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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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NOV 2014 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

Translating Communities

Portrait of Mary Ann Caws. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Mary Ann Caws. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Picking up on a thread from the last Brooklyn Rail Critics Page, about haunting, and who and what haunts you, I first think of André Breton’s Nadja and its beginning: “Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’” The one who haunts me is the very great Roger Fry, with his doingeverythingness, his unstoppable curiosity reaching out to all manner of place and thought and topic, as he painted, wrote about art and so much else, as he looked at every available canvas and cathedral, as he kept up with his myriad friends all over everywhere, and still stayed up late translating Mallarmé sonnets with the young Julian Bell, the psychoanalytic interpretation of which he would discuss with the psychocritic Charles Mauron, “Bloomsbury’s Man in France.”  His discussions enlivened any room or conversation he entered. While he lived breathlessly, he gave breathing room to others.

Fry used to take a piece of art and say to his painter friends, “translate this for me.” So what I wanted to hover over, with a bunch of friends, TRANSLATING ART, was meant as an almost endlessly expansive topic. It includes the most frequent art of translation in the verbal sense, say, carrying over a poem into another poem, translating art into art in the visual sense, writing on a piece of art, translating nature or experience or something else into something some might consider art, and so on. It’s not about aesthetic judgment, but rather about a chosen activity. The responses, which follow here, were as varied as anyone could have hoped, ranging from the heads of the Kings of France, a Shakespeare sonnet and its answer or query in a contemporary poem, a Beethoven symphony and a parallel Ingres drawing of the same year, and an imagination soaring with a Guardi balloon, to a conversation with a contemporary Catalan artist on the very idea of translation, a reflection on bridging through an Australian painter, the portrayal of nature coming into your studio in images, the writing of stories about art, and the color black considered in painting, poetry, and a prose reflection.

For this opening essay, I had originally considered writing about the ways in which Daniel Arasse in Le Détail, and especially in his Take a Closer Look, translated by Alyson Waters, had illustrated for us the way to concentrate on a detail, and I had then meant to expatiate a bit, however amateurishly, on Correggio (as seen by Jean-Louis Schefer) and Caravaggio (as seen by Gilles Deleuze) and so on. Then next I thought of dwelling on Joseph Cornell’s boxes in relation to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, as Arthur Danto meditates on the latter, together with Mary Caponegro’s “rectangles of reflection” about his box for Emily Dickinson. However, thinking of the Brooklyn Rail experience in its plenitude, I gave those ideas up, deciding to take, quite simply, my just past week of living, Saturday to Saturday, and to see how I might translate it afterwards, what thread might weave it somehow together—translating a few experiences of community in one limited time.

Starting then on Saturday, with the over-the-top extraordinary rehearsal of the St. Matthew Passion with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars in the Armory and the stunned silence that followed it, recovering on Sunday with my husband, participating that Monday in the “Women Writing Women’s Lives” seminar—this time concerning Berenice Abbott, then meeting friends for drinks right after next door at the Century to talk about the community of scholars at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis: this began my week. Wednesday, I spent the afternoon speaking with my seminar at the Graduate School of CUNY in “Modernist Singularities,” this time on Vita Sackville-West, her Seducers in Ecuador, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Between the Acts, and afterwards, marveling with many others, at the joyous Matisse cutouts at MoMA.

On Thursday, I went to see, in the Stux Gallery on 57th Street, some totally amazing, surrealizing baroque sculptures of the brilliant animalist artist Kathy Ruttenberg. Various creatures intertwined lovingly with human forms, while others rampaged delightfully around anything imaginable—and a great deal had been imagined. It seemed to me a joyously erotic innocence, if I can put it like that. A group of visitors was being guided around the gallery by a knowledgeable and personable gentleman, and they were properly astounded. Me too.

Kathy Ruttenberg, “Nature of the Beast,” 2014. Ceramic, bronze, leather 108 × 72 × 66 ̋. Courtesy of Stux Gallery, New York.

Friday marked the New School’s celebration of Joseph Cornell, his boxes and life and explorations, with friends from all over, Linda Hartigan from Washington, Dawn Ades from London, Lindsay Blair from Scotland, and Allegra Kent, Jonas Mekas, and Deborah Solomon from New York. Saturday was a day at the Woodstock Association of Art Museum, with talks by two of us, and an exhibition of the so far much overlooked surrealist painter Georges Malkine: and how he had, in a sense, returned to the Woodstock for which he had left Paris. With my friend Nancy Kline, whose family has inhabited Woodstock for ages, we went to the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts colony, founded in 1903, and to Hervey White’s Maverick Art Colony “in the hollow,” with its stone and wood cabins, lived in by Philip Guston and Milton Avery, among many others. Here the Maverick Festivals started in 1915, this being among the oldest continuing art colonies in the United States, neighbor to the Woodstock Art School: all of it inebriating to those of us longing to be, some day, painters.

So how does each of us translate our being and doing whatever we are involved in, in whatever kind of community we find and make, into something that seems to hold any present or future sense? Naturally (or sometimes with happy artifice) our weekly experiences change, soar or sink, and often stir us up to new ways of writing and looking and being and translating, if we are fortunate. The art of chaos, I sometimes think it. 

I’ve been considering two threads that connect, that is, translate, what any of us do in our daily lives: first, the intensity we bring to the peculiar strains (in both senses of the word) of all those things, and next, perhaps even more important, the community they create in which we participate. I scarcely need to point out that the Brooklyn Rail creates and is such a community, which you feel at once and permanently, but also I need to point out now to myself in what sense these activities even just of this past week are also creative of communities. At the Armory, the Bach splendor caught up its audience in a mass of emotional reaction, lasting far past the lengthy music/performance. Singing together in choruses, reading together, just speaking together with friends and coffee, or more formally in biography seminars or such meetings as our singularity gatherings at my university, or in readings together, such as our down Bryn Mawr book group, or in learning about Bach together, as sometimes happens so wonderfully, and of course particularly in museums, galleries, and art colonies, whatever we are seeing or talking about, whatever grandnesses and oddnesses are in question, these keep us more vividly alive. Especially for someone as fond of food (and drink) as myself, we form communities around tables, wherever we find ourselves and each other.

Table experiences make overwhelming sense to me, as does all the writing I can read and do about art and the arts of words and recipes. Instead of getting all smushy-smarmy, I’ll just end by saying how a week’s doings seem such a privilege to me, how they make, among themselves, an interwoven community, how I felt gladdened by the energizing spirit of the whole thing, and how I continue to love the variety of possible places and persons, as if whatever we are involved in were to be translated into an art, not just of apparent chaos, but also of living.

This is of course what I mean by Translating Art, the rendering of whatever you are talking about, creating, recreating, or interpreting, in whatever community you find yourself and others, into whatever can be conceived of as a kind of art. Art as intensified being, that’s probably just about it.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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