A Legacy Carved in Stone.

A few weeks back I stopped by The John Stevens Shop on Thames Street, the oldest continually operated company in the same location in America, I think, on one of my daily strolls around the new neighborhood, and knocked on the door to say hello and introduce myself. A dog started barking like crazy. Bark, bark, bark.

Nick's stir-crazy cabin fever book list.

Since we're smack-dab in the middle of a quarantine right now, and everyone is suffering from acute and chronic cabin fever, I thought I'd interrupt this post mid-paragraph to first share with you Nick's stranded-on-a-desert-island five book must-haves, to better help you intellectually-distance yourself from your own boredom and ennui.

For pure fun, he thinks that there's nothing better than Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I haven't read it, but the movie was fire! If there's anyone out there wanting something a bit heavier and more philosophical, Nick thinks Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground is just the ticket. For critique, and for the pure joy, astounding writing, and eclectic, wide-ranging sensibilities of this flamboyant chatelain, Robert Hughes, whose Nothing if not Critical is a fabulous lesson in pop-culture, fine art, and the fine art of living. 

For the purely poetic, Nick recommends Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I second – it's fine, fine writing of the highest caliber. There's a whole underground comics subculture that most of us know little about, including myself, and to get a taste of the best of it Nick guarantees that Frank Miller's Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism with art by Bill Sienkiewicz is the perfect mind-blowing introduction.

Books , especially these five, are uniquely portable, subversive and affordable magic – you don't have any excuse now not to emerge from this pandemic chronically smarter and more worldly and insufferably well-read. 

Back to story, the shop, and the barking dog.

Finally an older gentleman answered the door. I asked if he was Nick. He said no, Nick was his son. His name was John, but everyone called him “Fud.” Bark, bark, bark!

I explained that I had recently moved to Charles Street and just wanted to say hello. He asked me my name and when I told him he asked if I spoke Italian. I said un pocotino. So he chimed right in in Italian that he lived in Rome for a year in the '60s, and loved it. Bark, bark, BARK!

We went to the studio, which was in an adjacent building, and Fud introduced me to Nick, who was carving a gravestone for his uncle, John's beloved brother Richard it turned out. I told him about Old's Cool and he said that he had heard of it. Made my day! We arranged to meet after the holidays to do an article on Nick and his admirable artistry.

I thought a lot about Nick and his clan over the holidays, and their place in traditional American art and what the arc and angle of the story might be, while doing some research on stone carving and the old families of colonial Newport. There’s a lot of press on Nick and his celebrated kin out there, including a charming, old school documentary about Fud called Final Marks. I stopped by again last week and Nick and I went upstairs to a loft apartment over the shop, crammed with nautical nooks and designer books and crannies, and sat down for a chat.

Here’s the gist of his family’s history: Fud’s father, John Howard Benson, bought the shop in 1927, and at the age of fifteen Fud began working there. He studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and after graduation returned to the shop to work full time as a stone carver. In 1964 he was commissioned to design and carve the inscriptions for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. He also carved gravestones for Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, and George Balanchine.

Nicholas Waite Benson began working at the John Stevens Shop as a teenager under Fud’s watchful eye, and by the age of eighteen was regularly carving commissioned work from his father’s designs. He attended the State University of New York at Purchase in 1986 to study drawing and design. In 1987 he began an intensive year of study in Basel Switzerland at the Kunstgeweberschule, Schule fur Gestaltung under the tutelage of Andre Gurtler, Christian Mengelt and Armin Hofmann. He returned to the U.S. in 1988 and continued to work with his dad, eventually getting married and having two children. When Fud retired in 1993 Nick took over as owner and creative director of the business, where he “continues to strive for the high standards set by his forebears.”

Many accolades and awards have followed. In 2010 Nick was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, more colloquially known as the Genius Grant for “preserving the legacy of a centuries-old artistic tradition and expanding the art of hand letter carving with the beauty and craftsmanship of his own designs.” He’s an impressive, and by now world-renowned craftsman and artist, pushing the boundaries of the possible while maintaining the highest-standards of excellence and tradition.

