Sunday, June 28, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Michael Jackson died this morning.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Finlay's graphic work has dimensions which go far beyond the concept of the page, the book, and the broadside. His preoccupations include an interest in classical architecture (and garden design), glyphs, symbolic sculpture, collage. His work has affinities to Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, John Soane, Russian Constructivism, as well as a host of other influences. My wife and I planned to visit Finlay's garden, Little Sparta, at the suggestion of George Albon, a poet living in San Francisco. He'd seen it a year or two earlier, and thought it worth taking a detour to experience. Little Sparta is about 30 miles south of Edinburgh in farming country. The narrow roads take you through rolling green hills, stone buildings. The property is a converted farm house at the edge of a hill. Finlay purchased the property as a residence, and set about developing the open land surrounding it as a continous project: A post-Modern landscape garden, complete with pathways, sculptures, bridges, and unusual plants. The construction is economical, though not claustrophobic. It's designed to take you through a series of views and discoveries--there are inscriptions on stones at your feet, on urns, on the sides of walls, buildings, etc. Many have classical references, or are direct quotations in languages other than English (such as Latin). There are fragments of architectural detail. Finlay was interested in nautical themes, as well as Nazi iconography, toy boats, the French Revolution (its spirit and literature). All of this is evident in the thematic content of the garden.
When we visited Little Sparta, Finlay was gracious enough to meet with us over tea, and to talk a little about the place. He seemed rather thin--as would later become apparent he was suffering from the cancer that would take his life just a few months later. He was very modest, and joked about offering to let me "wet my [fishing] line" in his pond out back if I ever had the opportunity to make a return visit. The photo below looks out from just inside the entry gate to the property, which, since his death, is being turned into a trust estate for perpetual use by the public. Finlay's interest in visual poetry eventually led him to produce limited issue post-card and decorative small broadside runs, the sale of which helped support his garden expansions. Over time, he was less interested in writing "poems" than in leaving permanent physical artifacts/illustrations of his ideas. This tendency is unusual, taken to this scale. Towards the end of his career, Finlay was engaged by a number of clients to design garden spaces--many of them in France and other Western European settings. The full range of his ideas can't be easily summarized without a full documentation of these far-flung projects. The book Works in Europe 1972-1995, is a good place to start (lots of good color photos).
For those wishing to visit the garden, a phone-call a few days in advance is recommended. The hours are fairly flexible, I believe, but you can't simply show up unannounced. It can be seen as a sort of self-guided tour, since the space isn't really very large.
The question remains, which I've not really addressed: What is it about Little Sparta that makes it "post-Modern"? One would have to include the ambiguous, contradictory symbolism of imagery and words. The garden isn't meant simply as a beautiful place to sit in, or have a picnic in, though that would certainly be possible. Second, it's designed to make you think about ideas in history, not simply as memorials of the grateful dead, or as empty mottos of cliche philosphical homily. Third, its economy of means, a kind of intersection of competing concepts of vista, enclosure, termination and continuity, maze and gameboard. In the garden, you are, in a sense, at the mercy of a slightly mischievous dilettante, who is throwing you curves at every turn. His garden is a giant oxymoron, leveraged with audacious whimsicality. A kind of improbable masterpiece set amongst the remote countryside of Southern Scotland, an eccentric's diversion, an anachronism for the curious. I hope to revisit it one day.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Here's a picture of me proudly holding an impressive Brown Trout I've just caught on a fly on the Owyhee River in Eastern Oregon last year. My friend Keith took the picture, and within seconds of this snap, I'm returning this noble beast to the water whence he came. I forget which fly I took him on, but it was undoubtedly smaller than a size 16 hook, which meant that the leader was probably a 5x tippet, and the effort to land him was a dialectic with jeopardy. But what redblooded flyfisherman would have it otherwise?
I didn't come by my interest in flyfishing in quite the usual way. My stepfather, Harry Faville, had grown up in Wisconsin. After his first marriage ended in shambles in the early 1930's, he wandered about disconsolately, working at various jobs, never staying long in one place. He bought an old black jalopy and drove West over dirt roads through Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, stopping sporadically along the way to fish and acquaint himself with the local flora. Years later, when I was a young boy, he would tell stories of his exploits on the Yellowstone River, the Madison, the Missouri. In these years before the Second World War, fishing in the Rocky Mountains was a real adventure. Roads were poor, settlements were sparse, the country was untamed. Camping and nature-going hadn't become the national pastime it is today. There were no limits on fishing, and streams were loaded with wild trout, and the fishing pressure was almost nil. Hiking off road for an hour would put you on water that hardly ever saw a fisherman. 20" fish were common, and 30" fish not unheard of. Flyfishing as a sport, as a science, was still relatively in its infancy. Methodical streamside entomology, and ecological knowledge about fish habits and conservation were decades away.
