Spiral Bound – When Found Make a Note of

Essay for Spiral Bound

Captain Cuttle in Dickens Dombey and Son

“Passed over for the Nobel prize,” Freud glibly notes in his journal:

Or this: a tale is told of the leaders of the Irish revolution traveling to Moscow in 1919. They meet with Lenin. Lenin asks them “How many priests have you hanged?”

“Why, none,” the credulous young Fenians reply.

“It was then,” Lenin later confided to his journal, “it was then that I knew they were not serious”.  Ambitions soar –and plunge– in journals.

This is all good and well for revolutionaries and inventors of Psychoanalysis, for those whose notebooks will be loaded upon the train of history. But what might artists do in their journals?  Shopping lists, phone numbers, nascent ideas for installations or films; drawings that will be torn out as finished artifacts; and even more of more as I-pads creep into the territory of journals. The journal/I-pad dialogues with others; it will become a blog. It may even become HAL. It is every cyber thing and yet there is one thing it remains. As an artist’s journal it will remain a site where, between the shopping lists and doodles, artists try to work out bigger fish than the page allows for.

Take Gerhard Richter:

“27 December 1985. Terrible and challenging, the blank canvas shows nothing– because the something that is to take the place of Nothing cannot be evolved from Nothing, though the latter is so basic that one wants to believe in it as the necessary starting point.”

He knows, surely, that he has to leave the journal to work out this old saw of painting. Yet here we find him ruminating upon his “daily practice” on the –presumably– once blank page of his journal. I cannot be sure what terror and challenge was involved for Richter in writing about this but I am convinced that it is the cluttered democracy of many journals –by which I mean the fact that the phone numbers are there alongside the metaphysical riddles of painting– that is their defining patina, that and their toggle back and forth from private to public.

And so plunge back 500 years to Leonardo. Leonardo’s codices famously occult the written and expose the visual; they straddle the private and the public. Words and meanings are hidden in mirror writing – itself a riddle as the backwards writing may merely be the effect left-handedness– while writing itself is not infrequently abandoned in favor of rebuses. Visual ruminations on war, execution, flight, and water are displayed alongside lowbrow caricatures and puzzles.  And then there are the lists: lists of books, of doodles, vocabulary, debts, and, yes, even groceries. As Charles Nicholl put it Leonardo’s codices were an “An ongoing compendium… which ranges one interest frictively against another”. The notebook is then the heteroglossial clatter of tongues. Although put down on loose papers of diverse dimensions and type the codex notes were probably always intended for publication. Which is to say –almost– that the notebook, in Leonardo’s hands, is the proto-collage.

This is the case with most artist journals.  Edvard Munch thought himself as much a writer and philosopher as a painter, and his notebooks contained fiction, biographical scraps, memoirs and metaphysical speculation in the same proportion as images. Anne Truitt’s “Daybook:  The Journey of An Artist,” mixed together remarks about domestic duties, parenting and grand-parenting, old age and marital abandonment with insights about how these all shaped her practice. She, like so many, sought to turn the dross of everyday worries into the gold of art.

So too Warhol’s diary, dictated to his amaneusis Pat Hackett at 9:30 a.m. every day no matter what spot on the globe he happened to find himself in.  Shades of Leonardo’s debt ledger, the diary was begun as an expense account book.  It quickly acquired a new ambition, one Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would recognize: “all faults observ’d,/Set in a note-book… To cast into my teeth.” In other words it shifted into a treasury of tabloid gossip, the private side of Warhol’s public work. And he beat Leonardo out in terms of sheer volume: 20,000 original pages to DaVinci’s mere 13,000.

Many, if not most artists, can pile it up.  Frieda Kahlo’s record of the last ten years of her life and Edward Weston’s fifteen years of observations seem a bit miserly compared to Edvard Munch’s cross-century sprint of fifty years, from the 1880’s to the 1930’s.

The excitable mind grabs at everything that provokes curiosity. And the minds of artists are definitely excitable, over-heated even.  Artists are omnivores, and essentially greedy.  They yearn to use it all up—every scrap of experience, every dream, every feeling, every hypnogogic image, every piece of curious information.  To paraphrase Martin Kippenberger, himself a very greedy, magpie practitioner, good artists will never have enough time to get to all their ideas.  Indeed, more ideas than lifespan; more ideas than sense.  So notebooks are the place where all those fleeting fragments or sudden, whole visions can be stored, an anteroom to the studio, always crowded with an endless queue of potentialities.  Some jostle out of chronological order and bully their way to the head of the line with an unswerving sense of their own importance.  Others live on never-kept promises of attention, forever fobbed off.

Meanwhile the artist is a mix of witness and participant, an inveterate believer in the future, a day of reckoning both petty and magnificent, jotting down everything that might further that revelation, like Gypo Nolan in John Ford’s “The Informer” constantly ordering his alter-ego sidekick: “put it in the book, Jocko.”

The notebook is a capacious genre. To put “it” in the book is, perhaps, to know little about why you are doing just that. Instead it is, perhaps, to sense somewhere beyond the pale of knowing that this “it” is worth noting. This “it” is important enough to save or to say even  if only to oneself. The last entry in Freud’s notebook, shortly before his death consisted of two words, “War, panic”

Spiral Bound is an exhibition of notebooks by artists from New York and San Diego.

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