what I did, and strangely enough always managed to prove them wrong, without intending to do so. I had better things to do. Your choices don't have to be to conform or rebel. Life is round. It is a rainbow of colors. If everyone in the room thinks you should be one thing or another, that is their problem. If they get angry, or punish you, or shun you, that is their problem. It only becomes your problem with your consent. Don't give it. Have faith. Have better things to do. 

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Beyond Work








We have no use for things that don't work. That's understood. Cars, lamps, plumbing, and yes, even paintings, they have to work or we have no use for them. They are just wasting space. Garbage. 

There are a lot of people who only talk about whether or how paintings work, however, and I find this at the very least, distasteful. I can't help it, it's just something you don't talk about as far as I'm concerned. Again, I don't know how else to say it; it is in bad taste. I heard about someone who on their blind date couldn't accept a gift of chocolates because it gave them, you know, I'm sorry, I can't even spell the word. It isn't squeamishness, we all get it, know about it, but you don't talk about it, especially in the same sentence with chocolate! These are plumbing issues! You just see that they are taken care of. Things have to work. It is understood.  Beyond that we have to be... beyond that. Needless to say the blind date didn't get to first base.

The same is true in painting. These people who talk about whether and how something works don't get to first base. The critics, and teachers, and students, and artists who talk about this stuff never understand why they never get asked out again.

Painting, even when it is about nature, is the language of the unseen. It is what people need to be talking about but never do. It is like love. No one, except maybe the French, ha ha, talk about it. You have these people who meet, apparently fall in love, shack up, get married, move to the burbs, and the subject never comes up again. It is why they are together in the first place, but it never comes up again and they wonder why they go insane. Just yesterday I heard about a person who makes her children play an instrument. They have to take lessons and practice. No talk about love. Loving the music. Loving the instrument. Loving the sound, the way it makes them feel. It's like they want them to be able to do it without love in the first place, so that when they let the love die, they won't miss it. Again, needless to say, the kids quit their instruments and music as soon as they could.

This was another asshole moment, number 489, that I had with my mentor, the artist Richard Tuttle, when I was a very young painter.  He had the same protestant hang-up work ethic thing. He hated these people who loved art and loved making it. Of course I was one, and he hated that about me and tried to grind it out of me. 

If this guy on his blind date had spoken the language of love, he would be shacked up right now with a do not disturb sign on his door. Art is like the language of love. You have to be there, or you're just crazy in the burbs.

Nobody talks about this stuff though. They just talk about whether things work. Dry basements. That sort of shit. Sorry.  That's the thing, no one ever talks about what's on the inside. They act like THAT is in bad taste. Fine to talk about plumbing, but dont' talk love. That is the messy thing. 

Everybody is just talking about the wrapping on the package. You meet people, and you can see that they have maybe taken care of their exterior. It is painted. Pretty front door. Maybe some nice plants or flowers, but what women don't understand about men is that men are going to have to go inside at some point.  When men grow up, smarten up, they start getting hunches about what it is like in there before they rush inside. Young men and fools rush in. What is it like in there? Who is home? Is it warm and sweet and smart and comfortable, or is it icy, is there a cold draft, is it dark and scary, is it toxic? Is there screaming coming from the basement. The same is true for men, of course, and the complaint is that usually the door is rusted shut and the lights are out. Better to just sit on the porch.

The really tough thing about painting is that for all the talk about good art, and good painting, when mercifully you get past the part about whether it works or not, it is really subjective. It is about whether you like it or not. It is. You can't get around this. Nobody wants to admit it but it is true. It comes down to whether or not someone likes it, and who those people are. Are they people in high places with power? That's all. Are there enough people in high places with power that like it? Lots? This is hard for people to accept. It is just the way it is. Now there are lots of reasons why people like things, and it is a little like the sausage metaphor, you are happier not knowing. 

That's the thing. People don't want to know. They want to get in the car and have it drive. They want to turn on the light and read. They want to flush the toilet and have that bad stuff gone(except the French, ironically. They interpret their shit because it tells them what is going on with their health and well-being)! People want to have a painting sit there and work!( The fact that the French can talk about love and art might explain why they are so smart, dammit,  and why everyone, even Republicans, love Paris.)

You make paintings and either people go or they don't go. They like them or they don't. The other stuff is politics and power. Everyone likes a winner. If you are a winner, they like you no matter what. They want you around. They want it to rub off. But painting is not a race. It is not a contest. You can't cross the finish line first. When it is all said and done it is just whether what you've done is appreciated by the people looking at it. And then of course, who are the people looking at it. If you're making sushi for people who want pizza you're going to have a lot of rotting food on your hands. Either make pizza, or move to somewhere where people love sushi, OR, just make enough sushi for yourself because you're the only one whose going to be eating it. Makes sense, right. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. You can make the best sushi in the world but if they want pizza you're out of luck. You can't force people to eat anything. 

So don't think you're going to win people over to your sushi if you make enough of it. I know artists with warehouses filled with sushi hoping everybody is going to start appreciating it; and then of course they will be ready. Hey, I make sushi because I like it, and I make enough for me and my family and friends.  I don't expect to have anyone else like it. I don't suffer because no one else likes it. I only suffer if people I care about who I think care about me are unkind. I don't care if they don't like my sushi and would rather have pizza. I figure they aren't going to starve. You can get pizza anywhere. 

