So, this is about the how, and when and why, and what of seeing.It’s about how the habit of seeing activates our minds and our imaginations, and how seeing opens doors that were otherwise closed;And how when those doors open, the world seems more manageable and meaningful.
But why seeing?Why not reading or listening? Simply put, I had an artsy mother, who enjoyed hanging out in art galleries and museums. When I was especially small she was getting her Masters in Humanities.Every week she would plunk me in my stroller, and head off to some new exhibit. Since my mother had her own agenda, I was never told what to think, or how to feel.I was free to formulate my own opinions, likes and dislikes.In the process I learned how to look at art, but more than that, I learned, almost instinctively, how to make it relevant to my life.
So, for as long as I can remember each month, there have been things seen, and things unseen, and this is how I contextualize my little corner of the universe.A word of warning:I’m not very rarefied when it comes to the habit of seeing.I don’t pay much attention to theories, reviews, or critics.My only frame of reference is my perception of the piece, things the artist said, and what was going on in the world during the time of its creation.The rest I leave for others more qualified to ponder.
THINGS SEEN (click to view corresponding Flickr set)
Oskar Kokoschka Portrait of Frau Reuther c 1921
Robert Rauschenberg Dwan Gallery Self-portrait
Picasso etching of Rimbaud
Manuel Alvaraez Bravo Absent Portrait 1945
Paul Klee Trio something?
Kandinsky Unequal 1932
László Moholy-NagyAL 3, 1926
Ellsworth Kelly Orange White Green Blue, 1968
Picasso Woman with a Book 1932
BrancusiBird In Space (1931)
John Singer SargentStreet in Venice (1882)
Luisa Lambri: Being There
Renoir (in the 20th Century)
Jim Hodges: A Diary of Flowers – Above the Clouds
Jan Savery Elephant and Monkey 1645
Rembrandt van Rijn Death of the Virgin 1639
According to my family, I was incredibly moody last month.In my defense, I had a rather rushed rewrite due mid-month.In the screenwriting world, my main role is to get actresses attached to projects.Working from an existing script, I flesh out the characters and beef-up their involvement within the story, so that the actress will agree to make the movie.After that, the director comes on and usually brings on his own minion, meaning I get the boot.For this I am well paid, but the trouble is I get attached to the characters.They become my little creations, and as I near the end of the project, I begin to feel a loss of control, as if my babies are going to be taken from me.This of course leads to moodiness – because no one wants to have their babies taken from them.Then there’s also the compounding issue that I’m on the verge unemployment, which means I have to start the entire tap dance all over again.Add to that the fact that the dogs are constantly barking, and my daughter is nearly eleven and her head is in the clouds (I suspect Robert Pattenson is to blame, but she denies this). Then there’s my son who takes baths and still comes out dirty, and every time I turn around there’s another pile of dirty clothes on the floor, oh and let’s not forget about breakfast, lunches, and dinner and the corresponding trips to the supermarket that they require. Does Nick Hornby have these problems? Or Don DeLillo?I think not.So, yes, I was moody.What else is new?
Oskar Kokoschka’s portrait of Frau Reuther was a good reminder that I need to keep things in perspective.Not because she’s old and half blind, but more because she’s got this slight smile on her face that seems to imply there’s no sense fretting over this type of stuff.I love the way she sort of hides her gnarled hand as if it’s really of no consequence anymore; she’s alive and kicking on the inside.Kokoschka, was an Austrian painter who had a very long, very torrid affair with Alma Mahler (wife of Gustave).He was also kicked out of Austria in 1934 after being labeled a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazis.The notion of ‘degenerate’ art came from a Jewish critic named Nordau, who loathed modern art, and felt it was the work of people who were so screwed up they had lost the self control to produce anything coherent.Ironically, the Nazis seized upon his ideas in their quest for Aryan purity in art – though I’m not certain how Nordau fared in the process.The Nazis even had a big Degenerate Art Exhibit, which featured masters of Fauvism, Impressionism, Bauhaus, and Cubism, all re-organized into fantastically named categories like: Insolent Mockery of the Divine Under Centrist Rule, Nature as Seen by Sick Minds, and Madness Becomes Method.You couldn’t even make this up. The big irony was that after the show the Nazis also held a big auction and bought up all the pieces at top dollar.
