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Etrog and Beckett

I used to love to listen to him talking about Samuel Beckett. He had met Beckett in Paris over a pre-arranged dinner in 1969 and eventually worked with him, producing illustrations for Imagination Dead Imagine, published in a splendid limited edition in 1982. All in all, they knew each other twenty years.

Gary Michael Dault on Sorel Etrog’s collaboration with Samuel Beckett

Essays by:
Gary Michael Dault, The Door Opens from the Inside (2013)
Florian Rodari, Secret Paths excerpt (1999–2000)
William J. Withrow, introduction to Sorel Etrog excerpt (1967)

Dault on Etrog

Gary Michael Dault, “The Door Opens from the Inside” (2013)

The time goes by too swiftly, and you don’t want it to, and so you don’t notice it. Now, it is a few more years than I meant it to be since I last saw Sorel—and I don’t know where those years went.

Our visits used to be regular, usually weekly. I loved boarding the elevator of the downtown Toronto apartment building where he has lived and worked for the past thirty-six years and pushing the button labelled HC—for Health Club. That’s where Sorel’s vast studio was—at the very top of the building, higher up than the penthouses, right beside the swimming pool. It meant that his studio was always as humid as a jungle.

I was writing a catalogue essay at that time for the Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto about the wall-mounted constructions Sorel called Composites. But after that was done, we began writing together— spontaneous, almost automatic little ur-poems. He’d write the first line and I’d write the second. Then he’d write a third. And so on and on. And vice versa. We both found this superbly pointless exercise exhilarating. I wish we hadn’t stopped. Sorel feels the same way. So why, I wonder, did we? I suppose it was because we assumed (by the cunning use of Magic Thinking) that there would always be time-without-measure in which to fool around with language. There wasn’t. Now Sorel is ill and is simply too weary to think about the bracing guilelessness of goalless writing.

During a visit a few weeks ago, I suggested to him—over-briskly, I’m sure—that we try it once again. “Look, I’ll write the first line and you write the second!” I told him. “Just as we used to!” He looked at me wanly, a sad smile on his face, and dismissed the idea with a short, exhausted wave of his hand. He can’t. Not now. Not anymore.

As securely established as his international reputation is as a sculptor and painter/printmaker—and has been for the past fifty years—it was his being a writer, a man-of-letters, that brought us together as friends. I remember Sorel and I discussing his friendship with absurdist Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco—whose lithographic portrait he had drawn in 1969 and with whom he collaborated on the poem Chocs, published by the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York the same year. For some reason, it occurred to me to ask him what I see now was an almost sublimely irrelevant question: “What language did you and Ionesco speak when you worked together?” The old twinkle came momentarily back into Sorel’s eyes. “Romanian,” he said, the obviousness of this whole exchange suddenly striking us both as very funny.

I used to love to listen to him talking about Samuel Beckett. He had met Beckett in Paris over a prearranged dinner in 1969 and eventually worked with him, producing illustrations for Imagination Dead Imagine, published in a splendid limited edition in 1982. All in all, they knew each other for twenty years. On Friday, April 13, 1984, in Toronto, Sorel staged what he called a “bodifestation,” a gallery-filling enactment in celebration of Beckett’s 78th birthday, called Kite—published that same year (as The Kite) by John Calder in London. I had always admired the portrait Sorel had drawn of Beckett. I asked him about it again during our last visit. He was too weary to go into much detail. “It was during that introductory dinner,” he told me. “I’d listen while he talked, and I doodled the portrait while I listened.” It was published as a lithograph by Atelier Arte Paris in 1969.

I admire the sculpture, especially the vigorous Painted Constructions (1952–60), the Links (1963–71)—in particular, the tempestuous, mythological Bulls from 1969—the Hinges (1972–79) and the extraordinary Steel Constructions from the 1980s (I was never big on the Screws and Bolts from the early 1970s, though I admit that Nagas from 1971–72 exudes a smooth, post-Arp sculptural authority, and the weird, giant bolt-figures of Sadko and Kabuki have an exciting haughtiness that carries them beyond the cartoonishness that, for me, bedevils most of the bolt-works).

But it is Sorel Etrog the writer, the man of letters, whom I feel closest to, whom I understand best. The last time I visited him, I was looking again through his well-stocked library, momentarily revisiting the writers I knew he loved and books I knew he had of their works: Nietzsche, Jung, Joyce of course (Finnegans Wake is always close by), and books I had forgotten he had or at least had never seen on his shelves before such as Helene Parmelin’s Picasso Plain, for example, or the poems of Frederick Seidel.

