Tag Archives: arts

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.






“Passing life’s halfway mark, I lost my way in a dark wood”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror (film)


One of my jobs is in a library. I always like to shelve the books first. I’m hidden deep in the stacks, focused intensely on tiny sometimes obscured sequences of numbers, letters, dots and slashes.  I work in the arts and music section, the books are all lovely and tempting…but last Tuesday when I came in I could see there was a DVD shelving emergency underway, so I gave the books a longing look, and got right to work on the towers of DVDs. Still, I have preferences. I always start with the foreign films, then documentaries, and only then attack the regular collection. I find the foreign films more interesting, plus there is a stool on wheels that I can skate around on while running through the alphabet in my head over and over again, which makes it more fun.

Sometimes I don’t shelve them. I put them aside, and when I have a minute I go downstairs and check them out. That’s how I came to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

The paradoxical thing about a task like shelving books is that it requires deep but meaningless focus. It’s just numbers and letters. But then there is the actual object in my hand, which can trigger thoughts, memories, and feelings. My shift is two and half hours and it feels very like to what watching The Mirror feels like: somewhat stream of conscious, deep in thought, with memories, words and images coming from all directions creating a quiet, sometimes profound emotional rhythm.

There is no story, really. Not in our minds, and not in The Mirror. But the engrossing drama of  (presumably) Tarkovsky’s childhood memories,  twisted up with his mother’s history; the sequences of Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, read by the narrator (A. Tarkovsky);  the beautiful cinematography: by random turns, black and white, and then color; the dreams and nightmares, anxieties, regret and hope all converge to express, I think, a visual representation of the deep recesses of our minds in which our foundations, if examined, can be all revealing. Just a glimpse, maybe. But a flickering light in between the letters and numbers of our lives.

*photograph taken by Augustus Accardi



The 1001th Word

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow.
-Italo Calvino, The Adventure of a Photographer (printed in Art On Paper March/April 2008, pg 43)

IMG_0905I brought my eleven year old son to help me process some film the other day. He was sorry that he had missed the opportunity to wear his beloved lab coat, but loved the scientific air of it all and took his job of watching the clock and calling out the thirty second intervals very seriously. In the wonderful short story, The Adventure of a Photographer by Italo Calvino, the seriousness of the question, why is photography so popular? becomes a quest to expose the conceit of the art, while in the end drawing a clearer line around the meaning of it all.

“What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporal slices, the thickness of a second? (44)

I think I have fallen in love with that sentence. I’m a sucker, of course, for virtuoso verbosity, but “temporal slices, the thickness of a second” has got to be the most accurate and wonderful description of the mechanical aspect of photography ever committed to paper. In the Calvino story the protagonist, a “non-photographer,” jeremiading, philosopher nearly loses his mind in the pinhole of the process of his quixotic episode. The significance of his status as the lone bachelor  among his peers who have all married and had children is multi-tiered, but one obvious tier is what first puts a camera in his hands- he is the natural choice to take photos of all the happy families and couples. There are elements of loneliness built into art.

His intention was to lend the use of his finger as docile instrument of the collective wish, but also to exploit his temporary position of privilege to admonish both photographers and their subjects as to the significance of their actions. (43)

His philosophical position is that if we are going to stop action to “capture” the moment in lieu of simply experiencing the moment, then we should at least be consistent- photograph every moment. Why stop? he asks.

This is the point: to make explicit the relationship with the world that each of us bears within himself, and which today we tend to hide, to make unconscious, believing that in this way it disappears, whereas…(45)

Calvino’s style of writing is entertaining, twisted and deep. We follow his character down the rabbit hole of his photographic obsession. He begins in ernest when he falls in love. He wants to photograph what he sees as truly her. He tries with the portrait- a cold analyses of the surface, pose, posture, angle, set, and costume but he can not get to her. He then feverishly tries to get to the absolute inner truth by obsessively photographing her at every moment- waking, sleeping, and most importantly when she is unawares. But in the end, he is not really trying to take her image, he is trying to make a visual account of the inexplicable- his love. Lost in the labyrinth of his mind, he ends up with nothing, and must even photograph that. If he can no longer photograph love, he will photograph the absence of love.

He folded the corners of the newspaper into a huge bundle to be thrown into the trash, but first he wanted to photograph it. (47)

As I become more familiar with the processes that are involved in the art of photography, I think about not just what I’m looking at, but how I am looking, and why. Everything is within a frame. Maybe that is inescapable- what is the difference between the frames of our psychological outlook and the manifested visual outlook? One informs the other. When I make the decision to take the picture, I already know that what I am really trying to show are the unshowable parts of who I am.

The Discarded

IMG_0702Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.

His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.

There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.

