The when-to-paint is this, it is always.
Life is less meaningful when I don’t write—not to you, of course, but to me. You are as unchanged by my not writing as you are by my writing. There are three questions that plague me as an artist, they are 1. What to paint; 2. How to paint; and 3. Why to paint. The what-to-paint is an unceasing repetitive task. The how-to-paint is a thesis. The why-to-paint is an existential crisis. Sometimes I am lucky, and none of these questions confronts me in the studio. Most times I am met with at least one of them. When I am very unlucky, I am beset by all three at the same time. That is where I am now. I am in the snake pit with the what and the how and the why. The what is a clutch of green garden snakes. The how is a python stronger than my arm. The why is a quarreling knot of vipers in my heart.
You continue to be lucky! I have decided to keep my thinking to myself—at least for a while.
On this day, I will give you some very good news! You will throw your caps into the air with a resounding Hurrah! (I don’t think anybody says that anymore.) I will get right to it, this is the news: I am ceasing writing for a while! Hurrah!
I think linear storytelling is boring, I don’t do it well. I am still hungover from yesterday’s too-many-specifics. It seemed important to tell you that story—the painting’s self-assertion stunned me!—but I do not know that it was really worth it in the end. It cost me a lot of words, and for what? I am a poet, I am not a novelist! I prefer abstract concepts to details, I am a broad-strokes kind of woman, I do not go in for the multitude of careful brushstrokes that eventually add up to something—something small, like a saucer. I do not have the patience for that! One two three! broad strokes and I am finished. Not really, but…it would seem that way. Let me tell you something. I buried everything beneath that avalanche of words! Who will uncover all the buried better ones? No one, that’s who. But what was I to do? I had a story to tell! I know, I know, I did not tell it well. I remember when I was a poet, how much I loved writing poetry. It was a fire within me. It was a summer heat storm, lighting me up silently. There is no experience I have loved more than that of writing poetry when I was on fire with it, when I was electric with the light of it, when we were in our embrace. There were times when poems came whole cloth out of nowhere, and it is why I believe, poetry is why I believe in God. Lengthy, word-beclotted blog posts are not. Yet here I sit, making my prosaic litanies nonetheless. But why? Why do I do it? Well, I have my reasons. They have to do with writing, and with painting, with record-keeping and with storytelling. They have to do with compulsion and with love, with fealty and continuity and selfhood. Those are the broad strokes of why I return to this day after day. They are like empty amphorae, however, absent of specifics. You will have noticed this is absent of specifics? Here is one specific for you, for I know they are like snacks: I am sorry, I cannot come up with one.
I want to tell you about the secret life of paintings. In order to do so, I will have to be specific, which is not my favorite thing to be. You will learn why as we go along. I don’t remember when it happened, I think it was probably two weeks ago, I decided one morning that I wanted to paint Medusa. It had been on my mind for a while to do this, but on this day, I landed on it and pinned it down, decided to do it. It was my mood. I wanted to work with that character or archetype, for it was expressive of something I was feeling, a fierceness, I guess; I was in the mood to turn certain people to stone. Now, I have told you this before, but I will tell it to you again: I am not a drawer. Drawing is my weak suit. But it is part of what I do, I have to draw in order to make the figures I then paint. Drawing is the smallest part of what I do—as I have also told you before, I am not one of those painters who makes elaborate drawings on the canvas and then more or less just colors in the lines. Rather, I make a broad, simple outline of the figure, and then start painting. It is only a guideline, really, the most basic layout of the necessary roads I have to begin to follow in order to eventually arrive at where I’m going. The way I work is this: I paint. But first I must draw if I am painting a figure (I have painted many figures without first drawing them out, but I find that process has self-defeat baked into it, so I do not like to do that). (This is why I do not like specifics—there are too many of them, they are endless once you start elucidating them!) (I do not know how not to tell you everything!) (Which is why it is best when I am telling you nothing.) On this day, I worked hour after hour trying to sketch out a Medusa, I was basing the drawing on an earlier painting I had made of Medusa, this one on paper, I made it years ago. For whatever reason, I was unable to produce an adequate sketch—the figure was fine, but I couldn’t get the balance of the snake hair right. So I kept expunging the drawing and trying again. Finally, in frustration, I decided not to paint Medusa, how could I paint Medusa if I couldn’t get the balance of the snakes right? I decided instead to make a portrait of a woman, she would be sad, this was the emotion besides fierceness I wanted to convey, it was just as necessary to express sadness on that day as fierceness, and I would grid the drawing rather than do it by instinct (I was defeated!), which was an unusual move