Monthly Archives: July 2014

O and E movie

I had doubts.

You don’t disturb a smooth-running bureaucracy with impunity. There are reasons for all those regulations.O and E Rodin

What is more, I was not unhappy down here. I was not happy, either — such words don’t mean anything here, except as memory.  To be roused by his request from the grayness was too much like being awakened on a chilly morning when you just want to stay in bed under the covers.O and E pina bausch

But there it was. He had come down here, asking to take me back.

It wasn’t that I really wanted to go. But he wanted it so much, how could I refuse him. I never could refuse him.

I remember that. Memory here is so precise, so exact, so complete.

I remember him, too, with that same clarity that no one topside can even imagine. We have the talent for memory here, but we never use it. There is no need. It is a steady state. O and E Egyptian textileNeither happy nor unhappy, neither awake nor aware. You can pass eons without ever knowing it, not that it would matter if you did.

But I remember his wide shoulders, the twin sinews behind each knee. I could never refuse him.

So, I was awakened. We did not speak. He was not allowed to look at me. Never mind: It suited the way he loved me. He never really looked at me, even when we were both able to breathe. He is thought a demigod, but he was really just a man. And like all men, he stared, but he never really looked. I know now what I didn’t know then: I know what he saw when he stared at me with such soft eyes. If you think age brings wisdom, wait till you discover death.O and E bas relief

I looked at him, though, when we were above ground, the first time —  alive. I looked at him often. He didn’t know when I watched him sleep, or watched him stringing his lyre, or feeding the horse. I could see him like he was an X-ray, all the bones and joints, but also the fevers and melodies.

You think it was the music that devoured me? No. The music was beautiful, but I could have heard the music without loving him. Anyone could have. The music was played for everyone.

No, it was that he wanted me. How many women have fallen in love because they were simply asked? And now, he wanted me again.

There is a difference between Orpheus and the rest of us. We love the living people, the fickle, feckless people we share life with. One to one. That is what our love is.

He did not love that way. No. O and E corot

Orpheus had the double vision of a four-eyed fish, half above, half below the surface, and everything he saw came in two images: O and E 35mmthe one he saw above the water, and the second he saw in his imagination. Always, the things he knew came as real and image, and the two were, for him, the same thing.

You overlook a lot in a man. You have to. It’s not forgiveness so much; it is more like learning to ignore that your clock is always running fast. You make allowances.

So, he came back for me. We walked up the rocky path. I saw his back, the nape of his neck under his curls. The circles of fleshfold around his elbow points. His head was haloed by the bright light at the cave entrance. When we got near the light, he reached one arm back for me to hold as we picked our way up past the boulders.O and E Bartolozzi

These memories are in focus sharper than any lens can provide, but I don’t remember them anymore.

He turned to look at me.

I could see in his eyes that double vision for the second before he disappeared, or I disappeared. It’s all the same thing.

When he had me, flesh and blood, he saw only an image of me. Now that I no longer breathed, and exist only as image, he wanted the flesh and blood. Perhaps you never really want it until you know you are losing it.O and E etching

In those eyes I could see genuine pain for losing me a second time. But I also saw a glint that told me he knew he now had a good story to tell, a new song to sing.

wigwam motel copy

Sometimes travel, like life, is a comedy. You drive along near Monteagle, Tenn., and spot the road sign directing you to ”Fiery Gizzard and Savage Golf Trails.” Savage golf, yeah, let’s put some zip in the game:  Losers get eaten by bears.

Or you pass the warning in the Cascade Mountains of Washington: ”Danger flying rocks — 35 mph.” One wonders if the rocks travel at that speed and whether they will be passing you on the road if you are driving too slowly for them.

Or you pass by the high school in Tillamook, Ore., where they proudly announce they are the ”Home of the Fighting Cheesemakers.”

Of  course, I shouldn’t point fingers: My alma mater was the “Fighting Quakers” and my wife was a “Demon Deacon.”

The world is filled with little jokes. Sometimes intended, usually not.

Over the years, we’ve traveled pretty much everywhere in the continental United States and Canada, and we’ve come across many little geographical punchlines. miniature house ontario copy

Some things you notice are outright funny. Others only strike you odd when you think about them: The Burns Brothers Gasoline Station.

Across this wide nation, from Dekay Street in Hoquiam, Wash., to Debree Street in Norfolk, Va., you can find yourself doing double takes at road signs or the names of industries or towns.

No doubt, some of these prodigies have gone the way of all kitsch. They’ve gone out of business, probably replaced with something just as peculiar.

In Wisconsin, you could buy your souvenirs at Ethel’s Flood of Gifts. In Maine, you could stop at Pointy Head Antiques.

And when you visit Batavia, Iowa, don’t miss the House of Chrome.

There were Concrete Gifts in Coos Bay, Ore., and a Cement National Bank in Easton, Pa. There’s also the town of Concrete, Wash.

There was the Tired Chicken, a restaurant in Crescent City, Calif., and a tired gin joint in Lincoln City, Ore., called George’s Paris by the Sea.

In Las Vegas, a few years ago, we passed Murphy’s Law Restaurant. True to form, it was up for sale. Something must have gone wrong.

There was the Hollow Cocktail Lounge, Charleroi, Pa., and the Hester Prynne Restaurant in New Jersey, with its ”A-frame” entrance. At the Sanitary Cafe in Reidsville, N.C., the breakfast specialty was brains and eggs. I recommend ’em.

In Pennsylvania, you could order an Arsonburger. Las Vegas sphinx copy

The Best Western in Vancouver, British Columbia, offered ”Free escargot.” I wondered how big a draw that might be.

I also wonder how comfortable the Cockleburr Motel could possibly be, in Kadoka, S.D.

Kadoka is a wonderful little town. But for years, they had a sign along the interstate that read:

”Welcome to Kadoka, S.D.

Entrance to the Bad Lands

Kadoka Needs Another Doctor”

It’s not good to sound too desperate.

Maine has its own interesting town sign: ”Welcome to Kennebunk, the only village so named.”

Watford, N.D., declares itself ”The Whopper Capital of the World” in honor of the stories sports fishermen tell there. You can stay there at Four Eyes Motel, with a picture of Teddy Roosevelt on the sign. It’s also where you could find the Abstract Tile Co.

In nearby Alexander, one could hole up at the Ragged Butte Motel and Cafe, and stop by the Hard Ride Liquor Co. for your refreshment.

In Culbertson, Mont., there was Custom Built Feeds. I know the agribusiness has gone high-tech, but how scientific can silage be? OJ did it train copy

In Poplar, Mont., there was an old concrete bridge over a tiny dry creek, the way they can be in the arid West: all scrub and gravel. You’d hardly notice the bridge at all — it’s only about 15 feet long and there is nothing under it but grass and cobbles — except for the large, imposing sign: ”No Diving Off Bridge.”

The MX Motel in Chester, Mont., was named in honor of the nuclear missiles hidden underground nearby. Its sign was written in a flowery Old English script, which certainly captures the elegant and dainty spirit of nuclear holocaust.

Louisiana’s economy booms and busts with the oil business, and many businesses have a very precise focus. As you pass through such towns as Sulphur and Industries, you pass such workplaces as Concentric Pipe Rentals, the Down Hole Co. and Major Mud and Chemical. I’ve always wondered what the technical difference might be between minor mud and major mud.

But those businesses are hardly alone. There’s a Nova Mud Corp. in Ely, Nev.


Modern art is so ancient it’s practically a joke. It is older than my great grandmother, and I’m a geezer myself. cubist beethovenThe birth of Cubism, say, is actually closer in time to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony than it is to us.

Modernism was a bender our culture went on; Postmodernism is the hangover we are just now getting over.

