Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Even more Einstein

My father was an engineer who was also an inspired photographer, but he had too little confidence and was not in the right milieu to realize himself in the artistic arena. It’s always been clear that my brother got the engineering genes while I got the artistic ones. If you consider our family, the article that recently came out in the Times about how first children are smarter and more dutiful is bullshit; my brother, younger, is much smarter and has led a much more normal (“responsible” is the word our parents would have used) life than I have. He always excelled in school, whereas I failed algebra and had to take a remedial class where I was the only girl in a roomful of hoods (at New Trier High School we pronounced that “hoooods” to rhyme with “dudes”). I got 900-something on my verbal SATs and 350 in math. The administration thought there could be a mistake. I knew there wasn’t.

If you asked my father to explain something, like “How does television work?” he’d give an interminable explanation accompanied by an elegant diagram drawn on one of the yellow pads that were always at hand. I was much more into the diagrams than the explanations, but my brother took everything in and ended up designing computers for IBM (a sign in his office read, “My job is so complicated even I don’t know what I do”) and now creates aerial surveillance software for the City of Tucson, complete with Web cams, which means he really is Big Brother.

This is a long way of getting back to the subject of “thought experiments,” which Walter Isaacson, whose book I’m reading about Einstein, has finally explained on page 138:

He calculated the properties of two light pulses emitted in opposite directions by a body at rest. He then calculated the properties of these light pulses when observed from a moving frame of reference. From this he came up with equations regarding the relationship between speed and time.

The result was an elegant conclusion: mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing. There is a fundamental interchangeability between the two. As he put it in his paper, “The mass of a body is a measure of its energy content.”

Thus: energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light.

It makes me want to study physics. Almost.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Making it hers

Ever since I’ve known her—a long time—my friend, Alexandra, has wanted a Saarinen Womb Chair, the chair she grew up with, grew up in, as she puts it—and I’ve always had trouble picturing this icon of modern design in Alexandra’s house, a profusion of pillows, overstuffed couches, art, artifacts from her travels, lap blankets, lap dogs, and so on. Each time I go there I come back feeling that my environment, with its uncluttered surfaces, leather and chrome is too ascetic—and Alexandra says that after visiting me she’s overwhelmed with the desire to go home and throw everything out. Well yesterday I went to see her and there it was, the Womb Chair, in her living room next to the colonial fireplace. And, as you can see, it fits in perfectly. I wonder if Saarinen anticipated needlepoint bunnies.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More Einstein

I’m reading Walter Isaacson's book about Einstein, which means I’m writing about Einstein, which is most likely more about Einstein than you ever wanted to know, or you'd also be reading it. This may be the first book I’ve been hooked on since I read The Devil in the White City in England last summer, an indication of how traumatic all that buying, selling, renovation and moving here, there, and everywhere was because if I don’t have a good book going and music I’m addicted to (currently, still, the Silversun Pickups, along with new Arcade Fire and Cat Power) I don't feel fully alive.

A long biography like this one is fun because it just goes on and on, so that I lead my life for a while, then Einstein’s life, then mine again, then his, etc. What’s most interesting is the random coalescence of personality traits, experiences, and opportunities that made Einstein’s achievements possible—being born into a family who had an electrical business and were always applying for patents, working in a patent office (the only job, it seemed, he could get) where he learned, more than ever, not to take anything for granted (“When you pick up an application,” his boss instructed, “think that everything the inventor says is wrong”), being too rebellious for academia, being interested in philosophy as well as science, having close friends with whom he could talk endlessly and work out his ideas. If any one of these things and more had been missing, our world might be very different.

But even though this book is incredibly detailed (down to what Einstein ate when he was with his friends—sausages—and how once they gave him caviar, which he’d never had, as a special treat, and he was so busy talking he didn’t notice) Isaacson goes on about how Einstein formulated his ideas and then says—poof!—he published a paper. Here's a man who's working in a patent office, has no significant contacts, and he publishes a paper that sets the scientific establishment on its ear. How? Where? Did he have a blog? Those of us whose work has to do with publishing would like to know. Also Isaacson is always referring to “thought experiments” as if we all know what thought experiments are and how they work (well, maybe you know and actually perform them all the time, and I'm just out of the loop).

