Tag Archives: John Cage

Catching up by playing hooky: Bernini, Shea, Cage, and Picasso

It is a dark irony of my life as an artist living in New York City that going to museums ends up seeming at worst like a job or at best like playing hooky. The holiday season does not lighten my workload–rather it adds to it, it is catching-up-with-paperwork time. Nevertheless I’ve been intent on also systematically catching up with as many of the museum shows that have opened over the past months as I can and have already had some wonderful experiences.

I’ll focus first on the shows that are closing in the next few days so that readers in New York might be reminded and encouraged to see them in this New Year.

Tucked away in the lower level of the Lehman collection at the Metropolitan, is the wonderful show Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. Bernini worked on small quick studies in fired terracotta for sculptures later to be carved in marble. Sometimes, in these small figures, he’s just trying to figure out the placement of a joint in a fragmentary sculpture of a horse’s rear, or the fall of drapery on a moving figure, sometimes he develops a sketch of the full figure. Quick, expressionistic, fragmentary, marked by sharp engraved and incised lines from special tools, the figures step outside of their historical time: excepting perhaps some details of the faces, these could well have been found in the studio of Rodin or de Kooning.

The show is small but there are a lot of works, beautifully installed and there’s interesting educational material. I was almost as inspired by the illustrated description of the techniques used to create the clay mass Bernini carved into as by the sculptures themselves: the care that went into rolling and packing a clay mass so that it would have no air bubbles that might shatter a piece in the firing process and the combination of the vivid figures and the prospect of such an infinitely malleable, richly colored, and durable material makes you want to make sculpture in that medium. There’s also an animated Renaissance map of Rome highlighting all of Bernini’s public commissions, for which many of the small sculptures are studies, which is immensely impressive as to one single artist’s contribution to the enduring life of a city and the care that went into every expressive detail. Today the equivalent planning for such public commissions would most likely be done on a computer. What a pity. The show is open though January 6. I highly recommend it.

On another day in December, I thought I’d see the Picasso show at the Guggenheim but stopped first at the National Academy to see Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye With Judith Shea. Invited to curate a show from the collection of the National Academy, sculptor and Academician Judith Shea decided to focus on the self-portraits and in some case portraits by other women artists of women members of the Academy. This is a very carefully crafted, lovingly researched, highly absorbing exhibition, not at all flashy but there are some very interesting and evocative works, among these Shea’s own figurative sculptures. The show sort of sneaks up on you and viewing is enriched by a video which runs in one of the upstairs rooms of the exhibition (you also watch Shea’s informative interview on NYCArts). Shea’s carefully researched comments about each artist opens a view on serious careers and interesting lives of women artists known, such as Alice Neel, and in many cases obscure, or at least many of which I for one was not aware, artists such as Ellen Emmet Rand (1876-1941), who painted three portrait of F.D.R. including his official White House portrait and who I think Shea explained made $75,000 a year from her work during the Depression, a huge sum of money. Rand depicts herself in a loose smock, wearing glasses and a hat, in the act of painting, holding a palette and brushes, as Shea notes, by “minimizing her femininity as a way of maximizing her professionialism.” The women artists’ self-image range from the artist as society beauty (Cecilia Beaux, 1894) to blunt presentation of the woman artist as worker (Louisa Matthiasdottir, c.1985). I was particularly struck with a haunting 1954 self-portrait of Marion Greenwood (1909-1970), a blue gray painting of the artist smoking a cigarette, an expressive painterly surface with one spot of red paint under her right eye.

Four of Shea’s own, life size, figurative sculptures, a bronze downstairs, and three other mixed media works grouped in an oval room upstairs are a highlight of the exhibition: these depict Louise Bourgeois, Elizabeth Catlett, and a self-portrait by Shea. Each piece is exquisitely crafted, with an unusual mix of materials, carved and painted wood, clay, foam, paint, each robbed in a warm felt dress. These are figures of great dignity and calm. They are hard and soft at the same time, have the allure of a clothes mannequin, and the calm authority of a classic Kouros figure. Shea is a very interesting artist and here also an intelligent and generous curator.

