How we come back

How we come back

Sketches of the Musee d’Orsay, August 2017

As a child, you can get close enough that the strokes become strong and dissolve the image. This close, you don’t need much imagination. You see plants, you see their reflections. You quickly forget the room around you.

I remember that feeling of trying to tie it all together with what I had learnt of lilies. I had studied them at the local horticultural hall in preparation, yet the way the canvas seemed to expand made it difficult to understand. There was no horizon, no sky, nothing else beyond the plants in their water.  Just atmosphere and my breath, slow against the blues.


This isn’t a complicated tale, except for the way it layers. There’s a particular way the mind, transcribing moments, sets them down as translucent sheets atop one another. Or, to picture it differently, if each journey is a canvas, each canvas is disguised by the brush that traces its surface. The composition of any memory is a painterly mix. It’s when you look back, trying to separate the coats, that the edges of time begin to curl, and the layers begin to separate strangely. I’ve spent hours trying to squint into this space, to unfurl the beginning of my journey. Things come in and out of focus quickly. They’re all just impressions. It feels like an impossible thing but I keep trying to hold it all at once.

Sometimes it feels simplest to start historically. But with whose history? I could always start by tracing my own footsteps, to go back to that surreal age when nothing bad had ever happened to me. What do I remember? An art teacher with a kind face. A mother who encouraged. The hues of the summer sun setting in the south, seen through a slit in the purple patterned curtains, when I was supposed to be sleeping.

One moment in particular comes to mind: my small body close to the wooden floor, the space gold-tinted, perhaps by the sun, or perhaps by the light of a lamp on the desk to the left. Newspapers spread, open across the floor, with large, thick rectangles of white paper arranged on top of them. Hunched over one of them, my whole arm sweeping across the surface, I painted in thick, bold strokes. Those paintings are still in the attic, somewhere, curling under the weight of the golden grasses, dense sunsets, and the deep blue shadows I had understood from my copy of the History of Impressionism.

That’s the first reminder that my history isn’t all mine. In 1986, three years before I was born, a building on the banks of the Seine was reincarnated. Actually, the process was slower and undoubtedly more tumultuous than those words make it seem.  Many were not convinced by the unnatural transformation of the Beaux-Arts building, finding something awkward in the way the new interior filled in the precious voids, disguising the structural strength.

When I arrived here for the first time, and stood at the bottom of the spectacular space that is known as one of Paris's great 19th-century rooms, I wasn’t aware of the architectural criticisms, the historic correctness. At twelve years old, in Europe for the first time, I found my eyes catching on the sparkling edges of things. I must have walked around on tiptoes, trying to get to the centre of things. Mostly, I found, you can imagine what things might have been. A paving stone here, an entry there, the great cavernous belly now filled with bodies - bronze, stone and the living - instead of the engines of  steam trains. And at night, an image history can’t shake: the glowing face of the great clock telling you the time.

On the flanks, in this new arrangement, there are hidden spaces that I now think only the curiosity of a child opens, galleries you couldn’t hope to find without a map. I remember getting lost, the delight of it. Even now, this is the most visceral of memories. Not the open space, but being held captive against the darkened corners under the soaring barrel-vaulted glass ceiling: vivid and atmospheric, shot through with light.


There’s another history here, too, one which starts more than a century earlier in 1840, and slightly North of where we are now, on Rue Laffitte in the 9th Arrondissement. The young girl kneeling over her painting could have told you that, and how the story would take us further North still, to Le Havre, then to Africa, London, and Vétheuil.  And then, finally, to a place first seen while looking out the window of a train, and later immortalised in the Nympheas Bleus. Giverny.

How can we measure such a journey? As a station becomes a gallery, a child becomes an adult, a painter a memory of his strokes - by the movement, the motion, the way we travel?


The second time I stood beneath that roof I was with friends, but I found myself alone, standing slightly to the left of his Gare St. Lazare:  an enclosed urban interior, but somehow also a scene of travel, an echo of each engine’s movement across a landscape. The image itself seemed to be formed from steam, those thick wet strokes, the space of the canvas erupting, the illusion of depth. And the light seeping out.

