Sunday, June 25, 2017

New book from Rome: Where to Dig, and How Far Down

Portland, June 25, 2017—
PUBLISHED, HERE AT peripatetic Ear Press: Where to Dig, and How Far Down, an 80-page paperbound book containing the writing posted here last April while I was in Rome.

Well, the title. You have to give a book a title, and something like Rome, April 2017 seems pretty lame. (Although it would probably get more clicks: Rome is a popular subject. I followed my usual process when titles don't come readily to mind: open the proof copy half-way and look for a random phrase. No luck. All right, open another half way to the end. Still no luck.

Hmmm. Zeno warns against proceeding further toward the end of the book; let's go halfway back to the last halfway point. Ah, there it is:

Poor Italy! Preserving, interpreting, ignoring these ruins, these and many others — Italic, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, even medieval — must be a constant headache. The archaeologists have to decide where to dig, and how far down. The government, I suppose, has to decide when to protect, when to recognize the futility of any thought of perfect control. And of course these historical records are an important tourist attraction; Christian or not, one goes to Rome to savor and contemplate all this history.
I've been working on another writing project, whose results may or may not appear here. It's a study of the ruins of my life — something of intermittent interest to me, but probably to few others. The first question, then, is how to make it interesting: but short of that process there's the mining, the digging down through such ruins as journals, clippings, pocket calendars, photographs.

And, always, memory. I relied on virtually nothing but memory in my first venture in memoir, Getting There, published ten years ago: two hundred pages covering my first thirty years. That book, I thought, might have some value as a cautionary, and I gave copies to various grandchildren as they left high school: Don't commit to a career too soon, be ready to profit from luck, embrace the liberal arts, that sort of thing.

This next venture, though, has to be written differently. For one thing there's a lot of public record: my own career, which took me into journalism of sorts, was not only public but also documented through clippings and the like. Better check those memories out in case you have entirely the wrong date — or, worse, the wrong source, or the wrong guy!

But it's always a question of where to dig, and how far down. It's easy to get distracted. There's also the danger that the act of digging will destroy the stuff you're digging through — in this case, wrecking a story by getting it straight.

In any case, this Rome book turned out, I think, to be a series of meditations — on history and the present, Christianity and not, faith and belief, thinking and walking. That delicious conversation between inner contemplation and outer observation so facilitated by travel, especially this kind, anchored to an unfamiliar residence for a month, but within a setting familiar from previous visits over the years, rich with its own history Thucydides knows, but made richer by conversations with a granddaughter who lives there, and shared with other members of the family.

Anyhow, I'm rambling. Where to Dig, and How Far Down. Healdsburg: Ear Press (self-published through my favored online publisher Lulu), 2017. 80 pages, paper, b&w photos. $7.95 plus postage. Click on title to order.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Más poesía

Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2017—
A FRIEND WROTE of this photo, which I don't particularly like, that it made me look like a Latin-American revolutionary poet, so here's the beginning of a new career:


se necesita tiempo morir
el corazón se detiene,
el cerebro jadea por el oxígeno
   o no

los tejidos blandos se disuelven
   o se comen

dientes y huesos duran
quizás muchos años

líneas de ferrocarril oxidadas, rotas
viaductos de hormigón

el bosque crece lentamente
sobre los restos

las lunas sin número puntúan la vida
pequeñas lesiones
que se extienden a través de los huesos

que emigran a través de las catástrofes

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Eastside Road, June 10, 2017—
which fell in fact on the seventh

Great day!

Though the days grow short: busy suns
      rise, set
as the hours used to do, and now
      years gone,

most of them with you, and better
      for that.
(Of course I can only hope you

Never more beautiful or more
whether patient or not, gentle
      friend and
sharp critic sharing this long life
      of ours.

Let the whole world know how much I
      love you.

Friday, June 09, 2017


Eastside Road, June 9, 2017—
Thomas McNamee:
The Inner Life of Cats
New York: Hachette, 2017
pp. 278     read 6/5/17

Carl Van Vechten:
The Tiger in the House
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924
pp. 367     read 6/9/17

ANOTHER BOOK by another friend, and read with pleasure. McNamee's writing is always well researched and informative in detail, and this latest title is, I think, even more gracefully written than previous books. And the subject-matter is close to my heart: not the wolves and grizzly bears of his previous books on animals, but Felis silvestris catus, the house-cat.