for me, I haven’t gridded paintings in years, but I like doing it, it is not that I have given it up, it is only that I have been doing other things instead. It is always a tool to return to, is the grid. So then I worked on this painting for many days, she was a saddish woman, though not sad enough. I forgot about her early Medusan history, I forgot all about Medusa. Now I was just concentrated on the painting that was, not the one that was was. One of the decisions I had made about this painting was that the right side of her hair (house right) would not be defined, it would be one with the background, implied only, the brain would finish it, but the painter would not. The left side, on the other hand, was completely defined. In what I thought were the final stages of this painting, I reinforced the line that defined the left side of her hair, and this line had the slightest (unintentional) loop at the crown of her head that brought it back down into itself (that’s what a loop is), and there it was: a snake. That is the secret life of paintings. They will be what they were meant to be, this despite the artist. They remember their history, they remember themselves, and they become themselves out of that memory more than from the random motions of the artist’s arm. Don’t you find that incredible? I do! Unfortunately, there is more I have to tell you about this painting in order to complete the story: Indecision ruined it. You see, thereafter, I could not decide whether I wanted the right side of her hair also to be defined by a snake. I was still in love with my implicit line and was not in any way committed to an explicit one. And yet, now it was Medusa, and she needed a snake! So back and forth I went, painting lines, expunging them, painting them again, taking them away again, back and forth like this, and back and forth, an entire motherlode of dithering, until I had overworked the passage beyond redemption. But here’s the funny thing. A snake did eventually emerge out of this redemptionless painting (I will not be defeated!), and, in the end, these snakes that define my young Medusa’s hair were the same snakes that defined the original failed sketch. What a circuitous route I had taken to get to her, what a serpentine route! But there she was: The thing she had always been. I think it tells us something about paintings. I think it tells us that they exist independent of their mortal makers, they are things in their own right, they are soulful living things with lungs and blood. Which tells us something more: Painting will never die. It is stupid to say that it has or will, it is the assertion of men (and women) when they are blind and unfeeling and close to dumb.
We have eerie, orange green skies of late, we are under a bad moon, there are wolves afoot, thieves at the crossroads, and the crows are amassing. Beware. Take extra precautions!
I will try not to be so twisty and turny with my writing today, but I do not guarantee that I will succeed in those efforts. It is mostly because I am getting up in the middle of the night, and I am light with the illogic of dreams. If there was dewy grass, my footprints would betray the nonlinear progress of a bird. But I will try to stay in place and peck at some seeds—it’s possible the seeds will hop around, and I will follow them, I am sorry for that, I do not have any control over what seeds do. Yesterday, there was someone in my studio who said the word breakthrough, and with this one word, I ceased to be a painter. No, that’s not true. I will pick up the brush and paint today, so I will still be a painter. But I will be a painter who will never have her breakthrough; I will be a painter who doesn’t even know what that means. I will therefore be a stupid painter. Do you know what I woke up thinking about? The meaning of the word prospective as it relates to retrospective. These were the thoughts that carried me from sleep to wakefulness at three a.m. Then I thought of progress as it relates to regress, proceed/recede (why suddenly the ede?), and then I changed subjects. Of course I know what breakthrough means! I know what it is to have breakthroughs as an artist. These are the things I know about breakthroughs: They are accidental; they are hard-won; they are unanticipated (which is probably the same as accidental); they are…never in the forecast. They are retrospective, they are not prospective! One cannot look ahead to a breakthrough. But if one cannot look ahead to a breakthrough, it is because it doesn’t exist. If a thing is not prospective, it cannot be relied upon to exist. There is, I know, always the possibility that a thing will come into existence out of nonexistence at some future date—witness all the babies being born—but it is not a certainty, it cannot be a certainty! With the introduction of this word, I am now made aware of a nonprospective (therefore nonexistent) nonevent—the entire non-ness of the thing, that is its only salient feature! And with this perspective, I am able to see more clearly what I am (this is sometimes not a good thing!): I am a painter whose only prospect is what she will paint today, and it will be very much like what she painted yesterday. It’s a sort of prospective sameness that becomes a retrospective sameness, which absolutely precludes—this is the equation of the algebra of painting!—doing anything but what one does. I will not insult your intelligence by telling you that this is antithetical to the concept of breakthrough. I will insult your intelligence by trying (and failing) to trick you.
