Tag Archives: artists

What Is It In Me?


Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.

the water’s fine

“All art is or was modern in its time, daring and new, demonstrating a constant change in seeing and feeling. If revival had been a perpetual virtue, we still would live in caves and earth pits. In art, tradition is to create, not to revive.” – Josef Albers, Design, 1946 (quoted in The Arts at Black Mountain College, Mary Emma Harris, 107).

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945

My last gasp of summer reading that I squeezed in came from my interest in Black Mountain College – ostensibly a quasi precursor to the college where I graduated high school from (North Carolina School of the Arts – they have a high school for the arts within the University). But I didn’t know of that confluence until nearly the end of my reading. What I did know was that Black Mountain College was a really interesting and influential place. Lasting twenty-four years with a total of around thirteen hundred students (1933-1957) in the mountains of North Carolina, an experiment in education was lived out. A spirited, innovative, creative, floundering, democratic ideal of what a meaningful education alive in the world might look like.

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948

Albers felt that “only dynamic possession is fertile–materially as well as spiritually.” He distinguished between the usual possessiveness or industriousness of the student who mindlessly accumulates and memorizes facts and theories to be regurgitated on an exam to please the teacher and the “dynamic possession” of the student for whom experience and action is an integral part of the learning process (15).

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953

Albers, one of the founders of Black Mountain College had been a teacher at the Bauhaus.  Fleeing Germany and its fascist government, the ideals of democracy, particularly the expansion of community interests flourishing through hands-on education and art, in both the form and function of aesthetics and creative expression, were some of the very progressive and fascinating experimental ideas in the Black Mountain College education.

“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. –  John Cage, Silence, 1961 (quoted, 107).

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing

My interest was peaked by the truly impressive array of artists and thinkers that took part in the experiment. Besides, Alders, some of the notable participants (to me) were Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, Willem De Kooning, Charles Oslon, Robert Creeley, Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Merce Cunningham, as well as the artist whose work I have included here….it just goes on and on…amazing. Anni Albers, Josef’s wife, brought her extraordinary weaving and textile skills to the college, which I mention not only because they are beautiful but also because the artificial separation between “craft” and “art” was consciously ignored at Black Mountain College. Art for art’s sake is wonderful, but art in form and function is also a worthy pursuit requiring a finger to remain on the pulse of the mundane in a way that Art needn’t, necessarily. And we need art in both the profane and sacred realms…a teacup can transport just as well as a tempest, after all.

The visionary aspects of Black Mountain were holistic, ambitious in their creative freedom, and obviously difficult to maintain – how does one administrate an institution that stands for anti-administration and anti-institutional ideals? Not easily, and not for very long, apparently. But that is hardly the point. The point is that people try – they try over and over again, and the creative results are extraordinary, the human inspiration invigorating. Everything is cyclical, but to have the nerve and verve to let the cycle run is a testament to the spirit of life.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952

Today, it seems to me, so much emphasis is put on the material concept of “success.” “Failure” is anathema to our culture – but it is truly the “failures” that make life flourish. That’s where all the beauty and all meaningful success is fomented.  That is one thing Bucky Fuller’s genius proved, with his “magical world of his mathematical models” (151), he was, after all, the self-proclaimed most successful failure ever!  And any school that strove to recognize that is pretty great, and successful, in my book.

Undaunted, [by the failure of his geometric dome due to cost cutting inadequate materials] Fuller explained that failure is a part of experimentation and that “you succeed when you stop failing” (151).

I would only add that success, and learning, depend upon it.


*All photographs (except for the Reed drawing) are out of another very fine book, Black Mountain College: Experiments in Art edited by  Vincent Katz, in which four long essays accompany copious images of the art produced and inspired by Black Mountain College.

** Title taken from John Cage’s poetic response to the controversy over an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all white paintings in 1953, (page 230):

To Whom
No subject
No image
No taste
No object
No beauty
No talent
No technique (no why)
No idea
No intention
No art
No feeling
No black
No white no (and)

After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows.

Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.

John Cage, Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953.





Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

Sense and Memorabilia

I remember, in the heart of passion once, trying to get a guy’s turtle-neck sweater off. But it turned out not to be a turtle-neck sweater. – Joe Brainard, I Remember (131). 


I remember not being able to get any dessert but prune crostata when I lived in Parma. But not minding, really.

“In the heart of passion” – that probably says it all. I Remember, written in 1975 by Joe Brainard, is one of the sweetest, funniest books I have ever read. In fact, I caused the  fellow commuter sitting in the seat ahead of me some alarm as I intermittently burst into spasms of laughter reading this on my way home the other night. She rather ostentatiously turned around to see what I was on about, and then I caught her peeping into the reflection of the window several times assessing my mental health.

I remember a little girl who had a white rabbit coat and hat and muff. Actually, I don’t remember the little girl. I remember the coat and the hat and the muff (32).

The book is brilliantly conceived. Ridiculously and poignantly simple. It reads as a sort of poem with each stanza beginning with the refrain: I remember.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie (8).

There is something magical in it. Brainard, a child and adolescent of the 40s and 50s, relates  details that are lovely in their historicism, but it is the disarming simplicity of his raw memory data that connects the reader to this charming fellow.

I remember once my mother parading a bunch of women through the bathroom as I was taking a shit. Never have I been so embarrassed! (93)

I’m really glad I never did that. As a mother of (mostly) sons, my heart just about burst for this young boy and his beautiful, puriel, ernest mind.

I remember when I worked in a snack bar and how much I hated people who ordered malts (22).

As a human who endured adolescence and retains a frightening degree of it, my heart ached for our shared humiliations, tribulations, and confusions. It would seem that Mr. Brainard and I suffer from the same malady – our hearts stuck in the ‘on’ position.

I remember liver (16).

Me too.

I remember Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (so sad) in Meet Me in St. Louis (49).

It was his tender use of parenthetical commentary that convinced me that this man must have been a lovely, kind soul.

I remember a girl in Dayton, Ohio, who “taught” me what to do with your tongue, which, it turns out, is definitely what not to do with your tongue. You could really hurt somebody that way. (Strangulation.) (133)

It is his innocence and crass adolescent mind, (which never seems to really leave us, eh?) his sexual forays, observations, reactions, and random thoughts that fill his memoir. This is the stuff we are made of.

I remember my mother cornering me into the corners to squeeze out blackheads. (Hurt like hell.) (141)

Okay – but in my defense, as a mother, that is really hard to resist.

I remember not finding pumpkin pie very visually appealing (113).

The sensual strength of our memories, whether it be vision, touch, sound, taste or smell is fascinating, revealing, and true. This is how we experience our lives – our world. It’s beautiful. Joe Brainard’s, mine, and yours. Simply beautiful.

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.) (46)


* I Remember – published by Granary Books





Threads of UPR

“On the way out, confided in Bonnard for the first  time about my love. Sad.”
From the diary of Edouard Vuillard quoted in Vuillard, Master of  the Intimate Interior (52)


The first Edourad Vuillard painting I ever saw was The Suitor (Interior with Work Table) since that time, I have been smitten. I immediately liked his work, but really only considered it carefully after having a conversation with my daughter about a painting problem she had been trying to resolve concerning her backrounds. I sent her images of his work as an example of someone who painted every aspect and surface with the same attention as one would normally reserve for the figure.  My daughter loves printmaking and one of the fabulous things about these turn of the century artists was their appreciation and respectful co-opting of Chinese and Japanese prints. Vuillard’s aggressive patterns belie his quite themes and the tension is exhilarating. The fact that most of the faces of his figures are monotone abstractions make his backgrounds essential to the mood of the painting and the visages of his models become symbolic universalism.

The Gaugin-like emotionality of his work is wonderful, but the thing that I never tire of thinking about is photography’s influence on artists of this time. Vuillard often used a photographic-like close cropping of his view, not to create a sense of claustrophobia, but rather to enhance the intimacy of the room. His paintings have a feel of a scene, set for the stage, and he was in fact one of the first artist to design sets for the theater. His images bask in a quality of serenity, and yet the bustle and complexity of life are expressed within his signature style of tight floral patterning.

