Dec/Jan 2008

The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers

Albert Mobilio


“ALL MY LIFE,” D. H. LAWRENCE ONCE said, “I have from time to time gone back to paint because it gave me a form of delight that words can never give.” The possibility that Lawrence’s urge to make art might be widely shared among his fellow wordsmiths receives ample affirmation in Donald Friedman’s The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers (Minneapolis: Mid-List Press, $40), as well as in a corresponding show recently held at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City. Among the nearly two hundred writers on display are likely suspects (Henri Michaux, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, André Breton, Guy Davenport) and surprises—Ed McBain (an elegant bronze nude), James A. Michener (a 1966 work in the mode of Jasper Johns), and Sylvia Plath (a color-charged pastoral). Some pieces are mere doodles, but many others are fully accomplished, suggesting a desire by their creators to be regarded as more than dilettantes. If much of the imagery is derivative, it is no less revelatory of individual taste and fascinations. J. P. Donleavy’s watercolor of a face-off between two piranha-like fish (the smaller one no less fierce and eager for the fight than the larger) was clearly inspired by Klee but is redolent of the angular wit of the writer’s combative protagonists. Some works evince an uncanny prescience: For a plate in On the Theory of Colors, Goethe mixed abstract figures with a landscape scene to create a collage that could pass muster in any contemporary gallery. Ancient scribes made images—hieroglyphs and ideograms—well before developing alphabets and words, and this compendium vividly reminds us of those pictorial origins.

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