Jo-Ann Sanborn Paints the Everglades

January 5, 2016

During every season, artist Jo-Ann Sanborn often drives through the Florida Everglades looking for a spot that “speaks to her,” she says in a local televised interview in 2012. When she finds her spot, she makes a rough sketch of it on a canvas and returns to her painting studio on San Marco Island. The Everglades’s environment is formed by its particular geology, and Sanborn’s paintings capture the uniqueness of the ecosystem created by it; more humid in the summers than in the winters, the Everglades is a vast marshland comprised of “rivers of grass,” as such is its defamiliarizing, transevaporative atmosphere where rock and water ceaselessly merge.

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NPR’s latest news on the Everglades

The Everglades is a subtropical marsh and coastal mangrove in Southern Florida. Spanish cartographers named the area between the Mexican Gulf and the Atlantic ocean the “Lake of the Holy Spirit”— a title that doesn’t quite emphasize the Everglades’s more earthy qualities— as it can be a hostile but beautiful environment. buggy, hot, and wet, it is inhospitable for the less accustomed traveler. The marshland rests on a patchwork of geologic formations, and the highly absorptive Miami Limestone and Fort Thompson Limestone have a greater substratum presence. As a sedimentary rock, Limestone’s porosity combined with its moisture-locked climate produces a unique hydrophytic vegetation.

The Everglade’s testy climate offers only brief recordings of any chosen vista. The paintings that come out of this process might be considered coloristic: honey yellow speckling Sanborn’s canvases are pronounced by heavy grays and blues, causing the colors to pulse irregularly, and sometimes to a single beat. The gray-slated openness of her paintings, particularly that of Autumn Arrangement, produces a calming, pacifying effect. On the other hand, Breezy exhibits long, gangly, brushstrokes resembling the stems of palm trees. Golden afternoon light pinkens these stems on some canvases, while in others they blend into the gray skies.

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The trees of the Everglades, also known as hardwood hammocks, grow in soil that is less hydrophytic (lower water concentration) than the deeper sloughs. This soil is on higher elevations called cays surrounded by moats of water. As her artist statement mentions, Sanborn is “awed by the simple dignity of a sable palm in dancing light:”  royal palms, cypresses, gumbo limos, cabbage palmettos, and mangroves become the indigenous subjects of Sanborn’s paintings.

The artist’s technique of leaving her chosen site to then finish the piece at her studio is born from the Everglade’s prickly disposition. Its temperament doesn’t register on Sanborn’s canvases, though, which evoke tranquil feelings more akin to Cezanne watercolors.  And like a Cezanne, the edges of Sanborn’s canvases are just as animated as their center, evoking an all-over openness to her works.

Sanborn’s paint handling is primarily about feeling, rather than accuracy: she plays with the light in each painting, conjuring gestural patches of grass and river water in a layering, combinatorial fashion, until the right colors and shapes present themselves. “You respond completely to the canvas itself, and what it needs; it sort of has a life of its own at that point,” the artist explains.

Sanborn’s work might be considered Impressionistic, in that she creates her landscapes with a genuine viewpoint in mind. Her work tends to evoke a sense of peacefulness, though she takes allegiance with neither painting school of Impressionism or Tonalism. These movements overlapped stylistically in America, despite the rivalries, but tended to avoid overt collaborative efforts. Sanborn’s work seems a hybrid of these movements. Is Sanborn an impressionist who uses Tonalist colors and blurred forms, or is she a Tonalist who acquiesces to the Impressionistic tendency for flatness, abetted by a lack of a varnished top coat?

Acrylic paint, Sanborn’s medium of choice, is ideal for conveying a sense of flatness, as it is a plastic polymer, which results in much less fleshy and sensuous, depth-inducing color, like that of oil paint. In truth, Sanborn’s work reveals ambiguous distinctions between these previous artistic movements, and beckons for new interpretations. 

A sense of urgency is inherent in Sanborn’s work as she is one of very few artists to paint the Everglades. Considering the difficulties of painting in a waterlogged climate, painters like Sanborn are necessarily explorers; hence Winslow Homer made a stint of paintings in these tropics, and so did John James Audubon while illustrating Florida’s blue herons. No Impressionist, Realist, Naturalist or Tonalist movement particularly thrived in this region though, except for the kitsch Highwaymen of the fifties, who made highlighter-neon paintings of a very different mettle. But as far as any serious reconceptualization of the Everglades, Sanborn who did make these paintings in the seventies, is part of an Impressionist revival perhaps all of her own.

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Sanborn’s paintings are also an attempt at bringing awareness to, in order to preserve, the Everglades’s flora and fauna; the Everglades have been reduced by 50% over the last century due to flawed public policy and household misunderstandings of its fragile ecosystem.

A german couple who collects Sanborn’s work told her when they drive through the Everglades, they now see it through the artist’s eyes. Sanborn captures and translates her experiences of the Floridian landscape through plein air painting and memory. She creates a painting experience for her viewers that shifts how the world of the Everglades is perceived. Placing one of Sanborn’s landscapes in their breakfast nook, the couple noticed that “the painting would change with the light…” they said. “But last week we went to Miami and when we were going across, we realized that the Everglades looked to us in an entirely new way. We saw your painting. We saw the light. We saw the beauty of the landscape and we were just so excited.”

Works Cited

U.S. Geological Survey (1999). “Florida Everglades.” Circular 1182 U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2008-03-14. Online.

Everglades: “Lake of the Holy Spirit” “Old Florida Maps”.  <> Retrieved 2008-08-22. Online.

“Jo-Ann Sanborn.” Expressions. WGCU, PBS 3. Bonita Springs, 2012-12-03. Television.

The Everglades. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2015-12-29. < articles/jaic32-02-004.html> Online.

