Monday, January 08, 2007

El Greco, The View of Toledo

To look at The Sienese Shredder#1,” you would not immediately think of this luscious amalgam of art, criticism, poetry, interviews & even recordings as a “little magazine” – it appears at first glance to be the sort of museum catalog that accompanies only the larger and more expensive exhibitions about the country. But there you have it. With cover collages by Don Joint against a bright mustard frame, a CD containing what amounts to a reading of a selected poems by Harry Mathews, bright four-color portfolios of paintings by Jane Hammond and Shirley Jaffe, some smart essays by co-editor Trevor Winkfield on Sassetta, “painter of fragments,” & by Jack Barth¹, a wonderful short piece that can only be called a close reading of El Greco’s The View of Toledo (“we are in the middle of a hallucination, in the anxious peripheries of revelation”), this is very much a high-end art catalog, interspersed with some superb poetry and by some things that you simply can’t be expecting.

For example, a portfolio of 12 postcard collages by John Ashbery, the sort of miniature frames of "disjunctive but found" wit you might expect, say, from the late painter Jess. Turnabout is fair play, however, as Jess – or his estate – contributes two of “Osap’s Fables” in the form of prose poems. Here is the first:

A worm was so fond of his Young Man that at length, seeing with insolent contempt base traps to ensnare the harmless, one day he would marry his constant companion. A SpiderCat, weaving her web with the greatest SILK, became a woman working at her shroud much quicker than a young bride. “Yes,” said the Silk, “but your labours, which are at first Venus, spring from the room, the nature of a Cat. AND the Cat determined that there were no longer the half finished arms of her husband and, only this morning, caught the Mouse, and it was very fine and transparent; and it is still down here HIS YOUNG MAN, hearing you acknowledge that I work behaviour with the greatest care, and seeing that I began it, changed the Cat into a blooming woman. They swept the princes away as dirt, and under the form of a woman she married and killed it; but at night my web is changed and worse than useless, whilst his wishes, as soon as they are seen, are preserved on and in her affection. THE worm and her form and accordingly, mine are made slow and swiftness is hidden.” SPIDERCAT used to declare that if she were back again, the Silk should see how large and how sincere was nature become. “what do you think of her and his gratified ornaments?” disagrees THE SILK; “AND Venus angry at her neighbour designed only as a Mouse of my lady, destroyed the young although beautiful, WORM.” See this in time: and he looked to THE WORM for labour cries.

Also writing from the dead is Edwin Denby, a tale of terror in a wry tone:

My father was a cheese grater
My mother was a stair
I’m a no-nonsense escalator
Less I couldn’t care
I’m a slick machine but I turn mean
When from inside my parts that glide
I smell the fetor of a musky sneaker
Taking an upward ride
I grab the toes as my slabs close
I grate my steel
On feet that feel
Tom flet that grab
In his sneaker’s toe
He can’t pull it back
The monster won’t let go
The danger peaks
He nearly freaks
Untie the shoe lace, Tom!
He did.
Free the foot slid.
The escalator foiled,
Tore the sneaker, and ate it oiled.

Early on in the issue, Judith Stein interviews painter Richard Tuttle not about his work, but about the role of art dealer Richard Bellamy in “birthing the new American art that followed Abstract Expressionism.” In what feels almost like a parallel piece, William Corbett offers a short memoir on “Three Great Talkers” – Charles Olson, Philip Guston and Robert Creeley. I was surprised, given his role commenting on Guston’s career, to discover that Corbett doesn’t think of himself as being nearly so intimate with the painter as he does with Creeley.

One might argue that these indirect works - writings by a painter, even Jess – was that a cut-up by the artist of Tricky Cad? – or this marginalia by Denby might not be major, maybe not even serious work (it might be the only bit of Denby I can think of that would be at home with the least formal aspects of the NY School generations 2 or 3), or that Tuttle discussing a dealer likewise isn’t addressing the question of art directly. But Sienese Shredder has major contributions mixed in as well – several scores by Alan Shockley², 17 pages of new poetry by Ron Padgett and the first new Larry Fagin poems I’ve seen in print in over a decade, fifteen of them, each in prose one paragraph long. Here is “Joanne Hates the Curtains in the Kitchen”:

What’s the name of this in this language? Virgil would write in the morning and spend the evening struggling to put it into hexameters. But Ovid lay it out straight into verse. Brodey’s flashing bolt. Yellow-pink-red-blue-green-black rhomboids with little sprays of paisley. I understand well enough resistance to words. The birds is coming, that’s what they used to say. Now they say … the truth is … transubstantiation. Time briefly lengthens, bleeding a little, so we have history to live out, the naturalness of melting. Everyone is hungry for this collation. Why are we in this world? Why does it have to be us? I don’t know, kids, I’m just a little Dutch girl holding my pitcher of milk. Change here for all points, many times in future.

The allusion to the late Jim Brodey is perhaps the one instance of the oblique here, that intimate level of address so typical of the New York School. The only other moment in the poem that might be said to touch on that same sort of genre-defining (or coterie defining) characteristic is the joke about the Dutch girl in the next to last sentence. Otherwise, this poem could be anything, even direct address (indeed, one interpretation might be that the NY School touches are there precisely to let the reader know that it isn’t just direct address).

As a group – the same is true for Padgett’s work – these poems are terrific, both men are at the top of their game amp; one’s only reasonable complaint might be that this seems like an awful lot of work to tuck into a magazine that has no prior readership & costs $25 per copy. If, in fact, this is the only work that Fagin has published in over a decade, it should be in The New Yorker, damnit.

