Photo: R. Whittaker
Gail Enns, in collaboration with Robert Reese, director of the Cherry Art Center in Carmel, California put together an exhibit in which artists were invited to revisit Joseph Campbell’s views about the most important functions of art. Today we don't hear much about these deeper ways of regarding art and art making and yet, I consistently find that these ideas still resonate with artists.
The Artist's Way featured the work of Sharon Antholt, Rob Barnard, Kristin Casaletto, Laurel Farrin, Robilee Frederick, Peter Hiers, Tom Nakashima, Katherine Sherwood and Katarina Wong.
I spoke with two of the artists at the art center. Cherry Art Center Director Robert Reese introduced us… R. Whittaker
Welcome to the Cherry Center and this Joseph Campbell Symposium. It is again, a wonderful pleasure to be presenting this afternoon’s program to you at the Cherry Center. I can’t think of another subject that’s more appropriate to the center. Joseph Campbell actually lectured here in the 1950s. So I want to introduce our moderator today, Richard Whittaker. He’s the founding editor of the art journal works & conversations
and also the West coast editor of Parabola Magazine
. Thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you. I’m delighted to be here and especially because the idea of talking about art in relation to the ideas of Joseph Campbell appeals to me very much. It’s a way of thinking about art where even the words “metaphysical” and “mystical” can be mentioned without embarrassment, and probably even God can be mentioned. This is Joseph Campbell’s way of talking. And it’s my own belief that the deep truths such language is meant to speak of are still with us today. So I'm just delighted to be here with Rob Barnard and Tom Nakashima, whose beautiful work you can see in the gallery. I know Gail [Enns] feels strongly about the work of these two artists—and about all the artists she has selected to be part of this exhibit.
So could I start just by asking each of you: how do you see some kind of congruence between the ideas of Joseph Campbell and your own work as artists?
Up until about 1986, I believe, I could be most easily defined as a minimalist. So my work came out of a kind of logical progression. And philosophically my interest was probably with artists like Lichtenstein. I came to a point with my work where I didn’t feel there was anything more to mine out of American painting. I grew interested in European work and that narrative which was not really dealt with in the 1960s and 70s in American painting. And narrative, of course, brings up Campbell.
I was, as Rob was, very drawn to the Bill Moyers interviews with Campbell. And like most artists, I'm a little bit dyslexic. My abilities at reading, I would say have been limited to studying. That is, when I read, I kind of study. I like tapes and, since there are so many really fabulous tapes of Campbell, I would listen to them and to the James Joyce tapes, which I found very intriguing. I would listen to these while I was working. That isn’t to say I was interested in illustrating or in any way translating these audiotapes into some kind of visual image; these would get my mind going.
And as I continued to paint I started to think about what a given painting meant. The meaning would follow the image, so to speak. That is, as I was painting the image, I would say to myself, “Now why did I put this here or that there?”
There was this thing that a post-modern philosopher, Roland Barthes, had to say about the first and second reader. As I am painting the painting, I am, in effect, the first reader of the painting. But then as I continue to paint it and I start to ask myself what does this mean? I start to be the second reader. In other words, I start to be the person who is observing my painting and deciding what the painting means.
I think listening to Campbell helped me with that. And I think that Barthes believes that there is an integrity to the multiple readings of a painting, that they are not just allegories of sorts whereby one could look at a given painting at a given point in time and say, “This painting means this, or this painting means that.” Then another person, 200 years later, can look at that painting and bring to it certain ideas related to the time and place they’re at and think of that painting in a totally different light.
I think that Barthes would also say that in reading something a second time in a different place that you do see something that is actually there. It isn’t something that you’re making up, or bringing to it. And Campbell, I think, in his readings of the various things throughout history, I shouldn’t say he made the story up, but I think to some extent he translated them, in a way. He translated visual images in ways that were very enchanting and interesting, and that helped me as someone who was trying to deal with the narrative of some sort.
Well, there’s a lot to talk about there, but I want to hear from Rob on this question.