Swedish American Works from the Hillstrom Collection, Resource Library: Traditional Fine Arts Organization, 2009. <> Online.

Cooper, Helen, A. Winslow Homer Watercolors. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987. Print.

Reality Doesn’t Bite: The Art of Erik Schmidt and Chris Pfister —

Reality doesn’t “bite,” as they say, nor is the “bitter truth” a reality one might axiomatically ascribe to for those capable of formally appreciating the visual world. By “reality” I mean that which we see and perceive, and more specifically, retinal-based seeing, as in the phenomenological joy of color, light and space which is all that we’ve come to realize as potential fodder for the creation of works of art. The splendor of the visual world is valued by some painters who have a certain connection to their medium which allows them to manipulate their own perception of this visual world. They decide how much they want to represent what they represent and how much they want to deface, erode and destroy it. This idea is nothing new or exciting, and the Impressionists did this well; they created impressions of reality that were gestural, idiosyncratic, emotional and in doing so, called into question the nature of objectivity.

The background on which I lay a formulation of unconventional seeing is based on the history of art and how the objects we think we objectively see have been manipulated by painters through their determined organization of color, light and space on the canvas. Each art movement appears to push the all-encompassing art historical envelope on what art can and should be. Of course, we no longer believe in art history really or the suspect, supercilious narrative on which it rests. Some art historians even postulate a notion of art history as elliptical, rather, with art history working to circumvent itself by slowly bringing into the limelight, those artists and thinkers who were previously considered peripheral (women and people of color).

The question now in pluralistic discourse is whether or not you can “insist” on your own view point (as mentioned by conceptual artist, Jeffrey Stuker) as a positive phenomenon for the production of meaning. This viewpoint might be information based even, and considering we live in an information-based age, I find it apropos. Nevertheless, phenomenological aspects of painting are better felt as “experiential” than simply informative, or at least it seems this way, which brings to the forefront the overlooked insinuation that painting cannot be conceptual. Painting might be pure experience. You decide. I decide. We all decide how to experience painting today in whatever way we see fit.  This point can be contentious for painters. I will offer my perception of what might be considered “innovative” painting, despite our questions over what can and cannot be considered innovative, and whether or not we can assume innovation when we can’t decide what we are innovating on. Perhaps this is the chicken or the egg problem. Maybe history is a mobius strip or simply hermeneutic. Whichever and whatever.


152S.LORENZO 09'

Erik Schmidt, Weibliche Verformungen, 2009, oil on canvas,



Erik Schmidt, Eine Frage des Glaubens, oil on canvas, 2006


The works above were created by Germany-based figurative oil painter, Erik Schmidt in 2009 and 2010. Schmidt’s paintings, and in particular the above landscapes which are a part of his series “Bunches and Branches,” are an example of some of Impressionism’s posterity. His works differ though: they do not romanticize mark-making and he paints with cold, whitish blues that sterilize his landscapes of otherwise frenetic sanguine colors. His works can be innervating, because the marks are so dense in how they describe and articulate his subject, and also in how they seek to tear it apart. In other words, his paint marks can deconstruct reality as much as they reconstruct it. Paintings that exhibit both equally are the most complex in their building off and innovating on Impressionism (and hence that which came before Impressionism), regardless of whether or not this was the artist’s intention.


falling boy

“Falling Boy,” Oil on canvas, 2014 (produced by author)

Deconstructive and subversive marks are contumacious enough to be contemporary, and to paraphrase Mallarmé: they destroy as much as they create—in that they create new meaning. These works also signal the long lineage of patricidal artists (“death to father”) who’ve outdone their artistic predecessors. Convivial one upping marks new artistic movements. Schmidt is participating in whatever today can be considered neo-figurative painting qua Dana Schutz, Doron Langberg and Jennifer Packer. This form of neo-figuration is also inherent to certain post-internet artists such as Avery Singer.

Sure, Schmidt’s works might be considered “studies” of the visual world: they are paintings based off photography he has taken of landscapes and urban cityscapes that resonate with him, and he paints them in a way that highlights the paint medium itself, without losing face with mimetic representation. In other words, his work records the world, faithfully enough. He doesn’t involve internet critique which is a faddish, but compelling contemporary art movement. Nor does Schmidt employ the Airbrush effects of an Avery Singer painting either, and like most artists, his work doesn’t take on intellectual premises for making art that cause the work to rationally self-immolate. I think of Pierre Huyghe’s open-ended performance events. In Schmidt’s paintings’ determination to present objects and environments of the natural world faithfully enough, but in ways they have never quite been presented, his work as a whole might be more relevant than we give it credit. I herein solicit a comprehensive rebuttal that might prove otherwise.

Another artist, Chris Pfister, who recently had a solo show at Jonathan Novak Gallery in Los Angeles (October 19th – November 20th), seems to make work from a similar viewpoint. To paraphrase the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century,the uncanny lies in making reality strange. Something similar happens when Pfister translates historical photography into paintings. This artist doesn’t just mimetically represent the photos, but the gestural and alla prima moments of his work become shorthand for a conversation the painter might have with the history of art and his particular subject matter.  Moreover, the works’ gestural moments—notice how the foliage and trees in the image below dissolve into blotches— become a mere semblance of what they represent and retain their semi-abstract quality of painted brushstrokes on canvas. The effect can be a powerful tool for representing the world as a deviation from what the viewer may or may not be familiar with.



Chris Pfister, The Young Astronomer, oil on canvas, 2014


A mastery over seeing and constructing objects in the 2-D is a pre-requisite for this capability. The most effective painters of this method show their viewers versions of reality that feel more accurate than what they thought reality could be.  Such artists like Monet come to mind: his aqueous blossoms are practically Jackson Pollock paintings up close, and yet from a far, transform into verisimilitudinous representations.


