In her poem "After 'Mindwalk'" from "Evening Train" (1992), Denise Levertov writes of how we must "admit what, / even through eyes not naked but robed / in optic devices, is not perceptible". When I read the poem today, the phrase "optic devices" reminded me of Bruno Latour's description in "Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l'usage des terrestres" (2021), which I read earlier this year, of how "optic devices" give us images of his "Univers", the "vaste extérieur" of what he calls "Terre": "nous les lisons, nous les apprenons, nous les calculons, mais toujours de l’intérieur de nos laboratoires, de nos télescopes ou de nos instituts, sans jamais en sortir." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 30 April 2023)
Sunday, April 30, 2023
Saturday, April 29, 2023
“Unacceptabobble” “prodigygality”: Joycean words in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” (1861)
Near the end of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" (1861), two characters use words that could have come straight out of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" (1939). First, Joe Gargery says that when he heard Pip was ill, he thought that "a wisit at such a moment might not prove unacceptabobble." Later, while bothering Pip when he is eating breakfast, Mr. Pumblechook describes his "frame" as "exhausted by the debilitating effects of prodigygality." For Dickens, such stumbles in the pronunciation of words appear in dialogue to serve characterization: Joe the simple blacksmith; Pumblechook the pretentious self-proclaimed benefactor. In "Finnegans Wake", of course, such mixings of words permeate practically every moment of the narration. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 29 April 2023)
Friday, April 28, 2023
United States Vice President Kamala Harris’s call for “a better future for all"
On Wednesday, 26 April 2023, Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, tweeted about the achievements of the administration that President Joe Biden of the Democratic Party heads: "Our Administration has made the largest investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower and the largest investment in climate action in history. We are investing in America and building a better future for all." That last phrase, "building a better future for all," might seem like a formula that any politician could utter, but in the contemporary United States, the other major party, the Republicans, does not want "a better future" for everyone, but only for its white supremacist and Christian nationalist supporters. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 28 April 2023)
Thursday, April 27, 2023
“The highest form of knowledge”: Plato, Bill Bullard, and George Eliot
An internet quotation credits this to Plato: "The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another's world." As so often when I check if a quotation is from the person it's attributed to, this comes from someone else, California educator Bill Bullard: "The highest form of knowledge is empathy, according to George Eliot, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another's world." The closest Eliot passage I've found is from "Janet's Repentance" in "Scenes of Clerical Life" (1857): "Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 27 April 2023)
Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Selected recordings of Bill Frisell’s “Strange Meeting"
At the end of their opener of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" at the Stadtcasino in Basel on Sunday, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan improvised a segue into Frisell's haunting "Strange Meeting". Frisell first recorded the tune with guitar, tuba, bass, trumpet, and drums on "Rambler" in 1984. Then it was the title track of a 1987 album by the trio Power Tools, with Frisell, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. For 1994's "This Land", Frisell wrote a beautiful horn chart (clarinet, alto saxophone, and trombone) with guitar, bass, and drums, and in 2001, he made it a trio again on "Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 26 April 2023)
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Bill Frisell and Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso"
Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan opened their duo concert at the Stadtcasino Basel on Sunday with Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso". Frisell previously recorded "Misterioso" on his 2006 album "Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian" (with Carter on bass and Motian on drums), but before that, Motian and Frisell recorded it with Joe Lovano on saxophone on the 1997 Paul Motian Trio album "Sound of Love", which was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York in 1995. It was the Motian version that I heard silent echoes of on Sunday, as if there were a trace of Lovano's saxophone and Motian's cymbals and toms hovering behind Frisell and Morgan. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 25 April 2023)
