PRINT July 1963

Are We Getting Anywhere?

LAST NIGHT I PASSED WHAT the French call “une nuit blanche” because I happened to make the delicious mistake of taking to bed with me the latest issue of the French revue Bizarre, this issue being devoted entirely to the work of Guy Harloff whose exhibition at the Raboff Gallery I had the good fortune to see a year or so ago.

I am still somewhat deranged and more than ever incapable of writing intelligibly about my own inconsequential work as a painter. I shall therefore ramble on disjointedly about what I like and don’t like, what I have done or think I have done. The discerning read­er should be able to put two and two together and see why two and two not only make four but any cock­eyed thing one wishes.

Let me begin by saying that, aside from The Mystic Lamb of Van Eyck, which I saw for the first time only late in life, the painting which stands out strongest in my memory is the work of an unknown madman, which I discovered at the age of five on the occasion of my first trip to the backyard of my grandfather’s house in Brooklyn. It was the figure of a lady, pre­sumably leading a poodle. It was done entirely in black, perhaps with tar, on the dividing wall between my grandfather’s house and the smoked fish establishment adjoining it. (The fish suspended from the rafters, which I glimpsed now and then through a hole in the wall, played an important part, I must add.) The painting was done in profile, in the manner of Egyptian wall paintings. It was crude, direct, honest, and quite evidently the best the artist could do. It has obsessed me all my life and no doubt influenced me in the crude, reckless treatment of the human figure which I continue to manifest.

Since this discovery I have seen thousands of paintings by the best and the worst artists, and I have myself made several thousand watercolors. The work of madmen, whether in or out of the asylum, never fails to excite me. I wish I could say as much for “the masters.” Unfortunately, the names which have come down through the ages, and which make the critics drool and dribble, leave me cold. I prefer the work of children, or the primitives, and of the unknown men who decorated the walls of their caves some twenty-five or thirty thousand years ago.

After two decades of dabbling in the watercolor medium I am still floundering, still groping, groping toward some undefinable reality which, frankly, I never expect to reach. But having a good time withal.

What am I trying to do or say? Well, sometimes nothing more than to sink the solid in the “flou,” create watery compositions which are striving to dis­integrate under one’s gaze. Sometimes I am content merely to include crabs, crayfish, field mice, bar­nacles and weather-vanes. Or make a stab at fusing the uterine with the inter-stellar . . . give the feel, in other words, of space without perspective, asymp­totes or orbital flights. In short, something easy and inexplicable. The work of the hand rather than that of the brain. Explorations rather than ideological or esthetic ratiocinations. Some might call it the realm of conjunctive parallels.

When possible I use the best paper––destructively. Sometimes I think that what I would like to achieve is the ability to render love (with a capital L) without recourse to persons or ideas, to depict sex without bodies or organs. When I paint a whore, for example, a syphilitic one, to be exact, I try to paint syphilis itself.

There are certain ingredients, or elements, if you like, which I consider a sine qua non. To wit: a cres­cent moon, the star of David, an anchor, a dinner bell, a fish or two, some crumbling skyscrapers, or, failing that, a dream of a castle as the mad Ludwig imagined it. If figures are in order, then I prefer pimps, assas­sins and hooligans to astronauts. When rhythm is involved I choose the cake walk rather than the twist.

When doing cities I feel the need to use tropical colors, to give the feel of drugs and the smell of for­maldehyde. Spittoons and cuspidors, though long out of fashion, I find make interesting material for still lites. Wall paper is also fetching now and then, but should be used sparingly, unless one is papering the womb. To create a touch of the ephemeral and the onirific I borrow from the test tubes of chance syn­thetic creatures of no recognizable form or substance, and I relate them alchemically through uninvented juxtaposition. I feel that one should avoid the much abused “materia prima” of the masters, such as mus­cle, cartilage, rib cages and bird cages. Bedbugs and boa constrictors make a felicitous marriage, par­ticularly when there is no frame of reference or when they find themselves in the vicinity of a misplaced Ark or a broken Covenant. “Pointillisme” is more effective than “tachisme” when illustrating the rav­ages of meningitis.

Above all, what I should like to achieve is a kind of “Christmas on earth” ambience. It never hurts to make believe it’s Christmas, even though it’s a kosher Christmas. In doing so one releases the arch­angels, the Powers and the Principalities, the Magi and the Medusas. In every painting one should, I feel, endeavor to bless the Virgin Mary and all who have lost their virginity. One should not be afraid to lend the Devil a hand, but always make sure to exploit him contrapuntally! In moments of doubt or per­plexity, it’s a good idea to paint upside down, and preferably while mumbling a prayer. Always ask yourself where you are going, when, for how long, why, or why not. Don’t dream of flying to the moon: fly about in your own home. It’s safer and, believe it or not, much more exhilarating.

Let us, I say, eschew all “the vulgar fineries of style,” make free use of the electric chair, the red flag as well as the spangled bananas, and thus avoid credit cards, affidavits, sunsets, madonnas and moon­light sonatas. When employing perspective, use it “á l’outrance,” as did the men of old. If angels are recruited, pick them from the gutter rather than from heaven above. If one is congenitally incapable, like myself, of handling anatomy, let him use stumps (with ball bearings) for legs, fins for fingers, rocket cones for teats and silver dollars or anemones for belly but­tons. Do not overlook such a homely object as the pisspot, particularly the pale blue porcelain type. For sanguinary effects try a mixture of Rose Tyrien and Rose Madder––it makes the blood look fresher, more inviting. Have done with crucifixions––play up the Resurrection! If counterpoint is too compli­cated, try patchwork. Use snails liberally––and swas­tikas––since they represent archaic symbols buried in the Unconscious. Keep Freud and Jung well in the background; they have a disturbing effect upon the retina. Always play it cool, but with hot colors. Jazz it up, but with a clear head. If you must take some­thing take marijuana, not L.S.D. Invoke Quetzlcoatl, not Beelzebub! If you include monsters, make mon­sters, not abortions. Homunculi should always be left free to roam, not imprisoned under glass bells. To avoid the use of symphonic effects, which are always deleterious, listen only to the celesta and the mouth organ. Neuroses are usually difficult to pin down on paper, but plain everyday hallucinations are just as efficacious and often give a touch of the unexpected. Aim for certitude, but a I ways in the realm of the ineffable. Think of inspiring names––like Paracel­sus, Gongora, Seraphita––or Lucifer. Use calligraphy freely, but don’t exclude the illiterates, of which we have a multitude. Remember that Picasso has given us everything from soup to nuts, but never, as Vlaminck once told me, a Picasso-Picasso. Think well of your work, even if it’s a failure. And think well also of those who fail to understand your work. The critics understand––or at least they can explain––everything, but most of them are unable to paint so much as a clot of blood. Pax vobiscum!

Henry Miller