How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

It was one of those days in February; Eliot called it “Midwinter spring.” The temperature pushed close to 60 degrees, the sun was low in a clear sky and a breeze blew the treetops into some sort of syncopated dance swaying back and forth against each other.

That kind of light turns every shadow black and blasts every highlight into a glare. The lawn was covered in sweetgum balls and, like the song, there were three cats in the yard.

I took a walk around the house, up the driveway toward the highway and saw the gulley that went through the culvert and bent off into the woods and I realized that it would eventually dump into a creek that dumped into a river that dumped into bigger rivers until it hit the ocean. I was standing at the twig-tip of a vast dendritic pattern.

The last storm blew down a dozen or so pines, several still leaning like drunks against the straighter, darker trees. The floor of the woods was covered by last fall’s crumbling leaves.

The cats at once and together all flopped over sideways and rolled back and forth on their backs, like they were taking dust baths. Emily has gotten fat; Panther and Saffron are chunking up, too, but it is Emily that looks like a furry ball with legs and a tail. The ducks, all Indian Runners and some with orange bills, some with green and three with black bills that look like tire rubber, run in a nervous mob from one end of the enclosure to the other, squawking all the way. And then back. And then again, back and forth.

Saffron

I walked all around the yard to get some air, some sun and some exercise, and when I got back to the patio, I sat down in the sun to collect some vitamin D. I sat there in the canvas chair, with my arms dangling off the sides, fishing for cats, and Saffron jumped into my lap demanding attention.

The sun was so bright that with my eyes closed, I could still see the bright orange of the inside of my lids. I studied the vague patters I saw in that orange and wondered if they were interior or exterior; when I turned my head, the shapes didn’t move with it and so I assumed they must be the patterns of the trees in the yard, veined across the closed eyes. I tightened my closed-eye squint and the color turned to the most beautiful purple or mauve. Relax and orange, squeeze and purple.

Leaning back in the chair, I opened my eyes and took in the whole scene, woods and yard, cats and sweetgums, the black lines of shadow thrown by the dropping sun and the bright walkway reflecting like silver and I thought of the end of Goethe’s Faust.

He says, finally, “To the moment I say ‘Remain a while. You are so lovely.’ ”

Of course, that’s the point at which Faust dies, and I’m not quite ready to go, but I recognize the quiet satisfaction of such a moment. The earth pauses, the moment extends. It could hold this forever, except that it can’t.

The world is coming unhinged, again. The long history of genocide and war, of hatred and calamitous revanchism, of dictators and ignorance, comes recycled. For some it is a time of terror, of fleeing destruction and living in refugee camps, or of hiding from child soldiers seeking to machete anyone. There is an abundance of horror.

Yet in those tents in Jordan or those favelas in Brazil, or the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, there are moments of joy, of a mother and her child, of the children playing in the dust, a smile at the color of the rust in an old machine. The moments may be fleeting, and they may contrast with the background of tragedy, but they are real. And they are necessary.

Even for us in the First World, life gives us loss and death, suffering and pain. We will each go through heartache or divorce, the death of someone we love, the calumny of our enemies and the uncaring of those who should know better. For us, too, such moments are a requirement. Even if we don’t feel the oppression of tragedy, we too often suffer the banality of time passing unnoticed, of daily chores crowding out the glimmers of awareness that, when paid attention, kindle joy.

Joy, beauty, awareness, all give us a different relationship with existence, with the planet, with its people, with the sky and land, with the cosmos. Even if for an instant in a February afternoon, it keeps us alive, and wanting to be.

In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

I first became interested in Monet’s water lilies when I was teaching black-and-white photography in Virginia, over 40 years ago. Of course, I had always loved the paintings; I grew up with his long panel at the Museum of Modern Art, which was a kind of second home as a teenager. 

But while I loved them, I hadn’t really thought about them. 

Because the photo lab where I taught back then was set up entirely for black-and-white, I thought in black-and-white. Seeing that way is different from seeing in color. A bright red might grab your eye in a scene you look at, but in the monochrome print you make, it is the same gray as a green or a blue. So, you learn to see in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. The world becomes translated to patches of charcoal and blasts of ivory. 

