Five Ways of Considering Time
By Katherine Lee and Kevin D. Ramsey
Five alumni artists discuss the ways in which they think of time, use time, and incorporate time into their works. Tanaz Eshaghian ’92, Nadia Ghent ’75, Judy Glantzman ’74, Lizzie B. Hutton ’91, and Vincent Katz ’78 describe the ways in which time is an essential part of the creative process.
Tanaz Eshaghian looks through the lens of time at her own life and acknowledges that her narrative is not conventional. “I was not your average Trinity student,” Eshaghian says. “As a mother, looking at how my children are growing up, I see the difference. My kids are in first grade and pre-kindergarten at this nice school in Manhattan, and sometimes I’ll say to them: ‘Your mother was just learning English around your age.’”
Eshaghian left Iran at the age of six with her mother. “When we first left Iran, we went to Europe because Iran and the US had cut off relations and there were no flights to America,” she recalls. “We went to Italy, and then we went to Spain, and then Canada. All the while, we were trying to get a visa to go to the States.” Because of the frequent moves, Eshaghian repeated first grade in three countries. “I went to first grade in Iran, and then I went to first grade in Spain, and then I went to first grade in Canada,” she says, noting that it didn’t bother her at the time because she was simply going with the flow. “My mom likes to tell this story about when we were in Madrid. She came home one day and I was playing with this other little Iranian kid who was staying in this same hotel complex, where everyone was waiting for their visas. We were playing ‘consulate and person requesting a visa,’ and I refused to give him a visa. I would say, ‘No, I’m sorry, your paperwork doesn’t add up. You can go back to Iran and be fine.’”
But the visas did eventually come through, and once the family arrived in the United States, Eshaghian acclimated quickly. “When we finally got to the US, we arrived in Los Angeles—but soon we moved to New York,” she says. “The school in New York put me in second grade for three months, and then moved me to third grade. It was an interesting time. I remember watching The Smurfs the whole weekend straight and picking up some English right away. Watching cartoons is a great way to learn English.
“So that was my experience as a little seven-year-old,” she says, laughing. “Whereas my children are enjoying the standard New York upbringing with play dates, and activities, and school.”
Working now as a documentary filmmaker, Eshaghian is fascinated by her inability to remember much of her own early childhood.
“I don’t recall much of Tehran from my childhood,” Eshaghian says. “It’s a little bit strange. I don’t recall much of anything, and it’s always haunted me. I have some vague memories of a staircase, my house, sort of a memory of my uncle’s home, their dog. That’s about it. I don’t honestly know what’s a memory of my time in Iran and what’s made up, drawn from things I’ve heard or been told.”
Ten years ago, she traveled back to Tehran as an adult—her first time in the country in twenty-five years. “It felt like the first time being there,” she says. “Going to a country where you speak the language and know the culture, but you have no idea where you are—it’s actually amazing. I realized I had this ability to navigate through the place while also seeing things from an outsider’s perspective. It was a very multilayered, satisfying experience. I loved it, even though it played strange games with my notion of time and memory.”
Love Iranian-American Style was a project she started when she was in her mid-twenties, when her well-intentioned but anxious family began to push the idea of an arranged marriage. “My first film was about my Iranian family trying to marry me off in a traditional way after I’d grown up in Manhattan, gone to Trinity, and graduated from Brown,” she says. “My attitude was, ‘You’re kidding, right? How am I supposed to now be that woman?’”
The film explored her thoughts about her own Iranian-American identity as a young woman and what it meant to grow up immersed in western culture while surrounded and supported by her loving, Iranian family. The film also featured interviews with former boyfriends, in which she asked the men why their relationships hadn’t worked out. For Eshaghian, understanding her divided identity required a deep dive—not into her own memory, but into the memories and cultural understandings of the people who surround and support her. And on that journey, she discovered, too, that her “ability to navigate through the place while also seeing things from an outsider’s perspective” was what made her such an effective documentarian.
The inspiration for Eshaghian’s film Love Crimes in Kabul came from considering the effects of cultural expectations of women in even more fraught circumstances. Eshaghian began the project after reading several articles about the practice of prosecuting young women for “moral crimes.”