There are probably almost as many books about cats as there are about Abraham Lincoln, of course, and I haven't read that many of them. Some purport to be owner's manuals. Some are technical, and McNamee cites more than one of these. Some are basically literary, like my favorite, The Tiger in the House, about which more later.


Unfortunately there are a lot of mediocre cat books out there. The best way to know a good one is to see how well it recognizes the essentially wild nature of the beast… There have been, recently, some books that purport to be grounded in science but make no attempt to understand the subjective experience of cats. Without that, you will never have the slightest sense of who your cat really is.
The Inner Life of Cats is, then, by its own standards, a good cat book. I suppose it's of more practical value to a cat owner (or prospective owner) than to one who is, like me, catless; but having shared my house and home with cats — "ownership" has always seemed a problematic word and concept, to me, when applied to pets in general, cats in particular — I read this book with great interest and increasing gratitude.

McNamee's story begins when he finds an abandoned kitten in the Montana snow, adopts it, and learns to share his life with her. He alternates between Augusta's biography as it intersects with his, on the one hand, and, on the other, considerations of more general catness. He writes about whether cats think or talk (they do); whether they're wild or domesticated (wild); how they grow from kittenhood into being a cat.

He writes about how a cat can attain a good life even shared with humans, even living indoors — neither of which, I think, is truly instinctive to the cat. He writes about the cat's maturity and health, its various disorders, aging, and death.

And in a final chapter he writes, this chronicler of animals-as-they-are, about Love, which is after all the highest and perhaps the instinctive reason we humans live with cats. McNamee could have got into trouble here, I think. I've read a few reviews of The Inner Life of Cats on the Internet site Goodreads — I really must write about this site one day, it and Librarything — and more than one take him to task for bringing up the unpleasant fact of the death of cats: ours is an evasive culture, often, preferring to pretend such unpleasantness is the exclusive domain of foreigners.

(But I will never forget the death of our own first cat, the superb Loplop, who died probably of feline leukemia (oddly, an unpleasantness McNamee touches too little for other reviewers), only ten years old or so. Loplop died at home, in his favorite sleeping place, patiently, and taught me much about stoicism, a useful lesson, as it's turned out.)

McNamee's delicacy of writing runs through his entire book, and his discretion is evident from his dedication: not to Augusta, the marvelous black stray whose life and death inspire The Inner Life of Cats, but to Isabel the living cat who succeeded her in the McNamee household. Cats remind us to celebrate those gone but to attend to those who are with us.

I was particularly interested in the chapter on feral cats, which describes in some detail the recent history of the cats of the Largo Argentina in Rome. In doing so it describes also some differences I've noted between Italians and Americans:

American wildlife scientists tend toward attire somewhere between safari and thrift shop, and usually need better haircuts. Eugenia Natoli [a biologist who has organized the mostly volunteer attention to the Argentina colony] dresses with elegant flair, tailored jackets, slim skirts, silk scarves, fine jewelry, high heels, just-so coiffure. Luigi Boitani, one of the world's most renowned wildlife scientists, is given to silky tweed, chic dark shirts, cashmere sweaters over the shoulder…
The entire Largo Argentina story cleared up a mystery for me: why there used to be so many cats there, and why now there are so comparatively few. And the work of these volunteer gattari, who see to the nutrition and medical attention these cats need (including, of course, sterilization), the way the operation is funded and insinuated into the municipal government, can be taken as a model for less enlightened communities, depending as much on intelligence and research as it does on enthusiasm.

McNamee writes about the dangers our cats face. One was quite familiar to me: the over-eager neighbor who feeds your cat junk. Another danger to cats when they're out of doors (which of course is where they really want to be): predators. Coyotes are increasingly common in American cities. Here on Eastside Road, there are also bobcats. Overhead their are hawks and owls. Our neighbors have lost cats to such dangers, and of course to the road in front of their house.