Another example: in the painting shown below, Erik Schmidt captures the movement of trees blowing in the wind as frenetic paint marks. Because of the exactitude of each mark, his painting might articulate the feeling of movement better than moving images can.



Erik Schmidt, Dem Herrn Zugewandt, Oil on canvas, 2007.

However, in contrast, Chris Pfister’s black-and-white work is more a deviation from realism, rather than a “truer” version of it. The question of why Pfister hasn’t gone beyond a foundational exploration of the relationship of photo to painting is the ugly elephant in the room. He might have at some point in his career, but that work isn’t accessible online. Pfister’s works have much to contend with in the realm of black-and-white, monochromatic paintings considering the work of Gerhard Richter or that of Giorgio Morandi, for obvious reasons. The paintings might still be “good” in the sense that they accomplish exactly what they set out to do: for Pfister, the image does exist somewhere between paint as material and paint as a tool for articulation of illusionistic space. His work is noteworthy primarily because not a lot of people know how to do this.

Contrary to how many view conceptual art, painting is still a skill and what you do with the “skill aspect” of painting determines your relationship to the practice. Do you disavow it or go along with it to try and innovate on how to describe form?







“Let Them Eat Cake:” Art Review of “Slum Pudding,” Ms. Barbers Gallery Group Show

September 19th – October 11th, 2015

By Janna Avner


Artist Irina Arnaut smashes a pie into her face in a video presented at Ms. Barbers current group show titled “Slum Pudding.” Arnaut wears high-waisted pants and a dark t-shirt as she leans next to a kicked over yellow table. Now she’s throwing kisses and bowing to no one. I can’t hear what she’s saying and I don’t know if it’s my responsibility as the critic to figure it out or come back another day (should I blame myself for coming during the opening?).

“Slum Pudding” is a D.I.Y. art show involving actual breakfast cereals and, like a recipe for pudding, that which is put into this pudding, cannot thereafter be taken out. The artwork denatures, becoming something else, and it’s not exactly edible. It is conceptual and conveys an inchoate sense of humor through references to food. For instance, Kenneth Tam’s “Caress” is a giant bar of green soap infused with Cheerios. The floating Cheerios are suspended throughout the rectangular cube, evoking an involuntary, zen-like minimalism of sorts. Though “Caress” dispels lofty interpretation: you can wash your body with it (the Cheerios act as a body scrub) and it disintegrates over time. As a work of art, “Caress” is frankly non-autonomous.

Like most group shows that exhibit the typical disinterest in medium specificity, “Slum Pudding” is “a happening,” a fact that highlights itself to question why the work is being exhibited in the first place. The pieces are considered works of art only as a derivative and outmoded sentiment because the idea of “art for art’s sake” has long been washed away by today’s post-postmodernism. What we’re left with is pluralism and the fear of narrative. So we are lost at sea, so to speak, and perhaps the frustrated viewer—me —is incapable of reaching zeniths of intelligence to figure it out. Regardless, “Slum Pudding” intimates a hidden agenda, a story or intention belying its half-baked appearance. Despite the show’s all out nonchalance, we as viewers are meant to take it seriously, to find reason and rationalize through its high viscosity, wade through its creamy consistency.

On the left wall of the gallery, a tennis shoe cut open and splayed in the shape of a skinned animal is glued to the painting “Sketchers Shape-Up Works” by artist Anna Rosen. These days, a forced relationship between the avant-garde and tennis shoes is championed by the implausible “health goth” fashion movement and by “art bros” like Ryder Ripps, with his brand-critical, Nike brand-centric Instagram vibes. Yet Rosen’s wobbly paint handling suggests a do-it-yourself, arts’n craftsy bravado.  The word “slum” is defined as a “thickly populated, run-down, squalid part of a city, inhabited by poor people” or just an “untidy place.” If meant as a verb, then this pudding is “slumming,” and slumming hard: Rosen’s shoe sticks out of her painting like a sore thumb. The show’s curator Becky Kolsrud proves her discerning eye for intelligible, complex themes and concepts not reflected in individual pieces, per se, but in the show as a whole. If you can’t figure these works out, it somehow does feel like your fault.

  Non-sequiturs abound throughout “Slum Pudding:” two ceiling fans gently blow warm air, and occasionally clink together sharply, creating a staccato, tinny sound. As Sean Cassidy’s work, “Tomato Tomato” it is mysterious and enigmatic. Resting beneath it, Kenneth Tam’s huge, badly burnt “Cake” is blacker than the metal structure it stands on. Tam’s piece is placed next to a small, metal sculpture covered in cheap sea shells and tar that becomes “Cake’s” visual counterfactual and the fans’ contrarian as its title—“I don’t hear anything”— suggests and it is also made by Cassidy. “Spencer,” a smudgy faced illustration by artist Phil Davis on an almost Pepto-Bismol pink, partially painted linen canvas, gives off a very difficult expression to describe. As the only figurative work in the show, its expression seems to ask on the entire show’s behalf:“What do you think I’m doing here?”

Moments of transparency bind this group show together: a well manicured stack of wooden pancakes and frying pan titled “Floppy” by artist Patrick Price is straight forward enough. After all, this show is definitely about food. Each pancake is evenly spaced and painted in two tones of navy blue/ cobalt and orange/ yellow-ochre. They don’t deserve the pejorative “cute,” though they are: they have clean lines, and are simple, harmonious design-like renderings.

Offering less clarity is the opening’s accompanying movie script written by Phil Davis and his father, Ken Davis, that could never be sold to a film studio because jpegs of friends of Ms. Barbers (Lydia Murray of gallery space Chin’s Push is in one shot) interrupt the text, inserted pell-mell with little disputed either way. Interestingly, the photos are of Kolsrud’s wedding. The script’s typing style is slurred and the content of the dialogue is unclear. The intended mess of it is for a dramatic, frantic effect that is best understood as an inside joke.

The oddness of the script and its relationship to the art works in the room are carefully considered, despite appearances. “Slum Pudding” is vaguely comforting—soaps, cereals, pancakes, pies, pudding, and cake are reminiscent of dinner parties and brunches. When combined with experimental poetry, writer Gertrude Stein’s small book of poems Tender Buttons (1914) is a likely predicate: in this text repetitive wordplay evokes domesticity and innuendos listed under refined and rich food items like “cream” and “mutton.” Normally consumed at dinner parties for friends, these items and their descriptions reference the coterie of likeminded people Stein entertained in her Parisian art salon. Considering “Slum Pudding” in relation to Stein’s work makes sense of the jpegged movie script as well as the accompanying press release, which presents a strange and delightful poem titled “Sestina” by Patrick Price.

Art, food and experimental poetry draw a crowd; Stein adorned the walls of her salon with Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse’s paintings, works of art briefly considered “ugly” and misunderstood at that time. “Slum Pudding’s” distorted shopping list endures similar misunderstandings, though it relents, providing its own internal logic and clarity as Ms. Barbers takes on a more familiar and welcoming, though totally unforeseeable, domestic space.

Ms. Barbers

5370 West Adams Blvd

Los Angeles CA 90016


September 19th – October 11th

Saturday, 12 – 6, Sunday, 12 – 4

“For The Heavenly Tree, Harry Smith and Alchemy:” a series of paintings by Janna Avner

“For Harry Smith and the Arcane: the mystics make me weak.” Oil painting on canvas with nail polish, pencil, pen ink and rose petals. Janna Avner.

The work of the late artist Harry Smith, who is currently represented by the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, New York, was brought to my attention while I worked on a large installation of a 40 foot-long mural at this gallery. “The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward: Selected Works by Harry Smith, Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli,” is the catalogue of a spiritual abstraction painting show put on by Cohan in 2002 and was gifted to me by an artist also represented by this gallery.

“Thank you Daniel Rangel, Borja.” Oil paint on student grade canvas with nail polish. Janna Avner.

Smith and the other artists’ work in this catalogue catapulted me into a spiritual realm of thinking on which I based this current series of paintings. Esoterica, alchemy, mythology, folk music, psychedelics, Hindu scripture and Celtic poetry encompassed Harry Smiths’s distinct interests as an anthropological musicologist with far reaching influences in both music and the arts.

Establishing a tribe-like, enclave-qua-sanctuary as a provider of culture in his hotel room indefinitely booked at the Chelsea Hotel in 1968-1975, Harry Smith hosted viewing sessions of his work for everyone from the Beats like Allen Ginsberg to musicians like Mick Jagger and Patti Smith.

Harry Smith would usher these creatives into his room, didactically enlisting their attention in private viewing sessions of his mystical paintings and Baushaus-esque hand-painted colored films. Amazed and boggled, his viewers were hooked on the strange headspace Smith revealed to them, establishing a communal viewing circle for the exchange of ideas amongst likeminded thinkers. Decades later after winning a Grammy in 1991 for his renowned American Anthology of Folk Music, to then pass away later that year, Harry Smith and his legacy remain intact despite the destruction of most of his paintings after Smith was evicted from his apartment in the sixties, causing Smith to have a nervous breakdown. Brilliant and single minded, Smith’s ideas and personhood cast a large shadow over my painting series, bringing forth a spiritual side to myself I didn’t know I had.

“Twin Snakes: Philip Taaffe’s monograph.” Oil paint on Canvas. Janna Avner.

For these series of paintings I used oil paint and non-traditional materials such as pen ink, dried rose petals, pencil, marbled nail-polish, and Williamsburg red and blue, holographic, Interference paint to produce certain psychedelic effects. Though I avoid psychedelic drugs, I am still inspired by psychedelic music and culture.

Harry Smith is an outsider artist like artists Martin Ramirez or Charles Darger because he was self-taught and voluntarily closed off from the world. Artists like these tend to think and make work for themselves on their own cultural islands; they do not follow trends. Their psychological exclusion from the norm is the breeding ground for original thinking and thus my reason for allowing myself to be influenced by Smith’s body of work.

I want to enforce my own art making practice and viewpoints and I feel this time in a young artist’s life is singularly the most important for any kind of original thinking.

“A Reinterpretation of an Object or a Person in a Room (2).” Oil paint on canvas with marbled nail polish. Janna Avner
“A Reinterpretation of an Object or a Person in a Room (3).” Oil paint and pen ink on canvas. Janna Avner

Time for a Phil Glass Conversation.

[This review covers a performance of “Dance” shown in July, 2010, at The Schubert in New Haven, CT.]

“Dance” is choreographer Lucinda Childs’s afterthought to “Einstein On The Beach,” the first of composer Philip Glass’s and artist Robert Wilson’s operatic trilogies performed in 1974.  “Einstein” premiered stylistic innovation seen throughout the creators’ careers; Glass’s cyclical repeating chords poeticized lead-performer Childs’s choreography, making both art mediums variously interpreted.  The performance lasted four and a half hours without intermission and the audience could get up and go as they pleased.  Many didn’t know what the opera meant which didn’t matter, though creators Glass and Wilson later implied something about a cultural awareness for the inner workings of pacifist and atomic bomb creator Albert Einstein.  Regardless, the performance elbowed its way into our cultural history as a defiant blend of operatic drama and contemporary thought, placing Glass, Childs, and Wilson in the forefront of the latter-half of 20th century art.   

