Recently I had the pleasure of meeting another AP member in the flesh. Arnold Leventhal was in Toronto for a family occasion and we had the great delight of a visit by Arnold, his lovely wife and daughter. It turns out that Arnold's daughter Anna is an accomplished author and performing artist.
About two years ago she made a small radio broadcast piece for the CBC, our national radio service, the subject being her dad and his art. Knowing I would be interested she sent me a download of the broadcast. Well I loved it, It's a terrific piece about art and artists that I thought would be of tremendous interest to our AP members and I asked for her permission to make it available to all of us. She assented and has kindly posted her piece, entitled "10000 Faces I've Never Seen" on her Myspace space so we could have a URL to link to. I urge everybody to take twelve minutes and have a listen, it's a very enjoyable and informative little piece with the added bonus of actually hearing the voice of one of our members.
Not a word? Nothing... what's with you folks? Did any of you even bother to listen to this thing? Ok, for the three, four or five people paying attention (my guess is four) I have to ask you. Did it not move you in any way, or bring up a few issues that we all share? From the first intoxicated utterings of Arnold (intoxicated with booze, art? My guess would be a bit of both) were you not simply taken in by the familiar voice of another of our species. Never mind the context of a kid who obviously loves the old nut bar enough to actually go on an expedition to explore the whole thing and in so doing comes up with a little piece of art herself. Yes the art affliction runs in families, we've covered that topic but I think there's some things here we haven't.
Arnold showing the photo he's had in every studio space he's ever occupied. The Castelli "stable" (a bunch of racing ponies). The notorious abstract expressionist boys, practically the whole Cedar bar crowd. What does it mean to him? Arnold somberly explains that he can't really call himself an artist, being an artist requires total commitment and sacrifice. He's compromised himself for some small piece of normal bourgeois life. Being an artist is some kind of a holy calling and you have to suffer and sacrifice.
I thought that way myself, I never called myself an artist until I was painting full time, if asked I would say I worked in graphics or was a graphic designer even though I always knew I was and had always been an artist. Anna's right when she conjectures that being an artist might not necessarily just be a job but perhaps and I think truthfully a disposition (of course at some point you actually do have to make the stuff). I've met Arnold and had that immediate recognition and familiarity I get whenever I meet another of my species.
I've met a lot of artists and just about all of them have or have had to compromise and do something else to sustain themselves. JP washes dishes, others are in commercial art or teach. Sometimes those other preoccupations take all one's time and/or energy and often for prolonged periods of time. It's very frustrating but I think artists keep painting or sculpting or constructing art in their minds. Those long periods of gestation or incubation can actually be quite productive because when you come out of them you explode with all that stuff you've been brewing in your mind. Sometimes something external will just make enough of an opening that you can jump in and act again. Sometimes it's just a shift in one's own psychological perception. I think that may be the answer to the question that wasn't answered when Anna asked Arnold "why now?"
Well this is my first day off for as you know I work teaching and this year I’m doing it full-time, and I have little time free to write, I did listen to Arnold and enjoyed it, first because his voice brought him suddenly nearer to me, the feeling of hearing a friend talking and not a stranger floated in the recording, and second because his words have been lingering in my mind since I listened to them: the difference between his creative process and mine and what we both feel when painting “one of the most efficient ways of loosing myself…” something I wanted to think about and write about, but I just haven’t had the time. His words made me want to sit down and LISTEN to the paintings, make them talk to me, about him, about his world or whatever it is they talk about, you know Hillel some of us are slow thinkers or slow writers and need Time , (remember I really don’t think in English ) so please DON’T BE SO IMPATIENT we all have our pace, and I tell you if it were for me I would be sitting down in front of this pc looking up other painters and reading about them the whole day long, but I just can’t do it! And I bet there are others with the same problem. In fact I started looking up Arnold in the web to have more information about him and somehow ended up reading about Kitaj’s death and disappointments, like in the web , we are all connected some way or another, the questions we ask ourselves about art, what it means to us, why we do it, why we go on for that special one moment he describes… so let us have our moment of peace and we will talk about it, ok?? And by the way , receive my best wishes for all this next year Happy 2009! .
I am sooo jealous! For one thing, of the father – daughter relationship in this one. Ok, I have to take care of this in a minute and thirty something seconds, and go on with what I wanted to say.
I don’t know what Anna was thinking when she chose Laurie Anderson’s “Superman” to open and to close this interview but it sure was some choice. It has always made me feel a touch of something very intimate, very urgent, very imminent and absolutely unavoidable.