Judith Shea, Elizabeth Tribute: Portrait of Elizabeth Catlett, 2012. Wood, clay, foam, felt, paint, other, 72x21x21 inches

This show closes runs through January 13, I highly recommend it.

Also at the National Academy and equally wonderful is John Cage: The Sight of Silence, an exhibition of Cage’s watercolors, prints and drawings on paper, accompanied also by Cage’s hand made or natural drawing tools, musical scores, and some wonderful videos of Cage performances. The drawings are mostly loose abstraction, single gestures which at first seem a bit easy and not particularly original, somewhere between traditional Japanese brush painting and spare Abstract Expressionist gestures, but the atmosphere of calm settles over you if you spend some time with the work, the elegance and a quiet that is quite inspiring. The drawings are installed on the wall in an unorthodox manner, based on Cage’s method of chance operations, resulting in a kind of Zen Salon style, with some large drawings way up high, one just above the floor molding, like a little mouse, smaller than the ventilation grate it is next to.

There is a marvelous video of Cage performing Water Walk in 1960, on the ABC game show I’ve Got a Secret, in which the show abandons its usual premise, that panelists have to guess what the guest’s secret is, in favor of presenting a live performance by Cage using all kinds of household appliances and house wares to make sound. It’s great fun, the black and white visuals are beautiful, and if you think about a game show, it is hard to imagine something similar happening with such spontaneity and support.

The show also runs through January 13, don’t miss it!

& I’d like to think that Cage would approve of my pointing out that the building itself is beautiful, a gracious Beaux-Arts mansion, where even the original bathroom fixtures are beautiful:

A block down Fifth Avenue from the National Academy is Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim.

I like to start viewing exhibitions at the Guggenheim from the top and work my way down, it is less arduous even though it usually means going against chronological order.

When I got out of the elevator at the top, I overheard a woman lecturing to a group of small children, perhaps 6 years old, all scrunched against the ramp with little sketch pads: “every artist has a signature style” she told them, in this case she was referring to Picasso’s distorted profiles of women. This made me think of how, for me, some of the semiotics of Picasso’s work, such as the distorted profiles, are infinitely familiar and not altogether loved oddities, something I grew up with, from my chidlhood they were just there, I knew he was a Protean genius, yet, those profiles, some of the later works…I don’t know. So with that in mind, I have to say that the minute I laid eyes on the works in the show, I realized, this show is going to be Fantastic!!! Not that every work is good, or, rather, not that each work will be to each viewer’s liking, but the vigorous confidence in painting and drawing is palpable and what better vehicle to transmit how painting and drawing are inextricably linked than in black and white and grisaille. Since so many of the works, especially the later works, are dated to a day–for example The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velasquez) is dated August 17, 1954, and you get the sense that it may have been painted not just in a day, but in an hour or a few hours at most–Picasso doesn’t lose the spontaneity of drawing when he paints. Maids of Honor is huge, the artist looms huge like a giant chimera towering over the room, the whole thing is like a giant crazy sketch, but as I said, fantastic!

There are at least two powerful images of skulls: a modest size painting  from 1947, where a few lines create the inference of the space of a room, so that the skull shifts from a traditionally scaled memento mori painting to a monumental figure within a small painting surface. Nearby is a bronze sculpture of a skull which is one of the powerful works in the show, the image I found online captures it from a different angle than I experienced it in the exhibition and makes it seem a bit less monumental than it is,

The angle of viewing at the Guggenheim makes the eye sockets seem like bottomless craters.

By the time I got to the middle of the ramp, before I even got to a painted sketch for Guernica of the screaming horse’s head, I wrote in my notes, “I would say, at this point, fuck it, this is a necessary show, don’t tell me you’re a painter or interested in painting and not see this show, forget what you know or think you’ve seen, or think you know about Picasso, and just look.” That I would be so emphatic seems silly given Picasso’s totally accepted status as a genius, but it reflects the fact that for many artists Picasso’s relation to subject, to medium, and to drawing, is as foreign as the back side of the moon, and, while no one else could ever be Picasso, the combination of appropriation, expression, and formal invention could still exist as a fruitful area of art production, if one could resist the grip of excessive intentionality.

If you start at the bottom of the ramp you can first appreciate Picasso’s traditional  academic drawing skills and the delicacy of his drawing line but if you start at the top you get a punch of tremendous force and energy, and many of the works from the early 1930s and late 20s seem somnolent, as if, between The Demoiselles D’Avignon and Guernica, after Cubism certainly, he falls into an academic dream, an Olympian reverie, then BOOM you find yourself a room with large plaster  and bronze busts, mostly from 1931. What always seemed to me like a weird given of art, the “signature” profile that the woman was instructing the children to notice, in sculpture makes complete sense.If you start at the bottom you start with the BOOM pass through Olympian reverie and end with the BOOM of the last works, so it’s up to you.

No photography allowed, so I sketched, it seems absurd of course, and presumptuous to present my drawings as any kind of evidence of Picasso’s work, but sketching is also an excellent way of experiencing artwork with your own body. In fact I feel that I  have to go back to sketch some of the paintings that I ran out of time and sketchbook room for, but they sparked some ideas for my own work which is a great gift of a great exhibition, that you want to work, that something stays in your mind as a starting point for a work of your own.

Picasso Black and White runs through January 23 but since it’s a block away from the National Academy, it makes sense to make a great day of it and see it before the Shea and Cage shows close there January 13.

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September 5, 1981: prehistory of a history

After I had completed my first major read-through of the diaries and papers of the painter Jack Tworkov in preparation for editing them into a book of collected writings, Jack’s daughter Helen Tworkov asked me if I had discovered anything that had surprised me. I could answer with frankness, no. That is, Helen and her sister Hermine Ford had given me the privilege of access not only to Jack’s writings about art, texts that he had either published in his lifetime or had saved because he must have known that they were of some art historical interest and, most importantly, because they were of personal use to himself in his studio work, but also to his most private thoughts, or at least those he had put to paper and preserved over a nearly 50 year time period. I was infused with the complexity of intimacy that comes from being immersed in the full drama of studio and career struggles and of the private details even of his married life in ways neither he nor I could never have imagined, but, overall, I knew the stories, the struggles, the aesthetics, and the sensibility deeply, for I had observed Jack and his work with admiration and love for all my life.

Indeed, my work as the editor of The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, published in 2009, had a deep back-story. I could not remember a time that I did not know Jack and his family, since my parents and the Tworkovs became friends when I was, as far as anyone remembers, still a toddler. The Tworkovs were incredibly dear to my family during my childhood and all the more so after my father Ilya Schor died in 1961 and Wally and Jack Tworkov took my mother and me into their Provincetown home for a month of that summer and the next. Though Jack would have been very surprised that the little girl to whom he had taught the dog paddle, or the teenager he had found so rough and recalcitrant, and the young artist about whose work he had continued doubts, ended up being the one to finally shepherd his writings into print and to create in effect the autobiography he had never written as such. But it seemed to me finally that it made the most perfect sense, though I sometimes in those six years rued the day I had ever taken on such a massive task and such a  daunting responsibility. I cursed him for writing so much of interest that I found hard to cut!

I set out to structure the many different types of texts so that the complexity and totality of the life of an artist and a particular man would be as transparent as I could make it. I did not make what I knew would have been the more conventional choice, to edit down to what history already thought was important, which in Tworkov’s case would have been exclusively his writings from the New York School period. I wanted to address his role within that history, but I thought his writings on the death of his mother were as beautifully written and as important to the meaning of his work as his long description of a conversation with John Cage, I knew his remembrances of the painful experience of immigration deepened one’s understanding of his landmark 1950 essay, “The Wandering Soutine.”

