Tag Archives: Naomi Schor

“I’m 27 and Unmarried…” 40 years later

Today would have been my sister’s Naomi Schor‘s 68th birthday. She died suddenly about three months after her 58th birthday and it’s part of the strange nature of mourning that even now, after ten years, the period between the two anniversaries is for me a kind of private Via Dolorosa, an emotional undercurrent that can, even unknown to oneself, trap the speed of the everyday in a slow-moving river of mud. I woke up this morning and felt I needed to mark her birthday. I hope my readers will bear with me–there is historical material of some curiosity here, beyond the personal.

 

My sister was beautiful, brilliant in a thorough, deeply studious and comprehensive way; she was a strong presence, sometimes seemingly aloof, yet also dramatic–when she entered a room you knew she was there–passionate, very social, devoted to her field of work, curious about art, culture, and politics, a lover of travel, an inspiring teacher,  a great but demanding friend, a great letter writer, yet also with a dark cast to her persona which, in later years, after tragedy and dramatic illness, sometimes turned to corrosive depression. She was my older sister and I worshiped her and was also fiercely competitive with her, something she found difficult when I strayed into her territory (it was bad enough I was an artist, the family profession, but then I also had to be as good a student in the school we both attended and then I started to write!). She was also incredibly supportive. I owe many important developments in my life directly to her, including where I went to graduate school and how I got to publish my first book. Since her death I have found it much harder to write about her than to write about our parents. In some way that inability on my part has replicated something she found very painful, that she was the only person in the family who was not a visual artist, so she could not “show and tell” what she did. She felt that her scholarship was not immediately accessible. Even I am intimidated by it although our ideas were similar in many respects, which isn’t surprising of course, nevertheless I have felt inadequate to write about her intellectual work. But I have inherited her collection of ephemera, the magazines and photos she collected and kept with her–a copy of Paris-Match from the 1950s with her screen idol Gerard Philippe on the cover, the New York Times from the day Robert F. Kennedy died, the first issue of Ms. magazine– and I feel that through these traces I can begin to write if not directly to her work, around it to reconstruct for myself and for others some of what she was and the historical moments she inhabited.

In my new studio is her antique glass-door cabinet whose four shelves were filled with all the books she wrote, edited, and had writings published in (by eliminating duplicates, I’ve managed to keep her full oeuvre intact while making room for one shelf of my writings!). She was a noted literary theorist and scholar. Her initial academic field was Nineteenth Century French literature and from the early 1970s she was one of the pioneers of feminist theory in the United States. She spent a lot of time in Paris in the late 1960s and the 1970s and brought her first hand knowledge of Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Derrida to her scholarship and teaching, at Columbia University, later at Brown University, Duke, Harvard and Yale. Among books such as Flaubert and Postmodernism, which she co-edited,  Feminist Interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel which includes “Hegel’s Aesthetics and the Feminine,” a chapter of my sister’s most noted book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, Engaging with Irigaray which she co-edited, and The Essential Difference, a differences book with she co-edited with Elizabeth Weed, and many other scholarly tomes, I found a copy of Glamour magazine from January 1971.

What was this faded woman’s magazine doing among my sister’s scholarly books? Clearly she had kept this and placed it among her bibliography, and moved it the many time she moved. It took me a couple of examinations before I found this letter tucked into a page spread:

At the time my sister was in a consciousness-raising group in New York where she was a young faculty member in the French Department at Columbia University. She introduced me to feminism and was instrumental in my applying to CalArts where her friend Sheila Levrant de Bretteville was beginning a Feminist Design Program. I went to CalArts later in 1971, where I became involved in the Feminist Art Program.

My sister was also boy-crazy, to the point that her fellow feminists would comment on it with humor, and that I would sometimes remind her that just because one of her areas of expertise was the representation of women in the Nineteenth-century novel didn’t mean she had to live her life like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, passionate to a fault.

“I’m 27 and Unmarried. Am I worried?” My sister’s response was “Sometimes.”

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Orbis Mundi

Hello.

A Year of Positive Thinking has been on hiatus since late February while I moved out of the loft where I lived and worked for 33 years into the apartment where I grew up.

