2019.25 (Jackson Pollock, Number 7, 1951)

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 5.22.03 PM.png

            On Saturday, November 2, 1991, I flew to Washington DC for some sort of young leadership conference. I know it was this date because, according to a ticket stub you can buy on eBay, on Friday, November 1, 1991, the Violent Femmes played Memorial Gym at Vanderbilt University. I wanted to go to the show but my parents seemed to think that I couldn’t manage going to a concert one night and getting on an airplane the next day so they gave me the ultimatum, “You can go to DC or go to the concert.” To this day, I don’t understand the logic but it’s fine. 30 years later, the Violent Femmes are not anything on my bucket list despite a still-strong affection for their Why Do Birds Sing? album. A friend of mine had a recordable cassette tape that would cycle through a 30-second loop tape. He put 30 seconds of crowd noise on it so I could stay home and listen to the Femmes on one tape player with the crowd noise in another. 

            I have no idea what this conference was that I attended. I don’t even know the name of it. It had a generic “Future Leaders of Something” kind of name. I don’t know how I was invited. I just got a letter in the mail because that’s how things used to work. Did I get nominated by a teacher? No clue. There was nothing in my permanent record in 1991 that would suggest that I was going to be a future leader of anything. For all we knew, my parents were buying a plane ticket for me to get sold off into servitude. More than likely the organizers just checked tax filings versus age of kids and said, “I bet this kid’s parents can afford to send their kid to DC for a week.” Somewhere in my parents’ attic is probably an article in the free Hendersonville paper of me going and meeting our then-representative, Bart Gordon. We had a mock Congress about the Brady Bill and I had to contact my congressional representatives for info before I left. Al Gore’s office sent me about 300 pages of something or the other with a photocopied note of his handwriting that said, “I’m happy to send these materials to you” or something generic that would suit any request for information that came into his office. No one else sent me anything. The material that I did get was written in legalese and was worthless. 

            Along with a bunch of clueless teenagers debating the finer points of gun control, we were put on buses a few times to see different landmarks in DC. There was a nighttime tour of the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial. We went to Arlington for the Iwo Jima statue. There was a tour of the House and Senate. I still remember sitting in the House gallery listening to them debate something about telephone companies. It was tedious for a 17-year old and I imagine it would be tedious for a 45-year old. We went to the south lawn of the White House and watched George H.W. Bush welcome the president of somewhere not too big or powerful to the House.

            We went to Union Station. There was a record store in there. I bought Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Golden Palominos’ Drunk with Passion. I could probably tell you where I bought every 45, LP, tape or CD that I ever owned. Now I just wake up on Friday and scroll through a “New Music” tab. It’s a shame. The Nevermind purchase felt mandatory. One of those things you get so you know what people are talking about. The Drunk with Passion purchase was because Michael Stipe sang the first track and, in 1991, I felt like I needed anything he sang. That was a hit-or-miss proposition. If you win, you get him singing “Alive and Living Now” on this Palominos record. It’s a recording that shows, R.E.M. or not, you were going to hear Michael Stipe’s voice in the 80s and 90s. If you miss, you get him rapping about sex education on a Neneh Cherry album. 

            The collection of students was random and semi-threatening? I couldn’t figure it out. There was me- nerdy, suburban, cloistered and a few other people like me and then dudes that look like they stepped out of some educational 80s video of “tough guys”. There was a guy from New Orleans who always wore a Saints hat and one of those early 90s “team jackets”, the kind like Ice Cube always had a Raiders version of. I don’t know what you call them. This guy always had a lollipop in his mouth, and he took every opportunity to make some sex joke based off the word “cherry”. He latched onto me like fresh meat and would say the strangest things as insults. “I bet you couldn’t even get a girl pregnant.” What? Is that a goal where you come from? We’re at a leadership conference, right? 

            Somewhere in the mix of this week, we were given a full day in the Smithsonian area. I think I spent 10 minutes in Aersopace and just long enough in the American wing to see Archie Bunker’s chair. After that, one of my fellow nerdy suburbanites and I went to the National Gallery. And there I was, finally at an art museum. If you’re an artist (as in an artist that went to school, got a degree, then got suckered into going for the MFA) you probably had decent access to art growing up or at least went to a museum at some point. I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, a city that for some reason never developed a collecting art museum. We didn’t have art books at the house. We didn’t really have art books at school. Our art history was a collection of aging magazines and none of it was ever laid out in chronological order. In junior high, I thought Picasso painted the Mona Lisa. The first time I stepped into a legitimate art museum was when I was 17 years old during the first week of November of 1991.

