Randall Jarrell – Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy, 1954

Paul Evans 1956-7Art Night. 2.

When we got inside the gallery, the first thing we saw was Sona Rasmussen. Miss Rasmussen was half-Japanese, half-Norwegian; she came from Honolulu. She was a fat, tiny, shiny woman: with a different paint job, and feelers she would have looked exactly like a potato-bug—I used to think of her as part of a children’s story in which there were Reginald Chipmunk, and Dorothy Thrush, and Sona Potato-Bug, and many other innocent, foolish, and agreeable creatures.

Miss Rasmussen made welded sculpture. Her statues were—as she would say, smiling—untouched by human hands; and they looked it. You could tell one from another, if you wanted to, but it was hard to want to. You felt, yawning: It’s ugly, but is it Art?

Miss Rasmussen also designed furniture, but people persisted in sitting down in her sculpture, and in asking “What is that named?” of her chairs. This showed how advanced her work was, and pleased her; yet when she laughed to show her pleasure, her laugh sounded thin and strained. Gertrude said about her work, “She was a shipyard welder during the war, and the sculptures just naturally followed”. When this was repeated to Miss Rasmussen she said hotly, “Oh that again! It was an aircraft factory—and besides, I’d thought of it long ago.”

She liked Benton, and Benton liked her; but had difficulties during her first term. President Robbins said to her, after two of her freshmen had burned themselves severely: “A welder’s torch is not a thing with which just any freshman can be entrusted, Miss Rasmussen.” Miss Rasmussen said that you couldn’t shelter students for ever, but after that she had her freshmen stick to wood, mobiles, and Cold Iron. Her advanced students were a different affair: she and they, in their goggles and masks, looked wonderful, like racetrack-drivers about to give a Nō play.

Gottfried and Gertrude and I arrived, first, at the wooden half of the sculpture. All the statues, to show that they were statues, were mounted on little black pedestals. Off to the side there was one statueless pedestal; Gertrude looked at it a long time, in silent admiration; I had to persuade her to leave it.

Some of the statues looked like improbably polished objets trouvés, others looked as if the class had divided a piece of furniture among themselves, lovingly finished the fragments, and mounted the result as a term’s work. The passing sculptors—and Miss Rasmussen, who did not pass, but stood there like a sentry—found Gertrude’s voluble admiration for their works offensive; she exclaimed about the one she liked best, “Why, you can see yourself it! What would I give for that in birds-eye maple!” She went on to say to Miss Rasmussen: “How do you and your pupils get this wonderful finish?” Miss Rasmussen did not reply: she looked as if she were half Japanese and half Ethopian. Gertrude continued artlessly, “I always use linseed oil and rottenstone, myself; but to tell the truth, Miss Rasmussen, a little old-fashioned elbow grease is what it really takes.“ She said this with a cheery laugh; she was enjoying herself, and if people didn’t know enough to get out of the way, they would have to suffer for their ignorance.

After looking at ten or twenty of these statues you muttered to yourself, “I wish wood didn’t have any grain”; a few more and you were sorry that there is such a thing as wood–were sorry, that is, until you came to the Ores and Metals section of the sculpture. First came the mobiles—and they were mobile: if you breathed hard it looked like dawn in a cuckoo-clock factory. Then came the welded statues: they were made apparently, of iron twine, with queer undigested knots or lumps or nodules every few inches, so that they all looked like representations of part of the root-system of an alfalfa plant, or that of almost any legume. Sometimes a statue had four legs and was an animal; sometimes it had two legs and two arms, and was a man. But sometimes it had neither arms nor legs, and was an abstraction.

Gertrude said softly, though not so softly as I could have wished: “Why don’t riveters do sculpture, too?” But when she applied the word fragile to a statue with less than its share of lumps, Miss Rasmussen broke in stormily: “Fragile! You couldn’t break that with a hammer! Let me tell you, every joint in that is welded.”