Dwan Gallery Self-portrait by Robert Rauschenberg brims with imaginative energy.I love how he deconstructed himself in this; his hand, his ear, his pencil, his glass, the backward R, and the black and white holes from the piece of torn paper.It’s messy and direct, so full of ideas it practically sings.Rauschenberg was always fearless when it came to executing different ideas in different dimensions and media. Whatever activated the work – wax, textiles, photographs, torn newspaper clippings, light bulbs, coke bottles – the stuff of life really, was fair game. Rauchenberg said that we are all works of art, or that we have to at least embrace that possibility. I consider my own self-portrait at present – piles of laundry, endless cycles of dirty dishes, dog hair tumbleweeds – maybe he’s onto something.
The thing that I really like best about Manuel Alvaraez Bravo’s Absent Portrait is not so much the photo itself, but that it reminds me of Martha Posner’s Memory and Desire series.Posner does incredible things with clothing as sculpture. I’m not someone who ever had the wish to feel invisible, I think it’s more that I feel invisible far too often, so Bravo’s photo, and the idea of the absent human figure, with just the dress sitting on the chair, appeals to me on a dreary sort of level; or maybe I’m so used to seeing clothes piled up on chairs, that this somehow seemed to be a poetic rendition of the mundane.
I’m completely irritated with myself for not noting the title of this Paul Klee painting. I think it’s something with trio, or triad but suffice to say it’s typical utopian machine world Klee.Three little stick figures, are heading out against an atmospheric wash backdrop.Klee painted so many of these, and each one feels like a different window into a vast imaginary world, where hand drawn creatures twitter, sing, and walk tightropes.I always compare it to the characters that Calvino created in Cosmicomics. Weird dreamy landscapes full of inanimate creatures whose pathos and emotion seems to mirror ours.I know Ruskin ragged about the use of pathetic fallacy but I can’t get enough of it.I want my imagination stretched, I want to think about things that don’t make sense.Then again, Ruskin didn’t like Whistler, so what did he know? Anyway, sorry to digress. Klee taught at the famed German Bauhaus school of Art where the school motto was ‘Art and Technology – A New Unity’ (this being the second choice over ‘Small but Excellent’ which had been scooped up by the nearby University of Potsdam).The curriculum at Bauhaus was incredibly well-rounded and interdisciplinary.They studied everything from architecture to religion, and believed that technology and spiritual growth were co-dependent. Students and teachers worked side by side, and in order to keep the school self-sustaining, they would take on real-world commissions in design problems.It was (at least in theory) an incredibly positive communal approach to teaching and because of it instructors and teachers formed tight bonds.Of course the Nazis wouldn’t tolerate this type of transcendent visionary thing and shut the school down under their ‘degenerate’ clause, but Bauhaus aesthetic and influence are still felt today in design and architecture.
Unequal by Wassily Kandinsky was a new painting to me.I have always felt a kinship with Kandinsky mostly because we both suffer from synesthesia, and Kandinsky felt a kinship with Klee, since the two both taught together at Bauhaus.The only trouble with Kandinsky is that he that sometimes can begin to feel predictable, but Unequal seemed fresh. I don’t know if this is because I had never seen it before, or because it had more blue than I’d ever seen from him, or because the brush work was more evident than usual. Either way, I paused on that window-like object on the bottom right corner and decided that it was the portal to Klee’s mechanical utopian dreamscape.Then I was struck by the idea that Klee and Kandinsky were the Tex Avery and Chuck Jones of Bauhuas. I wonder if anyone else has ever made this analogy.I’m guessing not.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s AL3 is yet another Bauhaus creation. Moholy-Nagy was Hungarian.His cousin was George Solti, a huge conductor with the Chicago (symphony) for years.I saw him conduct Bartok’s Music for Strings, and it was nothing short of amazing.Solti studied with Bartok, and I’m certain Moholy-Nagy must have known him as well.What an amazing time to be alive.I think of them all hanging out in some fantastic cafe in Budapest. Where have all the fantastic creative cafes gone?Maybe they only exist online, or perhaps they’re somewhere inside AL3’s velvety alien world.Yes! And Klee’s twittering figures vacation there when they need a break from Kandinsky-land.They hang out in clubs that feature Bjork tribute bands and tight rope walkers, and the only form of sustenance are Fudrucker’s hamburgers (have you ever noticed that there are always tons of Kandinsky posters at Fudruckers?).Oh, I suppose I’ve let my imagination run away with me.Ruskin would not approve, so I suppose I should get back to reality, and gritty truths, and anus ulcers and ugly tits…
Clearly, you didn’t see where this was going, but I’m laughing to myself because of course I’m talking about Picasso’s etching of Rimbaud.Sure Rimbaud was a serious cutie, but he was such a shit.His controlling, but brilliant mother (who was also severely Catholic) insisted on home schooling him, which I think led to all his later troubles in life.Rimbaud was a selfish, enfant terrible, of the highest order.His bad behavior caused unspeakable emotional harm to pretty much everyone he touched, and yet he’s rewarded with a Leo DiCaprio film and t-shirt licensing deals.Screw Rimbaud, and screw this etching.It’s stupid.
