Saturday, March 05, 2005

 

Instead of us all going to New York for Jackson Mac Low’s memorial today at St. Marks, we’re all home sick with this winter crud, a deep cough & bone-wearying achiness that slows down one’s physical – and mental – processes. Yechh.



Friday, March 04, 2005

 

 

Last week I gave a presentation for work in the morning in Stamford, Connecticut, then headed down to Philadelphia in order to give my talk in the Theorizing Series at Penn. If I got to Writers House early – 3:00 o’clock, say – I knew that I would be able to hear the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto give a talk on Finnish poetry itself, so I was motivated to make good time.

 

The trick, to call it that, about going back & forth between Stamford & Philly, as I do for my job several times a year, is figuring out how to negotiate one’s way around New York City. I have been stuck in traffic amidst the great public apartment complexes of the Bronx for hours on end, which usually suggests that one should avoid NYC if at all possible. The alternate, tho, which is traveling out west on 287 through Westchester County to the northern end of the Garden State Parkway can add as much as 20 miles to the trip. And there’s never any guarantee that the parkway isn’t going to be a parking lot itself. All the other various routes to the New Jersey Turnpike seem problematic for various reasons – just the day before, I’d headed north on 9 out of Manhattan’s west side only to find myself inexplicably wandering the streets of Yonkers.

 

Today, however, I was motivated to make good time and my presentation was over by noon, so I crossed my fingers and headed straight down I-95 to New York City. Traffic in the city itself was slow, but not stop-and-go, so I found myself making extraordinarily good time. Indeed, by 2:00 p.m., I found myself at the Richard Stockton service plaza on the Turnpike, just 45 minutes or so from Writers House when I stopped to refuel for gas. I swung off the turnpike & headed over the river into Pennsylvania, then curled around to get back onto I-95 right where it hits the northernmost border of Philadelphia.

 

At which point, I discover the freeway-as-parking-lot. A check of the all-news AM radio channel tells me that they’re painting lines on the freeway up somewhere ahead. Since I don’t know this part of town at all, I decide that the best strategy is just to crawl through on the freeway. But crawl suggests movement and just under two hours – and three freeway exits – later, I surrender to reality & simply get off at the next ramp, which dumps me near Holmesburg Prison & its neighborhood of row houses & light industrial businesses. It takes another hour for me to wend my way – much of it simply following the Frankford Street el tracks – downtown & then out to Penn. Two hours from Stamford to the Philly city limits, three hours from the city limits to Penn.

 

I could have taken the train, but if I was going to cut through NYC on my way up in order to see The Gates, as I did, I had to drive (this is also my excuse for how I ended up in Yonkers the day before). Plus I should have heeded an old rule of thumb: never commit yourself to two major events in one day, or at least make sure they’re in the same state.

 

All of which is a roundabout way of bemoaning my fate that I didn’t get to hear Leevi Lehto talk. However, in the contemporary world, showing up – which I believe Woody Allen once declared to be 80 percent of success – is less necessary than ever. Lehto has posted both his talk on Finnish poetry as well as an anthology of same (plus, special bonus, a brief bilingual series of his own poetry) here. It’s all fascinating reading.

 

Here’s the deal. When Shakespeare was being Shakespeare, Finnish literature – like the Finnish language – had not yet gotten to writing. A history of Finland, to some degree, has always been a history of the impulses of its bigger, pushier neighbors, the Swedes to the west, the Russians to the East. If “written Finnish as we know it only began to emerge around 1850,” we have almost as a side effect a test case for many of the relationships between writing & society. Today there some 5 million Finns in a nation roughly the size of Pennsylvania (tho, like Canada, its population tends to cluster along the southern rim, so that the experience might not be as Spartan as it sounds, tho in the North it might be very Spartan indeed). Swedish remains one of the state’s official languages, and there is a Finnish-speaking minority in Sweden, as well as a cluster of Finns who expatriated themselves off to the upper Midwest of the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, where they seem mostly to have abandoned the tongue.

 

Lehto divides the world of Finnish poetry into just three periods, one “classical” that extends out over the first century of Finnish writing, basically up to the end of the Second World War, a second “modernist” period focused around the 1950s & ‘60s, and a third period he generally avoids naming but which he sees as having been set into motion by the great social movements that swept Europe & North America in the 1960s. Lehto describes the so-called classical or traditional period as being one of looking to foreign models for writing, “more than anything else a time of constant experimentation with foreign poetical forms, metrical and rhyme schemes, genres, patterns.” Much of this is made more complex by the fact that the Finnish language stresses the first syllable of words as a matter of course, a phenomenon that would yield a literature of dactyls & trochees.

