"If you look long enough at anything, it will become extremely interesting," promises Delmore Schwartz in his 1957 poem Seurat's Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine, which dissects the famous pointillist painting. The new book Transforming Vision: Writers on Art offers a medley of personal takes on this and other artwork in the collection of the Art Institute, written by 33 poets and novelists, including Wallace Stevens on Pablo Picasso's painting The Old Guitarist, John Updike on Claes Oldenburg's sculpture Clothespin, and Willa Cather on "various minor painters."
Stuart Dybek recalls killing time in the Art Institute, looking at Edward Hopper's Nighthawks only to "find myself waiting there, too." For Susan Sontag, encountering Francisco Goya's 1863 series The Disasters of War summons scenes from modern-day Sarajevo, Mostar, and Vucovar: "The problem is how not to avert one's glance. How not to give way to the impulse to stop looking." Francine Prose stares at Diane Arbus's 1966 photo Two Ladies at the Automat (New York City) and ponders the image as a mirror: "Each passing minute nibbles away at the distance between us."
Poet Edward Hirsch edited the anthology, which reproduces the specific artwork alongside each musing. Hirsch grew up in Chicago and frequently visited the museum as a teenager. "I was particularly stunned by paintings that rendered urban life because it was dawning on me that I could write poems about city life," he says. Hirsch hosts an evening of readings from the book--with contributing writers Mark Strand, Reginald Gibbons, Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, Garry Wills, and others--on Tuesday, November 22, at 6 PM in Fullerton Auditorium of the Art Institute at Michigan and Adams. Admission is free. Transforming Vision: Writers on Art is published by the Art Institute of Chicago and costs $27.95. For more information, call 443-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Estate of Diane Arbus.