Of course, a lot of wonderful art was created in that century, but a lot of piffle was written, too, in support of the theories and ideologies that tried to argue the presumed supremacy of Modernism. Now, we look back at the wreckage and see it all as drunk-talk.

One of the arguments was over what was “appropriate” for any art form: the issue of “medium specificity,” as critic Clement Greenberg called it. Greenberg was one of the greatest pifflers at the bar, holding forth with a stein sloshing in his hand and willing to take on anyone in the bar, if they would just step outside. Here, hold my coat. clement greenburg

The idea was that each variety of art, whether painting, sculpture, theater or poetry, had its proper vocabulary and content. The lines between genres were defensive walls that should not be breached. Good walls make good neighbors, as it were.

All effects borrowed from any other medium should be proscribed, leaving the art form “pure.”  Purity becomes the sign of quality. All foreign effects must be exterminated. Esthetic cleansing, we might call it.

That means, painting must not tell a story; stories belong to literature. Sculpture must work in the round; sculpture that is meant to be seen from a single point of view is borrowing too much from painting and is therefore bad sculpture. Music that attempts to describe a scene is straying from the purity of musical expression and trying to be a picture. “Ut pictura poesis?: Not on my watch.

All this talk of purity makes us cringe now: If nothing else, the 20th century and its wars and pogroms have given the idea of purity some really bad karma.

It hadn’t always been that way: Purity didn’t used to be a shibboleth.

The issue of medium specificity is one of those generational pendulums that swings back and forth over time. nocturne in black and goldThe question is whether each art has a special message that can only be delivered in its language, or whether all the arts have the same message, only tell it in different languages.

The puritanism of the 20th century was a reaction to the promiscuous genre-mixing of the previous century, just as the pervasive tone of irony in the 20th century was an antidote to the cloying sincerity of Victorianism.

In the 19th century, it was clear that art — all art — had a single message, although there was not always agreement on what that message might be. Shelley wrote about this, Baudelaire wrote of the “perfume” of his poetry; Whistler painted “nocturnes,” as if he were Chopin on canvas; Franz Liszt gave concerts that were as much theater as music. (Nowadays, when we hear that a pianist has eliminated the hoopla and “found the music” in Liszt, we can be sure he has completely misunderstood Liszt.)bayreuth

And let’s not forget that it was the 19th century that brought us that greatest of artistic mash-ups, Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk — the use of all the arts at a single blow in a grand design that ultimately included even architecture, in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. All set to a single purpose — albeit the purpose may have been the glorification of Wagner himself.

I said this was a pendulum. In the 18th century, a hundred years before Wagner, there was a sentiment, parallel to Greenberg’s, that the arts should not fraternize.

In his 1766 work, Laocoon: An Essay on the limits of poetry and painting, German critic Gotthold Lessing maintained, “that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.”Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

He was reacting to the classic line by the Roman poet, Horace, that “ut pictura poesis” — “as is painting, so is poetry” — arguing that these arts are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space (forgetting that in a larger frame, both exist in the mind and imagination).

So, do we now use our scalpels and surgically separate music from poetry, painting from dance, and say unequivocally that what we get from Balanchine rubies balanchinebears no relation to what we get from Philip Roth? Or is there some quality they share that gives them value and worth?

As the pendulum swings back, we recognize that all art is about becoming more fully human, more aware of the world and our place in it. That awareness can be through compassion, through beauty, through politics, or through irony. It saves us from isolation, from ignorance, from emptiness. These are the big issues we face, in contrast, mutable public issues of politics or career are trivial: When we come to the end of our lives, what remains of the fustian of our existence has little to do with annual income or who got elected; it is how much we have loved and been loved, whether we have become larger in our hearts, or shrunken and dried up.

And it is art — in all its various plumage, each of its forms — that provides the imagery to do this. This is their common message.

And purity is a kind of puritanical and sanctimonious defense of the impotent notion of “good taste” that is anathema to the creation of vital art.

It is what Sir Kenneth Clark called the “fatal defect of purity.”

And as Pablo Neruda reminds us in his 1935 essay, Toward and Impure Poetry, “Those who shun the ‘bad taste’ of things will fall flat on the ice.”

pizza slice
People approach the arts generally in one of two ways: with taste and judgment or with curiosity.


You can spot the first group by the arch of their eyebrow, the second group by the gleam in their eye.

The first group includes a good number of academics, critics and — worse — politicians. They all suck the life out of creation (with a lower-case “c”). I speak as a lifelong critic myself. In all three cases, they have criteria outside the issues of art by which they judge the art.
jacques derrida

The academic asks whether the art promotes his particular hobby horse, whether it is Marxism, Feminism or Post-structuralism. The politician looks to issues of biblical morality or economic theory or national pride. The critic, too, has his narrows and straits.

They all have ideals — or limitations — they ask the art to live up to and tend to filter out divergent opinions and make moral judgments, not merely aesthetic ones, against those who failed to live up to their standards.

They ran the gamut from the most enlightened connoisseurship to the most craven bigotry.

But each came to a final and immovable resting place, so to speak. They came to a certainty from a certainty. Not much of a voyage.Epimetheus opening Pandora's Box

Curiosity is the libido of art and it is always searching and always finding new pleasures, deeper enlightenment. It begins not with certainty and knowledge, but with openness and ignorance.

There is this one simple truth that we cannot escape: What you know prevents learning. It is only when we give up believing in our knowingness that we can grow. There is nothing so stunted as theory; it is the brain wearing a whalebone corset.

And curiosity is where all the greatest artists have begun. It is also where any art lover needs to start: Judgment is for the censorious; art aims for the unprogrammed curiosity.rembrandt

Obviously, I have stacked the deck in curiosity’s favor, but that is only as it should be.

The greatest artists have always been open to the world. Rembrandt had his Orientalism, Hokusai his Occidentalism. Leonardo had the most promiscuous curiosity in the history of our culture.

For me, these are the heroes of art.

And I think of them every time the issue of multiculturalism comes up. The concept seems simple and desirable to me, but it is a bugaboo for those who have wished to see culture ossified at a certain time and place, usually late 19th century and Europe.sesshu

I am not one to knock European art. I fall in rapture over Beethoven’s late quartets, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Goethe’s Faust. But I also hunger to know as much as I can about the music of India, China, South America, Africa. I want to hear Ali Akhbar Khan on sarod, the clang of a Javanese gamelan. I want to see sumi paintings of Sesshu, the stonework of Macchu Picchu.

Shakespeare is a prodigy, but I also want to see Noh plays, Shakuntala and Chinese opera.

They all have something for me to experience and something to teach me.

picassoAnd they have something to teach the finest artists working today, a fact the finest artists are fully aware of. All the best artists borrow and steal from elsewhere, whether it’s Papa Haydn borrowing Alsatian folksongs or Pablo Picasso ripping off African masks.

But there are critics who decry Philip Glass for the Hindu in his minimalism or the Asiatic spectacle of Robert Wilson’s stagings.

But these are the people who are revivifying our high culture, just as Paul Simon and David Byrne, musical thieving magpies, are doing for our popular culture.

gauguinAnd artists have always been awake to these cultural borrowings, as Gauguin borrowed from the South Seas, Bartok borrowed from Hungarian folk music, as Shakespeare borrowed from anything he thought would be useful.

Everything, from top to bottom, is grist for fine art.

I know there is a politically correct aspect of multiculturalism that is ignorance incarnate: the enforced belief that anything from another culture is wonderful and we shouldn’t say anything bad about it. But that is a political consideration, not an aesthetic one.

I’m all for saying bad things about bad art, wherever it comes from, but let’s see and hear it first. Hold judgment in abeyance and just soak it all in.

