Friday, April 15, 2011

thegrowlingwolf Sitting at the Feet of Klee

Foto by tgw, New York City, March 2011
Say Goodbye to: Eddie Joost:
As a kid I knew Eddie as a Philadelphia Athletic shortstop under Manager/Owner Connie Mack, ironically playing for the Athletics when they shared Shibe Park with the Phillies back when there were only 8 teams in the American League. Eddie was famous for wearing glasses--a fine infielder and clutch hitter--Eddie also played for the Cincinnati Reds 1940 World Series team in the 8-team National League. He holds the "honor" of being the last manager of the Philadelphia Athletics before they were moved to Kansas City. Eddie's Athletics finished in the cellar and lost over 100 games: Eddie Joost, 94, American baseball player and manager (Philadelphia Athletics).
The Smell of Painters Painting
As a kid, I remember how my grandmother always smelled of her paintings. I remember her easel. And I remember her canvases. And I remember her wooden paint box and her palette. And I remember her sitting in front of that easel; she had it turned toward her north-side window that she kept uncurtained when she painted. And I remember watching her as she squeezed the paints out of those big lead tubes, squeezing them out onto her palette in big gobs, squeezing several colors out at once in separate gobs around that palette. And I remember her brushes that she kept in a big tin juice can (Hi-C Orange Juice can maybe). And I remember her explaining the different brushes to curious me. And I remember being fascinated that some of her brush bristles were camel hair--and some of them pig bristles--and several of her prized ones made of sable hair. I would want to use her brushes but she would look at me very fiercely if I went to grab one explaining in stopping me how valuable (expensive but worth it in terms of her art) those brushes were to her and how she had used each one and had it shaped or worn down to the right shape she needed to use it for what she needed it for in the shaping of her paintings from sketch (her box of pencils, charcoal sticks, and pastels) to canvas. And I remember her sketch book, a big one in which she was drawing seems like every time you saw her and she wasn't painting. I remember seeing her sitting up in her bed with her sketch book on her knees. Then, I remember in the summers she would leave us to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a painter friend of hers to sketch in the mountains and to sketch the local Navajos who laid out their crafts every day in those days under the porticoes of the Governor's Palace, one of the oldest buildings in the USA, in the Santa Fe Plaza, which when my grandmother visited there was still raw and earthy, like the Navajo earthenware she loved to buy and then paint as still lifes. I remember how thrilled she was one time when she and her painter friend went down into Old Mexico to paint--to Saltillo. And I remember the several paintings she painted as a result of that trip and the sketches she had made while down there. And I remember those smells that were always in the air of her houses and later in the apartment my parents built for her on the back of our house. Smells of turpentine--she used it to clean her brushes and to also erase things she didn't like during her paintings. I remember the smell of linseed oil. She used linseed oil in mixing some paints and I believe to keep her brushes from drying out. And I remember the smell of the oil paints--Grumbacher oils she used--and I remember going over the names on the tubes as they sat in the slots in her paint box--cadmium red; mauve; yellow ochre; verdant green; cadmium yellow; red ochre; cobalt blue; matte black--and the smell of those paintings--and she painted every day on her canvases and when she finished them she filed them in a neat row in a little side closet in her room.

Though she knew a lot about flowers already, she'd once owned a florist shop in my hometown's largest hotel, only in her later years did she begin to grow flowers in her yards, specializing in peonies. Her peonies were champions; she had white ones and yellow ones that blossomed into giant heads of white or yellow petals, heads so heavy they bent their stems over to bow to the mighty West Texas sun, Ra in all his righteous life-giving glory. And soon all she painted were peonies--from a distance--as though peonies growing on the moon--or up close--as though peonies blooming up out of a deep perspective--or sitting still in Navajo earthenware itself sitting around on imaginary patios--or peonies marching in various files in vases on tables--peonies--she through her flowers (and the birds and insects those flowers attracted) and the way they dominated the yard space and the way they sat in the morning dew or later bowing in respect to the moving-away sun--or how they reflected off the casement windows of my parents's sun porch--and through these flowers she became one with nature--in them was her cosmos, her God--letting the paint flow naturally out onto her canvases, subtle greens headed up into gobs of white-petaled white strokes--the green and white or the green and yellow of her cosmic peonies.

