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Journal, Day Four
Despite this being a busy semester, I’ve signed up once again for a painting course in the Art Department. That means two three-hour time commitments each week. Six hours a week is a huge amount of time to give to something away from actual writing (though not enough to give to painting if you’re a painter; I know I’m just a beginner), and yet it’s beginning to feel necessary . . . to my poetry. It’s not that I’m writing poems about painting. But being involved with painting (looking at more works, reading more criticism, and actually learning some basics about the art) is helping me think in ways new to me about what I mean to do as a poet.
I knew I liked my painting professor when he assigned Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions to the first undergraduate class I took. It was one of my favorite films, and I felt about it (unreasonably) as if it were a secret that only a select few shared and loved. In the film, Lars von Trier sets tasks for his mentor, Jørgen Leth, who is going through a difficult artistic phase—tasks that seem absurd or impossible to do. Throughout the film, Leth complains that Lars von Trier must be mad to give him such assignments, but he diligently does what he can’t help but do: he fulfills the tasks by making beautiful, short films. He doesn’t just do what’s asked of him. He makes art.
Writers restrain themselves like this constantly. I think that must be part of the reason formal poetry seems so attractive to some people: the requirement to overcome the strictures of meter or rhyme pushes them to create something they wouldn’t ordinarily have attempted. Oulipo constrains work similarly, as do the “requirements” of any other formal structure we attempt. I mentioned those index cards and Ammons’s adding-machine tape earlier in the week; both are conveniently packaged ways of dealing with a line-length restriction.
In the art class, the professor was using the film to discuss, for example, the difference between painting from life and painting from memory: if our restraint was to create a model’s pose simply from memory, could we do it? (I’m oversimplifying, of course. This was only one of the discussion points.) But since I am primarily a writer, a poet, it has helped me to think of my constraint as being painting itself. I don’t just want to “imitate life”; I want to create art. My skills are almost getting there; up until now, I think my lack of them got in the way of my aspirations when I got behind an easel.
But lack of skills hasn’t kept me from looking at art. I’ve been fortunate to travel in the past few years and have seen some shows (not always painting shows) that were transformative to me: the Max Beckmann retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (which included three short films that I don’t believe traveled to New York—by far the best curated show I’ve been to); a Manet-Velazquez show at the Musee D’Orsay; Anish Kapoor’s “Marsyas” and the Seagram paintings of Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern; the Picasso studies from “Las Meninas,” and his work all over Spain; the “black paintings” of Goya at the Prado; the Rubens paintings and drawings in Italy. I’m interested in the difference between painting and “drawing with paint,” and I’m quite interested in the different ways painters put their medium to use. (If you live in New York and haven’t seen Jasper Johns’s work in current “Picasso and American Art” show at the Whitney, it’s definitely worth going to. See Kiki Smith’s retrospective while you’re at it!) I think my “looking” at painting has changed, much as my reading changed when I began to write. It’s not about searching for meaning, but about finding meaning in many more places than I expected.
I can’t claim an actual cause and effect on my work from the practice of painting. I haven’t been writing about paintings, certainly; I don’t know, at this point, that such a thing would be interesting to me. And I don’t paint writers (though I saw an R.B. Kitaj painting of Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid that really should be reproduced more often—it’s splendid). For now this is an exploratory practice, and I like to think I’m creating neural paths through painting that are beginning to light up when I write as well.