There is not a culture anywhere on this planet that has nothing to teach us. We should never be so smug.

The critics and connoisseurs are concerned about being right. But much more important is maintaining a lively mind. What is correct and proper in any age is very likely to change over time. Such are not the “eternal verities” that their proponents like to think they are; they are mere fashion.

But a lively mind, whether it is in Third Century China, 18th Century France or 21st Century Brazil, will always be the medium of exchange for thinking, feeling people.

Remember when tomatoes were considered poison? If the reactionaries had had their way, we would not now have pizza. I rest my case.

apple cut

Have you ever been in love? Do you love chocolate?

Do you love your mother? Do you love heavy metal music? The smell of dew in newly cut grass? Perhaps you love irony.dinner knife

We toss the word ”love” around as if it meant only one thing, but love of Monday Night Football is significantly different from Tristan’s love for Isolde. We use the same word, but we mean different things.

It’s the same way with ”art.” The tiny trigram covers an enormous range, from late Beethoven quartets to the design on your dinner knife. And then we have trouble defining it, because we are looking for one single definition that will fit all cases. It should be no surprise that we can’t find it.

The problem with discussing art is that one person’s Rembrandt is the next person’s Hershey bar.elvis 2

So when I write that black-velvet Elvis paintings simply aren’t art, I’m guilty of hyperbole. Of course that is art. It just isn’t good art.

(There are some people who believe that ”bad art” is an oxymoron. Or as my late friend, the great Dimitri Drobatschewsky, used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad art; if it is bad, it isn’t art.”)

Working on the assumption that art requires ability, they make the analogy that bad art isn’t art the same way ”bad ability” isn’t ability.

Yet, there is a very wide range of abilities. Can we discount Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have the technique of Raphael? Surely it still deserves the name of art. And how about Jeff Koons’ basketballs floating in a fish tank? mbulu nguluHow much craftsmanship did that require? And yet, if it isn’t art, what the hell is it? Surely the definition of art is broad and deep.

If we attempt to be inclusive, if we attempt to find a definition that covers Rembrandt, Shakespeare, the prints that hang on a motel-room wall, the designs cut into a Western belt, the mbulu-ngulu figure of Africa and shakuhachi music from Japan, things get murky.

But that is only because we have set an impossible task: finding that illusive single definition for art.


Yet, if we step back and attempt to see art as a whole rather than attempt to make a polemical case for our favorite corner of the art universe, we can begin to see at least the general outline of the subject. It also becomes clear that art must have a four-sided definition: The whole can be divided in half from side to side, or from front to back.

Sliced from side to side, there are two apple-halves of art.

First, there is the decorative side of art. Whether it is racing stripes on a car or a landscape over the sofa, art of this order attempts to make our lives more graceful. We use it to decorate our lives and the things of our lives.

On a more serious note, it is art that is a palliative against the abrasiveness of living. If we must suffer in love and business, we should be able to escape that in art. Hence, Broadway musicals.bass buckle

On the simplest level, it is the shape of your belt buckle, the color you choose for your Toyota, the typeface of your letterhead.

On a more refined level, it is Monet painting mural-size pictures of waterlilies for the Orangerie.

Overall, it is the sense that beauty is somehow the opposite of life and that art should embrace beauty and turn its back on pain and suffering, or at least idealize them and therefore freeze them into powerlessness.disasters of war


But the other apple-half wants us to engage with life, complete with all its sufferings, frustrations and complexities. This view recognizes that art is a means we use to come to terms with life. All of life.

It says that art is the test we give to truth. As science confronts fact, art confronts truth. In this sense, art distinguishes between the genuine and counterfeit, the possible from the impossible, the passion from the sentimentality, the moral from the moralistic.

Art is in some sense a virtual reality, a model of the world that we can use, as an airplane designer uses his computer model or a climatologist uses his, to test our version of reality.

In another way of putting it, art isn’t the opposite of reality, but in fact, art creates reality.

It is one of the often overlooked verities that without art to picture what the world looks and feels like, we would not be able to see or feel the world at all.

The worlds of sensation and emotion are so infinitely complex, such a swirling mass of input, that we are forced to filter the information and organize it to make sense of it. Art is the means by which we do this.


Egyptian figuresIt is the cumulative power of all our arts that defines our culture and its view of reality. The arts create civilization and not the other way around.

The style differences between cultures are not questions of fashion and taste but of how those cultures decide to see the world.

An ancient Egyptian wall painting, with its stylized poses and almond eyes, probably looked as real to the ancient Egyptians as a Renaissance painting looks to us.

Because we are not part of that culture, we can spot the artifice on the pharaoh’s tomb, but are harder pressed to see the distortion and artificiality of Renaissance perspective. But it is just as schematic, just as false as the Egyptian. Always, the image that falls on your retina is different from the image that forms in your mind. Art is how we learn to transform the one into the other.Waiting-for-Godot

From this view, art is the discovery or creation of meaning and order from the chaos of perception and experience.

And that is why some people prefer Waiting for Godot over The Odd Couple. Godot feels more true.

With the apple sliced this way, the argument is Vladimir and Estragon vs. Felix and Oscar.


Ah, but if we slice the apple from front to back, we have a completely different argument on our hands.

This one asks, ”Is art a noun or a verb?”

If art is a noun, then it is an artifact. Seen this way, the art is the painting on the wall, the poem on the page. Art is what the artist creates, what is left when the artist walks away.

But if art is instead a verb, it is seen as the process that creates the painting. In this view, the finished canvas is only a byproduct of the art.

In this view, what counts is what the artist learns in the process of making the art. A residue of what he learns is evident in the resultant poem, painting or symphony, and an attentive audience, as they experience the art, must in essence re-create the journey the artist took.

This view requires rather more effort on the part of the audience. When the process becomes the point, the viewer cannot remain a couch potato.

It is what we mean when we say a certain play or piece of music is ”difficult.” It is art as hard work.

Art as noun leads to a scholar’s view of art, or a connoisseur’s. All one needs to possess it is a large enough bank account.

But with art as a verb, you cannot have it unless you earn it through your own emotional and intellectual barn paint by number


So let us reassemble the apple and see if all art can be encompassed in its sphere. Here is a provisional definition of art:

Art is something made by human hand or mind, or the making of something by hand or mind, that graces our lives or the things of our lives with beauty; or the same thing that explores experience and attempts to discover or create meaning. That meaning can be personal or communal, spiritual or perceptual, emotional or intellectual.

I have no doubt that there is a worm in this apple, and I encourage readers to search for it. If this definition is where I light for the moment, I am not unaware that the problem of coming to terms with art has remained difficult through the eons. But maybe this short explication sets the mark as high as I can stretch for the time.

It is as Sappho once wrote: ”Like an apple ripening on an upper branch, passed over by apple pickers — no, not passed over, but too high to reach.”

