I visited Cezanne’s studio I call “the Cathedral of Doubt” and received an initiation into a madness of sorts while driving around Aix, lost, asking for directions with my spotty French. I’m driving a little red M&M of a rental car, signaling touriste, touriste, touriste. I had pulled the car to the curb to ask a group of happy young folks directions, rolling the window down. Paff, paff, PAFF, I was hit in the face with fistfuls of flour leaving me in a sputtering rage, them continuing their joyous carousal. What a shock! Of course, if I had only remembered reading just the night before in MFK Fisher’s account of how the students in this University Town run amok after finishing exams, looking for a sap just like me. I was rattled and ego-bruised, found a public toilet to clean up, then went into Cézanne’s sanctum where apples are laid out every day by the caretakers who tend Cézanne’s Cathedral of Doubt. It exists just how he left it when he died in 1906, where I saw it initiated, knocked off my center of gravity by a few flour bombs, but definitely sent into a different state of mind and was glad of it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty ends his essay Cézanne’s Doubt with this: “We can never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.” Merleau-Ponty was certainly the Philosopher of the Body, placed into this world to have experiences of it IN a body and MY body was assaulted to force a change of psyche as an initiation. It sure made me love ol’ Cézanne all the more. Merleau-Ponty’s idea that really sunk a hook in me was his idea of Eco-Phenomonology filling my twined buckets of interest—Art and Biology.
What sent me on my own journey of doubt, was seeing Giacometti’s retrospective in 1965 at the Art Institute of Chicago—sent me off on my journey to be the artist I am. I was a kid totally interested in biology and headed in that direction ’til I saw that exhibit. I became obsessed by the work and the man. I read everything I could get my hands on. Every term paper or essay for school, after that, was about Giacometti. I was especially bound to A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord where the author recounts the 18 days he sat for his portrait as Giacometti painted, erased, re-painted, ranting his despair at the impossibility of his task. That short book is recommended for anyone wanting to dive into artistic doubt. (a film was made of the book 2017) Giacometti obsesses about Cezanne, and his despair at ever being able to accomplish his goal of simply making something approaching reality with paint in his obsessions of Mont Sainte Victoire and apples on the table. Cézanne and Giacometti, in short, were my models for what it took to be an artist: You kept at it every day. The studio was always waiting. And, you never, never gave up. Doubt was the dividing line between Art and Artistry. With Artistry you are filling a conception of “rightness” of say, fine craft, or a delicious recipe for cheese, with Art you will never come to a concluding master-stroke. Art and Artistry are, of course, twined together, but it is doubt that makes Art. That said, what we admire in this age, where so much is up for grabs, where we are so unsure, is the very image of doubt. The impossible picture I’ve been trying to “paint” for my 50+ years at the task is making a picture of Art itself. My impossible dream.
Giacometti came along in mid-century offering ravishing paintings and sculptures of just that doubt, post-war, when the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima were the ambient sea he swam in. Merleau-Ponty was writing just at this time, after enduring the German occupation of France.
I found Giacometti’s life-style something I wanted for myself. Every day, AT IT!
As a student, once you saw Giacometti, it was hard to escape his stylistic force of gravity, so you couldn’t just make craggy bronzes or wandering scribbly paintings—they were too much his. In his Surrealist period from 1920 to 1940 or so, he made work that pointed to a state of mind, and THAT I could emulate. Not objects with a definitive style, but a concept. I made my MFA exhibit based on his work called The Palace at AM.
The state of mind I wanted to talk about was the narrowest space between an idea: its inception and realization. A sculptural space between life and death, between awake and dream, between above and below. To access that space I entered a practice of “do something every day.” This I got from Giacometti. I would go to my studio and start-to-finish, make something to decorate my Palace at 4 AM. When I had piled up enough of these I filled the gallery space. In a nod to my growing interest in sustainability, I scrounged the other grad studios for stuff they were tossing out, as I did when I was in undergrad, scrounging construction sites for stuff on the dump piles.
The whole idea was to evoke that space of just nodding off, of thoughts drifting, because I was developing my practice of making “Pictures of Art.” When I made the decision to pursue an Art-Life, the idea was to “Paint a picture of Art.” I have been at it ever since. What was of greatest importance of my MFA thesis exhibit was that you moved through it with your body. This is the essence of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and the essence of my 3-D Palace at 4 AM.
