August 29

My distance from New York the past year has not stopped me most mornings from reading the New York Times and The Independent from Britain online. I don’t know if the news is worse recently or the approaching return is alerting me to certain feelings, but the news of politics, the war, income disparities, etc. makes me sad. Maybe it has to do with coming back to some of what I was happy to get away from. It is raining steadily today. The river is very high and fast. (The last time it was like this after several days of rain, Katalin said, “Did you see the river? It looks like the Amazon.”) It began last night after dark, which is coming earlier. When I was first here in June, it stayed light until ten, now dusk is here at eight. In Vietnam and Cambodia, it was always dark before seven. It is something we do not often think about in the North: how night drops early and unvaryingly in the tropics.

I thought of fall in Hanoi as I began to wake up this morning. The seasonal change took place during my first weeks there, at the beginning of this long wander. It was still hot, but lovely days began appearing. Hanoians would comment on it, too. I connected this memory with my sense of anticipation at that time: of what the year would bring. Then once again the idea came of the Romantic as someone “Who would rather travel hopefully than arrive”. It is pleasant to monitor certain anticipatory feelings, and then follow them through their stages, from, ‘I wonder what being in that place will feel like”, to “here I am in that place where I wondered what it would feel like”, to “here I am remembering that place that I wondered how it would feel to be there, then was there, and am now remembering it.”

When I first began making abstract paintings I sometimes drew on a memory of a place far way that I had once visited. This was when I had not traveled in quite a while. As I began to travel again I would bring particular visual situations back to the studio that would inform the work, like the way that paint was sensuously applied to surfaces throughout the poorer parts of Mexico, for example. The job of art journalism gave me entry into studios when away, and I began to understand what a microcosm that space could be. For someone who is fundamentally a studio artist, I have spent an inordinate amount of time outside of it recently. Still, over half of this year away has been spent making my work.

When I returned to Hanoi in December after three weeks through the south and in Ho Chi Minh City, there was something that must have been on my mind. Hanoi was chilly and overcast. I had been through events leading up to the postponement of Saigon Open City by the Ministry of Culture. My participation in SOC was exciting at first; and hopeful, not just for myself. It first appeared that I was present at the beginning of a new, more open period for the art community in Vietnam. In addition, I had recently had an exhibition in Hanoi. I felt part of it. By early December it was clear that the government wasn’t going to change anything. In fact, now that they had gotten into the WTO there was no need to try. I became disappointed. I was visiting artists, researching, writing, but there was a strain underneath. Part of the delight of travel is in its superficiality and I had already found out too much about Vietnam. I do criticize myself for these feelings because one looks for certain feelings. The overwhelming evidence that I came across was of the energy and optimism of the Vietnamese and particularly Vietnamese artists. This is the attitude that I tried to underline in ‘Report from Ho Chi Minh City” that I last heard should be in the October AiA.

Museum night in St. Gallen, next week, will have at least one hundred people come through my studio in the course of the evening. I am treating it as an exhibition, and going through what I have done here. A lot of the work that I thought was finished has been rejected, and other work that had been taken off the stretchers has been restored. What I have kept has usually been more visually quieter work. A lot of the work that I thought was strong was simply obnoxious to me, and it has come down to what I am willing to accept. This constant shifting--criticizing, being lost, is all part of the process, but I am unable in the end to fully understand what I am up to. It mostly has to do with what I can live with. Which is why I don’t like looking at my catalog very much. I think I decided too quickly that some of those paintings were finished.

August 30. Reading about James Wood coming to the New Yorker as a literary critic. He likes Sebald and Hollinghurst and said that Rushdie is noise not style (well, Rushdie is a good essayist). It made me feel less alone. I see the Urs Fischers (he was here with Jeffrey Deitch yesterday, I looked up from my desk and there is Deitch in an ugly yellow suit looking at the river) and the Ugo Ronindones, and most recently, a Rudolph Stingel, who, admittedly, makes a beautiful noise, being manufactured at the foundry here and it looks like so much bad rock and roll. I read that Brice Marden listened to Puff Daddy while making his recent six-part painting. Rothko read Shakespeare and listened to Beethoven before he went in his studio. I am passing up seeing the Marden exhibition, seeing Berlin, etc. Spending a few week poring over the Marden catalogs was of no help to my own work or thought. As much as I admire a lot of the work it does not affirm anything I believe in. It makes me understand why artists like Rirkrit or Jun claim that they do not like to think like artists. Marden is hierarchical, hermetic, and precious. I still think he is very good, but maybe overly artistic. I feel this way about Schnabel, too. But not Ryman, and not Salle. Schnabel and Marden both make smart decisions in their work, but the aura around it is kind of fluffy or smarmy, there is a lack of economy that always stops me from being genuinely inspired by it.

I have a problem picking work to exhibit next week. The very latest paintings are more blunt, colorful and physical and I tried to talk myself into them, but they were too loud, I couldn’t stay in the room with them. So I took them down, and there is other interesting stuff I did. Now the newer work looks stronger, the work from last month too reticent.

August 31. The sun is out today and it makes a difference. I am starting to come around to the most recent work I have done, though in one instance, a painting is not recent, I had begun it in Phnom Penh. Also, contrary to what I wrote a few days ago, I am mounting it on the wall unstretched. Another painting is on smaller stretcher, and the back of the painting is now the front, this is also the case with a very large one that has also gone from being a horizontal to a vertical. So it goes. I don’t know what I think of this new work and the only way I can begin to understand it is by seeing it as my thinking about how Baudelaire saw Delacroix. These new, strange to me, impossibly colorful and childlike paintings are my version of Baudelaire looking at Delacroix. The fact that I don’t know quite what the hell I have here can only be a good sign, but it doesn’t make me feel relaxed, it makes me feel vulnerable and that is probably a good sign too.

I went to the Reitberg Museum in Zurich the other day in the rain. I walked up a hill with a gravel path through manicured woods. Zurich is a lovely city. A few weeks ago I met Huong and Karl Knuesel, who are partners with Quynh and her gallery in HCMC. When we discussed Vietnam, where Huong is originally from, she observed that Vietnam has held on to its European influence more than the other Southeast Asian countries. That is probably true, from my observations. Karl told me that Zurich was voted the best city in the world to live in by--Fortune magazine, I think. Vancouver was second. Every time I am in a new part of Zurich there is another park, or the lake, or a view. Too bad they keep having festivals full of football fans drinking beer and running around in jockstraps with their asses painted. At least that what was going on in the streets there last Friday night. Fucking Europe.

But the Reitberg Museum, that I had visited last September, had finished their addition that doubled the exhibition space, underground, and had a new glass pavilion that was covered with an emerald green abstract pattern of triangles. A special exhibition was about Angkor Wat. ¾ of the sculpture came from the collection of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. I don’t know whether Bertrand had mentioned this show, but I am sure he must have had to go to Zurich. There were some very beautiful figures, breathtaking, but what really kept my interest was a film that had a computer recreation on Angkor Wat in its heyday, where all of the gold was covering the towers and figures, and how it was situated among the residences surrounding it, with all the moats and pools. It reminded me of the short book I read in Phnom Penh that was a translation of Chinese visitors impressions of Cambodia in the tenth century. It was Chinese putdown of what they considered an inferior race; the women would sleep with anyone, no cleanliness, etc.

The Reitberg’s permanent collection had an open storage section with glass cases full of all kinds of things, including Japanese ceramics and a few early Romanesque sculptures that seem to look better than anything to me right now. The permanent collection also had a room of Chinese ink paintings including a masterpiece by my personal Cezanne, Gong Xian, one of the greatest painters who ever lived. The met owns two scrolls by him that are sequences of simple landscape views that are small horizontal vignettes in sequence on a long piece of paper with his accompanying poems. He is strange, cinematic, earthy, imaginative and poetic. He uses blunt, dumb, dabbing brushstrokes with dark grades of tonalities. He can also do mist with out over-poeticizing it. They had his painting “A Thousand Mountains and Myriad Peaks” which I had never actually seen, and I thought it was in Princeton, so this was a big surprise.

Another surprise was the concrete architectural relief in the entrance area that I had been looking at. Helmut Federle designed it. I had missed seeing his other architectural projects, a glass exterior that surrounds a building that is on the pharmaceutical company Norvartis’ campus in Basel, where I could not get permission to go on the grounds, and another Federle concrete facade on the side of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin. I wanted to see that, too. This interior facade was a good piece, and keeping with the theme of Asian art, which dominates the holdings of the museum, Federle’s facade is slowly being gold-leafed by anyone who would like to pay 10 francs to apply a square of gold.

I always buy Federle catalogs, and there was one at the museum from an exhibition in Vienna that was organized by the Danish writer and artist Erik Steffensen titled “Helmut Federle: A Nordic View.” Steffensen’s name was familiar, and I remembered his work, I reviewed it once when he had a show at DCA, the former gallery for Danish artists in New York. The essays were in English and German, and reading Steffensen on Federle there was no denying my attraction to him based on the romantic/spiritual attitude that seems to run through so much contemporary post-minimalist abstraction: Steffensen relates Federle to Gauguin’s expression of the “essence of this melancholic Nordic wanderlust…. Federle works and reflects on the world that has given him so much new input, such unique cultural baggage, yet which seems to sow doubt in him about his future direction. This seems to be permanent; the restlessness, however, is productive.”

