Tuesday, August 24, 2010

`A New Part of the American Environment'

Twenty years ago a gifted colleague at the newspaper where we worked hacked into the computer of an editor we both detested. Another colleague has described this editor as the only man he ever knew who could swagger while seated. Among the editor’s files my friend found a document slugged “Things I Hate.” It was a list of ideas for future columns, but on it were not what you might expect and even endorse – solipsism, most newspaper writing, communism, modern architecture – but small-minded banalities: motorists who drive too slowly in the passing lane, tofu, freeway tolls, intelligent women. We promptly made copies and circulated them among the staff.

I was reminded of my former supervisor’s festering mind while reading Unclassified: A Walker Evans Anthology (2000), photos and documents from the Evans archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Jeff L. Rosenheim and Douglas Eklund. To my taste, Evans (1903-1975) is among the great artists of the last century, best known for his collaboration with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Agee’s prose is overripe and precious but Evans’ photos, because of their elegant directness, have grown in beauty and power.

Included in Unclassified are lists labeled “Contempt for” and “Contempt or hatred for” made by Evans and Agee, respectively, in 1937. Evans’ list is fairly genteel: “gourmets, liberals, cultivated women,” “limited editions, `atmosphere,’ Bennington College, politics,” “critics.” Agee’s is nastier and more pretentious: “most whose feelings get hurt,” “those who bring forth, and up, children,” “Jane Austen.” To his credit, Agee does include “sensitive young men” and “Karl Marx.”

Also included is a much shorter list, “Likes,” prepared by Agee on the same day. It’s a more appealing artifact: “movies,” “music,” “Buster Keaton,” “city streets,” “the life and conduct of Joyce,” though he adds, ominously, “Lenin.” I already admired Evans and disliked Agee’s life and work before seeing these lists, and that certainly colors my reading of them, but I’m still disturbed by minds attracted to hit lists, the quantification of whims and petty dissatisfactions, especially among nominal adults. There’s something Travis Bickle-like about it, a form of arrested adolescence.

In contrast, while reading Stuart Davis (edited by Philip Rylands, 1997), I came upon a passage from an essay, “The Cube Root,” the painter published in Art News in 1943. Davis (1892-1964) reminds me of Evans in his formal elegance and love of the American scene. He writes:

“Some of the things which make me want to paint, outside of other paintings, are: American wood and iron work of the past; Civil War and skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations; chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs; the music of Bach; synthetic chemistry; the poetry of Rimbaud; fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Glouchester, Mass.; 5 & 10 cent store kitchen utensils; movies and radio; Earl Hines hot piano and Negro jazz music in general, etc. In one way or another the quality of these things plays a role in determining the character of my paintings. Not in the sense of describing them in graphic images, but by predetermining an analogous dynamics in the design, which becomes a new part of the American environment.”

Davis, a great modernist painter and instinctive democrat, was enthusiastically responsive to his American surroundings. He named his son Earl, after Hines.

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Cynthia Haven said...
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