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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
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Transmission\Translation

Woodcut by Elise Rubin, on a wall in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by the author.
Woodcut by Elise Rubin, on a wall in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by the author.

To my mind it’s significant that the Rail’s current Guest Editor, Tom McGlynn is soliciting a response from artist/writers on being an artist who writes about other artists’ works. This is not a consideration that usually receives a lot of attention, especially in the recent past when a theoretical approach dominated art writing and the credibility of an objective viewpoint had not yet been debunked. Often a deeper look into the relationship between an artist and what they have written on art takes place either at the end of a long career or posthumously, or only for familiar names. Soliciting a response from artists on their unique, but not unusual position as art writers is also timely, as the movement to greater transparency and rethinking of modes and methods is on our horizon at the moment. In so far as it betrays an awareness of the deeper insights into both the artist/subject and the artist/writer’s works, a look into the world of artist/art writers courts the limits of subjectivity.

What an artist chooses to write about a given artist and how this subject is approached, often brings foundational and obscure interests and influences to light with a passion. At times I find I only understand another artist’s works through the eyes of yet another artist, someone who sees what is at stake and is also deeply invested in the issues or formal concerns found in that work. Yet, most of what inspires me about the question of artist/writers has to do with the undertaking to make the felt sense comprehensible through a translation into language.

When I started writing about works of art I began with a notebook and a pencil in front of something in which I felt I had seen a deeper layer of significance operating. I had no spoken language with which to talk about what I was experiencing in my looking, so I carefully tracked my entry point into a work and wrote down exactly what I was seeing. How did the light fall on the surface? Being primary for my own work, naturally it was the first thing I would see, even though for most artists this is not such a consideration. What did the materials communicate to me? What sensations was I receiving through my skin? Being an artist means having the need to express oneself in certain ways and through certain materials, and maybe we could say that this is our own particular language. Writing about art for me has meant expanding my ability to understand other languages, though certainly in thought my own language naturally forms the core of my point of departure.

I observe how I can navigate through, around, and deeper into certain works and not others. When does the composition lead me clearly to the subject? What is it that is functioning to keep me in there for a longer period of time and allow the work to unfold, or is the unfolding itself that captured my attention?

I began to notice that many paintings had a kind of invisible place that I came to call the breathing space; it often took quite a long time to find it, but then it was clear the formal structure resonated to its movement. The dark shadow in the El Greco portrait at the Frick is a prime example. After writing for a while I would have several pages filled with observations about what I was seeing. Inevitably thoughts and associations would come to mind as I wrote, so I carefully noted these as well, considering the work as having led me to these thoughts as I left myself to roam free sitting or standing in the vicinity of another artist’s efforts.

As a young artist I was fascinated by pictorial devices in the works of the past and would search until I could determine the mechanism that was giving me the information I had obtained from looking. It never occurred to me to try to articulate anything at that point; I came to think of these long sessions of reading works of art, mostly paintings actually, as a kind of transmission. One could also designate it, for those who can only find credibility in scientific terms, as a kind of osmosis, or a process akin to mirror neurons that we now have from neurology.

Through the careful observation of how something is made, we glean another level of understanding of an artist’s intent. For a reading of the nuances of making art, it’s hard to match the informed vision of an artist’s lifelong experiences. This is not to privilege the artist’s point of view nor should we privilege the non-artist’s. Scholars, poets, and other writers who bring their unique formal experience in their respective disciplines to art writing garner insights of another nature and bring to art perspectives an artist would not likely be seeing. Works of art set a stage for the complex dance of “knowing” and “being” where we can slowly begin to perceive how our thought not only informs but determines what we see.

Contributor

Joan Waltemath

Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA. www.joanwaltemath.net

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues