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Art In Conversation

Barbara Novak with Adrienne Baxter Bell and Phong Bui

Portrait of Barbara Novak. Pencil on paper, by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of her new book, Voyages of The Self: Pairs, Parallels, and Patterns in American Art and Literature (part of the trilogy American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Nature and Culture: Oxford University Press), Barbara Novak welcomes art historian Adrienne Baxter Bell and Brooklyn Rail Publisher Phong Bui to her home to talk about her life and work.

Phong Bui: You have often said that both of your parents have been great sources of inspiration. Will you give us a fuller picture of your upbringing?

Barbara Novak: Loving parents, devoted, committed to reading and education, who encouraged me to do anything in the world that I wanted to do. Never imposed anything on me. When I started painting at a very young age, they gave me art lessons. Later, when I got to Barnard, they didn’t have studio classes. So I took an art history class in my freshman year and it was a revelation to me, a great transforming experience. If I couldn’t take studio classes, I could be an art historian. But I never stopped making art.

Bui: But when you were at Harvard, for graduate work, your initial intention was to study European art. When and how did the shift towards American art occur?

Novak: I was trained at Barnard by an extraordinary teacher, Julius Held, the great Rubens and Rembrandt scholar, and a world-renowned connoisseur. He used to terrify me because he would stop me in the hall with photographs of 15th century Italian, 16th century German or Flemish paintings in his hand and say, “Who did it?” My eye got trained that way—how to identify a work of art by its maker as well as its sources. I was never really trained in American art. After my Masters at Harvard, I went to Europe to do a dissertation on Flemish 15th century art. Europeans would say there was no American art. I got very tired of that. I worked for a year at the Brooklyn Museum before I went to graduate school, so I knew there was an American art. The Brooklyn collection formed by John Baur was exceptionally good. I switched my dissertation, my dissertation advisor, came back from Brussels, and immediately went into the American field. I did so as someone trained in European art. I wanted to know what was interesting about American art. I quickly discovered I could begin to read the culture through the art. That has been my motivation ever since. I’m really practicing cultural history, trying to understand American culture.

Bell: So, through the social and cultural filtering, you were inspired to change the course of your study without neglecting the connoisseurship?

Novak: Yes. Jacob Rosenberg at Harvard, who gave a course on connoisseurship, continued the training of my eye begun by Held.

Bui: That kind of training, which I feel has the same equivalence in the ways an expert deciphers the differences among people’s handwritings; I’m afraid is hardly taught anymore.

Novak: I think it’s fair to say it has been very misunderstood in the past couple of decades. The academic interest in the social context and in texts has tended to obscure the fact that it’s all there in the artwork, in what Foucault called the savoir. It’s there as long as you know how to read it—which requires a trained eye. Partly because of the backlash against formalism, students are no longer taught to read formally. The artists never lost it. They always know how to make works that are genuine to them, to the demands of the work itself, and to their own experience. But some art historians have lost a very important tool: the experience of seeing and looking.

Bell: Why do you suppose it has been lost?

Novak: Largely because formalism itself became too sterile, it’s self-referentially excluded context, the saving awareness of anything outside the object itself. Matters of style have been arbitrarily ghettoized. I tried, both in teaching and writing, to read the art itself, and then search for confirmation for what I read through context.

Bui: Let’s shift to the subject of your new book, which unlike the previous two that are very historically and contextually penetrating, I felt, has a whole language that seems to emerge from a very long personal meditation.

Novak: You’re very right. “Voyages” was brewing from the very beginning. But I had to go through the experience of the first two to be ready for it. It’s more deeply philosophical than anything I’ve done. It’s a kind of summa of my thoughts and feelings over half a century.

Bell: On some occasions, you ask questions of the readers; you ask them to draw comparisons, as though you’re conversing with them in a seminar. You also freely offer judgments about certain texts. I’m thinking of the beginning of the Olson/Pollock chapter, where you praise Olson’s Call Me Ishmael as a more exciting text on Moby-Dick than most academic treatises. How did you develop this critically inquisitive voice?

Novak: The first book, American Painting in the 19th Century, was an attempt to read formally as well as contextually. I advanced a theory of American art where there were, to be honest, somewhat scanty theoretical offerings. I wanted to point to what I thought were characteristic and continuing traits in American art. This has been almost willfully misunderstood by some as rephrasing the old saw of What is American in American Art. But I was interested in discovering what made American art different. That became a passion. It was a new art in a new continent, with retrospective glances at Europe. I was searching for what I have called the “American look.” Simply put, I picked up things that I loved about American painting. Again, simply, I wanted to share them. When I discovered luminist painting, it was an art I could profoundly relate to. When I was at Harvard I got to know the Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The luminist paintings there had an almost eerie quality so different from the European that I was fascinated. Perhaps I wouldn’t have seen it had I not been trained in European art. All of American culture then became a voyage of discovery.

I wrote American Painting exactly as I was teaching it at Barnard and Columbia. It was, in effect, my American course. I was surprised at the impact it had. I just wanted to get out what I was thinking. I had done so much contextual research that there was a whole constellation of material left over in science, religion, philosophy, literature, and son on. All that went into Nature and Culture (1980), in a very natural, organic development, you might say. After that, I wrote my first novel, Alice’s Neck (1986), which approached the issue of the Holocaust in an indirect way. The heroine was of course a graduate student in art history at Harvard. But the new book, …was already simmering. From the start, I was interested in the problem of the self in America, one of the most fascinating abstractions or constructs you can work with. I was amazed at how it surfaced and disappeared during my research. You talked before about handwriting. The stroke is as close as you’re going to get to handwriting. It speaks volumes about the artist’s persona. It is stylistic, of course. But it’s also personal and cultural. The erasure of stroke, first in primitivism, then in Puritanism, then in Transcendentalism and so on, really interested me. I assigned it as a topic to students very early on. In 1986, I gave a talk in Japan under the aegis of the Metropolitan on the “Self in American Art”. The Met had sent over Hudson River paintings to be shown beside Asian landscape paintings. That really started the book. The topic was something I delighted in for my own sake. I worked on it with the pleasure of not having a contract deadline. I took my time. I played with all the ideas. Each of the figures took about a year’s research. I re-discovered Jonathan Edwards, and went deeply into the extraordinary William James, who I fell madly in love with.

Bui: Who could have been a terrific artist, if he had wanted to, judging from the few amazing drawings that he did, particularly the self-portrait from 1866.

Novak: He must have been twenty-four years old, but his father—there are many fathers in this book, not all of them admirable—didn’t want him to be an artist. As I explored such figures, as the book developed, I realized I was doing pairs—an artist and a literary figure, first Copley and Edwards. The pairs were illuminating each other and illuminating the context. This was exhilarating. Patterns that run through the book began to emerge in the most natural way—to mention one, the matter of circles as geometry, domicile and metaphysics. So chapters begin to fill in their own way. It was very much a ruminative experience for me. A quieter voice, and that’s probably why the mysterious matter of silence enters as much as it does. I’ve always been interested in the underlying thread of the spiritual in American culture—in its ambiguous manifestations. I kept finding it even where I didn’t expect to find it. It was all discovery. When it was finished, I realized I had written a trilogy, because each volume grew out of the preceding one.

Bui: What’s interesting to me about Jonathan Edwards, who had been tutored by Dr. Johnson at Yale, and John Singleton Copley, was that they both were the recipients of a new synthesis of increased secularization with progressive ideas, combined the old and the new thinking. So it was the very beginning of it all, even given the framework of pragmatism.

Novak: Edwards was a phenomenologist. He was concerned with experience, pragmatic experience, ad-hoc experience. When he was in Stockbridge teaching the Indians’ children, he insisted, “We must teach them things as well as words.” I found that extraordinary. That related—in one temporal jump—to William James, who had his feet on the same ground. As he said: “If you have one real raisin instead of the word raisin, and one real egg instead of the word egg, it might be an inadequate meal, but what you end up having is a commencement of reality.” Edwards, looking at the world, was trying to break it down into atoms, and trying to break it down into what he called the “indiscerpible,” which has no parts. Again another temporal leap. That’s exactly what Leonardo had said: a point has no parts. With wonderful concentration, Edwards was trying to get at the very core of the matter. And so was Copley. It was very natural for me to put the two of them together, both brilliant empiricists. The notion of Edwards as a scientist is important. Because people think of him always as this passionate Evangelical figure. But here he is with this Leonardesque aspect at the very beginning of our culture.

Bui: Combining with the Lockean psychology of “sensation.”

Novak: Absolutely. That’s why they both could observe so carefully. Already pragmatic. No other way to describe it. Copley’s breakthrough from his predecessors—that begins the entire experience of American art—is that he understands solid form. He understands it by looking, he understands it by figuring out how things operate in space. That refers to an idea that I keep raising in every book: American artists tend to start from scratch. They are their own beginning, their own alpha. They don’t pass artistic problems from one to the other like links on a chain, as they do so often in Europe. They do a bit more of it now when we see careers made from duplicating the sixties. But by and large, you might say the wheel was reinvented over and over again. American artists seem to provide themselves with a certificate of their own authenticity. It’s one of the things that goes to that “American look.” Several contemporary artists have said the same thing—they just like to start totally fresh, which to me is the practicality of pragmatism.

Bell: How about the relationship of the Germans to Emerson and the Luminists?

Novak: Aside from the few Hudson River men who went to Düsseldorf, it was mostly philosophical. I don’t think the luminist painters ever saw Friedrich, who would represent the Dresden school rather than Düsseldorf. I don’t call it an influence as much as an affinity—a philosophical parallelism. Formal similarities issue from that. Emerson read German romantic philosophy, but I would give less weight to an actual visual influence.

Bell: What’s also interesting is the idea of the proto-luminist strain in American art with early Allston. And on the other end of the spectrum, you describe the extension of luminism into aspects of Ryder’s work, such as his “moonlit marines.” I always thought that was an interesting notion, a kind of reverberation of luminism in American culture. Yes, we know basically when luminism flourished but, nowadays, people are rethinking luminism and debating what it was.

Novak: From the first, it was an idea that both took hold and was attacked. It’s one of the few lively controversies in American art, and we could do with a few more. Some held that luminism was just about light, a glow. Others insist that it was just part of Hudson River practice. Lane, and often Heade, are left out—to me they are the two definitive luiminist artists. My extensions of luminism as a complex mode, in which many factors are held in balance, to areas beyond their time have to do with the philosophical meanings of luminism. Particularly the idea of silence, of stillness, the transcendental removal to another realm of contemplation. I can find it even in Ryder, when his work smooths out into an almost impersonal—if often cracked—surface. With Ryder and Dickinson, we are frequently invited into a mysterious silence, an infinity, a totally different contemplative realm of consciousness. Another pattern that runs through the book is its own image of infinity—which relates to what I’ve just said. That is, the theme of the sea. It ranges from the glassy transcendent sea in Lane, to Homer’s solid, rock-like sea, as substantial in its way as any Cézanne. It’s pure pragmatism. It’s the concreteness James was looking for. Dickinson’s sea is of course another image of infinity, and I pair it with Ryder’s sea, when I venture into distinctions between eternity and immortality, prompted of course by Dickinson, who is a great prompter. She was a wonderful discovery for me. I read every one of her 1,775 poems. She has so much more pain in her than she’s given credit for. She’s taken, I think, sometimes as this coy figure.

Bui: I thought your description of their similarities and differences giving way ultimately to their pairing was fascinating. First their physical appearances. Ryder being large, Dickinson small. She dresses in a white gown, while he’s in a simple knitted sailor’s cap and uniform. Yet both were New Englanders and equally eccentric in their own way.

Bell: Which American painter other than Ryder could combine a Shakespearean theme and a park in the Bronx, as he did in The Forest of Arden?

Bui: I always felt Ryder was to American painting as Melville was to American literature. But so much critical writing about Pollock was associated with the vastness of the American landscape, which pointed the way to earth art. But Pollock, like Ryder (his only American master, as Pollock claimed more than once) before him, was thinking about the sea.

Novak: He’s out there on Long Island. He’s got the Atlantic. And he talks about the rhythms of the ocean. I took very seriously things that he told Betty Parsons, who passed them on. They helped me understand him a bit better. She said he was influenced by an Indian couple he knew. He was interested in Asian philosophy. For me that helps account for the transcendent qualities I find in his work in the late forties and early fifties. I have perhaps a different reading of him than some contemporary scholars do. Some admit that he was also somewhat involved with Jung. But most deny that influence. With him the “self” really does alternate between expressionist angst and transcendence. When he went back to drinking (it’s not much mentioned, but we all know our bodies can respond chemically and psychically to alcohol) the angst-ridden self surfaced. Olson is wonderful on this. He talks about being “laid out on the cold table of self.” His notion of projective verse is like writing a Pollock. Olson is completely fascinating, and his admiration for Lane leads us back again to Gloucester. Themes keep back-and-forthing in the book, sometimes in ways I didn’t anticipate.

