Al andar

” Al andar se hace camino” — antonio machado
the path is created as one walks…

• 14 August

My dear friend,

I’ve started this letter so many times since leaving you.  I’ve discovered that while trains are excellent places to collect one’s thoughts it is nearly impossible to write down the revelations that come speeding along while watching the passing landscape.  There are so many things I wanted to say to you, it seems that when we are together we talk about everything except our one common love; the making of objects.  I often wish to share my thoughts with you about making and what it means to me.  Crazily, I start but never finish.

I am tempted to just bind up all of these scribbles and send them to you.  Maybe I will eventually, but I am afraid an unfinished idea is even a more frustrating thing than an un-started one.  However, it maybe more true that simply by giving them direction, ideas are given a chance to grow.  Perhaps ideas should be allowed to live in time and not be relegated to some static position where beginning, middle and end all have their own separate place.  “Now that time has been regained, it no longer speaks of solitude but of the alliance between man and the nature he describes.”[1]

Maybe this is the best way for me express the ideas I have and the work I do together.

I will try to finish this — or at least send it in a particular direction so that though it might trail off, it can be picked up naturally at a later date.

• 9 September

You always ask me to describe my work to you and I always hesitant.

The reason is partially because my work is so object oriented, to truly understand it, it would be better to let you see and feel them.  I know this is not possible — not now at least. My major reason for hesitating is partially because within my work there are both material concerns and philosophical concerns (as with most work I suppose) and I often wonder where one concern ends and the other begins.

To do one’s work these concerns must be combined but to write about the work, one must separate them. In writing about my work, I realize that words which must be used to describe the material and the philosophical are distinct and separate. However, the process and ultimately the purpose of creating a piece of art requires the fusion of these two matters.

For the past few years my work has consisted of an armature covered by canvas,’ covered again with layer after layer of paint and sometimes tar or other objects.

The armatures, built without the use of preliminary drawings, become sort of drawings in their own right: a length of wood becomes a line; the cut of a saw blade becomes either a drawing implement or an eraser, depending.  The implied space of traditional drawing gives way to actual space.  The paint – a surface embellishment and sort of patina, works to visually reinforce the structure.

The thought processes behind these forms, which determine their compositions, are primarily based on letterforms. For me, letters exemplify an abstract form as a necessary and complete as any type of communication device, and I was curious to explore this as a way of coming to a deeper understanding of abstract art.

My work has now moved away from these initial compositions.  Not because I felt that this exploration had reached its limit’s — I am still involved with the ideas behind these forms.

I moved away rather, because of an odd phenomenon.  I felt as if the objects were beginning to speak to me.  That is to say — please put away any thoughts of my impending insanity — while making these armatures, I began to feel that I was makes the bones of creatures (and), by which I would soon give canvas skin and painted markings.

My dilemma began because I fell in love with the bones.  I was disturbed at the thought that the viewer, seeing the completed piece would only see the outside layer and would miss the inner/internal structure.  It seemed to me that in only seeing the end result the viewer would be deprived of seeing the “whole,” so to speak.  I decided to dissect my objects to show their insides and outsides, the whole and the part simultaneously. By doing this I hoped to create pieces that while complete as actual objects, also held the implication of being a cog in the larger world of symbolic language.  Strangely, by doing this work moved away from being images of tools for language (the letter forms) and (began to be) becoming reminiscent of tools of a different sort.

I am reminded of this Zen saying, “fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are caught people forget the baskets. Snares are employed to catch hares; but when the hares are caught people forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas but when the ideas are grasped people forget the words” — I think, at times, what I am trying to move away from is as important as what I am moving towards.[2]

• 2 October

Weaving has become an important part of my work, although somewhat accidentally.

Originally I became involved with the process of weaving not as an art form but because of a job I took on restoring antique carpets.  Slowly, after hours of detailed, meticulous, meditative work, re-weaving foundations and re-knotting pile, I came to the realization that what I perceived of as important in modern art existed as well in these carpets. Amazingly, the origins of some of these carpets went from as far back as the 13th century.  Most important for me, were the carpets from tribal cultures, especially those of the Kurdish population, which seemed strongest in holding on to these ancient origins.

On the surface there is the craft aspect of the creation, the warp and weft and the knotted pile refers to the need for functionality. A carpet must withstand time. Then there is the color, the decoration which goes beyond function to become an expression of the individual weaver (in tribal cultures usually women).  Unlike the woven carpets of the city, and although the tribal weavers had a multitude of traditional motifs even though there is no set formula for the carpet design.  A motif might be started and abruptly stopped with no apparent reason, perhaps simply a compositional one or … the ‘or’ pertains to that moment of creation and the ‘why’ is lost to us.  Similarly, colors picked one day might be found to be irrelevant the next and so would be changed.  While it is not totally necessary to know why, it is important to see this as a record of one person’s the weaver, the artist and her thought process at that moment, captured in time in an object that is created to withstand time.  This is an individual’s story — in a way it is an archeological record of an individual perceptions. *

Images are not created individually in weaving, rather images come out of the creation of the whole, from the field — line after line is woven and only after numerous lines does the image become apparent — originally there is only the action, the tying of the knot and the color of the material. So that the action of tying knots, for example (similar to the actions of a painter such as de Kooning, applying paint) becomes:

red, yellow, blue, blue, blue, yellow, red

next line           red, blue, yellow, blue, yellow blue, red,

next line           red, blue, blue yellow, blue, red,

next line           red, blue, yellow, blue, yellow blue, red

next line           red, yellow, blue, blue, blue, yellow, red

And so on until the design appears.  This process of action, repetition and variation becomes an unintentional a metaphor.  A description of the forth dimension — time.

My sculptures are obviously extremely different from these carpets, I describe. I am not interested in recreating them. My culture and upbringing are obviously completely different from these tribal weavers. However,  there is a certain essence, a sympathy, that is related to both their work and mine. Montale has stated that, “Art is by definition tied to the past for the simple reason that we see it in perspective.”[3]

• 6 November

I think my voice sounds rusty, having kept my thoughts  circling in my head too  long, rarely  giving them a chance to escape and almost never freely emancipated into words, anyway.

When they do escape, these thoughts of mine take on the forms of my sculptures, and god knows even I don’t fully understand (not immediately anyway) to what extent they have stowed-away there.

“Every thought or impulse I have is chewed into  nothingness. I want to capture all my thoughts at once, but they run in all directions. If I could do this I would be capturing the nimblest of minds, like a shoal of minnows. I would reveal innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and cowardice and courage. I want to tell the whole truth, but I cannot because I would have to write four pages at once, like four long columns simultaneously, four pages to the present one and so I do not write at all. I would have to write backwards, retrace my steps constantly to catch the echoes.[4]”

It is this desire to capture the truth, wholly with all of its contradictions  that makes art what it is and what makes it so difficult to do and to explain. What could be more involving, more challenging than the desire to present something in its wholeness, with all aspects good and bad presented equally without ego or prejudice. How interesting that it is also predetermined  to fail. The artist as  a modern day Sisyphus? Well, I guess I am not the first to present that idea.

I am, actually,  more moved by Camus’ last novel, The First Man.  I feel it relates to my work more directly than his earlier works, despite their sumptuousness.

I am completely drawn in by the human need to find place in time. Why is the need of a concrete past so important?  I have seen how you reinvent yours, as I am sure I must reinvent mine.

I am struck by the similarity in Camus’ story of a man’s search for the presence of his father’s past, redemption for his own future (even if the past is only fictional) and my own work which of late has taken on the forms of tools or rather objects that appear to be tools of  forgotten purpose.  I do not mean for my work to be seen as an ironic statement about the non-functional aspect of art but for it to be a statement about the role of objects to trigger or to keep memory.  Vessels of memory?  Of the past?  Of time?

Perhaps what I want to capture is that essence of an object that goes beyond the object, beyond functionality.

I think this is exactly what Kubler remarks on, when he says: “This we may achieve sooner if we depart from  use  alone, all useless things are overlooked, but if we take the desirableness of things as our point of departure … such things mark the passage of time with far greater accuracy than we know and they fill time with shapes of a limited variety”[5] It is these things of limited variety, that reoccur time after time,  across cultures that draw me in. It is obvious that there is a purpose that goes beyond mere functionality.

• 14 February

After reading your letter, I have to say I think you misunderstood me about my thoughts on the future of art taking the path of a ‘hands-on’ expressionism. My interest is more with empirical knowledge, at least this is the path that I think today’s artist must begin to delve into. Truly physical knowledge — yes, but expressionism, at least as we now define it is too limited. In our modern definition “Expressionism,” is basically cognitive knowledge, the knowledge of the baby and of the animal — what we know before we have begun to or have been taught to  think, an appreciation for color, form, texture as we simply feel it. The reason that expressionism fails is that most of us left that garden of Eden too long ago to be comfortable with just feeling  — there is a reason that  the gift brought by that infamous serpent came from the tree of knowledge.

Was it our sin to take from the  serpent and tempt Adam  or was it that we,  took from the tree of knowledge when Adam didn’t?

Expressionism is too limited because it fails to take into account all that we have learned and felt since leaving that garden.

• 26 March

I have been troubled a great deal lately by that old cliché about the death of art. I know that there are some things that probably just should not be thought about — that the people who proclaim the death of art are no different from those who touted the death of science, technology or even the end of the world. They have been around for hundreds of years and have so far not had much luck with their predictions. What worries me, however, with these doom seers of the arts, is that so many are self-proclaimed artists with self-fulfilling prophesies. That this is a type of morbid theatricality is obvious. But that artists today would be fashioned into the role of the walking dead, vampire fashion as it were, is disturbing, whether or not it is a chosen role.

When I allowing myself time to try to fathom this attitude, I think they may perhaps  find that what is meant is that there is a lack of an  effective definition of art, today. I have always found it amusing and intriguing and, as well as, disturbing that what people cannot define they cannot see.

People tend to live their lives by  the way they define it — both from an individual’s and societal stand point. These definitions determine not only what they see and how they see but also what they choose not to see.           Definitions are primarily the concern of spoken language, but the observations that come from these definitions suffer somewhat when translated. When D.T. Suzuki said, “the contradiction, so puzzling to the ordinary way of thinking comes from the fact that we have to use language to communicate our inner experience which in its very nature transcends linguistics”[6] he was speaking about the difficulty in explaining Buddhism but could have just as easily been describing the dilemma in speaking about art. Certain spoken languages have more sympathy towards particular aspects than others, but in general they circle observations, like blind men around an elephant, each grasping certain real and essential details while being oblivious to the whole. Simply said observations being visual need a visual language, but for visual languages simply record the results determined by the original definitions.

In this way it is all things that are made, both the arts  (the so called beautiful, useless and poetic things) and things utilitarian that describe to us what we value, what we do not and what we wish we did. Ultimately, it is the things that we have deemed important to make, or not make, look at or ignore that turn reflective and show us who we are. Most revealing are those things which have no obvious use (art) because their reflective power  cannot be tarnished under the guise of function. Whether the mirror is used as Narcissi might have used it or as Socrates — is only determined by what one chooses to see

In this case the metaphor of vampire culture may be more fitting than I had intended. As with vampires, if an artist looking into the mirror of being, lacking a definition of what is there, sees nothing.

• 9 April

When I was a child I learned that the easiest way to solve a maze was often to start at the end. Unfortunately, this has affected my thinking ever since. Please, bear with me as I try to explain my definition of art, what I mean about empirical knowledge and the role, I think, I hope, it will play in the future of art.

Before the technology of photography it was enough for an artist to reproduce the likeness of an object. The ease in which a camera could accomplish this task seemed to signal the death of art, but something else happened instead. Artists were forced to redefine their perception of art, freed from the shackles that bound them to reproduction of the image, they could now begin to see that artistic representation was more than image reproduction.

The technology of the computer signifies the same need for us, to clarify our thoughts about what art is and what role it plays in our civilization. Computers are really so amazing. They’ve made it possible for us to know so much, about nearly every corner and every aspect of the world, without even leaving our room. Not just knowledge of history either, but also up to the minute accounts of what is happening.

All information assessed through a computer, however, comes as secondary knowledge. It has to be. Another puts it into the computer.  It is always then, intentionally or unintentionally biased.

It is really an irony then that this very amount and accessibility of information makes us realize the basic dilemma  we  face when we talk about what knowledge is.

It is my hope that the computer, with all of the ease in which we now receive information, will both teach us to define the difference between information and knowledge and make us rediscovered the importance of empirical knowledge.

It seems to be a common mistake to see all knowledge as being equal. Taken to its extremes it is easy to see the flaw in this way of thinking.  One would not believe, for example, that reading a book about China was the same as traveling through China.  Yet, in a less extreme example  the dichotomy might actually be overlooked; for instance a traveler coming back from a week long tour might say and be believed in that he knows China. When, all he really knows is a highly choreographed series of sights developed for tourists just like him.

Similarly, how often are art history classes taught in rooms from textbooks without the benefit of strolls through museums, time spent viewing actual objects?  There is, of course, a necessity in to teaching this way just as there is to take a one-week guided tour.  However superior it might be to teach from the real object the practice of doing so would throw teaching art into the most elite of categories.

What is lost because this kind of pragmatism?  Benjamin has stated that “what is jeopardized in reproducibility is ‘the authority of the object’: the aura [which is inextricably linked with the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception] withers because the unique art work is replaced by plurality of copies.[7]”  While I agree with Benjamin, I would argue that what is lost is even more basic.  How do we respond when a well-known critic, like Author Danto discusses the importance of Rauschenberg’s Bed painting because it is a painting on a bed when in fact it is not a bed[8]?  In reproduction it is reasonably a bed and yet as an actual object it is not.

• 27 May

I am still chewing over your last letter to me.  It was such a delight to receive it just after coming back from Prague.  In truth, now that it is a few days before I return to N.Y., I have to say there have been times here, especially  in the last month that I have felt so lost.  Perhaps at a certain age (M. Duras term), this is the fate realized by every outsider — any one who chooses to spend more time looking at the world rather than joining in.

Sometimes it can just be the smallest thing.  A letter from as you say “a kindred spirit” that provides a much needed anchor.  A marker on a trail, that seems too seldom traveled.

I’m wondering what you will think of my last letter (novelette?).  I haven’t sent it as yet. It is still attached to the pages I am now writing.  I will send it soon, I promise.  You will probably think I’m naive. Hopefully you won’t be offended.

With much  love,

Sources Cited
Baudson, Michel: Art & Time Catalog of Exhibition  Societe des Expostions du Pallais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1986
Camus, Albert: Le Premier Homme Knopf, New York 1995
Danto Arthur: The Artworld Journal of Philosophy 1964 pp. 571-584
Kubler, George: The Shape of Time  Yale University Press  New Haven 1962
Montale, Eugenio: The Second Life of Art Ecco Press New York 1982
Prigonine, Ilya  and  Strengers Isabelle, La Novelle Alliance Paris,  Gallimard 1979
Nin, Anais:  House  of Incest Macmillan New York

Sources Consulted not Cited
Camus, Albert: The myth of Sisyphus & Other Stories Knopf, New York 1946
Lightman, Alan: Einstein’s Dreams Warner Books New York 1993