(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing. Introduction here.)
“Forgive me my frustration!” Professor abraham shouted at me. (He didn’t sound very sorry.) “But in thirty-five years of teaching, this is the worst semester I have ever had!”
I had thought he was going to say, “this is the worst project I have ever seen!” so this was much preferable. Still, it was a pretty harsh statement to make. The *worst* semester out of seventy of them. He had been teaching for roughly twice as long as I’d been alive.
Although prone to making broad, sweeping statements and using superlatives out of context, abraham generally has a point. He certainly did here. The semester had been really, really tough in more ways than one — the project was difficult, our creative senses were worn down, and it seemed that the lower we sank, the less our professors tried to help pull us out. There was no practical instruction or advice given during the critiques — just general ranting and picking on one or two specifics that annoyed them. They were grossly disappointed with our performance; no one seemed to be on the right track.
There is one, and only one, consistent piece of advice that I’ve been given by every cooper affiliate I’ve come into contact with at one time or another: full speed ahead, and damn the professors. If you’re here for them, they say, you’ll learn nothing. If you’re here for you, you can’t go wrong; failure is not the end of the world if you’re exploring something of interest to you. At first, I thought this sounded pretty arrogant; later, pretty cool. But it wasn’t until I had left the studio in the middle of class, disgusted with the abraham’s arrogance and the obsequiousness of his underlings, that I realized I was *doing* it. As I sat in the library, surrounded by books on the construction of shadows, completely disobeying their orders to “stop researching and draw,” it occurred to me that I no longer cared what they thought; I was pursuing something because it interested me, and because I felt it was important to my project. Their opinions were of tertiary interest.
This both scared and thrilled me. I called my house at midnight the night before my crit to tell my sleepy parents the good news: “if abraham tears me apart tomorrow, I won’t care, because I’ll know he’s wrong. I think my idea is pretty cool!” I thought that even if crit wasn’t the next day, I would be pulling an all-nighter anyway — out of sheer interest in my project.
My first idea for an intervention, the one they had praised only for its spirit, had been on the right track: I had constructed and built the shadows of the cube during different hours of the day, and turned these structures into supporting interventions. After their critique that it was “too literal,” I had tried and tried to find something that was more conceptual, and each time I fell flat on my face and killed the idea with too much planning. Now I went back to my instincts. I abstracted the three bodies into lines and points; with descriptive geometry and the books I had been reading, I constructed the shadows of each body and built them. And, as a final flaunt to the parameters of the project, I placed each of the bodies *outside* the cube, so that they didn’t intervene at all. Instead, they intervened through the shadows, which were projected up from the ground into the void of the cube.
The central idea here is the presence of absence. There are three autonomous elements — cube, bodies, intervention — which, when left alone, retain the memory of the other two. A shadow is both a presence and an absence; the absence of a body, but the presence of something entirely different and mysterious, which doesn’t even exist until it’s trapped on a surface somewhere. I love talking about my ideas, but building them always presents a problem. I didn’t feel that this project was “it,” but it was a lot closer than I’d ever come. And I liked my idea — I really believed in it.
So, when crit time rolled around on thursday, I was much less nervous. I knew they’d probably be mad because of all the rules I had broken. The bodies’ positions were not tectonic ideas, but narrative, theatrical expressions. The interventions did not support the bodies; they didn’t even touch them. I was prepared for the worst, but unconcerned. The worst they could do had been done already. I was used to the rippings-apart.
I was unprepared, then, for what happened. They loved my project. My drawings were “beautiful” and “magic”; my idea was “poetic” and “philosophical.” At first, they were a bit critical of the narrative bodies, but when I agreed with them, abraham shook his head sharply. “Now that I think about it,” he frowned, “i don’t think we can tell her to change it. This project is so personal — she’s created her own world, a magical world. I want to protect the intimacy of her idea — to force her into a more academic position would be to ruin the poetics of her project.” He looked at me. “I want to see more production. More of these magical drawings. Explore your idea, your world.” One of the other professors moved to comment, and abraham shook her off. “We have set rules, yes. But sometimes they need to be broken.”
Waltemath told me I had found what I had just barely discovered in my first project, and carried it out to fruition. Gersten told me my drawings were “wild,” which coming from him is a compliment. Wines commented on the project as I was pinning it up. “Whew!” she said in amazement. But none of these really matter in comparison to what abraham said.
Of course, I feel gratified, but I’m still going to do what I want. They told me not to change anything, but I think I need to make some adjustments — I’m going to do it my way. If they change their mind at the next critique, which is the final critique for the year, I’ll take it in stride. Abraham has given me enough fuel to ride out these next five weeks.
Suddenly, it’s spring in the city! We’ve rejoiced in the sunshine, warm rain and free, happily sandaled feet of the season. The words “light jacket” are very seductive after a winter of three or four layers per body part. And with the nice weather came a visit from a dear friend, anna deal, who brought her sweetheart shawn for a day and a half. They toured the city, taking in the sights on the itinerary I made up for them, while I stayed in the studio aaaaaaallllll day … ahh, the life of a martyr … that night, though, penley and I took them to our favorite indian restaurant, the one that reminds me of the skit from “how to irritate people” — the staff are so accommodating, one almost expects them to carry out the chairs and burn them when they discover a fleck of dust. Whenever penley and I order takeout there, they seat us at a table, give us menus to look at, and bring us complimentary cups of spiced tea (although penley grumbles that they never give him that kind of treatment when he comes by himself.) the head waiter greets us as his best friends every time we come in, no matter how busy it is.
the unthinkable happened during a lecture on melevitch last thursday — my cell phone rang, loudly, in the middle of professor waltemath’s rhapsodizing. I was mortified, but quickly turned it off before very many people knew it was me. These lectures are pretty cyclical — we go through interesting and boring spells. Now I’m really enjoying them. Melevitch’s work is ambiguous enough to generate a discussion, but straightforward enough to impose some order on the pandemonium. (Formerly, we were discussing robert smithson, which was a disaster.) i’ve been to the met several times too — I think I’m finally getting it. You have to pick one or two and work on them for awhile, or you’ll fry your brain trying to take everything in at once. I’m always amazed at how long one can study a painting and still not really understand it. Gussow sent us last week to look at the five vermeers and handful of cezannes in their collection, and they’re so complex that you could easily lose an hour or two trying to figure it out. Of course, the beauty there is that they will never be figure-out-able.
This morning was Orthodox palm sunday, since we go by the old calendar — also, unfortunately for yours truly, it was daylight savings. I had no idea this was the case, and by the time I realized it, I was an hour and a half late for church. As I hurried over, feeling guilty for being uninformed, I passed the ukranian byzantine-rite catholic church right across from the studio, and upon seeing the doors opened (i had never seen this before) I ventured in. With my gypsy attire, I was worried I would attract some foreign friends, but no such luck — they left me alone to gaze up at the domed ceiling and golden mosaics that adorn every inch of the walls, and listen to the choir sing in melancholy harmony, the music drifting high up into the worship space. Their liturgy was exactly the same as ours, but in another language — church slovanic, I think, because I recognized some of the hymns from my russian parish. At the end of the service, they dispensed pussy willow branches (no palm trees in kiev!!) and the congregation spilled out into the street, talking loudly and gesturing wildly, the pussy willows creating a strange sort of forest above their heads. It was, as my photo teacher would have said, a very “photographic” moment, but I think it will live better in my memory.
I must apologize for my prolonged absence in your in-boxes, dear readers — I had a pretty bad week, and it took all of spring break to recover. You are never far from my thoughts, even when I’m not writing.