But I’m quibbling. I’m enjoying the insight into another field, the way I always love listening to shop talk among musicians, chefs, or last weekend, two poets arguing the merits of fellow poet Jorie Graham (who I just learned from Wikipedia is the daughter of sculptor Beverly Pepper and gets the Graham part from having married into the publishing family).

So I’ll leave you with this tidbit: “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way," Einstein said, "but intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

The romantic mythology around the creative act would have it otherwise, but the truth is, yes, we do all this hard work, and intuition is the payoff.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Context, context, context!

I think a lot about art and its context, especially after the Serra show, where the surroundings were too severe, and then visiting Wave Hill, where it’s a challenge for art to compete with the gorgeousness of the place. Actually, the grounds are art and should be seen as such. The design is the concept of a singular man—Scott, who knows everything, told me—the recently retired Marco Polo Stufano. One wonderful thing is the unexpected juxtaposition of vegetables—fabulous heads of shiny purple lettuce, corn even—with more traditional ornamental plants. However there are certainly artists who would be up to it, either by contrast or by fitting in, who could make even more of that site, or the rooms of those elegant buildings--Robert Irwin being one of them, of course, and Spencer Finch if he were trying (while I love his Mass MoCA show, his offering at Wave Hill was lame at best; perhaps he thought no one would see it).

My first experience of the inspired confluence of art and architecture was in the early eighties at a Pop Art exhibition in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, where a giant Warhol Mao, at least 20-feet-tall, was installed in an impossibly ornate room that I remember as being taller than it was wide and ringed with several stories of balconies. Ever since, my impatience with the white box has been growing. I think it's one of those art world assumptions—having to do with the notion that art is sacrosanct and should not be interfered with—that took hold and now, never questioned, is self-perpetuating. (Along with another of my bugaboos, the idea that items in a retrospective need necessarily be installed in chronological order.)

I know that, as an artist, I’m not supposed to like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, but I do, and not just because I welcome any opportunity to walk uphill. It always feels special to go there, an event, and more than any other museum, I have distinct memories of not only the works I’ve seen there, but where and how they were placed, how I felt coming upon them, and how they looked from a distance, across the atrium. What other museum offers you a view of something from eighty (I’m guessing here) feet away? In the Guggenheim you view works one at a time, whereas in the white box you must make choices about what to do with your attention, so whenever you’re looking at something you must always be conscious of what you’re not looking at as well.

Thus my irritation with the Serra installation at MoMA (the white box plus track lighting—ugh!) and don’t even get me started on the Brice Marden show. All right, get me started. I like Marden’s paintings. I’ve come upon a single Marden somewhere and been blown away, and I remember seeing a perfectly exquisite Marden show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. But I wouldn’t want to be Marden. To have to get up in the morning and face those canvases day after day? (As a rock musician friend said, after I played him Philip Glass, “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”). And when you combine repetitive paintings with a repetitive installation you come up with something you want to walk through very fast. Curators who insist on mounting the works in chronological order (and I’m not saying it might not work in some cases—as Robert Irwin says, “Sometimes the best solution is the cannon on the green”) are making a statement that values development over aesthetic experience. In Marden's MoMA exhibition, I would have liked to see the ribbon paintings interspersed with the monochromatic panel paintings; this would have created a textured environment where each piece could be seen on its own merits, without the distraction of an almost identical one next to it. To find out about Marden's process of development, there could have been a handout and/or wall text at the end, illustrated with small reproductions, that listed the order in which they were created.

An example of a thoughtfully installed show that doesn’t lean heavily on chronology is the Louise Nevelson retrospective at the Jewish Museum (on view into September). And according to Art Daily, Michael Govan, formerly of the Dia Foundation and now the director at the Los Angeles County Museum, is intending to use artists—including James Turrell and Jorge Pardo—as designers. What if one artist were to design the exhibition space for another? How cool would that be? I’d let Robert Irwin design a space for my paintings! Rem Koolhaas designed an exhibition for Terry Winters in SoHo once upon a time, which could have been more successful (except I do remember it clearly, which is something), but given how fabulous his Student Center is at the Illinois Institute of Technology (below)—when you are in Chicago, don’t miss it!—if he volunteered I’d let him have a go as well.