This is something coming from Cezanne as well as Giacometti. These are pictures of Art. Not pictures to hang on the wall, but pictures that would tell the story of the struggle to depict the invisible impulses to make the Art that humans have been doing for at least 40,000 years. How to do this is a very doubtful activity, is a fool’s errand. And, it’s what I have been doing for 50+ years. And these days, I no longer scrounge other artist’s studios for scraps, or glean material from construction debris, I mine my own piles of scraps and the debris of art making. In this process, time itself has become unhinged from the straight flight of “time’s arrow” or “time’s dialectic” of endless cycles of recursion. It has become a third thing as I shuffle and reshuffle images to magnet them up on my three steel walls as they seem to drift in an ecology spindled around the gravity of simply “looking right”; making decisions. In this process it feels like I am reaching forward and back in time. Some of the pieces I work with were made in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s…etc. And they were made with differing modes of making, like quick gestures, like long careful renderings, like monotypes, painting with squishy paint, finger-paint style.
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time fyutcha.” This quote from TS Eliot’s book-length poem The Four Quartets, a poem I know well, having it on a tape to listen to in the car as I commuted to & from my print shop. (The man himself was reading his work, hence the dialect spelling “fyutcha.”) Now, in 2022, I’m taking that once-upon-a-time fyutcha and seeing what those pieces say to me down the long hallways of what I may have been thinking, shining a light on what I am thinking now. My phenomenological guide is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I made several pieces in the mode whereby I would print a B&W litho on a blank page, and paint onto a printing plate color, shapes, run it through the press trying for a unity of thought and feeling. This was as close to jazz improvisation as I could manage painting or drawing a vividly depicted image. Did I like looking at these things? I did. And then I put them away for a while. They were a tough sell in the marketplace—very few sold, lucky me, to still have them.
The years passed and now they are seeing the light of day again, like coming out of hiding to tell me stories of where they’ve been. For me, this is time travel. I would like to meet the guy who made these things. He is a different person than I am today carrying a story wholly different from the moment of the picture’s inception. A couple of films come to mind. Slaughterhouse Five 1972 and the recent German production Dark 2017, both deal with shifting, un-hinged time, and I feel as I travel back and forth with my pictures as stepping stones, I am receiving stories from many places, many times, and this is my impossible task as I sift and resift the work done over 50+ years. Let’s start here…
First the how, because I am interested in writing about it. The bird head I had seen up close in the Galapagos. A Gannet or Boobie it’s called and, they are quite tame, having such slight contact with humans, so close approach is possible…It was drawn with a hard, sharp crayon slowly building up tone onto an aluminum litho plate and printed several times (thinking of the Egyptian gods, somehow). I was interested in taking my images on a journey; subsequent ekphrasis on iterations to follow. The pink “outfit” was a monoprint, the arms and legs appeared in my imagination and were made to have a somatic sense of the dance. The fish came last and was drawn with white pencil. Finally, I called the figure Maurice because he has the look of the French intellectual, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Is the name a stretch? Good. So far-so good. I had seen the German play Jedermann in 1966 in Salzburg and it had a memorable impact. It’s the story of a rich man bargaining his way into heaven.
Now, to now…as I dive deeper into the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty we get to the what of this piece and his essay on Cézanne’s Doubt “I want to make Art and Nature the same thing,” Cézanne says. He wanted to make paintings that were a reflection of God’s vision, and by all accounts Cézanne was a schizoid personality, difficult and troubled. Is madness necessary to make great art? It was a question often asked when I was in Art School, not necessary but the driving wheel in Cézanne’s life, keeping him on task in his studio and environs in Aix.
I mean, I knew I believed in the IDEA that there is an unconscious, dreams—night time or daytime, thinking up stuff to do, making plans for tomorrow, but just last night I saw the future as post-it notes blowing across a pond to the dark shore on the “other” side where the “other” lives, to re-mind me of that fish, that there is connection across time, in time. Maurice becomes like a cartoon thought-bubble in this morality play of temptation, fall, and redemption. And, here is the deeper point, that in this post-modernist era, one CAN say something about doubt as the driving wheel of becoming.