 

The implication might be that the following “modernist” period swept away foreign models, although my take on the collection Lehto has prepared to accompany his talk is that it appears on first glance rather that the writers of this period have instead substituted newer foreign models. Everything from Khlebnikov to Brecht, Celan, Cavafy or Auden seem possible in the work of this middle generation. The new generation looks a good deal like the contemporary international scene – there’s a poem dedicated to Ern Malley, another by Marko Niemi composed via Lehto’s own Google Poem Generator. It’s one of the best poems in the collection.

 

Lehto’s own history of Finnish literary generations takes a strange turn here, shifting away from what’s going on in the poems per se to relating the current generation’s work to trends in left theory popular in the 1970s & ‘80s:Gramsci, Althusser, Jameson. Again one senses from his discussion that Finnish poetry may still be looking elsewhere for inputs that will transform writing, only now on a new more meta- level.

 

American poetry is actually not that much older than Finnish writing & some of these same issues are still points of contention here. One could read, for example, Robert Bly’s dissatisfaction with the literary models provided by the Boston Brahmins around Lowell as an argument over whether U.S. poetry should be seen as an adjunct of British letters, or responding to a more international European model (albeit one that tended to be relatively conservative & not all that representative in the context of the actual writing going on in those countries). One could read Olson, Ginsberg, even O’Hara as arguments for an American nationalism in poetic form – certainly Williams saw it in such terms.

 

Some of the differences between the American scene & the Finnish one simply have to do with scale: you just get more poets, all kinds, good, bad, indifferent, out of a population group of 300 million than you will out of just five million. And some of the differences are historical – having Russia as one’s next door neighbor has real consequences in what happens.¹ The end result, tho, for me at least, is a series of questions posed both by Finnish poetry & Lehto’s presentation thereof:

 

  • Does Finnish poetry, as such, exist? If so, what is inherently “Finnish” about any of it?
  • How might we think here of Finland the state vs. Finnish the language? Lehto’s collection contains works by a couple of Finnish poets who left & came to the U.S. & became American writers, one of them Anselm Hollo. The works it presents of Hollo’s were originally published in Finland, in Finnish, in the 1960s.
  • What is the role of language, or of social history in the evolution of a “literature”? Is Literature, capital L, just poetry with an army?

 

One could of course substitute American, Canadian, Scots or what have you for Finnish in any of the above questions. Indeed, part of what Lehto’s talk suggests to me is the possibility of a writer using one of the less popular of the world’s 6,000 languages. Ninety percent of these languages have less than 100,000 speakers, some 350 or so have less than 50 speakers. What would it mean to “be a poet” in one of these languages? If one “wrote” great work in these mostly nongraphemic tongues, how would anyone – even the poet him- or herself – know?

 

 

¹ Lehto in fact was the Political Secretary of the Secretariat of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Finland for a decade (1973-82), a period when the party was part of the governing coalition. Lehto’s own Eurocommunism of the period put him in the minority of the party, most of whose youth members of that generation opted for a Stalinist faction more closely aligned with the old U.S.S.R. Lehto makes the point of noting that he no longer thinks of himself as left wing.



Thursday, March 03, 2005

 

 

What is the literary equivalent of the narrated audio that accompanies so many “major” museum shows these days? Is it footnotes? A foreword? Is it Robert Bly, reading his poem, then telling you what it means in the most reductive possible terms before reading it again, strumming now on a dulcimer? Whatever, lets hope that it never catches on the way that these ubiquitous headsets have in the visual arts.

 

I try to visualize what Blake or Picasso or Titian or Pollock would have made of these dedicated playback machines – they started out as tape players but the newer ones are more like clumsy Ipods – & I’m stopped in my tracks. No wonder a Dadaist like Duchamp, whose stance toward art was also a critique of its institutionalization, took to inscrutable projects like the large glass or ready-mades, then fled to the intellectual integrity of chess.

 

At least the museums used to charge for these little dumb-down machines, a self-selection process that had a tendency to separate out one set of viewers, invariably clustered around the canvases with large numbers, silent but for the murmur of exposition that leaked from their headphones, while the rest of us could actually do what painters & others had always wanted us to do – look at the damn art.

 

Increasingly, however, museums have begun to just hand these devil machines out, usually while increasing the price of entrance overall. It’s a symptom of course of our current state of affairs that so many people don’t want to look at a painting without a narrative close at hand. And one of the great dividers in the world of the visual arts is the distinction between people who go to museums & those who go to galleries. An afternoon traipsing through Chelsea can be far more instructive than any day at a museum, not because you know that Serra has new work at the Gagosian or whatever, but precisely because of what you might find that you’ve never heard of before.