Yesterday I wrote that I did not like making process paintings anymore, and then I wondered—did I wonder or conclude?—whether by “process painting,” I meant “abstract.” It went something like that anyway. And I was right to shift my gimlet eye to abstract and away from process, for, as it turns out, process is not the enemy, it is abstraction. I will now give a more-or-less real-time explanation of why I am able to say these words today. (I have been up since 3:30 a.m., and my eyes feel abraded.) As I mentioned in the paragraph below (that statement goes against nature, nature as I have always known it!, nature as I love it!), I was working yesterday on a process painting, and I despaired because I hated it, because I foresaw a long, boring slog of making a painting that would never interest me, never for a moment, never would it interest me. But it was not a slog, and I was wrong, wrong about all of it! and this is why: Well, first I will say that I was not wrong about all of it, only about the greater portion of it. The process part of it was boring, so I was not wrong about that, but mostly I think it was boring because I did not know where I was going with it, I was just processing it, building up the central shape without knowing anything beyond that, only the shape, only the building of the paint that made the shape, only that. That is boring. You can see how that would be boring. It would not, perhaps, be as boring if there was a guiding vision, something I was driving for, but I had no guiding vision, I had only the shape, and the paint I used to make it, over and over again. Over and over, that is the process of process. Where the hell am I? And then there came a time, this time was yesterday, sometime in the afternoon, when I began to see what the painting might be, I began to take the first risks with it—and that is how paintings are launched, or when they are truly launched, not from their safe mooring from the shore, not from the beginning, but mid-sea, when the risks one takes could potentially spell doom, when there is no safety, no swimming back to shore—and a vision came into focus, to phrase it as lazily as possible. Did a vision actually come into focus? No. The painting did, but not a vision, not something I saw, there was no Jesus in the toast, I just started to take risks that worked, and the painting began to appear. What I am trying to tell you—badly and inexhaustibly, apparently—is that the painting did not, after all, become an abstract painting, it was not an abstract painting, it was a landscape! I knew all along the central shape was “pond,” but that is all I knew, and it is very difficult to hang the wardrobe of one’s work on such a skinny peg as that. What is “pond”? It was only a shape to me, it was not visually coherent, the way the words I have been stringing together recently about ponds are coherent (well, sort of). I see in words, I do not see in pictures so much, so when I paint, it is the paint and the brushes that see better than I, it is they who bring forth the painting—eventually, and to my surprise, and in the face of mounting despair, they are stalwart warriors, these pigments and brushes. When pond became “Pond,” thanks to some fortuitous mark-making, I found the painting’s center, its axis, its soul. I found, in short, its story. It was told to me by the marks I was now making, it was told to me by the confluence of paint. I was wrong to despair, I was wrong to forget to trust the process and that the process of process is bleak until it is not. I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong. Now I will give you one final, definitive statement, one I challenge anyone to refute: It is risk-taking that makes painting interesting, both in the execution (which only some of you will know) and the outcome (which all of you should know).
