Reading Note: Philip Glass

I recently read Words Without Music, a memoir by Philip Glass. Although I really know nothing about music—how people compose it, how they manage to play it, very mysterious—Glass’s thoughts about his development is a great read. It is not a conventional autobiography, but connected reminiscences about  how he proceeded in life.

Glass

Glass is no universal example for how to build a career in the arts, but then nobody is. Nowadays you can’t proceed in the ways that Glass did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But, his attitude about how to become a professional can be very useful.

It helped that Glass’s father owned a record store and listened to classical music in the evenings at home. It was important that a 15 year old kid could get into the University of Chicago through an entrance exam without having to finish high school. It was a time when a young man going to Julliard, living in Paris, or making his way in the New York art/performance world could make a kind of living on part-time work, leaving time and energy for writing and performing music.

There are two main things that I learned about Glass through this book: he is a student and he is musically omnivorous.

In the 60s he traveled overland from Paris to India. His “significant purchase” before leaving Europe: a transistor radio—so he could listen to the music of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as he traveled though those countries—a tool for the omnivorous student. At the end of his  journey he was in Kalimpong, once the Indian gateway to Tibet. There he met Tomo Geshe Rimpoche, a Tibetan monk, who at one point asked him, “What would you like to do?” Glass replied, ” I’d like to learn from you what you are willing to teach me.” Glass’s willingness to be open to being the student,  throughout his life, is strangely impressive to me, because I have always been resistant to learning from a teacher (beyond the conventional classroom experience).

He studied composition with the famously demanding Nadia Boulanger in Paris for two years (when he was 27-29 years old). He needed to understand how to write music for strings, so he took violin lessons. He studied Indian music with Ravi Shankar. He studied tabla with Alla Rakha. He studied yoga. He studied qigong. Richard Serra offered him drawing lessons, but he never got around to that.

One other thing about Glass is his perseverance, but that seems, for him, innate. His first concert was in 1968, when he was 31. There were six people in the audience—and one of those was his mother. Eight years later Einstein on the Beach was sold out at the Metropolitan Opera. He would still be driving a cab for two more years, until, at 41, he could make a living through his music.

There’s a lot in this book, but I was left wishing there was more.

I  recommend that you watch this documentary before you read the book. It might help you hear Glass’s voice in the writing:

Glass – A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts

A little reminiscence: Must have been 1972. I was in the White Gallery at Portland State University one evening, helping to install a show. Mel Katz stopped by. He had just heard some music performance at PSU, said it was really good, we should have been there. Really loud. Philip Glass. That was Glass’s first tour in the US. I missed that one.

 

 

Judy Cooke – Added thoughts

Recently I was at the Museum of Modern Art and saw couple paintings that reminded me of things I noted about Judy Cooke’s terrific painting show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (http://www.orartswatch.org/judy-cooke-and-the-quiet-challenge/).

First, I came upon this Picasso, Repose, 1908:Picasso a

The strong lines reminded me of the motif in Cooke’s Circuit:

Cooke_Circuit_AngleView_JC337_e

Picasso’s lines derive from the “felt” structure and dynamism of the figure that he is working from, while Cooke’s lines seem to be improvised  in response to the shape of the  blank canvas. When I invert the Picasso image, the similarity is even more striking:

Picasso Cooke

Not to make too much of this, but it is about organization and structure.

Then I saw this Mondrian, Composition No.II, with Red and Blue, 1929.

Mondrian overall

I mentioned Mondrian in my review, as he certainly was involved in structure, but his lines are clearly hand painted. The thing about Mondrian in this painting is how he decided to carry the image around the side, just as Cooke does in several of her paintings (like Circuit  above).

Mondrian Crop Right Mondrian Crop left

On the right side the line goes around the edge, on the left it stops short. An important “painter’s decision.”

And Cooke makes these decisions, too.

 

Reading note: Roosevelt, Taft—Then like Now

I recently finished The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This is a great read. As I was reading I marked a few things that seem very relevant to today’s issues. These are quotes from the book; my comments within the text are in brackets. Other comments by me in italics.

As S. S. McClure [extremely important magazine publisher that I knew nothing about before] well understood, the “vitality of democracy” depends on “popular knowledge of complex questions.” Two interesting things here: that the populace must be knowledgeable, and that the questions are complex—so simple sloganeering won’t do.

Theodore Roosevelt was by birth a New York patrician Republican, but as is well known went roughing it in the West with cowboys, etc.—the working class. He said that his fellow politicians were out of touch, not understanding the issues. He realized that real connection was necessary: “When you have worked with them, when you have lived with them, you do not have to wonder how they feel, because you feel it yourself.” It seems many politicians remain out of touch today.

“I passed my days in a state of exasperation,” Roosevelt told his son Kermit, “first, with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done, and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.” That was 112 years ago.

The cost to both his party and the country would be immense, [Roosevelt] believed if “the people at large” perceived “that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of wealth, the plutocracy.” It would result in a “a dreadful calamity,” Roosevelt told a conservative friend, to see the nation “divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people, the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people generally; each party insisting upon demanding much that was wrong, and each party sullen  and angered by real and fancied grievances.” 1905—and the perception 110 years later might be that the “dreadful calamity” has come.