Bui: What is fascinating is the sense that while Pollock is capable of expressing his momentality in large format painting, Ryder was doing the same but in an intimate and small painting. And while Pollack named his dog Ahab, Ryder’s birthplace was New Bedford, the whaling town in Massachusetts where Ishmael took to sea.

Novak: In spite of all of the differences, they ultimately had a lot in common. I feel when Pollock made it “work,” as he put it, his trance was so sustained that the paintings were calm and serene. We certainly see that in paintings like Autumn Rhythm. In those paintings he was really somewhere where he wanted to be. I’m reminded of Janis Joplin’s “When I’m there, I’m not here.” That returns us exactly to the kind of communing self Thoreau had talked about—the whole idea of the self communing with itself.

Bell: I see that same transcendence in Ryder’s work. It makes it even stranger that he lived in a small apartment in New York, full of old buttermilk cans and cereal boxes, and walked along the Bowery at night.

Novak: No matter how worldly they make him, with plentiful friends and patrons, etc., the fact remains that he was a visionary who lived in his own head. Dickinson, his partner in my book, was, I think, much more worldly than he was. Even though she too has a reclusive myth. She comes out of all this as an extraordinary visionary, but she was also an almost startling existential one.

Bell: Could you talk about the very holistic chapter on Thoreau and the Indians, and the fact that you bring up Plato, Jung, St. Augustine, and the Native Americans? There’s this incredible web of different ideas from different cultures and you really put American art and American culture into that larger context of relationships, so anyone, regardless of their discipline, can appreciate and understand them.

Novak: I feel if we are going to understand the culture it has to be in a multidisciplinary way. It has to be total. I’ll admit to a concern that Americans don’t understand their culture the way the Europeans do theirs. Not only what has been, but what continues. There are vivid reminders of this past in our contemporary culture. It’s important to know what comes to us from the past. For better or worse, it’s part of us. It should help us recognize when certain hot-buttons from the past are pushed, especially politically. To be aware of what’s been taken from its original meaning in the past and twisted. So we can understand what’s gone well and what has gone wrong in the culture now. Particularly since we are part of its ongoing evolution.

Bell: That idea comes out in the Whitman and Church chapter, when you talk about the notion of Whitman as the “world-swallower,” and Church’s wanderlust, his wanting to go out and conquer South America and Central America, how both of those figures just played with this idea of expansiveness and conquering territories.

Novak: It’s an imperial thrust. What’s there now was always there. You find it in 19th century books like The United States as a Missionary Field (1848), one of the most important sources I ever came across. It says that we are destined to be the foster mother of future billions, who will be the governing race of man. That’s scary. It is assumed without question that we are good, that our democracy is good for everybody. I wrote that chapter in 1988. How applicable it is today. We can learn from that. One other thing: in that chapter I quote from Leslie Fiedler, the always-provocative Buffalo scholar, who says that “what we dream rather than what we are is our essential truth.” The dream of goodness is of course good. What we are is sometimes something else. Our record with both Native Americans and the African Americans is not something we can be proud of. I think such matters should be made quietly and reasonably clear. At the same time, the myth of the good America is true on so many levels. Immigrants still come to the New World, as my family did in the early 1900s, and with luck, fulfill its promise. My parents gave me the feeling that as an American I could do anything. I was raised in an atmosphere of Whitmanesque optimism—though they didn’t suggest that I swallow the world.

Bell: [laughs] Almost, though.

Novak: There are different kinds of “world-swallowing,” if we use that phrase. It can also be a desire to know everything, like Charles Olson. He consumes, I hesitate to say cannibalizes, the past. To give one example: In the Maximus Poems he returns us to Elizabeth Tuttle, Jonathan Edwards’s grandmother, “whose sister murdered her child, whose brother was also a murderer.” The book starts with Edwards in the 18th century and ends up with Charles Olson in the 20th, dealing with Edwards’s adulterous grandmother. I love those circular patterns. Olson keeps swallowing time and space with an enormous appetite. What fascinated me in this book, what made it a voyage for me, was that I kept discovering connections that I didn’t necessarily expect to find when I put these pairs together.

Bui: Absolutely. And there’s a good reason why Thomas Cole painted the whole series of the destruction of the empire. That’s quite frightening to me in the light of what’s going on today.