On the back of the book it describes the Nordic romantic tradition as revolving around the subjects of religion, existence, longing, nature, and restless wandering. I came across this at the precise moment that I needed to explain myself to myself and am quite grateful to have come across it.

September 2. I am still swimming in the pond every day possible, (i.e. I do not go if it is pouring rain all day) though it is getting chillier. It hasn’t reached seventy degrees in over a week. Very few souls are at the ponds anymore and fewer go in the water. But I refuse to stop doing my laps. The distances get a little shorter, though I still swim for at least a half an hour. Colder water seems to require the limbs to work harder, almost like pushing through cold wind. But the sun on the water, the overhanging trees, the color and smell of the water itself is very hard to resist. It’s heavenly. I am still doing the breaststroke, as I never had the patience to re-teach myself the crawl. Earlier in the summer I downloaded instructions on how to do the crawl and was surprised that it was not introduced to the western world until the mid-19th century. It was a gift from the indigenous people in the far-flung colonies. I realized that the Romantic poets, who had a cult of swimming, Byron swimming the Hellespont, etc. did the breaststroke.

Another day through Zurich Saturday, this time out past the city along Lake Zurich to a town called Wädenswil, to meet Pierre-Andre Ferrand. This painter, whose studio I will not be able to visit on this trip because he is in the middle of moving, invited me here to the reception for three new apartment buildings by the architectural firm of Gigon-Guyer. It is a common practice among Swiss architects to collaborate with artists on aspects of their projects and Pierre-Andre chose the exterior colors for the three buildings: a dark lime yellow, a musty pea green and a chestnut brown. I walked around the mostly empty buildings before I went up to the reception space and admired the raw plaster walls, simple proportions and clean sightlines out to the lake. I introduced myself to Pierre-Andre and gave him a catalog. I also met Annette Gigon. We talked about cast concrete and about color and they told me that the builder kept insisting that the colors be lighter. Nothing is simple. It was early evening and I walked back to the train station along the edge of the lake, realizing a few minutes after it left that I could have taken a lake boat back to Zurich and had an hour on the lake instead of thirty minutes in the train. It was museum night in Zurich and they were all open late. I went to the Landesmuseum and looked through the period rooms, lots of inlaid wood and enormous tiled hearths, and then saw a special exhibition on Swiss emigrants contributions to U.S. culture, including the Rickenbacker guitar, Robert Frank, and the founder of Chevrolet. Museum night could not be complete without a bar in the garden with a big thumping disco bass so I got out of there and took the train back to St. Gallen.

August 25

My gallery faxed the review of my last show that just came out in AiA. It freshened the air around here even though it was not all praise. As someone who writes reviews for the same publication, I can pick out the slightly-not-true facts right away, like where (Hi Stephen!) he says that I paint really big or really small. Also, the most eye-catching painting has already been described like a cartoon several times, and for that reason alone I have grown to dislike that painting. I thought it was a generous and positive review even though it concluded at the end that I was “pulling my punches”. Roberta Smith, similarly, wrote that my use of other painters formats felt cautious to her.

It is odd to read this stuff because the work comes out of an attitude that foregrounds the process over the “image”. A few years ago I had studio visitors that would talk about the tall verticals and wonder about the “Newman reference”, and I would explain that the work came about from the limitations of the materials, i.e. the burlap came five feet wide, so if I wanted to go a greater distance, I had to piece it together, and one day decided to place another material in the gap between the finished edges. Someone who came on a studio visit a few years earlier, an artist, surprisingly, asked me where I saw the work going. I said, in all honesty, “Nowhere, I like it here.”

What I read from these comments is an assumption that there is something I am trying to do, or to get to, that there is an original image that I am striving for, when all I am trying to do is please myself. The work is, firstly, about the pleasure of the materials, and then about how the materials behave when I interact with them. Then there is the pleasure of solving the problem that the situations create. “Oliveros Night” the painting with the black felt stripe and the painted blue washy vertical, was redone three times. This means that I had to prepare the burlap with primer, go through the gluing of the felt stripe and the unstretching and restretching and then put the painted stripe on. Twice it was too heavy, and the third time it worked. But the painting does not communicate effort, which is part of the point.

But making art is communication, and it’s a dialogue, including a dialogue with critics, and this has changed the work, mostly making it more demonstrative. This AiA review has me rethinking the past months work, now the stuff I unstretched and rolled up seems better than the more recent work. I don’t think one is aware of what art they are influenced by. I keep hearing about Tuttle and Burri, and I have hardly ever spent any time looking at their work or thinking about it. This may be because their ideas were so familiar, or so ready for me to take that there was no need for investigation and my unconscious just swallowed it whole at first glance.

I went to visit the Swiss artist Roman Signer this morning at is house in St. Gallen; this was an appointment that was switched around and delayed through most of the summer. He is from Appenzell, on the other side of the mountain, and has now lived here for many years. He is about seventy, but comes off as a younger man. He is known, world-renowned at this point, as a sculptor who performs actions involving explosions, or other natural forces, like surges of water or air, or combustion. He also uses simple mechanical devices and tools, or recreational equipment in new, odd ways. I read that he had a job early in life in a pressure-cooker factory, when one gets to know the work this fact becomes more and more amusing.

Many of the actions, such as a piece where he sits in a kayak and is towed by a car on a dry road as the bottom of the kayak is scraped away, is recorded on short 8mm films. Or there are photographic series or objects. Since his youth he was interested in explosions. I asked him if he liked the smell of gunpowder, he said yes, and I mentioned the allure of the smell when I first experienced it as a small boy, he said, “Yes, elemental.” That was a word he liked to use in relation to his work. He took me to his workroom, which was in a large building attached behind his larger, bürgermeister-like house. He showed me a room full of sculptures, and said, “Well. This is all I have, it’s not very much, and much the work is out in exhibitions…”

In one corner of the long, low-ceilinged space was a collapsible mountain-climbers tent that was in tatters from an explosion, this is a “Ruin” of an action, he explained. I told him that it made me think of the Romantic trope of the ruin in the landscape, and how being that a lot of his work takes place out of doors, it made oblique references to the Romantic tradition. There was something of a language barrier, and he said, “No. I am not a “land” artist, I just use the land as my workroom sometimes.” There was a beautiful piece on the floor with a long iron pipe that had triangular legs welded on it, that was used, when filled with gunpowder, to shoot a black umbrella through a black briefcase, which was placed in front of the pipe.

Then he would say, ‘Well, that’s all” and then would take me to another part of the building and show me something else. One windowless room had a bucket full of sand suspended over an umbrella that would spin and sift the sand evenly around its perimeter. Nearby, was an old-fashioned weight reduction machine with a belt one places around one’s waist. He used the machine in an action where he put the belt on and as the machine moved his hips he would try to hit a can placed across the room with a pistol. There were circles with numbers highlighting the bullet holes on either side of the bright metal can.

In another storeroom, near a workroom with a long table filled neatly placed tools, Signer showed me a deep freeze refrigerator, like the bottom half of a full-sized one. He tells me a story about when a few years ago he heard that a huge snowfall was coming. He brought the freezer outside, and lifted the lid and it snowed into the freezer. With the lid lifted, one peers down and sees the drifts of snow still preserved. He said that it was in a museum exhibition, a large refrigerator truck came to get the piece, that the temperature inside was -20 Centigrade, and it was quickly taken from the truck and plugged in to the gallery space. Then he said that the museum wanted to insure the sculpture for 20,000 Swiss francs, and Signer said, “That was very clever, but it cannot be replaced, it’s just snow.”

He showed me some of his catalogues that he had bound with metal bands and then placed an explosion cap inside. The eruption on the surface of the book, he said, was like a volcano. I asked him if he liked visiting volcanoes, and named some that he had, including Stromboli and a number of others, including one in Japan. Then I asked him if he had read Susan Sontag’s novel, the “Volcano Lover” and we talked about what a good book it was and how surprising that it came from her.

Then he took me on the concrete deck above the studio that served as a large patio for the residential part of the house and showed me his “participant” piece, where two hoses filled with water were connected to a pair of rubber boots mounted on a metal stand. Signer stood on the two hoses about 10 feet away from the boots and lifted his feet on and off of the two hoses, causing the boots to swing back and forth in a walking motion. Long spurts of water came from the heels of the boots, propelling them forward. I was admiring the piece as I was also looking over at the cab of a ski lift set nearby a large boulder, and looked over to the buildings across the way that formed a kind of tall amphitheatre that looked onto his patio.

As he walked me downstairs, he stopped and said ‘Oh, I must show you where I keep my explosives.” And he opened a door and I looked at a five-foot high pea green safe with a no smoking sticker on it. As we went out onto the street there was a black Jaguar parked in front of the entrance. We talked a few more minutes. I mentioned something about not having the language and missing a lot of middle-European irony and he said, “It’s subtle.” Then, “This is not my car, I only have a bicycle; and I have one of those three-wheeled cars from Italy, do you know them?”