Now I will switch back to the present day, although because of the nature of the format of this thing, you will not know that I have spent a couple days in the past, unless you are reading along, and I know you are not. I do not like making process paintings anymore! I find them tedious in the execution—the fascination I once held for them has drained away—and largely unappealing in the outcome. When I say “process painting,” in a sense, I really mean “abstract.” That is because my process paintings are almost exclusively abstract. So do I mean to say I find abstraction tedious and unappealing? I think so, yes! I am speaking from the point of the view of the maker of paintings, not the viewer—there is so much abstract work by others that I love (and envy), I am not talking about abstraction in general, only in the specific—specifically, my abstract work. I am clearly not an abstract painter! I will tell you this, too: When I make abstract paintings that are not process-oriented, they fail utterly, they are flat-on-their face failures. I feel that this is an admission of, well, failure. Where once I thought I had found my own language of abstraction, I now feel that I have a form of aphasia, the kind that has me unable to recall or recognize that language. To see it on the canvas is to see an ugly polyglot. Figuration, on the other hand, is more than just a language, it is the very alphabet of being. I think it was nicer in the days when I fought hard for abstraction, when I believed there was something worthwhile in the fight for it because I believed concurrently in my ability to arrive at an abstraction wholly my own and entirely interesting. I was not wrong to think so, and I believe I did arrive at something that was both my own and interesting. But now, as I say, I find the process tedious and the results boring. There is no fight, that is probably why; it is more rote than battlesome. This of course means that the abstraction I drove for was ultimately a dead end or, to stay with my metaphor, a dead language. It did not grow out of itself, it did not bear an organic succession of paintings that expanded on the original concepts—it just was, and then it died. That is how it feels. I have an abstract painting on the easel now (I am still sort of drawn to the work conceptually, it is only in the execution and, as I say, the outcome that I dislike it), and I must slog along with it today, and probably tomorrow, et cetera, it is an enervated process I neither enjoy nor believe in anymore. Meanwhile I have new figurative work that lights up my studio and beckons the eye to the everythingness of being. And yet, to take away the counterbalance of abstraction, this would ultimately bore me too. I cannot live by figuration alone. I am not an abstract painter. You see my problem.
Sometimes, when I was a very young child, my mother, if we were out of milk, would send me down the street to the milkman’s house with my red (Flyer) wagon to get more milk. How I hated this, hated pulling my red wagon down the street to the milkman’s house! I was shy! I did not like to knock on their door and ask for milk, and I was proud too, I did not like to pull my red wagon with the milk in it back home, it was an indignity to pull milk behind you in your wagon! But sometimes my mother told me to do this, and I would have to do it. When you are young, the world is full of bosses. We did not live near stores, it would not have been possible to even ride your bike to the store, we were out where the sky and wind were unimpeded, there were horses at the far perimeter of the neighborhood we fed crab apples to. The milkman had lots of children, they were blond, blue-eyed, milk-fed kids, one of whom was my friend, we were the same age, his name was Tom—Tommy, when we were children—I am sure that we played together when we were very young, but I do not remember this, but I do remember that we played together in group games that sometimes were played in the neighborhood, games like kick the can, although I remember not liking group games, so although I was asked to join the games—I was not disliked and never ostracized—I do not think I joined them very often, I preferred to be alone with my books. For instance, I have no idea how to play kick the can. The neighborhood was full of kids, there was Tommy and Jimmy and Steve, to name a few, and those were the times I grew up in, when people had names like those and when kids played outside from morning till night. I have enjoyed telling you these things. I would like to tell you one more thing, and that is that much of the social life and politics of the children in the neighborhood were experienced at the bus stop, where sometimes we waited in the darkness in below-freezing weather for the bus to come. We probably didn’t talk all that much in those times, when it was that cold, I don’t know.