I think of our Sally, another Berkeley cat of ours, who our daughter-in-law's cat the aptly named Tarantula was jealous of, and used to chase into the street, particularly if traffic was present. Sally finally took the hint and went away altogether. McNamee offers helpful guidance for such a situation, but that was in the days before microchips…

McNamee proposes a fine way for society to take care of lost cats and feral population:

Let the states pass laws mandating the licensing of all cats, using implanted microchips. The licensing fee must be very small — perhaps free if you can't afford it. Every person who takes a cat to be neutered gets a cash payment of one hundred dollars (and a license if the cat doesn't have one). … The money comes from private groups and government grants. It will not be long before governments realize they are spending less on that program than they previously spent rounding up and sheltering stray cats.
It's a fine balance of logic, pragmatics, and sympathy, this book; thankfully there's a decent index and bibliography, and I'm grateful to McNamee for the care and research he brought to writing it. I'm grateful, too, that it sent me on to another book.
Carl Van Vechten is one of my 20th-century heroes, for his wit, his intelligence, his enthusiasm, and his creative productivity. He had three careers: ten or twelve years as a music critic in New York; another ten or twelve as a smart-alec but sympathetic novelist; finally a photographer of some note. Among his many books I decided to pick up The Tiger in the House, at first simply to investigate its overlap with The Inner Life of Cats, then very quickly to re-read the entire thing, as it had been a long time since I first read it.

There is some overlap for sure, particularly I think as the subject turns to the language of cats, and their mystery, and their consequent significance as they share our own lives. But McNamee is a contemporary and, in the best sense, a journalist; he writes for today's readership and draws on today's knowledge. Van Vechten's book is a century old and belongs, I suppose, to another time.

But I think it's a time I prefer. Van Vechten is immensely erudite and has studied not only the cat — first-hand, of course, as well as through more distant examples — but also the literature of the cat. The bibliography in my edition of The Tiger in the House (third printing, 1936) runs to forty-eight pages. The many quotations and references are translated into English except those originally in French, which he mainly lets stand in that precise yet evocative language.

Like McNamee, Van Vechten introduces us to his "own" cat, Feathers, but not through a parallel structure for his book — more as a fondly observed reference point to the many other specific cats he introduces, real and occasionally fictional. He does touch on the science of felines as it was in his time, but he's skeptical:

It has long been a favourite contention of mine that nothing is more ephemeral than science; no books are sooner ready for the garret or the waste-basket than serious books. When a serious book has an artistic value, such as a book by Nietzsche, for instance, the case is altered, but the ordinary professor's or scientist's profound discoveries are absolutely worthless in a few years. They serve, indeed, only to indicate the quaint fluctuations, the ebb and flow, of human thought. The first to admit this is the scientist himself, who tells you that you must work only along the lines of the "latest discoveries."
One of the useful lessons Cat teaches is that we should attach as much importance to universal and timeless truths as to immediate and local ones. I think this is one of the subjects latent in the perennial question of Dog or Cat. I myself find ease in simple-minded dialectics, finding for Fitzgerald, not Hemingway; Vermeer, not Rembrandt; France, not England; Ravel, not Debussy; and so on: and in each of those cases I think the cat is associated with the first subject, the dog with the second. England for example is a doggy nation; France, certainly Paris, is feline, no matter how many fashionable little lapdogs are carried about the boulevards in little reticules. Van Vechten:
One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H. G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand. The cat himself insists upon this; he invariably inspires strong feelings.
This question of Dog or Cat can bring up amusing history. Van Vechten tells us about a minor midwest writer, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who
wrote a song called, " Mother, Bring my Little Kitten." "It was supposed," Mrs. Wilcox explains in her priceless book, The Worlds and I, "to be a dying child asking for her pet, which she feared she might not meet in heaven. It was mere sentimental stuff, of no value, of course. But the 'Funny Man' on the Waukesha Democrat (I think that was the paper) poked much fun at me, and said I ought to follow my song with another, 'Daddy, do not drown the puppies.'" Mrs. Wilcox took the suggestion as a cat laps milk and published the new poem in one of the Wisconsin papers. The refrain ran as follows:
Save, oh, save one puppy, daddy,
   From a fate so dark and grim —
Save the very smallest puppy —
   Make an editor of him.
I think most writers will enjoy that quatrain.

A recurring image in both the books I'm discussing here is the cat who sits at the dining table. Our black cat Joe did that, in our kitchen in Berkeley. Lindsey sat on her chair at one side of the table, I on mine at the other; and Joe sat patiently on a stool between us, on the third side of the table, which stood against the kitchen wall. Now and then — rarely — he put a tentative paw on the edge of the table, in which case I had only to tap it gently and say "foot-fault" and he'd withdraw it.

