Entry begun Sunday, September 18, 2016
Readers who read my two entries about the Frank Stella Retrospective that opened at the Whitney Museum in October can imagine how happy I was when the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth invited me to give a talk on the Moby-Dick works in the Retrospective during its visit to that museum. It seems every time I go to Texas it’s for something related to Herman Melville. In the late 1980s, when I was studying Melville’s print collection in relation to the book I was writing on Melville and Turner, I flew to Austin and drove to Georgetown to see the Turner prints from Melville’s collection now preserved as part of the Osborne Collection at Southwestern University. In the early 1990s, when I was beginning to write a book on Stella’s Moby-Dick series, I flew to Houston to see The Sperm Whale’s Head at the Meredith Long Gallery and The Decanter at Houston Museum of Fine Arts. In 2010 I flew to Dallas to see the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera. I liked that work so much that I flew to San Francisco to interview Heggie and begin the research that led to the book I published with the University of North Texas Press in 2013. When I flew to Dallas and drove to Denton for the book release party in April of that year, I was delighted to hear the world premiere of Heggie’s Ahab Symphony performed by the orchestra and chorus of the exceptional music school at the University of North Texas.
The Stella Retrospective had come directly from the Whitney to Fort Worth, where it opened on April 18. It has been very well received throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, closing today, September 18, before moving on to San Francisco (where it will open at the De Young Museum in November). Over the summer in Forth Worth, the museum hosted a group that read and discussed Moby-Dick once a month in relation to the Retrospective, and this weekend the Museum is closing the exhibition with its first-ever Marathon Reading of Melville’s novel. My talk was on Tuesday of this week and I wish I could have stayed for the Marathon Reading, which is always very stimulating to hear and to see in a room filled with art works inspired by the novel itself. I am hoping that Terri Thornton, the Curator of Education who invited me to give my talk, will be able to send me some photos of the Marathon so I can insert at least one into this blog entry. I would have loved to see part of the Marathon from the overlook on the second floor.
The talk I gave was the first event in this year’s Tuesday Evenings at the Modern, a series of lectures and presentations by artists, architects, historians, and critics that is free and open to the public. I was happy to see my Stella book on sale in the bookstore and to hear that quite a few members of the discussion group had been reading it over the summer.
The Stella show at the Whitney deployed more than one hundred works dating from the late 1950s to the mid-2010s throughout the entire Fifth Floor of its new building designed by Renzo Piano. The Fort Worth Modern had a slightly smaller selection of works spread throughout a number of self-contained rooms. It was fascinating to see, and to feel, the differences between these two configurations of what was, by and large, the same body of work. A defining feature of the Whitney show is that works from widely disparate periods in Stella’s career were often directly juxtaposed with each other. I loved this element of that show, but I also loved the way in which the Fort Worth installation allowed for several unified, self-contained ensembles. One my favorite rooms, from this point of view, was the one exclusively devoted to Eccentric Polygons from the 1960s. Equally satisfying, for me, of course, was the one room that held five Moby-Dick reliefs from the 1980s. I was unable to capture all five of them in one photo with my iPhone, but fortunately a photographer for the Museum had been able to do exactly that.
Stella’s Moby-Dick reliefs are so large in scale, and so rich in their painted and etched surfaces and in the irregular shapes that protrude from the wall, that I always see and feel new elements in each design even if I had seen it once or more before. Each of the five in Fort Worth I had already seen at the Whitney Museum in New York. But some of them had by now become old, old friends. This is especially true of The Whiteness of the Whale relief I reproduced on the cover of my book. I had first seen it when it was on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art in the early 1990s. Then, after I met Frank Stella when researching his series in Japan, I saw this same Whiteness relief in his studio in New York, from which he had loaned it to Baltimore. It remained there as a guiding spirit during all of my interviews with him as I writing my book and watching him complete the rest of the series during the rest of the decade.
Frank and I both went on to other things after my book came out in 2001, so the next time I saw the Moby-Dick relief was last October when I attended the opening of the Retrospective at the Whitney. There it was mounted between Fedallah, next to which I had seen in it Baltimore two decades earlier, and Loomings, which I had first seen at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the early 1990s. My favorite photo of these three works at the Whitney is the one in which they provide the perfect backdrop for a Marathon Reading of Melville’s novel.
At the exhibition in Fort Worth it was wonderful to see the horizontal expanse of The Blanket with a wall to itself in the center of the room. I had loved this work when I first saw it in a Dean Witter office building in New York City in the 1990s. But it had looked cramped and uncomfortable on a wall in a room with a low ceiling, and a baby grand piano sitting next to it, high in a skyscraper. I immediately loved the buoyant wave shape on the right side of this painted metallic relief. At first I loved its coloring, which reminded me to the orca whales I had seen when growing up on Puget Sound. And then I saw its human head and arms, painted in white and lined in pink, riding the crest of the wave. I had not been expecting to see such a shape in a work by Stella (who had previously used preexisting geometric shapes such as stripes, polygons, protractors, and cones as the primary ingredients in his formally abstract art). That beautifully balanced human abstraction riding the crest of the wave at first made me think of a surfer. But as a student of Moby-Dick I was soon thinking of Ishmael and his fellow whalers in pursuit of a whale. At some point I learned enough about the skeletal structure of the head of the whale to see its distinctive shape in the plunging head of the wave shape the human shape is riding. So there, seamlessly integrated into one buoyant wave shape, were the three essential ingredients of a whaling story: the human, the whale, and the sea.