Such seeing — and thinking — leads to seeing your frame as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of those highlights and shadows, and you use them to make designs. Patterns. It is what is taught as “composition.” Rule of thirds; foreground-background. The frame edge becomes a kind of corral fence inside of which you deploy the monochrome elements of your design. 

But, looking at Monet’s nymphéas, I realized there was very little careful design, the way I was taught to see. Especially in the long ribbon-like murals of water lilies. I wondered if there were a way to make a successful black-and-white version of them. 

Back then, there was no digital photography; it was all Tri-X, Dektol and Kodabromide. I couldn’t easily drain an image of a Monet painting of its color to see what it looked like in black-and-white. But there were old art books that had black-and-white illustrations, and I found a few of those books and attempted to study them. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to look at such a painting; without the color, the image was vague, inchoate and pointless. 

At first, I put it all down to poor reproduction. Perhaps if I made my own photographs. So I dragged out my 4-by-5-inch field camera and tripod and drove down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge on Back Bay, at the north end of the Outer Banks, where there was a rich crop of Nymphaeaceae (the scientific name of the water lily family, a name richer in vowels than the plant is in chlorophyll). 

Now, I had photographed water lilies before. I made some images I was happy with at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. But there, I was photographing individual water lilies, or small pairs or trios, which allow for easy disposition into designs. Or I could use a single blossom as a point of focus.

What I was now interested in was the mass of lily pads floating on a larger body of water, a deracinated version of Monet’s luscious color images. Was there something of value that could be extracted from the subject? 

It isn’t as though Monet has not had imitators. Since his first water lilies in the 1860s, there have been knock-offs. The 20th century is especially full of epigones. Most all have managed to attempt some variation not on water lilies, per se, but variations on Monet’s take on water lilies. 

They’ve been done in water colors

In thick impasto

in pen and ink

colored pencil

in silk screen or other print forms

and my favorite: wallpaper

Even Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein has had his go at the subject

The impact of Monet’s flurry of flowers has been enormous. I got on the queue and tried my luck. 

I carried my bulky view camera out to the wildlife refuge and set it up looking down on a clutch of lily pads and tried to find a way to frame them that made sense. 

The initial problem was how to make a black-and-white design with so chaotic a subject matter. Should I angle the camera out to exaggerate the near-far relationship? Should I attempt the “overall” design and find them roughly equal size in the frame?

Should I use massed pads as individual subjects and pair groups rather than individual pads?

Or use clear sections of water as negative space?

Should I get close and single out an individual? I could put bits of others agains the frame edge to irregularize the rectangle.

I tried many different approaches. 

The results look best shown as 20”-24” prints, large for photographs — almost the size of paintings. (The physicality of prints, the rich black of the silver image, and the impact of the size is impossible to show on a digital screen. You have to imagine.)

After all this, what was my conclusion? Well, I never really came to one. My photographs were interesting enough, but I’m not sure they told me that much about Monet’s sense of design. 

That had to wait until I managed to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, some 30 miles northwest of Paris. I have now been there four times, and each time attempting to make images. The first visit, I attempted to make black and white images, primarily. The second, I gave in completely to color and by the third visit, I had found my own way into making images of this famous garden. 

But the water lilies were still an issue. They really don’t make that interesting a photograph. They are largely a dull green against a greenish, brownish water. 

A few years before, I had made a photograph of water lilies in a pond in Mississippi that I later noticed looked very like vintage photographs made at Monet’s water garden, where the water and its plants was just one element in an otherwise traditional landscape design. 

Monet, however, was not making traditional landscapes. He was interested in something completely other. On a flat canvas, he was seeing into layers of distances: the water surface, the water underneath the surface and the reflection in the water of the sky, the clouds, and the trees surrounding the pond. 

This, then, became my intent as I came back to Giverny and photographed once again the lily pond that Monet had created. 

I found I could recreate a passable Monet imitation, but I’m not happy with doing that. 

There were images that looked under the surface to find the tangle of roots underneath and bits of tree reflection and sky on the mirror interface of the water.

