Sunday, October 20, 2019


back to school?

The New York School, that is.  Which I will explain in a minute.  I know it's been, like, foreverrrr since I've written, but here I am once again, so if you are here as well, at least that makes two of us.  I've been busy.  With all good things.  Maine is exquisite right now, as it always is, and has been taking my full attention of late.  All the cliches of fall are doubly true here.  Heirloom apples (Duchess of Oldenburg, Wealthy, Liberty, Macoun, Wolf River, and Cox's Orange Pippin are the varieties we are eating) are in bags at the organic orchard stand, and they have hot cider too, and hand-pies.  Woodsmoke curls up from our chimney into the chill evening dark.  Unironically.  The recent nor'easter whipped the colors of the season off the trees and away down the hill, leaving the old maples in front of our house almost bare.  It's downright Halloweeny out there.  I'm almost ready to come indoors for the duration but am still too restless.  Fall always feels twitchy to me, like I should be back in school, or getting ready for something important somewhere, or cleaning house and clearing out, but no, it's only the approach of winter that has me feeling that way.  There is really nowhere I must be, and nothing I must do, except that which drives me forward in the ways I myself most want.  I feel extraordinarily lucky about that, but then, I never did believe all that much in luck.  I attend the church of hard work and dedication instead.  And so I don't go back to school.  I continue my education on my own, for my own ends and pleasure, mostly through reading, but also through the pursuit of painting, to see how far I can take it, this thing I love to do so much.  Almost as much as reading!  I mean, if I could just read, I'd rather do only that, but.  It's not possible.  I've tried in the past, but now I'm too ensnared in the messy joys of paint to look back.  So on we go.  But the books still pile up, and I continue to turn to them on rainy days and in the evenings, to feed my hungry brain.  I love to learn.  And I love to learn more, about that which I only knew of in a fairly insubstantial way.  I'm a big fan of the deep dive, the what-else-is-there.  To me, all that means more books, please.

For years I've been visiting on the page with a certain circle of friends, and slowly expanding my knowledge of them and their lives.  I never learned about any of them when I was in school, except from one art professor, who read one Frank O'Hara poem aloud in class while we undergraduates were silently drawing, but they have since become one of my great artistic and literary loves - the group of poets, writers, and artists, primarily painters, known as the New York School.  The first and second generation of them flew high and left behind a long contrail of books, objects, art, rumor, and myth, which is still scattering slowly down to earth like s.o.s. leaflets dropped from the plane in question.  I have many books by and about the members of this group, who were friends and lovers (and sometimes enemies), from Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Fairfield Porter, Anne Porter, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Kenward Elmslie, Bill Berkson, John Gruen, Edwin Denby, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and more.  My most recent stack of acquisitions reflects their continuing presence in the world of new book publishing:

Let's start at the base of this pile, with a ginormous recent art book chock-full of great illustrations.  I skimmed it from cover to cover the day it arrived, to get a bird's eye view, now I need to go through again more slowly to read all the text:  New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight by Jenni Quilter, with Bill Berkson, Larry Fagin, and Allison Power (Rizzoli 2014).  I only knew of this book's existence because I was trying to track down secondhand copies of two other books in this stack, which I obviously did, because there they are:  Since When: A Memoir in Pieces by Bill Berkson (Coffee House Press 2018) and A Frank O'Hara Notebook by Bill Berkson (no place press 2019).  Since When I found for sale at Powell's, whose alogrithm kindly alerted me to the existence of the big art book.  Not only was their copy used, but they were also running a 20% off sale on all their used books, so how could I resist?  I ask you.

Speaking of Powell's.  Let's.  It has been a long-time dream of mine to go there.  I wonder if I will ever make it.  I might want to move in, or apply for a job, or go for broke, so perhaps it's best if I don't, but at least I am going to order books from them from time to time.  I think I've finally had it with Ama*on, after reading about what they are doing in Nashville.  Ugh.  Not to mention that they paid zero federal income tax this year despite monstrous profits.  I've never ordered that much from them (she said defensively...), I always check Biblio first, but I used to sell some books there, and order secondhand or even new books from time to time.  Well, I've spent enough money with them.  From now on, if I can't find what I am searching for, between my local shops, Powell's, eBay, Biblio sellers, and Strand, I will stop looking and wait, then try all those locations again in a month or two, rather than order from Ama*on.  Putting my money where my mouth is, I just bought secondhand copies of What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics by Jarrett Earnest (David Zwirner Books 2018) and Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklin Rail edited by Phong Bui, Jarrett Earnest, and Lucas Zwirner (David Zwirner Books 2017) from Strand, and they arrived promptly with free bookmarks and a most uplifting message on their excellent packaging: 

I feel very fortunate to live within easy driving distance of several decent used and new bookshops, even out here in rural Maine, and I spend money regularly at nearly all of them.  But sometimes no one here has what I want, and so I do what so many of us do now, and start nosing around online.  Blech.  Anyway, Ama*on isn't a hard habit to break, I assure you.  Strand and Powell's, and all the fine used book sellers in between, all the way!

Back to the stack - this isn't my only recent stack, by any means.  I meant to write here about this one from September, but that rainy day never arrived, and I postponed doing so until now:

I got that copy of Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 by Peter Schjeldahl (Abrams 2019) from Strand, too.  New.  Although they advertised that they had signed copies but actually *cough* didn't, oh well.  But my goodness, what a book.  I never did subscribe to the New Yorker so I had read very few of Peter Schjeldahl's reviews as they happened.  This collection contains many essays and reviews from the New Yorker and the Village Voice, and earlier.  It is edited by the (busy! he's everywhere! and he's fantastic!) Jarrett Earnest.  Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light is the textbook I wish I had been assigned in art history class.  But it didn't exist of course.  Until now, when I assign it to myself, and get to read great sentences like these:

"An artist has lured me out of myself into an illusion of reality more thrilling than any lived reality can be."  (p.309, on Vermeer)

"Her work stuns the mind while breaking the heart in two and then in four and finally to pieces."  (p.321, on Helen Levitt's street photography)

"People in bad clothes were studying the show when I visited: bookstore types."  (p.351, a Duchamp and Man Ray exhibit, and hey, that's us he's talking about!)

"The proof of any art's lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it's something that a person needed to do and that satisfies corresponding needs in us."  (pp.372-373, writing about an abstraction exhibit, and within it a tapestry made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, which, he says, "obliterates skepticism.")

He's so good!  Maybe I should have only written here tonight about that one book!  I love it so much that I tracked down another collection of his New Yorker essays, Let's See (Thames & Hudson 2008) and am currently halfway through.  But now I feel like I've talked about a lot of books superficially, instead of one or two in depth.  I guess that's my way, right now.  I'd like to say in my own defense that I'd rather be reading at this exact minute, so I'm going to go do just that!  There are others I must mention before I go, however.  For instance I can't wait to read my way through, if not cook my way through, Nigel Slater's brand new Greenfeast: autumn, winter (4th Estate 2019; I splurged and ordered a signed copy from Blackwell's in the U.K. since I did the same with his earlier volume Greenfeast: spring summer).  And, the other night I finished the tedious and long - we're talking almost ninety pages - preface to The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768-1778, edited by Annie Raine Ellis (Bell 1913), and now will embark on her actual diary.  And I want to start Tom Cox's new book Ring the Hill (Unbound 2019) but not until I can sit still for hours and read the whole thing straight through.  I love his writing so very much, so much so that I ordered a signed copy of Ring the Hill, pre-publication, to help fund it, and now my name appears in the back of the book as a subscriber/donor, alongside everyone else who did the same.  The book is available at Unbound and of course booksellers everywhere.  I also pledged to support his forthcoming Notebook, which he is working on right now.  Pretty much anything he writes I want to read, at this point.

Okay, that's all for now, apologies for this bookish jumble.  I will continue to pursue the New York School in print, and report back in about them at a later date.  This is far too long already.  But there is so much I didn't even mention at all!  Like this:  I met the author Nicholson Baker at a university talk the other night!  I was sitting in front of him, in the audience, and we spoke briefly afterwards, and that's when I recognized him!  I said, brilliantly (eye-roll), "I know you...!  You're Nicholson Baker!"  As if he might deny it, which he looked like he almost wanted to do.  Anwyay, I informed him he is represented in my book collection (again with the brilliance, um), such as it is.  We only exchanged a few words but he was warm and charming.  How I honor that man, that writer of books.  It's so good to have wonderful, entertaining, challenging, inspiring, fascinating books to turn to, in these trying times and always.  They save my soul and educate my mind and heart.  Schooling of the best kind.    

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