I have a new pastime where I take a chair at six and sit by the river right behind the studio. It doesn’t get fully dark here until ten PM. It’s an obscure view but not a bad spot to read. I cannot stay up at the ponds where I swim for too long and read there because it’s too distracting and noisy. The river spot is for reading harder things: philosophy, theory, James. I try to make it to the river. I take my bike every day with sun to the ponds.
And I have stopped indulging myself in every available gelato, croissant, torte, and chocolate bar I cross and concentrate on the cherries, raspberries, peaches, charcroute rouge, fresh fish and vegetables that are widely available. With the exception of the place I was taken for dinner on my birthday, prepared food here is very good but undistinguished. The ingredients are great, though, the cheeses, yogurts, etc. They have the hardest working cows in the business. Their contentment seems to seep into the culture, it’s like all the edges have been rounded off of things here, I feel like I am in a retirement village, that I haven’t taken off my pajamas since I got off the plane.
After I have gotten something done in the studio I don’t go near it for days. I keep spending time in there, but I hardly touch anything. I go through these work cycles where I can’t get anything done that works, and spend much of the time looking at things that I don’t like and eventually reject. When something comes along that I don’t reject I take lots of time looking at it half expecting it to turn bad, which it often does. If it stays good I don’t seem to want to disturb anything in the studio for a while. Perhaps I am afraid that I will wake it up and it will get angry and make me unhappy, like it’s a sleeping father on a Sunday carpet.
I just finished reading a contemporary novel called “The Welsh Girl” by Peter Ho Davies. I had seen a capsule review in The New Yorker and noted it. I don’t know why. Then as the English bookstore in Zurich was closing, everything is always closing before you expect it to here, I grabbed a copy of it that was displayed because I needed something to read on the train. I read it more slowly than I expected to and though I will most likely not keep it, I hardly ever hold on to fiction after it’s finished, I felt an admiration for the writing.
It took place almost entirely in a small town in Wales during World War Two and switched off chapter by chapter between two characters, with a third occupying mostly the prologue and epilogue. The prose was calm, clear and almost colorlessly transparent. Certain contemporary observations were made about war, racism, language, and at one point I felt that it was a little too confidently film-ready. If there was feeling, sex, violence, anger, it was dealt with factually as it turned up. This was perhaps because the narrative was always conducted through the interior of one of the three characters each that had no one to talk to about what they were going through. Of the secondary characters there was one who seemed a device for comic relief but he deepened as the story progressed and was one of the minor surprises. The writing had no distinguishable style, it held so close to the story and its characters. It also gave Rudolph Hess a few cameo performances, which I suppose was something of an accomplishment. What I came away with was a sense of satisfaction that was very different from being impressed.
The book was not an experience so much as it was a fully and quietly articulated place.
I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds
of the world
And I notice in myself a distaste
For the monkeyish dress, the screams and the
--from “Eyes” Czeslaw Milosz
“Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.
It is not man’s lapse into luxurious indolence that is to be feared, but the savage spread of the social under the mask of universal nature, the collective as a blind fury of activity.”
Minima Moralia, 156 Theodor Adorno
Wednesday, July 18. It has been sunny and warm and my journal writing hours have been replaced by time spent taking my bicycle up through the small city into the hills beyond where I swim. The spring and stream-fed water was noticeably cold, and from it I am getting a cold again, or at least cold symptoms. But I can’t stop myself from going every day. I measure how good my summer is by how often I get in the water. I mentioned this to one of the Sitterwerk people and she said, “Well. I guess an excellent summer is when you are sick of swimming.” I don’t exactly understand local humor.
I had a dream last night that my Josephsohn piece that I have worked on endlessly was being replaced by a short review by someone else, an American sculptor who doesn’t write. I found out about it when the news was delivered to him while I was bent over tying my shoe and the editor didn’t see me. The dream woke me and I got up from bed and emailed the editor to see how the piece was going. The Armleder is much easier, and has been almost fun to write.
I had lunch with an American, Mark Brandl, another painter who also writes about art. He has lived in St. Gallen for a number of years and he said that the jail Armleder was put in for being a pacifist was like an institutional hotel and he sat around on Ikea furniture and made drawings. “It wasn’t like being in prison in Texas.” We sat in an outdoor restaurant in a plaza that was the center of a new bank complex. There was a competition, and two Swiss artists, Pippolotti Rist and Olivier Mosset, got commissions to do projects, Rist covered the area with a red rubber carpet, some that formed outdoor couches (it is certainly the lounge era, another idea that does not interest me) and suspended some white abstracted egg shaped spheres overhead.
The facade of the most interesting building, (that looks a little like Markli, but I have been unable to find out who it is,) is cast concrete broken up by windows framed in wood, a brutalist technique, a counterbalance of materials that Louis Kahn was fond of. There are grill insets between the windows; Mosset’s solution was to vary the patterns of perforations and used every Mercedes color available for the painted metal. I have been back to admire the building a number of times.
Going through the library shelves shortly after I arrived I came across two books on the painter Ferdinand Gehr, who was a Catholic and did a lot of work in churches around this part of Switzerland. The paintings in the book looked very good, early on, in the thirties he was quite the modernist, painterly bright colors and no shading, flat shapes, some almost Etruscan-looking decorative touches. He was a friend of the Arps; Jean owns some of his work. I saw several of his paintings in the St. Gallen Kunstmuseum today. Earlier in the week I went to a church in St. Georges, a small town up the mountainside from St. Gallen where I swim, to see Gehr’s work there, which I heard about from Brigitte Schmid, who interviewed me for the newspaper. Gehr, who died in ’96 at 100, (I remember when I mentioned him to Josephsohn he said, “I want thirteen more years, too.”) apparently did all the church decoration in several styles.
The side walls are frescoes done in a Puvis-type naturalism in powdery colors, the wall behind the altar is neo-cubist, with figuration towards the middle and a sandy, liturgical abstract pattern for most of the rest, in endless subtle variety, and then there are the stained glass windows, the best modern figuration in stained glass I have yet to see. But these damn churches are creepy. Something from my youth makes me very uncomfortable in them. I did not spend many happy hours in Catholic churches. But I am still surprised when this reaction takes place.
And I have been looking at a few Brice Marden books, drawings, mostly, and workbooks. I have always seen all his work and have a few books on him but have been wary for a lot of reasons, being so artistic, for one, though Jake Berthot is like that, too. But what ultimately gave me pause was that he was incredibly good but too uptight, I thought. I just did not think he came up to, say, Sigmar Polke or Per Kirkeby or George Baselitz, or Markus Lupertz or Claude Viallat or Howard Hodgkin, his European contemporaries who were less constrained, less afraid of materiality. Now is there a European who has reconciled painting and minimalism as good as Marden? Federle, he’s the same generation, maybe a touch younger. And, of course, Palermo, nobody’s as good as Palermo.
So I am going to have to go to Berlin and see this Marden show because I was in Vietnam when it was at the Modern, and he has gotten under my skin and is helping me do my work here because I have discovered what he does: he locates a problem for himself and then tries to get out of the tight spot that it is. I have been moving so slowly here, there are only two paintings after five weeks that I am at all happy with and one drawing, maybe two if the one I am working on holds up. If nothing else, Marden’s work speaks to the person working in his studio, the work is about the nature of working, among other things. It’s like the way Leonard Cohen writes songs that are so conscious of the activity of writing songs. And you can feel the work behind the words, or, more accurately, the pleasure in experiencing the crafting process.
Saturday, July 14. Bastille Day. It has mostly been raining for three weeks except for the weekend I had in Basel. I have moving my computer over to the library building to write about John Armleder, putting in two hours a day, treating it like a job, which it is, though my admiration for the work is increasing. I was in Zurich yesterday talking to one of his gallerists, Susanna Kulli, who said that he has amazing energy and concentration, and treats everyone the same, whether an assistant or museum curator, “everyone likes him, and it is how he has been able to get so much accomplished.” This is a talent that I have heard much about in reference to contemporary artists, being people persons. In interviews he talks about being shy and sensitive, and was surprised that he had spent seven months in prison for avoiding Swiss draft conscription.
But I also remember Shirley Jaffe talking about being in Paris in the 1950’s and witnessing an art movement that a group of painters and critics dominated and everyone took it for granted that they were the important artists of the era. “And now”, she said, they are all gone, nobody’s heard of them. Not that I think he is just a passing thing, how do I know? I have no claims on having an overview or of even really understanding the nature of contemporary experience.