Skip to main content

Tiny Fissures

False Endings and the Daybook Nature of Art

ISSUE:  Fall 2023


My first act of writing, after having a baby in early January of this year, was a February journal entry. I do not keep journals—my essays and poems mark time for me. But sometimes we are hurled toward what we normally don’t do.Illustration by Pablo Amargo

Already I had experienced many of the at-once terribly personal, benumbingly common bits of new motherhood: the baby’s mysterious (and then less mysterious) failure to gain weight; the work of reestablishing my pelvis as something other than a dumbwaiter for live cargo; the frequent tactile hallucinations of holding a desperate, wriggling infant when I was in fact falling asleep nowhere near my son. None of these had moved me to pick up a pen or start typing.

What did it was an offstage event, a happening I only obliquely witnessed. I was standing in the kitchen in the twilit afternoon when the breathy stammer of a pigeon and the gray snow of potato-chip-sized feathers pulled me to the window. Feathers continued to drift from above, though I saw no bird. Then came the whump of a red-tailed hawk launching itself from one fire escape to another—its noise a kind of anti-noise, like pulling on earmuffs. The hawk patrolled the wrought-iron railing, looking for what it had nearly killed. A minute later, the pigeon poked its head out from the plastic buttresses of a mildewed air conditioner. Neither the hawk nor the pigeon could see the other, though I could see both.

Which should I hope for, hunger for the hawk or death for the pigeon? I watched for what felt like a long time—the early-falling darkness favoring the five-o’clock-colored pigeon, the compressed stratagems presented by a pillar-shaped airshaft favoring the scanning, calculating hawk. Then the baby needed something else, and soon after that it was fully dark. I had glimpsed the middle of a story, and was left to fill in its beginning and its ending.

After the world-shattering that is childbirth, I had maybe had enough of capital-B Beginnings to last me quite a while, so it was this ragged scrap of mid-story, of fragment, that clung to me long enough to let me deposit it on the page. Finally, there it was: the old, comfortable, glorious sense that my presence was extraneous and belated—the way I used to be able to feel, pre-baby, like a speck of a many, rather than a terribly over-centered instance of one. 

“so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow….” That old anthology piece of William Carlos Williams had rattled in my brain throughout January and February when little else did, but was now slyly subjective, twisting out of context: Now I was the barrow, and its redness, and its glaze. The line breaks cut in heavy, downward blows like an oil derrick on hardpan. A person depended on me—so much!—and was trying his utmost, every waking moment, to look for me and listen for me and smell me, and this terrible dependence occasionally bred in me a suffocating terror. I could no longer be inconstant. I was now irrevocably adult. Once I was someone who could watch a bird, or not, depending on my mood. Now I finally shared the predicament of the pigeon or the hawk: Attention was not just a source of pleasure, but a tool of survival. 

Lately I’ve been reading the written work of the minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt, who says in the preface to her first published diary, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (1982), that she was driven to write it when two retrospectives of her work threw her into a kind of emotional vertigo—“I felt crazed, as china is crazed, with tiny fissures. It slowly dawned on me that the more visible my work became, the less visible I grew to myself.”

While keeping a diary, Truitt realizes that she had buried her own “intensities” inside each work of art she’d made, hoping that in so doing she could “exorcise those beyond [her] endurance.” But when her decades of work are assembled before her as an exhibition, all the old feelings and memories she had hoped to bury inside the work are suddenly disinterred. Like buried nuclear-fuel rods exposed after an earthquake, the sculptures’ first purpose is finished, but their full energy is not: “Feelings I had thought to get rid of forever, now so objectified that I felt myself brutalized by them, defenseless because I had depended on objectification for defense.” For Truitt, keeping a journal diverted the full, potentially toxic force that a retrospective might have on a living, practicing artist, breaking down the stupefying (for the artist) grandiosity of the retrospective into the more scalable units of a single day’s thought and work.