“In Afghanistan there are very, very strict cultural laws that lead to an ingrained understanding of how you behave...it’s very traditional,” she says. “As a woman in Afghanistan, you usually marry at a young age, and you marry the person your family chooses for you. These women who have committed ‘moral crimes’ have transgressed that tradition. For example, this woman liked her neighbor. She thought her neighbor was cute and so she pursued him, creating a moral mess.
“The perception of transgression is clearly tied to gender,” she says. “When I talked to the women and heard their stories, I thought, ‘This is fascinating, these women are rebels.’ The idea perpetuated in western media of the poor little Afghan victim was not accurate.”
Shaping the narratives for western audiences required a balance of practical timing and an understanding of emotional narrative. When she went to the women’s prison in Kabul for filming, Eshaghian knew she wanted to talk to women who were still awaiting trial. “I’m capturing a particular story in their lives,” she says, “so as the women move on to the next chapter, it becomes a different story. I can tell where the story I’m telling ends and where the new one’s going to begin.”
Other challenges involved finding women who were willing to talk to her, or holding her emotions in check when witnessing injustice. But at least one story had a gratifying end. “I filmed the girl who was in prison for having relations with her male neighbor outside of marriage,” she says. “Both she and the neighbor went to trial, and they decide to get married. The judge says, ‘Since you’re going to get married, you’re cleaning up this mess you’ve created. You’re sentenced to time already served. Get out of here. Go home, start a family.’ So then, they’re starting a family, a new beginning. My part in the story is over.”
From her perspective, Eshaghian believes her role is to craft a narrative that will allow viewers to invest in her subjects’ lives. Even with nonfiction, there are storytelling techniques that can help. “Sometimes there are ways of changing the order of time in a documentary, little things that you can do to help come to an emotional truth of the story even if it’s not the exact order of when things occurred,” Eshaghian says. “You can reverse sequences, come back to earlier interviews, because it helps the audience make sense of who this person is, what their story is. The narrative is emotional and so I’m always most focused on what makes sense emotionally and how to best communicate that to the audience. To me, that’s the point of doing films,” she says. “It’s an emotional medium. It’s not so much about information...identifying what happened first and second...as it is about exploring the life of the subject.”
One of the highlights of Nadia Ghent’s career as a violinist was a performance of the John Cage piece Atlas Eclipticalis at Carnegie Hall in 1992. “Cage died just a couple of weeks after the performance,” she recalls. “The performance was of a large-scale piece called Eclipticalis, based on star charts and musical notes corresponding to stars.”
Because of the composition’s unconventional structure, Ghent says the conductor’s role was to direct the timing and unfolding of the piece. The musicians themselves were held in anticipation of how long the entire performance would be.
“The performance was at Carnegie Hall,” Ghent says, “and everybody who plays at Carnegie knows that there’s a certain time limit on anything that happens on the stage that is enforced by the stagehand union. A performance that goes even one second over the allotted amount of time gets hit with huge fines. So all of us were talking about whether it was going to go overtime and wondering if the stagehands would come out and make the performance stop because there was some speculation about the performance going on for six hours.”
Ghent had her own concerns regarding the length of the performance. “The other issue was that, at the time, I was pregnant with my first child and I was really worried about being able to get to the bathroom,” she says. “When one is pregnant, not being able to get to the bathroom can be a constant concern. I was wondering, ‘Can I sneak off the stage? Will anybody notice?’ I mean, that was delusional. Of course people would notice.” She laughs. The performance ended up running just over two-and-a-half hours and, she says, “I remained on the stage the entire time.
“When you play a Beethoven symphony, you know that in a certain number of minutes you’re coming to the double bar and the performance will be over,” Ghent says. “It might go a little slower, it might go faster, but there’s an end to it that’s definite. With Eclipticalis, there was no definite ending to it until it finally did end. It was an incredible experience to be in the middle of that soundscape. It was a timeless experience, because nobody knew when it was going to end, so you had to give yourself over to that sense of nonlinear time.”
Over twenty-six years, Ghent’s love of music endured but required flexibility, resilience, and her own evolution. When her husband accepted a job in Southern California, she was willing to make the move, but was confronted by the realities for a freelance musician: opportunities were fewer and farther between, and the arts culture was unequal to that of New York City. Over time, she found that being around young people as they discovered their own love for music was incredibly fulfilling and she became a music teacher. But then, the family had to move again.
