Meditations I Rodin
Gus at UNM Press 1966 by Arthur Lazar
Memorial tribute by Ira Jaffe
Life is decidedly less pleasant without the option of phoning Gus Blaisdell to have lunch or tea and share concerns and opinions. He had a gruff, dismissive side, so his warmth and its restorative effect could be startling. Also, he was more than funny. Victims and witnesses will testify that his wit could shatter the motor control and equilibrium of perfectly fit, healthy adults. Large audiences in museums and movie theatres, eager for Blaisdell’s accounts of the Beat generation or of Kurosawa’s cinema, proved as vulnerable to his wit as were individuals who simply joined him for drink or food. It’s unlikely he would have been so funny, or so sympathetic, were it not for his seriousness. In one of his essays he noted that social company had relieved philosopher David Hume of the despair that attended Hume’s skeptical reflections. This observation about Hume appears in Blaisdell’s essay “Skeptical Landscapes” which accompanies photographs by Lewis Baltz in the book “Park City,” produced by Artspace Press of Albuquerque and Castelli Graphics New York in association with Aperture, Inc. In meditating on unsettling photographs of arid landscapes that incorporate litter and fragments, the residue of abandoned mines, and what Gus termed “disheveled moments in the construction” of a ski resort near Salt Lake City, Gus focused at one point on what people mean by value and how they arrive at it. He writes, “The presence of waste, trash, litter, rubbish, tailings, scraps: of the shunted aside, discarded, junked, and thrown away—that there is such stuff implies an antecedent process of value, intention and purpose. Waste is an end-product, the consequence of value.” In my view Gus’s strong concern about value accounts for his seriousness as much as does his preoccupation with philosophical skepticism, with doubt about the existence of other minds and external objects. If, as he wrote, “at any moment thinking may reel, tip over, and fall into that bottomless pit full of nonsense,” such thinking partly concerns value. If life at moments feels haunting, nightmarish, and impossibly lonely, the cause in part is our reckoning with unthinking smugness about value, and, thereby, with injustice: “Anything that is,” he writes, “is a fit subject for philosophizing, and nothing can be excluded as of its nature unfit or unseemly; and especially not what the conventional wisdom, that collection of hardened, self-validating expectations, regards as beneath contempt, revolting and disgusting. For the world is unfair and the freedom of inquiry must often lie in the refusal to consent to the ways in which the world has been prepared for us—to the way opinion words the world for us.” I would like to read the inclusiveness of Gus’s words set in the context of philosophy to apply to people as well as things, and to suggest Gus’s aspirations and ours for equality and community in general. In this reading, nothing and no one is valueless or left out—socially, politically, or philosophically. Gus’s expansive statement helps account for his surprising bouts of patience, and for his love and thoughtfulness, as well as for his abstentions and dissents from conventional opinion and behavior. Incorrigible in a way, he also was courageous. One of his greatest determinations in an age of great busyness and speed was to keep time open for study and thought. Fortunately, lunch or tea with any number of us became such a time—for study and thought along with relief. We were all fit in our way, partly thanks to him.
Gus Blaisdell, writer and educator, died in Albuquerque on September 17, 2003, four days before his 68th birthday. Blaisdell created and taught popular courses in cinema studies such as “Teen Rebels” and “Poetry and Radical Film” for almost 25 years at The University of New Mexico, where his work helped to establish a program and then a department in media arts. Blaisdell also taught in the Department of Art and Art History, and served at UNM on numberous master’s degree and doctroal committees. Previously Blaisdell had taught philosophy and mathematics for six years at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. Blaisdell’s publications were as various as his teaching. His critical essays addressed still photography, motion pictures, painting, and philosophy, among other subjects, and he lecured widely in Europe and the United States. His book with photographer Lewis Baltz entitled “Park City” was published by Leo Castelli Gallery of New York City in 1981; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art published his monograph on painter Guy Williams the following year. A former student of literacy critic Yvor Winters at Stanford University, Blaisdell also composed books of poetry and fiction, including “Fractionally Awake Monad”, “Prose Ocean”, and “Dented Fenders”, all in the 1970s. Blaisdell savored friendships with internationlly renowned figures in the arts and humanities, including Baltz, philosopher Stanley Cavell, the writer, Evan Connell, poet Robert Creeley, and art critic Max Kozloff. Along with his teaching and writing, Blaisdell was proprietor for many years of the Living Batch bookstore, founded by Pancho Elliston, where Allen Ginsberg and other poets read and discussed their work amid the Batch’s legendary cornucopia of new and used books. Blaisdell also ran Living Batch Press, publisher of handsome, spacious books of poetry and prose by Clark Coolidge, Ronald Johnson, Geoffrey Young and others. As much as anything, Blaisdell relished warm and witty conversation, often conducted in the public sphere. He would meet friends, colleagues, and students in popular Central Avenue restaurants near UNM and Nob Hill to take up sundry topics of the day such as movies and politics. He seemed to value the raw, theatrical space of the boulevard as much as he did the classroom, though privacy and quiet were also essential to him. Born in San Diego, he became an unusually visible, vital presence in Albuquerque, the city he adopted in 1964 and came to love and serve. He died of a sudden heart attack on Central Avenue.
Donations in Blaisdell’s memory can be made to the Gus Blaisdell Scholarship in Critical Writing at the UNM Department of Media Arts.
Headdress of candle flames or engorged coxcombs; muscle-shirt rolling and bopping with bulges; and his cloth phallus thrust and wobbled by his raunchy hunching hips, Larry Goodell steps out upon the stage, possessing and invaded by his own poetry and paraphernalia. In the course of his caperings the stage becomes a charged piece of this whirling planet as he enacts, incarnates, and embodies in performance what poetry must have once been like before it was expurgated categorically into epic, which was tribal and gave to the bard shaman-like powers; into lyric, in which a single voice, sometimes masked, sometimes naked, hymned his friends, mourned them too, or celebrated Olympic as well as battlefield victories; and into tragedy, where the polis gathered to see itself confessed in the tension between the good sense of community and the overweening individual desire for knowledge or personal justice.
Goodell’s poetry is more ancient than these first, classic, Aristotelian resolutions. It is antediluvian, the seed and essence out of which these later categories will grow, twistedly—so twisted that the root and origin will be forgotten. And his poetry is also deeply comic, in a sense so attenuated as to be nearly unremembered: it is the work of the clown of power who ridicules as he celebrates the absurdities of being and existence, who probes Dasein, if you’ll permit that lugging term, with a hard-on, who stinkfingers existence, and who in his lightest and most powerful moments seduces the young woman, who is also being, into playing Doctor in the backrooms of bars like the now archaeological Thunderbird in Placitas, Goodell’s home. It was in the T-Bird that Goodell gave some of his most memorable performances to a wonderfully drugged and drunken audience willing to be gathered together by the powers of his poetry; making cohesive and momentarily coherent a disparate, desperate bunch of discrete creatures all tottering on the edges of every imaginable variety of unconsciousness, bloatedly expanded consciousness, and violence; and for an hour or so magnetizing the iron rings in them all, connecting himself with the ironic and co(s)mic sources of his own art, until not only the audience but the whole bar was, like the planet upon which it all spun, rocking and rolling through spaces public and private.
Obviously this is not the poetry of page and podium, book and lectern. The page is the speaking poet; the podia are quite literally the poet’s own dithyrambic feet seeking a measured rhythm in the midst of riot; and the book has become a score, the lectern tossed aside so that the poet, bedecked, can enter into the very medium in which he works: poesis dramatized. Here drama is a form of incarnation rather than performance, and it dilates the present to metaphysical proportions.
Antediluvian, I said, and by that I meant some prelapsarian time well before the Flood, when a being like Goodell could be both bird and snake, when these two powerful avatars shared a single phylum and before we separated them into specialized species, dividing essence as we do labor. The metamorphosis in Goodell’s works, speaking still in avatars, would be that one in which a snake sloughed his skin, shed scale for feather, and emerged surprised in radiant plumage readied for flight. In the peacock, for example, one can clearly see the snake. But in his plumage, in the hushed fanning out of his tail, one sees far beyond the peacock. As his eerie screams transform into the metaphysical, peacock becomes phoenix. Beyond the phoenix is the demigod, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Beyond the demigod? Only the Sun itself.
Goodell is pre-Choric, a single manic creature wrestling with making sense out of being. His is a poet’s tongue, untwisting the commonplaces that tie it so that he may speak out clearly, the poem enveloping him; and as he speaks it out, dissolving the membrane, it becomes an action best represented by a breathless flame unraveling upwards, climbing higher for more air, more light, until the air thins and, subsiding, the consuming flame is extinguished. A priapic clown, shoving it up the world, he is exploring and inventing existence with hoots and a virile member. Locally, in the ancient Pueblos, this clown would be a mudhead, a creature still confused with the earth and blood into which he was thrown from the between piss and shit of his birth—anciently obscene, secular, profane as dirt, autochthonous. This is a creature like those wonderfully androgynous beings in Aristophanes’ contribution to The Symposium: creatures who sought each other, one always in need of the complement of the other, and who seemed to think they might put back together the sundered halves of the world by fucking each other crazily, restoring the anciently divided essence—whether of snake or bird, man or woman, being or nonbeing. Silenus Goodell! A creature who just can’t get enuf of it!
Poet as dancer, as chanter or singer who compels assent and prayer, he is the one who steps out of the poetic swamp, or slithers out, who rises above his own storming and confusion. As high as he can get on his oddly jointed limbs, he rests briefly above his work, his head coiled in feathers or lifted above rustling cool coils of scales. His body halts momentarily atop the locked joint of a single extended leg, the other tucked up below. Out of the nesting feathers of the body the head lifts, the eyes beady with concentration, the craning neck serpentine. Then the uplifted leg descends into the waters of the slough; the neck slides over and down, and as the talonful of rich muck is raised from the bottom, this creature either minutely inspects its contents, listing the details and making a poem, or else, dissatisfied with the results of his analysis, hurls this mud rich in restorative virtues into the roaring faces of his tipsy, toppling, soaring audience.
Truly to laugh with Goodell, to understand his Old Comedy, is to see revealed the weakening prehensile underpinnings of common sense; it is to see laid bare our uncommon prejudices and the contingency of what we commingle. On whirls the world: on the poet’s fingertip or, transformed by his rhythms, upon the nose of a seal—that sea lion of being that Hart Crane evoked from the beach once and for all, writing beyond himself: “Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.” This fleeting glance beyond is also the clown’s roaring, rapturous disillusionment with being.