“Dance,” performed at the Schubert last week to a recording of Glass’s ensemble, portrays musical rigor unlimited by physical nuance.  Early patron and comrade to Glass and Childs, conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, re-edited a 1979 recording of a premiere of “Dance” in 35 mm black-and-white film, and projected it onto a clear screen in front of the dancers during the performance.  This makes for a palimpsestic print of visuals: the thin screen of enlarged figures is like an overlaid mono-print that informs, confuses, and coordinates itself with the actual dancers behind it who stream across stage, stoic-faced, in sparse, rectilinear patterns. They move like an electric current for the entirety of the performance.  LeWitt gently distorts the visual consistency of the dancers on screen through editing techniques—half-frames, stills, sequence cuts— which the real-time performers mimic.  The chromatic stage lighting, designed by on- and off-broadway lighting designer Beverly Emmons, occasionally alternates from blue, to yellow, and then to red at musical peaks—yes, Glass’s music can be climactic—and then switches back to a utilitarian glow. 

Like minimalist art, a label Glass interestingly avoids, “Dance” exudes enigma and the arcane, and audience reactions never rest on one person alone; some love it and others hate it. Some feel surrounded by a sonic storm while others, a heightened way of seeing.  “Dance’s” stylistic effects originate not just from Glass’s music, but from physical differences in the piece’s real-time and recorded choreography.  As Glass suggests in interviews, dissonance creates an articulated language with which viewers engage. “Dance’s” monotonous, repeated musical chords and de-centralized, stiff choreography demand its audiences’ patience though, which might be irritating for unconditioned listeners. The performance is partitioned by dance solos that separate the three-part piece into 20-minute increments. Childs mentioned in interviews that the solos slow the performance down, giving the audience time to absorb it.

Before “Einstein,” Childs co-founded the Judson Dance Theater in 1963, an influential avant-garde dance collective that incorporated new movements and objects into its dance performances.  If you youtube Childs, you can see her in 1964 biting into several sponges at once, wearing a hat made out of metal wire and curlers.  After “Einstein” and since the early eighties, Childs has received various commissions from major ballet companies and operas in the U.S. and Europe and has worked with, among others, the famous choreography of Martha Graham, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and has worked with artists such as (architect) Frank Gehry, and John Adams.  In 2004, Childs was appointed France’s Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

With all that Childs has choreographed, “Dance” helped propagate a certain kind of criticism: dancers glide on and off stage without human interaction or discernible feeling to repetitive music some say is too simplistic.  Those of the Glass faith, however, will find themselves satiated by this performance.  Glass’s obsession with training and technique rings true in his sound, and in how hard these dancers work on stage. Glass believes that music should “vividly” collaborate with subject matter, though he might be too authoritative here; the dancers seem limited, only performing finite gestures in accordance with the sounds of repeating cyclical chords.  Would it be a problem if the performance was titled “Sound” instead of “Dance?” Perhaps you should also find out, in conjunction with watching “Dance,” what Childs’s other performances are like when she’s not working with Glass.

[This review covers a performance of “Dance” shown in July, 2010, at The Schubert in New Haven, CT.]


As a painter who loves to write, the following

quote is a metaphor of my interstice. I am an in-betweener.

Famous novelist John Banville wishes he could paint: “‘I loved the notion of being a painter,’ Banville said on the phone from his home, in Dublin. “I loved all the paint, that whole world, all that beautiful equipment one uses. That’s one thing I hate about being a novelist: I have a nice fountain pen and nice big books to write in, but it’s nothing compared to being a painter and all the wonderful brushes and all that paint and all that turpentine and those wonderful smells, all that muckiness—it’s like being a child again.”

Dizzy Copper, “Glazed Glitter:” The Poetics of Space in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons

The following is a 20-minute presentation I wrote for a lecture in the Graduate School of Art History at Yale, called “Women Make Modern,” organized by art historian David Joselit in the spring of 2012.

The original meaning of “stanza” is the italian word for “room.”  One might begin to think of “stanza’s” etymological route in relation to Gertrude Stein’s book of poetry, Tender Buttons. The following presentation aims to show that her poems begin to take on the characteristics of a room containing the congenial relations of Stein’s early avant-garde coterie. Tender Buttons has less do with social spaces than it does intimate spaces between people that are secretive, hidden, latent.  Thus the kind of social interaction implied by the text is more personal and even a reflection of the consciousness of a single, solitary individual, that individual being Stein, who gleans from her personal memories these interactions.

Tender Buttons evokes the actual domestic space in which the list-like format of this text’s first manuscripts were created, an imagined space created through its descriptions of objects, and a thirdly imagined social space arising from references to people and conversations.  Arguably, the domestic, imagined, and referred to spaces in this book of poems and other poems of hers, evoke something like a room inhabited by an artistic coterie that promoted and supported Stein’s experiments in language largely disavowed during this time in her career.  As mentioned in many histories of Stein, Tender Buttons was practically Stein’s first publication, and it was basically ridiculed when it was published. Not until The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (published in 1933), did Stein receive some kind of celebrity status. 

Space and spatial relations is also an important way of understanding Gertrude Stein’s philosophical concerns about “seeing;” plausibly, it elucidates Stein’s belief in the non-differentiation of art and life that is integral to her view of the “modern composition” (Stein, “Composition as Explanation”). Real life, understood as that which occurs outside texts and writings, coheres with Stein’s ideas of “language that moves” as Stein creates literature situated in “living”—that is conversational.  In doing so, Stein’s theories about “moving language” have a social bent, that points to communicative verbal exchange amongst friends.  Moreover, a kind of domestic and shared space involving people in the process of different kinds of looking or different kinds of perceiving is suggested in Stein’s “looking.” Perhaps we might see the created and imagined space in her composition as something like the beginnings of art spaces in general that took in and valued modern art.

