Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rhys Davies at Hope and Feathers: "When All My Five and Country Senses See" (Dylan Thomas)

Rhys Davies is the exhibiting artist in a rather unusual “residency” at Hope and Feathers Gallery in Amherst, Massachusetts. Davies’ plan is to honor both his home country -- Wales -- and his new Western Massachusetts home. Throughout the month of June, he will paint the likenesses of Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson onto papers mounted on the gallery’s largest wall. That wall of new images will be in constant view of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows, the room where she wrote all her poetry, in her home across the street. No pressure.

The gallery will be posting new photographs daily of the portraits-in-progress (at The photograph below shows the wall when we visited with the artist (all photographs here are my own). From my photograph’s angle, the Dylan Thomas portion (empty beer mug and Old Holborn box, so far) is shown in the foreground, and the Emily Dickinson is off to the left. This angled photograph will, I hope, display the artist’s lines and shadings, attached papers and textures:

As of this morning, the Emily Dickinson portion of the ongoing painting (posted online by the gallery) shows the view from her bedroom window over the family fields (where the gallery now stands). Davies works with papers on the gallery floor, roughing in images with charcoal and paint, and then places each well-worked fragment of the painting into its chosen spot on the wall. The artist and gallery have set up the space so that Davies is working, as much as possible, within his own regular studio surroundings, which include a teapot and cup, books from his studio, sketches, and drawing and painting materials. There is a bench for visitors to watch as Davies works each day.  Here is Rhys Davies in his gallery “studio”:

The portraits are progressing in dark charcoal, browns, greys and blacks, growing from small details to a larger-scale vision. Here is the finished portriat of Emily Dickinson:

This is serious life and art at the edge. Davies’ (completed) work on the same wall, called “Tryweryn,” [Dryweryn, in the Welsh language] is also created in this emblematic, nearly mythical approach. Davies has pictured the people of a small, agricultural, Welsh-speaking area, displaced by a distant governing body that legislated a dam:

The campaign to save the Tryweryn Valley and the village of Capel Celyn
 from being flooded to supply water to the city of Liverpool began on 20
 December 1955....The personal impact on the residents of Capel Celyn was
 enormous; many were forced to leave homes that had been in their families for
 generations.  Their loss, and all that it represented, has become iconic in Welsh
 politics and in the struggle over the Welsh language.  ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn
 [Remember Tryweryn] remains one of the most powerful slogans in the Welsh
 language and is seen as a rallying call of Welsh nationalism.

Not all the houses were completely destroyed before the construction began and, when the water levels decrease, some become visible once again. Ghosts. Here is Davies’ “Tryweryn”:

Davies first tackled this theme in art school in London, where the distance between Parliament and Wales must have seemed all too real. He says he felt hiraeth, a really deep longing, for home. The paintings then were blue, “large blue graveyard paintings,” he says. Years later, he has returned to the depths of Welsh identity in “Tryweryn,” but, I suspect, with rather more ferocity. Davies has portrayed these people with recognizable features, but these are not exacting portraits: the features are deepened, exaggerated. The heads are like carved stone, with strong expressions; they are both sad and frightening. They are painted at just a bit more than human scale, and yet they are so much larger than we are. Because of the way they are drawn, and the reason that they were drawn, this man and woman stand for a great deal more than themselves. A simple “lifelike” commissioned portrait might only have meaning to those who know the subject. But Davies’ emblematic drawings transform these faces through their particular context. These people stand for the village of Capel Celyn and its valley, gone forever.

“Tryweryn” offers a powerful reminder. Nature, in the form of those gathering clouds, can be indifferent to humans and their fragile farms, but humans often do greater damage. Another work, in the Hope and Feathers Gallery window, drawn in these same dark colors and scale, with figures framed by large, Gothic forms,
seems cut of the same Welsh stone.

This is one style of work by Rhys Davies. But across the room, there is an abrupt shift:

These paintings offer a changed subject, color, and medium; and there’s a foreground-background shift, just for starters. Here is “Mwyar Duon I,” which refers to realism without being, exactly, realistic:

This work reverts to light and flowers, beautiful flowers. We can feel the light hitting the petal and berry shapes and the leaves between them. Then there is a middle band of darker greens (and very delicate blacks). It’s the intricate underlayer and tangle of seeds and twists of stems and flowers reaching past one another to come into the light. The shapes are just heading into the abstract: still organic, but when we concentrate on any specific shape, we find it might just be un-definable as a flower or leaf that we know. The imagination here is heady, free, and fully at play, in ways that are different from the paintings on the adjoining wall.

