marlene mountain
letter essay
december 1996

one's entitled

dear sam  december 1996

I don't remember the year but certainly the day. A visit to the Art Institute in Chicago which I was determined not to leave until I could understand what a Cezanne still life was about. I'd sat there before and been intrigued by it and deeply enamored by other modern art but just didn't get 'space.'

It's been strange to look back over the years and realize that when I finally did see it that day--beginning with a table edge on one side of a bottle slightly lower than the other side--it would alter my way of 'looking' at everything. Not just the beginning of an intellectual life but one based a great deal--as odd as it seems--on an emotional attachment to two-dimensional space.

Back at college I would spend tons of time looking through books on modern French and American painting devouring the concept. My own paintings barely hinted at the tremendous visual information I was absorbing. An Argus C3 I'd gotten to photograph friends and my work though became the first and constant companion in a ten-year pursuit of flat yet not-really-flat abstract design.

In November of 1962 while at another university I had a chance to spend a total of a week (including a bout with the flu) in Nice and Paris. It was exciting to meet a shopkeeper who pointed down a street where Bonnard whom she'd known once lived and painted. The Louvre and Mona Lisa were boring. The haystacks, cathedral facades, lilies and such at other museums were interesting but I'd already 'learned' from tiny reproductions and craved more structure, more playing in space (even though I've yet to see a Cezanne painting as exciting as the concept).

I was lucky to catch a ride to the Matisse-designed chapel in Vance. A scary cliff-side trip for a brief moment of minimal lines is all I remember. On return I took a 'Stations of the Cross' card to a teacher who tossed it back across his desk with, 'Matisse can get by with anything.' Already offended by the oppressive atmosphere this was the last insult and I quit going to his and other classes even though I stuck out the quarter and one more--trying to decide on my own if I could paint, if I had anything in me. I felt at rock-bottom--the best place, I guess. In late winter a no/teacher came by, looked at my work and asked that I stay; things would improve. I was not convinced and left.

That summer as part of the ongoing agonizing process before I shocked myself by writing in my notebook, 'I am a painter,' I literally slammed shut a book on Bonnard paintings--and symbolically on all other 'loves'--not an easy task at twenty-three or at any other age I've been. Yet I'm now a firm believer that one--that I--must continually do so. French space though had opened the door (and Matisse window) and from there I was able to 'read' any visual language and I'd like to think express my own.

Within a year I was well on my way to something like 'painting by not painting,' e.g., a series of alternating two-color loosely/barely-painted stripes. The shape--but mainly the in-betweenness created: implying what had been, the empty/white canvas and what could be, the fully-formed/painted stripes. A colleague said the paintings reminded him of Zen and gave Alan Watts' THE WAY OF ZEN to me. Although the ideas were wide-ranging, I was most intrigued to find a correspondence between very personal paintings and words or rather 'wordlessness' of another culture. I'd not been aware of haiku but was attracted to its suggestive qualities and supposedly inherent empty space; the poems themselves had little meaning. I mentioned Watts' 'the marvelous Void' in my painting thesis in 1965 (and introduced haiku to John Wills, although neither of us would write as yet). I even titled a 1967 two-stripe painting, 'big haiku.' Visual ideas more than earlier somewhat nature-poems led to involvement with haiku. But I was to look back with a big: oh no. Another powerful and absorbing conceptual venture. (Have I seen a haiku as exciting as the concept?)

But that darn non-academic still life and non-Poussin landscape painter. That 'wild beast' and his infamous green nose-stripe painting. And oh those rebellious bath tiles of Bonnard. Such sedition. Such seduction. I'd worked hard not to French-paint (or French-repaint or worse French-mispaint; or de Kooning-paint, et al) especially as I'd seen artists/students distracted or corrupted by imitation, adoration, formula painting. (Ironically, when I 'taught' Matisse in one of my classes a young woman cried. A disappointment not to convey what I deeply felt.) Although I was unable to articulate or fully grasp it for years, one's entitled--no matter what major art discoveries have gone before--to one's own intellectual and creative journey, whether one reenvisions, dumps, revitalizes, jeers or tears apart what is most cherished (even more daunting when a great many others also cherish those very things). It might be that we visit an art or a place to learn what not to do. To test our own authenticity.

