The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Category — Obscure Artists of Note

Winged Thing

This photo found its way to my in-box. It’s a sculpture, of course, done with loving precision and sits in front of a field of Californian grapes. Anyone know who did it?

September 1, 2010   1 Comment

Alice Neel

Alice Neel had a tough time of it throughout most of her life, though it was far worse for her daughter and two sons, which is painfully evident when you watch the documentary Alice Neel, directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel. She was a kind of female van Gogh, painting in obscurity and poverty until the woman’s movement discovered her, making her one of its icons, a distinction she exemplified but never embraced. Neel is best known for her raw, in-your-face, revealing portraits of models, lovers, and acquaintances, like this famous one of Andy Warhol. The portraits are more real than the people themselves, which you can readily see when the subjects stand next to their portraits.

As a female American artist, Alice Neel was a pioneer, living fully for her art regardless of circumstances. Near the end of her life, she finally found the recognition and fame she desired and basked in it like a sea lion in the sun. It made me wonder if it would have been worth it to her if had she died in poverty. Going against the grain is never easy, especially when no one recognizes your efforts. Luckily for her, she was “found,” and deservedly so.

January 29, 2010   Comments Off on Alice Neel

Robert Irwin Again

Someone did a search on “What did Robert Irwin mean when he said, ‘seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees?’” and landed on my site. It’s an interesting question since Irwin’s statement is almost like a Zen koan. Like the answer to the famous koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” the answer is fairly obvious, I think.

Of course, when you try to explain it, things get muddled. For economy’s stake, one should always answer a koan with a koan. Having said this, what Irwin meant (in my humble opinion) was that truly seeing something never involves naming it, or if you do name it, forgetting the name immediately. Seeing transcends language. Once something is named, it becomes just another object in one’s environment.

Great works of art are like this. You never tire of looking at them. You can study them for hours, days, or for the rest of your life and never see all they contain, because the images run fluidly through your mind like a river of forms and keep reminding you of the beauty of things you can never know through language.

January 20, 2010   Comments Off on Robert Irwin Again

Vito Acconci

I’ve been watching a film a group of art students made of a conversation they had with Vito Acconci, the not-very-well-known performance artist-turned-architect from Brooklyn. (By the way, I find it amusing that Acconci’s middle name is Hannibal. Reminds me of Hannibal the Cannibal.) The subject of the conversation was “power zones,” a formalized way of thinking about the influence people have over one another. It’s a way of understanding Acconci, who, in his younger days, was a provocateur terrible. In his most famous (or should we say “infamous”) piece, Seedbed, Acconci lay hidden beneath a gallery-wide ramp, where he masturbated while broadcasting his fantasies about the visitors who walked above him.

He’s too old for that kind of thing now and mostly dabbles in landscape architecture. Of course, that’s what happens to over-the-hill performance artists. They are let out to pasture.

He kind of looks like Sid Caesar in his later years, doesn’t he?

December 29, 2009   Comments Off on Vito Acconci

The Tenants of Moonbloom


Another book I tried to complete, but couldn’t, was The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant. The novel began well. The educated, no-account brother of the owner of four run-down apartment buildings is charged with collecting rents and managing the apartments. He’s ironic, funny, sensitive, and lyrical by turns. Saddled with a broken down maintenance man and practically no budget, he struggles to satisfy everyone’s demands in a world that’s tilted against all of them. Through his visits, we get to know the inhabitants. Women flirt with him. Kids taunt him. The tenants complain and try to cadge him. The novel moves along swimmingly. Then, after the first series of encounters with his characters, Wallant, having run out of ideas, changes voices and describes the inhabitants from their own points of view. We go inside the apartments and see what these people are really like. This should be interesting, but it’s not. The change is too abrupt. What made the novel so fascinating in the beginning—the wry perceptions of the protagonist—disappear without a trace.

All of this is understandable. Wallant died at 36. He never really had a chance to finish the novel, which was published posthumously. I wonder if he would be pleased with what is now in print. I doubt it. He was a perceptive writer with a unique style. I think he would have discovered the error he made in changing points of view and would have corrected it, making The Tenants of Moonbloom a much better novel. Still, I suppose, it is better to have this than nothing.

December 23, 2009   Comments Off on The Tenants of Moonbloom

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin has been pushing the boundaries of art (and perception) for the majority of his 81 years. His work is so subtle (and he, himself, so self-deprecating) that only the conoscenti know about it. I certainly didn’t. I got interested because Lawrence Weschler wrote a book called seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, which captures the essence of the man. Almost sounds like a Gurdjieff conundrum, doesn’t it? Life is only real when I am. That sort of thing.

In truth, the book interested me more than the art. Hey, what can I say? I’m a philistine.