There were two big retrospectives of living women artists in New York City museums earlier this year—Wangechi Mutu and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith—and when I came home after seeing them, I wondered whether either woman suffered from the process of excavation and assemblage the way that Truitt suffered. Retrospectives force the artist to confront everything they’ve made while they’re still hip-deep in the mess of life. Even as an artist ages and develops what an external observer might call a “late style,” each individual work brims forth from an artistic intelligence that feels itself to be still very much in the thick middle of things.

My apartment for pigeon-watching and baby-raising derives its natural light from two airshafts. As the day proceeds, it folds itself up like a creased letter: First the north airshaft goes dim and hides one wing of our dwelling in shadow. When the sun bends past the south airshaft too, sending darkness down our last stretch of bright hallway, then the day can be tucked and slid away. In summer this last licking and sealing of the envelope comes when I’ve had my fill of day; in winter this happens before I’ve fully woken up. Retrospectives of living artists have that winter-light feeling of an artificial ending, an imposed shadow of closure on something best understood as the glorious, scrappy middle. A retrospective necessarily has a last room—but in truth we do not know how the real body of work will end. It has a first room too, but this is also an imposed artifice, since the artist, her curators, and her public may differ over what really counted as her first work of importance.


To date, the center of gravity in the work of Wangechi Mutu (born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya) appears to be the figurative collages she created in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Heads, half figures, and sometimes full figures of mostly female bodies look from across the room to be mottled by splatters of color and light. Up close, these faces and bodies are in fact composed of cutouts from a variety of highbrow and lowbrow sources—medical textbooks, advertisements, pornography, botanical and zoological figures—along with Mutu’s own embellishments in color and line. 

Sexy and coy, these figures are both radiantly alive and spookily undead, partly depending on what distance you view them from. At a middle distance, both the collaged elements and the full portrait they form are easy to notice, the way an Arcimboldo painting is very clearly and immediately both a human head and, say, a collection of autumn fruits and leaves. Its vitality and its readiness to disintegrate are in high-strung, vigorous relief. Up close, the smaller units of Mutu’s collage dominate the attention, like flung-open drawers of a cabinet of curiosities gone haywire. As you step away from the magnetic pull of these smaller elements and take in the whole picture from afar, the various collaged encrustations that form these human figures lose their particular source imagery and become like the macabre ornaments of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus, who wears her worms “like sticky pearls.” The works made on Mylar (a polyester film with the troubling sheen of cold sweat), like the Mushwomb collage series of 2003–2004, have a particular, grotesque glamour: queens of the underworld.

That these pictures look “nice” from a middle distance, but veer into unsettling territory when seen a bit too close or too far, demonstrates the peculiar power of collages. They practically compel movement in the viewer, lest we miss one of their ways of being read. There is no one best place to stand—we are forever caught restlessly between a position that does best justice to their smallest components and one which would allow us to feel like we’d captured the whole thing. Making us pace and fidget before them, the stillness of these heads and full-figure portraits is the stillness of monarchs on state occasions, celebrities on red carpets, or voguers in a Harlem ballroom. This is the magic reversal, that so many of the component images within these collages derive from a visual lexicon of relative powerlessness (the medical diagrams of the uterus recall what it is to be the subject of a medical exam; the glossy and parted lips and legs what it is to sell one’s labor as a model or a stripper). But these cut-up and remixed elements now put us, the viewers, on the move. As we walk about to find a stable viewpoint, they look back at us with a certain hard-earned, icy hauteur.

If one can manage to hold still at a farther distance from these paintings without the urge to move back in, one notices that the collaged works showing full human figures—Pin-Up (2001), Yo Mama (2003), or Riding Death in My Sleep (2002), for example—are intensely reminiscent of the imperious and distorted poses favored in the paintings of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. Mutu herself is quite open about the influence, speaking on a Metropolitan Museum of Art educational video series about her debt to Schiele in particular. Both those century-old paintings and Mutu’s more contemporary work struggle between, on the one hand, an over-ripeness, a near-rot in their lush particulars, and, on the other, a rigid geometry of anatomical control. Models appear to flex or extend elbows, knees, and necks as though daring us to be repulsed by their self-exposure. 