I have used extended figures to explain the work of a man who is essentially a mixed metaphor. My purpose has been to evoke in the reader a feeling of Goodell. Yet the point implied throughout the preceding, and the point most worth making, is that Larry Goodell is a natural—a category that academe either explicitly denies, actively discourages, or has forgotten. Goodell is the poet fully gripped by song, the man who must dance, just as a goat must leap or make himself attractive to other goats by pissing down his throat. The natural is today treated as the aberrant, the freak, the perverted, and the consequence is that poetry now is only muttered up and printed on the page. Yet there is in art, as there is in sport and mathematics and chess, a prodigious category, full and exuberant and youthful. It is the category of the natural—swimmer, shortstop, painter, poet, or jazzman—and local examples include Goodell, Bill Pearlman, and Kelly Robertson. They are not shamans because they are unsponsored by a group and because they are not representative of a collective mind. They span only themselves. Free in their creations, which come from the isolate powers of their singular imaginations, they are their own centers, single points eccentric to academic circles. The sources and wellsprings and powers they display are not held in common. They are their talents themselves, all alone out there, dangerously ventured in their own originality.
Without this category of the natural, art of any kind is impossible. Because? Because against what academe teaches, theory only succeeds art—in a quiet, active meditation on work done by oneself and others. And art, if it is genuine, is a response of the whole individual to being-in-the-world, and it is not, not primarily anyway, the dramatic solution to an anteriorily posed critical problem. Having chosen not to deal with the natural, not to groom or train or nurture it, academe is left with only its own accomplishments—the brilliant but gelid genres of the modernist novel and poem, achievements somehow against the grain—and that turgid confusion of filched formica laurels, an arbitrary criticism that seeks to usurp and absorb its object and thereby, by digestion, to gain autonomy. But food digested, though it nourishes, turns to shit. –Well, but doesn’t everything? Ultimately, I mean. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’d better keep on reading. (The proper question is not what survives but rather what does not turn to shit.)
Insofar as Goodell’s work is not academic neither is it part of the current late modernist movement of conceptual or performance art. Performance art is reactionary and self-conscious and offers its antics as a solution to a critical problem. Performance art is a dramatic response to what the performer believes cannot any longer be done in painting or sculpture. It is hysteria caught up and wedged between the slowly contracting walls of the two-dimensional and the three. In Michael Fried’s term it is theatrical—a bedecking of despair in which the performer simultaneously mocks himself and his work in the hopes that his ridiculed audience’s reactions to his own display of failure will, in complicity, acknowledge that to fail is really to achieve. It is as if Hemingway’s hideously painful gut-shot hyena in Green Hills of Africa were performing his death in order to win his killer’s approval. The shortest version of all this is the unexamined axiom of much bad modernist thought: that a vanguard precondition on having a subject is to declare the impossibility of a subject matter to be your subject matter. Yes, if you are Mallarmé, Bird or Trane, or Creeley. Otherwise the result is John Ashbery, a latter-day reincarnation of Wallace Stevens’ “muttering king,” who maunders among the shivering hinds of his verse like Elliot Gould’s overly murmurous, throwaway Philip Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—an endless investigation of the erosion of imitative form by what it imitates.
Though natural, what is superb about Goodell’s enactments is that his is a naturalness re-achieved and against odds. His achievement of Old Comedy occurs in his unabashed willingness to say what comes to mind and, while avoiding the theatrical, to become, if needs be and the world demands it, the mouthpiece of ventriloquil being—by turns dapper Charlie McCarthy or bumpkin Mortimer Snerd—where a burp can become oracle, a Delphic choking or gargle, and a pratfall can jar loose the world. Goodell’s achievement gives credence to the comic’s ancient retort to How do you do it?—I just make it up as I go along. (And I am always going along!)
Certainly the priest’s vestments are nothing more than one resolution of the clown’s motley—just as the arithmetical norm called meter, the justice of the written poem, is merely a resolution of the poet’s own heartbeat in his jarred-loose response to an outtakilter world. A commodious vicus of recirculation: the poet in flight, or meditating, thinking down into the scales and pinions of himself, coiled to fly or strike or struggle. And once the recirculation begins within him and then passes to the audience, the measures of the poet keeping it all balanced just this side of frenzy—well, then the line comes inevitably to mind, filling something like a mind now held in common: “The light foot hears and the brightness begins.” (The line is a whole poem, Robert Duncan meditating on Pindar.)
I’ll close my prosaic anacreontic with a reminder in the inspired words of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed:
“For poetry is so out of the ordinary that it could not appear unless the world itself wished for it. Not alone the poetry of poetry, but the poetry of prose—whenever the time of saying and the time of meaning are synchronized.”
[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of ARTSPACE: Southwestern Contemporary Arts Quarterly, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1976 (where, unfortunately, inexperience left it riddled with typographic errors).]
Gus has a shelf in his study filled with found objects.
They glow in the south window,
they resonate in memory.
Gus has a grandson named
He twirls a phrase like other children swing
tin pails at the beach.
bop de bop de bop de bop.
This beat is coded in his genes.
How many varieties can there be
of fruit from this one loquat tree?
Marshal Will Kane turns back
each semester. Gus asks his students
Can you hear it? Do you GET it?
There’s courage in this art,
no art without courage.
It’s always nearly noon,
ask Wen Ho Lee.
Bop de bop de bop de bop.
A friend from Socorro days asks me
are you related to Gus
Let’s skip a survey of the intervening decades
and turn to objects that glow in memory.
