Tag Archives: New York Times

Acknowledging Influence in Your Art

Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today’s  most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine.  They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August.

In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: “Hemon is … interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.””

I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.

It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don’t live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don’t think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say “I haven’t seen that before.”, then there is no reason to fear your influences.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question:

“What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?”

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso’s “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that “Guernica” was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see “Guernica” for the first time again.

Tracking Family Connections

The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It’s fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don’t know each other at all. What connects us as a “family”?

A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled

“My Father’s Hackberry Tree”. In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:

“…In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.

I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.

… (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.

My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has…

When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. … (We) talk about poetry instead…

As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.

… This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading…

In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.

This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.

The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.

Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.

I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said.”

How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren’s father made say “I love and respect you.” in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.

Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.