Art Criticism: “A Term I’ve Always Kind of Disliked”

“…[M]y 50 years of art writing have often been motivated by a desire to escape the art world. I’m … pleased that the award is for art writing and not art criticism, a term I’ve always kind of disliked, since most of what I know about art I learned from artists, and artists from pretty diverse backgrounds, and ‘critic’ sounds awfully antagonistic. Art writing is an odd profession. I suspect many of us thought we were on our way somewhere else–journalism, poetry, or fiction in my case.”

Lucy Lippard

perfect frost

After a month with rain and storm, February has has arrived with perfect winter weather –


Trout fisherSAM_5983 A portal in the woodsSAM_5990

Wetland looking very different in winterSAM_6019

Sea still as a mirror
SAM_6022The days are still short, the last rays of sun-light falling upon our windows in late afternoon

What Light Can Do

Ekphrasis, writes Marjorie Munsterberg, is a particular kind of visual description and the oldest type of writing about art in the West. The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.

The ability to reproduce works of art has reduced the importance of ekphrastic writing. Nevertheless – some writers still write the most beautiful things to pictures. Here is Robert Hass from the introduction to his book What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World:

The first image is a scrubby, misshapen tree in a field of bleached, scrubby high mountain grasses. The tree casts a mild leftward blotch of shadow, so it must be near noon, maybe eleven in the morning, and in this image east must be right. It’s morning in America and the tree— it’s hard to gauge size in such a landscape; it could be merely a shrub gone wild, but tree or shrub, it could only have gotten to be so formless by having been removed from the ecological context in which it made sense. It is given sense by Adams by being placed square in the center of the rectangle of the picture— center low. There is a horizon just below the middle of the rectangle, and in the distance, perhaps half a mile off, there are telephone poles, which would indicate a road, and just above the hypothetical road, on the left side of the picture where the shadow is, just on the horizon, there is a tiny stretch of black and white that could be a suburb and could be an escarpment of snowy mountains, very far off. The top half of the image, into which the tree or shrub projects, is sky, though “projects” is not exactly the right word, since the top of the tree seems to flatten out. In fact, the tree is almost square, as if the old, fundamental vocabulary of landscape art— earth, horizon, sky, trees marrying them by growing from the earth and reaching toward the light— had been radically altered. And the sky seems to answer to this. It is immense, but it’s streaky, a series of horizontal lines, so that you can almost hear the weather report on a car radio telling you that it is 11:13 and partially overcast this morning in Denver, clearing by afternoon.

What Hass is describing in this ekphrasis is a photograph by Robert Adams, you see it, don’t you?!

Next Stop Atlantic

Over the last nine years the N.Y.C. Transit Authority has worked with the national artificial reef building program to sink around 1,800 subway cars.


Next Stop Atlantic | © Stephen Mallon

Beginning in 2007, Brooklyn-based photographer Stephen Mallon embedded himself with the maritime company in charge of the dumping operation.

You can read about the project here. 

the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth

It’s been a while since my last post on Oymyakon, but the town is not forgotten! And just this week the Smithsonian & Amos Chapple gave us some wonderful images from Siberia.


Gas station and Christmas tree (Amos Chapple)

Cars must be run continuously when making a trip to Oymyakon (if they stop you wont get them going again because of the low temperature), and so 24/7 gas stations are essential to winter transportation. Workers on the gas stations work two weeks on and two weeks off.

Such a strange and magical world we live in …!

perfectly useful concentration

What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

 – Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Anne Stevenson, Jan. 1964

In the same boat: It’s very interesting to see how Bishop, in this short and powerful statement, parallels experiencing & creating art i.e. the perceiver & the artist; we are both looking for the same thing – a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson says, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

– Mark Doty, The Art of Description, 2010

Maybe it’s possible to – instead of Doty’s “the artistic process” – describe the self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration as the aesthetic moment, a place where artwork and receiver fuse.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude  Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76

The next step could be – and here I’m bringing Damasio into the party – to evolve out of the fuse = become selves (again); to separate emotion from feeling. For neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli, say for example art. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. This is what happens in what I termed the aesthetic moment.  Feelings occur after (according to Damasio feelings occurs after emotions) we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of pleasure, fear, joy etc.

Mind begins at the level of feeling. It’s when you have a feeling that you begin to have a mind and a self.

In short: Art is about loosing and creating self …