Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

The Value Of Desolation

March 22, 2019

Few months ago a painter doing some interior work at our house volunteered that the earth is flat. He knew of a group that “went way up in Alaska, went to the edge, and looked over. You can see about it on the internet.” Apollo 11 took place in a Hollywood studio. Fake news.

Don’t know what is more incredible. That humans were able to get to the moon and back with the engineering done by slide rule and pencil or that all of the technology that ensued has, among much else, enabled beliefs such as the above. If it is on the internet it must be true…

Norman Mailer’s brilliant reportage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins’ trip to the moon and back was prescient even regarding technical advance and the associated epiphenomenal states of mind that followed (NB This was 1969):

“Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk.”

“Because the computer was the essence of Narcissism (the computer could not conceive of its inability to correct its own mistakes) a view of (the future) suggested a technological narcissism so great that freak newspeak was its only cure.”

“So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car – the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of every juvenile delinquent – doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor.”

Impressive, huh. But the book – Of a Fire on the Moon – is much more than that. The author presents himself as the zeitgeist. An uber zeitgeist. He even calls himself ‘Aquarius” (as in “The Age of …”) a move so brazen that failure was virtually assured. But he succeeds. He succeeds by not allowing his perspicacity to overshadow his humanity.

“(The writer was) beginning to observe as if he were invisible. A danger sign. Only the very best and worst novelists can write as if they are invisible.”

Mailer is in no way here invisible. We are with him as his fourth marriage unwinds.

We are with him at the launch. In great detail he describes the physics, chemistry, and engineering of rockets and propulsion which in no way prepares us for the event:

“Then it came… Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of the combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivable louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet … an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death… Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!…”

And that’s only a snippet.

Also, it is impossible in this short bit to give any sense for the depth and breadth of knowledge Mailer is able to bring to bear.

A short example:

“(The writer) had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close the thirty years to comprehend why Cezanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.”

And finally, his take on point of view:

“It was a terror to write if one wished to speak of important matters and did not know if one was qualified – sometimes the depressions helped to give sanction to the verdicts taken. It was not so unreasonable. The question is whether it is better to trust a judge who travels through the desolations before passing sentence, or a jurist who has a good meal, a romp with his mistress, a fine night of sleep, and a penalty of death in the morning for the highwayman.”


June 10, 2013


On the way to Acadia National Park recently, for another wonderful Artist in Residency, roommate tired of my line of BS and honestly actually told me to go to hell.  Taken somewhat aback, my little black angel Nellie and I went for a walk in search of exercise and relief while my mind drifted (for the umpteenth time) to thoughts of redemption.  And if you follow this space at all you will know that when I saw the sign above thoughts arose related to synchronicity and hope.

  Expecting an assortment of other untethered souls, I soon found that all throughout Maine “Redemption” indicates a venue at which empty bottles can be exchanged for dirty coins.  Oh well, we headed back to the artist supply store where our truck was being laden,  working up our best sorrowful eye routine.  Our artist rolled hers.  Best case scenario.

  Making our way north we stopped at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art to see a remarkable show of pictures and sculptures by “Scandinavia’s most famous living artist” Per Kirkeby.  The Dane’s words greatly informed the experience.  “The point at which art is found is the point where what is intriguing is dangerous.”  I totally buy that.  In every regard.  Art, on an easel or in a life, will not be found – or made – very far from the edge.

  “Where is the border between one and the other way to organize matter?  For a brief moment I saw geology as a worldview… A huge stream of energy and materials, which now and then converge in crystalline structures, a mountain, a church, a brief moment, a breath, a morning mist over the ever-flowing river.  The mountain-building energies were no less cultural than the energies of the church-builders”. 

  Brilliant. Consciousness as a force of nature. Tectonic even.  Those scientists in search of a grand unified theory should start with him.   New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Kirkeby’s work: it’s like being: “hit by an abrupt , mildly disorienting spell of self-consciousness, a kind of mental stumble: the Kirkeby effect”.  See?   Just like the slap upside the head with which I was graced by my artist as described above.

  Below you see his “Fram”.  It is at once “a poetic rendition of nature with a great force of color” and a demonstration of Kirkeby’s philosophy that: “A picture without intellectual superstructure is nothing”.  He has said that Fram draws from Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (The sea of ice) which you see at bottom.  If you’re not familiar with the latter, make sure to notice the shards of a wrecked ship being crushed by the ice.  Fram means forward and was the name of the vessel used by polar explorer  Fridtjof Nansens between 1893 and 1912.