Joe was an outdoor-indoor cat, and lived to be fifteen or so, dying quietly in the back yard in Berkeley, just as we were preparing to sell that house and move to the country. We brought his sister Blanche with us: she was exclusively an outdoor cat, afraid of men including me, a fine hunter and quite independent though our neighbor Mrs. Revsen insisted on giving her junk food "because she is always crying!"

We were worried that a cat so white would be easy prey for owls, coyotes, foxes or bobcats, but Blanche did quite well in the country, staying close to the house but mainly supporting herself on mice and voles. (We almost never found telltale feathers along her accustomed routes.) When she died, at nineteen, it was under a rosebush. I think Van Vechten would have enjoyed this.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Book not written

Eastside Road, June 4, 2017—
IN MARCH, 1970, I thought about writing a book, whose chapters would be
1: 31 for Henry Flynt
2: Bottles at the Mud Flats
3: Repair art. Wiley. The (triumphant) return of Abstract Expressionism.
4: “Making charts to help you know how you know where you are when you get somewhere” (Word Rain, p. 4)
5: Your typical bicycle ride
the 4.9 mile drive
6: The Richmond Sculpture Annual, Ecology, and Respect for the Object
     to be followed by
7: Hand Tools and Man’s Proper Place
8: Lawyers & Priests: footnote on our culture
9: Landscapes. gardens. Mahler’s 7th.

Chapter 1 would have been on a performance I gave of LaMonte Young's Any Integer for Henry Flynt, a piece of conceptual minimalism which consists, as I believe — I don't remember actually seeing a score — of the instruction to strike something with something else any number of times. I used a gong borrowed from the Oakland Symphony. The performance was on the deck of a café or restaurant near Nepenthe, in the Big Sur, on the west side of Highway 1.

Chapter 2 would have been about the day Lindsey and I and our three kids, then about ten, seven, and four, spent on the Emeryville mud flats which at the time had for a number of months been the site of impromptu sculpture. Many of these were pretty ramshackle, but a number were quite striking, beautiful even. All were made, for the most part, of material found on the site, stuff that had either been jettisoned or had washed up.
What we did, under my direction but with willing enthusiasm and, I think, quasi-intuitive understanding, was pick up every bottle we could find — and there were a good many — and arrange them using plans I no longer remember. Lines, certainly; perhaps masses as well.

Chapter 3 would have been about an exhibition I had seen at the old Berkeley Gallery, then on Brannan Street — a group show of marvelous Bay Area artists of the time, artists whose work the press liked to call Bay Area Dada. These were paintings and sculpture which had been repaired, or had been made to be repaired subsequently. Especially memorable, even now, was William Allen's magnificent Shadow Repair for the Western Man, which depicts an unoccupied pair of Levis standing airborne over the Sierra Nevada.
William Wiley was at the time producing his first marvelous assemblages responding to Duchamp with sculpture, painting, written material, and the occupation (or, better, articulation) of the space in which it existed. Much of this work of the late 1960s seemed to me to be a logical response to — and continuation of — Abstract Expressionism, in a manner it would have taken that entire chapter to explain: this is no place to attempt it.

Chapter 4 is self-explanatory, I think, except to note that Word Rain was a book by Madeline Gins that had made a big impression on me.

Chapter 5: I was taking long bicycle rides in those days, and frequently traced (literally) their routes, usually after the fact, on paper laid over USCG topographical maps. I thought of those rides as drawings in time and space. The "4.9 Mile Drive" was a conceptual art work by I forget who, a guided tour of part of the San Francisco industrial area south of Potrero Hill, a spoof of tourguides but also a serious entry to the disclosure of visual beauty and meaning in neglected or unsuspected places. Land Art.

Chapter 6: I don't remember what the Sculpture Annual at the Richmond Art Center had involved. Tom Marioni was the curator, and I particularly recall an exhibition there of work by Paul Kos, Tom himself (under a pseudonym), and Terrey Fox: all went on to remarkable careers. In all three cases it seemed to me the meaning of the work lay in the transaction between the artist and his material. Not the technique, the transaction, which respected qualities inherent in the material, either substantially or stemming from its sociological meaning. Here again I would have needed many pages.