Unfortunately, Harry had kind of given up serious fishing by the time I was a young boy, circa early 1960's. He talked about old split-bamboo flyrods, and casting, and tying flies. But we hardly did any fishing. Except for a couple of trips to back-country lakes, I had almost no experience of fishing. After I went away to college, I forgot about these memories, and Harry died in 1973 in an automobile accident near Dillon, Montana.
In 1976 I began reading some of the literature of flyfishing. I soon discovered the work of Roderick Haig-Brown, the dean of fishing writers. Also Robert Traver, who was also a popular fiction writer (Anatomy of a Murder, etc.), who wrote about Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Haig-Brown, a Brit who'd emigrated to British Columbia in the 1930's, had established himself as a competent back-woodsman and naturalist, and eventually published dozens of books of fiction and non-fiction, most of it devoted to fishing and natural resource issues in his adopted Canada. I credit him particularly with reawakening my sense of interest in fishing.
In 1976, my wife and son and I packed up our gear in a rented Ford Van and drove up to Southwestern Montana, and Yellowstone Park for a month-long exploration of flyfishing country. I took with me a brand-new Gary Howells bamboo fly-rod, and other assorted paraphernalia. We drove up into the headwaters of the Big Hole River, and camped beside a pretty lake. There were Cutthroat Trout, Brookies and even a few Grayling, a trout-related species which only survives, outside of Alaska, in the lower 48 in a few high-country alpine waters. I'd camped before, as a boy, but had never seriously fished. I knew almost nothing about technique, but gamely went about wading and casting in the pristine landscape of Montana and Wyoming. With a few lucky casts, and beginners' luck, I managed to land a few beautiful small to medium sized Rainbows. Brook Trout were easier, but they fought just as hard. One day on the Madison above the Varney Bridge, I hooked too powerful Brown Trout in succession, each of whom fought me to a draw, breaking off in swift rapids after 75 seconds of blood-curdling action.
In the years that followed, we went back again and again, and I tried other places. Hat Creek, Fall River, Hot Creek, Silver Creek in Idaho, The San Juan in Northern New Mexico, the Madison. I was definitely hooked.
A few years ago, I met a fellow locally who shared my love of the sport. Keith now lives in Sun Valley, near the Big Wood River, and not far from Silver Creek, the stream made famous first by Ernest Hemingway (in the days when he lived nearby), and later his son Jack. The Nature Conservancy purchased most of the best water at Silver for preservation and public access.
This is a picture of Silver Creek on a sunny day--I think from up near the old fisherman's cabin overlooking the upper portion of the Nature Preserve. The landscape looks a little barren; there are wheatfields in this wide, flat valley, and sagebrush, and other kinds of dry-country vegetation. The ecology is "alert"--and the fish are wary. Beautiful Rainbows, requiring size 18, or 20 or 22 (hooks as small as an pencil eraser), deftly tied to resemble minute aquatic insects, and "leader" (filament tippet) as fine as a human hair. Perfect casts, with no drag (the "drift" of the line as the current pulls it back and forth between you and the fly (lure). It's tough!
For decades, America's position, with respect to its immigration policies with our neighbor Mexico, was dictated by pragmatism, and tacit neglect. Our agricultural economy in the border states depended to a significant degree on so-called "stoop labor"--among the most grueling kinds of work there is--which the Mexican peasantry class was more than willing to perform, for what in America was "dirt cheap" piece-work wages. It wasn't possible to live decently in the States on income from farm labor, so these nomadic "seasonal" laborers (frequently in family groups) went back to Mexico when there was no work on the farms. It was a loose arrangement, and no one--the farmers, the Mexicans, or the rest of the population--worried too much about it. A few scofflaws melted into the domestic economy, but the numbers were small.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
The usual spoiler alert applies--all those who do not partake or have "issues" with alcohol are warned not to read further. It's the devil's work!
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The first time I heard Salter read was in 1988, when his collection of stories, Dusk and Other Stories, was published. Salter has a subtly "down-east" accent, and he's a brilliant reader. Off the cuff, he's hesitant and uncertain, but when he reads, he's really in his element. I was already a fan of Salter's by this time, but I hadn't read the story he read that night, "American Express." It's a masterpiece of cruel ironies, brilliant quick portraits of people, places, awash in a kind of nostalgic regret, a perfect portrait of the selfish lawyer class of Eastern privilege and presumption. You don't have to like Salter's characters to love how he evokes them--the elegant procession of human frailties he puts before you.
