Friday, February 20, 2015

Zwischen Leben und Tod [Between Life and Death]: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss // by Michael Hersch

Die Maschinen griefen die Menschheit an

I first learned of Peter Weiss’s (1916-1982) artwork almost a decade ago while reading W.G. Sebald’s (1944-2001) On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald’s writing -- as it has on many others -- made a deep impression on me, so much so that fragments from his poem After Nature form a framework for my horn and cello work, Last Autumn (2008). Isolated lines, or groups of lines, from the poem came to mind as I was writing the piece. Particular verbal images captured in shape or texture much of what I felt. When Last Autumn is performed, however, Sebald’s texts are not sung or recited; it is purely instrumental music. I placed the texts at designated junctures in the written score before various movements of music. The texts did, and still do, represent a kind of private communication between me and Sebald’s words. This kind of dialog between composers and poets is nothing new, of course. There are many examples across the centuries of composers writing music with outside texts in quiet co-existence. 

Some five years later, the artwork of Peter Weiss had a similar effect on me, but Weiss’s paintings and drawings had a more direct impact on the music. Weiss’s spectrum of color and motion, of proportion and spacing, struck me as particularly musical, and I found this both provocative and inspiring. While Sebald’s texts had acted as companions which reinforced and heightened my own state of mind, Weiss’s environments included both familiar and alien worlds that I wanted to capture directly in sound. In either case, I felt at home. For the first time, I felt compelled to engage directly with images through music. 

I had only known of Peter Weiss as a playwright before reading Sebald’s essay about him. While I was familiar with some of his searing stage dramas, I did not know that from the time he was a young man he was a serious visual artist as well. One of his earliest works, Selbsporträt zwischen Tod und Schwester (Self-portrait between Death and Sister), was completed in 1935 after the death of his sister in an accident. The drawing has many hallmarks of his later writing and artwork: pronounced disquiet, looming threat, wistfulness. I find compelling that Weiss, from one work to the next, takes an active or more participatory, or more passive and detached, stance toward his subjects - especially in the paintings expressing what appears to be terror or grief, or both of these states simultaneously. Throughout his work there are also recurring images that seem deeply meditative; for example, animate and even inanimate subjects lost in thought. 

Selbsporträt zwischen Tod und Schwester

In his essay on the artist, subtitled On Memory and Cruelty in the Work of Peter Weiss, Sebald discusses several of the paintings, including Das grosse Welttheater (The Great World Theater), which he describes as 

“... a pandemonium of transgression in front of a background of capsizing ships and lit by the reflection of a conflagration ... it denotes a now permanent state of destruction. What is seen, here and now, is already an underworld beyond anything natural, a surreal region of industrial complexes and machines, chimneys, silos, viaducts, walls, labyrinths, leafless trees, and cheap fairground attractions …” 

Das grosse Welttheater

In Weiss’ Gartenkonzert (Concert in the Garden) Sebald sees

“... figures with lowered eyelids ... including the young harpsichordist with his blind gaze, are among the harbingers of a life surviving at best only in the sensation of pain, in unreserved identification with the despised, scorned, crippled, and fading, with those who sit weeping in their concealment …” 

Das Gartenkonzert

Though each of these paintings is quite different, below the surface similar tensions roil. 

Zwischen Leben und Tod is a program-length work for violin and piano. The music is structured in twenty-two movements, each movement corresponding to a particular image by Weiss. This is my third work that has had a relationship with visual art; the others are Images From a Closed Ward (after etchings by Michael Mazur) and Black Untitled (after a painting of the same name by Willem de Kooning). Of the three pieces, Zwischen Leben und Tod is most closely intertwined with the artwork, while my approach in Images From a Closed Ward and Black Untitled was closer to that of Last Autumn

While I did not know him personally, W.G. Sebald gave me two great gifts: his writing itself which has been, and continues to be, a source of solace and inspiration, and an introduction to Peter Weiss’s artwork. I am neither an art historian nor literary critic. But I hope, as Sebald did, that more people may discover the artwork of this extraordinary figure. 

