Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Jill, At Halloween Time #2

Jill turns the gas low.
She walks to the front bedroom
to get a new bra.

Walking, she reaches
both hands around behind her
to unclip her bra.

Topless, she thinks, ‘Oops,
in all the thriller movies
when a woman leaves

something on the stove
and goes out of the kitchen,
that’s when she’s attacked . . .’


Monday, October 30, 2006

Jill, At Halloween Time #1

Her stocks are tanking,
the llama’s constipated
and her bra strap broke.

Jill wants to cry but
she just can’t. Something about
Halloween season

gives her energy.
In the kitchen she warms milk
for the llama. Leaves—

brown, yellow, orange—
blow past the kitchen window.
Jill sighs, stirs the milk.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Ansel Adams And Alfred Stieglitz, #2

I believe that the artist and his art are only a part of the total human experience; the viewer in the world at large is the essential other part. I feel that a true work of art is like nothing else in the world. It is not essential to know how the artist thinks or how he believes he relates to his profession or his society. What he creates is his message. For me a work of art does not cry for comprehension, only for reaction at the level of art itself.

Stieglitz taught me what became my first commandment: “Art is the affirmation of life.”

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: An Autobiography

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ansel Adams And Alfred Stieglitz, #1

Anticipation is another prime element of creative art and essential to visualization. Some years ago I was talking with Edwin Land, a brilliant scientist and close friend. We talked about the remarkable photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with his images of people in motion arrested at precisely the optimum expressive moment of time and place.

Land pointed out that the moment captured on film was realized through anticipation. Had Cartier-Bresson released the shutter at the “decisive moment” as revealed in his pictures, the psycho-physical lag would have resulted in capturing the moment after the ideal position in the composition.

Anticipation is one of the most perplexing capabilities of the mind: projection into future time. Impressive with a single moving object, it is overwhelming when several such objects are considered together and in relation to their environment. I believe that the mind, working at incredible speeds, is able to probe into the future as well as recall the past. Our explorations of the past support the present, and our awareness of the present will clarify the future.

... Photography is an investigation of both the outer and inner worlds. One might consider that if one is born an explorer he will never find existence dull. The first experiences with the camera involve looking at the world beyond the lens, trusting the instrument will “capture” something “seen.” The terms shoot and take are not accidental; they represent an attitude of conquest and appropriation. Only when the photographer grows into perception and creative impulse does the term make define a condition of empathy between the external and internal events. Stieglitz told me, “When I make a photograph, I make love!”

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: An Autobiography

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Ansel Adams And Edwin Land

Once Din [“Din” was Edwin Land’s nickname] and I went to Dr. Harold Edgerton’s laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to observe the making of a strobe flash picture of a bullet piercing a balloon, recorded on a new Polaroid transparency material. The extremely short electronic flash was fired by microphone. We stood around, expectantly waiting for the firing, fully briefed on what was to occur and how safe it was. The revolver was securely lashed to a firm support, and there was an efficient sand trap to catch the bullet. The balloon was filled with talcum powder, inflated, and properly placed in the line of fire. The camera was focused upon it, all ready to go. At the moment of firing, one of Edgerton’s assistants struck a large segment of rail with a heavy metal mallet. The sound was terrific, and all but Edgerton and Land hit the floor. Great hilarity ensued. The photograph came out perfectly, with the bullet clearly emerging in a cloud of talcum from the still-tense surface of the balloon; at the moment of exposure the balloon had not had time to think about collapsing.

… [Edwin Land’s] philosophy and humanity are revealed in the statement he made on April 2, 1979, on the occasion of the opening of the new home of the academy [Edwin Land had been president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1951-54]:

“Each stage of human civilization is defined by our mental structures: the concepts we create and then project upon the universe. They not only redescribe the universe but also in so doing modify it, both for our own time and for subsequent generations. This process—the revision of old cortical structures and the formulation of new cortical structures whereby the universe is defined—is carried on in science and art by the most creative and talented minds in each generation. For individuals to contribute to this constantly evolving projection of mental structures upon the universe, it is necessary for them to concentrate on one area of knowledge or experience, and thus they limit themselves by excluding many other areas. This Academy’s function is to associate many specialized lines of concentration by gathering the individuals in whom they are embodied. Thus, while each person is narrowed by his own specialization, the group as a whole is enriched.

