Clark Coolidge, c. 2009
(Photograph by David Highsmith)
(Photograph by David Highsmith)
Bill Berkson’s Big Sky 3 (1972), the Clark Coolidge number, contains two early Coolidge prose pieces: “Deep Space, Dark Paper (or) In for a Color” and “Bullitt (A Brief Case).” According to Tom Orange, in “The Everything Work: Clark Coolidge and the Longprose” (one of two essays appended to A Book Beginning What and Ending Away), both pieces appear in the unpublished manuscript One’s Plenties: Collected Proses 1969-1973. Orange remarks that the two “appear to be riffing on reviews of works by de Kooning and Matisse, though their original source texts have yet to be identified.” “Deep Space, Dark Paper (or) In for a Color”—the de Kooning piece (beginning “De Kooning has as lacquer does. So he devised a way of keeping pentup energy suddenly released. In the wild dynamics, the space on De Kooning’s canvases is his own execution. . . .”)—draws its language (largely, if not wholly) out of the 1960 Grove Press De Kooning by Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh. One reads therein:
De Kooning had discovered a valuable expressive means. Returning to oil as a medium, he encountered difficulty: dry oil paint does not “work up” as lacquer does. So he devised a way of keeping his oil paint wet long past its natural drying period.Page 31. Turning back to page 18:
De Kooning’s palette now blooms with pinks, acid greens, and tawny yellows.Coolidge’s fragment “the space on De Kooning’s canvases is his own” is found at page 57:
The visual impression of these canvases is that of pent-up energy suddenly released. In the wild dynamics, equilibrium in the traditional static sense, or in the more modern sense of opposed tensions, is in the main abandoned.
The space on De Kooning’s canvases is his own personal space, as physical as his body, as metaphysical as his mind. Personal space, which came into art in this century, accounts for the intensely autobiographical character of nearly all modern art. Each artist transfers to the canvas his segment of the private space that, although separate, interpenetrates with public space.For “execution” Coolidge returns again to page 31: “Although the painting of this picture required many months, its surface is so smeared and strenuous in texture that it conveys the impression of swift and hasty execution.” Constructing new prose texts by means precisely of “swift and hasty” “transfers” of “segments” of “private space” gleaned out of the “public space” of the book. Flipping, seizing, collating. Or, as Tom Clark puts it in a preface (called “What If Jimi Hendrix . . .”) to the Big Sky Coolidge number:
The operation of the brain is a nonlinear process. It is a system of self-organization where given sets of oscillations pull themselves together into a given frequency band. (Think of radio).Here’s the second of Coolidge’s Big Sky prose pieces:
Neural activity is a multiplicity of simultaneous operations functioning in a continuum. The basis for the system is frequency modulation. (The Clark Coolidge Code Angle).
Bullitt (A Brief Case)The source for “Bullitt (A Brief Case)” is found in the 28 August 1970 issue of Life magazine, a piece called “A Brief Encounter with Matisse,” by George L. K. Morris. Jack Flam, in the 1988 volume, Matisse: A Retrospective, identifies Morris thus: “George L. K. Morris (1905-1975), American artist, teacher, critic, and founder of American Abstract Artists, wrote this memoir in his journal soon after meeting Matisse on a train from Cherbourg to Paris in January 1931. Matisse had just returned from Merion, Pennsylvania, where he had studied the site for murals commissioned by the Barnes Foundation.” Of Bullitt, Flam notes: “William Christian Bullitt (1891-1967), American diplomat and first U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. (1933-1936).” (No note provided for the rather Coolidgeanly-named “Lanfear Norrie.”) Here’s the text:
I catch a twinkle of fun behind his glasses. I begin rather gingerly to ask if he continues to sip his coffee. He makes a dreadful note and holds it up. “That’s the demoded art!” Soon after we board the train for Paris, my looks refreshingly tidy and selfcontained, Bullitt asks me perfunctorily how long I plan to lay so much emphasis on his subject matter. I like the sly humor that lurks behind his very idea. Matisse chimes in. “Artists should stay for quite a while.” I pursue my point that the world is tending to become increasingly appropriate as a filling for sardine tins. He asks if the skies in America are as good for postcards. There’s a silence, and I feel he’s never been in contact with an adversary. Nevertheless he sits down by me. The cigarette. After an appropriate interval, I run that one into the ground, and Matisse approaches smilingly.
