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Peeks and Piques!

I'm A Reader
ART TIMES January February 2008

I’M A READER. In addition to my regular, job-related reading — I’ve got several thousand volumes on art and artists which sustain and inform me in my personal library — I enjoy reading ancient history, the classics (Shakespeare especially), and a lot of “lighter” stuff — things like novels and humor are my usual bathroom/bedroom fare. But, as I’ve said, it is books about art that mostly occupy my time and mind (and living space). And, although I’ve learned much from them — books like Bernard Berenson’s Aesthetics and History, Anita Albus’s The Art of Arts, and Svetlana Alpers newly-published The Vexations of Art come immediately to mind — the truth is that reading about art can only bring us some of the way toward understanding it — to my mind, a very short way. At least, this has been true for me. For all their vaunted value, words are poor vehicles for communicating what is unique, what is relevant, what is important about art. Though a writer — and, moreover, a writer about art — I simply mistrust the written language when it comes to translating the visual, non-verbal, language of art. I’ve written — and lectured — about this before — perhaps too often, too verbosely for some — but there is no escaping the historical fact that the language of art pre-dates the spoken/written language by a long stretch of time, and had for centuries communicated on its own and in its own terms. A moment’s thought will show that we still recognize that fact when we give our children picture books before we start them out in school with wordbooks. Pictures talk. ‘Nuff said. For me, again, I tend to mistrust what is written about art — even when the book may have been written by an artist — but especially when it is penned by “experts” such as art historians, aestheticians, curators, critics, collectors, art dealers, and the like. Conversely, although I am not always impressed by the (written) books that artists put out, I have to admit that some of the most profound insights I’ve ever received about art or its process have been from working artists. Often in casual conversation, artists — when they are not thinking or articulating as artists — can come up with startling comments that have completely turned me around — at times leading me into new directions that invariably deepen my understanding and knowledge about art and its making. A few examples — Ted Denyer: Leaning over a bridge railing on one of our walks near his Shady, NY studio, he said, “You know, Ray. We are not looking at the same creek down there. Artists see differently…when a layperson walks into a museum and is stopped by a particular painting, he might say, ‘Oh, look…it’s a port scene with boats along a dock, people walking along watching the fisherman.’ Now, when someone starts looking at the picture, they stop looking at the painting!” Paul Cadmus: One day while discussing E.M. Forster (his favorite author), I happened to notice a badly-done drawing of a woman hanging off in a corner of his living room/studio. I hadn’t noticed it on previous visits and, interrupting him, asked him whose it was. “Mine,” he said. “I did it when I was six or seven — my De Kooning Period.” Jack Levine: “It’s not true that I said Jackson Pollock couldn’t draw his hand. I said he couldn’t even trace his hand.” Karl Fortess: I asked Karl once how long he’d been an artist. “An artist!” he snorted. “Don’t call me an artist. I’m a goddamned painter! Hell, anybody can call himself an artist nowadays. You could go on out in the woods and pee on four trees and call it your thing — your performance art! Pshaw! Artist!” Pier Augusto Breccia: “Art is God’s language.” Eugene Ludins: At a Woodstock gathering, the topic of photography had come up and one artist opined that its popularity had very nearly spelled the end of painting. Ludins rejoined, “What if van Gogh had taken his self-portraits with a camera? Don’t you thing we might have lost something? Painting will never die!” Chen Chi: “Chance is just as important as intent. Sometimes a ‘mistake’ can greatly enhance a painting.” Anthony Krauss: (Over a cup of coffee.) “It’s not always the art, Ray. Sometimes it’s just the process.” Françoise Gilot: Once while having lunch together near her studio on Manhattan’s West Side, a young woman came up to ask for her autograph. While Francoise happily complied, the young woman asked if she might show her some of her work, “only to tell me if I have any talent to become an artist.” Françoise’s face immediately became serious. “Talent?” she repeated as she looked up at the young woman. “First ask yourself, ‘Am I able to be by myself for an hour? Four hours? A day? Many days? In order to become an artist, you must be ready to spend many, many lonely hours by yourself. Can you do this? If so, then — perhaps — talent will come. But not before you can train yourself to be alone in your studio for long periods of time.’” Hannah Small: While visiting Hannah at her studio one day, I asked her how she knew when to stop carving — how she could tell when to put the chisel down. She turned to her worktable, chose two chisels and a hammer and handed them to me. “You have a bluestone wall around your property. Pick out a stone and see for yourself.” (I still have the roughly carved torso of a woman on my bookshelf). Now any of these off-the-cuff comments could be expanded into a book — probably already have — but could elaboration really make them any clearer?

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