I hadn’t read anything about Joseph Campbell before I’d seen those interviews. What appealed to me was first, his personality and intensity—it was as if he was talking to me. And second, he seemed to be saying all the things I’ve thought about and that serious artists have thought and talked about. So it helped me understand that there was a place in this culture for someone doing what I was doing. My particular dilemma is that I make pottery. I make things on the wheel that are round, that are traditional—cups or a bowl or a plate. And there was no place in contemporary American art, the fine arts world, for those things to be appreciated. So his view, because he wasn’t part of that world, he didn’t suffer that prejudice. His attitude was more that any object is capable of transmitting meaning. And when he was talking to Bill Moyers, and I am paraphrasing this, he said something like we are always addressing the transcendent mystery through the actual world
. It was like somebody slapped me on the back of the head.
The thing that moves people to look at art comes through the object; it makes them feel excited and say I wonder what it is and why it is. In other words, they can access it through an object. This is what made me feel so good because I had a way to justify not only to myself, but maybe to other people that these objects are capable of carrying this kind of meaning.
You know we don’t generally ascribe a big value to these things. You may look at a plate and say, “Oh, this is just a plate.” But the point for me is to try and fill this object with so much that—and you may overlook it at first—but somewhere when you pick it up and start feeling it and you start noticing it, it would be unlike any other experience that you’ve ever had. The thought of drinking out of a piece of art is an entirely different thing; it has a way of working on you that’s different.
So that’s why the experience was so important to me. He talked about these things in this language. I studied in Japan for four-and-a-half years so I was used to talking about that. That’s the way the Japanese understood the ceramics. However, coming here it wasn’t understood that way. So that reassured me, because he was talking to a popular culture on PBS. He was talking to a lot of people and using terms that we ordinarily wouldn’t use with other people. We only use them on ourselves, because we don’t want to sound crazy. You know, what do you mean
? You can’t talk about a cup like that! But yes, people experience it and I experience it.
My life was changed by objects, by that kind of thing. So I had to find a way when I was younger to try and sort those things out for myself. That’s why it was really important. It’s never left me, those experiences. That’s the kind of influence that even if it just touches you one time, it lasts for a long time. It never goes away.
That’s wonderful. It reminds of that Joseph Campbell quote, "that in a proper piece of art, it’s as if the artist becomes the eye of the universe and the art object becomes a thing of the universe. And if it’s a thing of the universe, it contains the same mystery as the mystery of the universe."
As you said, maybe in Japan this way of looking at art can be more widely appreciated. I think Rosalind Krauss said something like—and this must have been 20 years ago— “Today we can’t mention the word art and spirit in the same sentence without being embarrassed.”
I hope it's not true, but in any case, would you say something about how your life has been changed by objects?
Well, I was in the service for three years, and when I got out I went back to school at the University of Kentucky. So I’m a young person, like 21. I’d never been to a museum before or anything like that. And I thought I’ll take a ceramics course. It sounds like fun. It’s on the GI Bill. And I took a class. I was making things and not really paying attention.
In one of the textbooks, I think it was Glenn Nelson, A Potter’s Handbook
—on one of the pages there was a Japanese tea bowl from like the third generation of the Raku family. It was red and straight-sided like this [gestures]. I had no idea of its scale. It was a tea bowl, so you think it might be the size of a teacup.. And I thought why is that a whole full-color page? I mean because that was a lot in those days. It didn’t seem that complicated. I thought, I can do that
. So I spent a couple of months trying. And I just, I couldn’t. So I just dismissed it. I thought, I just need to practice more, or something like that.
But you know, there are some things about really good objects or really great art that are not likeable in the popular sense. You don’t look at them and go that’s really beautiful! If I get that feeling about my own work, I usually throw it away. I just don’t trust it. So if there is not some aspect of it that challenges my own preconceptions about what beauty is or what is good, I don’t trust it. And I didn’t know these things at that time. It was just that, I was intrigued by that tea bowl. I didn’t know why I was intrigued by it, but in my mind, it kept irritating me. It kept bothering me and bothering me and bothering me. I would go back and try to resolve that dilemma.
Anybody who has ever had a problem where you go back and forth and back—the dialectic of solving the problem—at the point that you get the problem solved, you are different than the point where you had the problem in the first place. You’ve learned so much by going over and over it, and resolving this problem.