With in my mind a reader who would perhaps also be a painter, or perhaps a young artist confronting the huge challenges of how to continue to make art and have a personal life, or perhaps an older artist continuing to work seriously in the studio despite the frequent disappointments careers bring, I used the richness of levels and types of writing Tworkov had produced to situate him and the reader in a vast human field and historical period of art making. I tried to give the reader a sense of what it means to engage in a lifetime struggle to be an artist and a man.

As I went through his diaries and letters, I occasionally found references to my family and to me…not always flattering, much to my dismay. I also found reference to events in which I had been a participant, particularly in later years, which I not only remembered clearly but which, being every bit as inveterate a self-documenter as Jack, I had also noted in my diary.

For example, Jack wrote in his journal on September 5, Saturday (1981): “I picked up Resia and Mira and drove them to Hermine’s place on Highhead. We walked to the beach with Hermine, Bob  and Erik. We watched the huge waves sweeping the shore. The park rangers put up signs to keep cars and people off the beach. We came back and had tea. I got in a talking mood and reminisced about my childhood, about school and college, about Janice and Ford. We saw Bob’s drawings and drove home. […]”

My diary entry for the same day, Saturday, September 5, 1981: “windy day. Jack took us out to Bob & Hermine’s–walk to ocean, very nice visit, Jack very talkative.”

I had not forgotten that day, our being together. I remember also quite clearly that we looked at Hermine’s drawings too! And that we all enjoyed the way his son-in-law the painter Bob Moskowitz had prepared eggplant!!! But if you had quizzed me about what Jack had talked about, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But I listened and I heard, probably not for the first time, and the stories were embedded so that when I rediscovered the details in his writings, I already knew.

[References above are to my mother Resia Schor , to Jack’s eldest daughter Hermine Ford, his grandson Erik Moskowitz, and to Robert Moskowitz, Janice Biala, and Ford Madox Ford]

That summer Jack was in remission from cancer. He was preparing for Jack Tworkov: Fifteen Years of Painting, a major exhibition of his paintings at the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in early 1982. Earlier that summer he wrote a letter to Andrew Forge, then dean of the School of Art and Architecture at Yale, where Jack had been chairman of the Department of Art through the late 60s, as part of a dialogue to help Forge write a catalogue essay for the exhibition. Here are some excerpts of his letter to Forge:

So for me geometrics, however simple and elementary, is a connection with something that exists besides, outside, myself. It is a small comfort, perhaps, indeed; but it is less hypocritical at the moment than the apparent ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for. Geometrics or any systemic order gives me a space for meditation, adumbrates my alienation.

There was a period when I felt connected. It was in the late forties and early fifties, the time of the club. It coincided with that short period after World War II when I really believed that, after the sacrifices and horror the world went through, we were embarked on a better world. There were a few years of euphoria. America emerged as a world-saver in spite of the shadow the bomb on Hiroshima had cast on that image. The abstract-expressionist movement, although negative in its rejection of all tradition and especially of the French art of the first half of the century, did reflect this positive element, the postwar euphoria, the sudden feeling of strength both physically and spiritually. As we know, that spirit did not last long. Pop came along with two tongues in its cheek. On the one hand, it took, as the living symbols of American culture, the hot dog and the hamburger–it was hard to know whether in praise or disgust. On the other hand, it revived a form of Dada revolt against art as the dress-up culture of the fathers. Only by then, the middle class, more than ever, was beyond shock or outrage and was led by the art market, which dealt primarily in names rather than esthetics. And name-making absorbed a good deal of the energies of the artists.

I have sometimes dreamt of painting my hatreds. If I didn’t, it was because of the fear that I would end up hating my painting. I’ve hated films that had the excuse that they were a true reflection of society but which I thought were themselves a contribution to the disease they were trying to depict.