“The transfer of concepts as models from one field to another requires intimacy, informality and friendliness because the transfer usually is not a conscious process. Models for physics may come from music, for chemistry from physics, for art from cosmology. … The great historic periods of spectacular human advance, within time spans of relatively few generations, may have been periods in which society made possible the concentrated interplay of the separate contributions of creative individuals. There is no way in which we can tell whether we are entering such a period of history, but whether or not we are, the role of the Academy seems clear.”

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: An Autobiography

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ansel Adams And Cedric Wright

I am interested in why I see certain events in the world about me that others do not see, while they respond to different events. On the day that this photograph was made there were several other photographers nearby, some very good ones who were then far more technically advanced than I. The scene was before us all, but no one else responded with creative interest. Cedric Wright, close friend, violinist, and photographer from Berkeley, observed what I was doing and, half in jest, set his camera up in my location. I saw his print later; he did not have a lens of appropriate focal length and he overexposed his negative. On seeing my print he exclaimed, “Jeez! Why didn’t I see that!”

Ansel Adams
Examples: The Making
Of 40 Photographs

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ansel Adams And Margaret Bourke-White

One of the most successful Life photographers was Margaret Bourke-White, whom I first met in 1934. She had just moved into her studio on one of the top floors of the Chrysler Building and I recall a giant aluminum gargoyle clearly visible through the large window. Her assistant, a nervous young man, said, “Please be seated,” but there was nothing to sit on. Bourke-White entered the room briskly and cordially greeted me. She was dressed with great chic, on the edge of flamboyancy, and moved and talked with marvelous vitality. She explained that she was preparing for an assignment and could give me but a few moments—“My helper is checking my cameras right now.” At that moment a loud crash came from the adjacent room; the camera and tripod on which the young man was working had suddenly collapsed and were severely damaged. Bourke-White reacted with composure, saying to him, “Please call for another Speed Graphic right away.” Stating she would pick up the camera on the way to the airport, she gave me a warm adieu, abandoning me in her pristine office with the broken camera still lying on the floor.

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: An Autobiography

Friday, October 20, 2006

Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #5: The Butterflies From Atlantis

At the Oak Lawn Public Library where
I often check out books and DVDs
and use the public access computers,
if you browse through the stacks looking for books
like “Fishing The Dry Fly As A Living
,” or, less fish, like “Trout Fishing In
,” you won’t find them because
such books aren’t there to be found. They’re gone.

If you browse the internet for such books
you find them equally lost, but not gone,
just buried among eighty-three million
references to what Paris Hilton did
two nights ago, or many million more
equally fishy references that may
or may not say anything about trout.


I miss good books. Good. As opposed to books
demographically targeted—conceived,
designed and produced to strip-mine every
dollar from every market in the world.


When I checked out the book Paris Hilton
wrote with Merle Ginsberg and read in the park,
I sat with the book in my hand, my hand
resting in my lap and the book open
in front of me. An open book like that,
the spine in my hand, pages to the left
and to the right, looks like a butterfly.

Butterflies bask in the sun, wings open
left and right, warming themselves in the light.

Books lie open in front of us, pages
left and right, like butterflies letting us
study the pretty patterns on their wings.

But books aren’t like real butterflies from
the physical place we remember as
Atlantis. Books are like butterflies from
Atlantis, the magical place of myths.

Books are like butterflies from Atlantis,
the magical place of myths. They fly us
not by their wings, but the pretty patterns
on their wings, to worlds long gone, to worlds lost,
to lost worlds of artist and expression,
to lost worlds of designer and knowledge,
to lost worlds, too, of jester and routine.

Like “Confessions Of An Heiress.” Or this.

Books. They’re like butterflies from Atlantis.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #4: Atlantis

At the Oak Lawn Public Library where
once or twice a year the gas company
tears up the sidewalks looking for a leak,
there are more than fifty books that mention
Atlantis. Everything from Plato to
Clive Cussler appears somewhere in the stacks.


In the traditionally accepted
scientific dating of the planet
the continents as we know them today
were all scrunched together as one land mass
about two hundred million years ago.
Scientists call this land mass “Pangea.”

Pangea began the long process of
splitting in two and then more breaking up
about a hundred and fifty million
years ago. That is about the same time
butterflies first evolved as we know them.
In fact, the distribution of many
species across the current continents
supports the understanding butterflies
initially evolved and then began
species radiation on the northern
and southern components of Pangea
directly after the one land mass split.

Most theories of Atlantis say nothing
about Pangea because modern man—
that is, modern civilized man—is thought
to be about fifteen thousand years old,
with most civilizations much younger.

However, Judeo-Christian scripture
describes the Babel tower incident
as ending when God scattered humankind
“abroad, over the face of all the earth.”
Another verse describes a man, Peleg,
as living when the earth was “divided.”

I think we as a species remember
our origin on that one continent,
Pangea, and then the tribulations
of the catastrophic earth changes that
in the time of just one generation
created the continents we know now.

(Prior to the breakup, on Pangea,
the single continent, it’s easier
also to imagine a single flood
affecting all creatures and all humans.)

Of course this only can be possible
if either civilization is much
older than Western science understands
or our scientific dating is skewed.

Neither option is inconceivable.

Hindu scripture plainly speaks of ages
vastly more ancient than Western knowledge.

And there has been some contentious research
that cosmic “constants”—like the speed of light—
in fact might not be constant after all,
and dates keyed to radiation effects
might be over-estimating ages.


I believe someday we will recognize
Atlantis myths as dramatizations
of the tribulations humans endured
during the fracturing of Pangea.


But Atlantis has come to mean much more
than just a physical place—although if
it turns out to be the physical place
our butterflies came from that’s pretty cool.

Atlantis has come to mean a global
free-floating metaphor for any place
that was good but now is gone. Atlantis
is the secular Garden of Eden.

Atlantis is the good world that was lost—
lost art, lost technology, lost science,
and lost peace, lost understanding, lost love,
and lost humanity, lost communion.

(Tomorrow: Paris Hilton And The Butterflies
From Atlantis #5: The Butterflies
From Atlantis

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #3: Fons Et Origo

At the Oak Lawn Public Library where
almost every rain makes the ceiling leak
and basement flood, they are clearing away
old books that aren’t checked out frequently.
The old books either are sold to raise funds—
hardbacks all are sold for fifty cents each—
or they simply are thrown away. The same
maintenance man who deals with the dead birds
in the driveway next to the library
once a week or so pushes a big bin
full of old books that nobody checks out
across the library’s west parking lot.
He empties the bin in the big dumpster
behind the senior center. This clears space
on the shelves for books more relevant to
today’s internet-savvy young patrons.

For instance, Jan Adkins’ “The Craft Of Sail
has been tossed. Or sold to raise fifty cents.
Adkins designed, wrote and illustrated
his loving primer on sailing himself.

With “The Craft Of Sail” out of the way, books
shift over a little bit and make room
for new titles, like, “Your iPod Life,” by
Dan Frakes, which has a lot of photographs
of accessories people can purchase
for their Apple iPod, along with brief
discussions of how the accessories
perform so consumers can make smart buys.

And, for instance, “The New Tower Of Babel,”
by Dietrich Von Hildebrand, has been tossed.
Or sold to raise a couple of quarters.
Hildebrand, a theologian, wrote that
the modern world’s conceptual conflicts
and confusions stem from Promethean
presumptions on the part of mankind and
share similarities with the classic
Judeo-Christian story of fracture
caused by the Babel tower incident.

With “The New Tower Of Babel” off the shelf,
books shift over a bit, making room for
new and more relevant titles, such as,
Godless: The Church Of Liberalism,”
by Ann Coulter, in which Coulter describes
atheism and evolution as
something like a religion supporting
Democrats as they fight Republicans.

Soon, a young person will ask someone old
what exactly the word “Atlantis” means.
The adult will laugh and tell the youngster
that “Atlantis” is a word that refers
to any kind of imaginary
existence—for instance, when writers dream
of a fantasy reality where
books could be written even if the books
had no explicit corporate sponsorship
and even if the authors did not have
explicit party affiliations.