Monday, April 24, 2023
“A certain slant of light” on this spring morning
On clear winter days in Basel, the opening lines of an Emily Dickinson poem often cross my mind: "There's a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons" (Fr320). As I walk down the street in Basel at 47°33'N and find myself blinded by the "Slant" of light from winter's late afternoon sun, I imagine Emily looking out her window in Amherst at 42°23'N and experiencing the same (though perhaps with slightly less "Slant" in her case?). By April, I usually no longer experience that same sense of "Slant", but this morning, for a moment, sunlight came slanting through the clouds into our second-story living room, and Dickinson crossed my mind again. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 24 April 2023)
Sunday, April 23, 2023
Pankaj Mishra misquotes Frantz Fanon and I misrember Claude McKay
In an old issue of the New Yorker (6 December 2021), I found Pankaj Mishra's article on "Frantz Fanon's Enduring Legacy," which quotes (and slightly misquotes) Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" (1961): "As [soon as] you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs, there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being.” This image from the Martinique-born Fanon reminded me of Jamaican-born Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die" (1919), but I was misremembering its first line: "If we must die, let it not be like hogs." McKay's "mad and hungry dogs" are the oppressors, not the oppressed. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 23 April 2023)
Saturday, April 22, 2023
Possible features of excellent texts that we discussed in the 111 Words class yesterday
A student who read my text from yesterday evening sent me the list of points from our discussion of excllent texts in class yesterday morning. These features are not necessary to all excellent texts, but they did come up in at least one of the seven texts we looked at, and many came up in several: a clear message or purpose; rhetorical devices and figures; strong last sentences; memorability and resonance; rhythm; tension; variations on themes; vividness and immediacy, often grounded in specificity; word play and comedy; layout; defamiliarization or enstrangement à la Viktor Shklovsky; constraints (including the 111-word constraint); and the effect of seeming to be a train of thought. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 April 2023)
Friday, April 21, 2023
A discussion of excellent texts in the 111 Words a Day course
For today's session of "111 Words A Day: A Writing Project", I asked each student to pick one excellent text by another student and to be prepared to say why they thought it was excellent. This gives us a chance to praise each other's texts, rather than, as one student put it, to nitpick them. After each student's comment on the text they chose, I wrote a few words on the board, so by the end of the class, we had a nice list of features that contribute to making texts excellent. Unfortunately, I cleaned the whiteboard before thinking of taking a picture of it, so now I've lost that list! (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 April 2023)
Thursday, April 20, 2023
An FC Basel victory at the end of a long day
After a long day with two morning classes, a three-hour afternoon meeting, and a lecture and reception in the early evening, I made it home just in time for the second leg of the Europa Conference League quarterfinal between OGC Nice and FC Basel. And the match then made my day even longer: after Nice went ahead in the 9th minute, Basel finally equalized in the 86th minute with a goal by Jean-Kevin Augustin. After Basel's Zeki Amdouni only hit the post in the 90th minute, the match went into extra time. Basel's Kasim Adams Nuhu scored in the the 98th minute, so Basel qualified for their second European semifinal ever! (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 April 2023)
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
Bill Frisell’s “Small Town” as a one-minute song and a nine-minute improvisation
The title track of guitarist Bill Frisell's duo album with bassist Thomas Morgan, "Small Town" (2017), first appeared on Frisell's "Disfarmer" (2009), with Greg Leisz, Jenny Scheinman, and Viktor Krauss. The original recording is 1:01 long: Frisell plays an acoustic melody that sounds like the first verse of a folk song, followed by a melodic fragment even briefer than a couplet. The live version with Morgan is 8:58 long; Frisell turns that simple form on the electric guitar into a vehicle for improvisation that keeps the folk-song feeling and quietly evolves into a Morgan solo. With a slightly heavier tone, Frisell returns to the melody and lets the tune drift out. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 April 2023)
Note: Frisell and Morgan will be playing in Basel on Sunday, 23 April 2023.