“My husband got a very good job offer back here in Rochester, so we packed everything up and moved,” Ghent says. “Unfortunately, we moved at a very bad time for my children. My daughter was in the middle of high school, and the timing for her, at that point, was just awful, so I really had to put aside a lot of my career—everything that I’d built up as a teacher and as a violinist—and really spent a lot of time helping her. I felt she needed me to be present. Just to be there in case she needed to yell at me or something.”
That was when Ghent found writing. “I realized that I had lost a lot by leaving behind parts of my life,” she says. “I was just sort of sitting here waiting. And I started writing and reading. I took a couple of very interesting online poetry classes. At that time, these massive open online courses were getting really popular, and there was one out of the University of Pennsylvania that caught my eye: Modern and Contemporary Poetry—including poetry and writing by John Cage.”
Ghent instantly felt that she was on familiar territory, even while giving herself over to something completely new. “I had never known that he actually wrote language, words, you know. I only knew him as a composer of music,” she says. “So I really started to experience the whole contemporary music scene from a totally different angle, from the angle of the poets and the writers who were writing, at that same time, and Cage, who sort of bridged both.”
The meeting of old and new jostled her memory and reignited her passion for creative expression. “Studying poetry drew me back to what I had left behind so many years ago,” she says, “and I started writing a lot more and refocusing my intentions.”
Ghent’s current writing project tackles the idea of her various dislocations in both the physical moves and abrupt changes throughout her professional and creative career. “I had never lived anywhere but New York before we moved to California, so that was my first dislocation, and then we did it again and relocated here to Rochester, another dislocation,” she says. “I began thinking about all the places that were significant to me in New York and all the different experiences that I had in different neighborhoods and how that shaped me as a person.”
The project involves physically revisiting those spaces and thinking about those times in her life. “Every month, I’m revisiting an old house or building where I used to live,” she says, “or some significant place where my body had been for a significant amount of time. Then I write about that place, both as a memory, what I remember, and how it exists now in present time. The intersection between what’s remembered and what’s real—that’s what I experience now.”
The intersection between memory and the way she perceives those places in the present can feel abstract and confusing. “In many regards, the remembered place has more presence in my life and my memory than the place as it exists after time has passed,” she says. “There are good memories of a place that one has lived, but even the bad memories give sort of a burnished quality to things. So physically visiting all these places from my past has been very disorienting, because I feel as though I don’t really belong there anymore. Yet so much of my history has been in a place that’s no longer part of my current existence.”
But Ghent finds that articulating some of that feeling has generated useful and profound realizations. “I want to break apart the cliché of ‘You can’t go home again,’” she says. “You know, we can hop from place to place, or career to career, or identity to identity, but there’s something that continues and links it all together—and that’s the ability to look back on what has been left and honor it.
“It’s a way of having continuity with things that have passed,” she continues. “I’ve left behind certain parts of my life. My children are grown up, and they’re leaving to begin their own adult lives. So there’s definitely a sense of wistfulness, going back to those places where they were young. But revisiting those places now feels like retaining what had been very precious and very important and honoring those memories.”
Acknowledging the memories also gives Ghent permission not to be afraid to live in the present as a writer. “Looking back gives me something to capture in language now,” she says. “It’s sort of a mining operation for the present existence here, and in a way that makes those histories less fraught. There’s a lot of negative qualities associated with uprooting and dislocating and leaving, but acknowledging the meaningful within those memories gives more weight to my experience...more than simply thinking ‘I had to end it and do something else.’”
From her time as a violinist, Ghent confirms that a significant part of a musician’s role is in translating classical music for the ears of contemporary audiences. “Even the tonality of music has shifted over time,” she says, “so the note that we call A used to be at a different pitch just 150 years ago. And rhythm was not standardized until around Beethoven’s time. Some of the metronome markings that he would notate in his scores are practically impossible to reproduce. In fact, the metronomes that were produced then didn’t seem to be completely accurate—or perhaps the difficulty was that Beethoven couldn’t hear it.” According to Ghent, the modern instruments used now sound very different from instruments in earlier centuries. “That’s part of the way that music needs to evolve so that we can bring that composer into the present time across a span of centuries.