As a matter of fact, I’d forgotten the degree to which Irishness and Celtic culture generally was close to his heart. Noticing me browsing along the shelves, Sorel requested that I pull off the shelf his copy of Robert O’Driscoll’s The Celtic Consciousness (1982)—he wants to show me photos of the sets and costumes he had designed for a number of plays by W.B. Yeats. They are brilliantly savage and quintessentially theatrical. “Did you ever meet Siobhán McKenna?” I ask him. And of course he had. He costumed her.

Sorel loves words dearly, passionately, and he loves them in about six different languages—including Joycean. It’s still as heady an experience as it ever was to browse through Sorel’s homage to Joyce, his typographic collage, Dream Chamber: Joyce and the Dada Circus, bound together (in corrugated cardboard covers!) with John Cage’s About Roaratorio (Finnegans Wake as performable music), edited by O’Driscoll and published in conjunction with the Joyce Centenary Festival in Toronto, January 28–February 9, 1982.

In his book about Sorel (Prestel, 2001), French critic Pierre Restany quotes him as having said: “I am an egg and inside my restless planet night mysteries are hissing.” This is the Sorel Etrog I love. It’s brilliant being an egg. It’s brilliant to see yourself as a restless planet. And it‘s brilliant to discern that you contain night mysteries and that they are (the most brilliant thing of all) “hissing.”

Near the end of my last visit, after a quiet moment or two, Sorel looked at me and said: “I’ve done a lot of things.” He then confided to me that he felt it was time for him to die. I don’t know. Is there ever a time to die? But then, he always insisted that “doors open from the inside only.” I guess that is what is happening now.

Gary Michael Dault is an art critic.

Excerpt From: Etrog - Five Decades, Published by The Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013.

Rodari on Etrog

Florian Rodari, “Secret Paths” (1999–2000)

In this previously unpublished text, Florian Rodari discusses a decade-long period of Sorel Etrog’s career in which the artist focused almost entirely on a series of large-format drawings of bulls.

Between the spring of 1979 and the fall of 1989, Etrog concentrated almost exclusively on drawing. Though he had always drawn, this medium had never previously taken on such importance in his work. But, due to his assiduity, the means he brought into play, his attempt to push the theme to its limit, the large format and complexity of the undertaking, this series was different. Beyond any thematic reference, it was a new and unusual test for the instrument, and it expressed a will to affirm something fresh through the medium of drawing. It was doubtless also an attempt to take a break from sculpture and painting while pursuing perennial obsessions. Perhaps it was an escape, a respite? On every type of support, in every size, using every technique, Etrog realized hundreds of sketches, studies, fragments and meticulously-completed works on a single theme: Bulls. As is so often the case with this artist, the image came in series, born under the pressure of a vital, almost blind, need; and, with them, the artist sought to exhaust the resources of the theme in every possible way. The sculptor, who has an absolute need for space to express himself and develop his volumes in three dimensions with an acute awareness of the interactions between light and texture, imposed upon himself the stringent limits of surface and line. The animal’s figure and movements were now shackled to the strict action of black and white.

This series of drawings is distinguished first by their awesome scale: they are as sizable as large paintings, if not murals. The version that comes closest to the point of departure from which Etrog elaborated his innumerable variations, Picasso’s Guernica, is almost as big as the Spanish painter’s famous picture. Many other sheets in the series, which focus on a single figure or develop a detail, are of substantial size. Most of them are executed in charcoal and give one the impression that they were executed very rapidly. They look like they have been flung onto paper, with no attempt to polish them. There are frequent eraser marks, like negative replications of the rough scrawls in black chalk that convulse the volumes, inflame the surfaces. One observes a remarkable unity in the format, theme, treatment and technique of these large compositions, yet they were preceded, and are commented on, by a myriad of smaller pen-and-ink or pencil drawings—intermediate versions that ceaselessly modulate, suggest new departures, or seek to escape from triteness—only to be discarded in the end.