August 24. I went to Lucerne again to see the Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba exhibition that is my next feature article for AiA. It was a sunny day and this time I took a towel and my bathing suit. My appointment with the curator wasn’t until 4 pm so I got on a local bus that ran out of town along the perimeter of the lake. First we went through lots of hedges and coffee-sipping patios and luxury goods shops and large private houses overlooking the lake. Switzerland is oppressively comfortable. Its suicide rate by means of firearms is second in rank, per capita, to the US.

The mountains behind were quite dramatic, though it was hazy or the air was dirty, like everywhere else on the planet. I got off the bus after it seemed close to a place that corresponded to the beach on a map I had glanced at, but it turned out to be the lakefront patio of a hotel across the road, charming enough, with a line of old twisted trees and no one about, except at the snack bar. There was lounge jazz coming from the speakers hidden in the trees, otherwise, how would I know that I was relaxing, without recreational music blasting at me as I looked at the water?

Moving on down the road I took some twisty paths leading up and down through fields and trees, but I came up against gates to private lake front houses that continually blocked egress to the water. I finally came back to the road and headed further along to the Hotel Hermitage that had a large lawn leading down to a marina and ferry dock. I came down a flower-lined walk past the outdoor dining area nonchalantly, thanking myself for remembering to wear my seersucker jacket, I always seemed to get treated a little better when wearing it, and noticed a boat shed over the left. I surreptitiously climbed a fence, quickly changed into my broad-checked Ralph Lauren bathing trunks under a tree next to the shed and dove in the lake. It was lovely, cool and clear, and I could swim out to a floating raft not far off. No one was in the water as I moved about, staring at the distant sailboats and surrounding peaks. After about fifteen minutes of this I came back to shore, quickly changed and went up the path to the bus stop. My head was clear as I met Susanne Neubauer, the curator of the exhibition.

We had a coffee in the area above the museum level, the eighth floor of this steel, glass, iron and mechanism-heavy architectural statement and Ms. Neubauer explained how the museum likes to feature career surveys of young, promising artists, and it is hard to find ones that can fill up the series of large rooms that constitute the temporary galleries of the space. Someone that does films and projections can cover a lot of space, she said. This was a great, unguarded way to talk about her choices, which of the past shows, in the painting category, included the redoubtable Anton Henning. When I told her of my interest in Josephsohn, she said she was surprised because these days everyone seems only interested in what’s new. Well. There it is, the sign of the times.

Walking through the exhibition again we discussed the show as I took copious, useful notes. Jun had done a fill-the room-with-a-bunch-of-the-same-stuff installation of chrome globes and replicas of consumer objects on the ceiling, but it was a very standard experience. Jun is a very good artist but was simply hitting the marks here, I thought. He had done two small magic lanterns that spun around showing shadows of the earth’s landmasses along with projections of moving imagery of boats on the Mekong that was a lovely piece. Mostly, I have to admit, I just liked walking through the show with Susanne Neubauer, who I had to make a conscious effort not to stand too close to.

On my way back to St. Gallen, I got off the train in Zurich, to attend the opening of that city’s art season. This Friday night segment of it took place in a converted brewery building that had four floors of galleries and the Migros Museum of Contemporary art,
Migros being one of the wondrous Swiss supermarket chains that has helped put extra weight on me this summer. I didn’t particularly like anything in the building but felt generous enough towards the general ambience. At de Pury and Luxembourg there was Jimmie Durham exhibition, which was mostly theatrical, as he was an artist that comes from a performance background. The most striking piece was a Volkswagen beetle with a boulder that looked like it had fallen on it. The white cube is just what it is; there is no way around it. This is very old news to just about every artist but me.

Though the gallery space as a phenomenon and frame was first exhaustively isolated by Brian O’Doherty, in his famous series of Artforum essays, the consciousness of context has to be given to Duchamp, who seems to me to be the Frank Sinatra of art. Sinatra famously said that as a singer his voice wasn’t his instrument, the microphone was his instrument. The singer, like the artist, like the actor, has entered the age of amplification. This new arena demands elegance, the ability to choose the defining gesture, nuance, figure, intonation, absence, etc. Any honest art teacher is obligated to tell his or her students that the gallery space, extrapolated to elsewhere, virtual space, the larger culture, etc. is their canvas. My attraction to Josephsohn came in part because of his definition of traditional sculpture as something with limited expressive possibilities. But, of course in his hands, that was not the case. I am attracted to abstract painting for similar reasons, its limitations. The same way that television sitcoms are interesting, there is specific form that can be only broken out of at one’s peril, it mostly needs the proscenium and the laugh track. I saw one in Cambodia about four years ago, with a family sitting around on the floor of a traditional aboveground grass hut. They looked like they were insulting each other and there was a laugh track. The Cambodians around me in the restaurant, where the television was, seemed to love it. This is a roundabout way of stating why I cannot work without the traditional rectangular stretcher.

I ran into Bruno Jakob, an artist I knew from New York, and Pham Ngoc Duong, whom I had spent time with in Hanoi almost a year ago now, at the beginning of this year away. He was with his French wife and had an exhibition across the street. After I found the show, I pressed the gallerist to look up my Vietnam writing that was available online. I took the train back, and it as the end of a long day, where I had happily made up my mind about a lot of things. I wasn’t going to go to Berlin, or Kassel for Documenta, or Munster for the important sculpture exhibition, or Venice for the Biennale. It would cost a bunch of money that I would rather hold on to than waste it rushing breathlessly, taking trains full of backpackers drinking beer and staying in strange B&B’s, to look at more contemporary art.

I have spent good part of the year writing about the art of others and I wanted to continue to follow the rather confusing path my present work is creating for me and I want to go swimming as many afternoons as possible. I was going to return to NYC a week early, on the 10 of September, two days after St. Gallens’ Museumnacht, where I will participate with an open studio. There are still opportunities to see things in Switzerland and I may still go to Geneva or somewhere else, but enough already with the traveling. Germany can wait.

August 13

“The difference between a good writer and a bad one—or, the difference between a writer (take your choice out of the millions around) and an artist—is that the former thinks the words are pictures, and so on. He thinks they “represent” things, and take their place. The artist is a slave to the fact (it takes a great while to realize this) that they represent nothing, and you pay homage to them on their terms.” --Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, a novel by Gilbert Sorrentino

“To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist” –- Jasper Johns

“The girl wore a fresh, pale blue smock uniform. She looked into his eyes as she set the cup before him, not in a flirtatious or even personal way, but in the way Ray felt all Italians at whatever age or sex looked at people—as if they actually saw them” –-Those Who Walk Away, Patricia Highsmith

“Mysticism and egocentricity are not mutually exclusive. I believe a person never gets past taking himself seriously, even as a mystic. Because in doing mysticism, he is interested in the fact that HE is doing mysticism. There is this gap between taking-oneself-exaggeratedly-seriously and the serenity of relativising oneself, putting oneself into perspective.” Ernst Tugendhat

News of the death of Elizabeth Murray, Roberta Smith writes a sizable obituary in the Times, “… her loyalty to painting, which was out of fashion, was unwavering. At the same time, her blithe indifference to the distinctions between abstraction and representation or high and low could put off serious painting buffs. [Who they?] Both tendencies enabled her to be one of a small group of painters — including Philip Guston, Frank Stella and Brice Marden — who during the 1970s rebuilt the medium from scratch, recomplicating and expanding its parameters and proving that it was still ripe for innovation, in part because of its rich history.” She goes on to write about the artist’s “dismay” at the enormous success of Keifer, Schnabel, Salle, in the ‘80’s.

The 80’s were the last time I remember being amazed by what she was doing, and subsequently cooled on it. The game had changed, and she kept pushing on, to select applause. I didn’t hear younger painters talking about her, much, but then painting is at low ebb, again. I have a feeling that the work will be reevaluated and she will be situated higher up, the work was very alive. I discovered rather late that my sensibility was the opposite of Murray’s. I began to admire restraint.

Smith puts her as making her biggest contribution in the late 70’s.The best work of the 80’s wasn’t painting; anyway, it was these weird hybrids from Salle, Prince, Levine, and Sherman. 80’s painting had this peculiar market-driven irony where painters were show-off hacks that were good enough underneath the theatrics to make the irony work: Schnabel, Fischl, Basquiat. Murray was outside of all that, seriously working. I was reading a piece by Molly Nesbit, who I met in HCMC, about the 80’s in an old Artforum and she got it right when she wrote about Salle, Sherman and Levine’s ideas. I arrived in New York around that time, ’77, when there was nothing much going on in the art world and there was an interesting freedom around. But the money arrived and killed the work.

