Archive for the Poetry Category

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Just Kids

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance, Photography, Poetry with tags , , on April 24, 2010 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER

Just Kids could be described as the story of Patti Smith’s five-year relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (first as lovers, then as friends), played out against the background of the post-folk, pre-punk, gritty downtown Manhattan of the 1970s. But this description doesn’t do full justice to the book, which is, by turns, a tender memoir evoking the exuberance and naiveté of youth (and of Smith); a Dickensian chronicle of a chaotic time and place, which nurtured many famous (and infamous) talents; and  a poignant eulogy to a deep and lifelong love fueled by a shared passion for art (Smith and Mapplethorpe remained close friends until his death in 1987).

The “facts” of the Smith-Mapplethorpe story are well recorded. One needn’t read Just Kids for that, although Smith’s adept juggling of the many themes gives the book depth beyond the usual “kiss and tell” narratives.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, ca. 1969

It is Smith’s prose style that provides Just Kids with the wings to soar. Smith has a way of seamlessly weaving the banal with the profound, simultaneously grounding a scene in detail and elevating it to the realm of the prophetic. This is her signature poetry/song-writing style, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the book is a sneaky, sometimes quiet, always powerful and, ultimately, riveting read.

Smith arrived in New York in the summer of 1967, virtually penniless and alone, having been transformed by the revelation that “human beings create art.

It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 31)

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe, 1969

Actually, she encountered Mapplethorpe twice that summer. First, he simply pointed her to a place to crash. Though a brief encounter, the attraction was instantaneous and intense. Later, Mapplethorpe happened to be walking through St. Mark’s Square and rescued her from a date on the verge of going bad.

In the beginning, theirs was a life defined by near-destitution—scrounging for food and living in a string of truly grungy apartments. It’s no surprise the transformation of these spaces gives rise to their early collaborative work together.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, ca 1969 (Photo by Norman Seeff)

By the time they met, Mapplethorpe had studied art formally at Pratt. He was already a confident soul with absolute clarity about becoming the rage of the art world. Smith was largely self-educated but

. . . longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their processes and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 12)

As their orbits merged, the mutual devotion to each other’s talent became lasting and unshakable.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1975

Smith was Mapplethorpe’s soul mate and muse. In the early years she constantly suggested he move from collages to his own photographic work. When he did switch, she was the model in his early Poloroids. These were true collaborations from choice of set up to pose. Smith would appear in his work, as he moved to formal studio work and movies.

Mapplethorpe was the more self-possessed of the two, and Smith describes him as “looking for shortcuts.” “Why should I take the long road?” he wonders. The following passage is an illuminating one:

Robert’s great wish was to break into the world that surrounded Andy Warhol, though he had no desire to be part of his stable or to star in his movies. Robert often said he knew Andy’s game, and felt that if he could talk to him, Andy would recognize him as an equal. Although I believed he merited an audience with Andy, I felt any significant dialogue with him was unlikely, for Andy was like an eel, perfectly able to slither from any meaningful confrontation.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 116)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Cover of Witt, 1973, Poloroid photo

Mapplethorpe was always highly supportive of Smith’s work, pushing her to write and publish. She admits to being less confident of her own talents:

Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 65)

Over time, Smith’s creative force would be coaxed from her. In a poignant note,  she writes of Mapplethorpes effect on her:

You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God.

Patti Smith, Just Kids p. 276

In 1969 the two moved to a tiny room in the Chelsea Hotel, a seminal move which ultimately set their respective careers on track.

Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, ca. 1970

A cast of greater and lesser characters tramp in and out of the Chelsea’s lobby. It was here that Smith and Mapplethorpe met many of the people who would have defining roles in their careers—Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Harry Smith, Sam Shepard, filmmaker Sandy Daley, Andy Warhol and members of the Entourage, Janis Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren, Jim Carroll—though Mapplethorpe also had a vibrant life outside the hotel.

The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. . .  So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 112 and 113)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1975

Encouraged into poetry readings and then musical performances, Smith was ultimately signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records 1975. Her 1978 song “Because the Night” (co-penned with Bruce Springsteen) made her famous, an irony that was not lost on Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Mapplethorpe evoking a favorite artist, Michelangelo.

Mapplethorpe would climb to fame his own way, mostly along the rungs of high society. Under the auspices of John McKendry (Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Met), who was married to socialite Maxine de la Falaise, and later collector/curator/lover Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe began to show his photographs. Though he photographed many subjects, it was his male nudes and their often explicit evocation of gay sexuality that gained him notoriety.