Chapter 7 would have considered one's state of mind when using and maintaining hand tools while, for example, repairing plumbing, or maintaining the car or the bicycle, or building a bookcase — all things that had frequently to be done. My reading in Zen had led me to believe things went better if one regarded the tool as an equal, not a thing to be exploited. This led, by extension, to the hope that Nature would adopt a similar attitude toward Man.

Chapter 8: Ancient Egypt had a surfeit of priests; Babylon a surfeit of accountants; the 20th century a surfeit of lawyers. What doe these conditions lead to?

Finally, Chapter 9: Landscape is the ultimate transcending arena in which Nature accommodates whatever it is we inflict on her. Gardens are an attempt to create little landscapes, whether for productive or ornamental purposes. (What's the difference?) The inner movements of Mahler's Seventh Symphony amount to a musical statement of Landscape.

That's what I was thinking about in those days, and I see now, reading the journal from that year, that's what I continue to think about. And, I guess, write about.      

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Light Reading; Close Reading

Eastside Road, May 30, 2017—
Jean Rhys: Sleep It Off, Lady
New York: Harper and Row,
ISBN 0-06-13572-7
pp. 176     read 5/27/17
MARVELOUS LITTLE STORIES here, quietly menacing some of them, all clearly from a feminine point of view but told by children, young women, middle-aged and old women, always with a very authentic voice. The settings range from the British West Indies to London and Paris, and are as persuasively evoked as are the characters. The sixteen stories are arranged in chronological order as to the age of the narrator, adding up to a quiet novella whose manner has affinities with Virginia Woolf, Saki, Rosamond Lehmann (a favorite of mine), and perhaps — this is a stretch — Chekhov; and while many readers will no doubt find them dated I, approaching eighty-two, find them tranquil and wise. And beautifully written.
Jonathan Cott: There's a Mystery There
New York: Doubleday, 2017
ISBN 978-0-385-54043-8
pp. 242     read 5/28/17
I'VE KNOWN JON COTT for fifty years and you will be forgiven for thinking me not an objective reader of his books; perhaps you are right. That will not keep me from writing about his most recent book, a fascinating disquisition on Maurice Sendak and, more particularly, Sendak's book Outside Over There, the less-known conclusion to the trilogy beginning with Where the Wild Things Are and continuing with In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak is generally though of as a writer-illustrator of children's books, which is like thinking of Henri Matisse as a painter of interior decor, or Mozart a composer of tunes. True: but things go much deeper than that. It's the going deeper Cott is interested in here, investigating the sources of Sendak's work, and the resonances it has with both psychological and cultural dimensions. I've often quoted here Joseph Kerman's assertion that criticism is "the study of the value and meaning of works of art": in this book Cott emerges as a serious and useful critic.

Cott is primarily known, I suppose, as an interviewer: of the nineteen titles listed on the "Also by" page at the front of Outside Over There, five are collections of interviews, or much extended interviews, with subjects ranging from Susan Sontag and John Lennon to Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould. He published a first interview with Sendak in Rolling Stone, where he has long been a contributing editor, in 1976, and Outside Over There includes a lot of material from that visit.

These conversations with intelligent readers of Sendak, including Sendak himself, reveal the rich and sometimes surprising sources and the patient, gifted making of his books, focusing on Outside Over There. The many references include Mozart, German Romantic painting and literature, child development, psychology; and the persistence of the early 20th-c. Eastern European (specifically Jewish) immigration to New York. The resulting book is patient, complex, rich, closely read, but conversational in tone and fascinating to read. It sends me to the bookstore in search of Sendak, and reminds me to take another look back over the extensive Cott shelf.

And I would particularly recommend Cott's book to the parents of small children. There has been controversy as to the propriety of Sendak's books to small children, but Cott, and his conversants, make clear his explorations of loss, rage, sensuality, and other inevitable aspects of childhood can be presented thoughtfully, eased by the delicious beauty of Sendak's art (and writing!).

