Sunday, July 25, 2010

But we do often speak about Klamm

Camus wrote that "the whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread." I have reread Kafka more than any other fiction writer, except Beckett - The Castle four times, The Trial seven or eight times and the stories - I've lost track. It's not just that he encourages close reading, but something in the work demands repetition, is bound up with repetition. I want I want I want, I can't I can't I can't, I will I will I will. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Beckett wrote that, but the spirit of it is consistent with Kafka as well. With the rise of the industrial age, the machine aesthetic, the assembly line, etc, repetition has become a standard motif in modern art.

Blumfeld is a new work, but I made another artwork based on Kafka's writing some years ago. To be exact, I was twenty-one, living in the YMCA in New York, and going to the School of Visual Arts ( I ran out of money three months later and had to drop out, but that's another story). I no longer have the work, but I still have the sketchbook in which I planned it out, so with the aid of the sketches, I'll describe it.

But we do often speak about Klamm, whom I've never seen - still, his appearance is well known in the village, some people have seen him, everybody has heard of him, and out of glimpses and rumors and through various distorting factors an image of Klamm has been constructed which is certainly true in fundamentals. But only in fundamentals. In detail it fluctuates....For he's reported as having one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it, after having his beer he looks different from what he does before it, when he's awake he's different from when he's asleep, when he's alone he's different from when he's talking to people, and he's almost another person up in the Castle. And even within the village there are considerable differences in the accounts given of him, differences as to his height, his bearing, his size, and the cut of his beard. Fortunately there's one thing in which all the accounts agree: he always wears the same clothes, a black morning coat with long tails. Now of course all these differences aren't the result of magic, but can be easily explained; they depend on the mood of the observer...
              - Franz Kafka, The Castle

The idea was to make a portrait of a person impossible to see, a person who is seen in words, concepts and emotions only, a person seen only through hearsay, gossip and legend. Maybe he doesn't exist. But I assure you I really did it. I offer these sketches as evidence. They show my thought process. Repetition was essential. I seized onto the black coat tails - the only thing to hold onto - as the one constant in the ever fluctuating system. It was important to represent a series of viewers, since this was the only way to "see" Klamm:

I decided on six views, squares of equal dimensions. I drew it on raw canvas. Each square contained a bar of canvas colored paint on the bottom. Each one was so alike in appearance that only close examination revealed subtle differences in the way I had drawn them - as densely packed fields of horizontal lines.

The sketch above reveals the plan. (For those interested, one of my visual art references for work of this kind was Donald Judd.) At the time our drawing teacher instructed us to buy some inexpensive frames and hang several of our works in the halls. He meant our figure drawings, and, not to brag, but he loved my figure drawings.

I wasn't about to waste my precious money on cheap frames so I decided to show one work - my portrait of Klamm. I didn't have time to make the outer section, which was meant to represent the six viewers of Klamm. Each piece was to be sewn onto the large portrait proper, having the diagram representing that viewer's perception of Klamm drawn in simple contours, like a cartoon. I just made the primary section, and, not liking the rough edges of the canvas, folded them over and sewed a seam. I was sitting in my little cell of the YMCA, Klamm in my lap, sewing the seam, when John, the guy who lived across from me, looked in. John carried a sketch book with him everywhere, constantly scribbling. He scribbled me, then said, "Are you an artist or a fucking seamstress?"

When the day came to hang our work I entered the halls and there they were: 18X24 inch framed figure drawings lining the halls. I hung up my 40x60 inch Judd-like thing on canvas then went to class. Our teacher was only a few years older than me, a pumped up hot-shot from money who owned a gym on Madison Avenue. He called me out to the hall. Standing in front of Klamm, hands on his hips, a scowl on his face, he said, "What the fuck is this?" I innocently answered, "A drawing." "How's it supposed to hang?" he demanded. "Just like that," I answered. "Then why'd you sign it vertically?" he wanted to know. "I thought it was less intrusive that way," I answered. He said, "You hang a fuckin picture as a landscape you sign it as a fuckin landscape. Some day somebody's gonna nail you."

I still don't know what he meant.


  1. I enjoy these glimpses into your life... the reaction of your neighbour at the YMCA was funny ... funnier yet was the reaction of your teacher and YOUR reaction to him. Having just read The Capybara, Part 2, I am struck by the Kafka-ess-ness of your story - not having quotation remarks makes the reader pay more attention; possibly makes them reread it. Funny... did you plan it that way or is it my incredibly astute observations!!!! (heh)
    By the way, your life drawing is pretty darn good.
    Then again, is there anything you don't do darn good?

  2. That was interesting seeing your thought process in sketches, Mark. I wonder what's become of your teacher? I stayed in the YMCA too when I was seeking work in Vancouver, though only for a couple of weeks until I knew my job would pan out. Fun times. Sort of. Thanks for sharing that!

  3. I started out thinking 'Oh no, he's going to talk about stuff I have no idea about and that is hard to think about, and I'm not going to be able to make it all the way through.'
    Then it turned into a story, and a good one, which made me go back and read it all again. This time I wasn't so resistent to Klamm, which made it all even better. Brilliant ending. Thank you, Mark.

  4. Deborah: when I go to make a post like this I think 'Oh no, another oddity no one will want to read.' It's a fine rope to walk - write what I want without writing merely for myself.

    Alan: I got to visit Vancouver a couple of years ago - gorgeous place. I think that part of the world has the climate I would most want to live in. I don't know what became of that fellow. it seemed to me he was already on top of the world at the age of 25.

    Cathy: Is that a serious question? I'll tell you one thing I'm terrible at: becoming rich and famous. But if you want to know, I feel that traditional drawing is the thing I do best, and I LOVE drawing from a model. Now about the quotation marks. The only reason I don't fully embrace your astute observation is because then someone can say that I deliberately make it hard for the reader - force her to pay more attention and reread. When I tell stories I want my writing style to be invisible. All those little curly-Q's clutter up the page. I think I can create a clean reading experience without them, at least I'm trying.

  5. I read, studied the drawings, read again.

    Parts I understand, parts I don't. I get the story, of course.

    Klamm I see as Everyman, ever changing both in himself as well as for the observer. Kafka's image of Klamm is perfection. I don't fully understand your sketches and the thinking behind them.

    I also understand that you and your teacher had different perspectives, neither understanding what the other saw.

    What I like best of all is that every piece of yours that I read makes me think.

  6. Maybe someone nailed him... :)

    To my way of thinking, art is the expression of the artist. If I could sign this little box vertically, I would.

  7. Very interesting piece (both the original artwork and the story you wrote about it). The way you approached the portrait of Klamm is great. Seizing his coat tails indeed. Of course, I'm a little jaded; The Castle is one of my favorite novels.

    Now I'm having art school flashbacks. There are way too many teachers like this guy. But then there are guys like my favorite instructor told me that if I didn't read Beckett he'd throw me down the stairs (he actually said this). I promptly got a copy of Malone Dies from the library and dropped out shortly thereafter. I'm not sure where I'm going with all this, just meant to say I enjoyed the glimpse of your creative process.

  8. Thank you guys for casting a glance at my scribbles, and Mr. Toady thanks for making me smile - I sure need it right now. Reading Beckett is definitely better than a toss over the banister or a kick in the crutch. Please come over and ramble any time you like.