Returned from three nights in Basel yesterday. The city depends on visitors for its trade fairs and museums and is a destination for business and cultural tourism. In this regard, it even has a central agency for booking Bed & Breakfasts which I took advantage of, arranging one eight days previous. A thick envelope arrived a few days before I left for Basel with the contract for my two night stay, a map of the city and a free pass for all public transportation, which is given to all visitors when they book a room in the city. I walked through a working class neighborhood near the train station and as I approached a large park, turned left onto a shaded tree-lined street and found the address. I walked through a drive that went under a park-front apartment house from early last century and into an open car park, there was a two story U-shaped building behind, 145 Gundelingstrasse. I went up flight of stairs and greeted Mrs. Tschudi, a woman in her late sixties. I was shown the bedroom that appeared untouched from when an adolescent, artistic daughter had been in residence, and lay down for a nap. As quiet as it was in the neighborhood, under the large old trees and flowerboxes, Mrs. Tschudi first engaged in a rather loud conversation in German with her cat outside my window and then answered the telephone and spent about twenty minutes speaking at the same volume. I gave up on the idea of taking a nap, but beyond that, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a territoriality being established, that I was being told that even though I was a paying guest, she was going to go about her house audibly in charge. I wondered how old the daughter was now and how often she visited, and thought about the early mornings of my adolescence when my father would noisily begin his day with the radio at high volume, long before his children needed to get up for school. It was a clear message that we were not to be taken into consideration, because if we were, it would amount to some kind of capitulation. I thought there might be something of this, some kind of resentment, attached to Mrs. Tschudi’s behavior. My own history with my father’s authoritarianism made witnessing the Vietnamese government’s manipulation and repression of its artists particularly painful and sad. The personal is political and vice versa.
I was supposed to meet the artist Daniel Gottin at the B&B at two but with no nap coming on, I changed plans. As I got up and ready to go out, Mrs. Tschudi got off the telephone, so I used it and called him to set an earlier time. We met by the train station and walked to an outdoor restaurant behind the Kunsthalle, where I had Vitello Tonnato under the generously spreading black limbs of the large old trees. We later went to his studio. Enroute, he showed what was to be the single most valuable thing I saw in Basel, St. Antonius church, a modern cast concrete building, rather brutalist and ahead of its time (c.1925) with a tower as tall as that of the Munster, city’s preeminent cathedral. We had drinks overlooking the Rhine, where a lone swimmer was pulled along downstream by the swift blue current. Minutes later she walked up past us, soaking. She was about Mrs. Tschudi’s age and appeared to do this every day.
Later, I met Felix and Heidi. I had heard about European people like this, i.e. intelligent, educated, haute-bourgeois or maybe just comfortably well-off professional/business people with genuine love of what is now called high culture. We sat in their large, lush garden behind their modest house, probably a few hundred years old but simultaneously modern, and had a few snacks and then Felix took me through the house and began to describe the meanings of the art they had taken possession of. He had very clear things to say about each, and also described where and why it was placed where it was. I had given them my catalog shortly after I arrived and Heidi had later mentioned one painting that she thought I would particularly like. At dinner I learned that she was a social worker and he studied law but had spent his life in the insurance business and was now retired and on the board of the company. He had a range of interests, including philosophy and astronomy.
The part about the insurance company explained how clearly he spoke, and how he would always meet my eye and wait for silence before he spoke, and did so most seriously and intently, just like an insurance man. The lecture continued after dinner, as we went through the rest of the collection, and my reservations about the whole odd (to me) event gave way and I came to feel that it was an honor to listen to him and would be to be in the collection.
The collection leaned towards monochromes and they had the inevitable Marioni. There was a terrific Rudolph De Crignis, a really lovely blue square, and Heidi was right, I liked Pierre-Andre Ferrand, they owned two of his paintings, one had a small square of unprimed jute with hole in it. The stretcher was carved or milled on a special form so that it bowed top and bottom. It made the center of the support slightly concave. Ferrand lives in Geneva and Krakow and is a devout Catholic. The hole in the painting signifies the wound in Christ’s side from the crucifixion. They gave me his catalog, which contains an essay about a Russian philosopher living in Germany who explains modern painting in terms of the Passion of Christ, all painting was one painting, put through torture, scratched, cut-up, singed, burned, made laughable. I was so taken with the work that I am considering making a trip to Krakow.
