Reviews of Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences.
“An Enthralling Look at Life’s Random Connections”
By James Sullivan
May 17, 2006
Lawrence Weschler’s new book is a collection of pieces detailing his penchant for making associations between seemingly unrelated artworks, events, and phenomena. Just before sitting down to review “Everything That Rises,” I came across a New York Times piece about another book on the nature of coincidence.
If that flimsy bit of happenstance sounds like a bit of a reach to you, then this book may not be your cup of tea. Unless, of course, your tea is Earl Grey and so is your name. But Weschler, author of such little gems as “Boggs: A Comedy of Values” and the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder,” has an ability to bring his reader around to his level of enchantment that is positively uncanny. “Everything That Rises” samples several of the author’s favorite subjects, including the Old Masters, political upheaval, and natural wonders, all of which he has covered extensively in the past. Yet the cumulative effect of reading these pieces, previously published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Salon, and elsewhere, is invigorating.
Weschler begins by tracing his fascination with convergences, most of them of the visual sort, back to a college lesson on John Berger’s “The Look of Things,” in which the great critic noted the striking similarity between a famous photo of Che Guevara’s corpse and Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson.” Weschler writes that he remembers being dumbfounded by Berger’s power of perception: “This guy doesn’t read his morning newspaper the way I or anybody else I know reads the morning newspaper.”
Years later, Weschler undoubtedly reads his newspaper with that kind of vigilance. Some of his pictorial “convergences,” beautifully arranged in one of McSweeney’s uncommonly handsome bindings, are truly remarkable Monica Lewinsky’s weird likeness to the Mona Lisa, for instance, or a Jackson Pollock canvas considered alongside a rendering of deep space from a Life magazine of the painter’s era.
Extraordinary too is the author’s analogy between the Eastern European cultural thaw of the late 1980s and the clinician Oliver Sacks’s famous work with catatonic patients. In a roundabout set of circumstances, the author notes with some delight, the Czech president Vaclav Havel took to wearing a work jacket he’d received from the crew on the film set of Sacks’s “Awakenings.”
Other comparisons the resemblance between Newt Gingrich and Slobodan Milosevic, or the author’s “Found Triptych,” unrelated art announcements he received in the mail featuring three similar women are better categorized as simple oddities. Yet Weschler makes even these apparently inconsequential parallels sing with possibility. Gazing on the “random splay” of his art announcements, one of the women a new mother in a 17th-century painting, the second a Matisse study, the last a photographic self-portrait by a provocative performance artist, he records the flooding of his mind: thoughts about the evolution of modern to postmodern, the sacred and the profane, security and vulnerability.
All of our minds, of course, work overtime to make associations. It’s how we distinguish street signs, the intentions of strangers, a curveball from a slider. The author’s conversation with the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose epic photos of ground zero after 9/11 are here juxtaposed with renowned artworks by Rembrandt and others, helps explain how artists compile a mental storehouse of images.
Weschler doesn’t claim to have an especially heightened gift for identifying “eerie rhymes” and “whispered recollections,” only that he works at keeping himself open to them. Elsewhere, he puzzles over an age-old question. Is the act of seeing more aptly described as passive light rays entering the cornea or active, with the mind’s eye processing the things that stand before us?
Like Berger’s classic writings or Michael Kimmelman’s recent “The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa,” “Everything That Rises” ultimately offers not just the quirks of one man’s vision but a sublime way of seeing. Looking at Pollocks, Weschler writes, can make him waver wildly between “feeling positively infinitesimal” and “almost godlike.”
Works by Mark Rothko, too, ask questions that “keep bleeding out of aesthetical categories and into ethical ones. Not, is it beautiful? But rather, how should one lead one’s life?”
“A Shared World View Throughout the Ages”
By Robin Updike
March 9, 2006
Here’s how to approach Lawrence Weschler’s frequently delightful new book, which is a literary coffee-table tome filled with surprises. First read Weschler’s two-page introduction, in which he explains his theory—well, really his version of art critic John Berger’s theory—that certain powerful images are hot-wired into our brains.
In other words, as humans we share a certain collective unconscious when it comes to how we see things. If, as Weschler points out, you look at Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson,” 1632, and then look at Freddy Alborta’s famous documentary photo called “Che Guevara’s Death,” 1967, it’s impossible to miss the startling similarity of the composition of the two images.
In both the corpses are laid on their backs on tables, surrounded by officially dressed onlookers. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” 17th-century Dutch physicians in black coats and white ruffled collars study the corpse as the instructor points with his right hand toward the corpse’s arm, about mid-way down the body.
In Alborta’s photo the dead Guevara is surrounded by Bolivian army officers in uniforms and arranged in virtually the same composition as the men in Rembrandt’s painting. Like the instructor in “The Anatomy Lesson,” the chief Bolivian officer points with his right hand toward Guevara’s mid section, a portentous gesture almost identical to the one in “The Anatomy Lesson.”
