Monday, May 24, 2010

I remember George Segal chuckling at his well-meaning relatives' inquiries about when he was going to stop making sculpture and retire. As my son Adam, who was about 10 at the time, noted, "Many people retire so they can make art." Here’s Steve Jobs, when asked if the introduction of the iPad might be a “high, fitting end” to his career:

“I don’t think of my life as a career. I do stuff, I respond to stuff. That’s not a career—it’s a life.”

Complete interview, Time Magazine, April 12, 2010.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Your Little Room

well you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in your bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think about how you got started
sitting in your little room
--The White Stripes

Last night I watched “The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights  (2009), a video of The White Stripes’s tour of Canada in 2007, where this two-person band that can easily fill stadiums, travelled to far-flung towns and villages, playing their punky bluesy, countrified rock in free daytime shows at each location with as short notice as possible. Similar to Sigur Ros’s tour of Iceland, which can be seen in their gorgeous video “Heima,” Jack and Meg White played venues as diverse as a rec center, a pool hall, a small boat, and a flour mill, culminating their tour with their 10th anniversary show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia—where they interfaced with local musicians, said to be distant relatives, playing regional music. The effect is surprisingly heart-warming, with attitude-free Jack White coming off as a total sweetie-pie.

White is also someone who’s thought a lot about the nature of creativity. His favorite quote about the band describes them as “simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world,” which made me think about how it’s the deft mixture of artifice and reality that makes for great art. Err too much on one side or the other and the magic is lost.

And White’s soliloquy on creativity was just the pep talk I needed before going into the studio:

It used to be, before I ever was on stage, there was the excitement of what it would be like to play onstage, or if I could just record… what would that be like? I don’t have inspirations like that anymore. Ten years later we’re just working in the same box….one part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself because I know something good can come out of it if I really work inside of it

Inspiration and work ethic, they ride right next to each other. When I was an upholsterer… sometimes you’re not inspired to reupholster an old chair, sometimes its just work, but you do it because you’re supposed to and in the end you look at it and think “it’s pretty good” and you move on. That’s it. Not every day of your life are you going to wake up, the clouds are going to part, the rays from heaven are going come down and you’re going to write a song…sometimes you just have to force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out of it. Whether we like it or not we write some songs and record them….book only 4 or 5 days in a studio and force yourself to record an album in that time…deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want— that just kills creativity. I’m using the same guitars onstage I used 10 years ago, and I like to do things to make it really hard for myself. For example, I don’t have picks all taped to my microphone stand. If I drop a pick, to get another I have to go all the way to the back of the stage. I place the organ just far enough away that I have to leap to get to it to play different parts of the song…. so I have to work harder to get somewhere. And there are hundreds of things like that…like those guitars I use that don’t stay in tune very well; they’re not conducive, not what regular bands go out and play. So I’m constantly fighting all these tiny little things because they build tension. There’s no set list when we play—that’s the biggest one—each show has its own life....when you go out and everything’s pre-planned and the table’s all set, nice and perfect, nothing’s going to happen; you’re going to go out and do this boring arena set….

All those things have always been a big component of The White Stripes: the constrictions…only having red, white and black colors on the art work and presentations, [sticking to] just guitar, drums and vocals, storytelling, melody and rhythm—these force us to create.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Random notes & images

I’m back. Part of the delay was a computer virus that mimicked my security program, even put an icon on my toolbar, and when I didn’t fall for their bogus upgrade, started offering me porn. Other than that I’ve been travelling for the last two months to the point that a week or so ago my friend, Scott, left a message on my voice mail saying he didn’t know where I was anymore. That made two of us. And since I seem to have no thoughts or opinions at the moment (other than about my ex-handyman’s insane bill for priming the back porch) I’ll post some images from my peregrinations and hope my brain returns to normal soon.

This isn’t De Chirico, but Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, another culture where art isn’t a separate intellectual activity for the privileged, but is as pervasive and natural as the sun.

Then revisiting one of my favorite places, the old synagogue that Camille Pissarro’s family belonged to, off the beaten tourist track in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, V.I. Who knew that this famous French Impressionist was Jewish and from the Virgin Islands? I found out when I saw an exhibition of his work in St. Thomas some years ago, and reviewed it when it went to the Jewish Museum in New York. The synagogue is tiny and opulent, a rich interplay of colors and textures—mahogany, brass, blue velvet cushions—and a white sand floor, in memory, I was told, of illicit congregations in medieval Europe who put sand down to muffle the sound of their prayers.

In contrast, the geometry of Philadelphia’s new civic center in construction, across from the ornate Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which my great-grandmother attended, and no doubt looks exactly as it did when she was there.

Then Stanford, which has to be the most beautiful university campus in the world. Yale and Harvard should weep. This is Palm Drive, three blocks of majestic trees leading up to the campus. One of the students told me that a replacement tree arrived like an enormous rocket on a flatbed truck and sat for awhile on its side near the studios. Cost (I was told): $80,000.

The Stanford graduate fine art program has only nine students, who are fully funded, and working in the most well-appointed and vast studios I’ve ever seen. For one brief moment, degree-less as I am, I was tempted to apply. This was lunch:

And palm fronds on the ground around the studios:

Finally, the weekend before last I flew back to JFK late Friday night and early Saturday made it up to Central Park West for an all-day White Tantric Yoga workshop, held once a year in New York, which is not the sort of thing I usually share, but the photo was too beautiful to resist:

This last weekend was the Anne Truitt opening at Matthew Marks, the guests intermingling with the sculptures:

For the next few weeks I intend to hole up in the Berkshires, finish off one essay, write another, and get up to speed in the studio. Oh, and work in the garden and finish the taxes I got an extension for. It never ends.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


All images: Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, 2010.

Thanks to reader, Sid Garrison, for linking me with Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon and these incredible photos. Goddur, as he is called, is a professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, as is my former SVA grad student, Hulda Stefánsdóttir. Hulda and Sigur Ros were responsible for my original interest in Iceland, and I’m grateful to Olafur Eliasson and Art in America for getting me there for my first visit in 2004.

Also Hulda sent me this link to a live feed from the volcano.