I made wider and wider images, like the cinemascope panels made by the painter.

And I found ways to mix the water lilies with the weeping willows.

But this was all pastiche. I enjoyed them, but they weren’t me. They were apprentice lessons. Do it his way first and then wander off on your own.

My own inclination is to find other ways of “complexifying” an image. I like a good tangle, I enjoy looking through one tangle at another. 

So, I sought to mix the water lilies of Giverny with the plants, reflections and trees to show, not the mere patterns of lily pads

which would never approximate Monet’s luxurious colors, but rather to see what I could find for myself in the garden. Nature is prolific and extravagant, it seeks to fill the world in a green horror vacui.   

I love seeing vegetable growth, the vines, the twigs, leaves, panicles, stalks and roots. And the gardens at Giverny overflow with sprouting, stretching and swelling. 

In my several visits to Giverny, I have amassed a couple of thousand photographs. Many are duplicates or in poor focus, but there must be at least 1500 images that are printable and showable. Most are of the upper garden and the flowers there, not the lower garden with the water lilies. 

But walking through Monet’s vision in the fall is a kind a paradise. I think of Milton’s Eve or Marvell’s “Garden,” or Wordsworth’s daffodils. A world alive; a world happy and bright; a world we can sometimes enter. 

 

Click on any image to enlarge

On the surface, water lilies would seem to be an unpromising subject for painting. Except for their flowers, there is little color to them. Their shapes are mostly just repetitive ovals on the surface of the water. Unlike a rose or a tulip, there is little structure to be seen — a pad floating on the water, a bloom — usually plain white — in an open space here or there. 

But Claude Monet managed to turn them into an icon of both Impressionism and Modernism. The water lily is as identified with Monet as sunflowers are with Van Gogh or soup cans with Warhol. And since then, a gazillion artists after him have imitated his work. 

Like photographer Edward Weston and his peppers, no one before him thought it worth their attention; after him, hordes of artists and Sunday painters have taken their crack at it. An artist sees something nobody notices, and suddenly, everyone can see them. 

The problem is, very like Weston and his peppers, his epigones don’t merely see water lilies, but some reflection in their minds of having remembered Monet’s water lilies. The paintings reshape reality. 

In some ways, Monet actually made it harder to see the real water lilies. 

What is missed is that Monet wasn’t painting water lilies in his some 250 canvases on the subject. They are merely pretext. When he first began painting them, he wanted to paint what he saw. Monet was the great transcriber. As Cezanne said, “He is only an eye; but what an eye.” 

He could see nuance of color and was able to paint not what he knew but what activated his retina — that is, not a house or a peony, but whites, reds and blues, shaded from highlight to shadow. When put down on canvas, those hues and tones could be seen as a house or peony, but it was never the object itself that he attempted to capture, but the visual impression of them. 

“Perhaps my originality boils down to being a hypersensitive receptor,” he said, “and the expedience of a shorthand by means of which I project on a canvas, as if on a screen, impressions registered on my retina.”

But at some point as he turned into the grand old man of Impressionism, the outer world ceased to be of much importance and became merely the armature for his work, the reason for wiping across his canvas his flake white, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and emerald green.

In a letter, he wrote, “The subject doesn’t matter!”

In the earlier work, there is usually a subject; in the later work, he developed a sort of “overall” design, almost like wallpaper. He prefigured the world of such later painters as Jackson Pollock. Indeed, it was really only after the Abstract Impressionists that common audiences could understand what was going on in Monet’s late water lilies. 

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

They were, to paraphrase Pollock, not water lilies at all, they were paintings. 

The best and most memorable of them are the mural-size nymphéas. Any museum in the world worth its salt has one of these: MoMA, the Carnegie, Chicago, etc. They tend to be huge, wide, paintings, almost ribbons of paint stretched 10-, 15-, or 20-feet wide as grand Cinemascope wide-screen visions. And where, in the earlier paintings, the water lilies were often the foreground to a more conventional landscape, backgrounded with trees and a shoreline, the later ones eliminate the horizon and become sheets of color. 

Museum of Modern Art, NY

In those museums, a single Nymphéas (as he called them) could eat up an entire gallery wall. 

But the grandaddy of them all are the eight paintings mounted in two oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris. If you lined them up end to end, they would be longer than a football field. The two rooms are end-to-end, making a floorplan in the shape of an “infinity” symbol. Along the longer sides, panels are some 42-feet long and 6-feet high, and the pointy end of the football shaped rooms, the paintings are 20-feet long. Between each pair of panels is an entrance. The ceiling is a kind of skylight, flooding the paintings with natural light. The walls are white. 

The whole is one of the wonders of the art world. Critic André Masson famously called the installation the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” 

The whole thing came together because of time and place — a confluence of the World War and the room in which to hang the pictures. 


Even 30 years before the Orangerie finally opened, Monet had in mind the idea. “One imagines a circular room, the walls of which, above the baseboard, would be entirely filled by water dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of a transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still water’s calm and the silence reflecting the opened blossoms; the tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” 

He was thinking primarily of a private patron decorating his home. 

Some years later, he was still mulling the project. In a 1905 article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, he was quoted, “At one point I was visited by the temptation to use the theme of nymphéas for a decoration. Carried the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity.”

Still, nothing came of the idea. It sat in the back of the painter’s mind for another decade. Then came the war. The Western Front and the trenches of World War 1 were as close as 35 miles from Monet’s home in Giverny. At times, he could hear the artillery fire. In 1914, his wife had recently died, and so had his elder son. The younger son and his step-son had joined the army. Monet was devastated and anxious. Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety but Monet remained: “If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” He saw, as an old man, his painting as his patriotic contribution.

{French filmmaker and playwright Sacha Guitry captured silent film of Monet painting in his garden in 1914.) 

At the end of the war, the painter formed an idea for a memorial, a gift to the nation commemorating both the victory and the loss of life. He proposed this to his longtime friend, now prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, two large panels, one of flowers to mark the victory and the other of weeping willows as a memorial to those who died. (Willows were a common symbol of mourning in the 19th century.) 

The day after the Armistice in 1918, Monet wrote to Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.”

The prime minister liked the idea, but suggested a larger series of a dozen panels. It grew to 19 panels at one point, before winding up with the eight we see today at the Orangerie. Monet fussed and painted, and fussed and destroyed paintings he was unsatisfied with, and fussed over where they might be displayed. Several venues came up and were dismissed, for various reasons. 

Ultimately, two rooms at the Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries gardens in Paris, near the Place de la Concorde were chosen and prepared. It had been built in 1852 by Napoleon III as a place to house citrus trees.

 Unfortunately, Monet never got to see the paintings in place. He died  in December, 1926, and the water lilies at the Orangerie were opened to the public May 17, 1927. 

Orangerie

At the time, both Monet and Clemenceau were seen by the post-war generation as old-hat, a holdover from a previous century and for the next 40 years, they were occasionally walled over to allow the showing of newer art. But after the next great war and with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Monet was recognized not so much as a holdover, but as a prophet of the coming abstraction.

Musee Marmottan, Paris

During his life, Monet was enormously popular and became rich — something very few artists, even great and now-famous artists failed to achieve — but his water lilies were not always understood. For a show of water lily paintings in 1909, one critic wrote: “One’s first reaction to these 48 pictures is bewilderment. In most of them, objections having little to do with painting are the cause of this malaise; they have to do more with the identity of the subject and the number of duplications and with the at first seemingly fragmentary aspect of these pictures. The paintings manifest an authority and independence, an egocentric quality that is offensive to our vanity and humbling to to our pride. M. Claude Monet is interested in pleasing only himself.”

Nelson Atkins Musuem, Texas

But at least one critic seems to have grasped something essential about the paintings. They are not designs carefully laid out inside a frame, with horizon lines and identifiable primary subjects. French critic Roger Marx noticed that same year, “The painter deliberately broke away from the teachings of Western tradition by not seeding pyramidal lines or a single point of focus. The nature of what is fixed, immutable, appears to him to contradict the very essence of fluidity; he wants attention diffused and scattered everywhere. He considers himself free to place the small gardens of his archipelago wherever he pleases: to the right, to the left at the top of at the bottom of his canvas.”

Several Impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese art at the time. Monet, like Van Gogh, even copied some of them in oil paint. He built a bridge in his water garden at Giverny in the style of a Japanese bridge on a Hokusai print. He was photographed on it with Clemenceau.

But the influence on the large water lilies has not always been mentioned.

One of the salient characteristics of Chinese landscape painting is that one doesn’t just stand back and take in the whole as a coherent design, but rather, might follow a path the artist has laid out, along a river or up a mountain, finally coming to rest at a little halfway house for contemplation.

  Many such paintings are not even possible to view in toto, since they are scrolls that must be slowly unwrapped and rerolled as you follow a journey from one end to the other. The details along the way are to be lingered over. In such work, there is no controlling or overarching composition or design. Only the detail.

And in Monet’s earlier paintings, there are horizons, rivers, trees, umbrellas, flowers — something to make a shape within the shape of the canvas, a single pattern that one can step back and take in at a single bite.

But when you have a 42-foot long panel that is 7 times longer than it is high, and in a room too narrow to step back to take it all in at once, you are forced to view the work as if it were a scroll, and enjoy detail after detail as you walk along the painting’s length. 

And so, you step from detail to detail in the Orangerie, relishing the daub of yellow and the streak of blue and, if you are in the receptive mood, you let go anxiety and discontent and let the water and floating lily pads calm you into a restful and meditative state. 

Orangerie detail

Or, as Monet put it, “it would attain the illusion of a whole without end, of a watery surface without horizon and without banks; nerves overstrained by work would be relaxed there, following the restful example of the still waters, and to whomsoever [visited], it would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation at the center of a flowery aquarium.”

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I grew up on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the wider portion of the world. It was the escape from parochial suburban concerns and into a life infinitely richer. 

New York city was not just the gateway to the larger world, it was the larger world. 

One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother taking me at age three, maybe four, into Manhattan to see the Christmas display windows at Macy’s department store. I remember being frightened by the subway and being returned like Odysseus from the underworld up to the snowy Seventh Avenue. 

It was only a few years after the war and the city was still the one described by E. B. White in Here is New York, published a year after I was born. It was the city of yellow cabs, of subway roar under the sidewalk grates, Con Edison steam pouring out of street vents. The Third Avenue El blocked the sky and the Horn and Hardart automat flipped out sandwiches and soup. Barges carrying freight cars crossed the Hudson from Weehawken and Hoboken; Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the old one — were still standing. The GWB was still only one level. Skyscrapers were still mostly stone, brick and steel. The Empire State Building was still the tallest in the world. 

When you are young and the world is that new, every encounter with it imprints and becomes the ur-version of your Weltanchaung. Everything you later learn is first compared with these initial impressions. 

And so, two great geographical “gods” I grew up with were the Hudson River — every other river until I crossed the Mississippi failed to earn the name — and New York City. A city wasn’t a city unless it had sun-blocking canyons of impossibly tall offices, apartments and hotels. If it didn’t have a subway or a ring of bridges and ferries. Or the wharfs with their ocean liners and longshoremen. 

As I grew up, the city remained the touchstone not merely of urban-ness, but of civilization itself. It was where I went to find bookstores. There was Little Italy, Chinatown, Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I saw Puerto Ricans and Arabs, Norwegians and Hindus. The idea of a mixed population seemed absolutely normal. 

As White wrote, “The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.”

And all that makes a kind of poetry: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal [combustion] engines.”

That music includes the sound of jackhammers, car horns, squealing bus brakes, street-corner arguments, police whistles, sirens, and on special occasions, marching bands. 

Through high school, and later when I returned home from college, I would take the Public Service bus to the bridge and walk across it from Jersey to Manhattan, looking down on the way to the little red lighthouse. Up past Cabrini Boulevard to the 175th Street IND subway station where a 15-cent token would take me anywhere in the city: Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner, the Hayden Planetarium. 

The city became so much a part of my world-view that it took traveling halfway around the world to break me open. That is the importance of travel. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The Mississippi River was more river than the Hudson, and the Columbia was a drained a greater area. The St. Lawrence was a wider gouge on the continent. And once I left the New World and stood on the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, I marveled at night over the racing current and the moon reflected in the waves — so big a river and so rapid a flow. This was the Rhine of the Lorelei and the Valkyries. Robert Schumann wrote his Rhenish Symphony in Dusseldorf. 

And so it was with cities. Philadelphia and Chicago were smaller imitations of New York, but so many others created their urban civilizations on other patterns. I would have to come to terms with Los Angeles, with Seattle, with Miami. 

I had avoided LA for many years — decades, really — with the unearned disapproval of an East Coast snob. It wasn’t really a city at all. What did Dorothy Parker call it? “Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” 

LA was the city where the people who pass you on the freeway are always better looking than the people you pass. The city where all the women are beautiful and all the men wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles. 

My tune has changed. After many trips to Southern California, I have come to love LA, with all its traffic and sunshine. 

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

St. Louis

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.  

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

From Simi Valley to Costa Mesa, you find every food, every culture, ever language, every social class, every fast-food joint. There is high culture at the LA County Museum of Art and history at the La Brea Tar Pits; there is outdoor dining at the Farmers Market on West Third Street and Fairfax; there are the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills, pecking at the ground like so many chickens. 

When my late wife and I first began to travel, we avoided cities. As long-time Easterners, we were besotted by the empty West and its long horizons and open skies. Driving down carless roads that measured straight for 20 miles or more at a stretch, wiggling in the distance through the lens of desert heat, it was the isolation that fascinated us. Cities only slowed things down and gummed them up with stoplights and bumper-to-bumper glue. 

It was only later that the cities opened up their gifts to us. Since then, I have come to love several cities, and cherish their idiosyncrasies and talents. 

First among these is Paris. I have been back many times. It is so different from New York, so compact, so comfortable. You can walk almost anywhere, and with only a miserly few skyscrapers, it is a human-scale place. In New York, restaurants can seat hundreds at a time; in Paris, a typical restaurant has maybe a half-dozen tables and only two workers: the waiter and the cook. 

Tourists think of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the streetside artists of Montmartre, but we never went there. Instead, we walked the streets near where we were staying and got to know the butcher, the florist, the baker. A morning visit to the patisserie for a pastry, a stop at the bookstore to pick up a Pleiades edition of Victor Hugo, a duck-in to a small neighborhood church that has been there for only, say, 400 years. 

Cape Town

The most beautiful city I have ever seen, based on its setting and geography, is Cape Town, South Africa. It sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks, including Table Mountain, which is a long, flat cliff over which a fog often drapes, like a tablecloth. The streets are wide and sunny, and the houses clean in the sunlight and often brightly colored. I was there near the end of the apartheid era, and while the Afrikaners to the north held fast to their racist ideology, in British-heritage Cape Town, I saw black and white Africans comfortably together on the beaches, despite its being technically illegal. 

Chicago (left) and Johannesburg

Back north in the former Transvaal, the city of Johannesburg, or “Jo-berg,” was more familiarly urban. In fact, if you didn’t know where you were, you could easily confuse the city with, say, Chicago. If you thought of Africa as elephants and zebras, the high-rise congestion of Jo-berg could come as quite a surprise. 

Durban

I have a special warm spot for the city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean, with its thick tropical humidity and dense pack of various humanity.

Seattle

I lived for a while in Seattle, and came to love it for its weather. What elsewhere might be called rain is hardly noticed in Seattle, unless it’s a downpour. Most days, it seems, the air just hangs with a slowly-dropping mizzle. The city is built on hills, and you are always going up or down, and until the recent and ugly development of a self-regarding amour propre, Seattle was a kind of forgotten city. That was the city I came to love. Now, it is overrun with Starbucks and hipsters. It used to be cool; now it knows it is cool, which is never cool. 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a city I used to despise. I thought of it as infested with cockroaches and humidity. But as I’ve gotten older and have begun to decay myself, I find a bit of deterioration admirable. Now, it is one of my favorite cities. How can you not love a place where the restaurants feature 60-year-old waiters in formal dress? 

San Francisco

There are other cities I hold dear: London; Oslo; Vancouver; Miami; Mobile, Ala.,; Halifax, Nova Scotia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Tijuana — yes, if you leave the tourist center, it is a wonderful city. 

Las Vegas

And there are places I have never come to love. I really dislike Las Vegas, for instance. It gives me the creeps. I see those retiree women sitting at the slots, their eyes turned into lifeless ball bearings in the soulless, windowless casinos with their dead, ringing bings. The horror; the horror. 

Atlanta seems like nothing but traffic; Dallas like endless freeway flyovers; Houston like a fungus that grows to eat up a wedge of southeastern Texas. Once you enter the city limits, it seems as if you can never get out. Houston covers more ground than Rhode Island, and paints it with minimalls, Comfort Inns and tire dealerships. 

Phoenix

I have been avoiding mentioning Phoenix. That is because my feelings are ambivalent. I have always called the city “Cleveland in the desert.” It has little actual character and the roads are as regular as jail bars. I lived there for a quarter century and came to love many things about it, and made many friends, who I now miss since I left. But the city itself has little to recommend it, outside of being in the middle of a desert paradise. Of course, you have to drive at least 60 miles in any direction to even get out of the city into the desert, and the remoteness of the desert only increases as the city expands. 

Yet, even in Phoenix, I get the feeling of civilization — both good and bad. Civilization is defined by cities. Before cities, life was villages and farms. After the growth of Sumer and Ur, and the creation of writing and the spread of trade and political power, it became possible for the cooperation and interaction that cities allow. 

And, even if an urbanite doesn’t leave his city, he will encounter those who have come from elsewhere. He will be forced to give up his “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” City life tends to make one cosmopolitan and therefore, tolerant. Maybe not universally, but largely. 

It explains, in part, the vast political gulf we face, not so simply between red and blue states, but between urban and rural. As cities grow, the nation gets bluer. If we encounter what is “other” and discover it is not, we give up fear and dampen hatred. Cities work because everyone has to put up with everyone else. It is what makes New York such a model. 

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity,” wrote White. “The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite.”

But it doesn’t. Not normally. In fact, the diversity of the city is more than merely tolerated, it is enjoyed: Who would want to live in a city where you could not get a good mu-shu pork or a good osso buco; not find a movie theater showing the latest Iranian film; not be able to buy a kofia and dashiki; not hear a Baroque opera? 

Asheville

I have learned to widen my definition of what counts as a city. Even the Asheville, N.C., I now occupy has, in its tiny compass, an urban feel. The downtown is old and brick, and pedestrians walk up and down its hills. The stores and restaurants are busy and it is hard to find a parking spot. It is a concentrate of urban-ness. I can eat Ethiopian injera or find a well-used copy of Livy. It is a blue city in a red state. And thank the deities in the stars for that. It still echoes the New York that is buried in my deep heart’s core.

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Reidsville is a small town in north-central North Carolina halfway between the city of Greensboro and the Virginia border. It was once the home of the American Tobacco Company and at the north end of downtown is a huge factory complex with a smokestack that still says “Lucky Strike” on its shaft. 

Like so many Southern towns, there is a main street where the shops are found, and a parallel street where the old factories and warehouses are located, with the railroad tracks running alongside. This pattern is repeated throughout Dixie, but is especially common in the Piedmont, which was once the industrial heart of the Southern states. 

The downtown in Reidsville is not as vibrant as it used to be. There are many empty storefronts and some of those have been filled with “antique” emporia and consignment shops. I don’t want to imply it is a dying town; in fact, it seems quite happy and busy, even though its heyday ended with the closing of the tobacco plant. 

There were also textile mills and other factories and their old buildings, now repurposed or abandoned, line the back street and railroad tracks. I find such relics irresistible. 