All moves are overwhelming endeavors and often fraught. The circumstances of this move had particularly infuriating aspects contributing to a less than positive outlook. I’ll just make a few general statements, and for legal reasons I’ll say, quoting Mr. Jaggers in Great Expectations, “I’ll put a case to you. Mind! I admit nothing.”

First, “Ownership occupancy eviction” is an apparently idiot-proof loophole in the New York City Rent Stabilization Law (the burden is on the tenant to prove the landlord is lying about his stated plans, and this is nearly impossible, though lying is a near certainty, and even if the landlord is claiming a seventh floor walk up for a 90 year old mother, or that his poor sick daughter must live in the smallest darkest most poorly appointed space in the building he has just given her a 5% ownership in so that she can be used as a spurious proxy to evict a 60 year old artist before she turns 62 and would be legally out of reach for such maneuvers, the tenant would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to prove the absurdity of the proposition–how you say in English, This is a stick-up).

Second, young, mostly British in the particular  case of my building, people, or the financial corporations they work for or own, are able and willing to pay $22,500 a month for approx.3750 usable square feet on a street with a healthy street population of rats, that’s right, $270,000 a year rent in a city where the median income even just for the Borough of Manhattan is about $65,000 a year.

Third, it’s possible to turn a small 7 story loft building with only 8 tenants in it into a gated community: to the young blond “neighbor” holding her young daughter in her arms who waited until I got out of the elevator this winter before keying open her floor so I wouldn’t see which floor she lived on, I say, bravo, you learned your survival-in-New-York-City lessons well, you can never be too careful, who knows what a middle-aged woman carrying her groceries could do to you if she knew not just generally but exactly where you live.

Also, striking the set of a lifetime of artworks, papers, and belongings is a brutal task, backbreaking and filthy; further, things taken out of a drawer no longer fit back into exactly the same drawer when you try to put them back exactly as they were before. Clothes multiply like tribbles. And once things are ripped from their natural place, where they had slowly accreted into the archeology of your life, it can take a whole day just to find the right place to put one plate. And you can’t write when your books, papers, artworks, art supplies, clothes, and the rest of your wordly belongings are in over 150 boxes through which you must navigate a narrow path to your computer, because you can’t think until some modicum of order and personal geography is restored.

Between last September and November I worked two or three days a week with a wonderful assistant packing hundreds of artworks made by my parents as well as their collection of books, and the many objects they collected. What in essence was about 100 years worth of life and art was to be put into temporary storage so my family’s apartment could be modestly repaired and refreshed. In that process I basically touched every single object, book, piece of paper, photo that accounted for their lives, mine and my sister’s, but each only for a tantalizingly brief instrumental moment since, even though many such moments of contact sparked the idea for a brief aesthetic and politically autobiographical essay, the packing had to move forward against an inexorable deadline.

In February these possessions were returned to the apartment, the furniture set in place but the artworks and objects staying in boxes. Then I had to dismantle my loft, which, half a lifetime ago, on a $4700 budget in 1978, I had designed in the barest, simplest way possible  to serve my needs as an artist. Though small and with no natural light, it was a space with an interesting ambiguity of proportion–a friend’s precocious child, now an architect, once visited and declared, “C’est grand, mais c’est petit” (It’s big but it’s small)–and a tremendous unity. No matter whether I was cooking, painting, writing, watching television, I was living inside my brain, with all my books , paintings, texts, and collection of china visible to me at the same time.

So I have bucked an American axiom, that you can’t go home again. I have returned to the building I was born into, and to the beautiful apartment I moved into when I was five–the day I first saw the apartment with my parents, taking the elevator from our smaller apartment a few floors below, is the moment where my conscious memory truly begins. Thus infuriating circumstances have precipitated my taking on part of what I consider my destiny, that is to archive and to mark as best I can the memory of my family’s life, particularly my parents’ lives in Warsaw and Paris before the War, their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, and their creative life in New York as the background for the path I have taken in my life as what I would call an inflected American.

There has been too much to do to have time to feel haunted in my new old home, though the first time I took a bath in the deep ceramic tub there was at least one moment when I felt the quiver of time’s arrow in a 2001: A Space Odyssey see yourself as the old man in the next room and the fetus floating towards Earth kind of way: I was myself in the moment in mid-life enjoying a small luxury, and I was also myself as a small child in the same bathroom with my two parents checking in on me to see if I was alright, and I was myself five years ago peeking through the bathroom door to make sure my 95 year old mother was safe in her bath, and possibly I was also myself at 95 taking a bath in the very same place. As if in an eerie commentary on that shift through time, when I got out, the bubbles had taken the following form.