And that, the tea bowl, was the beginning of how I would always approach things in the future. So it wasn’t like I am going here and some teacher is going to teach me how to do this or I am going to read this magazine and folks are going to tell me this. It was simply a purely personal thing on a really personal level. I thought it was a teacup. It turns out it was a bowl.
I thought about the tea ceremony. But the whole process set that up and, in a sense, that first encounter moved me to go to Japan to try to understand how somebody embodies that kind of feeling into an object that’s a little bowl that you hold in your hand.
In the tea ceremony you drink tea that’s whipped with a whisk and made out of powder. It looks like green flour. You whisk it up and it’s all frothy and it smells like fresh grass. Those are all things that were just alien to me. I never understood them. I never knew what they meant.
So it was the beginning of someone drawing you in. You know, it was like the object itself is out there and it irritates you. It keeps drawing you in and pretty soon you’re consumed inside this object, and the ideas that this object has—which turn out to be your own ideas, but you don’t know it at the time. So that’s how that first thing happened to me. It was like that. So everything else was like that afterwards.
Well, that’s amazing. This little bowl—and you saw it as a photograph?
I saw the photograph.
And that experience led you eventually to go to Japan?
All right. Now [turning to Tom] you brought up Wittgenstein. So you probably know about Wittgenstein’s statement—I love this—Wittgenstein very famously said, “That of which we cannot speak, let us pass over it in silence.” But that’s not the end of the story. He says somewhere else that what we cannot say can sometimes be shown
. It’s like that opens the door to a whole different way of imparting something.
Yeah, and I think non-artists sometimes think that art is something that can be translated into language, particularly if it’s a kind of narrative art or something like that— even abstract art. There’s always an attempt to take the work apart and translate it into language talking about line, shape, flow and color, aesthetics, whatever. And I don’t think if an artist wanted to communicate something clearly, I think that visual art is a very poor vehicle to really get something across to someone in a crystal clear manner.
Going back, Wittgenstein was of interest to me, because at that time, 1967, 1968 when I was doing that kind of painting, any number of painters were trying to make paintings that, if you could engrave them on a metal sheet and send it out in the Voyager out into space, that an alien civilization could pick it up and understand a great deal about us. Robert Mangold would be an example of somebody doing that sort of thing. And so I was trying to do paintings at that time that were totally objective and relied not on any sense of subjective interpretation.
But I was raised Catholic. My mother was German-Irish. My father was Japanese-American. She was a typical Irish Catholic and my father was an agnostic. I can remember getting into discussions with the nuns about the inevitability of my father ending up in limbo or hell, or some place like that. I didn’t understand that, because my mother drank, cussed and smoked. And my dad didn’t do any of those.
We were talking about Catholicism earlier today. You get this Baltimore Catechism
, which was kind of like Mao’s Red Book
. It would indoctrinate you to the faith. It had these statements like God is the supreme being and made all things, which probably goes back to Aristotle or some Greek philosopher who was thinking, you know, look, there’s a prime mover. How did the universe begin if it didn’t have a prime mover? And God was a perfect being, so he couldn’t communicate to humans. So how do you communicate to humans? Well, you have to have to have this other person called an “angel.” Angels are the messengers between God and man. So you learn, as a Catholic, this extremely syllogistic way of thinking.
Wittgenstein appealed to me because, while he wasn’t a Classical philosopher by any means, to me that seemed to be kind of a modern version of Classical thinking. My expectations of a painting in the 60’s were that a painting was something that you carried through until you felt it was a perfect resolution. It was like a rounded kind of thinking, Spiral Jetty
would be an example. It was a way of producing a work of art that you looked at and you got it. It was like one of those games like how do you get the chicken and the fox and the grain across the river? And there’s this kind of aha! moment when you figure out how to do it. And I thought of painting in that manner.
Around 1980 I just saw that I needed a change, and somehow the narrative came into it. That changed my entire way of making a painting and my expectations of a painting. In 1980 or so l came to a point where I no longer believed fully that a painting could be completely resolved, that it could have perfection. That’s what I had believed before. And the way you could get it perfect was make it very simple. If you made it very simple, the possibilities for making it perfect were much greater.
