Field Note: Life is Long

Apr 23rd, 2013

There is a book I never tire of, even after reading it over and over again— The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. It’s a short book, just over a 100 pages, written in unforgettable but brief impressionistic paragraphs. The novel is autobiographical, written in 1984 when Duras was 70 years old… and it begins like this:

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

I’ve considered those opening lines endlessly… not just within the context of the body and beauty, but also in thinking about the unrelenting thrust of time and its irreversible, momentous effects, particularly within the margins of a single lifetime. “Ravaged” is not a favorable word to describe one’s face, yet those sentences ask the reader to reckon with the consequences of time differently; to see an aged face as beautiful because it is evidence of a life fully experienced. I’ve returned to these lines by Duras because of two recent and very special studio visits with artists in their 70s, which have prompted me to mull over just how much one person can fit into a single life. These visits were with Larry Bell and Joan Tanner.

When we were down in LA we were lucky enough to visit Larry in his massive Venice Beach studio where he showed us his newest sculptural works called “Light Knots” in which sheets of acetate are coated with vaporized metallic particles, cut and looped into iridescent “knots”, and then strung up from the ceiling to lightly sway, refracting light with each slight shift in position and time. Larry has been making work for a long time (over50 years) and is often associated with the Light and Space Movement and West Coast Minimalism, but when I asked him about these associations he shrugged, suggesting he doesn’t care much for labels, and said, “I’m just happy to be a part of the conversation.” In talking with Larry it was clear to me that despite his seminal role in the LA art scene and his well-established accomplishments over the years, he just wants to continue to push his work, to make it good, and to still allow himself to be lead by new questions. After our visit, he took Klea and I to lunch, along with curator Jay Belloli, and together we all talked about our backgrounds and Larry and Jay shared a few stories, but still I wondered about all the spaces in their stories I hadn’t managed to fill in.

We had a similar experience with Joan Tanner in Santa Barbra, who has lived and made work on her property for over 45 years. Sitting amidst the tangle of her garden Joan’s studio was full of newer work: minimal drawings and large sculptural pieces made of materials like wood, wire, metal, and concrete that look like the stripped but still-standing structures of a city that has been hit by a natural disaster. Joan’s practice has been incredibly varied, shifting between painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, and photography, and back and forth, again and again. She hasn’t quit thinking about different ways to approach her work, and she certainly hasn’t grown tired or jaded or uncurious about life. I know this because we spent over five hours with her…talking. First in her studio talking mainly about her art, and then on her deck, drinking wine with her assistants Gera Ayala and Bob Debris, chatting about… well, just about everything. She asked so many questions, wanting to know what Klea and I and Bob and Gera thought, what we had seen and read, what we thought we might know. Her curiosity seemed endless and so did her willingness to share her time with us.

Both Larry and Joan left behind the towns they were born in, went to school, moved out west, traveled, changed, had families and all while making art. Their lives are long, encompassing many known and unknown facts, dreams, losses, successes and still they continue to push at their practice, attesting to their flexibility and evolution as artists, and people. Meeting and spending time with them felt undeniably remarkable, and I knew it while it was happening; as every moment ticked by I told myself, This is something to be savored, something to be remembered. Larry and Joan reminded me that a single lifetime can actually hold many lives, that we can be many things at once, or successively, and that really the only way to meet with the blight of time is to endure, persist, and always shoulder into what you believe in.

Last week, when we stopped back into San Francisco to do a few Bay Area studio visits (and laundry!) I had dinner with my brother and grandmother. She is 91 years old and has lived through The Great Depression, wartime, the death of loved ones, and now she is close to being totally blind. But still she goes to her literary and political group meetings, gathers her family as often as possible, sings along to my brother’s piano playing, and flirts with any man below the age of 50. At dinner she was fretting about her grandchildren and their futures, particularly those of us who are still unmarried, and kept asking my brother and I hard-to-answer questions about big life choices up ahead. Finally my brother said, Gladys, let’s just think about how amazing it is that we are all sitting at this table together. Let’s just consider EVERYTHING you have seen and done and been through to get here, to be with us, at this exact moment. And let’s just be happy, ‘cause we’ve all managed to get to this table tonight.

People always say life is short. But it isn’t— it’s actually quite long, with so many possible chapters.

Photos: Images 1-5 are from Larry Bell’s Venice Beach Studio. Images 6-9 are from Joan Tanner’s Montecito home studio.

We’ll publish full studio visits and interviews with Larry and Joan in the coming months, along with the other artists we’re visiting during Western Edge. Larry Bell has an upcoming show at Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica, from May 4 to June 8, 2013.