In recent years, Mutu has seemed more interested in giving her figures a greater degree of repose, and majesty. She also seems to be at greater pains to protect their modesty. Increasingly, her work has shifted toward sculpture as opposed to two-dimensional works—sculptures often made in large part out of reddish clay from her native Kenyan soil. Perhaps it is the inherent fragility of the mud medium (and their hair, cowrie shells, and other adornments) that forces Mutu to choose less balletic and provocative, more staid and priestly poses for them. Seeing Cowries (2020), for example, made of “soil, charcoal, paper pulp, wood glue, emulsion paint, ink, synthetic hair, wood, and shells,” looks like a cross-legged elder or deity, with linear scoring at its base suggestive of simplified feet at rest under the figure’s seated weight. The effect is stern, even imposing, but hushed and inert. And recent bronze sculptures like Crocodylus (2020), in which a girl, head held high, merges silkily into the back of the giant reptile that she rides, or The Seated I (2019), a stately woman wrapped in coils and bangles, are similarly balanced, frictionless, and a bit dull.

But the technical limitations achievable in these various sculptural media—the organic world of mud and wood, or the ponderousness of bronze—does not sufficiently explain Mutu’s new pivot toward a mood of reverent, gingerly devotion, since the same tendency emerges in her recent two-dimensional works as well. In the Subterranea series of images from 2022 and 2023, ink and paint are layered over wallpaper-like photographic prints of natural patterns in wood and stone. The central figures are priestess-like women whose bodies meld with various charismatic megafauna—a panther, a ghostlike cow—while also tapping into networks of branches, rhizomes, or blood vessels that reach to the picture’s boundaries. The women who form the center of each composition are unshakeable pillars of serenity, command, or rapture. We have the feeling that Mutu is illustrating a personal mythology or spiritual practice, blending ancient motifs with emblems and technologies of the present.

Paradoxically, these more superficially “empowering” images are far less visually or emotionally powerful than the unsettling, provocative work of Mutu’s earlier career. Her older pieces sent us skittering and supplicating, restless and roving on the gallery or museum floor, looking for but never finding the right place to stand still to take them in. Her newer works, with the noble tranquility of the midlife and midcareer artist, have formally aristocratic gestures and poses, but they can’t make us fidget and squirm the way something that holds us in psychological or aesthetic thrall can. Images that conjure up queenliness or godhood might comfort— but are they interesting?

Mutu is far from done. In the New Museum’s top level, its so-called Sky Room, rests one of her more recent bronzes, called Shavasana I (2019), which shows a human figure supine under an enormous metal blanket or carpet. It is an image of surrender, with suffocating consequences—or perhaps being blotted out by the metal drapery will allow the person underneath to shapeshift in private, and emerge post-metamorphosis as someone or something else entirely. The beauty of the retrospective of the still-practicing artist—if it does not craze her “with tiny fissures”—is that there is still ample time and space for new and important breaks with the known and familiar.


Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, born in 1940, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum whose trajectory is in some ways the opposite of Mutu’s. Whereas much of Mutu’s work gradually smooths over, losing some of its brittle acrobatics and its exploded-mosaic style in favor of placidity, Smith’s begins in simplicity, sometimes even austerity, and ends (so far) in bricolage.

Her early work was marked by a penchant for pastels and their aura of vulnerability to the elements, or to the intruder’s smudging hand. Early sherbet-tone pastel-and-charcoal pieces coalesce into abstracted, vertically oriented landscapes peppered with arrows and petroglyphs. Kalispell #3 (1979), named after a part of the Flathead Valley in her home state of Montana, is a particularly lovely example in foggy pinks and browns. These landscapes’ stripped-down, symbolic, and cartographic qualities—cross-hatching to suggest borders or fences, repeating triangles to conjure up a mountain range—make them double as atlases, though the marks on paper are so airily gentle that this orienteering is more for traversing dreams and memories than for trudging across literal ground.

