What a day to be leaving! Tonight I'm off to England and Berlin, which promise to be unseasonably chilly--but bright. Everyone talks about how dark England is, but that's in the winter. Right now, nearing the solstice, the sun in England rises at 3:40 a.m. and goes down after 10:00 p.m. As usual, I may or may not post. Back after the 4th.
Today the New York Times published an article claiming that happiness comes with age. Researchers, apparently, are confounded as to why this might be, but anyone who is older than they were yesterday knows that it’s because with experience we learn to appreciate the present, and that nursing old wounds—or new ones—doesn’t serve us. (What they failed to consider, however, is that those who are content may live longer.)
Interesting that this article should be published on the same day as the obituary of someone for whom this was famously not true: Louise Bourgeois who, in her long lifetime, came to her art through replaying the traumas of her early life, and for whom feelings of helplessness and abandonment were just as vivid in her 80s as in childhood. Maybe more so, for all we know.
I first met Bourgeois in the mid-1990s, when I was producing celebrity ads (some of the first ever), a print campaign that ran only in Europe, for the high-end furniture company, Vitra. The celebs ran to the intellectual, and part of my job was to get the famous people to sit in the famous chairs—Martin Scorsese in an Eames chair, Jean Baudrillard (my biggest coup—Baudrillard in an ad!) in a Citterio chair. When we came to her home to photograph Bourgeois in a chair designed by Philippe Starck, she could not have been more gracious, and while the photographer, Christian Coigny, was setting up, she inquired about my painting and introduced me to the writing of Edward T. Hall, whose books came to have an enormous influence on my thinking.
Emboldened by this warm visit, I called to ask if I could interview her for a story in Art & Antiques, and Bourgeois agreed. However this time, she was totally prickly—trying, while I sat with my tape recorder running, every possible gambit to get rid of me (I was later to learn just how much she hated interviews). Finally she said, “I know how we should do this. There’s a book about me that’s all quotes. Go get that book, make a list of the quotes that interest you, come back and we’ll work from there.”
“Great,” I said, pulling the list from my backpack, because that was precisely how I’d prepared, “Shall we begin?”
I never saw Bourgeois nonplussed again, but from that moment we were friends and she was completely cooperative—in fact I could say we co-wrote the article, one of my favorites ever. She gave me complete freedom to shape it, but made many suggestions, all of which were on target, and enthusiastically participated in honing the smallest details.
After that we spent time together and I helped her with a couple of projects, but had to pull away when my time began to look like more hers than mine. She taught me a lot, however, much of it about how to stand up for myself as a female artist. Around that time I also wrote an article for Art & Antiques about my artist great-grandmother, and when I called to check what they’d written in the blurb about me for the contributor’s page, was horrified to find that it read, “Diehl has recently received a grant to do some painting of her own. Will it be in the style of her great-grandmother?” The twenty-something assistant who’d written it didn’t grasp the problem, but pulled it when I told her they couldn’t run the article if it stood (there was no blurb for me in that issue).
That evening I attended the premiere of a film about Bourgeois (which began with her running away from the filmmaker and hiding) and at dinner told her my story. When I said that she’d taught me to have that kind of courage, Bourgeois started pounding the table with her fist saying, “It’s not about promotion—it’s about defending our art! We must defend our art!”
Thank you, Louise.
“I don’t think of my life as a career. I do stuff, I respond to stuff. That’s not a career—it’s a life.”
Complete interview, Time Magazine, April 12, 2010.
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in your bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think about how you got started
sitting in your little room
Last night I watched “The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2009), a video of The White Stripes’s tour of Canada in 2007, where this two-person band that can easily fill stadiums, travelled to far-flung towns and villages, playing their punky bluesy, countrified rock in free daytime shows at each location with as short notice as possible. Similar to Sigur Ros’s tour of Iceland, which can be seen in their gorgeous video “Heima,” Jack and Meg White played venues as diverse as a rec center, a pool hall, a small boat, and a flour mill, culminating their tour with their 10th anniversary show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia—where they interfaced with local musicians, said to be distant relatives, playing regional music. The effect is surprisingly heart-warming, with attitude-free Jack White coming off as a total sweetie-pie.
White is also someone who’s thought a lot about the nature of creativity. His favorite quote about the band describes them as “simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world,” which made me think about how it’s the deft mixture of artifice and reality that makes for great art. Err too much on one side or the other and the magic is lost.
And White’s soliloquy on creativity was just the pep talk I needed before going into the studio:
It used to be, before I ever was on stage, there was the excitement of what it would be like to play onstage, or if I could just record… what would that be like? I don’t have inspirations like that anymore. Ten years later we’re just working in the same box….one part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself because I know something good can come out of it if I really work inside of it
Inspiration and work ethic, they ride right next to each other. When I was an upholsterer… sometimes you’re not inspired to reupholster an old chair, sometimes its just work, but you do it because you’re supposed to and in the end you look at it and think “it’s pretty good” and you move on. That’s it. Not every day of your life are you going to wake up, the clouds are going to part, the rays from heaven are going come down and you’re going to write a song…sometimes you just have to force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out of it. Whether we like it or not we write some songs and record them….book only 4 or 5 days in a studio and force yourself to record an album in that time…deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want— that just kills creativity. I’m using the same guitars onstage I used 10 years ago, and I like to do things to make it really hard for myself. For example, I don’t have picks all taped to my microphone stand. If I drop a pick, to get another I have to go all the way to the back of the stage. I place the organ just far enough away that I have to leap to get to it to play different parts of the song…. so I have to work harder to get somewhere. And there are hundreds of things like that…like those guitars I use that don’t stay in tune very well; they’re not conducive, not what regular bands go out and play. So I’m constantly fighting all these tiny little things because they build tension. There’s no set list when we play—that’s the biggest one—each show has its own life....when you go out and everything’s pre-planned and the table’s all set, nice and perfect, nothing’s going to happen; you’re going to go out and do this boring arena set….
All those things have always been a big component of The White Stripes: the constrictions…only having red, white and black colors on the art work and presentations, [sticking to] just guitar, drums and vocals, storytelling, melody and rhythm—these force us to create.
This isn’t De Chirico, but Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, another culture where art isn’t a separate intellectual activity for the privileged, but is as pervasive and natural as the sun.
Then revisiting one of my favorite places, the old synagogue that Camille Pissarro’s family belonged to, off the beaten tourist track in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, V.I. Who knew that this famous French Impressionist was Jewish and from the Virgin Islands? I found out when I saw an exhibition of his work in St. Thomas some years ago, and reviewed it when it went to the Jewish Museum in New York. The synagogue is tiny and opulent, a rich interplay of colors and textures—mahogany, brass, blue velvet cushions—and a white sand floor, in memory, I was told, of illicit congregations in medieval Europe who put sand down to muffle the sound of their prayers.
In contrast, the geometry of Philadelphia’s new civic center in construction, across from the ornate Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which my great-grandmother attended, and no doubt looks exactly as it did when she was there.
Then Stanford, which has to be the most beautiful university campus in the world. Yale and Harvard should weep. This is Palm Drive, three blocks of majestic trees leading up to the campus. One of the students told me that a replacement tree arrived like an enormous rocket on a flatbed truck and sat for awhile on its side near the studios. Cost (I was told): $80,000.
The Stanford graduate fine art program has only nine students, who are fully funded, and working in the most well-appointed and vast studios I’ve ever seen. For one brief moment, degree-less as I am, I was tempted to apply. This was lunch:
And palm fronds on the ground around the studios:
Finally, the weekend before last I flew back to JFK late Friday night and early Saturday made it up to Central Park West for an all-day This last weekend was the Anne Truitt opening at Matthew Marks, the guests intermingling with the sculptures:
For the next few weeks I intend to hole up in the Berkshires, finish off one essay, write another, and get up to speed in the studio. Oh, and work in the garden and finish the taxes I got an extension for. It never ends.
All images: Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, 2010.
Thanks to reader, Sid Garrison, for linking me with Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon and these incredible photos. Goddur, as he is called, is a professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, as is my former SVA grad student, Hulda Stefánsdóttir. Hulda and Sigur Ros were responsible for my original interest in Iceland, and I’m grateful to Olafur Eliasson and Art in America for getting me there for my first visit in 2004.
Also Hulda sent me this link to a live feed from the volcano.
I can’t believe I’m sitting here in the SoCal sun, listening to the trickle of water in the fountain, and still thinking about critiques and artists’ statements. But that's the lot of one who checks her email assiduously. So here is a comment from CAP regarding my last post: "Art Jury, but not really":
Like “Concerned,” I'm puzzled why the panel disparages artists' statements, and then picks out one of which they approve.
Why not just address the work/slide?
Fair enough, the artist's intentions, are often not reflected in the work, may be poorly articulated in any case. But if I liked the art, this would not put me off. Their interpretation is simply not mine.
All feedback on work is useful of course, and if it comes from recognized figures in the art world, it at least helps the artist get some idea of the terrain. But my experience has been that occasional opinions tend to vary so widely it's hard to put much credence in any single remark.
Why not just address the work? Because the statements were submitted as part of the package, and we were there to evaluate the presentations. I’m not against artists’ statements per se, but I believe that everything anyone puts out into the world as a professional should be of a certain standard, or it doesn’t serve them. Duh! I shouldn’t even have to say that. Maybe if CAP liked the art, a stupid artists’ statement wouldn’t put him off, but it certainly puts that artist at a disadvantage against someone whose art is just as impressive and has an intelligent presentation. Further, few will be surprised to learn that being a critic is a labor of love. I write because of what I learn from the time I wouldn’t otherwise spend with certain work, and in a way I’m investing in that artist’s career—as I am when I’m on a panel and recommending someone for the honor that will advance it. Furthermore, whatever it is, my name is on it—I can’t afford to take a chance on someone who could turn out to be a dud.
Also it may seem to those who’ve had varying critiques in the studio but who haven't spent time on panels, that opinions in these situations could be widely disparate. The surprise (although not if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) is that they're not. Regardless of the number of jurists and entries, the first 70-80% are eliminated with complete consensus. It’s only when you get down to judging the finalists that there’s any discussion whatsoever. In this case I was overruled by my co-panelists and let stand, as one of the three “winners,” one artist whose work I found completely trite. But that’s not usually the case.