On the other hand, it is one way to guarantee that people will want to pony up for the new journal.

Another piece in the journal that, for me, raises a somewhat similar question is Francis Naumann’s piece examining – in stunning detail – one element of Marcel Duchamp’s announcement for a 1943 exhibition to be called “Through the Big End of the Opera Glass.” (Not to be confused with “The Big Glass.”) This element is a chess problem printed on the underside of one of the invitation’s four folded “public” faces (imagine a greeting card). Naumann, who is both an art scholar & a gallery owner – one of whose shows not that long ago was a presentation of married life on the part of two artists, Sienese Shredder cover artist Don Joint, and co-editor Brice Brown – argues, and pretty well demonstrates, with the aid of chess grandmaster Larry Evans, that the Duchamp problem has no solution. This is a wonderful demonstration of Duchamp’s method, not to mention his mind in general, and one of the few instances I’ve ever seen in a general publication of any kind of the way in which chess can be as much philosophy, or art, as it is proto-military strategy, math or spatial relationships.

It is also, along with the Stein-Tuttle interview, the second piece in this 252-page publication to feature an art dealer as a major thinker – indeed, as a major category of legitimate art critic. The two sections together – not unlike the two major collections of poetry (there are many other poets here too, including Denise Duhamel, Gérard de Nerval, Chris Edgar, Carter Ratcliff, Charles North, Nick Carbó & Miles Champion) – are where this journal clicked into place for me. The Sienese Shredder seems very much to want to define – maybe even redefine – the New York School as such, for the 21st century.

Indeed, the opening piece is a college commencement address for the San Francisco Art Institute by Bill Berkson. The presence of poets who are major art critics – Ratcliff, Corbett – art by poets (not just Ashbery, Carbó’s contribution is a gorgeous, tho somewhat conceptual, visual poem), poetry by an artist. And the best demonstration of gallery owners as thinkers – one often hears far more deprecating terms for them – that I’ve seen – Sienese Shredder is making the case for a poetry that is thoroughly immersed in the world of the arts, and especially in a world in which the visual arts are understood as very close to central.

Given the fact that this journal is edited by Trevor Winkfield & Brice Brown, two painters, this take certainly makes sense. It also follows on Winkfield’s rather aggressive & controversial British anthology, New York Poets II: From Edwin Denby to Bernadette Mayer, published by Carcanet in the U.K. as a follow-on to Mark Ford’s original volume (Winkfield’s co-editor here), which gathered the work of just Ashbery, Koch, O’Hara & Schuyler. NYP II is notable mostly for the number of key figures who have been airbrushed out of the group portrait: Alice Notley, David Shapiro, Maureen Owen, Lewis Warsh, Anne Waldman, Tom Clark, Tony Towle, Tom Vietch, Frank Lima, John Giorno, Ann Lauterbach, F.T. Prince, John Perrault, Jim Brodey, Ed Sanders, Aram Saroyan, John Godfrey, Paul Violi, Ted Greenwald, Michael Brownstein, Peter Schjeldahl & Dick Gallup. For starters..

If you include Bill Berkson, as NYP II does, you can hardly argue the absence of others on the constraints of space. Berkson’s a wonderful poet, but he’s lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 30 freaking years. Clark Coolidge, another of NYP II's eleven contributors, hasn’t lived in New York City for a day in the 36 years I’ve known him. So it’s an aesthetic argument that’s being made there. But because it’s an argument by exclusion, I don’t think it’s terribly effective. I have some of the same problems with NYPII that I did with Poems for the Millennium, vol. 2, which makes a similar claim (in its case, that Fluxus was the central post-WW2 literary movement) without openly owning it.

So I find The Sienese Shredder – a name worth exploring some other day – a really valuable contribution, since this would seem to be something of the same argument as NYP II made positively, on the best possible terms. I don’t think there can be any question that it’s a serious argument, tho one could argue its key tenets, at least as manifested here, rather endlessly:

that the visual arts are central in the ensemble of aesthetic practices

that art dealers need to be acknowledged as serious art thinkers

that a New York School (even if it’s not called that anymore) continues to exist & be vital, and that it’s defined by its relation to painting

that the role of St. Marks (&, implicitly, the whole “post-Ted thing”) has been overstated

It’s very interesting to look at The Sienese-Shredder in contrast, say, to Vanitas, which likewise intersects the painting-poetry axis that has existed in New York since at least the end of World War 2. Unlike The Sienese-Shredder, Vanitas is more open (and various) in its aesthetic arguments, providing not one but three manifestos at the start of its first issue.

As for the Shredder, the absence of a manifesto is an interesting move here, consistent with Gen 1 NY School practices, in which manifestos are abjured because one talks seriously about poetry by talking about painting – a sort of code. It also, I suppose, makes it harder for those outside the definition to argue back, for fear that they might sound too shrill or earnest. And it’s not that Winkfield & Brown outright exclude other perspectives – there’s Corbett, Jess, even Fagin in that light – but there is a demotic voice one can find at St. Marks that is largely missing in Sienese Shredder. And, given its stated policy of “submissions by invitation only,” that almost seems to be the point.

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¹ Not to be confused with the novelist John, whose friends all call him Jack also.

² Alan Frederick Shockley, not to be confused with the didgeridoo maestro Allen Shockley.