El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)


Genius of Repose

Nevertheless, it is well to have the means at our disposal of introducing these minutiae without any additional trouble, for they will sometimes be found to give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented.
-William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (from Plate 10)


Plate VI. The Open Door

I wrote a paper for a class recently, and although I apparently went off subject (fancy that!) I did get a wonderful book recommendation out of it. I had understood the assignment to be asking for a comparison of four works of art from the rather vast period around Impressionism, Post-impressionism, ism and isms and so on, (the ambitiousness of survey courses are a marvel- either that or a sickness). My paper had less to do with terms like Romanticism and Sublime than it did with what I saw as the influence of the development of photography on painting. When she returned my paper, my professor suggested that I might be interested in reading The Pencil of Nature.

The chief object of the present work is to place on record some of the early beginnings of a new art, before the period, which we trust is approaching, of its being brought to maturity by the aid of British talent. (Plate VI)

That is all. Everything that is wonderful, interesting, and funny about this book is found in that sentence. First a brief primer if you are unfamiliar with what is considered the world of photography’s Gutenberg Bible:

This book is the first ever that used photographic prints. Talbot worked for many years to develop, or rather improve what the Camera Obscura promised. He wanted very much to be able to record the lakes of Como, but had to acknowledge his lack of artistic talent that was required to faithfully render a scene- even the less daunting amount of skill which the Camera Obscura could sublimate was lost in his hand. As is often the case other people around the world were hard at work on this problem as well, and when M. Daguerre made his famed announcement in 1839, Mr. Talbot was seriously put out. But! Wait! the esteemed M. Daguerre had not described his method, so in furious haste to save the reputation of mother England!! Talbot published his method (which differed from the Daguerreotype) and thereby save the false sense of superiority that nationalistic hubris so generously dispenses. This national pride business is all very charming- right up until the moment people start getting killed- “aid of British talent,” indeed! but I digress-

Accompanying his Plate III, Articles of China, is this most pragmatic observation:

And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures- if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court- it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind; but what the judge and jury might say to it, is a matter which I leave to the speculation of those who possess legal acumen.

I find his earnest insistence on the practical applications of photography to be very endearing. His description of his learning process is as fascinating as it is truly impressive: that this period in time was a fecundity of inquiry, experiment and discovery by what today would be considered laymen is wonderful. It seems to have been a time when people simply found the world to be fascination, and the whys and hows were somewhat within their reach. Their invigorating spirit still has the power to inspire.

In my first account of “The Art of Photogenic Drawing,” read to the Royal Society in January, 1839, I mentioned this building as being the first “that was ever yet known to have drawn its own picture.” (Plate XV)

“Drawn its own picture,” that is the primary reason why this book remains a delight. Try as he might to promote his English sense of pragmatism, Talbot has an immediate and innate sense that what is really occurring with the development of this new device is – Art. That which the artist brings to the equipment is increased by what the equipment brings to the paper- despite its practical uses, that pencil of nature remains in the domain of mystery, discovery, serendipity, thoughtfulness, and creativity that is “beyond expectation.”

As an art form photography endures, taking its place in the “Genius of Repose” which Talbot ascribes to Oxford in the summer season, but which I would say is really the the breath of beauty that art holds, even for a moment, in sublime stillness.

Broken Woman

Propped up by books…


oil clay sculpture undergoing repair by artist Victoria Accardi

Feelin’ Schiele

Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head is a painting by the Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Shiele. Painted in 1910 when the artist was twenty years old, Shiele uses gouache, watercolor, charcoal and pencil on paper to create the dark outlines, soft hues and protracted angles that emphasize the potent image and feeling of the work.

In the piece the model’s hand is wrenched behind his head pulling his face back at an awkward angle so that the standing figure is almost grotesquely turned towards the viewer. The lower portion of his mouth and chin is hidden behind his left shoulder. His entire left arm functions as an entry into the painting leading directly to the intense stare of the artist at the slightly skewed left but relatively central peak of the painting. The waist to head figure extends vertically from the top to bottom edges of the painting set upon a warm background paper of a subtle flesh-like color.

This painting can be viewed in the Neue Galerie in New York City. The Neue is devoted to the art of German and Austrian artists from the early twentieth century. Schiele’s work is found on the second floor in a room full of drawings and sketches of primarily his and Gustav Klimt’s work. Shiele was a sort of protégé of Klimt and their work complements each other well.

As is the museum’s tendency, the paintings and drawings are under glass in many rows and columns.  Some of the pieces are lost under the glare of the light’s reflection, or the sheer height of their placement on the wall, but seeing them all together is quite impressive.

Shiele was recognized early on in his life as a very talented artist. The Expressionist movement began in Germany at the end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s and is exemplified and enhanced by artists such as: Munch, Klimt, Kadinsky and Klee. They are all recognized as using a more subjective focus to evoke feelings and ideas in their work, which is the hallmark of expressionism.