The second large painting (the two bookend some smaller studies) “Mwyar Duon II” enters into a deeper color palette of greens and deep blues, with deeper shadows and many crossings-over of insistent lines.

These are flowers, too, but these have an abstract majesty to them. It is as if we wandered into a ruined church, only to be confronted suddenly by a massive window of dignified stained glass. Take any small section of this work and it won’t look like flowers at all... it will be deep imagination...  but, back up and see the whole and suddenly we are confronted by that insane overgrowth of green and riots of color that happen in New England every spring.

I asked Davies what accounts for the variation in subject, from “Tryweryn” to these thick explorations of natural growth? He seemed surprised by the question. “It’s all one, for me,” he said, “ the same.”

How is it the same? How does an artist go from one set of topics to a very distinct other, sharing only a time frame and a formal technique?

We can say it might be the artist’s common source, that the story of the flooded village told in blacks and browns is, of course, related not only to the Welsh people there but to its farms with their colorful crops; the dirt and plants, flooded in shadows or surviving in pinks and bright pinks, blues and greens, all part of Davies’ growing up with a consciousness formed by Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin).  Two subjects, presented through the eyes of one consciousness.

Or it could be an interesting “other.”  A woman who was visiting at the opening said to me, in an offhand way, “these seem Rousseau-ian.”  “Yes,” I said, “they are.”  And then I forgot about it until this morning.

And I looked through all my art books and throughout the web, because Henri Rousseau was not one of “my” artist people.  I do believe now that my oversight was a big mistake. Rousseau wanted to be William-Adolphe Bourgereau, a traditional painter of nudes accepted and lauded by the French Academie. But he wasn’t; he was much more. Picasso praised him during Rousseau’s lifetime, then disowned him later (as he would anxiously disown all of his important influences). Take a look at Rousseau’s first “jungle” painting, from 1891, “Tiger in a Tropical Storm: Surprised!”:

There was a show of Rousseau works, “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” at the National Gallery of Art in 2005, and it travelled to the Tate Modern in 2006. It was a revelation to the critics, many of whom, like me, never thought much of Rousseau’s influential art-historical place. Here is a perceptive critic on the Rousseau he saw at the Tate:

[these were] pictures created on the scale of salon historical paintings, yet in a style calculated to resemble children’s illustration run amok.... There was a method, and an ambition, behind his assumed naivety .... [the paintings] are self-evidently too artful, too carefully conceived, to have been the products of mere unformed impulse .... No-one, before Rousseau, had made painting look so much like dreaming. 
                  Andrew Graham-Dixon, “Henri Rousseau, Jungles in Paris”
                  06 Nov 2005,

And suddenly I saw it. I saw the connection. Both Rousseau and Davies paint “on the scale of salon historical paintings,” but they both play extravagantly with subject matter. Rousseau painted jungles he never saw (he never left France, and visited botanical gardens and relied on postcards and the zoo for his inspiration). Davies begins to paint where Rousseau left off, dreams of jungle tangles he has never seen, exactly, either, and monumental faces that represent, but do not precisely resemble, the troubled farmers of his corner of Wales.

It’s the imagination, stupid.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Line Between the Abstract and the Figurative, at The Greene Art Gallery

The Boston Post Road through Guilford, Madison, and Clinton, Connecticut is filled with elegant 18th- and 19th-century houses, many with private beaches; the two-mile long Hammonasset State Beach is the best point of public access. But for sightings of marshes and birds, New England houses, and a beautiful village green, you must consider visiting the Guilford Green and walking down the lane to the Greene Art Gallery.  You might know Guilford from the arts and crafts fair, held on the green each summer (this year, its 58th,  July 17-19, 2015).  Whether or not you visit the fair, come and see the works at this gallery, year round; the range and quality of work is exciting to see.

Richard Greene founded the gallery in 1977, and his widow, Kathryn, continues to engage a fine and varied group of artists.  And she is happy to talk about the art on display, or to invite visitors to wander through quietly and take in the artists’ work. The gallery is located in an updated, bright and (recently expanded) barn, and the art spills out to the quiet side lawn with several sculptures that move in the breeze.

