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.