Coincidence? Neither Berger nor Weschler think so. Weschler calls these uncanny similarities “convergences” and uses them as launching pads for ruminations on art history, popular culture, philosophy, graphic design, architecture, literature, movies and politics.
The result is “Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences,” and it is the kind of smart, personal, slightly quirky work that might be expected from a writer whose many works range from reporting on torture and Central European politics to the lives of contemporary artists and histories of oddball museums.
A former staff writer for The New Yorker, Weschler is now director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University and a regular contributor to such literary reviews as the Three Penny Review and McSweeney’s. Many of the sections in “Everything that Rises” were previously published in those and other magazines.
Following the introduction, read the book’s first section, a question-and-answer-style interview with photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose beautiful color photographs of Ground Zero during the site’s cleanup and reconstruction have been widely published.
Meyerowitz’s photos are juxtaposed with famous paintings by Jan Vermeer, Caspar David Friedrich, Rembrandt and Frans Hals, among others. In the interview Meyerowitz agrees with Weschler that the composition, tone and even the quality of the light in many of his Ground Zero photographs owe something to famous paintings that came before.
After that, the pleasure of the book comes from dipping in and out, browsing from section to section as images beguile your eye and Weschler’s nimble prose tantalizes your imagination. He riffs on similarities between works by Man Ray and Marc Chagall, between Mark Rothko’s abstractions and photographs of the moon. It’s not all art historical, however.
In a section called “Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs” he compares a Time magazine cover of Newt Gingrich to a Newsweek cover of Slobodan Milosevic, who appear to be twins separated at birth.
Weschler is not suggesting anything so simple as artistic plagiarism to explain the visual convergences he sees all around him.
Instead he describes literal points of view—ways of framing and understanding images—that seem to transcend individuals and cultures. It is an intellectual romp that Weschler finds endlessly diverting and reassuring, as though by sharing a common viewfinder in our brains we humans may find other shared points of view.
“Images Juxtapose in Eerie ‘Everything’”
By Bob Minzesheimer
March 8, 2006
Imagine a multimedia art history class taught by a witty professor who seems to have read everything, been everywhere, forgotten nothing and remains thrilled by the joy of intellectual adventures.
That’s what it’s like to read Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. The author is Lawrence Weschler, an art historian, journalist and cultural observer.
The handsomely illustrated book collects 30 essays Weschler wrote during the past 20 years for magazines, including The New Yorker and McSweeney’s.
All deal with connections between seemingly disparate photographs and works of art. Weschler describes them as “uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections—sometimes in the weirdest places.”
A nighttime photograph of rescue workers in the smoking bowels of the ruins of the World Trade Center is juxtaposed with Rembrandt’s similarly lit 1642 painting of soldiers, The Night Watch.
The photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, says of the scene: “The quality of the glowing light in the center, the assembled men, the kind of smoky background, all the hardware of destruction of it gave me the feeling of those lances and curtains and all that heraldry (painted by Rembrandt). It was a gut reaction. Although I couldn’t call up the painting exactly, I just knew this grand assemblage was a powerful image.”
Weschler offers fresh ways to look at images, from Vermeer to Jackson Pollock, from a Mona Lisa-like Monica Lewinsky to the graphic logo of Solidarity, the Polish workers’ movement.
He deals with the art of politics and the politics of art. Some connections seem like coincidences, seized on to make political points, such as the resemblance between Newt Gingrich, the former Republican congressional leader, and Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian dictator, two “Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs.”
At his best, Weschler provokes readers with questions. He’s erudite yet readable.
He credits John Berger’s essay The Look of Things. It linked a 1967 photograph of the half-naked body of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara on public display, surrounded by his captors, with Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson.
Weschler concluded “that’s undoubtedly the image (hot-wired, as it were, into all of their brains) that taught all of the strutting officers how to pose in relation to their prize, and taught the photographer where to plant his camera.”
Weschler was wowed by Berger: “This guy doesn’t read his morning newspaper the way I or anybody else I know reads the morning newspaper.” You may not either after reading Everything That Rises.
“In Conversation With Lawrence Weschler: Daniel Asa Rose Interviews an Acute Observer of the Convergences Between Art and Politics”
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Lawrence Weschler defies categorization, and that’s his point. A staff writer at the New Yorker for more than two decades, he left the magazine in 2002 to direct the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, to continue teaching at such places as Sarah Lawrence College and to author more books with titles that reflect his ability to conjoin seemingly disjointed topics, most recently “Vermeer in Bosnia” (2004). His new offering, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences (McSweeney’s, $29), evinces a lifetime of closely examining the worlds of art and politics and finding what Magritte called “the secret affinities” between such disparate things as the ruins of the World Trade Center and a Jasper Johns painting. It is lavishly published by McSweeney’s (the house founded by Dave Eggers), where he is a contributing editor and the writer they publish more than any other. Here, he is interviewed by Daniel Asa Rose, editor of the Reading Room and a regular book reviewer for the New York Observer and New York magazine.
