I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.” -Zaha Hadid
Zaha Hadid passed away unexpectedly today at the age of 65. A profoundly influential architect and designer, Hadid brought a formidable sensuality and exquisite sculptural vison to everything she touched.
While her audacious ambition and uncompromising ways are an inspiring tale unto themselves, today I want to honor her by letting the work speak for itself. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Life is short. Paint everything blue. This is the bittersweet story of the artist Yves Klein, from whom we have much to learn about commitment and maximizing our time on earth.
In 1947 three teenagers lay basking on a beach in the South of France. They had become close friends at school while all sharing a love for Judo and the arts. Full of youthful arrogance, these three boys vowed to divide the world between themselves. The young sculptor named Armand Fernandez chose the earth. Claude Pascal chose the domain of words, and Yves Klein committed to take on the sky. If this sounds like a creation myth, that is because, in a way, it was.
With the sky as his mandate, Yves Klein got right to work. Two years after that pivotal moment at the beach, he summoned the infinite with an ethereal performance piece called “Monotone Silence Symphony”. Following the minimalist symphony and a Judo focused sojourn in Japan, Yves Klein held his first exhibit of monochromatic paintings in Paris. For his next show in 1957, he narrowed the focus down to one single hue: the color blue. For Klein, this color represented the concept of the void. He was interested in how its quality of pure energy was in tension with the materiality of the physical art work.
“At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” – Yves Klein
Now known as “Yves Klein Blue”, this vibrant color had once existed only in the form of raw pigment. Klein became obsessed with the lapis lazuli like quality of the ultramarine powder, and engineered a way to keep its luminosity while transforming it into paint.
From the get-go, Klein understood how to make an impact in the art world, and in turn his rise to success was astonishingly direct. After the heralded blue paintings, Klein went on to explore the relationship between the physical and the void by staging performance pieces in which he used naked bodies as vehicles for paint application. He also created painted sculptures and other conceptual performance works. In the field of photography, Klein published poetic series called Saut Dans Le Vide, which shows him swan diving into the open air.
Tragically, with a new wife and his first baby on the way, Yves Klein had a fatal heart attack at the young age of thirty four. It is astounding to contemplate the targeted impact that he made with his brief time on this earth. The commitment and focus with which he approached his life and career seems almost prophetic- as if he was well aware that the clock was ticking away, and that he needed to triage the situation.
Throughout his time, Klein stayed profoundly committed to the sky and its metaphysical implications. His mission was to outsmart mortality, and his method was to paint the world the color of eternity.
When I see Yves Klein blue I am reminded of life’s brevity, and the mandate to be focused, courageous and to make bold propositions in life. We are all living out our own creation myths- the question is what piece of the universe will you be responsible for?
This exercise is inspired by Yves Klein’s passion for the color blue.
Join The Creative Hours community. Share your experience!
Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers : With the Void, Full Powers includes examples from all of Klein’s major series, including his Anthropometries, Cosmogonies, fire paintings, planetary reliefs and blue monochromes, as well as selections of his lesser-known gold and pink monochromes, body and sponge reliefs, “air architecture” and immaterial works.
It’s Always Something By Gilda Radner A wonderful memoir by the one and only Gilda Radner tells of her life and experience battling cancer. It’s Always Something is the inspiring story of a courageous, funny woman fighting to enjoy life no matter what the circumstances
Air Dry Clay Sculpt and let dry! No kiln needed. Soooooo Fun.
Impressionism is culture’s blockbuster. Dreamy and oh so pretty, it is easy to forget its rebel roots, and amazing to fathom how the desire for artists to essentially cut class and go out into the sunshine started a chain of innovation that led to abstraction, modernism and onwards.
“Beauty in art is truth bathed in an impression received from nature” -Corot
In the late 1800’s, the “Impressionist” artists, including Monet, Cézanne, Morisot, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and Sissley, were fed up with the authoritarian nature of the Parisian art world. They were disillusioned with traditionalism in art and uninterested in mythological or historical subject matter. These artists were loath to sit inside the Academie’s classrooms and train their skills through mimetic and reverent exercises. To boot, they found the emphasis on minute brushwork and stylistic polish to be a bore.
This motley crew of artists preferred to work outside,“en plein air”, and to let observation be their greatest teacher.
