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Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011: Snapshots from a decade ago

"Twin Towers, Twin Peaks"
Collage by Adrianne Wortzel, 1981

Twenty years ago, a friend of mine gave me a piece of her art called Twin Towers, Twin Peaks, a title that links her city, New York, to my city, San Francisco. Slightly larger than a postcard, the image superimposes the bustling area around the World Trade Center towers over two Egyptian pyramids. I have always treasured this enigmatic gift that time and experience have imbued with a particular significance.

The events surrounding our September 11 story began in the city of Toulouse, a miniature and rosier Paris, in the deep southwest of France towards the Spanish border. We had had a honeymoon-like trip exploring the town’s sites, eating rich French foods like cassoulet and braised kidneys, and looking over the river from our garret terrace in a beautiful old nouveau-ramshackle hotel (the elevator didn’t go all the way to our room). For a day or two, we wandered through the open parks and along the canals, basking in the sunshine and recovering from the jetlag.

Kenny in Toulouse September 2001

We drove a few hours from Toulouse, heading for the small town of Couiza in the Lot Valley, green with leafy trees just about to turn. On the way, we stopped in Limoux, but it was too early in the day for their local champagne, so we bought nougat and wandered aimlessly along the river bank before heading on our way. We were checking into the hotel (formerly a castle) where the wedding of Paul’s cousin James was to take place when the patron of the establishment came rushing in, barking in rapid-fire French that something calamitous was happening in New York. All we could understand was “kamikaze” and “World Trade Center.” On the way up to our room, the matron said there had been a lot of trouble in the Middle East in the past few days. We scurried along behind, expecting some trifling incident at JFK that the owner had misinterpreted.

Kenny and Paul at the entrance to the hotel
in Couiza shortly after arriving

We turned on the television, and from that point on we were, like Americans all over the globe, glued to the screen for hours. In the late afternoon, we walked around the village and realized that we might not return home for a long time. Paul’s aunt and uncle, soon to arrive from England, would have room for us, and we could hitch a ride with them, so we would just go back there if need be. We wouldn’t be homeless or without family, and we could probably stay there as long as necessary.

Before the arrival of any of the other wedding guests, we were strangely isolated in a little French village in the era before ubiquitous instant communication. There was only one thing to talk about, to think about, and only each other to talk to. Over dinner, we found it hard to find anything to say.

We woke on September 12 and drove to the next village, Rennes-le-Château, to find the Internet café above the bookshop. Like everything French, it opens and closes on its own schedule, so we waited out the hour with coffee on a gravel terrace. The Internet point wasn’t exactly a café, but a room with two computers. We wrote to our friends in Manhattan, hoping that they were OK. One of them had witnessed the event and had been part of the rush uptown but was not injured. As we sat in this strange room, dealing with the frustratingly counterintuitive French keyboard in this unfamiliar place, we found out that the man at the other computer, who lived in New Zealand and was also trying to track down his family and friends, owned the house across the street from Paul in San Francisco. We later discovered that Rennes-le-Château is notorious for paranormal events, and that the bookshop we were in stocks exclusively New Age and psychic activity titles.

The view from Rennes-le-Chateau on September 12, 2001

Paul’s relatives wouldn’t be arriving for a few more days, and so rather than spend hours in front of a television, growing more numb, we decided to drive up into the Pyrenees and possibly all the way into Spain. Our first stop was a town called Ax-les-Thermes, where the town square consists of a basin of constantly running warm mineral water, heavy with salt and as rejuvenating as a long nap. We bought a couple of sandwiches, rolled up our pants, and soaked our feet together with the locals. Nature was expressing its love by cleaning our feet.

The town square at ax-les-Thermes

Driving on, we eventually reached the Cavernes de Niaux, marked by a great Corten bull-like sculpture/entrance pavilion designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas. I remembered having seen the design in an architecture journal, and so we drove up to the entrance and stopped. We had no reservation but were able quickly to join in the last tour of the day. We paid the fee, donned our miners’ helmets, and rushed into the dark cool caves, understanding little of what the French tour guide said. In a few words of English, she told us that scholars now believe that the paintings were created as art, not as a symbol for something else. That the bison, deer, and horses were painted between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, apparently without definition or purpose, was deeply reassuring. In the face of so much pointless and cataclysmic destruction, I felt like we were connecting with a long and reassuring arc of human history.

Entrance to the Cavernes de Niaux

Niaux cave

Niaux cave

Recently, Paul has been talking about Iris Murdoch, one of his favorite writers. Murdoch, a philosophy professor who wrote novels, felt that patient attention to art is a form of prayer and that art is a sacrament. In her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch writes, “A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit. The apprehension of beauty, in art or nature, often in fact seems to be like a temporarily located spiritual experience which is a source of good energy.” That day in the caves, it was apparent that the arc of that sacrament had stretched over fourteen millennia. This was a good sign.

The wedding that we had come to France for took place on September 15 in the courtyard of the castle where we were staying. It was a simple ceremony illuminated by candles and the slanted afternoon light. The party afterwards included many courses, skits from Pagnol films, music, poetry, and lots of dancing. During dinner, the bridegroom’s father, Paul’s Uncle Graham, offered a toast that mentioned us and what we were experiencing as Americans. In response, I thanked Graham and said that there was no meaning in what happened in America. The only way forward is to take what filled that very room, what this very celebration was about, and share more of it, because love is all we have. I still feel that way.