Q: You’re 54. What’s a fossil like you doing in the company of McSweeney’s?
Lawrence Weschler: All those incredibly intense wonderful 25-year-olds! I think they may see me as a link between them and Joseph Mitchell in some sense. You know, for all of its razzle-dazzle, the new journalism of Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and so forth didn’t have that many direct heirs.
Q: Just a few years ago, everyone was despairing that 25-year-olds don’t read, and now there are all these young McSweeney’s-inspired literary zines showcasing the written word at length.
LW: McSweeney’s is important for the reason you mention, and, second, in the crisis of this endlessly ironizing generation, the editors there took the route of ironizing themselves deeper and deeper until they broke out of the irony and into something true.
Q: Care to characterize the place they broke into?
LW: It’s kind of a zone of wonder. Admittedly a knowing wonder, not a naive wonder, but a wonder nonetheless.
Q: Good thing, because it might otherwise have been difficult to publish Everything That Rises, a book that defies easy categorization.
LW: In fact, I offered it to seven or eight places—the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic—and everybody said, “Is this political, or is it art?” They couldn’t figure out what slot it would fit into. Whereas the minute McSweeney’s saw it, they said, “Great, let’s do it.” Their boast about this book is that it’s the most Weschlerian in history.
Q: So you’re an adjective now?
LW: I think what they mean is that it’s kind of loose, open, unexpected, not bound, serious in an unserious way, serious play. A kind of daydreaming.
Q: Daydreaming is fine for artists who leap across arbitrary borders, but should engineers and politicians daydream more, too?
LW: Everybody should. This sort of category confusion is something that everybody does at the outset. When you’re a kid, your first five or six years, you converge all the time. School is about training that out of you, especially universities. Art historians are not allowed to say that Che Guevara’s death scene and Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” have something in common. “What’s your proof for that? What is your evidence?” And similarly, politicians are not supposed to be quoting arts things. There’s that kind of separation of disciplines, what’s footnote-able and what’s not. The real geniuses—Einstein, Newton and so forth—are simply people in whom that capacity wasn’t dulled out.
Q: But the trick is to note these convergences with a light touch, as you do in Everything That Rises.
LW: Yes, you don’t make more claims for it than you can. Where I notice, for example, that Mark Rothko’s painting [of a lunar-like landscape] was done in 1969 and I think about what was on TV in 1969, the moon landing, I’m not saying that Rothko got the idea from watching TV; I’m just asking “How would that landing have seemed to him?” You push at it, and then you let it go.
Q: In your everyday life, do you point out convergences to everyday people? Are non-artists receptive to this kind of thing?
LW: What I get a lot of is, “Ha, that’s interesting.”
Q: In one place you transcribe that as “Hunh.” I suppose the “n” signifies the element of wonder. Can there be a downside to too much connectivity? Has it ever ill served you?
LW: You can get gummed up, ensnarled in your webs. Again, the key is letting go.
Q: One last question. On page 90 of your new book, you write, “A few weeks later during a trip to Chicago, I wondering into another gallery”—"wondering" instead of “wandering.” Was that a typo or another kind of convergence between wandering and wondering?
LW: Hunh! Let’s say it was both.
Los Angeles Times
“The Mind’s Eye”
By Shelley Jackson
March 5, 2006
When I was an art student, all Sturm und Drang and torn fishnets, Lawrence Weschler’s “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” a study of Los Angeles artist Robert Irwin, inspired me to tape a number of long pieces of yarn between my bed, desk, floor and ceiling. As I recall, I was interested in defamiliarizing the relationship between my body and my room. My drooping, fuzzy web was nothing like Irwin’s sublime installations, but it strikes me now that it was something like Weschler’s “Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences”—a web of connections, some more secure than others, with another web at their center: that of the mind itself.
“Everything That Rises” is the latest work by the author of “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders” and “Vermeer in Bosnia.” Handsomely illustrated, it pursues in a series of short essays what Weschler calls “uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections” culled from a folder filled with images that the author gathered over many years. These convergences defy partitions of history, geography and causal logic: a modernist jailhouse in Chicago echoes the form of a cuneiform tablet from ancient Persia; the curves of the Rokeby Venus haunt the hilly landscape of 20th century Venezuela.
Weschler admits that some of the connections he makes may say more about his own mind—or, in his daughter’s words, his “loose-synapsed moments”—than about the world. Yet the mind that sees the Mona Lisa in a photograph of Monica Lewinsky is no blank slate, but a richly illustrated book (perhaps not unlike “Everything That Rises” itself). Images like the Mona Lisa, Weschler proposes, are part of a common visual vocabulary by which we read the world. We are products of cultural history as well as personal history, so maybe our private associations are not so private after all. We are like Klein bottles, the three-dimensional versions of the Moebius strip: Our insides and our outsides flow together.