Gus taught a class there.
Are you related to Gus by
Bob de bop de bop de bop.
How many varieties can there be
of fruit from this one loquat tree?
Translate loquat from Mandarin: Rush Orange.
Pronounce its taxonomic name:
Follow it hanging in the western sky,
round burnt orange disk.
Follow it to the first tree
rooted in oriental earth, rooted in Adam’s memory.
Seeds from this one tree blew across oceans,
flowered in strange, distant worlds.
Can you hear the rhythm that carried these seeds?
Do you GET it?
Bop de bop de bop de bop
16 Sept 2000
“Written for Gus” Sixty-Fifth Birthday
I GREW UP during the 1950s in the then rapidly expanding university town of Davis, California, living with my family in a brand-new tract-housing development at the very edge of a vast expanse of barley, alfalfa, sugar beet, corn, and tomato fields. My youthful roaming on foot and by bicycle regularly brought me and my friends into other nearby neighborhoods as they were being newly constructed, along with visits to some of the canneries and industrial buildings then sprouting up throughout Yolo County. We didn’t know it then, but we were living within a microcosm of the American West that was being transformed before our eyes.
Much later in life, when I moved to San Francisco in 1974 as a young artist and became a faculty member at San Francisco State University, I first met Lewis Baltz and encountered his photographs. Lewis was introduced to me by my good friend, Geoffrey Young, a talented poet and copublisher of The Figures press, who called my attention to Lewis’s Tract Houses of 1971 and his subsequent The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California of 1974. I immediately judged these photographic projects to be a compelling new form of acerbic visual literature, one whose content resonated fully with my own life’s experience.Geoffrey Young then rang my bell again in 1980, saying that he had hot in his hands a preview copy of Park City, Lewis’s brand-new photography book. It set forth another stirring visual survey created within the American West, one strongly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, which documented a devastated tract of land extant not far from Salt Lake City that had been heavily mined during the nineteenth century. Here was another residential-real-estate boom in the making presented for visual contemplation, this one tied to that of rapidly expanding ski-resort areas then being developed in the West. And not only did Baltz present Park City as his own powerful visual essay of lament, he also tag-teamed it in his new book with a brilliant and insightful essay authored by the writer Gus Blaisdell. Up until this time, the only photographer I admired who had actively engaged a noted writer with his work was Robert Frank, whose introduction for The Americans by Jack Kerouac became a classic pairing of images and words that is still relevant today.
Lewis Baltz,Tract House #1, from the seriesThe Tract Houses, 1971,gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 9”.
Lewis Baltz,Tract House #13, from the seriesThe Tract Houses, 1971,gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 9”.
Lewis Baltz,Foundation Construction Many Warehouses 2892 Kelvin Irvine, from the seriesThe New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, 1974.
I had a wonderful opportunity come my way later on, during the mid-’80s, when I was asked to nominate two artists to create works in response to the public land known as Candlestick Park located on the outskirts of San Francisco. Happily, both of my nominees, Lewis Baltz and David Ireland, were awarded such commissions. And here yet again was another track of devastated land to be carefully considered and documented by Lewis, an unnatural field of construction debris that had been dumped in vast quantities into San Francisco Bay as landfill in advance of a new sports stadium that was then built on the site. Once opened, it became the home of the Giants and the 49ers and also hosted numerous concerts. The park’s vast asphalt parking lots almost surrounded the entire stadium, an austere and rubble-strewn landscape that finally ended at the Bay’s waters.
I instinctively knew that Lewis would engage this spectacle in a trenchant manner, as he proceeded to do with his Candlestick Point project, 1989, and the new book that later accompanied it. He had a bit earlier in the decade taken a close look at another tract of despoiled bayfront land, on which one of California’s oldest maximum-security prisons stands in stark isolation against natural beauty of the most arresting sort. Many of us in the field of photography knew and admired Lewis for the fine work he did on both of these very public sites, but it was not until more than a decade later, here at the Yale University Art Gallery, that I was able to both purchase and exhibit his entire Park City survey, in 2002. It was shown simultaneously with Robert Adams’s What We Bought: The New World, 1973–74, and Emmet Gowin’sAerial Photographs, 1998, and Changing the Earth, 2002—commanding photographic surveys attended with important books that offer powerful visual evidence of how humankind has been continuously transforming the natural environment within which we all live and work.
Lewis “Duke” Baltz has now left us, but his brave and remarkable legacy of visual literature will no doubt endure for a very long time via his many photographs. They provoke serious thought, waves of unease, and a terrible sense of beauty that cannot be easily shaken once they enter one’s eyes and mind.
Jock Reynolds is the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Lewis Baltz, untitled, from the series Candlestick Point, 1989.
Below find an excerpt of Bldgs by Gus Blaisdell, his first essay on Lewis Baltz. Originally published in Three Photographic Visions, 1977. Republished in Gus Blaisdell Collected, UNM Press 2012.
I regret that I must begin in a quandary. But since I am in it and have been in it ever since I first began trying to think and write about Lewis Baltz’s photography over two years ago, this quandary is not only the place from which I must begin but it may also be the place in which, entangled, embroiled, and exasperated once again, I am forced to conclude.
Allow me to elaborate in a figure so that I may come to the various questions which will clearly indicate the ranges of my confusing (but not inchoate) concerns.
