Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Robert Rosenblum

I first came to Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967) in search of antecedents to John Trumball’s painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In an effort to establish themselves as worthy artists, Trumbull and other eighteenth-century American painters emulated their European counterparts. The style that Trumbull and others worked to master was what Rosenblum calls Neoclassic Stoic, “a viewpoint which looked toward antiquity for examples of high-minded human behavior that could serve as moral paragons for contemporary audiences.” As well as classical antiquity, didactic painting had its origins in the rise of the bourgeois class and served its purposes. Warren’s death showed viewers an act of self-sacrifice at a time when self-sacrifice (albeit less extreme than Warren’s) was important to building the new republic.

Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) was crucial to my understanding of early nineteenth-century American landscape painting. He argued that, contrary to the traditional view that modern art emerged out of Paris, there was also an important northern mystical tradition that greatly influenced painters in both Europe and America. In painting of the “Protestant North,” Rosenblum wrote, “we feel that the powers of the deity have somehow left the flesh-and-blood dramas of Christian art and have penetrated, instead, the domain of landscape.” His exploration of this tradition in its early stages creates a kind of typology of Hudson River School painting. The concluding chapter of Modern Painting demonstrates that the Abstract Expressionists were trying to work through the same dilemma as Caspar David Friedrich one hundred and twenty years earlier. Rosenblum’s pioneering work opened up a line of thinking that makes us now take for granted the landscape characteristics and spirituality of Rothko and Newman.

Robert Rosenblum died on December 6, 2006. Today the Guggenheim Museum held a memorial service for him. Herbert Muschamp’s fine article about Rosenblum appears in The New York Times.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Friday Photo (7)

Because I'll be away the remainder of the week, the Friday Photo appears early.

Untitled, 2007

Goodbye Sunday Poem

I once had the unpleasant experience of becoming involved in an expensive lawsuit that could have had severe consequences. The extent of my involvement was determined by the legal concept (whose name I forget) of half-conscious but willful disregard. In the back of the mind one knows that such and such is wrong; since such and such is in the back of the mind, one does nothing to correct the wrong. On the other hand, since it is in one's mind, one is culpable. Fortunately, I was found to be not culpable.

In a gentle way The English Teacher has brought to my attention that I have been violating the law by posting poems that are copyrighted. I've poked around various sites regarding copyright issues as they relate to poems, and see that it's okay to use a poem of no more than 250 words, but not okay to post the poem on the internet. This is because one doesn't have control over the poem's use after the posting. I've been half-consciously and willfully ignoring these strictures.

One criterion that determines fair use is intentions. Mine were good. I thought that providing another venue for poetry would serve poetry. I believed that alternating the work of a not-so-well-known poet with a well-known poet would provide the lesser known with a wider audience. But, the Sunday Poem was really for me (as is this blog). I read and reread poems that I hadn't looked at for years. Reading poems became part of my week. And I sought out new poets with chapbooks or collections from small presses.

In the back of my mind I was concerned about copyright issues, for I posted the source of a poem, its copyright date, and the small © to indicate the poem was protected. The law might say I profited from the Sunday Poem, and so I did. My profit was attracting viewers interested in John Ashbery, David Edelman, James Merrill. Anne Bradstreet, whose poems I can freely post, would have appreciated these complexities.

Au revoir Sunday Poem. We may meet again if fair use relaxes its restrictions. Until then, I'll read poems in the privacy of my library, keeping them packed, away from public view.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Poem: Anne Bradstreet

On my dear Grand-child Simon Bradstreet,
Who dyed on 16 Novemb. 1669, being but
a moneth, and one day old.

No sooner come, but gone, and fal'n asleep,
Aquaintance short, yet parting caus'd us weep,
Three flours, two fearcely blown, the last i'th'bud,
Cropt by th'Almighties hand; yet is he good,
With dreadful awe before him let's be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let's not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let's say he's merciful as well as just.
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Photo (6)

Untitled, 2007

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Loneliness of Todd Hido

At a gallery talk last year Todd Hido paused a moment to comment on his photograph of house whose upstairs and downstairs windows emit an eerie blue light. “That’s the glow from TVs. Two TVs. I love that, when I find it. It doesn’t happen often.”

The average household in the United States owns 2.4 televisions and watches them 6.76 hours a day. It’s surprising that in his wanderings Hido hasn’t come across more houses with people watching televisions in different rooms. His love for the two-television house isn’t. Separation, isolation, and loneliness are characteristic of all Hido’s work.

Hido covered some personal history during his gallery talk. He didn’t, that I recall, mention Robert Adams, an obvious precursor to Hido’s landscapes and urban photographs. In Denver, Adams’ 1977 monograph of tract housing, industrial areas, and other inhabited landscapes, the solitary house is prevalent. Adams was influenced by the great painter of solitary houses, Edward Hopper. Unlike Adams or Hopper, Hido has no interest in the power of light to transform the ordinary into something transcendent. One feels that Hido’s internally illuminated houses lead the way down rather than up. They belong to the world of Poe rather than Thoreau.

Roamings, obviously not as dark as Hido’s nighttime photographs of houses, continues to portray the West as an isolating, muted and often weird landscape. Hido likes to shoot through his car window, a kind of veil between us and the land. The absence of people adds to the feeling of isolation. If we were able to step out of the car, we’d find ourselves in uninhabited territory; there may be houses, but they’ve been abandoned.

In Hido’s latest work, a portrait series, women look directly at the camera with intense ennui, as if the photographer had unsuccessfully attempted an intervention. The photographic portrait of disengagement, perhaps first raised to an art by Rineke Dijkstra, is now so pervasive that one wonders why Hido bothered. Though of a piece with his previous body of work, they add little to it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mall Windows

“That’s a small building for a school,” my son remarked. We were passing the church school, not a block from home
“It doesn’t look small to me,” replied his friend. “The building goes way towards the back.”
“It does? I never noticed.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
"Seven years. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed.”
“Maybe that’s because you live here.”

Blindness to the familiar may have evolved over the millennia to free us from attending to the commonplace. Seeing while not consciously registering our environment allows us to concentrate on more difficult encounters. This is a handy survival trait, but a hindrance if one aspires to “perfect sight.” The phrase is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. To have perfect sight is to see beyond our everyday world. “What is a day?” Emerson asks.
“ What is child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting.” To see truly is to be affected by “the miraculous in the common.” Emerson thought this ability “an invariable mark of wisdom.”

Though the distance between being unaware of a school building and perceiving the miraculous may be great, the two lie along the same path. Emerson recommended starting the journey by “turning the eyes upside down,” so that one could experience “looking at the landscape through your legs.” Seeing anything anew is a first step toward knowledge.

For several years I have been trying to see with fresh eyes a ubiquitous phenomenon in our culture: the store window advertising photograph. “We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact,” the critic John Berger writes. In my experience, Berger could have eliminated the adjective “total.” During the countless times I have visited the mall, I have yet to run across anyone looking at a display window. And people to whom I’ve mentioned my interest often respond with quizzical looks. “What photographs?,” most say.

Scholarly inquiry about the cultural impact of advertising is vast. University courses explore the subject and I’d wager doctorates are offered in the field. For those of us outside the academy, Berger’s Ways of Seeing suffices. If there’s a more cogent brief critique of the display window images that populate malls across America, I haven’t found it.

Advertising photographs “propose to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more,” Berger observes. Indeed. Four years ago one of the department stores in the mall I visit had as its ad campaign an overt statement of this goal; lettered on each of the store’s windows was “Re-invent yourself.” Advertising photographs persuade us we can re-invent ourselves by “showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable.” We envy them because they are glamourous. Buying the product they advertise will make us glamourous too, envied by the unglamourous.

Glamour, Berger writes, “depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you.” To own the product is to distance oneself from others. The model in one mall display I photographed wears a tshirt that asks, "CAN YOU AFFORD ME?" Can you afford to buy the tshirt, the display asks? Can those who see you wearing the shirt afford to know you? Can they dare to associate with a woman who wears clothing that slyly evokes the streetwalker? That the tshirt raises such questions is part of its appeal. To be glamourous is to disregard those who see you. “You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest… It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” But not all mall images have unfocused looks; many gaze directly at us in a way that makes Manet’s Olympia look demure. Like silent sirens, they capture our interest with their gazes so we will buy what they have.

Is feeling the impact of mall window advertisements the same as being affected by "the miraculous in the common"? No, nor is it a mark of wisdom. Still, my re-photographed advertising images help me see what I might otherwise disregard, a step on the path to understanding.

Sunday Poem: Catherine Clarke

Why the Ride Is Longer on Certain Days

Ah the poor bastard talks to himself on the subway.
Books under one arm, nothing he says makes sense.
We avoid him, disconnected.
Want him to get off at Central, and he does.

He had hair the color of straw in sunlight.
Eyes. The man had eyes like anybody else.

The leaf is twisted but the tree is fine.
The tree is twisted but the land is fine.
So, the train moves on, in the dark,
too close to the walls. We cough.

I knew a girl who lived in a well.
She called and called, her long hair beautiful,
but no one came. We talk to ourselves.

It is light and impossible arms that we imagine.

Catherine Clarke, Red Horse (Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1981).
Copyright © Catherine Clarke, 1981

Friday, February 9, 2007

Friday Photo (5)

Untitled (France), 2006/2007

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Gone. Why?

I wrote the following essay in 1980, before Theodore Kaczynski became a household name and we began to find weekly missing persons flyers in our mailboxes. Paul Auster’s novel Oracle Night (2004), which I have yet to read, is based on the Wakefield and Flitcraft stories.

Newton, Mass. – As Christmas approaches, my stubborn, habit-ridden mind persists in recalling that my oldest brother has not and probably never will return home. Fifteen years ago, he failed to telephone the family on Christmas Day and has not been heard from since.

His disappearance has motivated my interest in similar dropout cases, and has led me to several unexpected findings. The first is that a relative’s sudden disappearance is not as uncommon as one might think. Thousands disappear from their families into silence ever year. A second finding is that the literature on the phenomenon is hard to find. While social scientists have examined the problem of runaway husbands and wives and children, they have not systematically looked the phenomena as a whole, as far as I can gather. Finally, and most surprisingly, only a handful of writers have written in any fashion about it, according to my findings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is of the few to explore the motives and consequences of absenting oneself form one’s family. In 1835, a magazine published Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” a “not very uncommon” tale about a man by that name who tells his wife he will return in four days from a business trip into the country. Instead of returning, however, Wakefield takes up residence in a house on a street adjacent to his former home. From there he watches his wife for 20 years.

Like Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, my brother "went away like a fist when you open your hand"

With Sam Spade’s story of Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett gave us a 20th-century version of “Wakefield.” Using words that precisely capture the sense I have of my brother’s disappearance, Sam spade says that one day Flitcraft went way “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Can Wakefield and Flitcraft tell us something central about the reason a brother, sister, wife or husband would unexpectedly break contact with the family? Do their stories explain why thousands arrange their own disappearance every year?

After his disappearance, Flitcraft is remorseless and oblivious to the similarity between his “old” and “new” lives. He falls back into the same routines, creates another family, manages another business, and goes to the country club as predictably as he had before. After his disappearance, Flitcraft is still himself.

I would rather believe in Wakefield’s end. After two decades apart from his wife, he steps across the threshold into his former home as unexpectedly and unexplainably as he had left. Life resumes in the “red glow and the glimmer and fitful flame of a comfortable fire.”

I would like to believe that all those missed by their families would some day return. At one time I did believe so. But now I cannot. Fifteen years have passed sine the Christmas my brother did not telephone. It is unlikely that more years of waiting will reunite him with us in the romantic glow of a Christmas hearth.

As the years have passed, my brother has faded until he lacks even the definition of a Wakefield or a Flitcraft. Like Wakefield’s, his motives remain obscure; like Flitcraft’s, he may now be whoever he was before he disappeared.

While this is not much to say, there is no longer much to say about it. The adult dropout’s motives, who he was, and who he now might be remain open, ineffable mysteries to the family left behind. Only the disappearance becomes tangible and complete.

Copyright © The New York Times, 1980

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sunday Poem: James Merrill

The Blue Grotto

                 for Mona Van Duyn

The boatman rowed into
That often-sung impasse.
Each visitor foreknew
A floor of lilting glass,
A vault of rock, lit blue.

But here we faced the fact.
As misty expectations
Dispersed, and wavelets thwacked
In something like impatience,
The point was to react.

Alas for characteristics!
Diane fingered the water.
Don tested the acoustics
With a paragraph from Pater.
Jon shut his eyes--these mystics--

Thinking his mantra. Jack
Came out with a one-liner,
While claustrophobiac
Jane fought off a minor
Anxiety attack.

Then from our gnarled (his name?)
Boatman (Gennaro!) burst
Some local, vocal gem
Ten times a day rehearsed.
It put us all to shame:

The astute sob, the kiss
Blown in sheer routine
Before one left the scene...
Years passed, and I wrote this.

James Merrill, Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
Copyright © by The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University

Friday, February 2, 2007

Friday Photo (4)

Untitled (Mall Series), 2006