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39  |   T H E  E A T E R S  O F  P R E C I O U S  S T O N E S
After William Butler Yeats
Wall-relief in five parts, 2002
Fiberboard and wood, painted; xerography
Two parts 70 x 50 x 3.5 cm; two parts 100 x 70 x 3.5 cm;
one part 140 x 100 x 3.5 cm (140 x 400 cm, mounted).


One day I saw faintly an immense pit of blackness, round which went a circular parapet, and on this parapet sat innumerable apes eating precious stones out of the palms of their hands. The stones glittered green and crimson, and the apes devoured them with an insatiable hunger. I knew that I saw my own Hell there, the Hell of the artist, and that all who sought after beautiful and wonderful things with too avid a thirst, lost peace and form and became shapeless and common. … I saw on another occasion a quantity of demons of all kinds of shape—fish-like, serpent-like, ape-like, and dog-like—sitting about a black pit such as that in my own Hell, and looking at the moon-like reflection of the heavens which shone up from the depths of the pit.

W. B. Yeats
“The Eaters of Precious Stones” (1893)

At six- or seventeen, I carved the form of a crouching gibbon from an eight-inch-tall piece of pale-green soapstone and gave it the title As a Young Ape. A year or so later, in thrall to Yeats’s “Eaters of Precious Stones,” I began to produce drawings and etchings of apes, pits, and parapets, as preliminary sketches for a large painting of the same name, continuing to draw and paint apes and monkeys—still planning to execute that epic canvas—until 1978, when I abruptly ceased looking to “paint” in the more conventional sense of the word and my work became abstract and concept driven. Only after another quarter of a century had passed and I had begun to appreciate the depth of symbolism in Yeats’s vision of his Artist’s Hell, did I revisit the “Eaters” text and seek to develop a pictorial form capable, not of illustrating, but of elaborating, even demonstrating, it.

Above, left: AHL with “As a Young Ape,” 1968/69, soapstone carving, ca. 21 x 13 x 10 cm.

Below: detail of a page from a sketchbook, 1969.

In early December 2001, at the re-opening of the elaborately refurbished Alte Nationalgalerie on Berlin’s legendary Museumsinsel, I’d found myself becoming increasingly discouraged as I viewed the (somewhat over-illuminated) collection, which consists almost entirely of nineteenth-century paintings, tendering the gentle visitor only the most sublime of scenes. Strolling from gallery to gallery, I seemed unable to fix my gaze on anything but the pictures’ defects and deficiencies—for every work must needs display at least one banal or stolid passage—forced, that is, to watch the mask of creative serenity slip to reveal the face behind the artifice, to recognize the effort required to keep it  in place. Nowhere (or so it appeared to me) could the artist’s attempt to take up Nature’s gauntlet—to rival, or even beat her, at her game—be unreservedly accepted. It was clear that the light of the natural world neither did nor would lend itself to reproduction by the painter’s hand; and it was disheartening to have to view, en masse, the results of an entire century’s longing to have it do so. For the light of those paintings was, of course, not light but paint; yet that paint was not permitted to be paint, but was supposed to be light (or water, or flesh, or air).

At the latest, this conundrum becomes a problem when a work ages and its surface, through its craquelure, reveals itself for what it is : an illusion and a lie, albeit often a very lovely one. If, however, paint is allowed to be paint, or gold leaf gold leaf, as it had, for instance, in the gilded surfaces and highly colored grounds of the Trecento and early Quattrocento—at a time in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, that is, before the painter-craftsman had assumed his seat at the princely board (and again with the Constructivists, who programmatically used only building materials in their works)—changes in a surface due to aging can be looked upon as the maturation of materials whose nature has never been denied, not as disturbances in, or even the destruction of, an illusionistic image (for all that we, in many cases, make a virtue of necessity and grow fond of the web of ruin stamped upon the face of a painting we no longer know in any other state).



The apes in Yeats’s waking dream flaunt the unreflected, animalistic nature of their being, devouring gemstones by the greedy handful. Driven by their intemperate and, more likely than not, unstillable craving for beautiful and glittering things, they consume a valuable treasure, one not intended by its creator to be ingested (and, we must surmise, transformed into their droppings) but rather scrutinized, admired, marvelled at. By extension, the artist who assumes the mantle of the common illusionist and presumes to limn the earth’s fair countenance does much the same, renouncing sovereignty over his own concrete world and risking the loss of that which gives him form and meaning: his capacity for abstract, metaphysical reflection.

The mechanics of an artwork need not be contrivance and conveyance or convenience—the means by which something apart from the work itself is represented—which is precisely why the concrete work is not executed in a medium, but made out of components and component parts—“ingredients”: stuffs, and things, that lend ideas material form. The occasional lapse, here and there, must be construed as a trace of the form-giving hand—the author’s handwriting, his signature—and not considered out of place, or order.


The complete tableau (above) and its individual elements (below).

In THE EATERS OF PRECIOUS STONES, I employ, somewhat paradoxically, an unabashedly figurative language related to that I found myself using for the first time in MNEME—the piece whose figuration gave me such a start. In the EATERS such pictorial language expresses itself as cut-out drawings of hands and painted wooden shadows that describe the ambitious contortions of arms and fingers creating hand shadows—those of a nineteenth-century evening’s entertainment, certainly, but perhaps, as well, the shadow pictures cast by firelight onto the walls of the Cave, once upon a time.

Such imagery notwithstanding, these likenesses of hands are not illusions, but diagrams and demonstrations; and the work in its entirety ultimately makes the case for hands to remain hands and paint paint. Thus, a solid, white circle on a black background—like that in the opening panel—is still a white circle on a black background, even as it conjures the full moon; and the Suprematists’ black square, with which the piece closes—an ideal figure made of right angles, entirely human and resolutely artificial—continues to lie within reach of, and indeed can only be realized by, the human hand. “Realism” means setting oneself attainable goals—not for fear of failure, but in recognition of a prior, and superior, claim to the authorship of the natural world.

And speaking of copyrights , I fear I’ve been somewhat too free in my treatment and quotation of W. B. Yeats’s “Eaters of Precious Stones,” not only borrowing the title, but abridging and reworking the text for use as an inscription in my work as well—just as I have taken liberties with hands and shadow figures from the books Hand Shadows (1859) and Hand Shadows : Second Series (1860) by the Victorian sculptor Henry Bursill (co-creator, for what it’s worth, of the lions in London’s Trafalgar Square), redrawing and greatly enlarging them to fit the scheme of my tableau. My gratitude is due both authors: may their shades bear me no grudge!