Fram 3


*Quotes, photos, and information from the exhibition catalogue: Per Kirkeby Paintings and Sculpture, Kosinski and Ottmann, Yale, 2012.  The show originated at the Phillips Collection and the only other venue was Bowdoin.  There through Bastille Day

Money Is People?

September 21, 2012


  The pictures above and below were painted by Xiaoze Xie specifically for the lobby of the United States Courthouse in downtown Davenport, Iowa.  They are typical of his style, subject matter, and scale – these each being a whopping 72” x 103”!

  Xie says: “I see books as a material form of something abstract, such as philosophy and ideology.  I have also been fascinated by what people do to books: banning, destroying, glorifying with gold-leaf, or worshiping as ultimate truth.”

  The shelves in the one above, The Spirit of Law, hold volumes by Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and William Blackburn.  The books below, Iowa Reports, are nineteenth century Iowa Supreme Court Reports from the library of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

  Xiaoze Xie was born in Guangdong China in 1966.  He was educated in China and the USA and is currently a professor at Stanford.  His pictures are held in permanent collections of prominent institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and have been in exhibitions all over the globe.

  The Spirit of Law and Iowa Reports convey a deep reverence for both the material and abstract.  What perfect pieces for between which a jury to assemble!  This sense is, I think, largely absent online and on tablet.  I’ll bet a goodly portion of the consideration of opinions like, say, Citizens United was conducted digitally.

  Money is people?  What?  I’m so sure.  Well, if money is people, they better not send any more to Texas.  They have the death penalty down there and aren’t shy about using it.* Either way the election goes, for distinctly different reasons on the different sides, Ben Franklin’s head will roll many times over between November 6 and the anniversary of Scrooge’s perambulatory revelation that people and money are quite different.

*This paraphrases a comment made by Bill Moyers.

**Go see the paintings, they’re yours!  The guards evince pride, but are serious.  NB: There’s a metal detector and phones and cameras are not allowed.

***On a plaque just inside are the words of one of America’s first starchitects Cass Gilbert (Woolworth Building…): “Public buildings should encourage just pride in the state, and be an education to oncoming generations to see these things, imponderable elements of life and character, set before the people for their enjoyment and betterment.” 

****  This link will take you to his Stanford bio and statement.


Voici Mon Secret

July 6, 2012


  Most will instantly recognize in the image above the style of Roy Lichtenstein.  It is indeed one of his paintings and is representative of what is probably the most widely familiar part of his career – apparent reproductions of comic book panels complete with thought balloons and Ben-Day dots.

  Icons of 60’s pop culture, they epitomized “cool”.  In an essay* Martin Filler tells us that Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were “the foremost exemplars of Cool among their generation of American visual artists…that quality of being simultaneously with-it and disengaged, in control but nonchalant, knowing but ironically self-aware, and above all inscrutably undemonstrative.”  Like Steve McQueen and Miles Davis.

  I had only a vague awareness of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre beyond those executed during the course of that decade and thus found much of interest in a retrospective up now at Chicago’s Art Institute.  Though there are elements common through much of the work, there’s also was an evolution I’d not expected.  Filler tells us that Lichtenstein was “Acutely concerned about repeating himself…”

  Below you see a photo of one of his “Landscapes in the Chinese Style” which was his last series, having been painted in the late nineties.  Healthy and active, Lichtenstein expected to live to 100, but died in 1997 at seventy-three of an infection he contracted while in a hospital with pneumonia. 

  Though greatly taken by traditional Chinese painting and the sense of nature conveyed therein, he said that “I’m not seriously doing a kind of Zen-like salute to the beauty of nature…”, and though Filler and others suspect that the artist “intended to capitalize on the increasing presence of high-rolling Chinese collectors”, it is difficult – for me at least – to not feel my spirits lift while looking at Lichtenstein’s last works.

  Reminds me (for some reason – the following bit being not perfectly apropos) of something from St Exupery’s Petit PrinceThe Little Prince:  “Voici mon secret.  Il est tres simple.  On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.  L’essential est invisible pour les yeux”.  “Here is my secret.  It is very simple.  One can only see well with the heart.  What’s essential is invisible to the eyes”.