The first piece in “Everything That Rises,” an interview with photographer Joel Meyerowitz about his images from the World Trade Center excavation, makes a strong case for this claim. It’s an illuminating, even thrilling glimpse into a mind preternaturally alive to the visual world, and it is enough to convince me that you can’t help thinking of Vermeer—at least, you can’t if you’re Joel Meyerowitz—when you see a ray of light shafting down into a distant cityscape haunted by loss.
Weschler strains credulity, however, when he argues that a photo of a dead Che Guevara resembles Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp” because “the image (hot-wired, as it were, into all of their brains) … taught all of the strutting officers how to pose in relation to their prize.” Even if the Bolivian military recruited heavily in art history departments, I imagine the officers would have other things than the traditions of Western art on their minds.
Similarly, Weschler overreaches when he suggests that Michelangelo’s “Pietà” readied us to be moved by the famous 1970 photograph of the Kent State shootings in which a young woman falls to her knees in grief beside the body of a student protester killed by the National Guard. For some viewers (me, for example, indelibly marked by that photo at age 7) it might well be the other way around: The present can change forever how we see the past. As Weschler himself observes elsewhere in the book, sometimes “the temporal vectors are entirely reversed.” Either way, this argument attaches a bit too much importance to the “great works” as originators. Do we really need a “Pietà” to teach us to be moved by a girl mourning a dead student?
But Weschler does not often look at images through such a narrow filter. Indeed, he revels in the range of his convergences, some of which, he admits, “were fanciful, others polemical; some merely silly, others almost transcendental. Some tended to burrow toward some deep-hidden, long submerged causal relation; others veritably reveled in their manifest unlikelihood.”
In stressing the pleasures of variety over unity, Weschler offers a pretty good description of “Everything That Rises” as a whole. This central conceit, though—fascinating as it is—has only a loose sway over the contents. Some of the essays, like the long, excellent study of the graphic art of Poland’s Solidarity movement, are considerably more carefully composed and researched than others, and for that reason resist assimilation to his larger point. For a sustained view of Weschler’s mind at work, readers should turn to other writings. This book is something different: an unapologetic tour of the mess behind the scenes.
Of course, if you accept his premise—that we’ve all got the same mess in our own minds—it might occur to you at some point to wonder why you’re reading about Weschler’s connections instead of making your own. Right about then, mid-book, you come upon a few pages of paired images with no explanatory text. Go ahead, Weschler seems to say, just look.
Just looking is not only the method but also the topic of some of "Everything That Rises’ " best essays, especially when such a process is guided by the eyes of others. In “Gazing Out Toward,” Weschler links a stenciled image of two silhouettes against a cityscape by a Polish artist named Kret to a still from Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” then to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Evening Landscape With Two Figures” and finally to Rene Magritte’s “La reproduction interdite,” in which a young man looks at the back of his head in the mirror. “We both see them and see with and through them. Their eyes become ours in a sort of gathered focus—or rather, a sort of ingathered and then outpoured vantage,” Weschler observes.
Similarly, in a stunning essay on Diego Velázquez’s “The Spinners,” he identifies a “ziggurat of perception”: “noblewomen idly gazing upon working women slaving away so that noblewomen can idly gaze upon the image of a peasant woman being carried off by the gods.” We can add Weschler to this ziggurat. His eyes become ours here, and what clear eyes they are.
Since this is a book of likening, it might be appropriate to ask: What is it like? In true Weschler style, the answer vaults centuries. “Everything That Rises” is reminiscent of those ancient natural philosophers (Lucretius, Pliny, Aelianus) who relied on intuition, not observation, to describe the world, making easy leaps from resemblance to cause (barnacles look a bit like eggs, so geese must be born from barnacles; clamshells look a bit like sailboats, so clams that get the urge to travel must rise to the surface, flip open their shells and allow the wind to blow them where it may). They were often wrong, but how I envy their confidence that with nothing but your own mind, you can figure out the world. De Rerum Natura: What 20th century thinker would presume to explain the Nature of Things? Modern science has deprived us of the confidence to speculate freely; we are all too aware that someone, somewhere, knows better than we do.
But can the value of speculation be measured solely in its yield of answers? Weschler seems to suggest not. My favorite loose-synapsed moment in the book occurs in a discussion of David Hockney’s controversial claim that credit for Renaissance artists’ unprecedented command of perspective ought to go to a little device called a camera obscura—a sort of pinhole camera—that could project images directly onto a canvas to be traced. Discussing a Caravaggio painting of Christ’s doubters fingering the wound in his side, Weschler suggests that the wound recapitulates the hole in the camera obscura, “as the earthbound, mundane concerns of the terrestrial poke and prod their way, convergent, into and through the looking glass of the Messiah’s wound, splaying out, on the far side, transformed and transcendent.” For me, the value of this image is not its verifiability, but its incitement to wonder.