Gertrude gave her a surgeon’s smile; you expected Gertrude to say, “More ether, nurse. This woman is conscious”. Then she remarked in a speculative voice, “Have you ever stopped to consider, Miss Rasmussen, just why your statues are so thin?” By now the patient, poor fat thing, was beginning to be sorry that she had come to; I said before Gertrude could go on: “I love your statues, Miss Rasmussen,” not even crossing my fingers as I said it; and Gottfried said that dey madt him feel goodt ven he lookedt at dem. Gertrude looked at me for a moment; then she looked at Gottfried for a moment; then she laughed. It was a placing laugh. When the ripples of this laugh had died, she quoted clearly: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.” Miss Rasmussen began to tell Gottfried and me about her statues. Some of what she said was technical, and you would have had to be a welder to appreciate it; and the rest was aesthetic or generally philosophic, and to appreciate it you would have had to be an imbecile.

Art Night. 3

We came to the painting next. There had been quite a good painter at Benton the year before, a mild, absent, indifferent young man, with hair like a string bag; when he resigned he said genially, “You don’t need me.” He had been replaced by a painter who painted animals in marshes—or jungles: all glowed. This man stood looking out over his herds, the ringstraked, speckled, and spotted; he wore a turtle-neck sweater and a black beard; and smiled a complacent smile, as if he had just said to you in an English novel, “I thought you’d like that.”

The paintings varied, though not much. The students loved their teacher, it was plain: there were a great many beasts of prey, in forests and marshes, all looking like feral Florence Nightingales. I said to Gertrude, finally: “Gertrude, for God’s sake stop saying Tiger, Tiger, burning bright!” Then I said to Gottfried, “Say something!” He said, “What can I say?”

The animals were recognizably animals, and that was about all you could say for them—but it was something you could not have said for any of the other paintings there. The students had learned all the new ways to paint something (an old way, to them, was a way not to paint something) but they had not had anything to paint. The paintings were paintings of nothing at all. It did not seem possible to you that so many things could have happened to a piece of canvas in vain. You looked at a painting and thought, “It’s an imitation Arshile Gorky; it’s casein and aluminium paint on canvasboard, has been scratched all over with a razor blade, and then was glazed—or scumbled, perhaps—with several transparent oil washes”. And when you had said this there was no more for you to say. If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art. By the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day; and most of the students never learned that there was anything else to do.

Gertrude had begun an animated discussion with the painter; her first sentence was, “Tell me, have you ever thought of doing illustrations for The Jungle Book?” I thought it unfair of her to talk so much of the suppressed aggressions that manifested themselves in his work, since it was plain from his part of the conversation that he was not a man who suppressed aggressions. Against many conversationalists he would have had quite a good chance: he spoke not as the scribes but with authority, and was untroubled by any of the doubts that intelligence brings in its train. He looked truculent to begin with; within five sentences he was looking baffled and truculent. To Gertrude’s extended, unfavourable, but really quite brilliant comparison of his jungles with those of Max Ernst and the Douanier Rousseau, he retorted: “I’m not interested in other painters’ paintings.”

Gertrude looked at him with delight, and said: “You’re from the West Coast, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well aren’t you?”

“How did you know?”

Gertrude said modestly, “Oh, I just knew.” Then she said, “I’ll bet I can tell you who your favourite writer is, too.”

“Who?”

“Henry Miller.” The painter laughed triumphantly, and exclaimed:

“Wrong! D. H. Lawrence.”

Gertrude smiled and said to him, “You’re older than I thought,” and said to me, “Well it’s a moral victory, anyway,”

I said, “Gertrude, don’t you think we ought to be finding some seats for the performance?”

She answered, “Christ, you’re a—a sober-sided man. We can always sit in Dr. Rosenbaum’s lap.” Then she said to the painter, winningly: “You come too,” He said, “Well, I—“ But Gertrude, staring at him thoughtfully, murmured: “D. H. Lawrence!” Then she said to me, aside: “Still, I suppose he’s doing well to have a favourite writer. I think Cézanne was right about painters, don’t you?—le peintre est en general bête.”

……

They All Go. 5.