(Tomorrow: Paris Hilton And The Butterflies
From Atlantis #4: Atlantis

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #2: Paris Hilton

At the Oak Lawn Public Library where
homeless people cool down in the summer
and warm up in the winter, if you do
a computer search of their catalogue
for “Paris Hilton” you will get two hits,
a horror DVD called “House Of Wax,”
and the book, “Confessions Of An Heiress,”
which Paris Hilton wrote with Merle Ginsberg.

If you venture into the stacks you’ll find
Paris Hilton’s book on a shelf in the
seven-nineties. In fact, you will find it
on a shelf right below another book,
Price Guide To Plastic Collectibles,” by
Lindi McNulty. Paris Hilton’s book,
written with Merle Ginsberg, tells a person
how to live as if they were an heiress.

If you sit down at one of the public
access computers and do a Google
internet search for “Paris Hilton,” you
will get more than eighty-three million hits.
If you venture into those stacks you might
be wandering around for quite some time.

I have read “Confessions Of An Heiress.”
One afternoon when the weather was nice
I checked it out and went to the small park
next to the library. I read it while
sitting on a bench. The book is only
a hundred and seventy-nine pages,
and most of them are full of photographs.
It’s not about a guy named John Galt who
stops the motor of the world by getting
smart people to abandon dumb people.
In fact, you can find inconsistencies:
Paris says never wear the same thing twice
but in two photos—on page fifty-four
and page one forty-seven—Paris wears
the same pink shirt. However, early on—
page nine—Paris warns readers not to take
her fail-safe instructions seriously.

I have not reviewed all the internet’s
eighty-three million Paris Hilton hits.
In fact, yesterday when I checked there were
only eighty-two million. I couldn’t
even review today’s new additions.
I have looked at some of the old stories.
There’s one about Paris wrecking the hood
of her Bentley in a fender-bender.
There’s one about her and Nicole Ritchie
patching up their friendship after feuding.
And roughly eighty-three million others.

Confessions Of An Heiress” is a book
written by Paris Hilton with help from
Merle Ginsberg. Most likely it was written
by Merle Ginsberg with occasional chats
over party drinks with Paris Hilton.

The internet is not a book. It’s not
written by anybody. It’s tempting
to say it’s written by everybody
but that’s like saying the United States
and Monaco are both in the UN—
it’s true but it conveys little content
toward an obviously much larger truth
that is Byzantine with consequences.

There’s Paris Hilton. And there is her book.
And there’s the internet. Byzantium.

(Tomorrow: Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #3: Fons Et Origo)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #1: Et In Arcadia Ego

At the Oak Lawn Public Library where
many people work whose names I am not
allowed to say because it frightens them,
there’s a small park next to the library.

A one-lane driveway separates the park
from the two-story library building.

Among the many trees in the small park,
six trees grow along the narrow driveway.

The foliage of the trees spreads out next to
the library’s large, second-floor windows.

Birds in the trees mistake the reflection
of sky in the windows for the real sky
and kill themselves smashing into the glass.

People walking along the driveway to
the train station or to buy a paper
in the morning find their day starting with
colorful dead birds on black asphalt or
the sight of the maintenance man kicking
the dead birds over the low concrete curb
and into the bushes of the small park.

(Tomorrow: Paris Hilton And The Butterflies From Atlantis #2: Paris Hilton)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Seeing Things In Christina’s World

Andrew Wyeth painted “Christina’s World
in Nineteen-Forty-Eight. One year later
it was purchased by New York’s Museum
of Contemporary Art. The great fuss,
then, over the painting resulted in
the real-life model, Christina Olson,
being called the most famous model in
the world of modern American art.

I was born ten years later. Growing up,
the only artists people around me
talked about were Peter Max and sometimes
Andy Warhol, or Frank Frazetta and
sometimes LeRoy Neiman. When I first saw
Christina’s World” there was no preceding
fuss, there was no explanatory text.
My response was only to the image.

God, I thought, what a profoundly modern,
profoundly American, profoundly
New England restatement of the classic
Eternal Feminine. A young woman
sprawled in a bountiful field, her hips thrust
against the earth, her back turned haughtily
to the artist and viewer and her gaze
forward, at her farm, her house, at her world.

