April 29, 2019 § Leave a comment
Piet Mondrian, 1872-1944
“… All you need now is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments.” -Virginia Woolf, A Letter to a Young Poet
Children of a certain age are strangely masterful in wielding a brush. They don’t have to be told what to do, or how to do it. Mark-making is a deep, instinctual, and self-sufficient pleasure as old as the human race. Some manage to hold on to the natural feeling for rhythm, movement and relationship in art making as they leave childhood, but too often it becomes buried in the adult whose only model for form-making is the smooth, indiscriminately detailed facture of photography. Re-awakening these dynamic instincts should be as important a goal to the student of painting as learning to see and mix color.
The experiments of artists in the early 20th century are instructive for unpacking this business of rhythm and movement in painting. Abstract forces exist in all painting, and in any view of nature, but they often are disguised, especially to the novice, by the dominance of illusionistic concerns. In the early decades of the 20th century, just as the theories of Einstein began to undo and reshape traditional notions of time and space, Modern art movements such as Cubism, Futurism, De Stjil, and Constructivism began to reorient the focus of painting away from the outward appearance of solid matter to the internal dynamics of pictorial structure. The fractured spaces of George Braque and Picasso, and the reductive verticals, horizontals and diagonals of Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian began to speak of an energetic reality behind appearances.
Jack Boul, one of my teachers in grad school, made a comment that I think brilliantly frames a fundamental problem of painting. He said, “We sense the structure in early Mondrian. His line first represents a vertical, then a division of the picture space, then a tree. Most people just paint the tree.”
If the Renaissance, and the centuries of pictorial traditions it fostered, were based on the assumption of a solid world composed of discreet entities in a measurable space, the new spirit in painting was informed by the scientific revelation that matter is not solid at all – it’s energy. E=mc2. Painting’s formal language becomes a corollary to this new vision – the structured, dynamic rhythms of the physical universe played out on the artist’s canvas.
September 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
I was privileged as a young student to participate in a workshop at Mountain Lake in Virginia in the early 1980s, organized by my teacher, Ray Kass, from Virginia Tech. I imagined that Thiebaud would be a kind of Oscar Wilde-like character, as colorful and flamboyant as his delicious paintings of pies and cakes that were very much defining the contemporary art world at that time, the world that I, as a young painter, was preparing to enter. What I found instead was a deeply humble man who wasn’t much interested in talking about himself, his work, or his reputation. We spent an evening looking at old, brown masters of the past – Chardin, Rembrandt, Tintoretto and others – while Thiebaud held forth on his deeply held belief in the need for painters to work at acquiring the disciplines of looking and seeing the world around them. Here’s an instructive excerpt of a talk by Wayne Thiebaud given at the New York Studio School in 1999. In it he articulates in his wonderfully clear, no-nonsense way, some of the same values that he shared with us those many years ago.
March 8, 2014 § 3 Comments
Is being an artist today a selfish pursuit? If a painter does not address the political, environmental, or social ills of the age through painting is he or she just a naive Peter Pan, an escapist, or a wishful thinker painting pretty pictures while the world goes up in flames? What possible value does art have in a world so beset by problems? Every art student asks these questions at some point. Shouldn’t I be doing something to help the world? In the face of the unprecedented human misery of our time shouldn’t we, as artists, forget about our selfish visions and ideals about beauty and serve humanity?
In 1915 World War I was raging across Europe. Claude Monet, then 75 years old, wrote the following in a letter to Raymond Keochlin, an art collector:
“Yesterday I was able to resume work, which is the only way to avoid thinking of these troubled times. All the same I sometimes feel ashamed that I am devoting myself to artistic pursuits while so many of our people are suffering and dying for us. It’s true that fretting never did any good. So I’m pursuing my idea of the Grande Decoration. It’s a very big undertaking, particularly for someone my age, but I have every hope of succeeding if my health doesn’t give out. As you guessed it, it’s the project that I’ve had in mind for some time now: water, water-lillies, plants, spread over a huge surface. Let’s hope that event’s will take a turn for the better. I’d be glad to see you and show you the beginnings of this work. Friendly greetings, Claude Monet”
Monet’s Water Lillies at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Another 19th century artist, the American painter George Inness, had some things to say about the higher functions of art in a society. He said, “Let us believe in Art, not as something to gratify curiosity or suit commercial ends, but something to be loved and cherished because it is the Handmaid of the Spiritual Life of the age… The true use of art is, first, to cultivate the artist’s own spiritual nature, and, second, to enter as a factor in general civilization. And the increase of these effects depends on the purity of the artist’s motive in the pursuit of art. Every artist who, without reference to external circumstances, aims truly to represent the ideas and emotions which come to him when he is in the presence of nature is in process of his own spiritual development and is a benefactor of his race.”