Just for the record, if people want pizza, then pizza it is, no ifs, ands, or buts. Love that pizza. I would never suggest in a million years that they shouldn't want that pizza and want sushi instead. Also, and just as important, artists want people to eat up what ever they are making whether it is pizza or sushi. They want people to eat it up, love it, rub their tummies and beg for more and tell their friends! Of course this is true! Never believe otherwise.

There are other questions of course. Like the questions of the day. What's in the air. What's on our plates. But in the end we do what we do. Morandi painted jars through two world wars and I think there was a shift in hue. James Joyce's wife asked him why he didn't write books people wanted to read. Well, the answer is simple. He had bigger fish to fry. He was writing for literature and for history(if you look back you'll see that a lot of that kind had to self-publish to get their work in print) , and that is a whole other blog.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Original Sin















As an artist your best friend is self-awareness. You need to know your weaknesses as much and as well as your strengths just the same way that an athlete must. How else can you grow and get any better?

What am I talking about? Every field has some version of this idea that we are imperfect, and that only by paying attention to this imperfection can we not only function, but thrive. Catholics have original sin, the Greeks had the Achilles Heel, psychologists have normal neurosis, basketball has the weak side, the military has the weak flank, literature has Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and environmentalists have the carbon footprint. Everybody has a carbon footprint; it is just a question of how bad it is. Everybody is neurotic, it is just a question of how neurotic. And here is the kicker; everybody has an asshole! 

The point about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is that the more you fake it, the more you pretend that that asshole isn't you, the worse it gets. You will be an even bigger asshole!

Artists, unfortunately, are treated like children a lot of times. Creative creatures who know not what they do. Not only does this not have to be, it isn't in the artist's best interest.  I have a hard time believing that artists are better artists because they are more self-delusional. The notion that if an artist knew better they wouldn't either be an artist in the first place, or they would somehow be a lesser artist, is absurd.

The other day I had someone praising me for the good things I had done for them. It was a scary and sobering moment, for them and me, when I just told them I was just trying to follow the Golden Rule: treating other people they way I would like to be treated. By saying this two things happened. First I came down off some pedestal that this person was trying to put me on, and second, by coming off that pedestal and being just like them, I raised a second question, which was why weren't they thinking and doing the same thing. It was an icy moment. I knew it and they knew it, although I had never intended it, and they never acknowledged it. I didn't realize the implications of what I was saying until I said it. In an instant I made them look bad. In the process of being real and not letting them put me 0n a pedestal (a way of  distancing me and my good deed), I made them look worse. I was doing right by them, and the question then became, then hung in the air like a bad smell, were they doing right by me, and if not, why not?

This was an incredible revelation for me. It explains a lot. Like why no good deed goes unpunished and why half the time the first thing that happens is that the person pisses on you for doing right by them. I couldn't figure this out for the longest time. These things are connected. Do you see the connection? 

Running out the clock is not an option. If you do that in the Hindu world you reincarnate as a lower form of being. You go backwards. Denial makes that happen. Faking it makes that happen. Feeling sorry for yourself: being the victim when you're really the bad guy, makes that happen. Dressing things up instead of undressing them makes that happen. Undress them and you know what you've got, you know where you stand.

I have to say that some of my favorite people have been assholes. The kind that don't hide it. I felt I could generally expect better things from them. I could hear the truth from them. I could know where I stood. I think people in general like these people for this reason. Even Marilyn Monroe, who was so beautiful to so many, really got to people because she exposed her vulnerability. She was amazing, but she wasn't perfect, she showed us her weakness. 

The wheels are coming off the wagon these days, and maybe they will all come off. All of these "perfect" people have been or are being exposed. Regular people feel better for it. The genius Madoff is really a crook. Martha Stewart is a phony and a bitch. Oprah Winfrey has food issues. Barry Bonds took performance enhancing drugs. America has been exposed to the world. We're a mess. If we keep faking it or even worse, fake it more, we'll be an even bigger mess. We're becoming Dr Jykell and Mr Hyde.  Our cover-ups and double standards have not just widened the schism,  they have enlarged our collective asshole. Instead of the Golden Rule, we apparently live by something more like: what's in it for me.  When Jimmy Carter challenged us to be more self-aware as a country, we threw him out and hired an actor to take his place. It is clear this president intends to challenge us as well. 

Self-flagellation and regrets aren't the answer. Feeling bummed out about our weaknesses and mistakes just reinforces them. As artists we have to see what we do in the clear morning light. We have to think harder about the quality of the meal we are making, not just how it tastes, and how it makes us feel, but what it does to make us better. Tolstoy laid it out there: art is food for the soul. Yes, we are all sinners, we all have Achilles's Heels, we are all neurotic, we all have carbon footprints, we all have assholes. What are we going to do with that? Dress it up, fake it, or look hard at what we are doing as artists and do the right thing, what ever that may be.

So what are we doing as artists? Are we trying to be successful? Are we trying to be famous? Are we trying to carve out a piece of turf for ourselves and then hold on with all our might? Are we lashing out at an unfair and uncaring world? Are we goofing off? Are we waiting for the bell to ring/running out the clock? Are we sugar coating a dog turd? Are we wacking off? Are we moralizing/preaching to the choir? Are we keeping to what we already know? Are we trying to shock? Are we pandering? Are we hiding out? Are we sulking? Are we sheep, or worse, lemmings? Are we taking stuff for granted? Are we stubborn instead of determined? Are we in it for ourselves? Are we poison instead of elixir? Are we problem instead of solution? Just how much of an asshole are we? Are we wasting our time? Are we sharing? Are we using our gift for giving or are we just blowing our own horn? Are we making really good soul food? Are we?