James and Chloe getting married on September 15, 2001

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Art Mind: Kurt Schwitters and "Create" at the Berkeley Art Museum

Kurt Schwitters: Mz 601, 1923; paint and paper on cardboard; 17 × 15 in.;
Sprengel Museum, Hannover, loan from Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftung.
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

My favorite art shows remind me of an open mind, a mind that is, at least for a time, not distracted by finances, traffic, children, and what author Walker Percy called "everydayness." A mind apart, completely focused on expression, on arranging or rearranging a small part of the universe. Some might call it a child’s mind. It is the purity of childhood combined with a lifetime of seeing.

The other night, I went to an opening at Creative Growth, an art center for the developmentally disabled a few blocks from our home in Oakland. Architect Anne Fougeron has guest curated a show called "Opposition/Composition." Most of the pieces had an architectural angle, but only as an organizing principle. Most of the pieces felt fresh, the result of an open mind at work.

Artist: Natascha Haehlen
Sculpture at the Opposition/Composition show
at Creative Growth curated by Anne Fougeron

Over the weekend, I went to see the Kurt Schwitters show at the Berkeley Art Museum and found that there was a concurrent show, "Create," with art from Creative Growth and two other similar art centers, Creativity Explored in San Francisco and the NIAD Art Center in Richmond. Mounting both shows simultaneously makes this small museum exciting. On the one hand, "Create" explicitly shows what are often referred to as outsider artists. Schwitters is now part of the canon, but he was also an outsider for most his life.

Kurt Schwitters: Untitled (okolade), 1926;
collage of cut printed, and marbleized papers on paperboard;
image: 3 7/8 x 2 7/8 in.;
the Menil Collection, Houston.
Photo: Janet Woodard, Houston.

Kurt Schwitters MERZ 1926,3. Cicero, 1926;
paint on wood nailed on wood; 26-7/8 x 19-5/8 x 3-1/8 in.;
Sammlung NORD/LB in der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung,
Sprengel Museum Hannover
Photo: Michael Herling / Aline Gwose,
Sprengel Museum Hannover © ARS New York.

Kurt Schwitters: Untitled (Silvery), 1939;
collage, silver paint and cardboard on paper on transparent paper;
7 7/8 x 6 1/8 in.;
Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover.
Photo courtesy: Kurt Schwitters Archives at the Sprengel Museum Hannover.
Photographers: Michael Herling / Aline Gwose,
Sprengel Museum Hannover © ARS, New York

Although the structure of the Berkeley Art Museum has been compromised by necessary seismic interventions, it remains one of my favorite modern buildings in the Bay Area. It opened as I entered middle school, and I visited a number of times throughout the 1970s. The whole family took a rare outing together to see the Claes Oldenburg show in 1971, which opened my eyes to what modern art might be. (Melting electric plugs!) For several years, a few of us from high school made almost weekly trips to see the baffling Hans Hoffman canvases on the top floor. The gentle ascent on ramps between galleries allows the viewer to slow down, focus on art, and then reconnect with the shared space occupied by other viewers. You can also take the elevator to the top and work your way down. This is a perfect way to move between the Schwitters show and the "Create" artists to see if they create a dialog. Both shows are both up for a few more weeks.

Installation view of Create, curated by Lawrence Rinder with Matthew Higgs.
On view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA)
from May 11 through September 25, 2011.
Photo: Sibila Savage.

Berkeley Art Museum

Schwitters lived from 1887 to 1948. He enjoyed some recognition and success in his career in Germany in the era following World War I. However, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Schwitters was ostracized and shown only in exhibitions of deviant art. Eventually he moved to Norway and later England, but was unable to rebuild his famous three-dimensional Merzbau or coalesce a movement around his ideas.

The artists participating in "Create" are mostly working at the beginning of this century and are considered outsiders because of their disabilities. Despite the decades separating Schwitters and these local artists, there are many commonalities. In some pieces, it is the juxtaposition of found objects or the surprising combinations of color and words or letters; in others, it is the apparent randomness that results in a balance just short of chaos. But all of the pieces show the unconscious at work. That moment when deliberation or intent gives way to pure action, pure joy—that moment when time is lost. I think this is what art philanthropist Dominique de Menil was after in her many curatorial projects. A hint of the divine. No surprise that the Schwitters show was organized by the Menil Collection.

Lance Rivers: Richmond San Rafael Bridge, 2010;
ink and ballpoint pen on wood; 8 5/16 x 14 1/2 in.;
courtesy of the artist and Creativity Explored, San Francisco.

Mary Belknap: Untitled, 2006;
acrylic on fabric; 27 3⁄4 × 16 1⁄2 in.;
courtesy of the artist and Creativity Explored, San Francisco.

James Montgomery: Untitled, 2007;
correction fluid pen, ink, and acrylic on paper; 22 × 29 1⁄2 in.;
courtesy of Creativity Explored, San Francisco.

Rarely do two shows speak to each other this well about unconscious motivations without trying to make literal connections. While it may be unlikely that many of the artists in "Create" know about Schwitters, they evidence a similar desire to make order.

In the lowest gallery is the most ambitious aspect of the Schwitters show, a rebuilding of his much loved (and forever lost) Merzbau, a three-dimensional collage environment that existed in Schwitters’ Hanover flat. (It was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1943.) It has been reconstructed from historic photographs. Not every piece is there, but the essence of the room envelops a few people at a time and transports them. Wandering through the space, I kept thinking this space was timeless. All of the artists are part of one great all-encompassing art mind.

Peter Bissegger: Reconstruction of Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau,
1981-83 (original ca. 1930-37, destroyed 1943);
154-3/4 x 228 3/8 x 181 in.;
Sprengel Museum Hannover.
Photo: Michael Herling / Aline Gwose,
Sprengel Museum Hannover (c) Peter Bisseger.

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