Sophie Beck | The Point | November 2018 | 31 minutes (6,109 words)

The difficulty began with the title of a painting at an exhibition of work by the Spanish artist Joan Miró. The title was Woman Entranced by the Escape of Shooting Stars (1969). I particularly like this title. The painting itself pleases and eludes me at the same time—the woman’s upturned face has a serenity and happiness that comes of no clear aspect; she has stopped doing something to contemplate the heavens. I can’t make out what objects are in her hands and, if I were to read an interpretation, I’d probably find it questionable. There are two stars: one twinkles and the other spirals. Next to the painting was a sculpture I didn’t like, and then another sculpture constructed of found objects I considered meaningless to the point of being irritating. There was a whole room beyond that full of pieces I didn’t look at very closely. It was crowded in the museum that day. People around me shuffled, stopped, and shuffled, deep in their audio tours.

I stood before Woman Entranced by the Escape of Shooting Stars absorbing the elements—woman, star, spiral star not shaped like a star, inscrutable other stuff—then it followed me into daydreams and lodged in a fold of my mind. I am not an artist or critic and lay no claim to any special understanding of Miró’s work or methods. I am not his admirer, countryman or contemporary. I just started liking the guy despite not liking the guy. I couldn’t stop thinking about him so I wanted to write about him, but the more I wrote, the more I came to believe that the key to his fantastic work, to the sheer volume of work—he kept working without pause from age nineteen to ninety—was that he was phenomenally boring. It seemed that only Miró could take the fact of being Miró and make something lustrously reality-bending, inspired, haunting and gorgeous out of it. To be removed by one degree, to write about him or his work, is to risk crafting something tedious to read. My initial essay flamed out so thoroughly that I threw it in the digital garbage on multiple occasions. Each time, I fished it back out again, attached to the gleaming scraps of something resiliently and stubbornly salvageable.

In the first attempt, I had this idea that I was going to work myself in and sort of sidle up to old Miró—drawing winning parallels between his artistic experience and my own. This was rather rich, given that I am some woman in Denver who is tinkering with this essay during elementary-school hours, and he is, well, internationally renowned Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró. This “me and Joan” concept was not quite what was called for, but I kept thinking it was absurd enough that it might just come off. It had to be sufficiently ridiculous, but tinted with that kind of outrageous audacity that would allow it to transcend itself. It was not.

One light yet sticky observation emerged out of the “me and Joan” draft concept—that Miró was just like an excellent typist (though I suspect he rarely typed anything ever). My daughters are learning touch typing, or keyboarding. The practice drills involve repetitions of sequenced keys, beginning with the home-row keys of ASDFG HJKL;. Hardly impressive in clerical terms, my current 64 words per minute awed my kids. When we began household competition in their exercises, however, my prowess fell apart—I was brought low by the combinations jj kk ll dd; and jkjksdsddds. When I type nonsense, as opposed to words, I have to think about fingers and keys. Typing presents a ready and common example of the effect of overlearning. When we practice a skill well beyond basic mastery we reap the ability to focus on the overarching performance or goal instead of concentrating on the steps required to achieve it. This is overlearning and it is the first element of flow—transcending the mechanics of the maneuver at hand.

Dangerously, I found myself discussing flow, which is intellectually en vogue, but unevenly so; one reader might be engaged but another would sigh. Flow is the experience of absolute immersion in a skilled activity. In this fullness of concentration, future, past and time itself all drop away, as does the awareness of the self. There is only the action, which becomes crisply confident—doubt disappears as error disappears. It is the “doing without doing” of Taoism, or the spiritual goal of overcoming the duality of self and object through discipline. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a body of research on this experience; he calls integration of awareness and action the “optimal experience,” when the self drops from consciousness as the beautiful performance consumes the performer. In describing flow, Csikszentmihalyi quotes a composer he interviewed: “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist.” This release from self-awareness is experienced as a profound joy or even rapture, yet while in flow the awareness of emotion has dropped away. Either the joy itself arrives ex-post, or “joy” is the only word we have to describe the form of pleasure that comes with the complete release from experiencing anything at all. Meanwhile, out of this vacation from the self the practitioner paradoxically emerges with a stronger sense of conviction or perspective. The concept of flow echoes, or perhaps is the Western recasting and branding of, one fundamental assumption of Zen: that we more fully become ourselves by surrendering ourselves.

