The Autumn Tiger

The Autumn Tiger

“We die of cold, and not of darkness. . .” – Miguel Unamuno

A great many Chicagoans will tell you they love living here because of the seasons. We actually get four seasons here; not in any kind of equal proportion, but we get all four seasons. There are two months of blazing hot, humid summer, nine and a half months of gray-layer-cake sky and nut-numbing winter, and two days of Spring.

The season I live for in this city is Autumn. There are trees on my block that turn to pure yellow fire and at dusk or dawn are unspeakably beautiful. There is a bit of a bite in the air and nature, even in the city, begins to pare down to its essential shapes and colors. The landscape shows its bones.

October has always been my favorite month. It has its sadnesses; the end of baseball for the year, which in Chicago–at least this year–is a welcome relief. October seems to me a month of reckoning. Whatever one failed to do with the rest of the year? Well, this is a good month to rectify this. It seems to me a month that is good for coming clean. Twenty-nine years ago, I got out of rehab in October.

Every morning the sun came up and some sense of contentment, if not happiness, seemed at least possible. I almost always have a winter exhibition to prepare for; it takes my mind off of other memories. I lost my beloved grandmother and father in autumn, and I think often of both of them.

The end of autumn seems to be Thanksgiving, which is the holiday that means the most to me. It is when I take the day and remember to be grateful for the immense luck of my station in life, and remember those whose strength and forbearance got me here. Autumn is a time of reflection for me.

Last year, I spent part of the autumn in Istanbul and unlearned a lot of crap I’d been told and taught about Islam and Muslims, and it was good. I had this hopeful feeling standing outside the Spice Market, next to the Sea of Marmara; that we pretty much all want the same things. I was far away from the poisonous 24-hour news cycle which is there only to scare us and divide us as people.

Autumn is tough on moths. The first chill usually kills them. A few hearty bugs make it until the second or third frost, but eventually they die of cold, and not of darkness.

The Autumn is also when the new art season begins every year. This year, I opened the season at Pierogi in Brooklyn with my new etchings. In the front gallery, there was a wonderful show of graphite drawings by Michael Schall, a gifted young artist from Brooklyn. I had the smaller room in the back and the new etchings looked great there, like a small box of jewels. I had a great time with all of my friends and my crew from Chicago flew out in force and had a lot of fun.

What I love about Pierogi is the shared sense of community. There aren’t a bunch of asswipes standing around and staring at each other’s clothes and appraising one another. It is a place about the community of artists; long on goodwill and short on pretense. Every exhibition I’ve ever had here I felt I was among my friends—that after a long, fractious journey through this career, I’d finally found my community.

It is a marvelous bunch–odd, funny, journeyman, and women—artists, who are in it for the long-haul; and yet have an immense sense of communal pride. This is the community Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson built, and were kind enough to welcome me into.

It is also the beginning of football season. Usually, I have all of my pals over every Sunday to watch the Bears. This year, I’m just not feeling it. I’d rather work on my etchings and walk my dog.  Ever since they let Michael Vick back in, I can’t get interested in the NFL.  And I used to be a fanatic.

I don’t have three hours to burn on this stuff anymore. I think autumn is nature’s momento mori–a reminder that we will all attend ONE funeral–and I won’t waste the time anymore. I often tell young artists that the only thing on this planet worth buying is your own time. And I am right.

With the three hours I bought myself every week, I read more poems–James Wright, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, Mark Turcotte and Reginald Gibbons. . .the good stuff.

I joined a health club and go swimming and it wakes you up and breathes new life into you on a daily basis. I allow myself to watch more nature shows on the Bug Channel–the oceanic stuff hypnotizes me in a wonderful way. I take walks and I watch the every-morning drama of my bird feeder. . .the cardinals, house finches, sparrows and blackbirds. . .I have it made.

Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hud’s Girl

Hud's Girl
In the cinematic  pantheon of  scumbags, louses, and all-around rotten motherfuckers, Hud Bannon ranks  right up there with the worst of them.  He is amoral, unprincipled, selfish and brutish.  He is a  lousy brother, uncle and son; a loathsome ass-wipe who would sell cattle with  hoof and mouth disease in order to preserve his inheritance.  As played by Paul Newman, his charm is damned near SO disarming we almost let Hud off the hook.  It is to Newman’s credit  that he allows himself to be such an awful man.  When Hud forces himself on Patricia Neal’s Alma, we, rightly, hate him and keep on hating him through the end of the movie.
Newman’s work is bookended by performances that steal the movie from him–the late, great Patricia Neal, and the towering Melvyn Douglas, both of whom won Oscars for their work in this magnificent American film.  It was also directed by the profoundly humane Martin Ritt, from Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By–one of those  enterprises that tried to capture the mid-century American west like The Misfits and Lonely are the Brave–a cowboy movie informed by the 20th century where all chivalry is dead and the lessons of the Depression and the dust bowl are still fresh in people’s minds.
All Newman’s Hud really knows how to do is drink, fuck and have a good time.
He is a bit like a down-at-the-heels George W. Bush, before Jesus got ahold of him and “changed his heart.”  He is one minor cut above a dude ranch “himbo”; stupid and selfish, and above all, entitled.   He is also a metaphor for what more refined (wealthier) Westerners  were calling “The New West”–the wide open town culture of the cowboy was being marginalized.  Big corporate ranching was becoming the backbone of the industry.  In some ways, this movie reads to me like a eulogy for the cowboy movie, or even the West.  The culture was changing.  There was a Kennedy in the White House.  Shitkickers were not welcome  in this American Dream.   A man who had no desire to wear a cowboy hat. . .or any hat for that matter.  Hud and his ilk were being discarded from the American conversation.  We were beyond cow-tipping, fucking and fighting.  Hell, it was Camelot and we were all sophisticated.  The Cowboy and his culture were disappearing.  Cowboys got off horses and strapped on steel.
Newman, the actor, had to really bring his ‘”A” game to this picture.  He was surrounded by heavyweights and they brought out the best in him.  A desperation creeps into the skin of Hud about halfway through the picture and Newman’s work is riveting.  Lss so than Patricia Neal. though, whose world-weary, MILF-y Alma has had bastards like Hud before.  There is a great scene where he is driving her home and trying verbally to seduce her.  He’s talking about giving her a back rub and her eyes roll low like those of a locomotive and she offers him a Fig Newton instead.
Neal was at the height of her powers –Pretty rather than beautiful  and Sexy in that older woman-Waitress kind of way and wise.  She was an interesting woman who endured no small amount of tragedy in her life–a near -fatal stroke when she was young, and the loss of a child.  She was also married to the great Roald Dahl–the brilliant author, but  philandering husband. Neal solldiered on through whatever life handed her–head held high.
Melvyn Douglas was a much-respected stage and screen  actor who, via marriage, had survived the Black List.  He was married to Helen Gahagan Douglas who, while running against Richard Nixon in California, was branded as a “pinko” by Tricky Dick.  She lost the election, which effectively ended her political career. Melvyn Douglas would go on to win another Oscar years later for his role in Being There.
When ever I think of this film, I think of Neal.  Her role reminds me of a line from the poet Adrienne Rich:
‘The common woman is about as fragile as a nail. . .”
I think this line hangs on Patricia Neal pretty well.  This one is for her.
Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Return (An Etching for Octavio Paz)

Return - An Etching for Octavio Paz

The poet, Octavio Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India from 1962 until 1968, when he resigned in protest over the Mexican government’s massacre of students just before the Olympic games.

The Mexico City Paz returned to shocked him, with its corruption and its violence.  While there had always been some corruption, the cavalier nature of the new Mexico City shook him up. It also inspired one of his great poems–or suites of poems–I can never tell which it is. Vuelta, or Return is a ferocious portrait of Mexico City in flux.  It is also fascinating for how much the writers he’d read in the East informed this poem:

On corners and in plazas
on the wide pedestals of the public squares
the Fathers of the Civic Church
a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
neither eagles nor jaguars

buzzard lawyers
wings of ink sawing mandibles
ventriloquist coyotes
peddlers of shadows
beneficent satraps

the cacomistle thief of hens

the monument to the Rattle and its snake
the altar to the mauser and the machete
the mausoleum of the epauletted cayman
rhetoric sculpted in phrases of cement

There is as much European surrealism in these lines as there is Mexican shape-shifting.  Paz came back to a city he no longer recognized; the city he was born in, no less.

Return is my favorite Paz poem because of its contradictions, digressions, left-turns and dead-ends.  We see, perhaps, the greatest poet of the last century stepping out onto a limb that may not support him.  This, for me, is his greatest high wire act as a poet; in fact, the one I feel freed him, forever, from the shadow of Pablo Neruda.

For all of its beautiful flow, there is much in this poem that is inelegant and ugly, sexual and mordantly funny.  I fear it is beautiful in the way a curtain of fire is beautiful.  What I admire the most about this lovely draft of poems is Paz’ fearlessness.  His reputation was pretty much already made as one of the most formidable literary talents of his time, yet he continued to push his work forward into dangerous directions and uncharted places.

He chafed at being labeled a “Latin” poet.  He was as much informed by Camus (particularly The Plague) and Breton as he was by Latin writers.  In 1970, he founded Plural, a literary magazine that went on to become the most influential one in all of Latin America.  It was not confined to Latin writing, but had contributors from all over the world.

If you’ve not ever read Paz, treat yourself.  Even if you do not have a nuanced understanding of poetry, let yourself wonder at just what Paz can make words DO.  I know more than one person who became fond of poetry after sampling Octavio Paz.  There is no bad Paz.  Whether it is Sunstone, or later poems like A Draft of Shadows or Return, Paz’ luminous way with language is always a journey worth taking:

Here every speech ends
here beauty is illegible
here presence becomes awesome
folded into itself Presence is empty
the visible is invisible
Here the invisible becomes visible
here the star is black
light is shadow and shadow light
Here time stops
the four points of the compass meet
it is the lonely place and the meeting place

City Woman Presence
time ends here
here it begins

–Octavio Paz, from Salamander

Published in: on September 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chicago Mephisto…Take this Waltz

Chicago Mephisto etching

In Faustus, Mephistopheles, speaks for the Devil and seduces Marlowe into wagering his soul, in exchange for his gifts of talent and intellect.

There are many variations on the Mephisto character– Devils, Demons, Apparitions–and as you can see– I’ve chosen a spider– a big hairy fucker with ghetto teeth.

There is a marvelous movie starring Klaus Maria Brandauer from 1981 also called Mephisto — in which an actor finds the role of his lifetime playing this deceiver,  only to cast a spell over the Nazis, entreating them to become his biggest fans and, in the process, having this role subsume his selfhood.  It is a searing portrait of an artist losing his soul–one who probably didn’t have much of one to begin with.  It is a great film.

The Mephisto character is a lot about ambition and pride and how the mixing of both can be lethal to one’s better sense.

When you work in the art world (or really, any creative community),  there are all kinds talents.  There are virtuouso talents; those that loom large and
are truly visionary. . .there are journeyman talents–those who work at it everyday, brick by brick, and build something salient for the world and themselves.
There are small talents made into something much bigger and huge talents that produce the puniest of statements.

The most common thing in the world?   Wasted talent.

That’s right.

The sidewalks are littered with wasted talent; those who could’ve done SO much more with what they had.  If one could choose guts or talent?  Take guts every time.  The guts will carry you where talent will not.

It is why a syphilitic dwarf like Toulouse Lautrec was a great artist and LeRoy Neiman wasn’t.

It is why Ray Charles was endlessly soulful and Liberace is not.

It is how one turns the suffering into the spirit.

There are guys who can draw all day and never produce anything interesting, and then there are talents that begin in a threadbare state and evolve into something special.  Van Gogh was not a great draftsman at the beginning of his career.  He had to work at it.  And he turned his idiosyncratic mark-making into flashes of the transcendent.