The approach of the sculptor that Etrog was initially is felt in his choice of medium—the charcoal stick, with its thick husky accents. It is perceptible, too, in his constant striving to reach a focal point, to bend back the pointed extremities of his figures to their center of gravity. And the result is that, especially in this series’ large charcoal drawings, the cognitive resources of drawing tend to give way to an exceptional plasticity. Pencil and eraser carve out sweeping, curving lines in the mass of powerful, heavy figures. Etrog works by adding and removing, exactly as if he were shaping a lump of clay, leaving tool traces like luminous scars, animating the surface with the ruggedness of a fleshy body quivering with vitality. The contrasts between black and white displace space in hard masses that defy common sense. Yet space regains its stability through the artist’s sharp perception of points of rest, which suggests the kind of knowledge of levers and tensions one would expect from someone who is accustomed to handling tremendous weights.

Whether working in two or three dimensions, Etrog strives invariably for the same effect: to sustain a tension of ordinary moments on the surface of the canvas or in space, to speed up every rhythm, accentuate every peak, dynamize to the utmost the relationships between colours, shapes, volumes, shadows, degrees of light. In sculpture, for instance, he opts for the slowest, heaviest of materials, and labours over it until it takes on an expression of soaring. In drawing, he labours over lines until they translate an impression of volume and their blackness produces colour.

In the late 1960s, Etrog painted a number of pictures inspired by great compositions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century masters—paintings of grouped figures, bathers or dancers, essentially nudes. Very faithfully repeating the composition of Jean-Dominique Ingres’s Turkish Bath, for example, he elaborated (like a composer inventing variations) an impressive number of visual musings that celebrate dynamic relationships which distinguish figures from each other or, in the secrecy of their anatomy, structure them. At nerve centres on the back, stomach, nape and head of languid bathers, Sorel looped a stitch that not only reinforced the effect of an articulation between different parts of their bodies and those of the painting, but also arrested the eye of the viewer accustomed by the unusual, suggestive theme to more gracefulness. Indeed, the bodies concealed behind the nakedness of flesh by the French painter’s meticulous brushwork are brutally revealed in Etrog’s work as mechanisms.

Inasmuch as they are points of maximum energy, these nerve centers where the body’s hinges and joins do their work are by nature painful; they are nodes of increased vulnerability. Cavities, pivots, knots where feeling concentrates and is raw, they are essentially the hands, eyes, mouth, chest and genitals. Highly symbolic zones of extreme excitability, they compose a sensual anatomy defined by pleasure and pain rather than logic. Junctions, intersections where energy flows are reversed, where meaning and movement pivot, they are often invisible, and our awareness of them is frequently unconscious. The painter’s task is to reveal them, to pinpoint them, to intensify them. For the existence of such “knots” also means that there are relationships, transitions, exchanges between one point and another; there is life, growth, motion; there are reversals—all of which can translate as expression.

Formally, this work contains a complete vocabulary of signs that at times denote a joining together, at other times a transmission, and at still other times exclusion. More often than not, in fact, these three contradictory motions occur simultaneously. Bolts join two elements together but keep them separate as well. Wheels revolving around an axle are liable at any moment to reverse their directions. Hinges close as well as open. Elbows, wrists, knees, ankles, collarbones, hips determine within the human skeleton, much as universal joints, connecting rods and pistons determine within a machine, a combinatory system of complex articulations, the tensions of which are various, mobile, never permanently fixed. All of them favour interlockings, penetrations, couplings that cease only with death. But these multiple linkages do not simply insure the reproduction and perpetuation of a vital relation; they also designate a mode of creating and loving that naturally defines the activity of the being endowed with existence. To act in this manner is to forgo relinquishing oneself; it is endlessly to attempt the union of opposites. Etrog’s most moving works are held together by bolts. Yet, in spite of everything, their relentless hardness expresses the closeness of the bond between mother and child.

Etrog chose an unusual theme for this series of drawings entitled Bulls, not only because of the depth of the obsession that dwelt for several months on the artist’s retina, but also because of its multiple treatment. There is nothing innocent about it. Very early, in the first, wholly abstract works that he executed in Tel Aviv, bullheads appear behind the dense handling of the artist’s formal structures. From then on, the bovine theme, sometimes expressed in full and sometimes reduced to a single horn, was never to vanish from his works, doubtless due to its symbolic and formal power. It cropped up in drawings and prints; it combined its bestial characteristics—cavernous nostrils, massive muzzle, uplifted horn—with the powerful faces the sculptor modelled in the 1960s.