In the 1980s I started making more complex paintings and I had to totally rearrange my thinking. I think I became more existential in the way that I made my decisions.
Does feeling play any part in any of your process as an artist?
Yes. I think it plays a big part now. I think it even did in the minimalist pieces. That is, I made certain decisions that could not be defined as strictly logical decisions. Kant talks about that in reference to the sublime. So in a sense—I’m not a philosopher—but to me, the sublime is to Kant what the leap of faith is to Kierkegaard. You come to a point where logic won’t work; you’re doing a painting and there’s no reasonable way to do something. It comes to you that you should put this truck right here. You should paint the truck.
It comes to you through some…
Yeah, yeah. Through something other than logic, and it’s those things that I think are the most interesting things in painting—when all of a sudden, you throw something in that’s a wrench in the brew. It just doesn’t make sense that you would do it. But yet you look at it and, without any linguistic explanation, you say it works.
Well, you say suddenly you
throw it in; but, on the other hand, wouldn’t it be true to say it comes to me
, and then I put it in? You see what I mean?
It comes to me. Then
I decide. I mean if you look at that under the microscope, it comes to you first
. You can’t claim I
did that. Then something says, okay. That’s a decision. You say okay. Am I right?
And you say, well, what is this
That’s it. Then you look at it and say, what is it
? Then you try to derive from it some kind of meaning. You try to say, why did I do that?
And would you say that how you decide comes from how it resonates with more than just your mind?
Yes. Certainly. Okay. Next question.
[turning toward Rob] You were talking yesterday and you said something about how usually we think of starting one way, then you reached your right arm out and said, but “it actually starts out here and it comes this way.” Do you remember what I am referring to?
Would you say more about that?
I think we were talking in the context of where do you get your ideas for something? You know? Do you sit down and say, “I want to do a cup, and it’s going to have these things and these things and these things”? As opposed to the fact that you’re sitting down and you remember how something made you feel. So you remember this moment in time when you saw this thing somewhere and it made you feel this way.
So I talked about this last night. Some of you were here and some of you weren’t. But there’s this thing called “an art experience.” You have this experience when you encounter an object of some sort. And it causes you to move or think or resonate in a way that you thought was impossible. It’s not predictable. You don’t know what it is, or whatever. You can’t plan it. But it’s so powerful, you know, just like when I saw the photo of the tea bowl. That led me to start to search for something. And when that happens, it becomes something that you want to repeat again. As you remember this feeling, this sense of awe that you have over something, this excitement, you want that again. So that feeling is out here [holds his arm out]. Now I want to have objects that do that to me.
So I work from that down
to a cup. Then I’m going to make cups for different reasons and you think how am I going to do that? I remember other times when I’ve seen a cup or something else that resonates in a certain way. So you’re starting out with this general sense of I want this
—and you work it down to here
Now it’s just like Tom was saying. You’re working on a cup and you’re making it on a wheel; you’re making split-second decisions. You’re trying to freeze or to move something that’s plastic, that’s wet, that’s spinning. And you’re constantly readjusting your expectations about what this means. Sometimes you see in a moment of making a cup, a cup that you haven’t ever realized before. That’s the exciting point. Then you take it off the wheel and you trim it, let it dry and re-evaluate it. And you put it in the kiln and you fire it and re-evaluate it. And somewhere in that process—where the thing morphs and changes and adjusts to all the forces that go on it—it comes out a certain way, which you couldn’t have imagined when you sat down with the little half-pound ball of clay that you started with.
The process affects the cup, obviously. But it affects you, or it affects me as I’m making it. So I’m always having to readjust my evaluation of my ceramic-pottery-reality to expand and incorporate new things I hadn’t seen before. And that process, in and of itself, is exciting.
And the objects that come out somehow, even after going through all this process and abstract notions of—if I do this here, I might get this over there—you can’t anticipate that. It’s unexpected. And when that happens, it’s really exciting.
So the objects themselves—I look at it the way Tom saw it. I don’t want to look at as it’s mine, like I’m proud of it. I don’t care who made it. I’ve made it, but it just does this something to me. It makes me excited. It makes me just happy to be alive. It makes me feel like I’m an okay person. It makes me feel all these things. It has elements about it that are, you know, it leans this way. There’s a chip on the lip, or the rock pokes out the side. It makes me think, yeah, human beings aren’t so bad after all—just elements like that, that are much more ordinary in interpretation than something bigger.
That’s a beautiful description of how I understand one of Joseph Campbell’s key ways of thinking about art, that it has to be beyond the personal. Somewhere in that little essay he writes, “If it’s only personal, it’s slop.” Those are his words. "It’s slop." Who cares?
I hear your whole description as the experience of something coming from beyond the personality. Who knows where it comes from? But when it arrives inside, it brings me to life. And Joseph Campbell talks about the rapture of being alive.
Agnes Martin describes things almost exactly the same way; the struggle to make a painting, that struggling to find a moment where this magic happens. She describes it as “a moment of perfection.” And in that moment all of a sudden the road ahead is clear. My world is in order. Life is good. And then after awhile it is gone and I’m back in confusion.
Artists are really people who need that all the time. They can’t wait for somebody else to make it for them. They do it themselves. That’s my theory. It’s like I can’t wait.
When I was a young student I went to my first museum. It was The Freer. I went in and the woman who helped me was named Josephine Knapp. She’s passed away now. She was a very kindly woman. And The Freer was part of the Smithsonian, because it’s a public institution. If you make an appointment, they’ll take you downstairs and open up the cases and take out all these ancient pieces and let you handle them. So she takes out a jar made by Ninsei. He was the first sort of named potter from the Momoyama period, late 1500s. And she shows this jar, dark brown, black rusty glaze. And it’s kind of squared. As I said, I’d only seen pictures of these. And she says, “If you put your hand inside here, you can see while the clay was wet, how he drug his finger through here to square the sides.” I put my hand in there and was like running my finger along where he ran his finger. And I was like, it was just… When I left the museum I felt literally like I was walking off the ground. And I thought, “This is strange, but really enjoyable!”
And when you’ve had that experience, you can never go backwards. It’s incredibly personal to you, but I can’t translate. My problem a lot of times with modern craft is that it is personal in the sense that somebody makes this object and it’s about their dreams. They tell me about it. It’s this and that. And all of a sudden I’m like, I don’t want to live with you. You know, if somebody is doing a personal thing, you have to really like them to have their object in your house.
So the point for me is to erase any trace of my personality in the objects. You may say that this is mine, but the point is to erase that personality, and yet make it really intensely personal at the same time. For the person who feels it, they feel it’s personal. But they don’t feel it’s personal because
of me. They may not even like me, but the object is personal to them. Pottery has always done that to me. It makes it personal. You know what it is. The teapot is not trying to be anything else. It’s not like modern craft teapots that are teapots about teapots. It actually is
a teapot, or a teacup—or whatever it is, a plate. It’s just that, and that’s all it is.
And we all know what they are. We’ve used these objects historically forever for our own survival. So genetically you know what it is. You pick it up. You know it’s a ceramic plate. I can eat off of it. It holds food. It won’t drip on me, usually. So that object is personal to you. You can take it in. You can recognize that a human being made it. Then you can have your experience with it. There’s no reason for my personality to get in the way of your experience with something.
That’s beautiful. We don’t have much time, but here’s one last question. It’s about something Joseph Campbell said that I love. He said that “proper art is the kind of art that does what’s proper to art. And what’s proper to art is something that only art can do
.” That’s a big statement. Something that only art can do
. I mean, I’m intrigued by that. And going back to Wittgenstein, it relates to his saying that sometimes things can be shown
. Art can show you something that you can’t put in words. I wonder if you want to reflect on that? I think, in a way, you’ve addressed that, but here’s chance to say more if you want to.
Well, I think it is its own kind of language. I can’t remember where I read this story. But it was about a photographer who sees something up on a shelf and it attracts him and he gets excited about it. He takes a picture of it. He goes in the lab, develops the film and he prints it. It comes up in the tray. He brings it out and puts it up on the shelf next to the book, the flower vase and the sculpture that were sitting there. He looks at it, and he looks at the sculpture. And he says to himself, “I wonder what it means?”