I got back to the flat around eleven-thirty and Mrs. Tschudi had gone to bed. I let myself in and put out the hall light as I was instructed. In the morning She had a very large breakfast prepared for me with fruit, croissants, eggs, toast cheese, ham, air-dried beef, a pitcher of orange juice and coffee. I was wary of her, and didn’t continue our morning conversation very long, the day before had set an unfortunate tone and I sensed she wanted to talk and felt affronted that I didn’t.
The first museum I went to was the Kunstmuseum. Most of the special exhibitions in town were of Americans and were all artists I admired but wasn’t overanxious to see, which in some ways is a plus, because one can get something unexpected from them. There was a show of Marden drawings that featured the working watercolor studies for the stained glass in the Munster, the Basel cathedral. Only three artists were invited to make proposals, his was chosen and then it was decided that the original glass was restorable so the Marden designs were never executed. I want a stained glass commission to the point where I am considering building a chapel, so the Marden studies were of value to me. I was in Vietnam for the retrospective, and I could still see it if I choose to go to Berlin. What is so attractive about Marden is his seriousness. Those drawings are full of deep regard for Cezanne and Newman and Li Po. Such a rare quality nowadays when artists seem to be modeling themselves after Eddie Haskell.
Upstairs was a Jasper Johns exhibition called “An Allegory of Painting 1955-1965”. It was a way of walking through those first ten years again, and one of the interesting things was the photographs of him painting in his loft, which I assume was in Coenties Slip where he lived in the fifties, it was still that early in his career, and how the ceilings were low, so that the drawing “Diver (For Hart Crane) ” which was not in the show, was only a few inches above the floor. The drawing is seven feet high and six feet wide and in the photograph it almost goes to the ceiling, which must have been only eight feet high. There is amazingly articulated space in that drawing, and the fact that he achieved it in that cramped space, and that there was such breadth in it, is extraordinary. Looking at the targets again, I thought of them as being like Zen exercises, the Cage influence, so that he was trying to think of something to paint that was nothing, that was blank; he could paint and empty himself at the same time. There was one very impressionist yellow and green target that he owned that was as pretty and as empty as a high school cheerleader.
His famous irony comes from the acutely self-conscious theatricalization of the gesture, how he makes the gesture an object, rather than an expression, by attaching objects. Then those rulers, scraping, measuring, punishing, but lovely how the paint splashes up onto the edges of the them and the attached raw wood, like islands. There was another small heavily waxy painting that he also owned I have never heard of or seen before called “Painting Bitten by a Man” that reminded me of Paul Thek. Also, a rainbow-hued handprint made in Tokyo and a vertical painting, ‘Slow Field” that was pretty, too and full of surface light. What stopped it from being too much was its delicate draftsmanship and weird detachment, because Johns is an expressionist, a schizoid one. I know of no other artist whose work makes you feel like he is watching you watching him make the painting. A drawing called “Edisto” appeared to be improvised around the impression of the bottom of shoe.
Johns acute self-consciousness has led him to become deeply invested in trompe-loeil: drawn illusionisms and tucks of strokes underneath other strokes, it’s all amazingly virtuosic, (which is how I felt about a lot of the Marden drawings too, but not the stained glass studies) and in this way the comparisons to Cezanne are slightly off because Johns undermines the modulation of surface that Cezanne sought through Johns endless illusionistic puns. He literalizes the digits of the mark into typography, true, and is constantly combining and switching mediums to do this, but I came away being taught something, as always, but not feeling much. The “Watchman” painting was probably the best thing in the show, because it was blunt and dark and unfussy.
Elsewhere in the Kunstmuseum was their world-renowned collection of Holbein paintings, the master of the face, and two paintings by Adrien Brouwer, the funniest painter in the history of art. In his poem “The Card Players” Philip Larkin might have been looking at Brouwer:
"Jan von Hogspeuw staggers to the door
And pisses at the dark.
Outside, the rain
Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud land.
Inside, Dirk Dogstoerd pours himself some more…”
I sat outside in a side street of the old city and stared at the side of a church, read from John Updike’s “Self-Consciousness”, a series of essays about himself, his childhood, his psoriasis, adulteries, social-climbing, phobias and in “On Not being A Dove” his personal experience of the Sixties. I have come to admire his writing style while barely liking him, which I think makes him a very good writer. I have not forgiven him for a review of the new MOMA or his other art writing, which I will not go near, but these personal essays and the novels where he portrays what he knows well. I have read “Couples”, for example, three times.
I finished my mineral water and salad with poached fish, had an espresso and some dense nut cake, a local specialty, and decided to go out to the Foundation Beyerler, a trolley ride into some pleasant countryside. I have heard oohs and ahs about this place from a number of people. It’s another Renzo Piano museum, with a canopy style roof and natural light.