Near the end of “Everything That Rises,” Weschler directs our eyes to a tree, that favored subject of the camera obscura. The rays of light that carry the image of the tree enter the pupil, come to a point, diverge and deliver the tree, upside down, to our retina. It turns right-side up again in the mind’s eye, where, if Weschler is correct (and I think he is), a host of related images—from roots and rivers to the tree-like structure of the brain’s own neural networks—offer themselves up as more or less apt matches.
Here, things get loopy: The brain notices itself noticing itself, whereupon there is a gorgeously vertiginous tumble of metaphor into its material substrate. Weschler doesn’t stop there, though. Instead, because the brain is a product of the very universe that has also produced trees and roots and rivers, he has the insight that all this is a reflection, that the universe is noticing itself.
Weschler describes the process by which a virus evolves resistant strains as a kind of wool-gathering: “Being is itself thinking: the world is daydreaming.” Maybe there is not, then, a great difference between the matter that thinks, and our thoughts about that matter; all is thought, and everything, potentially, matters. That’s the nature of things.
Los Angeles Times
“Look Around, See the Pattern: Lawrence Weschler Discovers Connections in Unexpected Places, Tying Neutra, Say, to Godard. The Writer Says There’s Even a Thread That Links All His Subjects: ‘I Insist Upon Enthusiasm.’”
By Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Sunday, March 5, 2006
LAWRENCE WESCHLER hustles across Wilshire Boulevard then strolls behind the Avco cinema in Westwood to a tiny cemetery where actors Natalie Wood and Robert Crane are buried alongside his relatively less famous relatives. He now lives in Pelham, N.Y., but comes here occasionally to pay respects to the genetic sources of his style as a writer.
He speaks admiringly of the many talented musicians in his background, including his maternal grandfather, Ernst Toch, a modern composer; his paternal grandmother, Angela Weschler, head of the Vienna Conservatory of Music’s piano department before World War II; and his father, Irving Weschler, a talented amateur jazz pianist. Then, with a self-deprecating smile, Weschler confesses that he has a “tin ear.”
“Music is about imaginative relationships that by definition take place across time,” he explains while walking away from the cemetery. “My genetic intuition disposes me to think in musical ways. But I cannot tell one tone from another. I can understand music intellectually but not through sound. The odd thing is that the musical compositional ability I’m drawn to, well, I use it visually. I perceive visual harmony, I see melodies, I see themes.”
Weschler’s musical inclinations found an outlet in the structure and pace of his uniquely digressive writing, which often takes on the visual arts. These inclinations are writ large in his latest book, “Everything That Rises,” a collection of paintings and photographs, diagrams and charts that inspired far-reaching speculations that he calls “convergences.” For years, Weschler sent his convergences to editors at national magazines but most were rejected for their inability to fit into categories of art, politics or opinion. Wunderkind author Dave Eggers accepted them for what they are, a graphic reflection of Weschler’s wildly nonlinear observations. After printing many of them in his magazine McSweeney’s, Eggers’ publishing house of the same name will release them as a book this month. McSweeney’s also offers a contest inviting the submissions of readers’ convergences to be posted on its website, www.mcsweeneys.net.
“I’m drawn to visual stuff because I’m bad at the aural,” Weschler continues. “I’m always listening for what I want to see. I’ve got good ears in my eyes.”
Weschler is especially well respected here for his books and articles on artists who have lived in L.A., such as Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz and David Hockney. His book about David Wilson, founder of the credibility-challenging Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. John Walsh, former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, says that Weschler “thinks more like an artist than most writers. He makes big jumps, and it is dazzling to watch him leap and usually land on his feet. As a writer, he grabs you by the arm and talks in your ear like your brilliant older brother. He has a freewheeling and familiar way of writing that I find irresistible.”
This most recent book, however, literally exemplifies the way he thinks about what he sees, what his daughter Sara terms his “loose-synapsed moments.”
‘Seeing what sparks’
“I’M interested in everything,” Weschler says. His book includes observations about international and national politics, neuroscience and astronomy yet equally addresses varied aspects of the visual arts. The airy architecture of the Getty Museum is traced to the indirect influence of L.A.’s émigré architect Richard Neutra, which leads Weschler to recall the émigré filmmakers who brought German Expressionist style to Hollywood, which influenced American film noir, which in turn was adopted by such French directors as Jean-Luc Godard, who made the original “Breathless” that inspired a remake by the same name in 1983, the setting for which can be seen from the Getty. Such musings on architecture and film histories result in a “convergence.”
“To the degree that I write about visual stuff, it is often about putting two images side by side and seeing what sparks between them,” Weschler explains. A single photograph can spark a series of seemingly random but ultimately connected observations. What about Velázquez’s rear view of the reclining nude “Rokeby Venus” as replicated in the mounds of the Chilean mountains, in Man Ray’s painting of red lips hovering in the sky, in Marc Chagall’s female nude, again from the rear, floating over Paris and in a pink lozenge of a cloud floating over L.A.? Weschler weaves a matrix of connection from what others would surely see as unrelated images. Once connected by him, however, there is the indisputable moment of “aha!”
