The beginning of the end of the beginning
Remembrances, reviews, readings, rock & roll, and more
Dear dear you,
We’re coming up to the end of the year. As the days become shorter, it’s a time of taking stock, a time for considering and reconsidering, while preparing to start it all over again.
It’s been a challenging year. There were also personal losses: on 7 November 2022, polymath Brian O’Doherty—one of my dearest friends and mentors—passed away at the age of 94. Brian counts among the most important figures in post-war art. He wore many hats: as a celebrated artist, critic, novelist, TV show host, documentary filmmaker, and NEA grant officer, among others. His essay series that became the book Inside the White Cube is canonical reading. He created immersive exhibitions the world around; his artwork is in the collections of major museums. He was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, interviewed Cassius Clay and Edward Hopper, and more. Yet beyond these notches in his belt, Brian was also a very human human, someone with a vivacious personality, booming voice, and wry humor that put people at ease. I’m not alone in missing him deeply.
Brian also inhabited multiple personae, allowing him the freedom to explore anything and everything that interested him. As he once said to me, “Every person is actually many people.” Through his example and his words, Brian gave me—and so many others— the permission to pursue many things at once. He showed us how to be polymathic and polymorphic, to be multiple in everything we might aspire to do in our short time on earth. This is a generous gift forward into the future.
Let’s take a moment to breathe in and salute Brian’s remarkable lives.
. . .
Over the past years, Brian also encouraged me to finish—and even penned an endorsement for—my recently released book, On Letters. It’s been my biggest lift of late alongside curating the FRONT 2022 Triennial. Brian and his brilliant wife, art historian Barbara Novak, were the first people to receive printed copies.
On Letters is now available in the US, Europe, and other places. The book signals a personal return to graphic design, my first field. Yet those of you who’ve had a chance to skim On Letters may have noticed that it covers a lot of ground. Brian said he appreciated how it moves beyond the typical categories of books. If I had to assign it a genre description, something like “literary nonfiction / memoir / graphic design / contemporary art / art education / self-help / numerology” might make sense.
The book has already received generous early attention, including being in fantastic company as one of Fast Company’s best design books of 2022. But my favorite review so far is this breathless 577 word text message, typed with two thumbs on a phone by my old friend David Giles [original formatting retained]:
I finished your book this morning. I loved it. It was very readable for someone who has spent very little time thinking about On Kawara which is seriously nothing to sneeze at. You achieved something in your tone and style that I think about often or used to anyway (I haven't for a while). Is it irony? The Spanish author Enrique Vila Matas writes a lot about this. "Irony is the highest form of sincerity," he wrote in There is Never Any End to Paris. And "I don't like ferocious irony but rather the kind that vacillates between disappointment and hope." Kafka, Walzer, Vila Matas, Marias (maybe) all employ a kind of comedic irony that creates space between the subjective space of the narrator and their story or subject matter. It gives the reader space to move around in and reflect on their own experiences and their own always evolving relationship to the author, narrator, and story. I
re-read the famous Paul De Mann essay on irony years ago when thinking about this and was struck again with how brilliant it was (despite the personal failings of the author of course). Is it a form of narrative self-consciousness? I wrote a bunch of stuff about this that i can no longer access mentally, at least not right now. The epistolary conceit of your essay, as a fiction in particular (since On Kawara cannot receive them much less answer them) gives you a lot of room to do this, to play around with the greetings and salutations, the indexicality of the writing, etc. It was a brilliant move. But many of your arguments and insights were brilliant as well, particularly when you zero in on the idea that his paintings were a form of lettering rather than typography, and how this assumption could go unanalyzed for so long by so many smart people, an assumption that was difficult for
people to distance themselves from in part, I imagine, because they couldn't imagine why it was important. It looks like typography, it seems to mimic typography (however imperfectly as your younger self thought) so it must be typography. And anyway even if it's not typography what difference does it make? Your essay is an extended rumination on how this seemingly subtle shift in perception creates a whole new vista of interpretative possibility, something that good philosophers do when they pick a part the arguments of their predecessors, pointing out that this seemingly insignificant logical move is not only question-begging but obscures everything interesting about the matter at hand. Wittgenstein's critique of Augustine's theory of language at the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations, for instance, and his discovery that the so-called unity of the proposition is an
enormous philosophical problem that no one has every really identified much less theorized about. How do the words in a sentence hold together as a thought when each individual word has no meaning outside the proposition/thought? I loved your playful obsessions in the book, and how you bring in analysis from self-help literature. I have heard you talking about many of the books in there for years (Perec, Foucault's Pendulum) so it was personally delightful to see how they have informed your thinking over many years. It's clear that there was much more at stake in this essay than just properly understanding On Kawara's Date Paintings, which ultimately makes it much more valuable as writing. I hope it finds a broader audience.