August 19. This may be one of the reasons that Paris is interesting, and in a different way, Vietnam. That there is resistance: they are underdogs. They are pursuing their ideas though the rewards are not great. I was reminded of this when I was in Lucerne the other day; I had to see Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s exhibition at the museum, to which I have a writing commitment. The show was…fine; his films in particular are rather remarkable, but I had to be in Lucerne, which is kind of awful. It’s like a big Swiss Lake George with more dramatic mountains, less honky-tonk, etc. but it has the high-culture equivalent of honky-tonk, with a Jean Nouvel museum and performing arts center perched at the shore, oversized and looking like a big recycling center, completely out of touch with the surrounding scale, which is a strategy, but I didn’t like it. It just blared ‘architecture’ at you, and I suppose, echoed ‘performance’.

The town is very old and has covered bridges with flower boxes where you can walk across the inlets, and large, picture-postcard Victorian hotels can be glimpsed in the near mountains. I couldn’t bring myself to take any pictures. The town had expanded in the 19th century and is tenth most visited city in the world. Queen Victoria came one summer. Anyplace that is filled with tourists is like being in Hell. Everyone snakes through the streets with the sun beating on them, walking too slowly and looking but not really having any idea where they are or what they intend to do. It is oppressive. I was reminded of the line for the automated rail that takes you up to the Getty Museum.

The sun was out. I took the trip that day based on reports of rain and was wishing I was back in St. Gallen, swimming. I went to the Sammlung Rosengart and they would not honor my International Association of Art Critics card and I had to pay about thirteen dollars to see the sad collection of late Picassos, Klees and Chagalls. It is housed in a building that looks like it used to be a bank. There were many photographs of the Rosengart family with Picasso, who was also a tourist attraction, really, for 20th century sycophantic wealthies. What I was reminded of came when I saw one of his portraits of Dora Maar, which differed itself out from among the other emptily virtuosic works.

I love his paintings of Dora Maar because they seemed to demand something more of him. I identify with Dora Maar more than with Picasso, the same way I identify with Gwen John, another artist overwhelmed by a relationship with a huge artistic figure, Rodin. Gwen John like Dora Maar withdrew into devout Catholicism. My relation to 20th century art is that of being overwhelmed by huge artistic figures, and there has to be a better way of coming to terms with them than an anti-art position or broad irony which have a very strong tang of the right wing to me. I have read James Lord’s memoir, “Picasso and Dora” several times, and I think that my position in relation to overbearing 20th century artistic figures comes out in my admiration for introverted art and artists. One thing that is appealing about Matisse that his insecurity did not rein in his certainty. As Clement Greenberg wrote: “Unlike Cézanne, he does not try to reconcile…conflicting aims in each painting, but alternates from phase to phase, or even from picture to picture…This may account in part for the unrounded, fragmented, almost disjointed impression made by the total body of Matisse's work.”

I am hanging out in my structure here looking at my work and wondering what the hell I am doing. This is my job. I went to Zurich last week and was also forced to pay admission at the Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection. It was really a very good collection of modern impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. But I could only really see the Cézannes, some of which were not under glass, and the early Christian sculpture, the circa 1150 stuff was very imaginative and by 1400 they had already taken on a kind of naturalism and something had gone missing. Gauguin, even Manet, here, seemed anecdotal that day. I did look at Renoir, and as I have seen in every museum in Switzerland he is a sculptural, earthy painter. It is the curse of this era we are in that imagery is taken literally and no one notices what a profoundly interesting painter Renoir is. He knifed and slashed up the surface, used the paint like tar, strangled the flowers.

I also looked at the Delacroix paintings that the collection contained. I always look at him closely because I try to see him the way Baudelaire did. The Delacroixs that the Bruhles had were more helpful than most. I could see the hallucinogenic looseness in his brushstrokes that made his imagery seem like opium pipe dreams. Later I went along the shore of Lake Zurich and looked at how some of the cut stone was inserted into the landscape and then later, to the botanical gardens where the summer flowers were beginning to turn. It is already fall here, school is back in session and the water in the pond is getting colder. I will travel to Germany next week.

Paris part II

August 12. Paris, cont’d----Went to Marie-Claude Bugeaud‘s studio. She is one of four women who live and work in Paris that I have collected into an exhibition entitled “Paris on Paper”. I am looking for a venue. All of the work is concerned with light, materiality, and the act of making a mark on paper, and also gives the paper support as important a role as the drawing mark itself. Marie-Claude is the only artist of these four who concentrates equally on drawing and painting. I saw new large and small paintings and also a number of works on paper. The latter were composed of long painted lines or dots and dashes that encircled themselves or interwove. She used the word cheveux: hair; and talked about being interested in the earliest forms of art. I remember that she was always interested in finding ways that women were present in the canon, from past interest in the abstractions that took place in the pleats and folds of garments and the baskets and other domestic items in narrative paintings, to that of patterning and decoration visible in what was done to hair in ancient works of art. She told me that she considered this the earliest form of art. It must have even preceded cooking in clay gourds and basket weaving.

Marie-Claude alerted me to a temporary exhibition at the Louvre. There was newly restored bronze figure from the millennium before Christ, from an area that is now Yemen. I went to the Louvre that day. The museum is crowded now, like all major museums, the draw to treasure and to powerful representations is, I am sure, irresistible to present–day, image-worshiping materialists, but, on the other hand, any nation that has a respect for art as a cultural value is okay with me. My own country, by contrast, simply let Iraq’s aesthetic patrimony scatter to the four winds. Vietnam distrusts any but the most commercial Western culture--free-market propaganda--so it allows Stallone and Schwarzenegger but bans Durrenmatt.

To find L’Homme de Bronze, I had to ask the guards. The Louvre is a frustrating museum to find anything in, the signs are so discretely placed and so pale a color in relation to the marble walls, I kept losing my way, and there were other things I wanted to see. Finally a guard who was sitting amid some stone reliefs from Persepolis changing the band-aid on the heel of his foot pointed me to “Lawm Brun”.

Here was an index of the chief concerns in Marie-Claude’s work, the repeated patterning of the hair of the figure, a different pattern for the beard, the interweaving of the thick cord around his waist and the stylized, ordered folds of the garment that covered his lower torso and legs. The figure had a deep green patina, was dramatically lit and was displayed at a 45-degree angle. It was the kind of archaic personage that Josephsohn was attracted to: static; with naturalistic elements that were encoded in such a way that a kind of decorative improvisation was evident and made it very alive.

There are certain things that I can only see in museums, like Islamic pottery, and the Louvre had some beautiful examples. These bowls with simple dots, dashes and dribbles inspired early abstract paintings of mine, where I thought about how a painting is an object that holds paint and reflects light. These objects were my only artistic models for this idea; otherwise I was looking at things like fire hydrants and tugboats, painted things, not paintings. I also returned to look at the Etruscan figurative sculpture, which I found even stranger than when I was here last year, and was once again was more interesting because of the time I had spent around Josephsohn’s reclining figures. In both cases the reclining man or woman is whole, though appears to be a bunch of disparate elements cobbled together, barely adhering.

Then was the search for the Braque ceiling that I had read about in the biography. He executed it when he was seventy, climbing up a scaffold every day. Nicolas De Stael thought it was a failure. The guards gave me various locations and it took a good half-hour to track it down. There were five black birds surrounded by blue and white shapes, and/or the sky, in three different ovals--two pairs and a loner—framed by the ornate ceiling. I looked at them for a long time. There were a few stars in the background of the central pair of birds. I thought of how I would mention them when I saw Shirley Jaffe on Saturday, the Braque ceiling reminded me of her work. I then went to look at the Corots, an area of the museum that Jerome brought me to a few years ago. It is so easy to forget about Corot and he is so quietly good. Everyone always talks about Cezanne in relation to the invention of cubism but there is just as much Corot in cubism. And I love his sobriety, the earthiness of his touch with paint, the sleepy models, all the buildings and plains baked and bored by the sun. There was a show of his drawings there that was not interesting other than to demonstrate that he could draw, and I have no interest in the Corot of the poetic underbrush of Barbizon, but I love the plainness of his sunlit landscapes and women in costume holding jars. They look dull, but its such a good dull, an alive dull.

One late morning I was in Chaillot and ran into an old friend from New York, Nancy Jones, a writer, who also writes occasionally about art. We had a long lunch and I had my foie gras for the week, which I can still summon up the taste memory of as I write this. As it turned out, she has a very old friend who knew Martin Barré, who is perhaps the single most important French painter to me. She was supposed to meet this person--and perhaps, Barré’s widow--for dinner that evening and invited me. I changed some plans and went to her friend Ann Hindry’s apartment that evening. Both Leo Castelli and Clement Greenberg had courted Ms. Hindry and it was very easy to see why. She was now married to a Frenchman in the advertising business, whom I was told, knew everything about everything. I would have been happy to meet him too. I was shown around the apartment and looked at her two very nice Barré’s, her Kelly plant drawing and her Michaux painting and we went out to dinner. The widow, Mimi, as it turned out, was still in the South.