Other people thinking creatively out there include architect Jean Nouvel who, in his Paris Musee du Quai Branly for indigenous art, has completely rethought the museum experience. It’s a place where the architecture is very evident, but serves only make the art look better. When I was there in October they wouldn't allow photography inside, but to whet your interest here's an exterior view:

Not all artists want a pristine environment for their work. When I was talking about this with Judy Fox, she told me she fanaticizes about having her life-size sculpture of Snow White in her glass coffin being purchased by collectors who will use it as a coffee table “with the children’s book,” she says, “as the coffee table book on top.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Geniuses on the brain

Obviously I’ve been thinking too much. Anyway, Terry alerted me to a podcast lecture by Malcolm Gladwell (under New Yorker Conference in iTunes podcasts), where Gladwell distinguishes between two types of “geniuses.” The first “old-fashioned” kind isolates himself (he’s comparing two specific men) and works on something until he has that “Eureka!” moment, while the new style “genius” plugs away on a problem by drawing on the work of many other thinkers like himself. In discussing both cases, Gladwell falls back on the theory that it takes 10,000 hours (or three hours a day for ten years) to become a “master” of something, anything, and talks about the value of persistence and observation.

I wonder what happens when we apply these templates to the making of art and so-called “genius” artists? In his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, David W. Galenson (who I found out about through an article by Gladwell) makes a distinction between those artists who have the big flash of innovation early in life, and those whose best work comes after working for many years. Rauschenberg would be an example of the former, while Serra might embody the latter. Matisse, for sure.

I feel our culture, to its detriment, cultivates the myth of the individual genius and overlooks the true roots of art and innovation. Artists such as Picasso and Pollock didn’t work in a vacuum, but were very involved with others who were working on and sharing similar ideas. Pollock was even married to one.

It was Emerson’s belief that the seeds of genius are in all of us, and it’s a matter of being brave enough to speak our truth. In his essay, Self-Reliance, he says:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost--and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

I give more credit to persistence and passion—and the support of a milieu—than innate talent. One thing I’ve observed in teaching, is that sometimes those who show the most natural ability early on later fall by the wayside. I think this is because they become accustomed to easy success so when the going gets tough, which it often does if they’re going to make the leap into something great, they don’t have the psychological “muscles” it takes to push it to the next level. However, for those of us for whom it never came easy, each step just looks like the one before it.

And then there was the graduate student who said to me during a critique, “It probably would have been better if I’d worked on it longer.”

Saturday, June 16, 2007


The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science….To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches only indirectly….

From the new biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson.

I like this idea of Einstein's that mystery is an emotion.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Back to work

I found myself avoiding the studio for a couple of days and then realized it was because I didn’t know how I was going to paint this next thing. I forgot that, until I do it, I never know how I’m going to paint anything.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Wave Hill

Yesterday I went to Wave Hill in Riverdale in the Bronx for the opening of a group exhibition with a Thoreau theme that included my friend, Richard Torchia. I couldn’t believe I hadn't been aware of this spot so close to the city, with its soaring views of the Hudson and Palisades, where the buildings, grounds and gardens are so extraordinarily beautiful that—unless extremely carefully considered and well-placed—any attempts at artifying it come off as superfluous and jarring, like bad jewelry with an otherwise perfect outfit.

Richard's piece was deep in the woods, a simple structure the size and shape of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond. Inside the darkened room, on opposite walls where the two windows would have been, camera obscura lenses reflected the gently waving leafy branches outside. Watching it was mesmerizing—even more so, I was aware, than the actual scene outdoors. It reminded me of the time my sons were small and we went to a performance at the Goodman Theater in Chicago where they began fidget and we left early. Walking through the lobby, however, they became transfixed in front of a video monitor—a simultaneous broadcast of the play that had so bored them in the theater minutes before. At the time I chalked it up to the power of television but now—after recalling that, in general, TV was not a big attraction for them—I think the video may have focused the action so that they could get more of a handle on it. It made me think about art as a mediation of experience and how, by eliminating the distractions, it can often act as a felicitous narrowing--rather than a broadening--of vision, a chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Then Richard took me on a circuitous route into the woods to show me this single stone embedded in the path, which he told me was left over from an installation by Robert Irwin:

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Seeing...and not seeing, Part II

My friend Erica told me this story, which she swears is true, about her father, who shaved off the moustache he'd had for 20 years and then went to visit his parents:

Father: Notice anything different?

Grandparents: You got a new haircut? New glasses?

Father: No, I shaved off my moustache.