Memo:031a venus di milos


— Art can teach us to see

— Art can grace the ugliness

— Art can be used to express the mythology we believe in

— Art can be the note pad of the unconscious

— Art can be propaganda

— Art can be merchandise

— Art can be a value judgment

— Art can investigate the nature of reality

— Art can unify the senses and the intellect

— Art can be a means of causing meditation or contemplation

— Art can give names to things that have no names

— Art can illustrate a text, adding emotional resonance or clarity

— Art can give us roots

— Art can give us a past

— Art can be used to enforce a political agenda

— Art can be a means of recapturing what we think we have lost

— Art can establish class distinctions

— Art can be the satisfaction of form

— Art can be misunderstood and still be effective

— Art can be subversive, but not on a political level

— Art can be evidence of maturing taste

— Art may raise your IQ

— Art can be wealth

— Art can be instruction

— Art can be substitute language (including international symbols)

— Art can be fashion

— Art can be design

— Art can be secret communication

— Art can be an exploration of the non-verbal

— Art can be anything beyond the primary body needs

— Art can make a fetish from simple body needs: a certain way of eating

— Art can encompass everything mental, as opposed to physical

— Art can be packaging

— Art can be comic, lyric, epic or dramatic

— Art can lie to us profoundly

— Art can yank our chains

— Art can provide models for behavior

— Art can clarify something insufficiently clear in words

— Art can be the codification of values

— Art can unseat old values

— Art can be creation of order in a chaotic universe

— Art can be creation of chaos in an orderly society

— Art can unify a culture

— Art can separate elements of the culture

— Art can be as rigorous as physics

— Art can be as sloppy as mud wrestling

— Art can heal a wounded psyche

— Art can open wounds

— Art can be the object hanging on the wall

— Art can be the process that makes the object

— Art can be the means of defining the ego

— Art can be the means of defining the culture

— Art can be the communal experience of audience

— Art can be singular experience

— Art can provide an entree into the past

— Art can provide the key to understanding an alien culture

— Art can amuse us

— Art can bore us

— Art can be craftsmanship

— Art can make magicrousseau


Stuart came back through town again. This time, with his theory of “Three and One.”

My old friend has a job now, working in an office. He’s been there for almost a year now.

“I’m in a pod,” he explains. “The whole office is organized into pods of four desks, like lily pads in a pond spread out across the tenth floor.”

His three podmates are all women, he tells me. “One is married and has two kids, but the others are always talking about their dates. I ask them questions. We spend more time chatting than we do working. I’m told this is normal for the American business world.”

As I think back over Stuart’s worklife, I realize this may be the first time he’s ever had a regular job in an office. He’s been a teacher and a writer, and he’s had lots of odd jobs working on road crews or clerking in stores. Now, he’s in one of one of the taller buildings in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, looking out on the Kanawha River and the gold dome of the state capitol. I’m a little fuzzy about what he does there, but with Stuart, that’s not unusual. It may be advertising, it may be insurance. If I can get him to slow down, sometime, I’ll try to ask him.

“I listen to them talking about their love lives. That’s mostly what occupies them. And I ask them questions. To them, I’m just an old geezer. They don’t see me as a fount of experience and wisdom, for some reason. But I listen to them talk. And I’ve come to this conclusion, that for a relationship to develop, there must be three things that register. That is, out of 20 or so characteristics you might use to describe a guy on early acquaintance — or a woman, if you are looking for that — it works both ways — I’m sure it must be something of the same for gay men or lesbians — anyway, there must be a quotient of three to make a relationship click.

“I’m not talking about sex here, but about a relationship, a second or third date or more. A guy looks to a potential date and adds them up: She speaks well, she has a sense of humor … And … the third thing: She has a frontispiece that would make St. Anthony sing falsetto.”

Yes, Stuart means her chest.

“Or perhaps she has long legs, blue eyes, and can do double-entry bookkeeping. Or maybe it’s a she and she sees in him strong shoulders, the ability to listen and a sense of humor. Anyway, out of all the possible traits, there must be at least three that draw her in. More than that is better, but two isn’t enough. Two means only she looks at him across the bar and thinks, ‘Interesting,’ but not enough to go over there. Three, though, and we’re in.

Stuart always has some new theory when we talk.

“It’s funny,” he said, “but it would seem like you’d need more than three things to sustain a bond, but maybe that comes later, when you know each other better. But going in, I’ve discovered, there must be a list and three items need checks beside them. More than three and maybe the lights start flashing, but three is the threshold.grey eyes

“I remember going out with Irma. God, she was gorgeous. The name was a little recherche, but she was funny — check number one — and she had grey eyes. Ever see grey eyes? Really grey, almost charcoal. Her irises were colorless and that provided a contrast to the warm skin of her eyelids and cheeks, almost like in the movies when the director has drained the color out of his filmstock, but left one item glowing with red or blue. The contrast raises a kind of ambiguity that I have always found sexy.”

“And the third thing?”mahabharata

“Yes, and she had read the Mahabharata. The whole thing. And she could talk about the Hindu mythology without ever sounding like one of those guys at the airports asking for money in their shaved heads and yellow sheets. She didn’t use it as a religious text, but as literature. We talked for hours about Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Taking sides. It was great. Three check marks. Oh, there were more, but I’m a gentleman.”

“What did she see in you?”

“Unfair question. Ruled out of bounds.”

“OK,” I tell him, “That’s the Three part of the theory, but what’s the One?”

“That’s the converse. Although it takes three things to make the magnet stick to the metal, it only takes one to break the connection permanently. And if that one thing is present, it doesn’t matter about the Three or however many more items you might ink into the credit column. One debit entry puts the kibosh on the deal.”

Double-entry bookkeeping? Credit and debit? I’m wondering what kind of job has Stuart gotten himself into? Are these clues?princess bride

“I mean,” he continued, “suppose you’re on a date with a guy who adds up just fine. Shined shoes, steady job, strong hands. You think you’ve got the requisite three things, but then, while you’re together on the couch in his living room and he’s willing to watch your favorite movie without complaining, even seeming to enjoy it. And then… And then, he picks his nose. The buzzer goes off; contestant number one has just disqualified himself.

“This actually happened. It’s one of the things Julie told us about. She admitted that surreptitious nose-picking is only human, but that on an early round of dates he digs in with an index finger, or worse, a pinky, that is the kiss of death, as far as she is concerned.

“Anne had another one — she’s the other single woman on the pod. She went out with a guy and they were at a restaurant and he got soup on his mustache, a bisque she said it was, and it hung there like wallpaper paste on a brush.

“You know how when someone has spinach on his teeth and you point to your own teeth to sort of indicate to the other one that there is something and the other person will naturally suck his teeth or use a finger to rub the spinach off? Well if she doesn’t have a mustache, how can she politely tell him that he’s wearing a badge of schmutz?

“That killed it for her, she said.

“What’s interesting is that Penny laughed and said that her husband had a habit while watching TV of leaning just a few degrees off plumb and letting loose the gas pressure, and while once she might have ruled him out over it, she now just ignored it.

“‘But you’re married,’ Anne said. ‘That’s different.’ And I take her point. When you’re married, you put up with a lot, because by then, you’ve already put in your commitment papers, you’ve decided there are enough on the Three side — and hopefully a good deal more than just three things — and you’ve besides agreed for better or for worse, and after all, a little atmospheric disturbance while watching the telly isn’t such a great sin.

“The thing is, that it is that first circling around each other when it counts. If Penny’s husband had leaned and dealt while they were dating, she might well have called it all off right then. But he had the decency to keep it bottled up till after the wedding. No doubt, Penny had her own secrets kept until the vows were stated.

“I knew a woman once who had lived with a man for several months, but when he finally popped the question, she realized she could never marry him because his legs were too skinny. It was the One thing.

“Another woman, divorced for several years, found a guy with a tool belt. He was tall, handsome and considerate and could fix anything around the house. He could change the oil in his car. Hell, he could rewire the rec room if he’d wanted. He actually did hook up her surround sound. And he adored her, loved her to distraction, and he was a great listener, truly interested in her. But then…”

“Yes, what?”

“But then, he turned out to be a Christian. There she was, torn. He was the perfect mate except for the fact that he said evolution was just a theory, homosexuals caused Hurricane Katrina, abortionists should be bombed and infidels were going to suffer eternity in Hell. Now, there are lots of kinds of Christians and not all of them are bad, but he was the kind who believed that Methodists were really just communists and that even Baptists were too liberal. Turned the poor girl off any Christians of any stripe forever.”

“That seems like more than just one thing,” I said. “It seems like a whole slew of attitudes that could well give one pause.”

