"No. 7" from the suite Meditations on a Theme by J.S. Bach

Meditations on a Theme by J.S. Bach

Late last year I found myself repeatedly listening to the music of J.S. Bach while I was working in my studio. The two pieces I just could not seem to get enough of were both collections of brief keyboard compositions: The Well Tempered Klavier and The Goldberg Variations. I played these over and over again. I listened to versions by Angela Hewitt, Wilhelm Kempff, Murray Perahia, Andreas Schiff, and of course, the inimitable Glen Gould. Having both the famous Gould recording of The Goldberg Variations from 1955 and his later recording from the 1980s, I was fascinated with the subtle differences between the two works.

My recording of Gould's later version of The Goldberg Variations included an interview with the pianist in which he discussed some of the structures of the piece as a whole. I found myself somewhat enthralled with the idea of constructing a grand piece of art from a collection of smaller individual pieces which nevertheless acted as a series of variations upon a single theme. I was further inspired by my readings upon Bach's contrapunctal compositions, especially as found in Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, and Bach. While my earlier collage suites had a sort of unity as the result of a common range of colors and materials, what I envisioned now was a suite in which a single theme or motif would be far more rigorously adhered to.
The echo of the formal structure of Bach's music was not to be the end-all of these works. I was not out to merely create a series of variations merely as a sort of formal experiment. I have never been anything approaching a pure formalist. Bach's almost mathematical structures conveyed something quite spiritual... rather like the repetitive forms in a Gothic cathedral or an eastern mandala. I knew that my motif would need to be somewhat geometric... architectural in structure. At the same time... I imagined the works as a sort of fragile paper architecture/cathedral... the perfect metaphor for the fragile spirituality of our time. Abandonning the dramatic colors and contrasts of my earlier collage suites, I sought a somewhat blanched look... the papers suggesting a ghost image or shroud of what once was.
The first of these collages (No. 7 above) were quite minimal. Just a few letters... a simple structure... a little bit of something off-balance... a bit of a stain. Some later pieces employed images... old lithographs or steel engravings from Victorian era books... but often shrouded in semi-transluscent tissue paper and/or turned topsy-turvey in order to avoid too much of a focus upon the image:

"No. 106" and
"No. 117"

After nearly 50 individual collages which followed the main motif to a greater or lesser extent... I decided to prsent myself with the challenge of creating a body or group of collages in which the initial motif would be followed in an extremely rigorous manner. At the same time, I began to inject an element of dissonance or disjointedness into the compositions:

"No. 150" and
"No. 159"

By the end of this suite the final works had taken on an absolutely "Baroque" quality... becoming more and more ornate and complex...

"No. 163" and
"No. 164"


"A Balancing Act" from "Lamentations Suite" 2004

"Tense and on Edge" from "Lamentations Suite" 2003


I imagine “Lamentations” as a series of elegies or meditations upon the themes of mortality, devastation, and loss. Clearly rooted in my love of books, the work was inspired, in part, by my reading of various elegiac Psalms as well as the Hebrew “Book of Lamentations”, and developed against the background of the War in Iraq, the looting of the Baghdad Museum, and the increasing violence in the Middle East. My use of the formal element of fragmentation (some might say “desecration” ) and reconstruction was intended as a metaphor of mortality and the tenuousness of life and culture... as well as of rebirth... or transcendence... physical or spiritual ( through recycling or reclamation ).

My current direction in art is indebted, in part at least, to circumstance. As the result of the loss of my studio space (landlords!), I found myself limited to an art that could be produced in a 10 x 15' home office. In consequencet, I began a re-examination of collage... a media I had not seriously explored since my time in art school. The immediate outcome was a series of small, poetic collages that were largely concerned with books. As a self-admitted bibliophile I had long struggled with the problem of how to bring my love of books into my art. With these collages the solution seemed obvious. Not only was I able to draw upon the book as the very source material for my art... to utilize the covers, the papers, the texts and the printed images... but I was also able to draw upon the intimate scale of the book and even to suggest various literary themes. In these early collages each individual piece had its own theme: Arab-Andalusian poetry, architecture, Bach's music, and Emily Dickenson were among the inspirations.

"The Silken Ladder" 2003

"Arabesque" 2003

After framing most of these works and sending them off for exhibition, I contemplated the idea of creating a small suite of related works. The resulting imagery (albeit still abstract) was somewhat darker than what had gone before. With the war in Iraq, the looting of the Bagdad museum, the bombings in Spain and later London, and the continued violence in Israel and the rest of the Middle-East, I found myself meditating upon war, fragmentation, and mortality... human mortality and mortality of entire cultures. Shelly's "Ozymandias" and Paul Valery's equally prophetic words kept coming back to haunt me:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

"Elam, Nineveh, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their existence. But France, England, Russia...these too would be beautiful names...And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as life. The circumstancesthat could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join those of Menander are no longer inconceivable--they are in the newspapers." -Paul Valery, "La Crisis de l'espirit"

As my readings at the time included various elegiac Psalms and the Hebrew Biblical "Book of Lamentations", the title for this suite soon became "Lamentations". Initially I imagined "Lamentations" numbering some 10 or 12 pieces. The concept, however, soon grew much larger than I could ever have imagined. Listening at the time to "Die Winterreise", that dark song cycle by Schubert, I began to realize that the small individual works of art could, when accumulated, grow into something grand, if not epic, in scale. As the "Lamentations" developed and the numbers increased it began to cover an entire wall of my studio. I saw the work as an entire wall of elegies or meditations upon war and loss, and could not help but imagine a correlation with such elegiac monuments as the Vietnam War Memorial or the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem. Other sources of inspiration for "Lamentations" include Dante's "Divine Comedy", the Old English epic "Beowolf" (both of which I had been re-reading), calligraphy and typography (books again!), medieval books, zen painting, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Motherwell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Monet's serials or suites of paintings based upon a single motif... and even Baudelaire's "Fleurs du Mal".
The completed project eventually numbered over 100 pieces. These were edited to the best 60 pieces which were framed as three panels (a triptych). The resulting work measured some 7 feet tall by 14 feet wide!. At the time the framed work almost stunned me. I found myself thinking, "Did I actually do this?". "Lamentations" so clearly surpassed anything I had ever done before that I found myself almost in disbelief that the work was indeed mine. Some 18 months later I have re-edited the piece... cropped it down even further by elliminating not only "weaker" pieces... but also individual collages that simply did not add to the suite as a whole.


A Defense of Collage... and other rambings

"Sonnet for Emily" 2003

"He draws his scraps and fragments
one by one;
And scanned them with a fixed
and serious look
Of idle contemplation..."

-William Wordsworth

"Beauty is always dying, he sighs..."

-Charles Simic

"She dwells with beauty--
Beauty that must die;
And joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding Adieu..."

-John Keats

"Elam, Nineveh, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their existence. But France, England, Russia...these too would be beautiful names...And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join those of Menander are no longer inconceivable--they are in the newspapers."

-Paul Valery, "La Crisis de l'espirit"

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images...

"He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying...

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins..."

T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"

"To see a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower
to hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour..."

-William Blake

"I loved maudlin pictures, the painted panes over doors, stage sets, the backdrops of mountebanks, old inn signs, popular prints, antiquated literature, church Latin, erotic books innocent of all spelling, the novels of our grandfathers, fairytales, children's storybooks, old operas, inane refrains, and artless rhythms."


"Only trust the fragments."

-Donald Barthleme

"For good or ill... these fragments piled up here by time are all that I am."

-Jorge Luis Borges

Anytime I am cornered and obliged to offer up something by way of an artist's statement, I immediately put forward one of these favorite quotes. After all, it must be admitted that I have been just as much influenced by books and reading (and especially by poetry), as I have by art. As anyone who knows me will attest, I am an incurable bibliophile. The walls of my modest home are lined with book shelves. To the eternal chagrin of my wife, piles of books tower and teeter in nearly every room, frequently spilling out onto the floor. Undoubtedly it has been this obsession with books that has been the biggest influence in my attraction to collage. I accept that collage is an art of fragments... an art that seeks to see the world in trivialities...or in "a grain of sand". Frequently, these fragments are drawn from books... both literally, as the very material from which I construct my art, and as a source of inspiration.
Like Jorge Luis Borges, I might also say, "Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many."

Recently a question was put forth to me, challenging the continued relevancy of collage. "Was not collage," it was asked, "with its collected bits and pieces of bric-a-brac, an inherently sentimental medium?" Originally educated/trained as a painter, I often had similar doubts about the relevancy of such a dated, slow medium as painting, in this age of computers, film and PhotoShop. Still, I don't believe that either painting or collage can be quite so easily pigeon-holed as to being no more than media of the past.