The very intimate, very urgent inner knowledge of being one of the species, is often accompanied in me by the horror of the doubt of not being one. And horror it is because I really don’t know what I would do if that was the case. I mean, now at least I can say that I “compromise doing other things to sustain myself” UNTIL. Until I can be able to work every day? Until I can find out whether I belong to the species or not? In the mean time, yes, incubation does go on. The problem is that ideas become urgent and the fear of not being able to let them hatch properly becomes the most horrifying nightmare. Because I really don’t know what other reason would there be to continue doing whatever it is that I do every day if the hope of actually feeling “that one moment of artistic success” should fade. Anna says something about abstract painting which if rephrased applies perfectly to my every day life: it doesn’t make sense unless you relate it to something else.
Arnold, I really would like to ask you this: what did it feel like not painting for, if I remember well, some 10 or 15 years?
Everyone else, I bet you have your own talismans somewhere. I know I do.
Well as I said before, I heard Arnold’s interview and sincerely I found it …short. He has an easy way of saying complicated things, putting them into comprehensible words anyone can understand and make it enjoyable at the same time. I heard it once, and two days later I listened to it again, this time alone and with no one to distract me. It surprised me to see that even though our works differed so much our reactions through the process were so very similar. My paintings have nothing to do with action-painting or chance, or even imagination, they are more related to intuitions, and an endless curiosity for the human enigma. I belong to those that cannot take their gaze away from reality, quoting Hanjo
"there are two different points of view of how to go to work with painting.The one is to follow an idea,to make a concept,to construct it etc. The other is to look at something and try to find out what it is telling you. The first one is inventive the second one curious just for to name the main points."
In any case we have a very different creative process, an yet, not always, but in some of my works I have experienced that same feeling of loosing myself, letting myself go in the process, dissolving in the painting to come back again to the surface without a clear notion of how much time has passed, and knowing just one thing, that lapse of time made the day worth it. The first time I saw one of your paintings (I think it was called 66, it is no longer in this web) a name came to my head, “Kafka”. Subjectively something in your painting had connected me to his drawings I had seen a long time ago. I tried to find them again to confirm the link and what I found was this note “my drawing is a perpetually renewed and unsuccessful attempt at primitive magic”, funny, the same word you used! Your works have undergone a steady transformation into a more abstract language. To me there is a great difference between these paintings you just uploaded and the latest ones in which you seem to have broken any possible link that could be left with the visible reality we all know. ( I keep seeing these little kafka figures in black, runing all over the painting ), I don’t read abstract paintings easily, so the earlier ones with their sharp contrasts, their aggressive slashes of paint and the few hints or clues of the event that caused them , reach me more directly. The latest, more abstract, sometimes speak their way through, sometimes become illegible for me. “My work is going at its best when I no longer know what I’m doing”, well I never really loose the idea of what I am doing , but I do get lost in the effort too, specially when, trying to decipher a face, I remember reading that Bacon” was convinced that it was impossible to ever completely unravel the mystery of a person, and he became an almost fanatical observer of his friends in his efforts to discover the secret of their appearance, their living energy, the triggering factor in their immediate presence”- The magic? What I see is that abstract or figurative we all seem to aim for something undefined, that magic that makes a work of art have a life of its own. You can call it artistic success, or living energy, any other word, but we are all after it. And even so, I as you, never talk about myself as an artist, I’m a painter, I don’t really understand what it is to be of that “species”, maybe the reason is I have never been able to dedicate myself exclusively to art, but then, we do not only paint with a brush, do we? Living is a constant incubation of ideas and emotions that come to the surface whenever we make it possible, for at least I think as Picasso (I think it was) that “painting is just another way of keeping a dairy”.
At the moment I’m very short of time. Of course. It’s christmas and the end of the year which means that there are many many social occasions to be attended. No time for spending lots of time in front of the computer let alone to ponder on essential questions. And the information you gave to us, acompanied with all the written and spoken texts from Arnold, is no easy stuff but goes to the roots of our very being. So it takes time and opportunity to turn it round and round in my mind if that what you want to make me talk about shall not be mere chit-chat. So there will be some chewing upon it first. But there is one thing that sounds funny to me: „I don’t call myself an artist but a painter“. I always felt being an artist even though there were long periods when I weren’t able to do anything that could be called art. I think that being an artist is a gift that is deep inside our souls, no matter if we actually paint or sculpt or whatever. So I never doubted to be an artist but now and then doubt if I am a painter.
I think Hanjo's right, that's what I was trying to get at when I agreed with Anna's conjecture that being an artist might be more a matter of disposition than anything else. And when I used the term "species" I was referring to "artists" not painters or sculptors or whatever. I think Arnold has been needlessly hard on himself in that regard as I had been myself until the age of forty.