In the room in which I am presently writing this essay everything is concrete. That simple italicized phrase struck me the other morning with all the philosophical force of a secular revelation. And it persisted throughout the whole day, nagged during the conscious moments of a fitful night, and was still hauntingly present this morning when, in a mood of exasperation bordering on despondency, I once again sat down to yet another revision of my seemingly endless, as yet unfinished essay on the work of Lewis Baltz–my project a pile of notebooks, pages, file cards, jots and scribblings that has been with me nearly every day since that day in 1975 when I unexpectedly received in the mail a complimentary copy of The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California. As I leafed through the book it steadily dawned on me that Baltz was doing something in photography specifically and in art generally that had not been done before in either domain. His work stood forth as a summary limit and an extension, a point at which the promise in the work of others was engendered and fulfilled, and a point beyond which nobody else had gone. So strong was this conviction that it expressed itself paradoxically, that Lewis Baltz was a painter who had chosen photography instead of paint in which to make significant objects. The paradox here is not in the apparent restrictions consequent upon such a choice but in the media Baltz would be crossing and in the successful translations he would have to achieve. A painter who used photography–there was something of Japanese aesthetics in that, and in the restriction of means and the accepting of the automatisms that constitute photography, further limiting this medium to work in black and white fixed images.
Again, the above also had the philosophical force of worldly revelation and it has persisted, often annoyingly, throughout the years that have lead to the present writing in this room in which everything is concrete. Nothing here is abstract unless it is my mind or the meanings my written words may carry as my sentences achieve equilibrium. Everything in this room except mind and meaning is photographable, will yield an individuated aspect that can be fixed upon film. (The difficult “things in this room” that are not obviously individual and thus fixable are light, dark, and the shadows cast by the interruption of light by objects. None of these seem either trivially concrete or plainly abstract. Penumbral seems to be the accurate term here. And the penumbral is difficult for photography not only as object matter–what the camera points at out there–but also as subject matter, what gets fixed in the frame and shown in the print; and what takes its further meanings, beyond the frame and outside the print, from whatever network of knowledge happens to contain the print centrally and essentially like an idiom or a poem.)
The only conceivable thing in this room which might be wholly abstract in relation to every other photographable thing is a photograph by Lewis Baltz, Maryland 24, a photograph which is endlessly a reminder of this quandary in which I daily encounter my thought…
©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey
Invitation to a Ghost
for Henri Coulette(1927-1988)
I ask you to come back now as you were in youth,
Confident, eager, and the silver brushed from your temples,
Let it be as though a man could go backwards through death,
Erasing the years that did not much count,
Or that added up perhaps to no more than a single brilliant
Sit with us. Let it be as it was in those days
When alcohol brought our tongues the first sweet foretaste of
And what should we speak of but verse? For who would speak of
such things now but among friends?
(A bad line, an atrocious line, could make you wince: we have all
I see you again turn toward the cold and battering sea.
Gull shadows darken the skylight; a wind keens among the chimney
Your hand trembles a little.
What year was that?
Correct me if I remember it badly,
But was there not a dream, sweet but also terrible,
In which Eurydice, strangely, preceded you?
And you followed, knowing exactly what to expect, and of course
she did turn.
Come back now and help me with these verses.
Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life.
*Read by Raymond Waddington at Gus Blaisdell’s memorial celebration Feb 2005
I recently came across Ken Fields fine essay, Winters’s Wild West, in the Los Angeles Review of Books – http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/winterss-wild-west/ – a tribute to his mentor and friend, the poet and critic, Yvor Winters. Ken’s essay is rich in history, detail, and poetry, and it paints a clear portrait of Winters in his place and time. While reading it I was reminded of my late father. The bit below is taken from my chronology at the end of Gus Blaisdell Collected, published by University of New Mexico Press.
In November (1966), while at UNM Press, Gus receives a telegram saying that his publishing mentor and friend, Alan Swallow, has died of a heart attack at his typewriter. Gus writes a short tribute, “Bio of a Swallow,” and publishes it in the Winter issue of New Mexico Quarterly along with Alan’s autobiographical essay, “Story of a Publisher”.
In a letter, Gus writes, “I began commuting to Denver on weekends to help with running Swallow Press and it happened that my great teacher Yvor Winters’ last two books, Forms of Discovery and its companion anthology, Quest for Reality, were mine to design and edit.” In a letter to one of the lawyers during the chaos after Alan’s death, Winters writes that, “Gus Blaisdell undertook this job with no payment from the company and at considerable financial sacrifice to himself. He has done this out of admiration for Alan and myself and out of loyalty to Mae [Alan Swallow’s wife].” Gus also refused Winters’ offer of payment.
To Swallow’s wife Winter’s writes that “Alan was an odd genius. . . . He had a gift which is restricted usually to good poets: He could recognize good writing and recognize it at once (he recognized the same gift in Gus, and so do I). It was this that made him a success as a publisher, this plus the energy of three bull-mastiffs. He was almost ready to take Gus on, before he died, as a junior partner; but he had been a lone wolf for so long that he couldn’t bring himself to it.”