Just Kids reports, but does not linger, on Mapplethorpe’s journey out of the closet. Though Mapplethorpe was an expert at hiding his orientation, it’s hard to believe the Smith of the early 1970s was naive enough not to recognize the outward signs of his inner life. Evoking his grounding in Catholicism, she reports:

Later he would say that the Church led him to God, and LSD led him to the universe. He also said that art led him to the devil, and sex kept him with the devil.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 63)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Inevitably,  melancholy hovers over the pages of Just Kids. The book evokes the promise, freedom and exuberance of youthful world in which, as Smith coins it “everything awaited.” But we know the adult world is coming—kids, careers, and ultimately death (AIDS). Both Smith and Mapplethorpe achieved their dreams of fame. One paid for it with his life.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1986
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Wider Connections

Patti Smith reads from Just Kids
Youtube: The Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Patricia Morrisroe—Mapplethorpe: A Biography
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future
Victor Bokris and Roberta Bayley—Patti Smith: The Unauthorized Biography

Remedios Varo: Alchemy and Science

Posted in Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , on August 12, 2009 by Christine Cariati

Remedios Varo, Creation of the BirdsRemedios Varo, Creation of the Birds, 1957

Remedios Varo’s small, complex paintings portray a world in which alchemy, magic, mysticism and science co-exist. Varo was a relentlessly inquisitive, intelligent woman of great wit, whose slight build and striking features are often echoed in the humans and hybrid creatures who inhabit her paintings. As a girl she dreamed of travel, but after world events forced her twice into relocation and exile she came detest travel and chose instead to journey inward, exploring her creativity and spirituality through her painting. It is instructive to trace how Varo’s interests, talents and personal history, combined with her place in world events, lead to a merging of subject matter and style that was so uniquely her own.

Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born Maria de los Remedios Varo y Uranga in Anglés, a town north of Barcelona. When she was a young child, the family traveled for her father’s work, after several years they settled in Madrid. Her father encouraged her artistic inclinations by teaching her how to make mechanical drawings. She also learned about perspective, a device she used often in her work. Her father also took her  to museums—at the Prado she fell in love with the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and El Greco. Varo was enrolled in a Catholic convent school where she rebelled against the strict religious regimen and longed for freedom. From an early age, she was drawn to magic, fantasy and the language of dreams.

Remedios Varo, RuptureRemedios Varo, Rupture, 1955

At fifteen, Varo entered the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, where she crossed paths with Salvador Dalí, and pursued a rigorous course of academic art training. In addition to the traditional required subjects, such as still-life, landscape, anatomy, color theory, mixing of pigments, glazing techniques, architectural rendering, decorative painting and ornamentation, Varo elected to study scientific illustration. In the mid 1920s, art students and intellectuals in Madrid looked to the Surrealists in Paris for inspiration—including the plays of Federico García Lorca, the paintings of Salvador Dalí, and the films of Luis Buñuel.

Remedios Varo, 1927Remedios Varo and Josep Lluis Florit, c.1927

Varo’s first marriage to Gerardo Lizarraga in 1930, at the age of 21, allowed her to live away from home and to have the freedom a single young woman of the time would not otherwise enjoy. In 1931, she and Lizarraga went to live in Paris for a year where she loved the bohemian café life of good conversation and the exchange of  socially progressive ideas. When they returned to Spain, they went to Barcelona, at the time a more cosmopolitan and liberal city than Madrid. While still married she began a liason with Esteban Francés—this was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of multiple simultaneous relationships that endured as friendships long after the romances ended.

Remedios Varo—The Useless ScienceRemedios Varo, The Useless Science or The Alchemist, 1955

In Barcelona she met French Surrealist poet Benjamin Perét, one of André Breton‘s closest friends. In 1937, to escape the Spanish Civil War, and while still married to Lizarraga and involved with Francés, Varo moved to Paris with Perét, whom she later married. Thrust into the Surrealist milieu, Varo became somewhat less confident, more reticent. The Surrealists embraced the ideal of youth and beauty and the femme-enfant, claiming that women were the more creative force because they operated more outside reason and logic than men. Of course, in reality, this patronizing attitude left women in the Surrealist movement far outside the inner circle—and there was no place for the mature or aging woman artist.

Remedios Varo—Solar MusicRemedios Varo, Solar Music, 1955

From 1937-39, Varos experimented a great deal, influenced by the work of Max Ernst, Giorgio di Chirico, René Magritte, Wolfgang Paalen and Victor Brauner. In 1939, Franco closed the borders of Spain to anyone with ties to the Republican movement, so Varo could not return to home and family. She was again dislocated by war—in 1940 the Nazis entered Paris, and Varo, along with millions of others, including many of her circle in Paris, became a refugee, eventually ending up in Marseille. At the end of 1941, with Perét in danger, they made a long, arduous journey, ending up in Mexico City, where she lived for the rest of her life and did her mature work.

