Tag Archives: Chaim Gross

Craft and Process: Tools and “wild ‘reserves’ for enlightened knowledge.”

I begin with a picture of me, but one where I am only an incidental subject.

I am sitting in the studio of Chaim Gross at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation in Greenwich Village during an event on Chaim’s birthday March 17 (b.1902-1991). Because of a lifelong friendship with the Gross family, I feel I am at home in a space where I will not be judged, so I am comfortable sitting alone without feeling any necessity to fill the social space with small talk with strangers. I can take a few minutes of contemplation in Chaim’s studio. This space, even cleaned up and staged for its function in a museum, is a different kind of studio than the ones I often visit in my professional capacity as a teacher, where such tools are not available to the artist, both for practical reasons and also, sometimes, for ideological ones. I  am surrounded by Chaim’s artworks, some of his art collection, and by his wonderful tools. I am surrounded by color and materiality and the purpose of craft.This is officially a historical space, a museum; it is an encapsulation or a representation of a practice which is not only historic but historicized. Someone has caught me unawares, as I consider how I am being historicized through my own craft practice, as “someone who uses art supplies to make art,” as a friend has recently described my rare and dying breed, through my knowledge of these spaces and the practices that took place within them, through such associations that I cannot erase, that is, historicized through that inevitable but shocking process wherein the valuable knowledge one acquires over a life time is suddenly held by some as irrelevant to the problems of the present and the future.

A few moments after this picture was taken, I turned my head slightly and focused on a chair.

It is just a chair, an earlier era’s successful design for a work chair of adjustable height. It is also delicately ornate, with an art nouveau line. And it is old, so the wood and metal framework have a patina that maybe were not part of its original condition, but the curving lines, the darkened metal, and the worn and stained wood concentrate my attention: here is something that offers an alternative to the current design of chairs favored by institutions.

Theoretical discourse does not elect to keep practices at a distance, so that first it has to leave its own place to analyze them and then by simply inverting them may find itself at home. The partitioning (découpage) that it carries out, it also repeats. This partitioning is imposed on it by history. Procedures without discourse are collected and located in an area organized by the past and giving them the role, a determining one for theory, of being constituted as wild “reserves” for enlightened knowledge. (Michel de Certeau, p64 The Practice of Everyday Life)

Some of Chaim’s tools are on view,

The studio is in an order and a degree of cleanliness that is a function of its being a museum, not a place of current work. But Chaim was a professional man and a craftsman so I am sure that his tools were kept in good order in this system he worked out for himself.

Chaim was one of the three men in my childhood who I was able to observe at work or at least was able to observe the working studios of.

The painter Jack Tworkov was another. He too cared deeply about quality of craftsmanship, whether it was how to construct the surface of a painting or restore the surface of an old oak table or bone and stuff a leg of lamb, and his tools were remarkably well organized and maintained.

The first and most important artist I was able to observe at work was my father Ilya Schor. Today is his birthday: he was born in Zloczow, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, April 16, 1904.

As a teenager he was apprenticed to an engraver and goldsmith before he went to art school. This seems to have been the remainder of a European craft guild system and the tools were probably closer to those of the 15th century than to today’s. For example, soldering was done by propelling the flame through a tube using with one’s own breath. My father used to smoke 4 packs a day in those years, but, a young man, he could do that.

Ilya Schor c.1920 (at the left)

In 1937 he brought this drill from Poland to Paris, where he still used it, and from Paris to Marseilles, and from Marseilles to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to New York. This drill survived the Holocaust. Of course he did not use it anymore when I watched him work, he had an electric drill. But he showed me how the old one worked. It was clear that it was archaic, even for him, but it created a living bridge bringing me as close to when men made fire by striking two flints together as to the technologies of my own time.

Watching him engrave on hardwood was a great show: his movements were careful, accurate, but also swift and deft. I loved watching him roll out the thick black printer’s ink on a piece of glass, and I loved the rounded wood tool that rubbed the paper against the block to catch the ink smoothly, and finally I loved the revelation of the reverse image when the paper was pulled from the block.

To hold small silver objects secure while he engraved them, he embedded them into tar, which he softened with the flame of a Bunsen burner. The tar formed the top surface of a T-shaped block of wood which fit into the slot of a heavy base which he could swivel with his left hand while engraving with his right. The two part base is made of solid metal, the spherical section is like the turning orb of the earth, and with a similar density, I’m pretty sure it is made of lead.

This was all a long time ago. Around the world, artisans today may still use similar tools but technological transformations in the production of sculpture, images, and objects of all kinds are always privileged signs of contemporaneity. If they were starting out their art lives today, these three artists, born within four years of each other, all from the area of the pale of settlement, Chaim, Jack, and Ilya, would most likely be at the forefront of technological innovation, bringing as much ability and ingenuity to new methods of production as they exhibited with the tools they were given. People sometimes ask me if I am tempted to take up my father’s tools, the way my mother did after my father died, but the craft is in fact very hard, physically arduous, and without much beyond the most basic training even harder, and if I sometimes consider having some of my mother’s jewelry produced as multiples (another story for another day), I think more in terms of 3D printing in plastic! But if they would have opted for the new, if I too would opt for the new, nevertheless there was a tremendous satisfaction for them in their ability to manipulate materials, of a job well done in the working day, and there was tremendous pleasure for me in watching them work. I still love watching things being made. And most importantly, it was evident even to me as a child that there was an intelligence in the craft, in the gesture.