“Again, this brings me back a bit to John Cage and his idea of using the star charts. In a way, it’s the same concept as the light from stars,” she says excitedly. “The light we see has been traveling for millions and millions of years, and throughout that time so much has changed. Civilizations have changed. But the light is still coming to us, and we see it in our present time—something that began its journey such a long time ago.”
She beams. “In music we’re doing something similar. We’re bringing a language from a different era to our audiences in their language.” How those audiences receive it is just as sublime. “I was pregnant when I was performing that John Cage piece from the star charts,” she says, “and that child is now in the astrophysics PhD program at Berkeley! I tell myself it’s because of early exposure to the whole idea.”
Astrophysics, John Glenn, and my Father by Nadia Ghent ’75
In the city, the stars disappear. Light traveling from the most distant galaxies becomes diffuse, like dust, a pale light scattered across the evening sky. He asks me what I see when I look up, between the Empire State Building and the rooftops, and I tip my head back so far that I think I will fall backwards onto the pavement. He steadies me, holds my hand. He asks how long I think it’s been since that light first started its journey to our eyes, when it was that the starlight began to shine, and I can think of only one thing: how long will he be my father before time runs out? Nothing is containable.
The ancient Greeks looked out into the darkness of their sky that reflected back what they imagined they would see: a dog, a dipper, a bear, a lyre. I see a large man outlined in the light, I see only my father looking for the stars. To the Greeks, that broad stretch of pale dusty luster stretching across the night sky looked like milk spilling from the center of the universe. Once spilled, never contained. And then the Via Galactea becomes our Milky Way, the word “galaxy” traveling through time like that light, thousands or millions of years of distance and language and space. On Saturdays, he takes me to the Hayden Planetarium and brings me home late, when it is already night.
I am anxious about time, and how often he is late. He is always late. Light traveling from the most distant galaxy has been in motion for 14 billion years. Each week I travel between my mother and my father, one eclipsing the other, each week navigating this distance that only lengthens over time. How much time will pass before I know that he is anxious too, the way these few hours of fatherhood will slip through his fingers, hours collapsing into minutes into seconds that are linear, in motion, irretrievable. Each week, I watch for him from the window, waiting. In divorce, there is a custodial parent and a non-custodial parent, and I think of custodians and their brooms sweeping away our broken family.
At the planetarium, we watch the sky show, the illuminated points of light above my head that stand in for stars. Some of the lights don’t work, and there are cracks in the plaster of the domed ceiling. I know the outlines around the constellations are not real, that when he whispers in the dark to me that he would like to be John Glenn, it is not real, that words like milk and galaxy and father will change and soon mean something else, that time will pass and I will not remember what he meant.
He wants to be John Glenn, the hero-astronaut circling the Earth three times in 1962, his plunge on fire back to the sea, the way the spacecraft bobbed on top of the waves. He was brave, he was rescued, he didn’t die. His wife and children and everybody loved him. It was because of friction, my father explains to me, the force of the atmosphere against the heat shield, how hot it must have been inside. What did John Glenn see outside the capsule window before descending? Did he see an infinite dark beyond the blue, how light throbbed towards him and then receded on every orbit? He saw what’s out there, my father says, imagine what he saw, and he has tacked a picture of John Glenn he’s torn out from Life Magazine on his apartment wall. In his apartment there is John Glenn’s picture, a bed, a chair, a plate, a fork, a knife. Imagine what’s out there, he says.
You can be a scientist, he tells me, girls can be astronomers too. You’ll be the Madame Curie of the telescope! You’ll go to the moon in the year 2000! Women will be astronauts and walk on Mars! But I can’t see in the dark, there are cracks in the ceiling, the outlines are not real. When the lights come up, he’s gone.
What is the nature of bodies long in orbit? Even light changes as it travels, and words change meaning over time. Milk becomes galaxy, father becomes absence. Spilled becomes uncontainable scattering across the evening sky. In the city, it’s too bright to see the stars. Imagine them, he says, as we look up beyond the rooftops, as his hand slips out of mine, imagine that you can. They’re there, he says, they’re always there.
