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Essay

To Have and to Hold

Ann Mikolowski's pocket portraits show two ways of looking in a mirror.

We don’t generally think of a painter as being self-effacing, but that is exactly what makes Ann Mikolowski’s paintings so special. The conundrum is that there are no signature brushstrokes, no palette she favors, and no overt signs of her personality in her realist paintings. She used photographs to get her subject matter, but she was neither a photorealist nor someone who perfected a machinelike approach. When we consider that her two recurring subjects are landscape and portraiture, both of which we think of as being inseparable from the artist’s style—and here I am thinking of Alex Katz, Alice Neel, and Lucian Freud—the fact that she eschewed every kind of overt mannerism becomes all the more remarkable. It would be a mistake, however, to think that these are signs of her modesty, because, if anything, they are a confirmation of her deep and unshakeable confidence in both herself and her project.

I think the reason Mikolowski never developed a style was because she wanted to honor the world in its details. Instead of concentrating on the advantages to be gained by authoring a style, she found a way to quietly but convincingly step aside, so that the unembellished world she so loved and cared for could commemorate itself in all its particulars. Whether she was working on large-scale land- or waterscapes or diminutive portraits, everything about the moment had to be discovered in the specific painting she had undertaken. Her project was to enable the everyday world of nature and friends to memorialize their own existence. Time is fleeting, and moments are swallowed up as everything is pulled forward toward chaos, but this realization never became a cause for sorrow, self-pity, or protest. One of the salient features of Mikolowski’s work is her acceptance—I would go so far as to say her serene embrace—of time passing.

Scale plays a crucial role in Mikolowski’s landscapes and portraits. The land- and waterscapes can be as large as six by seven and a half feet, while the portraits are seldom taller or wider than three inches, and fit easily in the palm of one’s hand. They are literal mementoes that one can carry anywhere.

It is likely that Mikolowski chose these radically different sizes because the largest ones were the biggest canvases she could move by herself in the studio, while the smallest ones marked how far she could go in the opposite direction without making a miniature. Given that many of the waterscapes share something with minimalist monochromes and that her tiny portraits are replete with details and the texture of things, such as coats and shirts, it is also evident that she worked on such radically different scales because each demanded that she be absolutely meticulous as well as completely innocent and sympathetic in her looking. It was all about seeing what was right there. For in very different and highly challenging ways, the subject matter and the scale are at odds with each other, and merging them challenged her to find a way to envision in paint the plainspoken world around her.

In the portraits, the viewer immediately senses how at ease Mikolowski’s subjects must have felt in her presence. It certainly was the case when she and I hung out for a day in the early 1980s and she took snapshots of me, one of which became the source for a painting in which I am hugging a chow dog that is sitting on my lap, both of us looking relaxed and silly. Engaging and warm, Ann found it easy to disarm her subjects, to get them to be casually themselves. She looked at the world with tender bemusement.

In Robert Creeley (1988), the poet is resting his forearms on the table, a cigarette in his right hand. He seems to be reflecting on what he is going to say next. Before him are a partially filled glass and a nearly empty bottle, the label turned away because the artist doesn’t want it interfering with the subject. Something of the poet’s intensity, sincerity, and solitude comes across. Mikolowski has been subtly attentive to the texture and folds of his denim shirt as well as the feel of his skin. The subtle shifts she makes in the paint are painstakingly scrupulous, and yet are never emphasized. For her, the real delight was in getting it all down. 

The casualness of the pose the artist has picked shouldn’t lead us into stopping at the painting’s surface, satisfied with marveling at the exquisite sense of the particulars she articulates. The burning cigarette and nearly empty glass remind us that time moves on, that the now of this painting has long since been obliterated. In Mikolowski’s hands, the camera became an efficient means by which she could record the most casual and fleeting moments without calling attention to either herself or them. The snapshots she took of her subjects served as reference points, a quick way of sketching in the necessary information. If we stop and think about that for a moment, we begin to realize the extent of her accomplishment as well as the degree of both her scrupulousness and her inventiveness. A snapshot turns everything into an image; it tends to generalize. The brightness of the flash is apt to wash away details, which is why Andy Warhol liked to use snapshots as a source for his commissioned portraits.

Warhol wanted the face to become flat, a reproducible image. He was interested in flattery and having the subject pose, but just the opposite occurs in Mikolowski’s portraits. Rather than flattering her subject, she was interested in getting the scratchy feel of a woolen scarf or the smooth side of a Fiberglass motorboat just right. In her exacting attention to textures and light, she reminds us that the world is something we touch and see. The relationship is intimate. At the same time, the tiny scale of the portraits contradicts everything we associate with the genre. Because they are so small, one is surprised to discover that the image doesn’t supersede the artist’s evocations of tactility, and that there is a bigness to these works, which has to do with how much space she can depict on an incredibly small surface. For one thing, the subject is always shown in a very particular environment—a room, porch, or backyard. The figure isn’t posing; he or she is in the middle of doing something that is ordinary. In Anne Waldman & Allen Ginsberg (1988), the poets have on their coats and sweaters. Behind them is an open door. Either they are about to say good-bye, or they have just arrived in someone’s apartment. Informed throughout by Mikolowski’s intense commitment to veracity, the painting registers a passing moment, an event that we might not consider particularly memorable or even dramatic. Mikolowski has slowed time down to a glacial pace, so that we can scrutinize a brief moment and realize that all of them are important. Her disparate predecessors include Hans Holbein and Thomas Eakins.

The formal challenge presented by the portrait’s diminutive scale is daunting. Mikolowski had to figure out how to cut and mount the canvas as well as frame it. Her desire for a calm perfectionism required her to work with brushes that she had carefully pared down to one or two hairs. Everything about these works required a high level of focused concentration, which, to her credit, she never makes obvious. There is no sign of angst or struggle; she refuses to call attention to herself in those ways. At the same time, these portraits go far beyond their technical brilliance and formal strength. In her seamless merging of scale and subject matter, Mikolowski evokes vulnerability, tenderness, a desire to protect and hold, and the dearness of friendship itself, without ever becoming sentimental. And yet, rather than like a precious object, they feel sturdy, able to withstand the pressures of life itself. This is because the artist’s plainspoken thoroughness, which is most obvious in her loving attention to details, bestows the paintings with a feeling of perseverance, which becomes all the more pointedly eloquent when we remember that many of her subjects are poets. As Mikolowski knew deep in her being, to be a poet in this world one has to be dogged and have stamina. That she and her poet husband, Ken, connected with other poets and artists in the magical and endearing ways that they did—and here I am thinking of those remarkable envelopes crammed with postcards, broadsides, collages, and even paintings, which they solicited, printed, and published under the rubric The Alternative Press—is just one of her many accomplishments. She and Ken enlarged the definition of the domestic to include anyone who wanted to be part of it.

On the opposite end of the scale are the large landscapes, which she must have been just able to move around in her studio. In Spring (1988), which is done in a square, abstract format, Mikolowski depicts an angled view, at once familiar and private. For some reason, and it may not be a reason so much as a reflex, we have stopped and looked up at the sky, the swirl of clouds overhead. On either side of us is a diminishing row of bare trees that are just beginning to show signs that the weather is turning warmer. There is nothing extraordinary about the view, but the angle and the moment the artist has chosen are charged with feelings ranging from anticipation to melancholy, and lots of stuff in between, all quietly but firmly kept in check. We aren’t looking just at trees and clouds; we are looking at two different manifestations of time, the cyclical and the constantly dissolving. This is one of Mikolowski’s particular and emotional strengths. She gets us to look at the ordinary, everyday world with a heightened awareness of our own fragile place in it. Without elaborating or straying from the facts, she infuses a commonplace moment in nature with all kinds of sentiment.

In Gold (1994), seen through bare branches and trees, the yellow-orange sunlight reflected multiple times on the snow and icy water animates the painting with a sense of deep solitude, at once gratifying and haunting. One is alone in the woods, walking somewhere. The sun is sinking, and the light is partially blocked by the trees and therefore unreachable. That the feelings and thoughts we have become a complex accumulation of possibilities, rather than resolving into one state or another, is why we keep returning to her paintings. Her views of nature don’t turn the world into a story. The work is open and generous. We feel as if we have all experienced a similar landscape, and yet Mikolowski’s plain view suggests that we might not have seen or remembered it with such a forceful awareness of our mortality.

Nothing is generalized or abstracted in the artist’s views of the world, even when, as in Morning (1990), she uses a limited palette of related tonalities to depict a scene as pared down as that of water and sky. What one senses in these land- and waterscapes is that time is passing and pressing and, as Rilke put it, our awareness of beauty and terror go hand in hand. The difference, however, between Rilke and Mikolowski is a profound and telling one. In the Duino Elegies, the poet opens the First Elegy with the question that resounds throughout the rest of the nine poems: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?” Mikolowski never asked this question; it wasn’t in her nature to demand answers from the world. It had given her more than enough, and she was responding in kind. She had the strength and confidence to step aside, and to become the gently painstaking medium by which the world and her friends could celebrate their own passage through this difficult world.

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  • Poet, art critic, and curator John Yau has published over 50 books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1950 to Chinese emigrants, Yau attended Bard College and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in 1978. His first book of poetry, Crossing Canal Street, was published...

Essay

To Have and to Hold

Ann Mikolowski's pocket portraits show two ways of looking in a mirror.
  • Poet, art critic, and curator John Yau has published over 50 books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1950 to Chinese emigrants, Yau attended Bard College and earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in 1978. His first book of poetry, Crossing Canal Street, was published...

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