Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gertrude Stein, Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko and Larry Rivers: The "Real" Work

“An audience never does prove to you that you are you”
                                          from “Identity A Poem,” summer 1935, Gertrude Stein

In her wonderful Gertrude Stein Reader, Ulla Dydo offers corrected and annotated Stein texts.  In her introduction to this small “play,” called “Identity A Poem,” Dydo notes that Stein is very tempted by “’audience writing,’” because she is thinking too much about what an audience would want. This was a state of mind that Stein’s new post-Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas  life (and American book tour) had given her.  Fame paralyzed Stein’s best writing. She knew that, and was trying to keep herself focused on what she called the “human mind,” which, Dydo explains, “is free of time, memory, identity, and free of the human need for applause” (p. 588).  The line above is a little reminder from Stein to … herself.

We all need these little reminders.  Stein’s audience wanted more of the stories about Matisse and Picasso and life in Paris and … but she wanted to return to writing the works that are still, after all these years, resistant and very, very Modern. And Stein still, even after she became famous, had to pay to publish that work herself. Alice B. Toklas continued to publish (the “resistant” texts) after Stein’s death.

It was heroic, really, all of it.  But Stein had gotten to a place, fairly early on (I think it was with Tender Buttons, myself) where she knew what she wanted to write. 

How does one do that? How does a person discover the way? I think you have to just keep looking until you find it.  You have to accept, along the way, that maybe you never will truly find your own style, the style so obvious and wonderful that you can stay with it forever, the way Stein did, molding and adjusting and not minding (mostly) if the audience can’t hear the rhythms the way you do.

Is the discovery interior? Perhaps we just need solitude, time to ourselves, time to work hard. The painter Agnes Martin’s writings call for this kind of solitude, and they can seem so authoritative.  And, yet, her authoritative voice only arrived after multiple failures. Consider this, an early “New Mexican Mountain Landscape” by Martin:

Martin wrote that “I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like ant hills.”  (And she was right!).  But she continued to try:  “I saw the plain driving out of New Mexico and I thought the plain had it ….  [Now,] when I draw horizontals/ you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like/ you’re expanding over the plane” (“The Untroubled Mind”).  Martin turned a “plain” into a “plane.” The sheer simplicity of her lines and rectangles overwhelmed the realistic landscapes and won.  She writes “Defeated you will stand at the door of your house to welcome the unknown, putting behind you all that is known” (“On the Perfection Underlying Life”).   She takes a ruler and a pencil and begins -- but only once she has seen the full painting in her mind.  Here is a painting -- with more color than usual – by Martin, called “Stars”:

I think I also read somewhere that Martin tried to destroy all her early work.  But I am glad that she didn’t get every last piece.  We need to know, the rest of us, that she didn’t always know what she was doing.  Martin is not alone in her radical change of style; look at Mark Rothko’s early piece, “Number 26, 1947”:

Now, I really like this painting, actually; it is a perfectly credible AbEx accomplishment.  I wonder what it was that drove Rothko on until he found the layered blocks of color. Here, “Number 14, 1960” (

I don’t have any of Rothko’s writings that explain this shift. How did he know that the earlier works were not enough?  Was Rothko wanting to distinguish himself from the other AbEx painters? Or was it that he felt something inside of him was not getting expressed?  I know that he was intense, that he felt the work he finally arrived at was not meant to be “abstract” but, instead, tragic, filled with emotion. But I would like to know the ways the work unfolded to its end.  

The third painter whose changed work interests me is Larry Rivers.  Here is “Studio Interior” from 1948:

I think it’s clear why Rivers had to keep working through this style. It seems both Matissean and Van Gogh-esque (if that is even possible).  It has no air. The painting is stilted, false, and begs for a really long, tough conversation with the artist.  Here’s a later work, a “true” Rivers, with AbEx brush strokes and superimposed figures and Pop references, “Matisse and the Model”:

What a relief that must have been.  Maybe Agnes Martin said it best: “I thought that I was big and the work was small. It is not possible to go on that way.”

And maybe that’s what each of them saw: the work was too “small.”  I wonder, you know, I wonder about this searching for the perfect artistic creation.  It’s about the perfect piece of art, the one that you know is it. It’s the same search that we all have for the landscape that seems like “home.”  In the end, it really isn’t about audience, I think; it may be more about Stein’s idea of the “human mind.”  It’s one’s own realizations, restlessness, a longing for the art to seem “real.”  It doesn’t matter if we live in relative solitude, or become part of a wider artistic movement; we just have to be happy with the art we make. What about you? Have you decided on the “forever” work?


  1. So many brilliant pieces of art! In response to what you said about searching for the perfect artistic creation... this is surely a blank page, faultless in its tonal distribution, barer of the perfectly ballanced composition. But why would anyone want that? Perfection is boring, there is no character in perfection, no life, no power, no elegance! Art shouldn't be perfect in my eyes :)
    I love Rothko's early work, but have found that his later work needs to be experianced to be fully appreciated, internet thumbnails and even colour plates in books don't seem to do them any credit.

  2. Yes, you definitely need to SEE a Rothko, or preferably a room filled with several. Just when I think I am seeing purple, other colors come in layers, or at the edges. A Rothko isn't "perfect" to me ... I love the imperfections of the brushstrokes... but it was obviously the right pursuit for him... and how did he KNOW that?? Hmmm.