Gail Mazur’s poem “Josef Albers” appears in AGNI 87.
Lauren Peat/AGNI: Your portrait of the German artist and designer Josef Albers (in “Josef Albers,” AGNI 87) is addressed to an enigmatic second-person subject; though I initially read the poem as being addressed to a student of Albers’s (in their “cold shared studio”), it could also be interpreted as a self-address. The more time I spend with the poem, the more I lean toward this second interpretation—particularly because its clipped lines and staccato rhythms (as well as its ultimate, breathless conclusion) is an ingenious performance of Albers’s “brutal…wisdom”:
becoming an artist
you need to know
would be a ruthless life
you need to take
what your art needs
theft and murder….
Considering how convincingly the poem enacts the classic writer’s workshop adage “kill your darlings,” how much of the poem’s artistic attitude is performative? To quote Oscar Wilde: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Do you consider the poem to be primarily a portrait of Albers, or is there something of your own philosophy within it?
Gail Mazur: Of course, although he was an abstract artist, Albers was speaking figuratively! He wasn’t homicidal.
When my husband, Michael, was an art student at Yale, Albers had retired from teaching, but he hired Michael to print a (beautiful) inkless intaglio print of his (Albers’s) on the art department’s etching press. They worked together for a few days printing the full edition. Albers’s color course at Yale, his color theory, had a profound influence on a generation’s painting. He was a born teacher. When he said, “When you steal, kill,” he was talking about how ruthless you have to be in your standards for your work—and about how, when we are influenced—as we all have to be—by artists whose work we love, we must move beyond imitating their work. Of course, partly, maybe mostly, he meant it competitively—Do even better, beat them at their game!—but also, more importantly, make the work your own.
Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Temperamentally, Albers shows a similar bracing ruthlessness, with a murderous edge! When they “kill,” artists could change the Conversation. I can hear Albers, his Germanic accent, sounding absolutely—or needing to be—sure that his brilliant Homages to the Square were changing the narrative in his time.
We don’t necessarily want to erase the source! So much from (writers) we admire enters our own poems—when we look at a painting, read poetry, hear music, isn’t it a joy to experience the sources, the history of the art itself? Depends on how well the theft is incorporated!
(Yogi Berra said, “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”)
Originally from Bottrop, Germany, Albers experienced the Nazis’ ascent to power firsthand, studying and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus art school until its closure in 1933, due to Nazi pressure. He subsequently fled to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1976. How do you understand Albers’s “brutal…wisdom” in the context of the mass atrocity of World Wars I and II?
I didn’t mean to imply in “Josef Albers” that his personal history—his wife, Anni, the really revolutionary textile artist, was Jewish, and so to the Nazis, he himself might as well have been—influenced his “brutal wisdom.” But. But.
To a young artist like my husband, what Albers said was shocking and bracing, as it was to me. A kind of ferocious permission to be ruthless in your art. I think master artists, beside Picasso, must have always thought that way!
Albers taught at Yale University until 1958; your poem depicts a scene in New Haven, in 1959. As a teacher of poetry yourself, do you think Albers’s philosophy is incompatible with the art of teaching? How does a practicing artist mentor younger artists and advocate for their work if their professed business is “theft and murder”?
GM: No, I think implied in what he says is the need for students to steep themselves in the histories of art, to be in lifelong dialogue with art.
Well, the way to be ruthless with one’s own work is to be relentless with yourself. Not to be too easily satisfied. To be merciless. (That’s where the instruction to “kill your darlings” has come in. It’s not near what Albers was saying, but it’s a warning not be soft on yourself, to be as objective as you can be in the re-making.) A work of art might not be fierce, but sometimes, in the process of making, the maker must be cold-blooded, relentlessly dissatisfied. Until it’s the best one can do. Sometimes that’s torment, until it’s exultation.
A mentor will always be urging younger artists to look, look, look, listen, listen, read, read, read! Albers was a profoundly influential teacher, a great teacher. Difficult, maybe tyrannical, but great.
Lauren Peat is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (6/2018)