This morning I had a very good breakfast of a croissant with butter and jam and espresso and I thought, “Just the thing before a trip to the gallows.”
This might be an infection of a sensibility coming from reading the very strange Weldon Kees biography. Among other bits of ancient gossip one learns that Mark Rothko told a group of friends one evening that the news of the Holocaust had not affected him at all because it had nothing to do with him. It was in the text perhaps to illustrate how Kees, who was a poet and painter and an outstanding figure of the same post-war generation, became alienated by what he perceived as the self-absorbed opportunism of his peers.
Anthony Lane who wrote about the biography, described how in Kees life, “So many famous names enter the story… He seemed to drift into their orbit for a while, then spin away… what can they add to our knowledge of a man who seemed, even when alive, like a dapper and dissatisfied ghost?” I have been curious about him since I came across excerpts of his writing in the art paper that is published in Provincetown when I was there in 1999, also that when John Ashbery was asked what poets influenced him he said ”Weldon Kees”.
He disappeared, probably by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955. Reading the story of Kees reminds me of a confused time when I found talented, intelligent, enigmatic figures attractive. Rothko sounds like a sensitive man who cannot help but hide his deeper feelings from others, and perhaps himself. Al Held said that he was great in private but at parties he would work the room like he was running for mayor.
My studio gets interruptions and visitors. I am beginning to understand is part of life here. Last week I was asked if I could give over the studio for a few hours in order that a Hugo Rondinone light bulb sculpture that was being editioned could be photographed in my space, where the previous ones were, for the sake of continuity. This was fine, I wanted to take my bike into town that afternoon anyway and I found the paint store and also came across a tiny funicular that takes you to the top of the town. It begins at the bottom of a small mountain waterfall near the cathedral. Wild.
The light bulb object, which has different colors in each its twenty-five versions, is homage to Philip Guston. Hugo was here briefly and I was introduced to him. “Put out your hand.” he said and shook it. We were in the Kesselhaus Josephsohn, the large space that has a changing array of Josephsohn’s sculptures. It had been altered so that it was cleared of all but a group the reclining figures that Rondinone was putting in an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. Seeing all of the reclining figures isolated this way, in a physiognomy, made me think that there is a kind of ruthlessness to Rondinone’s vision but there is no denying he knows what he is doing.
Yesterday the cultural reporter for the St Gallen newspaper interviewed me. Katalin was supposed to see her but was too busy so I got to go on about myself. The hardest part is to cover my reprobate years, a large blank on my life resume. What were you doing when everyone else was moving into second or third gear with his or her careers? So I just dissemble, what else can I do? I went into the whole Fulbright project and what I did in Southeast Asia and how it influenced my work, but was reminded that my time there is much more mundane to Europeans than Americans. Americans aren’t very adventurous travelers, like Europeans are. An artist that works in the office here just returned from Africa and India and this reporter, Brigitte Schmid, who was very nice, had just returned from three months in Bangladesh, where she had traveled alone and had received permission to film the huge harbor area where tankers are dismantled for metal scrap. “It was unbelievable” she said, “All of these thousands of workers in rags and bare feet, doing terribly dangerous work. It was a world of slavery.”
Then a large group of people that are on the cultural board of UBS, the Swiss bank conglomerate, came through and I talked about my work for a few minutes or rather, more than a few minutes, as I finished, I said, “Well, that’s the short version,” and they all laughed. I guess I had gone on for a bit. I was only a small part of the afternoon’s presentation of the foundation. I heard that it went well, and they might get some money and I was happy that I was able to do my part.
I took my bike the back way through farmland to the WestCenter, a local mall, to get groceries. An asphalt bike road goes past a barnyard at one point. There are ribbons that are pulled up across it when the cows cross from the barn back to the pasture, or vice versa. This past evening, from that spot, it was the first time since I have arrived that it cleared enough to see the distant high range of mountains. They looked out from behind a long line of stone in front of the peaks and valleys that were still in snow. The huge rock outcroppings were like an endless line of upturned gray teeth. Extraordinary.