I got off the trolley and across the road from the museum was a public park with a temporary stage set up and a terrible rock band was blaring away like the idiots that they are. Apparently when one raises a child it is to be expected that they will spit and dribble their food all over themselves when they are being fed. It’s something they eventually grow out of. In western society at this point in time, people need to hear really loud stupid music until they’re about fifty or so, and then one hopes they will grow out of it. Until that time, much of both commercial and even more rarefied forms of contemporary culture will aspire to this condition in the hopes of appealing to this feral sense of pleasure.
The infantile bass line continued inside the temporarily blighted museum, and I walked into a room that had a three-panel “Water lilies” on one wall and a long couch across the way. I looked over its length (I am thinking about making some horizontal paintings) and at the dry brushstrokes and thought about how this was the Monet that was such an influence on Jake Berthot back when. I went up to it to take a closer look at the brushstrokes and an alarm beeper went off. As I continued passing through the other rooms of the museum I could occasionally here it getting tripped again. There were gardens and paths surrounding the building and the rear of it faced a big cornfield. As is common with most new museums, there was a long corridor with couches in order that on can look out on it. The new Boston ICA has the same thing where you can look over the harbor. All of the smaller paintings in the museum were under glass; including those in the retrospective of fearless Edvard Munch, a much better selection than had been in NYC.
One could not take advantage of the countryside with the music blaring through it, so I went back to the city and decided to perform the errand of picking up a book on the poet Robert Lax that was a publication of the Tinguely museum. The building by Mario Botta had the obligatory glass porch looking over the Rhine. Though there was not much there of interest to me, I wanted to pay my respects to the artist; after all, I had come to his museum, so I went up to the third floor. The guard told me I could start the sculptures, I said, “Yeah. I know”, and I pressed my foot on the floor button and looked at “Lola T. 180-m Memorial pour Joakim B.” a memorial to Joakim Bonnier, a great friend of Tinguely’s. The sculpture as assembled from pieces of the racecar that Bonnier died in. I stood there and tried not to somehow like it, which wasn’t possible, but sympathize. I looked at the animal skulls turning, the urns flanking either side, the dancing wooden cross in the middle, and the praying kitsch figure on the track moving back and forth in the rear and could only relate to the impulse to memorialize the dead with one’s art, which I have done.
There was time remaining to go to the Kunsthalle, and then I had another meal at the restaurant under the trees and went to see “Ocean’s Thirteen” a movie I would have never seen in NY but I didn’t want to spend the evening listening to Mrs. Tschudi.
I headed out to Schaulager on Sunday morning. The invented word “Schaulager” means viewing warehouse and it is an art open storage facility for a foundation with an exhibition program. There was a Robert Gober survey that had a lot of work from the past three decades and included two of his installations, one they owned and was permanently installed in the basement. I was glad I got there early, there was only a few people in the exhibition spaces and his work requires some calm, I think. I had included one of his litter bag sculptures in the first show I curated at Apex Art and I had noticed that he had signed the book at my show so I wanted to look the show over, though, like the Johns, I was not inclined to. Once again, because Gober is such good artist, like Johns, and his work is like Johns’ in many ways, it was time well spent. I thought about his debts to Edward Hopper and to Donna Dennis, but mostly about his Catholicism, which of course I could relate to. The sinful aura of the body, it strangeness and forbiddenness is everywhere in the show, including a piece I had never seen of children’s legs on a hearth. The urinals that are like baptismal fonts, and the covered chair with the hand-drawn flower patterns, it occurred to me, was Buddhist—a lotus throne.
A number of early works from the seventies were included and the drawings were astounding, in the style of naïve line drawing and finger shading from high school art classes, but immensely sly and observant. Views out the window on the city, cigarette packs, a bottle of Ivory liquid where he brings out the bridal, wedding dress shape, a drain rack of dishes with the cup handle pinched around a prong. I kept slowing down more and more, watching the visual rhymes appear, the teeth on the boy on the large Farina Box looking like the sinks, the inks are enamel like teeth, etc., entering the waking dream atmosphere.
Then I remembered the dream I had the night before. Scott Caan, the actor from Ocean’s Thirteen, who I also saw in something else and plays vulgar jerk in both, is in my dream and somehow puts me under so I can get a haircut. When I come to, my hair has been dyed jet black and slicked back in some awful punk way and my eyebrows have been replaced by little steel bb’s with steel hairs coming out of them. I know I can grow my hair back but am upset about the plastic surgery. The dream must have something to do with feeling victimized by ubiquitous rock and roll culture. Haircuts in dreams are symbolic castration.
