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
29 | W O R K S A N D D A Y S
For George Putnam Lehmann
Twenty-four pen-and-ink drawings, 1998/99
Ink and acrylic on paper
Each 70 x 50 cm
In a storage case of stained and varnished wood, and glass
78.5 x 58.5 x 5.5 cm.
Of Hesiod’s Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι ( his “Works and Days” ), the long didactic poem he composed circa 700 BCE, eight hundred and twenty-eight dactylic hexameters have been handed down to us : as many verses—for want of a more suitable mnemonic form—meant to caution, edify, and scold. Addressed to the author’s scapegrace brother, Perses, with whom he lived in bitter strife over their common patrimony, these metric lines dispense advice and reprimand ; put forward rules of ethical and civil conduct ; and represent, above all, an elaborate, often abundantly self-righteous, effort on the poet’s part, to make his pettish sibling see the error of his willful, wasteful ways.
To that end, the bard takes up the cudgels on behalf of honest toil, presaging the boons and blessings of the gods to the diligent and upright of the earth, and setting out—ostensibly with brotherly disinterest—the various rôles that law and justice play in a principled community of men and beasts. Meshing mythology with the domestic and familiar, superstition with the husbandman’s pragmatic attitudes, he lets the yearly cycle of the seasons provide the framework for an antique almanac of agrarian responsibility and nautical lore, touching—in the last surviving segment—on the niceties of dealing with thin-skinned immortals (and one’s neighbors), and devoting his final verses to a catalogue of auspicious and ill-omened days for operations, agricultural and otherwise, within the natural month’s three lunar decades.
My own WORKS AND DAYS is a cycle of pen-and-ink drawings dedicated to the memory of my father, George Putnam Lehmann ( 1910–1998 ). His life was one of ceaseless industry and he himself the soul of honor and discretion. Uncompromising, painfully exact and conscientious, he remained a consummate gentleman to the last moment he drew breath. I had occasion, opportunity, and time to dwell on thoughts of him, and much else besides, during the long hours and days I spent absorbed in realizing WORKS, a labor I began five months after his death.
While executed on a grander scale, the work is closely related to my DIVINE MEDITATIONS : the lines of a poetic text—and I am by no means capable of entering into the unresolved discussion as to whether or not the Hesiodic works were composed and handed down in written form—are translated into columns of hatching and cross-hatching in, and out of, which contours appear and transform themselves into unforeseeable, “automatic” drawings.
First, I divided up the Works and Days’s eight hundred and twenty-eight lines equally between twenty-three projected drawings, that is, thirty-six lines apiece. Next, I took the width of thirty-six nine-millimeter-wide vertical rows—32.4 centimeters—as the shorter side of a rectangle and, using the Golden Section as a multiplication factor, calculated 52.5 centimeters as its height. Then, using a finely sharpened pencil, I traced a rectangle of these dimensions onto twenty-three sheets of drawing paper measuring 70 by 50 centimeters apiece, leaving a border of 88 millimeters to each sheet’s four edges. In order to do justice to the verses’ hexametric feet, I divided each of these twenty-three rectangles into six horizontal fields, leaving 2.5-millimeter-wide spaces between them—the height of each such field, taken together with the space above or below it, being 88 millimeters. And finally, I ruled each rectangle into thirty-six upright, nine-millimeter-wide rows.
The idea of using sepia-colored drawing-ink instead of black was given to me by an often-cited passage of the Works, which describes a winter’s day when the Boneless One gnaws his foot in his fireless house and wretched home. For the Boneless One eking out his miserable existence on the cold and comfortless ocean floor is, of course, the octopus, a cephalopod, whose relative the sepia, or cuttlefish, originally provided the brownish black secretions used to produce inks that still bear its name, but which are now produced synthetically, so as to be lightfast.
Making pen strokes without number—though I’ll confess to having calculated, in an idle moment, that there had to be close to half a million of them—I filled in the outlines of the drawings, working steadily from top to bottom and left to right, line by vertical line, leaving the narrow spaces between the horizontal fields blank. Each day, before I began to draw, I reread the thirty-six lines of the Works that my concept had assigned to the drawing in hand—sometimes in an English version, sometimes in a German translation, and time and again, in scraps of the original Greek, as far as I could decipher it (namely, not very far at all). Only then did I turn to making my countless marks, methodically going over and over the drawing before me—often while mulling the same thoughts over, and over. This I did a couple of hours a day, taking frequent breaks, literally, in order to be able to see straight again, as the optical interference patterns that arose from the crisscrossing pen-strokes were extremely irritating to (I surmise) both the rods and cones of my retinas: while working, my eyes seemed to develop numb or blind spots, much as a foot goes numb, or “falls asleep.”