Georges Perec: “53 Days”
Edited by Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud;
tr. David Bellos
Boston: David R. Godine,
ISBN 1-56792-088-8
pp. 260     read 5/28/17
AND HERE IS ANOTHER exercise in Deep Reading which is nonetheless beguiling enough to be a day's summertime reading. Some who know me know that among my harmless eccentricities is a preference to read Complete Works of authors, on the theory that if one book is worth reading, then all the books by that author must be worth reading: this has protected me from Dickens, Balzac, and many other too-prolific writers. And I prefer also to read these books in the order in which they were written, which is why I have not yet got to Moby-Dick, The Golden Bowl, and many another masterpiece.

But, looking over the Books To Be Read the other morning, my eyes fell once again on the attractive cover of Georges Perec's "53 Days", his last book, and I dove straight in. I haven't yet read Life a User's Manual or A Void, and I don't know when I will: they're long and dense, and I rather mistrust their translation into English. Perec is well known to be an Oulipian; his books are written with the celebrated constraints of the Oulipo group; and as a writer I like to read deeply enough to get into the method behind the book while enjoying the content of the book. As the Companion says, once a critic, always a critic.

I'm sure there are constraints aplenty in "53 Days", but I read the book quickly, for pleasure, and didn't notice them at all. Let me explain quickly: constraints include such things as acrostic, palindrome, anagram, and lipogram (which omits a given letter: in the case of A Void, the letter "e"); I'm not going to go further into the technical matter of the subject, which can be explored on Wikipedia or in Daniel Levin BEcker's excellent book Many Subtle Channels: in Praise of Potential Literature, which I wrote about here a number of years ago.

"53 Days" is incomplete: Perec died before finishing it — a supreme constraint. It was planned as a detective novel in two parts, of which the first, called 53 Days, is complete as a very readable first draft in this edition, ably translated by the dependable David Bellos. (Well, nearly complete: the last two of the thirteen chapters are present only as extended notes from various notebooks Perec was keeping.)

The second part, Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R, exists only as sketches, notes, and memos. Had the book been finished its structure would have recalled Perec's earlier, very successful W or the Memory of Childhood, a book that comes frequently to mind these Trumpian days, and came to mind reading There's a Mystery There, and which I highly recommend. (And here let me add my recommendation for approaching Perec, for those who aren't constrained by my chronological compulsions: Things; A Man Asleep; W or the Memory of Childhood. They're approachable as simple reading, pleasure reading, in spite of all the critical apparatus that's grown up around them, but of course the more deeply one reads, the more pleasure one gets.)

53 Days without the enclosing quotes, that is the first part not the whole book, is a mystery enclosed within another, exotic in locale (fictional arctic setting, fictional tropical one), with parallel "plots" concerning disappearances and corruptions, elegantly and fascinatingly written.

But what of Un R Est Un M Qui Se P Le L De La R ? The enigmatic title turns out to be a clue to another mystery, a deeper one; or rather a pair of them: one concerning the characters and plots within the book, the other concerning the book itself and how (and, I suppose, possibly why) it was approached — alas one cannot say "written", it's only sketched and planned, though pretty elaborately.

I was particularly satisfied by the book because it involves one of my favorite terrains, the Grande Chartreuse — and, oddly, a minor device is a (apparently marginal) bookshop in Grenoble used as a drop by Resistance fighters, a shop remarkably similar to that in which my correspondant Charles Lunaire found the typescript of Jean Coqt's novel Skagen, which Lunaire is translating and I am publishing. (The fourth section, Modane, will be out by the end of June.)

And suddenly, near the end of "53 Days", a passage that goes straight to the heart of anyone who loves rambling the Alps: in Bellos's translation,

This snow-covered waste ground is like an immense blank page where the people we are seeking have inscribed not only their movements and gait, but their secret thoughts too…
Monsieur Leccoq (1868)
Which sent me immediately to Project Gutenberg for the original:
Ce terrain vague, couvert de neige, est comme une immense page blanche où les gens que nous recherchons ont écrit, non seulement leurs mouvements et leurs démarches, mais encore leurs secrètes pensées…
So now I must read Gaboriau, and Stendhal too — I'll never get to Moby-Dick at this rate…

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Richard Diebenkorn

Eastside Road, May 27, 2017—
Letter to an Italian friend
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
March 17-May 29 2017

Richard Diebenkorn: Chabot Valley, 1955
19-1/2 x 18-3/4 inches
WE WENT YESTERDAY to see the SFMOMA show of work by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn, just in time, as it closes May 29. The exhibition is titled “Profound Inspiration: Matisse/Diebenkorn,” a title which seems to me only superficially inspired. What is inspiration? The breathing into a receptor by an external source. There is no doubt of the importance of Matisse to Diebenkorn, who referred to it himself publicly on many occasions; and there are certainly good examples in this show of works which show direct homages on Diebenkorn’s part to specific HM paintings, though in many other cases the connection is, to my eye, less a matter of direct “inspiration” than a developed affinity brought out, if at all, by curatorial statements on wall labels.

