Friday, February 24, 2012

About The Requisite Sufffering

I kind of live with a book while I am reading it and often do so for some time afterwards. The tome of the moment as I mentioned last week is a biography of painter Joan Mitchell. There’s an account of a phase in her adolescence when she pretended to be of an impoverished family (quite the reverse of her reality) as she believed that was a necessary requisite to being an artist. There was a time when she dressed in clothes so ragged that she inspired pity from her schoolmates. And then there is that myth about artist needing to suffer so that they can feel deeply enough to produce “meaningful” works.

It has been demonstrated that suffering is not a natural outcome of poverty. Poor populations do as well (sometimes better) than more affluent ones when surveyed to measure how content they were with their lives. Mitchell never wanted for anything that money could buy. She had charge accounts at fine stores paid by her father even as a teenager. She was, however, not a happy youngster.

Suffering is not usually about money. It is about some of the difficult “givens” of our lives. Given to us also is the capacity for joy and pleasure. Art is about all of it. Ordinary lives often beget extraordinary art.  And suffering (if it were to be considered a critical component of the creative life) is universal. No matter who you are, what you have, or where you have been, you are not protected. You are not exempt from the early onset of a fatal disease, a debilitating or fatal accident, or the loss of people dear to you. Those are the devils we live with and deal with, or not, in whatever ways suit us. 

George ClooneyThe idea that every time you do a film you're supposed to be tortured confuses me. I mean, guys who say, 'Oh, it's really tough, my character is really suffering' -come on. For us, even in the rotten ones we've had a good time. I don't think you have to suffer.

The image above is like those of the last weeks: some of the collage material that I put together on my computer. It is part of what I will be doing while I wait to have a complete studio again. And, by the way, the renovation begins on Monday.

Friday, February 17, 2012

About Nostalgia

I’m not sure that’s the word for it. It is a deep sense of loss with some sadness attached to it. For a time, a place and for the people that were part of it. We were young and kind of confused. Maybe that is part and parcel of being eighteen, nineteen and twenty years old. Going to school to study art was, in retrospect, dreamlike. It seemed to become history very quickly and was forever cemented into the core of my life.

Other experiences, the family that was mine until I lost my mother, my twenty-four year marriage, the years when my children were children — they all bring on nostalgia (or whatever the feeling is). But those years at school are somehow more redolent of loss. Some treasure or value that escaped perception while it was happening. Was it that we were too busy with our lives to know that we were young? Or that most of the people who were actors on that stage are gone? Even the school has been transformed: a renovated interior (bless them for leaving the outside of the structure intact). There’s a second building now and even a dormitory building. And, of course, the El is gone.

A few years ago as I rode down in the elevator (pity they changed that wonderful old elevator car*), there was a student riding with me. I said: “Good school, huh?” He said with seriousness: “Oh, yes!”. I was glad to know that the appreciation is still intact. The education has been tuition free since the beginning. The school has now run into financial difficulties so that may soon change.

I know why it is with me now. I am reading a biography of painter Joan Mitchell. When she lived and worked in NYC she was on Tenth Street on the east side at the time the elevated train ran close and noisily by on Third Avenue. She was in her thirties then and I was at school on Eighth Street and my first real love was on Tenth. The first housing of the Whitney Museum was down the street; this was in the fifties and abstract expressionism was in full bloom. It is only now, so many years later, that I know where I was then. So young and so absorbed by it all, I wasn’t able to stand back to look at where I was and what was happening. I suppose we never get the full picture of any piece of our lives until we gain some distance and look back with less involvement in the details.

*From a NYTimes article: COOPER UNION -- At the time Otis was perfecting his safety elevator, Peter Cooper was making plans for an academy on Astor Place. Cooper was smart enough to know that elevators were in the future, but he was a little too smart for his own good. Having calculated that a cylinder would hold more passengers than a cube, and so would naturally be the cab shape of the future, he put a cylindrical shaft into his building.
His geometry may have been right but his assumption was wrong, and for more than 100 years a box-shaped cab ran in Cooper's shaft, a square peg in a round hole.
Actress Jeanne Moreau: My life is very exciting now. Nostalgia for what? It's like climbing a staircase. I'm on the top of the staircase, I look behind and see the steps. That's where I was. We're here right now. Tomorrow, we'll be someplace else. So why nostalgia? 

Friday, February 10, 2012

About Validation

Do we know if we’re funny or smart or appropriate if we are not bouncing off another person? Doesn’t most of our sense of who we are and how we fit into our world depend greatly on how others respond to us? A salary, being fairly paid for our labor is warranted reward. Being told you look good is better than your mirror. Being remembered on your birthday, very pleasant. Receiving a grant is validation with cash; how nice! 

Long ago I read an interview with Eva Hesse, the German painter who died young in New York City in 1970. She said something about being strengthened by the attention she received. Art critic Arthur Danto mentioned she always felt she was fighting for recognition in a male dominated art world. That was back in the sixties but given the self-doubt she suffered I imagine it would not have been much different at a later time. I am sure that every pat on the back that came her way was much appreciated.

Another long ago article that I clipped told of how winning an Oscar helps you to live longer. Evidently an average of four more years. Hmm…that wasn’t cosmetic surgery? The writer goes on to say multiple winners average about six years longer than their peers. He quotes Dr. Donald Redelmeier of the University of Toronto: “Once you get the Oscar, it gives you an inner sense of peace and accomplishment that can last your entire life. That alters the way your body deals with stress.”

Now since most of us are more likely to watch the Oscar event this month than we are to win one, we need to find our validation through other routes. After all, we don’t want to miss out on the possibility of adding a few more years to our stay. Something I have done a couple of times is call my own phone number while I’m out and leave a warm message for myself. Fun to do but I doubt it will increase my longevity. The experience of exhibiting paintings is a two edged sword. The admiring comments that come from friends and family are great, we want their support, but there could be some bias there. While it might sound crass, the most gratifying response comes from making sales. If somebody likes your work enough to want to pay for it and live with it, that’s very real validation.  And when there are no sales it doesn’t matter much that the previous show sold out. The success needs to happen with some constancy. Whereas winning an Oscar or two seems to suffice.

From Joseph Campbell: “Any life career that you choose in following your bliss should be chosen with that sense – that nobody can frighten me off this thing. And no matter what happens, this is the validation of my life and action.”
The image above is like the one of last week of some of the collage material that I put together on my computer. It is part of what I will be doing while I wait to have a complete studio again.

Friday, February 3, 2012

About a Fresh Life

From a recent interview in Time of poet John Ashberry:
You're 84. Do you think about death?
I've never not thought about it. There are not that many things to write poetry about. There's love and there's death and time passing and the weather outside, which is horrible today.
I think about death too. It’s hard not to as one grows old. But now I’m thinking more about change. Maybe not as likely to summon the muse as are death and time and the weather, but certainly grist for this mill. I’ve experienced some: change from single to married to single again. Big ones those. Change of country and language. Becoming a parent four times over. Some losses of people to be forever mourned. Change from well-salaried university professor (an impostor at that) to living close to the bone as a painter. All difficult, all doable.

I remember something from a book by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, in which he compared the human spirit to some seaweed he observed from the shore at Mendocino. It was an upright weed that was flattened by every wave and then sprang erect again. He was speaking of trials far more hellish than those of ordinary lives mentioned above. I believe it is that same core of tenacity that keeps most of us plunging into our next chapters.

I notice now the upside of change as I recuperate from the tiredness brought on by the physical, emotional and every other kind of depletion caused by moving home and studio. It is the joy of a new start. Not death-like to inspire poetry, but life-like to inspire this blog. Out with the old! I am sending loads of collected-over-time objects for just-in-case moments to the Rescue Mission or the dump or Craig’s list. Some things have been given away. I don’t have to feel responsible for it all now. And I can, with a clear and free conscious, set out on fresh projects. My new studio will have storage solutions that will allow me easy access to the big boards I used to use to make large works. Once these boards started piling up, one atop the other, it became too difficult to get at them and smaller work ensued. And my kitchen will be less crowded in spite of being smaller than its previous incarnation. My entire operation will become simpler. How lovely.

The downside, and I experienced this painfully when I moved back to this country, is that I will reach for things I was used to and that I no longer own. Can you believe that occasionally I seek my wonderful wooden handled ice cream server? More than thirty years gone? There were several possessions that were the perfect examples of form serving function that I never again owned.

From novelist Arnold Bennet:  Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. And, I will add, maybe some sadness.

The image above is of some of the collage material that is waiting for me to have a studio again. It will eventually find a home within one of the larger paintings that are happening in my fantasies at the moment.