June 20. Other than those two nights of thumping bass it has been very quiet here, very peaceful. Switzerland is just ridiculously pleasant. On Sunday I went to over the border to Germany, another country to add to my list, having never been there, and went swimming in the Rhine at a place where it enters Lake Constance. The semi-transparent aqua blue water was cold. I could smell mountain and stone in it. There was a line of old hotels behind where we jumped off the docks. Sunday boaters passed by mid-stream, heading towards the lake. There weren’t many yachts; size modesty seemed to prevail among the private owners, though large boats could navigate the tributary, as I discovered when the excursion vessel to Schaffhausen came through.
Two large tables were just built to accommodate the foundry staff and visitors in order that we all may have lunch al fresco throughout the glorious summer. There were temporary folding tables previously, and I noticed that over in one of the rooms of the foundry squared steel pipe was being welded together to make base and legs for two long tables. I came to lunch yesterday and was surprised that the tops were of cast concrete: long rectangular slabs of fresh gray semi-porous surface that had retained a subtle impression of the plywood mold. The tables were set with bright white plates and polished stainless knives and forks.
Hans Josephsohn had come from Zurich and was at lunch, as was Daniel Rohner, whose huge art library is part of Sitterwerk foundation, as is my artist residence. For the inaugural lunch there was roasted local bratwurst and lots of garden-fresh vegetables, even the zucchini was good. I had not seen Herr Josephsohn since I visited his studio with my mother last September. We spoke through Katalin’s translation. He asked me how my mother was and I said she was well, making her paintings and seeing her boyfriend. He said that she seemed to have very young spirit. I said yes, she is young but wise. “Good combination” he said, in English. Then he asked me if I had seen the Edvard Munch exhibition in Basel. I said no, but I saw it at the Modern in New York and wrote a review about how insensitively it was installed.
I had come across an article in the New York Review of Books on Meyer Schapiro’s lectures on Romanesque architecture and sculpture that has been very helpful in the essay on Josephsohn that I am trying to finish. The work of this period has been his defining influence, and I told him how the article mentioned that Renoir told his son that Cezanne was the most important artist since the Romanesque sculptors. “I agree.” He said.
June 16 I am on the train to Basel again on Saturday morning. I got out the door about 8:10 and walked up the steep hill, out of the Sitterstrasse (the road by the Sitter river) settlement to the trolley stop: about a ten-minute walk past a few old houses. I suspect that they contain small apartments that cater to the people that work in the advanced metal shop, which is part of the collection of yellow brick buildings of various vintages here in the green valley. If I am on the upper floor of my studio I can see them in a large open second floor (first floor in this country) full of machines and computers across the way. One very bright screen is left on all night and it interrupts my darkness when I am ready to go asleep: another aspect of the mix of country and city here. The tram comes in 13 minutes and I get to the Banhopf to watch the train to Zurich leave but there is another in 20 minutes.
It rained all day yesterday and I have a touch of a cold or flu, but today promises sun, which contradicts the weather reports. I seem to have finished a painting and continue to rewrite the piece on Josephsohn, remembering Adorno’s paragraphs on writing in “Minima Moralia”:
“No improvement is too small or trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level… It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it… Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree out of all proportion to their apparent importance… Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging towards them.”
I found an essay on the painter James Bishop online written by Holland Carter for A.i.A. in 1994. This means that the magazine will not want another long piece on him, such as I anticipated when I learned that a retrospective on his work would be coming to the US in ‘08. No matter. The Cotter text is a beautiful piece of work. It was the first time in a while that I have read a piece of artwriting so good that it made me think I had no right to be doing it:
“And evident throughout is the astringent, ideated lyricism of Cezanne. The results are a materialist rather than a spiritually oriented art (though the two need not be mutually exclusive), grounded first and last in the physical process of painting and in the associational values of color. But Bishop's work is also deeply personal. Like Cezanne's, it doesn't so much describe a life as reflect the presence of a distinctive if elusive consciousness.”