Vuillard was involved in a secret organization called The Nabi (Hebrew for prophet) in which the occult and matters of spirituality were a source of inspiration. A focus on the ideas and connotations of decoration and design particularly interested The Nabi, and in Vuillard’s work there is a mystical quality to his patterning.  Whereas Gaugin’s symbolism created magical scenes of paradisaical “primitive” societies, Vuillard transported the Fauvist magical into the realm of the mundane.

With my new found interest, I was thrilled upon seeing so many of his paintings recently at the Yale Gallery.  I brought my very old client to the gallery. We had walked the entire floor and she was tired by the time we got to the Vuillards. She sat on the bench and we spent some time looking at the paintings. Finally she pointed to The Thread and said to me, “That’s how you look when you are doing my sewing.”


The design of his compositions, the push and pull between his use of bright colors and muted tones, strong lines and micro details, entropy and order, as well as the general domestic themes of his paintings all work to captivate me. There is a feeling that his work exudes deeply connecting me to all that is good, yet often lonely and sober, in my world of intense domesticity. Vuillard breaks my heart just a little bit.

The relationships between the people of his paintings as well as between the space and activity are imbued with life and within the life of the painting is a profound feeling of what a friend of mine and I like to refer to as UPR: that hilariously overly-fussy psychological term- unconditional positive response. In other words- love.

[Vuillard] is the most personal, the most intimate of storytellers. I know few pictures which bring the observer so directly into conversation with the artist. I think it must be because his brush never breaks free of the motion which guides it; the outer world, for Vuillard, is always a pretext, an adjustable means of expression.” – André Gide quoted in Vuillard, Master of the Intimate Interior by Guy Cogeval

Belonging: An Object Lesson

“Vaguest recall of an elegant cockatoo at dusk 14th St.”
-Joseph Cornell quoted in Dime-Store Alchemy (13), Charles Simic


I think it’s the fact that vague recall of elegant cockatoos is a common enough experience that I couldn’t help immediately connecting with this lovely book. Perhaps it’s not elegant cockatoos for everyone, but that swarming cloud of images and words that materialize or vaporize in the mind is a shared universe of the observant. Charles Simic, who is more than just my favorite poet on ants, is the author of Dime-Store Alchemy, The Art of Joseph Cornell. Cornell was a New York artist born in 1903. In the vignette Where Chance Meets Necessity Simic describes Cornell’s philosophy of art thusly:

Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. (14)

I love that idea, and sense, of belonging. Finding the perfect mate, the perfect spot to place something, the perfect book at the right point of your life, the perfect person: it’s a lovely thought and dream that we extend, (some sadly only conferring) to all our objects- If this belongs here, then I belong somewhere too.

Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly. (53)

Simic’s use of the word “suddenly” is what rings that sentence with truth. Whenever one first views a piece of art there is a suddenness, the feeling of yes or no that follows is not the same for everyone, but the suddenness is there- it’s the magic of an infinity in an instant. What the artist, and art, gives is that moment  of connection. When Simic says, “The clarity of one’s vision is a work of art,” (20) I think he means the clarity of vision of the artist, but I would apply that succinct thought to both artist and viewer. The click of clarity- Cornell knew what sound to listen for as he let his eye roam the city.

I picked this book up because I enjoy Simic’s work, I confess I knew nothing of Cornell. But, I didn’t have to get very far into it to know that the book belonged in my hand. In the very last sentence of the introduction, Simic touched me with devastating simplicity. Relating the last day of Cornell’s  life in which he died of heart failure, Simic writes, “Earlier that day he told his sister on the phone, ‘I wish I had not been so reserved.'”

I suppose we all end up with our own mountains of regret, but my heart moved a few inches reading that one. It hurts to be your own worst enemy.

*Photographed Box:  “Untitled (Soap Bubble Set),” 1936 by Joseph Cornell
“A soap bubble went to meet infinity. “ (54)

What Love Looks Like

oil on un-stretched canvas, untitled by Victoria Accardi

My daughter spent her winter term painting this for an independent study in school. I see it as a testament to all the things she loves: art and Joseph. He was away all winter and this is how she filled the void.

I drove her to the airport to pick him up. She did not say, but maybe she would have preferred to go alone, but she can’t drive my car (standard shift) so I was the chauffeur. As we approached Bangor we saw a little pictograph of an airplane, then a sign that said exit 1b. The next exit did not say whether or not it was 1b so I passed it, her roommate’s words in my head, “Just go straight, that’s the easiest way, straight.” She tensed in the seat next to me and commented pointedly on my inability to listen to her and follow her directions. As we drove I fixed my attention on a distant tower, “must be the airport,” I assured her. Occasionally we would see another little picture of a plane which we assumed meant we were on the right track. When we had driven clear through and then outside of Bangor I realized that my airport tower was actually a cell phone tower.

At this point my daughter started tapping her foot vigorously. I turned around and found..another plane picture! “See, no problem, we are really close…” I think smoke started coming out of her ears. There ahead of us was the problem: the sign for the actual physical airport looked  like a sign for an industrial park. It may have said the word airport in tiny letters at the bottom, but for some idiotic reason they chose to embolden the airport code name BGA or BIA or something indecipherable like that instead. I was seriously put out. Don’t they have people testing road signage to see if outsiders or people with impatient daughters breathing down their necks can read them? I guess not.

To make matters worse at 10 o’clock at night the stop lights on the empty airport road were endless. All hell broke lose in the car, suddenly where there was a girl, appeared some sort of blazing maniac; I was so focused in my zen mothering mode (perfected by years of driving with wailing infants in car seats or fighting children in confined spaces) it took me a moment to realize that she was screaming at the red light while vehemently hopping about the seat. When we finally rolled in front of the arrivals and her boy was there waiting patiently on the curb, she leapt out of the car before I had even come to stop – just leapt out. Madness. Ah, love.

Zeitgeist (recycled)

drawing by Victoria Accardi

On the way home from Brooklyn my daughter, son and I were sidetracked in the lower east side of Manhattan by our favorite doughnut shop (it’s worth crawling to if necessary: Doughnut Plant). Feeling highly satiated, churros in hand, we decided to walk over to The New Museum on the Bowery. It’s a snazzy new building that appeared suddenly in that expeditious New York kind of way after we moved (all of my place marks so quickly get swallowed up by new store fronts, it unmoors me causing in-numerous “wait, where are we?” moments).

As the three of us are all regrettably underemployed students we were put off by the entrance fee, even with the student IDs it would have cost us all 30$ to go in. We hesitated. It was too much of a leap into the unknown for our wallets to support. Instead we perused the very gorgeous catalogue that someone else’s dollars would have to pay for so that we could get an idea of what sort of art was on display. That is the tricky thing with collections of new art, they lack the decades that conveniently separate the wheat from the chaff. We then took advantage of the bathrooms (always an issue in the city). There was also, of course, a gift shop that we spent a good amount of time in. There were a lot of art books representing all the “new” art of the sort the museum housed. Some of it was very good. A lot of it irreverent and highly stylized, I had perhaps more patience for it than my extremely talented artist daughter who is endowed with a highly sensitive bullshit-o-meter.

Strumming through a book of (mostly) photographs I laughed at the images of a young man traipsing through a field in the buff. I picked up another book and had a moment of déjà vu, I turned the book over to confirm that I was indeed looking at a different book, different artist and yet I swear it was the same leaping fellow with swinging body parts.  A few books later there was another similar image, okay maybe it was…the cousin of the fellow, leaping at the…beach, but really I felt like I had been transported back to the early 70’s only it was a cleaner, more monogynous and organic granola version.

Maybe it is just the environmentally conscious youth of today: well trained to recycle everything. Music, fashion, art: it does seem to be in a particularly unoriginal state of late. Or maybe the preponderance of young free loving naked men is just some sort of reaction or balancing measure to all of the thousands and thousands of images of the female figure that have ever been made.Well…right on then. Equal rights after all people!