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Giacometti and James Lord

Giacometti and James Lord

Alberto Giacometti, drawing, Portrait de James Lord, 1954

Preparing for class this week, I reread James Lord’s book Giacometti: A Portrait. The book is broken into the eighteen sittings Lord did with Giacometti one fall, in September and October of 1964, for a painted portrait. Lord’s book was published the following year.

The class has just begun, but the students and I intend to reflect on drawing, and especially on returning to the same work repeatedly, and I assigned the book in part because of its repetitiveness. It’s as if Giacometti is practicing painting Lord’s portrait – as he goes on, perhaps most of the times he does it, he does it a little better, but then in despair he paints out large parts of it, in gray, white. He begins again, with some layers remaining of previous efforts, to define the head with strong thin blacks. When it is succeeding, there is a sense of space, of the head and what is around the head; at other times it seems lopsided, opaque. He could go on this way a long time. Neither Giacometti nor Lord has any thought that the painting would eventually be finished, the question is at what point to abandon it.
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[The portrait as it was abandoned in October of 1964 and subsequently sold.]



I don’t know if it would be right to say that I have spent a fair amount of time looking at Giacometti, or if it would be more accurate to say that the time I have spent has felt very acute, indelible. I can return to the experiences with clarity, re-enter them. The works let me strain alongside them, strain to an utmost, and that is memorable. Intermittently, they also give me a sense of rest. The sense that they are unfinished because their maker fought as hard as possible creates around them a special atmosphere – quiet, rigor, charity – that resists even something of the stealth of museumization. The work lets me feel not just that I am forgetting the price it fetched at some auction in a world I have no access to, or the women with expensive educations and scarves writing smooth copy to be posted nearby (I might be such a woman, I sometimes am,) or the gift shop hovering in the background that sells the scarves – lets me not forget these things, but somehow go on thinking without being debased, lets me think instead, here is something, I am thinking about it.

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[A detail of Lord’s painted face as posted by someone on the internet.]



Lord talks about a similar kind of alternation between strain and rest – rest is the sense of having contributed – in the experiences of posing for Giacometti. Because Lord is a little bit sneaky, a little bit facile, he also brings this to the tale. Lord is always plotting how to steal a little bit of the experience – he is taking photographs of every stage of the work, he is slipping out to make notes about it and then lying to Giacometti about what he is doing, when Giacometti throws out and destroys some drawings, Lord fishes a few out of the trash, on the final day, he is secretly trying to get Giacometti to stop the cycle of painting on an upswing, toward clarity, which will make the portrait, which Giacometti has told him he will give him, more beautiful to Lord, and more valuable. Giacometti must have known all this. He apparently used to say that he wasn’t interested in portraying the inner life, it was hard enough just to get the outward aspect, but people, including Lord, thought he was a good judge of character. I think it was a relief to Lord, and perhaps this allows me to recognize part of the relief I feel myself in the vicinity of the works, that Giacometti was not concerned about thieves.

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[A version of the portrait in progress as James Lord photographed it.]

Sophie's Painting

Sophie039s Painting

Sophie Degan, Untitled




My cousin Sophie is dying.  She is ninety.  It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time.  We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks.  My mother is there now.

Sophie loved painting.  She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard.  They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years.  She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors.  She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.

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Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us.  I did not have time to tell.  But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it.  I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another.  This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people.  She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.

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I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious.  Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book.  There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes.  A painting may say, now, we are here.


Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st.  May she rest in peace.  


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Unsteady Hands

Unsteady Hands

Hervé Guibert, detail of photograph.


The prose fragment is a form capable of kindness.  After I thought of that sentence, I thought of reading Hervé Guibert again, with students, this quarter.  In his use, the fragment has so much discretion all along its edges.  We all exist beyond those edges.  It’s like sending a note when a call might be intrusive, or stepping aside the right degree, to make way but not to shun.

It’s not that his writing is especially interested in kindness, but, in writing and photography, he is interested in recognition, both the kind you can accomplish steadily, and the kind where you flinch away.  This is a Guibert self-portrait, from 1981.


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Yesterday I was thinking about Degas.  And wondering about his hands when, late in life, he could barely see.  I remember reading in a wall text at the Metropolitan Museum that one of his friends helped him to feel a painting he was curious about.  What I wondered yesterday was how the paint felt to his fingers, if his hands felt steady to him.  I think of steadiness of hand and steadiness of gaze going together.  The fact that my hands feel unsteady to me lately seems related to how much I flinch away, from what I am reading, even from watching peoples’ faces.  In every news article, in the faces of people crossing the street, I seem to see great vulnerability, that we are menaced.