In November of 2000, Ken Fields and committee invited Gus to be one of the speakers at the Symposium in honor of Yvor Winters’ Centenary at Stanford University. Yvor Winters was a mentor to Gus and helped him in many ways. Gus was happy to be invited for the symposium. He said it felt like coming full circle. One morning, as I sat sipping tea across from my father at his glass and steel dining room table, he handed me an early draft of his Winters address to read. In a few weeks I would move from his beloved New Mexico to Montana. He had only recently started giving me his work-in-progress to read. He gave it to very few people. So, this was an occasion. And as I sat reading this address he’d written to honor his mentor, I cried. In the essay I learned much about my father that I’d never known. I cried because I was moving away from my intellectual touchstone, my mentor. I cried for reasons I did not fully understand. So, after recently reading Ken’s essay on Winters it sent me back to reread Gus’s tribute to Winters now published in GUS BLAISDELL Collected. When I came to Winters’ poem, “At the San Francisco Airport”, what struck me on this reading that hadn’t struck me so consciously before was that Winters’ was saying goodbye to his daughter, as my father, not a man known for outright expressions of love or emotion, by giving me this tribute, this poem to read at his dining room table those now many years ago, was saying goodbye to me.
An Excerpt from Gus’s tribute
What Was Called
“A Thought Echoed in Sight”
An address to the symposium in honor of Yvor Winters’
Centenary, Stanford University, November 16–18, 2000
For several years I have started all my film classes at the University of New
Mexico with a screening of Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée. The
movie is twenty-eight minutes long, made almost entirely of still images—
except for a single sequence of a woman, after love, sleeping in bed. She
opens her eyes and blinks three times directly at her (offscreen) beloved,
her watching beholder; at us. When this point arises in the conversation
with the class I read them the first of two poems, William Blake’s “Several
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
I tell the class that “lineaments” for Blake are the boundaries of the soul,
and that “gratified,” as opposed to “satisfied,” desire requires a thankfulness,
a thoughtfulness of two, and that it is genderless. My young are not
taught “corrosion and distrust”—and neither were Yvor Winters’ young.
[Stanley Cavell, in The Claim of Reason, offers this gloss on Blake’s rhyme:
“Here is a brave acceptance of the sufficiency of human finitude, an achievement
of the complete disappearance of its disappointment, in oneself and in
others, an acknowledgment of satisfaction and of reciprocity.”]
When the conversation has ended or the class is coming to an end I
read my second poem to them, Winters’ “At the San Francisco Airport.”
Sometimes I read it twice, particularly the last stanza in which Winters bids
farewell to his departing daughter:
This is the terminal, the break.
Beyond this point, on lines of air,
You take the way that you must take;
And I remain in light and stare—
In light, and nothing else, awake.
Some students always come up after class wanting to know more about
the poet who wrote the last poem. My several tattered paperbacks of the
Collected Poems testify to their avidity.
Awake and in light. Heraclitus said that “the waking have one and the
same world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.” But
Arthur is awake and alone, his daughter speeding away “on lines of air,” on
her own separate course, leaving him to remain in light and awareness of
the terminal break.
© Nicole Blaisdell Ivey
Blaisdell, Gus, Constance DeJong: Metal, University of New Mexico Press, 2003
I saw Constance DeJong’s first show of metal paintings and drawings in 1980. I was
immediately impressed, found the subsequent work equally distinguished, and was an
ardent fan until DeJong went underground in 1997. Then she surfaced again this year
with work so remarkably different that l was again struck. What had happened in the
years she had not shown? She had transformed her work, even though presently she is
again working in metal, and not just in terms of materials. There was a new, deepened
center of attention and concentration. What follows is a conversation between the two of
us that concentrates on her work out of the public eye from 1997 to the present. We talk
a bit about zazen, what DeJong calls sitting practice. This is a practice like yoga that
frees the mind for attention and concentration. Like yoga, the sitting practice is
religiously neutral. DeJong is not a Buddhist artist and she does not make Buddhist art,
whatever that might be. As the reader will see DeJong’s awareness of what she does
and why she does it is articulate and intense. Attention is a direction of the soul. The
interviewer, happily, had little to do but listen, trying for the same attention as the artist
What l have noticed about this extended period of art making is that it is like
breathing, expanding and contracting. The dark gray steel expanding into colored
aluminum and the aluminum contracting back to black. The Copper Drawings
expanding into complexity and contracting back to simplicity. The Black Work
expanding into high relief and back to extremely low relief The Light Drawings
expanding into complexity and relief and contracting into the Rods with simple
Color continually shifted back and forth between each series, from the dark grey
of steel to colored aluminum and then to black aluminum. Black in the sculptures
gave Way to color in the Sulfur Paintings, The Sulfur Paintings made way for the
blackest Reliefs, which denied even a trace of raw (red) copper The Reliefs were
followed by the grids, which contained and then relinquished colon After the
Reliefs came the muted color of the Light Drawings and from the Light Drawings
evolved the black and white Rods. From the Rods came the most colorful Nitrate
Paintings followed by the somber Four/Three monoliths.
I like the analogy to breathing. For one thing it precludes a hierarchy, a linear
pattern, a beginning, a peak, and an ending. It assumes circularity. It suggests that
all time and all stages are equivalent.
Gus Blaisdell: The idea of breath, contraction and expansion is very tied into zazen?
It’s the cornerstone. At first l was interested in Zen as a field of knowledge and
way of seeing. Then it became just meditation practice itself.
And what is that?
It’s a practice that brings you into contact with what’s real. It’s not spiritual and
definitely not religious. It’s a way to see through your thoughts, which are nonstop
fictions, to what is actually occurring.
Like art, it’s a form illumination and self-realization. You’re always moving forward.
