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September 30, 1979 - Image 13

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The Michigan Daily, 1979-09-30
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*'< t I , t I -

i y f a

Page 6-Sunday, September 30, 1979-The Michigan Daily
Books

The Michigan Daily-Sundoy, Septembe
Artm
On Oemet: Daloue wth.

Answers elude
lin Dixon's
By Eric Zorn
QUITE CONTRARY: THE middle-aged lovers. Rather than star-
MARY AND NEWT STORY ting at the beginning and following
By Stephen Dixon through to the conclusion, Dixon's story
Harper & Row, 200 pp. $9.95 exists outside of any time frame. It
begins at the end and ends at the end,
W HEN A writer starts writing and refers back to the end again and
about a writer, you know he again.
has run out of things to write The fact is, Mary and Newt have one
about. of those stormy relationships that
While the creative process fascinates alternates between crumbling and
most writers, few works of fiction deal rebuilding, so the "end" is constantly
successfully with that process. The being revised. Quite Contrary is a study
writers' ideas seem of monumental im- in the revisions that people are always
portance, and their lives revolve making' in their lives. The ways in
around the continual, traumatic which we try to change our relation-
method of creativity; but it is often ships and rationalize our failures are
beyond the scope of writers to realize analogous to the revisions a writer
that the life and tribulations of a writer makes in his or her text.
are not especially interesting. Thus, throughout, when Mary and
Not again do readers want to suffer Newt patch up their problems, author
through alternative drafts of a story Dixon moves in to retell parts 'f their
and the ironic ways in' which fact arfd affair and redefine their ncom-
fiction intertwine. This sort of literary patabilities. While Mary and Newt
dirty linen is not much more appealing don't fully understand the nature of
than the way NBC counts down the their difficulties, neither does Dixon.
commercials on Tom Snyder's Prime Here is what we are left with: Some
Time television newsmagazine: It relationships are filled, as is life itself,
elevates the process of creation to the with "a lot of sadness and a lot of
level of art itself, which is a self-serving boredom and a lot of mistakes and a lot
affectation through which the public of fun." These relationships are born,
should not be expected to wade. they thrive, and then, sometimes, they
It is peculiar, then, that a fine writer die. It happens to all of us. not solely to
like Stephen Dixon, who was a writer- writers.
in-residence at the University's Newt, the city boy who is a substitute
Residential College during October junior high school teacher and (ap-
1978, falls into the trap of writing about parently) a part-time writer, tells his
a writer in Quite Contrary: The Mary own story, for the most part, in a loose,
and Newt Story. Dixon's main charac- rambling narrative voice. His is
ter is not a writer, but the guiding humorously self-deprecating,; and
authorly land' occasionally rears his keenly aware of his own vulnerability
head to recast a scene and tell an ab- at Mary's hands.
strusely "relevant" short story. It's all He is caught, as is she, in the same
so preciously modern, old trap. There is'no particular reason
Essentially; the'novel chronicles a they are together other than they need
confoundingly labyrinthian affair bet- each other, and they teeter together
ween a couple of confused, neo-liberated just on the safe side of the line where it
is more painful to break up than it is to
Eric Zorn is co-editor of the Daily stay together.
Arts Page. Mary, the country girl divorcee and
newman