 

It’s only a matter of time, of course, before marketing savvy artists start to build in their own audiotexts for their exhibitions. Imagine 400 years hence, seeing the paintings of some future Artemesia Gentileschi, listening as the painter herself, already centuries in the past, explains why so many of her works depict Judith beheading Holofernes. That at least would be more interesting than hearing the curator (or, worse, an actor) misdescribing history, as happens in the Dalí exhibit in Philadelphia.

 

Artists taking over their audiotexts would have other salutary effects as well. First they would preclude bad texts from curators aiming to describe works to an audience whose knowledge & background is suspect at best. Second, some artists would turn out to be good with their audiotexts as art. Imagine now that you’re watching a Franz Kline retrospective & listening to an audiotext something along the likes of soundtexts by Robert Ashley. Now that would be something worth listening to.



Wednesday, March 02, 2005

 

 

Dalí’s Photoshop is a phrase that kept running through my head as I wandered through the immense – and densely, brutally packed – Salvador Dalí retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dalí would have loved that software program – at least up to a point. It would have enabled him to execute his dreamscapes with even greater photorealism, a condition that he obviously concluded early on was required in order to address the unconscious.

 

I say up to a point because the other side of Dalí, beyond wild surrealist of the trademark moustache & melting watches, the avant-gardiste as public joke – a role Dalí shared much of his adult life with Gertrude Stein – is a remarkable fidelity to painting as a classic craft. It comes out in detail, in perspective, in the degree to which his oils mute their strokes – the antithesis of abstract expressionism. Many of his most famous & complex works are small, some very nearly miniatures, including the Persistence of Memory (not, alas, included in the show, but viewable at MoMa in New York). The painting Basket of Bread above was painted when Dalí was all of 22, the same year he was expelled from art school for insubordination, claiming that none of his teachers were fit to judge his work. He was already a close friend of Lorca, enamored of Picasso & only a few years away from his admittance – temporary as it turned out – into Breton’s surrealist cabal.

 

Dalí was born the same year as Louis Zukofsky, which is to say that he was born an entire generation after Stein. Yet as a result of his exile to the U.S. during the Second World War, the ever publicity-conscious Dalí paralleled Stein in his years of greatest notoriety. I underscore that connection because in the 1960s – the absolute heyday of the Abstract Expressionists (tho the Pop Artists were already starting to make their move) – the one person whom I heard publicly defend Dalí – going so far as to call him the greatest painter of the 20th century – was also the only person I heard defend Gertrude Stein – the poet Robert Duncan.

 

Dalí called his method handmade color photography – how Photoshop is that? There is a late painting of a dream of his partner Gala in which two tigers are leaping from the mouth of a snapper, which itself is leaping from a giant pomegranate hovering over the sleeping figure of the naked woman. The tigers were copied from a Ringling Brothers circus ad! Not collaged – meticulously recreated through draftsmanship.

 

What Duncan claimed he liked most about Dalí was that his paintings were, in Duncan’s words, “multistable.” What I think Duncan meant by this is the phenomenon of double images that occurs in Dalí’s work from the 1940s onward in which a face might be constructed with a pair of salt shakers (or Dutch burgers) for eyes, a pre-Escher, post-trompe loeil device that mimics the process of metaphor. In such works, there can be no correct image on which the eye should settle, but rather the process sets up a constant shuttling back & forth between effects.

 

Yet this device is a relatively minor one for Dalí, even if it has been mimed by a zillion lesser painters (some of whom may have signed Dalí’s name to their work). The Sistine Madonna, a late work from 1958, presages everyone from Roy Lichtenstein to Chuck Close by putting the mother & child into a blown up photograph, its pixels the size of dimes, of the pope’s ear. Dalí throws off new devices like this almost casually during his entire career. This is, after all, a man who worked at different stages of his career with Bunuel, Hitchcock & Alice Cooper.

 

In the 1960s, when Duncan proved his defender, Dalí offered the scandal of commercialism for serious art, doing commissioned surrealist portraits of rich folks (there is only one serious example in this exhibit, tho in a couple of different stages), turning out surreal clothing & industrial design, making outrageous statements in the press, a medium that could not tell when he was or was not being serious. At one level, he was doing what artists have always done to make a living. In the age of capital & Hollywood, he figured, one needed to promote oneself with a certain flair. But it alienated one possible audience – serious thinkers about art – even as it attracted buyers. Toward the end of his life, this got way out of hand, and galleries were discovered to have signed sheets of blank paper around just waiting for Dalí prints . . . or Dalí forgeries.