While still a young man in his twenties, Schiele entered World War I and, just a few days after his pregnant wife of three years died of Spanish influenza, he himself succumbed to this same illness that took so many lives at the end of that war. His racy work got him into some trouble with the law regarding morality, but given his youth, one is left to wonder what direction this extremely gifted artist would have gone in had he had a longer life.

Shiele painted many self-portraits in his short career as well as a plethora of female (some of uncomfortable youth) studies.  Most art is made with the intent of being seen and appreciated someday by someone, but Shiele’s interest in female genitalia and sex as subject matter explore his attempts at working through his own youthful, yet human, concerns, angst and sexual preoccupations. Certainly the graphic nature of some of his subject matter limited the intended audience of his art; he took an audacious philosophical stance regarding what some considered the pornographic nature of his work by standing by what he considered the “sacred” aspect of erotic art. Even in this self-portrait, the dark intensity is startling- the sexual power is evident.

All art is expressionistic by nature, but Shiele’s use of the ideas and techniques of this movement are magnificent. The force and power of Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head is extraordinary and a testament to the ability of art to give perfect expression to all that we as human beings feel. By drawing on the anxiety, love, malaise, and inspiration that we all feel, a work of art has the ability to mirror and give a kind of solace of communion to the viewer. In this piece, one feels an understanding of a certain fierce self-loathing enmeshed in self-fascination.

At the time that Self Portrait With Arm Twisting Above Head was painted it may have been received with some hostility, especially coming out of an age of more realistic interpretations of painting. The artists of any “modern movement” always have to contend with the public’s resistance to change and new ideas. However, Sheile was producing his work in a place and time when new ideas were received with more enthusiasm than at most “movement’s” incipient moments. He did not lack for contemporaries pushing the boundaries in all areas: art, architecture, design, politics, and economics: the world was a busy place in the early 1900’s. Never the less, details like the inclusion of pubic hair at the bottom of the painting and the overt physicality of the painting likely disturbed some viewers at that time.

He remains a very popular artist and although his subject matter still presses the confines of polite societal norms, people today are a much more jaded bunch and can look upon most of his paintings with only the occasional blush.

Self Portrait With Arm Twisting is fresh enough today that it would not be out of place on any gallery wall in the Lower East Side of New York. It is alive and energetic, still speaking to modern existential disquietude.

Although the gaunt figure could be seen to signify the cliché of the starving artist or the personal demons of Egon Shiele, it is really more evocative of the all too common emotional starvation and isolation that all people experience at one time or another throughout life. There is something so tender and delicate about the lines within the curved back balanced by the knobby elbows and ribs; but it is the strong outline of his back creating the sensual and feminine negative space, which lends to the fragility of feeling and heartbreaking empathy this painting arouses.

He is a sensitive madman, and isn’t this, after all, the only possible reaction to the world and bodies we find ourselves in? One sees oneself, as well as all that is loved and feared about humanity, in this painting.

Wee Cool

Weegee, At an East Side Murder 1943

I went to see the Weegee: Murder is my Business exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York City this past weekend. Years ago a friend directed a play about Weegee, I don’t remember very much, just the images projected onto the back wall and that it ran in reverse chronology. But it was fun; the photos are fun, despite the content. There is a fantastical quality to Weegee’s photographs. Something of the carnival barker lives in them. The thing I find most interesting is that his most prevalent subject, ostensibly the corpse, is really the spectators: the people surrounding the recently departed – cops, other reporters or excited crowds.  The faces of the spectators place the photos so firmly in the historic period: that moment in time after people were already used to photographic images, but not yet jaded by the over-exposure. In one photo of a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people at Coney Island NO ONE is too cool to look at the camera.

There were other exhibits there as well. The Magnum Contact Sheets were a wonderful example of the off hand beauty found in a process that is now sadly passé. Trent Parks’s 7th Wave and Josef Koudelka’s Prague sheets were wonderful. A contact sheet isn’t a group of perfect photos. It’s that one (or two) perfect photo with all the imperfect ones leading up to and away: the movement that comes across is very nice. And now nostalgic as well.

Chein-Chi Chang and Greg Girard had wonderful photos in the Perspectives exhibit. Chang’s were intimate photos of immigrant families, the composition and rich tones were really beautiful. Girard had a series of photos of American bases mostly in Japan. I found them fascinating; the Japanese personality of place was so completly transformed by the “mini-Americas” that were the bases. It was surreal.

The final exhibit I saw was The Loving Story by Greg Villet. Very nice photographs documenting the Lovings, an interracial couple arrested for “illegally” returning to their home-state as husband and wife. It’s a poignant historical story of racism, forbidden love, and human grace.

Most of us see a lot of photographs everyday, mostly online. Seeing them in person, the scale, the quality of the paper and color was a genuine treat.