Stephen Dixon

FIRST MET the little critter in
this ancient cafe on 57th Street in
Manhattan. It was sitting there
alone, sipping strawberry Sego through
a straw, eating celery and french fries.
Its tall, pipe cleaner-like physique
made me wonder why no one was stan-
ding around gawking, but it may have
had something to do with the fact that
when the creature was seen from the
side, it had slightly less visibility than
the side of a razor blade. I vaguely
remember that it had some problems
getting the waiter's attention for just
that reason.
It spoke in this old, commanding New
York Jewish accent, and it knew a lot of
things. I had a hard time approaching it
at first. I mean, it 'looked so damn
familiar, but I couldn't figure out from
where, and then, when we shook hands
and it started taking over the conver-
sation immediately, speaking in these
free-flowing monologues (which were
impossibly difficult for me) about stuff
like "abstract thought-complexes,"
"the pure idea," and "freeing ourselves
from the impediments of history," I
was baffled. It was not so much that I
couldn't follow these dense spot-
orations; it was that I had no conception
of why this thing was saying all of this
to me. Where was all this coming from?
And then, as the waiter was bringing
the apple pie, he addressed my com-
panion by name, and it all sank in. I was
talking to that sublime creation of Bar-
nett Newman, often calledian "abstract
expressionistic" painter and a prime
metaphysician for American visual art
in the 20th century-I was downing
espresso with a zip!
As Rod Serling might once have said
on The Twilight Zone, "Submitted for
your approval-the case of the zip. On-
ce a mass of silenced feelings buried
beneath the silt-laden layers of
sediment cushioning Barnett
Newman's unconscious, the zip lay
dormant, a fossilized prisoner within
humanity's collective unconscious. And
now (Serling saying all this in that clip-
ped, toying prattle of his, with the
stagiest damn pause this side of Ann
Arbor Civic Theatre immediately
following "and now ...")... things are
different (sinister, SINISTER!).
"Newman unleashed some of those
feelings on the world, seeking out that
sojourner's trek which engulfed
Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and so
many others in eternal darkness.
Newman invested those feelings, but
not in any sort of typical bank; he made
his deposit a metaphysical one, putting
his stock in his painted zips. With the
zip as the Brinks Security Guard of
Newman's inner life (Jesus Christ, a
nickel, please, for every tinny, overfed
Rod Serling metaphor!) Newman was
safe .. .if only for a while. His was a life
never free, only one always striving to
be free, by excavating again and again
from that stonehouse of submerged
feelings. And safety guard or not, each
trip was a peregrination into evil, haun-
ted dimensions. For no matter how
nearby Newman's zip was, each time
he picked up a paint brush, he was
stepping into.., the Twilight Zone."
Born in New York, Newman was one
of the biggest guns of all in the lifespan
of the "New York school" of the thirties
R. J.. Smith is co-editor of the
Daily Arts Page.

By RJ, Smith

By R.J. Smith

through fifties. The New York school
was the fountainhead of the movement
associated with abstract expressionism
in which such folks as Pollock, Adolph
Gottlieb, William de Kooning, Rothko,
Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, and
lots more matriculated. In a few words,
what was coming out of this New,,
York scene was largely work by so-

VER AND OVER (and over and
over) one finds in Newman's
painting, drawing, and sculp-
ting the image of "the zip"-a skinny,
elongated strip. In the vast sum of his
paintings, the zip cuts across (always,
ALWAYS! vertically) the generally
massive canvas, dividing areas of color
that occupy the canvas from top to

evident in his v
Dynamism and fe
and all factors of
size and shape, re
the areas of color
positioning and ni
painting-showed
into the areas of
was interested in.
Soon, Newman
seen all over town
but also to soc
Newman general
various art-comn
dition, they bowk
shared an interest
Meeting up witi
Street community
me, and it was als
se correspondence
in 1970, the zip has
fallen into the sha
coin collectio
Newman's bac
general, seeking a
We have had num
versations. Most ri
itself in Detroit
Newman's drawin
into town for a m
month, and over a
("it reminds me j
the Cedar Tavern
point) we held th
which the followir
tracted.
Well, to get s
to read you a q
reaction to it.
Certainly, certa
It's by James
and it comes j
Praise Famot
else: in God's n
as Art. Every fu,
absorbed in ti
religion, or as at
or another. The
enemy of the
strike is to do
Blake, Beethov
Kafka, name mE
thus been castra
tance is the one i
.ptom that salvat
and is the one s
misunderstandin
Judas. "
Well, for the mi
agree with that. I
anything, it was th
salvation, if there
stand what happen
us-to understand
share-it is thrc
people who would
on our lives. It s
way to do that i
passionate interes
ideas-which en
door-closing.
The "official a
Agee spoke of, the
ceptance which a
negating of the
something Barney
ned with for as
together. Because
whole art establi;
just like the entii

mother of two, thinks her answer lies in
an unrestrained lifestyle and does her
best to be a ;swinger and to _couple
freely. Her battles with Newt never
cease, and they focus on the mutual
guilt they feel and the desire both have
to squeeze more from the world than
one exclusive sexual partner.
0 THAT'S the problem. Newt
tries adjusting the relationship
to fit his needs. He fakes it. He
i. He invents.
Mary does the same. She experimen-
ts. She threatens. She ends the relation-
ship, then begins it again.
Matters don't get better. The
author-seemingly trying to excorise
ghosts of his own-interferes and tries
to revise things romantically and ap-
propriately, but, as he reveals in a vivid
scene in which the writer himself is
seduced while typing thetwords we are
reading, he is open to the same
problems that the characters face. He
doesn't have the answers either.
Well, dammit, we are sick of hearing
about the problem. We know the
problem. All of us go through doubts in
our relationships and we all struggle
with the conflict between commitment
to another person and fully slaking the
thirsts of the self. Who has not oc-
casionally wished for the strength to
abandon a malignant love affair?
The artist has an obligation to show
his audience something they have not
already seen, and here Dixon falls
short. His prose is delightful and his ear
for dialogue nearly perfect, but he does
not give much of a new wrinkle to the
same old story. We don't learn any