Much later I learned how profoundly wrong
I was. Looking at Christina’s thin arms,
thin legs, I was growing up in a time
when many girls thought Twiggy was groovy
and many women were developing
the look Wolfe would soon call social x-rays.

But Christina wasn’t a hippie and
she certainly wasn’t a socialite.

Christina Olson suffered polio
as a child. She lost the use of her legs.
As an adult if Christina wanted
to go outside when people were busy
she would drag herself out of the house and
into the surrounding blueberry field.

Wyeth often painted in a small room
upstairs at Christina’s house. He would watch
her drag herself out to the field, then back.
Eventually Wyeth painted her.

Growing up, a kid, I saw the painting
as bright, a celebration of Woman.

Older, an adult, I saw it a dirge,
a lament of Christina’s affliction,
and the painting’s key was the perspective,
the distance cue of the great space between
Christina and the high, far horizon.

Older still, confused in my adulthood,
I’ve wondered sometimes if my second guess
might be as profoundly wrong as my first.


One night a woman called at three a.m.
to tell me she was painting my portrait.
It wasn’t really my portrait, she said.
It was a self-portrait of herself but
she said after knowing me for two years
she felt so shaped by me that by painting
herself she was painting me. And, she said,
it wasn’t really a portrait of her,
it was actually a painting of
a donut. She said after knowing me
for two years she’d come to think of herself
as something like a frosted donut, and
it pissed her off that thinking of herself
as a frosted donut just made her smile
instead of making her angry. She said
she’d bought a frosted donut that evening
and now was staying up all night painting.
She said she was working through her feelings
toward me and herself and our dating by
making a frosted donut oil painting.


Having looked at a donut that was me,
or a woman who knew me, I’m not sure
what I see looking at “Christina’s World.”

Christina’s in a field. Does it matter
if I know it’s a field of blueberries?
Christina’s in a field. Does it matter
if I know she’s dragging herself through it?

I don’t know what I see. For all I know
I might be seeing Wyeth’s self-portrait
as he sees himself, shaped by Christina
and the house in the field of blueberries.

I don’t know what I see. That’s my third guess.

My third guess is there are things in this world
that are unknowable. Things we can’t know.

That doesn’t mean that we cannot see them.

I think looking into “Christina’s World
I see things unknowable in this world.

There are things in this world we cannot know.

That doesn’t mean that we cannot see them.
Or that we cannot think they’re beautiful.
Or that we cannot love them. That’s my guess—
That art is about unknowable things.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Christina’s World at Wikipedia

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Very Elusive Thing

My struggle
is to preserve that abstract flash—
like something you caught
out of the corner of your eye,
but in the picture
you can look at it directly.
It’s a very elusive thing.

Andrew Wyeth
quoted in The Helga Pictures
by John Wilmerding

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A White Mussel Shell On A Gravel Bank

You look at my pictures—Christina’s World, The Patriot, Miss Olson—there’s witchcraft and hidden meaning there. Halloween and all that is strangely tied into them. For me, the paintings have that eerie feeling of goblins and witches out riding on broomsticks—damp rotting leaves and moisture—smell of make-up—as a child, the smell inside of a pumpkin when a candle is lit—the feel of your face under a mask walking down a road in the moonlight. I love all that, because then I don’t exist anymore. To me it’s almost like getting inside of my hound, Rattler, and walking around the country looking at it through his eyes.

What I’m trying to say is that I start every painting with an emotion—something I’ve just got to get out. These immaculately painted things—you’d think I was a very calm mathematician. Truth is, I use tempera partly because it’s such a dull medium—those minute strokes put a brake on my real nature—messiness. My wild side that’s really me comes out in my watercolors—especially of snow, which is absolutely intoxicating to me. I’m electrified by it—the hush—unbelievable. A white mussel shell on a gravel bank in Maine is thrilling to me because it’s all the sea—the gull that brought it there, the rain, the sun that bleached it there by a stand of spruce trees.