And I found in a pile of books holding up one end of a board on which I was cherrypicking some old Chinese postage stamps a copy of Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook (a book he created for the course he taught at the Bauhaus Art School). Right off I sat down and started reading Sibyl Moholy-Nagy's introduction to the book, which starts off with this quote of Klee's:

"For the artist communication with nature remains the most essential condition. The artist is human; himself nature; part of nature within natural space" [p. 7, "Introduction," Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, second printing, 1962].

I like Paul Klee. I read this Pedagogical Sketchbook (I bought it while I was in college) before I ever saw one of his paintings. Even now, though I'm familiar with his most famous paintings, I've never seen one in the flesh. [I refer you here to Nick Jainschigg's blog over in our blog list; Nick recently returned from a trip to Moscow specifically to see an exhibition of the Russian landscape painter Isaac Ilyich Levitan's works in the flesh. A fascinating artist's adventure to see in the flesh one of his major inspirations.]

As a young man, I steeped myself in Elie Faure's History of Art, a most fascinating book written by a most fascinating man--a man deserving of a book; yet his Wikipedia entry is very lacking in simple details like the fact that Faure was a doctor--or even the simple fact of when he died--1930.
The best years of my time (5 years) in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1965-1970), were spent living in the studio of one of Santa Fe's most famous artists, Will Shuster. Will was a member of Santa Fe's Los Cinco Pintores: Will Shuster; Josef Bakos; Walter Mruk; Willard Nash; and Fremont Ellis. These painters all came to the Santa Fe right after World War I (1920, 1921). They built houses all in a row on the then unpaved country road, El Camino del Monte Sol, a dirt trail that led from Canyon Road, a Santa Fe main drag now, off up toward Sun Mountain and the at-one-time Catholic monastery that in later years became St. John's College. Will's adobe studio sat down the hill behind his big rambling adobe hacienda whose front abutted the Camino. You entered the long driveway through a ironwork gate and then wound down a steep slope to the back of the studio--all hanging on the side of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains overlooking the sparkling little low-level city of Santa Fe several thousand-down-the-mountain-feet below the studio.

My wife and I got to live in Will's studio because at the time he had emphysema so bad it had forced him to retire from painting. He had been a World War I (the war to end all wars) dog soldier in the trenches in France--he was flat-dab in the naked middle of the Battle of Verdun. His first trip over the top and he ran right smack-dab into an exploding German mustard gas shell. He said it was like breathing hell fire; he said he was gasping for air but the air he was gasping in was almost pure mustard gas; even when he talked about that time his eyes watered up in what looked like painful tears.

Will had studied art with Robert Henri at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia. Through Henri, Will met and became lifelong friends with John Marin, the New York City Ashcan artist whose studio was in the famous old Chelsea Hotel--still extant here in NYC though it has now been turned into a chic boutique apartment hotel--where all kinds of celebs used to stay, though now I think all the celebs have transferred down to the eyesore Soho Grand Hotel or whatever it's called, SoHo's first luxury hotel--a symbol of the invasion of the conformers that has led to SoHo's ruin--driving the real artists out of the lofts they had created, built themselves, with A.I.R. (Artists-in-Residence) status--and oh what a time that was--the glory days of downtown Manhattan--but I digress.
Will Shuster at work on his fresco in the patio of the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, entitled "Voice of the Earth"...1930s.

Will was the epitome of the early 20th-Century painter. He wore the smocks. He wore the string ties. He wore the correct hats. He was at the boiling center of that area's great artistic movement that changed Santa Fe from a sleepy little Santa Fe trail's-end village into a nationally known art colony.

Will's studio was a perfect artist's studio. It was on two levels. You entered its front door at ground level. You entered first the living room--an open-ceiling room--framed in bookshelves--with a fireplace--a wide-board floor covered in Navajo rugs--with two big arm chairs facing that fireplace. Off the living room was the kitchen; a small kitchen, but a well-heeled one with a wonderful range and a set of copper pans marked "Savoy Hotel, London," and they hung on big steel hooks over a wide-angle butcher block table that sat in the middle of that kitchen.