 

Unlike the rest of his generation of surrealists, Dalí never made Paris his permanent home. Spain, on the other hand, had a particularly unfortunate 20th century, its role as a major western nation virtually erased by the Civil War in the 1930s – a war in which Dalí remained officially neutral to the outrage of his surrealist peers. When Dalí & Gala decamped to the U.S. during the Second World War, it meant making a living not only in a new land, but in one where Dalí had no particular reason to believe would become the center of the fine arts in just a few years. His antics ensured that he would thrive financially, but they came at the cost of not being taken seriously for a long time.

 

One problem that Dalí shares with both Robert Rauschenberg & Gerhard Richter is the direct result of his virtuosity. Dalí may well have been the finest realist painter of his day – none of the Wyeths could hold his paintbrush – yet he was not a realist as such & he lived in a milieu, first within surrealism and the other modernist genres, then later as a counterpoint to abstract expressionism, when realism itself was not valued in painting. His student work – the earliest paintings here were done when he was just 13 – shows that he was adept at any of the impressionist devices – he could do Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Miro, Millet, Picasso the way Kevin Spacey does impressions. The result is precisely that he makes it look too easy, especially since his style, at least once he left school, was to mute his strokes so that the eye never focuses on the paint, but rather at the referential imagery.

 

With over 200 works of art, this is the largest Dalí retrospective in the U.S. since 1941. The exhibit began in Venice, but has no other stops and runs through May 15. Timed tickets are necessary but be forewarned. What I say about the dense brutal packing of viewers is literally true. Try to get there for the opening of the day, so that lingering viewers don’t crowd you beyond claustrophobia to points of dizziness & nausea. Even with timed tickets, it took us 45 minutes in line to get into the show.



Tuesday, March 01, 2005

 

 

Eliot was wrong. April is hardly the cruelest month – for one thing, it’s the one moment of the year when many baseball fans, Philadelphia’s among them, can pretend that their team has any chance against the big money rosters of New York, Boston, Los Angeles or Atlanta. I’m not much of a basketball fan – a game that as a kid managed to make me feel short, slow & uncoordinated all at once – and there’s no major league hockey this year. So once the Superbowl (which spell check actually suggested should really be Superb owl) comes to its ignominious conclusion, the sports fan inside has naught to do but wait for Opening Day.

 

Punxsutawney Phil was right. Our real winter this year is occurring for the most part after groundhog day. I had thought that I’d missed the one real snow dump this year while I was out in San Francisco in late January. I was wrong. This is my tenth winter here in Philadelphia & I continue to be amazed to look out the window & see snow in all directions.

 

One of the most irritating aspects of living, as I did for 48 years, in the Bay Area is hearing Easterners describe the weather there as having no seasons. The seasons there are specific & fabulous, moving as they so often do subtly from one to the next. Auslanders don’t know – and the locals aren’t about to tell them – that the best weather in the Bay Area occurs in September & October, & that the fog bank that sits offshore in July & August is no aberration. At dusk, the changing temperatures of the bay act like a straw, sucking the fog through the Golden Gate, depositing it smack atop the Berkeley Hills. Back when I worked in San Rafael & commuted from San Francisco every day (1972-76), I learned that you could virtually set your clock by the arrival of the fog down over Mount Tam & the Marin headlands each afternoon.

 

I remember Bill Berkson – somebody who has done the coastal switch in the other direction – once telling me that the biggest difference between the East & the Bay Area was that back east there was a clearly defined distinction between indoors & outdoors, while the distinction out west seemed much more permeable, even casual. That seems very accurate.

 

A poet whose work strikes me as being particularly outdoors – in the sense that first drafts may have been written there, certainly, but also in the sense that I often think he envisions his readers there when they read his poems, is Gary Snyder. A poet whose work strikes me exactly the opposite, as quintessentially indoors – I can almost hear the rattle of the radiator in his texts as I read them, even when they’re about the beach at the Hamptons – is Edwin Denby. Here is an example of what I mean:

 

Awakening, look into sweet

Beast eyes, nightmare dispelled, cheerful

I feed cats, me, do chores; the great

Day waits then for heroism

Exhausted, I get myself out

Store, gallery, chat, have coffee

Heroes, heroines abound; hope

Who trusts it, but it’s contagious

Back upstairs, poetry I try

Alive by chance, civilian I

Chance roommates, you cats and roaches

You have cultures purer than mine

Of yours I shelter the success

And at mine’s failure don’t repine

 

More than the imagery or the use of language & sound as dense as Zukofsky’s, what gives this the feel for me that I completely trust – and completely feel as being indoors – are the poem’s semicolons.

