Shoddy Words on Sam Francis
This month I made a trip back to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. I haven’t been able to see their collection since well before the pandemic started, so I was, well, very excited to see exactly how I responded to the work in their galleries. I knew ahead of time that there was a major Sam Francis painting in their permanent collection and I reacted as expected. I also knew taking notes wasn’t an option, so I prepared myself by pulling out my phone and began a very lengthy text message to myself outlining and tracking my response. It seemed appropriate to somehow catch it in real time, reaching up and grabbing a cumulonimbus cloud, inadvertently documenting the longest run-on sentence I’ve ever written, totalling 767 words.
“sharp intake of breath at the sightline it’s plunging maybe one of the best in LA the obvious relationship to Joan Mitchell hits me immediately they were friends they knew each other like I know other painters the empty spaces neutral and defined with as much vigor yet without relying on the orange blue yellow a plump purple color on the right side a series of neutrals the high values veil an absolute freneticism a cloudswarming gestural paint storm raining blue drips they’re everywhere and become visible as one closes in on the tempest the didactic isnt telling me the dimensions maybe it’s twelve feet tall but no matter its enveloping and lording over me as clouds breaking apart everything leans slightly to the right the man’s body his spine and his arm must have been heavy the gravity betrays a response a resignation a little violet mark is a letter in a clustered alphabet produced by his hand it's like writing in a way i was thinking this morning about how irritating academic vocabulary can be so irritating but now the storm clouds break in front of me and i’m no longer in my head I’m in front of a painting that has indexed a painter’s movements not unlike Cy Twombly but without the codec without the bulls and cows guessing games of his pictograms this is more wild it’s abex definitely second generation with Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler and of its time the man was in WWII and in 1956 painted with a fervor and his desire is communicated in the sometimes clunkiness of these forms that look at me like faces of the dead weather the storm clouds that pass and look back like soldiers marching and a visage a face that disappears and reappears i'm trying to make a connection between this painting Vuillard’s and a tapestry that was painted in 16th century Flanders Justice of the Emperor Trajan it's a long stretch but there is formal continuity the clusters of marks somehow don't overpower the neutral shapes this is anti-fussy non-glazing who gives a crap about technique it’s not a contrived thing its an enveloping organism a subject expressing the capacity for painting to communicate subjectivity an interfacing but what value is subjectivity without the thing that acts as the exterior the hard surface that ones interiority rubs up against like the rules and codes and the regulations maybe that's the point of tension where subjectivity emerges it’s between those two spaces interior and exterior I sometimes wonder if paintings this large are automatically successful just because they are immense and overwhelming but my experience tells me that a painting like this is likely to fail and become a train wreck where Benjamin’s angel of history from Theses on the Philosophy of History section 9 looks back and laughs at the wreckage kinda maybe not really there are two long narrow vertical paintings next to the giant piece how do u transport this someone just said out loud in the gallery space and then they just left i guess they don't see it how do they not see this what I am standing in front of it’s stunning sometimes that a person can be so detached from their own capacity to see to actually see and feel something that’s right there in their face under their nose but they miss it but maybe im so transfixed by painting that it seems unbelievable that everyone isn’t maybe just maybe it’s not the center of gravity to most people I mean the hardest thing for a painter to do is get someone to stop and look at their painting for more than five seconds and without them pulling out their phone to snap a pic to look at it later but they actually forget they even took the picture in the first place because everyone has internet brain and it’s shorted out by seeing too much stuff unnecessary stuff smh and I’m an old man yelling get off my lawn that person next to me said this painting still makes sense without the story so i guess that means who painted it isn't very important for the work to fulfill its function to communicate and reciprocally speak something to that girl in the royal blue trench coat that passed through and now she left the room with her clueless looking boyfriend that scratched his face said that’s interesting and now they disappear the little clouds on a rainy day back into the sightline into the origin of my original sharp intake of breath.”
There is an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that I committed to memory just before Graduate School that came to mind as I was driving home after the encounter. I’ve read so many translations of this passage and no longer know if my version is correct, but I’ll type it as I remember:
I caught this insight by the wing and took to the nearest shoddy words to fasten it lest it fly away from me. And now it has died of these barren words and hangs and flaps in them. I hardly know anymore, when I look at it, how I could have felt so happy when I caught this bird.
Memory is unstable and changing. Anytime one is instantiated isn’t the previous iteration forgotten and cleared? Isn’t that how it works, is the new one a facsimile of the old one? We have limited RAM, so not everything can be held in one’s consciousness all at once, it’s accessed selectively. Over time, don’t they seem to fuse with dreams and other life events? Ruptures and overlaps in the maelstrom of synaptic growth and degradation, this is what it means to be a person. Seems that observing one’s own conjured memory then isn’t unlike viewing a painting like Sam’s, or any painting for that matter. They’re different every time you look at them, because you change and grow. Me and you.