Jackson Pollock,  Number 7, 1951 , enamel on canvas, 56 1/2 x 66”, National Gallery, Washington DC

Jackson Pollock, Number 7, 1951, enamel on canvas, 56 1/2 x 66”, National Gallery, Washington DC

            My memory is that I went straight for the modern wing, bypassing anything from the medieval to the early 20th century. Winding through the galleries led me to Jackson Pollock’s Number 7, 1951. It was the first Pollock I’d seen in person and it was nothing like what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock. And when I say, “what I knew of drippy, all-over Pollock”, I mean that I once saw two of his paintings in an old issue of a high school arts magazine. This had drips but it also had figures. It only used black. I had no frame of reference for this. Was it pre-drip? Was it later? No clue. The card on the wall lacked any information other than the basics. In the modern era, not even the entry on the museum’s website provides any context. Compare it to the page for Lavender Mist and you’ll see how highly regarded one is compared to the other. Mist has an essay. It’s a “highlight”. Number 7 isn’t even on display right now. It’s what the art world regards as Pollock past his prime. The painting equivalent of any Beach Boys album after Pet Sounds. Fortunately, I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t have the baggage of critical opinion to unpack when standing in front of it. It was just me (and the other guy I was with) and this Pollock that was not all-over. There was a structure and a hierarchy. There was a top and a bottom. There was a man and a woman stuffed into the right 1/3, embracing (?) while the left 2/3 contains 15 or so vertical lines dotted with pools of black and a pile of marks at the bottom that look like an abstracted attempt at an extinguished campfire. It is Pollock rediscovering his mid-1940s figuration. Pollock, like everyone coming out of the war, with a foot in Surrealism-inspired analysis and Picasso. I see heads in the left, but it is probably meant to be trees or something organic and exterior. But the positioning of everything has a sensation of observing or spying or peeping. A monologue started going through my brain while looking at it and it took me a minute or two, but I realized I was going through Steve Martin’s monologue from L.A. Story when he’s explaining a painting at the L.A. County Museum in a completely ridiculous way. But it seemed to fit this Pollock. I know it’s not the real inspiration for Martin’s script, but I thought it was funny how it lined up.  I didn’t need any of that. I just really liked the painting.

            Maybe Pollock is like Haruki Murakami. Whatever Murakami book you read is probably going to end up being your favorite. For the most part, they’re variations on a theme. Maybe whatever your first Pollock is, that’s your favorite. This is my favorite. I don’t really care what history says. There was a show of his later black works a couple of years ago that reignited discussion of their merit. I don’t know where we collectively landed after that. It got good press, but I don’t know if that’ll trickle down into the classroom. Granted, these are not the paintings that get him into the history books or “reinvent” painting, but they’re my favorites. They make sense with their predecessors and their followers. It’s just black enamel. Such clarity of mark and shape and image. The raw canvas sits there, open and bold. The reductive nature of that period, compared to something more “important” like Lavender Mist, is something you look for in the late work of masters. Matisse boiled it down to nothing as did Cezanne (relatively speaking). You want an artist to get to a point where they know a single line can do the work of an elaborately constructed form. I think the solo in Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl is one note? You want to see artists grow into that confidence.

            The day ended and I went back to the dorm or wherever I was staying on that trip. Where was I?! Somehow, the tough kids saw photos in my wallet of girls that I went to high school with. It’s weird to think that used to be a thing. You walked around with a wallet full of photos of your friends that you saw every day. Anyway, the tough kids apparently thought the girls I hung out with were attractive so they stopped thinking of me as a sexless wonder that would die a virgin and tried to be nice to me after 3-4 days of acting like rejects from a John Hughes movie. I didn’t get to another museum until I got to college and went to the Knoxville Museum of Art. It’d be another two years after that before I got back up to DC and saw another moment of clarity: the National Gallery’s installation of Matisse’s large-scale paper cutouts. It’d take two more years to get to New York. I’d see a lot more Pollocks. They always looked nervous and unsettled and angsty but once I knew his story then I became like everyone else and couldn’t divorce the man from the art. More often than not, when looking at Pollocks, I looked for the bugs that got caught up in the splatter and died. I took art history classes. We never talked about Pollock in 1951. I never had to argue for it because no one ever brought it up. It was mine, and in some ways, it still is but only because no one else seems to want it.


         There was a moment last Wednesday, while drawing, where I felt like I had powered through the recent frustrations and lack of direction. Returning to basics, just drawing, strips it all down and allows you to focus on the core of what you want to do with your hand. I made 10 ink drawings in an hour and it set up a visual language that looked like the beginning of something substantial. The drawings weren’t the solution. They were what looked to be the first step forward- the bottom layer of a structure for future parts to rest. The problem is that I made the drawings and then immediately had to leave the studio and take care of the rest of my life, then go teach and then leave on a trip. So here I sit, 5 days later where I should have been 4 days ago. Fortunately, the work still looks like how it felt last week. I want to make 10 more. Once I have a critical mass, I will probably know what comes next. So much of the creative process is building something up just so you can tear it down again at a later date. I think about singer-songwriters in that way. I get committed to a recording. Bob Dylan should only play “Tangled Up In Blue” the one way it exists on Blood on the Tracks. Bob would tell me to shut up. It’s his song. He can play it however he wants. He hasn’t listened to Blood on the Tracks since 1975 and that’s only because he had band practice for a tour and forgot something in a verse. He’ll tear that song down and build it up a different way, thank you very much. I’m the same way with my work and I forget to extend that courtesy to other artists sometimes.