Barré, I learned, spent a great deal of time sitting in his café sipping Cotes de Rhone and chain-smoking. That is where one would meet him. It all sounds very Parisian, but there is nothing provincial about his work. It does sound like he was in his own world and somewhat helpless. I know the work well because I have every book on him and have read just about everything I could on him in English. Ann wrote the piece that was in the roundly ignored “As Painting” exhibition in Columbus, Ohio in ’99. His work moves along, through five decades, always quite preoccupied with an idea about painting that every so often produced a series built on what was learned in the previous one but radically different.

According to Ann, he was afraid to fly, he thought that he needed to buy a ticket for his own retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, and when a he was young man, he once wandered his usual way with his dog on the beach near his boyhood home in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and passed by a section of D-Day troops. The story goes that he came home and said, “Momma, there are men in khaki uniforms on the sand.” This sounds apocryphal. He wouldn’t ever say much, would be just as interested in Hollywood gossip as anything else, and would sometimes come out with the statement that he had an idea for a new series of paintings. Barré never showed the work to anyone until the entire series is finished. When it was, Ann would be invited for dinner, and afterward she and his wife and he would go to the studio with a bottle of Cognac and see the new series. No one would say anything.

I told Ann that I thought of him being the American equivalent of Ryman in the sense that what he did was a little too idiosyncratic to really provide a direction for painting, as important an artist as he was. She agreed on the hermetic part. I went to the Centre Pompidou and there were three Barré paintings from one of the last series in a room with a large Andre on the floor, three Ryman’s on the right wall and three Agnes Martins on the left. This was very close to my personal pantheon. It was a great room, though a little small for all of this work. The Barrés had pride of place, on the central wall, but all the paintings, unfortunately, had little stands and ropes in front of them to protect the delicate surfaces. The only other room nearly so glorious was a room devoted to Malevich. There was a big tondo down the end of the contemporary section that I thought was a large recent Howard Hodgkin but turned out to be a Katherina Grosse. She seems to have successfully stolen his fire.

Lunch that day was at the Ambassade d’Auvergne, where I always get a good meal. I had two lunches there, the first with Mick Finch, painter from England who has lived in France for about fifteen years. He speaks and reads French and he has read and understood a lot of the theory that is behind French painting of the last thirty years. I had been looking over his ‘studio notes’ that are on his website, He makes distinctions between Greenberg’s specificity of painting as being comprised of flatness and opticality, and describes the French alternative, the concept of the tableau and how “In a French context ‘thickness’ is privileged as the key specificity in painting”. Hubert Damisch: "Dubuffet… liked working in the thickness of the ground - I mean of the tableau - to reveal what is beneath: scratching the paper, incising and beating up substance, skinning it and whipping it up to reveal layers below… But what does that mean? …. Thickness here really does open up the possibilities for thinking through painting - the notion of work in relation to the surface adds up to an idea of excavation of the tableau as well as of the painting” Finch: the surface of painting, epistemologically and as the objet de connaissance, was to become for many French artists and particularly those associated with Supports/Surfaces.

Damisch's description of the working of this surface as a material entity in itself, throws into question the flatness of painting as being in itself a specific limit of the medium as well as an a priori condition. Greenberg's centering of specificity around flatness and the subsequent hyper-realization of the optical illusionism that he claimed was inherent to painting, shut down the possibilities of materially working painting in terms of surface as a 'thickness'. Supports/Surfaces in a restricted sense was a demonstration of just such possibilities where the material manipulation of the surface was seen as a site of inscription in painting that undermined ideas of ground and field that were at work in the USA.

Damisch's use of thickness throughout a number of texts from the early sixties on is accompanied by an oscillation of its relationship with painting and the wider term tableau. The use of tableau in lieu of painting is highly significant, as well as complex, in relationship to French critical thinking.”

We didn’t end up talking about the concept of the tableau very much but I heard more speculation about what is going on at Jean Fournier Gallery. Jean Fournier died about two years ago now, and the gallery remains open but its direction is unclear. Fournier was the outstanding figure in post-war French Abstraction. I remember I heard one story about him seeing the future of painting in the fragments of cut and colored paper that Matisse, in his final woks, had attached to pieces of cloth with safety pins. Fournier liked my work on paper enough in reproduction that he wanted to put them in show with James Bishop’s works on paper. Alas, it was not to be.

Mick was interested in the works of Aby Warburg that are appearing in English for the first time. Warburg’s research, he died in 1929, involved a lot of very contemporary ideas about high and low culture, interdisciplinary studies, and interestingly, the survival of antiquity in different cultures. Philippe-Alain Michaud of the Pompidou has written a book about Warburg for Zone Books and has curated two shows that I have seen, including Le Mouvement des Images, where the permanent collection was used to sort out a relation to filmic movement, and an earlier exhibition called Comme le reve, le dessin, that was also at the Louvre and attempted to explore the dream in relation to drawing and film, that I reviewed for the increasingly questionable Art on Paper magazine. The idea of the painted or drawn image and its interaction with film sequencing is an idea that I immediately am wary of, but may be something that is inevitable, i.e. looking into using sequences in my own work. The set lunch included saucisson on green beans and for dessert I had stewed rhubarb in a fresh mint broth that was quite lovely. I asked Mick if he would write something for

I began reading a copy of “In Cold Blood” the first night at Agathe’s and a few days later I picked up my own copy and it kept me company in the parks and on the metros. I had never read it and was impressed with how it was such a portrait gallery, how well the victims and the murderers were portrayed, how the one, Perry, was sensitive, interested in language and music and a psychopath. He was artistic, or had artistic leanings, as did the murdered daughter, Nancy Clutter. The book is about how mysterious humans are. Of course I read it because I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, but I think Capote never succeeded with another novel because his alcoholism caught up with him and ruined his capacity for extended effort. So there was this narrative plus Bryan Ferry’s version of “These Foolish Things” constantly running through my head as I criss-crossed Paris, keeping appointments and occasionally ducking into churches to look at windows during this week of beautiful weather.

One evening I finally did catch up with Jerome for dinner at his house with his wife Martine. They had stayed at my place in New York for part of my time in Cambodia and in Switzerland. He said something about the difference between French and American painting that I had not heard before, that the French tend to be artisanal and the American, industrial. In other words, the French tend to be preoccupied with how one goes about crafting a painting, or in my interpretation, what is it, and how does one go about beginning it? The Americans in how to produce it, what comes out of the work process, and how does one perpetuate production. It is a pretty simple explanation of why I like French painting more than American painting, The French way is easily more contemplative and philosophical and the American more illustrational and dynamic.

Shirley Jaffe had heard this distinction before, and seemed to respond to the idea with some impatience. She seems of two minds about French painting. She has participated in the Parisian painting dialogue for more than fifty years, has been in Paris since shortly after WWII, was a good friend of Joan Mitchell and Al Held and many others, including Janice Biala, and was one of the artists who showed at Jean Fournier. But I do think that she considers herself an American painter, because she is an American. Almost every time I am Paris I go to the studio and we get a meal. She doesn’t take her work out, though if a painting or a drawing is up, I can look at it. But she doesn’t offer to show me more, usually. I think this has to do with the first time I met her she blindsided me by asking me directly what I thought of her work and I said I hadn’t figured out what I thought, yet. And now that I know her, I still haven’t. But I think the work is maybe a bit like Josephsohn’s, in this time but not of it.

We have had discussions where we have clearly stated our differences: She makes paintings that attempt to include as many contradictory elements as possible and through the painting process wrestles them into a kind of joyful, but also ambiguous, order. She told me about how it is a way of controlling the chaos of life itself, by taking an overwhelming complexity and making something orderly and beautiful from it.

I, on the other hand, have come to see painting as a place that has nothing to do with life or me. It is a place totally removed from daily existence, with its own rules, its own traditions and its own order. I keep making paintings because there is something I am trying to figure out on its terms. I suppose the difference is between her struggle and my search. But we seem to get along. I was very happy when she saw my show in Paris a few years ago and approved and understood what I was doing.

The catalog of the exhibition that laid out the history of Jean Fournier gallery is in the museum bookstores, and seeing Shirley’s work in that context gave me a new perspective on it. She was showing with a bunch of strong, idiosyncratic painters and her paintings held their ground. She has taught me what tough paintings Riopelle was doing, and criticized me when I wrote that Al Held’s late paintings had landscape space in them. This time, we mostly caught up on people, and what I had seen. She had gone to see the Steve Parrino exhibition, and I was more curious what she thought about it than anyone else. She thought he almost had something there, but didn’t push it enough. Shirley is someone who has put her curiosity about where her work is going ahead of everything else in her life. I suspect I am more like this than I am willing to admit.

One of the more interesting spectacles this time was the projection of images of medieval sculptures on the covered scaffolding surrounding Eglise Ste. Paul. I often walk near Notre Dame late at night but the summer crowds were out late. I am usually here in the off-season when plane tickets are cheaper. I was happy on my final day to go to the obscure suburb of Gambetta to visit Gabriele Chiari, who I also want to include in “Paris on Paper”. I got lost and happened by the Place Edith Piaf before I retraced my steps and found her ground floor space.

