Nick Cave — Australian musician, composer, filmmaker, writer, artist, actor, all-around Renaissance man, with slick black hair and natty suits hanging off a long, pencil-thin frame — runs a sage, funny and heartbreakingly sincere advice column on his website The Red Hand Files. His counsel is so sharp and impassioned, you wonder: What can’t the guy do? I bet he can fly.
Recently, a precocious 13-year-old boy wrote in, asking this: “How do I live life to its absolute fullest, and not waste my potential? Especially as a creative. Also, what is a great way to spiritually enrich myself, in general, and in my creative work?”
I relished Cave’s response so much, I am excerpting a chunk of it here.
These are, to me, words to live by:
“Read. Read as much as possible. Read the big stuff, the challenging stuff, the confronting stuff, and read the fun stuff too. Visit galleries and look at paintings, watch movies, listen to music, go to concerts — be a little vampire running around the place sucking up all the art and ideas you can. Fill yourself with the beautiful stuff of the world. Have fun. Get amazed. Get astonished. Get awed on a regular basis, so that getting awed is habitual and becomes a state of being.”
Am I getting sick, dammit? Is this portentous throb in my brain the on-ramp to a massive cold? Is that familiar scratch in my throat a tease to a burning ribbit? Do those worrisome pangs in my limbs augur aches across my entire body?
Am I pissed about all this?
Yes, I am!
For one, I hate being sick — and that, reader, is the winner of the most unoriginal statement in the history of the world.
Two, I have a date. With Philadelphia to be exact. This week. A three-day assignation with some fine art, that’s what it is. And excellent food. And an unapologetic dive bar named Dirty Frank’s. That is correct: Dirty Frank’s.
Philly is only two hours away. And there happens to be two art shows worth some time there: “Matisse in the 1930s” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the place with the mountainous steps that Sylvester Stallone scales in “Rocky” — and why did I feel I had to mention that?), and “Modigliani Up Close” at the peerless Barnes Foundation, one of my very favorite venues for aesthetic astonishments.
And food. I will indulge in delicious vittles (and drink) at Village Whiskey (burgers, the eponymous hooch, and oodles of class) and The Dandelion, a “sophisticated homage to the British pub.” Last time I was there, I ate right next to a crackling fireplace.
We can’t overlook Dirty Frank’s, that famous cash-only, no-nonsense skank bar just around the corner from my hotel. It’s a neat, neon-splashed, Bud-in-the-bottle joint, replete with a hard-rocking jukebox, darts, pinball and miles of tats. Vice magazine calls it “a gleaming oasis of weird in a town beset by 21st-century slickening that’s always made people its primary business, no matter who those people are.” Word-for-word, my cold seems to fade at that description.
But is it actually fading? My head still thumps, my throat slightly sizzles. It’s time for three more Advils. I got a flu shot in September, so it can’t be the flu, can it? And I’ve had Covid and I don’t have any respiratory symptoms. And yet …
Take it easy, I tell myself. As I gulp down the pills, I toast good riddance to any sick and hello to Matisse, Modigliani — and Frank. Now, as further deterrence, I plop down for a nap. And I dream of Philadelphia.
Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.
(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)
To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.
Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast.
So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.
I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.
Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge.
This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.
And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. … The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”
For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.
For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.
“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.
The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.
My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.”
Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.
These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:
“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst
“The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill
On theater and art:
“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”
“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet
“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.”— Hart Crane
“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand
“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe
I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.
Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.
Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”
Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.
Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)