To begin with a story: The last time Dan was at my house in Ohio, just before getting into the car to leave, he picked up a white birch twig from the front yard. I asked him what he had. He said, "A stick." Pressed, he admitted, "A metonym." And then went on to explain that he picks up and keeps things, or pieces of things, wherever he goes. Small parts, they remind him of whole trees, forests, deserts, beaches, buildings, lives.
In Very Old Are The Woods (titled, like many of Dan’s pictures, from a favorite poem, De la Mare’s "All That’s Past"), a thicket of twigs that in another drawing could bear flower, or flower and then fruit, reaches up from behind a low, broken wall. Some twigs – one from out of the very middle of that break – reach toward each other. The wall is on a slight diagonal, which the twigs vary. There’s no safe horizontal here. Behind is the blackness that has opened out space behind most of Dan’s images for the last eight years, but more of it than usual. Nor does any surface give back the clarity of white light, or the pleasure of gold light. Nothing in my mind or heart, as I look, mitigates loneliness. The terrible, patient twigs would split rock, let alone fragile brick, to get where they are waiting to go.
In Elizabeth Broun’s book on Ryder, she quotes the artist comparing himself to an inchworm, on a leaf or twig "clinging to the very end… trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing."
When Dan was doing this drawing, he wrote to me that no one would ever love it. What makes a lovable still life, anyway? Dan fell in love with pictures in the National Gallery of Art when he was ten. He bought prints of Vermeer and Rembrandt – and little books about Chardin and Degas – whom he loves, with Cassatt and Renoir, for their lovely sensual surfaces. That same year, he found a teacher in Richard Goetz, who taught him for seven years: color and value in the compact space of still life. The lesson took. But he stayed in love with surfaces, and remembers chalks he had as a child, as well as the dry substance of red Oklahoma dirt. He still likes pushing dirt around, he’s "all right" in the garden.
Internal images began to come insistently to Dan about the time I met him, in Kansas in 1981. He was consciously inviting them, inviting memory and emotion. We never spoke of it then. In about 1986 he started to revise his pictures in process. He had begun to work his edges with tiny chips of pastel, and to use his fingers, smoothing, layering, getting the pastel to suggest natural textures. It was not the first time he had his hands in clay. (The Rembrandt pastels he uses are made with kaolin, the clay used in the manufacture of porcelain.) In the fall of 1967, when Dan was a sophomore in English at Princeton, Toshiko Takaezu was hired to teach ceramics, and Dan took her class. Wet clay, dry clay, clay dust. He did not become a potter, but began a life-long friendship based on something else they have in common: response to the life of the image, and the ability to make something out of what seem to be leftovers. Yes, this is a kitchen metaphor. When he cooks, Dan doesn’t follow recipes, which prevent him from seeing or listening properly to the food.
Six Bowls. Toshiko’s bowls invite memory and emotion. The small bowls in the drawing rest on a narrow, horizontal platform of brick. They are removed from kitchen use, but they invite my touch, because their surfaces are rough, grained, warm. Like the complexity of colors that describes them, they are layered into and behind each other – a further provocation. The six pieces of yellow fruit ripen, rot. I remember they were once beautiful; I see them on their way to dust. This drawing quiets me, so I can see and listen to the blackness.
The pastel Dan works with, he says, can’t help telling how beautiful it is, like an actor unable to satisfy her sadistic director who wants her plain, plainer.
Stonecrop is plain and not very lovable. Dan dug one of the three rocks from the forest around his meadow in Pennsylvania. He brings wild persimmon, crabapples, rosehips back from walks and longer trips, and saves them on shelves until he needs them to answer the particular (only, ever, particular) image in his mind’s eye. Observed objects are second to the internal image, twice removed from use – if objects have any human use at all. In Stonecrop, none does. The fruit here is from no garden, for no table. If I look long enough, I find I am expecting something astounding to happen next, but I have no notion what: the packed, flaked, chipped old stones, and this vision of a piece of petrified wood, are implacably silent. It’s a mystery how the letters on the brick apply, or the invented bullet holes.
Solids. Here three vertical elements are packed tightly in the center, sitting on the break between two bricks. Just two, not enough to fill the paper to the edge. And in one brick – just below the bucket, beaker and small upright brick – a black empty break, roughly triangular. Space widens out around what is on the bricks. The raking light reflects off shiny things – the fresh plum, the bucket. The needle end of a pottery needle (seen also in August, and linking this drawing to Arrangement with Chopstick) angles toward center from Don Fletcher’s beaker. It catches more light than the bucket handle, which arcs oppositely toward center. The objects grouped on the bricks are more impressively dense than the bricks, and as architectural. They stand their ground, they face me down; I don’t know another plum or piece of turquoise like these, or need to. Sometime last winter Dan sent me a page of Teilhard du Chardin’s The Divine Milieu: "We know ourselves and set our own course but within an incredibly small radius of light. Immediately beyond lies impenetrable darkness, though it is full of presences – the night of everything…"
Things Left Behind. The night of everything hovers. This image has more time in it than any other, making the rosehips moldy, drying the leaves, breaking pots and emptying nutshells, tarnishing the harness bell, losing all the rest of the jigsaw puzzle. Leaving the dust of other things. My eyes are caught by the pair of rosehips poised against the black. Then they follow the low frieze to the broken end of the shelf with its solitary berry. With an effort, I pull my attention back to the other small objects, protected by the stairstep of brick. The curled leaf on the left. (There is a shelf carefully littered with dried leaves only, in the studio.) The stick of white birch, grey and cobalt gentled by layers of dark colors – black, burnt umber – bit by bit, with fingertips. Finally, powder-size flecks of white.
What would I have made of other works of "still life" if Dan Massad’s work had been my introduction? Too much. Norman Bryson, discussing the monastic culture of seventeenth century Spain, uses a term for what we are seeing: rhopography, the art that pays attention to detritus. Dan is relieved to have a label. I am relieved by his turn away (beginning in the early ‘80s) from the table or shelf top that has for so long spilled pearls, lemon peel, newspapers, lobsters or pipestems over the edge at us. I don’t want those stories, domestic dramas, reminders of activity, movement. I want this contained quiet. In 1986 Dan wrote to me of an "absolutely essential pretense: working, we have all the time in the world." Even if I did not know that it can take him five hours to complete two square inches of a drawing, his work could teach me this essential lesson about attention.
Shelter to Grow Ripe. This title is from an elegy by Matthew Arnold, in which context the phrase seems Victorian commonplace: "What shelter to grow ripe is ours? / What leisure to grow wise?" Yes, it’s a relief to me that nothing falls off the edge in Dan’s drawings. Here, a stepped-back niche takes us inward to where a few pieces of fruit wait, not for any hand, and perhaps for eternity. We are taken outward into blackness by the twigs lifting over the round hollow break which deepens and darkens this enclosure. Yet the light over everything is warm. Safe for now.
I know as I write this that Dan Massad is working now on an image that won’t feel safe to me in this way. Elizabeth Broun reports of Ryder that he saved everything. That is, for me, the vital paradox of Dan Massad’s work – the images imply both absolute peril, and the absolutely necessary human work of rescue.
-Sally Allen McNall