Judy Glantzman is a visual artist working in painting, drawing, and sculpture. Her work often references time in its process, in the “incidental,” in personal and political history, and in the interplay between viewer and artist. Recently, Glantzman was the Dartmouth College Winter 2018 Artist-in-Residence.
“When my mom died in April of last year, I was teaching at three different places, five days a week,” Glantzman says. “I would find time to work while commuting on the train. I would fold up these giant pictures, put them in my backpack, and if I was going up to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], for example, I’d have four hours of train ride during which I could work very quietly on one little teeny drawing for that amount of time.”
The work, unfolded, is a large, continuous work—a patchwork representation of her practice in compartmentalizing. By comparison, Glantzman’s residency at Dartmouth College has been a very different experience: Her studio is spacious, and her day is unlimited.
“Here, I have no time restraints, and what I find that I’m doing more than ever before is that I’m working for twelve or fourteen hours every day,” she says. “There’s nothing for me to do except be in the studio.”
The generous time allowance has changed her approach—and her process—dramatically.
“Prior to coming here, I would do a lot to each piece whenever I could get my hands on it. I had a sense of the limited amount of time I had,” she explains. “Here, I find myself doing less to each of the images, going much slower.” The pace is less frenetic, but she is as prolific as ever. “I have a new clarity about my work,” Glantzman says. “I’ve started carving hands out of wood, slightly larger than life size. I’m making these little drawings on plaster. I’m making giant drawings on paper. The paper pieces are made on a very long roll of beautiful paper, and when I look at them now, I think of them as being a kind of sequence. I’m making ceramic heads, and I think of those as being sort of props for the drawing, so everything is interwoven. It’s one giant piece.”
She shares artist Phillip Guston’s painting philosophy, as a parallel to her own most satisfying processes: “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you—your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics—and one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting, you walk out.”
“I love that Guston quote,” Glantzman says. “I think it can be hard to understand, but I feel that for me—and this relates to my age—I used to say that I chose to make the figure as a means of representing emotion, as if emotion was ephemeral, and the figure was a solid thing. Over time I’ve recognized how ephemeral the body actually is, and that it isn’t really a solid thing. It’s undoing itself, changing constantly, and then it will disappear or become something else.”
The practice itself has started to feel more spiritual than corporeal. “My new pieces feel very much as though I am participating in something,” Glantzman says, “but they don’t look like ‘mine.’ They don’t feel like my stamp on something. They’re not reflecting me so much as I’m communing with them.”
The process may seem slow and laborious, but revelation can strike in an instant. “A funny thing happened, because I accidentally had a spill of India ink. I picked it up with a paper towel, and then I had this piece of paper towel, and, for whatever reason, I just kind of threw it at a piece of paper, and it made a beautiful impression,” Glantzman says. “That made me think about the accident or the incident as something I was interested in recording. Because it’s not simply imposing my will on the image, but to make things that people wouldn’t necessarily notice, adding beauty to those moments.”
Glantzman feels those micro-moments are worth preserving, as a way of observing and elevating the unnoticed, gone-in-an-instant flashes, and cataloging them into human experience worth remembering.
“Artists provide a revelatory way of seeing something that already exists in the world,” she says. “Art itself is a means of slowing down time to allow perception to happen—to receive all the impulses or information or colors or shapes that you are experiencing.”
Those relationships take time to process and transfer to paper or canvas.
“In an observational drawing,” Glantzman says, “you’re sitting in front of something and you’re trying to record it. You have to slow your eye down, just to take in visual information. This shape here relates back to this other shape. These colors are black and white, and relate to this gray in a different way—whatever the sets of relationships are.”
Even when describing an object literally, each observation—whether voiced aloud or transferred to paper—can set off endless bursts of connection, resonance, and communion. For Glantzman, this journey represents some of the joys and challenges in creating art.
Recently, a former college classmate gave Glantzman an enormous, ten-by-thirty-foot roll of paper. “At first my reaction was that I didn’t think I could handle one more thing in my studio, but I don’t know why, I put it down on the floor, and I started to draw these little bronzed baby shoes that were mine. I had the shoes on the floor, and I’m working on this thing on the floor—it just felt like the thing to do. I didn’t have any expectations for this, so I could play as much as I wanted.”
