category: art

Max Beckmann — two landscape paintings I saw 30 years ago

Max Beckmann -- Evening on the Terrace, 1928

I just came across this passage from an old journal, written on Friday, January 25, 1985, after visiting the great Max Beckmann retrospective at the LA County Art Museum (9 December 1984 – 3 February 1985) for the second time:

Beckmann’s landscapes are nice and open in a way the figure compositions are not. Evening on the Terrace, 1928, striped pink under pink clouds from blue sky into darker blue sea — light rays striking the surface of the water. Similar shafts of light in yellow-orange diagonal stripes w/ blue stripes between in a more tumultuous North Sea Landscape I (Storm), 1937. The landscape watercolors are ok.

Max Beckmann -- North Sea Landscape I (Storm), 1937

Ah, youth, my younger self. Ignorant and impressionable, but heartfelt and earnest. When I viewed those paintings and wrote about my experience viewing them, I of course had no inkling that 30 years later I could just look up each painting on a magical global information network, using a dreaded computer no less. Times change, as they usually seem to do.

Cy Twombly, April 25, 1928 – July 5, 2011

R.I.P Cy Twombly, one of the great ones! I hope you are sailing along the Wilder Shores of Love.

Cy Twombly - Wilder Shores of Love

Art is a thought experiment

Art is a thought experiment that is communicated through some physical means to other people.

The landscapes of his dreams

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern or a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscapes of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet; the sort of thing that he likes to think about. –G.K. Chesterton

Soft Monuments

Thinking about things that other people will not

boris-vianA wonderful thought from Boris Vian, quoted in A half-century homage to France’s master-prankster, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the author / jazz musician / artist’s death:

[Vian’s] heightened sense of the absurd reached its apotheosis when he joined the Collège de pataphysique, a prestigious circle of French writers and academics studying pataphysics, a virtual science invented at the end of the 19th century by the author Alfred Jarry.

They held absurd honours ceremonies with strange decorations. Vian was promoted to Transcendent Satrap, in charge of the Extraordinary Commission on Clothing. Along with illustrious French names like Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Prévert, they engaged in serious, scientific discussion of stupid ideas, such as crossing Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.

I am applying myself to thinking about things that I think people will not think about,” Vian said in a radio recording…

Emphasis mine, because it’s a great credo to live by. Thanks to Tosh Berman for the tip on this article and for turning me on to Boris Vian. We should all be so lucky as to cross Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.

Turning dada into data

Leave it to science to transform dada into data. A new study suggests that the experience of nonsense, “may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large,” according to a recent article in the New York Times, How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect.

The article continues:

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.

When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

That right there almost seems like a neurological explanation for the invention of religion (and art): The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.”

Read the full article — it goes on to cite a study where a group of test subjects who first read “The Country Doctor” by Kafka performed a letter-string matching test 30 percent better than a control group that read a more linear non-Kafka story.

This latest quest by science is trying to show that “nonsense makes sense”, which, paradoxically, would make it non-nonsense, right?

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories [or religion — a weeping Virgin Mary statue, anyone?], for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

That’s too bad — John Cage should be added to the school curriculum regardless of the prematurity of these findings.

Uh-oh, I feel the grip of the uncanny overcoming me as I type. Will the urge for odor satisfy itself with me?

Still, the new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.

I’ll think to that, ye uncanny drinkers!

Linux boot sequence, visualized

Super geeky, but a beautiful image — click on it for a larger version:

Linux boot sequence

Image created by Perry Hung, who explains:

This is a visualization I made for funsies of a linux boot sequence where each function is a node and each edge represents a function call, direct branch, or indirect branch. Nodes are laid out using an unweighted force-directed layout algorithm, where each node is simulated as if it were electrically repulsive and had springs between nodes.

The little “lobe” on the left is made up the interrupt processing routines (irq vectors, irq_svc, etc). The tail at the top is the bootloader. The main thing in the middle is the linux boot sequence.

The entire graph represents a call chain from the bootloader up until it jumps into userspace to a shell prompt

edit: this picture was intended to be “art” and not something with a whole lot of utility. yes, you can zoom in and see individual nodes and control flow. yes, there are better layouts for this information. I have collected much of this information to find commonly executed parts of the kernel to optimize aggressively.

My irq vectors are in a tizzy!

Physicists make the best sculptors: The Large Helical Device

If you want more proof that physicists are the best sculptors working today, beyond the Large Hadron Collider about to come online in Switzerland, look no further than the Large Helical Device Project in Japan — click the pic to see a larger version:

Large Helical Device

Whatever this thing does, it does it beautifully.

