Modern art and me

Last week my family and I had dinner with the family that hosted us in East London for the summer in 2002. It was great to reconnect and we had joyful and far-reaching conversation. At one point we were talking–I’m not sure why–about art. And I was reminded yet again that there are two kinds of people in the world: people who like modern art, and people who don’t. Or at least, people who say they do, and say they don’t. (I’m guessing there are a whole lot of people like me who a) like everything and b) don’t know beans about art.)

In any case, the conversation spurred me to get past my general aversion to museums, especially popular museums in large, foreign cities, and today I made the pilgrimage with thousands and thousands of others across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern. It was late in the day which did not deter the crowds one bit, but it meant that for me, I started, rather than finished, with tea. I sat in the comfortable cafe with a cuppa and a coupla scones and looked at map to plan my visit, knowing that I would poop out after an hour, tea or no tea.

millenium bridge

was so jazzed by the art and the space that I lasted three hours instead of one. It was truly splendid, and If you want see a whole bunch of images, here are some of the photos I took.

But I was really there for Mark Rothko. Mark and I have a special relationship. For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely familiar with his work, familiar like:  “Oh yeah, that guy who does those big huge squares.” 

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When my father died in 2005, that changed. I was in a whole new world of hurt. In the airport heading home from Philadelphia to Portland for the last time, I had a task to look forward to: I had volunteered to write with the news of my father’s death to people who were around when I was a kid, but with whom my father had lost touch over recent years. In the airport bookstore I found a box of cards by abstract expressionists. I never liked them before. I never understood non-representational painting. I wanted art to refer to something I could name, and to make the familiar more so.

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But now, in the uncharted territory of grief, where I couldn’t put words to anything, these artists were saving my life. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman. How did I ever live without them? Their illogical order of things accompanied me during that journey, and I was able to write over and over again in the airport coffee shop and then on the plane:  it has been a long time since we’ve been in touch; I am guessing you have probably heard by now but I want to be sure you know that my father died. You were such an important part of his life when I was growing up…. Through this repetition I came to understand what, in my work, I have told others over and over again: the little tasks right after a death keep us from falling apart, and keep us connected to one another, to the living. And now I could tell people about how Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock somehow–as mysterious as death, as mysterious as Eucharist–became the map with which I navigated the way back to myself without my father.

nortonSo visiting the Tate Modern was, in a way, a pilgrimage to visit my man Rothko, who has a whole room there of paintings which he himself actually gave to the Tate, and there’s a great story that goes with them. (Some of you probably already know it.) In the late 1950s, Rothko was commissioned to paint a set of murals for the fashionable Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the Seagrams Building. He found the murals were darker than his previous work: maroon, dark red, and black. He eventually realized that they were too dark and serious to be the backdrop of a restaurant, and withdrew from his commission. (And I’m guessing there’s another side to that story; you can look it up.) Instead, he gave the paintings to the Tate Gallery as an expression of his affection for England and for British artists, particularly JMW Turner. Go figure. I’ve always been a fan of Turner’s, ever since a painting of his was on the cover of my very favorite college English anthology.

But it never would have occurred to me to see any artistic affinity between the two. Yet here they are:

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The second painting represents Rothko’s “transitional work,” when he was trying to make up his mind what kind of painter he was going to be. Most people who are familiar with Rothko are familiar with the later stuff.

So now, if you’ve read this whole post, you know pretty much everything I know about art. Where do you fall on the modern-premodern continuum, if there is such a thing? Has art ever saved your life?

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My first book

A few people know I’m working on something that most of the time I’m not quite ready to call a book. Everyone who knows that about me (and probably anyone who’s every written a book), knows that I vacillate between excitement and despair about writing my first book at an age that seems to be advancing far more quickly than the number of pages I write. I get morose at times when I regret not writing more, earlier in life. So imagine my joy when my mother sent me, in the mail, preciously wrapped in well-used red tissue paper, my first book.

It’s called “The Art Book.”

This is a book about art that isn’t done in pen or pencil.

I really hated to draw back then. Still do. Odd that nearly two decades before stumbling upon the Jesus story, despite my family’s best efforts to protect me from such things, I figured out some way to fashion a cross. Hmm.

“Another is tye-dye”

Tie-dye was big then, publication date circa 1967. We lived in Greenwich Village across the street from a designer tie-dye shop that custom-dyed clothes out of silk, satin, and velvet. Remember the purple tie-dye pantsuit Janis Joplin wore on the Dick Cavett show? (Of course you do, right?) I helped stir it around in a boiling pot of purple dye when I was about nine.

Paper Flowers

I could’ve made paper flowers out of tissue paper all day long if anyone would let me.

And photographs….Don’t you wish you had a shirt like that?

What about your first book? Have you written it yet? Do tell.

Reading my father into Neruda

His hands shook so wildly he could not feed himself,
and as I watched his wife I wondered:
Is it possible to feed someone and not love them?
The love was part of the food.

Something in Neruda made him zigzag around “To Sadness”
(a la tristeza)—
All about black wings and longed-for darkness
Tristeze, necesito/tu ala negro
And wild scissor-lines around “Goodbyes”:
And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye…
left everywhere for somewhere else.
de todas partes a otra parte…

Poetry Night

Last night I got together with old and new friends to read and hear poetry. Loved every bit of it. Loved the side conversations, the poems people picked, the ones they didn’t pick. Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry are the patron saints of this particular gathering, but coffee table was strewn with others: lots of Neruda, a Manhattan-Yellow-pages sized volume of Thomas Merton, Walt Whitman, W.S. Merwin, and lots more Oliver. We began our time together hearing the story about how Jesus said bread and wine were body and blood, sacred glue of community and spirit. We passed broken bread and blessed wine around around our circle, and then listened.

There is always the challenge of hearing versus reading–can we enter into the words, the language, the life and work of the poet, when we don’t have the text before our eyes, simply the words in our ears, read one time through, with barely time to take root before other words take their place? Yes. I think the words get straight into our hearts and change us in some tiny way. I am changed, made richer because someone picked a poem and read it aloud, pouring the poet’s ordered words into the center of our circle. By the end of the evening, my own thirst for those words I didn’t even know I needed was both slaked and longing for more.

Day 4: Caffe Pallino

This morning I had coffee with my wonderful friend Ashley Henry and we had, as always, a wide-ranging conversation, touching on all the things that come up for each of us this time of year. When we meet – not often enough – we meet at Caffe Pallino because it is right near her house and my office.

There are lots of things I like about Pallino. For one thing, it’s one of the few good cafes that stays open well into the evening. And the baker occasionally puts out a sample plate right next to the register of big huge chunks of house-made coffee cake, scones, muffins, and cinnamon rolls. They make great breakfasts, don’t get crowded for Sunday brunch, and have fabulous gelato.

Like a lot of coffee shops, the place doubles as an art gallery. Unlike a lot of coffee shops, the art they hang is really good. The bright, open decor (which another friend of mine doesn’t like because she says it’s too “shiny”) doesn’t hurt. The art here consistently says to me: take me home. Someday I will. Today I’m just happy to have had a chance to let my eyes wander the walls and be grateful to this artist, whose name I don’t even know, for putting together lines and oil and string in the colors of night and light and earth, just right for this light-and-dark earthy time of year.

Advent

Here’s an Advent poem from 1994. Do you have an Advent poem?

My cactus blooms again:
last year it surprised me in March, now
the faintest hints Thanksgiving week.
Just days ago, hard leathery leaves dismayed
all but their own mild thorniness.
Now they pinken at the tips with something so
incongruous and yet ~~

it’s inevitable, and
these buds surprise only me.

A cycle is not a circle
and seasons move only forward.
These are not the same buds
nor even the same leathered leaves.
As I am not and we are not,
as we were.

The Shorter Norton

I recently rediscovered an old love. I’ve been doing some reminiscing and writing about my first few years of college, imagining I’ll publish a zine called “Memoirs from a Sodden Adolescence.” (Would anyone read it? Who knows!) The old love I rediscovered was my textbook from “Major British Writers, Part II,” which I took at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1978. (Yawn. Was anyone else in college that long ago??)

What your favorite college textbook? Your favorite poetry anthology?

Mine was, is, and ever more shall be the shorter, revised edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which academic types called simply “the shorter Norton,” a single volume only an inch thick, as opposed to the heftier two-volume Norton Anthology other introductory English classes required. We read mostly poetry, from Samuel Johnson to T.S. Eliot. I carried my book with me everywhere, scribbling wherever I was: in class, in the library, in coffee shops. It became dog-eared and soft around the edges. The cover art was a painting by J.M.W. Turner, “Rain, Steam and Speed.” I’d never heard of Turner but fell madly in love based on that one painting.

During the heat of summer, while working on a piece about the professor of that course, I frantically culled through the boxes in my attic looking for the book itself, and, after some moments of horror that I’d misguidedly sold it to Powell’s, found it. Powell’s would never have taken it, of course, full of my notes, doodles, and turned-down pages.

The book’s flyleaf holds scrawled assignments and quotes from my professor:

“Neo-classical, pre-Romantic, Romantic…better to be able to shift—a category is just one person’s device, not truth.”

“When doing comparisons, do not fall back on verse form; like grammar, it’s useless.”

“Write one page on the differences between Keats’ poems” or “Look at ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as the poet attempting to deal with change”

“One page on God as nature in Tintern Abbey.”

I was just grateful to be able to distinguish between Keats and Yeats.

After unearthing the book from the attic, I started carrying it around with me, the way some people carry a bible. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading it for a few minutes on my way to doing whatever work is set before me that day. Part of my daily devotion. All of that poetry was so long ago, and I’ve never been gifted with the ability to memorize, that I am able to read many of the well-marked works as if for the first time. But even more exciting in an old love is discovering works that we never got to in that class I took a hundred years ago, and spending as much time as I want with a poem before moving on. Reading the same poem over mid-morning coffee for ten days in a row, a daily routine like putting on lotion. I don’t think much about who made the lotion or what makes it smell so good or what makes it do whatever it’s doing for my skin. I just like the way it smells and feels. Same thing with poetry, these days.

My friend Melissa has a wonderful post about “Getting Poetry.” You should read it. She asks great questions about our poetry habits; mine are as varied as my knitting habits. Some weeks I tear through knitting projects like they’re going out of style and I’ve got nothing but time. Other weeks add up to months and sometimes even years when I don’t touch needles or yarn. Sometimes I’ll stumble on a poet and take everything she’s written out of the library (most recently, Mary Karr, after reading Lit). A few years ago, on another foray into my attic, I found a box of poetry collections, mostly individual poets, that I’d stored away when I decided I really wasn’t ever going to be a poet myself. I rearranged all of my bookshelves to make room for the contents of that box, not because I’d changed my mind about becoming a poet, but because I just wanted the books around. Some of those poets were a lot younger then, and a lot less famous than they are now. It’s fun to see how they’ve grown up.