If you’d like to read an informative and well-written piece on Nick and Fud, The Daily Beast’s "Nick Benson gives eternity a run for its money" is worth a look. The New Yorker did a fantastic expose on Nick, his brother Richard “Chip” Benson, an artist in his own right, Fud, and patriarch John Howard called The Benson Craftsmen, which you can read here:  https://www.newyorker.com/books/double-take/the-benson-craftsmen

 

 

Nick and I co-mingled minds for a long while, pondering the difficulties and possibilities of his art specifically and then wrestling with the definition and implications of art in general, and why exactly it is or isn’t. And what distinguishes art from, say, craft (utility vs pure aesthetics we decided, unoriginally), or the difference between pop art and satire, and the genuine hunger in today’s world for authenticity, especially when patina’ed with talent, intelligence, and a boon-snort of nerve and verve. I gave him my simple definition of art: could I do it? If the answer is yes, then it’s not art. Nick’s ideas were much more nuanced and prescriptive, and he brought up Robert Hughes, the Australian wit and writer, whose book The Spectacle of Skill is a profound and timeless if somewhat esoteric collection of his best essays, often busting out with resentment, personal grudges and hilarious malice, but I will say this unequivocally – the man can write like murder.

Here’s a bit of Hughes’s disdainful oomska for most of modern art: “pretentious, self-indulgent, craft-less tat that I wouldn’t accept even as a gift,” and his unmitigated distaste for the bulimic vulgarity of the art/Hollywood crowd that was mostly “a bunch of zonked-out hermaphrodites, faggot junkie freaks, gibbering, rubber-lipped starlets… and overripe bits of rough trade with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream.” From the get-go his book The Spectacle of Skill pisses all the right people off with unapologetic exuberance: 

“I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work, or a good carpenter chopping dovetails . . . I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one . . . Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate.”

 I couldn’t agree more. I’m just as adamant if less eloquent that there needs to be at least some discernible craft or recognizable expertise, some unique thinking and a knowing nod to the past involved intrinsically in the work or attempt, as well as a universal revelatory glimpse of truth that’s outside of time and place. Beauty first and foremost, of course, illuminating transcendent human themes, relatable to all, and exquisitely done second. Instead what I mostly see in today’s nihilistic, egocentric and vain vomit is mostly “personal statements” of mundane, sophomoric imbecility, and empty, harmless and shallow barking, like Piss Christ or the urinating German policewoman sculpture Petra, squatting bare-bottomed in full riot gear. And the description placards are nothing but pretentious cringey twaddle. For example:

Robert Ryman
Arena 1977
Synthetic polymer paint and enamel on linen on board, steel fasteners and metal cables

 As well as being concerned with ‘how to paint’, Robert Ryman also defines his ambition as ‘to paint the paint.’ By severely limiting the palette and format of his work, Ryman is stressing the absolute importance of the application of pigment to surface. Ryman’s ‘whites’ can be crusty or suave, opaque or sheer, as warm as fresh cream or as cool as ceramic tiles.

I’m not making this up. And you can imagine what the painting looks like. I’ll give you a hint –imagine any 3’ x 4’ rectangle of wall in your office, with a frame placed around it.  Can you see the suave white, as pure as freshly-fallen snow, and did you notice the importance of application of pigment to surface? Many years ago I went to a special exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City for I think it was Basquiat, or maybe it was a Francis Bacon retrospective. It might even have been not Damien Hirst, but the guy who does the huge cartoonish balloon animals – what’s his name again? Anyway, there was a line around the block, and then winding all the way up the ribbony ramp to the penthouse exhibition space. It took me hours to shuffle up that nightmare line and when I finally got in to see the exhibit I wasn’t shocked to realize I hadn’t wandered into a high school art show open house by mistake. In fact, I still can’t remember which artist it was that I couldn’t wait to see, waited a long time to finally see, and then can’t remember having seen.

