November 12, 2021

Thomas Nozkowski's Distinct and Personal Vision

Thomas Nozkowski, who sadly died in 2019, made paintings like no one else's, and each painting was an exploration of color and form totally its own. A recent show at Pace Gallery, "The Last Paintings", presented 15 paintings, done in the last few years of his life. They are insistently modest in size, but not in feeling or painterly ambition. Each work measures 22 x 28 inches, and all are oil on linen stretched on a panel. There's been a great deal of excellent writing on this show and on Nozkowski's body of work, including two beautiful tributes from people who knew him: by the artist Tom McGlynn in the Brooklyn Rail, and the writer John Yau in Hyperallergic. The New York Times published a laudatory, informative article, with lots of studio photos. I don't feel that I have anything insightful to add, but I wanted to join the chorus of praise for this beautiful and moving show.


In the painting above, with its interlocking masses of organic shapes, blues alongside greens, I think of a landscape, perhaps turned on its side, but the bright promise of these forms is belied by the subtle blacks behind them, peopled by rounded forms rising out of the dark, like ghosts. Nozkowski's handling of paint is masterly in its myriad approaches: in this painting clear, crisp, opaque forms backed by vertical transparencies, all in perfect pitch. Of course, photographs flatten the complexities of the paint. (If you click on the image you'll see it in more detail.)

Floating colored circles are seen through transparent, undulating shapes, like things seen under water. The image seems airy and lyrical, but the stark white circles, some partially overlapped, startle in their contrast. I can be tempted to try to discern the source of Nozkowski's images, since all come from out in the real world––perhaps landscape or film or literature––but ultimately it's not important that we know. In a terrific interview with the artist in Art News in 2016, he explains his painting ideas and approaches at length. One thing he said about sources: 

Well, here’s the thing, once you say you’re using sources and you have content, people think that’s the end of the story—that’s what it’s about. But of course you know absolutely nothing...

To illustrate that knowing nothing, a story: I recently commented on a friend's abstract painting online, writing that I found it very poignant. It turned out that it was inspired by seeing an echocardiogram of his elderly father's heart. Of course I could never have guessed that source, but was moved by the painting without knowing. The quality of the form told its story. 

A viaduct of colors crosses black and white terrain, connecting shapes recalling water and land. I love the way the solid mass of blue, a stable element, contrasts with the jazzy goings on––disparate yet connected––in the black and white center of the painting.

Here is another painting in which the center is a total surprise in its radical difference from what surrounds it. I'm in awe of how Nozkowski came up with these ideas, and with the techniques to pull them off. Strongly colored shapes, outlined in pale yellow, border, on two sides, a busy field of red and yellow.

The area of actively criss-crossing yellow lines on red creates, for me, an atmospheric effect, a shimmering in light, that sits behind the "window" of the foreground shapes. It is like a bright spring morning.

Irregular colored shapes float gently––or are they broken pieces falling?––above a cool gray ground, which is composed of many small adjoining and overlapping shapes. The foreground shapes are primarily soft greens, but then there's that insistent red square and the orange shape alongside it. The red square demands attention, as if to say that things aren't as you expect them to be; that there's always a surprise in store. 

Another surprise is that there is a gray shape that overlaps the corner of the orange one. Even though the grays are painted delicately, transparently, here one breaks its polite place in space and moves forward. This is such a great twist, one that upends certainties. 

Seeing Thomas Nozkowski's last paintings was an exhilarating experience. With his vivid painterly imagination he presents to us wide-ranging, glorious human possibilities. 

October 31, 2021

John Chamberlain: Material and Meaning

I've recently been having very interesting conversations about the meaning that is embedded in an artwork: are we to see abstract work as a composition consisting of shape, color, space, light, or is there content in addition to the formal concerns of the work? John Chamberlain is an interesting artist to think of in this context. I wrote about the marvelous retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2012, where I saw the sculpture as purely about color and shape, and surprising moments of juxtaposition and detail. Seeing a stunning show of Chamberlain's sculpture currently at Gagosian Gallery has prodded me to think about what it means that he used industrial scrap metal and parts of cars in his sculpture. 

