David Levi Strauss presented the following piece at an event in honor of the art historian and critic Dore Ashton at the Cooper Union in New York on December 9, 2015. Ashton died on January 30, at the age of 89. Strauss, who is the chair of the MFA Art Writing Department at the School of Visual Arts, has kindly allowed us to reproduce his remarks from that evening, which was organized by Alfredo Jaar and Michael Corris. —The Editors
I’m here, actually, because of my daughter, Maya Grace Strauss, who is a brilliant painter, a “real painter painter,” as Dore just said (she gets this from her mother, Sterrett Smith, also a brilliant painter). Maya graduated from the School of Art here at Cooper (in this very room) in May 2012, as things were falling apart and Cooper was losing its way. But Maya received a tremendous education here and I will always be grateful for that. She studied with Dennis Adams, Bobby Bordo, David True, Christine Osinski, Margaret Morton, Ben Degen, Sharon Hayes, Doug Ashford, Stanley Whitney, and Walid Raad, among others, and she learned a great deal, in very different ways, from all of them.
She also studied with Dore Ashton, and I want to mark my thanks today, for what Dore gave to Maya. When Maya speaks of it now, she mainly talks about the value of being exposed to extraordinary sources, from Cézanne, Matisse, and de Kooning to Merleau-Ponty, Ortega y Gasset, Mandelstam, and Mayakovsky. When Maya found a source that resonated with her, she looked at what they were reading and looking at, and began to build a network of sources. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s what we did in the Poetics Program in San Francisco in the ‘80s, and that’s what we do in my little graduate program at SVA now. Sources. When a writer that you love loves another writer, you should pay attention to that connection. In the Golden Age of Search, when so much is readily available, building a network of sources that makes sense and allows you to make connections and distinctions among things is actually more important than it ever has been.
So I got to thinking about Dore and sources, and I remembered that the first sentence of her “Author’s Note” to The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning was “My favorite philosopher is Gaston Bachelard.” Later, I wondered why this wasn’t Nietzsche, since I knew Dore read a lot of Nietzsche, but there’s a good deal of Nietzsche in Bachelard, including “One must guess the painter to understand the picture.” Anyway, the Bachelard stuck. I had read The Poetics of Space in the ‘70s, and maybe a couple of other things, but I hadn’t gone back to Bachelard since then. When I did, I found these remarkable books, previously untranslated phenomenological studies of the imagination, published by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, beginning in 1981.
The first book to draw me in was Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, originally published in 1942, in French, but not translated into English until 1983. I won’t go into why this subject has a special attraction for me (that’s for another time), but I was very pleased with what I found there.
Then, by accident, I came upon a little book called H20 & the Waters of Forgetfulness, by Ivan Illich (who had been a major figure for me in the past, and has recently reemerged as a focus at the urging of my friend and collaborator Peter Lamborn Wilson, for whom Illich is central). I was surprised to find out that Illich’s essay had begun as a lecture at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in 1984, and that it was, in part, a gloss on or reply to Water and Dreams.
As in most of his other writings of this time, Bachelard in this essay focuses primarily on works of literature, including Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Valery, Coleridge, Shelley, Poe, Eluard, Claudel, John Cowper Powys, Strindberg’s Swanwhite, etc., etc., rather than on works of visual art. But he does say a number of intriguing things about images. In the beginning, he quotes Jacques Bousquet to say, “A new image costs humanity as much labor as a new characteristic costs a plant.” And he follows this with “Many attempted images cannot survive because they are merely formal play, not truly adapted to the matter they should adorn.”
Bachelard uses water here (as he does elsewhere with the other elements) as an endlessly generative image, as a way of gathering language around an image, and re-imagining the world. And, as in all his work, the tension between reverie and rationalism keeps the discourse alive. “Here … materialism, imagined through the material imagination, takes on a sensitivity so sharp, so painful, that it can understand all the woes of an idealistic poet.”
So these two texts ignited an inquiry that I’ll be writing into for some time to come. [Thank you, Dore.] It has already fed my ongoing word & image work Odile & Odette, and I hope eventually to get to a consideration of Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, and why we’re all currently forgetting everything as fast as we can.
And it strikes me that this inquiry is in keeping with what I see as the drivers of Dore Ashton’s best works over the years: the work of the imagination and the culture of images as primary, the taut relation between imagination and rationality (Bachelard: “Rationalist? That is what we are trying to become . . . “), the political function of memory, and the hidden sources of art.
A lot of you probably know the story of the 29-year-old Dore Ashton coming upon the just-published book The Poetics of Space in a bookstore in Paris, and devouring it. She thought Bachelard’s “theory of the poetic image was apposite to my own inarticulate perception of the nature of the modern experience in art: that the spaces with which it worked were always larger than the visible evidence suggested.”
She was so excited by this new source that she wrote a fan letter to the author and was immediately invited to visit him in his study. Eager to discuss the poetics of space and the nature of modern art with the 74-year-old sage, she was a bit taken aback when Bachelard instead wanted only to talk about LIFE magazine and Marilyn Monroe! Undaunted, Ashton immediately connected “Willem de Kooning’s preoccupation with Marilyn Monroe as symbol,” and the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who “used such imagery to make ‘a kind of optical noise’ (in the words of Leo Steinberg) creating a different order of experience.”
When Ashton returned to New York from Paris, she arranged to have The Poetics of Space translated and published in an English edition. And her encounter with Bachelard left a lasting impression. Near the end of an Oral History Interview that George Sampson did with Ashton for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian on March 9, 2011, she said “I’m still thinking of writing about my experience with Bachelard. I still have a folder with the title that I would have given, had I ever written it, which is based on Hokusai, who called himself ‘the old man mad about drawing’ (or ‘painting,’ because they’re the same word in Japanese). I was going to call it Gaston Bachelard: The Old Man Mad about Reading, because that’s what it’s all about, you know?”
At the beginning of Water and Dreams, Bachelard writes, “As for me, I have only reading through which to know man—reading, that marvelous means of judging man by what he writes.”
Dore Ashton is and has always been a writer, and she will be judged, over time, by what she’s written. And I think she’ll come out quite well. Not bad for a doctor’s daughter from New Jersey.