Archive for September, 2009

Rescuing Power

September 25, 2009

  Knee hurts, so instead of running early AM I’ve been riding my bike lately.  Trouble is it’s now fall and dark.  Oh well – the better…  Upon the razor’s edge once again.  More juice.  Might coast from time to time, but better not drift mentally till sunup.

  Right turn and fifty yards out of my drive I drop down a steep hill.  Feel like Batman falling off a lofty ledge Gotham dead of night.  Shirt flutters, cool air streams by my face, I use my night vision to search for potholes.

  Zoom through intersections and by homes asleep to another steep hill the climbing of which has me off the seat, pounds my heart, and puts me into oxygen debt. Just near the top, a light goes on in house on left.  Kitchen.  Lady.  Uh, sweet!

  Roll down other side a short way turn right and up beneath trees spread both sides touching middle.  Blocks the little starlight not already filtered out by clouds.  Hit puddle, sprayed from behind feel wet line up back must look like skunk.  Then nearly toppled by an acorn, but it crunches.

  Level out, cool down, cross a busy road against the light.  Down longest hill yet into a park and a cloud.  Thought of last time through  and a gorgeous field of daisy-like flowers stretched toward dawn.  Now though, dream dark, came to mind Piazza Campo Di Fiori* in Rome upon which a tennis match played 1606 ended with the brutal murder of one opponent by the other – great painter (and brawler) Caravaggio.

caravaggio medusa

  Funny, vigorous exercise almost always exorcises my demons. Or at least quiets them for a while.  Especially if hair on the back of my neck is up.  Quoting Holderlin Jung wrote: “Danger itself fosters the rescuing power”** 

  Out of the cloud mine sleep as I climb another hill then glide down the far side sharp turn right under bridge along swift creek.  Best Chinese restaurant in town on far side.  Ducks float in eddy to avoid Peking.

  Up last hill by kids’ elementary school (man, that was a long time ago…) turn left & coast to driveway. Twenty mile loop complete.  Stow bike  hose off French roast pat dog KISS WIFE ok. 

*”Field Of Flowers” in Italian.

**Carl Jung, Modern Man In Search of a Soul

***Painting is Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa which hangs in the Uffizi in Florence


September 18, 2009

  Here is Eakins’ Agnew Clinic.  Similar to his picture above, this honors a retiring surgeon also emphasizing his service as an educator.  The roiling factor here though is more subversive.

Agnew Clinic

  Eakins thought that there was nothing more beautiful than the human body and went to great lengths to provide his students with the benefits of his talents.  Including once disrobing for a young coed to show a real male body in motion.

  On several occasions he allowed mixed gender life drawing classes.  Such disregard for the mores of the time brought trouble upon him and he was released from his position.  His choice of subject matter in the Agnew Clinic – a partially nude woman undergoing a mastectomy – was his retort.

  Eakins was born in Philadelphia in 1844 and thus lived his early years hearing whispers of war, was sixteen when the Civil War broke out, and twenty-one when it ended.   The mood in the birthplace of our nation must have been especially dark and turbulent through those developmentally crucial years.  The ramifications upon his fertile cortex must have been like that of acid rain on a forest.

  Jump forward a hundred years.  World War II had been won, factories were busy, and our democratic engine of capitalism had a full head of steam.  Everything was great – as long as one was white, straight, male, and in conformity.  Unbeknownst to the “Fathers Who Knew Best” there grew an undercurrent of disquiet and seething.

  The wake left on the leading edge of American consciousness shaped the art of the 1950s.  Its profile is just as impossible to capture in one work or one artist as during the 1850s, but a glimpse of an inflection might be had just as with Eakins.

  Robert Rauschenberg has been called a Neo-Dadaist which as defined by Oxford is “a movement characterized by anarchic revolt against traditional values”.  Here’s one of his pieces.  I’m not going to say that it foreshadows the incredible tumult of the sixties, but it sure does raise a few questions.  It’s called Monogram and was completed in 1959


  The 1960s did come and saw foment and ferment of historic proportions.  Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Vietnam War brought response in all sorts of protest art.  Pop Art mocked the rise of our Consumer Society.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest  (1962), the sane and savvy, if sketchy, McMurphy was lobotomized for trying to help.


  “One flew east and one flew west and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.


September 11, 2009

  From the early days of the republic through the antebellum years, the American zeitgeist had been ebullient, dynamic, and filled with ambition and wanderlust.  Lewis and Clark, The Oregon Trail, Santa Fe, etc. The War Between the States however, catalyzed a wrenching change in its trajectory.

  600,000 lives were lost during the horrible conflict that followed our nation’s youthful exuberance – over 1% of the population. That’d translate into an incomprehensible 3,000,000 today.  Impossible for that not to be transformational, but the nature of the impact was not reserved to society’s human fabric.  As Lewis Menand wrote in his The Metaphysical Club: “… the United States became a different country.  The war alone did not make America modern, but the war marks the birth of modern America.”

  The secession of the south allowed what was left of congress to be a venue of action not seen since.  Progress.  It created the first system of national taxation; first national currency; public universities; completion of the transcontinental railway; and set the Republican Party up to promote industrial capitalism for years to come.

  The impact upon the common consciousness was darkly profound.  Democracy was supposed to progress with ayes and nays not blood and gore.  A proud American culture had given way to astonishing horror and irrationality.  “To some the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas.”

  This came to mind the other day when I was thinking about a picture I’d seen in Philadelphia Museum of Art a few months ago while paging through a tome on American Art at home the other day.  In the book I saw an image of the picture below, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri painted by George Caleb Bingham twenty years before the Civil War.  I know nothing of the history of that work, but can imagine the take of contemporaneous urban viewers. 

Fur Traders

  “Wow.  Wish I was there instead of behind this desk headed for idle conversation with friends this evening.  That.  That’s living.  Trap a few beaver.  Fish.  Float down the river.  I want to be part of the wild west.  See stuff not seen before (Well, except for by Indians)”  In actual fact, thousands of people paid to view such pictures and get their only taste of the frontier.

  Now look at the picture from Philadelphia painted by Thomas Eakins ten years after the war’s end.  Gross*.  The title is The Gross Clinic.  “This is what our guts look like folks.  Get used to it.  Shit happens.  We obviously can not predict the outcome of this case just yet.  He might die.  Whatever.  We’re learning from our mistakes.”  Eakins thought this the best of his work.  He submitted it to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia only to see it rejected.  He sold it to Jefferson Medical College for $200. 

gross clinic

  The above is hardly scholarly, but it is impossible for me to imagine either picture to have been executed at the time of the other.  The spirit of a time is also a great reality.

*I heard somewhere that usage of the word “gross” to mean disgusting dates from this work.  A perusal of the OED yields nothing that would hold to the contrary.

**The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2001

Wing to Wing

September 4, 2009

 Much the same as a bird convincing its brood that their wings will indeed lift them, in his poem The Master Speed, Robert Frost describes the incipient power of their union to a young couple.  “No speed of wind or water rushing by” though, this is something far beyond the physical realm.

  At the heart of the “master speed” is “the power of standing still” – the ability to simply be fully present and find the mundane extraordinary. Ironic the difficulty that pace presents to assume, especially in these harried days.  But only thus can a way begun to be found to live lives “wing to wing and oar to oar”.

  Frost spent a few years at the same college from which I graduated and that thought took me to my freshman year roommate.  He’s now an artist and in 2003 produced a series which comprised his Monogamy Project. 

  In the catalogue he wrote “ Painting and monogamy are dated practices oversteeped in tradition and held in suspicion.  Having thus been marginalized they become, surprisingly, areas that are ripe again for truly liberative activity.  It is my intention to celebrate these options.”

  There are six paintings in the series: Was a boy; Was adolescent; Am a man; Is a woman; Is a cellist; Am a father.

  Here’s Am a Man:

Stockwell Am a Man

  At first it surprised me that therewith my artist friend discussed the philandering of poet William Carlos Williams.  He includes Williams’ poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in which a tortured regret and plea for forgiveness are conveyed.  “Having your love, I was rich…”

I get it now.

  Here’s Is A Woman:

Stockwell Is a Woman

  Here he allows himself to “make this a beautiful painting… Follow all of my desires that call for full color and ripe shapes… To desire is to be alive… Desire gets us off the couch…”  Being my father’s son, and even though he wasn’t much into poetry, I get this part right away.

  The catalogue, in its entirety, comprises a provocative “love poem” and at the end of a recent reading I reconsidered Frost’s beautiful metaphor of wings and oars.  The visual images of the generative rhythms pop up right away, but what gives it its power is thought of the epic voyage that follows. 

*Craig Stockwell is the erstwhile roommate.