“‘Impressionism’ was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet, not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).” -John Singer Sargent
While rough impressions, or sketches used to be an early step in creating a masterpiece, these artists recognized that the imprints were an end unto themselves. They saw the vitality in essences and perception and sought to capture the ever-shifting nuances of light, air and color that render one spot endlessly new to observe. They tried to see without commentary, and to let the colors tell the stories. I love Mallarmé’s impression of Impressionism:
“The idea was that ‘nothing should be absolutely fixed’.. ..so that the bright gleam which lights the picture, or the diaphanous shadow which veils it, are only seen in passing, in the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composed as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light and life.” -Stephane Mallarmé
After nearly a decade of being shut out from the official juried art exhibitions, and after many thwarted efforts to get government support for alternative exhibitions, the artists banded together to organize their own show, which they held at photographer Nadar’s studio in 1874. The exhibition caused a stir and attracted a huge audience. Among the works exhibited, the one by Claude Monet, titled “Sunrise, an Impression” garnered the most attention (not all positive). From his painting and its title, the category of the “Impressionists” sprung, first as a critique, then as an identity, and now as a sacred honor.
This creative exercise is inspired by Impressionism, and in particular by Monet’s wise words about looking and painting:
“When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.” -Claude Monet
VIEWS FROM THE WINDOW a drawing and observing exercise
Gather paper and markers (I’ve suggested some types below)
Choose a window in your house with your favorite view
Try sketching your impression of the view
Remember to looking out the window more than you look down at your paper
Do this whenever you have the chance, and at different times during the day
IMPRESSIONISM, Reimagining Art This beautiful book looks at Impressionism on a global scale, from its iconic French masterpieces to less familiar works by Scandinavian, German, British, and North American artists.
Tombow Dual Brush Pens I LOVE these pens. Great for impressionistic and lush drawing styles. This is a secondary color set, which I find beautiful, but there are also primary and portrait sets.
Strathmore Artist Tiles Bristol is a smooth and lovely surface for letting makers glide and play. Square paper tiles are a nice proportion for quick impressions.
I am in the thick of it with The Creative Hours, and am loving the process of research and reflection. Nonetheless, all this deep thinking about creativity reminds me that it is essential to keep a sense of humor about the whole shebang. On that note, I hope you enjoy Groucho Marx’s line from Animal Crackers as much as I do. I may adopt it as a motto for this blog:
“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh… now you tell me what you know.” – Groucho Marx
Being willing to be silly is an essential ingredient to creative flow and the survival of an artistic soul. Making fun of oneself, turning reality on its head, and flirting with the lack of meaning is a way of keeping the blood flowing and the molecules dancing. I’d go as far as to say that being at play is the opposite of deathly stasis.
Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor. – Stewart Brown, MD, Psychiatrist
While play is a no laughing matter, it is conversely true that humor touches the very deepest of human truths. Richard Avedon reflects this in his SERIOUSLY beautiful portraits of iconic comedians.
Further Reading and Supplies:
Richard Avedon Photographs Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 includes 125 reproductions of Avedon’s greatest work from the entire range of his oeuvre-including fashion photographs, reportage and portraits-and spans from his early Italian subjects of the 1940s to his 2004 portrait of the Icelandic pop star Bjork.
I find Cunningham’s 1952 portrait “Blind Sculptor” beautiful. Photographer Imogene Cunningham was a glorious treasure to the world in so many ways, and I am excited to talk about her specialness- but first I want to explain what I love about this picture.
Let me start with the presence of touch in the photograph. Look how solidly the sculptor’s left hand cups the shoulder of his creation. In that touch I see the fatherly weight of an artist’s hand as it reassures his creation of its physical actuality. I feel the coolness of the clay, and imagine the contour beneath the sculptor’s ringed pinky-finger. His right hand is Pygmalion- and I am privy to an intimate moment of caressing and exploration. The figure’s head tilts upward with pride, and the artist’s head points down in concentration, inviting me into the hidden picture of his imagination. Then notice the figure’s giant hands which, wrapped Cycladic style, also seem to be confirming its own physicality. Poignantly, the figure has no eyes to speak of.
All photographs speak about the act of sight and creation. What makes this work particularly poetic is the juxtaposition of blindness and visual art- both in regards to sculpture and the photographic medium.
