Thursday, October 15, 2015

Reflections on Mike Price on the occasion of his show in St. Paul, MN, October 2015 // by Christopher Cairns

I met Mike Price in New Orleans in 1968. Mike was a devilishly handsome and sexy young man, if one can be permitted to say this in this modern day and age. Margo and I had recently been married and we would run into Mike at various parties. He always had incredibly beautiful women with him, but never the same one - until one evening, another astonishing beauty was introduced to us, a certain Susan.  Well, this gal stuck around. Susan Davis then was everything that she is today. She and Mike would dance and dance – and sing and laugh. What a couple they were!
Mike and I became fast friends, bonded by our both having roots in the urban north - something that was not entirely understood in New Orleans.  We were both workers, but found time to spend together at various watering holes and oyster /shrimp bars. We would wander from my studio on Decatur St, near the old mint, to eat beans and rice at Busters. This would cost us 27 cents apiece, including a piece of bread and butter along with a glass of water. Seventy-nine cents would fetch the same, along with a piece of sausage. Other treks took us to Felix’s, where we would pound down shrimp and beer.
In those days, Mike was working on molded wax sheets and also on bronze heads. I heard stories from him of his time in the US Army, somewhere in Alabama, Huntsville, I believe, He spent two years modeling heads of Generals and other officers, wandering around the base in civilian clothes, the only soldier not in uniform. Mike was a clever young man. He didn’t like to salute. Mike had been a math major at Indiana, even getting his Masters, before going in the army. He took a sculpture course at Indiana with Frank Gallo, who was all the rage at the time. But the Army gave him his grounding in sculpture. So let’s not be too critical of the armed forces.
One day Mike - knowing I was from the east coast - asked me,  “Have you ever heard of Harvardford College?” (name changed to protect the innocent).  I said yes, that a high school friend, a certain Bobby “Thunder” Bird, had applied to Harvardford, but didn’t get in.  That was the extent of my knowledge of Harvardford, in spite of growing up within a half hour distance of this school.
Mike said that Harvardford was hiring a sculptor and that he had the inside track. Mike shared a Chicago gallery - the Vincent Price Gallery (no relation) - with a painter named Charles Stegeman. Stegeman had just been hired at Harvardford to start an art department. All this was news to me and of very little interest.
About a year deeper into our friendship, I got a notice advertising this sculpture job at Harvardford. I asked Mike, “Whatever happened to that inside track that you had to the job at Harvardford?” Mike said - without going into details - that it wasn’t going to work out for him. I asked him if it were okay with him if I applied for the job.  He said sure, with that big smile of his.
Through a series of improbabilities, I got the job at Harvardford College.
At exactly the same time, I was looking for other jobs, and an opportunity surfaced for me at another small liberal arts college in St. Paul, MN, a place called Hemline (name changed to protect the innocent). They had asked me to come for an interview. But I already, improbably, had a job. So I told Mike about this job, phoned up the chairman of the art department at Hemline and suggested that they substitute Mike Price for me. It happened fast, and Hemline hired Mike Price. I always felt this was my greatest academic achievement, and that I should put it on my vitae, at the top- if I still had one.
In this way, I got Mike’s job and he got mine. Such is the way of chance – or such was the way that chance used to be.
A number of years later I learned that Mike was not considered for the job at Harvardford because they deemed him to be a “loner”. This is the kiss of death in acanemia. This is a strange turnabout. The most isolated from reality, lonely and out of it group of individuals on the face of the planet determined that someone else is a “loner.” What a joke! What Mike Price was is this. He was thoughtful, precise, honest, smart, relaxed, reserved (at times) and gifted. Harvardford’s loss was Hemline’s gain.
With both of us leaving New Orleans in the summer of 1970, a long and deep friendship ensued.
This included long weekly phone calls for years. Mike had a great curiosity about many things, not the least people. He had the ability to sense special things about people. On several occasions he told me of para-psychological events that happened to him. Mike Price was a lightning rod - and the effects often generated ideas for his sculpture.
In time, Mike started to make long impossible drives in a rickety van packed with his sculpture from Minnesota for various east coast destinations. Invariably Mike would stay at my house in Harvardford, PA, having driven 20 hours straight through or having stopped for a few hours to sleep in the van. Often he had a student helper with him. The first thing that Mike would do upon arrival would be to take our dog Aurora Roxanne (Roxy), for a walk. Roxy loved Mike and would go nuts when she saw or smelled him. Everyone - dogs, chipmunks, women, men, and children - loved Mike Price. He was that kind of guy. Only one man, later in Mike’s life, took a dislike to him - but more about that later. Immediately, Mike and I would head to Dunkin Donuts, my off-campus office. Mike liked Dunkin Donuts as much as I, and Minnesota was seriously deficient in this regard.  If Dunkin Donuts existed there at all, it was in a lesser form and was eventually driven from town by the more sophisticated coffee roasters. But Dunkin Donuts was our speed. At Dunkin Donuts, we would talk and talk.  And laugh and laugh, as Mike had a terrific sense of humor.
In a matter of hours (he was always in a hurry) I was on the road with him and several of my students, driving his sculpture to NYC and the Krasner Gallery on Madison Avenue just north of 79th street. Together we would lug his bronzes to the second floor gallery and set up the work. Mike’s shows in NY always met with limited success, but he kept doing it as long as this gallery existed.
One delivery day, a student of mine was watching the van - sitting in the van - when several serious looking fellows in suits and bulging pockets came up to his window and told him not to get out of his van. They said it in such a fashion that the student did what he was told, more than a little alarmed as to what was going on. In about a half hour, Moshe Dayan emerged from a curio shop just under the gallery.  Moshe Dayan seems to have been a great collector of ancient artifacts.
About the same time, Mike started selling a lot of sculpture to Philip Berman, a collector who lived in Allentown, PA.  Berman was a big shot in a small town. His white Cadillac license was “Allentown #1”. He wore a cowboy hat and acted the part. Mike was always circumspect with Mr. Berman and urged me to be the same. But it was hard for me. I got along well with Mr. Berman, but we had our differences. These are told in a different place, a book that I have written of my academic experience, entitled “Poisoned by Mediocrity”. 
A number of Mike pieces are at the Phillip and Muriel Berman Museum at Ursinus. One of my bronzes, Synagogue, stands close to Mike’s pieces. My sculpture has assured me that it likes the proximity and so do I.  Mike’s fine Firefighter stands outside of the Allentown fire department, where there is a Dunkin Donuts nearby. Berman commissioned this sculpture. Berman was a big supporter of Mike Price.
Now fifteen years after his death in 2001, we are treated to a small show at the school where he taught for so many years.  Some of us are still alive; and we appreciate the opportunity to view the work. This show presents a fine array of Mike’s pieces - including examples of his best work - done over his entire artistic life.  The show leans heavily on pieces that remain in the family, including many larger pieces from the 1970s. These include life sized, standing or reclining figures, heads of children, portrait heads of friends and various small reliefs, often telling religious stories. The show includes an early wax-formed semi-abstraction. Mike would manipulate the wax sheets, “modeling” them, and then cast them in bronze.

A centerpiece is a hanging shroud, or drapery entitled Artist’s Cloak. This is a simple but powerful expression, speaking of both presence and absence. Many of his small-modeled reliefs employ the use of drapery, heightening or shadowing events. Mike was a master of the use of drapery, presenting shrouds and modeled cloth in a most stately, almost majestic fashion.  Years earlier, I had worked with another modern master of drapery, Peter Agostini.  Agostini’s use of drapery was equally powerful, yet more dynamic and explosive. Take your pick. There is room for more than one.

As with many good artists, as time went on, Mike’s sculpture became more complex. This complexity came from many different inputs or influences; not the least being Biblical or historical stories or figures. His spiritual thoughts also developed over these years and he spent time writing about his ideas and matching them to his sculpture and sculptural commissions. There are a number of small bronze plaques or reliefs. These are all masterworks, the entire lot of them, probably close to thirty. In this small format Price squeezes in all his sensitivity and attachment to the subject, with the most direct economy of means. These are in no way to be seen as sketches but instead as the clearest view into his own story-telling. Each establishes clarity regarding what sculpture means and what it can do at its most powerful. He took incredible care to match the color of these pieces to the subject at hand. I myself possess two of these pieces and they have engaged my attention for many years now. Without the slightest hesitancy in my mind, I see them as the works of a master.

Missing from this show - by distance and their very size - are the major commissions, which occupied Mike in the latter years of his life. If I were to indicate a shortcoming in this show, it would be the absence of photographs of these pieces. An early example is at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, a bronze couple, John and Lydia Morris, standing on a slight rise overlooking a field of flowers. Here too one of my sculptures, Stanchion, stands within sight of Mike’s fine pieces.