It’s not creative in the same way art is out it is full of life in the way art is. It’s real
and substantial in the way art is. But it is more of a deepening into the perfection
of the moment, of what already is. You don’t need to create anything. So I quit
making art for a while.
But you never really quit anything. Like a jazz musician who retires from public
performing for a while to reshape his chops, you, as they say, went to the wood shed.
I started drawing, at first, as an extension of zazen. Since I was sitting and starring
at nothing for long periods of time l decided to try meditating on an object, and I
started with a leaf. After a while I started drawing it. I just started drawing what I
saw, what was in front of me, without the intention of trying to make a good
drawing. It’s like when you are paying such close attention to something that you
forget you are separate from that thing. What’s great about not doing Art is that
then art has a chance. When you try to do something else very earnestly and then
the drawing happens… that is interesting.
Do you associate this with the calligraphic tradition from the great Zen ink painters?Dipping mop in ink and lashing out this beautiful drawing and then sitting down again.
My drawing process is slower. That’s so perfectly spontaneous. Mine is steadier,
more constant. It’s like slow motion. It’s a sequence in time instead of a burst of
Like the breath drawings of Gloria Graham? Turning the paper ninety degrees until she
reached the edge?
Yes, it’s a time sequence, a slower speed. But where her vision was within her
body l was making relationship with the external world, a specific object. But in a
sense it was the same because if you are really with one thing, you are with
everything, including yourself and your breath.
Of the drawings we are looking at, the second leaf is the most sensual.
That’s because it’s restrained. It’s quiet, but also charged.
It’s sort of swelling towards you, it’s opening out.
And the roses. I always draw them when they are closed, before they open up, the
light hits the bud, shapes the form. It’s just a good form. I would never draw a rose
that is opened. When it opens up it’s not as interesting-it’s too exposed, there’s
It is a singular, particular object that draws you in?
Yes. Every object l draw—each leaf, each pod-has to have a certain structure and
sculptural quality. The mass, the line of the stem, the duality of color, subdued but
rich, is important. The way the light hits the object has to articulate the mass and
warm the color. Then l can make a sculptural drawing.
I drew a leaf every day without worrying too much about the outcome of the
drawing. I practiced not thinking and it helped me to not see the leaf but to see the
color and the tone and the line. I wasn’t concerned with how much like a leaf l
could make the drawing but with how faithfully I could render what l saw and how
Is the idea that now you have gotten the object back in front or you and it’s the real
object that was there all the time?
When I was in art school l refused—whenever I could get away with it—to draw
from life. I thought it’s already there, so why copy it? It’s an object that’s in front of
you. I used to think that if you didn’t make it up, it wasn’t art. Just copying
something was cheating. I didn’t consider the transformative aspect of the
Now I came at it from a different point of view. Drawing was now a handmaiden of
sitting. With drawing, I was investigating my relationship to the perceived world,
rather than creating a new world.
In your earliest work, you were concerned with the sculptures as really being drawings
and paintings. Now you rediscover that drawing is sculptural. That’s fascinating. As
you’re going through certain dimensions and transforming them within yourself you
arrived at opposite conclusions. (When you look at these steel pieces) somebody could
say they were sculptures. You say they are paintings and that’s that! And now your
drawings are sculpture.
It’s also important that the materials they are made of express themselves as
themselves. Pencil is graphite and pastel is soft, pure pigment, and they must be
as dominant as the object rendered. As I make the image on a flat surface, layers
of charcoal and pastel build up and then l tilt the drawing board straight up and
allow the extraneous chalk to fall. As it does, I press the chalk into the paper to
‘catch’ the gravitational pull on the material making gravity and the weight of the
pigment manifest in the drawing. I want to ground the work in its component parts
—what it’s made of. In doing so, the drawing process is equal to the drawn object.
Drawing is magic: to make marks on a flat surface that transform into a sculptural
presence… for a sculptor that is magic. You just do what’s in front of you. You
copy form, color, and light not paying too much attention to the concept of the
form. It’s just a gray shape or a dark line. It’s color as color and not part of a leaf.
Then you step back and recognize that it is a leaf. Magic! That may sound naïve,
but I think that’s okay in art.
You should always be a beginner in art.
Recently you showed some work that is almost invisible.
Yes, and it happened almost by accident, as a result of letting go of certain studio
practices. I’ve always had a romance with the idea of a painter working directly
from or with nature, free of the studio. Sculptors, you know are pretty much tied to
their machinery and equipment.
I began to forage outside for material to draw and cast into metal. That provided a
way to extend the studio, and got me just plain outdoors.
These sculptures on opposite walls are of grasses, grasses that almost disappear. This
is the next thing shown after the nitrate painting.
I brought back a few things from a field that were extremely tiny and fragile. l was
collecting objects in nature that l was going to cast in metal, which I did. Little
pods, small sculptural objects, little prickly things, stems and things I found on
the ground. I cast them but I never ended up doing anything with them because
they never got beyond what they were.
Fragile grass, which absolutely could never be cast, surfaced in this bag of stuff
that I was collecting. I put it on my table and kept looking at it, knowing that it was
something I wasn’t going to cast in metal but noticing how the light was hitting it
as it sat on my table casting shadows. It reminded me of my metal light drawings.