 



Monday, February 28, 2005

 

 

Orange Alert

 

On Monday, February 28, New Yorkers will begin to see what Central Park looks like without The Gates, the 7532 bright orange (“saffron” say Christo & Jeanne-Claude, tho tangerine would seem to be more accurate) structures, essentially door-frames sans doors, the top third of whose openings are taken up with industrial strength banners that are neither curtains nor flags. I suspect that for some, especially those who live in close proximity to the park, it will take some doing.

 

Was The Gates great art? I suspect not, tho the actual answer to that question requires an extended contemplation as to what art is or should be & how a work like this does or does not meet the necessary conditions. It was, unquestionably, a great gift to the city of New York, the best thing that has happened to Manhattan in some time. And, if you look at all closely, it stands up remarkably well in many of the areas that one would get to in that extended contemplation.

 

But lets begin by noting what this art was not about, which was itself. The utter redundancy of the material object replicated over & over essentially obliterates what Benjamin once called the aura of the original. That is certainly no accident, any more than it is an accident that one cannot see the whole of the project from any vantage point short of a helicopter – a feature that was true also of Running Fence in California in 1976, the other one ajor Christo project I’ve had the pleasure of seeing up close and personal.

 

In fact, the comparisons & contrasts with Running Fence leap out at one almost instantly. Both require considerable movement on the part of a spectator. Both serve functionally as framing devices for the landscapes in which they were set. Yet Running Fence was an act of late modernism in its aesthetics, a long single pale line that ran through the fields of Sonoma County. The Gates is gaudy to look at, goes off in all directions, leads you to areas where you expect to find more & don’t – Strawberry Fields, for example – then come upon two or even three rows of them running side by side along other paths. The difference reminded me of the aesthetics of Frank Stella as they evolved over a similar three decade span. Running Fence is the early Stella of the continuous gray line. The Gates is late Stella, with wild colors & expressiveness running off in all directions. One could make the same analogy with the music of Steve Reich, I suspect.

 

The Gates is a framing device before it is anything else. What Christo & Jeanne-Claude want you to see is the park. In the cold monochromatic tones of winter, these bursts of orange pop up everywhere – you see them up close as you walk through them, you see them up high on bluffs here & there, you see them curling into the distance & down in the lower reaches of the park. If ever there was a project to make people acknowledge how unflat Central Park is, this was it. It was, in that sense, an homage to Fredrick Law Olmstead & Calvert Vaux, the park’s creators. I was reminded, walking through the park on an afternoon that started off gloomy & then turned sunny, with splotches of the previous day’s snow softening the backgrounds behind all this tangerine, that Olmstead claimed that one of his goals as a designer of environments was to prepare the citizenry for socialism. One way to do that is to orient the individual to his or her position in the natural world – and a framing device is a perfect mechanism for underscoring that point.

 

Invisibility was a major component of The Gates, even though they were not all the same size. For example, the most important structural element of each gate was not the three orange beams, nor the curtain, nor the ten rivets that held all these together, but the plain black feet under each vertical beam that provided the necessary stability for these large & frankly dangerous objects to withstand the elements. The black feet disappear into the park, the background, immediately. I challenge you to find a single photo on Google that highlights this key critical element. Yet on some of the paths, the verticals angled into these base structures in order to keep the gate steady on an uneven plane – they are not incidental, not unart in the way that a wire that enable a canvas to hang might be.

 

Walking through the park, I noted that the banners were remarkably sturdy looking, the sort of synthetic material you might find in a modern sail or parachute, densely stitched with orange thread to provide a tiny grid texture. They seemed remarkable with the sun behind them or when they billowed in the wind. I never once saw an instance of graffiti on any of the structural supports – and I was looking for tagging, expecting it actually. I don’t know if the supports were specially treated to make it impossible, if graffiti was wiped away as quickly as it was put on or if people were too stunned by the work itself to imagine such interventions. I wondered – I still do – if there was any order to the plan itself, or if, as seems most likely, it was carefully done in reaction to existing peaks & valleys & paths of the park, so that the plan is the park itself.

 

And I like the way in which this project does not take itself seriously. There were a number of parodies of The Gates up on the web almost instantly – cheese crackers, little flags leading to somebody’s bathroom, etc. – and every one of these ribald knock-offs seemed to me to confirm the essential rightness of Christo’s & Jeanne-Claude’s original impulse. Look, these alternatives seemed to say. This is exactly the point.



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