The living room's ceiling was two-story and open all the way up to the high and wide slanted north-facing skylight. A small winding staircase led off the back of the living room up to the second-floor balcony where once Will did his painting. His huge wooden easel was still in its place--a paint-splattered floor surrounding it. On the easel was a small painting of a native American woman's head. I put my writing table up there and my stereo and that's where I worked on a novel about a Catholic priest and his involvement in the Kennedy assassination; complete with a character of justice and mercy I called Maximillian--yes, that's the way I spelled it; I think the name had more to do with McMillan the publishers than it did the Austrian-born French emperor of Mexico. [By the way, I came up with my character's name long before Jim Lehrer started writing on his novel Viva Max whose main character is a Maximilian. Later in New York City, my Maximillian manuscript was the source of my future hatred of the publishing industry and the editors who make their reputations and livings off the creations of more talented people and thinkers.]

My first year living in Will's studio, Will and his second wife were still living in the rambling hacienda. Will's second wife was a Brooklyn-born woman who obviously had once been a dark beauty. When she was young and pretty, she was the girlfriend of the poet Robert Graves. I was up at the big house one day visiting with Mrs. Shuster when she got a letter from Graves who was then living on Majorca (where he lived for 40 years--dying there in 1985). "He still loves me," she said after opening the letter and reading it to herself, her eyes getting misty as she read it. "He still sends me poems." She read a line or two from the poem he'd sent along in this letter and then she said, dreamily, "Poets should stop writing poems while they are young." And, yes, I was unimpressed with the couple of lines she read me from that poem. I've never forgotten what Mrs. Shuster said about poets, intentionally meaning Robert Graves.

Will at the time had just turned 70. He suffered terribly from his emphysema, the reason he'd left the East Coast and had come to the dry desert air of New Mexico. He had coughing fits now that lasted for hours--that kept him up most nights. Will had another problem, too. That was vodka. He loved vodka. He drank charcoal-filtered vodka; he said he believed that the charcoal filtering took all the impurities out of what otherwise was the rank fermented juice of the potato.

Will several nights out of the weeks he lived in the big house--before he and his wife bought a house down in Albuquerque and moved down there, leaving the big house empty and in my wife's and my care--he loved bringing his vodka bottle down to his studio and sitting with me in front of the fireplace gradually getting drunker and drunker while spinning out yarn after yarn about his fabulous life as an artist from his time in Philadelphia and New York City to his time in Santa Fe at the center of its art world. Will was the creator of the Santa Fe monster icon, Zozobra, "Old Man Gloom," a 20-foot-tall character Will thought up that is burned every year to end Santa Fe's Fiesta Days, a celebration that has been going on since the 1920s.
Will Shuster's "Zozobra" in 1933. In those days Zozobra was built up from the ground with a wood superstructure around a tall pole spine; now, I think, they hang him from a crane. This is quite an imposing structure when it is sitting on its hill and is rising high above Santa Fe during the Fiesta Days (in September)--and then it's even more impressive when they set it on fire. Now you know where the Burning Man came from.

And Will Shuster would sit with me--me drinking my Heinekens and he drinking from his fifth of vodka--cheap vodka, too, like Alexi--the kind made from grains and not potatoes in Clifton, New Jersey, and not Russia--brand or country of origin didn't matter to Will as long as the label said "Charcoal Filtered"--and Will would start drinking and talking...I'd mention a name, like "Stuart Davis...." And Will would start reeling out his Stuart Davis stories. "Oliver LaFarge...." "Witter Bynner...." "Winfield Townley Scott...." "We were all poets in those days. Bynner and Scott were real poets, but we all wrote poetry, bad or good, it didn't matter. One of our amusements during our constant was a party then...I mean, my first wife and I lived out near Camel Rock in a tent at first...yet, we had some swell parties out there...on a bluff looking out over the Rio Grande Gorge...the sunsets out there would blind you they were so multiphasical...but one of our games was to write poetry--spontaneously, you know, from person to person...." Ironically, later when my wife and I tried to settle in the San Francisco area, we camped out with my old New Orleans friend and co-Sociologist in San Jose. He had moved to California due to my showing him the difference in the salaries of social workers in Louisiana and those in California after an old girlfriend of mine when I lived in Dallas had moved to San Francisco and gone to work for the State of California as a social worker and she had sent me a copy of what they paid urging me to come to San Francisco--her letter arriving just as I was getting married and moving to New Orleans.