I cannot say that I’ve ever been in a pond. I’ve been at a pond, but I do not know that I have ever had the courage (or stupidity) to wade into one. There is so much about ponds that dissuades entry by land creatures. But I have told you so much about that already. (I do not know what to paint! I cannot address the issue of painting because my fear of the absence of knowing what [or why!] to paint is powerful and obliterative of casual reflection.) We were not allowed, I think, to go to the pond that was at the bottom of the neighborhood I grew up in, it was in a valley in the flatlands of Michigan, and all of Michigan is flatlands, with hills that are little but big enough for children to sled down in the wintertime, this neighborhood was called a “platte,” which, obviously, rhymes with “flat,” but it was not totally flat because there was a valley, where there was a pond. We were not allowed to go there on our own, I think (I think! but we did all sorts of things we weren’t allowed to do because we could, because we were not supervised, we were let out of the house on summer mornings and made to return at dinnertime, so probably we went to the pond if we were so [dangerously!] inclined). Sometimes my father took us there so we could catch turtles, because we would have a sudden mania for catching turtles, and then we would race the turtles, I think they lived in shoeboxes thereafter, and probably their lifespans were greatly reduced—. In fact, I am sorry to all the turtles I condemned to shoeboxes, and to the caterpillars and lightning bugs and butterflies (butterflies!) I condemned to jars, and I am especially sorry to the caterpillar I shoved into the back of a Matchbox ambulance, an ambulance, let me tell you, that did not deliver him to greater health, it was his Hearse, I could not get him out, that was the summer we had a mania for Matchbox cars, my friend collected them, I did not. When we went to the pond to catch turtles, we did not go into the pond, except I bet our canvas sneakers did, I bet they squished with pond water in our attempts to catch the turtles, they were little turtles with orange markings, we would race them on the concrete of the driveway, the driveway was half-concrete, half-asphalt, asphalt at the bottom, concrete at the top, the house I grew up in was in a neighborhood that was built in the 1960s over what was probably once a cornfield. If it was never actually a cornfield, it definitely had cousins who were cornfields. But I think it was a cornfield, because the single one old house in the neighborhood was a farmhouse, this was where our milkman lived, I would sometimes find him in the kitchen in the morningtime delivering milk, isn’t that something? The wind and sky had big presences where I grew up. There is a photograph of my father in the newspaper, dating back to the 1950s or early 1960s, he was a civic-minded young man, he is presiding over a turtle race with youngsters, I do not know who they were, and my father, a youngster himself, is smoking a pipe, he looks like a boy smoking a pipe, in those days the young adults were in a hurry to be adults, unlike in my time, when young adults insisted on remaining so, at least attitudinally, until well into middle age, I am not sure this has served us well. I believe I could go on forever telling you about these things, because the memory of them, and then the calling them to the surface and bringing them briefly back to life with descriptive words is almost like being there again, and it is very pleasant for me to be there again, I could indulge in this undertaking for a lot longer than I’m going to. It is so pleasant, I am saying to myself, maybe I should write a book. So you see how you have gotten lucky today, I am only giving you a paragraph to read, not a book. But the way in which you are unlucky is this: I consider this my book. Here is a way in which you are further unlucky, related to the first unluckiness: Because of the disjointed nature of the format of this “book,” I am under no constraints to joint it, as it were. This paragraph is a good example of a pell-mell style born of very few constraints. Incidentally, turtles, when they are on the racetrack, do not stay to their lanes, ever.
I guess I am going to tell you a little something about being in a pond today. There is so much to avoid when you are in a pond! The surface is green, know that. It is slowly turbulent, it is the slow fat pace of a body of water strictly contained and full of things, full of clingy green plant life and full of frogs and turtles and fish, some of the fish are less avoidance-oriented than others, and frogs, god willing, will push their hind legs furiously toward you in their furious effort to move away from you—god willing! It is not nice to come up against a frog, you know the sorts of things that happen when you do! Warts are the least of it! I do not know how toads differ from frogs, I really don’t, but apparently they do, for they are called different things. Do you know what pollywogs are? Pollywogs are miniaturized frogs, they are for dioramas that tell the story of giant frogs, when giant frogs ruled the pond lands. Anyway, pollywogs can be found in ponds too, and children naturally are drawn to them, pollywog to pollywog. I do not know what that has to do with being in a pond, not if you’re not a child wide-eyed with wanting pollywogs. Hmm…what else? The surface is rarely shiny, it is mostly dull—there is so much that is unreflective on the surface of ponds, and so many skies that are the opposite of expansive, skies that push down with their low clouds to roll at the same fat pace of the water they appear to love, or at least to want to imitate, which is a form of, if not love, then admiration. Love and admiration can be siblings, but they can also be very distant cousins. When you are in a pond, your head is between these two things, between the body of water and the body of the sky, bobbing there, getting between them, keeping them apart, but only in that little area. But here’s the main thing about being in a pond, which is kind of gelid, I think that’s the best description of pond water and its motions, the main thing is that whatever it is you see on the surface is almost wholly recognizable, unlike what you imagine exists beneath the surface, and that can never be answered—never!—because the water can never been be seen through, can never be looked into (except if you catch some in a clear jar, but then you will see how many little things also exist among the bigger things, you can even start to see beyond the many little things, I think they are mostly white, to the vastly many-er microscopic things—it goes on and on like that when you capture a portion of a pond in a jar), as I say, you can never see into the water, and so there is no telling what exists down there, what strange kingdoms and phyla might consider women’s feet to be delicacies or objets of the highest order, ones they must—at once!—possess.
Today I will tell you something about what it is like to be a painter, and how I think it differs from other jobs, although I would argue that painting isn’t a job (although it is certainly labor), it is more like personhood, a way of being. Certainly, it is a calling more than a job. One is called to paint in the same way (I would imagine) that one is called to the priesthood. The priesthood is a happier calling. If you are called to paint, you are called to a battle with no army and no one to fight but yourself. Which brings me to the things I wanted to tell you about painting, they are not nice things. The first thing is what the process is like, I will try to keep this short, I will try not to go off on every tangent that throws seeds from my words. I’ll bypass the whole conception phase, which I’ve talked about before, I’m not bypassing it because I’ve talked about it before—the positive thing about having no one reading this is that I can, with impunity, repeat myself—I am bypassing it because I’m trying to keep this short. I could write many thousands of words about the conception phase and how hard that part of it is, except when I am in the midst of a series, then it is easy, then I am a pretty contented painter, vis-a-vis coming up with what to paint next, usually the only problem then is bottlenecking, I have too many ideas and can’t decide which one to hunker down with. (Another u word I don’t like, but that is archeology at this point.) When I am not working in a series, the conception phase is no less difficult than trying to tug a full-grown human body through a mouse hole. It is the part of painting after one has decided what to paint, either easily or with profound difficulty, and after one has set out deliberately to paint this thing that I want to tell you (briefly now!) about. I will give you battle terms, for this is what it is, it is a battle with oneself and—of course—the canvas. For much of the process, this is a weeks-long process, this goes on day after day, from the time the first marks are made and subsequently buried on the canvas to the time when the painting begins finally to coalesce into something resembling its completed self. So, most of the process. For the greater portion of the time that one is working, these are the sorts of things one is saying to oneself: “Why am I doing this? Why did I do this? Why did I choose this to paint, it was a terrible idea! This was exactly the wrong thing to paint! This will never be good! You are wasting paint! Quit! Quit now! Quit! Quit before you waste more paint!” This is one’s daily relationship to one’s work—it is very difficult! And yet, one pushes on. One doesn’t quit. I don’t know why. I guess it is a combination of faith and fortitude, perhaps one is a little bit in love with slings and arrows, I don’t know! The battle is twofold, it is with oneself and it is with the painting. It is threefold, it is also with the critics (one imagines). It is fourfold, it is with the arc of history. There are some paintings that are right to remind me that I have no place at the easel, no business being there, but they are very few and far between. More often than not, the paintings coalesce, they come together beautifully, seemingly with ease, as though they were always destined for their final, easeful-seeming form. Well, perhaps they were, but they never informed me of that. The other thing I wanted to tell you is very much related to this, and that is how, as a painter, in the midst of works in progress, one must spend one’s time, all of one’s time, day after day after day, with inchoate, terrible-looking work.