Resisting the urge to define and set rigid limitations from the beginning allowed Glantzman to discover powerful themes—about history, time, her own childhood—in the undercurrent of her own work. “I noticed that I was making the shoes in a circle,” she says, “and it looked like a clock, like the shoes were walking around a clock. I just loved that metaphor. I’ve made a series.
“As for my next projects or themes: I feel that racial injustice is something I want to be able to talk about in my work,” she says, “but I don’t want to stand in for somebody else’s experience. I’ve been watching these PBS shows, looking back at the Freedom Riders. Looking at it from today’s perspective, there are two things that happen: I think, ‘Nothing has changed,’ and at the same time, I think, ‘Well, that was also a different time.’ In other words, there’s distance.”
Glantzman suggests this historical distance can provide directive, questioning, or renewed and resonant perspectives. She strives to create similar responses in a viewer’s experience of her work.
“When you have this ability to stand back from your own work, it becomes a thing in the world, and that creates a kind of a distancing,” she says. “The goal and the hope is that my work becomes less about me and more about my way of seeing the world around me. Or trying to develop a language that will ask questions about the world around me, rather than giving an answer.”
Dark Prayer, 2016
Eleven years ago, poet Lizzie B. Hutton experienced a seizure for the first time and lost about a month’s worth of memory. She knew that she wanted to write about the experience, but she has found it difficult, in the years since, to properly express her understanding of the event. “The immediate aftermath felt like remembering a dream: I could remember an ephemeral quality, but I also knew I wasn’t grasping it in its specificity,” she explains. “It’s very hard to write about. It’s writing about an absence, a gap. I write around the edges of it, and I try to describe it, but what I’m essentially trying to do is write about something that no longer exists, even in my own mind.
“Because even though I know it happened, and I can name the date when it happened, every time I remember it, I remember it differently. Even though it’s fixed to a date, it’s not fixed in my memory,” she says. “I came to understand how my memory is actually changing minute-by-minute, and my memory of what that experience even was still changes minute by minute. And of course, that moving-target aspect became a real rabbit-hole in my writing.
“I had this project on a laptop, which was then stolen,” she says. “Some was backed up, but some of it was not, and this then became its own metaphor. Literal loss, computer data. That really stalled me on the project. Not just because I’d lost some actual writing, but because I now also wasn’t sure if I could recreate what I’d lost, which was what I had been writing about in the first place.”
She describes how her mind then flooded with an abundance of questions, even as she accepted that there might never be one single, satisfying answer. “How do we experience time or memory? Or, put another way, how do we experience the conviction that we can remember something from the past; what does that conviction feel like in our bodies? Why can we say, I definitely remember this, but this other thing I definitely don’t remember, and what is it physically and mentally that makes that possible? I was still capable of writing,” she says. “If writing is invention, then why couldn’t I just invent what had happened again? I began to wonder, why was the conviction piece, the truthful piece, so vital to the work of writing, as well?
“Once in a while I’ll write a poem that just comes out. It literally comes out from beginning to end, and that’s some sort of weird miracle,” Hutton says. “That’s happened to me maybe three times in my life. The rest of the time—I’m not joking—it takes probably four years for the poem to get finished.”
But she won’t spend every minute of those four years hunched over her keyboard. Time is one of the essential components in her work’s improvement as she revises, draft after draft. “I write out a poem, and think it’s OK, it’s good,” she says. “Or good enough. Then I look at it two weeks later, and I see it’s really not that good. Or, I look at it two weeks later, and parts of it are good, and then I fiddle with it, put the poem down, and then show it to a friend and she might say she doesn’t understand part of it. It’s an iterative process.”
Part of putting the poem down is to pick it up again with new eyes—and a sharper set of responses. “I’m actually trying to subjectively re-experience it,” Hutton says. “With all of my writing, having some distance is a real aid in terms of recognizing that what I’ve written might make total sense to me, because of this weird, crazy network of meaning that’s attached to it in my mind, but it’s not going to be at all apparent to the reader. One-eighth of that might make sense, and seven-eighths might not...but it’s also important to see how that seven-eighths is still valuable and exploratory. So in the act of explicating that last seven-eighths more fully for myself, through the act of revising, I’m also working on the act of communicating with some reader.”