I sat down on the grass by the building in which the painters and sculptors lived and flourished: but there was nobody working away at a block of mahogany, nobody pouring paint on to canvasboard, nobody standing with her leg out in the air as though dislocated, her face fixed in the grimace of her trade. People eat and sleep and live all year, but they are educated only nine months of it.

Someone called to me from the second floor: it was Sona Rasmussen. Art Night had placed me, had placed Gottfried, among old admirers of her work. She was in coveralls – was goggleless, though – and her dark round face was shining with sweat. She said for me to come up, there was something she wanted to show me. As I went up the stairs I repeated to myself what she had said, trying to get into my voice the half-Japanese, half-Scandinavian sameness of internal organization that one heard in every sentence of hers.

When I got into the big studio it looked different: most of the statues were gone, the acetylene torches had been put away into a corner, and a great mound of clay stood naked against the wall, without even a cloth over it to keep it wet. At the other end there was a statue I had never seen before. “It’s my new one,” Miss Rasmussen said shyly. “It’s – it’s made from part of a railroad tie.” You could see that: the tie had been fixed so that it revolved, like a weather-vane, on the brass rod that supported it.

I looked at a long time. Finally I looked at Miss Rasmussen with troubled eyes; she asked uneasily, “Don’t you like it?”

“I like it very much, Miss Rasmussen,” I said. “It’s a wonderful one. It’s quite different from your others, isn’t it?”

It was more different from her others than you would have believed possible–how could I ever again be sure what you could believe possible? The railroad tie had become a man, a man who floated in the air as the foetus floats in the womb; his pressed-together arms and legs, his hunched-up shoulders, his nudging face were indicated in broad burnt lines or depressions, so that you could hardly tell whether the had been drawn or modeled; he was there. He fitted into the rectangle of the railroad tie as a cat, fast asleep, fits into the circle of itself. Whether or not he slept you could not tell. He was part of the element he inhabited, and it and he moved on together silently; his limbs, blunted by their speed, were still. Even his nuzzling mouth and pressed-flat nose were still, so that I remembered The arrow in its flight is motionless; and remembered, as I looked into his flattened face, the proto-Mongolians of a German historian’s grotesque theory, Ur-men who, many thousands of years ago, were parasites of the wild horses of Asia, clinging to their sides and nursing like foals, or opening a vein and drinking from it and closing it – and all the time the horses ran on, never stopping.

“He’s the East Wind,” Miss Rasmussen said. She was right; he was the East Wind. There was about him a sinister and conclusive peace: one sank into him, as one looked at him, as one sinks into sleep. I told Miss Rasmussen over and over again what a wonderful statue it was; my shame at having misjudged her so – for to me she not only had looked like, but also had been, a potato-bug, and I had been polite to her exactly as one puts the little thing on a leaf and tells it to fly away home – made me more voluble than I should otherwise have been. She was pleased and grateful, though she was still too dazed with her statue to find my words anything more than the echo of her own veins. She talked to me about the statue for a while, and I saw, not in dismay but in awe, that to appreciate what she said you still would have had to be an imbecile: she said about the East Wind exactly what she had always said about those welded root-systems of alfalfa plants that the storeroom of the studio was full of. She was a potato-bug who had been visited by an angel, and I decided – decided unwillingly – for the rest of my life to suffer potato-bugs gladly, since the angels are not able to make the distinctions that we ourselves make between potato-bugs and ourselves.

She had had no lunch, and we went and ate it together. To me she wasn’t Miss Rasmussen any more, but the maker of the East Wind, and I handed her a paper napkin as I would have dropped it from a window into air. As long as her work had been bad she had been a visible fool, and now that her work was good she had disappeared into it. This was an unjust fate; and yet she wouldn’t have thought it unjust, I didn’t think it unjust – I would have vanished willingly into the words of the East Wind.

Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965  Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy, 1954

Image: Paul Evans, 1931-1987.  Welded and wrought steel fountain sculpture with abstract floral and geometric elements c.1956-57.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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