Rachel Cohen

Liz Magor at Passover

Liz Magor at Passover

Liz Magor, Blowout, installation at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, Spring 2019, all photos Rachel Cohen.

I have been twisting myself toward spring cleaning. My right hip and lower back aren’t what they were. It is hard to get a clear mind, and the house is encrusted with the layers of our going through this year. On my desk, the notebooks with promising scraps of ideas are buried beneath an avalanche of the undone tasks of several years. Books are everywhere, as are the children’s projects, stiffened clay, half-sewn dinosaurs, still unstuffed. A metal model tower that didn’t work out awaits an uncertain fate in one of the myriad little white dishes we use for every purpose that I bought for a dollar each six years ago to be the dishes for salt water, for dipping the parsley, when we were in Cambridge, and we had a big Passover, guests at two tables, friends since scattered on two continents.

For a week now, I keep thinking of a spring show at the Renaissance Society, here in Chicago, the works of Liz Magor. It was called Blowout. Co-curated by Solveig Ovstebo and Dan Byers in 2019. Solveig has since returned to Oslo, to the Astrup Fearnley Museet, another person I would have liked to stay in the same city with. I had my class see the show. Another Ren curator, Karsten Lund, arranged for us all to come to the conversation with Sheila Heti, who had written the catalogue text.

My associations will be obvious from the pictures. This odd plastic in which the objects – which have not only the wornness but the stickiness, almost disgustingness of domestic life, matted fur of syrup and dinosaurs, soiled clothes, what-is-this-thing-must-we-keep-it-how-does-one-even-dispose-of-it and also the corporateness of domestic life, the rows of shoes, hardly worn or not at all, the objects that promise a slightly spiffier more convenient life, rain hats that never did fit, sleek kitchen gadgets still untouched at the back of drawers, the blandishments of advertisers to which I succumbed – all of this wrapped, cherishingly, solemnly, to me also despairingly, in envelopes of gelid plastic. What might be less obvious is the peace that was to be felt in the space, an uneasy peace, that was differently reassuring. Not the peace of respite, which always contains the melancholy of its evanescence. Nor the peace of acceptance, so life is, which holds the guilt of acquiescence. Just uneasiness in a form you could look at, with good light. Lucid uneasiness.

At Passover, in late March, early April, one cleans the house, airs the house, beats the dust out of rugs, scrapes the dead mulchy leaves off the new shoots of plants in the garden, sweeps up all the crumbs of bread. We are to think of liberation, to sympathize with those who have to flee from their places and things, no time for yeast. Sanctimony beckons. And so does survivors' guilt, and the defensive accumulation upon which capitalism plays like a harp. The story, though, I am trying to hear it, I think it knows we are not yet free. If I can find our actual multitudinous selves, who hunger. We are to tell the story of the exodus as if we ourselves were there; to the story it may be all one problem. One gives a few of the miniscule clothes and unbroken wooden toys to other families, while keeping most of them, sentimentally, inexplicably, in the sordid basement, puts the books back on the shelves, removing what sticky dust one can from them, so that they can await another year, when their meanings may at last be drawn together… a deliberately unending ritual, not yet, not yet.

Pissarro in March, in memory of Richard Brettell

Pissarro in March in memory of Richard Brettell

Camille Pissarro, Mardi Gras on the Boulevards, 1897. Fogg Museum of Art / Harvard Art Museums. All photos Rachel Cohen.

In 1897, Shrove Tuesday fell in March, and, in Paris, the annual Mardi Gras parade came down the Boulevard Montmartre on a blustery day. At a window overlooking the Boulevard, Camille Pissarro waited, brushes at the ready. The previous month, in February, he had begun an ambitious project, which would result in sixteen paintings of the Boulevard Montmartre, showing winter giving way to spring. Pissarro painted in the mornings, the afternoons, and the evenings; he painted in snow, rain, and the rare sunshine; he painted grey, and, when it came at last, he painted green. And he painted people – hailing cabs, rushing down the street, pausing to talk, cleaning, shopping, loitering.

Three of the sixteen canvases in the series of the Boulevard Montmartre show the parade crowd from that Shrove Tuesday. In the first, there is a thick column of organized marchers, the second also has a very large volume of people filling the street, and this last one, which belongs to the Harvard Art Museums, seems later in the day, when the people were more scattered about, the onlookers fill the sidewalks, the trees were festooned with confetti, and afternoon brightness could be discerned in certain pinks. I saw it at what I still think of as the Fogg Museum while we still lived in Cambridge, probably in 2015. I was already very interested in Pissarro; I was only beginning to realize how interested.

A little before that, in the summer of 2014, I had given a talk at Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount, and at the dinner after the talk met the director of the Robert Sterling Clark Museum. I told him that I was working on a project about painting and time and Impressionism, and he said I should come and talk to Richard Brettell, who was in residence at the Clark that season, and he set it up for me. We were only out in the Berkshires briefly, and the next day we went to the Clark, and looked at a few paintings, and I was admitted to the research area, and sat at a long table with Richard Brettell, notebook out, and I asked him cloudy questions about time and Impressionism and he answered briskly and with seeming enjoyment. Though I did not know his work then, I at least had the good sense to say that this was all in formation and a happy opportunity offered by the museum’s director and his good will. He told me to read Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art, which I subsequently did, and found very helpful. Somewhere I must have the rest of my notes from the conversation.

Later, I bought the catalogue of a profound show that Brettell co-curated at the Dallas Museum of Art, with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Royal Academy in London, called The Impressionist in the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings. The only time that Pissarro’s great series paintings from the city, more than 300 canvases in 11 series, have been seen together. Not even in his lifetime were they so exhibited. The show was in 1992-93; I was in college, knew nothing of such things. The painting I would later see at the Fogg, Shrove Tuesday, Boulevard Montmartre, was presented. They were able to assemble twelve of the sixteen works from the series. Paging through the catalogue this morning, I felt MARCH. I felt the trudging grey of February give way to the wet windiness of March, felt the people eating their last feast and going out into the streets for the complicated celebration of their coming atonement, felt the thinning out of Lent and March, which is not our religion, Pissarro and I are both Jewish, but is one accompaniment of this season, one interpretation of this season.

This morning I looked around all the bookshelves in the house until I located another book I had found, after meeting Brettell, a catalogue for a show called Pissarro’s People, 2001, which he wrote the text for. I bought it in anticipation of a future when I would learn more. I think it is probably a great book on Pissarro, the culmination of many decades of study. I just tore the plastic wrap off this morning.

Knowledge is so fleeting. The thin crackle of the plastic wrap between my dry garden-hardened fingers, and as I crumpled it up to throw it away, I had the illusion that that was the meeting, the rich hour and exchange of few emails from the summer of 2014, crinkled up and fleeting away.

Richard Brettell died in July of 2020, of cancer, at the age of 71. I learned of his passing earlier this winter. I go on learning about Pissarro.

Japanese Influence: Arthur Wesley Dow

Japanese Influence Arthur Wesley Dow

Arthur Wesley Dow, Spring Landscape, 1892, University of Michigan Art Museum

At my parents’ home in Ann Arbor as spring was arriving, I had a few minutes in the University of Michigan art museum.  I was surprised by a painting of Arthur Wesley Dow’s – very lovely, and very Japanese in its loveliness.

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The wall text said that, in 1891, a year before he painted this picture, Dow had made a visit to the Boston Public Library, where he saw Japanese woodblock prints for the first time.  “One evening with Hokusai,” he said, “gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures. I surely ought to compose in an entirely different manner.”  

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This year I have begun tracing lines of Japanese influence in French and American pictures.  It is surprising how many there are and how they vein in and out.  Dow, it turns out, wrote a book that affected several generations of American artists called Composition: Understanding Line, Notan, and Color.  In it, he gives this definition, which I found quoted at the website of a book designer (link below):

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The term NOTAN, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether colored or not—whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, an element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature.  

The capitals are his, but even with the emphasis I’m not sure I’ve grasped the concept yet.  Looking at this picture, and at the trees in flower in our neighborhood, one thing that strikes me is that in spring the trees themselves give off light.  First as a kind of yellow haze around the still-bare branches, then with the spangled beauty of tiny, starry leaves, and now in the leaning, blowing light-over-shadow way that they respond to every breath of the day.

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