IV. It's You After All

The other thing that triggered my still life paintings was an exhibition of Chardin's still lifes in New York at the time I was reading Husserl. There is something profound about inanimate objects, something I never felt until I tried to paint them. But artists have been feeling this for a long time, at least since the time of the Romans, and probably a lot earlier. The Paleolithic people engraved images of plants and flowers on their ivory tools.


Still life by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin
 
A small number of Paleolithic tools have images that may represent plants. These are all from sites in France.

 

My work looks nothing like Morandi's, but his conception of still life was a lot like my own. He said  all he was interested in was expressing what's in nature, in the visible world. He worked most of his life in a small room painting the same bottles and boxes on the same surface over and over.

 He reminds me of Grisha Perelman, the Russian mathematician who proved the Poincaré Conjecture. Like Morandi, he was content to hole up in a small room and obsess on his passion--in his case the Poincaré, in Morandi's those bottles. Morandi said,  "nothing is more abstract than reality," something Perelman might agree with.

 


Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta, 1956 

 
And it's interesting that the Poincaré Conjecture is also about objects. In topology, or rubber sheet geometry, every object without a hole through it is the same as a sphere, topologically speaking. A box, a pyramid, a hexagon--blow them up like a balloon and they're all spheres. A donut is not a sphere. Neither are we. We have a hole in us, from our mouths to our butts, so we're all donuts on this bus. This is true of 2-dimensional surfaces--the surface of the ball, etc. These are 2-d objects suspended in 3-d space. In math language:

"For compact 2-dimensional surfaces without boundary, if every loop can be continuously tightened to a point, then the surface is topologically homeomorphic to a 2-sphere, usually just called a sphere. The Poincaré conjecture asserts that the same is true for 3-dimensional surfaces."

I'll come back to topology at the end, when we look at the Klein bottle, so let me try to explain to the best of my limited ability that the surface of a sphere is a 2-d object as seen in our familiar 3-d space. ( I'm just talking here about spatial dimensions, not space-time.) So a 3-d surface must be "seen", or embedded in, 4-d space. Don't even try to visualize that because you can't. We are sensually and therefore conceptually limited to our 3 dimensions of space and one of time and can only explore other dimensions through mathematics.

 

 


Grigory Perelman 

 
So it took 110 years to prove the Conjecture. Perelman was awarded the Field's Medal in 2006, but he turned it down. On 18 March 2010, it was announced that he had met the criteria to receive the first Clay Millennium Prize Problems Award of $1,000,000, for resolution of the Poincaré conjecture. I don't know whether he's going to accept it or not.

Perelman lives with his mother in St. Petersburg. He never cuts his hair or fingernails. "If they want to grow, why should I cut them?" He was offered jobs at several top universities in the US, including Princeton and Stanford, but he rejected them all and returned to the Steklov Institute in Saint Petersburg in the summer of 1995 for a research only position. The publicity was too much for him. I think he felt violated by it--or rather that the purity of mathematics was violated by it. Maybe he has the same sort of reverence for objects that Morandi had. The last I heard, Grisha doesn't answer his email and says he has stopped doing mathematics. I doubt it.

  Morandi was also single and lived in a house in Bologna with his mother and three sisters. He lived and worked in a small room with one window, a few tables and chairs and a camp bed. That was all he needed.
 
He painted the actual bottles and boxes themselves. Maybe to make them anonymous, to neutralize them, remove any stories there might be attached to them, contaminating them.

Giorgio Morandi
 
 

Morandi's studio
Even when he gained international recognition like Perelman, he turned down all invitations to exhibit his work and never had a large show until after his death. He valued his privacy, kept his teaching jobs to a minimum and concentrated on those bottles and the view from his one window. He can be thought of as the first minimalist.
 
When I do this as a Powerpoint presentation I play Satie's Gnossiene No. 1 while I show Morandi's still lifes. Satie was a minimalist too--or at least his music would influence the minimalists of our own time, like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams.
 

Eric Satie, Gnossiene No. 1
 

And he too ended up as a recluse. At the time of his death in 1925 absolutely nobody else had ever entered his room in Arcueil (a suburb of Paris) since he had moved there twenty-seven years earlier.

Like Perelman, he wore the same suit every day, year after year. After Satie's burial his friends discovered four pianos stacked up on top of each other, a lot of unused umbrellas (he was apparently a hoarder), a lot of dust and cobwebs -- which showed that he never used the piano to compose -- his old love letters, and compositions he hadn't bothered to publish, stuffed behind the piano or in the pockets of his clothes.


Talking about his symphonic drama Socrate, Satie said he tried to create a work "as white and pure as antiquity."
Of course antiquity was neither white nor pure--the Greeks painted their sculpture--but the ruins of it were. His music (unlike his studio) is like bleached stone.


And Morandi's still lifes also have that quality of anonymous ruins, pure and white. So I thought Satie's music was the perfect soundtrack for Morandi's work.
 

So none of these guys -- the painter, the mathematician or the composer -- are interested in the transcendent qualities of their work–neither the metaphysical nor the practical values, its place in history, the political implications, the money, etc. It was pure mathematics, pure painting, pure music. It was all existential and phenomenological. Or so they thought.
 

Morandi said, “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, colour and forms.” He rejected any notion of a narrative attached to his images, as a pure mathematician rejects any notion of practical applications from his work.  And Satie referred to himself as a "phonometrician" (meaning "someone who measures sounds") rather than a musician. But--



Still Life, drawing, 1962
 
Still Life, drawing, 1962

Still Life, watercolor, 1959

Still Life, watercolor, 1963


Still Life, etching, 1956



Still Life, etching, 1930


Still Life, oil on canvas, 1962


Still Life, oil on canvas, 1960



Still Life, oil on canvas, 1956
 

Still Life, oil on canvas, 1929

-- and this is my point -- it’s always a mistake to rely on what artists tell you about their work. As you can see Morandi is giving us much more than space, color and form, and Satie is not just measuring sounds. In the case of my own still lifes, the upshot was that everybody but me saw narratives in the work! In fact I’ve been told by more than one viewer that some of my still lifes are my most intimate self portraits. And from behind the stone mask of Stravinsky's Oedipus rex comes all the passion of a Verdi opera. In the same way, Morandi is not showing us “the visible world.” He’s showing us himself. And I think something similar could be said about Perelman's mathematical magic.

So it’s not only when you’re in the trance of creativity that you lose yourself: Even in your own conception of the work you are deceived! The images—or equations, words, whatever—come back though the membrane like living things that are not one’s self. They are completely devoid of ego. Only in retrospect do you realize it’s you after all.




Still Life with Keys #1,
oil on panel, 2000

 

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