General 2-5-2005

Old Eagle Eyes Is Back

Michael Fallon returns -- here's his thoughts on presence and absence.

Michael Fallon

“Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation… Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe, I’m honest.”

–Frank Sinatra, in 1963

As you know from your own life experiences, it’s nearly impossible in the tsunami rush of the money-culture that surrounds us ever to emerge from being a dollar short, day late. It often seems the more we struggle to keep up, the further the tide pushes us from our moorings. Ironically, sometimes it pays best to take a little time away from the deluge–even where there are issues and causes you care deeply about.

I said as much in so many words to a friend the other day. “You mean a sabbatical?” he replied, his head thrusting up out of his own private Minnesota snowdrift, his eyes shiny and flecked with visions of cactus juice and tumbleweeds. “I actually highly recommend ditching things on occasion.”

All this goes to explaining why I have been rather absent from this site, and from the arts community, over the past few months. I’ve been sabbaticalling, hiatusizing. Meaning: I’ve been resting on my damn haunches and I’m all the better for it.

It’s the first serious break I’ve taken from arts writing since I began doing it seven years ago. Oh, there’ve been occasional mini-breaks–mostly taken because from an exhaustion-induced inability to write a straight sentence–but never have I deliberately walked for this length of time. With the exception of one column for and one review for a national magazine on a show I’d planned last June to cover, I have written exactly nothing for the past four months.

It wasn’t easy; there’s something addicting about pushing one’s creative work. Among the societal subsection that I write about—that is, the local community of artists–my name had become satisfying more well-known through the years, and my efforts were ever more in demand (when they weren’t being derided by someone who disagreed with me). A writer’s support group I help found to foster arts writing had grown to nearly 30 members, its growing list of activities even gaining notice from media venues such as MPR. And I was regularly being asked to chair discussion panels, teach art classes, make conference presentations, and so on.

This sounds great, but the workload keeps threatening to engulf me. The first year I wrote on the arts, 1998, I published five stories. The number grew to 13 the next year, then 16 in 2000, and 20 in 2001. In 2003, I published 30 full-length stories in local and national publications—this despite always holding down a regular day job and trying to have a semblance of a social life. I was on pace to challenge the number again in 2004, having published 20 stories by the end of August of the year, when I began to wonder just what the heck was I trying to do to myself…

TAKING A HIATUS IS NOT AN UNCOMMON PRACTICE in the arts. This may stem from the fact that creative work—painting and sculpting, singing and songwriting, drawing and performing—is particularly exhausting, and it often seems thankless. Sometimes artistic exhaustion can be extreme, and the resulting sabbatical carries an air of surrender, even disgust. Lee Bontecou, for instance, was one of the few women artists to receive major recognition in the 1960s for her large-scale canvas wall sculptures that evoked industry and gothic architecture and circular female forms with teeth. But in her last exhibition of the era, in 1971 at Leo Castelli’s gallery, Bontecou introduced fish, flowers, and other biological shapes in lieu of the industrial imagery, and the show was not well-received by critics. As a result, the artist moved to the country away from New York and was not heard from again until her work appeared in a 2003 retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

D. H. Lawrence left England after World War I, complaining of persecution (his wife was a supposed German sympathizer, and his books were censored for obscenity) and of the soullessness of post-war industrialization. Calling his artistic hiatus a “savage pilgrimage,” Lawrence roamed the world in search of a more fulfilling life. His travels took him to rural parts of France, Italy, Ceylon, Australia, America, and Mexico. He famously attempted to establish a utopian community on a ranch in Taos, New Mexico, but ill health forced him to return to Europe. He never again lived in England, returning only twice for two short visits, and published the rest of his works as an expatriate.