If Picasso annoys me, and Rauchenberg fills me with optimism and hope, then Ellsworth Kelly grounds me. His work, like Red Orange White Green Blue, makes me feel the underlying order to everything.This is important because often times it feels like the ground under my feet is breaking. I should point out that it really drives me crazy when people complain that they don’t get Color Field painters. It’s a bit like looking at a person’s life and saying, I don’t get it.You’re not supposed to get it!It’s about perception.In the case of Kelly, that perception is color.Don’t think, What does it mean? Or, What is it? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s about the color and how you feel about the color.It’s a fragment, a moment, a ‘stunning emptiness’ as some critic once said of his work (I know I don’t read critics but Kelly mentioned it once in an interview).I remember the first time I saw Kelly’s work.It was just a long line of color field paintings at MOMA and I was mesmerized.Now granted, I do have synesthesia, so color really sings for me (literally) but still, give the color field painters a chance if you haven’t already.Just relax your mind and just enjoy the feeling of the color .So what can I say about Red Orange White Green Blue?Nothing.I will say nothing.
Now excuse my earlier Picasso irritation for just a moment as I explain why Woman with a Book (1932) doesn’t annoy me.Sometimes Picasso’s work, can feel like an exercise in self-congratulation.Thankfully, this is not the case with this painting, which features his then mistress Marie-Therese.I love the way he organizes the space, the way the colors play off one another, the elements of fantasy and imagination.The painting is just one big push and pull. It’s modern, but it’s old; it’s realistic but it’s abstract, and all those thick black lines ground it, while the look on Marie’s face is so dreamy.
Bird in Space is not my favorite Brancusi, mostly because I’m scared of birds and it seems a little impersonal compared to his faces.What was interesting to me about this particular Brancusi wasn’t so much the work itself, but the fact that it is stuck in the middle of this huge room at the Norton Simon with this sulky Giacometti statue.Ever since I visited Brancusi’s atelier in Paris, I’ve been struck by the anthropomorphic quality of his work.Seeing all those half completed sculptures stacked on the shelves, I couldn’t help but feel they were all wondering where Brancusi went.They were like orphans, safe in their own company, but lonely all the same.I think Bird in Space looks lonely too, and tired of the sulky Giacometti lady, who for the record needs a bra and a better attitude, which may just become my new motto.For me, Brancusi is the Picasso of sculpture, minus the endless womanizing, the celeb status, and the lavish lifestyle.He was one of the first sculptures to challenge the dominance of Rodin (and given my love of Camille Claudel, this alone makes him a hero of mine).Brancusi was all about the essence of things, and simplicity of form, which makes sense given the times he lived in. The Ottoman Empire was being pushed back to the Turkish borders, and there was even bigger trouble in the Balkans, which meant Brancusi, who was from Romania, was smack in the middle of all that upheaval.The world was a confusing place and Brancusi reductionism helped to simplify it – even if only for himself.
The other day my daughter finished a John Singer Sargent reproduction that she had been working on. It’s a lovely little painting called Woman with Furs, and features a fur clad woman wandering along a cold landscape. It’s so small and perfect, and I’ve hung it by my desk so she can keep my company while I write.Now, the thing about Sargent is that he gets a bad rap because he wasn’t a trendsetter or a radical.Worse yet, he was always employed (God forbid), but I believe Sargent’s importance lies in his portrayal of women.They all share a self-assured quality, or maybe it’s an air of modernity;They are always very much in charge, within their femininity. I’m guessing his mother had something to do with this.She was an interesting woman who decided she wanted to leave the States and move to Europe.She was sort of like Kate Winslet’s character in Revolution Road (a hundred years earlier) minus the loser husband and the suicide. As a result, Sargent was born in Florence and raised as an ex-pat in Europe.
Street in Venice features a typical self-assured, confident Sargent woman.Wrapped in a big, dark coat with her white dress spilling out from underneath. She heads down that silent alley while the rest of the city naps.There are a few people lingering in doorways; she’s noticed by a few of the men but doesn’t really seem to care.Her thoughts seem elsewhere, and there’s an aimless quality to her walk…Still, I think I see the hint of a smile coming across her face, and even though I don’t know where she’s coming from, or where she’s going – I can’t help but feel she’s heading in the right direction. Hopefully, the same can be said about me.