Sunday, March 28, 2010

Agnes Martin

In the documentary Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, Martin describes how her childhood hometown in Saskatchewan was located on a prairie so flat that you could watch a train approach the town, or leave the town, for hours. I'm trying to understand the effect she said she wanted her paintings to have, the effect others say they get from the paintings: a feeling of happiness, peaceful happiness. I certainly felt that when listening to her talk in the documentary, filmed toward the end of her life, when she was around 90 years old, I felt very soothed indeed -- but I look at her paintings, and I just think, "Whaaaat...?" Honestly, all I feel is puzzled. But I am looking for clues. Over and over again in the course of my life, I have looked at the work of an artist whom others have highly praised, and the objects of art in question have held no appeal for me -- until I've looked at them for a while, and then they have. No luck so far with Agnes Martin's paintings -- but maybe that prairie train-track is an important clue to the mystery of all of those paintings with horizontal stripes in pale earth-tones. Maybe they signified for Martin, subconsciously or however, the prairie horizon, the horizontal stripe of that train track, the colors of the land, fields sun-bleached in summer.

Maybe I'm starting to get it now about Martin's paintings. Right now, as I write this, looking at a picture of Martin's painting Happy Holidays in another window, on the website of the National Galleries of Scotland.

I don't know. I've never taken this approach before, examining an artist's biography or his or her statements for help in understanding his or her work. On the contrary, in fact, sometimes I have deliberately ignored what an artist had to say about his own work, as in the cases of Martin's fellow Abstract Expressionists Pollock and Rothko, both very gloomy fellows. I don't tend to feel gloomy at all when I look at a Pollock or a Rothko, on the contrary. If my reactions are "wrong," I don't really care, I'd rather feel exhilarated than depressed. I can do depressed all on my own, I don't tend to need much help there.

When it comes to exhilaration, joy, calm and the like, however, I will gladly take all the help I can get. Then again, if I find very different things in the work of Rothko and Pollock than what is usually described as their effects, if some critics would describe my reactions as "wrong," who's to say that looking for happiness in Martin's paintings might not be a futile quest for me?

I'm looking at Happy Holidays again in the other browser window, and... naaah, I don't really get it yet. Although I do now like the pictures made by Martin's former roommate Ellsworth Kelly. I've been discussing art with some people, and in the last few days Kelly's name came up -- that's why I started thinking about Martin again, I knew they and others had once shared a living and working space -- and I kept looking at Kelly's stuff, and, suddenly, as has happened with so many other artists before, bingo, I got it -- or if not "it," then I got something at least, something I wasn't getting before. Something quite nice, something I'm very glad I have.

As with Ellsworth Kelly, so with many other artists. Although some, like Martin, remain thoroughly enigmatic to me, I feel I am becoming more and more receptive to the beauty of art in generally -- more open, more... I can't think of a more accurate word here than "open."

21. May 2015: I'm finally starting to get it! The powerful soothing effect in her voice which I mentioned -- her paintings have it too! You just have to be open to it.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reports of Detroit's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

It's still there. Really. Specifically, Julien Temple's recent essay on the "last days of Detroit" is -- well, pretty silly. Temple published the essay in connection with his recent documentary, Requiem for Detroit, which the essay does not put me in the mood to see. Temple describes certain parts of town where the police will not bother you as long as you haven't murdered anyone. What nonsense. It's a distillation of some stereotypical attitudes toward "urban jungles" held by people who only visit them as tourists.

Toward the end of his essay Temple mentions a few hardy souls who, to his great surprise, in spite of everything, are determined to stick around and make it work.

To be greatly surprised that Detroit is not actually emptying out, that not everyone is leaving who can -- not to mention the few people *gasp!* moving there -- I don't recall Temple having mentioned any of the latter -- ah say ah say to be greatly surprised here, one must be pretty ignorant not only about Detroit specifically, but also about the way cities work in general, not to mention about some pretty universal constants in human habits and behavior. Julien Temple has lived on this planet for over 56 years, and has worked in the UK, in Los Angeles and New York and other cities as well, now including Detroit. One would've thought that as a movie director he would have had his eyes open at least part of that time. Maybe not. Let me run it down for Julien:

Cities rise and fall, prosper and go through hard times, in cycles. In times of higher unemployment and the various problems which are a part of decreased prosperity, people do tend to leave cities, to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But others tend to move in in their stead. Abandoned industrial districts become gentrified. Other sorts of industry spring up. But apart from the yuppies and speculators, there are also the stubborn natives, exemplified by Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles who put it in this very memorable way:

"Hell, I was born here, and I was raised here, and goddamn it, I'm a-gonna die here! And no sidewindin', bushwhackin', hornswogglin' cracker croaker is gonna ruin my biscuit-cutter! Rahruhruh!"

These Gabbys are everywhere, and their grim determination to by God stay everywhere they are, combined with the entreprenurial spirit of those who move into and renovate the places left by the discouraged, and with the application of governmental grant money, and with the influx of people just looking for plain old cheap rent and small mortgages, turn urban jungles into boomtowns: in Temple's hometown of London, and in New York, to name a couple of recent examples, and in Cleveland, to name another close enough to Detroit that plenty of Detroiters have easily been able to observe how it's done.

Again: what on Earth has Julien been observing? (Not economic cycles, one presumes.) Requiem? The mind boggles.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Plug, the Beards, the Dreams

I wonder to what extent Martin Scorsese works with exactly the people he wants to work with. I can't imagine a lot of people hearing that Scorsese wants them to work on one of his movies, and saying, "No, thanks."

Except, of course, for those pesky people who actually come up with the money to make the movies. The plug got pulled on The Last Temptation of Christ twice. Originally shooting was scheduled to begin after The King of Comedy was done, in Israel, with a huge budget, huge sets, great crowds of extras playing Roman soldiers and so forth. Robert De Niro was going to play Jesus -- of course. De Niro as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, anothor DeNiro/Keitel/Scorsese joint, perfect. But the financiers got nervous because it was "controversial," and they pulled out. The beard De Niro is wearing in The Mission:

and in Angel Heart is the one he originally grew to play Jesus.

Then the Last Temptation of Christ project was started up again, after Scorsese had made After Hours. Aidan Quinn was going to be Jesus this time, he had the long beard rockin and was all set, but again, Lo, the balls of the money people did shrivel and they were sore afraid, and the project was canceled again, and Scorsese made The Color of Money instead. The version Scorsese finally made, with Willem Dafoe as Jesus, was shot in Morocco on a very tight budget. (For example, there are only five people playing Roman soldiers in the whole movie.)

Imagine if the original big-budget De Niro version had been made. Not counting the documentary The Last Waltz, that would've made six Scorsese movies in a row with De Niro in them, five in a row with De Niro in the lead role, and three, after Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, with both De Niro and Keitel.

Imagine what might have been. Maybe Scorsese and De Niro and Keitel would've kept working together constantly. As it is, since the first Temptation project fell apart, Scorsese and De Niro only worked together twice, on Goodfellas and Casino, and the only Scorsese picture Keitel has been in is Last Temptation.

Imagine if De Niro had never made any of those crappy movies he's made with other directors.

That's showbiz. All sorts of exciting projects never get off of the ground. Welles couldn't make Heart of Darkness, so he made Citizen Kane instead. And what's up with Scorsese's Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, with Leonardo Di Caprio as TR, is this being made or is it just a rumor?