That’s all fine and good for the 19th century you may say. But what about today? For anyone, seasoned artists or aspiring students, questioning art as a worthy vocation for assisting an embattled planet, painter Alan Feltus offers these thoughts:
“I think art wants to be something people can turn to for a kind of meaning in their lives, or for a calm place within the turbulence of our modern world. Art doesn’t have to explain our situation within the complexity of a chaotic and unstable society. Art can become social commentary, but it can also serve a much needed purpose providing a place of refuge wherein one can find a reason, or justification, for all the battling we have to do, mentally or physically, most of every day of our lives. After all, we love the art of the past for itself, generally being ignorant of the context, the politics, let’s say, of the time and place in which it was made. We hold onto our favorite pieces in our favorite museums or churches, in our books, and we love to be moved by the beauty of something newly found. Art should have that kind of place in our lives. Art should be about transcendence. It should not merely reflect our surroundings like a mirror, adding to the clutter, but become something more wonderful, more meaningful than that. It wants to be remembered and returned to over and over again. Good art feeds us. It is so important.” (From a letter to Arden Eliopoulos, Assisi, May 2, 2001. Courtesy of Alan Feltus’ website.)
June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
November 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
Critic Dave Hickey says he came into art “because of sex, drugs and artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who were “ferocious” about their work. I don’t think you get that anymore. When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all say move to Brooklyn – not make the greatest art ever.”
April 19, 2012 § 5 Comments
“When I… started painting from observation, one of the reasons was that I didn’t want to be so damn self-conscious about my paintings… Why not just look at something and paint it the way it is? Plop! And that’s what I did.
People often say to me, why do you pick such banal subjects, and I don’t understand that at all. They don’t seem to me to be banal in the least. They’re full of magic.
I came from a very flamboyant household, very theatrical – a very histrionic household. Everything was exaggerated; you never knew what anyone meant, and I didn’t like it. And I didn’t trust my own histrionics either, or strong affect, or whatever it is… in my paintings I try to get all that out and state it exactly – ‘no no, that’s not the way that air conditioner sits in that window. Do it again, Downes, and get it right this time, the way it really is!’ And I love that! I love feeling I have now got it, banal or not, I don’t care.
The detail comes in because you have to figure out how to move from here to here; then to here and to here… you make this block without any windows and you’re not sure whether it really is comfortably that size. As soon as you get those windows in there you get clearer and clearer and clearer about what it is. And in order to move about and keep these things in proportion I need all these things.
It’s my job to find places that answer to some internal need. I think that there’s this internal need before you get to the place and that the place answers the need.
…Could you paint a mountain without being sentimental about mountains, without falling victim to the mountain rhetoric; you know: look at this tremendous canyon, it’s so deep, and look at this terrifying crag up over your head, and all that business… I’m not interested in rhetoric at all.
I think that artists, or people who are active in another art form, even if it be writing or music… are often very, very perceptive critics of a different art form… a writer writing about painting or something, because they realize the limitations of criticism. Criticism can’t do everything, it can’t explain everything, and it can’t make certainties. There are no certainties in art.
There was a statement of Stendhal’s he wrote to his sister… “Only write on matters that you feel very strongly about. When you put them into words, try to do it as though you didn’t want anyone to notice.” I thought that was stunningly brilliant, and I felt exactly the same way.
I will say this… that all of us that are painters or artists or poets, or whatever it is, we spend quite a big chunk of every day doing the thing we really want to do. That cannot be said by lots of people.
– Rackstraw Downes, from video and interview by Betty Cunningham Gallery, 2007.