Gabriele, who is from Austria, was a student of Bernard Piffaretti. She has been in Paris since she was at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts eight years ago. I had heard about the jobs she took, including one as a guide at the Palais de Tokyo. At present, she works in the north of the city with schoolchildren as a German tutor. I was sitting in her refurbished storefront studio for the first time, though I had been hearing about it over the last few years, since she bought it, cheaply. I had been thinking all week about moving to Paris. My time away has just about ended, and the question becomes what’s next? It was interesting that she told me she had no great attraction for Paris, she decided to come for school and then gradually decided to stay. These were the same reasons that Shirley originally gave, that she had come with her then-husband and then didn’t leave. It may have been the lowered expectations that made the difference.

So I ended my time there once again looking at work I admire and enjoying another meal. I looked a Gabriele’s new works on paper and felt the warm light come through the old frosted glass in this former shop on the Rue de Capitaine Marchal. I don’t know if I will ever live there but I will return.

Paris part I

August 7. My reading material for the train to Paris was “A Moveable Feast”. I had not read Hemingway in a very long time, maybe twenty-five years. His this-and-that-and-then-this-and-that rumbling style reminded me of Gertrude Stein which was curious because with Stein this method always smacks of domesticity, like a rolling pin going back and forth over a sentence like she is making a piecrust, but with Hemingway it becomes something different, not masculine per se but so strangely close you seem to smell his breath as you read. This may have to do with this particular book’s purpose, an evocation of a time and place that addresses the senses, and it is written in first person, but the underlying sadness is ingrained. It is harsh prose. I was surprised at how the language flowed but had the effect of making me feel like I was looking at some creature without skin.

I had attempted to read “A Farewell to Arms” in ’99 in Provincetown and had to put it down because I thought I was pretentious, and tried it again this past winter in Ho Chi Minh City, where I started reading a copy I had bought there and after forty pages I discovered that it was a faulty printing and the pages were hopelessly shuffled. After I finished “A Moveable Feast” I was in an English language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli stocking up on new paperbacks and was about to buy “A Farewell” again and stopped myself because I simply couldn’t take any more of Hemingway. I did not want my heart torn out again just yet and didn’t know that that was how the book had left me until that moment.

Arriving at the Gare de l’Est, I changed some money, shocked at how little the dollar is worth, and then bought a weeklong “Orange” pass for the metro, which I took to Felix Faure. I stopped at a boulangerie, purchasing a baguette and three little fruit tarts and headed to Jerome’s apartment where I was to have dinner with him and spend the first night. The last time I was in Paris was in May ’06. I have been visiting at least once a year since 2000. I felt myself ooze as I heard French spoken around me when the passengers got on the train in Strasbourg. I always seem to be happy in Paris, and was feeling contented as I walked to Jerome’s through his subdued quartier, my heavy bag over my shoulder, baked goods in each hand.

Jerome wasn’t home, and I went out to buy a telephone card and called him in between scouting the neighborhood for a place to eat and a hotel should the need arise. By about nine I went to a bistro called La Murmure. There were tables on the street and it was full of what would be called both an upscale and a neighborhood crowd in restaurant review parlance. I had steak frites, a meal that I had been anticipating for the past few days. It was good, but the frites were soggy rather than crisp, and I thought I might have picked the wrong place. Later in the week, I was informed that the frites issue was quite a controversy among Paris restaurant owners this summer. It seems that because of excess rain, the pomme de terre crop was holding more water and though the potatoes were quite good they did not crisp well. There was discussion as to whether frozen potatoes should be used to satisfy the tourists, and most decided to go with the fresh.

By ten Jerome had not returned. I called France, the wife of Guillaume Lebelle, a painter I was going to meet who had lent me his apartment as they were staying in Montmartre, in a studio at the Bateau Lavoir for two months. I was supposed to meet them the next night, but decided to try them rather than spring for a hotel and cut into my restaurant money. I met France at the Place de Clichy and we climbed up the steep stairs and narrow streets to Agathe’s, Guillaume’s sister’s place, also in Montmartre, on the Avenue Junot. I was to stay there for the night. So, I calmly spent the latter part of the evening with three people I had not met before, other than the introductions that had been made previously by our respective work. I had seen Guillaume’s at an exhibition at Jean Fournier gallery a few years previous. He had seen mine, indirectly, when Agathe, who has a boyfriend in New York, had picked up my catalog when she was there over Christmas. I sat and watched them eat a late dinner in the small apartment as we got acquainted. We split up the tarts I bought for dessert. I worried a bit about Jerome, who, as I discovered the next day, had an important appointment and had forgotten about me. He arrived home shortly after ten and had been calling all over town looking for me.

The following morning I went out to find a café. I had spent very little time on the butte; I could see why painters were drawn to the light on this highest point in Paris. Later I met France and Guillaume at their apartment down the far side of Montmartre in the 18th arrondisement. The neighborhood still had its working class aspects but it was heading towards the higher end of the market like everywhere else. The friendly, cluttered ground floor flat was in an older building on the Rue Belliard, a few doors down from a famous Art Nouveau apartment building noted for its facade of bold, decorative tile work. Designed by the architect Henri Deneux, it was completed in 1913. Interestingly, Deneux was primarily an expert on historical restoration, mostly churches, including the timber roof and interior of the cathedral at Rheims that the Germans nearly destroyed in WWI. This superficially ugly building becomes serious and exquisite after a few minutes. It is the only structure credited to Deneux.

On the other side of the Rue Belliard is the remains of a below ground railroad track that encircled the city in the 19th century before the metro was built. I remember seeing traces of it in Pierrette Bloch’s neighborhood at the other end of town, the bottom of Montparnasse. Whenever I get to the far reaches of the city I note the massiveness of Baron Haussman’s project. It was visible from the vantage point of this neighborhood in how he built around the base of Montmartre and did not attempt to run apartment buildings and boulevards up the steep hills.

The city had also initiated a bicycle program, where near every metro station there was a collection of clunky gray bicycles that rented for a Euro an hour. Less than an hour was free, one had to simply return them to any of the many new bicycle depots that had been installed around the city. I never could get my credit card to work in the automatic rental kiosk and spent most of the week mildly jealous of the carefree souls I saw everywhere scooting around Paris on my preferred mode of transportation.

The Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which I had not visited since it reopened after refurbishment, did not look a bit different, which is probably a good thing. It is a thoroughly French collection—often sober and cerebral, sometimes emotionally direct, usually physical, occasionally unbearably witty--and one of my favorites, as much for its sparsity as for what is in it: Braque, Fautrier, Sonia and Robert Delauney, Hantai (a roomful), Viallat, Martin Barre. There is a permanent installation in an odd-shaped room by Niele Toroni that looked like Islamic patterning. I particularly wanted to see the Braques, I had just read the biography that is very good but has an awful cover with gold lettering and a cubist portrait of him by Picasso that seems wildly appropriate. Downstairs I was very happy to find nearly an entire room devoted to the work of Pierrette Bloch. There were three very long strips of mounted paper with splotchy black marks and three framed drawings that collected rows of dots like carefully laid stone walls.

I had already heard about an interview with John Cheim in The Journal des Arts; it came up again and again whenever I talked to Parisian artists. Apparently he was asked why Americans do not respond to French painting and John replied that they seemed to consider it “too decorative”. True enough, I suppose but he was making an approximation of what an American art audience thinks. I suppose that a workable distinction between modernism and post-modernism is that the former’s audience was the ideal viewer while the latter’s audience was the mass, uninformed viewer, where the work of art either manipulates them through undermining a given familiarity with mass culture or with verifiable responses.

There is plenty of French art that does this, and does it well, but I come to France to see work that combines economy and visual delight with a degree of thoughtfulness that I don’t find anywhere else. I would have said that American art audiences are accustomed to being entertained by art but their vanity must also be reassured by being told that what they are looking at something that is transgressive or disruptive in some way, as long as they are not specifically told what it is. Also those American art audiences like to see some actual work. You know--elbow grease, or they think they are being fooled, which explains the immense popularity of Chuck Close, the Williamsburg school, and John Currin. But you have to do some thinking and feeling to become involved with French work and most Americans associate that with pain and that makes for a big problem.

My first appointment was with Bernard Piffaretti. I went to his studio in the 10th, a busy immigrant neighborhood near the Canal St. Martin. It’s quiet once you go through the courtyard to his ground floor studio that always seems to have winter light. I have visited him any number of times and I think he is the single most important French painter of his generation. He was rolling up paintings that were to be shipped to the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, where Matisse was born, in the north, and Bernard was going to show 20 paintings accompanied by his choice of 20 Matisse quotations. He also had a show up in MAMCO in Geneva that I am to see in a few weeks and was working on a proposal for an extensive stained glass commission. I keep hearing about these commissions in France, but they do not come up that often in the US. I remember Al Held was working on one when I had visited him about a year or so before he died.

The next days were what has become the usual week in Paris, studio and museum visits and lunches and dinners with artists. It has become a very important part of my artistic life. Alix Le Meleder’s studio is in Tolbiac. My French is close to nonexistent as is her English, but the puts the paintings up one after another and I look at them for a while and say “Beautiful” after each one. She works in this studio all day, every day but Sunday. Painting to painting the work changes very slowly. There is a schoolyard or playground behind the studio and there are noises of children playing all day every day. I asked her once if the noise bothered her and she said, “Non.”