Tuesday, April 18, 2023
Bill Frisell’s recordings of music from movies, especially John Barry’s “James Bond” music
The debut album of John Zorn's band Naked City was guitarist Bill Frisell's first recording including movie music, such as John Barry's "James Bond" theme. His own albums occasionally featured other movie music, such as Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" and "The Days of Wine and Roses", until in 2016 he released the movie-music album "When You Wish Upon a Star", which included Barry's "You Only Live Twice" (with Petra Haden on vocals). That song, along with Barry's theme to "Goldfinger", also features on "Small Town" (2017) and "Epistrophy" (2019), Frisell's two duet albums with bassist Thomas Morgan — the duo playing at the Stadtcasino Basel next Sunday, 23 April. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 April 2023)
Monday, April 17, 2023
“The Weight” and “What a Wonderful World” at Pink Pedrazzi and George Ricci’s concert in Basel last Friday
At the end of their duo concert at Ängel oder Aff in Basel last Friday, Pink Pedrazzi and George Ricci played "The Weight" from The Band's 1968 album "Music from Big Pink", which got the crowd in the small café singing along: "Take a load off, Fanny! / And put the load right on me." For the encore, Pink played Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" on ukulele, which also got us singing along. I thought it was a much older tune than "The Weight", but it was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss and released by Armstrong on 1 September 1967, ten months before "Music from Big Pink". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 April 2023)
Sunday, April 16, 2023
Steve Swallow telling Larry Grenadier about the “secret” he learned when he was 70
In September 2014, bassist Larry Grenadier and I went to a concert at the Bird's Eye in Basel: trombonist and pianist Christian Muthspiel was playing compositions inspired by John Dowland tunes with Steve Swallow on bass, Matthieu Michel on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Franck Tortiller on vibraphone. The music was beautiful, but what I remember most is a moment in the conversation between Larry Grenadier and Steve Swallow during the set break, when Swallow, who turned 74 a few days later, told Grenadier, then 48, about a "secret" he had discovered when he was 70: "If you practice, you get better! How come nobody told me that when I was 20!" (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 April 2023)
Saturday, April 15, 2023
Heather Cox Richardson’s list of figures who opposed discrimination throughout the history of the United States
In her Letter from an American on 1 April 2023, Heather Cox Richardson offered a series of figures from American history to counter the implicit or even explicit Republican idea that "liberal democracy" is immoral. While I'm not sure that's what her examples were all standing up for, Richardson's list of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rose Herera, Julia Ward Howe, Benjamin Banneker, Sitting Bull, Saum Song Bo, Dr. Héctor García, Edward Roberts, and Stormé DeLarverie makes another point for me: all these examples of people in past historical periods who fought against discrimination are evidence that what we see today as discrimination has always been challenged by those who were subject to it. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 April 2023)
Friday, April 14, 2023
An apparently false memory of a story about Jason Moran playing piano for senior citizens
As I remember it, years ago I read a profile in "The New Yorker" of jazz pianist Jason Moran that included a story about Moran sometimes playing piano for senior citizens in nursing homes and retirement homes. At one home, he played a Duke Ellington composition, and a very old African-American man nodded appreciatively, so Moran continued to play Ellington for him. Later, he found out the man was over a hundred years old and had actually played with Ellington back in the 1930s. — That's how I remember it, but I just found the profile, which was published in 2013, and there's no mention of Ellington or playing in nursing homes. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 April 2023)
Thursday, April 13, 2023
Pip’s nighttime plan to “enlist for India as a private soldier” in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” (1861)
When Pip in Charles Dicken's "Great Expectations" (1861) first discovers that the "benefactor" who gave him his "great expectations" is Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict the young Pip had once stolen food for, he gets up in the middle of night and considers a plan to "enlist for India as a private soldier." According to Jerome Meckier's timeline for the novel, this takes place in November or December 1828. At the time, the military instrument of the East India Company's control of much of India was its own private army separate from the British Army. So Pip does not want to be Private Pirrip; he wants to join the Company's army. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 April 2023)
Wednesday, April 12, 2023
A scene from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) as an example of annotating a work of art as a starting point for interpretation
To demonstrate what happens when one feels the need to annotate a work that one is studying, I turned to an exemplary favorite today: a scene from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) in which Mookie (Spike Lee) is wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson jersey, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is wearing Air Jordans, Cee (Martin Lawrence) is wearing a Los Angeles Lakers Earvin "Magic" Johnson jersey, and Clifton (John Savage) is wearing a Boston Celtics Larry Bird jersey. My twenty-something students know Michael Jordan and his shoes, but such history here as the rivalry between Magic and Bird needs annotation for them to begin to interpret the scene's implications. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 April 2023)