It is this steady work and repetitious effort of the conscious mind that also seems to give access to layers of the unconscious or effortless mind.

The key elements of achieving flow are heavy practice and the cultivation of the capacity to focus. You learn it first through overlearning. Miró gleaned this early. He describes spending hours upon hours teaching himself to sketch objects he had placed behind him, allowing himself only to touch them. He remained a relentless, lifelong practicer who sketched on a schedule, showing up at his local church at the same time every morning, materials in hand.

It is this steady work and repetitious effort of the conscious mind that also seems to give access to layers of the unconscious or effortless mind. Miró and other surrealists experimented with automatism: improvisational and somewhat random drawing and painting intended to tap the subconscious. Key to automatism is the release of the artist from conscious self-censorship, thereby freeing otherwise repressed artistic possibilities. But although the artist supposedly allows his hand to move at random, Miró combined this with direction, the conscious mind eventually called upon to marshal the production of the unconscious. Miró’s take on freedom involved just as much control as release. Meanwhile, even to employ the method required discipline. His takeaway from the knockabout looseness of automatism appears to have been an understanding that getting there wasn’t knockabout at all. Clearing distractions from the mind is hard work and dropping lightly into the subconscious is methodical.

Miró was extremely uncool. He didn’t booze or womanize; he didn’t experiment with mind-altering substances for fear of damaging his mind; what inspiration he gleaned from hallucinations early in his career was hunger induced. He rarely engaged directly with politics, even though his career spanned both World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco regime, and even though his identity and inspiration were intensely enmeshed with his embattled native Catalonia. The other artists of his circles—among them Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and the writer André Breton—considered him a grind and mockably bourgeois. American artist Carl Holty described him as “orderly and punctilious about the working day,” which illustrates fairly well what other artists thought of his form of discipline (“punctilious” is never in the vocabulary of warm admiration). Punctilious Miró never stopped working until his death at ninety years old, the author of an enormous proliferation of provocative and influential works in an ever-evolving yet identifiably personal style, and in a range of media. The quiet routine-monger in a pressed suit was the unequivocal master of his flow.

What is there to say about it? Miró didn’t do the sorts of things I can sensationalize—he just dug in and worked after a sensible breakfast like an accountant sitting down to his ledger. I stopped, aware that everything I had to say of Miró had boiled down to the subject of ordinary toil, and I had crafted a lengthy discussion, only excerpted here, of the artist and his work ethic. I wasn’t certain where to go from there. When I faltered on Miró, the other sorts of work spooled out in every direction; there were meals to prepare, oil changes, stains to remove and damp towels left on carpets, assorted lists, plus forms, waivers, intakes, evaluations and permission slips. Favored work pushes back on other work, preventing its expansion.

* * *

I turned my attention to Miró’s extreme output. He created more than five thousand drawings and collages, at least two thousand paintings, five hundred sculptures, about four hundred ceramic objects, over two hundred fifty illustrated books, plus murals, tapestries and a load of other undertakings. In 1928, he took inspiration from some postcards of Dutch Golden Age interiors and created a series of canvases that are at once spare and brimming over with household occupants and items. He wedges in a riot of bedfellows, but the representations are stripped down—each form reduced to the elemental so there is just enough to understand a vase or identify a table. Perspective is entirely his own purview; some elements are shrunken and others inflated. His Constellations series (1939-41) remains crammed with ideas but largely dispenses with backgrounds. Miró had begun to develop simple symbols to stand in for feelings, concepts, motion, impressions—moving away from objects. “The thing I consciously seek is tension of spirit,” he said. Paring away all the rest, Miró is after existence—being a lover; contemplating the heavens and crushing limitlessness of the constellations; feeling wonder. His art didn’t lack ambition.