Many of America’s most popular cartoon artists—Garry Trudeau, Gary Larson, Berkeley Breathed, and Bill Watterson—all took sabbaticals at key moments in their careers. Garry Trudeau and Berkeley Breathed used the time off to revamp and redesign the look and scope of their output—Trudeau returned with a brand new look to his “Doonesbury” strip and new character backstories after his 18-month sabbatical in the mid-1980s; Breathed restructured his “Bloom County” to an elaborate once-a-week strip first called “Outland,” then “Opus.” Artists often use sabbaticals to rethink and retool their work. Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins used his most mythologized break, in 1959, to practice alone in the upper reaches of the Williamsburg Bridge (creating a standard jazz image). When Rollins returned to jazz in 1961, he had opened up his style, taking Ornette Coleman’s innovations and pushing forward ideas in free jazz.

So common and attractive is the idea of the artistic sabbatical that at least one grant-funding organization, the Arts Council of Indianapolis, recently created a fellowship specifically for artists looking to take a break. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, 150 artists last year received grants of $7,500, for a total of more than a million dollars—thought by the writer to be one of the largest artistic grant programs in the country (the money was provided by the Lilly Endowment). The only stipulation was that the artists share with the community what they learned while they were gone.

A GRANDDADDY OF ALL ARTIST SABBATICALS, taken by one of my artistic heroes, Frank Sinatra, was announced in a gala concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1971. Sinatra had been through a helluva lot in his long run of creativity—more than I, or nearly any other artist, have or ever will by far. Even before he had reached the age I am now, Sinatra had come back from public disenchantment and near-bankruptcy and general decline. He had survived two tough divorces (one from his childhood sweetheart, and the other from Ava Gardner, the Catherine Zeta-Jones of her time), a vocal decline, and a lost recording contract (from Columbia). He had been denounced by a newspaper columnist in 1947 for consorting with gangster Lucky Luciano in Cuba. He had become the whipping-boy of conservative press, which resented his pro-Roosevelt, pro-tolerance political stances and used his Mafia ties to discredit him. He had even survived, it is believed, a suicide attempt at the height of all this failure.

Sinatra’s resurgence began in 1953 with the release of “From Here to Eternity,” in which he portrayed Maggio, the combative Italian-American soldier beaten to death in a stockade. The performance won him an Oscar and renewed public sympathy. In April, Sinatra, then just about my age now, give or take a year, signed with Capitol Records a cautious one-year record deal that offered no advance. But Sinatra was lucky. While his voice has lost its silky youthful sheen, it had gained a hard expressiveness perfectly suited for the lightly swinging jazz music becoming popular among an older audience of the time. And because of the introduction of the long-playing record, or LP, five years earlier, Sinatra was able to make cohesive album-length emotional statements in his records throughout the decade.

Sinatra’s hiatus of the 1970s stemmed from the exhaustion of a long colorful creative career, but also from a sense of impending mortality. In the 1960s, he had exhibited increasingly obvious signs of mid-life crisis—first briefly marrying a woman thirty years his junior (the 21-year-old actress Mia Farrow), then recording a series of increasingly melancholic and age-conscious albums, culminating in “The September of My Years.” On this album he sang: “One day you turn around and it’s summer, next day you turn around and it’s fall. And the springs and the winters of a lifetime—what ever happened to them all?”

Of course, my life looks like a wax museum compared to Sinatra’s. But I’ve been through enough—my own relationship heartbreaks, a couple of minor career setbacks and modest comebacks, my own sense of burnout, and the approach of my own age-based sense of mortality. So, as Sinatra eventually came back two years after his “retirement,” I too am back—even though my hiatus lasted only four months. As Sinatra said in his comeback special “Old Blue Eyes Is Back,” which he commenced by jogging out of a darkened hall, looking tanned and fit from golf and chin-tuck and hair implants, into a spotlight in the center of the screen: “ I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the business–the records, the movies, the saloons. So here I am.”

Here I am too, Old Eagle Eyes the Art Critic, for another round of abuse. Stay tuned, the first art review from the new me should hit the stands next week.