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
Marlene Dietrich and cinematographer Karl Freund in Les Murray’s “Fredy Neptune” (1999)
When Fred Boettcher in Les Murray's "Fredy Neptune" (1999) first sees Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood, where he is an extra on the 1930 film of "All Quiet on the Western Front", she is talking to "Freund the boss cameraman". The influential cinematographer Karl Freund (1890-1969) began his career in Berlin, most famously on Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", before moving to Hollywood in 1929, where his films included "Dracula" (1931) and "Key Largo" (1948). Dietrich (1901-1992) also began her career in Berlin, but with the success of "The Blue Angel" (1930), she also went to Hollywood. In Murray's verse novel, the transplanted Germans exchange the "Berlin wisecracks" that Fred hears in their conversation. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 April 2023)
Monday, April 10, 2023
“Secretary Cheney / made no mention”: Dick Cheney and in Denise Levertov’s “News Report, September 1991"
The subtitle of Denise Levertov's poem "News Report, September 1991" is an all-caps newspaper headline: "U.S. BURIED IRAQI SOLDERS ALIVE IN GULF WAR." The poem consists of quotations from that "news report" on a "tactic [...] designed / to terrorize", as one of the quotations put it. Another reads differently now than in 1992 when the poem was published in Levertov's collection "Evening Train": "Secretary Cheney / made no mention." At the time, Dick Cheney was George H. W. Bush's Secretary of Defense; just over ten years later, as George W. Bush's Vice President, he and his many henchmen from the first Gulf War were instrumental in starting the second one. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 April 2023)
Sunday, April 09, 2023
“Funes el memorioso” and the “ferocious splendor” of Jorge Luis Borges’s imagination
The narrator of Jorge Luis Borges's "Funes el Memorioso" (1942, in "Ficciones", 1944) finally sums up the position in the world of Ireneo Funes, a young man who never forgets the slightest detail of his experiences: "Babilonia, Londres y Nueva York han abrumado con feroz esplendor la imaginación de los hombres; nadie, en sus torres populosas o en sus avenidas urgentes, ha sentido el calor y la presión de una realidad tan infatigable como la que día y noche convergía sobre el infeliz Ireneo, en su pobre arrabal sudamericano." Borges himself was a man on the margins living with "the ferocious splendor of his imagination" — and with ambitions to literary greatness. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 April 2023)
An English version of the quoted sentence:
"Babylon, London and New York have overwhelmed with their ferocious splendor the imaginations of men; no one, in trleir populous towers or their urgent avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the hapless Ireneo, in his poor South American suburb."
That's from this PDF of an English translation of the story, whose translator is unidentified.
Saturday, April 08, 2023
The dates (January-March 1991) on Denise Levertov’s poem "Witnessing from Afar the New Escalation of Savage Power”
Unlike Adrienne Rich, who began dating her poems in the 1960s, Denise Levertov rarely dated her poems, so the dates for "Witnessing from Afar the New Escalation of Savage Power" in "Evening Train" (1992) stand out: "January-March 1991." This "escalation of savage power" is thus the Gulf War of 1991: "Operation Desert Storm" to expel Iraq from Kuwait ran from 17 January to 28 February. Levertov's distant "witnessing" reminds me of my own moment of "shock" and "shame": I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania library on a Wednesday evening when the news came that the aerial bombardment of Iraqi forces, radar sites, and airfields, as well as Baghdad itself. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 April 2023)
Friday, April 07, 2023
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan in Basel on 23 April 2023
Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan will be playing a duo concert at the Stadtcasino in Basel on 23 April (as part of the Basel Jazz Festival by Offbeat Jazz). The duo's two albums, "Small Town" (2017) and "Epistrophy" (2019) — both recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York City — give a sense of what to expect: Frisell originals (such as "Small Town"), jazz standards (such as Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" or Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life"), pop songs (such as Fats Domino's "What A Party"), movie music (such as the themes to "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice"), and folks songs (such as "Red River Valley" and "Wildwood Flower"). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 April 2023)
Thursday, April 06, 2023
Andrea Samborski singing between Canada and Switzerland at the Kult Kino in Basel
