Varieties of Disturbance

Reading Lydia Davis for the first time this morning, and drinking coffee on a grey Saturday as the first snow of the season falls. In this book, aptly titled Varieties of Disturbance, she displays a fine sensitivity for the aquifers of fleeting emotions, subtle evaluations and minute perceptions and sensations that constitute the unexamined dimensions of internal life. These streams can unconsciously determine moment-to-moment decisions, or influence larger ones as they rise, coalesce, and break into consciousness. In the stories I have read so far, the sensations, as advertised, are irritating. “The Caterpillar” relates finding a tiny caterpillar in the house, which the protagonist charitably decides to remove to the garden, but instead loses in transport on a dusty stairwell. Now more likely to step on it than save it, the nagging urge to find the caterpillar surfaces, hour after hour, spurred by incidental circumstances, and is followed by a faint ethical malaise that persists beyond any hope of rescue.

“Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho,” goes even further by irritating the reader directly, rather than irritating a character with whom one may or may not empathize. The brief narrative describes reading the ineffable late Beckett work on a bus trip, and is rendered in clipped, willfully efficient prose that echoes without mimicking Beckett’s own challenging words, which are themselves embedded directly into the story as little enigmas. Appended to this is a series of footnotes at the bottom of each page, where the tale is told more fully and comfortably. The footnotes contain maybe three times as many words as the narrative they amplify. This exploits the subtle and meddlesome dynamic one experiences when reading a book with footnotes: when does one interrupt the flow of one’s apprehension to get perhaps vital (perhaps useless, it can’t be known yet) information about what one is reading? The tension is sharpened once one realizes that the footnotes have more flow, and provide fuller information with less labor. Which was the narrative and which was the gloss? As I read, there were pinpoint peaks of discomfort that accompanied my decisions (was I really deciding?), as I switched back and forth between the spartan narrative and flowing footnotes, at times seeking the path of least resistance below, and other times pursuing a more hard-won satisfaction above. This in turn caused me to ask what reading is. To what degree was I goal seeking, and to what degree does was I truly following the writing, letting it lead to new territory? How were these dynamics playing out within the time-based activity of reading, and, in this case, what was I to do with the subliminal fabric exposed?

This is thoughtfully crafted, innovative and conceptually ambitious writing.

In Broken Images

I can't think of anything better than this poem to share with you today. It has been on my mind a lot in recently. It was sent to me several years ago by my good friend Glen Davis. He thought it might resonate with my sense of what it meant to be an artist. My response was to memorize it immediately. Perhaps you will, too.
In Broken Images
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question their fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
when the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
— Robert Graves

It never hurts to be good looking

In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, 1964 (1915 version lost). Courtesy MoMA,

The op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, by Dennis Dutton, "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" will doubtless provoke brouhaha from foreseeable quarters. It is not a bad article, however, despite the tiresome Morley Safer-if-you-can-believe-this-I-have-a-bridge-for-sale-it's-all-a-ponzi-scheme tone. It simply points out, in a long-winded way, that once contexts are stripped from an artwork, the artwork is on it's own, and depends on its appearance to stay out of the dumpster. Nothing we didn't know.

The firstest-bestest example of this is Duchamp's In Advance of the Broken Arm, the shovel pictured above. It was once used by a museum custodian to clear the walks after a snowstorm, which Duchamp thought was hilarious. To reinforce Dutton's point, the original shovel was lost.

There are plenty of presumptions in the article to puncture, but this conclusion, regarding the beautiful artifact, was a bit bizarre:
Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call “fitness signals” — displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.

Hand axes, however, were not grown, but consciously, cleverly made. They were therefore able to indicate desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability and conscientiousness. Such skills gained for those who displayed them status and a reproductive advantage over the less capable. Across many thousands of generations this translated into both an increase in intelligence and an evolved sense that the symmetry and craftsmanship of hand axes is “beautiful.”
I wasn't aware fine motor skills were so desirable to pre-Neanderthals.

