Seeing for the first time

the author responds to romantic imagery, especially writing or painting that represents nature, with intense emotion, the way someone starved for a week responds to food.> 

Jim: Max Picard has a book called Hitler in Us. Picard was anti-radio. 

 Look at what technology is doing to the culture now. Sam Harris was saying that it’s like road rage. It’s anonymous. You get into your car and you become this crazy person. People have an anonymous handle on social media, same thing.

Jim: I think art is a place where you can get people to step out of that. Richter, have you watched that new movie? I’ll bet it’s pretty good. A director has done a controversial movie about how art can redeem suffering—something like that—and he thought Richter would make a good source, since some think he’s the greatest living painter. This director wanted to interview him and worked all this information out of him and then did a fictional account that Richter has disowned. Richter’s gallery director says it is half fact and half fabrication and viewers don’t know which is which, but some of it is true. He thinks Richter has been hiding these truths in his paintings and has wanted someone to ferret them out. All of these horrible things about his family and the Nazis and then having to flee. An innocuous looking photograph of three people on the beach is supposedly his father and a Nazi. 

That’s interesting that you’re intrigued by this examination of the artist’s life in relation to his work. When I was at LACMA, I saw a Picasso print, from the Vollard Suite, that sent me on a couple weeks of investigation into those prints that his dealer commissioned him to do. The minotaur material came together in that effort and when I saw the final image in that suite, after having just seen a lot of the late portraits that he did, which leave me so indifferent and then seeing this aquatint and how amazingly crafted it is, and dreamlike, and beautiful. Even Guernica looks fast, though it had to have taken a long time to paint. This suite was his way of ramping up to Guernica, working up images he used in that painting. The suite is a sustained dream about love, sex and creativity, and was his apologetics for moving from one woman to another in his life. It’s an interesting example of self-awareness and doubt and a sense of shame over what he’s doing as he’s doing it, without intending to ever stop. From his wife, to this 17-year-old girl, and then Dora Maar and on to others who followed. This horrible sequence of what could be construed as exploitation, but it’s so complicated and you look at the influences that went into it you can see the implication that the women have nearly as much power as he did—except Marie Therese. But in the work, she is the guide, the inspiration, the light that tames him. His Beatrice. Everything about it is so interesting and so totally the opposite of the way I think about art, because it’s about something in an intellectual way. It could be the greatest thing he ever did and yet it’s basically just drawings, no color. For me everything in painting comes back to color as the motivation and color has no place in the suite. 

Jim: You take line for granted. 

Maybe. His biography is what’s paramount and what drives this whole thing is his own personal story, though it works without knowing his story. The meanings aren’t transparent. 

Jim: Something intense drives an artist to make form. 

That’s the core of art. It becomes something that works for formal reasons, without necessarily knowing why you did it or what it means. 

Jim: Even if you’re just seeing the struggle with the impulse and its resolution, it’s uplifting. 

The impact is the same for the viewer and the artist. 

Jim: I know how people can think up stuff, and it’s fun to see it happen, though. 

This is visceral. The resolution he comes to is visceral, and you can tell in what you’re seeing. Regardless of whether or not you understand what was being resolved. So how’d your show go? 

<Jim’s recent show at ROCO offered a look at the results of his landscape lottery project, with Rochester itself providing the landscape. Rolls of the dice determine the location of the pinpoints on a map where he goes to set up and draw what he sees, completely at random, as a way of showing that all places have an equal worthiness to be painted and also a way to get him out of his comfortable neighborhood into areas in the city he would otherwise have no impulse to visit. He showed me images of paintings from the ROCO show. One of them, a suburban street with a white mailbox, stood out from the rest and we spoke about it.>

 

Jim: I told you about that guy I met when I was doing that painting. He lived there at that house and he came out when I was sketching the mailbox. The short story is that he sketches a lot but wouldn’t let me look at his sketches. I got him talking enough to say he’d done a painting in high school he liked and that he’d gone back to find it ten years later and had to go back to New York City but then he said they liked it so much they put it up on the wall near the entrance until last year when some donors from an art museum who gave money to the school saw the painting and bought it. 

You’re kidding. 

Jim: He’s a night nurse. 

But he has sales. 

Jim: In the collection at MOMA or something. Who knows? 

That’s hilarious. What a comic scene in a movie. Your whole mission in life is to make these paintings and a nurse comes out to tell you he sold a painting to a museum. 

<He points to his painting of a couple on the stoop of a house in the city.> 

Jim: This woman told me about her gnomes and how she had to bring them inside because people were stealing them. I painted a lot of people for once. 

They’re good. The figures are very good. These are Porter-quality. 

Jim: The birds is the most popular one.

The chain-link is great, the way you just scratched it into the paint. It’s almost looks like the diagram of a molecule. 

Jim: I want to ask your advice. I’m applying for a residency at the University of Michigan. I’m an alum. 

Go Blue. 

Jim: I looked at past winners. A lot of contemporary stuff. I don’t have much of a chance. The thing that gave me encouragement was, I’ve been doing the landscape lottery. The idea is that everything is sort of equal, and you can find a subject anywhere. 

And yet the work is tied to specific locations. Knausgaard talks about that: how the local is getting lost. 

Jim: The landscape lottery is the kind of project I want to take to other cities, so that’s the idea: bring it to Ann Arbor. 

That’s original. They won’t have seen a proposal like that before. Definitely. That works. 

Jim: Part of the residency is that you spend two days a week in a glass studio in the art museum. 

In a glass studio.

Jim: People can interact directly. They could roll the dice. 

So you’re in a cage. Like Hannibal Lecter. 

Jim: But they want me to interact with students and people in the community. My two questions are if I just do a straight lottery . . . do you know Ann Arbor at all? It’s a very small city that’s half students and faculty, more or less. Imagine a very small city and not a whole lot of inner city which is the beauty of Rochester that half the time I went to places white suburbanites wouldn’t go. So my question is, should I propose Detroit which is nearby? Or is it better to keep it in the community? The other question, when I was doing this, Sonya and I were . . . I was thinking of going to find people and letting them commission what they want. She said, oh that’s great. She said, no one would have made me think my life growing up was worthy of art. If you let someone tell you what they want to see, let someone like this be a patron. But it takes it away from seeing the random little thing that’s there. It’s more about people. The reason I was thinking about this was that there’s a philosopher there, who was in The New Yorker recently, and she is sort of a radical egalitarian. She’s revolutionizing philosophy by being a pragmatist and kind of liberal and kind of not. She doesn’t want to impose a welfare state from above: she wants everyone to respect everyone, which goes along with this. How do you actually respect everyone: get to know them and do a painting for them?

You could have a dialog with her while you’re there. 

Jim: So I don’t know whether to propose the lottery or do this other thing. The question is, how to find people randomly. 

Well, find people through the lottery. You ended up here, you ended up at the mailbox. Just do the lottery to find whoever it is and say here’s my project. By commission you mean you do the painting and give it to them. Say you tell me where you want me to go and what do you want the picture to be of, your house, the inside of your house . . Have them commission it but find them with the lottery. Isn’t this what you’ve been doing with the itinerant project? 

Jim: Usually they say they don’t want to tell me what to paint. 

Who’s not going to want to do it? Who would say no? This is so close to what your philosopher is talking about. It’s an enactment of what she’s talking about. I can’t believe they wouldn’t want you to do this. If you incorporate her philosophy into it. It’s clever. It would be different from anything they would ever come across. 

Jim: I had the show at ROCO and went to there to drop some stuff off on the way to a talk somewhere else. A guy with a beard, his work was a video of him in his underwear trying to do pushups while video games were playing in the background, and he was trying to explain it as a protest and was laughing a lot . .  What is that all about? I still feel as if I’m missing something. Why is the director of an art gallery collecting videos like that . . . But most museums are doing it. 

That’s sort of true, there’s always art that feels empty, but the impression I had in L.A. was different. I went through the Getty and Norton Simon and LACMA, and I didn’t have that impression from much of what I saw. I saw a lot of excellent judgement in the work on view. Of course most of the collection goes back, it isn’t all contemporary, but there was a retrospective of Sally Mann’s photography, and it was just phenomenally beautiful work. It just looked like such a sane exhibit and such great work, and it was encouraging because I didn’t see intentionally off-putting stuff. 

Jim: Maybe places with low budgets, they buy into narrative. 

Things they can talk about. That’s what Jim Hall says, people want art they can talk about. What can you say about Richter’s painting of a candle flame? 

Jim: I still want art to be a retreat where you get a different perspective. 

Art should be a way of seeing something for the first time. You just want to look. Everything else is secondary. 

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