As I explained in the previous blog entry, I am compelled to make things — the compulsion is itself a relic of the old Protestant work ethic; I feel guilty if I am not producing something. So, as a retired writer, I still pump out blog entries, and as a former photographer, I am still driven to make images. These usually group in series; which I call “projects.” For years, I made serial images of gardens, always meant to be seen not singly, but as a cohesive group, rather like a book. I hope each image can stand on its own, but it is not designed solely for that purpose. 

In the entry previous to this one, I presented bits of a series of fruit and vegetable images, and a recent bunch of “tree nudes” — winter trees with their branches and bark naked to the weather. 

I also spent a day driving the industrial streets of Reidsville, looking for the past poking through the present. Along SE Market Street, alongside the rails, there are the shells of old warehouses and factories, textured with brick and sometimes closed off with tornado fencing. 

I have been fascinated by such places since I was a boy, loving the less visited side-streets in New York, looking at old apartment buildings and second-story residences above storefronts. There is something about the edge of decay that is beautiful. A fresh new building just seems unripe; one that has been settling for decades, even a century, has gained character.

This is something like the Japanese esthetic concept of wabi-sabi, or an appreciation of the imperfection and impermanence of things, and why a Japanese potter will often crack or warp a vessel before firing it, finding the result more beautiful than bland regularity. 

In the past, when I made photographs of old buildings, I made them in black and white, which seemed a way to emphasize form and texture, and was then the accepted presentation of “art” photography — color not making it into most museums because of its perceived impermanence (consider your old snapshots, turned magenta and faded. A museum didn’t want to pay good money for an artwork that would go south in only a few years). 

Black and white was what all the photographers I admired used (with a few exceptions). And if I looked at one of Walker Evans photographs for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, I found beyond the images of poverty, a way of making beauty out of decaying architecture. 

One of the few classic artworks I actually own is Evans picture of the Rock Hill Cafe in Alabama. It is beautiful and I love it. 

But as I get older and as technology has improved and my perceptions have changed, I find myself making color photographs more often, and often the color is the point. So, I might see an old welding shop in Reidsville and see it in monochrome.

Or I could present an old rusted doorway in B&W

I saw, though, a range of subtle color that just delighted my eye. 

Interestingly, Evans himself took up color and in the 1960s made a series of color photographs of old buildings. His materials were not as good as we have now and the color never completely satisfied him. 

Walker Evans 1960

There have been some truly impressive color photographs made by such artists as William Eggleston, Eliot Porter or Ernst Haas. They forced me to reconsider the esthetics of color.

To say nothing of the melancholy and beautiful streets of Edward Hopper. 

So, I drive through the streets of Reidsville on a December morning and see so many absolutely beautiful wrecks. Because it is cold, and because I am old and my hams have gone weak, I aimed my camera through the opened side-window of my car and made my series. 

There were times I parked and got out of the car, but mostly, I made the window-height camera a part of the esthetic — or I’m just lazy. 

I drove down Market Street and up the other side of the tracks, then crossed back by Harrison, Gilmer, Settle and Williams streets. There was beauty everywhere. 

The question of whether what I have made is art no longer interests me. There was a time I wanted to be an artist, but now my emphasis in not at all on how I am seen or judged by others, but rather the direct fact of making stuff. It matters little what it is called. 

The photographs are my way of engaging with the world, reminding myself to see it and see it whole, not just the sunsets and mountainscapes, but the sagging doorways, too, and the cracks in pavement. The way the clouds gray-up and dull the shadows till they flatten completely. The roundness of an orange, the spatter of mud on my tires, the layers of paint on my back porch. 

I now consider this engagement far more important than the artifacts that results, however much fun it is to share them. 

I have talked with my brother about this, who is an artist — a real one, with sales and exhibitions — and he rather laughed. “What do you think an artist is? A vocation? Something you go to trade school for, like plumbing or accountancy?” 

The urge, the need to make things, he said, the fact that you do it makes you an artist, whether you think of yourself that way or not. Being an artist is not so lofty a title; it is simply something one does. 

And so, I drive up and down streets looking at the world that amazes me, and I find color and shape and texture; shadow and highlight; past and present; banality and transcendence.

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