The very nature of collage/assemblage constructed...as it were... from fragments of diverse imagery and materials, is open to a plethora of interpretations: It might stand as a metaphor for the speed of our modern world and the impossibility of a single linear narrative. It might stand for the fragmentation and collapse of our society... our culture... of art itself. There is something of a spiritual quality to collage in the manner in which it is an art that sifts through the debris and strives to make something from nothing... to give form to the wreckage and refuse of life. At the same time, it is an art that accepts the inevitability of fragmentation... of mortality... or of rebirth... physical or spiritual (through recycling?). Still further, collage may play with anachronism: the absurd combination of the new and the old. It might represent the urge to preserve the past as a diary or reliquary of memory. It might reveal through its very form the cacophony of our world. It might even speak of other art forms: of toys, books, furniture, the theater, architecture, and more. All of this I am aware of and intrigued by.

At the same time, it must be admitted that there is a cultural history with assemblage and collage. Collage and assemblage seem to have been perfectly tailored to the United States. America, after all, is a country of melded and recycled cultures, constructed of fragments of older beliefs, systems, and values. What could be a better metaphor of this than an art equally composed of merged fragments? Beyond this , there's an argument to be made for creating art from one's native resources. Thus, the Italians frequently use the marble quarried in Carrara , while the Germans prefer wood cut from the Black Forest. The United States is a country overflowing with refuse... the remains of our consumer culture... the idyllic(?) resource for the American artist. Can we imagine the art of Robert Rauschenberg as having been born from any other culture than that of urban America? It also must be admitted that the methods of the collage/assemblage artist have much more to do with American culture (the work of artisans and craftsmen: woodworkers, carpenters, builders, limners, engineers, and architects) than the virtuoso fine art of oil or fresco painting or sculpted marble. I think here of the still-life paintings of William Harnett and John Peto who fetishized the mundane in a manner that stands as the spiritual precursors to Joseph Cornell, H.C. Westerman and Robert Rauschenberg.

Undoubtedly, it must be admitted that certain approaches to collage... those which consciously utilize the aged, weathered materials and precious objects, flirt with sentimentality... yet is not collage by its very nature... in the manner in which fragments of refuse... of abandoned, discarded, and cast off images, materials and objects are miraculously transformed into new works of great beauty and poetic resonance, a "romantic" endeavor? Yes, there's a danger of "sentimentality" in collage, but there's always a "danger" in art. For the big painter, there's a danger of pretentiousness. For the artists utilizing the latest technologies and images, there's the danger that merely a few short years later such works will be no more than embarrassing "period pieces."

Personally, I find that collage and assemblage allow me to explore a vast range of interests. Yes, I have to admit that there is something of an attempt to capture memory... the past... history in my work. There is also something of a meditation upon the transitory nature of life... of mortality. But there is a lot more, as well. I must declare that my own work in the genre draws inspiration from numerous other sources. The structure of my assemblage works often owe quite a bit to architecture and furniture. I have long studied buildings (especially the ecclesiastical) from various eras: Gothic , Romanesque , Renaissance and Victorian. My works also owe something to medieval reliquaries and icons. I also draw inspiration from the structures and the mood or atmosphere of music... I am always imagining Bach's "geometry" given concrete form. In theme and concept my assemblage and collage owes as much (if not more) to books and literature as it does to anything else. Like the surrealist poets ,T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Marinetti, I often draw together fragments of language and text. In fact I am profoundly fascinated by the possibilities of an art form which combines the visual arts with text or paint. If there is a predecessor to collage in my mind, it is clearly the Gothic cathedral in which so many arts were wed in the service of a single (spiritual) goal.

Just recently I was at a conference given to public art school teachers which dealt with the issue of collage. I was surprised that a good number of art teachers started to ask questions about the legality and even the ethics of using someone else's images. Hadn't they ever seen Kurt Schwitter's or Joseph Cornell's work, I wondered. Collage, it seems to me, is not a medium trapped in the past, but rather it is at the edge of current technologies (Photoshop editing, music "sampling") as well as current legal/ethical controversies (for better or worse) involving "intellectual property".

There's a truly intriguing , beautifully written (and very slim) book by the contemporary poet, Charles Simic, entitled, "Dimestore Alchemy." The book is a elegant series of meditations upon the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Simic sites as inspiring his own approach to poetry. In one meditation, Simic suggests that the use of collage/assemblage/ montage... fragments of pre-existing imagery... might just be THE most important innovation of modern art. Hermann Hesse's "Glass Bead Game" prophesied a future in which new art, as once created, would cease to exist. Instead, what we would have was a "game" of reassembling fragments from the past. Of course, this "game," I would argue, has led to some of the most beautiful "original" art of the last century.