The spectator who in front of my paintings will ask, “What does it mean?” has foregone the chance of seeing it. For the only meaning in the painting is in the seeing of it. But that is true in looking at any painting. If you only see the landscape, you are not seeing the painting. If you only see the portrait, you miss the painting.

There is an element in painting which I have often referred to as true, by which I mean not truth in a moral sense but the concern similar to that of a good carpenter who supports his eye with the try square and level, on which all other qualities base themselves. The spiritual essence we draw from art is the absence of falseness; it teaches us not only about art but how to judge anything in life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, from what the preacher says to what the politician says and does. Art can become the true square and level of all things–provided it is itself not askew.

It is not beauty that is the first concern of art and certainly not entertainment–but justness.

Where justness exists in a work, the artist’s personality disappears because the painting is the presence and not the painter.

There is another quality in a painting that cannot be described: it is the residue reflected in the painting of the artist’s pleasure in the making of it, especially the pleasure, the joy the artist experiences in the stages when the painting uncovers itself to his eyes. This is an internal experience of the artist which the attentive spectator can extract. It is something precious I get from a Cézanne, knowing very well he did not make it for me but it is there for me to have.

Trueness and pleasure add up to the most fundamental quality in a painting. If the artist cannot paint himself out of the picture, if he is caught up in attention-getting devices, if he becomes concerned with his effects on the audience, he cannot achieve justness. You can admire his devices but you cannot live with them. You cannot draw joy from them. At their worst such artists exploit the same world as the advertising fabricators: clever, ingenious, eye grabbing, but false.

Am I stressing an esthetic morality? I am. It’s what I get from Bach, Velázquez, Blake, Cézanne, Mondrian–and is rare in our present.[…] from The Extreme of the Middle, 8.47

Selections from this letter and other of Jack’s writings were later reprinted in Jack Tworkov: Paintings, 1928-1982, the excellent catalogue of his 1987 retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts that first made me aware of his writings, as I had by then just begun to write about art also and that ultimately led to my taking on the pleasure, the task, and the great responsibility of editing his writings. These are all included in The Extreme of the Middle.

*

Today, September 5, 2011, exactly thirty years have passed since that afternoon by the ocean. Jack died almost exactly a year later to the day, on September 4, 1982.

I thought today to look back to what he had been thinking thirty years before September 5, 1981, to bracket my brief reflections here. The closest entry is from October 24, 1951:

Did it ever occur to Sophocles to write a play about himself? Had the thought occurred to him he would have banished it as sacrilegious. He wrote about Ajax, Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra.

Could Ajax have written about Sophocles? Could Ajax have been an artist and still been a Hero? Ajax could have written about himself without becoming less of a hero only if what he wrote was not art. It was in the nature of Ajax that he could not contrive anything. He therefore lost to life but won his immortality. Only Odysseus of the heroes was different. He did tell of his own life only to make a work of art out of it. Ajax was noble. His nobility lay in the disdain of life on any terms except his own to a degree that was a challenge to the immortal gods. Odysseus was enamored of life and was not beneath embellishing its excitement with fine details from the imagination. He was a compromiser. He took life just as he found it. In order to cut a fine figure he used art to embellish it. He used art but he was no artist. He could not create anyone except himself. He was beloved of the gods because he resembled them enormously–since they were the creations of ordinary men.

Some artists, too, are the creations of the ordinary man.

Sophocles writing about Sophocles would have been lost in a maze of echoing mirrors.[…]

Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero. When the artist conceives himself a hero, he ceases to be an artist and proceeds to destroy himself. Sophocles was a great artist because he endured. The artist to become an artist suppresses the hero in him. [from The Extreme of the Middle, 3.13]

*

Despite the many years I knew Jack, I thought there was not a single picture of him and me together. But I recently found a group of slides I took that day, September 5, 1981. And among them was a picture Hermine must have taken with my camera of Jack and me standing together looking at the big waves from a distant storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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