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This is Jacket 16, March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

Michael Hrebeniak

In Memoriam Fielding Dawson, 1930–2002

This piece is 1,500 words or about three printed pages long

The writer and visual artist Fielding Dawson, who died suddenly in January, was a central protagonist in the web of post-war American arts and letters that inevitably grows more threadbare by the week. Dawson situated himself inside two of the great civic areas of the avant-garde — Black Mountain College and New York — during a period of unparalleled confidence and fertility; a time when bohemianism still signified a dissenting community of men and women pursuing new values through creativity, as opposed to pierced nipples and commercial theatrics. In The Black Mountain Book he wrote of the confluence between these scenes:

no one has brought this to the foreground, that the Black Mountain school and what was going on in New York was a distinct, even obvious, harmony, drawing as they did on each other... In April of 1953 in New York [Franz Kline] took me to meet DeKooning, and having just shaken hands and Franz mentioning I was visiting on spring break from Black Mountain DeKooning said he had been there in 1948 and of a sudden we were talking about the school, and DeKooning talking about Olson. Had I read that book on Melville, no not yet but I would, DeKooning’s yes yes hint of impatience, hint, I say, in his eagerness to express how it interested him, in no detail save tone of voice and that was PLENTY! because it was reflective because it was touching an intuitive area DeKooning was familiar with. The energetic atemporal.

Eight years after Fielding Dawson was born in New York in 1930, his family moved to Kirkwood, near St. Louis, where his father worked as a journalist. His mother bought him a typewriter at 15, remarking, ‘we could use a new Saroyan.’ The memoirs of his life there, Tiger Lilies: An American Childhood, appeared in 1984. After taking portraiture classes with Tanasko Milovich, Dawson enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1949, alongside Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Kenneth Noland, to study painting under Franz Kline and writing under Charles Olson. The College had been founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice as an experimental community of students and teachers, defying the crippling specialisation of an industrial education.

Photo of Fielding Dawson

It blossomed with the arrival of the Bauhaus artists Josef and Annie Albers after fleeing Nazi Germany, and took an even more radical turn under the Rectorship of the Olson in 1951. Olson mentored a group of poets later bracketed under the name of the school that included Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Joel Oppenheimer, Ed Dorn and Fielding Dawson. Several of these returned to the College’s Lake Eden campus to teach, to be joined by such seminal figures as Willem de Kooning, Stefan Wolpe, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, M.C. Richards, Paul Goodman, Buckminster Fuller and Eric Bentley, before financial collapse enforced the College’s closure in 1956.
      The Black Mountain experience shaped Dawson’s future trajectory. Having been drafted in 1953 as a conscientious objector, and serving as an army cook at a military hospital near Heidelberg, he returned to New York and immersed himself in the city’s explosive arts scene. Dawson became a habitué of the old Cedar Bar on University Avenue and of Max’s Kansas City; legendary carousing grounds for Kline, de Kooning, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and the next generation of Pop and Conceptual artists. Dawson wrote about them all.
      Like many Black Mountain alumni (fewer than 25 students ‘graduated’ from the College, but that was hardly the point of studying there), he was a baseball fan, and pitched for Max’s softball team. Dawson knew small press publishing; he had written and drawn illustrations for literary journals such as Jonathan Williams’s Jargon, Sparrow, Kulchur, Caterpillar, El Corno Emplumado, Joglars, Rockbottom, Mulch and The Zealot — names that evoke a gone world. The recognition that arrived with his Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline, published five years after the painter’s death in 1962, and featuring a characteristic trust in his reader’s ability to interpret elliptical, shifting narratives, allowed him to concentrate full-time on writing, designing collages, and teaching.

Black Sparrow Press, initially set up in 1966 to publish the work of Charles Bukowski, took on Dawson three years later with Krazy Kat / The Unveiling and Other Stories 1951–1968. This assumed its place within a corpus of twenty-two books written over nearly five decades; most of which are anthologies of shorter fictions, among further biographies, poems, essays and the Penny Lane trilogy of novels. Of his more recent books, No Man’s Land (2000) presents a fictionalised account of his prison teaching, and Land of Milk and Honey (2001) is a further collection of short stories.
      A review in the New York Times described his style as loose, but this overlooked the considerable degree of guile and craft in his fiction, as well as a direct engagement with Olson’s demand for a ‘projective’ writing, where form emerges from content alone. His essays demonstrated a similar speeding, jump-cut vigour, born of a poet’s ear and sense of measure, that in turn recalled the elastic phrasing of the bebopper & the heroic vitalism of the Action Painter, both of whom he strongly identified with. Of all the historiographers of Black Mountain, Dawson was the only one who studied there, and his eponymous 1970 book, expanded and reissued in 1990, conveys the intensity of a great era:

The one thing we did not have in the 50s was the words to speak, to tell what we were doing. But we did all the rest, except — again — be able to answer Harold Rosenberg’s repeated question:
                      ‘Does anybody have any ideas?’
In the crowded Cedar Tavern. Nobody could answer because we were doing, and not thinking, and Harold’s astute query predicted from that point that critics would speak for the artists, and in magazines and books circulate (and establish) labels that define over and over just who was doing what in their newest work... while along the way, ever resentful, and jealous, happy happy to empty their intellectual bladders and bowels on... things that got in their way, like Black Mountain... all that blather to compensate for personal creative ignorance in terms of drawing or painting, or even how to see, and sense the space and free release on a piece of paper, in tar splashed on a sidewalk, or torn posters on long cement, wood, or stone, or brick walls there in the city, or outside the city, of any city, anywhere in the world, and I hope these words bring alive the verve, the fresh vitality in space, in our composing atemporal images, finding a new, vivid, rewarding — great doors opened — freedom.

A lifelong socialist, Dawson took these concerns into dangerous new spaces in 1984 with his first creative writing class for maximum security prisoners. This revolutionised his life and he threw himself pell-mell into helping brutalised and ruined humans confront themselves through the creative act. This was no easy ride: violent men attended his classes, and he had to learn how to criticize and encourage within situations of perpetual threat. In recognition of his energy and ability, Dawson was invited to chair American PEN’s then languishing Prison Writing Committee, which he carried off with combative élan, later initiating a weekly Pacifica radio broadcast, Breaking Down the Walls, in which he read inmates’ work over the airwaves. He continued to teach at prisons such as Sing-Sing and Attica, the site of the bloody 1971 uprising, and women’s shelters for the rest of his life, and became a passionate advocate for reform within a nation that shamefully incarcerates over one percent of its population.
      Dawson lived in the same loft in New York’s Union Square — Gramercy neighbourhood for 38 years, the last 25 being spent with his wife, Susan Maldovan, a free-lance editor. He continued to lecture widely on the literary period of which he was an integral part, and to teach at universities, including the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, with a curriculum modelled on that of Black Mountain. The last of his many shows fusing word and image was held at New York’s Jack Tilton Gallery last autumn.
      Fielding Dawson died at home on 5 January, after returning from the Beth Israel Hospital, where he had been fitted with a pacemaker the previous day. Always sparky company, his enthusiasm and generosity were unremitting, although he remained far from wealthy throughout his life. Just one month before the end, his contribution of an extended piece on the pathology of celebrity to the literary journal, Radical Poetics, was accompanied by the offer of money towards its publication.
      For in spite of the frustration of the experimental writer’s lot in a time of scarcity and banality, Dawson maintained a fabulous belief in his work. Over the ’phone one could almost sense his eyes twitch and jaw leap as he yelled IT’S SO FUCKAN THERE (stress on each word), with true pleasure at what he had put together.

And to hell with those who missed it. Thanks Fielding.

Guy Fielding Lewis Dawson, writer, painter and teacher: born New York, 2 August 1930; died New York 5 January 2002.

With acknowledgements to Wally Dobelis and the Town & Village (New York) newspaper.

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