Alongside recharging from the year’s stresses, I’ve also been doing something I deeply enjoy: leading workshops and participatory events that focus on collaboration and mutual learning. Recent programs include a launch and collective reading of On Letters at Amant in Brooklyn; a workshop at the Cleveland Museum of Art with local mural artists riffing on Julie Mehretu: Portals; and a Sunday seminar at Cleveland’s Church of the Covenant around art and adversity. The event ended with group karaoke to Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away”—perhaps the first time that that august institution has enjoyed this kind of singalong. Watch out: there’s a lot more Public Karaoke with P.K. in the planning for 2023!
This letter wouldn’t be complete without some readings and listenings inspiring me recently. Here are a handful of books by my bedside and a little music to boot:
Second Thoughts by Angie Keefer
I’ve had the privilege of knowing the multitalented Angie Keefer for over two decades, as she’s moved between art, design, writing, and fashion. Her book of selected essays is a fascinating deep dive into how Angie’s unique mind works, connecting seemingly disparate fields and ways of making sense of the world. I’m only halfway through but plan to spend the cold winter nights leafing through this one.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
Finishing this powerful book reminded me of artist Joseph Beuys’ phrase: “Zeige deine Wunde” [“Show your wound”]. Since the 1970s, Jamison has been a foremost psychologist and expert on manic depression, a.k.a. bipolar disorder. After researching the illness for decades (including publishing on the connections between manic depression and artistic achievement), she reveals her own nearly-deadly—yet also, sometimes, scintillating—struggle with the disease in this honest memoir. Open, vulnerable, and self-probing, it’s also precisely composed. An Unquiet Mind has been a useful reference for me in writing and life.
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
This recent addition to my reading stack has proved enriching so far—an account of how messiness, often considered a negative trait, assists creative people to generate their most substantial work. It’s chock full of engaging anecdotes about figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, and Brian Eno, while also mustering scientific literature that illuminates how great accomplishments arise from embracing uncertainty.
The Line is a Curve by Kae Tempest
I’m a latecomer to Kae Tempest’s oeuvre; I first encountered their work through the game-changing book On Connection, which I’ve written about in a previous letter. Tempest’s most recent album is a stunning work of spoken word brilliance, combining music and text in rhythmically complex and unexpected ways. Their recent concert in Berlin, which I had the pleasure of experiencing live, showed an artist who is truly a master of connecting with other people—even when it’s a crowd of thousands. To get a sense of their approach to performance, check out this video. I could watch it on endless repeat. There is a lot to learn here.
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
A classic, unclassifiable novel; it juxtaposes a meta-introduction by an unreliable narrator-editor, a 999-line epic quotidian poem, as well as hundreds of pages of commentary by the same unreliable narrator that comprise the bulk of the book. But rather writing my own review, I’ll simply quote from the beginning and end of David Giles’ exuberant 407 word review of the book on Goodreads (probably typed on a phone as well):
I adore this book. Would wallpaper my bathroom with its pages, if I could. Would read random portions of it ritualistically, if I had the self-discipline and could work it into my daily routine. I feel about this book the way a Kabbalist feels about the Old Testament, the way my socially awkward freshman roommate felt about the Evil Dead, or the way the ridiculous narrator of Pale Fire itself, Charles Kinbote, feels about John Shade and his poem...
The book is part Kafka, part Borges, part Mel Brooks. Despite the strong scent of prodigious learning and prestigious ivy league classrooms, it's as much spoof as Space Balls.
Case in point: At the climax of the story, with the foreordained conclusion coming into view in the manner of Ancient Greek tragedy, the assassin is overcome with... diarrhea, or as Kinbote eloquently puts it: "The liquid hell inside him..." The assassin didn't know whether to "discharge his gun or rid himself of the inexhaustible lava in his bowels."
I encourage you to follow David on Goodreads—his commentary is nearly as good as reading the books themselves!
To close this lengthy, year-end letter, I’d like to reproduce a late poem by Brian O’Doherty, dedicated to Barbara Novak. Perhaps it represents a way to think of the end of a long journey as a starting point within the larger dance of life:
The Golden Age
The world is born anew, the Golden Age returns
just inside the Park at Sixty-Seventh Street
West. We reach out, touch—the slight depression
of the flesh ignites
the rush of liquid gold from top to toe —
Light dazzles—we disappear—the sun
has made us blind. We stand golden
and useless—ignore the pestilential child who shouts
Look Mummy two gold people!
Golden, yes, but with silver tongues—
for the long day to end. By twilight
sight returns—we see each other quietly
mothers with strollers, joggers, the ice-cream man
pushing his cart—is leaving the Park.
The day exhales a light breath.
Can you move? Gold in the creases makes me stiff.
deeper into the Park—there’s the last dog—
No light now. Is that the pallid glow of the lake
like spilt milk?
Who is singing? Are we singing? No, not us.
Are you there? You are always there.
The singing is sweet and far away
like the voices of grandparents.
we become all ears. We will listen forever for we
are immortal now—we cannot tarnish or fade.
What to do? There is nothing to do
but listen to the music