“Well, she saw it as one thing. She summed it up with a kind of sneer: ‘He turned out to be (shudder) Christian.’ And it meant the end.

“These are not things universal,” Stuart said. “They are all idiosyncratic. In other words, someone else might find snorting when you laugh to be cute, or a wandering eye attractive, or even bigotry to be a harmless little tic. Surely many bigots find bigettes to marry. I went to a Ku Klux Klan meeting once, did I ever tell you? Plenty of bigettes there. They even had a bake sale. I wonder what were the three check marks they had found. Being Christian was probably one of them — as long as they weren’t Catholic.”offisa pup

“What about you?” I asked. “Who are you seeing now? What are her three positive checks?”

“I’m unattached at the moment,” he said. “I was going out with a little filly who was doing graduate work in anthropology. She had a lot of check marks, but the first three were her long, frizzy hair, her long fingers and a tendency to quote George Herriman. She called me Offisa Pup; I called her Krazy. We were together for all of last winter. Stayed warm together.”

“What happened?”

“She said I talked too much.”

Palmezzano from PAM

The Italian Renaissance is littered with unfamiliar names. Sure, there are the Leonardos, the Raphaels and the Michelangelos, but there are dozens of others from the Trecento through the early 16th century that we need an encyclopedia to look up.Forli map

Just take the small town of Forli in northern central Italy along the Montone River. It produced such painters as Livio Agresti, Ansuino da Forli, Guido Cagnacci, the two Baldassarre Carraris, father and son, Francesco Menzocchi and foremost among them, Melozzo da Forli and his student, Marco Palmezzano. All of them competent if conservative artists without which museums (and churches) around the world would be the poorer.

It is Palmezzano that drew my interest.

In an age of giants, Marco di Antonio Palmezzano (1458-1539) was merely human. He was a good but lesser painter in a Renaissance backwater. So little was his life noted that even his dates are approximate.

Born in the middle of the Quattrocento, 25 years before Raphael, he died in his 80s, about 20 years after his great countryman’s death. It was a life that spanned the most exciting years of the Renaissance.

He was born and died in Forli, a small town at the back of Italy’s knee, remaining there for his entire professional career. During his long life, he provided the necessary religious paintings for the churches and monasteries of the region.

His teacher was the better-known Melozzo di Forli (1438-1494), who had studied with Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), one of the great masters of the early Renaissance. Palmezzano’s youth was spent apprenticed to Melozzo, and his first signed paintings indicate his debt to his mentor: He called himself Marcus de Melotius, or ”Melozzo’s Marco.”

We know he visited Rome with Melozzo in 1489 and, after Melozzo’s death, he visited Venice, where the most advanced painters were to be found.

But the latest techniques and styles didn’t seem to interest Palmezzano, or maybe they didn’t interest his clients. At any rate, he remained an artistic conservative and his paintings look back rather than forward.

The exact date of Palmezzano’s death is disputed, but a self-portrait as an old man is dated 1536.

More than 90 of his works are still in existence, mostly in Forli, but his frescoes for the Feo Chapel in Forli were destroyed in World War II.

There is a Holy Family by Palmezzano at the Phoenix Art Museum, and it is a painting that I kept coming back to over the 25 years I lived and worked in that city.

A Right-Hand Man

One day, I noticed that Marco Palmezzano was right-handed.

It wouldn’t be any big deal, but Palmezzano has been dead for 400 years. And because I discovered it myself, this minor bit of information seems much more personal than the few cold facts in the painter’s biography. It brings him to life for me: Even the grave couldn’t hide this datum. It’s there in the painting.

Discovering things for yourself is what art is all about. Doing research is fine, but it is your personal interaction with a painting that is the real point.

The painting I’m talking about is the Holy Family with Infant St. John, which can be seen at the Phoenix Art Museum. It is a fairly standard oil-on-panel Madonna-with-her-entourage painted by a fairly standard middleweight Italian painter of the middle Renaissance.palmezzano madonna combo

These are a few of Palmezzano’s Holy Family paintings

Palmezzano himself painted dozens of similar works, fulfilling commissions for various churches and monasteries. You have to think of the painter as a small business owner, providing needed objects for the prevailing institutions of the day. Whatever was called for, he was contracted to provide — and his studio would have been not a simple artist’s studio, but a small factory with a variety of employees or apprentices helping out.palmezzano genre examples

Palmezzano produced most of the usual religious genre paintings, including this Virgin Enthroned, Annunciation and Crucifixion.

There are many things you could notice about this painting, or any painting you are willing to put the time and effort into.

”Noticing” is the operative word. Many museumgoers zip past the pictures on the wall, stopping a few seconds in front of one or another that catches a rushed eye. But artists who spend weeks or months on a painting have put more into their work than you can squeeze out in a moment.

It is a case of slowing down to see the roses.

So I want to take some time to dissect Palmezzano’s right-handiwork, and to walk you through the process of looking at a painting.

I’ll get back to Palmezzano’s right hand later.

Sensuous pleasure

First, why have I chosen this painting?

Primarily because I liked that intense, mineral green that makes up so much of Palmezzano’s Holy Family. It is a hue and an intensity that cannot be seen in reproduction. You can swim in this green.

There is nothing intellectual or difficult about the mindless sensuous pleasure that this green gives me, but it got me to slow down and decide to spend some hours with the painting.phx infantphx joseph

On second glance, the painting didn’t seem too promising. It is a very ordinary Madonna and child, with a rather awkwardly drawn child, with short, skinny arms and a set of hips that might have done Mae West proud.

But there was something that caught my eye and held it. After a few moments I realized what it was. The painting was staring back at me.

If you look around the museum gallery at the other paintings hanging there, the people in them look at each other or off into space. But in Palmezzano’s Holy Family, Joseph is looking at . . . me.

Noticing details

There are dozens of things to notice in this painting, from its complex structure of diagonals to the fact that the painter seems to have used no blue. Then, there is the peculiar Hebrew inscription at the bottom, the gold-leaf halos and an oddly gray landscape in the background. All these things are worth noticing, and all contribute to the final effect of the painting, but it is Joseph that gives this painting its particular emotional resonance.

In that gaze is the secret of the painting: There are two levels of reality being described here. Mary, Jesus and John are divine or semi-divine. Joseph, like you or me, is merely human. Mary or Jesus could not pay attention to us, it would break the spell, make them too human, too fallible. But Joseph can make the connection.

That distinction is enforced by the style in which Palmezzano paints them. Mary is idealized, a perfectly formed human with a look of unmoved serenity in her face. Jesus and John make stylized hand gestures that infants their age couldn’t understand, let alone perform.

The Madonna and children are iconic rather than real. We are meant to ”behold” them as symbols of religious faith.

But Joseph, all alone in the back of the painting, is not idealized, rather he is a portrait of someone real. We don’t know who, possibly the person who paid for the painting to be made. He is old (a convention for Josephs), and his hands rest arthritically on a walking stick.

Mary and the babies are involved with each other; Joseph looks at us. He is one of us.

Humanity speaking

Whatever the painting meant when it was new, it is Joseph’s humanity that speaks most clearly to us today.portrait of a man palmezzano

Portraiture was not an important art form during Palmezzano’s day; no one in Italy could make a living doing only portraits. That is too bad, because it is Palmezzano’s one notable talent. (Here is his Portrait of a Young Man). His Joseph is more real than most of the idealized figures we run into from the Renaissance, an age when what should be was more valued than what was.

What was required of Pamezzano were religious paintings. A Raphael or Michelangelo could bring life to their faith. Palmezzano could only imitate the patterns. His sense of color was average, his ability to create design was average, but his ability to draw a human face was above average. It is too bad that it was a talent that wasn’t particularly valued during his life.

