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Pie-Slicing and Small Moves:

Morton Feldman in conversation with Stuart Morgan

The following interview was originally published in Artscribe (April 1978) pp 34-37.

"I don't know what a composer is," said Morton Feldman two years ago. "I never knew as a young man, I don't know now and I'm gonna be fifty next month." Feldman (at present Edgar Varèse Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Buffalo) studied composition with Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. In New York in the fifties he met John Cage and joined a circle that included Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and pianist David Tudor. A second major influence was painting; friendships with Rothko, Kline, Pollock, Guston and de Kooning are commemorated in his music. "What was great about the fifties," he wrote in 1971, "is that for one brief moment - maybe, say, six weeks - nobody understood art. That's why it all happened. Because for a short while, these people were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started." Interviewed five years later he made the same point but reduced the period of time to a week. "But the week was important . . . we began to listen . . . " Operating at the edges of the audible, his music seems to recreate this process of composition by listening. Interviewers have compared it with his conversation; long silences occur while he puffs hard at a cigarette and patiently unravels an idea which suggested itself because it needed to be said. Hesitantly, repetitively, he allows it to emerge. Serious talk is a pleasure for him, but a private pleasure. He uses his interlocutor to prompt an even denser monologue. "Everybody has to learn what it is to be lonely again . . . That's why, WHO said it recently? I think it was Paul Valery, that when something is beautiful, it is tragic. And I think the implication for me as I see it is that something that is beautiful is made in isolation. And tragedy in a sense is a kind of psychic flavour of this loneliness."

Feldman admires hard work. "If Cage comes to stay he will wake you up at 7.30 to ask if you have a dictionary. It will take us ten years to catch up with the things he's doing now". Titles such as Routine Investigations and Elemental Procedures focus on the "small moves" of a daily life in art. In his private pantheon Seurat, Giorgioni, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca are guided towards exact measurement and precise judgement by means of "total sensuousness . . . total intuition", exemplified in the twentieth century by Mondrian. Tact informs Feldman's art criticism, which is meditative, daring and partisan. (See, for example, "Some Elementary Questions" Art News April 1967; "After Modernism" Art in America December 1971; "The Anxiety of Art" Art in America September-October 1973.) A heightened sensitivity to time and the gradual progression of artistic careers underlies both his reminiscences ("Give my Regards to Eighth Street" Art in America March-April 1971) and an eloquent tribute to his friend Frank O'Hara ("Frank O'Hara: Lost Times and Future Hopes" Art in America March-April 1972). Preoccupation with images of life and death is evident in his images of creative work. "What it really amounts to is whether you want to be in the work, in the medium or outside it . . . I feel that Cage and myself are in the work . . . Stockhausen and Boulez are out of it". (Alan Beckett "Morton Feldman" International Times no.3, November 14-27, 1966). Later he elaborates: "Secreted in Frank O'Hara's thought is the possibility that we create only as dead men . . . Death seems the only metaphor distant enough to truly measure our existence . . . Only the artist who is close to his own life gives us an art that is like death." For Feldman, being "in the work", "close to life", seems to entail loss of some kind, perhaps a shedding of personal feeling. "For the work to succeed, the artist must fail".

Feldman's talk has been reported frequently and well. (See Gavin Bryars / Fred Orton "Morton Feldman" Studio International November-December 1976 which covers both music and art, for example; also Walter Zimmerman "Desert Plants" Vancouver Canada ARC Publications 1976 pages 4-20.) Nevertheless, on a visit to London late last year, he was reluctant to consent to an interview.

* * *

Why don't you like interviews?

One of the things about interviews is that I made some remark in Studio about Rauschenberg's cardboard works, how chic they look, and I was very, very unhappy about it because it was to some degree out of context with what I was talking about and the interview didn't get into it. I think we have to talk about the history of the galleries sometimes as well as the history of art. What were the first galleries? I mean public galleries, not the Louvre which was a palace. I think the great economist Veblen talks about official architecture. In other words the campus where I'm teaching with the Greek columns, the pompousness of the official look of buildings and the whole history of the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum . . . At the old Guggenheim, Sweeney framed every picture the same way, with a certain type of stripping no matter what. I like the look of the Tate - it's pretty seedy. The Whitechapel's a disaster, a caricature of a private place, and here we put art into it.

It's a problem that needs some discussion. And when I saw that Rauschenberg's cardboard art looks a little too chic on those walls, I feel it does look a little too chic. You get some kind of swank Milano gallery and you hang this thing there. It looks fantastic but it also robs from it. That's what I meant in that interview. Not that Rauschenberg was making chic art but what happens to the art once these sharpies get hold of it and start packaging. Orchestras are like galleries. A certain type of orchestra has a pretentiousness within its tone before it plays your tones. Its own delivery, its own attitude. That's like a gallery. I'm writing a lot of big pieces now. Even when they play softly, quietly, nicely it's still lost a lot; it's hanging in this streamlined gallery where you can't have an ashtray in the room because it would kill the room. You're fighting an insidious packaging conspiracy. At the same time I don't like that funky 'I-am-an-artist' look and 'This is an artist's painting so let's just slop it on the wall'. That's another kind of attitudinising.

