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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

09 APRIL, 2013

Jackson Pollock on Art, Labels, and Morality, Shortly Before His Death

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“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

In 1957, writer, public intellectual, lifelong art aficionado, and self-described “aging anthologist” Selden Rodman collected several dozen of his informal, lively, amusing, and insightful interviews with iconic artists and architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg — in Conversations with Artists (public library). Among the conversations is one with Jackson Pollockbeloved artist and son of one particularly great dad — which took place eight weeks before Pollock, driving under the influence of alcohol, crashed in his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree and died.

But on that June evening in 1956, Rodman bumped into a tipsy Pollock en route to a dive bar party following the opening of Willem de Kooning’s show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. When Rodman, tipsy as well, runs into Pollock near Astor Place, the painter suddenly reaches out, grabs the runt of a nearby tree, and weaves into an oddly philosophical meditation:

“What’s the use of going further than this?,” he muttered. “The tree’s got everythin’. Leave it alone and it’ll grow and grow an’ be beautiful. … No need to leave New York at all. … Thish tree’s got everythin’ … beautiful … beautiful …!” And he drifted off into the moonlit fog of dawn, dropping a package of matches. I stopped over and picked it up. The words printed on it said: “There are good jobs for everyone in the telephone business.”

About a month later, Rodman calls Pollock — who famously doesn’t answer letters — to arrange a visit. He coordinates with his wife, Lee Krasner, an abstract painter herself. Eventually, he makes his way to the family’s home in East Hampton, where Pollock emerges to greet him “in nondescript blue slacks and a T-shirt, bearded and bleary-eyed, like a bear.” Pollock’s way of conversation, Rodman notes, bespeaks a great deal of his character:

He talks with difficulty, searching painfully, almost agonizingly, for the right word, with constant apologies “for not being verbal.” The sincerity of the man is overwhelmingly apparent. He is uncouth and inarticulate and arrogant and very sure of his place in art and of the importance of the movement with which he is associated, but there is not a race of showmanship or phoniness in his make-up. He is friendly and warm-hearted — though he resists showing it, and no doubt would like to be though ruthless and without sentiment. In respect to his art, of course, he is; and this may be the tragic conflict that both makes his painting what it is and accounts for his inability to carry it further.

Jackson Pollock

When asked “to elaborate on the business of labels,” Pollock grunts:

“I don’t care for ‘abstract expressionism,'” he said, “and it’s certainly not ‘nonobjective’ and not ‘nonrepresentational’ either. I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge. We’re all of us influenced by Freud, I guess. I’ve been a Jungian for a long time.

When Rodman probes about Pollock’s process, the painter offers a strikingly articulate addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Something in me knows where I’m going, and — well, painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.

Later in the conversation, Pollock reflects on the inherent duality of human character:

It’s a different age we live in. It’s an age of indeterminacy, perhaps. Morals are indeterminate compared with other times. YOu don’t call a thing or a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the way you could one. We know there’s good and bad in everyone. This indeterminacy comes out in our painting. Perhaps it’s why we’re not interested in making portraits. That would be too precise a statement to lend itself to painting as we practice it.

He admonishes against vacant imitation:

When you try to emulate the old masters … you get corn, real corn. Bits of Renaissance pastiche are still bits of Renaissance pastiche, no matter how blurred you make them.

'Autumn Rhythm' by Jackson Pollock, 1950, enamel on canvas

Later, he takes a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic cylindrical structure, and the very notion of museums:

As for Wright, he’s a great architect, I guess, but what a *%@#! That museum! We’ve had all this trouble in doing away with the frame — and now this. Paintings don’t need all this fooling around. The hell with museums! Put the paintings in a room and look at ‘em — isn’t that enough? You remember that old building where the Museum of Modern Art started? What was wrong with that? I was in a house designed by Mies once; I felt so taut I couldn’t say anything.