Greene has chosen several strong pieces of representational art. One that stays with me, “First Light,” an oil by Connecticut painter Susan Fehlinger, is a small, stunning work, capturing a soft New England morning before the shoreline is awake:

The porch is empty, the sea just visible, and the hints of purple and red set off the overall rich greens beautifully.  And the multiple shades and shadows of yellow and green paints pull the angles of the house into clearer focus and also ... pulls us in.

A west-coast artist,  Matt O’Callaghan, presents photographs that are printed on metallic paper.  All we see, initially, is a clear surfer’s wave:

 But then, we step closer, and we see the reason for the photograph’s title, “South Shack, San Diego.” 

Houses bathed in yellow and white light cling to the Southern California cliffs, palm trees waving overhead: we can SEE these through the curve of the wave.  Yes, it’s a real photograph, the moment of time on camera catching the glimpse in a way the eye can’t quite do.

Further playing with the ways to “re-present,” Clio Newton’s portraits (along with an amazing still life, pewter arranged over shelves) are featured this month in the gallery extension. Her work seems, from a distance, to be photorealist, but as the viewer comes closer to the work, the brushwork is fully evident and the details of the painting lean towards the abstract. Here is a charcoal drawing, “Girl in Chair,” by Newton which might illustrate this combination of a work that is figurative-from-afar, yet, as we study the effects, we can see traces of the artist’s skilled hand:

This is from; available paintings by Newton at the Greene Gallery can be viewed at (and, of course, in person).  Clio Newton is working full-on illusion; is the girl here? Will she step out from the canvas?

Newton’s figures contrast with those painted by another gallery artist, Dolph Lemoult.  His works play more fully on the boundary, leaping between abstract and representational. These portraits are immersed, in context, in a kind of foreground-background dance. The artist (a former ad man) is not trying to give us “real” human faces; he has chosen aspects of “face-ness” to give us.  Here is “American Mezzotint: Bad Girls”:

The women are not coming away from their nightclub stage; they take us, instead, into the painting, onto their stage.  The painting called “Say Goodnight, Gracie” offers a sensual Gracie Allen:

 As you can see from the detail, the lines trail off, into the imagination. He is working that (unsee-able) line between what we know and what we cannot see. My favorite work of his at the gallery is “American Mezzotint: Silence.”

There is something haunting about these figures, and about their very specific enclosure. Is that a city back to the left? Are these Depression-age babies? Is the face in close-up softening into layers of personality and experience? or into paint? as we look... It’s really an extraordinary grouping.  How abstract can a work become before it loses its representational “edge”? 

I think this is a rewarding direction to head into... Go. See. This gallery is a solid presence.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Essex Art Association, and How Do We Judge Art, Anyway?

An artist friend of mine and I have been talking about how to view and judge a work of art. She feels that if the work demonstrates artistic experience and competence, if the colors are blended well, the drawn lines follow the bark on the tree precisely and the shadows are credible, well, then, it's a solid piece of art. And that’s enough.

But I feel that if the first thing I notice is technique? then a trickster, not an artist, has pulled me in.

Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that 

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. 

(Higginson reported Dickinson’s comment in a letter to his wife, 16 August 1870)


I think that the visual arts should be “felt” in this same way. And that makes it pretty subjective. Two exhibitions currently on in Connecticut are a good test for me of just how “personal” art can feel.

The Essex Art Association (on Main Street in Essex, Connecticut) has opened "Mixed Bag," their Spring Juried Exhibition. This very strong show consists of 80 works chosen from 246 entries. Jeff Cooley, the owner of a gallery in Old Lyme, Connecticut, juried the exhibition, which is on view through May 23, 2015. The space is large and open and there’s more than enough room for art and viewers. I would like to single out the 3 works from the show that stay with me, days later.

The bright colors balanced by dark blues, and some of the brushstrokes, in Claire Crosby’s watercolor, “The Last Café,” are Matissean.  Like his work, Crosby’s shapes come forward into, but then pull away from, a sense of figuration. 
The central dark brushed rectangle may be a garden doorway, or it may be a geometric form, offsetting the organic borders. This is a bold and striking use of watercolors, and quite beautiful.

Thomas Stavovy received “Best in Show” for a monotype called “Dappled,” 
but I found myself drawn to Stavovvy’s etching called “Tonal Gradation.”   

