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George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…


In Buddhist tradition “the stopping mind” refers to the tendency to fixate on things, ideas or experiences, and thus impede acceptance of the transitoriness of everything, ourselves included.

But that notion grew out of societies that never envisioned a high-tech, commerce-driven culture such as ours that prizes incessant motion and change both for their own sake and as fuel for the profit system.

Addicted to speed, we need help stopping: not in fear or paralysis, but in a mode that gives us pause to sort out what we see and feel. We need relief from our own glib knowingness, which lets us glide through the element of surprise in daily life.

Hence our need for the arts, especially the arts of our own time, which respond to our condition implicitly and sometimes explicitly.
I started out as a critic in a world slower than this one – no Internet, no credit cards, no cash machines – yet already jet-propelled. At the very outset, I encountered the then-new tendency – minimal sculpture – that tried to make the arresting quality of art the entirety of its content.

Confronted with a piece such as Carl Andre’s “Voltaglyph 20” (1997) – which closely resembles things he made 30 years earlier – I felt that it left me nowhere to go – in interpretation, in emotional response, in conversation. Yet as sculpture, it somehow convinced me.

(Photo courtesy of Haines Gallery)

Writing my way out of that apparent cul-de-sac left me with heightened alertness to the interruptions built into artworks: passages that slow the movement of attention through the work’s structure or toward a clear idea of its meaning.

Other factors also played a part. Art institutions, including the market, quickly absorbed the shock delivered by the utter inertia of work by Andre and other New York artists of his generation. Yet even to those long familiar with Andre’s work, a stony absurdity close to the heart of it can still obtrude itself unexpectedly and induce a blush of self-consciousness about the whole business of dwelling on art objects.

Few visual artists working in more complex idioms can cause the kind of comprehensive full stop that Andre contrived. But complexity in art – in good work, anyway – usually entails some choreographing of the work’s reception.

Consider a photograph by Lee Friedlander, whose retrospective comes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February. A black-and-white shot of an apple tree under snow, it might have risen no higher than Christmas-card banality. But Friedlander’s choice of viewpoint and lens and his tuning of the print produced an image that not only precludes our entering into it sentimentally but also continually drives the eye back to the picture surface graphically.

The medium’s inherent realism draws the eye into the image space, but it rebounds again and again to the powerful, effectively abstract network of forms at the picture plane. A momentary stoppage occurs – like the still point at the apex of a parabola – with each volley of attention. It is as if Friedlander forces us to reassemble the image repeatedly in order to see it.

With every such interruption of what we may prefer to imagine as a seamless flow of perception, we contact an inner silence that ordinarily we may not hear at all: a momentary clearing in the pervasive cultural fog of received opinion and inferred expectation.

Genuine shocks – an accident, sudden bad news – often produce a similar hiatus, making us feel cruelly isolated in our subjectivity. By providing this sort of radical interruption free of practical consequences, artworks allow us to grow more comfortable with it, even to appreciate it as a truth of experience.

The kind of interruption or stoppage I describe need not last long. It can do its work of aerating awareness in an instant or a cascade of instants. For this reason, the periodic laments we hear over the short spans of time people spend in front of individual artworks miss the point. The quality, not the duration of engagement, matters.

To a knowing hand, any medium may offer the means to contrive the rhythms of comprehension and arrest that the culture at large offers only in degraded form, if it’s offered at all.

Deborah Butterfield’s sculpture “Untitled (Rust)” (2004) shows how it can occur in assemblage. Butterfield constructs sculptures of horses – each one portraying a specific animal, she claims – from scrap metal or wood. A viewer of her work re-enacts in some measure the process of gaining, losing and regaining sight of the possibilities of forming an image in the round from components that in themselves suggest nothing horse-like whatsoever.

Often a viewer circling a Butterfield sculpture literally will stop and savor a vantage point from which the governing image seems to coalesce or to dissolve into abstraction or mere raw material.

Critical writing about art seldom describes well, and almost never exemplifies, the kind of respiration of reception I have tried to evoke. To find that in language, we have to turn to poetry.

Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle


He had a thing for blue. Also clay pipes and Victorian postcards, ticket stubs, bits of tulle, starfish and old clock parts. He was drawn to automats and secondhand-book stalls, corresponded with ballerinas, filmed pigeons, liked pie.

These are among the oft-repeated facts about Joseph Cornell. Notice, in even so brief a litany, the transition from art to life and back again. Perhaps more than any other artist’s work, Cornell’s is best appreciated in the context of imagining the life of the man. Put another way: what Cornell lovers love most may be not the objects themselves — the evocative boxes, collages, dossiers and short films — but the story of their making, which is the story of an awkward dreamer walking the city, finding treasure in flotsam, spying magic all around.

Since his death, Joseph Cornell (1903-72) has been the subject of more than 20 books, from scholarly explorations of his art and life to poetry and fiction inspired by him. Yet for all the scrutiny and the mulling, he remains elusive, almost chimerical: a figure embraced by the art world even as he rejected the label “artist,” a voyager who never strayed far from home, an idolater of innocence whose work could be eerily erotic. In photographs he is gaunt and unsmiling, almost invariably looking away from the lens. His face appears drawn and deeply lined, as if scored by loneliness, and his lean frame has a tentative look, as though he has yet to make up his mind whether he is meant for this epoch, this planet.

Perhaps a desire to understand this enigmatic man in terms that would count him as one of us explains the seemingly endless flow of literary responses to his work. Best known for his glass-covered box creations, many of them made in tribute to people he idealized, Cornell has elicited just as many tributes himself. John Ashbery, Octavio Paz, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Pinsky all wrote poems for him. He’s been immortalized in music and plays. And many of the books about him — from Dore Ashton’s “Joseph Cornell Album” to Charles Simic’s improbably beautiful “Dime-Store Alchemy” to Jonathan Safran Foer’s anthology “A Convergence of Birds” — could themselves be described in Cornellian terms: collage-like, experimental, quixotic. Even those that take the form of conventionally linear narratives (like Deborah Solomon’s definitive biography, “Utopia Parkway”) tend to carry echoes of the magical qualities associated with Cornell.

The latest addition, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s mammoth catalog “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination,” accompanies the first retrospective of the artist’s work in 26 years, a deliciously bountiful exhibition curated by Hartigan and recently on view in Washington, San Francisco and Salem, Mass. If you missed it, this book really is the next best thing: thorough, lavish, disturbing, beguiling…

This book stands out, too, for being utterly unfey, devoid of the poetic eruptions Cornell induces…those who linger may be rewarded, for it turns out Hartigan has done something lovely. She, too, has modeled a response to Cornell’s work on his own methods, assembling and inventorying a pastiche of the ideas, innovations, people, philosophies and experiences that most likely influenced the artist. She doesn’t navigate his imagination so much as map the explicit tributaries that fed it. And is her map ever detailed…

Hartigan’s esoteric, even idiosyncratic approach — heavily sprinkled with illustrations of places, people and objects Cornell encountered — provides a vicarious experience of the man who was himself an idiosyncratic “browser,” drawn to “nonlinear exploration.” The slow accretion of varied and seemingly disparate influences, which Cornell wove together in such singular, suggestive fashion, also lends weight to Hartigan’s intriguing speculation that he might have suffered from synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that causes some people to “smell” colors or “taste” letters of the alphabet…The crowning stroke to this mapping of Cornell’s mind is the inclusion, in the bibliography, of some 150 books that are not about Cornell but that were important to him, that nurtured and informed his perceptions. Taken together, the words and images offer the sense that we are apprehending the world from the artist’s perspective, rather than witnessing yet another admirer’s artful display. There’s no fault in such a display. Hartigan tells us Cornell thought of art as “a spiritual gift to humanity.” But what she has fashioned is a gift, too, which feels, in its faithfulness, like a special kind of homage.

Cornell gives us hope. The notion of a curious, wistful man walking the city and turning up treasure in debris, seeing the transcendent in the forgotten, the discarded, the mundane — such a notion is intrinsically hopeful. By inviting us to fathom how he did it, Hartigan brings us one step closer to the promise of our own longings.