I call myself a Basler from Detroit; perhaps Andrea Samborski calls herself a Baslerin from Vancouver Island. At her short set at the Kult Kino in Basel tonight at this month's Theaterplatz-Tag, she shifted her patter fluidly beween English and Basel German, while her songs slipped back and forth between Canada and Switzerland — or touched both at once in Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel" with guest Roli Frei. Supported by her steady, fluid fingerpicking (with wonderful bass lines), Andrea's voice hovered through the haunting stories, landscapes, and mindscapes of her evocative lyrics. "Sea Wolves" shimmered with Pacific Ocean spray "Tiger Lilies" with the summer dust and winter snow of the Canadian prairies. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 April 2023)
Wednesday, April 05, 2023
Getting out of jury duty with Franz Kafka, Philadelphia 1990
In Philadelphia in 1990, I was called for jury duty. I had to miss a Monday-morning class to go to court, where I heard about the case I might serve on, how the jurors would be chosen, and what reasons one could give to be excused — including "education". The trial was expected to take until Wednesday afternoon, and I didn't want to miss a session on Franz Kafka that day, so I joined the line of those wanting to be excused. When I explained this to the lawyers and the stocky, graying, African-American judge, he chuckled and excused me in a deep voice, "Kafka? Didn't he write something about a trial?" (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 April 2023)
Tuesday, April 04, 2023
Name the translator! (Including when it’s me)
Earlier today on Facebook, a friend posted an English quotation from a 1972 letter from Martin Heidegger to Hannah Arendt: "You are right: Schelling is much more difficult than Hegel; he risks more and sometimes leaves dry land entirely behind. Hegel always stays safely on the rails of the dialectic." I often ask for information when translated quotations do not include the translator's name, but in this case I didn't have to ask, since I translated the correspondence of Heidegger and Arendt around twenty years ago. So in this case, I didn't have to ask if he knew — I just pointed out that he was quoting me as well as Heidegger. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 April 2023)
Monday, April 03, 2023
More defamiliarization in action: A. R. Moxon’s “A Good Guy with a Dinosaur"
After I watched Clint Smith on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Thursday and his discussion of poetry as paying attention reminded of Viktor Shklovsky's "defamiliarization", I read novelist A. R. Moxon's latest Substack post on Sunday, "A Good Guy with a Dinosaur". As the title suggests, his discussion of a discourse on the right to own "killer dinosaurs" replaces references to guns with references to such dinosaurs and thus defamiliarizes and exposes the absurdities of the discourse on "gun rights" in the contemporary United States: "The people who released dinosaurs into crowds really seemed to like targeting elementary schools—perhaps because of how distressing it was to most people." (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 April 2023)
Horizons: Gerhard Richter and David Hockney (on exhibitions in 1998-1999)
[I wrote this essay back in late 1999 and early 2000. This morning, I read this piece on Hockney by Katy Evans-Bush and remembered my essay, which I never got published and never posted here. So here it is.]
HORIZONS: GERHARD RICHTER AND DAVID HOCKNEY
I knew that James Whistler was part of the Paris scene
but I was still surprised when I found the painting
of his mother at the Musée d'Orsay
among all the colored dots and mobile brushstrokes
of the French Impressionists.
-- Billy Collins, "Study in Orange and White"
(Poetry, January 1999)
The first painting to catch my eye in Gerhard Richter's "Landscapes" exhibition (Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany, October 4, 1998 to January 3, 1999) was an abstraction -- a variation, perhaps, on a theme by Mark Rothko. A clean, sharp line across the middle of the painting, which measures almost three meters by three meters, splits it into two parts. Above the line is a field of lighter blue, shifting from dark to near white from left to right. Below it is a field of darker blue which also shifts in tone from left to right, but its colors are less smooth -- turbulent patterns of white run through the dominant darker blue. The painting lacks the background against which most of Rothko's rectangles hover, so that from afar the parts seem more fixed to the canvas than in a Rothko. Rather than suggesting depth, the two rectangles appear to be all shiny surface, almost projecting out into the room, especially from the brighter, whiter right-hand side of the painting.
A closer approach revealed my mistake. The line dividing the two parts clicked into place as a horizon, the abstract field of blue became the sky, and the turbulent white on a dark background became waves on a sea. A glance at the title, Seestück, confirmed that this was a painting of a seascape, and the painting no longer seemed out of place in an exhibition of landscapes. (Richter numbers his paintings; this "Seascape" is number 852-2; it was painted in 1998.) My error, however, was a useful one. In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Jorge Luis Borges proposed two productive ways of misreading works of literature (and, by extension, art): "erroneous attribution" (in Borges's case, reading Don Quixote as having been written by Pierre Menard) and "deliberate anachronism" (reading The Odyssey as a rewrite of Ulysses). Seeing Richter's "Seascape" as an example of a Rothko-like abstraction is neither of these; one might call it "erroneous classification." By focusing attention on the features of a work which resist misclassification, such a reading can show what it is that makes a work belong to a particular category -- in Richter's case, what makes "Seascape" a figurative painting, and not an abstraction.