A little story that relates to the issue of full time commitment and our romantic notions of not being able to have it all and having to make sacrifice. Quite a while ago, I recall reading an article about Richard Diebenkorn, one of my favourite American painters. To provide for his family he taught painting, if I remember correctly at UCLA and longed for the day when he would be able to paint full time. During those years his production was limited to 5 or 6 large canvases a year and of course he felt that if he had the time to work full time he would produce more.
Well, you guessed it, his growing fame as an artist (despite only being able to work at it part time) finally allowed him to paint full time yet strangely enough his output remained constant. He was a 5 to 6 paintings a year man. That was the nature of his process. We share a great deal and we're all different.
I am floored by the sensitive and thoughtful comments coming back from 'the gang of four'! So much experience out there, it sent me reeling. I turned back to old texts that were touchstones for me back in the day, hoping to slow down and order my thinking. Then my brain exploded! Like Hanjo, I will need time to weigh in...
When i was younger i used to get very angry when i couldn't paint because of all the things i had to do for the family .I actually use to break out in sweat.After squeazing art in the tiny spaces of freetime in my life i've learned to take advantage of every single minute to work .This said as a thought to what Hillel was saying about being an artist.But i can't help feeling kind of sad of all time lost for other things which were and are important for the people i love .I wonder how selfish you must get in order to do what you want putting aside needs of people around you
Fotini thanks for not being selfish and joining the conversation, I've been waiting to hear from you. Driven people are selfish, the degree of their drive determining the degree of neglect of other aspects of their lives. It's not just artists but any successful person in any field of endeavor. However there are certainly enough stories of the screwed up children and lovers of eminent artists. Personally I never had that kind of ambition. Sure, my kids had to do without fresh milk, fruits, vegetables and meat but I was never selfish enough to deprive the household of a well stocked liquor cabinet.
Sorry Fotini, you deserve better than that... I just couldn't resist it. But you're right I think selfishness or the lack of it has something to do with this conversation. In the audio doc. Arnold says that he was unable to make the total commitment to art that he thinks is necessary. For the sake of his home life he has to suppress the artist side of himself having concluded that you "can't have it all", is he selfish or selfless? He'd like to have his art and his home life, not an unreasonable request but he felt (I don't know how he feels now) that to do reasonable justice to either, one must exclude the other.
Can a person deny who they are and can people who profess love of such people expect them to deny themselves? There is true selfishness but to suppress your artist self to make others happy strikes me as complete selflessness that in the end makes no one happy. There's always some compromise that can be reached. I suppose part of the question here is how much can you compromise yourself and still be an artist?
It is true that obstacles can be very helpful for the creative process. The more we are hindered the mightier the outburst. In German we use the term „Leidensdruck“ for this, which means that suffering builds up a pressure that finally makes you act. Maybe that this Leidensdruck in general is the fulcrum of all our need to make art. Well, about all this Hillel, Karen, Maria and Fotini have already spoken in wonderful and exhaustive words ... and yes I liked the interview too ... so I feel no need to repeat all that in smaller words and poorer English. But what caught my special interest was Maria’s „Incubation“ piece. In this - besides the incubation process - she deals with an issue I am also chewing on every now and then. So this is what came to my mind while pondering on it:
What are we looking for as human beings? In general it’s peace, food, love, friends and health. In particular health becomes more important with every year that passes. Even such simple things as that you might be able to just hear what people are saying when talking to you, let alone understanding it. And what’s more lovely than to remember those rare moments of love and friendship and appreciation like what some of us experienced in Trapani, Rome, Madrid or on the island of Syros. But looking at the news makes us ask constantly how we can want to describe such „silly“ things as beauty or love when every single day somewhere in this world there is uprising and war with it’s lots of killings and mutilations? People die in scores from hunger or/and warfare, so how can I spend my time pondering on which kind of pale blue I am going to use? That’s why every now and then we as artists feel the need of using more and more black paint as Maria says, to finally end with painting completely black paintings as Ad Reinhard did. Well, in the aftermath of WWII most of the paintings actually took this direction. Everywhere grey of all hues and black. Sadness, horror, torture and death. Now most of these paintings have gone and left our memory. But what’s still as powerfull as on the first day are those colourful and peaceful paintings Matisse did during the war. He was often decried for obviously having been blind to all what happened around him, but he simply did not join that chorus but rised the flag of what it is worth living for and what was highly at risk exactly in that time. He wasn’t blind at all but gave us hope, consolation and solace. Just as Maria’s architect friend had said. „... Picasso who made violence present ...“ Maria writes. So what is it with that violence? Every day, as long as we can think back, one witnesses violence in the news and on TV. Detonations, burning sites, ambulances fighting their way through rubble, people crying completely desperate. But even this daily horror is only a censored view, made bearable for the viewer. What it really looks like one can find in the internet, on some sites, masses of bodies, killed and maimed in pools of blood shattered over the place. Or the almost unidentifiable remains of a suicide bomber etc. And this you cannot really bear. So how to deal with this horror as a painter? Painting piles of corpses? And in which way? What kind of composition and what colours? There are those examples from Goya or Callot or later Picasso and Bacon and Dix. But I always had great difficulties with and were very sceptical about letting all this horror go through an aesthetical process. Making it a painting or a sculpture with all these questions of form and craft and material. These small, greyish and blurred photographs already, taken in the American Civil War or in the war on the Krim peninsula in the second half of the 19th century, tell you much much more about how gruesome and shocking and unbearable war really is than all the different paintings made after the same events in the same time. Human imagination cannot match reality. So for example Picasso’s Guernica never really touched me. It needed the help of a short film in which Paul Eluard’s poem „Guernica“ was being recited and as a background a firework of small detailed pieces of the painting like in a very rapid video clip. That worked. But in the first place it was the words and the voice that touched me.