Leah Hager Cohen
New York Times

schuleit1w.jpg schuleit2w.jpg

In the early 1990s, while still in high school, Anna Schuleit discovered mystery by taking long walks through the deserted grounds of the Northampton State Hospital. This cluster of Victorian buildings — with its iron-bar windows, crumbling red brick, and chest-high grass — touched a deep chord in the young artist.

“I came to my work as a pedestrian,” said Schuleit…

Early on, she was inspired by abandoned institutional spaces like the old mental hospital. Or by public spaces that allowed for solitude and daydreaming.

Another inspiration was literary: Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher who wrote about the poetics of space and reverie. “As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere,” he wrote of daydreaming, an activity that inspires Schuleit and informs all her work…she said she was taken with Bachelard’s idea of “immensities within ourselves.”

A workshop is important to her as an artist, but “so is always a site, a setting, a real location,” said Schuleit, “a place that can be wandered.”

It is there that a person can have “a dialogue with stillness,” she said. “I believe in the imagination. It is a muscle in the body that can carry us anywhere.”

In 1997, Schuleit’s imagination carried her back to Northampton, where she evaded guards to wander for days of walks on the old hospital grounds…On her walks, Shuleit collected chips of lead paint to display in lines of frame-like glass boxes, talked with former workers at the hospital, and studied old pictures and records. She contemplated the “doubling of misfortune” in the decay of the buildings and the decay of memory — and felt a vivid sadness for the 2,700 patients who over the course of a century had lived there…

In November 2000, after three years of struggles over funding and access, Schuleit turned the old space into “Habeas Corpus,” two days of “celebration” (including testimony from former patients) and performance art. She bought 5,000 feet of sound cable, and with the help of 80 volunteers converted the old mental hospital’s main building into a giant amplifier, “to animate all the voids of the architecture.”

At noon on Nov. 18, for 28 minutes 106 loudspeakers bounced the full sounds of Bach’s “Magnificat” into the interiors, and back out the iron grids, broken windows and ruined arches of the building onto the audience of hundreds standing raptly below…

By 2003, she put together “Bloom,” an installation art piece in Boston commissioned to mark the closing of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center’s main building, built in 1912.

As before, she let the space speak to her, asking officials there only for “a week, an office, a key to every door, and a person who knows every story.” In the end, an impression formed over the years inspired her: “I noticed that nobody received any flowers in psychiatry,” said Schuleit, in contrast to hospital stays for heart attacks or broken bones.

So using hospital records, she calculated how many patients had been committed there since 1912, “bringing together all the flowers they had never been given.” The answer: 28,000 potted — not cut — flowers (so they could be given away afterwards). Shipments included 15,000 tulips from Canada, stacked high in an 18-wheeler.

Schuleit transformed hallways into rivers of flowers. The chairs in a waiting room looked like islands in a sea of flowers. An abandoned swimming pool, used to store furniture, was filled with 3,000 blue African violets. Floors in the basement, where the laboratories had been, were carpeted with live turf “that came in rolls, like sushi,” said Schuleit.

“It was a crash course in colors,” she said of “Bloom,” — and for viewers, a font of tears for the departed and the forgotten.

Harvard University Gazette Online

A Line in Scotland

Richard Long is one of Britain’s most influential living artists. Based on the artist’s walks from the mid-1960s, his work takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and sculptures (generally lines or circles constructed from natural materials). A new exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art (June 30 – October 21 2007) will span the artist’s career and feature a number of new works created specially for the show…

For more than 40 years, Long has insisted on his art’s simplicity. This goes against the grain of modern life, which is one of the reasons why Long’s work is worth returning to. The limitations are part of the pleasure. Simplicity is reason in itself. A new book, of the artist’s collected statements and interviews, returns again and again to this same basic premise, the same plea to keep things uncomplicated, in our approach as much as his.

Famously, Long walks, though he has been known to cycle and to travel by kayak. He goes in straight lines and in circles. Pacing back and forth, like a writer in a room in search of an idea, Long once walked the grass flat in an English field. He has also circumnavigated mountain ranges, used dried riverbeds as paths, and followed his compass and a line ruled on a map to find his way across Dartmoor and the high plains of the Canadian prairie.