Hutton has found both solace and inspiration in the work of sculptor Eva Hesse, who features prominently in Hutton’s current poetry manuscript. Hutton is as engaged by Hesse’s history—for example, that she escaped from Nazi Germany through Kindertransport—as by her artwork. “Her work is very non-figurative,” Hutton says. “It’s abstract, conceptual art, yet the way she talks about it feels intimately connected with her particular history. Was it a way of coping with her own memory and her past to create this art that feels like a disavowal of the figuratively referential or nostalgic or confessional? She was very much reacting against those approaches—which are these traditionally female approaches to experience—yet I still sense her history in what she makes and does as an artist.
“Another fascinating piece, of course, is that a lot of her work is currently falling apart and degrading because she was using materials that didn’t last,” Hutton says. “She was working with these very organic forms, but she was also drawn to synthetic, man-made materials. Why? Partly, it seems, because it was new. But also, at the time, there was this idea was that the synthetic material was going to outlive all of us. And in some ways, they will. But the materials aren’t entirely permanent, or at least they don’t make permanent art, compared to, say, a marble sculpture in Florence. Some of her work is degrading, changing form, at this astonishing rate.”
She finds a familiar resonance in the situational irony of Hesse’s work falling apart. “I don’t want to attribute intentionality on her part to that,” she says, “but it’s still meaningful. Hesse seemed drawn to the ways that abstract art tries to slip the knot of time. But from an observer’s perspective, now, Hesse’s work seems to be very much about time, and the changes that time makes. It seems to return inevitably to that topic.”
Hutton points out that this erosion also happens in memory. “It’s like going back and finding a journal,” she says, “where you wrote about something very closely that you now no longer remember in the same kind of detail. As time passes, there’s this inevitable cloudiness that covers over the past. There’s a rawness that gets muffled as time goes by. As our remembering continues to chip away at what happened.”
Soft Sculpture by Lizzie B. Hutton ’91
the nicest part of abstraction to me is it’s not about accuracy
that short conversation with whatever’s real in which the real always wins
the made resinous grid answers to a more moving kind of truthful
the shape of the animal waste in the gutter and spring waters running around
the tang of city metal on my hands like well-used places I hold in the subway
the peopledust I pick up with my shoes and imprecise folds in my skirt
I didn’t count among important people in my life any men in my life
I didn’t count among important people in my life they were all dead
they were all dead so by the time I was born it was like I was already dead
in New York the old high-up floors where I worked walls were layered with
thick white paint
drops of the thick stuff melted into the wooden and women-worked factory
enough above trees you could see the sun rising above the old Pan Am
at the end of the street one old high-rise was like a ship’s tilting mast
abstraction draws metaphors to other things only close to their utmost
the exercise keeps the mind from obsessively wishing it could live forever
I saw snow falling from the hospital bed and how it would melt as it fell
the constant night light of the city snow is what I hate most about this my
I hate the country more though for silence when crystallized meanings
there was a night when I was a child when there was no moon in the country
I realized I would die young as I heard the wind move among endless pine
I couldn’t see my own hand there in front of my face though I felt my breath
originally published in the Denver Quarterly, 51.3, 2017
Vincent Katz is a poet, critic, and translator. His work ranges broadly and profoundly across history—collaborating with contemporary artists as well as engaging classical texts and languages. He is the author of the award-winning translation of The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, published by Princeton University Press in 2004, and he is currently at work on a novel based on his time at Oxford University.
“To be a poet, in addition to being a New Yorker, is exciting for me,” says Katz. “I feel as though, ‘This moment is happening right now, and I’m going to write about it.’” Katz is in good creative company. “Frank O’Hara would type poems during cocktail parties. He wrote Lunch Poems on his lunch breaks at MoMA,” he says. “I like the idea that writing poetry can be integrated into all the mess and chaos of daily life.”
This generative process of writing in the moment is natural for Katz and reflects the attentive artfulness with which he observes the world around him. But when he began writing his novel, he found that he had to look to another poet’s writing process for inspiration. “I was reading Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet Philip Larkin, and discovered that Larkin would write for two hours a day,” he says. “He worked as a librarian; he had a nine-to-five job. So he would come home, maybe have a sandwich, write for two hours—and then he’d go out drinking, because that was also an indispensable part of his day.”