A number of these commissioned pieces reside around St. Paul and Minneapolis.  A nice long bike ride would allow you to see pieces at Koch Common, St. Thomas, Hemline, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Olivet Congregational Church, Plymouth Congregational Church, and Rice Park.
The best of these commissions, in my modest opinion, is the Scott Fitzgerald bronze in Rice Park, commissioned by Garrison Keillor.  The sculpture stands at eye level in a casual, yet formal pose. It generates a contagion of feeling for this author and his personality. The mark of a powerful sculpture is that the viewer wants to go back repeatedly. This certainly holds true for me.

My son Nicholas spent the summer of 1997 casting this Fitzgerald piece with Mike. Thousands of dollars were spent on Nicholas’ education as Overland College (name changed to protect the innocent) but Nick’s real education took place that summer working with Mike Price. Nick even got to meet Garrison Keillor, which, fortunately, had no lasting effect upon him. Many other young artists and students can attest to the same “Mike Price imprint," as Mike was always open to such suggestions -and he needed the help, as his projects and dreams were always large.

In this current show we get a glimpse of the larger commission through an exquisitely modeled Fitzgerald head, a study for the life size portrait in Rice Park. Those who love sculpture can recognize the DNA of the full-sized large piece embedded in this fragment (head). Stated another way, this head has the quality of revealing in the small the authority and completeness of the larger entirety. This bronze head made an appearance at the end of the film “A Prairie Home Companion”. One looks in vain for the attribution of this piece.

Mike was a complete artist in a manner that is almost incomprehensible today. His hand was on his sculpture from inception to completion. He took pride in casting his own pieces, always as original bronzes. I tried to encourage him to make editions, but he always said no, preferring to limit the production through direct original casts. For a long time I had squirreled away a set of slides of Mike working and casting in his foundry in the early seventies. I finally assembled them several years ago and they can be viewed on a separate post on this blog of my daughter Alexis.
Like many great artists, Mike had many influences, going back through the ages. His influences stem from all times and all places. He saw himself as part of a sculpture guild, stretching back for centuries. As a consequence of this, he was not concerned about so-called originality. Mike had little interest in commercial success beyond gathering enough money to embark on the next project. Ultimately he worked for a song, but the making of sculpture and the complete expression of his ideas was what fueled this man. He valued artistic friendship beyond artistic fame.
I want to return to this curious accessibility or likeability of Mike Price’s personality.  As far as I could determine, Mike set aside or did not employ judgment towards others. Things that would freak me out did not bother him. We were very different people. As a reasonable person might do, I tried hard to be more like him. Just in knowing him, Mike made me be a better person. I am certain that there are many others who would express the same sentiment. I suppose our relationship employed an equal exchange the other way, although Mike is no longer here to ask.
Mike’s natural generosity and good humor was tested to the extreme at the end of his life and beyond. A certain personage – a Leo something - took to disturbing Mike’s equilibrium and peace of mind. This person owed his job to Mike but, for this character, this added up to nothing. Instead it elicited a curious and dedicated animosity. This person was a muddle of a fellow. I myself would not believe such things happen, except that this phenomenon happened to me also – not once, but twice.  Individuals to whom I provided a lifetime sinecure found this insufficient and did everything they could to “pay me back”. Academia has its own code of behavior, which lies outside of the norm. There is no explaining it, but it is an unfortunate reality.  Is there another explanation to this strangeness? No, there is not.  As they say today, it is what it is. Thank heavens this dark shadow has passed – through “retirement” - and we get to glimpse, if only for the shortest period of time, a quite spectacular show. Don’t miss it.
When Mike was diagnosed out of the blue with terminal cancer, his response was immediate. He went back to work on a commission, saying to me, “There is no way this is going to kill me.” And yet as the cancer went to his brain, he described the phenomenon of shooting lights and showers of flashes with a detached marvel the likes of which I had never seen, nor encountered since.  He was a fantastic observer to the end.
In arriving at the gallery slightly after four, the day after the opening I was amused to find it closed. The inscribed sign on the door said, gallery hours, Monday to Friday 10-4. This must be designed to inhibit students from observing the art, as many are not out of bed by this hour. And what about people who work? Or people who can only come on weekends? I know a bunch. Further instructions on the door indicate that people under 12 are not allowed without an adult. My suggestion is to raise the age to 20 years, just to be careful.  Art can be dangerous to young adults. Further instructions allow for no backpacks, another dangerous item in this day and age. Unused space on the door indicates that there is room to add other impediments to viewing the art. Perhaps a trigger warning about sculpture would be in order, as this antiquated art and its powerful effect is unknown to the college-aged? God only knows what might happen. But this is American education at its best – absurd strictures, limitations, and rules.

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.

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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.