Well, I know the photo by heart, Arnold has used in one of his paintings shown in his studio-log Maria refers to. It shows the half opened door of the „Landshut“, a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists for to press free the masterminds of the German terrorist group RAF (red army faction) that had spread murder and panic over Germany in the seventies and were now imprisoned in Stuttgart. The said photograph is one of the icons of what happened in October 1977 just as the photos Gerhard Richter used for his RAF series showing the corpses of those terrorists that had committed suicide after the blackmail with hijacking the Landshut finally failed. So I know the story with all it’s details and circumstances like many Germans of my generation and in this case Arnold’s painting is able to recall all this. But does it work with other people as well?
There is a play called „Mogadishu, window seat“ after a novel, which we saw three month ago, for then it was the thirtieth anniversary, in which my beloved model Ulla performed as one of the passengers. This play was shattering indeed. You could feel the constant angst, the unbearable heat in that plane standing on that Mogadishu airfield in the desert (not Tel Aviv) for endless days, the thirst and the pain of having to sit still on your narrow seat, unable to move or really change your position for uncountable hours. You could almost smell the penetrating stink from sweat and shit, making breathing in the cabin an ordeal. And you could feel the silent, suppressed panic when the terrorists finally announced to kill another passenger every half an hour until their demands were fulfilled. And the passengers had already seen the killing of the pilot. And then the incredible relief when in the end the German special forces that were flewn in secretly managed to take the terrorists by surprise and to end the nightmare. Well, this is what a film can do or a theatre play or a novel ... but a painting? On the other hand I can understand very well why Arnold did these paintings and understand the way in which he did them. He had to act out all his frustration and horror to stay sane. Maybe I would have chosen a punch ball for the same purpose. But in the end this is something you have to do for yourself by using the measures you have at hand. It doesn’t necessarily function with other people. Well friends, I am aware that this is only my very personal doubt that has to do with my character and my feelings, so please don’t strangle me. But nevertheless deep in my heart I too hope that a piece of art might create this „archetype of experience“ Maria is talking about, no matter if I have the impression that it very rarely works. To end with I want to thank my dear friend Maria for having offered her thoughts so openly and honestly.
We all learn a great deal of what we know about the world from television news, magazines and newspapers, the photos and films and commentaries that are describing experiences which are not our own. Hanjo remembers well the incident which i evoked in my painting. By his tone I know the painful memory he carries. He is reminded of a play he saw about this same event, which provoked in a particular and vivid way his latent memory, and he has told it back to me, (and to you) in a bold story. Now I have this bit of terrible history as a new experience, and it belongs to me.
There is a huge gap between a beautiful, actual celebration of life, Matisse painting and what I mockingly describe as “happy, sunny, silly” piece of an image (beauty and love are not silly; there can be silly images claiming to be about them). In fact, I think some piece of information is missing from the last paragraph of my “Incubation” writing. The fantasy paintings I am talking about, the ones that came back, that went through incubation surviving the emotional crisis, are not images of violence. They are the very initial ones, conceived to celebrate the beauty which surrounds me and the thrill of deep penetration into the nature of it. Only that they do not have the superficiality of the first hasty conception. And this doesn’t mean that they have been contaminated by darkness or frustration. Instead, they have come out victorious and strengthened.
