The Artist’s Tuning Fork

Today was a gorgeous day in New York City, and I spent a few hours this afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art to see the William De Kooning exhibition. Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m actually not a big fan of the artist, but I am very interested in Abstract Expressionism and I wanted the opportunity to re-think some of my ideas about this painter.

As per the MoMA website:

The exhibition, which will only be seen at MoMA, presents an unparalleled opportunity to study the artist’s development over nearly seven decades, beginning with his early academic works, made in Holland before he moved to the United States in 1926, and concluding with his final, sparely abstract paintings of the late 1980s. Bringing together nearly 200 works from public and private collections, the exhibition will occupy the Museum’s entire sixth-floor gallery space, totaling approximately 17,000 square feet.

Despite my internal resistance to the way De Kooning merges traditional body forms with abstraction in his most famous paintings like Woman I,

De Kooning's Woman I - part of the permanent MoMA collection

I really did like his later works in the last two decades of his life, none of which I’ve seen before. These works were much more graphic in nature, brightly colored, with lots of white background to provide space to the drawn forms and lines that marked these canvases.

Regardless, the De Kooning work I have the strongest resistance made me think about my favorite Frank O’Hara poem Why I am Not a Painter. It goes like this:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

This led me to think about De Kooning’s “positive” and “negative” series including paintings like Zurich, which are all black and white and have words or letters embedded in the paintings. Or his piece called Attic, which De Kooning said had “everything in it.”

I’m not sure why, but all of this led me back around to thinking about the end of De Kooning’s life again, and the last two decades that he painted even though he was in ill health. I thought about how he was unable to paint for at least the last seven years of his life, as his health continued to decline in his late eighty’s and early nineties. It made me wonder if he felt trapped inside his body, with ideas still coming about how he wanted to paint, but his body would have been unable to comply with the demands of the work.

There’s a story in that idea somewhere. I feel that instinctively. And if you’re wondering where all this rambling is leading, I do have a point so bear with me just a bit more.

Yesterday I went to an open air art show where painters, sculptors, potters, and photographers gathered to show the best of what they had to offer. I met a sculptor there, named Brianna Martray of Denver, Colorado. She was displaying a piece called Lighthouse Keeping which really intrigued me. I sensed a feminine energy to her work, and this piece in particular strongly reminded me – not in form but in feeling – of a Dale Chihuly’s installation at the New York Botanical Garden which I saw in 2006.

             Image above courtesy of Brianna Martray



                   Chihuly installation of small glass works at the New York Botanical Garden

This weekend was, for me, an opportunity to become inundated – even over-stimulated if you like – with the ideas of other artists. All of these things keep me “in tune” as a writer, with other aspects of art that lead towards a highly diverse set of expressions.

In my short story, Lancaster, the main character comes into close contact with an artist and that experience changes him in some way; it makes him want to strive to be the self the artist has depicted of him, a self that he sees as “other” and yet some possible alternate self to his current way of living.

So, as you sit down to do some reading, whether it be a collection of short stories or a novel, you should also consider using the artist’s tuning fork and get out to see an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, installation art, arthouse films or anything else that intrigues you. While writers are notorious observers of other people, sitting next to them in restaurants, in trains, or elsewhere, we shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to tap directly into the veins of artistic expression and mainline directly from other masters of expression – words are optional.

There are so many possibilities to be inspired by other artists… who do you find yourself most in tune with, and why?


2 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more. We writers are a lot closer to artists than we often think we are. How do I know? I live with one.

    Silke Berens

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