At the conclusion of his essay, Sebald quotes a passage from Weiss’s Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance)

“O Herakles. The light is dim, my pencil blunt. I would have wished to write it all differently. But the time is too short. And I have run out of paper.” 

Junge im Garten

Translations of W.G. Sebald into English from the original German by Anthea Bell  

Der Krieg

Michael Hersch (b. 1971) is a composer and pianist.

Michael Hersch's Zwischen Leben und Tod: twenty-two pieces after images by Peter Weiss receives its world premiere on February 26, 2015 at the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, performed by violinist Carolyn Huebl and pianist Mark Wait.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kevin Tuttle at the Martin Art Gallery, 2012

Altar to an Unknown God, 1989-91

Kevin Tuttle's Comings and Goings ran from August 29 to September 23, 2012 at Muhlenberg College's Martin Art Gallery. Below is the artist statement that accompanied the show.

Soto! Explore thyself!
Therein thyself shalt find
The "Undiscovered Continent"—
No Settler had the Mind.

-- Emily Dickinson

The work presented here is selected from about a 30 year time frame. It chronicles a journey from decorative, to reductive formal, to subject-narrative driven work. However, even in the decorative work there was the beginning of subject matters that would unwittingly resurface over the span of many years.

There are a number of influences in the work from literature and poetry; and from Greek/Roman and Chinese/Japanese painting and sculpture to contemporary artists such as Christopher Cairns, Jonathan Silver, and Anselm Kiefer. I have tried to have no fear of influence. I have been guided by statements from other artists such as Goethe and Matisse who advocate for the possibility of being influenced. In particular I’ve been guided by Matisse who felt that an avoidance of influence is an act of insincerity. I also have taken courage from his ability to periodically re-form himself especially during the period of 1915-1917. While one of the preeminent artists in the world, and at the age of 45-47, he undertook a belated response to cubism and also reaffirmed his much earlier statement and heritage, “if Cezanne is right, then I am right.”

But possibly the primary linkage between the work shown here is not a development of ideas from one point to another. Rather, it is that due to both scale and general homeliness there likely is no future for these works. So, thank you to the Martin Art Gallery for the opportunity to see the work together for the first and last time.

A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become—
Who had they lived, had died but when
They died, Vitality begun.

-- Emily Dickinson

Click on photos to enlarge.

Le Tombeau de Baudelaire

Voyage to Cythera

Blackwater - Exsanguination

Uselessys, 1988-89

        Palatine Hill (detail, Uselessys), oil on panel, 12" x 8", 1994

In Light Of (Interior)


Almost Aquamarine, 1985
Death of Artists

In Light Of (Interior)

Photos courtesy of Kevin Tuttle.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jonathan Silver's Studio, As Photographed by Michael O'Keefe

For most of his artistic life, Jonathan Silver worked in a crowded, third-floor loft space on East 4th Street in Manhattan.  "The 4th Street studio was an environment in itself when Jonathan was in it,” Marion Smit, Silver’s longtime assistant, wrote in an email.  “I spent quite a bit of time [there] in the early- to mid-eighties, sometimes helping Jonathan with various things or just sitting there listening and talking to him while drinking some of that delicious coffee/ heavy cream/ sugar concoction he used to make. Talking with Jonathan was always a pleasure. He was to the point and incredibly engaging, sometimes acerbic. He was erudite beyond belief and passionate.  His commitment to, knowledge of, and involvement with music and art was total. He lived it, he was in it. The studio was a physical manifestation of that. Literary passages, phone numbers, engagements were scrawled in pencil on the walls, chunks and shards of plaster and plaster dust covered the floor, various versions of 'Wounded Amazon', 'Eve',' Half Eve' were in the process of being worked or reworked, part clay/ part plaster, fragments scattered around, books here and there, and the piano in the middle of it all."  

After Silver died in 1992, his wife Barbara preserved the space largely as it was when he was alive.  Over the years, she has admitted visitors by request—friends, former students, and admirers.  One of these admirers was the young artist Michael O’Keefe, who, in the early 2000’s, visited the studio twice, taking the photos included here.  (See all of O’Keefe’s photos here.)  In the text below, written in 2011, O’Keefe describes his experience.