Now I get to gaze again daily at the objects whose beauty and character as the natural atmosphere of my childhood shaped my aesthetics. My parents didn’t have a chair that didn’t creak with age or threaten to collapse altogether, but the sometimes centuries old wood shone darkly and those gleaming dark ochres and rich browns are primary hues in my painting. If they could adorn their rented room in Marseilles with flowers while hoping their visa to America would arrive before the Germans, the minute they could put two cents together in New York they hunted through antique stores, pawn shops, and Parke-Bernet auctions for furniture and antiquities, though the only antique pottery they could afford to buy was often shattered like a eggshell and glued or stapled together so that it seems that a breath or a touch could shatter them, but their glazed surfaces lurk under the manner in which I use oil paint, using stand oil for its ceramic like shine or glaze.

Each object seems to repeat the same metaphor of my family’s life and work: treasures with frustratingly little material value because of their condition yet with the immeasurable value of beauty, history, age and time, fragility itself. There are many times when the weight of so many histories, many of whose details I don’t know, and the fragility of the objects containing them makes me nearly scream with fear, but what a richness, I know.

Here are a few of the things I have touched in the past months:

A series of dictionaries and grammar books that mark the stages of my mother Resia Schor‘s immigrations from Poland to France to America.

Polish French Dictionary, c.1937

English Language manual acquired in France c.1940

Back of same language manual, with what appears to be my sister's early efforts to write her name, NOA for Naomi, or Noemie, or Nomi, all variants of her name, c.1947

An early drawing of mine saved by my older sister Naomi.

No book could be safely shunted off to the side to be given away or thrown out, even if in a language I can’t read, because my father Ilya Schor drew and painted on any and every surface.

Ilya Schor, ink and gouache drawing, inside of the cover of Yiddish-language poet Nakhum Bomze's "A Chasine in Harbst" (A Wedding in Autumn), Marstin Press, NYC, 1949

The day after the movers had emptied the apartment, I returned to pack the contents of one last shelf in one last closet, some left-over antique ceramics. I was exhausted and unprepared to encounter, though not for the first time, a message in time from my mother, from when she had two daughters and was always careful to give us each equally.

Thinking she would be survived by her two daughters, my mother marked various objects with my name, having already given my sister an equivalent gift

And finally the last thing to be packed was a small, heavy, glazed ceramic orb.

I barely had time to look at at it but it was both strongly yet only vaguely familiar, and the combination of spherical shape, glaze, and weight in relation to size made it memorable.I called it Orbis Mundi, its Christian markings suggesting a Latinate name. Orbis Mundi does in fact mean the sphere of the world, but although I was certain this must be a term from liturgy, it isn’t, I made it up.

The very day I moved in I set up my computer and connection to the internet. Sine qua non. Then the very first object I looked for as I started to open boxes was my little Orbis Mundi, which I found immediately.

I have begun to make enough headway in unpacking, though my studio will be the last to be cleared and functional, that I’ve started to go out and see some art again. Last week I went to the Met to see Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century –A Year of Positive Thinking four star recommendation: a modest show of small scaled modest paintings in the sense I think of the term, small paintings of  domestic interiors, but painted with rigorous precision and abstract fluidity and a kind of formal clarity anticipating modernism given the window’s rectangularity as a central focus of each painting, with fascinating and occasionally quirky views of spare studio interiors, and with the liminal space of the open window as a framing device for the world outside, and a metaphoric reflection for the meaning of light, the safety of shelter as well the subtle imprisonment of domesticity. My current immersion in interiors made the show especially affecting.

As I left the museum, I chose the right hand path towards the lobby and exit, going down the hall with vitrines filled with early Christian antiquities and immediately spotted my Orbis Mundi! Or at least the Met’s larger and in far better condition version, though its markings are identical to mine. It turned out I was right in its having some relation to the Church, but not exactly in a liturgical manner: my little ceramic egg turned out to be a kind of 17th century Armenian version of Combat, hung to keep bugs and vermin from falling into oil lamps hanging in churches!

Knowing that this year would be disrupted by my move, I always intended that A Year of Positive Thinking would run longer than a year. The Year is a metaphorical time frame, a space of challenge to focus on art that I love while underlining the positive aspects of negative thinking, and so it can continue for a baker’s dozen of months, or as long as I am interested in doing it.

That the first object I fix on as I start to think about how to turn my family’s things into something that among other things is a Jewish story turns out to be a Christian Church accoutrement is not a contradiction to me: my parents owned it, because it pleased them as an object. And so it is the egg that I celebrate this Easter and last days of Passover, as I sit at my computer, that other Orbis Mundi, as I start up the blog again.

The worlds, April, 2011, photo: Mira Schor

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“I Love You With All My Hearth”

Today, December 5, 2010, would have been my mother Resia Schor’s 100th birthday. This is not just a nostalgic realization looking back at a deep past, as it was for me in 2004 which was my father Ilya Schor‘s centennial: he had died in 1961 so forty-three years separated his death from his centennial. My mother died only four years ago, nine days before her 96th birthday. So 100 wasn’t such a stretch.  But she had no wish to make it to this landmark. “God forbid!” she said when at one point I explained to her that if she lived to but also died in 2010 I wouldn’t have to pay any estate taxes (an amusing conversation in the light of this week’s disgraceful actions in Congress!). She had retained her excellent memory, her very left politics,  her judgment of people unblurred by sentiment, and her courage intact, but when the encroachments of age threatened her independence and her ability to work, she had had enough. When my friend Tom Knechtel said goodbye to her after a visit to Provincetown in the summer of 2006, he said, “I hope I see you here next summer.” “I hope not,” she answered, flashing a beautiful smile.

When I began A Year of Positive Thinking I said that it posed the challenge to myself to find contemporary art that I love but that I would also write about significant artworks, films, and political actions and speech from the near and the deep past that have given me the courage to become and continue to be an artist and an activist. No artists are as important to that personal history as my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, silver, c.5″x4″x1″

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, detail, doors open: gouache and gold leaf on paper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I mostly lived alone together. My father had died and my sister Naomi was living away from home, at graduate school and then in Paris. Whatever the tensions that my adolescence and the grief and loss we both held inside our individual hearts imposed on us were tempered among other things by how much I loved the work in silver and gold that she had turned to in order to support my sister and me. I was a fan of her work, and I now sometimes think that if I gave her one thing it was that enthusiastic support.

In the 1950s in New York, she painted and exhibited abstract gouaches in a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. When my father died, she was fifty years old and had two daughters, eleven and seventeen years old. She had no other family. It never occurred to her to look for another man to help her support her children although it was the logical or the more traditional solution to her perilous situation. Instead, figuring that she couldn’t make a living from painting, she took up the tools of my father’s trade as a silversmith, jeweler, and creator of Judaica, transferring her abstract, modernist aesthetic from the soft medium of paint (and the arena of “high art”) to the hard medium of precious metal that challenged her forms in a more powerfully creative direction (though in the area of “craft” as defined by American art at the time).

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1983. White metal, Plexiglass, gouache on paper, 12″x9″

My mother was  a modernist through and through, unlike my father for whom modernist abstraction was a visual language he could speak articulately but it was not his mother tongue: he had deep roots in the philosophical but also the visual traditions of Hasidic folk culture going back to the Middle Ages and it was his unusual gift to carry these into the twentieth century.

Some of my aesthetic and political point of view was formed in these early experiences of art in my home. The curious and problematic thing was that the essence of modernist abstraction was conveyed by her work, but in a form that was generally considered a lesser modality: that of small scale and craft. Yet each piece was so obviously a sculpture.

Resia Schor, Fragmented Mezuzah, 21976. Brass, Plexiglass, gouache on pape with Mezuzah text, c. 12″x6.5.” In a radical and iconoclastic geture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the samll talismanic text that had always been hidden and not to be touched by a woman.

