The Ledger

June 2018

The term ‘minimalism’ was originally an insult. The critic and philosopher Richard Wollheim, writing in 1965 about a new group of artists that included Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, meant the word to sting by suggesting a lack of imagination. Of course, its meaning is much different now, rarely pejorative and often admiring. A minimalist aesthetic can be intimidating for its rigorous simplicity, yet minimalism has become a lifestyle fantasy we nurture in many forms—consider the sparse but inviting interiors of Axel Vervoordt, for example. Then there’s Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living, by Elizabeth Willard Thames, which chronicles the adventures of the author and her husband after they swapped a hectic urban life for an idyllic one on 66 acres of rural Vermont land. ‘A frugal life is a creative life and one that’s devoid of clutter, both physical and mental,’ Thames writes, ‘and absent any boredom.’ Hats off—perhaps forever, since they are awkward to store. Or keep just one, a no-frills, all-purpose cap, and appreciate the sweat that stains its canvas brim. ‘[The Japanese] find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter’, Junichirō Tanizaki writes in his essay collection In Praise of Shadows. ‘The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. We begin to enjoy it only when the lustre has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.’ His words resonate with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the way objects subjected to honest, practical use may become a bit mussed—but in a way that’s pleasantly just-so. Minimalism needn’t mean starting over and spending outrageous sums on an exquisite plywood; it can include ‘the glow of grime’, which ‘comes of being touched over and over.’ Ultimately, it is not just objects but us, ourselves, whom this aura most affects, our inner life taking on a rich patina through engagement with the everyday things that offer us familiarity, joy and reflection.



A mesmerising drama of extreme simplicity, and no minor portent

At 96 minutes, Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960), in black-and-white and without a jot of dialogue, might drag but doesn’t; its skeletal storyline and stark visuals are intensely absorbing, even hypnotic. The documentary-style depiction of a family who must make their way daily from a tiny, isolated island in the Japanese archipelago to gather water at a well on another island before turning around and rowing back is almost aggressively simple, yet the unrelenting focus on this basic rite of survival has an indelible impact. Shindō, who also directed the atmospheric horror classics Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), offers a subtle post-apocalyptic parable in The Naked Island, which stands as his biggest international success. The island’s barren soil may or may not have been poisoned by radioactive fallout, but the symbolism is sufficient. We watch the family buckle under the weight of their heavy buckets; one of their little boys dies. All the while, their actions are accompanied by a phenomenal modernist score by Hikaru Hayashi.



Ancient artworks of strikingly elegant form

If you find yourself in Athens, make time for the relatively small but stellar Museum of Cycladic Art—just off Constitution Square and bustling tree-lined Kolonaki—where you’ll find an exquisite collection of ancient sculpture. Henry Moore praised Cycladic sculpture for its ‘elemental simplicity’. (This primeval aura proves so powerful as to inspire madness and bloodshed among archaeologists who unearth such a sculpture in Julio Cortázar’s ‘The Idol of the Cyclades’.) The museum’s geographic and chronological groupings reveal some of the (mostly less gruesome) habits and practices of the inhabitants of the Cyclades, the group of islands encircling the sacred island of Delos, most famous for marble sculpture they made in the third millennium B.C. Elsewhere, bronze was beginning to supplant stone as the material for art and tools, but Cycladic figurines, heads, vases, bowls and so-called ‘frying pans’ (flatware of indiscernible purpose that rather resemble griddles) in beautifully translucent white marble have inspired the likes of Brancusi, Modigliani and Giacometti. One striking figure is only six inches high, seated on a stool and tilting a drinking glass toward his elongated, tipped-back head. There are a number of female figurines with folded arms, some just a few inches tall, some nearly life-size. The museum hosts temporary exhibitions in the neoclassical Stathatos Mansion, a lovely example of the work of the Bavarian architect Ernst Ziller.


The spiritual and the avant-garde in splendid harmony

Born in Olean, New York, the poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) wrote ladders of verse, narrow columns with quick line breaks that pivot on the level of the syllable. Some of his poems were simply single words running down the page. He was close friends with the Trappist monk, prose writer and poet Thomas Merton, who called him ‘a combination of Hamlet and [the prophet] Elias’ with ‘a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions.’ Now the noted Philadelphia composer Kile Smith has scored ‘The Arc in the Sky’, a concert of Lax’s poems and journal writings, which reverberates with whispers of the Beats and a frisson of whimsy. June 30 sees the world premiere performed by the Crossing Choir at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia. Smith honours Lax’s linguistic discipline with rich, judicious rests—this is the harmonious coming together of a composer and a poet whose works underline the value of silence. If Philadelphia is a destination too far, keep an eye out for a recording, to be released late this year or in early 2019. A broadcast of the performance will also be aired on WRTI.


