“You Invent Your Own Game”

melvin edwards

The sculptor Melvin Edwards at his studio in Plainfield, N.J., with “Nigba Lailai (The Past),” from 1979. Credit Melvin Edwards/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times.

Older artists profiled in this article are achieving belated critical and financial success after laboring in obscurity for much of their careers. In her title the author makes the artists’ ethnicity explicit, providing good context for the categorization, and it’s enough
said. Many don’t wish their art to be filtered through “the lens of identity.”

lorraine ogrady

“Lorraine O’Grady: Cutting Out CONYT,” was an exhibition of her work using cut-out type from The New York Times. Credit Lorraine O’Grady/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Alexander Gray Associates.

Artists mentioned are: McArthur Binion, Howardena Pindell, Melvin Edwards, Lorraine O’Grady, Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, Barkley Hendricks, Jack Whitten, Mark Bradford, Charles Gaines, William T. Williams, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Kerry James Marshall.

frank bowling two blues

Last year Frank Bowling, 85, created “Two Blues,” acrylic and mixed media on collaged and printed canvas. Credit Frank Bowling/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; DACS, London; via Alexander Gray Associates; Hales Gallery.

I particularly savored Melvin Edwards’s pithy remarks:

“You invent your own game — and then you push it forward,” said Mr. Edwards, who taught at Rutgers for 30 years. “It’s about time the art world caught up.”

He is philosophical about all the new attention.

“Some is serious, some is fickle and some is not at all positive — you just have to find your way through it,” he said.

(Hilarie M. Sheets, “Discovered After 70, Black Artists Find Success, Too, Has Its Price,” NYTimes, 3-23-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Quotations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

W. S. Merwin (1927-2019)

ws merwin in trees

W.S. Merwin at the Merwin Conservancy on the northeast coast of Maui in 2010. Credit Tom Sewell for The New York Times.

This tribute to W. S. Merwin is by Dr. A. Hope Jahren, a geobiologist who is author of the memoir “Lab Girl” and a professor at the University of Oslo. My own experience of Merwin has been mostly through his elegant work as a translator.

“On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree,” is an oft-quoted line from Mr. Merwin’s poem, “Place.”

Mr. Merwin, who died last week at age 91, and his wife Paula, transformed the [Peahi Valley on Maui]. They built the Merwin Conservancy: 19 protected acres, an island within an island. The land was a dumping ground in 1977, little more than a rash of grassy boils festering in the exhausted soil. That same year, Mr. Merwin planted a sapling in the blight, then got up the next day and planted another one. The day after he did the same, and the day after that also. His trees made soil, and the soil made more trees. He planted a tree every day on that land for years, until his friends took over the planting under his direction.

(A. Hope Jahren, “The Poet Who Planted Trees,” NYTimes, 3-19-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Quotations | Tagged , | 4 Comments

“Aroha, Manaakitanga”


Masha Gessen’s article is unusually affecting for me at a time when I feel enervated by tinyness in my own country. The article is a sensible and sensitive appreciation of conduct that betokens great — I would say towering — stature on the part of New Zealand’s leader. I’m having trouble not quoting more passages from it, but as usual I try to focus here on language and its power — “all that makes us us.”

Addressing the families of the victims, [Jacinda Ardern] said, “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage. We can and we will surround you with aroha, manaakitanga, and all that makes us us.” She used Maori words that mean kindness, compassion, generosity… It was the absence that was notable in Ardern’s speech: the absence of a rhetorical pivot from “us” to “them,” the enemy.

(Masha Gessen, “Jacinda Ardern Has Rewritten the Script for How a Nation Grieves After a Terrorist Attack,” The New Yorker, 3-22-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Quotations | Tagged | 1 Comment

“Ars longa, vittles brevis”

nyrestaurants 1

John Donohue.


“My goal is to keep drawing forever, to get to all the restaurants in New York,” [John Donohue] said. It’s a silly goal, perhaps, but what goal isn’t? It’s cheap, it gets him outside (as opposed to eating in restaurants, which is expensive and mostly indoors) and provides one way of knowing this unknowable city.

nyrestaurants 2

John Donohue.

And as the restaurants come and go, even the most fleeting pen lines linger as proof of what once existed. As Hippocrates said, ars longa, vittles brevis.

John Leland, “He Wants to Draw All the Restaurants in New York City,” NYTimes, 3-22-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Quotations | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Trompe L’oeil

“Painting objects and people as they actually appear….” (Andrew Ferren, “A 7-Hour, 6-Mile, Round-the-Museum Tour of the Prado,” NYTimes, 3-18-19) The phrase encapsulates my former goal: To paint something accurately, yet somehow enhanced: A simplistic, naive and ambiguous goal all … Continue reading

| Tagged | Leave a comment


andy warhol mustard race riot

A detail of “Mustard Race Riot,” … Credit The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times.

Do I love this painting? Love is not a word I would use to describe my regard for Warhol, which is high. He and his art are too trouble-makingly elusive and embrace-aversive for that. But this is true of some of the best history painters over the centuries — Goya, Géricault, Turner — and a history painter is what Warhol is. It’s a tough job, but every era in every culture needs someone to do it.

(Holland Cotter, “Warhol at the Whitney: Why This One Work Is So Stirring,” NYTimes, 3-21- 19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Quotations | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How Things Actually Appear


The stately neoclassical building that houses the Prado will be unwrapped later this year. Credit Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times.

Artists of the Spanish “golden age” in the 17th century seemed to delight in manipulating paint on the canvas to create dazzlingly realistic effects, such as the light shimmering on silk gowns in Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” or the churning clouds in the apricot-and-lavender skies of El Greco. Spanish ‘naturalism’ — painting objects and people as they actually appear [my emphasis] — can have a deeper emotional impact, as seen in the candor and humanity of Velázquez’s portraits of buffoons….

(Andrew Ferren, “A 7-Hour, 6-Mile, Round-the-Museum Tour of the Prado,” NYTimes, 3-18-19)

How things “actually appear” is elusive. I don’t see correctly. My sketches for painting are labored, with much overriding of mistaken perception. The painting phase involves much mixing and discarding of pigment that looked right until it touched the canvas. I don’t want to paint this way, but I have to.

It’s not just me. Our brains foist perceptual baggage onto us. Some people overcome the handicap. Most art I admire goes beyond naturalism. It lights me up with a devil-may-care attitude. I like to imagine that even a so-called realistic painting is really an
infinitude of tiny abstractions rendered and assembled just so.

(c) 2019 JMN.

Posted in Anthology, Commentary | Tagged | 1 Comment