They had a similar geometry and structure, and they were doing what the light
drawings were doing, which was creating linear patterns on surfaces. I made a
tiny silver holder for the stem and pinned that through sand colored paper. When
they were hung on the wall the grasses disappeared. All you could see was the
shadow of the grass.
The strange thing is as you approach you think they are floaters inside your own eyes
and then you get close and there is shadow and then they are gone.
You think, well it’s a tan piece of paper on the wall and maybe there are gnats
buzzing around in front of the paper. When you approach it you slowly discover
what the work is. Elemental. You are in the work the whole time. People seem
surprised and happy when they discover what it is.
They were in an exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum in Santa Fe. The way they
were lit at the museum was exactly right. But then there was this out of control air
conditioning that was creating a wind, not just a slight breeze. If you put a piece of
paper on the floor it would blow away. So I
had to nail the papers to the wall instead of
letting them float against the wall. The tradeoff
was that now the pieces were continually
quivering in space and the halogen light was
quivering and they were actually better in
the museum than they were in the studio.
They seriously disappeared and they
projected this intense shadow at the same
time. They had the little geometries of the
holder and the tiny buzzing activity of these
fuzzy particles like dust or flecks hovering
and spinning around this field.
Mites in front of your eyes?
Well, that takes retinal response to a new
level. What l like about these is that they
appear to exist without the artist’s imprint.
Which isn’t to say that I’m against the artist’s
signature. Vermeer was intentional; and l
love his signature. But it is also wonderful in
artwork when the artist isn’t in the work.
That’s what’s happening in these. It’s just
the amazing structure and grace of the
I once had an aquarium in my studio and in it I had these two beautiful fish that were
constantly chasing each other. They were really playful. I built an elaborate underwater
world for them with caves and tunnels and lots of plants. Every day I watched them and
one day I noticed something that looked like dust in a depression in the gravel. I studied
it, trying to figure out what it was. How could there be dust in water? All of a sudden I
recognized that it was a dozen tiny fish. I had never witnessed a birth of any kind before.
At that moment of recognition I was transfixed, so acutely present that I wasn‘t there. I
disintegrated with happiness. A moment of self-dissolution. That is what I have
experienced in sitting and that is what art can do. The grass pieces remind me of that
You recently told me about these four copper pieces on the wall. You said these pieces
had to do with the ever-changing flights of birds. And did you mention that you also
stopped sitting for a while in order to go out to see the daily flights?
As l came out of the Zendo one morning a flock of birds flew over l heard them
before l saw them. They came in very low, right over my head. Then another flock
and another l could see them from quite a distance so l had a good view of the
continually changing shape of the flock. They were three-dimensional, kinetic
forms in space, hurtling towards me with chirping sounds. l began to make little
perforated metal pieces, which had a quality of flocks of tiny little birds. Of course
they weren’t birds. They were holes. And they let light in. They became tiny light
objects. They weren’t illustrations of what l had experienced with the birds, but
they had a sensibility parallel to the birds’ flight. The last thing l would do is to title
them and give a reference to the birds.
Constructing and reducing, going for the essence and all of a sudden here you are with
these delicate copper pieces as a result of going outside and looking at moving things
and knowing that you can’t capture flights. But nonetheless here is this new form and
then it’s the piece itself.
It’s the piece itself, and it’s the light that informs it.
Light for you has always been a stabilizing force.
l discovered light in the copper drawings by scribling lines, which were intended
simply to delineate one form from the other or one section within the drawing
from another. Then when l held the drawing upright, and saw the shifting light, the
lines jumped out. They reflected light or as you said, let the light out. Which is a
great way to understand that phenomenon. My work became more about light
once l discovered light in the work. There is this going into the work and at the
same time the work coming towards you. That’s what l am interested in, that back
and forth dialogue with the material itself. That’s why l don’t conceive work ahead
These little copper pieces are all about the light pouring down from above.
Light issuing from above informed a lot of the Black Work. But the way it is caught
and directed in these works is new.
Here’s what amazes me—from these little copper pieces, really small enough to hold in
your hand—intimate, private, only seen in the studio—and originally inspired by the
flights of birds—these little canopied copper pieces in which light pours from the holes in
the canopy above down to the sheet of copper below—from these little pieces about light
and flight you have gone on to create a monumental sculptural site with Antoine
Predock; hundreds of feet of copper, a monument that rises from bearms of prairie grass
and relates intimately to the sky above, and still somehow magically, at least for me, has
the intimacy of the little copper drawings. It is staggering. This new work is celestial,
cosmological, even ontological! Now that I’m done with my rapture let’s talk about this
project in some detail.
The structure holds celestial information in two ways. During the day the alcove
will filter constantly shifting sunlight through the canopy onto various metal
planes. The canopy will be perforated at thousands of points, which will replicate
constellation patterns and produce tiny spheres of light that will fall and settle in
an indeterminate space. At the same time the reflection of this activity will multiply
warping the light from the initial into layered positions. The outer shell of the
structure will also be drilled to replicate stellar systems. During the day this
will function graphically, charting the night sky with incised lines connecting
particular star groups. At night the drilled points will emit light recreating the night
sky as it appeared over a century ago from the vantage point of the site itself—
45°7’ N, 93°38’ W elevation 848.
The fantasies of location like that exact position suggest that we can map everything;
create the celestial as well as the terrestrial sphere. For me, those coordinates are so
abstract they hang between the earth and the sky and are invisible. Does that make any
That’s beautiful. It leaves the viewer with the infinite.