“The formula for doing a good job in photography, is to think like a poet” – Imogene Cunningham
Born in 1883 in Oregon, Imogen Cunningham was a dynamic spirit who braved the sexist tides of her time, and became one of the most innovative and revered photographers of the twentieth century. She came to photography through studying science and processes for developing film. Her work is known for her sensual images of botany, the body and portraits of other artists, as well as experiments in double exposure. She used the technique of Platinum printing, which gave her work a soft and silvery signature style. Her sense of adventure and passion for her work stayed with her all of her life. She died in 1976 at the age of 95.
“Blind Sculptor” is one of many portraits that Cunningham did of other photographers, musicians and artists. I wish I knew more about the astonishing artist in “Blind Sculptor”, but I was unable to find this information.
“One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the outer aspect of the sitter. To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that esthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things.” – Imogen Cunningham
CREATIVE PROMPT: GET TO KNOW A FLOWER
This creative exercise draws on Cunningham’s photographs of flowers and plants, which were inspired by the demands of motherhood and the proximity of her own garden.
TIP: Digital photography is fantastic for experimentation. Go wild, it costs nothing. Then you can look back at see what you think works or doesn’t work in the pictures that you took
Further reading and supplies: Imogen Cunningham, This publication celebrates the rich diversity of this modernist pioneer, covering Cunningham’s entire seven-decade career–from her abstract shots of plants and nudes and optical illusions created using techniques such as inverted positive/negative images and double exposure, to her iconic portraits for Vanity Fair of artists, dancers, actors, musicians and writers such as Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Martha Graham, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, Morris Graves and Merce Cunningham. Imogen Cunningham 1883-1976, Spanning all the genres used in her work, the book presents the images which marked Cunningham as one of the early pioneers of the photographic medium from her 1920’s plant images to her speciality, portraiture.
After Ninety: Imogen Cunningham, Previously unpublished photographic portraits as well as selections from Imogen Cunningham’s earlier work confront the condition of old age and testify to the wisdom, dignity, despair, and loneliness of the elderly.
Pain and sacrifice are needed to be a good collaborator. You must check your ego at the door, give yourself fully to a new collective identity, learn how to give and take, choose trust over distrust, be ready to fail, and commit to the unfurling nature of process.
It is worth it. A good partnership brings fresh inspiration, useful limitations and a supportive structure. The pushback of collaboration can carry you to places you never might have traveled to on your own. Most importantly, its challenge provides great training for any kind of creative intelligence.
If collaboration is boot camp for creativity, then post-modern dance is boot camp for collaboration. In 1972, a dancer named Steve Paxton and a handful of his friends at Oberlin College got together, rolled around, hurled themselves at each other, practiced falling and improvised their way to a radical new dance form. They called their invention “contact improvisation”, which Paxton described as
“the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement”.
Contact Improv (as it is often called), is a movement language that emphasizes responsive reflexes and generates choreography from the alchemy of bodies in contact with one another. Paxton’s experiments with this mindful movement of the body turned traditional dance on its head and laid the groundwork for postmodern dance as we know it today. Contact Improv has qualities both edgy and raw as well as smooth fluidity. Its influences are apparent in the work of Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and many many other seminal choreographers.
My first introduction to all of this was in college in the nineties. My friend Abby insisted that I come to her contact improvisation workshop. Nervous to be out of my element, I was relieved to find myself in creative paradise. This was not the “five, six, seven, eight, chasse, two, three, four, and keep it pointed six, seven, eight…” sort of dance I had been accustomed to. Not at all. This was playful, unselfconscious and gloriously body positive. We experimented with finding true responsiveness to touch and impulse, weight bearing and giving, and moving as a single entity.
Contact Improv is fantastic practice for becoming a solid collaborator. Yet, as Paxton points out, it is important to remember that we are always collaborating with something. Even when alone.
“Solo dancing does not exist: the dancer dances with the floor: add another dancer and you have a quartet: each dance with the other and each with the floor.”
CREATIVE PROMPT: SMALL DANCE
Steve Paxton created an exercise called “Small Dance”. It helps you to feel creatively attune, relaxed, and to realize that you are constantly collaborating with your body, gravity and the floor.
Further reading and resources:
I highly recommend seeking out a class or jam session. Contact Quarterly has a directory of teachers and centers. Take it from me, you do not need to be an expert to engage in this practice.
American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History by Margaret Fuhrer, traces that richly complex evolution of Dance in America. From Native American dance rituals to dance in the digital age, American Dance explores centuries of innovation, individual genius and collaborative exploration.