If asked about haiku and related arts I'd be compelled to say: don't go ga-ga over Japanese concepts (or the 'products') as I guess I did. It took several years after a 1970 four-month stay in Matsuyama to begin truly sorting through what haiku things applied to the individual and/or collective Japanese and what applied to what I was writing. Much too much time, energy, sincerity and seriousness 'wasted' yet the once-again agonizing process helped develop--now in words!--personal content from a personal response. I can't imagine any other 'reason' to create. All in all an over thirty-year involvement with haiku (and a forty-year process in visual art) never satisfied and apparently never settled which I wouldn't wish on anyone yet would never trade. It's led me to believe that it takes a past to make a 'radical.' Yet is there anything radical in the struggle not to Japanese-haiku (or Japanese-rehaiku or worse Japanese-mishaiku). There's an incredible thing I've found to do if I see myself tempted to go ga-ga and that's to go 'dada.' (Whatta concept.)

In fact, the development of 'dadaku' (early 1970s), 'high coup' and 'high coup hai ku' (1990) helped relieve some of the pressure of high art/high concept. (I'm one who doesn't believe haiku are innocent little nature poems.) But satire or deep respect for others' accomplishments can never replace even a non-intentional search of one's own inner spirit. Somehow it's about getting 'at the root' (radical) of our individual experiences and perceptions--not another culture's spirit, 'selflessness' and often deceitful rhetoric, the part that's not nature poems. The more we read about haiku might mean the less we know. Can we count on anyone, anything or any brand name, including romantic simplicities, selective translations, and especially 'foreign' idiosyncrasies to define expression and give it credibility?

There's another aspect. When any art emerges a creator is rarely aware of all relevant and significant components, has little understanding of its full potential and, in the case of a 'community' art, all its diverse participants. Is it then fully formed? Is any art a be-all/end-all at inception (if even known)? Is an oppressed/oppressive culture capable of allowing development, an egotistical artist capable of encouraging a range of ideas? Are we late arrivals to be held hostage? Are all precedents used up?

Although I was disappointed--devastated is more like it--when Japanese (some upset, some amused) in 1970 said it is impossible that Westerners could have the Japanese innate sensibility to write haiku, I tend to agree now and believe we degrade that uniqueness and inventiveness to claim we understand their culture well enough to write in it. We degrade ourselves too--it's we who tell us what to do/not do. Although it's now impossible not to call what we pursue haiku, and acknowledge our linkage, it seems we ought to be farther along. Way past secondhand philosophical drivel and schizophrenic thinking (what did/would 'the masters' do?). Three hundred--give or take--year-old guidelines are spooky--luckily we don't know how to follow many, unluckily it's thinking we can that some of our miserable versions occur. Always, though, shouldn't we ask: whose, when, why, for whom?

In these times of cross-cultural exchange let's at least have something uniquely ours. Something of substance to contribute. Not watered-down, incorrect and dull--is there anything worse than a haiku that reads like a three-line Blyth translation? Let's give those doubters something worth contemplating. That gives them pause. Why would we even think we could think like Basho? Or write in the mood/style of long-dead esoteric poets? I frankly don't want to think in Japanese. That's not expression and certainly not art. I've yet to decide for myself if haiku is art or philosophy; even if much is formula, it isn't math. Is it then creative verses recreative? We and the Japanese surely have the right to sort out 'rules' and content. Homogeneous culture or not, haiku is elusive--or why bother--and individually made.

What it takes to come into our own--to keep from remaining one-dimensional--I'm not sure. What happened to me--while in the process of book-slamming, on my past painting and writing too-- was recovering the female (very misunderstood by many) in myself, and beyond myself (also misunderstood); a newly-found awareness of experience and expression--the potential so overwhelming I often have to back away and do nothing. A truly destructive self-editing 'guideline.' This twenty-year trek begun August 1977 was a 'moment (literally) keenly perceived' that will not go away. Painless, it isn't. By far the most agonizing yet most meaningful adventure of all--harder on me than on any reader who can become an instant non-reader. I've begun though to trust myself and to realize that for once I'm in a non-concept. (A 'thought' I can live with.) In some deep-down, deep-home CONTENT. The kind that comes looking for me--from any place in the world.

Well this began as a note to thank you for writing and, since you're from France, relate some experiences. It got so unwieldy I set up my son's Apple IIc--just not inspired to peck out anything in over two years. Then it really got out of hand--is this even a letter now? You asked I not call what I write haiku; does it help that I don't call it Japanese haiku? Re the RNH piece it may be unclear that I also wrote the questions; a self-interview. PS: In a recent PBS program on Matisse, Madam M of the nose-stripe is quoted: you may be a great artist but you're a bastard. More perspective (so to speak) on two-dimensional space or (what trauma it's caused some of us) on a mere three-dimensional man? An interesting piece of Dada I thought. Maybe she's also thrown in a bit of 'women's art.' One kind, at least--our art as varied as each woman in the world. Just wait 'til we all write haiku.


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