One thing is for certain, and that is that all art has become much more self-consciously conceptual. In that sense conceptualism isn't going anywhere. Few artists make work without at least considering the intellectual precepts and ramifications of what they are creating. Whether that means that work solely dependent on a sophisticated web of reasoning and contextual bases to establish its relevance and meaning will remain compelling, we can't know. Maybe what we are now sorting out is what is vital and what is merely scholastic in the intellectual provinces of our artistic pursuits.

Paul Celan’s “Zurich, At The Stork”

Zurich, At The Stork (for Nelly Sachs)

Our talk was of Too Much, of
Too Little. Of Thou
and Yet-Thou, of
clouding through brightness, of [“of how clarity troubles”]
Jewishness, of
your God.

On the day of an ascension, the
Minster stood over there, it came
with some gold across the water.

Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
I had
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word—

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

really don’t know, you know,
really don’t know

(Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Translation by John Felstiner, W.W. Norton, 2001. The phrase in brackets is an alternate translation of that line by Michael Hamburger from Poems of Paul Celan, Persea Books, 1995, that I found helpful.)

Some Celan (and Sachs) appropriately, on Yom Kippur. I have been reading this poem for a couple of years, and had not planned it like this, but who knows what agencies work beyond periphery of our awareness.

This poem was written on 30 May 1960, and relates a conversation that Celan and Nelly Sachs had at her hotel, The Stork, four days prior. It was the first of few meetings they had. Sachs was there to receive a German literary prize in Meersburg, but the prospect of staying overnight in Germany caused her such anxiety that she lodged across the border instead. (Felstiner; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; p. 156) To me it is one of Celan’s most important poems, dealing directly with the pain and aftermath of the Holocaust. It is a depiction of a kind of post-traumatic devastation—with the ferocious anger, pain and almost cosmic stoicism—of two persons who suffered such anguish, but it also has an ambiguity that both hides and reveals.

The entire poem is unusual for Celan because of its strong, clear narrative line; we mostly understand readily the event of the dialogue. Its theme, the examination of one’s relationship to God after the horrendous events of “that,” gets more tangled the longer it is considered. Celan is full of fury, speaks of “your God,” speaks “against him,” and has a hope not for a reconciliation or explanation but a fight. He incites God to his “wrangling word,” maybe to have something as tangible as an argument to sustain his faith, in the absence of any possible acceptable account for what has happened. It is a righteous and utterly justified response.

The final two stanzas are striking. In contrast to Celan's rage, Sachs demurs, and the poem intimates that she sees a broader picture. Sachs' reply to Celan, almost 30 years her junior, is described coolly. The pause that she takes (“Your eye looked at me, looked away”) has the quality of the pause one takes to decide how to express a difficult truth to a someone who is obstructed from seeing it, in this case by anger. There is a suggestion of self-deprecation in Celan’s portrayal.

Prima-facie, Sachs’ response (“We/ really don’t know, you know/ we really don’t know/ what/ counts”) could be seen as the acceptance of our inability to comprehend the motives or will of God or God's actions, no matter what the magnitude of the occurrence. Though this is a prototype for human interactions with gods, here it manifests as a feat of faith and spiritual fortitude almost impossible to grasp given the currency, scale and barbarity of the circumstance, and implies a wisdom that is captured in the physical description of her response, one of remove and indirectness (“your mouth/ spoke toward the eye, I heard”).

A second reading is that because of "that" Sachs, and not Sachs alone presumably, has had a kind of inner compass crushed to the point that she feels it is not longer possible to make a moral judgment of God (or at all, at the extreme) that Celan imputes. How can one view the psychosis of genocide within the realm of ethics? Is a capacity for judgment evaporated or made seemingly absurd by such wanton violence? If this could happen, what is the point of making sense of anything? “What counts” has a sound of resignation beyond incomprehension in it.

A third possible reading, related to the first but more sweeping, is that Sachs is simply implying that one can't say anything at all about God, no matter what the subject or scale, full stop. The relationship to God is at the least indescribable and at the most opaque, yet meaningful. This approaches the domain of mystics; I have no idea how to talk about it, and don’t much trust those that claim to.