Among the symbols, the sentient beings remain: especially women and birds, sometimes peasant men. The sky also has an abiding place; the stars are central and numerous. In Woman and Birds at Sunrise (1946), the sun is his recurring cheerful red disk. In Woman and Bird in the Moonlight (1949), a large blue crescent and stars. He keeps hewing at his own work, removing and removing. By the time of Bleu I, II and III (1961), even the beings and the stars have become optional to Miró’s inner editor. What remains is experience. The enormous Bleu triptych presents a layered and absolute experience of the color at hand; blue slashed with red and punched with black that makes it feel all the more saturated, all the more blue. It is one of the most sure-handed, confident editing jobs of them all.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Miró wasn’t trying to get past verbal language so much as to utilize every possible form of expression. He layered poetry in with painting, and the title is often essential to the art of his art. A Dew Drop Falling from a Bird’s Wing Wakes Rosalie, Who Has Been Asleep in the Shadow of a Spider’s Web (1939) offers a juxtaposition—the title feels benign, suggests luscious Rosalie refreshed, but the visual is jarring as she is painted on rough burlap, fat and jiggly spider close at hand, and nearby birds looking alarmed. By its title, The Nightingale’s Song at Midnight and the Morning Rain (1940) would imaginably be spare and serene, but the visual field is packed, heaving with signs and symbols, full of thoughts and intensity. The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers (1941) also joins a calm yet mystical title with pulsing visual crowding—the unknown is energetic, complex and dense. Later on, the visual plane is crisply emptied but the words may continue to pile onto one another, as with The Lark’s Wing Encircled with Golden Blue, Rejoins the Heart of the Poppy Sleeping on a Diamond-Studded Meadow (1967). Sometimes the title is the art and the painting that carries it feels like a vessel. Other times the words are shut out and the titles are a shrug—Painting, Woman, Figure, Landscape. Sometimes Miró is working furiously through his symbols. Sometimes colors. Sometimes words. Always returning to the subjects he had taken into his heart—birds, women, stars.

I felt that I’d reached another deadlock with Miró. Eternal themes are so relentlessly eternal, after all, and he was eternally getting after them. Miró’s interest in the experiential means that going there with him has to be experiential. I can’t trundle along, trying to explicate his birds or the color blue. I can’t say which of his squiggles seemed to be about passion or anxiety or how images he created could seem both foreboding and joyful. I can’t describe the Constellations so much as just be present with them, much as I have no narrative to make sense of the celestial sky. How incomprehensible. How beautiful.

* * *

Spartan Miró didn’t feel he owed the viewer a birdlike bird or womanish woman. Only the naked essence remains, maybe just the suggestion—the eye of the bird, the curve of the woman. Woman here is abstract and visceral. If woman as a concept must stand in for desire—the desire for wholeness or union, the exercise of our essence through love and creation of new life—she need not take the form of any specific woman so much as the barely suggested form. Miró’s women are not especially sexy even when they seem to be speaking to desire. Perhaps this conveys ambivalence or even acknowledges darkness, yet what a breath of air they are since women in art are so frequently toting the burden of sexiness about. When Miró painted women, he made their parts unruly, with their breasts heaving out in all directions or their hairy vaginas dangling between their legs like cumbersome, disruptive appendages. It isn’t a particularly appealing vision, but nor does it seem an angry, terrified or subjugating one. Even when I felt little affinity for his women, I still found myself appreciating the space Miró opened up for the unmanageable and elemental in them. He was painting me and not painting me at all, over and over. I am the woman he sketched and painted and sculpted—tangled up with creation and nurture, tumultuous, serene today and furious tomorrow. But he and I will both stop to consider the escape of shooting stars.

I looked at that last paragraph with its glimmer of the “me and Joan” essay, and continued to feel that it was true, that it was a good bit. But it was enough all by itself, unexpectedly complete in spite of the complexity of all it touches on. I didn’t feel a pull to continue on about women as we are imagined by Miró. Perhaps there was an entirely different essay to be gleaned from it—the experience of living in the body so often stripped down and then loaded up with so many meanings by so many artists. But that was an essay for another day or perhaps not even my essay but someone else’s instead. So that one section—Spartan Miró—was set aside, floating alone in its own document, unmoored from the main discussion yet somehow germane. It bounced out of the natural progression of the essay repeatedly.

The essay was not a string; it was a stack. I was accustomed to progressions—ideas that folded into subsequent ideas, hopefully ascending. Working with Miró, I found myself with an assemblage and I was uncomfortable. There were multiple discrete elements and I couldn’t figure out how to delicately thread them together. They all just appeared to terminate abruptly. Was it a pleasing collage or a pointless jumble? I sifted through the stack, rearranged the stack, removed, added, removed, began again.