more about ourselves than we learn
about Mary and Newt, and he suggests
no way we can avoid ending up just like
them.
Quite Contrary is the story of how
conflicting desires exist only to bog us
down, and it becomes, in that sense, a
passive sort of work. It fails to
challenge us, shock us, enlighten us, or
comfort us. By implication, it depresses
us by joining the fatalistic choir that
sings that we are living in a selfish, self-
serving era and there is-to cop the title
of Dixon'searlier, tremendous collec-
tion of short stories-No Relief.
And it's not so much that Dixon never
finds any answer; he just never seems
to look very hard. Even the way the
book ends and begins at approximately
the same point in time clues us that
progress has been minimal, nothing
has been significantly altered, and the
characters have not really gone,
through any important changes.
Indeed, the author himself, over-
whelmingly present in this work, hasn't
gone through any changes either. He's
shown us that a writer is confronted
with the same troubles as everyone
else, but doesn't seem to have any bet-
ter answers. Because a writer must
deal with the maddening intensity of
the artistic spirit does not
automatically make his or her view
from the creative mountaintop worthy
of our consumption. Readers want to be
lead to where they have been before,
but to see there what they have never
seen. Reading Quite Contrary is like
scanning the play-by-play of a football
game the day after you've watched it in
the stadium.

-

One of Barnett Newman's series "Stations of the Cross," featuring his thin,
white helper, the zip. Says the zip, "I was the best damn thing in the world
for what Barney was doing!"

(Continued fromPage 3)
historians, was one which embraced
the depiction of "real things"-stuff
found in nature-and "real
ideas"-concepts prompted by the
nature stuff. But to Barney, when one
looked at oranges painted by Cezanne,
or a fish painted by Klee, one reacted on
the deepest level to something entirely
diverted from fruit and fishes. They,
had an experience that looking at fish in
a pond or oranges in the market could
not possibly give them-Barney was all
about what that stuff was that the
viewer got from the painting and not
from nature. It was about nothing else.
And that was a notion that was forged

inside of Barney, because it sure didn't
come from the line of art history.
Of all modern movements, it's
hard to imagine one more dour and
humorless than the abstract ex-
pressionists. Many even say that
your seriousness was one of the
reasons pop art, - a movement in
some ways more "down to earth"
and humorous, got off the ground
so quickly. Why the perpetual high
seriousness?
Now wait just a minute. We had lots of
fun! I remember the time we put Saran-
See NEWMAN, Page 8

called action painters and "color field"
artists. All in the good fun of oversim-
plification, one can say that the action
painters (Franz Kline, de Kooning, and
that Milky Way's supernova, Pollock)
turned out work heavily dominated by
crude brushstrokes and flung paint,
paintings concerned not at all with the
way subject matter had been depicted
in art, but with the processes of pain-
ting, and with the expression of
emotions found only inside the in-
dividual-emotions invested nowhere
in nature. The color fielders also were
deeply interested in the unlocking of
that which is not found in "things," but
their approach was extremely dif-
ferent. They used large areas of color,
centralized into simple shapes, so as to
play out a drama of this unlocking
process. On the New York color field
team, Barnett Newman was batting
clean-up.

bottom. His sculpture is typically sim-
ple, three-dimensional zips rising into
the air.
His drawings, which throughout this
month have been exhibited at the
Detroit Institute of Arts, exhibit the zip
in a variety of presences. There are
tapering zips, smudgy ones, Mother-
wellian ones, relatives of the zip
residing in what appear to be Kandin-
sky-like abstractions-abstractions in-
vested with such psychological weight,
however, that they have none of Kan-
dinsky's free-blowing feel, and none of
his balance.
As his career developed, Newman
and the zip got realtight.The zip, which
began as a sort of created vessel for the
expressions of the internal world for
which Newman was shooting, expanded
within Newman's psyche. It became
invested with all sorts of personal,
organic qualities to Newman, a fact

See NEWMi

P

clean-up. See NEWM
organic qualities to Newman, a fact

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