Up in the Dean Witter tower, I barely had room to get photo of the “three-way wave” itself, with no chance to chapter the 19-foot width of The Blanket as a whole. Even in the installation on the Fifth Floor of the Whitney, it was impossible for me to get a photograph of The Blanket with a full frontal view without backing up right into the dangerous metallic involutions of Fedallah, which was directly facing it in that section of the installation. When I got a few minutes with Stella at the artist’s opening of the Whitney show, I was happy that I was able to get a photo of him with my favorite wave shape.
It was hard to know where to start in my Fort Worth lecture, there could have been so much to say, but the recent Olympics in Rio helped me with that. At the opening of the Whitney show, I had been struck over and over by the spatial relation of Stella’s reliefs to the human body. This had been brought home again by the photograph in the New York Times of a Rwandan marathoner running past Stella’s Puffed Star II, a recent sculpture that a Rio de Janiero museum had acquired just in time for the Olympics. That photo made me think of a statement Melville had made in The Confidence Man, several years after writing Moby-Dick: “Fiction, like religion, should create another world, and yet one to which the feel the tie.” This I feel is a perfect motto for Stella’s largely abstract art, whether it be the Moby-Dick reliefs of the 1980s and 1990s, the Eccentric Polygons of the 1960s, or the Puffed Stars of the 2010s.
The five Moby-Dick reliefs in the Fort Worth Retrospective (the same five that were at the Whitney) were completed between 1986 and 1989. They represent a small, early sample of the 266 unique artworks Stella had named for Melville’s 138 chapter headings by the time he completed the series in 1997. I therefore tried to give my audience of some sense of Stella’s project as a whole, with an emphasis on process by which I had come to know the series from the first Wave prints I had seen to in Cincinnati in 1989 though to the book I finally published in 2001. I called the talk “Pursuing Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick in Body, Mind, and Words,” and enjoyed giving it to a very alert audience that had excellent questions afterwards.
One my biggest surprises in visiting Stella in his New York studio came on the day he asked if I wanted to see the movie he had made of smoke rings he had blown from his beloved cigar into a black box equipped with cameras on all sides. At the time I had no idea what this might have to do with the Moby-Dick series. One year later, at Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, New York, he completed the nine editioned prints he called the Moby-Dick Deckle Edges, all of which included abstractions of those smoke rings he had blown with his own cigar. One of the clearest of those rings is the one on the right side of The Monkey-Rope, named for the chapter in Moby-Dick whose “monkey-rope” is the nautical line connecting Ishmael on the deck of the ship with Queequeg on the body of the whale as Queequeg is trying to cut into the blanket of the skin of the whale so the whalers can hoist it up into the ship to be cut into strips that can be boiled in the fire of the try-works to make the oil that is poured into the casks that are then stored in the hull so they can be sold back a home. In Melville’s chapter, Ishmael’s perilous monkey-rope becomes a metaphor for the “the Siamese ligatures” that tie us to other creatures in life and in death.
Soon after the visit to Stella’s studio in which I saw the movie of him blowing smoke rings, I decided to make a trip out to the Coney Island aquarium where he had got his original inspiration for the Moby-Dick Series. In the early 1980s he had visited the aquarium with his young sons, one of them riding on his shoulders. As soon as they entered, he was struck by the Beluga whales, “looming there,” as he liked to say. He loved their abstract shape as they hovered above and beyond him through the glass, and he suddenly had the inspiration for the first of many whale and wave shapes that were to float through the prints, metallic reliefs, and sculptures he was to name for all o fMelville’s chapter headings over the next twelve years. In my talk I gave special attention to uppermost white wave shape The Whiteness of the Whale, to the three-way wave shape in The Blanket, and to whale-and-wave shape I first saw in the Moby-Dick print, immediately followed by its absence at the heart of Ahab’s Leg.
You might think that an overnight visit to Fort Worth to see an art exhibition, give a lecture, and enjoy a sociable meal might not have much to do with my current life as a professor in northern Kentucky, a curator in Cincinnati, or with my boyhood in Puget Sound, but this one evening was full of the kind of monkey-rope connections that Moby-Dick always somehow inspires. One of them I could anticipate in advance, because Barbara (McCroskey) Flanagan, who now lives in Fort Worth, was the student in early in my teaching career at Northern Kentucky University who asked the question that has resulted in the career I have since enjoyed as a specialist in Moby-Dick and the visual arts. Barbara had taken an experimental course I then taught in Music in Literature, so she asked if I could offer one in Painting and Literature. I had never thought about doing that, but I said I would give it a shot if she would enroll for the course and help me research some of the possible topics, which she did. This course gave me the opportunity to follow some hunches I already had about J. M. W. Turner as a possible inspiration for Moby-Dick. The experience of teaching it, with Barbara’s help, led eventually to my book on Melville and Turner, which in turn led to the one on Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick. Barbara came to the lecture in Fort Worth with her husband Milton, and Terri Thornton, the education director at the museum, invited them to join us for dinner after the lecture. Our dinner conversation was so animated, I don’t think we got a chance to talk about the way Melville and Moby-Dick were incorporated into the exhibition of Turner’s Whaling Pictures at the New York Met this summer (the subject of an earlier entry in this blog).