I became generally irritable about Miró. I ended my daily assignations with him in frustration, then renewed my efforts the following morning after each daughter had been sent off fed, kissed, sunscreened and with hair braided. The beginning of each school day was the beginning of my wars with the artist.

* * *

“I think of my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune.” This was Miró discussing his work in 1958, at age 65. He’s so patient and trusting. The fruit will indeed always appear. Miró does not feel anxious that the creativity will flow—he found his mundane formula for mining his own artistic promise. Be punctilious. “I work like a gardener,” he says. “Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water.” He is a facilitator, welcoming and quietly coaxing forces that he takes no credit for, that don’t specifically belong to him. Miró attends to his numerous charges, each maturing at its own pace and each seeding the next. “So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.”

The garden grows on, little affected by humans and history, and in many ways Miró, the gardener, is likewise living outside human time in his garden—entrenched with his existential questions. Miró was criticized by his peers for his lack of response to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The Reaper was exhibited to comparatively little fanfare next to Picasso’s widely discussed Guernica at the World’s Fair in 1937. The Reaper was large in scale like Guernica, and even carried the intent of a provocative political statement like Picasso’s piece, but unlike Guernica, which focuses on events, The Reaper focuses on the peasant—the ordinary man impacted by those events. Miró’s concern for humanity was ultimately not about our conflicts but rather our connections—to land, to our fertility, to our cosmos. He belonged to the farmers and farms, to the inhabitants of his garden. All he sees are the people themselves; he describes attempting to “bring myself closer, through painting, to the human masses I have never stopped thinking about.” Yet in 1937, war too present for everyone else, the topical was what the rest of the world needed to process.

Miró waits on the seed. His feat was to be sure he was in the garden each day, showing up. The idea of the artist as a patient servant as opposed to mad genius is not especially glamorous. In fact, the garden was at once the most compellingly true-feeling yet dull metaphor he could possibly have come up with. No wonder the other guys found him irritating—there goes Miró with another one of his eternally eternal truths.

Miró does not feel anxious that the creativity will flow—he found his mundane formula for mining his own artistic promise. Be punctilious.

I wanted to get away from that smug, patient gardener, so I turned to Bach, who had crept into my notes like an assassin. Born two and a half centuries before Miró, Johann Sebastian Bach was part of a composing family. For two centuries of generations before him and another generation after him, the Bachs made their livelihood writing, arranging and performing music for religious and educational uses, and private patrons. Johann Sebastian may have been the standout—particularly creative, particularly adept, outrageously prolific—but perhaps he was also the most organized and dedicated to what he and his family viewed as a skilled trade. The Bachs wouldn’t have considered themselves part of an artistic dynasty, and no one was labeled a prodigy. Or, as soberly laid out in The Bach Reader, “We are not unaccustomed to the passing on of trades and crafts from father to son. But we look upon artistic talent as too individual a gift to be handed down and shared like a landed estate, by a whole family. The line we draw between art and craft is, however largely artificial, and to earlier centuries would have seemed entirely so.” The Bachs were capable composers and arrangers down the line. They weren’t even exceptional in this, as there were other families of successive generations of musical or artistic craftsmen throughout Europe, passing along knowledge and principles of creation. A large portion of Bach’s output is gone now, never disseminated after the performance for which it was crafted. Bach did tend to save his compositions, sometimes for broader use and distribution but just as often simply in order to borrow from them in the future. He also set aside his clever bits and many methodically thought out rules because he aimed to instruct—developing materials for the musical education of his sons and other students. Not one to toss any mystical haze over the artistic process or credit the muse, Bach laid out a ready-for-use, nuts-and-bolts operation in such writings as The Little Organ Book and The Well-Tempered Clavier. His son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, passes forward some of his father’s composition tricks in his instructional “Essay on the True Art of Playing the Clavier.” The path to mind-bending compositional novelty was prosaic for Bach. He lived in Miró’s garden—weed, water, prune, repeat.