Sometimes I don’t like to write these paragraphs because I don’t like to bury earlier ones. It is the format of the thing. I have always disliked it! But it is what I have available to me, and I must live with it. Blogs are like burial mounds. Okay, that is the last time I will submit to that word, ever. Far more than I dislike the format, I despise the word. That is why I use paragraphs instead, which is also not to my liking, but the word at least has the merit of tradition. In a former iteration of this work, I called the entries “globs,” which I liked, it amused me, but that was the nature only of that iteration, it would not be fitting to refer to this one as a glob, it does not have the same whimsicality as the former one did, that one was something entirely different and far stranger, it was the one I had hidden in my menu on my former website, it would have taken, as I mentioned earlier (now buried), a pinpoint accident to find it. I do not know how to refer to this work, I have not come up with an adequate umbrella term. I will tell you, I don’t like entries either, and posts is unacceptable. You see my problem. Except for the availability of the format, I hate just about everything else about it. What I love are words, what I love is putting together words in order to communicate whatever it is I wish, of a morning, to communicate, even if what I wish to communicate is of no interest to anyone except myself. What I love, simply, is writing. It is only too bad that the more I write, the more I bury what I write, the more I condemn my writing to a dark and airless death. Only the scales of the surface fish shine.
Paintings are glimpsed in the midst of life, they are caught by the eye living. It is the quality of a kind of frozen flux, what stays ever in place, unmoving, yet is turbulent beneath the surface with life. Those paintings that possess the throb of life are better than those that don’t. What distinguishes good paintings from great ones is the degree to which that throb of life is felt or perceived by the viewer— Actually, no. What distinguishes good paintings from great ones has nothing to do with the viewer, the viewer is passive, except insofar as receptivity is a positive action. (That statement disavows years of my insisting on the collusive act between artist and audience—years of insistence! But I am in the mood to disavow much that has come before today! Therefore, my first disavowal: The viewer of a painting is a passive actor! [Except insofar blah blah blah...]). What distinguishes good paintings from great ones begins and ends with the painting itself. How much life does it possess? How clearly does it communicate the quality of its liveliness, how forcefully does it push it forward into the skin of the world, how spirited is it, how unignorable? Have we caught it mid-stride, as it were, in the midst, as I say, of living? Can we feel its breath on us, the heat of its exertion of existence? I have in my studio many paintings. I create these paintings, I live with them and they with me, we are one life. I do not know whether they have discussions among themselves regarding the quality of liveliness within me (I would not fare well in anybody’s judgement of that!), but I am easily able to discern that quality within them. I have been looking at this question for several days now, due to the side-by-side placement of two paintings, both figurative. I would say they are both great paintings, but one of them has something more, something indefinable by nature. Both have soul, both have spirit, both have life, both are caught in the flux of living, they are glimpsed as they breathe. And yet, and yet the one communicates itself out of a deeper reservoir—but what is in this deeper reservoir, is it emotion? Is it heart? Is it history? It is all these things and more, I am sure. It is the great mystery, it is the greatest of mysteries what makes a thing transcend the coarse materials it is made from, what makes it reach for God. But there it is, a thing born out of and/or into the Spiritus Mundi, a thing in possession of its own vibratory songful life, a thing that stays in place and doesn’t move—it is, after all, a painting, it does not bestir itself and walk around the studio—yet confronts you every time with a vitality so pure and forceful that it steals your breath and shifts the rhythm of your blood.
I am encountering in my studio—well, Christ, what aren’t I encountering? Let me put it another way, so this doesn’t become a catalog of everything I’m encountering in my studio these days (chief among those things, what would top my list were I to make one, are paralysis and disappointment and exhaustion). I will put it this way instead (believe me when I tell you, there is danger here, for I am a poet, and poets love to catalog, it is one of the tricks they carry up their sleeves; “No ideas but in things.” [William Carlos Williams]), I will say that one of the things I am faced with— No! That doesn’t work either! For I am faced with so many things! I am faced with the many difficulties and frustrations of being in the studio at the tail end of a very large project with no future I am able to foresee, I am faced with that, it is hard! I am like a cartoon character long in the desert, crawling on her hands and knees toward what may or may not be a mirage, that is how it feels to be working in the last stages of this project, all spirit and momentum are wrung out of me, and what I drag off the brush is the very last, the very last dregs of what I have to give. I do not know what I will be doing next, and I do not know that anyone will ever see what I am doing now, despite it absolutely needing to be seen. That is hard too. It is all hard. What is it that is easy? Now we are in safe territory (for once)!, for even if I were to catalog the answers to that question, I could not come up with very many things, so I wouldn’t have to make a catalog. I do not know that anything is easy, and that includes getting to the point of what I started out wanting to tell you, which is what I’ve been encountering in my studio, literally encountering (you see, that’s where I made my first fatal mistake, I shifted almost immediately away from what I wanted to tell you that was literal—I was literally facing it—to the more abstract exploration of “facing” and “encountering." I am encountering in my studio, I am facing it day after day and night after night, one of my truly great paintings, it is a goddamned gorgeous masterpiece, and I had wanted to talk to you about what distinguishes good paintings from great ones, but I did this instead, I talked about catalogs. Talk about a squandering!