Paintings in two sizes are stacked deeply in the studio and there is only thin corridor between them to squeeze through to get to the painting area. The paintings are dominated by a red color though there are many colors if you look closely. She liked the review I wrote about her work so much that I am given a small painting, which she wraps for me and I say merci and goodbye until next time.

I met Guillaume Lebelle at the Palais de Tokyo where there is an exhibition of the late Steve Parrino’s work, an artist who was a big influence on me and I have also written about. Actually, he became an influence on me as I wrote about the work, I kept thinking, “Physical, yes, physical.” Parrino is kind of a proto-punk support/surface artist, and I remember his dealer telling me that “somebody had to play out the Greenberg card so Steve chose to do it”, but I think that the work is bigger than any stylistic move, or strategy. For all of its mimetic violence and shiny black gloss there is very little irony or rhetoric. Also, there is not an excess of work or any falsity. It is not about production, he thinks through every move. I really liked being around it; Guillaume seemed to like the drawings.

That night we went to dinner in Montmartre with France and Agathe and I had tete de veau, one of the dishes I have had in a long time, another reason why I keep coming here. I have been looking at Guillaume’s paintings in three different locations, the apartment I am staying in, in his large temporary studio in the Bateau Lavoir and in his winter studio about a block from his apartment, the second floor of a woodworker’s shop around the corner form the Rue Belliard. This small structure looks as if it was originally agrarian and must date from when the area was still the countryside. I do not know whether this aspect of Paris is so enticing because it just is or because there have been so many good paintings made of it that told us how to look at it. When I first came to Switzerland, many of the innocuous rural landscapes with mists and bans looked like Gerhard Richter’s landscape paintings. I cannot disregard Richter because he tells us how Europe looks at present; he is like reading Sebald, the historical consciousness seeps in everywhere. Tuymans figured out how to foreground the historical over the photo-representation, a way out of Richter, but now where to go?

It is not my concern; I am still looking at painting as painting. Jerome came with me to Guillaume’s studios. He is a very good painter; he has, from my point of view, not enough analysis going on, and does not edit himself or focus on one aspect of his work, so that the paintings sometimes contradict one another. But there are things that he does that I do not see anywhere else and it made the time spent of value.

July 29

In the new Braque biography there is a wonderful passage that tells how whenever Picasso visited Douglas Cooper at Cooper’s house in the French countryside, the Chateau de Castille, he would go to the bedroom and stare at Braque’s “Studio VIII” over the bed. Asked what he thought, he would only mutter to himself, “Don’t understand. Don’t understand”. I do not remember this in John Richardson’s book about his early post-war years with Douglas Cooper, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, but I do remember the part where Picasso comes to dinner at Cooper’s and takes out the fish bone during supper and plays it like a weird musical instrument on the side of his plate. God, he sounds like a pain in the ass.

The book repeats Braque’s well-known put-down of Picasso that he used to be a good painter and now he is “merely a genius.” Braque has all my sympathy. There is talk in the book about the French term, ‘metier’ that I believe has to do with one serving one’s trade. In painting terms, this would mean being interested in the craft of painting, not in a subservient way, but not to suborn it to one’s ego. This is what is going on in the world of art, that all is being suborned to a concept, on one hand, or to one’s ego, on the other.

I went to see David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” a few nights ago and was taken with how he was present in every frame of the film. I have been reading “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things” by Gilbert Sorrentino, where the presence of the author, a very fictive presence, keeps busting into the narrative so you think that a story is not actually being told, though it does move along, and the film does the same thing, there is actually a story taking place but most of the movie consists of the character walking around inside of the narrative, finding holes and alleyways in it. The point being that Lynch has his métier, he is a craftsman as interested in his medium as in his ego.

I have rejected most of the work I have done here except for a small painting and a very big one that has an interesting chastity, I don’t know how else to describe it. It must come from looking inside these churches and from looking at all the Swiss hard-edged painters.

I like the fact that Braque treated Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s wife, like a fellow-painter.

“Say to yourselves: I am going to work in order to see myself and free myself. While working and in the work I must be on the alert to see myself. When I see myself in the work I will know that is the work I am supposed to do. I will not have much time for other people’s problems. I will have to be by myself almost all the time and it will be a quiet life.” Agnes Martin

July 28, Saturday. I am going to Paris for two weeks on Monday. I fell in love with someone the first time I was there. Almost twenty-five years ago, I hope that I don’t feel compelled to go into that one, too. I have been living partially in the strong memories of the time when I was in eighth grade, maybe it has to do with the beginning of adolescence. It so happens that I have access to a library of Beatles recordings on my computer and have been playing them, especially the early stuff, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” up to the Rubber Soul album. The two things that stand out is how they are all some kind of love song and how stirring they are, and what an amazing singer John Lennon is. Another memory that continually seems to entwine itself around the others at every turn is my father’ incessant criticality, I don’t know how I survived it.

On my paper route, I delivered about 35 Daily News, 6 or 7 New York Times and about as many Herald Tribunes. The Tribune’s Sunday magazine was “New York” that spun off into a separate entity later in the decade after the paper folded. It already had a lot of the important writers of that era publishing in it, and it was where I first found out about Andy Warhol, Pop art, happenings, and experimental film and theatre, everything that was going on across the bay in Manhattan.

What must have happened that year was I found out that someone that was attracted to me could be someone that I wanted to be attracted to, and on a different track, I must have decided in some unconscious way to be an artist, that is, I decided that to be interested in what I was interested in was all right. It doesn’t mean that I immediately accepted it, but that time may have been a where the tipping point was reached.

The previous year my mother took me to Manhattan to the Museum of Modern Art and to the Met. A public school friend from a few doors away came along. He was from Greece and had come over with his parents and older sister when he was young, but still had the trace of an accent. We dressed in our black raincoats and orlon sweaters, our open collared button-down shirts with dickies tucked in around our necks, and combed our hair down on our foreheads, feeling sophisticated. I remember very little about our time in the museums, except that my friend took the large paintings of nudes at the Met more in stride than I did, I had to make some silly jokes. What I do remember is standing in front of the museum and seeing two boys around our age looking over at us, with derision in their eyes. I looked them over, and was able to see for the first time, that one could get a real modish haircut, not a standard shaved around the ears one that you altered later, and that they were wearing better quality raincoats, and shoes, and sweaters. These two kids, probably from that neighborhood on the Upper East Side, were looking at what we had put together from Korvettes. I could feel the clothes on me cheapen. Who knows if they had ever seen anything like us. I had never seen anything like them before, or had any idea that the world had such things to offer. I was outclassed, quite literally, and I never forgot it.

“Europe was the great American sedative” Henry James

“Traditional attitudes towards the natural environment make Indians, like the Japanese, more disposed then Americans to pursue happiness modestly.”
Pankaj Mishra

“The life of an artist is inspired, self-sufficient, and independent (unrelated to society).
The direction of attention of an artist is towards mind in order to be aware of inspiration.
Following inspiration life unfolds free of any influence.
Finally the artist recognizes himself in the work and is happy and contented. Nothing else will satisfy him.
An artist’s life is an unconventional life. It leads away from the example of the past.
It struggles painfully against its own conditioning. It appears to rebel but in reality it is an inspired way of life.”
Agnes Martin

July 26. I have been on the verge of meeting the local world-class artist Roman Signer who is from Appenzell, where I am told that up until recently only men voted--by raising their swords in the town square--who has a big house in St. Gallen. I can’t receive phone calls, so when he had to cancel our last appointment, he drove up here to leave the message that we would have to reschedule. I found his house on the way back from the ponds one day.

The mid-summer quiet of this small city keeps bringing me back to life on Staten Island at the time when I was at the end of grade school. It is as different here from that place as it could possibly be, but it’s like riding through a cleaned-up memory of it, without the bad air from Bayonne, the enormous swaths of tinderstick houses and thick, invisible blanket of sexual repression. The ponds, like the swim club on Staten Island, is dominated by children and adolescents—the former making noise and the latter engaging in their first social and mating games. I actually pass by a public pool that is more like the place I went to--packed with people and deafeningly loud—but I prefer to remember it as bucolic, like that time in my life that was anything but that, except internally and in retrospect. The houses are bigger and older here, as are the trees, and the emotional war that began in my childhood and adolescence so long ago has ended.

The summer that “Satisfaction” was number one on the charts and was played once an hour on WMCA radio, I was 12 years old and had been noticing girls for over a year. It seemed that I went from a desire for toys and playing army to an interest in sweaters and records overnight, the next maturation of significance didn’t take place for another thirty years, when one day I could no longer abide rock and roll and figurative painting, remarkably similar, that. But that is another story.

I worked for my fathers’ construction company on Fridays that summer, but it did not overwhelm my time at the pool, where I would sometimes talk to the girls that were in the other class in my school, St. Clare’s, where the grades were segregated by sex. We would, a few male friends and I, make forays to where the girls hung out and make shy and bold conversation.