These images suggest that Stein began thinking about lists as early as 1910-1912, the time at which she wrote Tender Buttons, despite some sources saying it began around 1924 (Dydo 95).  From these images one can see that Stein’s first manuscripts for Tender Buttons seem indistinguishable from shopping lists. Tender Buttons’s list-like format thusly evokes what one might call the “actual” domestic space of Alice Toklas’s and Stein’s domestic partnership, which began during the time Tender Buttons was created.




Three torn scraps of paper from two sheets part of the

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (2012)

Some of the foods listed above are, “Mutton,” “roast beef,” “rhubarb,” “cake,” “custard,” “sauce,” “salmon,” (Stein, TB).  One might also go so far as to say that these foods are all comfort foods, and most are ingredients for comfort foods also listed (“milk,” “eggs,” “cream,” “cocoa,” for example, are the ingredients for “cake”) (Stein, TB). I think it would be unrealistic to say that the domestic space Stein conjures is discomforting.

Via associations conjured by these kinds of food, the listed items represent a protective, domestic enclosure.  Moreover, Tender Buttons conjures the domestic space without any overt reference to an outside, external world.  A trip to Spain is said in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as the time of Stein’s drafting Tender Buttons, but cosmopolitan Paris and Stein’s and Toklas’s excursions to Spain are not explicitly acknowledged in this text.  By writing only on observations of domestic objects, Stein evokes the powerful sense of isolated protection one experiences in one’s own home. This feeling of oneness and singularity created in a domestic space is also conveyed throughout Tender Buttons, through the repetition and emphasis of demonstrative pronouns “there is” and “this is.”  The repetition compels the feeling that “there is” actually, only these things with which one habitually interacts. Thusly, Tender Buttons suggests that the richness of experience is felt in the home, or in the home as much as anywhere else.

Also, it might be argued that a particular space containing a gathering of artists and friends within the home is imagined through the kinds of food listed.  Stein’s lists of foods look like shopping-lists one is likely to buy for a dinner party: “Mutton,” “roast beef,” “rhubarb,” “cake,” “custard,” “sauce,” “salmon,” “potatoes,” and “asparagus” are some of the titles of her descriptions (Stein, TB).  These rich foods invoke the feasts of holidays and celebrations, despite their being interspersed throughout other foods more quotidian.  However, these foods are also many of the ingredients for the other ones, and are also rich in their unadulterated forms.

Stein’s food lists also evoke spaces for collecting different kinds of guests and attendees. Stein’s Tender Buttons references people she likes and those who have supported her; for example, Stein signals her friendship with Jean Cocteau for whom she also created a “portrait” poem.  Jean Cocteau later translated in his Potomak, “dining is west,” which is a line earlier found in Tender Buttons and in the portrait Stein made of Cocteau that reads, “sign with as west west with as most” (Dydo 101).  Stein’s friend wrote to her in an undated letter (perhaps around the spring of 1923) that “Cocteau told me he would like to translate your book” (Dydo 101).  Gertrude Stein scholar, Ulla Dydo, comments that “which book is not clear, but what matters here is that Cocteau liked Stein’s work.”  This is one example of the community of congenial relations centering around Stein’s work and the works of others within and outside her coterie.

The domestic space is expressed in Tender Buttons in more than one way because it carries the real life story of Stein and Alice Toklas’s moving in together to start their domestic partnership. The domestic space is thusly evoked to express not simply congenial relations, but intimate and erotic ones.  Perhaps more obvious to some than the less overt allusions to platonic friendships and literary alliances are the thinly veiled sexual remarks, enhancing this text’s already cornucopian meaning.  An example that more staunchly places Tender Buttons in genre of romantic literature is “RED ROSES.”:


A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and

a sold hole, a little less hot. (24)

Here Stein describes roses of varied color, one a “cool red” and the other, a “pink cut pink.” Perhaps the “collapse” of the rose is derived from the memory of its stems being cut after it was sold to Stein. Stein says in a revealing interview with poet Robert Hass that parts of her descriptions are re-fabricated from memory. The expression of a “hot” or a “little less hot” flower that is synecdochically described as a “hole” conveys the warm colors of “red” and “pink,” but also suggests body heat and bodily orifices.  Moreover, Tender Buttons’s more erotic interests play out in the titular subject’s adjective, “tender,” which is, besides many meanings, an innuendo for “nipples.”

Having given an example of a communicative exchange in writing between artists with overlapping interests, it’s possible that Stein seems to have used her writing as means for acknowledging people who have supported her and her practice, thus producing work taken from real life experiences.  For example, Stein gave a performative tribute to Edith Sitwell during her touring Narration lectures in 1934.  In the conclusion of the address to Stein’s poetry reading, Stein performs “Sitwell Edith Sitwell,” a “portrait” of Sitwell, Stein’s friend, advocate, and the onstage introducer of her work.  At this time, Stein incorporates the actual room which includes herself and her audience into her writing to make writing a part of “seeing.”  As Ulla Dydo explains in Gertrude Stein: the Language that Rises: 1923-1924, “…Sitwell as subject of the portrait could be seen and ‘read’ directly by the audience while Stein read her own portrait of Sitwell…Stein read to those who were her own admiring audience about those who ‘sit when they sit around her,’ as she says of Sitwell’s audience in the portrait” (Dydo 96).  Here the whole room and the social interaction therein is incorporated into Stein’s writing as a space for the reception of her work. 

As the audience is compelled to look at Sitwell while hearing a poem about her, the idea of “reading” someone like one does in social situations becomes indistinguishable from reading a text. It’s also important to note that Stein did not see writing as any different from real life. She explains in “Composition as Explanation” that composition is “looking” based on how each generation is “doing something.” The term “composition” in this text applies to art, war, and daily life (Stein 21). The following analysis will show that that which occurs outside texts and writings, coheres with Stein’s ideas of “language that moves” through Stein’s creating literature situated in “living” that is conversational.     