To return to Gober, thinking about the urinals as teeth and the cribs as jails, and then going downstairs to see the Virgin Mary statue and the flowing water and the early sculpture of the church with the roof open titled “Prayers are Answered” that he is, in fact, looking for God. The visual correspondences he continues to find are a form of Gnosticism; the search for a distant all-powerful force through observing mysterious coded emanations.
I returned to St. Antonius and it was open so I spent time looking at the interior, with all its stained glass and cast concrete, which informs my painting more than looking at paintings or contemporary art. Then I strolled around ancient Basel, walked by the Rhine some more, looked into the Munster, where the Marden stained glass would have been very effective, it has an interesting austerity. Then went to the Kunstmuseums annex for contemporary art where I watched a twenty-two minute video by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson called “East/West” where she challenged everything he said, and he, very drunk and stoned, told her she didn’t know anything and was going back to California where people were real.
That evening I returned to the Beyerler where I had purchased a ticket for an evening of string quartets. I sat in a small audience, of about one hundred and fifty people over fifty and thought “I am down here with Ravel and Beethoven and Newman and Rothko are above me in the galleries.” Most of the quartets were made up of students from the International Music Academy of Switzerland; I was in very good hands. It is under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, who impishly conducted the assembled string orchestra for the final Bartok “Divertimento fur Streichorchester”.
The next morning it was raining I had a friendly chat with Mrs. Tschudi. She told me I should learn German and thought I was English because I speak so well. As I got on the train to Zurich, a kid flopped down in the seat across from mine, threw off his backpack and applied roll-on deodorant to his underarms by reaching in through the neck of his shirt. Later, I couldn’t stop staring out the window. Upon my return to Sitterwerk, I was able to watch a casting being made of a Josephsohn half-figure. They even put flowers around the opening of the mold before they pour in the liquid bronze. I am going to borrow a small Josephsohn to keep here in the studio. It’s good to be back and I am already at work.
“I admire Pasolini's humanity and I certainly would feel lucky to achieve in my life one-tenth of what he did, but I am, quite sincerely, allergic to the grandiosity of the artist-as-public-conscience as well as the artist-as-pop-star, these are roles that require a certain degree of self-delusion and a great deal of relentless self-promotion.” Gary Indiana
June 26. It has been close to chilly here for almost a week and I have temporarily stopped swimming in cold ponds, as lovely an experience as that might be. This is mostly because I have a cold that has gotten so bad it kept me up through most of two nights. Then a good nights sleep last night after a trip to the pharmacy. I asked the English-speaking pharmacist for cold pills for daytime and for nighttime. I was brought a Swiss product that combined both in the same package. The nighttime capsules were dark blue and had a tiny yellow crescent moon on them and the daytime capsules were white and had a little yellow sun. One can buy the same combination in the US, but if you lose the box, and don’t remember the color-coding of the capsules you could become sleepy all day and up all night.
This is one of the ways that Europe can be satisfying: situations that are considered; thought through, and why being in Southeast Asia was just harsher than the US but not so different. There is the same lack of integration of the social fabric. Still, the more I travel the more I like the US. This has a lot to do with simple familiarity, and missing it, as much as I couldn’t have picked a better place to recuperate, if that’s what I am doing, than here.
The article on me came out in the local newspaper today and the rough translation sounded pretty good. Whatever it said “Der amerikanische Kunstler Joe Fyfe” is happy with any print that makes him sound like someone whose paintings one would want to buy. The studio photograph is rather dramatic and borders on being broodingly lit. I look like I might lunge at the camera. Der Romantik Kunstler. There is finished and unfinished work behind me on the studio walls and on the floor.
I am going to Basel tomorrow for a long weekend, hastened out of the region by “Open Air St. Gallen” the rock festival being set up right over the river from here. I can already see through the trees that people are arriving and there will most likely be some unwanted bass pulsations coming through tonight. I am on the last day of my piece on Josephsohn. News came on Saturday that he had had a stroke. He is at present out of intensive care but there is no saying yet how severe it is. He is aware of what I being said to him, and it is entirely possible that a full recovery may come about. I hope and pray that is the case.
So it has been about five days of sitting around nursing my cold and changing words in the piece. I don’t know if I have ever gone over 3500 words so many times before. I did a version last October and then it sat all winter when I was away. Being here brought new information and I have been working on it all month. I sent it to my editor last week. He said he couldn’t get to it for a week or two so I went back to work on it and I have been revising over and over, it’s like molding clay, it is only now that the process is beginning to feel like it has a plasticity.