Reflection on Arnold’s painting contributed to the victory of these images over the darkness and frustration that had come over me, but not because they presented a solution. It was precisely the discovery that a painting like that doesn’t work. Apart from giving some relief to its creator. The horror of the actual photograph in the papers cannot be reproduced and in my opinion there is no point in doing so. Why make an image of a killing which will never be as shocking to the eye as the real image of the act? To this I perfectly agree with Hanjo. But this is not what Picasso and Bacon and Goya were doing. Their paintings were not the mere narration of one specific incident. Except maybe Guernica which, in the end, is only inspired by this one isolated bombing while it is about a human condition present in many different instances in history and which will continue to manifest its sad existence in different places in different times.
I feel that all successful, great works of art are the body of some archetype of experience. It can be the experience of horror as it can be the experience of peace and beauty. That depends on the painter’s choice, character and feelings. But painting would not move us the way it does if we couldn’t find in it the expression of experience.
I really enjoyed listening to Arnold going on about what it is that gets him returning to that studo. I also found Anna's other audio tracks equally interesting, and agree with Hillel's comment of her work being artworks in themselves. Coming back to the topic in discussion, the following fundamental themes appear to be asserting themselves - in my opinion each one meriting their own individual treatment: 1) Hillel's basic "One of the Species": How can we recognize a fellow artist, and should we take action when we do? 2. Again Hillel's generous "Artists keep constructing Art in their minds". His theory being that even if the artist doesn't physically create, nonetheless the process of intellectual research is ongoing, and is thus equally pertinent. 3. Hanjo's topical intervention on the artist's portrayal of violence (whether for or against). How can an artist successfully intervene in a politically-visual context? 4. Arnold's and Maria's discussion of if it is possible for the artist to selflessly dedicate her/himself to family and financial earning, despite her/his need for regular basic solitude back in the studio?
Notwithstanding, despite these quite universal concerns, and our individual actions in response, I firmly believe that an [international] group action is much more newsworthy and relevant in an online presence, and that we should now be thinking of moving beyond the artist-to-artist communication theme to that (more serious) consilidated [international] artist group context. Personally, I'm still convinced that we could take on the "12 interfering artists" online project, and even produce exciting results. The 12 (or 6 or 8 or whatever) will be easily identified - the 12/6/8 ap members who have posted the most comments on the ap site. We have a core group who are well acquainted, and can now take on the dynamics of building a collective interactivity, and forming a group identity. Of course it is easy to chat in this fashion, but we know there's really a lot of work to be done if we want to realize something credible. In my opinion, the odds are against us if we want to individually have some effect - and are against us also if we want to do so collectively, yet as an [international] group we have a greater chance of attracting consideration, and therefore have no alternative but to forge ahead with collectively defining whatever significance *we* want the future artprocess to have. My basic proposition is - why not seriously work together on a unified project, collectively come up with a significant set of process and imagery, and see if we can create a presence worth noting?
Hi there J.P. Well, this is not the first time this idea comes up and you know most of us have shown more or less interest in one way or another. But I think there should be some proposal of a clearly defined form for this international group (its goals, its way of presenting itself etc) so that discussion could begin. So, one of us could give it a try. Be patient though, because it needs some time and icubation (wow, I love this word... I am starting to form sentences on purpose just to use it).
Hello Maria... we'll probably have to flesh out that definite form all together. I imagine we could do something similar to what we're doing now, only at a much more involved rate. My main worry would be to avoid quarrelling too much in the group, so we should understand at the outset that the project is our common publicity exercise, and that our first thought is to the online viewer and making an interesting event.
Friends, I just received an e-mail from a friend that is dear to me. It’s one of these e-mails meant to be spread over the world by sending it to all your friends who are asked to send it to all of their friends etc. I suppose some of you have received this mail as well. The e-mail comes as an outcry against the violence in Gaza and the so called aggression of the Israelis against the Palestinians. The photographs show Israeli soldiers pointing their gun against children, lots of dead, maimed or injured Children and crying peoples. The message is: Look at these Israeli beasts that are going to kill us and our children on purpose and with no reason to do so. No word about Hamas, the al Queda like terror organization, that is firing rockets and mortar shells towards Israel every day since years. An organization that torpedoes every step towards peace. Whose militants hide on purpose inmidst a densely populated neighborhood provoking on purpose civilian casualities for to get enough footage for anti Israel propaganda. They store their weapons and ammunition in schools, mosques and private houses and launch their missiles against Israel from there out of the same reason. I am no friend of military actions as well as I am no friend of terrorist activities even though they are running under the flag of „liberation“. And I understand that the sender of that e-mail is no friend of this either. But we must not be so naive to spread heavily anti-semite propaganda from Hamas in the name of pacifism and human rights. Spreading material like this makes us the useful idiots of an inhuman terrorist movement.