Just wanted to mention the recent passing of three “artists” whose work touched me over the years.
JONATHAN WILLIAMS (1929-2008) was a poet, publisher and photographer. But most of all, he was an example of being true to oneself.
A cultured Southern gentleman, who happened to be quite comfortable with his homosexuality before the word “gay” even gained currency in the wider society, he started out as a student at the most experimental arts college perhaps ever seen in this country, Black Mountain, which existed in its most original form for not much more than a decade, but saw many, if not most, of the modern masters of the avant-garde art, dance,, poetry, music, etc. worlds pass through as either students or teachers.
(Just a small list would include John Cage, Willem DeKooning, Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, etc.)
Edward Dahlberg, a much admired writer of the first half of the 20th Century, who is pretty much ignored now, called Williams “the most cultivated poet of the whole brood” meaning the younger poets of the 1950s, and “the most lyrical,” and then added “you can throw in most of the older decayed ones too.” Jonathan was also a very funny man, who used his intelligence and taste to poke fun at the foibles of his times, no matter what direction they were coming from.
He was also a teacher and mentor to many poets, and under the aegis of his Jargon Press he published a wide array of “avant-garde” poets. And he did it all out of his North Carolina mountain home, not far from where he had grown up (in Ashville as I remember it).
I knew him most in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he took an interest in my own poetry and small press publishing ventures. He visited Washington DC occasionally, where I was living at the time, and was always a gas to spend time with.
There’s no typical example of his “art,” since he responded to the moment with different approaches, but almost always with a foundation of humor. Like the time he made a bumper sticker—we’re talking c. 1970 in the South—that played on the common one found in the region then: “HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS.”
Only Jonathan’s had an image of a Crusader on it and said ‘CONQUE IF YOU LOVE JESUS” (as I remember it, though that may not be the exact spelling for the Latin imperative for “conquer”).
Here’s two examples from MAHLER, one of my favorite books of Jonathan’s:
II. Moderately slow “Schubertian”
And this, from a later section (and without as much of an ironic undertone):
II. Stormily agitated
to be a block of flowers
in a wood
to be mindlessly in flower
to be shone on
to be there, there
IVAN DIXON (1931-2008) is probably best known for acting on and directing TV shows, most of which I never saw. But for me, the first time I saw him and was impacted by his work was his leading role in a film included on my list of movies from the 1960s that best expressed the tenor of those tumultuous years.
The film was NOTHING BUT A MAN, which I haven’t seen since it came out in the early 1960s and seriously impressed me. I went to see it mostly because his co-star was Abbey Lincoln, the great jazz singer and civil rights activist, as well as great beauty, who most of the musicians I knew and hung around with and played with were in love with, including me.
But it was Ivan Dixon that carried the film, one of the first to address Southern racism from a completely “black” perspective. It was “avant-garde” in its own way, for its unique perspective and its black and white documentary style, but was also still a good story well told. If you ever get the chance to check it out, imagine watching it back then.
ANTHONY MINGHELLA (1954-2008) is the most famous of these three, having won an Oscar for his direction of THE ENGLISH PATIENT. But he was also nominated for screenplay adaptations (at least one, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), and as a writer his taste was also pretty “avant-garde,” or at least not as main stream as most Hollywood big production movie directors.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT has its problems, for my taste, but it was still an enormously successful work of art, lush and complicated, absorbing while somehow still distancing the viewer, or at least this viewer.
I think I got teary-eyed when I saw it, if I remember correctly, and fell in love with all the actresses in it, and yet was still very aware of watching a movie, a work of art, unfold mostly successfully before my eyes. Kind of a cross between Brecht and David lean.
Minghella had a great eye for the screen, and an ear for dialogue better than many of his contemporaries. It’s a shame he died so young, though back in the 1960s I would have thought him old enough for death at 54. Now, death seems to pretty much always come too soon for my aging perspective.