Once, on a 15-day walk in Lapland, Long turned 207 stones to point into the wind. Sometimes, a text on a gallery wall is the only record that the artist went somewhere with some small, entirely useless yet significant aim in mind. More often, he photographs what he has done and the places he has been. These photographs – always using the same camera, the same lens – are often accompanied by a few lines of text. They are more than just a record.

Ireland, Scotland, the Australian outback, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Berkshire: the exoticism of the location isn’t what matters, but it helps. Looking at Long’s photographs in a book, we imagine journeys we shall never take, places where we shall never stand. There is a sadness in this. The words Long uses are like the stones and sticks he picks up along the way. They are descriptive, declarative and plain, and just a few of them put next to one another are enough to take the reader somewhere else. The line “Earthquake in the forest” is dizzying enough. Long insists his words are not poems. I guess for him they might be sculpture, which is what the US conceptualist Lawrence Weiner also says about his own use of words on the wall. Or perhaps words for Long are a kind of drawing.

But the walk’s the thing. Long has fallen in rivers, narrowly avoided being shot by a farmer in Montana, and been beset by natural and unnatural hazards of all kinds, but the drama is mostly kept off stage, out of sight, a traveller’s tale we are not privileged to hear.

The Guardian

American art historian Kirk Varnedoe, in Pictures of Nothing, the series of Mellon lectures on abstract art since Jackson Pollock that he delivered shortly before his death in 2003, made the sometimes overlooked point that not all abstraction has been about “its noisy, declarative protagonists”; that, in fact, almost “a quarter of contemporary abstraction … is about whispers, innuendo, confidences exchanged intimately rather than publicly declared”.

“We don’t want our personality in the art,” Ellsworth Kelly once said. “We all had to get over Picasso, because his was ‘great personality’ art. We were trying to get away from the ‘I’, as in ‘Look how well I do it.'”

There is a noticeable strand of solitariness in recent American art, of city-born artists leaving the cities in pursuit of what might be thought of as anti-experience – attempts to quiet the mind.
Kelly’s great friend and contemporary Agnes Martin…fled the Manhattan of the 1950s for the flat, open spaces of New Mexico. There, for the next 40 years, she devoted herself to making paintings which, as she put it, “have neither object nor space nor time nor anything – no forms”.
The numinous quality of Martin’s paintings – the way light seems to be stored up inside them – has inevitably evoked a spiritual experience. Such responses have been encouraged by Martin’s writings, which extol the virtues of the solitary life. “I suggest to artists that you take every opportunity of being alone, that you give up having pets and unnecessary companions,” she once wrote. “I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone, will be serious workers in the art field.”

The Guardian

Horn’s Library of Water in Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Horn has been a “permanent tourist” in Iceland from her home in New York for more than 30 years. Library of Water, her permanent installation in the small coastal town of Stykkisholmur, three hours from Reykjavik, has just opened to the public for the first time. Water has been “archived” from glacial sources in all parts of Iceland and decanted into a copse-like stand of transparent glass columns that have replaced the shelves where books were once stacked. Some of the columns are clear, others are opaque, with traces of ancient debris drifting in them. The debris is a reminder that the glaciers were formed many millennia ago and are rapidly receding. Horn describes Library of Water as “in some sense an end-game, since many of these sources will no longer exist in a matter of years”. But Vatnasafn, to give it its Icelandic name, isn’t primarily an ecological/political work; it isn’t agitprop.

Horn imagined Library of Water as a place for quiet observation and reflection, “a lighthouse in which the viewer becomes the light. A lighthouse in which the view becomes the light.” This connects it to her work of the past 30 years, which has ranged across drawing and sculpture to photography and essays, and whose guiding principle has been anonymity on the part of the artist and minimum intervention in the work’s execution. She has spoken many times of her “desire to be present and be a part of a place without changing it”. Detachment, humility and surrender, that is the ambition. She’s there, and then she isn’t there, like the weather…

Horn was born in 1955. There are now monuments to the achievement of artists just a generation older all over the United States. Following the model of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the minimalist shrines range from James Turrell’s Quaker meeting house in Houston, to Donald Judd’s museumification of the entire town of Marfa, Texas, to Walter de Maria’s mile-wide Lightning Field in Quemada, New Mexico.

These are projects on a grand scale. Roni Horn’s Library of Water in Stykkisholmur (population 1,100) on the north-west coast of Iceland, on the other hand, is modest, unassertive and intended to serve the community rather than coerce it into an appreciation (or even a viewing) of the work of one of the more recondite practitioners of conceptual art. In addition to the two installations of Horn’s work – a rubber floor scattered with childishly rendered words in Icelandic and English, and the glacial water housed in its top-lit, floor-to-ceiling columns – the space will be used by the local community for activities ranging from yoga classes and AA meetings to gatherings of the local (women-only) chess association and reading groups.

The Guardian

Lama Anagarika Govinda says that “if we look at a landscape and imagine that what we see exists as an independent reality outside ourselves, we are the victims of an illusion. If, however, we see the same landscape represented in the work of a great artist, then—in spite of the fact that the painting creates the visual illusion of a landscape—we experience an aspect of reality, because we are conscious of the illusion and accept it as an expression of a real experience….The moment we recognize an illusion as illusion, it ceases to be illusion and becomes an expression or aspect of reality and experience.”

But what happens if the work of art is not an illusion, but is a life that is being lived? Is it still art? Or has it then become a matter of “right livelihood?” As Nancy Wilson Ross describes it, “if a job help us in our search for an understanding both of ourselves and of the world around us, then it is, for us, samma ajiva (right livelihood)—no matter how futile and crazy it may seem to our friends and neighbors.” This may very well describe what art does for its maker—at least in part, and for some makers.

Marcia Tucker
White Paper II


Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter an interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside. Also you become the immersed figure in an endless ground, literally the subject of the work.

Antony Gormley

Blind Light is on exhibit at the Southbank Centre in London, May 17 through August 19. 2007

(To watch a video of the installation, click on the link)

Bird in Hand

Ellen Gallagher’s new exhibition, Coral Cities, has just opened at Tate Liverpool and features a series of drawings, collectively titled Watery Ecstatic, and a number of 16mm films. Gallagher explores the idea of a black Atlantis: she imagines all the drowned people, thrown overboard, lost at sea, somehow still underwater. The descendants of enslaved Africans, they now populate the twilight zone of the sea. They’ve become almost a marine species, half human, half fish.

They are a fantasy created out of a historical reality. They are the descendants of those who were thrown off the slave ship Zong; perhaps the ones who were tossed into the sea because they had the flux or dysentery, or because they were rebellious or even sulky…

Ellen Gallagher has said: “Some losses are irretrievable.” Yet, through her art, she is attempting to go down to the ocean bed and retrieve the lost, like a deep-sea diver trawling the ocean floor for survivors. “I’m interested in reactivating the static,” Gallagher says. Her sea dwellers are of that time, but also of this time; the paintings make you think what would have become of the people. Gallagher, in creating them – to borrow a line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved – has “understood the source of the outrage as well as the source of light”…

Her work is like jazz on a huge canvas. She paints riffs, repetitions and refrains. Trauma is presented in patterns, repeated cycles, virus-shapes. Freud described anxiety as, on the one hand, an expectation of a trauma and, on the other, a repetition of it in a mitigated form. Gallagher’s paintings are mitigated forms. She has always been concerned with what is seen and what is not seen; fascinated by what is framed and what is outside the frame. Including even herself. “What I like about painting is that you have this theatre where you are not there,” she has said. “The audience for painting rolls in whenever they like. It’s a different relationship to time”…

The work is slow and labour-intensive. “Hard to find a day where you can say you have achieved a lot,” Gallagher says. “All I’ve done today is draw one ear of a hamster.” But then she enjoys the pressure of working against the clock, right up to the deadline. She is a true artist, an original thinker – perceptive, witty and very modern (one of her paintings is called Bling Bling). Coral Cities will make your soul sing. Gallagher’s work is a whole, densely imagined world.

Guardian Unlimited