Only connect

February 19th, 2006 § Comments off

While I was browsing at Cody’s Books last night, I noticed that some wag had shelved Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type under “urban planning.” The reference to grids reminded me of a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik that I had been reading that afternoon, in which Gopnik mentions the grid plans of Shaker villages. The article’s focus, though, is on describing the qualities that give Shaker crafts their distinct appearance:

…Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops. Repetition and the grid are two alternatives to design that refers to classical perspective space and the roundly realized human body. …Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think “pictorially” about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems, whether you are in Japan, Montmartre, or Hancock. …The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

One sees the pattern clearly in the evolution of the casement clocks—what we call grandfather clocks—made by the Youngs family of New York over three generations, in and out of the community of Believers. …Isaac Newton Youngs, the grandson, was reared as a Shaker, and the clocks he made became as reductive as a refrigerator case, with the sides of the clock neither tapering nor swelling, and, telltale sign, with a knob on the clock face as well as on the clock body to allow the worker to adjust or repair the inside: the allergy to putting a functional element on an object’s “face” was overruled, because the artisan was not thinking of it as a face. In each case, the clocks got not merely simpler—though they did that, too—but progressively less figural.

This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are “inhuman” in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be “humanistic.” …Shaker objects are, like Zen Japanese ones, unworldly but material, far from sensuality but solid as a rock. They annihilate the body, and leave us timeless form to tell the time with.

And that recollection, in turn, reminded me that I had been meaning to get a book about David Ireland, a Zen-influenced artist whose work I saw at the Oakland Museum of California a couple of years ago.

I thought there was a point to this story, but I guess there’s not, except to describe the pinballing way in which I think.

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