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An Open Thank-You Note

Post #1606 • May 29, 2013, 4:42 PM

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Dear █████,

Thank you, however belatedly, for your gift you so aptly characterized as "art supplies" when you last visited Boston: a bottle of Corralejo Reposado, shot glasses, a CD of American Music Club, and a note bearing the worthy message that most hearts of any quality are broken several times in a lifetime. I've read the note often, but finally got around to busting out the tequila this week. It's excellent. I noted the similarity in color to the painting medium I've been using lately, equal parts of good turpentine, damar varnish, and linseed oil. Nothing fancy—anyone with a copy of Ralph Mayer knows it—and yet in its way it's incomparable in its golden utility, and might qualify as secret knowledge in some circles.

You know me well, and I very much appreciate that. You know, for instance, that in spite of everything, I'm not going to drink the tequila for breakfast, and can be trusted with a bottle in my time of need. You supplied two glasses, by way of reminder that at least a few needs were not going to go unmet forever. (I knew it, you knew I knew it, and that's as much reminder as was needed.) And AMC is just the kind of music you reach for when the world is looking impossible.

And the world is certainly looking impossible these days. As I become increasingly political, I've recognized the danger of projecting one's personal disappointments onto the news cycle. Lao Tzu, Cato the Younger, and Takuan Soho, each in his time, thought that the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and the world endured anyway. But just today I've learned that a kindergartner was disciplined for bringing a two-inch-long toy gun onto a school bus, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has attracted a fan club of admiring women, and Feds just shut down a leading cybercurrency as a money-laundering operation mere days after it offered to settle with confirmed money-launderer HSBC. The Times reported that the housing market is recovering, exactly the remedy to economic malaise that Bernanke has been trying to bring about through his enormous asset purchases, while Zero Hedge, a pit of insanity that frequently spits up wisdom unattainable elsewhere, noted that one major business that got into the post-bust rental market is expecting housing to melt again.

That was just today. "What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue." I envy my aging cats, who are content to sit by the screen door and watch robins hop around in the yard. The art world is no refuge. The author of this preening prattle continues to be regarded as a serious critic:

Pretend Jeff Koons is an artist. Not a happy hotshot in a suit, serving as crystal meth to big-game-buying megacollectors and auction houses. Pretend he's not a self-styled weird Mitt Romney-like family man, a hollowed-out Howdy Doody. Imagine that he isn't so easy to bash that even comatose critics like John Yau lose it when they see his art, trashing Koons's flowered Puppy and then admitting to never having seen it. (Yau once beat me up in print for liking it, too.) Finally, pretend that Koons's concurrent gigantic shows—one at the Battlestar Gagosian on West 24th Street, the other in the West 19th Street branches of the David Zwirner empire—were in less turbocharged environments, and that they constituted any other double show by a 58-year-old artist. One who's made some of the most vexingly paradoxical sculpture of the past 30 years, work that makes you squirm even as it forces you to grapple with its mysteries. You'd come out thinking—or at least, I came out thinking—there's still something there.

I came out of this paragraph marveling at how Saltz could swing so quickly between sucking up to his audience of armchair class-warriors to sucking up to Gagosian, thus risking the affections of neither. John Yau deserves more kindness than this. Koons deserves less.

I like what you said recently, "Every now and then it is borne upon me that the vast majority of artists are, if not clinically narcissistic, irremediably solipsistic. This interests me a lot less than it used to." I can't turn away yet. Just as every woman mooning over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev proves the ultimately horrifying conclusions at Chateau Heartiste about the sexes, so does Saltz's inability to dislike Koons's art, though it violates his stated values, validates my contention that the art world operates in basically the same way, with advantage going to the sociopaths. Even me at my most self-involved, putting these thoughts up on my blog instead of into an email where they belong, I can't hold a candle to some of these people. I used to worry that I didn't have enough talent. Now, on top of it, I wonder if I'm insufficiently Machiavellian.

The art of the future won't grow out of this milieu. It probably won't grow out of my studio either. But the Country of Art is too mysterious to say much more about it. There's a Rilke quote that is just this side of trite nonsense, but I find myself thinking about it anyway:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Maybe impossibility is meant to be lived as well, one day yielding an outcome not seen before in the world. After enough reds adjust to enough blues, a Klansman emerges from the color field, picks up a cigarette and a paintbrush, and daubs a robed self-portrait under a bare lightbulb. There is an unrepeatable flash. Years later, other tinder catches.

Jon Imber is the one artist I know who married into his art. The freedom implicit in his landscape and flower paintings, brush stroke and image, begins to take hold in Maine, Jill’s home, and the home of Jon’s heart. He did not embrace this freedom at once. His paintings of hawsers, lobster buoys, anchor chains and boat gear now look like a farewell nod to Guston, late Guston in which the master piled natural forms—cherries in a nod to Chardin’s strawberries—and geometric shapes arranged with a startling muscular logic.

May we be worthy tinder for the fire. All best to you, yours, and your myriad noble efforts.





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