There is something to the mix of vertical soft brown rectangles, overlaid with darker and lighter rounded scribbled lines, that, again, comes and goes, foreground and background alternating. The freedom of marks here is intoxicating.

“Neverland,” a mixed media piece by Pam Erickson, rows of xxxxx’s, stitches, stamps, photographs and collages combine to suggest a series of rejections, and yet, the random placement of all these “messages,” the x-ing lines that just run out and the alluded-to yellow and orange depths promise something more.... cheerful. 

This could be a page lifted from an artist’s book; it has the hand-crafted feel of a transformed text. The title imagines a world of infinite play, and this piece has that feel to me.

The whole truth: I was so intrigued by the show and the artists that I am now a member of the Essex Art Association.  Go and see this show, and the one after that... and check out the website, too:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"thou Bride of Awe"

I have been working through artistic responses to Emily Dickinson's altered books and life... I have an altered book work at The Marin Museum of Contemporary Art (see photos in my previous post) and I have been working on handmade paper purchased on a visit to the Royal Academy in London, working on this paper because it seems rough and simple, textured yet elegant, characteristics I see in Emily Dickinson's poetry. "My Business is Circumference," she announces in one letter, and here is my journal version of the first letters of this word, as written by Emily Dickinson:

The writing is so compelling because, in a way, it's all we have.

Dickinson's manuscripts were bundled, sewn together, and discovered in a drawer after her death.
It isn't clear that she wanted them printed. But it is quite clear that she would not have wanted her poems ripped out of their sewn sequences, which is what happened, and her forms made more "regular" and of-her-time. She was an avant-garde and brave poet... How can we ever re-construct her poetic order and desires?

I have two paintings in the Deerfield Arts Bank that incorporate my versions of Dickinson's handwriting. I think that the handwriting is, as a contemporary poet, Susan Howe, has argued, visually striking, important, meant, made.

Here is "thou Bride of Awe,"  based on Dickinson's handwritten "Beyond the dip of Bell" in one of her poems, the phrase "thou Bride of Awe" taken from a fragment:

Then, past the handwriting, how to go "beyond" Dickinson's "circumference"? How to get where she was going?

She was going into the world, into the natural, the unnatural. I read "The Poems (We Think) We Know," a lively article by Alexandra Socarides (here: She says that Dickinson quite liked the "beauty" of "nonsense sounds," and that Dickinson writes about "the long sigh of the frog." This is an unexpected rise to a kind of nobility, and Socarides writes that the sound, as she thinks Dickinson hears it,  "brings peace and allows the human who hears it to prepare the way for death."

So to winter, and the death of the colors in nature. Here is my backyard in January:

And here is the same scene, this morning:
I have no frogs, but I have cats (one rather like a lion) and a red squirrel and a fat limping grey squirrel and small birds, all of them wondering about the greens now appearing in the newly-raked yard.  I am merging Emily's handwriting with the fragile recovering sticks of plants. Here is "April green":
And the unexpected shows up quite often in Dickinson; look at the idea of "Beyond the dip of bell." Not beyond a ringing bell, not beyond a shaken bell, but a bell that seems to move and makes sounds of its own accord. She writes outside of symmetry, outside of the world she was expected to inhabit. So, here is "Symmetry," for her:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Arguing for a Long Look at Emily Dickinson

I came across an article on Agnes Martin and Gertrude Stein. Since they are my heroes, I stopped everything I was doing -- working on Emily Dickinson -- to read “The Meanings of Acts: Agnes Martin and the Making of Americans,” by Brendan Prendeville (Oxford Art Journal, 31:1, 2008, pp. 53-73).  Prendeville is questioning the way the artist makes her work, and, in a kind of mirror image, how that directs the way the audience perceives the work of art.

He begins by showing us Agnes Martin’s “Little Sister,” from 1962, (not re-printable: The painting is oil, ink and brass nails on canvas and wood. Martin’s paintings do not reproduce well. They are horizontal ruled lines, in soft penciled greys and whites, usually, and they are very subtle. Here is "Untitled," an 11" square, pencil, ink and watercolor on paper, from 1995:

If you have ever seen Martin’s work for yourself, you know that one of Prendeville’s threaded arguments in this article is true. He finds two views of any given painting: the one you see from across the room, which will look like a regular 5-foot or 6-foot square, seeming perfectly angular, with measured marks. Then there is the one you see when you get close, close enough to touch the canvas; you see the hesitations, the pencil marks, the times the pencil slid almost imperceptibly out of grip, the ever-so-slight deviations, almost like little breaths. Prendeville calls these “the trace of her actions” (54).