Katalin and I went to her favorite restaurant in St. Gallen last night. The dining room had old wood paneling that had been scraped and repainted, properly, any number of times over the years so that the wear of time was evident but the lines and edges were still clear. The present color was complex pea green applied in low-luster enamel. The simple L -shaped room had long tables covered in white cloths and was hung with a series of lithographs, handmade color-field variations of black, orange and green done in blocks with alternating vertical and horizontal lines, that also owed something to Newman and Marden, that I identified as being by Günter Forg, who also did the menu.
We had roasted skins of baby eggplant, served cold in oil, with a little chopped raw onion. She had gnocchi, homemade with tomato sauce. I kind of wanted her to have the other gnocchi done with Gorgonzola, because I had made it once many, many years ago, back when I was still victim to romantic obsessions, as opposed to my middle-age self that is preoccupied with unnecessary noise.
It was at the end of an affair that had as an element the shared interest in 19th century French literature. I had put together what was one of our last dinners, replicating a meal that the title character in Zola’s “Nana” had, which consisted of Gnocchi with Gorgonzola and dry Rose champagne and some other things I don’t remember.
The previous week there had been a fire in the tenement apartment below mine. I had been living on the top floor of a building on Ludlow Street in two tiny illegal rooms. I had no fire escape. The deadly smoke had risen through the stairway one morning and as I opened the door I faced a wall of black smoke. I took one poisonous lungful, dropped to the floor and escaped through the adjoining apartment by banging on the door, alerting my neighbor. We ran up onto a nearby roof, the flames pursuing us. The firemen had discovered my truncated apartment and I couldn’t return to it, except to get my things.
A friend allowed me to stay in a room with a kitchenette that he rented out. It was between tenants. I spent a week with domestic cleaning products and paper towels spraying and wiping all of my possessions, record albums, (It was that long ago) dishes and a collection of Mexican papier-mâché masks, trying to rid them of the insidious burnt odor that clung to everything. It was here that I assembled this close-to-the-last dinner I would have with the surface of my projections.
I had the Osso Bucco, with mushroom risotto and spinach, right for someone with a cold on a wet, chilly summer evening. I mentioned the phrase ’stick-to-your-ribs’ to Katalin. The meat was good and rich but in a dowdy way; it was little dry. Slow-cooked meat can still have fresh flavors. I have had it with moist collapsing filaments of flesh and hints of fresh tomato and even lemon. This had a winey dark sauce. It was still good but I was looking for great. I have naïve expectations of European restaurants.
This is the first time that I will be spending any span of time in Europe. One season. Two years ago a spent a month in southern Spain. I am just as disengaged here as I was there. I am not in a hurry to pick up the language. Katalin talks about her five years in New York City and then about her parent’s origins in Hungary, how they left during the crisis in 1954. Their parents took them out, but they were old enough to have memories. Katalin said she and her siblings were led to think of it as a golden land and when they finally were brought back many years later they were disappointed.
She told me about the self-pity and sense of superiority of Hungarians. She said they didn’t produce very good artists. I was thinking of Alfred Kubin but couldn’t remember his name. I discovered after that he was Austrian. Well, Eastern Europe was a shifting place. The Black sea, the Carpathian mountains, it’s a place I am curious about, ever since I got a taste of it in Eastern Turkey the ten years ago. I asked her if she knew the writer Gregor Von Rezzori, who wrote about being born into in the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I said he wrote a book called “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite”. She said it the anti-Semitism was characteristic of Hungarians, as was irony. I said he wrote another book called “The Death of my Brother Abel” She thought that was hilarious. But Rezzori turned out to be Romanian, sort of.
Returning to the fair I was able to look again at some of the good work I had seen earlier: the Jerry Zeniuk painting of bright colored dots on a white ground. Making that interesting isn’t easy. A large Günter Forg with a painted frame around a variety of individual brushstroke marks and a small one that was orange and yellow and had a piece of glass glued on it. There were two Marcus Lupertz crayon drawings on cheap-looking paper that I liked, too. I left Basel at a little after eight and switched trains in Zurich. After I arrived back in St. Gallen shortly after eleven. I bought a tram ticket, boarded and was soon on the way out of town toward Hotel Schtocken, my tram stop. From there it was a walk down the step hill past the faint cowbells to bed.