From Vasari on, most of the best literature on art has been by its practitioners. We critics just keep playing catch-up. But unlike Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a lot of that literature was never intended as such–not written for publication, sometimes not even written at all but spoken and transcribed after the fact. Van Gogh’s letters are the high point of art’s private literature, as we’ve been reminded by the recent publication of a glorious illustrated and annotated edition of them in six volumes (Thames & Hudson; $600), edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker.
Perhaps luckily, few artists have taken van Gogh as a model quite as seriously as did Bram van Velde, the now somewhat neglected Dutch-born abstract painter for whom van Gogh’s lesson was, "Now, pain is the only source." Charles Juliet’s Conversations With Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde (Dalkey Archive; $13.95) will probably draw most of its readers from fans of the great Irish writer, but I came to it more out of curiosity for its other subject, the painter Beckett admired so intensely, hanging one of van Velde’s works facing his writing desk, as if emblematic of his own efforts. Juliet sensitively records some forty meetings with the painter between 1964 and 1979 in diarylike entries that range from a single paragraph to nine pages in length. Van Velde’s passion was always to find himself at the point of painting’s impossibility and ineffability, toward something like Beckett’s famous line "Ill Seen Ill Said." "Before, painting was on the side of the positive, the feasible," he tells Juliet. "I have had to go towards what is not feasible." And again, "To achieve anything at all, you have to be nothing." "A painting is even more isolated, more dispossessed than a poem. It is constantly oriented towards an immense poverty."
Yet for all van Velde’s passion and sincerity, reading his views is ultimately frustrating. Beckett could articulate van Velde’s "art of confinement" in a way that evokes the opening-up that occurs in the paintings themselves–"an endless unveiling, veil behind veil, plane after plane of imperfect transparencies, light and space themselves veils, an unveiling towards the unveilable, the nothing, the thing again." But the painter seems finally baffled, his words failing to cast light on what is unique in his paintings.
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Conversation with either Beckett or van Velde entailed much "silence. Long periods of silence…. Then a sentence is spoken, and continues to reverberate in the prolonged silence." Their Armenian-born American contemporary Arshile Gorky, by contrast, was apparently a brilliant and enthusiastic talker, albeit in what his sometime pal Stuart Davis later recalled as "a complex personal jive that was extremely remote from accepted English usage." Matthew Spender, Gorky’s biographer and son-in-law, has produced a sourcebook, Arshile Gorky: Goats on the Roof: A Life in Letters and Documents (RAM; $39.95), gathering the artist’s correspondence and that of his family and friends, along with other documents of his too-brief lifetime. This compilation is of great value for anyone who wants to know more, perhaps after having seen the tremendous retrospective recently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now at the Tate Modern in London; but direct echoes of Gorky’s speech and thought in it are few.
Most of his letters concern family matters and are, as his widow advised an early biographer, "of no universal interest." And just as he spent years brilliantly miming the styles of Picasso and Miró, he felt no compunction about copying out a credo from the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska as if it was his own or cribbing his love letters from the poetry of Paul Éluard (in Beckett’s translation). Yet there are moments of incredible tenderness and intensity, as in a gloss on his "Garden of Sochi" paintings: "My father had a little garden with a few apple trees which had retired from giving fruit. There was a ground constantly in shade where grew incalculable amounts of wild carrots and porcupines had made their nests. There was a blue rock half buried in the black earth with a few patches of moss placed here and there like fallen clouds. But from where came all the shadows in constant battle like the lancers of Paolo Uccello’s painting? This garden was identified as the Garden of Wish Fulfillment and often I had seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependable breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock."
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There are more than a few breasts, all soft if not dependable, in one of the most curious recent books by an artist, Zak Smith’s We Did Porn: Memoir and Drawings (Tin House; $24.95). Most artists, being less passionately committed to poverty than van Velde was, need day jobs; Smith pays the bills by having sex on camera under the nom de porn Zak Sabbath. Although he first became known for a series with the self-explanatory title "Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow," shown in the Whitney Biennial in 2004, Smith’s tone of voice is more Holden Caulfield than Tyrone Slothrop. His drawings are dense and razor-sharp, something like a cross between Egon Schiele and underground comics; his prose style is not quite as well honed, and the book is longer than it needs to be. Still, his view of a world I barely knew existed is funny, surprising and intermittently enlightening, and I’m somehow reassured that a young artist can still rediscover what van Gogh, van Velde and Gorky must have known: that "the only place to put wasted experience to use is in art, and the only place to register a complaint with the very order of existence is art."