Novak: It’s interesting that you should say that. Because in the course of teaching American art at Barnard and Columbia, “The Course of the Empire” would appear on the screen at least once every year. The students’ response would depend on where our contemporary history was going at the moment. I remember when I would show that last scene, the “Desolation”—during the Cuban crisis, the nuclear scare under Kennedy, and particularly when Regan was talking about the “evil empire,” even other times—the students were very uneasy, some of them quite disturbed. Another cycle, that comes round and round.

Bui: We can easily see the misinterpretation of the notion of cosmic totality where the immensity of nature can overwhelm a person who stands before her, either he resists or is happy to be swallowed up. How all of that can be identified with Nietzschean will and the whole German invention of nationalism.

Novak: It all came out of a certain aspect of Romanticism. It’s a word used by earlier scholars—E. P. Richardson for example. I don’t use it very often. Because I don’t think it fits the American nature feeling in the traditional sense of the word. I moved quickly towards a version of the transcendent sublime and to the quietism of luminism. You could make a good argument that the word fits much of Cole and Allston and their contemporaries. It’s more convincing when it’s applied to our literature—to Hawthorne and Poe, for instance, who are closer to the European definition of the word. For me, how you use it depends on how close it is to the European brand of romanticism. The German tradition of the 19th century is the only one that really parallels the American, in terms of luminism and romanticism. The Germans have both. Which is why Friedrich’s Traveller over the Sea of Mist, as a romantic painting, looks forward to German Expressionism. There’s another element in the American tradition that I usually attribute to an Asian abstractness or an Asian selflessness. I don’t find that in the Europeans. It’s a key difference. It’s in the American mix, certainly in the 19th century. They were reading the Hindu scriptures. Later, you have that thread running erratically to Pollock. Thoreau and Emerson’s obsession with Hindu texts is extraordinary.

Bui: Emerson referred to his wife as My Asia.

Novak: Indeed he did. Also it enters into the recurrent theme of circles throughout the book. I was delighted to find Dickinson later in the century saying, “My business is circumference.” That brought me back to St. Augustine, who Emerson quotes when he says God is a circle “whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere.” Then she comes along and says, “My business is circumference.” For Emerson the visible world has a “circumference” at the edge of the invisible. The word comes up over and over. The American Indians talk endlessly about circular power. The Indian chapter mirrors certain ideas of the Transcendentalists which are common to Native American cultures. One statement from that chapter affected me deeply. When Black Elk is talking about the tragic fate of his people: “The Wasichus have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying.” The square had replaced the circle. There was a superb show of Indian art called “Sacred Circles” at the Nelson Gallery of Art in 1977. It’s a great irony that the Transcendentalists could have found some of their most profound philosophical concerns mirrored in the sacred beliefs of the American Indians, had they had access to them.

Bell: But Emerson downplayed his indebtedness to Native Americans.

Novak: Yes, he did. There’s a wonderful book about Thoreau and the American Indians by Robert F. Sayre. Thoreau talked a lot about the Indians, and he assembled a huge compendium of meditations and clippings. But when you get into his other papers he still insists that the Hindu is at the highest of all intellectual levels. He doesn’t realize that the silence, the communion, the sense of transcendence that he searched for in the East, could be found in American Indian philosophy, even in the vision experience.

Bell: And this is certainly manifest in Pollock’s early work, where he embraced American indigenous iconography and sand painting. Even in Mark Toby’s painting, you feel the presence of the East because he had spent time in Japan studying calligraphy, although he is able to express monumentality in such intimate, small-scale paintings.

Novak: Well, that’s the intimate immensity that Bachelard brought up prominently in his Poetics of Space. When Olson starts talking about the plum, or the wood, you feel the concern with “thingness” shared by Edwards and Copley is still there. But Olson and Pollock are looking beyond the thing to something else.

Bui: Take a painter, de Kooning, for example, Pollock’s counterpart. In the middle of the late forties, and throughout the fifties, leading up to maybe the early sixties, as abstract as his work appears to be at times, one senses that they are direct responses to a very localized environment. From Gotham News you feel the loud, compressed urban environment. In Door to the River, after he moved out to East Hampton, the forms become more expansive, so does the color. But with Pollock’s you can’t just place that locality.

Novak: Because it’s interior.

Bui: When he said “I am nature,” he really meant it.

Novak: It all came from the inside out. With both Pollock and Olson it was Olson’s “sun inside.”


Phong Bui

Adrienne Baxter Bell


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2007

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