Through this friend in San Jose, I met a social psychologist/psychologist (a Sociologist deluxe!) who became one of my back-of-my-conscience heroes...Milton R_____. I met Milton one night only in a small wooden house that sat back off the street in among some huge trees in Los Gatos, sitting just under the rise on which sat the Paul Masson Winery (cheap wines made elegant by Orson Welles being their spokesman for years). And Milton was an amazing man--my friend had met him while they worked together at the state mental facility in San Jose where they were both working with alcoholics. Milton had been an early enthusiast for the drug LSD--invented by a Dr. Hoffman who worked for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz who produced it as a legal prescription drug. Milton was having brilliant success treating his alcoholic patients with LSD when the overexposure of the power of this drug was dramatically unleashed on Conservative-Majority America by Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, whose wild-eyed tantric-like antics and sexually explicit bragging about the effects of the drug led to its being outlawed--made illegal by the Feds--and the FBI came after Milton with a vengeance. Now that I've led you all around Robin's barn, the night I met Milton, he was working on writing poetry by just throwing words in a hat and pulling them out--like writing poetry I Ching style--and that night Milton, my wife, my friend, and I played a game Milton had invented--we went around clockwise giving out words which Milton then wrote down on a pad and when we'd finished, we made a poem out of the word list. Like say Milton started it off with the word "deconstruction"--my wife immediately added "demolition," my friend say said "mind bend," and I came up with "Beagle matter." The result:

sits demolishing minds
bending them
as they struggle to survive that what mattered
with Darwin on the HMS Beagle.

And the next day sitting on the patio of a coffee house in Carmel overlooking a glittering Pacific Ocean, I suddenly recalled Will Shuster telling me about he and Winfield Townley Scott and Fremont Ellis and Alice Corbin Henderson and her husband William Penhallow Henderson and Oliver LaFarge and Spud Johnson and Witter Bynner and whoever else was at one of their parties starting clockwise giving out phrases and words and writing poems that way, the same way Milton R_______ was experimenting with writing poetry 30 years after Will's poetry-writing-game parties took place.

And one day I'm sitting on the small couch in the north corner of Will's studio living room going through a shelf of books I hadn't yet explored, all of them art books, and I came across a small blue-bound book and when I opened it I opened up an art treasure, letters from John Marin to Will. John Marin who I knew from several of his watercolor prints that used to hang in my dad's frame and mirror shop--my dad sold prints from Donald Art in his shop--and it was among my dad's prints that I discovered Matisse, Derain, and the amazing Vlaminck, a painter I really fell for--and this reading John Marin's letters to Will got me started into that time in Parisian art history that Roger Shattuck called The Banquet Years, which is, by the bye, a wonderfully written, exciting, and informative book on the subject of the arrival of modern art to Paris from 1885 to 1918.

And I sat on that couch all one afternoon reading those letters--all several pages, handwritten, all with drawings in the margins or else sketches of ideas he was working on. One letter especially interested me. It was a several-page letter in which Marin was explaining to Will how he had recently become fascinated by drawing women's breasts. One page contained a drawing of a pair of perfectly realistically perfectly drawn breasts. In a note under this drawing, Marin said, "You know, Will, a woman's breasts don't point straight out at you like her eyes do. No, Will, you know this, one breast hangs out to one side and is bigger in size than the opposite breast that is smaller slightly and is pointing more straight at you than the other. A matter of the nipples being naturally separated enough making it easier for a newborn child to suck them." Wonderful letters. All about Marin and his wife's life living in the Chelsea. About walking around Greenwich Village in the snow--about walking by the Jefferson Terminal Tower on 6th Avenue--about stopping by the Lafayette on 5th Avenue.