Perhaps Stein’s idea of “moving language” relates to her goal to revive language as social and enlivened speaking in conversation.  Liesel Olson explains the “moving” language theory of Stein’s in Olson’s essay, “‘An invincible force meets an immovable object:’ Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago:’”

‘Moving’ language, according to Stein, rejects classical narrative structure, rejects a ‘beginning and a middle and an ending.’ Stein suggests that American writing poses a challenge to an Aristotelian concept of a work’s coherence.” (Olson 3)

Olson examines the ways in which Stein is more concerned with experience of the “middle” that already has within it the potential for the beginning and ending (Olson quotes Stein explaining that she simply finds the “middle” more interesting than any other part) (Olson 61). 

To explore the said “movement” in Stein’s language consider any part of Tender Buttons, though I will underscore the beginning lines of  “A LONG DRESS” which is midway through the first section titled “Objects:”


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist.  What is this current.

What is this wind, what is it.  (17)

  In the second and third lines which read, “What is this current. / What is this wind, What is it,” the term “what” indicates that these phrases might be questions, except that the lack of interrogative punctuation makes the subject of each sentence “what” and its subjective complement, “this current,” “the wind,” and “it.”  Thus the pronoun “what” is presented as standing in for anything used in specifying something, because in most of Stein’s use of pronouns in Tender Buttons, the reference is almost always obscure, except for the titular subject (here being a “dress”). By placing “what” on one line, the next line, and then again after the comma, it literally “moves” through our act of reading the lines by “what” becoming the three different meanings, “this current,” the “wind,” and the indeterminate “it” (Stein 17).  Ulla Dydo describes Stein’s grammatical units as creating “time” that is “‘followed and not surrounded’–that does not escape toward a vanishing point but is contained in surrounded circles, repetitions, and rhymes” (Dydo 96). The description of “A LONG DRESS,” like many of the descriptions in Tender Buttons, delimits its primary pronoun “it” to its subjective complement and the titular subject, and thus holds the reader’s attention of the term in this reflective space or “stanza.”

The sense of time for the reader is fixed, or “contained in surrounded…repetitions” which creates the idea of meaning that moves without a concretizing definition or endpoint.  Repetition is an indication of “middle” in Stein’s writing then, or the non-narratological part of a story that has a similar inconclusiveness to it as a conversation has. Considering that conversation is a non-teleological, intersubjective exchange, a coming together of like-minded people on subjects of interest that aren’t necessarily conclusive or resolved, then the “middle” that Stein speaks of takes much of its cues from conversation.

For Stein, repetition doesn’t mean exactly the same, but rather that similar or the same grammatical units can be recognized differently.  Perhaps the result is considered a “defamiliarization” or revivification of Stein’s language.  The result of this might be that Stein conveys the vivid quality of conversation as well. Stein Scholar Barbara Will analyzes in her book, Gertrude Stein, Modernism and the Problem of “Genius,” Stein’s repetition in relation to Russian Formalism.  Will evidences how a phrase can be underscored via repetition that differentiates it and thus revivifies it.

Applied to Stein’s use of civilities in her poems, Stein’s repeating phrases might create social and enlivened speaking one experiences in conversation.  Repeating civilities in some of Stein’s poems, “set up,” as Will says, “and destabilize the basic equation,” which enlivens the reiteration by making it more interesting. Just as well, repetition and internal rhyming of terms like “pardon” and “to knock at the door” in other poems of hers, create the texture of daily life as repeating and habitual (Stein, “Gradual Making of the Making of Americans,” Stein, Portraits, Dydo).   Similarly, “Thank you,” Gertrude Stein’s two-lined poem created in 1913, repeats “Thank you” six times (Bridgman, xiv).

The conversational texture of Stein’s theory of “moving language” as well as the enlivened, social quality of her reiterations suggest that Stein’s theories on language have a social bent.  While they certainly reflect her belief in the non-differentiation of art and life, these ideas seem to also evoke a community in which Stein’s work is accepted and reinforced.

Tender Buttons as an imagined space for the appreciation of art and different kinds of looking seems reinforced in reference to particular conversations Stein had with supportive friends and her partner, Alice Toklas.  It’s also important to mention that Stein’s philosophical concerns about the “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” of Tender Buttons seems involved with the spatialization of objects.  The ramifications of this idea is that Stein’s objects at once evoke a space in which art is appreciated while also reinforcing new, and innovative ways to view objects.  In this way, Stein’s different kinds of “looking” become vital to the reception of art in general.

Gertrude Stein reveals her philosophical concerns by evoking objects as spatial.  In other words, in Tender Buttons, space is imagined through descriptions of objects that redefine their concrete, “knowable” identities.  To recall Stein’s description of “A LONG DRESS,” one was lead to a conclusion that “what” can stand in for anything. This begs the question, how do we define and distinguish amongst its substitutes? If it is infinitely substitutive, then how can language be used to identify and distinguish objects?  Perhaps Tender Buttons invites a new perceiving of identity, not so much as singularly understandable, but as experiences without obvious boundaries.  In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes that the descriptions in Tender Buttons were the beginning, as Gertrude Stein would say, “of mixing the outside with the inside and… in these studies she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.” (Chapter six, The Autobiography.)