“I have long been deeply free-associative, continually making odd connections,” he admits, settling down for tea at a table in a Westwood restaurant. Bearded and bespectacled, he is dressed in a brown sport jacket, shirt and tie as befits his status as director of New York University’s Institute for the Humanities. Weschler, 54, worked as staff writer for the New Yorker for 20 years before taking this academic position in 2001, where he tries to “break down the walls between the disciplines.” He plans to bring that outlook to his new part-time position as artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, which takes place in November. He hopes to fight the trend toward specialization in universities. “Einstein maintained the sense of wonder of being alive,” he says. "Everything in our educational system, especially higher education, is designed to filter that out of you.
“I’m not a member of the priesthood [of scholars] when writing about art. I do it in my own way,” he says. “I’m not an expert, I’m a cross-fertilizer. When I go out reporting, half of the interview is me talking. I’m not a supplicant. We are having a conversation. I’m bringing a set of ideas my subject has never heard about and that turns out to be useful.”
He eschews “art speak,” the overly complex language used in writing about contemporary art. Yet even art critics approve. Phyllis Tuchman, former president of the International Assn. of Art Critics, says, “When he writes about art and artists, Weschler is so insightful, we learn about both the person and what he or she has made.”
“In my writing, I address the person of average intelligence and abiding curiosity, not the expert, not the high priest exporting enguarded verbiage,” Weschler says. “If you cannot write clearly, you cannot see clearly. If you see clearly, you should write clearly, but that is looked down upon by the priesthood.”
A philosophical bent
A native of Van Nuys and graduate of Birmingham High School, Weschler attended UC Santa Cruz during the experimental “classes held in the hot tub” years between 1969 and 1974. The school had relaxed the boundaries between departments, and he was allowed to change majors every semester, already developing “convergences” by finding common ground in seemingly unconnected areas of study. Freud, Kafka and Jewish mysticism, for instance. “I was allowed to think that way,” he recalls. “I was foolish enough to go to a school that did not encourage me to specialize to get a degree.”
After graduating, he turned down a four-year scholarship at the University of Toronto and decided to “stay intellectually alive outside the academy.”
His Austrian grandfather Ernst Toch’s archive is at UCLA, and after returning to L.A., Weschler took a job conducting oral histories with other European émigrés who had come to L.A. between the world wars. Along the way, he was asked to transcribe the interview that Robert Irwin had done with the art department’s Frederick Wight. Reading Irwin’s observations on the nature of seeing led Weschler to send Irwin a note asking if he had read Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “The Primacy of Perception.” The artist came to see Weschler, who wound up tutoring him in philosophy. Their conversations became the basis for a 25,000-word article that he sent around unsolicited to numerous magazines. In 1981, it was published by the New Yorker, whose then-editor, William Shawn, also hired him as a staff writer. “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” was published by University of California Press as Weschler’s first book in 1982.
Irwin says: “He is interested in the impact of these eccentrics, including artists, and how they interact with social situations. He is able to take truly complex ideas and make them transparent. We never planned to do that book, but it has been in print consistently for 25 years. Every time I give a talk, someone comes up with a dog-eared copy and talks about its impact.”
Throughout his prolific career, Weschler has written a dozen books and many lengthy articles. His initial writing for the New Yorker concerned the Solidarity movement in Poland, whereby he met his Polish wife, Joanna. For the past 10 years, she has worked as Human Rights Watch’s first representative to the United Nations and she recently founded an organization to monitor the Security Council. They live in the New York City suburb where they raised their daughter, Sara. Now 18, she is traveling and working for a year before entering Brown University.
Weschler’s books concern daunting issues of torture, ethnic cleansing and people forced into exile as well as the sublime artists Vermeer and Hockney. He finds it frustrating that his books on such diverse subjects are shelved in different areas of a bookstore because he sees them as pursuant of similar themes.
“There is a deep continuity between them. Mr. Wilson has everything to do with my book on torture and the one on Bosnia,” he insists. "They are all about people in the everydayness of their lives who suddenly come alive. People by themselves who are objects and who become subjects. It is all about passion.
“I insist upon enthusiasm,” Weschler says. "Enthusiasm comes from entheos, meaning ‘the God introjected in you.’ [Art historian and critic] John Berger was my inspiration. Reading him gave me permission to do what I was doing anyway, to think that way without someone saying, ’Where’s your proof?’
“I want to believe that [making convergences] is something everybody does and it gets trained out of them. Children do it. But people get bogged down in the quotidian. They stop seeing because they are told, ‘Stop it, it’s silly.’ "
What: Film editor and writer Walter Murch will interview Lawrence Weschler in the “Aloud” series at the L.A. Central Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. 5th St., downtown Los Angeles
When: 7 p.m. March 16
Price: Free but reservations required; standby only available
By Hedy Weiss
February 19, 2006
Lawrence Weschler, a former contributor to the New Yorker and the author of nearly a dozen books on subjects ranging from painting to political exile, recently was appointed the first “artistic director” of the annual Chicago Humanities Festival. And those curious about how the man’s mind works—and in which directions he might steer the festival—there could be no more ideal starting point than his newest book, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, which arrives with the imprimatur of that high-hip publishing house, McSweeney’s.