Here is an essay by Guibert I didn’t know about.  It is a photograph, the joint effort of the subject and the photographer to understand, among other things, Degas.  Some day, I hope I will write about the way the picture reflects on Degas’ ideas about the brave efforts of our bodies, about drawing and sculpture and form.  But my hands are a little unsteady today.


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Joan Mitchell: Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, Chicago Institute of Art


Two weeks ago, I went to the Art Institute to spend some time in the new modern wing and my attention was caught by a Joan Mitchell from 1955 called City Landscape.


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Since the election I have been thinking about cities, and living in them, the ways that a city’s life may be dealt a blow.


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It is December in Chicago, and cold, and I saw the heart of the city, what the wall text calls “nerves and arteries” in the colors, so many, too many to look at all at once, that drip together into brown, that, at least in my pictures, resembles the collecting trunk and lower limbs of trees, and I saw the grays and whites above and below as the bleak surrounding sky.


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What a painting this is. Difficult to know, as a real city is, but also, I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t yet had time to find out, it is a painting possible to know, as a real city is.


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Cities, one of the largest things people make together that are still, more or less, on a human scale, can be walked across in a day, can be, with effort and diligence, comprehended by a studying person.


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A moment later, I came to one of the museum’s edges, where it looks out over Millennium Park. Everything was gray, but clustered at the center was the vitality of roads, traffic, the living though not visibly inhabited city, and above there were the rectilinear outlines, the gray buildings fogged at the gray sky.


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In this room, there are Giacomettis, studying and participating in the city.


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They were made in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1960. After the war, before and after the Joan Mitchell. All of their cities have struggled.


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The gray around, the extreme density of the interior. In the new year, we will learn more.


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In Chicago

In Chicago
We have moved to Chicago. I went to the Art Institute soon after we arrived and was happy to see that the museum has a wonderful Berthe Morisot. I have wanted to keep thinking about her. I find that I remember vividly each experience I’ve had of her work in the last few years: two watercolors from the Clark, an exhibition at the Met that had several of her paintings, a visit to the Musée Marmottan while M played with S in the public gardens. The peculiar density of atmosphere that Morisot achieves seems like something to learn from. Perhaps I am affected by knowledge of her biography, and her early death, but it feels to me as if she knew there might not be much time, and that she put everything she knew, about a person, a child, a garden, a hat, into each painting.    

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One thing, I think, is that she is able to keep everything in motion.  This morning, a first day of school, the perpetual motion of everything and everybody – all our objects, all the four of us, all our places and people – feels overwhelming, but look at how she brings the garden to the dress, the fan away from and toward the dress, the dress itself toward blue, toward purple, toward the body and the air.  

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I don’t think it is a photographic accident that the face of the woman becomes clearer and more meaningful when looked at with the hat and figure of the child behind her. Morisot has done something with the beige and white shades of their two heads and hats that allows my eye to make a relation between the two figures. The woman’s face becomes less ghostly, I see what she thinks about and how she feels happiness and even love across those green strokes to the child.

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When I look back at our pictures of the summer, I see that we were often sitting where sand or green plants or water made a continuousness between us and the children. I feel I will miss this in the greater distinctness of fall.

In summer there is the challenge of making meaningful and definite that which is blurred by heat and continuity and abundance. Morisot has not forgotten the work of it.  This morning, I am especially fond of that rake, like a paintbrush, like a pen, to one side.  

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Sargent Notes

Sargent Notes

John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: Chalets, about 1909-1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, iphoto of notebook cover

I am writing this in a notebook that has on the cover of it a part of a Sargent water color.  It's of a house, gray and brown mingled in the wash, with a roof speckled and dashed with white.  An ordinary small mountain house, to which a stone wall in the shape of an S rises.

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Watercolor is a medium in which it is easy to lose the structures of things, but here everything has the shape that is proper to it because it does not wish to be otherwise. They are what they are, the house, the green slopes, the rising S of the wall, the gray sky.  They do not blame or advise.

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I think Sargent thought that, for an artist, it is good to be sketching.  That is how to be a house, considering and calm, between the hill and the sky, how to follow and care for a wall of long stone dashes, rising in the shape of an S.  




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