There is a passage in a chapter called “the desert” that describes Irwin’s reaction to losing his inspiration which I find interesting. I like it because it is similar to the notion of becoming enlightened by “wandering around.” Irwin didn’t worry that he was dead in the water. He didn’t scream to god for help. He just said to hell with it and moved on. Here’s the passage:

“He got rid of everything. The studio he sold to Doug Christmas, who quickly turned it into the Ace Gallery. The supplies, he threw out. The collection of other artists’ work, which he had built up over the years through a series of trades, he returned piece by piece to the respective artists. Then he went out on the Venice boardwalk [famous LA spot], and for a long time, he just sat there.

“Did nothing. Didn’t even thing about what to do next.”

Do you see what I mean? How many of us are capable of turning our backs on everything that was formerly important when it no longer serves us. Neat lesson there. If only we had the good sense to make a clean break and simply wander around when the goddess of inspiration deserts us, how much happier we’d be.

October 14, 2009   Comments Off on Robert Irwin

Arnold Flaten

My teacher was a man I never met. I knew him only through his work and that of his students. I inherited the tools he made my wife buy for her course, a wooden mallet, a rasp, and some gouges. I still use them. It never occurred to me to introduce myself until it was no longer important. His name was Arnold Flaten. I even know his famous words of advice to his sculpture students, though I can only paraphrase them. If it doesn’t work, bore a hole through it, and your piece should be solid enough to roll downhill. I don’t pay much attention to either one of them.

It’s disappointing to find so few references to Flaten on the web. It’s how it is with minor artists. They spend their lives creating a body of work, enrich the lives of thousands of students, die, and are quickly forgotten. Hey, Arne, I still remember you, the mentor I never had and never wanted. You live on in my hands.

July 23, 2009   Comments Off on Arnold Flaten

So Long, See You Tomorrow


When I asked the staff at my local book emporium about favorite novels, one of the clerks, who normally responds only in monosyllables, thought for a long moment and said that his most beloved novel was So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Giving him a look of ironic wonderment (because he seemed like he was trying to birth an egg), I said I’d never heard of William Maxwell. He replied that Maxwell was a longtime editor at The New Yorker, where he worked with such writers as Nabokov, Updike, J.D. Salinger, and John Cheever. I was impressed, because editing luminaries like Updike or Salinger would be problematic, at best. I bought the novel on the spot.

I didn’t like the novel at first. It was a jumble of disconnected remembrances with no emotional connection between them. But, of course, I soldiered on, having spent good money on the book. Besides, it was only 144 pages long.

It wasn’t until about a third of the way through the novel that I finally got interested, and by the time I’d reached the end, I was hanging on every word. The kaleidoscopic scenes and dialogue, which at first seemed disparate and unconnected, gradually coalesced into a gestalt of power and drama. I won’t give a synopsis of the plot (which you can find on the web), except to say that it involves the rawest of emotions told in a spare and unique style that earned the novel an American Book Award. Go buy it.

April 20, 2009   Comments Off on So Long, See You Tomorrow

Carson McCullers

Gore Vidal has said that Carson McCullers is one of the best American writers of the past century, one of those who will continue to be read for years to come. (I think Vidal is wise enough to know that he will not be among them.) Throughout her life, McCullers suffered from strokes and alcoholism. By thirty-one, her left side was paralyzed, and after a life of suffering and incredible fortitude, she died at fifty after a final brain hemorrhage and stroke. Right up to the end, she never stopped writing.

Her characters are wholly unique (as she was herself), and are considered by some critics to be a species of Southern Gothic. Of course, if you’re a critic, you have to find a category for everything. I don’t find her characters grotesque at all, but real portraits of people struggling with their private demons at the edges of life.

What I like best about McCullers is her sentences. I love how they link up with the sentences that came before and the ones that come after, and slink across the page like a pack of coyotes. My god, who would not want to write with such beauty and perception? I love The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but my favorite McCullers’ novel is The Member of the Wedding, which, to my mind, is the most vivid coming-of-age story ever written. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Here’s an extended quote.

“Listen” F. Jasmine said. “What I’ve been trying to say is this. Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I, and you are you? I am F. Jasmine Addams. And you are Berenice Sadie Brown. And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I, and you are you. And I can’t ever be anything else but me, and you can ever be anything else but you. Have you ever thought of that? And does it seem to you strange?”

February 18, 2009   Comments Off on Carson McCullers

Silent moments, like frozen frames…

No one captured the isolation and alienation of American society better than Edward Hopper, who throughout his long career never deviated from his original aim to show people as they were. Interestingly, he gives his figures no special treatment. They are as much a part of the scenes as the window frames, light fixtures, and walls. Very somber, though from another perspective, also very funny.

February 6, 2009   1 Comment