In other words, what one sees when one reads this work is the “inside” of the object understood from the “outside.” So the term “outside” refers to the space within which the object becomes meaningful rather than the object itself.  This spatial perspective, or the poetics of space, is forged from Stein’s repetitive rhymes and patterns that focus less on a particular subject in the description which is reinforced by using demonstrative and interrogative pronouns with obscure references. To support Stein’s own interpretation of her work, take for example the beginning lines of verse in “A PIECE OF COFFEE;” “More of double. / A place in no new table” (Stein 12).  The first line avoids a subject, while the second contains one, but “coffee” is not described as one typically knows it, that is, the drink, the seed, or the cup. It becomes “a place.”  This object then is without definite boundaries, as “place” suggests, and is thus spatial and experiential.  Stein scholar Richard Bridgman writes in Gertrude Stein in Pieces that “so far as Gertrude Stein could determine in her subjective isolation, all of these made up the object’s full and authentic existence insofar as it had any reality for her. The object could not be separated from its context.  It was entangled in an infinite web of relationships.” (Bridgman 124)

Deduced from these observations on space in Stein’s writing is a kind of domestic and shared space of different kinds of seeing, or a place for open interpretation and “looking” (“looking” at this point comprises how one’s life is lived or ways of living, and observations that culminate to the creation of Stein’s art) that allows for positive reinforcement and the continued generation of this reinforcement in Stein’s art.  Evidenced by these exchanges and Stein’s performative portrait of Edith Sitwell is that Stein, and perhaps many artists during this time, needed the support of others who believed in them.  Richard Bridgman writes in Gertrude Stein in Pieces:

…in her letters she constantly solicited praise and reassurance from her friends, especially from Carl Van Vechten who was the most generous in providing it.  When she referred to her work in correspondence, she countered her own doubts by insisting that the project she was engaged in was awfully good, was the best thing she had ever done, was sure to please the recipient. (Brigman 14)

Stein’s correspondence regarding Edith Sitwell follows suit with Bridgman’s observations. Stein later says “of course I do know that I am the best of it and I must say that no one has been more continuously and persistently certain of it than she [Sitwell] among the litterateurs” (Dydo, 104).  This attempt to “insist,” Bridgman says, on Stein’s talent is perhaps a response to possible insecurities and as Barbara Will says in her book, Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of Genius, “anxieties,” regarding how Stein feels about her writings.  Not until Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933 did she receive some kind of celebrity status.  It thus seems that Stein, during these trying times, reinforces her practice through writings reflecting on and preserving a group of people who had faith in her work.

Arguably, the idea of space in Gertrude Stein’s writings is intimately linked to the spaces in which her art was made and how her ideas were generated.  Her friends, her living spaces, and the objects therein influenced Stein’s style toward social and experiential ways of writing to address greater theoretical ideas and concerns regarding how one is to understand space and time during the influx of technological advances that shaped how America “moves” within and across borders.  It is arguable that Stein found spaces that are social and domestic intimately linked with new ways of conceiving of that space to generate cultural/artistic production.

In sum, the space Stein’s observations evokes, is a kind of domestic, shared space constructed via different kinds of looking to generate more different kinds of looking.  This idea sheds light on how her art was produced during her time and how it finally gained acceptance from the greater public through self-promotion of one’s works and promotion of others’ works.  We might see the created and imagined space in her composition as something like the beginnings of the first art spaces in general to embrace and accept modern art.   

A direct link between these two “sites,” the imagined space this analysis suggests in Stein’s work, and art spaces or institutions in general is unsubstantiated. However, a connection remains because the kinds of relationships intimated in Stein’s writings, which predate modern art museums not yet formed, were some of the first to support art considered “modern.”  It is significant for the idea of space in Stein’s work to begin to be associated with the Steins’ Salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, which housed some of the first art works ever to be considered “modern.”  In this way then, art institutions, spaces for showing and housing works of art, don’t have to be “real” in the way we tend to consider them, but rather imagined or psychological, as they become the precursors for and reinforcements of the actual and eventual art institutions themselves.



Bruner, Belinda. “A Recipe for Modernism and the Somatic Intellect in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.” Papers on Language and Literature. Edwardsville: Fall 2009. Vol. 45, Iss. 4; pg. 411, 23 pgs. Literature Online.

Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces.  New York: Oxford University, 1970.

Dydo, Ulla and William Rice. Gertrude Stein: the Language that Rises: 1923-1924. Chicago, Northwestern University. 2003.

Olson, Liesl: ‘An invincible force meets an immovable object’: Gertrude Stein comes to Chicago. Modernism/Modernity (Baltimore, MD) (17:2) [Apr 2010] , p.331-361.  LION, Literature Online. < HYPERLINK ” HYPERLINK “” HYPERLINK “” http:// id=R04416180&divLevel=0&queryId=../session/ 1310844418_14844&trailId=13099EBB1F1&area=abell&forward=critref_ft>

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. OED Online. OUP. 1989. Web. 5 Oct. 2011

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook. Online pdf. HYPERLINK “” <> November 2006.

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation.” Look at Me Now and Here I am. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971. 21-30.

Stein, Gertrude. “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans.” Look at Me Now and Here I am. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Baltimore: Penguin, 1971. 84-98.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002. 17, 12.

Will, Barbara. Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of “Genius.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University. 2000.


Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons: notes. Three torn scraps of paper from one sheet. Part of The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. YCAL MSS 76. Online. Retreived Dec. 18, 2011. < HYPERLINK “ brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1138344>

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons: notes. Torn scrap of paper. Part of The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. YCAL MSS 76. Online. Retrieved Dec. 18 2011. < HYPERLINK “” http:// pid=2038387&iid=1136741&srchtype=>


We seek to recognize who we are, our being and our ontology, with clarity, and not as a dogma with an ever expanding corpus of thought, and not to embrace the interiority of the academic pedant; it is in full and remains the present experience of the philosophical life that has no limits and yet recognizes the socially imposed experiments of our time as recognizable and easily overcome roadblocks.

—inspired by Foucault

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