These readings (among potential others) are parallel and distinct, and maybe their agglomeration is the point. Celan told Sachs that he “hoped to be able to blaspheme up till the end.” (Felstiner, p. 156) Did Sachs’ reply focus Celan back to the struggle taking place within himself, that his anger of that moment eclipsed? Perhaps the poem uses the conversation to present the arguments within the self that occur simultaneously, and that it is the entwinement of these separate, difficult strains of thought and feeling that tell the real story, to which any rendering less ambiguous would have been unfaithful.

Of course one always wonders (or should), given distance and difference, of how the myopia of one’s ignorance muddles the picture. (I’m not Jewish, theist, deist, poet, literary scholar or persecuted, nor was I alive during the war.) And while it might be extravagant to request that Nelly (b. 1891) be here to enlighten us this evening, it wouldn’t be too much to ask that we could have Paul (b. 1920) to help. What we have is the living artifact of the poem.

I’m going to have a scotch. L’Chiam.


John Felstiner, who has been most gracious in our occasional correspondence over the years, has a new book out that deals with poetry and the environment, Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems. You can hear an interview with him here.

Exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery

Left to right: John Finneran, Untitled Night (with Three Eyes, One Mouth), 2009; Leeza Meksin, MKRS, 2009; Christopher Quirk, The Age of Reason, 2006

There are three paintings of mine in an exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery in New York through 31 October. I am very pleased to be showing with Leeza Meksin and John Finneran.

Provisional Painting

Art in America online recently published an article by Raphael Rubinstein entitled “Provisional Painting.” (Accompanying slide show above; mouse over for artist/painting information.) It is well worth a read. The gist of the article is that some painters are deliberately adopting a desultory approach and slapdash methods as a way of avoiding the suffocating weight of the history and demands of Painting capital “P,” or as a way out of the theoretical cul-de-sac some see as painting’s current predicament. He brings about half a dozen painters of varying stripe under the rubric, surmises common causes for their modus operandi and provides historical examples of possible predecessors. He has this to say about the current condition:
What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up...Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply.
Whether or not the artists Rubinstein examines would agree with his characterization of their motives or of the situation is an open question (though I think a good number of the artists he marshals do not support his thesis). However, it is noteworthy for Rubinstein, whose writing I always enjoy and who is a long-time champion of painters’ painters such as Norman Bluhm, Shirley Jaffe and Stanley Whitney, to thoroughly and sympathetically evaluate an approach to painting that in some instances seeks to make a virtue not just of dumpster-diving materials and techniques, which can be very useful, or of artistic restraint, but also of parsimony and at times contrived fecklessness. I won’t contest that this attitude exists, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not the only game in town.

Let’s look at two artists that lend support to Rubinstein’s thesis. Raoul De Keyser’s work, which I first saw at the Venice Biennale in 2007, is an instance of an argument being more persuasive than the artifact.

Raoul De Keyser, Blue Center, oil on canvas, 14” x 17” (36 cm x 44 cm), 2000. (Photo: Massimiliano Cadamuro, ASAC, La Biennale di Venezia)

Rubinstein quotes curator Jean-Charles Vergne, who says De Keyser’s work “constantly asserts the impossibility of painting free of touch-ups, mistakes, accidents, set on laying bare the seams, the second tries and the failures. . . . [There is] a constant stuttering in the painting.” Given this, it should have a high probability of being interesting, à la Beckett, but instead comes off as cloyingly fey. Transparent process alone won’t constitute a compelling painting.

Stefan Sandner’s work, I confess, I have only seen in reproduction, and while I make it a point not to write about artwork I have not seen in person, an exception here does no harm.

Stefan Sandner, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 29 1/2 x 39 1/3 inches (75 cm x 100 cm), 2007. (Photo: Cherry and Martin)

Its reason for being is in large part to call attention to its own triviality, which in turn calls into question its reason for being, a self-fulfilling, scholastic vortex for which the painting itself becomes inconsequential in direct proportion to the time one spends considering it. Though a nifty trick of abnegation, this kind of painting doesn’t really evade the quandaries that provoke it, and provides little to the viewer.