I left disappointed and bewildered, and on the way down the back triangular stairway I glanced into one of the side galleries and saw the “Pictures for the American People” exhibit, with Norman Rockwell’s  Rosie the Riveter eating a bologna sandwich while winking me in. I thought what the heck? First impression of the first painting blew me away – the level of detail, which I got up real close to see, was astounding, the boldness and absolute humble confidence of the brushstrokes brought a smile to my face. And brought another one to my face right now writing about them. Jeffrey Koons was the clown I couldn’t remember in the last paragraph.

Yeah, yeah, Rockwell is dismissed by the New York critics, those reliable conveyors of fashionable progressive chatter, as merely a populist illustrator, pandering to the provincial tastes of the flyover middle, with hallmark depictions of family, faith and service absolutely without depth or merit, that only served to reassure and comfort most lower class Americans during a complex, changing time with mundane, self-congratulatory idealization. Which may or may not be true. But the man’s magnificent technique and wry, designer’s eye put me in mind of John Singer Sargent – I was and still am astounded by the technical skill, confidence and mastery his paintings exude – and the positive joy exploding out of every intentional line. I spent about an hour enjoying the dozen or so paintings in the exhibit and then spiraled the rest of the way downward through Frank Lloyd’s magnificent rotunda, and out the door feeling elated.

Nick and I discussed this, and we mostly agreed. I thought Rockwell embodied the Recta Ratio Factibilium sign that I noticed on his studio wall, strangely carved in wood this time. There was no need for pretentious placards where humanity and revelation ride pillion to feelings and ego. “After the prom,” “Freedom from want” and “The American way” are all you need to understand exactly everything that Rockwell wanted to say and convey, straight up.

The discussion then somehow turned to one of my art bête noirs, Jackson Pollock. Most people either love or hate Jack The Dripper; Nick’s in the former camp, I’m kind of in the latter. It’s not that I hate him, I just don’t think he’s very talented, and his paintings aren’t that good, and therefore selling at sometimes tens of millions of dollars at a pop idiotically overrated. Unless you’re laundering money, they’re probably not a rinse-cycle bargain.

Nick's thoughtful take is that our meanderings and digressions barely skimmed regarding Pollack, and weren't just about Pollock per se, but about abstraction as a whole. What he sees in abstraction is a symbol of humankind’s unique capacity for  abstract thought. 

"The human brain is an incredible thing, and recent studies suggest that our minds are constantly riding the fine line between order and complete chaos. This knife’s edge of existence is the lifeblood of human intellect - the  reason why we ask why.  Pollack’s paintings are a mirror of the mind, as are my encoded pieces. Interestingly,  as unpolished and meaningless as his work may look, he has set a range of parameters for himself that create a 

degree of order. This is why there is some immediately recognizable consistencies from painting to painting."

Of Pollack, Robert Hughes writes:

“It does Pollack no service to idolize him. The point is that he grasped his limitations and refused to mannerism them. Thus he was by no means a natural draftsman… But when he found he could throw lines of paint in the air, the laws of energy and fluid motion made up for the awkwardness of his fist, and from then on, there was no grace he could not 

claim.”

Nick goes on to say "I call this state of following certain perimeters while also letting go of preconceived intent 'human as conduit.' It is 

a raw form of channeling our poetic spirit … but tough stuff to articulate."

I agree with Nick in theory and up to a point. But I also think the argument could hold true for my 8-year-old daughter's orchestra concert – all of them sawing eagerly away on their instruments, channeling their poetic spirit like crazy, but I still couldn't be sure if they were playing Beethoven or AC/DC's Back in Black.

That's a cheap shot, I know, but you get my point. On second thought, maybe the problem is with me: am I one of those dreaded philistines, locked in a narrow ideological closet by my own lack of imagination, without any daylight or psychological air? It's certainly possible.

I recently watched a YouTube video featuring artist and illustrator Robert Florczak, who every years shows his art students a Jackson Pollock painting and asks them to analyze it and explain why it is good. “It is only after they gave very eloquent answers that I inform them that the painting is actually a close-up of my studio apron.” Exactly – the Emperor has no clothes. Even Pollock’s earlier work, like Going West and Camp with oil, are at best dulled Thomas Hart Bentonesque plagiarizations without his exciting, surreal fluidity.