Contact Improvisation by Cheryl Pallant.
In most forms of dancing, performers carry out their steps with a distance that keeps them from colliding with each other. Dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s considered this distance a territory for investigation. In this book the author draws upon her own experience and research to explain the art of contact improvisation, in which dance partners propel movement by physical contact.
I am grateful that in doing research for The Creative Hours, I came across Milton’s exquisite words:
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
Creative people live on everyday epiphanies. We find muses in the mundane, and receive life’s variety as a non-stop blessing. Living with a “gratitude mindset” means being in love with the poetry of now.
Way back when, from John Milton’s religious 17th Century perspective, the stakes were high. His epic poem “Paradise Lost”, grieves the biblical expulsion from the garden of eden. Milton was plagued by the irrevocable nature of this tragedy, but found a redemptive key in the poet’s mind and the reader’s imagination.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
Unlike the romantic grandeur of Milton, the contemporary poet James Wright found rays of transcendence within the ordinary. James Wright (1927-1980) was a tortured soul who suffered with depression and alcoholism. His lonely poems often speak for the interloper and outsider. However heavy his heart, Wright found inspiration everywhere- even on the side of the road.
Wright’s friend, the poet Robert Bly explains the inception of the famous poem “A Blessing”. He tells how at dusk, on a drive through Michigan they spotted two ponies off the highway. At Wright’s request they pulled over, got out and climbed a fence to watch the horses for a few moments. Once back in their car headed to Minneapolis, James Wright opened his spiral notebook and wrote this poem:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
CREATIVE EXERCISE: THIS POEM IS A BLESSING
This creative exercise takes a page from James Wright and prompts you to jot down the vivid details from a moment in your day. This is a wonderful way to practice gratitude and nurture creativity
TIP: don’t worry about whether the poem is “good” or not. The fact that you are writing a blessing is good enough!
Share your Blessing!
Send to email@example.com or post with hashtag #TCHblessing
Further reading and supplies:
Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Milton’s epic poem explores the struggle for ascendancy between God and Satan is played out across hell, heaven, and earth in the work the consequences of the Fall are all too humanly tragic, with pride, ambition, and aspiration being the motivating forces
Above the River: The Complete Poems, by James Wright. From his Deep Image-inspired lyrics to his Whtimanesque renderings of Neruda, Vallejo, and other Latin American poets, and from his heartfelt reflections on life, love, and loss in his native Ohio to the celebrated prose poems, Above the River gathers the complete work of a modern master.
“Seeing is a very sensuous act-there’s a sweet deliciousness in seeing yourself feel something”- James Turrell
I remember the first time I saw a work by the artist James Turrell. It was Spring break of my senior year in college. Home in Soho, I was flitting around the neighborhood on a bright sunny morning when I found myself in front of The Barbara Gladstone Gallery. With time aplenty (ah to be young again), I opened the door, gave a shy nod to the gallerina behind the desk, and entered the beckoning tunnel of darkness.
It was hard to say where the tunnel ended and the room began. All I knew was that a lilac apparition appeared before my eyes. The first tingle ran down my spine as this lilac rectangle of light seemed to reach out towards me and then recede into the distance all at once. I slowly stepped towards what I thought might be a glowing canvas. With every step I expected my eyes to clarify the numinous situation, but with every step understanding slipped farther and farther away. What the hell was I looking at? Was it material? Was it far from me? A few steps ahead? Did it lead somewhere? Am I dreaming? Nervous giggles started bubbling out of me as I nudged forward in a state of delighted awe and disbelief.
Not knowing can be a ticklish feeling. It is a sensation that I personally adore, but I know that many find it uncomfortable. As humans, we are wired to make sense of things- to process clues and arrive at an understanding. We crave comprehension, reward logic and believe measurement. This is how we anchor and orient ourselves in the world.
Art, however, invites us to hang out in the unknown. It allows for a different, more spiritual sort of mooring. The poet Wallace Steven’s words express this beautifully:
“Most people read poetry looking for echoes because the echoes are familiar to them. They wade through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom: the echoes are the bottom.”
What is so genius about Turrell’s work is that it subverts our primary sense making system- our eyes- into functioning as a receiver for the liminal and mysterious. One cannot look at a Turrell work, one must be in a Turrell work, and being inside of the work means we are inside a state of wonder.