Monday, June 15, 2009
Architects will usually answer "Architecture!"--and they're probably right. Architecture combines all the other media--painting, music, literature, dance, sculpture, and applies the disciplines of mathematics and geometry and engineering to propose spatial demonstrations of human habitation, except for the things we do "outside"--though, even there, landscape architecture and biology and geology and astronomy all have something to tell us about the purposes and possibilities of our being and occupying space, in whatever setting.
Loos's designs display the hallmark characteristics of high Modernism: Flat roofs, understated trim, unadorned window sashes, boxy rectilinear volumes, sharp edges, open planning facilitated with thin steel supports and trusses, lightness, flat unelaborated surfaces.
The Wittgenstein House was a laboratory for living. For some, though, it was an experiment that didn't work. Wittgenstein's sister, Hermine, wrote: "Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this 'house embodied logic' as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality."
It was just as well, then, that Hermine didn't live there. But Wittgenstein's other sister, Gretl, did - both before and after the Nazi Anschluss - and apparently found it fitted her austere temperament perfectly. She and Viennese architect Paul Engelmann had invited Ludwig to collaborate with Engelmann on the design of her new house. Gretl did not issue the invitation lightly: she was no philistine and indeed, like the rest of the Wittgenstein family, was immersed in the world of arts (when she married in 1905, for instance, Gustav Klimt painted her portrait; Ravel wrote Concerto for the Left Hand for her brother Paul, a great pianist who lost an arm during the first world war).
At the time of the commission, Wittgenstein was at one of the many fraught transitional stages that pitted his life. He was fighting against depression and struggling to find a vocation worthy of his genius. He had abandoned philo-sophy in 1918, believing (wrongly) that he had solved all its problems with his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, whose ideas he had developed while serving as a soldier and later as a prisoner of war.
After the first world war, Wittgenstein had rid himself of his vast inherited fortune (his father had been a wealthy Viennese industrialist), sharing it among his brother and sisters. And, while philosophers around the world were realising that the Tractatus was the work of a genius, Wittgenstein became a primary school teacher in Trattenbach, in remote rural Austria. But after a classroom incident (the highly-strung Wittgenstein hit a pupil so hard the boy passed out), he quit. In despair, he contemplated becoming a monk - but instead took up gardening at a monastery.
But it couldn't last. There had to be some outlet for his visionary spirit. So the commission to work on his sister's house came at an opportune moment.
We can best understand Wittgenstein's architecture by seeing it as an extrapolation from the Tractatus. There Wittgenstein wrote that his philosophy was disposable: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he climbed up on it)...Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
For Wittgenstein, it was precisely the most important things - God, ethics, aesthetics - that could not be put into words. They could not be said, only shown. Wilson writes: "It was as if Wittgenstein's first attempt to deal with his predicament after the ladder had been thrown away was instinctively to make things (architecture, sculpture, photography) whose essence is that they cannot be 'said' but must be 'shown'."
The philosopher's work on the house focused on the design of windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. "This is not so marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly house its distinctive beauty."
Wittgenstein spent much time on these details. He took a year to design the door handles, and another year to design the radiators. Instead of curtains, each window was shaded by metal screens each weighing about 150kg, but easily moved by a pulley system designed by Wittgenstein. Bernhard Leitner, author of The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein, hailed this "aesthetic of weightlessness": "There is barely anything comparable in the history of interior design. It is as ingenious as it is expensive. A metal curtain that could be lowered into the floor."
When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed. "Tell me," asked a locksmith, "does a millimetre here or there really matter to you?" "Yes!" roared Wittgenstein."
When we came to design our own house in 1991, I played with a number of these post-Modern design ideas, in working together with the firm which executed the plans. "Turning its back on the street" was one such idea; "ignoring the view" was another. The privilege to build a house--to one's own specifications--is an exercise which provides a unique insight into one's intellectual condition.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Giorgio Morandi was an Italian painter and etcher [1890-1964] whose reputation among the art community has steadily gained momentum over the last fifty years. Though he lived through the Fascist period in Italy, he escaped untainted, holding an art teaching post for 26 years, and continuing to practice his exacting style throughout the latter half of his life. The quotation above is by him.
Sommer and Morandi are two artists who sought to explicate, using very modest means, how this is true. (I will deal with Sommer's work in future posts.) You can see it in the work reproduced above, from 1912. Morandi was heavily influenced by Cezanne, in particular the feeling of object-status imparted through the construction of volume and depth through contrasting textures; it's very much as if the "subject" (or "object") being represented is of subsidiary importance to the effects being sought. Morandi will paint or etch the same retinue of objects over and over, in constantly changing arrangements or views, in subdued, "quiet" light, creating dozens of versions with an almost religious precision, dedication and patience. The reduction of subject-matter has been called "minimalist" by some critics, in an attempt to explain the power of his vision.