Diverse views of the firmament in a slender, beautiful volume

Vija Celmins is celebrated for her delicate yet authoritative photorealistic paintings, drawings and prints, many of which depict the night sky. The Stars is a book on which she collaborated with the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger. It features three of her celestial prints—one inspired by the worn binding of an early twentieth-century Japanese book, one a photographic image of the night sky, one a negative of the same, with dark stars on a pale background—accompanied by collage-like texts: descriptions of the stars gathered by Weinberger from sources all over the world, in English, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese and Māori (Te Reo). The look of the text on the page, variously feathered, spiky or almost hieroglyphic, could be thought to resemble a range of celestial bodies, dense or scattered, in dim far-off galaxies or visible to the naked eye; it is somehow simultaneously spare and epic. An original limited-edition livre d’artiste, published by the Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art, retails for $4500 (USD)—quite the purchase for one’s Noguchi coffee table—but the paperback, slightly less than a hundredth that price, is also beautiful.


Twentieth-century vessels of subtle sophistication

The ceramics of Lucie Rie (1902–1995) sport speckled glazes, a pebbly texture, and soft colours that mottle together like a sky melting into sunrise. Her delicate, thin-lipped bowls, urns, carafes, vases and other vessels are early examples of a pared-down style that we see everywhere today; as a pioneer of that style, Rie helped to establish ceramics as a standalone art form in Britain. Born in Vienna, the youngest child of a worldly and well-off Jewish physician who used to have Sigmund Freud round to play chess, Rie enrolled at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule in 1922 and studied under Michael Powolny, a modeller who taught her to throw. She was also greatly influenced by the modernist architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, and based her early pots on his austere shapes. Her signature volcanic, textured glazes resulted from concentrated study of the finer points of ceramic chemistry. Rie fled Vienna in 1938 and settled in London. Her earliest beakers and bowls had a limited palette of beige, white and grey; later, she introduced bolder colours and metallic gleam. Her pieces marked a contrast with the prevailing, stouter British style as practised by Bernard Leach. She was awarded OBE in 1968 and CBE in 1981; in 1987 she was one of four British potters chosen for a commemorative series of postage stamps. Over the years Rie welcomed a stream of visitors and students to her studio near Hyde Park, tempering her crisp Mitteleuropean sensibility, sometimes experienced as tart or brusque, with a standing offer of homemade cake.


Haunting works that mesh tradition and innovation

Whither the zither? Until his death in January, the Korean composer and musician Hwang Byungki sought to preserve the sound of the gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument with 12 (or sometimes more) silk strings and a sumptuous tone. ‘The gayageum is played with the fingernails and we hold it close to the body so it becomes part of the player’s flesh’, Hwang explained. Its foremost advocate, he also created a new musical genre, ch’angjak kukak or ‘newly composed Korean traditional music’. His tuning innovations and unconventional technique created a form that is one part folk, one part hauntingly modern. As a student in the early 1950s, Hwang found that the most standard of the standards were in danger of dying out. These were folk songs and a rippling, entrancing court music that had fallen fallow during the Japanese colonial occupation, the Second World War and then the Korean War. Around the time Hwang started his studies, the Korean National Assembly passed a bill enshrining traditional Korean music, and a college of music opened at the Seoul National University in 1959. His career blossomed in this environment. He continued to perform, took on students, became a music archivist, composed for film and TV, toured internationally and started composing using Western notation. ‘When I began to learn gayageum in 1950’, he told an interviewer in 2008’, there were only about a dozen gayageum sold in a year. There are 10,000 nowadays.’


Stories told with acumen, poems to stir mind and spirit

The twelfth episode of The Paris Review Podcast features a James Salter story, ‘Bangkok’, read by Dick Cavett; a poem, ‘The End of Summer’, read by its author Frederick Seidel; and the lively, melodic voice of Jamaica Kincaid, in conversation as well as reading her short story ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately’. It ends with a second poem, Robert Bly’s ‘Choral Stanza 1’, first published in the inaugural issue of The Paris Review, in the spring of 1953, and rendered here in suitably slow, tranquil cadences by editor Caitlin Youngquist. A work of biblical allusions articulated in elegantly lean lines, it begins: ‘The dove returns; it found no resting place; / It was in flight all night above the shaken seas; / Beneath ark eaves / The dove shall magnify the tiger’s bed’.


An artist who waited decades for rightful acclaim

In 2004, at the age of 89, Carmen Herrera sold her first painting. In 2016, she had a solo show, ‘Lines of Sight’, at the Whitney in New York. What forces conspired to delay due recognition? It was probably a mix of things—an air of reserve, perhaps; a stubborn commitment to minimalism at a time when it wasn’t much practised by female artists; a deficit of swagger at a time when the art world was full of machismo. Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera came of age under the dictator Gerardo Machado and fled Havana for finishing school in Paris, returning to study architecture. She married Jesse Loewenthal, an American expat, and they moved to New York, then to Paris, where Herrera painted prolifically, limiting herself to just three colours and abstract shapes—ovals, rectangles and triangles contained in a larger circle—inspired by minimalists such as Kazimir Malevich. When she returned to New York with Loewenthal in the 1950s, she refined her work even further: swooping curves turned into plain lines. ‘I never met a straight line I did not like,’ she once said. In an interview with the Guardian, her plain-spokenness seems to match her painting. Of her calling to be an artist, despite the exceedingly long wait for a show or sale? ‘I knew it was going to be a hard life.’



Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung.

‘Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.’