The horizon, the sky, and the waves on the sea are the three classifying details in Richter's "Seascape" -- of these, the most important is the horizon: it was when I saw the horizon as a horizon that the painting became "what it is," a seascape. This sky has no features which make it clearly figurative; only its color might seem to force a reading of it as sky. Further, when focusing my attention on the "sea" part of the painting, I kept seeing not waves but blue-and-white abstraction. This was true despite the technique used in the painting. No matter how closely one looks at a certain kind of figurative painting, the image is always visible; the brushstrokes have effaced themselves. In this sense, "Seascape" is close to a figurative tradition: a close approach does not reveal the brushstrokes which make up the image. Even though the work is based on a photograph, it is the image itself, and not the technique used to produce it, which is only borderline figurative. Again and again, it was seeing the horizon as a horizon that allowed me to see the painting as figurative. The context and the title were not enough to fix the image in my eye -- it took the single detail, the horizon, to make the seascape always a seascape for me.
This "erroneous classification" was that of a visitor to the exhibition; the artist, or the curators, however, included several further examples of "erroneous classification" among the paintings which were even more clearly landscapes than "Seascape": five paintings entitled "Abstract Painting" (numbers 551-1, 551-2, 551-4, 551-6, and 641-4). The abstract impression created by "Seascape" was temporary: the context of the exhibition, the title of the painting, and the determining detail combined to resolve the question of its classification. Context, title, and details harmonize. The inclusion of these "Abstract Paintings" created a dissonance in the exhibition, a moment of surprise reminiscent of that felt by Billy Collins at seeing "Whistler's Mother" in the Musée d'Orsay. In his poem, Collins's initial surprise has to do with the context in which he saw the painting, but it expands to include the painting's title, "Arrangement in Gray and Black" -- its true title "instead of what everyone naturally calls it." This "erroneous classification" is the artist's: Whistler gave a figurative painting an abstract, formal title. Richter did not give these particular "Abstract Paintings" a misleading title -- they are very much abstractions. At the same time, though, the context of the exhibition made it possible to see them as landscapes. Four of them (those numbered 551-x) have the same form: as with "Seascape," the paintings are clearly divided into top and bottom halves. The top half is a field of blue, akin to that in "Seascape," though in no case with as wide a range of blues in them. The horizon line is a feature of most of Richter's landscapes, as well as his seascapes, but in these paintings there is no land or sea below it. Rather, the parts of the paintings below the "horizon" are blotted brushstrokes and smears of paint. The fifth "Abstract Painting" (641-4) also has such a division into upper and lower parts, but with a difference: the entire left-hand side of the painting appears to have had its paint scraped off. A vertical strip of red on the right balances the scraped part. In between these two are what would have been the two parts of a very blurred landscape: a white upper half and a green lower half, with a hazy horizon between them. Some of Richter's paintings with representational titles, such as "Venice" (606-3) or "Group of Trees" (628-1), make use of similar techniques to disrupt a figurative image. In these cases, the smeared paint seems to be "in front of" a figure "in the background." In the "Abstract Paintings," the smeared paint gives the impression of having completely effaced whatever may have once been visible under that sky. In fact, the four 551 abstractions come from a sequence which concludes with a formally identical painting called "Arizona" (551-8). The "skyscape" in the latter is suddenly no longer abstract but a particular sky.
The "Abstract Paintings" become landscapes not because of details of their images but because of the context in which they are hung. Within that context, their blue "backgrounds" and the lines dividing their parts can be seen as sky and horizon. At the same time, their presence in the exhibition disrupted the interplay of title, context, and details which serve to classify a painting. My "erroneous classification" of "Seascape" combined with the presence of these "Abstract Paintings" to focus attention on the single detail which determined these paintings as landscapes: the horizon.
It would be like Botticelli calling "The Birth of Venus"
"Composition in Blue, Ochre, Green, and Pink,"
or the other way around
like Rothko titling one of his sandwiches of color
"Fishing Boats Leaving Falmouth Harbour at Dawn."