Andrew Wyeth
quoted in The Art Of Andrew Wyeth

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Deliriously Beautiful World Of Unnamed Substances

Alchemy is a discredited pseudoscience. It took a long time dying, but the end was in sight early on, as the sciences began to move forward after the Renaissance. Oswald Croll, a seventeenth-century German alchemist, wrote a book with a picture of himself emerging from the alchemical vessel and striking a kingly pose. It is supposed to be an image of the Philosophical King, the very embodiment of the Stone. Croll calls his likeness “the earthly treasure and earthly God” but he is a flabby, nude, fifty-year-old man, and he looks pathetic—like an overweight suburbanite who stepped into a pot by mistake. Even then, in the golden age of alchemy, there were those who suspected that alchemy might be hollow. As modern chemistry got going, alchemy lost ground, and in the nineteenth century scientists stripped it even of the dubious prestige it had once had. In the last fifty years things have gotten even worse, because now alchemy is either mummified within Jung’s heavy psychological theories of the mind, or evaporated into New Age dreams.

In a perverse way, some alchemists reveled in the ruins of their discipline. If things looked bad, and they were expelled from court, or called quacks or “puffers,” then that meant their art must have some miraculous secret. Because it seemed empty, it must be full. Because it was despised, it must be magnificent. Countless books begin with versions of the epigram “What good are glasses to those who cannot see?”—implying that the book will not be understood by anyone unless they already believe in it. As the criticism from outside became more strident, the alchemists dug deeper into their unwavering convictions and unconscious self-deceptions. Current alchemy happens far from serious chemistry, physics, philosophy, and literature: that is the price it pays to keep its hope alive.

The weight of history is against the alchemists, but in a sense they are right, because there is truth in alchemy even if it does not reside in vague recipes or ecstatic prayers. I hope I have made it clear that alchemy is not just a fusty old activity fit for cranks, or a mystical New Age pursuit suitable for adolescents. It has its truths, and they were hard-won in encounters with unknown substances. Above all, alchemy is a record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning. And for that reason it is the best voice for artists who wrestle every day with materials they do not comprehend and methods they can never entirely master. Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the very last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.

James Elkins
in What Painting Is

Monday, October 09, 2006

Negotiations Between Water And Stone

Water and stones. Those are the unpromising ingredients of two very different endeavors. The first is painting, because artists’ pigments are made from fluids (these days, usually petroleum products and plant oils) mixed together with powdered stones to give color. All oil paints, watercolors, gouaches, and acrylics are made that way, and so are more solid concoctions including pastels, ink blocks, crayons, and charcoal. They differ only in the proportions of water and stone—or to put it more accurately, medium and pigment. To make oil paint, for example, it is only necessary to buy powdered rock and mix it with a medium, say linseed oil, so that it can be spread with a brush. Very little more is involved in any pigment, and the same observations apply to other visual arts. Ceramics begins with the careful mixing of tap water and clay, and the wet clay slip is itself a dense mixture of stone and water. Watery mud is the medium of ceramists, just as oily mud is the medium of painters. Mural painting uses water and stone, and tempera uses egg and stone. Even a medium like bronze casting relies on the capacity of “stone”—that is, the mixture of tin, lead, copper, zinc, and other metals—to become a river of bright orange fluid.

So painting and other visual arts are one example of negotiations between water and stone, and the other is alchemy. In alchemy, the Stone (with a capital S) is the ultimate goal, and one of the purposes of alchemy is to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as stone. As in painting, the means are liquid and the ends are solid. And as in painting, most alchemy does not have to do with either pure water or hard stones, but with mixtures of the two. Alchemists worked with viscid stews, with tacky drying films, with brittle skins of slag: in short, they were concerned with the same range of half-fluids as painters and other artists.

