"Two Boots" and Four Portraits

“But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed I believe, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”
–Vincent van Gogh1

The RISD Museum’s 2009 acquisition of the Richard Brown Baker collection included two drawings by the English artist Howard Selina—Cowboy Hat (1974) and Two Boots (1974)—carefully and precisely rendered drawings in graphite on paper of well-worn, utilitarian garments.

Each drawing is composed low on a large, clean, mostly empty piece of paper, with a prominent artist’s signature in the upper right. The objects are drawn meticulously, at life size and with great care and attention to detail. Besides some limited spatial cues—the peg from which the hat hangs and shadows indicating a light source—they are separated from their environment, from an ecology of work and domesticity, from a body and from use. The objects, their detailed surfaces, speak to hard labor done out-of-doors, in the dirt and the sun. The two boots (Two Boots) in particular point to a specific, absent body, a body that sweats and bears weight and moves, a body that has shaped objects in its image, a mess of fissures, cracks, bulges, and tiny holes. What began as common materials formed on a last—an abstracted foot— has over time and through use been transformed by the ground below and a foot in motion into a veritable physiognomy, a portrait.

The empty space of the drawing marks and holds this absent body, and the boots themselves, in their emptiness and disuse, suggest an absence; perhaps of horror or loss; history has given us so many images of empty shoes standing in for the missing, for destroyed and anonymized bodies, for the beloved dead. Or, more sweetly, perhaps they speak simply of rest and respite, of the end of day and of work and the promise of sleep. But the boots also belong to an inventory of objects, a potentially unlimited set or a set organized by some kind of discernment or biographical template. Who do they belong to? What body? What ground? What work are they doing? What animates and sustains them? Between the airless specimen and the rooted, worldly object, between the archetype and the specific, there is the drawing and its capacity to hold these imaginaries and projections.

I started looking at the Selina drawings through a helpful misdirection: I had been hoping to find an actual pair of boots in the RISD Museum collection, but none were quite right. Two Boots is a surrogate for a missing, presumably sufficient, pair of boots.

What might be imagined in looking at an actual pair of boots? I began there for personal reasons (more on that later), but really I was looking to reflect on how a range of everyday objects might act as registers for the body and for the rhythms and movements of these objects’ specific, worldly uses, including their maintenance and repair; how these intimate relationships between people and objects might speak to and support forms of life; and how careful attention to practices of care and thrift might stand in relief to a culture of relentless consumption and spoliation. Furthermore, I wanted to ask how these objects enter into institutional frameworks, especially but not exclusively museums, and are then mediated through protocols of preservation, organization, and interpretation—how mute objects, removed from the body and from life, are then asked to speak, and to what ends.

When objects formerly bound up in everyday life and utility, subject to wear and tear and time, are taken up by the museum and enter a collection, they are stabilized and fixed within the scholarly, curatorial, and conservational conventions of the museum, stripped of movement and context, removed from life and exchange, given an accession number and all the claims and promises that follow to steward them in perpetuity, to render them as archetypal, or unique, or at the very least exceptional. However they enter, they become specific, stable objects with a history and provenance, no longer subject to the vagaries and insults of their former worldliness. They are transformed, from one day to the next, from a personal object, subject to possession and use (an important distinction) and the routines of care and sentiment, into a museum object, subject to an entirely different regime of connoisseurship, interpretation, and preservation. It’s an act of love, but what happens to those traces of wear and damage, of the body and circumstance—movement, physiognomy, sweat, dirt, weather? Are they hidden or repressed or rendered as anecdote, attached to the object as recollection or biography, or generalized as anthropology and material history? The interpretive frame that surrounds and supports these no longer everyday things, and which preserves them in perpetuity, also fixes them with authority. The object is bound in a necessary abstraction, one that depends on the repression of all kinds of movement, use, and attachment. They no longer work, no longer bear weight, no longer belong. That is one cost of entering into History.

Vincent van Gogh produced at least eight paintings of shoes (or boots) in his lifetime. One in particular stands out, at least in the history of ideas—A Pair of Shoes from 1886, a painting which initiated a series of projections, correspondences, and arguments that have since animated the history of art and philosophy, at this point a minor industry of books, conferences,

Vincent van Gogh Shoes
FIG. 2 Vincent van Gogh Shoes, September–November 1886 Oil on canvas 38.1 × 45.3 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

and exhibitions devoted to this “well-known painting by Van Gogh.” The philosopher Martin Heidegger begins with one such reference in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” first published in 1950. He speaks of a particular painting, but does not specify which one; perhaps any would do. The shoes depicted in the painting, Heidegger imagined, belonged to a woman, a farmer, and he deploys the remembered painting to illustrate the phenomenologically transparent “equipmental being of equipment,” self-evident in use.

[A]s long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet. From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth.2

In his 1968 essay “The Still Life as a Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh,” art historian Meyer Schapiro objects to Heidegger’s projection, his “and yet.”3 Through some sleuthing, including correspondence with Professor Heidegger, he determines which painting, partially conflated with another, Heidegger saw at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1930. Schapiro’s fastidious identification and a review of the scholarly and biographical record leads him to conclude that these were not the shoes of a woman farmer, but Van Gogh’s own shoes, and that the whole structure of Heidegger’s argument was undermined by this misdirection. “From neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by Van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.”

The philosopher has deceived himself through a lack of close attention to the work of art itself, and furthermore to the biography of its author and conditions of its production. He has projected a preexisting social outlook on to the picture, mistakenly fixing the truth in a specific instance. “I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by Van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes.”