I would like to give you an example of how I am a deceptive writer. I do not intentionally set out to deceive you—never!—but by one grand omission, I have deceived you. I have been detailing my difficulties with painting recently, with not knowing what to paint, with having no ideas, et cetera, it is my dog-eared book, my weary tune. You will not, of course, know this, because you do not read “Untitled," but I am telling you anyway, as though you were a loyal, daily reader, and I do this because that is what I do, I write words for no one to read. But this is the practice, not that, so there is nothing amiss here, all is as it should be. And yet, my deception of omission, I am confessing it this morning—! (The mind runs out in front of itself to see what lies ahead, what the landscape is and to see if there is danger there, and then the mind returns to report on the dangers it has seen—and it has seen some! It has seen significant potential danger! I do not think, after all, that I can—…let’s get this out of its parentheses, it is more than just parenthetical, what I now must say, it has become, unexpectedly, this paragraph’s very thesis, I shall not nail it to some hidden-staircase door, but to the main door)—there, we are out of our parentheses, they are so confining! After all, I cannot tell you what this omission is, for I have just seen the danger in doing so, and I am too superstitious to tempt fate with words that always, in the right—rather, wrong—combination, always hex the thing they signify if what they signify is not yet ready to be revealed. It is that simple. It is like young fern underfoot, words will crush the tender not-yet-ready things. I am sorry I told you I would do something that I did not then do. It is an example of how I am sometimes a deceptive writer.
I was so profligate in my word-using, I do not even know who I was when I had so many words, I could just throw them into the wind and watch them fly, and they blackened the sky like a murder of many tiny crows, and then I had whole handfuls more. Who was I then? I was buoyant and wordful. Now I am more or less landed and wordless. And in this landed, silent state I have to reexamine why I paint (yes, it is true—I paint!). Yesterday I completed a painting that gives me pleasure but doesn’t edify. I have no objection to making paintings that bring pleasure alone, but only occasionally. If I do not paint with the greater purpose of experimentation and discovery, then I do not think it is worth doing—I have enough paintings that please me to last the rest of my life. I could even distribute them to others, and still I would have enough. I do not need to make these sorts of paintings, they simply do not satisfy me intellectually. But my intellect is like a pancaked basketball. I have exactly zero ideas. This was not the case even a month ago, but someone’s offhand comment killed the phase of work I was in (aided and abetted by my always-at-the-ready self-defeater, who sometimes uses others, with their offhand comments, as proxies—I am nothing if not efficient), and I am left no longer even yearning for that phase, even though I had thought—I had really thought! (I shake my head at my own ever-renewable ignorance!)—I would make these paintings for the indefinite forever we each dwell (alone) in. But it was not to be. They are dead, I have no feeling for the paintings that I was so profoundly enlivened by all spring and summer. So rapid was that death, I have a large canvas I had prepared for that work still ready to go—four squares, waiting to be filled with the story I was telling, which was one of predator and prey—always, it was predator and prey, this was the story I was telling in a way that I found edifying—so much so, I thought I had landed on the thing I would do forever. But I have said that already, and I have said with other words, but not these words that there is no underestimating or understating a person’s ability to fool herself. If only I could fool myself that I had purpose in my work! At least I have taken a mere half-fistful of words, blown on them and multiplied them by the dozens. But that is of no consequence, for I shall leave this in a minute and then I have a day comprising many and many and many hours in which I have to face the blank canvas with the blankest of minds. I wish you a better day than that.
It is true on this day that I do not even possess a fistful of words. These have slipped through my fingers and now there is nothing.