Grandparents: You had a moustache?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Open mic

Tonight is the once-monthly Housatonic open mic night at Deb’s studio and I’m going to sign up to read something. You may wonder what open mic night might be like in a village that doesn’t even have home mail delivery and be afraid, very afraid. Last month Scott intended to go but got part way down the road before he turned back, fearful of having to be polite, and Robby, who goaded me into going, didn’t show up either. I, however, had just been to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Egg in Albany and concluded that anything would be better than that.

I’d seen Paul Taylor once before at Jacob’s Pillow and remembered that it wasn’t so bad. Good, actually. At the Egg the dancers were beautiful, if a tad over-muscled, performing what didn’t look like extreme physical feats but would be if you tried them yourself. Throughout the first dance they twittered about on the stage—going through the motions, as it were—and it was mannered and repetitive or maybe just so hard to do that they didn’t have any emotive energy left over. To top it off the music was recorded, or to put it better, “not live”—as in “dead”. Canned Handel. During the improbable wild applause that followed, Roberto leaned over and whispered, to my great relief, “If the second act isn’t any better, we can leave.” We did, and the best part of the evening was our race to the car through a convoluted series of futuristic tunnels and empty parking lots that reminded us of Logan’s Run.

In contrast to what Roberto must've paid for our Paul Taylor tickets, at the open mic an optional donation of $5 went toward wine, cheese, and electricity. An audience of about thirty gathered, most of them people I knew or had seen around town, and about half signed up to perform poetry or music or just tell stories in organized slots of five and ten minutes, with a twenty-minute feature.

It was, to my delight, completely engaging—alternately moving and hilarious—and to discover the nuggets of talent and accomplishment that exist in the people I see every day was exhilarating. It made me think about how all great art contains the possibility of failure and how fear of failure had smoothed all the edges in the performance at the Egg. This, however, was Housatonic, and if you fall flat on your face in Housatonic, so fucking what.

The feature was a roundish guy with ponytail and walrus-like moustache who read poetry while a woman improvised on the cello and another woman “moved” to the words and music. Initially, this did not seem propitious. Last summer I went to an arty event in a shed somewhere where we were interred in the dark, forced to sit on folding chairs, longing for the sun and blue sky that could be glimpsed through the open door—while a “sound” artist did his thing and a dancer did hers for an excruciatingly long amount of time—to which my only response was GET ME OUT OF HERE! So while these people were setting up for their 20-minute set I was prepared to do my yoga eye exercises, which is what I do when I’m bored and don’t think anyone is looking at me. At least the tedium of performance art has resulted in excellent eyesight.

I needn’t have worried. The reader stumbled over his words a bit, but the music and dance (by a woman who teaches cello at the Steiner school and another whose background is in folk dancing) felt almost channeled, it was otherworldly and so deeply sensitive and inspired that you wanted it never to end. Then the one dancer was replaced by three volunteers, culled at random from the audience, and against the solemn reading of a Neruda poem, their improvised antics had us in laughing to the point of tears.

The next Sunday I went to the Dream Away Lodge, which you get to by driving on a convoluted forest road up a mountain in Becket, for what had been billed as “Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art Night.” The “door” fee was $5 if you drew and $15 if you didn’t, and consisted of “performances” by thirty-something Nathan and twenty-something Justin, two lean guys who used it as an opportunity to wear as few clothes as possible—in the living room of what is, ostensibly, a “family” restaurant. They did three “scenes,” complete with costume changes, and poses ranging, as in an art class, from five minutes to twenty. In the first scene they wore identical bowler hats, fake handlebar moustaches, black jockey shorts with white trim, thigh-high knitted black-and-white striped…stockings? socks?…and big boots. In the second they graduated to tiny gold lamé women’s “boy” shorts and the music was, if memory serves me, an instrumental version of “Sexual Healing”—with horns—all while eight silent, serious people sat in front of them, hunched over sketchpads. Although Nathan is gay, Justin, the father of two small children, has no such excuse, and no doubt had to get a baby-sitter for the evening because his wife was in the back recording the whole thing with a video camera.

The last time I saw anything like this was at the Pyramid Club in the East Village, in the olden days—the eighties—when New York was gritty and alive and people made art—get this—just for the fun of it! So now I’m wondering if this is only happening here or if it’s a trend. Let me know. I hope it’s a trend because if it is, we might just get our art world back (see The D.I.Y. artist, below) without even having to pay for it.