Illuminating the word
Publication Date: Friday Mar 10, 1995

Illuminating the word

Three exhibitions celebrate the union of words and art

by Diane Sussman

The one who comes to question himself cares for mankind.

--Kenneth Patchen
There is a line scrawled across one of Kenneth Patchen's paintings that would seem childish if not for its heartfelt sincerity: "Peace now for all men/ or amen to all things." The line concludes a passage from a Patchen poem that reads, "Everyman is me/ I am his brother. No man is my enemy. I am Everyman and he is in and of me./ This is my faith, my strength, my deepest hope, and my only belief."

Eighteen of Patchen's works--14 framed paintings and four handmade books on loan from the University of California special collections--are on display in the Palo Alto Cultural Center exhibition "Kenneth Patchen: The Painted Poem." Two companion exhibitions, "Windows to the Mind: Selected Books from Stanford Special Collections" and "Poets and Painters," round out the show. The exhibitions continue through June 4.

For Palo Altans, the Patchen show has special meaning. This is the first major local showing of works by the celebrated painter-poet, who died in his Palo Alto Sierra Court cottage in 1972. To Patchen's 80-year-old widow, Miriam, "it seems almost like forever, like another lifetime" since the artist's work found its way back home.

Patchen did not go gently to his art. Using stark colors, plain words and naive images, Patchen painted to honor pacifism, God, the innocence of animals and the sanctity of the Earth.

What he couldn't glorify, he railed against: social injustice, cruelty, hypocrisy, idle chatter. "I proclaim this international shut your big fat flapping mouth week," he scrawled across a painting of a man cradling a bird and a bouquet.

He fretted over animals no less than humans. "The birds are very careful of this world," he wrote over a painting of a three-way conversation between a bird, a frog and a rabbit, "Ha! a lot of good that'll do them."

"There was a lot to be angry about," recalled Miriam. "All the wars. All the continuing wars.

"It's gotten even worse now," she added. "There are 197 wars going on in the world." For the past 20 years, Miriam, who shared her husband's beliefs, has spent two hours every Tuesday holding a sign outside Town & Country Village shopping center in Palo Alto that reads "Peace with justice."

An Ohio native, Patchen worked in the steel mills before turning to art. Before moving to Palo Alto, he was part of the Greenwich Village and San Francisco circles of art--communities of ironic, experimental, left-leaning artists.

Despite the heady company and some big-name admirers--Henry Miller among them--Patchen never achieved marquee status as an artist or poet. Likewise, he never had it easy or struck it rich.

Combining pictures with poetry was Patchen's way of creating a more visceral connection with the viewer, "of getting the idea into the mind and body at the same time," explained Miriam.

At this point, combining words and text is no longer a novelty in art. One has only to walk through a graffiti-splattered downtown to see how pervasive the form has become. The difference, maintains Mayfield, is that Patchen did it better. "These days people are just throwing text on paper," said Mayfield. "Patchen was able to show the literary immediacy of words. It puts you right in his mind at the time."

"Poets and Painters," the second section of the show, continues the themes of the Patchen show. In this section, contemporary artists like Mark Perlman and Pegan Brooke interpret the poems of well-known poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Gustavo Riveira.

It's a lively section. Think of Jasper Johns painting "The Wasteland," or Andy Warhol designing "The Raven," and you have an idea of how it works. The pieces were selected from a reading held at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

In "Windows to the Mind," the last and largest section of the exhibition, the Cultural Center winds back the clock five centuries for a superb selection of illuminated books from the Stanford Special Collection.

Entirely handmade and gorgeously decorated, such books usually were made for the glory of God or as prestige items for private acquisition. Covered in lapis, rubies, vellum or calfskin, the books open to page after page of gold leaf and lavish paint.

"The Kelmscott Chaucer" alone would demand a visit to the exhibition, as would the 1493 manuscript "The Nuremberg Chronicle." "'The Nuremberg Chronicle' is the most profusely illustrated book of the 15th century," said Mayfield, carefully turning the pages. "There are more than 1,000 woodcuts in this book.

Considered a forebear of the encyclopedia, "The Nuremberg Chronicle" represents "all the knowledge people had at the time, from the beginning of the time to that moment," said Mayfield.

By the latter half of the 16th century, texts formerly restricted to the privileged few became available to all. By the 20th century, books had become paperback rectangles suitable for the beach. None of that, however, has prevented artists from artists from shrinking, enlarging, embellishing or otherwise altering the book to suit.

Witness "Holzpostkarte." In this book, or better yet anti-book, Joseph Beuys takes an unfinished block of wood and calls it a book. In another example, Flockaphobic Press prints "The Onion as it is cooked"--on pasta.

Finally, as a tribute to the sheer joy of color, the exhibition has included Matisse's "Jazz." "What makes this book exceptional is that it is the same color Matisse used," said Mayfield. "It is the quintessential artist's book."

Three on books and words

What: "Kenneth Patchen: The Painted Poem," "Poets and Painters" and "Windows to the Mind: Selected Books from the Stanford Special Collections"

When: Through June 4

Where: Palo Alto Cultural Center, 1313 Newell Road

Hours: Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thurs. 7 to 9 p.m.; Sun. 1-5 p.m.

Information: 329-2605 

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