Miroslav Tichý and The Smudge

The Centre Pompidou in Paris is currently showing an exhibit of the Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý. Here is the Pompidou’s introduction, illustrated with images I found online:

Miroslav Tichy

This is the first exhibition in France of the photographic work of the Czech artist Miroslav Tichý, now more than 80 years old. Only recently discovered, his work reveals the distinctive talent of a marginal and somewhat monomaniacal figure who steadfastly refused the social, political and personal values of the Communist period, form its beginning in 1948 to its end in the late 1980s.

Miroslav Tichy camera

Tichý took up photography in the mid-1950s, reinventing it as it were from scratch and building his own cameras and enlargers from shoe-boxes, tin cans, recycled glass and other waste materials.

Tichy women and man at a bar

His timeless and uncategorizable images, shot instinctively or carelessly on handmade cameras with makeshift optics, offer an extraordinary vision of a fantastical, eroticised reality, half real, half dream. Women on the TV screen : these are his single, obsessional subject.

Tichy woman drinking

Rescued from neglect by his neighbour, the film director Roman Buxbaum, in 1989, Tichý’s work was first shown at the Sevilla Biennale in 2004. This exhibition at the Centre Pompidou brings together a number of cameras and some hundred photographs, mostly from the Foundation Tichý Ocean.

Tichý made one of the all-time greatest comments about art (quoted here), which I’ve followed below with a photo of his that perfectly illustrates the idea:

Photography is painting with light! The blurs, the spots, those are errors! But the errors are part of it, they give it poetry and turn it into painting. And for that you need as bad a camera as possible! If you want to be famous, you have to do whatever you’re doing worse than anyone else in the whole world.

Tichy woman profile smudge

What a great line: If you want to be famous, you have to do whatever you’re doing worse than anyone else in the whole world.

Tichý’s comment about “blurs, spots and errors” reminded me of The Smudge, as described by Rebecca West in her epic masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, recounting her travels through (then) Yugoslavia in the late 1930s. West writes of Manichaeism and the concept of The Smudge, an ideaý that has embraced stain-happy me for years. So I went and searched through BLGF and compiled all of the “smudge” (1) and “The Smudge” (3) references, interspersed below with more Tichý images:

Thereafter the snow was so thick on the wooded hills that the tree-trunks were mere lines and the branches were finer than any lines drawn by a human hand. No detail was visible in the houses of the villages at the base of the hills. They were blocks of soft black shadow edges with the pure white fur of the snow on the roofs. Above the hills there was a layer of mist that drew a dull white smudge between this pure black-and-white world and the dark-grey sky. (BLGF p. 71)

Tichy girl on bicycle

Manichaeism — for these heresies might as well be grouped together under the name of their parent — represents the natural reaction of the earnest mind to a religion that has aged and hardened and committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is to pretend that all is now known, and there can now be laid down a system of rules go guarantee salvation. In its origin it was a reaction against the extreme fatalism of Zoroastrianism, which held that man’s destiny was decided by the stars, and that his only duty was to accomplish it in decorum. Passionately Mani created a myth that would show the universe as a field for moral effort: inspired by Christianity as it had passed through the filter of many Oriental minds and by a cosmology invented by an Aramaic astronomer, he imagined that there had been in the beginning of time a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness. This was the origin of the present world, which Mani very aptly called The Smudge. It became the duty of all men who were on the side of the light, which was identified with virtue and reason, to recover the particles of light that have become imprisoned in the substance of darkness, which was identified with vice and brutishness. (BLGF p. 171-172)

Miroslav Tichy girl blur

When the kingdom of darkness was existing side by side with the kingdom of light without any commixture, then it was committing no offence. That attitude can be traced in Radovan’s faithful reproduction of life’s imperfect forms, in Dostoievsky’s choice of abnormality as a subject. And there is yet another resemblance which is particularly apparent in the work of Radovan. The columns he carved with the representations of The Smudge are borne on the shoulders of those who are wholly of the darkness, Jews and Turks and pagans. It is put forward solidly and without sense of any embarrassment that there are those who are predestined to pain, contrary to the principles of human justice. Calvin admitted this with agony, but there is none here; and Dostoievsky never complains against the God who created the disordered universe he describes. This is perhaps because the Manichaeans, like the Greeks, did not regard God as the Creator, but as the Arranger, or even as the Divine Substance which had to be arranged. (BLGF p. 176)

Tichy girl kneeling

In the belvedere Marmont must have found it difficult to keep his mind on his cards. In the end, we know, he threw them in and pushed back his chair and strolled away, to leave Dalmatia for ever. There was fault in him too. He was man also, he was a fusion of good and evil, of light and darkness. Therefore he did not want with his wholeness that there should be a victory of light; he preferred that darkness should continue to exist, and this universe, The Smudge, should not pass away. The great men for whom humanity feels ecstatic love need not be good, nor even gifted; but they must display this fusion of light and darkness which is the essential human character; they must even promise, but a predominance of darkness, that the universe shall for ever persist in its imperfection. (BLGF p. 185)

I’m not really interested in the “good vs. evil” dichotomy, or religious interpretations of reality in general. My interest in smudges and stains is in their abject beauty, and in their being emblematic of uncertainty and things beyond our control. And not necessarily in a bad way, either, but often in a beautiful way, if we just retrain our perceptions to see the beauty in the unexpected, the translucent dream world between what we think we know and what we don’t know that we don’t know. Such is the zone that Tichý operates in.

Here are a group of my stain maps that wallow in and play with The Smudge in a non-dialectic way.

Cornell’s backside

Another interesting thing I saw at Stanford’s art museum, Spared from the Storm: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art:

Image: Joseph Cornell (U.S.A., 1903–1972), Radar Astronomy, 1952–56, mixed media

Note how ol’ Uncle Joe applies his signature to the back of the box: reversed. It looks like he painted his signature on thin vellum and, when dry, glued it face down, leaving the signature reversed when viewed from behind, but “right reading” if viewed from the front of the box and you could actually see through the back of the box to see the signture.

Raoul Dufy + Jackson Pollock mashup

Here mashed together are two details from paintings I saw last week at the small exhibition at

Stanford’s art museum, Spared from the Storm: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art:

Raoul Dufy Jackson Pollock painting details

Raoul Dufy (France, 1877–1953), Window at Nice, 1923, detail
Right: Jackson Pollock (U.S.A., 1912–1956), Composition (White, Black, Blue and Red on White), 1948, detail

Blogging while under the confluence

confluence of the missouri and mississippi riversChris King is a writer and musician living in St. Louis, a city born at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Chris has a thing for confluences, both literal and metaphoric — thus the theme of his blog, Confluence City. This fascination with confluences is something we have in common, as you’d probably guess by looking at my work, which at its most basic level is a confluence of word + image.

I don’t know Chris, have never met him. He just emailed me out of the blue a couple hours ago to introduce himself and to say that we share an affinity for Robert Walser. Another confluence. And an influence.

He and I also share a trait of writing things down in notebooks and any scrap of paper at hand, which, as  professional musician, he used to do in between gigs in notebooks he dubbed “gigbooks”. In The Chatter of the Soul, he elaborates:

As long as I can remember, I have been writing down fetching things people say. My personal hell would be me clutching my pants pockets for eternity and finding no pen or paper, while fascinating folks are saying unforgettable things that all of us are bound to forget, if someone doesn’t write them down, now. In my crowds, that was always me.

…On my own time and dime, I rather like to drink carefully-made beer and wine, and fellowship with friends with amply-stocked minds and souls. When this was a rock and roll road show, we were forever traveling between gigs. The notebooks I kept in those days were known (in the beginning, officially, complete with roman-numeraled dog-latin names) as “gig books.”… And when [these days] I take the time to type up my notes after a night out, I still think of them as gigbook poems.

Gigbook poems are not for everyone. Often I have been told, “I guess you had to be there.” But I think they capture the chatter of the soul. They strike me like little luminescent winks of actual people enacting their lives, in the middle of it and making it all up as they go along.

Yes! There is often gold in the most seemingly trivial of overheard utterances, which have long formed one of the sources of the texts I develop in my work (see #4 on the About the Work page of my site). I think Chris, as a “real” writer and journalist (and judging by his comment above), is probably more reportorial and factual than I am, or, to put it a better way, more inclined toward narrative; I’m usually pulling paragraphs apart and looking for different ways to scramble meaning. My version of his gigbooks are the Snarkbooks, which are not so much “the chatter of the soul”, but just the chatter, period.

There’s a feeling in this kind of activity though, a feeling of being in the zone, of appreciating what’s happening in the moment, that I think we’ve both tuned into in our own ways. John Cage summed this feeling up beautifully in the closing paragraph of his 1957 lecture, “Experimental Music“:

And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Uncertainty widgets, from A Seasonal Cluster of Cognac and KnivesPurposeful purposelessness is the best description I’ve ever heard for the function of an artist in society. And I love how Cage repeatedly in his writings throughout his life stressed the (curiosity) value of observing or creating situations and seeing what happens (getting “one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way”), as opposed to trying to impose a structure. I’ve always hated the phrase, “bringing order out of chaos”, as if the “ordered” system was inherently good and the “chaotic” system something to be avoided at all costs. If meaning is synonymous, or at least dependent upon, information, then a chaotic system, which has more potential, more possible outcomes, than an arbitrarily ordered system, must therefore be more “meaning-full“. Allowing an event to take place, to happen, does not mean, however, that it will always be 100% chaotic, and it’s much more interesting when a confluence of dynamic systems produces both chaotic and ordered eddies of information. How the “ordered” and the “chaotic” systems are arranged is, of course, a (by)product of uncertainty, so the beast feeds itself and the cycle continuously renews, like the water in a river you can never step in twice.