I studied art history in Paris many years ago, and on first seeing Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, or Gericault’s Chasseur a Cheval, or looking into Ingres’s Grande Odalisque’s piercing eyes, that warp you into the rain and up a flight of stairs to a room with an immaculate white bed and black cat that you’ll regret, I came to the conclusion that there was only one way these paintings couldn’t move you to tears: if you were dead. That’s the only way. So the question you have to ask yourself is – are you dead?

I’m being facetious, but only just. I spent many hours during that eye-popping year abroad in the Jeu de Paume, a small impressionist museum in the Jardin des Tuileries named after the tennis-like game that it was originally built for. I still remember standing in front of Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait for the first time and thinking of Nietzsche’s haunting, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” And what I mean by that is art is transcendent and transformative, or should be – it’s as if by some sort of unconscious incalculable synaptical magic your brain becomes rewired anyway and makes you into an other less fatuous and wider-with-wonder you, if you know what I mean. I just realized I wasn’t referring to Ingres’s Odalisque, but Manet’s Olympia, an unseamly, flat, washed-out, intentionally-irreverent prostitutionalization of Titian’s Venus of Urbino that’s haunting nonetheless. Check it out for yourself – and what’s with the feline in the shadow?

This is going somewhere hopefully important so bear with me. On one of my frequent visits to the Louvre, I went to the men’s room, which happened to be in the basement, and spied the back of an unfinished statue through a doorway that I guessed was a Rodin. Rodin’s a giant of course, especially in France, but thankfully, this wasn’t his. It was instead one of Michelangelo’s two unfinished master classes: Dying Slave, which was standing next to Rebellious Slave and, well, have you ever seen them? Standing astounded in front of them was the happiest moment of my life up until then, and I was a hormonal 18-year-old popped-collar douche-bro living in Paris with a nymphomaniacal girlfriend. Seriously, I’ve been accused recently of being “wordy” and using “flowery language” and was asked politely to “close my Thesaurus every once in a while,” so I’m going to take the criticism to heart and make this as elementary as I can:

Art’s hard.
Stone’s harder.

Stone art’s hardest.

And I think the reason that those spectacular mostly-marble but almost-men made such a lasting impression on me is this: I’ve seen The Pieta and its so transparently perfect that it’s hard to understand or even imagine the agony and ecstasy that went into actually making it. With the Slaves, the pain of creation is right there in front of you: all you have to do is to pick up your mallet and chisel and bash the rest of the resolute but obvious masterpiece out in a shower of infinite slivers and chips. Well, what are you waiting for?

 

 

This Pollock is called The Chocolate Muffin Tree: Father’s Day Painting. What I want you to do now is get an old pillowcase and put it on the ground. Go into the garden shed or your garage (or your neighbor’s if he’s a handyman hoarder) and get out some cans of old paint, say three or four – and it doesn’t matter what colors they are, or latex or oil. Open them up, stir the paint and then on the count of three I’m going to give you ten minutes to create a “Jackson Pollock” of your own – just spill and splatter and splash that drippy shit around. The whole point is to feel good about yourself. On your mark, get set, go!

After you’re done you’ll need to give it a cool name like Painting No. 37, or In the Mood for Blue, or An Idea for Order. Not finished yet? Ok, I’ll wait – go ahead and splosh and dot for another five minutes. Bet you didn’t know you were an artist. I guarantee that if you framed that pillowcase and hung it in a museum with a placard proclaiming it to be a “lost” Pollock, and the copy you wrote yourself about its flow and tortured, gorgeous copacetic was unmitigated malarkey, most people would still swallow the Pollock hook, line and sinker whole. Now I dare you to try carving your own let’s call it “Millennial Slave” a la Michelangelo and let me know how that goes.

And now, let’s have a gander at the main photograph together – it kind of looks like a granite “gray series” Pollock, doesn’t it? A calligraphic abstract, an exquisite curliqued palimpsest of sorts, but stunning in its own alphabetical (if you know the language), loveliness. Imagine the hundreds if not thousands of audacious hours, spent intense and intent enough on it, that, in other circumstances, could’ve created an empire. In real life it’s one of the most exquisite tapestries I’ve ever seen.
Now have a glance at this geometrical gem:
 
 
 

 

It’s Nick’s mulling over of Peter Higgs’s Langrangian for The Standard Model of the Universe. In his own words “What a perfect symbol of all that humankind hopes to understand about the immeasurable complexity of the universe. It’s a mind blower.”