Of course you really don’t need any justification at all for diving into this copiously illustrated anthology of previously published essays (“a convergence of convergences,” as Weschler self-mockingly quips in his introduction to the book).
Everything That Rises is all about the way words and images and ideas can come together—or, more precisely, it is about the way Weschler, with his art-historical eye, his media-infused contemporary sensibility and his abiding social preoccupations, perceives the world and its uncanny connections.
The book is its own little “cabinet of wonders”—a popular 19th century display case for oddities of nature that is both a favorite metaphor of Weschler’s and the subject of one of his earlier books. Paging through the book is akin to strolling through a museum of the printed page and the painted canvas with a savvy, sharp-eyed curator at your side—one who often “sees” a lot more than may actually meet the eye.
Consider the first chapter, which takes the form of a conversation between Weschler and photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who spent eight months after Sept. 11 taking more than 8,500 pictures at Ground Zero. The discussion of the resulting exhibition reveals how Meyerowitz, both consciously and otherwise, captured images that echo works by great artists of centuries past—from Piranesi and Rembrandt to Grant Wood of “American Gothic” fame. It also touches on the question of whether his work can be called “beautiful” given the horrific circumstances that inspired it, and you may well come away from this esthetic exercise with more than a little ambivalence.
From there it’s on to a clever essay about the cross-cultural balance of trade between Europe and the United States over the course of the 20th century, and how crucial and complicated these trans-Atlantic connections were when it came to everything from modernist architecture to film noir.
A trip to Chicago during which Weschler looked at cuneiform-engraved tablets from ancient Persia at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, leads him into a discussion of South African prisons and then on to the strange “convergence” of cuneiform-like design he noticed on the facade of Harry Weese’s slit-window Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Fleeing such confined spaces, Weschler then zips on to consider mid-to-late-20th century images of the universe—whether they be a Life magazine artist’s rendering of colliding galaxies juxtaposed with a Jackson Pollock drip canvas, or a photograph from the 1969 moon landing seen next to a stunningly similar minimalist painting (from the same year) by Mark Rothko.
There is more, including a meditation on the reclining nude female form in art (from Velazquez’s Venus to Man Ray’s suggestive floating red lips); thoughts on portrayals of the father-daughter relationship as triggered by Tina Barney’s provocative photographs; an homage to the transcendent quality of Vermeer (clearly one of Weschler’s favorite artists); the impact of graphic art during the Solidarity movement in Communist-controlled Poland; the nature of eerie likeness of images of calamity (whether in war, nature, or a malfunctioning spacecraft), and a long and intriguing essay about the image of Eastern Europe, written in 1990, in the wake of the Soviet empire’s collapse.
Sometimes Weschler spins politics and visual images a bit too glibly, as when he counterpoints the look and style of two powerful figures of the 1990s—Newt Gingrich, former Republican congressman and architect of the “Contract with America,” and Slobodan Milosevic, former Yugoslav president and now indicted war criminal. A friend dubbed this essay “the thinking man’s separated-at-birth game,” and the Pillsbury Doughboy physical resemblance of these two men is good for a few chuckles, just as a piece about Monica Lewinsky as the modern-day Mona Lisa has its pop appeal. Weschler has said that he wants to incorporate the sciences into upcoming Humanities Festivals here, and you get a hint of what his approach might be in the book’s intriguing final pieces, which delve into the related structures of trees, the brain, the cell and the universe at large.
The eminent British writer E.M. Forster advised us to “connect the prose in us with the passion,” and Weschler has obviously heeded that advice. But at times you can’t help agreeing with his daughter—and as he winningly confesses, neither can he. “Sometimes I wonder about these convergences of mine,” Weschler writes. “‘Uh-oh’,” my daughter is given to saying once she senses me getting going, ’Daddy’s having another one of his loose-synapsed moments.’ "
With a critic like that in residence, who needs to leave the house?
The Globe and Mail
“Only Interconnect …”
By J.S. Porter
If Lawrence Weschler’s book were a film, it might look like a chapter from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. The same lushness. The same invitation to beauty and surprise. Greenaway’s film makes books into images, and Weschler’s book turns images into conversations. Both film and book are storehouses of wonder.
Weschler takes separate strands of the world’s body, its history and common stock of images, and reconfigures them into beautiful web works. As a seer of synchronicities and resonances, he pays rapturous attention to the things of this world.
The former New Yorker staff writer reaches across time and space to construct fascinating chains of linkage. One smiles at the likeness of face and hands between Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and the one whom Weschler nicknames Mona Lewinsky. One chuckles at the similarities in face and body size between Slobodan Milosevic and Newt Gingrich, Weschler’s “Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs.” Who would imagine that a 9/11 ironworker pulling a cabled hook would share his posture with Rodin’s Discus Thrower?