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”- Oscar Wilde
Orchestrating these experiences require a technical wizardry that Turrell has been honing for years. He began his exploration in the sixties as part of the Light and Space movement in Southern California, which included other artists such as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse. In his artistic practice he continued to research vision, the retinal structure and to experiment with perceptual and psychological phenomenons. While his work has been exhibited and lauded worldwide, Turrell’s most important work is out of the fray, in the middle of Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert. Roden Crater is a volcanic cinder cone which provides a “controlled environment for the contemplation of light.” The vision, ambition and sacrifice that this project embodies is unparalleled, and speaks volumes about Turrell’s depth as an artist who looks for light.
This exercise is about visual attunement, the goal here is to heighten your consciousness around color and light.
THE COLOR OF YOUR DAY, A EXERCISE IN PERCEPTION
Pick a color
Keep a look out for this color throughout your day
Make a mental note everytime you notice that color
Be aware the variations you find- for example: dark red, light red, orangy-red etc
Be aware of how the color appears at different times of the day or in different contexts
Further reading and supplies: James Turrell; A Retrospective Published in conjunction with a major retrospective, this comprehensive volume illuminates the origins and motivations of James Turrell’s incredibly diverse and exciting body of work—from his Mendota studio days to his monumental work-in-progress Roden Crater.
James Turrell; Geometry of Light The first significant Turrell survey in many years, an extraordinary body of work covering several decades is assessed. At the book’s center is the series of works known as Sky Spaces, a signature Turrell conception in which the sky is made to seem “on top of” the room’s ceiling, and which has become a mini-genre unto itself within light art.
My brother Zac and I once made a killer dress for Eartha Kitt. It was blood red stretch velvet. When we fit the dress, Eartha knew precisely what she wanted: lower the neckline half an inch, tighten the ruching at the hip and extend the leg slit to the top of her thigh. At the age of eighty, Eartha Kitt still had legs to die for and was a fierce (and flirtatious) commander.
Fathom her life. She was most likely conceived by rape and grew up betwixt abusive households and on the streets. Despite her harsh and disjointed upbringing, she managed to pursue dance lessons, which eventually landed her a job with the Katherine Dunham Company. Traveling with this African American dance troupe opened doors and changed the course of her life. Early in her career Eartha branched into singing cabaret on the European circuit. In Paris she was discovered by Orson Welles. He declared her “the most interesting woman in the world”, and promptly cast her as “Helen of Troy” in his stage production of Dr. Faustus. Opportunities continued to unroll before her like a leopard spotted carpet.
The once unlucky misfit from South Carolina turned into an award winning singer, dancer, actress, cat-woman, movie star, activist and highly educated polyglot with an insanely foxy persona. Orson Welles saw the future.
Eartha Kitt did not shy away from her history or inner forces. Despite coming of age in an era of sexism, bigotry and repression, Eartha harnessed her sexual drive and converted her scarred youth into powerful and expressive charisma. The Eartha Kitt persona was in heat and on edge. She was not afraid of being mean, messy or dangerous. In 1954 she released an album she titled “That Bad Eartha”, which launched many of her now classic songs, including “C’est si Moi” and “Uska Dara” and “I Want to be Evil”.
“The more I surrendered to myself, to the self that would not be limited and narrowly defined, the more glorious a time I had with me and with life”
Here is a video of her digging into her fabulously evil side:
Her honesty extended beyond her stage persona, and she spoke her mind without regard for consequence. Eartha Kitt’s career came to a temporary halt when, at a formal luncheon, she confronted the First Lady about the idiocy of the Vietnam War. The story goes that her candor made Lady Bird Johnson cry- and in spite of the repercussions she faced, Eartha remained gracefully unapologetic.
Eartha Kitt was aggressively prolific during her eighty-one years on this planet. She attributed her success to her fierce survival instinct. Her daughter tells of her death, and how after a fight with colon cancer, at eighty-one, she literally left the world screaming at the top of her lungs.
“My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions. I’m a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”
There is a profound lesson on creativity here. The lesson is: find your inner beast. Excavate your truth. Find within yourself the good the bad and the ugly- and use it to fuel your creativity. Pain, desire, fear, anger, hurt, love, jealousy, sexuality, rage- all these feelings inside you are raring to be expressed. Surrender to them and let them motor you to create something great.