We're talking about intimacy, aren't we?

Which is non-existent in England. Most art in England is public art. England never really had a tradition of private art. Even someone like Anthony Caro would be a reduction of the monumentality of the English sculptural tradition of artists like Moore.

What is the relation of scale to intimacy?

No matter how smart we are, we still see things in clichés, we feel that something big is monumental. That's a delusion. I feel that scale is no barrier to an intimate art. Just the other day I saw that gorgeous Watteau in the Wallace Collection, a large-scale painting that reaches unparalleled intimacy. A lot of people went into the big picture in terms of its design potential. It's as simple as that. Or just in terms of its look divorced from any other kind of connotation. I don't feel it's in Al Held's mind to make monumental paintings. You could have a big American painting and it could he intimate. It's very hard to have an intimate big European painting.

Is this intimacy what you've tried for in your music?


Do you still look at painting a lot?

It's very difficult for me to look at painting now without having a personal concern about the artist. I haven't been in anyone's studio for ten years. Without the personal involvement of the artist it goes into another - I wouldn't say criterion, but another . . . kind of ballpark.

But you have a remarkable feeling for Piero della Francesca, for example, or Mondrian.

Yes, but that's the other ballpark. I was looking at Piero again yesterday. I wonder what happens to the work when it goes into a gallery or a museum. It's confusing because it gains somehow.

Because it's out of time or because the mind is free to attach any meaning at all to it?

I think because it's dead. If we love someone and they die, they mean more because we've lost them. You understand how someone would love something from the past if only because it's dead.

In your statements about music you talk a lot about "dying away".

Well, since I was a young man I always tried to work like a dead artist. How else can you get the objectivity?

Don't you feel that this opposes any idea of Modernism as contemporaneity, what Baudelaire talks about in "The Artist of Modern Life", the feeling that you can enjoy something because it is of the present, like clothes or design?

I'm not exactly on Baudelaire's side.

What's the opposite side?

There isn't any.

But you're on it whatever it is. I would envisage the opposite side as someone like Greenberg, perhaps?

What would that be?

Greenberg seems to want to erect a perimeter around paintings. In "Modernist Painting" he seems to want the same as Baudelaire. Baudelaire sees art as going on all the time. Greenberg seems to say 'Here's the perimeter. This is what modern art has decided it's about, which is its own conventions, its own set of rules. Having discovered this, artists in the future are free to do as they like.' This is obviously very paradoxical, as people have pointed out, but I feel that it's not Baudelairean. Baudelaire wasn't talking about fences.

But Baudelaire was also at the early stages of a kind of art idealism and didn't realise that the greatest danger to art is the artist. He didn't realise that the potential of the artist, especially in America, is to become like a Watergate lawyer.


Loopholes. It happens more and more as artists become educated. They become their own historians. After the fifties artists suffer from a historical consciousness. Picasso ingeniously cut up the rectangle. They ingeniously cut up the artistic space in which to fit. They were pie-slicing. They figured everything out perfectly and were too brilliant to become mannerists. Every era has a mannerist period and if they were living in another age they would move towards it but it's too difficult. You can't do that any more.

But after mannerism what?

You have to go on. Where I don't know. You just have to go on cutting up that pie.

But you're blaming them for pie-slicing.

I'm not really blaming them. They gotta do it or else. To realise that historical necessity, do it. Slash or else. What's annoying about it is knowing that you have to go on. Which brings us to an overly conscious period and the misreading of consciousness. It's very hard to understand what consciousness is; it's a double-edged thing. By being conscious you could see that the work appears to be going one way.

Consciousness of historical tradition?

Everything. It's not so much history as the nature of the work itself, the problem that you give yourself. You could see that it's going one way. Now you could be conscious and realise that it's going one way and you go the way it appears to be going. You also could be conscious that it's going one way but because of the consciousness - the itness of consciousness - you then take it another way. One might call it a focus on the problem, or as John Cage would say, to ask the right question. And when you ask the right question of the work, you're conscious of the problem and then the work proceeds and consciousness has a decision. It decides whether to go with what appears to be where it's going or whether to divert it somewhere else. Now everything I say is not a negative. I'm not attacking anybody. Unlike my time when I was a young man a level of consciousness was more concerned with directing it on the right path. So, say, in painting the placement would be elegant, the space around it would be just right. Everything about it would have a feeling of 'This is it' which is the fifties.

So the fifties meant focusing on a completely new set of problems?

But it took it on the right path. I feel that now there's a fork in the road and the choice could be to divert it.

Is that the choice facing you?

Yes, actually.

What are you going to do?

Well, for the last few years I'm involved in diverting it. I feel we have no control any more over the whole aspect of problem solving even though the problems are invented by ourselves and solved by ourselves.

Why is this?

The father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, has a phrase, "the hardening of the categories". Things are neither open the way Baudelaire idealised it and neither are things going around like . . . I think Clem Greenberg was too influenced by the structure of the London subways. A well-working loop, wouldn't you say? (Actually, it was invented by an American.) There is a discrepancy between what appears to be an open situation, a situation in which Baudelaire and Greenberg happily meet, and on the other hand a situation where, if you want to do something else, you're forbidden. I'm not just talking about the opening up of new problems. I mean problem-solving going in the right way. Barney Newman's line was just in the right place. Motherwell's shape was absolute perfection. Tworkov left open just that which should be left open. Guston had an incredible repertoire of the open picture and the finished picture. I think what they had in the fifties was that right amount that individual pictures should have, which really couldn't be said of any other period in history. It had to be a very personal painting that had that in the past. The fresh pictures are like. the fantastic picture I saw the other day, the Giorgione with the two saints. It could be an Abstract Expressionist picture in terms of amounts.

You're not afraid of using taste terms such as 'elegant'. Although modernism seems to bring with it an aspect of destruction, your words seem always to refer to creation, building things up, realising a personal consciousness.

I think there's very important work that never destroyed. Seurat never destroyed. And his twentieth century counterpart, Jasper Johns, never destroyed. Rauschenberg never really destroyed. But 'destroy' is the wrong word. When a painting looks as if it's being destroyed, the painter is really looking for something.

What's he looking for?

For the painting. Like de Kooning.

Is this the function of violence in de Kooning?

You're watching him make connections.

You wrote of de Kooning that part of his greatness lay in his ability to do six different things on six different days.

I compared him to Matisse. He found a life in art rather than getting up and doing that same thing. Cy Twombly is another example. I was with Twombly recently in Rome. I spent three days there and saw a lot of his work. I was just knocked over. Just knocked over. I have a student who is very interested in horse-racing. I'm just convinced that Twombly is the big long-shot of our era. I feel closer to Twombly and Johns and Rauschenberg than I ever have in my life.

You wrote an opera recently.

It's not really like an opera. It's a little over an hour, to a gorgeous poem that Beckett wrote for me. And it's the classic Beckett theme . . .

. . . which you almost paraphrased earlier when you spoke about 'going on' after mannerism.

The theme interests me tremendously because it's very close to my own thinking. The poem is called Neither and if I may paraphrase it it has to do with the fact - it's not a narrative, it becomes like a narrative - that there is no understanding of the self or the un-self nor is there a synthesis. They're both on the outer shadows. We go back and forth between them. We keep on going back and forth. It became a narrative in defining a musical proximity to this thought. It was a lot of fun watching the production. Pistoletto did the . . .


I don't know what you'd call them. He did something. A different situation for each production, I saw two. There were about six. The first one I didn't like. He said it looked better without the audience. He had people walking at a distance, back and forth on the stage. A little too fancy. A little too sixties. All these people discovering their own space, about 25 or 30 of them.

How many characters?

One. It was great fun. The audience was screaming and booing for an hour. They couldn't stand it. Actually, the orchestration is crazy and quite scary. I was freaked out a little bit when I heard it. But after ten minutes, as soon as the girl sang - and she's the most beautiful part of the orchestration - they associated the female voice with opera and started to boo. And every time this lovely singer sang, which I thought the most accessible parts of the opera, that's when they went berserk. Martha Hanneman has a very sad effortless voice without too much colour in it, evoking some kind of lost world. She's simply tremendous. Lisa Wertmueller was at the opera and I was very happy that she caught the dichotomy between this lost world of the voice and the more ominous world of the music.

How long have you felt close to Beckett's writing?

Late. Again he was an aspect of . . . you see, I was such a modernist myself that I kind of avoided anything . . . Even though he's twenty years older than me, in New York we felt he was a contemporary because he was publicised at the same time as we were all growing up. In Grove Press. So he was very much a part of our life. After meeting him in Berlin I didn't know if he was going to send me anything or not. When I got back I was at the University of California, Los Angeles, with John Cage. And Jasper Johns was there. It turned out that Jasper Johns had just written a book with Beckett which is a whole series of prints and Beckett writing the commentaries. So it was actually 'in the air'.

There's a recurring theme in your writings. You say that the only thing necessary for a complete change in art is to have a short period when no-one knows anything. Is this how you felt about your experience in New York in the fifties?

I took the open environment very seriously. But it's impossible now. The over-educated attitude I've described spoilt that. After all, art is a life of small moves and unless one has the kind of tolerance to watch Motherwell's small moves, you've had it after five or ten years. Mondrian's was a life of small moves. There's unbelievable change in Mondrian's work. His repertoire was very very important to me. Now we see the brush-stroke, now we don't. Now we reveal this much, now we don't. Almost like a public and private look and a schizophrenia between the intimacy and some kind of idealism. I've learned a lot through his life. My biggest complaint - and I have to quote Nietzsche on this one - (quote) "The world of distinction is lost". We no longer get concerned with distinction about the individual artist we're allegedly concerned with. We see big, broad issues on an art magazine level.

So you feel a loss of creative openness?

When I'm teaching one of the ways I always get a laugh is to say, "Let's sit for a minute and concentrate where half of us is open and half of us is closed".

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