Like Miró, Bach was a voracious consumer of forms. He tinkered with and assimilated into his music any style, form or pattern he encountered. He didn’t, however, tend to mash them up. When he introduced elements of a regional style, he confined himself to that style and then dug down vertically—drawing his mind deep into the singularity of what he was using and finding a unique quality that he could blow up and exploit until it became so thoroughly differentiated as to be unexpected, electric. Related to this was his instinct for scale—what he blew up, he blew up bigger, and for longer, than the norm. Bach liked more.

And then there was his signature: the fugue. Bach explored contrapuntal melodic themes that he could pit against one another to create richly woven harmonies. Whereas Miró became intent on creating negative space, Bach excelled at generating density. He loaded his harmonies, pushing those contrasting elements onto one another until they were forced into a détente. Miró sought the vast; Bach sought the rich. Both approaches require volume input—that is, you need ample opening material to select from both when you are winnowing and when you are layering. And both of them were members of the Volume Output Club. There are currently 1,128 preserved pieces of Bach’s music. The rest—and it is reasonable to believe there were substantially many more—weren’t saved, but rather used to wrap fish.

So, was I going to link up Miró and Bach? Could I bring that off? I’d started to feel that Miró would have liked Bach, but that was a connection of my own making, and I was veering awfully close to just making stuff up. Still, Miró respected Bach’s tradition—artists who don’t sit around calling themselves artists. He was interested in the medieval notion of the artist as a skilled craftsman and the anonymity inherent to the concept; the medieval artisan was a contributor more than a diva. But both temporally and philosophically, Bach was far more aligned with this mindset in the early eighteenth century than Miró could be in the twentieth. The modern artist trades on his individuality and celebrity, his uniqueness of vision. Miró could not be successful in his own era unless he was willing to distinguish himself and ultimately trade on his signature approach. Still, Miró often put the work forward and let himself recede. Meanwhile, I now had Bach in my Miró essay and the whole thing continued to feel unsettled. I arranged and rearranged my stack.

* * *

The ecotone is the biological transition zone between neighboring ecological communities. It is the place where the forest meets the prairie, the river meets the bank. It can be fat or skinny, gradual or abrupt, and it is characterized by more life, action, strife and striving than the more stable environments that flank it. The microbes crowd; the plants tangle; the wet, damp and dry creatures meet.

Miró emerged from a kind of epochal and regional ecotone. He had a medieval artisan’s heart, and felt strong connections to conservative rural Spain. Yet he was born in Barcelona, into the dregs of the fin-de-siècle artistic and intellectual climate of Europe in the late nineteenth century, marked by cynicism and ennui. Often working in Paris, he wove himself in and out of the life and perspective offered by the experimental European movements, participating here and opting out there whether his fellow artists liked him or not. Likewise Bach, who we now think of as an exemplar of the Baroque style, was living the creative shift of his own era. We may now associate the idea of the Baroque with the ornate, but the signature concept that drove its definition at the time was nonconformity. The word “baroque” derives from the concept of the natural pearl—misshaped, contoured, unexpected. The Baroque movement was an artistic embrace of nature’s hot mess—the tumult of biodiversity at its loudest and most layered, arguably, the tumult of an intellectual-artistic ecotone. And then there’s the personal ecotone of ideas Miró and Bach created for themselves as each introduced more and more inchoate possibilities to their respective studios. Scraps and sketches of ideas, failed efforts and near misses all jostled against one another, multiplying with each passing year of work. Miró’s carefully cultivated garden was also a very lively bog.

We may now associate the idea of the Baroque with the ornate, but the signature concept that drove its definition at the time was nonconformity.

So many of his paintings reflect this busy interaction. Each Miró is whispering with previous Mirós. His pieces seem to depict unanswered questions and, despite forceful simplicity in the elements, they evade classification and invite varying levels of uncertainty and misunderstanding. When I look at Woman Encircled by the Flight of a Bird (1941), I have to get comfortable with not getting everything. Are those floating hourglasses or is that just me, just today? Yet the composition of the elements is satisfying, the shape of the shapes is complete—like a perfectly smooth, flat and heavy skipping stone in my hand.

* * *

Miró was a working artist for a good seventy of his ninety years. He was the dead opposite of the flame-out young talent, the such-a-shame/what-a-waste sort of artist. I imagine him washing out his brushes each night and then soaking his dentures, except that he probably had excellent oral hygiene and therefore no need for dentures.