In the numerous sketches that Etrog devotes to the theme of bulls, horror and tenderness intertwine by virtue of that ambiguous presence of evil within us, consisting of a morbid attraction as well as repulsion and sometimes, in very sensitive persons, a more discerning approach to the being’s truth. The body and its articulations, from the formal modes of which the artist’s expressive vocabulary is likewise drawn, inspire the visual ponderings of Sorel Etrog, who, as we have observed more than once, possesses an extreme sensitivity. The artist constantly emphasizes nerve centres, those nodes through which life’s energy surges and withdraws. Every orifice, especially the vagina and mouth, allows feeling to flow through it and provides an outlet—an expression—for pleasure and pain.

The encounter between Etrog and Picasso seemed necessary, not so much because of the boost it provided (for it was at least as much of a boon as a hindrance) as because it invited the artist to surpass himself. It would be naive to assume that an artist of Etrog’s caliber could dispense with memory. Sorel Etrog’s response to the emotion that Guernica arouses (and, earlier, to the one provoked by his discovery of Goya’s etchings) was to isolate the articulation of those images, the points of tension which in his eyes constituted most of their meaning; and then to pursue at his own pace, after his own fashion, that which had perhaps escaped the notice of those artists and which seemed to him not only timelessly universal, but also indispensable to his own art.

Excerpt From: Etrog - Five Decades, Published by The Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013.

Florian Rodari (born 1949) was director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, from 1979 to 1983.

Withrow on Etrog

This text has been excerpted from former AGO director William J. Withrow’s introduction to Sorel Etrog (Toronto: Wilfeld Publications, 1967).

The art world is increasingly compared to the fashion world – which, not insignificantly, forms the background of some of the most successful of today’s art performers. The Madison Avenue approach to marketing art has encouraged the artist himself to become the work of art and his output the inconsequential by-product of his antics – for which, notwithstanding, his public still acquisitively scrambles. The whole atmosphere of this competitive and entertaining search for novelty is foreign to Etrog.

Thus when a jury of professional art experts was recently convened to choose a number of contemporary Canadian sculptors for a large commission, it was immediate suggested by at least one member that Etrog’s name be eliminated out of hand because he worked in the “old-fashioned medium of bronze”!

While Etrog has considered using experimental materials and has worked as a student in a great variety of media, he has consistently remained loyal to the traditional wood, marble and bronze of the sculptor. In terms of media his most experimental work was done first as a student in 1954 and again in 1959 when he created painted wood constructions. But even then the aim was not to invent a novel technique but to find a personal visual language. In the latter half of 1965 Etrog made some unusual embossed graphics but the same single-minded search for a means of expression motivated this work as well.

From his first wood constructions to his monumental bronzes of today, this search clearly presents the linear development of his career. His style has grown like a plant and in retrospect one can see the pattern evolving with almost no diversive essays. If there were any dead-end sideroads they were explored in the artist’s mind only, for his extensive sketch books filled with hundreds of drawings – enough to keep him working for several lifetimes – yield no evidence except reinforcing parallels to the mainstream. What is the ultimate goal? Like the late Giacometti, whom he admired greatly for his intense dedication to the search for perfection, Etrog will always be seeking. One naturally wonders why Etrog’s personal vision must see the world in terms of the tension-dominated combination of opposing forces pervading his work: linear and volumetric, geometric and organic, restful and dynamic, sensual and spiritual.

This polarity was early recognized in an exhibition catalogue of Etrog’s paintings in Tel Aviv in 1958 when Marcel Janco, one of his instructors at the Art Institute wrote, “Art is an expression of emotion and rationality working like a pendulum; now it swings towards the functional-rational form; at other times towards the nebulous romantic creation.” Etrog today continues to combine the poles of this and other opposites to create sculpture which vibrates with the tensions of life. His style is not only the result of an intellectual position taken over the years, but stems also from the circumstances of his life. The influences which have shaped his work are rich and varied, for Etrog has read deeply and travelled widely. But two major influences have made an indelible impact. The first is his own work in the form of the early constructions and the second is the art of ancient civilizations.

William J. Withrow (born 1926) was director of the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1961 to 1990.

Withrow’s essay also appears in Sorel Etrog - Five Decades (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013).

Exhibition Catalogue: Etrog - Five Decades

To purchase a copy of the Sorel Etrog catalogue from the exhibition, please visit shopAGO.

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