I actually took a water color lesson from one of my brother's best friends back home who at the time was head of the art department at one of my hometown's three colleges. The lesson produced an original work of my art I called "Shovel Leaning Against Chair," which is exactly what it was, an old-fashioned ladder-back dining table chair sitting in the middle of a room--a room with no windows, just brown walls, a barren wood plank floor, and lit by a hanging down wire with a socket in which shone a single naked bug-gut-stained light bulb--that like unto which Tom Edison called a Mazda, the God of Light in Zoroastrianism and
Ohrmazd Bay in the evil Manichaeism. Leaning against the chair was a long-handle shovel, a spade actually. By the chair on the floor was a flower in a flower pot. That was it. Browns mostly, though the flower in the brown pot was red, like a red sunflower. I entered it matted in an art show held in Midland, Texas. It was sent back with a note attached to it saying that it had been appreciated for an honor but rejected at the last minute. I was thrilled to death--I was in my teens--and for many years after that kind rejection, I tooted around the various towns I lived in to the various friends I tried to impress, especially the many cultured women I desired tooting pompously as I did that I was a successful watercolorist--my work recently having shone at a Midland, Texas, art gallery (Midland at the time had more millionaires per capita than all other places in the world except Kuwait).

I loved Ivy League Fine Arts majors in those days, as another "bye the bye,"--especially one Yale beauty who not only had a Fine Arts degree from Yale but also a degree from the Yale Divinity School. Her ambition was to be a Unitarian minister, which was all right with me since I had dated a Unitarian flautist in college and I had attended "church" with her one Sunday morning when the minister "preached" from Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One--another very good book, by the way--and afterwards after we had had wonderful wild sex out among the brush outside of town how she told me one of her intentions was to one day to not only become a great flautist (and she did) but also a Unitarian minister.

And after several hours of sitting with Will Shuster in his adobe studio, with a mountain-high darkness now covering the huge open skylight hanging high above us as we sat in front of that fireplace, he'd start nodding out. The heat from the pinon (pine) logs and the soothing burning of that vodka going down--the bottle was empty by then--was zooming him out of this world and back on the battlefields of life. Then I'd call up Mrs. Shuster and tell her to get ready I was bringing Will home. Then I would wake Will up--he couldn't quite come wide awake--then struggle to get him upright on his feet--he was a very strong old man. Once up on his feet, I would literally get behind him and push him out the door and then up the hill to the adobe hacienda's back porch--the real struggle starting at the short flight of stone steps that led from the studio yard up past the fountain/fish pond Will had built and which was headed by a silver-plated sculpture of a Native American woman--nude a la an Ingres nude--looking out west--what I thought was Will's best piece--to eventually push him up onto the big rambling porch to where I then helped Mrs. Shuster get him on into the house and to bed.

Wow, I get into remembering things and my remembrances become almost allegorical--though they are all true stories--I swear--stories based on the many ironies that have popped up in my life--the parallel-line relationships I have attracted over the years--likes that have led me to have a lot of painters as friends even now, though it all started in my remembering the smells of my grandmother painting.

