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Letter from Rachel Tzvia Back


Yesterday I sat for a full hour with your book of NY cityscapes, fully entranced and enamored of your paintings. The series is so powerful, full of light and life - a deep and true pleasure! So many of these cityscapes seem illuminated from behind, from within, from beyond - some kind of magic that you create on the canvas, something so amazing. The buildings seem anything but alienating or alienated, as one might expect of NY images  - they seem very alive and affirming of the human, even when the human is absent from the visual text. I was thinking how much your paintings are the fulfillment of what I call in my discipline "the poetics of looking". Where it is the looking eye of the artist that opens a world for the non-artist, that allows for perspectives (aesthetic, ethical, and emotional as one) previously never considered.  And so your cityscapes, just like your landscapes, offer the gift of beauty where unexpected: a quiet city street, an urban project, a train line.

I must admit I don't agree with the analysis offered by Kuspit. I don't see Aushwitz as in any way a backdrop here, or your buildings as being an answer to that concrete landscape of death. I wonder what you think of that analysis; to me it seems reductionist, as though by virtue of you being a Jew (or the child of a survivor?) you must be in conversation with the Holocaust (and that your art is "an answer to anti-semitism"...).  No.  I think instead of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called "God's Grandeur" - an exquisite, difficult sonnet praising the natural creations of God. I see your paintings of NY buildings a celebration of urban grandeur - a grandeur that is innate, ever-present, and simply needs to be seen.

I am deeply impressed also by the exquisite quiet that emanates from your paintings. It is a quiet that is rejuvenating, peaceful and unexpected. It's a wonder to me that a city can be that quiet, but I know it to be true. Particularly a winter city, or late fall. An additional wonder for me is how this mostly unpeopled landscape doesn't feel lonely or alone. The trees and streets are very alive - unrelated to the human that might or might not wander through.

The Objectivist American poets accomplished some of what you accomplish here - Lorine Niedecker in her water-swamped Wisconsin island and Charles Reznikoff in his NY poems (I think you should read Reznikoff, and if you ever re-publish some of these NY images, you should use some of his words to accompany your paintings). Reznikoff and Niedecker, in contrast to you, went very small, haiku-like. But the point of their poetry, like the point of your paintings (I think) was/is to look in an unsentimental way at the landscape and see it as it was/is, in that moment, and then changed in the next.

Truthfully, I think your cityscapes are fully a continuation of your natural landscapes, and the question Kuspit poses - "Reconcilable or Irreconcilable" -- seems to me not the point. I see no contrast or conflict between your cityscapes and your landscapes. That too is part of your powerful statement: to view this urban environment without judgment, preconception, stereotype; to view it for what it is, for what it might offer if we look fully, even with our hearts (the red, oh the red hues reverberating from your canvas - rich and powerful and embracing). You, Michael, in your great craft and talent, foreground the intense beauty of the concrete and the cement, all in colors that are breathtaking and alive.

Thank you so much, Michael, for the book. I am, as you can see, loving it.

Much love

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