Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Lindsey among the Matisses

THOUGHTS OF MORTALITY crowd the aging mind; I'm sorry; I can't help it. Not even an unusually distracting week seems to keep them away—not Molière thumbing his nose in Ashland, not the Boston Red Sox losing pathetically in Seattle, not the serenity of an hour's walk in Castle Crags, not the sweet pleasures of stone fruit at Andy Mariani's orchard, not the steely edge of a Martini with a newly discovered gin (made in Portland, I forget the name), not the pleasures of the table and good company at Incanto out on Church Street.

Especially not Matisse, whose bronzes anchor an oddly troubling exhibition at SFMOMA. You can't argue with these pieces; they're great articulations in the history of Modernist sculpture, only slightly damaged by comparison with a couple of greater Degas pieces in the same rooms. And I don't even cavil at the curatorship, eager though it is to explain things, to draw inferences, to assume certainties, to insist on linearities.

Years ago a tiny bright woman who was then a public relations officer at the University Art Museum gave me one of the great lessons in the laughably casual education I was piecing together in the visual arts when she mentioned even more casually that she always fastened on the edges in paintings. Edges; profiles; contours: they exist in only two dimensions, meaning they have no substantial existence at all; yet they define, link, and clarify.

Matisse was a fine draughtsman, like Picasso; his contour drawings are both masterly and affecting. It is a defiance to trace a line; the audacity of drawing is breathtaking. I think Matisse kneaded his clay in penance, denying himself the cruel pleasure of the pencil's inspired aggression, its cheeky assertion of his gifts.

Several times the wall narratives suggest these sculptures are best seen in the round, while traveling round them. A point hardly worth stating, you'd think: yet surprisingly few visitors seemed to be doing this while we were there. They seemed to spend about as much time reading labels as looking at sculpture—and those with headphones seemed often to be focussing on nothing, gazing into near space while listening to whatever secret sounds were thankfully theirs alone.

Walking around a sculpture is how I like to see it; often walking slowly around with one eye closed, concentrating on the constantly changing edge between the sculpture and its space. Walking around the sculpture I myself am drawing, or at least assisting in an act of drawing, dragging, pulling the constantly changing edge into a contour drawing in four dimensions, height, horizontal distance from the sculpture's center, constantly changing acceleration in the direction of my own footsteps; and time, of course. Drawing, contour drawing, in time.

If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then sculpture is pregnant with music. It's a long time since I've kneaded any clay, but I think Matisse, and Degas, and the private Rodin, when they were shaping their dimensional drawings in clay, were occupying time in an essentially musical—better, composerly—way. By that I mean a non-teleological way: time occupied not in order to arrive at the conclusion of some premeditated process, but as reflection on experiences and productions that have gone before, as contemplation of the possibility of some unforeseen eventuality which will nonetheless turn out to take its place within an organically logical system, you might say, identifiable in some way with both the material and the person.

Music and the production of sculpture: constant reconfigurations of material: life and the passage of time. That's what I meant by "mortality." On the whole, as I told Lindsey the other day, I think mortality is a good idea. And in any case I have very little to say about it; it is a constant, a given.

Some of this thinking is probably triggered by the recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangeo Antonioni; more by the recent deaths of two people I knew, not as well as I'd like to have: Ned Paynter, who was on the news staff at KPFA when I was there more than forty years ago, and Marvin Tartak, gentle and witty pianist and accompanist par excellence.

When death comes to mind—and death is never far from contemplations of mortality—I always think of three things. Mozart, of course:
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling!
and Duchamp:
Besides, when someone dies, it's always someone else...
and, to put beside these essentially Epicurean views of the subject, this poem by Lincoln Fitzell, which has quietly whispered to me for nearly fifty years:

Earth the mother, earth the death,
We owe to you this tragic breath,
And dark and wide if we should fall,
We pray that you may keep us all
More gently sleepers of your night,
Than we were children of your light.

Mozart: letter to his father, 4 April 1787, translation by Emily Anderson
Duchamp: aphorism, found also on his tombstone, as I recall and translate (probably faultily)
Fitzell: "Prayer," in Selected Poems (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1955)
gin: Cascade Mountain from Bendistillery (thanks, Giovanna)


Levari said...

You write beautifully and with quiet authority (the best kind.) This was a wonderful essay.


Charles Shere said...

Thanks. I like your stuff too.
But it's confusing and embarassing, isn't it, to get fan mail, and wonder whether to allow the comment or not—suppress it and you risk hurting someone's feelings; allow it and you look like you're looking for glory. Oh well. I'll remember what Jack Jefferson said: if you believe the good ones you gotta believe the others...

John Whiting said...

I was glad to see Ned mentioned and sad to note that Marvin had also gone so recently. By an eerie coincidence, when I clicked to respond, the information came up that I was signed in as Ned Paynter--the result of my having managed The Irate Codger", a Google blogger account I set up on his behalf.

John Whiting

John Whiting said...

Charles Shere wrote: "But it's confusing and embarassing, isn't it, to get fan mail..." I take comfort in my father's wise remark: "Flattery won't hurt you, so long as you don't inhale."