As Miró grew older, he kept himself surrounded by his earlier work. He continued to avail himself of his previous inspirations but as a progressively more austere editor. He distills himself. And yet, he feels urgency. This is Miró in 1978, at age 85: “I painted these paintings in a frenzy, with real violence, so that people will know that I’m alive, that I’m breathing, that I still have a few more places to go. I’m heading in a new direction.” Well, sort of. This new direction emerges from previous directions—the same concepts revisited with new insights. Some of his later sculptures feel as if they have just stepped out of the Constellations, ideas of the 1940s taking on three dimensions in the 1970s. He was never finished with what he made, not because he needed to go back and endlessly adjust each canvas but because he lifted from his previous works in his new works. It was so Bach.

Perhaps this is part of what maturity is—our thinking becomes finer as we gradually shut out parts of the larger world we drank in as younger people and we become more comfortable returning to spar with our broken-in themes. Never sated with her, Miró is exploring his eternal woman over his entire lifetime, moving under her armpit and along her back, between her legs and over her shoulder. His endless birds perch on his decades. His heavens appear at dawn, at twilight, and studded with stars. He explores the night and its edges again and again. “The spectacle of the sky overwhelms me. I’m overwhelmed when I see, in an immense sky, the crescent of the moon, or the sun. There are, in my pictures, tiny forms in huge empty spaces. Empty spaces, empty horizons, empty plains—everything which is bare has always greatly impressed me.” To coax onto the canvas the vastness that grips him so fully, Miró is compelled to first fill and then progressively remove so that absence remains.

All the action is within, a battle heaving on inside that orderly mind. “I work in a state of passion and compulsion,” he says. Years of steady output provided a framework for that compulsion, and the tension between what he could imagine and what he could actually create. “Of course, a painting can’t satisfy me right away. At the beginning, I feel the distress … It’s a battle between me and what I’m doing, between me and the canvas, between me and my distress. This struggle is passionately exciting to me. I work until the distress leaves me.” Having moved through this intense productive process again and again over the years, the cycle of distress and respite is an old companion.

Miró watched many of his contemporaries cease to produce. He wrote that young artists know how to struggle while they are poor, then are undone by success, losing their drive to work when it is no longer the difference between a meal and hunger, between artistic respect and being just another striver full of talk. He called this dropping away a “shameful decline” and it is clear to what standard he would hold himself as he lauded those who “continue to struggle until their last breath.” It is something he must have considered carefully, as he found his only relief through work. “Each year of their old age marks a new birth. The great ones develop and grow as they get older.” He wrote this in 1936. In the 1970s, when he was in his eighties, he was living it.

* * *

Ernest Hemingway purchased one of Miró’s early celebrated paintings, The Farm (1921-22). He praised it lavishly, and also appropriated it for his own art form, the tale. With The Farm as his axis, Hemingway spun out a bright story of Paris that included engaging in regular evening rounds of boxing with Miró at a local gym, and a gilded form of being inconveniently broke that required roaming the city’s bars with John Dos Passos in search of other friends in order to secure the final funds with which to purchase the painting. He even throws in the added embellishment that he won the right to purchase the painting in the first place with a lucky roll of dice. In contrast to Miró himself, Hemingway had a gift for making engaging narratives out of the act of being Hemingway.

Exuberant and generous, Hemingway asserted, “After Miró had painted The Farm and after James Joyce had written Ulysses, they had a right to expect people to trust the further things they did, even when the people did not understand them.” Miró exercised the right, but who trusts the work first? The artist or the people? Though Hemingway’s account makes it seem both imperative and providential that he acquire The Farm, Miró initially had difficulty selling it. There is no certainty that the work will be as we hope, or received in the spirit of our intent. Inability and failure shadow all successes. So Miró trudged back to the garden, back to the process.

He was the dead opposite of the flame-out young talent, the such-a-shame/what-a-waste sort of artist.

