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Thursday, September 22, 2016

My Visit with Edwin Dickinson 1968( Retrieved from Berkshire Fine Arts and rewritten)

    I first saw Dickinson's work in the Biennale in Venice in 1968 where he  represented the USA along with Red Grooms. As an aspiring young figurative painter at the height of Abstraction's popularity, I was anxious to find someone whom I could look up to as a mentor. In Dickinson I found that person. I was overwhelmed by the sensitivity of his work and, in particular, the magic of his small studies and drawings which captured a sense of the  moment that I saw nowhere else in the New Realism of the late 60's and 70's. 

   The romantic identification of self with light, space and objects seemed closer to the artists of the 19th than the 20th century. I was so taken by the work I wrote him a fan letter. I did not get a reply until the Summer of 1970 when a letter from him was forwarded to me at the Yale Summer School of Norfolk, where I was a student, asking me to come visit him in Wellfleet. I remember Bernie Chaet was there when I opened the letter and I recall that he was impressed that I was in communication with such an artistic luminary as Edwin Dickinson. 

    When I came home from Norfolk I gave him a call to set up a time to visit. I remember that he was curmudgeonly and berated me for not having a calendar in front of me when we looked forward to  setting up a date for the visit. He told me that he deserved more respect than I was showing him. I was to learn later that he had recently suffered a stroke and that the consequent brain damage had altered his personality.

    His wife greeted me at the door of his home, an antique Cape in Wellfleet, at the end of a long driveway, where it overlooked the marshes. Mrs. Dickinson, who I recall was a lot taller and younger
 than Edwin, was clearly orchestrating the visit. After a few formalities, he took me back to his studio where he regaled me with stories of his life at sea. He had clearly had led an adventurous life beyond the studio, which had some affect on the way I viewed my own career and in particular my decision to move to Europe  after grad school. I had brought down some recent works for him to critique but he refused to look at them saying he had given out too much free advice in his day. That uncharitable response I again attribute to his stroke, although at the time, I was very much hoping for his stamp of approval.

   When I visited him he was clearly past his prime and the exchange was not as I imagined it would transpire. However, to this day, his work can still cast its spell on me and I feel fortunate to have spent that afternoon with him. If you are to place him in the pantheon of American artists it is best not to see him as a modernist at all but a preserver of 19th
century  transcendentalism. A continuation of the tradition of Inness and Ryder.

    The identification of self and nature is antithetical to our contemporary zeitgeist and I don't expect that to change any time soon. His sense of the moment in painting was sharper and more of an event than for Inness and, in that sense, more akin to action painting  and therefore more contemporary. It just does not have that hard separation of self and world that is the hallmark of everything modern.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reality and Desire, Armenians as outsiders and Phillip Morris

Is it just laziness or is it more honest to find the world lacking than to imagine it fulfilling ones dreams. I follow on Twitter quotes from “Moby Dick” that seem to reinforce the sense of the disconnection between dream and reality, the ephemerality of things coming and going, appearing/disappearing. A sailor on a calm day stationed on the mizzenmast loses balance and falls into the sea never to be seen again. Or the crew of the Pequod losing all sense of self-determination at the hands of Ahab: helping to fulfill Ahab’s dreams whose own utmost dream they are embroiled in is nonetheless left unfulfilled.

The strange interface between desire and reality is worth meditating on. For the nexus to work it seems that one has to dumb down both reality and desire. The reality of Facebook and Twitter probably encapsulate a space where one can imagine a “like” to one’s opinion to be self-reaffirming.

I wonder as I read about the current political currency of Right and Left and having to adjust my opinions based on the latest revelation of who did what to whom or in the case of one candidate just forgot to do period, I don’t know what is fact or fiction, everything seems to be mediated. Are the Russians manipulating the news or is it Soros or the Koch brothers. Can I base my self-worth on having opinions about something that may or may not be real? But it is the tissue that ties me to the world. Do I exist without out it? According to the political theorist Carl Schmitt an intellectual admired by the Right and Left we are pure political animals hungering not so much to be for something as in need of an enemy.

But there are some things that transcend this mediated reality. Before reality’s waxing and waning, its sudden contretemps and pirouettes, comes the personality of the observer and that personality has a history in its ancestry. The mediation of reality comes from a historical predilection to engage or not in the public realm. To know what I can control and what is beyond my control. I am still startled to this day by a comment made in conversation by an Armenian after the funeral of his brother in law, my good friend William A. Henry 111, a journalist and author who died in his early forties. As Armenians, he stated, we will always be outsiders. The principal of a large public school in Rhode Island, he was as far as I could tell successful in his occupation.  The details of what prompted the conversation escape me as the conversation took place more than 20 years ago. I recall relating it to my cousin who, like myself, is half Armenian. She is involved in and founded several charities one directed toward Armenia, another purely directed toward the US, which brings her in contact with the Country Western musicians who perform at her fundraisers. No one would appear more integrated into American culture than her. Yet she was in total agreement and seemed interested in pursuing the topic later but probably as many years have gone by since that conversation as have transpired since I spoke with the Armenian school principal and we have not picked up where we left off. But that notion of estrangement resonated within me and was a sort of confirmation of that estrangement from the dominant culture that was continually reinforced by anecdotes from family history: a sense, in short of an outsider looking in at something at core alien to itself.  Oddly the most poignant one comes from my mother’s side of the family. They were Germans living in the woods of NH and from stories my mother told harshly discriminated against by the Yankee natives. It was assumed that as immigrants they had no right to vote although they were in fact American citizens forcing my grandmother at one point to go to the state capitol to get proof of their citizenship. My father related numerous stories where he established a sharp line between his cultural upbringing and that of the Yankee aristocracy that lived on the other side of Huron Ave in Cambridge.He enjoyed reminding me that even if they had more money than he did they did not know how to eat properly.
My Mother and Armenian Friends in NH circa 1933
The house's reincarnation in a sheik neighborhood of Providence RI
Its name came from a Billy who lived there on the pond so as to distinguish him from a relative called Hill Billy

In the recent film “Spotlight” portraying the expose by the “Boston Globe” of the sexual predation by priests of the Catholic church on adolescents, the lawyer an Armenian, pursuing the diocese on behalf of the victims could have followed a path that let the Church deal on its own problems internally. As an outsider and from a people who were persecuted by a hegemonic regime, he identified with the victims of this horrific injustice. He felt compelled to bring the perpetrators out from under the shelter of the church into the harsh light of the criminal justice system. Was it a memory of how Armenians were treated by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire that haunted him? Being a stranger in ones own land was brilliantly portrayed in Elia Kazan’s “America America”. Kazan conveys vividly how nothing could be done to right the injustices imposed by the Ottoman Turks on the Armenians and Greeks, so absolute was the control they had on their ethnic minorities, short of outright revolution. When the main character an Anatolian Greek inadvertently gets involved in a conflict on the side of a revolutionary Armenian group, his father has to solicit the help of his contacts in the government to get his son freed from prison. It is a kind of slavishness, which was the only way to merely survive in an oppressive society. This acquiescence was not the route pursued by the Armenian lawyer. As my Armenian grandmother said to the foreign-born husband of a woman she had taken into her apartment to protect her from his abuse:” This is America. Women are free!” The Catholic Church despite many of its still liberating credos and tenets remained Medieval as an institution in its top down control over its followers. It had been a touchstone for Catholic immigrants themselves persecuted by the Protestant majority in America but as it gained acceptance and power within the society as a whole it succumbed to the exploitation of those it was supposed to serve.
Stavros and Hovanness in "America America" 1963
I remember being startled in a conversation with a Navajo at a craft store in Arizona that indicated he felt that we were not standing on the same cultural platform.  The interlocutor showed his disdain for me not in words but by ending our conversation, which seemed to be going quite smoothly, rather abruptly. In so doing, he seemed to say or so it seemed, that although we were both American citizens there was a difference in our American experience. I am sure it was nothing in particular that I said but a feeling that he was sharing too much with me as an outsider about his life. Would it be any different if I were chatting with a Turk about both coming from Anatolia until we realized that the experience of my ancestors at the hands of his ancestors was nothing he wanted to acknowledge. And most likely he would have been indoctrinated to see me as an age-old archenemy.

I had a friend of pure WASP ancestry, descended from a world of country clubs, tennis whites and a notion of where to live and how to properly behave in society (a domain where I was always falling short to his chagrin). Whenever the stock market would collapse, he would admonish me to invest in Phillip Morris. He confessed that this was the stock of preference of the aristocracy. If you look at this chart you will see it has almost doubled since 2014 and even now offers a dividend yield close to 4%. In this yield starved economy where the pensioner, who put his money in treasuries is getting close to zero percent this is extraordinary. Why bother with hot tech stocks when you can invest in the exploration of new markets for nicotine in the Third World. Of course I never took his advice because it was hard for me to understand that some things are absolutely true and incontrovertible. For me reality is only in the end doom and gloom and genocide. But if there are enough people with money out there to say something is safe it is naïve to think otherwise.

It is also naive to think we all judge others from some universal point of view. Nietzsche talked about the creation of human types over millennia. MaxWeber felt that Capitalism was the outcome of the Protestant work ethic and Melville sees it at work in the Quaker Ahab for whom the metaphysics of good and evil underlie his capitalist quest to such a degree so as to usurp the tallying of good and evil solely in terms of money. And now I understand that country club membership and the facades of beautiful homes in enclaves like Annisquam, Massachusetts ,where reality and desire meet, are paid for from dividends from Phillip Morris.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Shake and Bake" aesthetics in contemporary abstraction

When I first stumbled into the "Revivalism" of Abstract painting in NY via an article by Alan Pocaro on Provisional painting on the British art blog “Abstract Critical”, I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to see that installation and conceptual art were not the only art being produced in the City. It led to my writing about provisional painting and becoming embroiled in the labeling of Zombie Formalism. Since the early 2000’s I have been laboring on my non-representational painting in New England and found few fellow travelers in this cultural backwater with whom to share my ideas. Last year I gathered together two former students, who work abstractly, Paul Pollaro and Jason Travers, a friend Addison Parks, whose work I had followed since we first showed together at Creiger -Dane in Boston and Susan Carr, who once showed with me and Addison in group show at Creiger-Dane. I had hoped I would succeed in drawing some attention to our work as a sort of Northern outpost of what was happening in NY. Addison had attempted something similar but more comprehensive in Boston in the late 90’s with a group show at Joyce Creiger’s gallery in which he included his work, the work of Susan Carr and myself among other contemporary painters, side by side with the an earlier generation of artists including the work of Richard Tuttle, Porfirio DiDonna, Louise Fishman, Leon Polk Smith and Milton Resnick. The show called “Severed Ear” attempted to define a trail of abstraction that was deconstructive of the authoritative work of the modernist ethos in the same way as provisional painting but with less focus on irony and more of a focus on the lived life of emotions.

Notions of authority keep cropping up in regards to the evolution or devolution of abstraction. Where did this sense of High Modernism being incontrovertible come from, so as to become a lodestone that would define an unassailable high point in American art. In a slugfest with the English sculptor Robin Greenwood on Mark Stone’s Henri Art magazine, we both agreed that there was something lacking in the contemporary iterations of modernism. He thought Matisse was hard to surpass and I was more sympathetic to the work of the Minimalists. The discussion revolved around notions of spatiality and its lack in Provisionalism and Zombie art. Robin seemed to think that spatiality was crucial to great painting. In my attempts to grapple with these issues I recalled a notion of eidetic reduction from my readings of Husserl. In this philosophers attempt to ground our perceptual world in something solid he focused on the apprehension of the outside world in our mind. It was very Cartesian and is something that comes to mind when I get my hearing tested and I am asked to distinguish pure sounds. In a hearing test we scientifically break the web of hearing and cognition into its separate parts and define its ranges in order to evaluate the condition of the auditory organ. It is similar to the way that abstraction breaks down the visual world into pure colors with ranges from warm to cool, grounded in our retinal view of seeing. The world is captured and analyzed in our reduced apperceptions of it. I think it was this connection between science as the only true knowledge and art at mid-century that hoisted abstraction to its centrality. To paraphrase Hegel’s words: abstract art was the century captured in thought.

If the hold on art by science is so total then we have to see any attempt to break that hold as being dialectically related to it. It is this dialectical relation, which allows critics to talk about Zombie formalism for example. There is no inherent value in zombie art except as an attempt to excise from itself any authoritative metaphysical grounding in knowing and science. Without science it becomes a pure commodity retaining however its commercial exchange value. By the same token “Provisionalism”” as defined by Rubinstein or “Casualism” as Sharon Butler defines the same body of work, have value as attempts to break the bonds of aesthetic purity and ironically refer back to the laid back devalued creator as incapable of any authoritative statements.


Abstract art that falls outside of the parameters of provisional and zombie art I think is often hard to talk about in so far as it lacks the dialectical relation to classical abstraction. This was the problem with a show I recently came across on Painters Table of abstract art, entitled "If Color Could Kill” that is currently hanging at Vassar College. By insisting in the title on the aesthetics of color it places itself outside of the commodification of zombie art and the irony of provisional abstraction. Especially in the work of Paul Behnke there is, in his play of pure color and abstract patterns, an attempt to move back into the language of Matisse where color relations create aesthetics moods of pleasure. Few of the other artists are as rigorous in the analysis of color except for Gary Peterson, who brings an Al Held notion of compressed space without the ambiguity of flat vs deep space. They are both artists who don’t mind not obscuring their roots. Their influences are obvious as is the case for the rest of the artists in the show, where for example you see Elizabeth Murray all over Benson and Moyse. It is good to be influenced and to live with those influences and see where they take you. How these influences pan out over time will be interesting to see. But at this point there is none of the anxiety of influence typical of the struggling young artist and only from what I can see on line a kind of “shake and bake” aesthetic prevails.