When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
– Shakespeare, Sonnet 30
Growing up in the old country in Huê, Vietnam, memorizing poems was considered a political act. My grandparents, uncles, and aunts could recite by memory any segment from Truyện Kiều, known in English as The Tale of Kieu, written by the great poet Nguyễn Du in the late 18th century and regarded as a Vietnamese equivalent to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost in the West, or the Book of Odes from the Zhou Dynasty and Ochiai Naobumi’s White Aster in the East. Later when I came with the family to the U.S. in the early 1980s, in a college poetry class with Stephen Berg, I learned that committing poetry to memory was also a known practice in Russia. He gave the example of Boris Pasternak, who gave up science for poetry, committing his life to writing and translating, including committing to Russian a deliberate choice of poetry and stage plays from German, Spanish, and English languages with a solemn and unrelenting dedication to truth and justice. His translations of Goethe, Schiller, Calderón de la Barca, and Shakespeare were especially popular during his time and even today among many Russians. According to one interview for a Dutch TV series called “Of Beauty and Consolation,” George Steiner (the essayist, literary critic, novelist, and educator) told a story about Pasternak during the three-day-long Soviet Writers Congress in 1937, when each day everyone expressed profuse thanks to brother, father Stalin for the new model of truth. Pasternak was in total silence the entire time, not far from where Andrei Zhdanov, the Stalinist killer, was standing offstage. On the last day, however, Pasternak’s friends insisted that since he would be arrested anyway, maybe he should say something that they could live by. So Pasternak accepts, walks onto the stage, and gives a number—Sonnet 30. The two thousand people stand up—“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past”—and recite Shakespeare by heart, Pasternak’s translation. The poet stood silently. To quote Steiner’s telling, “It said everything . . . you can’t touch us; you can’t destroy Shakespeare; you can’t destroy the Russian language; you can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you—it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”
How does one prepare to pass on such indispensible truth and justice at a time when the language of poetry, the arts, and the humanities is considered elite, insular, and exchanged only in designated academic communities? How is it transferred to the next generation beyond academe? Where is the urgency that drives the need for wisdom and passion for the general culture, to be sure it is kept alive? These are the questions it seems preoccupied most of Irving Sandler’s life. Within the domain of New York and its five boroughs, no one—as many who have known Irving would agree—has seen and been to as many art related events: from opening and closing receptions of exhibitions, panel discussions, and symposiums on countless topics, to being actively involved in various causes for the art community, such as managing the Artists’ Club from 1956 to 1962; co-founding Artists Space in 1972; facilitating the Artist Advisory Board for Marie Walsh Sharpe in 1986 and the Sharpe Walentas Studio Program; being a founding board member of Artists Talk on Art (ATOA) in 1975; President of AICA-USA board from 2000 to 2005; Guest Critic in the Rail in the winter issue of 2013; moderating and participating in hundreds of jury committees for various museums and public collections, etc. All the while, Irving wrote more than 75 books, including essential monographs on Alex Katz, Al Held, Philip Pearlstein, Judy Pfaff, Stephen Antonakos, Deborah Kass, Mark di Suvero, hundreds of catalog essays, interviews, and reviews, especially for ArtNews magazine where he got his start in 1956 and wrote from generous and personal perspectives on the works of Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell, among other artists.
In the early 2000s, as soon as Irving discovered the Rail in its early formation, he naturally made himself known and available to whatever we asked of him at any given opportunity and circumstance. The bridge that Irving built connected—and connects—the older to the younger generation, the academy to the general public, and is an indispensible contribution to those of us at the Rail who seek to carry culture on as a political commitment, keeping the bridge free for anyone who may wish to walk back and forth. Irving’s term “on-the-spot history” along with the two titles of his memoirs A Sweeper-Up After Artists (Thames & Hudson, 2003) and Swept Up by Art (Rail Editions, 2015) reveal three essential lessons to those of us who aspire to learn from the artists: One, how to be prepared and hence at ease in the presence of artists in their studios; Two, how to be humble and open to their stories and thoughts on making works of art; Three, how to feel a genuine love for the art and artists which constitute the art world community that makes the previous two attributes possible. I’d say emphatically that what Irving has taught us at the Rail is that being in love as a perpetual condition is a political act.
In addition to the recent announcement of the AICA-USA Irving Sandler Award for Distinguished Art Criticism, the Rail is establishing the Irving Sandler Critical Essays, a bi-monthly commissioned essay on visual culture with our friend Alexander Nagel as the editor. Also, our friends Deborah Kass and Patricia Cronin have suggested re-naming 10th Street—the stomping ground where Irving was the manager of Tanager Gallery and dedicated observer of artists—as Irving Sandler Place; we’ll appeal to our friend Tom Finkelpearl, our NYC Cultural Department Affairs Commissioner, for his support.
We are pleased to include a tribute to our mentor Irving Sandler in this issue as a dedication to his testament for the love of art.
In solidarity from all of us at the Rail,
P.S. A tribute to our other friend, the legendary artist Malcolm Morley, whose work has shaped the formation of artists from across generations, will be featured as a Web Exclusive in August.