Which reminds me, when I first moved into Will Shuster's studio, I unpacked one of my grandmother's paintings. The painting was very special to me, so I wanted it prominently displayed and the best place I found was on the wall just to the left of the fireplace. In order to hang it where I deemed it best shown, I had to remove one of Will's paintings. The first time he came down and introduced us to what would become weekly visits with him and his vodka bottle, he right off noticed I had moved his painting and put my grandmother's in its place. I noticed he noticed what I'd done so I explained, "That's a painting my grandmother painted for me right after I was born--she signed it on the back to me back then." The painting was of a scene taking place in the back of the library at which she was the head librarian for many years, under a small grove of mesquite trees the action of which was of a "hobo" with several mutt dogs laying around him panting (it was a summer dog day--I was born in August) as he was going through the library garbage barrel--a huge oil drum that sat out back of that library. I thought the little painting interesting in the sense she had used the shadow of the library building interacting with the ground-level scene with the mesquite trees standing as though in the spotlight of the overhead sun. Though I don't remember what I expected of Will in terms of its worth as art. Will studied it seriously a minute or two, then raised his vodka bottle to it and declared, "She's a fine primitive...yes, a fine primitive." It was a put down--Will was an academically trained artist--yes, Robert Henri was avant-garde in some ways, but mainly Will was modern but not as modern as some of his contemporaries, like Stuart Davis...not even as modern in the abstract or impressionistic sense as John Marin. But still he was telling me he could tell my grandmother was an amateur painter--looking down his nose at her work--like I look down my nose at certain musicians and poets and writers I consider amateurs.
At the Feet of Klee
Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook was designed for the students in his design course at Walter Gropius's Bauhaus School of Art in the wonderfully creative days in Germany's pre-Hitler Insane-Horror Days.

Klee through this little Sketchbook starts with the simple . (dot), as it sits as a full stop, going nowhere. First he gives this . (dot) movement. Through movement the dot stretches into a line...then the line takes on a basic horizontal movement, though soon Klee has taken that line and has curved it, lifted it off the horizontal, and sent it hurtling toward space--the unknown--though as the line progresses--or loops back into itself--or as the line runs into new dots, it becomes what Klee describes as an active line limited in movement by fixed points. Now this starting point in nothing . (dot) has gained movement through delineation--gaining a freedom to move wildly if uncontrolled--but then controlled by fixed points and through imagination it can advance to planes that are formed by these lines controlled by fixed points to the point dimensions are suddenly seen, width, height, breadth, depth. I mean it is fascinating stuff, with Klee giving as his intentions in this book a new way of looking at the signs of nature--based on his original statement that an artist must communicate with Nature since the artist is human and as such is a part of Nature. Klee's explained that "By contemplating the optical-physical experience, the ego arrives at intuitive conclusions about the inner substance" (what Moholy-Nagy calls "the Spiritual"). The art student is more than "a refined camera" simply "recording the surface of an object." Klee says a student who is serious about art "must realize that he (or she)" is "[a] child of this earth; yet also [a] child of the Universe; [the] issue of a star among stars." Heavy stuff for a design starting with a . (dot).

After Sybil Moholy-Nagy's intellectually crystal clear Introduction to Klee's Sketchbook builds the scaffolding on which we can study the deepest aspects of Klee's pedagogical theories (it involves getting a student to think above and below the horizon) of proportionate lines, dimension and balance, gravitational curve, and kinetic and chromatic energy (the actions of a painter painting) lead to what Moholy-Nagy calls "an axiom that shows Klee's deepest wisdom": TO STAND DESPITE ALL POSSIBILITIES TO FALL! Deep, eh? Not really. For after you have digested these concepts set out in plain translated-from-German English by Moholy-Nagy and after you get into Klee's Sketchbook's innards, like a spinning top turning into a feathered arrow, you suddenly realize where Klee is going--he's attempting--he says its instinctual with humans to want to fly--to jump off the macrocosmic and into the microcosmic to work back out from there into a new space, a new Universe, a "spirtually" devised Universe and Nature--like approaching Nature from within, from the beginning of something out of nothing toward a reproductive example of one aspect of this New World.

Klee called the summation of his pedagogical theories Resonanzverhaltnis, experiencing a dual reality through seeing and feeling the essence of Nature to the point you, the artist, begin to realize "a free creation of abstracted forms which supersede didactic principles with a new naturalness, the naturalness of the work. He produces or participates in the production of works which are indications of the work of God" [Plato's Eitos].

Holy Christ, Klee through his art is defining God! It's clear to me. I could write a whole book on this--the discovery of perspective--just think, at one time artists hadn't discovered perspective yet--they were trapped on a flat earth. Klee teaches the evolving artist--and this includes us writers and Sociologists, too--to fly off the flat earth and into the circular-circulating Universe--from the microcosmic to the absolute cosmic. Freedom as represented by a shooting star.

for (a very artsy-fartsy) The Daily Growler

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.