Remedios Varo—Portrait of Dr. Ignacio ChavezRemedios Varo, Portrait of Dr. Ignacio Chavez, 1957

At first, Varo intended to stay for only a short time in Mexico City and remained isolated among her fellow émigrés. At the time, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera ruled the art world in Mexico City, and as Socialists and champions of Mexico’s indigenous culture, they were hostile to foreign influence, decried the Surrealists as decadent, and did not welcome émigré artists into their midst. It was during this time that Varo became very close friends with the English painter Leonora Carrington with whom she shared a strong interest in the occult, alchemy and mysticism. The two met daily and had a tremendous influence on each other’s work.

Leonora CarringtonThe painter Leonora Carrington

Varo was poor and had to turn to various commercial jobs to secure an income. Over the next few years she made dioramas for a British anti-fascist propaganda office, hand-painted furniture and musical instruments for a high-end decorating firm, and designed costumes for theater and ballet (including working with fellow émigré Marc Chagall designing costumes for the Léonide Massine ballet Aleko, in 1942.) Under her mother’s maiden name of Uranga, Varo did illustration for a pharmaceutical company, Casa Bayer. In these illustrations, done in gouache, she was able to explore her long-held interest in science, and they closely mirrored the direction her personal work was taking.

Remedios Varo—ÂicrocosmRemedios Varo, Microcosm, 1959

1947 was an important turning point for Varo. Making a final break with Perét and the Surrealists, her period of sustained mature work began in earnest. With her lover Jean Nicolle she went to Venezuela for a year. There she was hired to do drawings of parasitic insects for the Ministry of Public Health. The miniature universe she discovered under her microscope had a tremendous influence on her work. Back in Mexico City in 1949, she married Walter Gruen, an Austrian exile who started Sala Marjolín, a prominent Mexico City music store. The financial security gave Varo the opportunity to quit commercial work, set up a studio and devote herself to her personal work.

Remedios Varo—Woman Leaving the PsychoanalystRemedios Varo, Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst, 1960

In 1955 Varo was invited to exhibit her work in a group show at the Galería Diana. The four important paintings she showed were harbingers of the work she did for the rest of her life. The very positive critical reaction to these pieces led to the offer of a solo show in 1956, which was very well received by both critics and collectors. Perhaps weary of an art scene long dominated by large scale murals, socialist ideology, nationalistic and indigenous themes, collectors responded very positively to her intricately detailed, delicate and  personal work—and the intimate relationship these paintings established with the viewer. Her work was in great demand, and there was always a long waiting list for her new work. For a time, Varo did some portraits on commission but much preferred doing her own work. As a foreigner in a country with a great muralist tradition, she was honored to be asked to create a series of murals for the Cancer Pavilion at the Medical Center in Mexico City. However, her dread of cancer and illness and the extreme difficulty involved in transferring her intricate, detailed, miniaturist technique to a large-scale format caused her to abandon the project.

Remedios Varo—Revelation or the ClockmakerRemedios Varo, Revelation or The Clockmaker, 1955

Finally, all the various threads of her life had come together. Magic and fantasy meshed with autobiography—images of nature in counterpoint with mechanical invention, alchemy as allegory for psychic transformation, elements of architecture and theater—all melded together in this new work. Varo would begin each new piece with a detailed drawing then transfer the image to board. Her technique of thinly applied varnishes and glazes, combined with drips, blotting and scratches, created enormous depth and surface interest. With her mastery of technique, Varo was able to explore her themes, the intersection of nature and the mechanical, creation and transformation. Her narratives unfolded in architectural spaces reminiscent of stage sets. Her work took on the quality of a spiritual journey, encompassing memory, personal history and moments of transcendence and transformation. Varo believed in a balance of science and nature, science and metaphysics, and that man should strive to live in harmony with nature, not try to conquer or control it. These were the enduring themes of her later work.

Remedios Varo—The Penenomenon of WeightlessnessRemedios Varo, The Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

Varo died suddenly, of a heart attack, at the age of 55. This is the last painting she did. Unlike most of her work, there is no human presence—the painting reflects on the cycles of nature and rebirth.

VaroStilllLifejpgRemedios Varo, Still Life Reviving, 1963

Her sudden death was a tremendous shock to her friends and admirers. The poet Rosario Castellanos dedicated Metamorphosis of the Sorceress to Varo and poet Octavio Paz wrote Remedios Varo’s Appearances and Disappearances as a tribute. Here is an excerpt from his poem:

In Appearance she paints Disappearance

Roots, fronds, rays, locks of hair, flowing
beards, spirals of sound: threads of death,
of life, of time. The weft is woven and un-
woven: the unreality that we call life, the
unreality that we call death…only the canvas
is real…

Recommended reading: Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet Kaplan

At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

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