In another time, in another place, Palmezzano might have been a more important artist.

Artistic conservative

Which brings us back to Marco’s right hand.

We know that Palmezzano was something of a conservative, artistically. His figures are a bit stiff, like those in Quattrocento paintings, despite the sinuous contrapposto he has given the Christ.

And although he is painting in oil, he continues to use techniques better suited to the earlier tempera painting.

In egg tempera, the paint dries almost immediately, so it is difficult to blend paint together on the panel. What an artist must do is lay down tiny brush strokes one next to the other, building up shades and tones. When you look closely, you can see those tiny lines, called ”hatching.”scribbles

Oil’s great advantage over tempera is that paints can be blended right on the panel or canvas and smooth gradations of tone are possible.

Palmezzano still uses hatching in this painting. It can be seen as the tiny lines in the shadows of the figures’ faces. Across the entire canvas, the hatching goes from upper right to lower left.

Take a pencil and scribble on a pad. If you are right-handed, the lines will run from upper right to lower left. If you are left handed, they will run the opposite. Try to draw them opposite and you will see how awkward it feels.

The hatching proves

Palmezzano was right-handed.


Perhaps the oddest thing about Marco Palmezzano’s Holy Family is that there is no blue in it. Because blue is one of the primary colors, its lack is unusual, though not unprecedented.

There are a few reasons we might expect to find blue. First, there is a sky, an ocean or lake and the receding mountains of the painting’s landscape, which we might expect to go bluish in the distance. But in this painting, they are iron gray.

Then there is the Virgin, who is garbed traditionally in a blue robe or hood. Blue was the color of the heavens, of which Mary was queen. Blue is so traditionally Mary’s color that probably 80 percent of the early Renaissance images of her conform to the blue scheme. In this painting, Mary’s robe is emerald green.

Blue was a special color in the Renaissance. Artists had no tubes of Grumbacher to squeeze back then. Their colors were prepared meticulously from the chemical or mineral pigment stock.

Color from stone

The best, most permanent blue was made by grinding rare and expensive lapis lazuli on a stone. When it was pulverized sufficiently — a long and arduous process — it was processed in chemicals. It was called ultramarine, and it was the most expensive color after gold and silver leaf.

During the Italian Renaissance, painters did not create canvases and then sell them to people who wanted them. Rather, a client or patron commissioned an artist to make a Madonna and child, or a Crucifixion or a Nativity, of such and such a dimension, with a certain number of figures (some artists were paid according to how many figures were in the painting) and with a certain quality of pigment and skill.

Ultramarine cherished

Of the hundreds of surviving contracts between painter and client from Italy during those years, about half mention ultramarine specifically, and what quality of ultramarine the artist is required to use. No other pigment is named regularly. Reds, greens, yellows can take care of themselves, but ultramarine would add significantly to the final cost of the painting, and so the client wished to protect himself contractually against inferior substitutes. It was a case of caveat emptor.Porta_schiavonia Forli

Well, Palmezzano, in a small town not so rich as neighboring Florence, Bologna or Venice, well may have been given a commission for an inexpensive Holy Family, with minimum gold leaf and no requirement for ultramarine.

This is pure speculation and should not be taken as gospel. But it well may be that Palmezzano, to keep the painting’s cost low, avoided blue altogether, or he may have used a cheap, impermanent blue that 400 years later has decomposed into the hueless gray of the sky and water.

Other things to notice

In writing this story, I spent about four hours with Palmezzano’s Holy Family, spread over several visits to the museum. It was time I enjoyed immensely.

While contemplating the painting, I began to notice things. These bits of information or insight came quite randomly and I noted them on a legal pad as they occurred. Some were thoughts on the iconography or the symbolic meaning of the images, some concerned the design or visual construction of the panel, and some were mistakes that Palmezzano made.

Here are a few of them:

— Joseph is leaning on a walking stick that in an apocryphal story once sprouted flowers and designated him worthy to marry the Queen of Heaven. The story was traditional in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nowadays, it is obscure to all but Catholic scholars and art-history students.

— All four characters in the painting look surprisingly like Renaissance Italians. They are wearing contemporary clothes and jewelry. Mary and the Christ child are blond. Joseph wears a familiar Italian hat.

The landscape behind them is certainly not Levantine, but more like that part of central Italy where Palmezzano lived.

Either Palmezzano had no sense of historical accuracy, or accuracy was not the point. I suspect the latter; the story is supposed to be eternally true.

Strange signature

— Then there is that strange Hebrew calligraphy at the bottom of the panel. If you parse them out, reading from right to left, they spell MRRQW PLMZZANN FWRLWVISI, roughly, given the lack of precise Hebrew equivalents to European languages. That is, ”Marco Palmezzano Forlovisi,” or Marco Palmezzano of Forli. Forli was his hometown.

Why he signed his name in a Hebrew transliteration of Italian is not known. Maybe he just liked the biblical look of it.

— The peculiar curtain rod that holds up the backdrop is not attached to anything; nothing holds it up. There is a chance that the painting used to be bigger than it is and that the rod had some visible means of support. But the edges of the panel, hidden behind the frame, are even and don’t suggest the panel ever was trimmed. (Sometimes paintings were trimmed by their owners to fit smaller frames or, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, to cut away a damaged portion.)

— But that rod does something else. It is artificially parallel to the picture plane, as is the balustrade at the bottom on which the Christ child stands. And midway up on the picture, so is the castle in the background. Those three horizontal lines divide the rectangle of the panel into smaller rectangles.Palmezzano zee

— As a counterpoint to that is the diagonal of heads and shoulders that cut the painting from upper right to lower left. Seen against the three horizontals they make a great big ”Z” out of the painting, with a line through its center, as is customary in Europe.palmezzano diagonals

— But there are other diagonals, too. The Christ child stands in front of Mary, who stands in front of Joseph. As we move from left to right, we recede at an angle into the painting. This is also a counterpoint to the strict parallel of the three horizontal lines.

— Even more radical is the depth we are asked to absorb from the figures in the front to the landscape in the back. This diagonal moves right to left into the distance, making the opposite diagonal.

— That same crossing diagonal is mirrored in the crossed arms of John. Design-wise, a great deal is going on in the painting.

Hands hold interest

— You also might notice that although the figures are overlapped, all eight hands are visible and all are expressive.

Joseph’s hands seem cramped and arthritic. Mary’s hands support her son. John’s hands are crossed in reverence, and Jesus raises one hand symbolically while touching his thorax with the other, as if to point to his mortality.

— It is Joseph’s eyes that first make us take notice of him, but his ear can’t be ignored. It is a peculiar ear, oddly orange. It is bent over by his cap and forms a shape that imitates his mouth.

That orange tint and odd shape are repeated in Christ’s ear, contradicting the idea that Joseph had nothing to do with the birth. This is family resemblance.

That may not be too odd, if we remember that Joseph, Jesus and Mary were understood then not only as themselves, but also as allegorical of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Joseph can be understood as a stand-in for God the Father.

— Yet, there are mistakes in the painting, several if you can find them.

Mary’s hands are out of proportion, much too big for her body and head.phx hand feet

And her left hand can be no thicker than paper for it to slide under Christ’s left foot on the balustrade. Palmezzano has poorly drawn that space, making something of an unconformity there.

— Other mistakes are more technical. The most glaring is the triangle of orange behind the Christ’s ear: The artist has painted Mary’s mantle first ocherish yellow, as an underpainting, and then green on top. This underpainting helps make the green seem all the more glowing; it is a standard artist’s device. But he misdrew the mantle with the ocher and forgot to cover it up with green in this small area.

Unusual coloring

— You can see more of this orange, on purpose, in the brocade borders of Mary’s mantle, as Palmezzano scratched into the green to expose the orange underneath, making a golden pattern.

— In another place, the back of Mary’s neck is artificially circular, from her ear to her shoulder. The shape is geometric rather than organic.

The perspective of his castle isn’t too well thought out, either.

— And if you crouch down in front of the painting to see the glare of the museum’s lights on the glazed surface of the painting, you will see the painting is pieced together from large, outlined sections, something like puzzle pieces, or, more accurately, like the giornata, or daily working sections that a fresco painter creates in wet plaster.

We know Palmezzano worked in fresco. Did he bring his fresco habits to oil paint?

There are many more things to notice, but I will leave them to you, hoping you will spend your own time with this painting or another — they all are worth close examination and contemplation.

stella flowers italy 1931 copy

I spent 26 years of my life in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to know the collection at the Phoenix Art Museum intimately. There were paintings I loved and a very few that I disliked intensely. Most, of course, fell in the middle somewhere.

One painting I felt strong aversion to was Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy, which always seemed to me like a cheap piece of junk-surrealism. On the whole, I am not simpatico with even the best Surrealism.

There is only one thing to do when you don’t like a painting: spend a lot of time with it. So, I figured, if I stayed with the Stella for a while, I would either fully define why I did not, like it, or I would change my mind.

I finally wound up spending more than five hours with the painting, and, another hour or two afterward, reading about the artist and his work.

It was an enormous expense of time and energy, but it paid me back many times over. Now Stella’s Flowers is one of my anchors at the museum and, I cannot get enough of it.

Since the question I am asked most often and most imploringly is “How do you look at art?” it seemed like it might be helpful to describe what I found over those seven hours.


Most people like pictures of flowers. They come upon Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy at the Phoenix Art Museum, for instance, and they are likely to respond, ”I like flowers; they’re pretty; I like this painting,” and move on to the next.

But there is much more packed into any good painting, a world of meaning and experience that can only be squeezed out with time and effort.

So, mister wise-guy art critic, how do you look at a painting? It’s a question I have often heard. The answer has three large parts.

The first is looking.

And by looking, I mean spending a very long time noticing all the component parts of a painting, its colors, brush strokes, subject matter, design, size and proportions.

The second is thinking.

After you have noticed every square millimeter of the work, you are then obliged to figure out what it might mean. You dig into yourself — the well of your experience — and try to parse out what all those many bits might add up to.

And third, after you have some good idea what the painting might be communicating, there is the learning. You are interested enough that you want to find a book or person who might tell you more and help you fit this experience into the larger picture. But make sure to wait for this last: After you have experienced the painting, then you can worry about facts.

Too often, we want to start with facts, but if you place them first, they only blur your vision.

Once more, the three steps are: looking, thinking and learning.

Let’s take those same Stella flowers and try the method on them.

It is a large, square painting, about 6- by 6-feet, of dozens, maybe hundreds of flowers in a tangle that seems almost architectural, all against a deep, blue sky.

From a distance — and the way it hangs in the museum currently makes it difficult to view any other way — it seems finely painted and detailed. The paint seems smoothly brushed onto the canvas.

But try to get up close, and you will find that the surface is sloppy with thick gobs of rough paint. The flowers almost seem crude, as if drawn by a not-so-talented child.

Step back again. They regain their refinement.

This is only one of the many contradictions of the work.

Its overall impression and the first thing most people notice, after the flowers, is that the painting is rigidly symmetrical. Draw a line up and down through its middle and you find that the right and left sides mirror each other.

Yet, on closer inspection, nothing on one side exactly reproduces the other. What is a calla lily on one side is balanced by a hibiscus on the other. The painting only appears to be literally symmetrical.

There are two distinct axes to the design. Splitting the painting vertically is a line of plant stalks, pistils, racemes and petals. Each half of the painting is equal.

But cutting the bottom portion from the upper is a line of large white blooms. They sit lower than the halfway mark, settling as if gravity had pulled them cross

That giant cross is the basic organizing principle of the work, like an airplane nose down, crashing into the bottom of the frame.

Another contradiction: Most of the blossoms are fairly realistic. You can tell the hibiscus from the aster, the lotus from the lily. Yet, the plant stems are greatly distorted. Many are rigidly straight, up and down. Others are not connected to anything recognizable. The upper portion of the picture, in fact, is divided into three panels by plant stalks that curve around at the top to make what look like Roman arches.

The background is blue sky; the closest part, on the bottom of the frame, is blue water, filled with waterlilies and fish. There are a host of white and red flowers, and a smattering of yellow. But considering this is a painting of foliage, there is surprisingly little green.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned what any of this might mean. Your first obligation is to discover what is there; only then can you worry what it might mean.monkey face

And what about the ”monkey” face?

Human beings are genetically programmed to recognize faces. It is why we so often find virgins in tortillas and aliens staring back from Martian mountains.

At the bottom of this painting, filling the middle third, is an animal face, with two rosy hibiscus for eyes, two birds for ears, and what looks like a red proteus for a nose ridge, crowned with a great white waterlily flower.

arcimboldoLike one of those crazy Arcimboldo faces from the Renaissance, made from fruit or vegetables, it is a visual pun, functioning on two levels at once: face and flower.

Stella is having it both ways once again.

Notice, too, that the bottom third of the painting acts like a very close, in-your-face wall, like a hedge that blocks the distant view behind. The painting then, maps out very clearly the near and the far.

Over and over, there are contradictions: things split into two — near-far, up-down, flower-face, greenless plants, realistic distortion.

There are dozens of other things you might notice. I’ve only listed a few; a complete list could fill an entire book.

But what does it all mean? The experience is all well and good, the looking slows us down and we discover scores of little details that we could not have noticed racing through the museum.

But it is the meaning we are after.

Well, the first thing you are likely to think about is the flowers. Any painting with this many maniacal flowers is likely to be about fecundity. This is one fertile painting.

And the details certainly substantiate that. Look at the top, with the day lily hanging upside down over the long, white tendrils that draw up the center line of the painting. It sits with its pollen-laden anthers just touching the tendril, which we must read as an abstracted pistil. The very moment of fertilization.

It is the climax of the painting, so to speak.

But the rest of the painting is no less orgasmic. Look at all the large flowers. Almost every one is a yonic horn with a large, phallic nub at its center. They are hibiscus and lotus, contradictory male and female at the same time. Near the very center of the painting is a jack-in-the-pulpit, with a lurid phallus sticking straight up from its bowl-like pulpit.

You would need an computer to keep track of the phalli and yoni in this picture.

Even that monkey face, looked at again turns into the female reproductive organs, with fallopian leaf fronds and ovarian hibiscus.

So, does this mean Stella had a dirty mind? Or was his subconscious playing Freudian games?

No. There is something else going on.Hubert_Robert Roman_Ruins

If we were to search the history of art for this painting’s ancestors, the most direct would be the 18th century picturesque landscapes of Hubert Robert and his like.

They usually showed a Roman or Greek ruin taken over by vines, with animals or people living and playing around them. Nature reconquers the works of man.

Stella has given us the ruin, in the form of the vegetal arches at the top of the painting. In his ”ruins” nature reconquers the world in a fit of fertility.

In the older paintings, we know that conventional iconography implies that the ruins symbolize death; the vines, the recurrence of life.

In Stella, the ruins are only suggested, and death — the arching plants that roof the painting — is itself seething with life.

The contradictions are all the more emphatic when we learn more about Stella and his art.

stella mugHe was born in Italy in 1877 and immigrated to the United States in 1894, where he died in 1946. He first achieved notice as an artist with a series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, done before 1920.