Yes, I’ve gone off on a tangent, and by now you’ve likely drowned in this river of metaphor, but isn’t a tangent but a confluence if you’re traveling in the opposite direction? Run the film of the tangent backwards, and you have a confluence.

Foaming at the mouth over a painting

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan (p. 204), relates this anecdote about Apelles of Kos, a renowned ancient Greek painter from the 4th century BC:

Sextus Empiricus retold the story of Apelles the Painter, who, while doing a portrait of a horse, was attempting to depict the foam from the horse’s mouth. After trying very hard and making a mess, he gave up and, in irritation, took the sponge he used for cleaning his brush and threw it at the picture. Where the sponge hit, it left a perfect representation of the foam.

A beautiful case study in support of Taleb’s advice to “maximize the serendipity around you,” something I am always trying to tap into both in the visualization process (painting, drawing, making stains) and in the conceptualization process (making words, stringing words along, weaving and unweaving narrative threads).

Thanks Michael for sending me the book — it’s very interesting and, as you suspected, right up my alley.

Flamethrower Shooting Gallery

A couple Crucible-dwelling metal/fire artists, Matisse and Roxie, have created a Flamethrower Shooting Gallery for this year’s Burning Man, which debuted recently at The Crucible’s Fire Arts Festival in Oakland, California.

Here’s a nice shot of the sooty aftermath:

flamethrower shooting gallery

Via Gizmodo, where they have more photos and a video posted.

Parallel marginalia: Wölfli and Walser

Sam Goldenrule Jones writes and publishes several excellent blogs, including, Wandering with Robert Walser, “A project dedicated to Swiss author Robert Walser (1878-1956)”, a great writer I only recently discovered.

The fact that Walser was Swiss, ended up in an insane asylum, and wrote stories and articles in a fantastically small microscript handwriting, put me in mind of Adolf Wölfli. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a famous Wölfli drawing (beating Warhol to Campbell’s Soup by four decades or so) with in image of Walser’s (described below) that I cribbed from Sam’s Flickr set of Walser images (apologies):

adolf wolfli robert walser composite

Here is Sam’s description of the Walser image:

An image of a notecard I purchased at the Museum Neuhaus in Biel, Switzerland, Walser’s birthplace. The legend says “Micrograme No. 147 (Autumn 1925); crayon, 20.5 x 13.2 cm (format original). Robert Walser-Archiv, Zurich. Copyright Carl Seelig-Siftung, Zurich. Museum Neuhaus, Biel. As I recall, the text consists of a review Walser wrote of the book that accompanied this publisher’s announcement.

These two images together remind me of a phrase that popped into my head the other day that is currently working its way through a Snarkbook and toward a drawing or painting: parallel marginalia.

Sam also turned me on to Words Without Borders, where he recently lead a “Walser month”, with a number of roundtable discussions. One in particular especially interests me, Walser and the Visual Arts, which currently only has Sam’s initial “brief list of works of art, music and film inspired by, or associated with, Walser”, but that alone ought to keep me far too busy being Walserbusy.

Ok, finally, a snippet of Walser, from one of my favorite stories, Kleist in Thun (a title also working its way through my “system”), where Walser imagines himself as the Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist, during the spring and summer of 1802, in a villa on a small island in the Aar River near the town of Thun, Swizerland. Here is Walser delivering the weather report, the “emotional weather report” as Tom Waits later sang:

On rainy days it is terribly cold and void. The place shivers at him. The green shrubs whine and whimper and shed rain tears for some sun. Over the heads of the mountains drift monstrous dirty clouds like great impudent murderous hands over foreheads. The countryside seems to want to creep away and hide from this evil weather, to shrivel up. The lake is leaden and bleak, the language of the waves unkind. The storm wind, wailing like a weird admonition, can find no issue, crashes from one scarp to the next. It is dark here, and small, small. Everything is pressed right up against one’s nose. One would like to seize a sledgehammer and beat a way out of it all. Get away there, get away!

I love that about Walser, how everything in his prose is alive, sentient and full of its own desire, fellow-citizens with the protagonists and the other characters who people his places.