The Mephisto character has also been used in countless comic books and horror movies.  He comes as a friend or seducer and then whispers the Devil’s message, or in some cases, does the Devil’s deeds.  It is a great demon in German literature, with almost all of the Mephistos being somewhat musical or poetic in some way.  Mephisto is almost always an elegant, if evil, apparition or character and often a musical conductor–always a Machiavellian type who seeks to sow discord among people.

I know more than a few people like this in the art world.  Those unsatisfied with where they are, so they seek to disparage everyone else in an effort to elevate themselves.  It is a sad way to be. . .and throughly transparent.

There are also those who suck up to the gatekeepers and institutional types.  For them I have one thing to say,  “It must be tough using Preparation-H for lip gloss.”

Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm  Comments (2)  

Gray Dog in the Service of Ghosts

Grey Dog in the Service of Ghosts - EtchingIt seems the longer ago an event or person or place occurred, the more affection the subject is regarded with.  It is how we service our ghosts. How we gently lie to ourselves to pretend what came before was better, sweeter, more valuable. . .somehow more worthy.

Of course, this is bullshit.  The “good old days” sucked.

I often get accused of sentimentality or nostalgia because I reference the past.  This is not out of longing.  It is about remembering; making notice of what was and was not there.

Some years ago I had a show of a different body of work at the Chicago Cultural Center.  It was from a three-volume set of books I’d made about Chicago– specifically, the Chicago of my childhood.  The critic from The Tribune dismissed it as “sentimental,” which could not have been further from the truth.  Some of the imagery was absolutely monstrous, remembering a city of thoughtless cruelty and punishing bigotry; the city of Algren’s perpetually-rigged game.

Still, this handjob, who wrote badly for The Tribune for over 30 years, and is now, thankfully for Chicago, unemployed, made the cheap and easy assumption that this work was nostalgia or sentimental.

When people tell me this is what they see, I know they haven’t really looked.

One of the good things about the discourse of the internet is that it has forever shit-canned the self-appointed aristocracy of art critics.  It made the conversation bigger, with more voices, more choices and more democracy.

The imbecile who wrote for The Tribune all of those years?  He got kicked to the curb.  Art critics were either good, or they didn’t survive.

One notices that the great critics, Smith, Schjeldahl, Saltz, Cotter and my favorite, the one-man hurricane, Charlie Finch, had no job worries because of the Net.  Mostly it was the bad ones went up in flames.  It went that way for all of the other disciplines as well.  They no longer hold sway.  We all get to be part of this discourse.

I know artists who foolishly long for the art world of the ’80s–that decadeof greed, Reagan, social indifference, AIDS and stupid hair–merely because of the booming art market.  These morons were the “big whispers” of that ugly decade; the dwarves who were momentarily the tallest midgets in the circus.  They never seem to get it.  This thing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I don’t know if we can trust what we choose to remember  It seems the longer a relative or friend has been dead, the more saintly they become in the rear view mirror of memory.

I call it the “High-School Reunion” version of remembering.  My high school teachers, with a few luminous exceptions, were mostly lazy, bumbling dolts, dullards, and douchebags.  C-minus intellects who wanted nothing more than a job they only had to work eight months a year.  If you want education to get better, make teaching a meritocracy and make these fuckers take a test once a year.  If I meet one more high school English teacher who has not read Wallace Stevens, I’ll scream.  Seriously.  Fire half of the fucking teachers.  Both of my kids went to Chicago public schools.  My son get a first-rate education at a progressive, marvelous high school named Whitney Young.  My daughter went to Lincoln Park High School and was taught by slack-jawed mouth breathers.

If these assholes could count to eleven, without taking a shoe off, I wouldn’t be surprised. . .I’d be amazed.  Still, people I know look backward and think of these pukes with fondness.  I do not get it.