Returning to the chair in Chaim’s studio, it became a figure in a painting, in which furniture of the “hot desk” studio of the present/future and of the old painting studio of the past exist in a perpetually reversible relation of metaphoric temperature.

 

 

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Day by Day in the Studio 13: August 15

Tomorrow August 16, the exhibition Abstract Marriage: Sculpture by Ilya Schor and Resia Schor opens at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. This exhibition brings to fruition a project I first thought of about five years ago. People have suggested to me that this will be a very emotional experience for me. Of necessity, in order to function, I have tried to discount this and see it simply as work to be done, but, as the works are installed, I am overwhelmed.

I wonder if people who look at art or who look at the artworld, and that includes young artists at the beginning of their life as an artist, know how much, practically speaking, it takes to get anything, however modest, done as or for an artist, how much psychic energy it takes to believe in artworks and to make others believe in them, particularly the degree of intensity of belief that at least one person must feel for artwork in order for it to survive after an artist’s death.

It is hard enough to maintain that belief in yourself as an artist and to act upon it in the face of the many rejections that most artists encounter, but to maintain that belief in artists who have died is even more difficult. You have to surmount the stasis their oeuvre and reputation fall into: as in a game of musical chairs or spin the bottle, the person’s reputation at their death is set at a mark, and then, unless the artist was already world famous and iconic and even if that is the case, the oeuvre is as much a burden as it may be a joy to the heirs and the reputation generally begins to recede from that mark achieved in lifetime. If the mark is slight, no matter the quality of the work, the person left with the responsibility of the work must go against the tide of history and of the market to maintain the work and bring the reputation back to the mark or forward to transform the recognition of the work. It is very hard to do. You become the custodian not just of the artist’s qualities and talents but also of that artist’s doubts and even the verities of their reputation. It’s hard enough for the artists to do in their life and harder to do for those who continue.

Several of my friends are artists whose parents were artists: like me they carry the double burden of belief, in their own work and in their parents’ work. Mimi Gross has done an incredible job developing The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, Susan Bee has curated exhibitions of the work of her father Sigmund Laufer and her mother Miriam Laufer. I spent several years editing The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov. Tworkov’s wife Wally and then his daughters Hermine Ford and Helen Tworkov had worked for over twenty years to have these writings edited and published. Jack died in 1982. Selections from his writings were included in the catalogue of Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, held in 1987 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. I began serious work on the texts in around 2003, The Extreme of the Middle was published by Yale University Press in June 2009. I did the work because I loved Jack and believed fiercely in his work and his writing.

My father died in 1961. My mother did everything she could to keep his work secure and his name in the world. She died in 2006. Included in Abstract Marriage are works by my father that were last exhibited in the retrospective of his work held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1965 and that are unknown relative to other aspects of his work and works by my mother that have never been exhibited before.

In the next few days I hope to write a post about my parents’ show, but today I mark Jack’s memory with a drawing I did on his birthday, August 15, in the summer of 1982, as he lay dying at his home in Provincetown. The drawing is called For Jack’s Leaving. Jack loved the bay of Provincetown, the sand flats, the daily swim. In the drawing, I depicted that moment when the outgoing tide pulls water out of the bay through shallow channels, rivers two or three inches deep running out through the sand flats. The figure goes through a narrow channel towards the open sea, like a reverse of birth.

In his diaries, Jack wrote on his birthday August 15, 1953

August 15, 1953

Technically my birthday. The idea had crossed my mind today that I am in every way a self-made man. Even my name and my birthday are self-made. To be fair, I simply mean that my birthday was only a rough approximation like my name.

Typically scrupulous, he later corrected himself, he had written that entry into his journal a couple of days early. But then, on August 22, 1953, he reflected on the great cultural leap he and his sister Janice Biala made after they were brought to America as children.

Janice and I are the first in our line. Our parents are as distinct from us, as the American Indians. It is impossible to convey to a western mind what my mother is. The distance between her and me can only be counted in centuries. But not only time stands between us but differences in adaptation as vital as that between sea and land animals. In fact I think of Janice and me as having become land animals in one jump. As if our parents had been utterly sea animals. Yet we are only land animals of one generation with all the weaknesses that implies. I was brought up to regard timidity as if it were the first rule of life. And the cancer of indolence was planted in me in the cheder. I was brought up the first ten years of my life for another environment. My mother is to this day sealed in that environment, and she has no crack, no window, to look out upon the world. My own distinct situation, the inner break from my mother, did not become apparent to me till so late in life. Did I become aware too late? If I were willing to take all the risks could my life still become vigorous? Or is that question itself a sign of my still unsolved problem? Should a man dream to change the caste of his life when he is past fifty. Does maturity mean to live with one self whatever the self is?

The summer my father died, the Tworkovs invited my mother and me to spend a month with them in their house in Provincetown. Jack wrote in his journal of my father’s death but also of how the work of the artist lives on after his death:

August 8, 1961, P’town.

No place in this notebook have I so far noticed the death of my beloved friend Ilya. His image hovers in my mind. His lovely gayety, the sparkle, the aliveness of his eyes, the humor that played on his lips like honeybees on flowers. Now Resia is here and Mira. We sat long over our coffee this morning talking about people and gradually we drifted into talking about Ilya, each of us displaying our love for him as if he were alive and with us. Even through her unbearable grief her face suffuses with light when I praise Ilya. […] She said something remarkable recalling Ilya. She said, the test of a work is does it speak for the artist after he’s gone. In life the artist persuaded us by his personality, but after he’s gone only his work is left to persuade us.

 

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