Over a period of some days, I spent a total of twelve hours or so on each drawing, keeping a journal of exactly what days I had worked on which drawing. In all, I allowed myself a year to complete the work, beginning and ending on the birthday of my elder sister, my parents’ first-born child. Then, using an acrylic ink pigmented with Caput mortuum—similar in color to, and sometimes confused with that known as “mummy [brown],” which was originally made from mummified remains—I created a compilation of this data, written in Attic numerals*, which I included as the twenty-fourth drawing of WORKS AND DAYS. The twenty-three sheets of the work proper are also numbered in this fashion.
Is it a truism, or a finding of the latest research, that the hand is said to form the mind, as language forms and informs thought? All that I can testify to myself is that, in WORKS, the ritual of my modus operandi had the effect of an oft-recited prayer upon my sensibilities. Viewed as an extreme form of contemplation, prayer takes on that equivocal property of light which permits it to appear as both particle and wave, so that I have asked myself whether thought itself might not, in this wise, assume a physical potentiality. For in much the same way, the act and actions of the drawing process seemed to influence my meditations as I worked, and to “automatically“ determine the nature of what I drew.
If we assume Creation’s manner of operation to be blindly algorithmic—as it has been deemed in current exegeses of evolutionary theory—then my procedure’s repetitive, schematic character (which precludes the fear of failure inherent in a virtuosic execution) follows the counsel recommending that we proceed, in the creative process, as Nature does herself. Would I—dealing with the eminently human—thus enter into direct dialogue with Nature, as, for example, Karl von Frisch did through his systematized experiments with bees? Certainly, a “blindly” reiterated action determined WORKS AND DAYS.
All the same, I must have distrusted my brave plan, after all, for I seem to have had a fairly exact idea of how I wanted its “unpredictable” results to look—which ostensibly, by my own volition, were to be left entirely to chance. Time and time again, what I felt to be the banality of those results proved a disappointment. Although set my pen to paper with tranquil mien, and fully in the spirit of the concept—or so I thought—deep down, I must have been anticipating something like the Sturm und Drang that had found its way into my MEDITATIONS. When this flaw in my reasoning finally became apparent, it brought to mind the passage in John Cage’s 45’ for a Speaker, in which he writes of his first experiences with chance operations :When I first tossed coins I sometimes thought : / I hope such & such will turn up.
It took quite a while before I had made my peace with what I’d actually drawn—or rather, with that which had drawn itself. Only very slowly did I come to realize that, although equipped with a steel-nibbed pen, I had perhaps been less involved with the filling of pages than with the tilling of fields, less engaged, that is, in the high culture of writing than in agriculture. My passages over and through the six fields of each drawing were to be more readily comprehended as their plowing, sowing, harrowing, and harvesting than as their graphic elaboration. To what extent the Works can thus be perceived as the subject of my drawings remains open to conjecture; the only thing I’m sure of is that I no longer view the waves and furrows of my pen-and-ink fields as a stagnant or static construct, but as an intricate time and motion study: in constant flux, they are yet capable of freezing—all at once—and, then and there, condensing into unexpected, phantom forms.
This episode taught me a vital lesson about concept per se, and about humility, as I had experienced, at first hand, the very real consolation to be received, for example, from Johann Georg Hamann’s (the eighteenth-century German philosopher and master of succinct linguistic layerings, whose belief in Faith Itself was paramount [and on whose 221st birthday I happen to have been born]—from, as I was saying, Hamann’s confidence that it is presumptious to aspire too zealously to a state of (moral) perfection. One must, he believed, accept and calmly bear the burden of one’s insignificance: do what one believes to be right and—trusting in that rightness—accept the outcome of one’s deeds. By being too concerned with our own virtue, by desiring to define and decide all things ourselves, we exhibit only insolence.
Construed in its profanest sense, this credo might be taken as applying to my efforts, which is to say: if I have complete confidence in the solidity of a concept I’ve developed according to my lights, and am willing to vouch for the validity of its implementation, it is then left to me to do my work as best I can and to look forward to the outcome—not fatalistically but bona fide, in good faith, with interest.
At present, the twenty-four drawings of WORKS AND DAYS are kept in a case whose removable glass-topped lid resembles the frames in which I would, someday, like to see them all hanging when they are shown. For they are intended to be hung, viewed in the upright rather than in the horizontal. They should, initially, be glimpsed at some remove, so that the viewer is first struck by the geometry of the dark, wooden frames, and by each drawing’s six rectangular fields, with what might just as well be light pouring through the “cracks” between them.
As soon as it occurred to me that one might read those six horizontal bands as a hexagram of the I-Ching, I was keen to confirm my suspicion as to how the oracle defines ䷀, that is, two times three undivided lines. Consulting the “Book of Changes,” I found the constellation of my WORKS AND DAYS as the very first of its four-and-sixty figures : as “Khien, […] the originating; correct and firm; heaven; father.”
* The acrophonic Greek precursors of Roman numerals, e.g.: Π (Pi) = πέντε (pénte, or “five”) = ; Δ (Delta) = δέκα (déka, or “ten”) = 10