Pollock is equally dismissive of another facet of the art establishment, the critics and the press:

None of the art magazines are worth anything. Nobody takes them seriously. The’r a bunch of snobs.

'The Key' by Jackson Pollock, 1946, oil on canvas (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago)

And just when you think Pollock’s delightfully curmudgeonly side has blossomed fully, an incident out of an old Hollywood movie: He invites Rodman to see his studio, but finds it padlocked, with no key in sight. So he does the most natural — at least to Pollock, evidently — thing:

We waited while he went back into the house. In about five minutes he returned, shaking his head. “Lee hasn’t got one either. There just isn’t any key,” he smiled wryly. “There’s something for the analyst!” he said “The painter locks himself out of his own studio. And then has to break it like a thief.”

Before we could stop him he had smashed a pane of glass.

“Couldn’t we force the window?” I said.

He tried, but without success. There were wedges nailed in from the inside.

“Damn!” With his elbow he smashed another pane, and then another, tearing away the wooden strips between them. “Wait. I’ll get a hammer and really go to work on this.” He ran back to the house while we collected the splintered glass in a pile. Returning with the hammer, he finally managed to raise the lower half of the window and, shoving a table covered with dusty sketches out of the way, stepped in. We followed him. The main studio was an extraordinary sight. Huge paintings, some of them twenty or more feet long, demonstrated clearly enough what he had meant. They weren’t French, or even American. They were simply Pollock. Paint laced, slashed or dripped on canvas after canvas, but always arrestingly, authoritatively, as only he can do it: undeniably the expression of a tormented but vital personality.

As the afternoon’s adventure comes to an end, Pollock’s singular blend of single-mindedness and sensitivity shines through:

As we walked toward the window to climb out, he took a look back into the lair of creative devastation.

“These paintings, the ones I’ve kept, are my securities. They’re all I’ve got left.” He leaned out the window and looked at the view of the distant pond.

“Painting is my whole life…”

Conversations with Artists is a treasure trove in its entirety — highly recommended.

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04 APRIL, 2013

Isaac Asimov on Curiosity, Taking Risk, and the Value of Space Exploration in Muppet Magazine

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“To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.”

In the summer of 1983, Muppet Magazine invited science fiction icon Isaac Asimovsage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries — to “a meeting of the minds,” wherein Dr. Julius Strangepork would interview Asimov. Despite the silly tone of German-inspired Strangepork-speak, the wide-ranging conversation touches on a number of timeless and surprisingly timely issues.

Three decades before the precarious state of space exploration we face today, as NASA is implementing new “cost-saving measures” at the expense of education and public outreach, Asimov speaks to the enormous cultural benefits of space exploration:

Dr. S: Personally, I like hanging around in space. I mean, it beats vatching reruns of de Brady Bunch. But how do you convince other people dat we should be schpending all dis money on space exploration?

Dr. A: By pointing out the benefits. The more we know about the solar system, the better we understand the earth. The very instruments we develop to explore the planets mean that we have better technology for use here on earth.

We now have weather satellites that tell us, for the first time in history, what the weather on the earth as a whole is like. Until we had these weather satellites, forecasting was nothing more than a local guess. We have satellites that study the resources of the earth, so that we know a great deal more about, for instance, where there are sick forests, or where grain is being attacked by some sort of disease, or how to locate oil. And, of course, communication satellites have bound the entire earth together.

On the relationship between space exploration and peace on earth:

I don’t think we can really advance into space until we learn how to cooperate as a planet. It’s not practical to have several different nations jostling and competing their way into space. It’s too expensive, too wasteful, and the benefits aren’t big enough unless they are for the entire planet.

On science fiction as lubricant for change:

My own feeling is that science fiction, of all the different forms of literature, is the one that most easily accepts the notion of change. Things are changing very quickly, and any kid who thinks about it knows that the world in which he or she will be a grown-up — which he or she will be helping to run — will be considerably different from this one. Maybe better, maybe worse, but different. Science fiction explores the future world.

I think more and more young people are beginning to feel that science fiction is the kind of literature that a person interested in reality should be reading.

On using precaution in balancing the risks and rewards of taking a chance:

There is always some risk [in discovery], but you learn to take precautions. When Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in a storm, suspecting that lightning was an electrical discharge, he realized perfectly well that he could get one grandaddy of a shock. But he didn’t just hold the string of the kite. He tied a silken thread to the string and he held the silk because he knew that silk does not conduct electricity. And he stood under a shed to stay dry. … He was taking a certain chance. But he took precautions. He experimented and he did his homework. Another guy tried it in much the same way Franklin did, and lightning jumped from the string of the kite and zapped him.

On the power of curiosity:

To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.

Complement with Asimov’s 1991 essay collection The Secret of the Universe (public library).

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18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Illustrator Sophie Blackall on Subversive Storytelling, Missed Connections, and Optimism

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What Aldous Huxley’s misogyny has to do with children’s books, darkness, and modern love.

Australian illustrator Sophie Blackall remains best-known for her warm, wistful, and whimsical Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (public library) — a visual paean to modern love by way of illustrated Craigslist missed connections, which you might recall as one of the best art and design books of 2011. If you live in New York, you’ve likely seen and admired her heart-warming subway artwork; and if you have a taste for obscure children’s books by famous adult authors, you might know and love her Aldous Huxley adaptation, one of more than thirty children’s books she has illustrated.

In a recent episode of her fantastic Design Matters show, Debbie Millman talks to Blackall about the difference between an artist and an illustrator, what makes children’s storytelling particularly exciting, the origin and afterlife of the missed connections project, and more. The interview is excellent in its entirety, but here are some favorite excerpts:

On the challenges of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, handling its rather misogynistic undertones, and hiding a few secret jokes for the reader to find:

On darkness and optimism, echoing Maurice Sendak’s faith in children’s ability to handle the subversive, and the essence of Blackall’s work:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

On the curious, serendipitous genesis of the Missed Connections project:

The [missed connections] listings were intriguing because they mixed the natural desire to make a first impression and the very human need to get a second chance.

But the most tender, moving, and poetic of the stories will stop your breath:

The Whale at Coney Island

— M4M — 69

(Brooklyn/Florida)

A young friend of mine recently acquainted me with the intricacies of Missed Connections, and I have decided to try to find you one final time.

Many years ago, we were friends and teachers together in New York City. Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not. We used to take trips to Coney Island, especially during the spring, when we would stroll hand in hand, until our palms got too sweaty, along the boardwalk, and take refuge in the cool darkness of the aquarium. We liked to visit the whale best. One spring, it arrived from its winter home (in Florida? I can’t remember) pregnant. Everyone at the aquarium was very excited — a baby beluga whale was going to be born in New York City! You insisted that we not miss the birth, so every day after class, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we would take the D train all the way from Harlem to Coney Island.

We got there one Saturday as the aquarium opened and there was a sign posted to the glass tank. The baby beluga had been born dead. The mother, the sign read, was recovering but would be fine. We read the sign in shock and watched the single beluga whale in her tank. She was circling slowly. Neither of us could speak. Suddenly, without warning, the beluga started to throw herself against the wall of the tank. Trainers came and ushered us out. We sat on a bench outside, and suddenly I felt tears running down my face. You saw, turned my face towards yours, and kissed me. We had never kissed before, and I let my lips linger on yours for a second before I stood up and walked towards the ocean.

It was too much — the whale, the death, the kiss — and I wasn’t ready.

Forgive me — I don’t think I ever understood what an emptiness you would create when you left and I realized that that kiss on Coney Island was the first and the last.

Are you out there, dear friend?

If so, please respond. I think of you, and have thought of you often, all of these years.

The full interview is well worth a listen:

For related goodness, subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, treat yourself to Missed Connections, and watch this wonderful Etsy artist profile of Blackall:

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