If Heidegger sees in Van Gogh’s painting the disclosure of what the shoes are in truth, then that truth is a product of history and the social; not of a body, a farmer, or even the practice of farming, however rich the description of the raw and the damp; not even the practice of an artist making a painting. That truth seems to require the repression of the specific materiality of the object and its place in life and labor, its relation to a body and to practice—farming, painting, walking in the city, but also the most basic acts of putting on and taking off, wearing, cleaning, and mending.

Rather than resolving this conflict between Heidegger’s projective hermeneutics and Schapiro’s sober attention to the record, I’d like to ask how the work of art, perhaps unlike a real pair of shoes, deploys the empty/unused to locate these most intimate and routine objects in between the body and work, in between utility and care, to imagine in them not the world of the farmer or the artist, not biography or anthropology, but the rhythms and potential of an entire making, unmaking, and remaking of the world, of new forms of life that might leave traces but no History.

Still, in identifying and rendering the empty/unused we might open up the generative, utopian potential of the “and yet,” identifying in that openness and contingency a movement away from the commodity form towards specific bodies, practices, and histories— unstable, animated, active; extraordinary and utterly routine.

Another image of empty boots, Walker Evans’ photograph Floyd Burroughs’ Work Shoes, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his 1941 book with text by James Agee documenting the lives of impoverished white tenant-farmer families in the deep South during the Great Depression.

Walker Evans work shoes
FIG. 4 Walker Evans Floyd Burroughs’ Work Shoes, 1936, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the original text Floyd Burroughs’s was given the pseudonym George Gudger, and in the section titled Clothing Agee begins with a description of Burroughs’s/Gudger’s Sunday best, including his “long bulbtoed black shoes: still shining with the glaze of their first newness, streaked with clay.”4 Further down, Agee turns to work clothes, including shoes:

They are one of the most ordinary types of working shoe: the blucher design, and soft in the prow, lacking the seam across the root of the big toe: covering the ankles: looped straps at the heels: blunt, broad, and rounded at the toe: broad-heeled: made up of most simple roundnesses and squarings and flats, of dark brown raw thick leathers nailed, and sewn coarsely to one another in courses and patterns of doubled and tripled seams… They are softened, in the uppers, with use, and the soles are rubbed thin enough, I estimate, that the ticklish grain of the ground can be felt through at the center of the forward sole. The heels are deeply biased. Clay is worked into the substance of the uppers and a loose dust of clay lies over them. They have visibly… taken the mold of the foot, and structures of the foot are printed through them in dark sweat at the ankles, and at the roots of the toes. They are worn without socks, and by experience of similar shoes I know that each man’s shoe, in long enough course of wear, takes as his clothing does the form of his own flesh and bones… So far as I could see, shoes are never mended. They are worn out like animals to a certain ancient stage and chance of money at which a man buys a new pair; then, just as old Sunday shoes do, they become the inheritance of a wife.5

Of Burroughs’s/Gudger’s own shoes he simply notes they are “conventional, middle-aged unslashed work shoes,” nothing more. But then we have the photograph of a pair of shoes, empty/unused, in an undefined space; now identified as Floyd Burroughs‘s and linked to Agee’s description, but also loosened from the man. The boots belong to someone and also nobody, hidden behind a false name and an absent body, embedded in a larger work of writing and depiction. This “and yet” is no “silent call of the earth,” but the generalized condition of grinding rural poverty and an agricultural economy in profound crisis.

Goldberg boots
FIG. 5 Brian Goldberg Untitled, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Another pair of boots (or two)—my own. I wear them every day, in nearly every situation. My possession and use give license to all kinds of otherwise troublesome and sentimental projections, distinct from Heidegger’s “social outlook” and Agee’s reportage. The first pair of boots I recall wearing were formal dress boots handed down, lightly used, by my father—he wore them to an office, I wore them to school. They fit me, which carried some emotional weight at the time; and they had a buckle, which I loved, and which earned me a nickname. My father taught me to clean and polish with regularity, and he felt strongly that shoes should be worn only every other day, in rotation, so they could “dry out,” a practice which was claimed to extend their life. Later, as an adult, I bought my first new pair of boots, then a year later a second identical pair. They are still worn every day and in nearly every context, and I long ago lost track of how many times they’ve been resoled. They were designed for “work,” but I’ve always seen and used them as walking boots, and it is walking that has given them their character. They represent my own time and history, an obscured journal of places and their crossing. In use and wear they have recorded and marked time, situations otherwise unnoted and forgotten, all those miles.

I am reluctant to suggest any animism in these boots, but there is a kind of reciprocal relationship between them and me. Preserving their appearance, as my father taught me, lost my interest long ago, and in any event is no longer sufficient—they are now ancient—but maintaining their utility and purpose, ensuring that they continue to support the work of walking and recording has become a covenant. My part was to keep them clean and oiled and resoled as needed. Every act of maintenance and care reiterated a commitment not just to continue, but also to respect the object for what it had supported or made possible, and for what it had captured or recorded in use; but also for the embedded energy in its form: the worker(s) who made the boots, the machines they used, the long dead cow whose hide now protects my feet, the entire system of production, distribution, and consumption that allowed me to exchange paper money for a pair of boots. Every element of that is worthy of questioning and critique, if not disruption and refusal. But for now the only way I know how to navigate this is to keep them clean and well oiled, and to replace the heels when too deeply biased, and the soles when I can feel the grain of the ground.

  • 1 Quoted by Jacques Derrida in The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 255.
  • 2Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, trans. Albert Hofstadter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 262–63
  • 3 Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh,” in The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein, ed. Marianne L. Simmel (New York: Springer Publishing, 1968), 135–36, https:// thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/meyer-schapiro-the-still-life-as-a-personal-object-a-note-on-heideggerand-van-gogh-1968.pdf.
  • 4James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1941), 257.
  • 5Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 269–70.