In Conversation

ABCs for/of Richard Tuttle
An epistolary interview with Jarrett Earnest, pt. 2 “H–O”

H is for “Heraclitus”

“Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.”

Walter Tandy Murch, “Study #18,” 1962. Transparent and opaque watercolor and charcoal on very thick woven paper, 58.4 cm x 44.5 cm. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas R. George, Class of 1940.

I cannot help but think of Heraclitus when I see the pairs of drawings and small constructions titled: “water in air,” “fire in earth,” “air in water,” and “earth in fire” in the recent Pace exhibition. I’m interested in what Heraclitus says about perception and understanding: “if all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them,” and “eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand not their language.” Is it the job of the work of art to help calibrate such sensitivity? Over your life how have you witnessed your eyes and ears (and body) better understand their own language?

When I ask what Heraclitus meant when he said each time you put your toe in a river, its a different river, and I think of one of the East Greek pots at the Met, as an answer, it makes perfect sense.

 

I is for “Intimacy”

I often think back to first seeing your wire pieces in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective—one wire extending gently into space meeting a graphite line drawn onto the wall. I felt a huge sense of tenderness at the relationship between these two gestures, which open into one, all the more so because of the vastness of the wall, which asks of you a particular type of attention. Do you think there are formal ways art can invite an intimate engagement? Is it connected to a sense of reciprocity or vulnerability?

The smell of jasmine in Macao is so all-pervasive that I fear my sense of it cannot be communicated and I am not able to take care of the powers of description, though everyone else must feel the same.

 

J is for “Juvenilia”

Nabakov, writing in Speak, Memory:

The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions. It was a phenomenon of orientation rather than of art, thus comparable to stripes of paint on a roadside rock or to a pillared heap of stones marking a mountain trail. But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge.

For me it seems clear that in his sense all art is thus positional, personal signs; what do you think? Are there activities/events from your childhood that you now see as surprisingly relevant to your mature art practice? In your mind what resides in your “Juvenilia” category?

If I could look out of every single window of Manhattan, there would, probably, not be a window for me.

Would other people have their own windows to look through?

Maybe it should read, “If I could look out of every window in Manhattan, there would probably not be a window for me.”

All those windows are obviously working very well for a lot of people as windows, and if someone were to need a window, chances are very likely they would find one which would work for them. Even then, perhaps, I would not be able to find one for me. What I meant was, an artist must be strong enough to do their work.

 

K is for “Kafka”

Hannah Arendt has described the brilliance of Franz Kafka as an inversion of our expected relationship between experience and thought:

Constantin Brancusi, “Newborn [I],” 1915. White marble, 5 3/4 × 8 1/4 × 5 7/8”/ The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. © ARS, NY. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, U.S.A.

While we find it a matter of course to associate richness of concrete detail and dramatic action with the experience of a given reality and to ascribe to mental processes abstract pallor as the price exacted for their order and precision, Kafka, by sheer force of intelligence and spiritual imagination, created out of a bare, “abstract” minimum of experience a kind of thought-landscape which, without losing in precision, harbors all the riches, varieties, and dramatic elements characteristic of “real” life.

 How does this reading of abstraction and precision strike you? What led you to create a unique bound copy of Kafka’s Wedding Preparations in the Country?

Bertrand Russell spoke more passionately the older he got, but if Japan had had a Bertrand Russell, they would not have built nuclear plants near fault zones, and I prefer to get my surrealism from Max Klinger.

K could very well also be for “Klinger”—especially the engravings I admire very much. I was amazed by your article on Philipp Otto Runge, and the depth of your knowledge of German Romanticism. What draws you to that Symbolist?

Yes, I read your questions and my replies to those here in Munich, and they also liked replacing Kafka with Klinger.

 

L is for “ludic”

Johan Huizinga argues for the ludic as the heart of human civilization in Homo Ludens (1938) in such a way as can easily be a working definition of “art”: “Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom. A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own.” Your work seems very playful to me—how do you think of playing structurally in terms of what you do as an artist?

Structurally speaking, if you think art is play you will not have either, but if you think play is art you might have both.

Indeed!

 

M is for “Murch”

While you were working with Betty Parsons did you come into contact with Walter Tandy Murch, or his work? When I asked his son, the visionary sound editor Walter Scott Murch, how his father’s art influenced him, he said that his Dad didn’t just draw things but the intervening space between you and an object, and that is how he started recording sound, not just the specific action but the space around it. I feel there are some kindred sensitivities between your work and Murch—has it ever interested you?

In a way, both father and son, loving and gentle, bring us through the night of commerce with their steadfast independence, ambition, and implacable endurance, remaining pure. Together, they are a unique phenomenon, the son completing and finishing, Jarrett, I’m glad you can, as anyone might, enjoy.

 

N is for “Newborn”

Thinking of Brancusi’s The Newborn:

When discussing your installation of white octagons in the Guggenheim’s Third Mind (2009) you said: “The humbleness of these is actually balanced by the anything-but-humble ambition to create a new form.” I am also still struck by an earlier answer for “A” in which you described your desire to “non-symbolically say something never said before.” How do you think of newness in terms of form? How has some aspect of “the new” revealed itself to you in the past? At present what is new to you?

When you use the word “hand,” you are isolating it.  If the hand were isolated, you would use the word symbolically. When you reverse this coming away, you come to the source of the strength I admire so much in the New Mexican women, Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.

 

O is for “Ornament”

In his famous polemic of 1908, Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos concludes:

But anyone who goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down and designs a wallpaper pattern is either a confidence trickster or a degenerate. Absence of ornament has brought the other arts to unsuspected heights. Beethoven’s symphonies would never have been written by a man who had to walk about in silk, satin, and lace. Anyone who goes around in a velvet coat today is not an artist but a buffoon or a house painter. We have grown finer, more subtle.

Some traces of this Modernist diatribe seemed to bubble into the discourses of Minimalism of its time although what Loos is talking about is ultimately a style of utilitarian object. Since art objects have no function as such, what is your take on the function of the “ornament” in art today—between art, ornament, and the dreaded “decorative”?

It was Loos’s job to point out to the Hapsburgs, their hand on nature was not secure.



The next installation of this interview will be published in a future edition of the Brooklyn Rail.

Contributor

Jarrett Earnest