In those, he brought the current Italian movement called Futurism to the U.S. Futurism glorified modernity, machines, speed and motion. Most of the noted Futurists were Italian; Stella was America’s only serious member.

But the contradictions in Stella’s personality kept him from continuing in this direction. Something in him mistrusted machines, even as he felt awestruck by the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge.brooklyn bridge stella

”Many nights I stood on the bridge — and in the middle alone — lost — a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness — crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers,” he wrote.

In another place, he called his home, New York City, ”Monstrous dream, chimeric reality, Oriental delight, Shakespearean nightmare . . . its enormous blocks of buildings barring one’s way . . . its dreadful closed windows barren of flowers.”

In his mind, Stella contrasted the steel, cold, northern city with the fertile, warm, sunny southern Italian town he had grown up in.

”Returning to my birthplace, I find all of nature smiling like a friend, greeting my arrival with festive salutes.”

And in another place, ”My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of Northern countries, was awakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of my youth surged through me with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art.”

Over and over in Stella’s letters, you find a man driven ecstatic by the abundance and plenitude of nature. Man’s works, so glorified in the Futurist paintings, became the fodder for ruins, which were ennobled by the fecundity of nature.stella purissima

It is a theme that shows up in many of Stella’s better paintings (and it should be noted he was a very uneven painter). They have titles such as Joy of Living, Dance of Spring, Apotheosis of the Rose and Tree of My Life.

Stella had an almost Hindu sense of the ecstasy of nature, the sense that everything is burning with aliveness.

And in the end, even his famous paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge were not about human life and technology, but, as he wrote, ”I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion, or in the presence of a new Divinity.”

He was one of those painters, like Van Gogh, who yearned to express the exploding aliveness of the world, a man with a visionary sense of cosmic energy.

Finally, his Flowers, Italy is no more about mere sex than the cave paintings of Ajanta or the athletics of Henry Miller. It is a vision of perpetual life, renewing itself and burning, a non-Christian version of Dante’s Divine Rose, or the sacred Garden of Eden.

And it is at this level that, in Stella, as in the Vedic religion, all contradictions are transcended.

NEXT: Looking at an earlier painting, using the same techniques

Orangerie, up close, 2006

You wander through one of a city’s great art museums and watch the people. They spend an average of maybe 15 seconds in front of any painting that catches their attention before moving on.

Or more likely, they spend another 15 seconds reading the label on the wall. And if the label contains a legend explaining who the artist was or what the painting is about, they may very well spend more time with the label than with the art on the wall. It’s disheartening to watch.

One of the problems is that we are a verbal, not a visual culture. I know the common wisdom is currently that we are a visual people, but it simply isn’t true: Even those things we think of as symptomatic of being visual are things we “read” for information rather than see: like the stick figure man or woman that lets us know which restroom is appropriate.

But even more than that, it is that we are a problem-solving people. America’s national mythology describes us as doers and go-getters. We simply don’t believe in wasting our time. We’re too busy. Our heads are too crowded.

There are all those yapping voices, all those different aspects of our personalities, all clamoring for attention.

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

”Don’t forget the dentist appointment.”

”Do these socks go with this tie?”

”Is the ozone hole getting bigger?”

”Mmm, doughnuts!”

So, it’s hard to appreciate art these days.

And it’s no wonder that a management class steps forward to create some order.Orangerie, the critics, 2006

Each of us has it: The executive in our heads that tries to get through life quickly and efficiently, cutting through the baloney and making the decisions for everyone else in there.

It’s a necessity in an information top-heavy age with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways.

Unfortunately, this tendency to empty the ”in box” and get on to the next problem runs completely counter to what art is about. To see art, or read poetry, or listen to chamber music, we have to kidnap, blindfold and gag the executive in our brains and give ourselves over to a different kind of experience.

And ”experience” is the operative word, for the primary function of art is to provide an aesthetic experience.

That executive in our cranium is used to dealing with information, not experience. There is life on one hand, and there are words and symbols about life on the other. Most of what life requires of us in the late 20th century deals with words and symbols: filling out forms, scanning in our Visa numbers, looking down the stock listings in the Business section of the newspaper. We are drowned in words.

But at least we are used to them. Experience is scary: sensuous, messy, confused.

So how do you deal with art? How do you prepare yourself to appreciate it, enjoy it, and grow from the experience of being exposed to it?

First of all, you have to slow down. Your interior life moves slowly, implacably. It is only your cerebral cortex that buzzes with frenetic energy. The deeper, more meaningful emotions, the underlying rhythm of life is more measured: a pedal note under the jangling fugue subject above.

Art requires that you work on this slower time scale. It doesn’t give itself up, like the punch line on a New Yorker cartoon; it slowly releases its value to those who can wait.

You have to spend time with a painting or statue. The Manager wants to look at a painting and say, ”Yes, I know that: It’s a Renoir. File it under ’19th Century, Impressionism, French.’ ” And then move on to the next: ”17th Century, Dutch, Genre: Rembrandt.”

It is as if knowing the name of the painting is the same thing as knowing the painting.Orangerie gawkers, 2006

But if you look at a single painting for, say, an hour, you will learn things about it. You will be forced to discover all the richness that the artist took the time to put there.

What colors has the artist used? What shapes? Is it dark or is it light? What is the subject? Can you make sense of it? If not, is the ambiguity important? Is the paint thickly applied, or flat and textureless? How does that help the painting convey what it has to give you?

You swish it around in your mouth like a good wine, looking for the complexities of taste and aftertaste.

How does the painting make you feel? Is it an emotion you’ve felt before? If not, is it related to one you’ve felt? If it’s completely new, how do you feel about that?

The art slowly unfurls, like a rose opening from a bud. The attention you pay will pay you back.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at just one painting and see how this approach might pay off.


The Star Spangled Banner didn’t begin with bombs bursting in air, it began with veins bursting in noses.

No, I don’t mean the stirring martial lyrics written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, but the melody he borrowed.smith and key

The tune Key set his words to was an old English drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven, written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith. It was the official song of the Anacreontic Society of London and was sung at the beginning of club meetings by all club members.anacreon gerome

Anacreon was a Greek poet of wine, women and song who died in 478 B.C. at the age of 86, from choking on a grape seed.

The club celebrated the grape, also.anacreontic society

Although, rather than wine, women and song, the Anacreontic Society seems more like booze, floozies and caterwauling. Imagine everyone at your local tavern or strip club getting up and singing a theme song before opening for business.

The society met every other week at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, London, for a concert, dinner and a night of carousing. Each concert was formally opened by this song, performed by the president and joined by the company on refrain lines.

The curious Duchess of Devonshire, barred from the society by its all-male membership rules (barmaids were allowed, since they weren’t members), sometimes hid in a secret room under the stage in the tavern to hear the goings-on, enjoying the bawdy songs that were sung. Unfortunately, the duchess was a dampening influence on the society. Because the men were mortified that a woman of rank would hear them being so obscene, they disbanded in 1786 rather than continue, never knowing when the duchess would be in obscure attendance.fortmchenry_attack

Twenty-eight years later, Key penned the more familiar words during the siege of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. The song was formally adopted as our national anthem by Congress in 1931.

For those who are curious about such things, these are the original words, or the first and last stanza, anyway, written by society president Ralph Tomlinson to Smith’s tune. Try singing it at the next baseball game.

To Anacreon in Heaven

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition

That he their inspirer and patron would be;

When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian —

(Refrain) “Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute,

I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;

And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.”

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand:

Preserve unanimity, friendship and love;

’Tis yours to support what’s so happily planned:

You’ve the sanction of gods and the fiat of Jove,

(Refrain) While thus we agree, our toast let it be

May our club flourish happy, united and free!

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.