We took a old friend with us. The exhibition was crowded, but a combination of the timed entry and the fact that many viewers were wearing their headphones helped mitigate the crowd. First of all we jumped the line — someone recognized me for the long-retired art critic I am, said “You’ve paid your dues,” smiled, and waved us past the waiting line into the galleries. There, of course, many viewers waited in front of this painting or that while listening the their headphones, so I followed my usual practice of finding a painting being neglected at the moment and standing directly in front of it, viewing it as long as I wanted, leaning on my cane.

One of the key paintings was Chabot Valley, a small landscape from 1955. I’d been advised to pay particular attention to it, and thought I knew it: but of course I didn’t, as it’s still in the Diebenkorn family; I was confusing it with another painting, not in the show, which I see with my mind’s eye but don’t readily find among the various sources at hand. I am almost certain I had seen the painting before, though, hanging in Diebenkorn’s house outside Healdsburg, when I had a conversation with him in, I think, 1992. (RD died of emphysema in Berkeley in March 1993.)

I lingered, in the SFMOMA show, in front of Chabot Valley, an extraordinary painting for the success of its complexity and truthfulness in such a small scale — you can see why he would have kept it nearby for the rest of his life, as a sort of touchstone, a painting against which to check work under way. I think it’s likely the success of Chabot Valley developed of its own accord, and this is how: the external reality of the landscape he was painting, including of course its sky, and the example of the paintings by others (not exclusively Matisse by any means), and the painting itself as it developed from his palette and brushstrokes, all simply converged, partly from his conscious decisions, partly from the habits of hand and eye that he’d developed in studio work (including many hours of figure drawing and many others of printmaking), partly by consciously taking advantage of “accidents” presenting themselves in the course of painting.

Now Diebenkorn was an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man. I spoke to him twice, once when he had a retrospective at SFMOMA in 1972; again in his Healdsburg home twenty years later. On both occasions his intelligence and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent: he spoke slowly, without ums and ahs, and referred to a wide range of reading, including the “reading” of visual work by other artists, contemporary and historical. I think any approach to his work, painting, drawing, or prints, that doesn’t include a similar approach, can begin to extract the richness of meaning that’s in it. I’m not saying this has to be conscious, or that his work is exclusively for similarly developed intelligences, of course even a viewer who’s only interested in painting-over-the-sofa interior decorating can find a lot to enjoy in an Ocean Park painting (not to mention Matisse. But there’s a lot more there, as Diebenkorn was quick to point out himself in interviews and conversation:

“I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”
(RD, quoted in Nordland, attributed to Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p. 12)
The current SFMOMA show includes a few vitrines housing books and periodicals from Diebenkorn’s personal collection, and you can be pretty sure his studio, like most painters’ studios, had reproductions of paintings pinned up here and there, more touchstones; though I believe certain works were burned into his memory and always cropped up someplace. I didn’t buy the Matisse-Diebenkorn catalogue and wasn’t allowed to photograph the wall labels (which annoyed me) and, given the crowds, my back, and our schedule, wasn’t able readily to take notes, but it’s likely this was a point the curator was making in this show.

It was probably helpful to me that our friend was with us, and asking intelligent questions from time to time: how should an intelligent and willing but basically untutored and in a sense painterly illiterate person approach these paintings? I talked about edges, the way Diebenkorn often squeezes a composition down into a rectangle slightly smaller than the canvas itself. I talked about palette, the way he finds new uses for colors found in previous paintings. I talked about composition and planes and perspective and vertical-versus-horizontal and recession and all that, without of course going into detail. I talked about the way certain touches reappear from one painting to the next — little flecks of color, little rectangles, little linear shapes (eyeglasses, bra-cups, the club sign from playing cards (heraldry, I remember the wall label had it), schematic faces recalling those of the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky).