Likewise, how similar are the stances of Velázquez’s Aesop and Jeffrey Barbee’s Malawian AIDS widow. Both figures look grief-haunted and heavy-burdened, yet radiate nobility in their imposed circumstances. How very alike are the facial expressions of Velazquez’s titanic Mars and the understated heroism of a 9/11 welder.
Sometimes, however, I chafe at forced likeness. I see little resemblance between Vermeer’s View of Delft and the present-day New York City skyline, for instance. Nor do Gerhard Richter’s images of women bear profitable comparison with Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring. Each woman is young and beguiling, but a few similarities seem insufficient grounds for complete identification.
Is the will to connect a sign of sanity or madness? Are things connected? Or does the mind make them so? One of the last images of the book—Lawrence Weschler, like his friend David Hockney, enjoys photo-collages—juxtaposes cerebellum neurons from Restak’s The Brain and Tom Eisner’s details of a leaf. In each, the vein patterns are remarkably similar. In Weschler’s world, each is related to all.
Weschler dazzles the reader with his gift for linking disparate phenomena, of making the dissimilar similar. He reads a Wislawa Szymborska poem (Maybe All This) and draws from it a study of concentrated attention reminiscent of a Vermeer painting (The Lacemaker). He looks at a photograph of the galaxies and sees a Jackson Pollock, or looks at a moonscape and sees a Mark Rothko. He ruminates on a photograph of Che Guevara until it yields Andrea Mantegna’s painting of the dead Christ. Then, with the help of John Berger’s insight, Weschler connects the photograph to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson. In both painting and photograph, there is the same cluster of onlookers, the same poking at flesh.
In the preface to his Vermeer in Bosnia, on why he can’t write fiction, Weschler reveals his secret: “[T]he world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences.” See and report, he seems to say; it isn’t necessary to invent. In Everything That Rises, Weschler discloses his method: He takes a single knot, worries out the threads, traces the interconnections, follows the mesh and establishes the proper analogies. His world is strange, beautiful and connected.
Weschler, like the rest of us, lives simultaneously within Paul Auster’s music of chance and Baudelaire’s correspondences. He ferrets out underlying and unifying melodies beneath superficial randomness, finding himself “being visited by … uncanny moments of convergence, bizarre associations, eerie rhymes, whispered recollections.” He keeps a notebook of his “visitations,” and openly acknowledges that some are “fanciful, others polemical; some merely silly, others almost transcendental.”
For the most part, Weschler writes plainly in unassuming language. He lacks Berger’s poetry and intensity, but he has his vision. He inhabits a comparable mindscape, where politics, art, science and literature intermingle in a single text, sometimes on a single page. He reveres the world and reverently honours how it can be rendered in image and word. He shares the faith of Carl Sagan: “A religion … that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly trapped by conventional faiths.”
In Everything That Rises, Weschler gives primacy to image over word and to the book itself as a gorgeous aesthetic object. Unlike his Vermeer in Bosnia, where his emphasis is on the word moving unhurriedly through time, his new book moves rapidly through images. He doesn’t linger long on a particular thought or image before he skips onto the next series of linked items. An exception to such brevity is his detailed reflection on political art posters of the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Both in his new book and its immediate predecessor, the still point in Weschler’s turning world remains Vermeer. Weschler reminds the reader-viewer that Vermeer lived in a time of storms, natural and man-made, where “all Europe was Bosnia.” Vermeer’s serene works of art serve as a counterpoint to turbulence. To a smaller degree, Weschler makes his own contribution to calm. He writes serenely. In troubled times, he calls the reader to reflection and praise.
From the general mass of heavy-handed, pompous writing about art, Weschler’s graceful collection of essays and interviews stands out like a rare bloom. Charming, idiosyncratic and deeply intelligent, the book will likely captivate even readers who usually bypass the art history section of bookstores. The topic at hand is convergence: the visual rhyme between seemingly disparate images, and the way those rhymes stimulate new understanding of the scenes depicted. Take, for example, Weschler’s talk with photographer Joel Meyerowitz, in which they discuss the similarity between the latter’s photo of firemen on a break at ground zero and an anonymous shot of Union soldiers during the Civil War. Looking at the two images, Meyerowitz recalls, “I had the same sense of history repeating itself, people assembled after carnage or destruction or before battle, and they’re dispersed in a way that is casual, from fatigue or just …” Elsewhere, Weschler (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder) examines Polish history through the posters of its Solidarity Movement and compares the doughy physiognomies and political careers of two conservative leaders: Newt Gingrich and Slobodan Milosevic. It’s his light touch that allows Weschler to get away with such parallels; he never pushes a point too far. All he does is articulate his own evocative visual and philosophical connections; we can make of them what we will. Color photos.