That is the first point of similarity between alchemy and painting. There is a second similarity that runs even deeper, and gives me the impetus to explain painting in such a strange way. In alchemy as in painting, there are people who prefer to live antiseptically, and think about the work instead of laboring over it. In alchemy, those are the “spiritual” or “meditative” alchemists, the ones who read about alchemy and ponder its meaning but try not to go near a laboratory; and in painting they are the critics and art historians who rarely venture close enough to a studio to feel the pull of paint on their fingers. Perhaps because they are uncomfortable with paint, art historians prefer meanings that are not intimately dependent on the ways the paintings were made. Consider, for instance, the first of the color plates in this book. An historian looking at this painting might recognize Sassetta, a fourteenth-century painter from Siena. Sassetta is known to art history as a late medieval artist who slowly adjusted his work to the emerging sensibility of the Florentine Renaissance. He knew about the important new works that were being made in Florence, and there are echoes and hints of them in his paintings, though in the end he remained faithful to the conservative Sienese ways. We know a little about his life, and about his patrons and commissions; and we can guess at his friends, and the places he visited. Pictures can have many meanings of those kinds, and art history is a rich and complex field. But a painting is a painting, and not words describing the artist or the place it was made or the people who commissioned it. A painting is made of paint—of fluids and stone—and paint has its own logic, and its own meanings even before it is shaped into the head of a madonna. To an artist, a picture is both a sum of ideas and a blurry memory of “pushing paint,” breathing fumes, dripping oils and wiping brushes, smearing and diluting and mixing. Bleary preverbal thoughts are intermixed with the namable concepts, figures and forms that are being represented. The material memories are not usually part of what is said about a picture, and that is a fault in interpretation because every painting captures a certain resistance of paint, a prodding gesture of the brush, a speed and insistence in the face of mindless matter: and it does so as the same moment, and in the same thought, as it captures the expression of a face.

In Sassetta’s painting little brushstrokes form the face: they are delicate light touches that fall like lines of rain over the skin, coming down at a slight angle over the temples and next to the mouth. Brighter marks spread from the top of the forehead, crisscrossing the canted strokes over the temple. There are larger milky dapples just under the pink of the cheek—almost like downy hair—and curling marks that come around the neck and congregate on the collar bone. Sassetta has clasped three bright rings of sharp white (they are called Venus’s collars) around the neck. The sum of brushstrokes is the evidence of the artist’s manual devotion to his image: for Sassetta painting was the slow, pleasureful, careful and repetitious building of a face from minuscule droplets of pigment. The initial strokes were darker and more watery, and as the contours began to emerge he used whiter paint, and put more on his tiny brush, until he finally built up the forehead to a brilliant alabaster. This is tempera painting, and in its period many painters used the medium as a way of showing devotion. Sassetta’s lingering patience and fastidious attention remain fixed in the painting for everyone to see: they are a meaning of the method itself.

James Elkins
in What Painting Is

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mischa Barton, Mischa Barton

Now and then people say this or that owl
is really the daughter of some baker.
We know what other people are, but guess
at what other people really might be.

Mischa Barton went from Los Angeles
to London to learn about Shakespeare’s plays.

I knew a young woman who looked so much
like Mischa Barton that I wondered if
Mischa Barton was researching a role
as a hot, young beauty toiling away
in an anonymous suburban job.

Since in my deepest, secret soul I feel
life is for the most part very much like
a Danny Kaye movie—you know, people
in other people’s places, playing roles—
or like Greek mythology, I asked her.

I asked the beautiful suburban girl
who looked exactly like Mischa Barton
if she was Mischa researching a role.

I planned, of course, to hint that I’d expose
her presence in the suburb unless she
used her influence to put together
a development deal for a two-hour
made-for-TV thriller I was writing.
Mischa would play an ichthyologist
investigating sea serpent sightings
in Lake Champlain. I wanted Penn Jillette
to co-star as her grad student sidekick.

Mischa Barton dated Brandon Davis,
heir to the Marvin Davis oil fortune.
“I dipped my foot in that pool,” Mischa says.
“But in the end I’m not part of that world.”
They split up and Mischa went to London
to read, study and perform Shakespeare’s plays.

I asked this beautiful suburban girl
who looked exactly like Mischa Barton
if she was Mischa researching a role.

It turned out she wasn’t Mischa Barton.

And, of course, this suburban girl didn’t
assume I was a writer looking to
further my writing career through standard
show business quid pro quo maneuvering.
She assumed I was, well, something like a
barn owl looking to snap up a field mouse.

We know what other people are, but guess
at what other people really might be.

Which is not to say that I’m not something
like an owl looking to snap up a mouse.