I’m fascinated that apparently I do all this quickly and subconsciously when I look at a painting, and it took the conversation with our friend to bring all this out. And on the way home, me sleeping in the back seat, I woke up and said, a propos of nothing, I hate doing that. What, our friend asked. Talking about painting like that: it’s all so glib. I know that’s how you feel, she said. (She was instrumental in getting me onto our local newspaper as a music critic, for a couple of seasons, after I’d left the Oakland Tribune.) Then we both fell silent. I think she disagrees, that she knows the value of journalistic criticism: but to me it’s public one-sided opinionizing too ready to lapse into a kind of authoritarianism.

Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No. 54, 1972
100 x 81 inches
Anyhow we worked our way through the galleries, the Diebenkorns mostly but not all paintings I knew either from the flesh, so to speak, or reproductions, the Matisses not, in some cases, and then we stepped into the final gallery, where the Ocean Park paintings were. I stood for a long time in front of No. 54, a favorite of mine, one of the best I think and one in the SFMOMA collection — this is the one with the “Jawlensky” face, or a detail of it, at the lower right corner. As I backed away from it I overheard a tall man with curly white hair talking about it to his companion, trying to explain why he found it the best painting in the show, better than any of the Matisses. Besides, I interjected, somewhat rashly, Diebenkorn’s a better painter.

Thank you thank you for saying that, he said, that’s what I’ve been trying to say, it’s really that simple. (It isn’t, of course, it’s just that Diebenkorn is a better painter for me, for my purposes. And what are my purposes? To understand better how, using my eyes, I understand reality.) We had a little conversation and agreed that the Ocean Park series is simply magnificent. Each of the paintings, almost all of them, has in it all the things you want: landscape, figure, abstraction, light, perspective, color, edge, content, reference. Each of them has looked at Chabot Valley and thought about all the issues that early little painting raises (and resolves, you have to concede, on its own terms), and internalizes all those issues and resolves them anew, and leaves the painter’s eye out of the equation; they are completely ego-transcendent.

And then I was tired, and we left, and went to Zuni for hamburgers, and home.

Then this morning I looked into Gerald Nordland’s book (Richard Diebenkorn: Rizzoli, 1989) and thought about things and decided to write to you. I know you’ve looked into this catalog a lot, more than I have recently I’m sure. I was surprised to find I’d pencilled notes into it, probably when I was thinking of that interview in 1992. A magazine publisher had set up the interview, working through Diebenkorn’s gallery as I recall, overcoming my reluctance to do it. Finally I agreed to talk to Diebenkorn about why neither he nor I wanted to do an interview, to be published in his magazine. I went out to Diebenkorn’s Healdsburg house. He was not strong. I don’t recall whether he had breathing apparatus; I don’t think so. We had a nice conversation, one of those with long silences in which each was thinking of other things, probably Matisse, Chekhov, west coast jazz, the Bay Area school, and so on, each of us knowing what the other found valuable and enriching, and each of us knowing there was neither reason nor point in discussing these things, they were a matter of common knowledge and agreement.

It may be (and perhaps it must be) that Matisse's was similarly rich and thoughtful a mentality; I don’t know. Clearly he was more intellectual than was Picasso, but by “intellectual” let’s admit we’re meaning “articulate, verbal”: as I said to our friend, painters like Diebenkorn “read” paintings the way others — she and I, I said — read novels. And the greats — Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn — teach us, I think, to read “reality” that way, and landscape, and skies, and arrangements of things on tables, and the figure.

In the last analysis I don’t think it was a magnificent show; the curator’s point was made but it is God knows an easy point to make; many of the Matisses (by no means all!) were second-rate paintings for him, and the Diebenkorns were mostly first-rate. We saw a marvelous show in Fort Worth, years ago, pairing Matisse and Picasso, showing their mutual inspiration — no, not inspiration; more like homages to one another, as in Oh: you can do that? Look what I can do with it! It may be, as my Companion suggests, that that exhibition has grown in my memory of it, and that this one will grow similarly. In any case Diebenkorn is a creative force to be grateful for, a transcendent expression of his century, a painter who knew both intuitively and through careful thought and observation the things I was trying to write the other day about space, measure, and markings.