He uses Stein in this essay as she relates to this mark-making of Martin’s: Stein was interested in what she called “the continuous present,” which Prendeville describes as “the present as we live it now, making it as we make it; the reader of a Stein text participates in its making of the present” (and he cites Ulla Dydo, to whom we are all indebted for a better understanding of Stein, 69).  The “making” is something we see in Stein, and we see it through her repetitions and her insistence on seeing the object....

Voilà. When we get close to an Agnes Martin, when we read a Gertrude Stein sentence or poem aloud, we are following the maker’s trail. And by the way we respond, do we “make” the piece, too? This makes Prendeville uncomfortable, as it should; doesn’t the artist have any more control than that? And so he asks: “Under what conditions and by what means is a non-arbitrary response to a work possible, when the maker of the work has not aimed to prompt any response?” (56).

Exactly. The audience. How to control them?

As I mentioned, I have been reading Emily Dickinson... She discussed her work in letters, sent a few to friends, and perhaps a dozen or so poems were published in her lifetime.  There is strong evidence that she did not seek traditional publication: “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her – if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase – My Barefoot-Rank is better—“ (letter to T.W. Higginson, June 1862). When Dickinson died, her sister found 40 bound packets, known to scholars now as “fascicles,” roughly 5” x 8,” consisting of folded leaves of paper tied together with string, and several poems were hand-copied and bound into each fascicle.  In the very first editing of Dickinson’s work, the fascicles were all disbound. One of the transcribers ripped out passages in the poems and letters, and inked over one full poem.  Other editors replaced words, changed the appearance on the page of poems, and created “normal” punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.  Even the most well-intentioned scholars and editors cannot un-alter Emily Dickinson’s life and work.

And these, we are given to believe, are the good guys, the people who brought you the poems.  We cannot know how to find our way back.  There is no thesaurus, no key.

There isn’t for Agnes Martin, either. Prendeville argues that Martin’s models were Pollock, Rothko and Newman. He says, though, that in their paintings, these artists were not pursuing “recognizable common reference.” Each painting, “in its abstractness... withheld itself and, still more, enacted on the part of the viewer a committed act of attention – a personal commitment .... meaning needed to be elicited” (57).  And so it is with Martin. She demands that we stop and stand and commit. We have to see her hesitating pencil lines.

And who else hesitates? Emily Dickinson. Think of the way the words (when they are presented truly, or when you look at a manuscript) scatter across the page like rising birds. Think of her dashes, which appear in the ms. as dots, and her refusal to use titles or numbers. Here is my transcription of one of her poems from her handwriting. Note the hesitations, the way we are forced to take special care with both words and spaces:

I saw no way – the
Heavens were stitched –
I felt the Columns close.
The earth reversed her
Hemispheres –
I touched the Universe.

And back it slid.
And I alone –
A speck upon a Ball
Went out upon Circum-
Beyond the dip of Bell.

Emily Dickinson wrote to her mentor  T.W. Higginson (and later editor and changer of words) that “My Business is Circumference” (July 1862). And here she is in her poetry, defying the stitchery, riding out upon “Circumference,” far away from mortal sight or sound (a strange thing for this poet to wish for), she who, in life, went only as far as Boston.

Susan Howe, in her fabulous My Emily Dickinson, takes on the stereotype of the sheltered and strange “Miss Dickinson”:

[She] took the scraps from the separate ‘higher’ female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and ‘unladylike’ outside reading.... She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders.... a ‘sheltered’ woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer.... He might pause, She hesitated. Sexual, racial, and geographical separation are at the heart of Definition.... if we concern ourselves with the deepest Reality, is this world of the imagination the same for men and women? What voice when we hesitate and are silent is moving to meet us? (21-22)

What voice, indeed? [Think too of the hesitations and repetitions built into a David Mamet play – the hesitations, in his hands, of men]. Who is this audience standing on (what Prendeville calls) such “uncertain ground” (58)? And what are our responsibilities?

Prendeville writes that, as we stand close to an Agnes Martin, “our instinctive focusing of attention, to discern something in the thing attended to, is in some way thwarted, or deflected....” There is no “resolution,” only an “overall ‘dissonance’” (65).  Yes, and this is the thing about our readings of Emily Dickinson; we all work to “resolve,” but as we do, we cram her poems into categories, as her first editors did (“flower” poems or “death” poems).  She wasn’t categorize-able, didn’t want to be pushed into the sewing corner. She was aiming at dissonance, too: I read “Beyond the dip of Bell” several times before I heard it as the stilled buoy or clapper.  This use of “dip” is the only time I can find it performing this function, a physical way of calling to our attention an auditory anomaly. There are easier ways to say what was said here. Her world was constricted. Her language and her form are not.

We have to take care. Prendeville ends by saying that “to be drawn close” to a Martin painting “is to apprehend her care in making the painting, and to assume the posture of care and affectionate concern oneself .... [her work] vindicates intimacy” (71).

A reader of Dickinson’s poetry must wander into it on her terms.  The poet’s brother, Austin Dickinson, the keeper of his sister’s purse, influenced one of the first sets of transcriptions of her poems. His mistress, Mabel Todd Lewis, copied out poems, making them available soon after the poet’s death, but she also inked over at least one entire poem 

and omitted or cut out phrases or stanzas or sentences in poems or letters, all because Dickinson spoke too warmly of Austin Dickinson’s wife, Susan.  Was she assuming a romantic love? Was she just jealous of their friendship, she who had never met the poet? Or was she asserting her power?

We must not do any of these things. We cannot project, reject, cross-out or compartmentalize Emily Dickinson. because that has all already happened. We must start again. We must place ourselves before her handwriting and find her mark-making... and try and listen "Beyond the dip of Bell."

[Thanks to Brendan Prendeman, to Susan Howe, and to Amherst College. I have created a work on Dickinson, called "Missing Emily," for the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art's Altered Book and Book Arts Exhibition. Find your way there... and help Marin MOCA].

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, the Cathedral, and Regrets

The mind cannot always live in a 'divine ether.' The lark cannot always sing at heaven's gate. There must exist a place to spring from -- a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought. Study gives this anchorage: study ties you down; and it is the occasional willful release from this voluntary bond that gives the soul its occasional overpowering sense of lyric freedom and effort.  Study is the resting place -- poetry the adventure" 
(Wallace Stevens, from his journal, 1899).

I like it best when the lark sings at heaven’s gate... but, for whatever reason, it isn’t – it actually can’t be -- a constant thing. “And why not?”  you ask.  I can’t be in the studio for too many hours; I begin to make mistakes, because I need time away from the work, too. The “adventure” that is poetry or painting needs its preparatory and anticipatory phases, and needs to be remembered and re-collected so that it can be faced again, with new energy, another day. The “ether” is a demanding state of mind, and needs every artist to approach it ... with great care.

1. Gimme Shelter

One definition of being “ether” is to burn, or to shine; humans can remain in an ecstatic state for only so long. Our son sent us a lovely essay by John Le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here is a short excerpt:

A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you .... Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death .... Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it. (

Le Carré suggests that Hoffman was all too aware of the dangerous pull of the dazzle. It would be very difficult, if Le Carré is right, for Hoffman -- or any truly empathetic receptor -- to shut down all the systems. It would be possible, I am guessing, to think that, once shut down, the senses may not -- ever again -- open back up. But it is a risk, leaving yourself so open to the brightest of lights; Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said “but this is my solitude, that I am girded round with light” (“Night Song”).  There’s a loneliness in being in the artistic avant-garde, and it can kill.

A lucky few can shut down the systems, and then they have learned the ways to open themselves up: one method is the choice of solitude. Agnes Martin finally settled into artistic isolation, finding her artistic voice in New Mexico.

you don’t have to worry
if you can imagine that you’re a rock
all your troubles fall away
It’s consolation
Sand is better
You’re so much smaller as a grain of sand
We are so much less
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world
from worldliness ....
Don’t look at the stars
Then your mind goes freely – way, way beyond  (Writings, pp. 39-40)

Martin was open, but open to her own mind, her own path. Martin saw herself as small, her art as the big thing. She wanted to find what she called “classic” truth in her art, an objective vision. For that, she says, she can only “turn to perfection as I see it in my mind, and as I also see it with my eyes even in the dust” (16).