That my mother as a person had sought economic survival through her own aesthetic labor was already a lesson in feminism for me and my sister. And, as she developed her own style and techniques in her new medium, it became intriguingly clear that my parents’ work embodied a strangely crossed gender art message that in itself contributed to my sister Naomi and my involvement with feminism and perhaps too to the slightly unusual flavor of our feminist outlook. Inasmuch as art movements are gender coded, my father’s work — folkloric, figurative, narrative, Jewish, delicate, light in weight — carried a feminine code. My mother’s work, abstract, muscularly sculptural although still relatively small in scale but heavy in weight carried a code that would seem to be masculine, as those terms are used.

Resia Schor, The Moon, 1967. Pendant, silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, c.3″x2.5″

Resia Schor, The Moon, back

When potential customers came to visit, there would be the ritual of showing the work: she would gradually open one case and soft pouch after another, unwrap little tissue paper packets, laying out gold and silver pendants and pins studded with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, heavily sculpted silver Mezuzahs, chains whose silver and gold links and  blue African blue glass beads made from ground lapis lazuli tinkled softly, and earrings made with ancient beads from “Roman excawations.” At the end of the unveiling, a profusion of treasures would cover the coffee table in our living room. I never tired of seeing the work and better yet of handling it, wearing it, sculptural, glowing, deeply satisfying as an aesthetic experience that was tactile as well as visual. Her rings in particular became part of my identity.

Resia Schor, silver and gold rings from the 1980s to the 2000s

I also loved to watch my parents at work, in the small “maid’s room” of our Upper West Side apartment. When my father was a teenager, before he went to The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed in a kind of medieval guild practice as an engraver and goldsmith, and his gestures at work, with metal as with gouache and brush, were light and deft. My mother had watched him work, she claimed he had taught her some basic skills. After he died she took one course in soldering, but basically she taught herself to make her own work. But her body language at her work was different than his, more determined, she radiated an intense and physical absorption.

Resia Schor, soldering, summer 2002. Video still from Mira Schor, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor,” 2003

When my mother was about 8 years old, spending the summer at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Lublin, in Poland, there was a fire next door, always a dangerous event, but all the more so in a small rural community of wooden houses in the early years of the twentieth century. Left alone, as the aunt who was in charge of her ran out with her own small children, my mother decided to save the bedding, so she tied all the pillows up into a sheet, and got her bundle and herself out of the house. Later they could not untie her knot.

This story always seemed metaphoric and predictive of my mother’s strengths and abilities. She was courageous and had presence of mind: when, as she sat with my father and friends in a café in Paris in May 1940 and saw French peasants from the East pushing their belongings and their elderly relatives in wheel-barrows through the streets of Paris, with their livestock in tow, she understood that she, my father, and their friends, poor Jewish émigrés, must leave at once and so, early the next morning, they fled, with only a few lumps of sugar and a change of underwear, a day ahead of Hitler’s army.

English was the fifth language she learned, after Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French: when I was at summer camp, she once wrote to me “I love you with all my hearth.” One of the important images of my adolescence is of my always very elegant little mother wearing goggles, hair covered in a dirty bandana, face blackened by metal dust, carbon, and red metal polish, wielding a gas-powered torch over a gas burner on our kitchen stove to solder her large silver mezuzahs. Vulcan’s sister at a domestic forge.

The heat of that unquenchable fire inhabits a recurrent dream I have had for many years that the burners on my stove spontaneously alight and like the burning bush, the flame cannot be extinguished and the bush is not consumed.

Video still, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor.”

In a 1974 letter to his sister Janice, Jack Tworkov wrote about my mother “[…] alone in the house, always fighting loneliness, but better off than most because she has a work in hand and makes a living from it. ” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov). “A work in hand,” those are powerfully meaningful words to describe her and to describe what I feel I learned from her – the importance of dedication to a self-created aesthetic task pursued in daily practice. To have a work in hand gave meaning to her life and to mine and my sister’s.

Resia Schor, c.1928

Resia and Ilya Schor, under the Magnolia tree on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, c.1935

Resia Schor, Student ID, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, 1930

Resia Schor, Carte d”Eleve, Louvre Museum, 1938

Resia Schor, Provincetown, 1960, photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Resia Schor with Naomi and Mira, from top 1965, 1982, 1985

Richard Howard, “Jewelry by Resia Schor,” Craft Horizons, July/August, 1966

Resia Schor, Gold Pin, c. 1970

Resia Schor, 2005. Photo: Chie Nishio

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