Tag Archives: Reed College

Clip on Xu Beihong Plus Thoughts on Calligraphy, the Beats, and the Abstract Expressionists

19 Feb

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Burnside published my art post “A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot” today.

It only occurred to me as I was posting this clip how interesting it is that Xu Beihong’s painting is from 1951. Doesn’t the seemingly traditional shuimohua painting seem much older? Xu is actually known for his Western sensibilities and is considered a forerunner in modern Chinese art.

Xu studied calligraphy with his father before attending the famous École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts — you know, that Parisian school where Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Renoir studied at. In 1917, Xu Beihong went to Japan to study art. During World War II, he sold his paintings in exhibitions throughout Asia, giving the proceeds to the Chinese whose lives had been upturned because of the war. As a teacher and artist, Xu’s policies greatly influenced the way both colleges and the government respond to art in Communist China. He died in 1953.

Meanwhile, over in Oregon at Reed College in the early 1950s, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen (who served Stateside during World War II), and Lew Welch–who are associated with the Beat Generation–were studying with calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds. Snyder and Whalen later spent time in Japan, where they studied zen. The US State Department initially denied Snyder a passport, alleging he was a Communist.

Asian influences can also be seen in the art of the time period, most notably the abstract expressionist art of Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, and Theodoros Stamos. Note this opening paragraph from the Guggenheim’s article “Abstract Art, Calligraphy, and Metaphysics“:

Following World War II New York City became the center of the avant-garde art world. Artists were working in new ways, and some were exploring the energy of the gesture with loose brushwork that reflected the impact of the artist’s bold movements. The calligraphic brushstroke was an approach to abstract painting that focused on the spontaneous gesture of the artist’s hand and was informed by the East Asian art of calligraphy and popular writings on Zen and its principles of direct action.

The article goes on to say:

In Chinese and Japanese calligraphy the brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, his or her entire body. The artist’s stroke not only suggests the movement of the body, but also inner qualities. Abstract as it appears, calligraphy also conveys something about the essence of the individual artist. It is therefore not surprising that 20th-century American Abstract Expressionists who sought to convey emotion through paint were drawn to it.

Because so many soldiers were stationed in the East during World War II, both the West and the East were influenced by each other.

What I personally find fascinating with calligraphy is the collision of art and literature, the visual and the literal, words becoming art, and art becoming words.

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Jack Kerouac Dropped Out of College. So What?

27 Jan

Is genius born or created?  By now everyone has read, or at least heard, about how Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College and went on to become the cofounder of Apple and one of the most important entrepreneurs of our time.  Perhaps less known is the fact that Jobs continued to audit classes at Reed.  He actually credited a calligraphy course he took as having a major impact on the Mac.  When I was taking a shuttle from the San Francisco airport to my hotel out in Walnut Creek, I had a midnight conversation with a businessman who had read the biography on Jobs and told me about how the computer genius’ interest in art was fundamental to his vision for building a successful brand.

Back in September, Flavorwire posted an article called “10 Famous Authors Who Dropped Out of School.”  This is what they wrote about Jack Kerouac:

In high school, Beat hero Jack Kerouac was no poet — he was a jock, star of the football team. His athletic skills won him a scholarship to Columbia University, but he and the coach didn’t get along. The two argued constantly and Kerouac was benched for most of his freshman year. Then, he cracked his tibia and, his already tenuous football career over, dropped out of school.

I love Flavorwire, and I understand that the writer was trying to keep the text short and irreverent, but I think it’s worth dissecting the often repeated line that Kerouac dropped out of Columbia University.  Implicit in remarks about his football scholarship and dropping out is the suggestion that Kerouac was neither intelligent nor studious—the same way that many critics like to point to how quickly he supposedly wrote his novels.  If he were a computer genius, like Steve Jobs, perhaps his craft would not be questioned, but because the arts are subjective, Kerouac’s dropping out of college is often reported more as a jab than as evidence toward his natural gifts.

To say that Kerouac was a jock and not a poet in high school undermines his academic achievements.  In reality, Kerouac, who didn’t even feel completely comfortable speaking English when he went off to school (he spoke his parents’ French Canadian dialect), did so well in school that he skipped a grade.  He spent a lot of time at the public library in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, voraciously reading the classics.  When he was not on the football field, Kerouac was part of a roundtable discussion group on philosophy and literature.  His father was a printer, and so even at a young age, Kerouac produced his own writing.  Like Jobs, Kerouac did not come from money, and the scholarship he earned helped him attend the university, where he studied English under the tuition of great professors.

Kerouac left Columbia, then he returned to resume his studies, and then dropped out for good.  However, like Steve Jobs, Kerouac continued his studies even after he dropped out of college.  He enrolled at The New School, where he studied literature.

 

After Kerouac moved to Ozone Park, Queens, and holed himself up writing, his friends jokingly referred to him as “The Wizard of Ozone Park.”  Do you know “The Wizard of Menlo Park” (New Jersey) was?  Thomas Edison, who after only three months of formal schooling, dropped out.

 

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This post has been updated. I wrote “college” when I meant to write “school,” when referring to Kerouac’s ease with English.