In other words—and I think that’s the way art is— when we say art has meaning, the meaning isn’t something that comes about by intention. One makes something, and it strikes you. It strikes you because it does have some kind of meaning, but the meaning is almost never reducible to language.
It’s a way of showing.
Yes. Visual art is its own medium. I don’t think you can describe in language the taste of orange sherbet to somebody. That is, there is no language that can describe taste in that manner. I think that painting is what it is. It’s a visual thing. All you can do is come up with language that is an allusion, that’s a metaphor of some kind of what it means. Looking at it, absorbing it and experiencing it is the only way it can be experienced. It can’t be experienced linguistically.
Thank you. There’s a little time left if for a few questions.
You guys touched on a couple of things that were really interesting. There’s the idea of an awe moment. And there’s an aha! moment. Do you recognize a difference between the two?
Yes. There’s a moment of awe—the ultimate, you know, the thing that you chase— that somehow clarifies things. Your world is foggy and you have clarity for a moment. If I had clarity all the time I don’t know what I would do with it. But the point is, a moment of awe can be there.
For me, the aha! moment is about decision-making. You go, oh, I thought I should make it fatter here; instead I should make it skinnier here! So you go against the logic you had. And you get the feeling you wanted by reversing it. That’s an aha!-moment, to me. It’s not the awe moment, but it’s that moment that lets me proceed when I get stopped against a wall. I can’t get this feeling that I’m after with this particular shape or object or thing. Then I have to fight with it somehow and struggle. And oh, I need to do that. And then I can go on.
So those are the differences for me. The moment of awe is the big, supreme moment that you search for all the time and that you know exists. That moment is only transmittable in certain ways. But I think it’s out there. I think human beings are hard-wired for it. It’s part of our genetic code to experience it, but I don’t know what button it takes for each individual.
I have this thing where I go back and forth in terms of believing in existence or in terms of believing whether the word “essence” is a noun. In other words, is there an essence of good? Or I could be like an existentialist and think this person is good because they acted in a good way. Therefore, they exhibited goodness.
But in my earlier days I was taught to believe that good was a noun, that goodness was an intrinsic quality, that the essence of goodness was contained within an individual. And beauty— sometimes I think that beauty is, in fact, a noun, something that’s actually there, something that’s intrinsic to a given object. It is not just in the mind of the beholder. And that some composite or magical putting together of brush strokes or clay or whatever comes to a point like something developing in a tray for a photographer. They see it and pull it out and stick it in a stop bath. Painting and sculpture, and all visual art, also goes through a transition where you’re working and, if you’re good at your craft, you can just work without thinking. But then, all of a sudden, something happens and you realize that it has become -- I guess that’s what you’re referring to; I guess that’s the “awe moment.”
When that photographer is developing a print and working along, there it is all of a sudden! Does it capture the awe or does he go aha!?
It’s difficult separating those two. You know, Joseph Campbell, in this little essay, brings in Buddhism. He talks about how art can deliver us to the still point in ourselves that looks upon something without fear or desire. What you’re saying is sort of headed in that direction, isn't it?
Just recently, I was reading this wonderful book by Chögyam Trungpa. He said that in Tibetan philosophy there's a word drala
. It means just the pure that-ness of a thing. And we’re not really in touch with things that directly. The screen of our thoughts stands between us and what we're looking at. But sometimes it happens that you just see something, a shoe, let’s say. You just see it
. So Trungpa says that in Tibet, the word for that is drala
. And they give that moment a kind of divinity because something on another level happens there.
Yeah, and there’s Rob’s word “recognize” —which I think must mean to see again, to re-cognize, as if this thing were something in the cosmos that pre-existed, or something like that. And what you’re doing in spotting it as something of value; you are re-cognizing it; you’re seeing it again. That creates the shock, the wow, the awe—or whatever.
Gurdjieff used to call that a moment where you see something as if for the first time. As a photographer, I seek those still moments where what I see takes me to another realm. I think that’s exactly what you folks are talking about. And it’s all centered around your body.
You sound like someone who studied with Minor White.
Ha! You got it right! I’m just so enthralled with the things you’ve been talking about. It’s all around us all the time. It’s a matter of us being momentarily awake.
You can learn more about Rob Barnard and Tom Nakashima at: