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.”
“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.”
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.