Mischa Barton went to London to learn
what Shakespeare thought about country matters.

The girl that looked exactly like Mischa
got married, started her own business and
is living happily ever after.

Mischa Barton came back from studying
Shakespeare in London and is hoping for
a key role in a television show
about sexy, desperate suburban wives.

A mysterious society of
international banker-alchemists
somehow mixed up me and another guy
and now I’m on the run with a famous
retired woman tennis player who looks
very much like actress Vera-Ellen.

We know what we are, not what we might be.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sleeping Beauty

I made my way down to the public beach and along it to the sandy point which partly enclosed the harbor. A few people, mostly women and girls, were standing at the edge of the water, facing out to sea. They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again.

The surf was rising sluggishly. A black bird with a sharp beak was struggling in it. The bird had orange-red eyes, which seemed to be burning with anger, but it was so fouled with oil that at first I didn’t recognize it as a western grebe.

A woman in a white shirt and slacks waded in thigh-deep and picked it up, holding its head so that it wouldn’t peck her. I could see as she came back toward me that she was a handsome young woman with dark eyes as angry as the bird’s. Her narrow feet left beautifully shaped prints in the wet sand.

I asked her what she was going to do with the grebe.

“Take it home and clean it.”

“It probably won’t survive, I’m afraid.”

“No, but maybe I will.”

She walked away, holding the black struggling thing against her white shirt. I walked along behind in her elegant footprints. She became aware of this, and turned to face me.

“What do you want?”

“I should apologize. I didn’t mean to be discouraging.”

“Forget it,” she said. “It’s true not many live once they’ve been oiled. But I saved some in the Santa Barbara spill.”

“You must be quite a bird expert.”

“I’m getting to be one in self-defense. My family is in the oil business.”

from, Sleeping Beauty

by Ross Macdonald

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Mythologies Of Facts

“The very notion of truth
is a culturally given direction,
a part of the pervasive nostalgia
for an earlier certainty.
The very idea of a universal stability,
an eternal firmness of principle out there
that can be sought for through the world
as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail,
is, in the morphology of history,
a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods
in the first two millennia after
the decline of the bicameral mind.
What was then an augury for direction of action
among the ruins of an archaic mentality
is now the search for an innocence of certainty
among the mythologies of facts.”

Julian Jaynes

in The Origin Of Consciousness
In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

That Fourth Dimension For Which I Am Searching

“For me the
metamorphosis of
height, breadth and depth into the
two-dimensional plane is a
magical experience which gives me an
inkling of that
fourth dimension for which I am
searching with all my

Painter, Max Beckmann (1884-1950)
quoted in, Perspective,” by Alison Cole

Monday, October 02, 2006

Anna Kournikova’s Face

I’ve been staring at
Anna Kournikova’s face.
I never get tired

of thinking about
Anna Kournikova’s face.
She always stares back.

It’s a picture of
Anna Kournikova’s face.
It’s not, you know, her.

Of course, I’d stare at
Anna Kournikova’s face
in real-life if she

were here with me, but
Anna Kournikova’s face
isn’t really here.

It’s a good pic of
Anna Kournikova’s face
from the BBC.

I’m so knocked-out by
Anna Kournikova’s face
I’d like to draw a

graphic novel of
Anna Kournikova’s face.
The cover would be

a big picture of
Anna Kournikova’s face.
And then every page

would be panels of
Anna Kournikova’s face.
The story would be

subtle and involve
Anna Kournikova’s face
in global intrigue.

There would be hints that
Anna Kournikova’s face
in real-life inspired

the odd goings-on
Anna Kournikova’s face
lives through in the book.

Readers would study
Anna Kournikova’s face
looking for clues, but

the mystery of
Anna Kournikova’s face
wouldn’t be revealed.

There’s real magic in
Anna Kournikova’s face
and magicians don’t

give away magic.
Anna Kournikova’s face
doesn’t give away

its magic. Seeing
Anna Kournikova’s face
is to know magic.

All faces are like
Anna Kournikova’s face,
pages to read, but

turning endlessly.
Anna Kournikova’s face—
I can’t look away.

Like everyone’s face
Anna Kournikova’s face
is the Holy Grail.