While Rubinstein may be correct about some painters feeling boxed in by historical antecedents and theoretical conundrums, and while he praises the “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perseverance of artists who paint through these challenges, painting remains an empirical discipline, a discipline of objects, rooted in the experience of making and viewing. However daunting the obstacles, the painting itself counts. The degree to which rhetoric displaces experience is the degree to which painting becomes eviscerated.

Every artist works, consciously or unconsciously, under the impact of the moment, the exigencies of time and place—that is obvious enough—but every moment is multi-faceted and no response to it pre-ordained. Rubinstein may have very well characterized one course of action, but there are plenty of other painters working contemporaneously who have simply never accepted the premises or anxiety Rubinstein relates. They sow an adjacent row in the same field, yet do not recognize (or never noticed) the confines of what is “possible in painting,” as dictated by those outside of it, nor any doctrinal requirement of exiguity. Work such as this is incontestable proof that present-day theoretical or historical ensnarement is less than a necessity. Perhaps Madame de Sévigné had the answer: “Quand je n’écoute que moi, je fais de merveilles.” [When I listen to myself only, I do wonders.]


I was in the studio recently and turned on Alfred Schnittke’s "Concerto Grosso No. 1," from the album “Kremer Plays Schnittke.” Froze me for twenty minutes. A-stound-ing. There’s even a tango in there (in the fifth movement). If anyone ever told him what wasn’t possible, he didn’t listen.

The meaning nebula

(photo of Orion Nebula, taken by the Hubble telescope, courtesy of NASA)

At the moment I have a show up at BCB Art in Hudson, NY, one of the reasons for my bloggy torpor. I had quite a few compelling conversations with people about the paintings before, during and after the opening. Apart from anything specific about the work, the idea of meaning kept coming to mind. There were points of consensus and of disagreement regarding the paintings, but the main thing was that as I listened I could hear meaning being created by these viewers and interlocutors as they discussed things with me and each other. (I have talked about this before, but it was interesting to watch it happen again the other day.) The specificity, characteristics and impact of the paintings are inert until they hit a public. The artist may be the first viewer, but things don’t get interesting until someone else shows up to talk to. The viewers turn on the light switch and make the work visible. It shows meaning not as an entity but as a relationship, a dynamic, a network, or, perhaps, in the words of A. R. Ammons:

the “field” of action
with moving, incalculable center
the working in and out, together
and against, of millions of events: this,
so that I make
no form of


Turdus Migratorius, by Rick Leche

A brief follow up to a point in the last post about the logarithmic expansion of the territory called art. We attended a symposium entitled YES! The Persistence of Optimism at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College last weekend. Our very dear friend Hope Ginsburg was among the presenters and the chief allure for us, and spoke about her Sponge project, but all of the presentations were informative and several were quite compelling. (Follow this link for more information about the whole weekend of events.)

During the Q & A, I asked the panel how important their identity as artists and their association with the art world was to them, and if they thought they would be doing much the same thing if art did not exist or if they were not working under its aegis. I asked in part because many of the projects they undertook could have been classified easily under other disciplines or rubrics, for example sociology, mathematics, landscape architecture, and good old-fashioned activism, to name a few. On the other hand, I was wondering how much of this the artists would have come to, in the way they had, had they not approached it through art.

The answers varied. Oliver Herring, who does community-based improvisational pieces called Tasks, said, and I paraphrase, that he would be doing more or less the same thing, art or no art, saying he “looks for deficiencies” in society, and works to remedy them. From there the answers ranged back across the rest of the spectrum, all the way to "very important and couldn’t do it without art" on the opposite edge.

For a long time, art has been acting as a conduit to non-art activities as well as a consolidator. An artist may, for the purpose of an artistic goal, explore new, unknown to them, disciplines or activities to achieve it; an artist with diverse personal interests or passions may bring them into the art tent, as it were, and fashion them into a coherent piece. Without art, there is no space where a lot of these things could be mutually explored and synthesized in the same way. As a result, art has become the most vibrant laboratory for cross-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary studies, far out-stripping any academic or other alternative, hence its exploding appeal and protean (and sometimes exasperating) qualities.

