So I went to see the Abstract Expressionist show from the Museum of Modern Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario this week. I caught myself staring intently at the brutally layered surface of Willem de Kooning's famous Woman 1 . Maybe I was trying to maintain a poker face while the couple behind me discussed the work: "I couldn't live with that one. I see its greatness but I couldn't live with it."
The Woman paintings have always alienated me--all ferocious boobs and teeth, painted as if by someone who regretted every woman he'd ever known--but I was drawn into this one, into the surface. Like many of the abstract expressionist painters, the surface told the story of an artist repeatedly trying to get it right, to get better, to get good enough to finish the painting he'd started.
I read an interview with playwright Tony Kushner where he said something that I think about every day:
"There’s this great quote in Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound where he’s talking about Goethe . . . He says that the job of the epic poet is to become, while writing the poem in public, the poet worthy of finishing it."
(My only problem with that quotation is that I've never been able to tell from the interview transcript who said it, Kenner or Pound or Goethe, and the only way to find out would be to read Kenner's entire book on Pound. Amazon says it's 606 pages. Yikes.)
But to hell with the attribution. Those words, those words. "To become, while writing the poem in public, the poet worthy of finishing it."