Rachel Cohen

Gray Bird and Buddhist Monk

Frederick Project: Guidance

This morning I woke early, went to the kitchen. Out the window, in the still-brown bittersweet vine, a small gray bird, its feathers puffed out against the cold. It was 31 degrees, cold for spring. At this time of year, we have many migratory birds that pass through our garden for a few days. I know these gray ones come around this time. Yesterday I was saying to the children that this unseasonably cold weather would be unexpected for them. But then, I added, where it is coming from or going to would be cold at some point.

While I made coffee, it sat there, very still.

After a few minutes, it began to move a little, preening its feathers, and settling them back toward its day-time shape. I saw that it had chosen the sunniest corner of the vine, and realized that it must have been waiting for one or two more degrees of warmth before beginning to move.

It had been so patient, holding absolutely still, and so certain. It knew to wait, and how to wait. Try to be like the bird, I thought.

What would be a painting with that quality? A Chinese ink painting of a bird? A Manet of fruit, where the soft gray background would be the color of the bird? A Vermeer of a woman with a letter, suspended and still? A Calder mobile that might move? These images, passing in review in my mind’s eye, did not have quite the conviction the bird had had. And, though I have seen some ink paintings that have the right calm and pause, I couldn’t find any pictures of them.

Instead I turned up this small statue. Buddhist Monk, (Nahan) made in Goryeo period Korea, in the 11th or 12th century. Displayed here with a lotus bowl also from Goryeo period Korea, late 12th or early 13th century.

The statue is made with a celadon glaze, incised to show patterns in the robe. A nahan is an enlightened being, in Sanskrit arhat.

I took the photos at the Smart Museum of Art, here at the University. I remember that I had gone to the museum in a state of irritation, disturbance, that I had hurried around. This was the only thing I photographed that day. I remember the sense of irritation as being that of domestic constraint, though I no longer remember particular circumstances.

I don’t feel irritable this morning; pervasive uncertainty, though, has created restlessness. Looking back, I see that I took the photos three years ago, around this time of year, on April 27, 2017. I am a little heartened by this, perhaps these are annual moods, not only pandemic ones.

My mother-in-law wisely told us, soon after we had our first child, that children are very irritable right before they learn to do a new thing. They are physically bothered by the incipient new possibility. Is this the irritability of spring?

Evidently, I am looking for guidance this morning. As perhaps were those who made this sculpture. The wall text, which I also photographed, points out that the features of the man were deliberately made to look Indian, a faraway person, who might bear special knowledge. Hands joined in meditation or prayer.

Xu Longsen at the Art Institute

Frederick Project: Glimpse

On weekends, I'm going to post some glimpsed works that I can take up in more detail come Monday. These are from an installation of works by Xu Longsen at the Art Institute of Chicago called Light of Heaven, which ran from Feb 1 - June 24, 2018.

At the end, I am also including a photo of the wall text that gives the names of the installations that were in this space, a series of painted columns made of felt, all several feet taller than a person.

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.]