-- Billy Collins, "Study in Orange and White"
A horizon might not be enough to make a painting figurative all by itself. In some of Rothko's late paintings, the backgrounds disappear and the rectangles touch each other, but the lines across the paintings do not thus become horizons. Nevertheless, Rothko's paintings can be seen as figurative: on a flight into Iceland, Arthur Danto claims to have seen "a ready-made Rothko" in the summer sky (The Nation, December 21, 1998). What keeps Rothko's works from being figurative is not their details (the horizons they may contain) but their titles, and the context of Rothko's work as a whole. The simple geometry of a horizon does not fully determine a painting as figurative -- but it is hard to avoid having a painting with two rectangles, one on top of the other, look like it might involve a horizon. The determining power of such simple geometry came back to me a few months after the Richter exhibition, this time at David Hockney's "Espace/Paysage" exhibition (Galérie Sud, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, January 27 to April 26, 1999).
The title of the Hockney exhibition offered a slightly broader context than the title of Richter's exhibition had. There were certainly many landscapes present, but there were also many "spaces": paintings of the human world (pools, of course, and interiors), as well as several abstractions. Before I saw the landscapes in which horizons play a determining role, in fact, I spent a long time looking at an abstract painting in the form of an installation: "Snails Space with Vari-Lites." The swirling designs and colors of this large painting (over two meters by five meters) spill onto the floor in front of the canvas. The whole work is installed in a black-walled room lit by "Vari-Lites": variously colored lights which fade on and off in a nine-minute cycle. As the colors change, the painting changes radically. Warm and soft one moment, it becomes cold and edgy a few minutes later, then moody and reticent a few minutes after that. As I arrived in the exhibition's last room, then, abstraction and the emotional effect of colors were on my mind. Two landscapes, in vibrant colors taken from the same palette as those in "Snails Space," framed the long hall -- but in this case, I was never in any doubt that what I was looking at was a landscape. In American terms, in fact, you might even say that the paintings were of the landscape: the Grand Canyon.
"A Bigger Grand Canyon" and the even bigger "A Closer Grand Canyon" both clearly depict what their titles suggest. Their representation of their subject, however, is much less straightforward than might seem at first glance -- they are even much less straightforward than "Seascape." Despite the tenuousness of its hold on representation, Richter's painting uses realistic colors and presents its image almost photographically, in a single piece. The Grand Canyon paintings, in contrast, present their image with almost psychedelic colors; further, in the case of "A Bigger Grand Canyon," the perspective is not horizontal but diagonal: we are looking down into the canyon at an angle. This distorting perspective renders the image stranger than it might otherwise be. But what most disrupts the figurative quality of these two paintings is the grid through which the image is visible: the image is not "in one piece." Closer inspection reveals that the paintings are not on one huge canvas ("A Bigger Grand Canyon" is more than two meters by seven meters, "A Closer Grand Canyon" more than three by seven); rather, they are painted on many smaller canvases which are hung right up against each other. "A Bigger Grand Canyon" is on sixty canvases (5 x 12), "A Closer Grand Canyon" on ninety-six (8 x 12). The grid "over" the image is actually created by the edges of these canvases, a set of lines between the images on each of the smaller canvases.
The horizon in "Seascape" makes it possible to see the painting's top and bottom both as abstractions and as sky and sea. The canvases in Hockney's "Grand Canyon" paintings can also be seen separately. This reading of them is not as arbitrary as it might seem: Hockney's first Grand Canyon work was not a painting but a collage of photographs he made in 1986. (In the collage, the images in each separate photograph do not blend smoothly into each other, as they do in the paintings.) Once the canvases are taken individually, it is not hard to see many of them as abstractions. In "A Bigger Grand Canyon," for example, the fifth canvas from the left in the second row has no features which make it necessarily figurative. The red of the canyon stone is so exaggerated that the color does not determine the image, and the patterns of the stone itself are in no way necessarily stone. The pattern of orange with some jagged dark red beneath it might even recall one of Richter's unquestionably nonfigurative "Abstract Paintings" (explosions of color which could never be seen as landscapes -- what makes the "erroneous attribution" of seeing this Hockney as a Richter unlikely is the absence of smeared or scraped paint). Many of the other canvases, especially those in the middle of the two paintings, are just as devoid of figurative details.