Bullitt is less enthusiastic. He refutes my suggestion that Rousseau may be coming down the aisle followed by the Lorrilard family. While I make sketches, Bullitt nods in enthusiastic approval. He answers that the Douanier Rousseau was alarming. His eyes snap behind his glasses (one of these is shown above). Matisse begins French words I don’t know. The others think it’s important. “If an artist stays in his own country he can always tell when he’s back in France.” Bullitt, seeing that Matisse is in no condition, is soon asleep again. Emboldened in the relaxed manner, I’m glad to have a few minutes in which to try another tack—can’t we learn from postcards?
In the interim Bullitt and I strike up our first conversation. I explain to him how much I feel that chichi quality that has disturbed me in him, how much I admire those spoonfuls which weaken. Besides, our American forbears once compared him to John Marin. Marin went down to the sea in a bucket, and on the way back never spilled a drop, I tell the character who is dozing opposite me. He has studied the masters in the Louvre—“As soon painting as the skies of France.” “Even better, Demuth never spilled.” I’m pleased to meet a good-natured professor out of his element. We suggest that the others join us.
Lanfear and Bullitt embark on a boring conversation about skies and beautiful women—Which is more aware of an undeviating tenacity which comes through in positive pronouncements? They are directed and about to move. Matisse awakens while we are traversing a pretty district, wants to buy back an example of his early work but has to nod and is soon asleep with a light toss of the head, which implies he finds it the very reverse. I remark that Léger is quite different more aware of an undeviating more aware of an undeviating from Moreau. Matisse fairly explodes. “And what is there to say about art,” he says (without reflection, alas). “He talks about art.” That does it. Matisse has awakened again and the conversation suggests that eyes don’t count for much (owing perhaps to the thickness in his hand). I become increasingly mild, with manners almost courtly. However, Bullitt is already telling me that he had once been convulsed with laughter, and I react similarly against my better judgement.
As we are recovering our bearings, Matisse discourses largely on the production of postcards. He ends up: “The only hope for the American soul is to make postcards which will always make money.” Bullitt asks what brand of paint he uses. Matisse sticks out a very pink tongue over his beard and snips at it, alarmed as the burning end gets nearer, and answers, “The most essential.” It is expensive, he explains, and here makes a joke about an elderly Picasso: If one studied with Picasso, one would imitate New York in two months. “That’s a very good judgement.” I assert, however, that Picasso’s recent works are not à la mode and tell of the starvation of twenty years ago; today it could only be art! He adds emphatically that all artists should have their pills. He points out that he is able to talk to me as he does only because “pills work.” “Then he must talk about himself!”
Matisse turns and the baggage pandemonium surges quickly around us. He then settles back and is soon asleep again. I begin to find this very funny—pupils always say that about the baneful influences of teachers. Moreau had one great virtue—he used to conduct his pupils by twirling his umbrella like a windmill to attract the past. The gentleness that had characterized Matisse snaps. I’m uncertain whether it’s my expression he finds marvelous. “Yes, it’s marvelous,” Matisse says threateningly with his second and third fingers, “that color relations remain constant. You can often see where my daughter was born in the second-floor bedroom.”
Matisse’s voice is now gone abruptly. Pills. Actually, I’ve never met him. I’ve seen little of his work and as we leave the boat at Cherbourg I notice that Matisse is just ahead of us. He was in it. Demuth went down with a teaspoon, his best work. His face even in repose was imperious, as though he found it rather dry. “That doesn’t make any difference.” Conversation is stilted, but things pick up when in place.
Matisse wakes with a jump and turns off another switch. He asks if I ever knew the American painters, and tells me how Charles Demuth is in their midst. Matisse might pass for someone who knew Demuth and wanted to question him further, at the window, waving goodby with one hand and with means. No, he himself had no money. Picasso had no money. And the Impressionists had no money. Only Manet had 60 francs which dealers now sell for 300,000. Sometimes a wad of French money protrudes from his wallet. He pulls out a hundred-franc note, misdirected by ignorant teachers or by some surroundings of the lowest quality. I try to steer into more interesting topics during the time that remains. I suggest that artists in modern times seem American. Matisse says the trouble with American artists is sin. “El Greco has been dead 300 years and you consider them in your procedure!”