[For the 1908 election] Taft pledged to make public all campaign contributions as soon as the election was over. Realizing such transparency might paralyze large donors, Taft told the president [Roosevelt ] that he was “willing to undergo the disadvantage in order to make certain that in the future we shall reduce the power of money in politics.” How’s that working out?

Though “every special interest is entitled to justice,” [Roosevelt] declared, “not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office.”

 Of course there has been a lot of improvement over the last century, but some basic concerns of the early 20th century remain basic concerns for us today.

Art, Marriage Equality, Confederate Flag

For a long time I’ve believed that art relates to everything. No area of thought is irrelevant to thinking about art.

Recent events have brought me to thinking about how thinking about art could be a useful model for considering how things change, and how that change can be uncomfortable for those not accustomed to dealing with change.

I began my involvement in art at a particularly interesting time—the late 60s and early 70s. Being an admirer of folks who could really draw, such as Ingres and Degas, I somehow muddled my way through the changes in “art” from the Impressionists, through the Abstract Expressionists and to the strange stuff in Artforum like the fabric polygons of Richard Tuttle, neon pieces by Keith Sonnier and conceptual works by Mel Bochner. How I managed to so quickly accept these changes I don’t know, but change was in the air back then.

In his essay for the exhibition catalog Stella Since 1970, Philip Leider refers to Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in discussing the progress of painting that leads to Frank Stella’s work: “Kuhn distinguishes four stages in this process: normal science, anomaly, crisis and paradigm conflict.” I understand that philosophers of science might disagree with Kuhn, but Leider makes good use of the theory in his essay.

Leider quotes Kuhn:

The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy, and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.

 Leider himself continues: “With Pollock and his generation abstract painting became no longer an anomaly, but a competing paradigm.” Further along he says, “Those artists who have been persuaded of the difference between Pollock’s paintings and simple badness are at the same time persuaded that painting itself is something different from that which they once thought it was.” He concludes the section of the essay by saying, “In choosing abstract art we choose to acknowledge what it is to live in the twentieth century, as those who chose Masaccio chose to acknowledge what it was to live in the Renaissance.”

I thought of this essay, which I haven’t looked at for maybe 30 years, because of recent discussions of events. For example, for a long time I’ve wondered at those who have been stuck on the paradigm that “marriage” could only be between a man and a woman. I think most of those folks have some kind of religious tradition that hinders their ability to conceive of another model. It seems that they cannot see a difference between the perceived “sanctity” of religious marriage and the straightforward conferring of certain rights under civil marriage. It is that conferring of rights that the Supreme Court decided was protected by the Constitution. Sanctification is still in the province of the religious community.

Because my thinking has been broadened by encountering and accepting things like two steel blocks in a 5,000 sq. ft. space (Richard Serra at Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1975) as an interesting art proposition, I can easily see that “marriage,” like “art” can be a term that is malleable. On the other hand there were lots of folks wondering where the “art” was when they entered the Serra installation.

Then there’s the Confederate battle flag. Is it a symbol of “southern heritage” or a “symbol of racism?” This makes me think of a graffiti incident in southeast Portland years ago. There were some flowers spray painted on a retaining wall with the question: “Art or vandalism?” And I thought BOTH! If you made it, you want to display your art. If it is your wall, you want vandals to leave it alone. The question is what takes precedence? Similarly, the Confederate flag.

The Confederate battle flag can be both a symbol of “southern heritage” AND a “symbol of racism.” Yes, it relates to southern history, but especially after it was raised over the capitol in South Carolina in 1961 in protest during the civil rights movement, it became overtly an in-your-face symbol of racism. Note that it is the “battle flag” and not the national flag, so there is an intent to “battle.” The question is what takes precedence? For those who truly want to celebrate southern heritage (I will accept their sincerity), they can do so in a museum—with a display about the past—which would involve an intentional pilgrimage. And then the flag would not wave a slap in the face to those who have felt racial oppression. How a flag is displayed can very much affect its meaning.

At the time I was learning the basics of art, I was also a supporter of Robert Kennedy in 1968. I remember this from one of his speeches:

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

This works in art and life. Think “why not?” first.

 

Mel Katz Part 7: The T-shirt

This isn’t from my Mel Katz file, but from a box in my closet.

I think it was 1971 when Mel organized a group show at the Fountain Gallery called Crush. My memory is that it had something to do with recycling and the only work I remember from that show was a pile of cigarette butts by Louis Bunce.

Back then I was one of Mel’s advanced painting students and hung around with George Crary, a photographer, doing odd stuff around the PSU art department. Anyway, at the opening of Crush George snapped a pic of Mel and as George readied to take another Mel said, “One’s enough George.” George snapped. We made that pic into a t-shirt.

T shirt overall

We gathered t-shirts from fellow students and art department folks and screen printed the pic in green, just to give it a little extra icky factor. We kept it a secret until the day we all wore them to school including the department secretary and the model for Mel’s life drawing class.

T shirt closeup

Fun times! Here’s a pic, by Craig Hickman, of George Crary and me at about that time.

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