Agnes Martin advised that “innocence” of the mind, of play, “must be protected as the source” of her art, of her life (139). Innocence is not something grown-ups tend to pursue, but Martin says that’s what there is, that’s all there is. She went into her mind so deeply to find that innocence and renew it -- in paint.

My husband is currently reading James Lee Burke’s Pegasus Descending, a well-written whodunit (with pretty tough villains). One of the characters says

You got to remember who you are so you don’t become like the people around you. Each night you tell yourself over and over you got a special place inside you where you live. It’s like a private cathedral no one can touch. That’s the secret to sanity... But you can’t tell anyone about your special place .... Because once they know you got that special place in your head, they’ll strap you down and kill your brain cells with electroshock (p. 171).

Maybe you don’t need to worry very much about “the people around” you -- and that little “electroshock” threat should be seen as perfect Burkean overkill. But the cathedral inside you that “no one can touch”?  It has to be there. That “place inside you where you live” keeps you happy in your own skin, and able and willing to face another day, as Burke’s character knows. We all look for that “secret to sanity.” Agnes Martin tells us it is in one’s own mind, if we can just hold still enough to find it. James Lee Burke -- whose art could not be more different from hers -- says it’s in there, too.

Here is a painting of mine that plays on the idea that "Everyone, Inside, is a Cathedral":

But then there’s an artist like Jasper Johns. He doesn’t talk much about his artistic sources, and people apparently see that as a challenge. A small book of photographs of Johns’s work was published by Rizzoli in 1997. The book’s only text is by Leo Castelli, who has known Jasper Johns since signing him in 1957 to his gallery and thus into art-world stardom. Here are a few excerpts from Castelli’s essay:

*”How else can we explain...” (7)
*” ...the artist seems to be...” (7)
*”... the artist places within our reach new, enigmatic elements... I believe that these elements reflect a sense of theatricality...” (12)
*”... they carry a message that we must decipher...” (13)
* “I am convinced...” (13)
*”the Mona Lisa that we find... can scarcely be anything but...” (italics mine; 14)

We can see only hesitation, guesswork and great distance from Jasper Johns in Castelli’s remarks. Over 40 years, and Johns has not let him in.

2. Must We Dig Straight On Through the Canvas?

In her book on Jasper Johns, teasingly called Privileged Information, Jill Johnston concludes that  John’s art,

considered as a whole ... can look like a giant collage of cross-references, of narratives inside narratives, or narratives completed by linkages from painting to painting, close or far in time – some guiding core story tied up secretly within (53).

There’s a story in there somewhere, Johnston insists; she wants to find that “guiding core story.”  Perhaps because of her dedication to tracking that “story” down, Jasper Johns refused permission for Johnston to reproduce any photographs of his art in her book about his work.

This limitation on Johnston leads her to talk about the images in the abstract, and, then, the artist in the particular. In one section, Johnston discusses Johns’s sexual partners, something no-one needs to do in relation to the art, and then moves on to link perceived personal loss to a series of works that Johns had begun in the 1980’s, works that included traced outlines of figures. Critics found the source, eventually; it was the amazing Isenheim Altarpiece. Johns says of his initial impulse that

‘I thought how moving it would be to extract the abstract quality of the work, its patterning, from the figurative meaning. So I started making these tracings. Some became illegible in terms of the figuration, while in others I could not get rid of the figure. But in all of them I was trying to uncover something else in the work, some other kind of meaning.’ ....  [And Johnston then asks] What ‘other kind of meaning was he after?’ (283-5)

The source of the tracings found, Johnston is now after a meaning. But look at what Johns has actually said:  he is moved to extract the patterns from Grünewald’s original story. That is, the pattern is no longer part of the narrative, because Johns pulls it out and it’s now free-floating. That’s the point ... a fallen soldier becomes just an outline, perhaps like the lines of a radiator. Let me explain.

Michael Crichton has written a very thorough book on Johns, with photographs, and quotes him:

Early in his career, he said people should be able to look at a painting ‘the same way you look at a radiator .... No special vision or knowledge was required (32)

But to Johnston, the idea that, sometimes, a line is just a line, is just not it. About the dead-end she has reached with the Grünewald figure, she writes

In his paranoia, Johns has emphasized the importance of the figures’ identity himself .... Feeling cornered, Johns cornered himself, threw a blanket over his head and yelled a muffled image from inside: ‘I know who I am, but you’ll never see or find me. Anyway the pattern on the blanket that covers me is really all there is. I’m dead, these are my remains’ (italics are Johnston’s; p. 285).