But the paintings have horizons. The top row in "A Bigger Grand Canyon" has a narrow band of blue sky. This horizon fixes the images on these twelve canvases. The rim of the canyon is clear, and the otherwise potentially abstract shapes of the stones fall into place. In the lower rows of the painting, where there is not a horizon, some of the canvases still have clear figures: the presence of green patterns which cannot help but be seen as leaves. Not all of them can -- some are too "far away" to have any determining detail in them, but some of the green shapes are clearly bushes, and others are clearly trees. This unmistakable natural imagery, like the horizon, makes the individual canvases necessarily figurative. In addition, "A Closer Grand Canyon" has one other feature which determines the canvases it appears on: its top three rows are all blue sky with white clouds; the clouds make the canvases sky and nothing else. If there were a cloud in the sky in Richter's "Seascape," as there is in a companion painting with the same title (852-1; a much earlier "Seascape," 239-1, has an overcast sky which is also necessarily figurative), then the sky there would also always look like sky. Clouds are popularly seen as Rorschach tests for the representation of something else, but this belies how the shape of a cloud is always clearly a cloud, and nothing else. A cloud is a cloud is a cloud -- and, even more than horizons and leaves, never just an abstract form.
Horizon, leaves, and clouds: these are the details which are enough to make Hockney's paintings figurative. They make the stone into stone. In the right context, a horizon line can even make Richter's "Abstract Paintings" into landscapes. In the right context, the green of leaves and trees can be as powerfully determining, too, as was shown by the inclusion of another one of Richter's "Abstract Paintings" (611-1) in "The Magic of Trees" exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland (1998-1999; the painting is unfortunately not included in the exhibition catalogue). This painting has at least two apparent "layers." The background consists mostly of a swirl of red, yellow, and orange; it is only visible at the top of the painting and, to a lesser degree, on the left side. The "foreground" is green -- a light green which might be too light to really see as leaves, but in "The Magic of Trees," the blotchy green suddenly appeared to be figurative. Even more strongly than with the horizons in the "Abstract Paintings" in the "Landscapes" exhibition, the context here determined how one could see the painting.
If they were renamed in the way that Collins renames Botticelli and Rothko, Richter's "Seascape" would become "Composition in Two Shades of Blue," while Hockney's Grand Canyon paintings might be called "60 Canvases" and "96 Canvases." Such a hypothetical discrepancy between image and title can be productive in seeing what makes a painting what it is, as could the discrepancy between Richter's "Abstract Paintings" and their thematic contexts (trees or landscapes). In his discussion of Rothko, Danto argues that "resemblances between a Rothko and the midsummer night sky are neither here nor there," but seeing figurative paintings as abstractions, or vice versa, is a step in understanding the difference between them. Without my initial "erroneous classification" of Richter's "Seascape," I might never have really seen its horizon -- and since then, I see horizons in a different way, as Collins, drinking Pernod in a Paris café, sees himself differently at the end of his poem:
[A] kind of composition in blue and khaki,
and, now that I had poured
some water into the glass, milky-green.
Sunday, April 02, 2023
A lesson in defamiliarization from Clint Smith on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert"
Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Device" (1917) was part of the literary theory course I took in graduate school in 1989, as it is now for English majors at the University of Basel. Although he didn't use Shklovsky's term "defamiliarization" on "Late Night with Stephen Colbert" on Thursday, poet and journalist Clint Smith offered a Shklovskian description of paying attention to a tree you see every day: "You've seen that tree before, but now you see it with a specificity, a granularity, and an intimacy that ... allows you to see it in new ways." That is, a careful description of something familiar can "defamiliarize" it and help you see it anew. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 April 2023)
Saturday, April 01, 2023
A story about my daughter Sara that is remembered in a song by Jörg Benzing
It was late one evening, and our five-year-old daughter Sara was in our neighbor Bea's backyard with her and her partner Jörg. Andrea must have asked me to go tell Sara it was time for her to come home, so I went the ten meters or so out our back gate, through Bea's creaky back gate, and over the bridge over her pond. After I told Sara it was bedtime, she asked for one more glass of water. — I don't remember this scene at all, but Jörg wrote a song about it, "Nur ein Glas Wasser", which he performed with sixteen-year-old Sara in the audience at his concert in Basel tonight. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 April 2023)