The process is demanding. As with overlearning, I was taught what this means by children. I had three daughters in four years, none of whom slept well until she walked. In the haze of missing rest I tended to nothing except the new lives of these new people for an interval of several years. The love of literature and an assortment of writing work had been core elements of my life to this point and suddenly they were absent; I was just Mom, having no capacity for anything more than this. I barely read, rarely wrote. If I had known this would happen, I would have been afraid to have the first child, and yet this time of single-dimension stillness was and remains precious and rich to me. In the absence of much other experience, I was entirely attuned to the present right down to the way one or another little girl drew breath. The slow living we did was defined by much walking, repetition of picture books, examination of ant activity, naps and the feel of water. Then the girls sped up. The fallow period ended and I had to work to speed back up as well. Incomprehensibly, it felt as if I found more things to say after those years of silence, though by all external appearance my own life had become so quiet and seemingly lusterless, built on children’s routines and challenges. It is my earned privilege to spar with Miró in my restored working hours, when all that I have taken responsibility for is carpooled away for the day. I need the work. My kids do not yet intuit why, but they like me best on those days when I have been working well, fuming at Miró or some other subject, when a tiny bit of flow’s “optimal experience” seemed to stream down to me like a glint of sunlight while they were away rehearsing their letters.

I look forward to greeting them in the afternoons. Sometimes I wonder if I am too interior, if they might find that they struggle to know their mother because so much of what was surging in my mind never emerged in conversation. My brightest thoughts and observations so often happen in solitary stillness. Even in far smaller form, the process is greedy.

* * *

There is, of course, no “me and Joan.” I am not punctilious-yet-fanciful Miró, but rather his messy, mercurial subject. I rage and sigh. My life is on burlap like Rosalie. Miró, who largely ignored wars, remained in one relationship, had one daughter, and kept his banker’s hours, cleared the decks purposefully and ruthlessly, pouring his energy and essence into his work of representing life to make sense of it. The resonance and intensity within that body of work is perhaps all the more intriguing because Miró wasn’t living the tumult he was channeling; he had stepped out to step in. Vincent van Gogh asserted that “painting and fucking a lot are not compatible.” Miró seems also to have subscribed to the idea that one could either work absolutely or live absolutely—but not both.

We mostly pooh-pooh the binary and definitive choice these days. We have to pull success out of failure, knowledge out of confusion, and so on. We want both the painting and the fucking, and we definitely want painting to seem as exciting and charged as fucking. We rage against the punctilious. Audacity is the narrative we love. Audacity suggests a pleasingly upended binary—the fact of getting a desirable and ultimately admired outcome through outrageous defiance of desirable and admired behavior. That’s a contemporary tale of success—the big play that works out. There’s such glorious audacity in Miró, but it’s the warty, humdrum sort.

Here are Miró and Bach hunting through the daily work of so many previous days, looking for what they could assemble into the new and arresting whole—the variation that validates all of the scratched drafts. The unseen labor, everything that was swept away and stashed away, the partially realized possibilities form the backbone. The lesser works seed the next attempt, so long as we maintain a path among them, so long as there is a bit of space to pass through the studio again and again. Contemporary portrait and photographic artist Chuck Close said, “I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” The work emerges from the work, which emerges from the work.

Here is the work initiated by scratching at Woman Entranced by the Escape of Shooting Stars. I fussed over my stack of Miró segments endlessly, waiting for them to fall in line and allow me a clear progression. The segments seemed reasonably hale, and perhaps appropriate to Miró, formed a constellation. Here was flow, there were women and stars, here was Bach, there was the ecotone. Whether they belonged together, they clung together in that assemblage. Other bits had bounced out. I’d culled entire sections on archery, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, and mathematician Roger Penrose’s tiling structures, each held for some other enterprise, some other day. “Under duress we do not rise to our expectations—we fall to the level of our training.” That quote opened the dropped paragraph belonging to Bruce Lee. It expressed a kind of inverse effect of overlearning to that of the flow principle—when one is fractured, off center, unable to drop into anything fine or transcendent, still the baseline is defined by the preparations. We are defined by our preparations.

The entranced woman has stopped her task. Her tools are slack in her hands; she turns a calm eye upward. The stars continue in both constancy and streaming destruction. Soon she will again grip her objects and continue the work.


This essay first appeared in the 2018 Fall issue of The PointOur thanks to Sophie Beck and The Point staff for allowing us to republish it here.