In painting, a traditional approach is to plan the work section by section, allowing each to dry - often a process requiring days at a time - before continuing with the next. The reworking of an existing but neglected building is similar. There is a lot of waiting and you can’t be sure how it will turn out, despite your plans. That process requires disassociation, pocketed emotion. You cannot paint what you see - not if what if you see is how you feel, and how you feel is where you have been. To paint en plein air, in the poppy field or the station, you must be there, really there. Sometimes I think there must be a way of folding physical space with the feeling of being. This story is the closest I can get to some kind of evidence.


I’ve been here three times now. One visit for each of my journeys to France, one for each decade - although they don’t quite distribute that way. I never remember lining up, the tickets or people. Just the proximity - my flesh against the bronzed figures in the lofted volume. And always, the light above.

They might have told you otherwise but I think maybe this is how we might best measure a journey - the ways we understand light differently. Each history, then, as a journey, a travelling of light. And when they intersect, well, I still can’t tell you which is which, or where one stops and the other begins. Sometimes I’m not so sure they’re different at all.

Wait, I remember it now. I remember being outside, waiting, the rain on my leather shoes - it must have been the second time. Barricades stopping the crowd from pouring into the traffic, the unadorned stone facade darkening in the dampness. The way everything smelt damp, as if the water had released an entire history from the cobbles. Later I crossed the bridge and turned back to see the clock face and, there, between me and it, l’arc en ciel. Sometimes there is magic in reality. Sometimes time has a way of configuring things.


The last time I went it was early on a winter evening, and darkness had already fallen. And it was the quiet, stolen hour of the Parisians who, after work, wander the gallery as a kind of urban meditation. When I arrived I found the space resonating, the notes from a pianist outside filling up the chambers.

I left after an hour or two, crossed the river and walked to the north west, to the canals. There, I ate in the dining room of family. In the room with two doors and one window, we were a family with two countries and two languages. Outside the window was a narrow balcony overlooking the street. As I ate, all I could think of were distances and journeys.

Later that night, on the balcony of my own studio in the South, I realised it was never a building I was supposed to love. But I could not extract it from what it means to be a painter, an architect, a citizen, or, now from what it means to be myself. Like Monet I find myself coming back to "things that are impossible to do…”. I am trying to tie these threads together.


In the gift shop before we left, my parents gifted me some francs. With them, I purchased a calendar. It was a very small one, and when we got home at the end of June I stood it in the corner of my desk. I waited patiently for January and then, at the end of each month for a year, I would flip it over to reveal a different painting. I bought it thinking it would be a way to grow up, that I could plan my life by it. My birth month of May was the Nympheas. I thought it meant I was limitless.


Sometimes, we cannot extract ourselves from the journey of light. This is how we come back.

Penumbral Reflections

In 2018, I attended the opening of PAC Studios exhibition Penumbral reflections. The following three poems, entitled Penumbra I, Penumbra II and Penumbra III came out of the experience.


Penumbra I

Consider first architecture as a penumbra;
as an act that casts a deep shadow upon art.

Consider then architecture a disciplinary experiment;
a blurring of simulated and physical.

Consider next the tools of projection;
the grid, the light, the curved surface reflecting.

Consider now the murky relationship
between translation and building.

Consider later a lucent procession,
or James Turrells articulate volumes of whiteness.

Consider architecture as the partial shadow that occurs between umbra,
the darkest part of a shadow, and its full illumination.

the murky relationship between translation and building - Robin Evans

James Turrell,  Arfum .

James Turrell, Arfum.


 Penumbra II

In it we see:
James Turrell's Arfum;
his sketches for it;
the night sky;
the insides of our eyes;
quick drawings we did in charcoal at school;
the magic near-impossibility of a total penumbral lunar eclipse;
that fine passage through the penumbral cone that the moon must make, not touching the umbra.

Penumbra III

In darkness, all the possibilities present themselves and become entangled.

We are immersed.

As lines become planes we to watch ourselves tip into three-dimensionality.

The room levitates.

The horizon shifts.

We are on a plane. We are rendered in continual movement.

This is drawing, you say quietly. This is all drawing.


101 Spring Street, Donald Jud d | Photograph by Elizabeth Felicella

101 Spring Street, Donald Judd | Photograph by Elizabeth Felicella

The given circumstances were very simple: the floors must be open; the right angle of windows on each floor must not be interrupted; and any changes must be compatible.
— Donald Judd

It was 1968 when Judd purchased a 5-storey cast-iron building at 101 Spring Street. Over the next 25 years, he would renovate the spaces floor by floor, adeptly, with the precision and curatorial eye so evident in his art, and with an immense understanding of the hand of the architect, Nicholas Whyte, who had laid the bones of the building.

Into the vast open spaces he placed objects of personal value, eclectic but also purposefully considered for the space: a 19th-century wood-burner, Aalvar Alto chairs, bend steel sculptures by his own hand. He replaced the windows with double glazing, to protect the art against the dangers of condensation, removed sprinklers, lined shelves with jars and plates as if the everyday utensils were themselves part of some larger art. 

He reflected on the process and place in a 1989 essay entitled, simply, 101 Spring Street, which was reproduced here in Places Journal in 2011. The sincerity and soft hand with which he discusses the project are revealing: the space and materials, rather than his actions upon them, are what give the project value. He does not cry out for attention, but seeks, continuously, to do right by the aesthetic, material and spatial practices available to him. 

As one of the first artists to set up in SoHo in 1968, Judd looked beyond the building, and became deeply involved in the urban politics of the place: co-founding Artists Against the Expressway, actively promoting the Artist-in-Residence destination which changed zoning laws to allow conversion of industrial spaces into live-work studios, and offering up the ground floor of 101 Spring Street for exhibitions, meetings, and performances.

All the energy and care that he projected outwards from his space at 101 Spring St has, some 20 years after his death, been quietly allowed to pour back in. In 2013 his children, Rainer and Flavin, completed their reworking of the building, with an even lighter hand than their father, to bring the building up to code and, in doing so, make it publicly accessible. 

The story of 101 Spring Street revolves around the lives of spaces, the interrelations of art, architecture, and the everyday. It is in the silences, the stillnesses of these great spaces that the value lies. The space is layered, and rich with occupation. But is also reveals something deeper about space, about the permanence of experience, and of how we might be able to capture aspects of a life, such as Judd's, in the way a space is formed, and filled up, and finally, in how it is allowed to breathe.

Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.
— Donald Judd


Charlotte Perriand in her studio in Montparnasse, ca. 1934.   Photo: Pierre Jeanneret, © 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich.

Charlotte Perriand in her studio in Montparnasse, ca. 1934.
Photo: Pierre Jeanneret, © 2010, ProLitteris, Zurich.

The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living.
— Charlotte Perriand, 'L'Art de Vivre', 1981


There aren't many people who seem better placed to discuss an art of living than Charlotte Perriand, whose life of 96 years had such breadth, impact and inspiration that it manages to continue to sing even now, 15 years after its end.

It is somewhat of a frustration, then, that not only her work, but her character are continually positioned alongside the demanding and prestigious Le Corbusier. For me, Charlotte is more than an adjacency to Corb, or a 'woman designer'. She is a muse: a strong mind with an immense sense of self, a body with which she engages in rich experiences of the world, a soul with an uninhibited capacity for creative production. Historian Mary McLeod takes up Perriand's case in her stellar essay Perriand: Reflections of feminism and modern architecture, published in the Harvard Design Magazine (2004), where she calls for histories of modern architecture, such as those that include Perriand, to look beyond reductive comparisons, and to seek to understand the richness and complexities of how gender is constructed and challenged through design practices. 

Charlotte Perriand was woman of boundless design fluency, she was a master of translation, tirelessly working to transform her experiences of the world, through design, into visions of contemporary living. Architect, artist, traveler, designer, and urban planner, Perriand moved across scales, using her travel photography as a form of designerly-research, informing her projects. Her curiosity in the world around her seems to have been not only insatiable but also very precise: the cropping of her images revealing not only what she saw, but how she saw it. 

Looking at Jeanneret's portrait of Perriand, above, I find myself looking with her, having first taken in her bare shoulders, the pearls, the way she has scooped her hair from her neck. Together we look beyond the flowers, beyond the deep reveals of the window, towards what in the blur we can only imagine is some kind of horizon. If there is an art of living it must start, I think, with an art of seeing, which, in turn, is linked with an almost unnerving intimacy to an art of being. I like to think that these are secrets that Charlotte knew too, and that they gave her a power to transcend the reductive assumptions of gender, and to quietly get on with what was important to her in making a life. 


Perriand in her Studio

Perriand in her Studio


Hiroshi Sugimoto | Seascape:   Aegean Sea, Pillon,  1990.         via   c4gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto | Seascape:   Aegean Sea, Pillon, 1990.        
via c4gallery


The minute gears mutely whir. To put your ear
Against it is to put your ear inside it.
It does not tick. It isn’t a heart.
It has no pulse. It isn’t a clock or a wrist.
Scrutiny can coax no secret from it.
There is no hearse with one flat tire
In endless circuit, headlights dispersed
In fog like sunset behind a veil.
A paving stone extends a grave through iron
Gate to a door at home. To knock
Your hand against it puts your hand inside it,
As in a cloud at night the pale moon
Gathers itself outside itself its own light
And glows dimly behind the dust that outshines it.
It has no heat. It isn’t the sun.
It isn’t uncertain. It does not think
About the sun or the distant balls of dirt
And ice that circle closer to the star
With each circuit done. Comet tails
Darkly flowing back as the horse leaps
Forward, straining against the catafalque
All November, predict disaster as grammar
Predicts breath, the need to breathe, or the mind
Must rest. It is its own edgeless disaster.
It is there as if it were not there. Vague
Repetitions haunt the circumference.
To walk out the door is to place your foot
On a stone worn away by another’s foot.
Rumor has it that the sun sends heat in form
Of sight. Watch the ice as it melts
For proof: water pools, darkens on a stone,
Becomes as a shadow on a stone,
A horse’s hoof as it rises off a stone,
Except it rises forever, and the shadow is gone.
Such processes turn the minute gears.
It is not a note in the margin. The margin is
Covered with snow. When the winter fog
Disperses a black horse stands on ice
And cannot move. It is as if a breathless song
Hovered like a veil in the air. The black
Horse’s breath spirals upward like smoke.
Pyre-smoke like a thumbprint as a cloud.
Similes sing mutely in it, likening the unlike.
Mourners name the peace they find and walk
Away. To step into it is to find it missing.
The footprints are before you as you go.
— Dan Beachy-Quick

Yet another of those beautiful seredipitous moments this morning when, having read and loved and re-discovered this poem three times, I read the accompanying interview at How a Poem Happens. Only then did I discover that 'the whole poem arose out of reading Levinas' - Levinas, of course, being one of the key foundational thinkers in my thesis.

Moreover, the poem seems intricately related to one of my own entitiled Palms which is long  wanting a revision; or perhaps a sister poem.

All that is to say: this poem's really got me. 


James Casebere: La Alberca, 2005/2006 Photo: courtesy Goetz Collection 

James Casebere: La Alberca, 2005/2006
Photo: courtesy Goetz Collection 


Those blessed structures plot and rhyme-
why are they no help to me now
i want to make
something imagined not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything i write
With the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot
lurid rapid garish grouped
heightened from life
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts.
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
— Robert Lowell

A painter's vision is not a lens. Except, in the case of James Casebere, when it is.
Following this, it is relatively easy to say that his images are heightened from life, yet paralysed by fact. His images trounce the real, they are contaminated by fiction. Is it photo, is it painting? The illumination characteristic of his work is at its most ambiguous in La Alberca. Here, the combination of the abstract, shallow reflective pool of water melts all solidity, returning the physical to its liquid state. The source of illumination is not clear - we are contained in the gestural space.

To talk about La Alberca with Lowell's Epilogue hovering at the front of my mind directs me to a correlation between Vermeer and Casebere. I note that Vermeer's work nearly always contains a window - an explicit announcement of the how and why light enters. Casebere, conversely, is not concerned with the entry of light, but with the what the illumination allows.

But even this distinction is not as clear as it might appear. Both artists obsess over how light returns the eye to reality - both artists tremble to caress the light. For Vermeer, painting the everyday Milkmaid was a subject of both stark reality and highly institutionalised myth. His illumination works to bring together these two isolated views. For Casebere the same is true - light folds together the reality of space and the myth that physical material alone is form giving.

Vermeer, The Milkmaid

Vermeer, The Milkmaid

Casebere, The Flooded Hallway

Casebere, The Flooded Hallway