Friday, November 28, 2008

My painting XLI

As at end October 2008

Another stimulating month at Princeton. The Institute for Advanced Study was certainly the right place to see Dr Atomic in a live telecast from the Met. Much talk from those who knew Oppenheimer (notably Freeman Dyson) and fine film of the making of the atomic bomb (Wonders Are Many). I remembered the tiny triumph of finding authentic echoes of Hiroshima for A Postcard Century. Like most new operas Adams’s latest was a quarter of an hour too long but contained some brilliant episodes; and a masterpiece aria, Batter my Heart. Gerald Finlay was superb as Oppenheimer even though (according to the Institute Director Peter Goddard) he wore the wrong hat.

Mindful of all that, it was interesting for Tarik and myself to work with Jonathan Miller on a fragment of Heart of Darkness in an old New York synagogue on the Lower East Side.

In between bouts of writing about Akan Goldweights I stared at the print out of my painting pinned up on my office blackboard. In the last week of my stay I made some pencil marks on it, erased them, made some more... until I had an idea what to do next. Now back at the studio I have the painting itself to stare at. Things are somewhat promising and I’ve started tentatively attacking the last panel again.

Pencil over print out, late Nov 2008.

The day before I left Princeton I gave a short talk about making the Abbey Memorial. Part of the title refers to Baudelaire's marvelous remark that, whatever his circumstances 'the artist feels much like a prince travelling incognito'.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My painting XL

As at 31.10.2008

At art school we worked in silence. When eventually I graduated to independent studio life it occurred to me that listening to music would enhance the day: my LPs of Beethoven and Bartok string quartets could be just the thing. I was wrong. If I listened I stopped painting and if I painted I failed to listen, hearing just the first few familiar bars but only becoming aware of the piece again as the final cadence gave way to the hiss of needle on vinyl.

But priorities are priorities and I was always able to pay attention to the Test Match commentaries. Far from hindering concentration the spoken word seemed to take up the slack of a brain that would otherwise have inwardly burbled on about money and quotidien anxieties. When rain stopped play it was a double blow, although, as in winter, there was always BBC drama to look forward to after lunch.

Why not the mornings? Each day somehow seems a fresh embarkation with the chart to consult and a course to be plotted to negotiate once more the way out of dock and harbour. Towards the end of the morning (coincidentally when cricket also gets underway) the wordmind dwindles in its usefulness.

Changes in the wireless schedules drove the BBC plays to a less convenient time so I learned to record them for later consumption. Using cassettes brought me only a step away from the talking book, to which I am now addicted. Peckham library may be short on Trollope and Henry James but it is rich in literature I knew little about and I thank them for Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane and those others who have sustained the doze-prone artist through long afternoons.

Working on this painting has clarified for me how much music is embedded in what I do and why its actual presence in the studio has never been a help. I have made drawing and paintings over the years that refer to music directly and even use the graphic devices of notation, staves, barlines, note-clusters etc. Sometimes as in Last Notes from Endenich these can arrive at a virtually playable score

Last Notes from Endenich, pastel h75cm x w150cm 1975.

and at others, using the same elements, as in Concerto Grosso, they evoke for me an imagined music that lies, for a technically limited composer, beyond my reach to realise.

Concerto Grosso, oil on canvas h91cms x w122cms 2002.

Quantum Poetics on the other hand, while it carries no such specific baggage, has deep musical roots that have spread strongly as it has progressed. All along it has had the feel of a symphonic structure with motifs and variations. Its soundscape has suggested a divided orchestra with the dark areas represented by cellos and lower wind instruments and the lighter background provided by the higher strings and woodwind. These, which never play together, are linked by a viola and horn continuo (with interjections sometimes harsh sometimes soft from the percussion) representing the intrusions and extrusions of the main calligraphy. I do not claim that this great orchestra strikes up whenever I start to paint but often it swims into the mind's ear. More than a few times I have sung along either in my head or out loud.

Now, just as I approach the final chimes of a cadence to mark its end, I am off again to watch the red and amber leaves fall on Einstein Drive at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. This will seem as if the conductor has suddenly put his baton down and quit the podium before the piece achieves its proper resolution. It is because, were he to turn the next page of the score he would find it blank. I hope to come back with the last few notes.