It is dangerous to romanticize the past, precisely because it can hobble our efforts to go forward into the future.  I’m not really nostalgic for anything.  I like the idea of tomorrow much more than yesterday.  Too many people waste their lives trying to replay yesterday’s box score.  When I reference the past,  I am remembering, not longing.

Xerox this to your brain.

Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (2)  

An Irish Story About a Woman and the Rain

An Irish Story About a Woman and the Rain

Irish women are their own mystery.

They are storms, joyful dances and furious pride.

There is nothing more proud than an Irish mother.  Trust me.  I have one.

When I got my first good notices as a young artist, my mother had them laminated. When the biddies would come by for tea she would push them across the table and non-nonchalantly mention, “My Tony. . .in the New York Times.”  The  other women would remind her that they’d seen this article at least 50 times.  She would look at them across the finger sandwiches and sternly assure them that the 51st time would be no less joyful.

I have five Irish sisters who all have something to say about a thing or two.  One is never not sure of where my sisters stand on any issue.

It sounds harsh to say, but Irish women have always had to be tougher than their men.  Irish men are prone to drink, poetry, politics, whimsy and foolishness.  They are wild spirits tethered to reason by the thinnest of kite strings.  And oh, what we do to our women.

We act like fools at Pogues concerts, bet on games of chance and are convinced of our ability to charm our way out of anything.  This, of course, is the fault of Irish women, who find us this charming.

It is probably from being trapped on a slimy rock full of drunks for so many centuries; they just got used to us. Something about the red-faced, white-haired, cherubic little pukes just made them happy.

The first time I met my wife, I thought she was Spanish.  She has olive skin, huge brown eyes and dark hair.  She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  Still is.

I walked up to her at my newly opened art gallery and said, “What’s your name, baby?”

She said, “Are you talking to me? Because I don’t recall being your ‘baby.’  My name is Michele Garrahy.”

Irish broad.  First order of business: Put Art-Boy in his place.

She actually had a boyfriend at the time, a hipster puke with asshole-glasses, who I kept calling, “Seth,” which wasn’t his name.

She wasn’t amused.

My charms had a ways to go as far as working any kind of mojo on Michele.  Eventually, we started working together and became close friends. I was at a scary point in my career where it was either make your reputation in earnest. . .or go the fuck home.

Chicago, back then, had a murderous kind of caste-system for artists.  Dealers ran everything.  This was before the internet and they pretty much had you by the balls.  They had an astonishing amount of discretionary power over an artist’s career and, with few exceptions here, it was a power they abused more often than not.  It wasn’t only them.


Institutional types.


They all had a lot more power in the economic makeup of the art world than artists did.  It was a hard world to navigate back then.  If you wanted to succeed, you had to buy into their system at a tariff of 50 percent of your  living.

That’s right–50 percent.  Picture yourself sitting down at a restaurant and ordering a meal and the guy next to you eats half of it.

The most pernicious conceit in ceding credence to this system is the idea that their effort in selling our work is equal to our effort in making it.  Fuck you. I’ll never  accept this idea.

I have all kinds of agents. My theater guy gets ten percent.  My literary person, about 20 percent.  My TV and movie agents, 15 percent.  And I think of all of these arrangements as equitable.  The 50% thing; I could never get used to and eventually just refused to pay it.

Michele was the one who emboldened me to do this.  She told me she’d wait tables if I couldn’t make a living, and believe me, some of my dealers tried mightily to blackball me out of this racket.

Some years ago, we went to Ireland to perform a piece I’d written for Steppenwolf, called Galway.  It was musical and full of the Celtic magic I’d heard my grandmother and great-grandmother talk about.  I saw a lot of troubling behavior with alcohol.  Women, early in the evening, shagging their drunken men out of pubs, giving them an earful about presenting a dignified figure for their children.

In an odd way it reminded me of my wife telling me not to be afraid of the career I’d chosen; to find the joy in it, and let no one interfere with this.
She made me brave.

When I didn’t have enough courage of my own. . .she lent me hers. This is what love is.

This one is for her.

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 1:23 am  Comments (1)  
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