The first time I visited Jonathan's studio was well after his death, some time around 2001 or 2002. Barbara Silver graciously had me into her apartment above the studio. She greeted me at the door and then, as if it was the obvious thing to do (and, as far as I was concerned, it was) she began to give me a tour of the work in the house which included many paintings, drawings and sculptures made by Jonathan, but also a few works by artists that were close to Jonathan, most notably Christopher Cairns and Bruce Gagnier.  After looking at the work we sat down for tea and a little history of Jonathan. From that conversation I remember her description of Jonathan's love of classical music, the piano and for Beethoven, specifically. And I recall Barbara's comments about how at the end of his life Jonathan worked very late into the night and while doing so listened to strange talk-radio shows, what she described as "Christian radio".

Upon entering the studio I was struck by the amount of work that was still present in this space that had not been used for many years. Barbara mentioned that it was more or less just as he left it, except she had recently swept up the plaster dust that covered the floor. One could easily imagine this room with an overwhelming amount of dust and debris as there was a lot of work in a relatively small space and the work was clearly made with some degree of violence and excitement.  I imagined piles of discarded sculptures, molds, shards, etc., that Jonathan would have turned to as his stockpile of materials.  

Barbara left me to look around. I had only ever heard about Jonathan and seen just a few of his sculptures, and so this was a large dose of the artist, all at once. There was writing all over the walls, oftentimes illegible. I recall making out some things about Rodin, something to do with Rodin's use of "color", meaning light, I think.  Most of the legible writing seemed over my head or hard to piece together its relevance to the work - it was very clear that Jonathan had a massive intellect. But the work itself is more often ruled by expressionistic desires. 
Every part of the studio, including all of the work and even the lighting in the space, seemed to be perfectly aligned with the image I had in mind of what Jonathan looked like, his dark, wild hair and his serious eyes.  

After looking closely at the many sculptures in the front room I went into the small back room where I sat down with the stacks of drawing pads that were there on a table. I flipped through hundreds of drawings, most of them very small, all of them careful and precise while maintaining a remarkable sense of spontaneity. Discovering the work in these drawing pads remains one of the most exciting and inspiring art viewing experiences of my life. 

Two years later I returned to the studio to look again at the drawings and to take some photographs.  Two years later the front studio looked exactly the same, still preserving the point in time when Jonathan’s short adventure as an artist came to a relatively abrupt and maybe premature end.  By that time the drawings in the back room had been moved from the table into a closet. I shudder to think where the final resting place might be for these important and beautiful drawings.



Click on photos to enlarge.

See more of Michael O'Keefe's photos of Silver's studio on our Flickr page.

Learn more about Jonathan Silver on his profile.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Images from a Closed Ward: Michael Hersch on Michael Mazur

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #3, used by permission of Michael Mazur estate

The composer George Rochberg wrote that “the face of a human being can be read as a record of his brief and painful experience of life and consciousness, the victories and defeats, the stages (and nonstages) of his inner evolution.” As an illustration, Rochberg recalled his encounter with portraits of Rembrandt and of Schoenberg, both relatively youthful, their faces emitting varying degrees of confidence, strength and good health. He then reflected upon portraits depicting these same faces which were created decades later, images recorded towards the end of both Rembrandt’s and Schoenberg’s lives. Describing Rembrandt’s face, Rochberg remarked, “The ego of the man is burnt out; what is left is a look of such sadness, such a sense of the impersonal wisdom of old age that it catches at the throat.” Of Schoenberg: “... a face so ravaged and destroyed by the passage of time and so scourged by the intensity of his inner life as to make one marvel that it is the same man. This is the image that haunts me ...”

I first came into contact with the artist Michael Mazur (1935-2009) in 2000 while I was living in Italy. I had arrived in the country not long before, the fortunate and somewhat startled recipient of a Rome Prize in composition. In the preceding years, I had applied for this award a number of times, and when I received word of my selection, I was both excited and uncertain. It had only been a few years since I had completed school, and I realized that I was just settling into a routine which suited me. The thought of beginning anew for an extended period in an unfamiliar place gave me pause. In the end, it was the the art and architecture of Rome--in particular, the small churches that seemed to beckon every hundred paces or so during my walks in the city-- that drew me most forcefully. I knew I would get good work done in those mysterious and extraordinary structures, and I wrote frequently in them, often alone. It is almost impossible to describe now the colors, the smells, the dense shadows, the infinite variations of quiet. My mind would play tricks on me. I would see faces in the darkened recesses which would seem to suddenly appear and then, just as suddenly, vanish.

Michael Mazur, Locked Ward, The Corridor, used by permission of Michael Mazur estate

In fact, since childhood I have been drawn to depictions of the human figure and the human face. Faces above all captured my attention and remain the root of my interest in the visual arts. I sometimes find myself trying to avoid hearing the voice of a given individual if I find meaning in the face, as if hearing the voice would remove the narrative the face had created for me.

Soon after my arrival in Rome I happened upon an exhibition of Mazur's The Inferno of Dante, a series of forty-one etchings with accompanying texts of Dante translated into English by Robert Pinsky. I entered the exhibition and immediately felt the commanding presence of powerful art: this is, for anyone, a rare feeling. I had experienced the musical equivalent of my reaction to Mazur’s art when I first encountered the work of certain instrumentalists and conductors: the recorded performances of Josef Hofmann, Charles Munch, David Oistrakh, the young Alexis Weissenberg, for example, and live performances of Pollini, Abbado, Jansons, Boulez, to name but a few more. In the rooms with the Mazur etchings I felt a deep familiarity: a feeling of shared sensibility, if not shared experience.

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #6, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

There was a feeling in that space which I came to find in other works of Mazur to which I found myself particularly drawn, the early Locked Ward and Closed Ward series, his etchings and aquatints of trees, and his late works, including the terrifying Headless in Iraq series and Explosion of 2007/2008. The immediacy was there even if I saw a photograph of a given work at a fraction of the piece’s original scale. The faces depicted in Mazur’s Locked Ward and Closed Ward etchings, rendered from his experiences visiting a psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island in the early 1960s, tend to be obscured. They nevertheless betray the complexity and nuance of human circumstance: inner and outer suffering, absolute vulnerability, violence, compassion, humor, knowing.

Soon after attending the Dante exhibition, Michael Mazur and I met. During the remaining time Mazur spent at the Academy he would often stop by the space where I worked, and there I would play through many of my own compositions at the piano for him. Although we worked in very different mediums, I sensed that Mazur connected with what I was doing more than most. Throughout the many hours I played, I felt I knew what he was thinking and feeling in real time, even with my attention on the music at hand. When my first recording was released in 2003, Mazur wrote a program note for it. While ostensibly discussing my music, he provided insight into himself and his art: “I am struck by what might constitute an analogy with painting and with my own work in particular. There is, of course, the overwhelming sense of ʻsadness,ʼ which is better than ʻdoom.ʼ In fact, the ʻabyssʼ in its finality is easy to portray: a rich black says it all ... Dante looked into the abyss but primarily found sadness there. Sadness is a much more complicated and, therefore, interesting human condition.”

Michael Mazur, Locked Ward #11, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

Some years after we met, I came across a number of etchings from the Locked Ward and Closed Ward series. In mid-2009, for the first time in almost 20 years, I began work on a string quartet. The catalysts for this work were the recent deaths of my closest friend and of my principal teacher, and the inability to shake some of the Closed Ward images from my mind. The fact that visual art became something of an ignition point for my own work was a very new experience for me. As the summer of 2009 wound down, I had formulated the broad outlines of the work enough that I decided it would be a good time to reconnect with Mazur. I was extremely excited at the prospect of seeing him again, and I suspected that he would be surprised and pleased that something he had created had a hand in the shaping of this new work. Less than 24 hours before I planned to contact him, I read of his untimely death in a Sunday newspaper. I completed the new piece, Images From a Closed Ward, in 2010.

Michael Mazur was a remarkable artist. He left us unflinching visual essays which continue to speak powerfully to me. Over my desk hangs Mazurʼs Closed Ward #3, so I am reminded of Mazur and his subjects every day. There is a brutal realism in much of Mazurʼs output. He gives us an individualʼs unfiltered reaction to parts of our reality which so many choose to either ignore, hide from, or conceal. This approach is not, however, an either/or proposition: what makes Mazurʼs work effective and potent is that the difficult, even horrifying, is often nestled up against the beautiful and the tender. Mazur embraced all of the life around us, in whatever condition he found it. He did so mostly without judgement, and through the haunted faces of his subjects we are able to see and learn something of ourselves.

Michael Hersch (b.1971) is a composer and pianist.

Michael Mazur, Closed Ward #1, used by permission of the Michael Mazur estate

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jonathan Shahn in Two Short Videos

“I believe the hardest part of learning to make sculpture is learning how to look, trying to understand what is seen, and how these perceptions are influenced by what we know (or think we know) and by our memory. This perception and knowledge and memory of the observed world, and of the art of the past and present, all come together in the making of each sculpture.”

In wood and in clay, Jonathan Shahn makes heads and figures whose influences span ancient to modern art, Egyptian reserve heads to Marino Marini and beyond.  In this four-minute video, Shahn, who shows often and widely, talks about his work at a 2011 exhibition at Drew University's Korn Gallery.

Just 38 seconds long, this video offers a brief glimpse into Shahn's weekday morning sculpture class at the Art Students League of New York.  Shahn, who has also taught at the Tyler School of Art in Rome, Boston University and the Maryland Institute, has been teaching at the Art Students League for over 20 years.

Photo from
Quote from

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Mike Price at Work

I came across these images while organizing the complete slides of the late sculptor Michael Price for his wife, Susan Davis Price. Price was a figurative sculptor who was influenced by Marino Marini and Giacomo Manzu and whose work was often inspired by scripture. He worked in clay, and like every sculptor written about on this blog, he knew how to cast his original clay pieces into plaster and bronze, and he did it himself (in a foundry he built by hand), often with the help of the students he taught at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he lived.

Shot in October and November of 1971 with beautiful Ektachrome slide film, these images show Price in nearly every stage of the 6,500-year-old process known as lost wax investment casting. Inevitably, they also show Mike's characteristic good humor and sweet personality.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Early in the process, Price melts the wax, applies it to the inside of a rubber mold, and inserts pins into the cast wax head.

Here, Price encases the wax in an investment mold, made of plaster, silica and sand, and wraps it tightly with chicken wire.

At this point, the investment mold is placed in a kiln for several days and heated ("burnt out"). This stage melts the wax and burns out the carbon, creating a void that will filled by the molten bronze.

The bronze, heated to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, is poured into the investment mold.

When the bronze has cooled and has been broken out of its investment mold, we see Price chasing, welding, and grinding to prepare the piece for its final state. 

Lastly, Price applies a chemically-induced color, called a patina, to the near-finished bronze.

See more images from this collection on our Flickr page

Learn more about lost wax investment casting here

Thanks to Susan Davis Price for the use of these images. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jonathan Silver

J.Silver in studio, 1983

“Silver’s sculpture is steeped in classical and religious myth.  It is assembled, however, with a keen sense of modernist history, in particular, of the formal and psychological implications of Cubism and Surrealism.  In Silver’s work, myth is not quiet and controllable, but something that grows and evolves on its own and obliges mere mortals to flail away in its wake.” (Michael Brenson, 1984, The New York Times)

Barbarian killing his wife, 1985

Jonathan Silver was born in New York City in 1937.  He decided not to go to high school, preferring to be educated by tutors at home.  He received a B.S. degree in general studies from Columbia University and later enrolled in the Art History Ph.D. program under the famed historian, Meyer Schapiro.  Schapiro was impressed by Silver’s intellectual prowess and supported his dissertation on Giacometti.  Silver, however, started making sculpture seriously in the late 1960’s and never completed his doctorate.  As a Columbia student, he drew in Peter Agostini’s class between 1960 and 1966, where he met future colleagues Christopher Cairns and Bruce Gagnier in 1965.

head, 1974, plaster

head, 1975, plaster

During the 1970’s Silver worked alongside Cairns, collaborating on ideas for heads and figures.  The two approached their work with the ambition and stamina of scientists tackling big questions, in it for the long haul; it was clear they neither expected, nor were interested in, quick or dramatically “personalized” solutions.  Cairns and Silver developed a common method of assembling and reassembling, or embedding fragments of one head or figure into another, thus creating new works.  The sculpture produced during this period was shown by Silver and Cairns at the 4x10 Gallery in New York in 1976.  The same year they showed at Haverford College’s Comfort Gallery with their fellow alumnus from Agostini’s class, Bruce Gagnier.  Cairns and Silver also exhibited together at the Weatherspoon Gallery in Greensboro, NC, in 1978, and at the New York Studio School in 1979.

Agamemnon, 1977, mixed media

Silver began working on larger figures in the early 80’s.  Abounding with classical, mythical and art historical references, these ambitious works further developed the method of combining and recombining elements from several different pieces.  Elaborately constructed, they often included found objects or sections of the plaster molds themselves. Wounded Amazon, which is in the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden, dates from this period.  Silver liked to say his work “tended towards the Greco-Oriental.”

Wounded Amazon, 1984, plaster

A visit to the Medici Chapel while traveling in Italy with Cairns in 1982 was formative.  Silver began experimenting with placing groups of figures together in a room, leading to his Room Dedicated to Septimius Severus, exhibited with other large pieces at the Gruenbaum Gallery in Soho in 1985.  Shows at the Victoria Munroe Gallery followed in the early 1990’s.

Chapel of Septimius Severus, 1985-86

During the last seven years of his life, Silver worked on rooms of sculpture, including the Lower Room installed at the Sculpture Center in 1990.  Consisting of a dramatic ensemble of figures evoking the disabling effects of memory and aging, the room was filled with figures seized by uncontrollable and incomprehensible forces.  Silver’s late works were often scenes of torment or rage, where the expressionistic surface treatment contributed to their high emotional pitch.

The Lower Room, 1989, mixed media

“Silver’s figures are survivors.  They are vulnerable, yet unalterable, sacrificial, yet in command.  Violence has been done to them, but through their statuesque power, or through the force of their will or rage, they retain the ability to avenge or punish, and to impose themselves on their situations.”  (Michael Brenson, 1995)

Birth of Venus, 1985-86

Chance, 1987-1990, plaster

Silver spent his entire life drawing from the model.  He would stand at an easel, drawing with a number 2 pencil, making small, exquisitely constructed figure drawings.  He also drew incessantly while watching television.

head, 1977, mixed media

To support himself, Silver taught Art History at Montclair State College in Montclair, NJ.  Noreen Sanders, a student of his in the late 70’s, wrote in an email, "In class, he would walk up on the stage, in front of the screen and directly into the paintings he put in the slide projector… talking passionately about the piece (good or bad) – smoking Kool cigarettes with his saggy-ass jeans and bits of plaster stuck in his hair.  He would assign novels from the same time period.  Before class, you could catch him playing piano – some Schubert piece or other.  Or he’d recite poetry.  For me, the work came alive." 

Silver was a frequent lecturer and visiting critic at the New York Studio School and at Haverford College, where he had a profound influence on students for over twenty years, inspiring those who worked closely with him by his penetrating intelligence, erudition and aesthetic probity and his willingness to share his perceptions.  Silver wrote and published extensively on art historical topics.  His articles on Giacometti and David Smith were published by ArtNews.

The New Gretchen, 1991

Jonathan Silver died in New York in 1992 at the age of 54.  There was a posthumous show of his heads at the Sculpture Center in 1996 and one of heads and figures at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in 2008, co-curated by Cairns’ son Nicholas.

figure, 1983

Text adapted with permission from an essay in the exhibition catalog for the 2006 show Five Sculptors.

Additional photos of Jonathan Silver's work can be viewed on our Flickr page.

Photo of Silver is from the announcement card of the 2008 exhibition of his work at Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

See also:
Jonathan Silver: Drawings
Jonathan Silver's Studio, As Photographed by Michael O'Keefe