Jasper Johns is not speaking, there is no corner, no blanket, Johns is not dead, and there are no “remains.” Clearly, Johnston has run into a wall, and isn’t fond of the after-effects.

Back to our radiator-friendly critic, then.  Michael Crichton’s introduction to his book JASPER JOHNS, (first published in 1977, reprinted in an expanded 1994 edition), begins with a quotation from the psychologist Jerome Bruner:

There is a deep question whether the possible meanings that emerge from an effort to explain the experience of art may not mask the real meanings of a work of art (p. 6).

The effort to explain the experience can disturb the experience. The work itself is the thing. We might turn to the critics at our leisure, but should not before we have  encountered the work on our own and found our own responses.

Hasn’t Johns said – or not said anything but -- that, over and over? The work is the thing. And yet, the critics’ need to explain is palpable. The idea that they possess a set of insights about a given art work that only they can articulate constitutes the core of their art-world identities.  

Not Crichton, who offers process and a sight of the surface of the artist’s works. He finds leitmotifs, but leaves calmly: enough has been said. 

John Yau is similarly clear and clean in his A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns. Yau quotes Scott Rothkopf, who says the critics embarked on an “iconographic truffle hunt” when faced with the paintings of the 1990’s (note 3, page 178).  Yau concludes that

Once we try to read Johns’s iconographically, we inevitably become lost .... The motifs are not symbols to be decoded, but, as Johns wrote in his ‘Sketchbook Notes,’ ‘things’ placed in a ‘continuity of some sort ...’  where there are no boundaries between the ‘space’ and the ‘objects.’  .... For Johns it seems that ‘continuity is reality, a realm of invariable change and transformation. Nothing is fixed or permanent” 
                        --A Thing Among, (p. 166)

Yau goes on to say that this sense of continuity is Johns’s ‘sense of life”: the absence of boundaries, change, seen through his eyes, and placed in his paintings, and seen with the visitors’ senses (166).  No absolutes. Yau says “we should resist” narrative as we look at these paintings (192).

3.  “Regrets”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art curators, Christopher Cherix and Ann Temkin, visited Jasper Johns last year in his studio, saw the body of work on the walls, and hastily arranged an exhibition of the work, “Regrets” at MOMA, showing right now. I’m on the wrong coast to see it, but I now do have the catalogue, with a splendid essay by Cherix and Temkin.  The title for the show comes from a stamp Johns developed to answer invitations: the word “regrets,” and a signature. He has silk-screened the original stamp to embed in the works of this series, and here it is from the upper corner of "Study for Regrets":

The curators begin their discussion by saying that “for Johns, the painting’s subject is the painting” (11).  It isn’t some abiding “guiding core story,” but changing approaches, and changing results.

This series of works begins with a photograph printed in a Christie’s auction catalogue. The photo portrays Lucian Freud as he turned awkwardly away, all angles, from the camera. Francis Bacon had commissioned the photograph from his friend John John Deakin, and it became the base for an oil “Study for Self-Portrait” – with Freud’s body and Bacon’s head -- before spending rather a lot of time on the floor of Bacon’s studio.

Johns apparently likes the idea of an upturned, overturned, caught-in-space body, because it gives him great lines to play with in his paintings. Here are the two astonished soldiers at the base of the “Resurrection” panel of the Isenheim altarpiece, followed by the Freud photograph:

And here is “Perilous Night,” with the red outlines of the soldiers’ bodies on the left, followed by “Study for Regrets,” which inverts the photo of Freud at left, and reproduces the outlines as they were photographed, at right, from the show’s catalogue, (Plate One, with my reading notes):

Some of the works in this series are “undeniably physical,” the curators tell us, as they reproduce “Regrets,” a charcoal, watercolor and pastel drawing, which should be studied “inch by inch” (27). Here is a detail:

This catalogue, and exhibition, give us Johns’s unfolding process over 18 months. But the curators say, “like all great works, they remain ultimately unknowable. They create a constellation of potential meanings as intricate as the very materials that compose them” (32).

Fun as the “truffle hunt” sometimes can be, this is as close as we will ever get, as close as we should get, to Johns’s cathedral.