A N N H O L Y O K E . O R G | A M E T H O D O L O G I C A L C A T A L O G U E O F W O R K S
13 | T H E H O U S E O F F A M E
Five montages, 1984
Xerography, crayon, and tempera on coated cardboard
Each 100 x 70 cm.
I seek consolation in my work. I work to reconcile myself with living and to forge a bond with existence: to arrive at an understanding, to come to terms with being. This can be a tricky business, as the path to be taken rarely appears to be a straightforward one, and I am ever on the lookout for signs to set me straight, clues that will help me get my bearings. Having once set out, I keep eyes and ears open for indications that I’m on the right track—ever on the watch for those wayside markers that almost seem to have been erected expressly for my benefit. In the course of my reading, such finger posts both point the way and give me pause: they make me stop and wonder, and can, if instinctively construed and systematically minded, be read as a prescription, as instructions for the fabrication of a novel context, a coherence, I might reasonably call my own.
In the spring of 1984, having just completed the exhaustive and exhausting execution of PHASEN, the cycle of thirteen collage panels described above, I was convinced, as usual after such an exertion—such a monomaniacal surrender to one, very particular cause—that I’d never again be able to conceive, let alone complete, a work of any consequence. I turned to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden to restore my spirits. As ever, I found in its pages the most beautiful, suggestive, and American of texts, just as I found myself regretting that I myself was not its author—nor, of course, could I ever be! At this very moment, the ground-plan of the little house at Walden Pond caught, and held, my attention more decidedly than it ever had before. Suddenly, its simple form seemed to block my passage through those New England woods, lying across my path like the trunk of a fallen tree too heavy to be pushed aside and too large to be stepped, or even clambered, over and left behind. Interest had displaced despondency.
THE HOUSE OF FAME I, 1984, montage, 100 x 70 cm (left), and its legend, 29.7 x 21 cm.
Thoreau’s description of his house-building was to provide me with exact dimensions for my next piece—namely 10 by 15 feet, or approximately 3 by 4.5 meters—and I soon recognized in Walden’s natural symbolism (concentricity and concentration, for instance, or reflections and reflection) as well as in such items as the small looking-glass three inches in diameter Thoreau lists among the contents of his cabin further qualities and elements of a work the planning of which was suddenly well underway. Taking care not to lose the scent of that elusive something I now felt sure that I was tracking, I noted names of other authors mentioned in the text (Plato and Geoffrey Chaucer, for example) as I did Thoreau’s appeals, warnings, and recommendations. These included not only those most-popular ones regarding reduction and simplicity, or that which involves stepping to the music that one hears, but also the advice, for example, to cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage, or Thoreau's summation that, like darkness, humility reveals the heavenly lights.
THE HOUSE OF FAME II, 1984, montage, 100 x 70 cm (left), and its legend, 29.7 x 21 cm.
A subsequent perusal of the five parts of Chaucer’s fragmentary poem The Hous [sic] of Fame did, in fact, yield results, at once confirming the aptness of the data bagged during the initial hunt and furnishing new points of departure for the continuing chase. A satire of heroic mien and comic bent, this text itself draws upon numerous literary luminaries—Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Boëthius among them—while treating of the fickle Goddess Fame and her romping madhouse of a domicile: a house that functions along the lines of a topsy-turvy broadcasting house. The poem’s natural science lecture on sound—given by an eagle, it describes the concentric transport of sound in air as being much like the concentric progress of wavelets in water : Every sercle causynge other / Wydder than hymselve was . This passage especially made me sit up and take notice, for it contained an explanation of the phenomenon that permits all sounds and noises—pure sound as well as speech; truth as well as lies—to reach the House of Fame and its Hall of Rumor, from there to be published to the world at large.
THE HOUSE OF FAME III, 1984, montage, 100 x 70 cm (left), and its legend, 29.7 x 21 cm.
Redolent of our moon’s intrinsic mutability, the capricious disposition of the lady of the house brought to mind archaic depictions of the Wheel of Fortune's being slowly turned by a merciless and arbitrary deity, which in turn suggested at least one prominent victim of that cruel apparatus: Ancius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (ca. CE 480–524), whose own Philosophiae Consolationis libri V had issued from the extremities of mind and body he was forced to endure upon his precipitous fall from official grace.
THE HOUSE OF FAME IV, 1984, montage, 100 x 70 cm (left), and its legend, 29.7 x 21 cm.
Boëthius seems to have written the Consolatio in exile and—the extensively quoted material it contains notwithstanding—entirely without access to his large personal library. Composed primarily to aid the author himself, the Consolation of Philosophy provided succor and affirmation as he suffered at the hands of his tormentors during a long, brutal, and ultimately fatal imprisonment. Englished by Chaucer himself, as well as by Elizabeth I and countless others, it was to become one of the most studied texts of the Middle Ages, and is said to have offered solace to Dante upon the death of his beloved Beatrice. In the length of his discourse, which in closing postulates the great necessity to do good, Boëthius—who gave us Aristotle’s works and had planned translations and commentaries of the complete Platonic dialogues as well—draws a picture of the world as eternity in constant flux, yet another wheel, that is, upon which we are all held prisoner, captives of time and space, and of which alone the motionless hub provides peace and freedom from the vicissitudes of the day.
THE HOUSE OF FAME V, 1984, montage, 100 x 70 cm (left), and its legend, 29.7 x 21 cm.
Boëthius’ suggestive imagery was not lost on me, nor did did his mention of Plato’s Timaios escape my notice. Continuing my (re)search in that quarter, I had the archetypal geometry of the so-called Platonic solids called to mind. The Τίμαιος sets forth theories of nature, cosmology, and mathematics, primarily in the form of (rather tedious) homilies delivered by the eponymous Timaios. One of these monologues, however, lays out a rudimentary atomic theory, in which the regular polyhedra are put forward as the building blocks of the classical elements. Without hesitation, I adopted the dodecahedron, tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron, and hexahedron (or cube), along with the elemental attributes ascribed to each of them, as a framework within which to organize the ideas and images I was compiling. I recorded the ideas that I assigned to these bodies in THE HOUSE OF FAME, a graphic essay comprising five montages, in which the progression of the regular polyhedra is used to trace the process by which thought becomes matter and word becomes deed.
THE HOUSE OF FAME I–V, 1984, five montages, each 100 x 70 cm.
In the Consolatio, the muse, or goddess, Philosophia’s robes have the Greek letter Π (pi, standing for πρᾶξις, “practice”) worked into the lower border of her gown and Θ (theta, denoting θεωρία, “theory”) at the top, with a kind of ladder leading from former to the latter. Holding a mirror to that ladder, the first of my THE HOUSE OF FAME montages is devoted to the twelve-faced dodecahedron, symbolizing “Aether / Cosmos” or “Mind,” while the four montages defined by the sublunar elements conclude with the cube, or “Earth.” At the beginning of this path stand four authors, four texts, and four corresponding examples of concentricity, namely, Plato / Τίμαιος / a spiral galaxy ; Boëthius / De Consolatione Philosophiae / the Wheel of the Konark ; Chaucer / The Hous of Fame / nodal patterns on a Chladni Plate ; and Thoreau / Walden: or, Life in the Woods / a spider’s web. These then lead through the stations of creative life and work, ending with structures idealistic (the cabin at Walden Pond) and ideal (the Roman Pantheon).
All four of these men of letters lived and wrote in times that can be characterized as great cultural watersheds, both in general—for instance, that between the Philosophers and the Schoolmen, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or quite simply between what we today regard as History and what as Modern Times—and in particular, namely, as far as the self-awareness of the author in his own narrative is concerned: a development that culminates here in the suggestion of the first-person singular pronoun’s 1,811 occurrences in Walden. In HOUSE OF FAME, one wanders from construct to construction, so to speak, tracing a path from the edifice of ideas to house-building: from plan to implement. In the third of the five montages, which deals with the octahedron (“Air”), for instance, the temple complex of the goddess Fortuna at Palestrina—where the cult of Chance held sway, and the formulary is said to have included divination and the drawing of lots—this shrine’s vast hillside façade can be seen, suspended above the marble intarsia of a mahogany center table made by Antoine-Gabriel Quervelle (Philadelphia, ca. 1830; now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
It would not be out of keeping with the spirit of the piece, were you, at this point, to recall Henry David Thoreau’s words: If you have built your castles in the air […] now put foundations under them.
Antoine-Gabriel Quervelle (1789–1856),
Mahogany center table, Philadelphia, ca. 1830, height 75.7 cm, diameter 87.6 cm.
Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.