by Irwin Kremen
. . . on waking this past June 5th I began my 92nd year. Today, the leaves of September have begun coloring, soon to fall, and I've begun my 93rd as a viable organism! My knees hurt, toes tingle nightly, surgeries come and go, my hearing falters, albeit, I hang in -- as ever insatiable for life, the more so to complete my becoming.
How, what, why?
Early on, actually in 1978, I had written, "A collage comes out of my living, my life. It is not a translation, direct or otherwise, but a distillate of that living. The collage, the distillate, swings free of me, derives its significance from itself alone, is independent, new. Yet its making makes me. I experience its creation and that is my living also. Through it I become [more] and, in this way, spiral outward upon myself like a chambered nautilus."1
Over the years I affirmed the gist of that paragraph, elaborating it at length in 2011 for the catalogue In Site 2 that accompanied an exhibit of my late works. That essay began with an explication of a Joycean portmanteau word, "mememormee," which occurs in the last lines of Finnegans Wake 3 in the great monologue of Anna Livia Plurabelle, personification of the running river, as she rushes into the arms of her father the sea, her words circling back to that of the book's beginning "riverrun." That portmanteau word "mememormee" calls to mind memory and successive experiences aggregating into a unit which continues on within a still larger one, and, withal, desires continuance. Implicit here is a paradigm of becoming.4 And thus introduced, that essay concluded with an echo from the quote above, "Experiencing the making of each work is my living too, each thus furthering new making, and hence continued becoming of mormee."5
Now, a particularly vivid occasion of such "making" occurred soon after I became a nonagenarian. On my 90th birthday (in 2015 ) ten friends honored me at an exquisitely affable party at a home in the green Hillsborough countryside. Which left me deliciously content for days after, and when I got to my studio again, I found myself working in what I had once referred to as "a white heat," composing collage after collage over the next six weeks, until twenty-three all told lay covering my work tables, nearly all of a quality up to the standard I've set for myself.
I worked -- played really -- the way I always have: "I go until I have what I want -- my kind of a collage. Its emergence is always marvelous for me. I cannot predict its particular coherence and beauty from its inception -- at the end it is often radically different from its beginnings -- but the process is not trial and error either. I begin the work with what is phenomenally real before me. I know what I want to happen though I have no specific design or image in mind, nor could I put in words what it is I know. The process is a concretization of it and is its own articulation."6
Or as Henry James put it in one of his stories, "We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."7 Of that madness for me I can say, it's an insistent inwardly felt hosanna at simply being alive. Fortunately then in 1966, as an academic at mid-life dedicated to an empirical scrutiny of phenomena, I found a way to the making of art, persisting for half a century, and remain at it still.
Were you to ask how that began, I would reply, "with a disaster!" the rank failure at my first effort that year to make a collage! Yet soon after, during an hour at a friend's studio in Switzerland, "I grasped what minimally had to happen before a successful collage came into being. . . . But I could not then have said what it was that I had grasped, nor was I aware that I would shortly act upon it."8 Nearly three months later I ventured to try again. For several weeks nothing jelled the way I wanted, nevertheless, I hung in. I tried moves simulating what I had seen at Black Mountain College (BMC) two decades previously, then dropped that for art I had encountered afterward, until I finally abandoned not only reliance on past images but also, and even more tellingly, timidity at presuming to act the artist; rather, I followed the flow of my own feeling toward what material I had at hand along with the excitement welling up in me as I began to sense a work developing -- until, at last, on the table before me lay what I knew to be a successful collage, knew indeed it to be my first work of art, "distinctly mine, integral in the way that I have come to insist a collage of mine be. It was new and unexpected, arising as if out of nothing, yet as surely out of my own living and doing."9
Thus launched, I also painted, assembled, photographed, constructed, indeed feverishly for many months in a whirl of making with diverse media often in unusual combinations. But over the three years after that first successful collage, I made hardly more than six others. A dearth, certainly, which in 1969 was to change largely through a whim that struck me in Amsterdam. Sitting with my family at an outdoor cafe, I spied a wall poster nearby and impulsively jumped up to tear fragments from it. Weeks later, ensconced in a villa high on a hill overlooking Florence, those scraps found their way into the first of my Settignano collages. Thereafter I took to foraging in Florence for particular kinds of weathered paper10 which soon after would emerge transformed newly in collages during that sabbatical year.
Those scraps torn by happenstance from a wall in Amsterdam proved to be more than a limited opportunity but rather an open sesame. Beckoning me lay an extensive treasure -- paper of such diversity, of unduplicable color, of weathered surfaces, which moreover could be wed to the protean potential of nonrepresentational form.
Here I had what helped me, in the isolation of my becoming, to develop what I came to call "collages-of-my-kind," objects of beauty and coherence. Along the way I began to know I really was becoming an artist, even though I remained entangled with all that I otherwise also was. But I refused to acknowledge that openly, refused to call myself an artist until I could no longer avoid doing so after 1976. That summer, in France as a guest at a friend's family estate, having collected torn paper on the way there, I experienced my first "white heat" composing one collage after another. And again a repeat of such a heady experience the next year11 during a stay in the Swiss Ticino for several weeks after a trip in Italy. No way could I now avoid what I clearly knew to be so. I had become other than what I had been even though, paradoxically, I felt myself still the same. Committed still to a scientific view of reality, steeped in philosophy of science, I was now also the maker of an art the meaning of which remained ineffable. I did not feel conflicted but, rather, remarkably whole with life open invigoratingly.
A tipping point, surely, between what I tell above and the ensuing forty years -- collage making, sculptures and paintings, syntheses of the three, and many museum exhibits. To tell that story too, if only in part, would swamp this text. Instead, an insight I had in 2007 may convey something of the peak reached by mormee with the retrospective exhibit of my work that year at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art12.
But first some context: After leaving BMC I lived in Chapel Hill and worked during the winter and spring of 1947 as proof reader and occasional copy editor for the Pugh Printing Company. That shop printed The Quarterly Review of Literature which annually devoted an entire issue to a major American or European writer. Luckily for me that winter the journal featured Ezra Pound. Already familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot and much of James Joyce, I knew nothing of Pound's writing other than his parody of "Summer is icumen in." So at UNC's Library I steeped myself in his early poems and in his critical essays. What amazed me, then, was the commanding authority with which he wrote and I wondered and envied how he came by it. Gripped by his accomplishment, as well as Eliot's and Joyce's, I wanted, in the innermost reaches of my self to achieve a sense of mastery, one kin in some degree to theirs.
How I secretly jubilated many years later over the retrospective of my work held at Duke's Nasher. In its large gallery housing one hundred sixty-nine works of mine along with four monumental sculptures in its Great Hall, I saw that my innermost wish of six decades earlier had come to be, if not comparable to those others, kin at least in some degree. To be thus surrounded by forty years of collage, sculpture, painting, to face that in its fullness -- that was a knowing to relish.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
As the shell that houses me surely weakens though I continue my becoming more and more and know myself to be in an expanding world of my own doing, the old existential rage against the dying of the light dims. No matter that mormee approaches becoming . . . NEVERmore.
Yet the works remain, distillates of my living.
Durham, North Carolina
Fall 2016 – Winter 2017
1. Irwin Kremen and Janet Flint, "Why Collage? An Interview with the Artist." In Collages by Irwin Kremen. Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978, p. 31.
2. In Site: Late Works by Irwin Kremen. Asheville, North Carolina: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 2011.
3. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake. New York, New York: The Viking Press, 1945,
4. "me" (my self as object, i.e., all that that is), followed by another "me" (later in time, hence with added experience) as both merge (twice "me" enlarges into "mee") to make up part of the larger structure "mormee" (the self) underpinned by the word 'memory' figured in the very letters of the portmanteau word, and, withal, desiring continuance ("mor[e]me").
5. Irwin Kremen, In Site, op cit. p. 7.
6. Irwin Kremen and Janet Flint, op cit, p. 22.
7.The Middle Years by Henry James, first published in Scribner's Magazine, May 1893. Included in Henry James: Complete Stories, 1892 – 1898, New York, New York: The Library of America, n.d., pp. 335-355.
8. Irwin Kremen and Janet Flint, op cit, p. 15.
9. Irwin Kremen, Word and Collage. East Lansing, Michigan: Kresge Art Gallery, Michigan State University, 1979, p. 3.
10. See Irwin Kremen and Janet Flint, op cit, pp. 20-22, for an account of how I would hunt for paper and what I would do to my catches afterward. Also, detailed further in Collages by Irwin Kremen, 1976-1983. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, 1983, p. 1.
11. I've had five such "white heat" occasions over 50 years of art making.
12. Irwin Kremen: Beyond Black Mountain 1966 to 2006. Durham, North Carolina: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2007.