I have always found it easier to talk to girls, now women; this is where that began. With the girls I could talk about the Beatles and the Stones, and they showed me their pictures, taken with brownie cameras, of the Beatles at Shea Stadium the previous summer--little blurry specks on a fuzzy field. I had to talk about the Yankees and the Mets, of which I had no interest with the boys. An attraction developed with one of girls. At this time and place this mostly consisted of hearing from the others, when she wasn’t around that Chris, that was her name, liked me. The visits to their area of blankets and folding chairs began to have a heightened quality because of her presence. I remember that Chris had pale blue-gray eyes and blond hair that was cut just above her shoulders, and she was good at letting it fall over one eye, in the Mod way. She had pale white skin (was this possible, in the pre-skin-cancer-conscious age of the deep tan?) and long legs. She wasn’t tall.

Staten Island was overwhelmingly Catholic and there were six children in her family, not unusual. I remember her having to take care of a younger sibling, sometimes. I don’t remember her mother. Her father was one of those men who went up and down the aisles of St. Clare’s during Sunday Mass and took up the collection, shooting a wicker basket attached to a long pole down in between the benches through row after row of seated parishioners. I seem to remember graying temples and an out-of-date suit. I don’t think he was a fireman or a policeman, as were about half the fathers of members of my class--a father seemed to die in a fire almost once year, the surviving family’s picture would appear on the front page of the Daily News—he was probably a white collar worker in lower Manhattan. A good many from Staten Island died on 9/11. But this was long before that,when the tip of the island was made up of stone buildings, one stared at a cliff full of windows arriving on the ferry, and the Beatles took the train from the still extant Pennsylvania Station to Washington on their first American tour.

Chris once said, “My father is very handsome,” defiantly. We hardly ever spent a moment alone, but there was something about the admiring energy between us that was new to me. And she was new to me. Where did this person come from? I guess this is what is meant by ”noticing”. We were not, in this clique, completely unsophisticated. We were already cynical and pessimistic. This was probably a part of the Catholic education of that time where one spent eight years with nuns who knocked you down over and over if not physically then by reinforcing the idea that you shouldn’t think too much of yourself. This was internalized into not being too impressed with anything. This is an exultant, traditional Staten Island attitude, accompanied, oddly, by a warm cordiality that is perhaps a result of a life spent running from christenings to weddings to funerals.

There was one point that summer where Chris got interested in someone else, someone from public school that was, in fact, a friend of mine. I remember looking across the crowd at an open-air party at the swim club one Saturday and seeing her looking up at him and being all absorbed attention. I was warned about it, but there was still the shock of it, like a hunger pang with humiliation attached, heartache.
Within a short time, it must have been long summer, she had lost interest in O’Brien--that was his name--and I was rewarded with her attention again.

That fall St. Clare’s changed its policy and made the classes co-ed. Chris was assigned to the other eighth grade, but I would see her in the schoolyard. At one point she said to me, “I like you” and I was floored by the directness of it, we were all habitual ironists, (I had a black raincoat and being that I was Joseph I called it my “coat of many colors”) I managed to say something like. “I feel that way about you too.” But I could never get her to meet me anywhere, not for sex or anything, we were nowhere near that, but for time to be with only her. I would drop hints about when I would be at the public library but she never showed up.

I would go home after school and be with my neighborhood friends who went to public school, by seventh grade they were in junior high where classes changed all day. They would talk about what girl they know “gives” and what they “got off” their girlfriend, and would want to know if I got anything off mine. I was getting information that was of absolutely no use to me in my crowd of that moment. In late November Pope Paul VI made a visit to NYC and all of the students in the catholic schools of the diocese were instructed to go to Central Park and line the roadways that his motorcade would pass through and we would get blessed.

Chris had on a green tam and a matching coat that day. Her blond hair stood out against it. I was next to her on the rope line and put my artificial-leather-gloved hand over her knitted wool-gloved-hand and she did not take it away. One of the nuns saw us and glared at us.

Then Christmas came and in January I got pneumonia. I read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and every book the library had about nuclear war. The Young Rascals “Good Lovin’” went to number one. I missed a lot of school. When I returned Chris was interested in someone else, her hair was longer and even blonder and she had a dark red hat and a matching coat. I remember seeing her as if at a great distance. At night, under the covers, with radio I would think of her when Nino Tempo and April Stevens version of “Stardust” played on my transistor radio. I had no way of identifying what the feelings were that I was having. I did not know or want to talk about it to anyone. But I remember watching her for the rest of that year. We never spoke very much after that.

My family moved away at the end of that school year and half a lifetime went by until I was in the Adirondacks, a place that I knew since early childhood, a few summers past and I woke up with the most vivid memories of Chris, the flood of feeling was so strong I had to tell D., who was next to me, that something very strange was happening. For that day and the next I was possessed by vivid memories of her, I was speechless. I went over the past and considered that I must have been in love with her and had never “processed” the feelings.

I speculated that the nun must have thought that there was something unhealthily serious going on. There was no one else in the class that had been paired off, at least in the way we seemed to be, and maybe Chris was told to stop paying attention to me. Maybe she just went away. Distant memories become stronger as short-term memory gets weaker in old age, which I am not in yet, and this incident in the Adirondacks was isolated. A few days later I spent a lot of time searching for her online--one really expects this magic box to turn up everything--but I couldn’t find any references. Not that I would contact her. After a few days the whole thing faded, like it was a virus.

Sunday July 22. Pay particular attention to the things that you hate, they most likely contain ideas that you are almost ready to accept. Ten years ago I read some of Alan Bennett’s diaries and couldn’t stand them or him, now I am doing something similar. Then again, I didn’t like his attitude; he was too good at making withering observations on the pretentiousness of some figure that you happened to like. Two, I remember, were at the expense of Philip Larkin, describing his self-sequester as a librarian in the provincial town of Hull reminding him of the Monty Python sketch where Greta Garbo would ride through residential neighborhoods in an open car with a bullhorn exclaiming “I want to be alone.” Or another one where he said that Larkin has gotten more spiritual points for living in Hull than Dr. Albert Schweitzer ever got for living in the Congo. Very, very funny.

This is another attribute that my father had, cruel cutting remarks that were undeniably hilarious. He could tell you something about yourself that was brutally undermining, but it was so funny that you would be crying from its humor and humiliated at the same time. It’s a quality--if it can be called that, sarcasm is actually a form of anger, I have learned—that I could use if anyone would let me. English writers often snipe at each other but New York artists act like a bunch of lawyers these days, so careful and kind around one another. As it is I try to keep my mouth shut and smile but I am no good at it. I am in a business that has a strong social element and it is to my disadvantage that I play it so reluctantly. The old man ran his own construction business. He could shoot his mouth off to anyone and it didn’t make a lot of difference as long as the bid came in low enough. But what I do involves a lot of politics and I can’t get myself to do anything I don’t want to do and I am stuck with me.

I rode my bike through the very quiet Sunday atmosphere in St. Gallen, and after I stopped at the pond and did more laps than usual I went further across the mountain above the town where Sunday walkers--couples, children—were strolling through the woods and walking along the trails that reveal the panorama of the Canton with Lake Constance in the distance and the Austrian hills beyond. Further on was a vast 17th century mansion with a windily bowing roof and a long row of tiny dormers, nearby, of course, was a little restaurant in exactly the right place where people had ice cream or wine and looked at the view.

I feel a bit like the character played by Sylvia Miles in the film “White Mischief” about the decadent Happy Valley English in Kenya. She would get up and take a shot of heroin and look at the gorgeous landscape before her and say “Another goddamned beautiful day.” This temporary dip in mood may be because there has been some news.

Josephsohn has good days and bad days I am told. And just a few weeks ago he was sitting across from me dining alfresco.

I got an email from Gallery Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. Quynh has spent the past four months renovating and then re-renovating their new quarters in a former furniture warehouse near the French consulate. The site is now, suddenly, scheduled for demolition next month. This is how it goes there, where there is no transparency in government, no understandings in how to run businesses, and no right to recourse, to demand one’s rights in a courtroom for breach of contract. The landlord probably just wanted to keep the rent going as long as possible and either didn’t know or held back the information on the property.

Watching Ozu’s “Record of a Tenement gentleman” the scenes of Japan after the war made me miss Asia, already! It is about a woman who takes in a stray young boy. The boy wets the bed and the woman has to hang her old futon on the line to dry it out. It was the most inspiring object I have seen since I left Phnom Penh.

My girlfriend has emailed me that she does not want to continue. There have been backs and forths for weeks and I knew something was up but I was waiting for it actually to be stated. One needs that, to hear it. She was supposed to come over the beginning of August but that’s it. This is the end of a long relationship that has been sporadic at best for three years or so but very steady for the five before. We only recently attempted to try it again. We never really seemed to get along during the long period we went on. It was a constantly frustrating, puzzling situation. I had the best evening in the studio I had had in a while after I got the email.