Woke up and said to myself: ‘Today is the straw that breaks the camel’s back‘, meaning that today I will get better and start living again, hang out washing on wind-whipped lines in the back garden, finally begin a painting about nature that is in fact a grid or road map, because grids interest me and I want a choiceless geometric road map of the vast semi-desert of the Karoo saturated with Karoo-ness and all the emotions and feel of the Karoo held in place by a grid.
For three months — well two years all in all — I have been doing sketches on the backs of envelopes and on blank pages of notebooks; making lists of what each grid should (invisibly) contain. When the painting is done I am going to frame it in a plain oblong dark wood frame, hang it between the window and the corner of the living room wall in an unreflecting place so that I can enjoy it from where I usually sit in the evenings. The housemate will ask me why I don’t paint the nice bright colours in the garden or do dog portraits because our dogs look especially doggy and beloved right now. Visitors will ask me if I am going to finish that thing up there on the wall.
And slowly the room will fill up with those great undefined spaces of the Karoo, my heartland in a dry country of vast echoing nowhereness.
There was a time when I was paid to write art criticism for what I might euphemistically call ‘lifestyle media’. I would go off to galleries and exhibitions and look at curated choices and judiciously hung pieces floating between floor and ceiling, have coffee with artists and sculptors and puzzle and puzzle some more over their art. I would come back over and over again. I would write to the artists and they would — generously — show me drafts and line drawings and old photos of themselves as children and the Kodak-ed hill behind the family home. I would then think very hard and feel even harder. All kinds of conceptual reading, biographies and monographs would need to be studied. I’d call the art gallery owner and get him to open the studios very early for me so that I could go in there alone and stand looking at the art again. The editor would refuse to extend my deadlines and threaten me. The more I loved, the less i understood. But I would go away brimming over with insights, questions and passionate declarations.
Then I would write a single paragraph that essentially said, ‘Wow! You have to go and look at this!‘ Everybody would be happy. She likes it! That’s lifestyle media, all bright and confident voice, va-va-vrooom bravado and more than a little hype. But in truth, wordlessness is sometimes the only response to art that is all about art.
Frank O’Hara says it all:
Why I Am Not A Painter
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.