         My desk area is littered with notecards of ideas, etc. I think Pinterest people call these “vision boards” or something. Sometime in January, I wrote down “develop a drawing language for painting, a new form of abstraction (for me). Consider Byzantine and medieval ideas.” I wanted something divorced from the somewhat untrained version of academic language that I use in drawing: the endless hatching, cross-hatching, stippling that, in reality, anyone that ever cared about what I did would rather that I still be doing. Looking at work spanning the “Middle Ages” is way of divorcing ego from the process. Making work in service of something greater with no concern whether or not your name is registered. Creating work for the purposes of edification and joy. Whatever I did last week is that step on the notecard. There are 10 other notecards that have to get addressed now. Once all of those cards are either conquered or dismissed, then I’ll probably be back up to speed. All of that said, I have a lot that will keep me busy this week so I will not make much progress.

         I went to the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville this weekend. If memory serves me correctly, this is my 5th time. I don’t know that I go hoping for inspiration more than I go to get out of my own head for a few days. It is the perfect music festival for middle-aged people like me because you get to sit down for a lot of it, you don’t have to camp, and it’s contained in the heart of a city that I do really love. You can take a trolley from one event to another, but I walked the whole time, which was also good for me. According to my watch, I walked 10 miles a day. The festival focuses on contemporary composition, be it jazz, ambient, atonal, drone, dance, etc. This year featured a focus on Harold Budd and, separately, the ECM record label and their 50th anniversary. I didn’t get within 400 yards of Harold Budd. The crowds were too big for his events, so I always had to opt for a different performance. Some acts are deeply committed to their craft. Their joy is not obvious, but I assume under that sober veneer is someone dedicated and happy. Others are all in and want you to know that they are still up onstage for the reason they started piano or saxophone lessons 20 years ago or bought a copy of Ableton. Jlin performs like she hit the lottery. So gracious. So happy to not be working whatever factory job she had.

Nils Frahm dances around his equipment and when he speaks. It is casual and inviting. He feels no obligation to set the tone. You like it? Like it for why you like it. You don’t have to meet him in his place. No explanation required. Others? Man, they want you to know what was happening during the gestation of the piece. They need the story. I get that. If you have any doubts about that, check my last show. That’s the stuff I’m trying to burn out of my work now. It puts too much on the audience to almost demand that they come to it on your terms. You’re not George Lucas in 1977 at that point. You’re George Lucas tweaking Star Wars in 1997, demanding you accept his vision.

         I know I’m old(er) but what the weekend reinforced for me is a bias I hold towards my generation and the two that follow me. Vulnerability, now, is saying a lot of words that came out of a diary entry. It’s a digital post-blog world. Putting yourself out there with the safety of a screen. Post a photo and type how you feel. Younger people’s vulnerability is words. People have been taught to type out, “I really need some love right now” and try to survive on the random thumbs-up and “You can do it!”s that come back in return. No one has risked anything. Not the person seeking help and not the person thinking that they provided any comfort. You gave someone a dopamine fix and that’s it.

         I get that this is the new emotional currency, but it is safe and, to me, relatively risk-free. You have to be willing to physically embarrass yourself in a performance in some ways. The first time I got “onstage” to perform music, I had a simultaneously crippling and liberating thought: “I am here for an hour no matter what happens.” It would either be a personal disaster or a chance to grow. I had a student last semester say, “I hope I can teach in a way like you one day.” My response was, “You have to be willing to make a total jackass of yourself, everyday, in front of 30 people.” Jlin flat out said she felt like she was giving something to the crowd because she was throwing stuff in her mix that she had never done before because she wanted to know what would happen. It could have tanked but she put it out there. Some of these other people probably aced their Tutorial on the Postmodern Condition class in college. They had taken something born out of risk and failure 60-70 years ago and reduced it to a calculated event where nothing could go wrong unless the power got cut to the club. Vulnerability is of the body as much as it is of the mind. Nirvana’s songs still seem to have an audience with teenagers. It’s not just the words. It’s the scream. That survives. When we were younger, it was the scream, but it was Cobain diving into the drum set or even Krist Novoselic throwing his bass up in the air and accidentally having it hit him in the face. I say this, but I never listen to them anymore. I listen to Big Star’s “Thirteen” and think, “I would never have let myself write that song because I would have thought it was corny, but I am so glad he had the courage to write it and sing and play it so purely.” The reduction of teenage love to something that sweet only makes sense to me now. Chilton was on another plane to write that in his 20s.

         That risk has to be there, but it has to be backed up. I saw one act that was nothing but emotion, and it was as wrong as anything clinical that I witnessed. She might as well have banged on a gong for 45 minutes and yelled the same sentence over and over again because that’s how hit felt. She had one thing to say, at one volume for 45 minutes. It was like reading the same sentence in a novel for an hour if the sentence was written in all caps. There was no fear but there was little art as well. It was just anger and at the end of it, she just screamed her diary at me while something that sounded like a track Trent Reznor put out in the trash hammered away in the background.


         Onward towards joy. Up in the air with your bass:

Quote for the week: 

“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together


Lyric for the week:

“Scientists and engineers will only amplify your fears”

Chris Stamey “Geometry”


Currently reading:

In Xanadu- William Dalrymple

St. Augustine: City of God

The Book of Mark