We all know Higgs and his boson, but few realize the importance of this discovery, and how the confirmation of it when it was finally produced in the Hadron Collider caused seismic shockwaves throughout a cerebral but insular scientific community that's not known for its social skills – a world where an extrovert is jokingly described as someone who stares at the other guy’s shoes. I’m kidding, but the discovery was profound and sensational enough to win Higgs and his colleague Francois Englert the Nobel Prize in 2013. In the mainstream media the Higgs boson has been nicknamed “The God Particle” – and here’s a ray of insight into how extraordinary the Higgs mechanism, a proposal to explain why particles have mass, is: the mean lifetime of this fundamental but evanescent speck is 1.56 x 10(-22) s. In fact, it’s far too quick to even or ever see – I mean we’re talking close to a zeptosecond – so the only way scientists know it exists is because of the just-barely-measurable effect it had on the nearby quarks during its to put it mildly brief life.

A Langrangian is, to quote Wikipedia, “a function that describes the state of a dynamic system in terms of position coordinates and their time derivatives and that is equal to the difference between the potential energy and kinetic energy.” Which differs from a Hamiltonian Function, but that’s for another day.

These are the things that Nick is thinking about, creating art around, changing our perception of the possible with, looking for inspiration into the future at. In an age of digitization, where everything, including eventually our very selves will become binary ones and zeroes, the evilest banality, he’s trying to figure out how to rejigger priorities to include transcendent meaning and human achievements stretching way beyond the immediate, while honoring the hard-earned and infinitely valuable elbow-grease and brow-sweat wisdom of the almost-forgotten past. And to carve that yearning, that positive and grateful hope into stone, literally, by hand, one magnificent hammer blow and chisel chink at a time. Gravestones, sure. Memorials, of course. Government buildings, obviously.

But what other less mundane and more illuminating ways are possible for us to exalt and admire the human potential, to celebrate the wonderment of being alive, the astronomically improbable odds against our very existence, today, here, now, as well as for all time in ludic,  luscious, and literate ways? I think that’s what I see as the reason for art, in an alliterative nutshell. If that’s the case, then I think Nick is pounding out a legacy of transcendence and truth of the highest caliber.

Subversion has a sacrosanct place in life, as well as art, too, but it has to be clever, well-executed, original, and relevant – otherwise it smacks of cliché and snark. Or soup-can kitsch. Nick has a recalcitrant streak a mile wide, which I admire enormously, and I think he got it at least some of it from Fud, who every once in a while during our conversation poked me in the ribs with his cheek, so-to-speak. Nick told me that he’s going to Rome this summer to teach a course or attend a seminar or something and he said that he was planning on carving a small marble tablet with “SPQR” on it beforehand. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and People of Rome), which originated in the Roman Republic circa 80 BC and was and still is frequently found on Roman currency, official documents and monuments. As an aside, it was emblazoned on all the manhole covers in the city by Mussolini, in a calculated but it now turns out almost comic effort to promote his fascistic dictatorship as the “new” Roman Empire.

But here's Nick's nifty twist: he'll encode the letters SPQR into Base64 (the ASCII algorithm that he's so fond of) so that the carved text will actually read

"- U1BRUg=="

Nick’ll then throw this satirical slab, his wicked civilized and knowing joke, figuratively speaking of course, into a suitcase and when he gets to Rome he’s going to visit the Appian Way and just leave it there, somewhere on the ground, just another curious but unremarkable artifact – or fiction. It’ll be a beautiful thumb in the eye of convention that years from now will probably puzzle the hell out of some Italian archeologist who has an academic’s sense of history, who can carbon date anything by then to the third decimal place, but who might not have a sense of humor or enough impish irony to appreciate a con(fident) artist's extraordinary wit?
March 02, 2020 — Johnny Mustard