*New York Review of Books June 21, 2012

**Gagosian press release March 2012


Eye of the Beholder

April 27, 2012


  OK, what do the picture above, The Investiture of St Ildefonso by Nicholas Rodriguez Juarez and the one below, Sultry Night by Grant Wood have in common?  Give up?  Well it’s the tormented sexuality of certain viewers of those works.  Huh?

  Top one first.  You see it as Sr. Juarez painted it more or less.  Sometime thereafter however it was on its way to a perch on the wall of a convent when head abbess perhaps, but I’ll wager a priest, decided that an image of a man in that milieu would serve naught but untoward arousal.

  The painting was thus altered so that he became a she.  When it arrived at a new home some centuries later it was sent to a conservation lab for inspection and cleaning.  X-rays showed that what appeared to be a kneeling nun was actually a man saint in drag.  Drag was undone and voila.

  Sultry story even funnier.  Looks weirdly lopsided, right?  Well, didn’t start out that way.  Look at Wood’s lithograph of the same scene below and you’ll see what I mean.  An attempt to send the original (whole) painting to a show via the USPS was blocked by a repressed postal inspector and so Wood excised the self-showering farmer.

  The resultant state of the painting is somehow perfectly obtuse and, with knowledge of the back story, homeopathically conveys a sense of the zeitgeist far more subtly than did, say, the film American Beauty much more recently…

cf post 8/21/09


February 24, 2012


  Hear about that horrible fire in Comayagua Honduras this week?  Daughter called to express concern.  She taught third grade in that city 2003-2004.  We visited. Flew into Tegucigalpa where the landing strip is too short for a big jet and thus its nose protrudes over the edge of a cliff when it finally comes to rest.  Everybody claps.  Beat up truck tows it back to “terminal”. 

  Bus from the capital city to Comayagua was a used yellow school bus from the US still sporting the name of its alma mater.  Several hour trip not for faint of heart.  While passing another bus going uphill around a curve the driver’s accomplice leaned out the door to beat the hood of the sensible with a baseball bat while laughing uproariously.

  Going downhill was even more disconcerting because of the increased speed and noise from the chickens as we rocked and rolled.  I put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me, but the copilot pointed at them with his slugger.  Don’t know if I’d committed some sort of cultural faux-pas (er, paso en falso) or if he was insulting my manhood.

  Relieved to arrive alive we made our way to the Hotel Casagrande.  Daughter had given us two choices – “a really nice, but sort of expensive place that would be convenient or one further away that would be less expensive”.  “How much for the expensive place?”  “$25.00/night with breakfast.”  No foolin’.

  Daughter speaks Spanish – obviously – but purpose of the Escuela was/is to make the students Spanish/English bilingual.  It is a private school for the children of the local elite and expensive by Isthmus standards.  It was clear that her students loved her and vice versa.  She worries after them these years hence because of the oozing of the drug trade down from Mexico.  Hope none of her former charges were in that hoosegow* conflagration… 

  We traveled around the country for a week ending back in Tegucigalpa.  Went up to visit the Galeria Nacional de Arte, but were initially disappointed to find it closed.  Shot the breeze with the guards a bit and ended up getting a private tour.  The space was a converted colonial building made all the more interesting by its lack of most modern museum accouterments.

  Daughter hailed a cab to see us back to the airport.  Driver was worse even than that of the aforementioned bus and used sidewalks and green space as passing lanes.  Hija spoke to him sternly and fury immediately blazed in his eyes.  The taking of instructions from a female was not part of his life experience.

  I couldn’t believe it, but curbside at the airport daughter told him to wait while we embraced and goodbyed.  He’d drive her to the bus station to start her way back to Comayagua.  Oh lord.  I told wife if she hadn’t made me have kids we’d have a whole lot more money and a whole lot less heartache.

*From the Spanish: juzgado – courtroom

**Piece above is “Pasion por Amapalo” (Passion for Poppy) acrylic on canvas by Jorge Restrepo.  cf Show was called “Urdimbres” (Waves) and was up in the Honduran National Gallery of Art 15 to 30 April, 2004

***Ironically, the Honduran island of Roatan is often mentioned as a beautiful and muy barato place to retire.  We visited and agree.

How to Age Exhuberantly

January 27, 2012


  OK kids, you’ve got to check out this book: 30 Lessons for Living –  Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.  It is the distillation of 300 interviews undertaken by a professor at Cornell University with elderly Americans deemed by outside consensus to have lived a good life.

The lessons are spread over several different areas of concern, but “there was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful” than work.  The title of that chapter is “Glad to get up in the morning – Lessons for a successful and fulfilling career”.  And it ain’t about the money, bub.

“You know those nightmares where you are shouting a warning but no sound comes out?  Well, that’s the intensity with which the experts wanted to tell younger people that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake”.  Big money may not accompany one’s bliss, but following it is the only way a happy denouement might.

And there’s a related lesson in this week’s Economist: “Exercise and Longevity – Worth all the sweat”.  Doctors (including Dr Brother) have long known that regular vigorous exercise helps thwart all kinds of ailments, from headbone to footbone to decrepitude.

Research is beginning to suggest that exercise helps by enhancing ‘autophagy’ which is the body’s own process of scrapping and recycling surplus, worn-out, or malformed proteins.  It thus slows down the biological clock.

Combine a fulfilling career and vigor and you just might get, well, somebody like Lucien Freud, pictured above in his eighty-third year.  He died last summer at 89, but for the nearly sixty years leading up to two weeks before passing he worked with a subject for several hours in the morning, a different one in the afternoon, seven days a week, standing up.

“And the moment he lifted his hands, most of his ailments seemed to melt away.”  Big money did follow his bliss, but to him it mattered not.  The only manner in which wealth changed him was that it diminished his love of gambling: “It’s not fun when you have the money…”

*30 Lessons for Living, Pillemer,Hudson StPress, 2011

The Lessons are for: Happy Marriage, Fulfilling Career, Parenting, Ageing Fearlessly and Well, Living Life w/o Regrets, and Happiness (Time spent worrying is time wasted – Your choice).

*Economist Jan 21 – 27, 2012

***Psychoanalyzing Lucian Freud, Vanity Fair, Feb 2012

****CF Blogpost October 12, 2010

*****And, uh, Freud didn’t read the part of the book about marriage and parenting.  He fathered at least sixteen children with six different women.  And though he clearly enjoyed himself, I guess I do not commend to you his particular brand of exuberance…

Wash of the Zeitgeist

November 11, 2011

The three pictures you see below were all painted by Iowa native son Marvin Cone.  All come up for auction next week.  All are interesting – all the more in juxtaposition.

The first, just below, is titled “Sunlight and Shadows – Luxembourg Gardens Paris 1929”.  Though it is expected to draw the least interest and least dinero I quite like it for a number of reasons.  First, it is indeed pleasant to look at.  Though not exactly exuberant, it conveys a fine sense of the joy concomitant with a stroll through a park in the height of fall foliage.

  And I know that park.  It’s not far from the Louvre and my first perambulations therein followed shortly after an eye-opening Art History 101 and during a revelatory term abroad.  I fell under the spell of the ‘City of Light’ the moment I stepped off the train.

And further to that point – the painting, having been executed in 1929, came well after the height of impressionism and a decade after the creation of cubism by Picasso and Braque probably just blocks away.  I relate in a proud and positive way to the combination of naiveté and insouciance indigenous to this great state.

The painting below – “White Barn No.1” clearly, if blandly, has turned away from what some (still!) would call European avant-gardism.  Stated more positively, it is a visual metaphor for the hard working, simple and straight-forward valued folks of our nation’s heartland.

  “Farm Silhouette” at bottom is expected to make the highest bid of the three lots – $125,000 to $175,000 – and for me also has the most complex emotional tone.  On one hand it evinces a crepuscular nostalgia for rural America.

On the other, well, it made me think of the Cormac McCarthy title Outer Dark and the outer dark is not a good place to be… “They aint a soul in this world but what is a stranger to me… I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God aint put out the sun and gone away…”

Cone painted “Farm Silhouette” in 1948 – long after the sunset of Regionalism, after the horrors of WWII, after the incredible industrialization ofAmerica, and after he and his better known brethren (Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry) were compared with the social realists of 1930s Russia.  As an artist, on that bluff, he must have felt from afar the wash of the abstract expressionist zeitgeist.

“Farm Silhouette” is the only one of the three I’ve seen in person and an interesting experience it was.  Next to last on the scene, I took a call from a soon to arrive expert.  “Where do you have it?”  “We’re in the vault.” “Get it out of there; the blue tone of the fluorescents won’t do it justice.”

We moved to a room bathed in natural light and even though not directly before the sun, what a difference it did make.  Slapped myself in the head for the umpteenth time.*

Clearly the painting is in very good condition with original frame and stretcher.  Black light inspection showed no in-painting or restoration.  Paper trail (aka provenance) seamless all the way back to the artist.

Lot to think about…

*cf post of Sept 23, 2011.  Also, I recently listened to a tenured painting professor bemoan a temporary studio classroom lit with fluorescents.  “Unbelievably shitty…”

What Good Is It?

October 28, 2011


  Across the wires earlier this week (AP I think) came the latest in the long line of contradictory studies regarding longevity.  This one holds that secrets lie in DNA.  “…it’s very hard to get there without some genetic advantages”.  How else could there be centenarians who drink like fish and smoke like smokestacks?

Made me think of Picasso for a variety of reasons not least because the anniversary of his birth was just a few days ago (October 25) and that he lived to be nearly ninety-two.  More to the point, he was conjured into this world on a puff of smoke.  Stillborn in Malaga in 1881 the attending physician gave up and gave way to Uncle Ruiz who exhaled cigar smoke into the newborn’s nostrils.

Sr. Picasso was awake, in the largest sense of the word, from that point forth and the expansiveness of his vision pervades his work and words.  Some is multivalent, some is clearly prescient: “Computers are useless, they only give you answers.”  Remember that he died in 1973.  Gates and Jobs were both only eighteen.  (BTW, Gates’ bday is today.)

Few great people would make it through the pearly gates on the first try and Picasso’s no exception.  He’s probably a drag queen in hell.  Still, though, confusingly I guess, he led his life in a fashion to be admired having done so contrarily demonstrative of the admonition of Jung that you’ve previously seen here: “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality.”

Picasso: “If you jump, you might fall on the wrong side of the rope.  But if you’re not willing to take the risk of breaking your neck, what good is it?  You have to wake people up.  To revolutionize their way of identifying things.  Force them to understand that they’re living in a pretty queer world.  A world that’s not reassuring.  A world that’s not what they think it is.”

You know, great artists look back upon the zeitgeist.

*Story of his birth and the quote came from: Picasso by Norman Mailer.


October 15, 2011


  The painting above is “The Ray” by Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) and is remarkable for the rendering of a gruesome scene as something compellingly sublime.  Of it Marcel Proust wrote: “strange monster…tinted with red blood, azure nerves, and white sinews like the nave of a polychrome cathedral”.

  Imagine!  An intellect as great as Proust comparing a painting of mangled dead sea ray with the central aspect of a type of architecture that reached its zenith there inFrancesome centuries earlier.  Philosopher Diderot wrote of Chardin’s talent: “secret of redeeming through skill the disgusting aspect” of a reality.

  Reminds me of writer Cormac McCarthy who accomplishes the same feat (maybe even outdoes Chardin) with his prose.  Check this out:  “His entrails were hauled forth and delineated and the four young students who bent over him like those haruspices of old perhaps saw monsters worse to come in their configurations”.

  OK. It is clearly impossible to convey, with a short excerpt, the entirety of a book in the way one can of a picture with a reproduction.   But of its essence a great writer might.  Let me elaborate a bit on that sentence and hopefully you’ll get an idea of the magnitude of McCarthy’s skill.

  Those words come near the end of Child of God and describe the final stages of a med-school dissection of the corpse of the chief protagonist and in their brevity almost recapitulate the entire work.  Elmer Ballard was a murderer and necrophiliac who roamed the hills of East Tennesse, was never indicted, and checked himself into the state home (“I’m supposed to be here”) where he died.

  Ballard was then the referent to the idea of “monsters worse to come” and one of those he indeed was.  The redemptive qualities of McCarthy’s prose McCarthy draw us inexorably through the stunning tale.  It’s not that we can’t look away – we don’t want to.

  The title of the book is also a referent of a word in the sentence quoted above.  Taken at face value, Child of God says that yep, white with the black, we are all part of the Lord’s flock.  Taken ironically: the thought of a dude up there in a robe and slippers is no less nuts than the reading the future in entrails – which is what a particular sort of ancient Roman priest (a “haruspex”) did.

  After Ballard’s remains were interred the bodies of more victims were discovered in a cave.  Here’s how the book ends: “In the evening a jeep descended the log road towing a trailer in the bed of which lay seven bodies bound in muslin like enormous hams.  As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.”

*Chardin’s painting came to mind from reading Mary Tompkins Lewis’ take on it in the 10/8+9 WSJ.