One of the presentations we enjoyed most was by the self-declared “not artist” on the panel, Tod Lippy, the editor of Esopus, a fascinating, twice-yearly publication that includes an eclectic and thoroughly engaging variety of projects, portfolios and music. By all means have a look and subscribe. The issues are ridiculously cheap for such a thought-provoking and beautifully presented product.


(A 14th century manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, showing Proposition 29, the first to rely on the parallel postulate.)

1) What is the value in making a positive or negative case for expression, content or communication in art the first place? It is not in the least obligatory or even advisable for a painter or any other kind of artist to engage in these sorts of investigations as a basis or prerequisite for work. There are legions, perhaps a preponderance, of artists who work away happily without the slightest concern for any of this, and I wish to whatever deities that may populate the firmament that I were one of them. But along with my passion for painting has long resided a deep-seated skepticism about what painting is doing and how it operates that has both bedeviled and animated my work since I began. The resulting interest as an artist has been to ascertain what possibilities exist for painting, and how to sensibly proceed. Some of the writing here deals with that, and I am grateful for any assistance offered along the way.

2) That being said, an exhaustive analysis of the dynamics and manner in which we apprehend artworks would be a insuperable endeavor in search of a contemporary Sisyphus. Over the last 50 years or so, a primary focus of many artists has been to expand art’s dominion into countless fields of form and inquiry, which has been accomplished at an ever accelerated pace. As a result, the full range and manner of artworks and activities defies any but the vaguest characterization. The scope of art has become so broad, and the territory covered by the word “art” so vast, that the utility of the term has been curtailed as the set of things that are not art or could not be considered art approaches null. There really isn’t any object or activity involving human beings that can’t be considered art, and the simple proclamation that something is art preempts any contrary claim. Which is all well, of course, as no one is keen on sacrificing a liberty once won, and eventually the word “art” may be left behind completely and other ways to talk about these phenomena will arise, if it’s not happening already. I am most interested in looking at some examples from various genres as a point of departure, with painting, and a focus on abstract painting, the eventual destination.

3) The act of looking at art and paintings is of course an experiential and dynamic process. Anything canned or self contained—takeaways, in the current parlance—is anathema to art’s dexterity, which equips it to treat ambiguity and polyphony without compromise or reduction; examine unexplored interstices and marginalia to discover new connections and associations; give voice to nuance and embody the ephemeral; and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, create new space for the viewer. Anne Carson makes an illuminating observation in her book, The Economy of the Unlost, beautifully demonstrating how poets can overcome limitations of language to bring into focus something beyond what language can manifest literally:

At the same time, Spirit does not arise of its own accord, but is wrested from behind the veil by an effort of language between I and Thou. The effort, as Simonides and Celan stage it, is very like a poetic act reaching right to the edge of ordinary babble, to the place where metaphor waits and naming contains visibles and invisibles side by side, strangeness by strangeness. (p. 68)

Spirit itself cannot be represented, named, but can be interpolated by poetically framing its absence. In one of her examples, “If to you the terrible were terrible,” from a Simonides fragment, “babble” is laid into the symmetrical structure of the line to illustrate the gap in the perception, between the speaker and her sleeping infant, of a violent tempest, while also pointing to the invisibility of the tremendous event to the sleeper. (p. 58) What Simonides is showing to us here, according to Carson, is that “'if to you the invisible were visible, you would see God,’ but we do not see God.” The gap between the capacity of language and our aspiration for it—demarcated but not bridged—shows language failing in a primary sense, but succeeding by making invisibles visible, framing what cannot be directly seen. “We know [words] don’t count, but we lay them against the abyss anyway, because they are what mark it for us, contrafactually.” (p. 65)

As a conception of art or as an artwork lists toward the declarative statement, so its compass contracts in direct proportion. Art is exceptional among human pursuits in its capacity to work fruitfully with what cannot be declared.