In the work above––I'm sorry not to have titles and dates, but some galleries have taken to not having check lists, or even reproducing the work on their websites, which is very frustrating––a curved red clamshell shape sits atop crumpled blue forms, almost like an open mouth. Are we to think of a figure? 

This very large sculpture of compressed and varied forms, one side primarily blues, another yellows, made me think of a landscape in its multitudinous parts and its complexity. It also feels like a raucous free jazz composition, form piled upon form, sometimes discordant, in other parts fluid. 

I couldn't help but see a crowd of moving figures, as though on a busy sidewalk. This is such a dynamic piece, and it reminded me of Philip Guston's painting Monument, a scrum of legs and feet. 

This is a stunningly dramatic piece, with smooth thin forms reaching high, fluid rounded shapes nestled one against the other. But all these observations of mine are about image, what the whole of the sculpture brings to mind. 

As here, with another monumental piece that looks to me like an animated creature, rustling as it moves. Chamberlain's magical expertise with folding, crushing, and welding sometimes lets us forget that this is metal that he's working with, and not malleable clay or cloth.  

Yet there is metal's rigidity and sharp edges, its shiny surfaces, its shapes that are sometimes clearly part of an automobile's body.

In this detail of the other side of the sculpture pictured above, Chamberlain has included parts of a car that are clearly elements of a bumper, smoothly protruding; they could be from a 1951 Ford coupe. Does this clear reference to the origin of Chamberlain's materials indicate that some of the meaning of his work lies in industrial automobile manufacture? is there a critique of American addiction to cars and the open road? or a paean to American know-how and design, as with the American Precisionists of the early 20th century? 

I would answer "no", for the most part. Of course I have to acknowledge the source of Chamberlain's materials, but for me that does not determine the meaning of the work, which I find in responding to its form. I don't know if he was attracted to scrap metal because of its origins, or because of the way it behaved and looked when made into a sculpture. Chamberlain himself, in speaking of the meaning of his work said:
"Even if I knew, I could only know what I thought it meant."
We artists cannot determine what meaning observers find in our work. What we prefer people to see is not always what they will see. For me, looking at a non-objective work is a rich experience, noting the way form and color interact, the quietude or dynamism of a composition. I find meaning in these things, and a deep emotional satisfaction. In recent years I've had two extraordinary experiences standing in front of a painting, paintings which caused me to weep at their beauty and depth of feeling. One was at the National Gallery in London: 

Piero di Cosimo, Satyr Mourning a Nymph, ca. 1495

I wrote about this remarkably tender painting here. Not only is the narrative touching, but the form and structure of the work are in perfect harmony with its story.

The other was a Mondrian in the collection of the Hartford Atheneum:

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Blue and White, 1935

The simplicity and perfection of this painting struck me so strongly. In a photo image it appears much more flatly painted than it does in person. My point in showing these two paintings, so different in subject and separated by centuries, is that response to a work does not have to be tied to its subject; meaning can reside in narrative, and it also can be found in pure form. To be honest, I was surprised at my unbidden spell of weeping in front of the Mondrian, but it proves to me that a reductive work of art can be as important to me as one of representation and narrative; form in itself carries meaning. 

October 7, 2021

For Eggplant Lovers: Fried Eggplant Patties

It's been a very long time since I posted a recipe on this blog. But during the summer I fell in love with a recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, so I wanted to share it. I had a huge crop of eggplants this past summer, and Hazan's "Eggplant Patties with Parsley, Garlic, and Parmesan" was an delicious way to use them. 


I did change one aspect of the recipe: in her instructions, Hazan tells us to bake whole eggplants in a 400º oven until tender, about 40 minutes. When I first tried this recipe a year or two ago, that's how I cooked the eggplants and the result, to me, was ho-hum. Instead, I decided to cook the eggplants over an open flame on the stove until they were soft and blackened, as I've cooked them for eggplant salad, recipe here. The result is a deep, smoky flavor that adds tremendous richness to the patties. 

  • About 2 pounds eggplant
  • 1/2 cup unflavored bread crumbs (I use Panko)
  • 3 Tbs parsley, chopped fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped very fine (I like lots of garlic; my home-grown cloves are huge)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tbs freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  • salt
  • freshly ground black papper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Flour, spread on a plate
1. Cook the eggplants over a direct flame on the stove, turning them until they are charred all over and easily pierced with a two-tined fork.
2. When cool enough to handle, slip off skins, cut eggplant in large pieces––I also remove any large, hard masses of seeds––and place in a colander to drain, at least 15 minutes. You can gently squeeze the eggplant to help it release moisture. 
3.  Finely chop the eggplant and combine in a bowl with bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, egg, parmesan, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly. 
4. Shape into small patties around 2 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. Smaller patties give a crispier result. 
5. Put enough vegetable oil in a skillet to come 1/4 inch up the sides (Hazan recommends 1/2 inch, but I use less), and turn the heat to high. When the oil is very hot, turn the patties in the flour on both sides and put into the pan; don't crowd them. When they're nicely browned on one side, turn them. When done, drain on a paper towel-lined pan or plate.  Serve hot or lukewarm.

Enjoy! this makes a lot of patties; the recipe says it serves 4 to 6. I heat my leftovers by putting them in a hot skillet, which maintains the crispmess. 

And if you're interested, another of my favorite ways to prepare eggplant is frying the slices,  I eat them in a pita bread sandwich, recipe here, or use for a pasta sauce with tomatoes, recipe here

September 24, 2021

The Blasted Tree: A Visual Metaphor


On a recent walk through the woods I saw that a large tree had two of its limbs shattered, possibly by a lightning strike. The breaks looked violent, with jagged edges, and an aggressive split. It's startling to see this damage amidst calm, leafy trees. And yet, it's a part of nature's cycle of destruction, decay, and regrowth. I wrote about this pattern here. Seeing this tree made me think of all the images of blasted trees in landscape paintings, and their meaning within those landscapes. 

Jacob van Ruysdael, Landscape with a Half-timbered House and a Blasted Tree, 1653

In her essay on Romantic landscape painting in Hyperallergic, Allison Meier writes:
What's important is that the tree is usually still living, leaves clinging to its battered branches. To the Romantics, it represented the cycle of nature, from death to life, all at once. 

Thomas Hearne, Blasted Tree Near a Lake, 1803

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (1818), Victor Frankenstein describes himself as a blasted tree:
But I am a blasted tree: the bolt has entered my soul, and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit what I shall soon cease to be – a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity,  pitiable to others, and intolerable to myself. 

William Blake, Blasted Trees and Flattened Crops, 1821

The idea of the blasted tree has great emotional weight. In Blake's wood engraving the tree is so much like a storm-tossed human figure, bent by the wind, with a few leaves clinging to its outstretched arms. 

Frederic Church, Storm in the Mountains, 1847

A solitary tree, its trunk split and broken, stands high above a turbulent landscape. It is as though Church is pointing to pride and resilience in the face of turmoil. 

Jasper Cropsey, Blasted Tree, 1850

Like in the Church painting, Cropsey situates his damaged tree high up on a precipice, overlooking a dark, foreboding landscape. This painting feels despondent to me, the blasted tree crushed, the light in the sky nearly obliterated. 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926 

In this painting––the only one I could find on this theme from the 20th century––Harris presents a more optimistic vision of a solitary damaged tree. The tall, central tree is bathed in light; its curving forms reach skyward, an evocation of positive striving. In the history of the arts, our relationship with nature has provided many metaphors, including this one of the blasted tree. Simon Schama wrote a brilliant book, Landscape and Memory, on the various myths and strong cultural connections that we have to the different landscapes surrounding us. In his introduction he wrote:
...the various ecosystems that sustain life on the planet proceed independently of human agency...But it is also true that it is difficult to think of a single such natural system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture...And it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have.

September 9, 2021

The Vegetable Garden: Aesthetic and Gustatory Pleasures

I love my vegetable garden. What could be more wonderful than bringing a basket of just-picked vegetables into the house for a meal? It's not just the taste that is important––you'll never buy a potato as good as one that's homegrown––but there is also the act of planting a seed, then watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and bear fruit. Even after almost 30 years of raising vegetables in this place, it still seems a magical process. It's a process of hit and miss––some years a great eggplant crop, another year hardly a one; sometimes insects go on the rampage––but there are always enough successes; it's a process of hope. As Margaret Atwood wrote:
Gardening is not a rational act. 
And May Sarton, in At Seventy: A Journal:
A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.

Although I've mostly given up on my flower borders, concentrating my energy on growing vegetables, I do plant some flowers amongst the the food crops. It's a delight to look out at my garden and see towering sunflowers, adding good cheer to the scene. These are Lemon Queen, and this plant grew to 8 feet tall this summer. But it's not just the sunflowers that I find beautiful; each vegetable plant has its own aesthetic qualities. Corn tassels pointing into the air are like delicate waving fingers.

A sweet pepper plant shows off its dazzling fruit, lovely to see, and to taste. 

Lettuces, with leaves of various shapes radiating from a center, are as beautiful as floral bouquets. 

Red cabbage, a grand leafy vegetable, has gorgeous leaves surrounding a stunning volleyball-sized center. 


I feel so much satisfaction in looking at my harvested crops. They are a reward of hard work, and I'm happy just contemplating them before eating. These three melons are grown from seed from Fedco Seeds, and are: on the left Alvaro, a Charentais melon; behind is a honeydew, White Honey; and on the right is a delicious hybrid, Sensation. Each of these has a different flavor, and they taste nothing like supermarket melons; oh, they are so much more delicious! 


The eggplants were very happy this year, probably because of the early heat spell that we had. I love eggplant, and it's a treat to have fresh ones to cook. Two food favorites: fried eggplant sandwiches, and eggplant salad, both family recipes. Click on the links for the recipes. The fried eggplant link has a bonus of a recipe for homemade pita bread. 


Sungold cherry tomatoes glow on the vine. They are so delicious that I stand and eat them in the garden, popping one after another into my mouth, so they rarely make it into the house. But I can recommend a way of cooking them: toss with olive oil and sauté in a pan until soft and caramelized; simple and quite tasty. 

Another vegetable that barely makes it out of the garden to a plate is corn. The kernels are so tender and sweet that cooking isn't necessary. What a pleasure to stand out in the sun, admiring the plants around me, while eating an ear of corn.

Winter squashes are like hidden gems, nestled under rampant foliage.

Preserving crops is an important part of gardening. Many of my crops will feed me through the winter into next spring. I make jam: rhubarb in the spring, blueberry and raspberry in early summer, and here: green tomato jam––recipe at the link––which is similar to a marmalade. 

I'm grateful for summers with abundant tomatoes, so I'm able to can, and to freeze sauce. I know I sound like a broken record, but home-canned tomatoes are so much more tasty than even the best canned tomatoes you can buy. I favor Juliet paste tomatoes for these purposes. For fresh eating I grow a variety of heirloom tomatoes.


I hang some crops to dry in the mudroom, here oat straw––which I'll cut into small pieces and use for tea––and garlic. "Awe", a perfect sentiment in regards to vegetables, is the top of a Bread and Puppet poster. 


Also in the mudroom are onions, with a Karl Blossfeldt photograph at the lower right, an image of gourd squash stems.

Finally, a peak inside my chest freezer, which is getting packed to the top with summer produce. You can see broccoli, green beans. zucchini, corn, whole green peppers for stuffing at the upper right, and some homemade bagels (these aren't from the garden; I don't plan to grow wheat). In addition to these ways of saving vegetables, I also have a root cellar where I keep carrots, beets, potatoes, and cabbage once the weather has cooled. 

I think about the winter ahead with satisfaction, when I can ruminate on what I'll eat for lunch or dinner and know that an abundant variety of vegetables is at hand. The pleasure goes beyond good food, into a feeling of life well lived. 

August 24, 2021

Questions I Ask Myself While Painting


When we work at tasks––cooking, cleaning, gardening, repairing––I imagine that all of us ask ourselves questions, whether consciously or not. Do I add more salt? where should I put this new plant? how can I fix this cupboard door with its loose hinge? will wood putty work? When I'm in the process of painting, which I've been doing for about 50 years (yikes!) I don't usually pay attention to the questions asked, decisions made; although they are constant, I don't focus clearly on them. Painting became like walking, where I don't have to ponder each muscle movement in order to go forward. 

But then, a painting ago, the questions became loud and clear in my head; I noticed them. The questions were about process, about the step by step making of a painting, and not anything philosophical: not why am I doing this at all, not what I'm trying to say. Just process. I imagine every artist has their own particular questions. A first question for me is the palette and which color pastes are to be laid out in the small cups: do I need Cadmium orange? which yellow should I use, Cad yellow medium or light? should I mix the greens I'll need? if so, which blues will come in handy? Ultramarine deep? Cobalt blue deep, or light or standard? maybe a green? Why oh why didn't I order more Chrome oxide green? Should I use some Phthalo green? if so, warm or cool? 

I use photographic sources for my work, so there are often decisions to be made as to how faithfully to follow the image. For this painting one large question was: what color do I paint the lower right corner? The source was green grass, which would not do at all. The warm brown you see sketched in above was many colors before it got to that one. Should it be dark green? blue? a warm earth red? maybe more yellow in that? lighter? darker? Each questioned color was tried and wiped off, to start anew. Should the color have transparency? or be more opaque? I actually thought this: should the color be dead or alive? I think my question meant how intense should the color be? should it recede, or pop, or be on the same plane as the shapes above? 

There are always questions about the composition: will I move the diagonals so that they touch the corners? what about that dark edge: put it in or leave it out? Should I widen the left rectangle? Where should I place the red circle? centered, or higher? And the biggest question: do I leave the arm coming from the left side of the red disk? And the protruding brown cylinder: is it be seen from above, as in the source image, or straight on? 

Here is a detail of that part of the painting, finished, with the questions answered.

Colors chosen bring up a litany of questions, for every color in every painting. Many years ago, when I was a student at Skowhegan, our rallying cry was "Hue! Value! Intensity!", the three qualities of color. Getting these greens––in shadow and light––to work required many layers of color answering how warm? how cool? how light? how dark? how intense do I want the color to be? which blue or green or yellow will give the hue I want? will the shadow color be more or less transparent? will adding white kill the color, or would yellow work? which yellow? maybe I should add lemon yellow to my palette? And the touch, or facture: do I want it to show a subtle painterliness or a more opaque surface? Will the green rectangle on the left be lighter, warmer than the triangular green? How about the lights? how warm, how light? One of the great qualities of egg tempera is its translucency, which allows for color mixing while layering paint. And after each layer, each new color: does it sit properly in space? does it carry enough light?  

Red Disk, 2021, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 5/8 x 8 5/8 in.

A final question: do I include a photo of the finished painting in this blog post? 

As I thought about why my list of questions moved to the foreground of my mind, I remembered that I'd recently read a wonderful poem by John Yau, "Fifty for Richard Nonas", the sculptor, which consisted of a long list of questions, questions that are enlightening, thoughtful, demanding, confounding, compelling, essential. I love this::
What is invisible inside this place you are filling with carbon dioxide? What besides air, light, and memories? 
(click to enlarge)

August 12, 2021

Mushrooms: Wonders of the Woods

"One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there." John Cage

It was thrilling to spot this mass of glowing chanterelles, loudly announcing their emergence. Although they often show up in this spot, it's rarely this many. As different from the composer and mushroom expert John Cage, I know very little about mushrooms; these are the only ones I will eat, along with lawn puffballs. I generally approach mushrooms as an aesthetic, rather than culinary, experience, admiring their widely varying colors and shapes. And wow. this year there is an embarrassment of riches in the woods. After a hot, dry spring, it rained and rained and rained in July, which has encouraged a plethora of species, many of which I've never seen before. 

My chanterelle pizza

I've tried to identify some of the mushrooms I've photographed, using my Audubon guide, but haven't always succeeded. I've seen estimates of 10,000 species of mushrooms, which are the fruiting body of a fungus, and 120,000 fungi. So, I may be forgiven for not knowing even common ones. But, I think this is a Parasol mushroom. It stood out, noticeably tall and white, in the distance on the path; it was about 8 inches tall. I photographed this on August 5th; a couple of days later the cap had spread out into a flat disk, around 6 inches wide. A couple of days after that, I saw it covered with a fine hairy fungus of some sort; and as I write this on August 11, the cap has collapsed into a brown decaying form. 

"Rockland County, where Stony Point is located, abounds in mushrooms of all varieties. The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them. Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is—its own center. It's useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition." John Cage


I love seeing red mushrooms. The color is so brilliant against the dun-colored forest floor. They demand attention.

We might think we are underwater when seeing coral mushrooms. How did this similarity happen?

In my mushroom book, this species, or similar, previously unknown to me, is grouped with Coral-like mushrooms. 

And, I'd never seen, or noticed, this cup-shaped mushroom, perhaps because of its dark color, or because it grows so close to the ground. 

It's a treat to see these small, shiny, jelly-like fungi. I think they're Orange jelly, but I wish they were Witches' Butter, because I love the name; Witches' butter, though, are yellow in color. 

I have zero idea what these tiny mushrooms are; some kind of club mushroom I suppose, new to me. They're kind of wonderful, with their groupings of erect forms with rounded tops. 

This grand specimen, about 10 inches across, lives in the same spot each year, growing on underground wood. I assume that it's a polypore of some sort; I admire its deep reddish color and rippling, overlapping forms. 

Here's a beautiful warm gray cap on a mushroom, an unusual color. It's possible that it's a Grey Spotted amanita, as a youngster, but the photos I've seen online don't look like this. The scales and veil on the stem mark it as an amanita (maybe).  

A bolete for sure. They are beautiful mushrooms, with elegant caps and stems, and pores instead of gills under their caps. They are remarkable plentiful in my near woods this summer. Many of them are edible, but since some are not, I won't cook them.

When I saw these two mushrooms, boletes, side by side in the woods, I kept exclaiming "holy mackerel! holy mackerel!" (For some reason stronger language didn't leave my mouth.) Why? because they're HUGE: the larger one was 8 inches across, and I'd never seen anything like it; nothing so large except for polypores. They'd been knocked over, so I brought them home to photograph them. Under the pores was a soft white spongy layer. How many of my readers will tell me I should have cooked these? or maybe not. 

Another exciting find, from very large to very small. These Velvety earth tongues were growing on a pile of logs that I've seen decay over the years; the logs are now covered with teeny orange mushrooms, some small red ones, mosses, and lichens. These are another mushroom I've never seen before, and it's surprising to me how thrilled I feel when seeing something new. They are only about an inch and a half high, which gives you an idea of how tiny the orange mushrooms are. I encourage readers to click on the images to enlarge them, to see these marvels in more detail. I'd like to close with another quote from John Cage, which expresses beautifully the love due to mushrooms:
"What permits us to love one another and the earth we inhabit is that we and it are impermanent. We obsolesce. Life's everlasting. Individuals aren't. A mushroom lasts for only a very short time. Often I go in the woods thinking after all these years I ought finally to be bored with fungi. But coming upon just any mushroom in good condition, I lose my mind all over again. Supreme good fortune: we're both alive!"