A more surprising connection with my current work in the Northern Kentucky / Greater Cincinnati area came when several people came up to ask questions after my talk. Two of them asked if I knew about the Moby-Dick art by Matt Kish. What a wonderful confirmation of the national influence of the work of this mild-mannered librarian in Dayton, Ohio, who had been entirely unknown before he published Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page in 2011. These two Kish fans in Fort Worth were delighted to hear the latest news about our recent exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati for which Kish had done more than a hundred new Moby-Dick works they had never seen, most of which have already been purchased by the Newberry Library in Chicago, where they will presumably a central part of the library’s celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Melville’s birth in 2019.
After we left the lecture hall in Fort Worth, Terri took us to dinner at a restaurant Barbara recommended. I would have never expected the conversation to center on Tacoma, Washington, the city in which my father was born. But Milton, Barbara’s husband, had lived in Tacoma during his formative years, and so had Cam, Terri’s husband. The reason I had to fly back to the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport early the next morning was that Ellen Bayer, one of my favorite Moby-Dick students while I was finishing the Stella book, was flying in on the same day from the Seattle / Tacoma airport so she could give an Alumni Lecture to our students and faculty at NKU. Ellen is currently an Assistant Professor of Literature at the University of Washington Tacoma. One of her specialties is environmental studies, and she gave a brilliant Alumni Lecture at NKU on Poe, Ecology, and Landscape Aesthetics. Ellen loves Puget Sound as a young faculty member as much as I had as a high school student and tugboat deckhand, and the photo she sent for our flyer shows her running a marathon in the Cascade Mountains near Mount Rainier.
After Ellen gave her talk to our students and faculty, I made sure we got over to Steely Library to see one of the paintings Danielle Wallace had done as part of her Honors Capstone project at NKU. Danielle, like Ellen, had been a student in one of my classes in Moby-Dick and the arts. Each had created an artwork as her final project that was included in the exhibition Moby Comes to Covington at the Kenton County Public Library in 2015. But what they most have in common is their fascination, and life experience, with horses. Ellen had grown up and come of age with her horse named Whisper, so her Honors Capstone project had been to examine the horse whispering phenomenon in an experiential project combining research, memoir, journaling, and building a pen in which she and Whisper could interact in a video that was part of the final project. Danielle combined her life and her research in a similar way, painting several life-size paintings of her own horses to supplement the journal she was keeping of their daily interactions and the reading she was doing on the moral lives of animals.
The day after Ellen gave her talk at NKU, she drove to Tennessee to run a 50K Marathon through the Smokey Mountains. Tennessee is now the home of Danielle’s Ungraspable Phantom, which Dawn Coleman had bought after seeing it in the nine-woman exhibition of Moby-Dick art at the Marta Hewett Gallery in April (see previous blog entry). Danielle had painted that work while interning on a horse farm in Alabama and delivered it to Cincinnati just in time for the show, where Marta and I installed on a wall between Monica Namyar’s ceramic relief Queequeg and Ishmael and Kathleen Piercefields’s mixed-media print The Women of New Bedford.
On the day Ellen was running her mountain Marathon in the Smokies, I received my last monkey-rope surprise of the week of during which I had given my talk in Fort Worth. On the Thursday before my visit to Texas, Kathleen Piercefield had come to NKU for the opening of a print exhibition which included two of her newest works. I had not seen her since I received word that her larger-than-life print of Queequeg in his own proper person had safely arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to join two of her prints from the Marta Hewett show as the most recent acquisitions in the Elizabeth Schultz Collection. This was the perfect opportunity for me to present Kathleen with a little gift for all she had done for me since she had created her first Moby-Dick artworks in my class in 2004. Since she loves moths and butterflies, I gave her a beautiful ceramic pot by Monica Namyar whose gliding butterflies are floating over a deep black ground.
Now, just one week later, a little box arrived on my porch at home, enclosing a new print as a gift from Kathleen. I can’t get a formal photo of it yet because it is still “bent” like the body of the baby whale recently released from the “maternal reticule” in the “Grand Armada” chapter of Moby-Dick. The whale shape in this print is one of my favorites from Kathleen’s Affidavit in the Marta Hewett show, now in New Bedford. Its inscribed title is Adrift in the Wonder World, our name for the Marta Hewett show—and the perfect capstone phrase for this extremely satisfying week.