Larkin’s two-hour rule appealed to Katz in its routine practicality—allowing the chaos of daily life to manifest after the requisite hours. “I like it because two hours go by quickly, but I also get quite a bit done,” he explains. “I put a two-hour timer on my phone: two hours of writing or reading something directly related to what I’m writing. If I take a break, I can pause it, work down to zero.”
The practice is not merely scrupulous—its structure galvanizes Katz to make real, inspired progress. “If I can get three or four paragraphs of an idea,” he says, “that’s a lot, because that means I’ve generated some energy in a certain direction that I can respond to later. Whereas if I hadn’t done those two hours, I would be nowhere.”
As a formally trained classicist, Katz is adept at uncovering connections across time. “The classics keep reviving themselves. Whatever period I study feels very alive to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about Henry VIII for the novel, and that period feels very alive. He kind of reminds me of Donald Trump, although he had more power. ‘Off with their heads’ versus ‘You’re fired.’ Both are highly insecure individuals.”
Bringing historical figures to life in writing is a challenge, but Katz points to recent autobiographies as a guide. “There have been a lot of autobiographies written lately by rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s,” he says. “After reading them, you realize that biography and autobiography are forms of fiction. Even when authors do all the research and have all the letters and the details, they have to recreate some moments through invention.”
In his own novel, Katz found himself compelled by a famous portrait he saw at the British Museum during his time at Oxford University. “This character in the novel goes down to London and goes to the British Museum, where there’s an incredible drawing of Anne Boleyn by Holbein, the court painter for Henry VIII, and it was done in the year in which she was beheaded,” he says. “That gives the drawing a special significance, and it brought me back to a kind of writing I’m very familiar with—writing about art—but in the service of a story.”
Katz was even more intrigued by what was unfamiliar about such a well-known figure. “Anne Boleyn was famously beheaded by Henry VIII. Was she guilty of intrigue? Did she have lovers? Was Henry threatened by her intelligence and independence? Historians don’t know the answers definitively,” he says. “This is a very significant moment in history. Everyone knows her name. Yet, historians can’t agree on exactly why she was killed. I am drawn to moments that have that sense of indefiniteness, because they are lifelike.”
The pleasure he gets from considering that “indefiniteness” shows in his writing, whether as an art critic, a poet, a classicist, or a novelist. “I feel that anybody who’s delved into history or classics feels the same way. The poet Charles Olson was very interested in Mayan culture. Anne Carson, the contemporary poet and classicist, makes Sappho feel very alive in her work,” he says. “But what’s interesting is, we really don’t know anything about their lives. We don’t know much beyond what’s in their written work, so we’re getting a feeling of the person through the literature. It’s exciting that we can have that connection over so much time.”
Now a Trinity parent, Katz was struck by the parallels he sees in his and his son’s educational experiences. “Everything that I liked about Trinity as a student is still here: the passion for learning and the dedication and the seriousness,” he says, marveling. “Oliver has taken four years of Latin here, so to see him reading Catullus and Virgil, and now Horace, remembering doing that myself at his age, has been an extraordinary experience.”
The thought of his son tracing his footsteps makes Katz reach for the metaphysical. “As life goes on,” he muses, “you get the perception that this is going to go on without you, after you’re gone. Some people find that thought to be really daunting.” He’s thoughtful for a moment. “To me, it’s kind of exciting,” he continues. “It’s almost the inverse of my looking back to ancient poetry: These experiences are going to continue for somebody, somewhere.”
Passing Generations by Vincent Katz ’78
Like much of America: malls, shops,
Pizza joints, but this is not random,
Is our place, molded, fashioned, of love.
Those difficulties keep cropping up,
I can’t keep track of things,
Nor does poetry seem valid enterprise.
That does not, however, diminish
The over-riding goal. Twenty one years ago
On this date, I wrote a poem about the
Moving of things in and out of a life.
Now I try to see behind the things we
Worry about, to transfer passions from
Generation to generation, respect for things.
People are not often aware what
Goes on behind, or underneath.
originally published in Odes,
Vincent Katz & Alex Katz,
Bernard Chauveau Editions, 2015
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