We pull into the Gare Saint-Lazare with great suddenness, while whiskers seem to wave in agitation. After I leave the car and step onto the platform with my briefcase, I look back toward our compartment. Matisse is standing on his beret and winds his checked muffler round his neck. “Art . . . ,” he says. For a quick answer I say I’m sure it occurs to none of the passengers. Matisse makes a gesture of disgust—“That’s ridiculous!” Nevertheless he sits down by me, seemingly to look at me as if out of my own eyes. In my final glance I notice again the look of the good-natured professor. Then, after an appropriate interval, I try to get Matisse back to the subject that was so summarily dropped in the dining car. At last the inevitable contact takes place.
A Brief Encounter with MatisseSome stray notes. How Coolidgean the Morris piece becomes—disheveled, daft, disassembled—in the wake of reading Coolidge’s re-construction of it. How an industrious someone could do a perfect accounting of the words and phrases, make a kind of map of Coolidge’s seeing (and borrowing). How few (seemingly) the anomalous (unaccounted for by the Morris) words: “pills” (probably a knowing adjustment of—and triggered by—Morris’s “pupils,” occurring, thanks to the exigencies of typesetting, twice in Life as “pu- / pils”); “sin” (“Matisse says the trouble with American artists is sin”—though here, too, “Pous / sin” is found in Life—Coolidge using word “particle” means, what he calls in a letter to Paul Metcalf “Composition by Unit”—and here I recall Olson’s single sheet note, “The unit the smallest there is”); “case” (in the title). Surely there are others. (Metcalf, in a 2 August 1973 letter to Coolidge, talks of “words as stones-again, counters in a game” and quotes Coolidge’s own words out of an interview (This 4), justifying constructivist methodry:
As we leave the boat at Cherbourg I notice that Matisse is just ahead of us. He looks refreshingly tidy and self-contained; I’m sure it occurs to none of the passengers who are jostling around him that a famous artist is in their midst. Matisse might pass for a good-natured professor out of his element.
Soon after we board the train for Paris, my friend Lanfear Norrie suggests that we investigate the wagon-restaurant. We’d just sat down at a table when there are gesticulations from Lanfear who is seated opposite me. Matisse is coming down the aisle followed by William Bullitt [later U.S. ambassador to Russia]. Lanfear beckons to them and Matisse approaches smilingly. Bullitt is less enthusiastic; nevertheless he sits down by me. At first the conversation is stilted, but things pick up when Bullitt asks me perfunctorily how long I plan to stay in Europe. I reply that I’m returning to New York in two months. “That’s a very good idea,” Matisse chimes in. “Artists should stay in their own countries.” I had no business, he says, to leave America in the first place—unless I wanted to amuse myself, of course; there’s no city like Paris for amusement.
I catch a twinkle of fun behind his glasses, yet his tone seems to permit no contradiction. As I feel that our brief acquaintance might not weather an argument yet, I make no counter to this unexpected sally. So the conversation returns to trivialities and Matisse begins to sip his coffee. He makes a dreadful face—he can always tell when he’s back in France from the taste of the coffee. As he pays his check, a wad of French money protrudes from his wallet. He pulls out a hundred-franc note and holds it up. “That’s the demoded art of twenty years ago; today it could only be appropriate as a filling for sardine tins.” He then pulls out another, this one from Guadeloupe, and hands it around for our inspection (it depicts female nudes under palm trees, very gay and stylized). “That’s a work of art,” he says.
As Lanfear and I return to our compartment, we suggest that the others join us. Lanfear and Bullitt embark on a boring conversation about the Lorillard family while I make sketches [one of these is shown above]. Matisse begins to nod and is soon asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand. I become increasingly alarmed as the burning end gets nearer and nearer to his fingers while ashes scatter over his lap. At last the inevitable contact takes place. Matisse wakes with a jump and puts out the cigarette. After an appropriate interval, I try to get Matisse back to the subject that was so summarily dropped in the dining car.
I begin rather gingerly and ask if he considers it possible for a great and authentic primitive to develop in times such as these. He answers that the Douanier Rousseau was both an authentic primitive and a great painter; he refutes my suggestion that Rousseau was not as naïve as he appears and that he’d studied the masters in the Louvre. As soon as Matisse speaks about art his voice becomes gentle and distinct, he talks very slowly.
Emboldened by the relaxed manner, I start a defense of my European trip, declaring that the world is tending to become increasingly united, and perhaps nationalistic bounds will weaken. Besides, our American forebears were Europeans not very long ago. Furthermore, Poussin had gone to Italy for his studies, as had El Greco, Rubens and others in the past. The gentleness that had characterized Matisse’s voice is now gone abruptly. “Poussin and El Greco have been dead 300 years and you consider them in your procedure!” He ends up: “The only hope for American art is for the painters there to stay at home; they have a new, untried country with beautiful skies and beautiful women—what more do you need?”
Bullitt nods in enthusiastic approval. He asks if the skies in America are as good for painting as the skies of France. Even better, Matisse affirms—they are more crystalline. I am somewhat abashed that a painter whose esthetic approach I have long admired should lay so much emphasis on his subject matter. I try another tack—can’t we learn from the museums of Europe? Matisse says that the museums in America are quite adequate. Most important, if an artist stays in his own country he will develop a style and a system of organization that is his own—not one derived from Léger (it had previously slipped into the conversation that I had worked in Léger’s studio). I reply that there is little opportunity for a student to establish contact with new developments. Moreover, Americans grow up among surroundings of the lowest quality; and the early years of a student are apt to be misdirected by ignorant teachers or by some elderly relative who does watercolors. Matisse here makes a joke about an elderly relative’s watercolors which contains some French words I don’t know; the others think it’s very funny, however, and jiggle with laughter for quite a while. I pursue my point that the esthetic approach in America seems to result largely in the production of postcards. Matisse rejoins that the artist who has it in his soul to make postcards will always make postcards. There’s a silence, as I feel we’ve run that one into the ground, and Matisse is soon asleep again.
I’m glad to have a few minutes in which to contemplate the curious and powerful character who is dozing opposite me. I’ve never been in contact with an adversary whose moods can change so suddenly. He will be mild, with manners almost courtly, and a moment later exude a hostility that is truly alarming; his eyes snap behind his glasses while whiskers seem to wave in agitation. I like the sly humor that lurks behind his very positive pronouncements. He is direct and seems to relish an argument; I see no trace of that chichi quality that has disturbed me in much of his recent work. I begin to visualize it as satire.
In the interim Bullitt and I strike up our first conversation. I explain to him how much I feel that the old masters of Spain, Germany and France gained from their sojourns in Italy, just as Van Gogh and Whistler did from working in France. Bullitt (seeing that Matisse is in no condition to overhear) seems favorably impressed. He asks my opinion of several American painters, and tells me how Charles Demuth once compared himself to John Marin: Marin went down to the sea with a bucket; on the return trip he spilled half the water that was in it. Demuth went down with a teaspoon and on the way back never spilled a drop. I tell him how much I admire those spoonfuls which Demuth never spilled. I’m pleased to meet someone who knew Demuth and want to question him further. However, Bullitt is already telling me that he had once rented the house in Paris where my mother now lives and that his daughter was born in the second-floor bedroom.
Matisse has awakened again and the conversation makes another switch. He asks me if I ever knew the American painter Patrick Henry Bruce, who had been among his pupils. I’ve never met him—I’ve seen a little of his work and found it rather dry. “That doesn’t make any difference,” Matisse snaps. I’m uncertain whether it’s my expression of an opinion or Bruce’s dryness which doesn’t make the difference. Matisse adds after a moment that Bruce perhaps hadn’t shown much promise and neither had his other pupils. He points out that he’s able to talk to me as he does because he once had pupils; and he himself had been a pupil too—of Gustave Moreau. I ask him if Moreau had been a good teacher. No—he was too literary. Matisse allows that Moreau had one great virtue—he used to conduct his pupils to the Louvre where they could use their eyes.
I remark that Léger is quite different from Moreau. Matisse finds this very funny—pupils always say that about their teachers. I add that Léger says very little about any pupil’s work. “Then he must talk about himself!'' Matisse turns to Lanfear and Bullitt for applause. As I dispute this he asks what Léger does talk about then. I answer (erroneously and without reflection, alas), “He talks about art.” That does it; Matisse fairly explodes: “And what is there to say about art!” He adds emphatically that all artists should have their tongues cut out—then they’d have more time for work. He sticks out a very pink tongue over his beard and snips at it threateningly with his second and third fingers.
As we are recovering our bearings, Matisse discourses on the baneful influences of teachers. With his former twinkle he adds that it’s better to study with Léger than with Picasso; if one studied with Picasso, one would imitate not only Picasso but all the people Picasso imitates. Bullitt is convulsed with laughter and I react similarly against my better judgment. I assert, however, that Picasso’s recent work I find marvelous. “Yes, it’s marvelous,” Matisse says with a toss of the head, which implies he finds it the very reverse.
We’re now passing Mantes where I always look forward to a glimpse of the Gothic church. Matisse doesn’t give it a glance; as though impatient for the journey to end, he puts on his beret and winds his checked muffler round his neck. He then settles back and is soon asleep again. I begin to analyze why it is that Matisse is so different from any artist I’ve previously met. He doesn’t project the conventional image of a painter at all. He is extremely neat—beard immaculately clipped; the elegant gray business suit and sober necktie suggest the Bourse rather than the Left Bank. His eyes don’t count for much (owing perhaps to the thickness of his glasses) and his fingers are rather stubby. The hands are muscular, however, and suggest immense capability; in fact, he looks strong all over. In demeanor he seems invulnerable; fame may have helped here, but I suspect he has always been tough. Matisse is above all a man of the world—he wouldn’t be ill at ease in any surroundings. One is aware of an undeviating tenacity which comes through in his best work. His face even in repose is imperious, as though he were born to command. His features suggest intense vitality; even when he is dozing, the taut muscles give a look as if he were about to speak, the right hand as if it were about to move.
Matisse awakens while we are traversing a pretty district along the Seine. Bullitt asks what he thinks of the painters in America. Matisse says the trouble with American artists is that as soon as they achieve recognition and make some money, they cut down on their working hours. Annoyed, I assert that I know many American painters (which I don’t) and that they are all very hard workers. He asks how many hours they work per day. For a quick answer I say 12 hours per day. Matisse makes a gesture of disgust—“That’s ridiculous, no one can paint for 12 hours a day.” [Matisse himself was accustomed to working that long, but not steadily in the same medium.]
I try to steer into more interesting topics during the time that remains. I suggest that artists in modern times seem to have lost control of their pictorial structure, except for the few who have revolted against popular trends. He challenges me to name one. In haste I pick on Degas—an unfortunate choice, as he’s a painter I admire very much; however I do object to the way he often cuts figures off arbitrarily at the canvas edge. Matisse replies that perhaps Degas did have an organization but that today it’s not à la mode. He adds under pressure from Bullitt that he no longer enjoys Degas’s work particularly. He then depicts the courage that it takes for a painter to strike out into territory that is not à la mode and tells of the starvation among the impressionists. He recounts how he used to sell canvases for 60 francs which dealers now sell for 300,000. Sometimes he wants to buy back an example of his early work and has to meet prices such as that. Bullitt inquires whether any of the artists who are now well known had started out with private means. No—he himself had had no money; Picasso had no money, the impressionists had no money—only Manet had money. Bullitt asks what brand of paint he uses. Matisse answers, “The most expensive.” It is essential, he explains, that color relations remain constant. You can often see where the impressionists used cheap colors and in the paintings of Seurat and Van Gogh the reds have already turned yellow.
We pull into the Gare Saint-Lazare with great suddenness and the baggage pandemonium surges quickly around us. After I leave the car and step onto the platform with my suitcase, I look back toward our compartment. Matisse is standing at the window, waving goodby with one hand and with the other twirling his umbrella like a windmill to attract the attention of a porter. With cordial nods of farewell he suggests I call on him in Nice. At the same moment he is negotiating with the porter. In my final glance I notice again the look of the good-natured professor.
To get it out in front a lot more than it has been, instead of always some sort of mental reservoir that’s feeding the words out. Putting them out there, and then feeding them back in, so you can see what’s going on. Instead of being completely in the grip, or more in the grip, of some sort of unconscious selection, see what I mean. It’s very interesting to me, where that point in the mind is that words do exist. I don’t think anybody really knows for sure. Where that is that they become, where thought becomes words, or words are grouped, like I’m talking now, how you get them, and put them out. Where do they exist, how inextricably connected to the brain processes are they, all that sort of phenomenology, maybe.So the fossick and combine, so the tinker and weld, the un-doing and re-forming. (Coolidge quoting to Metcalf de Kooning’s “it’s very tiny, content”). End with the counter-force, the unending excursory to allow “light and sound to come through” (out of the 1982 Mine: The One That Enters the Stories):
I just don’t know. I don’t think there’s much point in keeping on breaking things apart so you can see their shiny sides. Aren’t there enough edges of things sparkling in the world as it is? You could keep running around feeling them and thinking on them to your heart’s content and still never exhaust anything but yourself in the process. There must be space enough for the light and sound to come through, don’t you understand that? Yes, but so much?