Around the same time in the late 1970s, Smith was making the three-dimensional mixed-media complements to these dream maps, her “Ronan Robes”: constructions out of oil, beeswax, charcoal, and soot on frayed and battered canvas shapes that look like tanned animal hides turned into garments or blankets. Ronan Robe #2 is rusty pink and otter brown, its pigments bleached as though by the salt of sweat. Its largest piece of canvas is split into vertical seams and then restitched, suggesting tailoring and repair to meet the needs of generations of bodies needing warmth. Chalky-white tracery overtop creates the sense of currents and force fields, while X’s and O’s emerge in washed-out hints here and there, remnants of time passed in amusement, communication, or commerce between people. It is a false artifact—it only looks generations old—but a convincing one. A single lodgepole leans toward it—not enough to make a dwelling, just enough to point toward the idea of shelter. The stitched and colored canvas looks so apt for human comfort that the lodgepole itself takes on an anthropomorphic quality: It is like a Giacometti figure reduced even further into extreme starkness, even the limbs dropping away until all that is left is a single vertical beam.

By the 1990s, Smith had continued to hone the effect of oft-washed, oft-repaired, dense arrays of color on canvas, broadening her spectrum of pigments but always coming back to lichenous gray-browns and the pinks and crimsons of old blood and clay soil. But the paintings showed a gradually increasing interest in offering more interpretive toeholds to the viewer hoping to translate her work into something more narratable. To me, one of the loveliest works from this period is Rain (C.S. 1854), made in 1990. The work is on three canvases: two small squares and a much larger vertically oriented rectangle beside them. One small square contains the swift, simple forms of dancers in brisk black lines on a whitish background. The other is inscribed with “C.S. 1854,” commemorating the year of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribal leader and diplomat Chief Seattle’s most famous speech, an elegy that is at the same time an argument against mourning as defeatism.

Seattle’s words, at least in their most common rendition (the authenticity of his speech is a matter of significant controversy, since he was being translated in real time from Lushootseed to Chinook to English, and only later transcribed from one eyewitness’s notes), acknowledge that white settlers were incontrovertibly winning the political, economic, and demographic conflict against Indigenous peoples being brutally routed from their homes. Yet he warns white listeners that the settler way of life impoverishes their sense of connection to their own history and ancestry, while his own people’s commitment to ecological continuity makes them ultimately ineradicable.

The large vertical canvas seems to riff gently on the mood of Seattle’s rhetoric: vertical strokes of wet-looking, mossy color run down the canvas like rain and washed-out soil. Also appearing to drip from the canvas like rain or tears are a score of iced-tea spoons, the tips of their handles melding with the dense color of the canvas, while their shallow bowls glint in chilly silver. These are tears of mythologic proportions, grown so immense as to batter, or at least rattle, whoever might be exposed to the deluge. There is also a dramatic irony in the flood of delicate metal objects: As Smith notes, the painting was composed while meditating on the devastating effects of acid rain wrought by steel manufacturing and other carbon-intensive industries on the forests of the northeastern United States. The silver spoons of privilege have come back to haunt viewers, epitomizing the corrosive instruments of our own destruction.

This could all come across to the viewer as a sour, punning joke, but the wonder is that it dodges sarcasm entirely by being so successfully beautiful. Even those spoons, emblems of settlement and extraction, form a chain of tiny ponds of delight for the eye. Likewise, Sunlit (C.S. 1854) (1989), another mixed-media painting of the same period that incorporates a lightbulb plugged into an electrical outlet, appears to be a wry commentary on pollution and smog, as a beleaguered stand of trees emerges from an expressive color field of tarry browns and oily purples. But its shimmering petrol tones and quivering brushstrokes transcend the op-ed impulse to moralize and simplify, allowing beauty to make its own silent argument for both the assaulted landscape and the eerily gorgeous modernities that threaten it.

In her more recent works, Smith seems to take pains to ensure that we are not tempted to classify destructive things as lovely, as though she worries that our aesthetic sensibilities might overpower our capacity to think historically or politically. This to me feels like a loss of trust, in the work or perhaps in her audience. It’s hard to fault her: Things are not looking up for America’s flora and fauna, nor for the fortunes of American Indians, who continue to live with the long aftermath of settler colonialism in the United States. 

More recent works such as McFlag (1996) or Smith’s series of enormous paintings and sculptures on the theme of trade canoes (those that were on view at the Whitney span from 1992 to 2018) incorporate the cultural detritus that clouds our brains and stuffs our landfills. McFlag shows a large American flag, its stripes overlaid with shards of painted newsprint and magazine clippings whose texts have a comical and oppressive insistence on the supercharged and supersized. “LAND OF THE GIANTS,” says one headline; another, “WE GO TO YOUR HEAD.” Snippets of Mickey Mouse cartoons and a repeating motif of MC’s suggest more than phonetic kinship between those two ubiquitous American franchises, that of the mouse and that of the golden arches: They are both intent on taking up as much space as possible in the American imagination and its market share. It’s an unabashedly ugly vision of America, hackneyed images and phrases shellacked onto our national icons like permanent billboards.

In the Trade Canoe pieces, the long hulls of canoe are overstuffed with heaps of ghoulish junk. The sculpture Trade Canoe: Making Medicine (2018), a collaboration with Neal Ambrose-Smith, includes salvaged plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, hypodermic needles, and more. Over one painting of a canoe dangles a chain bedecked in sports-mascot representations of pseudo-Indianness. Another contains multiple simulacra of Tonto, friend and foil of the Lone Ranger. The unmistakably sure-footed backdrop of beautifully applied, eloquent, and surprising tapestries of color are still there, mercurial and dreamy. But the overlay of what many of us already find offensive, trashy, or just plain trash—I imagine that the average ticket holder at the Whitney already agrees that Chief Wahoo was long due for retirement, or that single-use cups are an offense against our children’s future—feels like an exasperated loss of faith in the power that beauty might still have over us. Smith once seemed to believe that an undidactic beauty could still rouse us to a state of openness in which “the way things are” might be more easily supplanted by “the way things could be.” Nowadays, her work says, we may need more direct coaching.


Why have a retrospective of the living at all? Is it to allow viewers to feel a shape gathering around a body of work, a way of packaging an artist into an apprehensible quantity, a story arc? It is hard to imagine how disorienting it must be for a living artist to step through a long parade of their work arranged in timeline fashion, watching the products of particular hours and days coalesce into a kind of phantom biography—perhaps even serving as the annals of a generation, a people, a country. Hard for the artist, I imagine, not to be dumbfounded by so much summation.

Today, my infant son and I were listening to the radio—an invention that seems designed to remind us that all beginnings and endings are provisional and semifictional, since the listening experience simply starts whenever one flicks the dial. The baby doesn’t know yet, I think, whether what he hears is a song fragment, caught midline in its final verse, or a piece heard in toto from its opening bars. The idea of what a customary beginning (or middle, or ending) should sound like hasn’t yet occurred to him. I envy this freedom and this ignorance. 

Unencumbered by the way we map time and life years, we might be more able to see the merits and shortcomings of individual creations without the tug of grand explanatory models. Childlike time—a sense of the present as both overwhelming and sufficient—can be a revelatory mode of encountering individual works of art, a way of apprehending each to the full, ignoring the usual adult impatience to consider what it means or where it leads. For the artist at work, too, this willful innocence—a refusal to take stock of oneself too often or too seriously—seems like the only possible way to maintain the courage of forward motion. The retrospective is an elaborate attempt to interpret a life and career through the language and texture of time— how artistic power waxes or wanes with the accrual of years, how the artist emerges under the influence of others and later begins to influence (put ungenerously, to repeat) herself. But in the act of creation, or of witnessing another’s creation, we may be best served by attempting to see as the very young or very enraptured do: as if time itself has fallen away. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading