Friday, July 15, 2016

Some Thoughts on Painting

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Education, 2015
I think that, for whatever unclear reasons, artists walk through this world burdened with a feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction with the conditions of human life as it's lived day to day. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Burning
Then one day they encounter a great work of art (it could be a painting, a novel, a poem, a piano concerto…) and suddenly they fall in love with the idea that it is possible to improve those conditions - to elevate humanity above its habitually low level of consciousness by bringing into existence tangible manifestations of a full life, in fact the best of human thought and feeling.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Confession
Something in this individual silently devotes itself to this "mission" of accessing a deeper, more meaningful reality in themselves and bringing into existence objects and experiences (works of art) that make those states both evident and accessible to others. 

Then begins a difficult but inevitable though often uplifting lifetime of trying and mostly failing to achieve something: art, the only thing worth doing.

This is often described as a "calling." - All this no matter how unlikely the odds that they will ever create anything on an equal footing with the great works of the great artists in history. This project of living a more authentic life, of really seeing and thinking and feeling and wanting to share that through the practice of art, is what inspires great artists to create. 

All authentic art - that is, art that's honest, in which the artist has created from within without relying over much on the successes of his or her predecessors - has the beneficial effect of allowing people open to experiencing the art to awaken to their own untapped potential as thoughtful, feeling individuals. 

Most people live lives of "quiet desperation" always looking over their shoulder at those around them and doing what they think they are supposed to do or what other people (i.e. society) want or coerce them into doing. 

We live in a completely commercialized culture in which nearly everyone behaves as if acquiring money is the goal (whether or not they consciously believe this, and very few actually do, nevertheless it's is how many's days are spent because so few believe they have any other choice). Strong art does what economically driven societies and communities only do as an afterthought, if at all - it creates moments of meaningful human expression and communication, celebrating the "impractical" areas of human experience (dreams, imagination, sensation, ideas) providing nourishment for thought, feeling, and perception. 

I didn't start painting until the age of 41, but I'd been on an artistic path (as a poet, in fact) since the age of 16. I fell in love with painting after discovering the great works of American painters from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which until then I had never truly seen or understood. I knew I loved it as soon as I smelled the linseed oil I use every day and saw the first colors taking form under my brush. 

I follow Gaugin’s advice as best I can:

“Paint freely and madly; you will make progress Above all, don't sweat over a painting; a great sentiment can be rendered immediately   Don't copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it and concentrate on what you will create as a result."

While ordinary visual seeing is a given, artistic seeing is a matter of spirit - which is to say, the artist’s inner life of imagination, memory, and sensation, compounded with one’s highest ideals concerning art and life. These things inform the kind of work one wants to make, and this in turn literally informs what and how one sees in the world. 

One's artistic practice should always be about the struggle for self knowledge. It mustn’t revolve around technique, conception, or even perception alone.

Painting is a manifestation of being; it's a concretized form of self-development that never has to end as long as one lives. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya (studio wall)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Borderlands: In Search of Martin Johnson Heade's Newburyport Meadows

Heade, Newburyport Meadows, c. 1865. Click for high res.

Though you wouldn't call him a maverick, Martin Johnson Heade steered the conventions of nineteenth-century landscape paintings down his own road.

His insistence upon "making it his own" means he doesn't fit neatly into the usual categories. Unlike his Hudson River School contemporaries, he painted small, sometimes uneasy, often luminous canvases that seem at first to be mostly about the sky, instead of the outsized, majestic hymns to America's rugged glamor we associate with the movement. He clearly wasn't as interested in topographical accuracy as they were, devoting himself instead to mood, atmosphere, subtle enigma, and carefully observed effects of light. And yet, if it weren't for the Met's landmark Hudson River show in the 1980s that included him, we might not know even that much about him.

Martin Johnson Heade, c. 1875
He was not, in fact, primarily a landscape painter; he was unique in devoting just as much time to still life and portraiture, all without adhering to convention in each.

Martin Johnson Heade, Still Life with Orchid and Two Hummingbirds, 1860s. People (like Frederick Church, for one) painted exotic locales and people painted botanical studies, but Heade combined them into something else. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Thunderstorm, c. 1860s. This is a powerful yet strange and idiosyncratic painting by any measure.

Although I live less than an hour from Boston, I had to end up by chance in Vero Beach, Florida before I could see a significant chunk of the Boston MFA's preeminent collection of Heade's paintings. A major show of Heade's work mounted in 1999-2000 traveled from the MFA to several other museums across the country, but that was before my time.

One of the Boston MFA's gorgeous Heades - click for high res. 
The MFA only shows one or two of their Heades, so I mistakenly assumed that what I'd seen is what they have, and I'd certainly never seen so many in one place. I'd also never appreciated how singular a painter he was.

Martin Johnson Heade, Sudden Showers, Newbury Marshes, 1865-1875

The Vero Beach Museum of Art's exceptionally well-curated "Nature Illuminated: Landscapes and Still Lifes by Heade and His Contemporaries" confronted me with a double surprise - here, in 95 degree Florida heat, were marvelously atmospheric landscapes of the New England marshes near where I live painted by an artist I'd taken for granted, touted as "one of the most varied and inventive painters of the late nineteenth century."

Martin Johnson Heade, Salt Marsh, Hay, 1865-1870. Heade was a master of atmospheric light and weather effects. He was the first American to depict the phenomenon of stormy dark skies paired with eerily lit foregrounds (cf. The Thunderstorm, above).

Heade was born in 1819 in Pennsylvania, the son of a general-store owner. He showed a talent for portraiture in his early 20s and studied for a season in Paris. He fell in with landscapists Benjamin Champney and John Frederick Kensett, who got him excited about landscape. He ended up specializing in marshes.

To see how different his whole approach to landscape was, check out this pairing of a conventional (and derivative of European models, btw) grand Hudson River landscape by arch practitioner Asher B. Durand (left) with one of Heade's small and moody marshes.

Heade seems to me to have confined himself to these small-scale, geometrically simplified marsh scenes because he wasn't interested in depicting "God's grandeur" embodied in the North American landscape. Perhaps his orientation was primarily inward. He prefers moments of uncertainty, where the light is changing and the weather shifting. As John Updike has written:

Heade’s calm is unsteady, storm-stirred; we respond in our era to its hint of the nervous and the fearful. His weather is interior weather, in a sense, and he perhaps was, if far from the first to portray a modern mood, an ambivalent mood tinged with dread and yet imbued with a certain lightness.The mood could even be said to be religious: not an aggressive preachment of God’s grandeur but a kind of Zen poise and acceptance, represented by the small sedentary or plodding foreground figures that appear uncannily at peace as the clouds blacken and the lightning flashes.

Others have pointed to subtle tensions and dissonances for the viewer of his marsh paintings. There's a disjunctive quality in pairing such agitated and stormy skies with such serene, horizontal land masses, or marrying brightly mobile cloudscapes with foregrounds being consumed by ominous shadows. "Heade's paintings are concerned with the crucial Transcendentalist issue of the fractured self in the modern world," writes scholar Jonathan Clancy.  "They do not offer a solution to this problem but, instead, signify an ambiguous acknowledgment of modernity's problems."

Since I live less than an hour away and have painted there since I started in 2007, it seemed ridiculous that I'd never gone to the marshes in Newburyport and environs with Heade in mind. I decided to right that wrong and headed out to sketch on site in some of the same locations Heade did. I resolved not to imitate Heade but to synthesize my firsthand experience with my memories and feelings about Heade's achievement.

Martin Johnson Heade, View of Marshfield, 1865-1875, at the Corcoran - click for high res. 

One of the most famous of his marsh paintings is "Newburyport Meadows"(reproduced at the top of this page), which is in the Metropolitan Museum's collection. I asked the "Maps" app on my iPhone to show me "Newburyport Meadows" so I could go and paint there, but this is all I got:

Either the "Newburyport Meadows" are gone or Heade invented the name. It's probably a bit of both. There are still marshes here that look a lot like Heade's, but since there are now so few farmers to prize the salty grasses for feeding cattle, the erstwhile marsh-grass "meadows" are almost all confined to small pockets of conservation land between roads and houses. The disparity between Heade's gorgeous and poetic landscapes and the Newburyport "Meadows Construction Company" says it all: the bucolic past has ceded to development.

At the same time, I'm beginning to wonder what it means to paint nature while living in industrialized America under the growing shadow of climate change. "Fractured self?" Check.

I completed 15 paintings in response to Heade's work and what's there now. They'll be shown at Kennedy Gallery in Portsmouth, NH this month. Here are a few of the paintings.

Ghost Marsh - 8"x10" - this was the first one I did, plein air on a gray day - the foggy, dissolving landscape seemed like an apt metaphor for the lost past of Heade's time and the turning-away from nature of ours.
When not actually painting on location I tend to make diagrammatic sketches of ideas and take personal notes about what I'm seeing and feeling. On this day I listed words that occurred to me as I wandered about the marshes: "expansive, watery, bleached, empty, light haze, gold, shock of blue." Later these notes inform larger works I can undertake in the studio.

Parker River Estuary - 11"x14" - this is a memory painting based on a location near Plum Island, now the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, that Heade would have seen.
Newburyport Meadows (after Heade), 12"x16" - this one was an abstracted study of Heade's painting with the same title.

At the Edge of the Marsh, 16"x24"
Shadows and Light, 10"x20"
The Meadows, Clearing Up, 16"x24" There's still beautiful marshland to be seen here.
Heade's one of those artists whose paintings turn up regularly in yard sales and relatives' attics. He was prolific, wasn't a famous artist during his lifetime, was forgotten until the 1940s, and he was quite popular among middle-class buyers. In addition, he was artist-in-residence at a fashionable Florida hotel for the last 11 years of his life, so itinerant buyers bought and dispersed his work widely across the country. 

Here are just two anecdotes about recent Heade discoveries from a list on his Wikipedia page.

  • An unnamed Heade salt marsh landscape now titled "River Scene" was discovered in the attic of a Boston-area resident in 2003. It sold at a local auction house to an art dealer for $1,006,250 and was featured on the PBS television show, "Find!". It was purchased by a private collector, and is now on view at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • In 2004 a Florida woman was informed of the Heade discovery featured on "Find!" by her son, and inquired about a small 6 x 12 inch landscape that had hung in her living room. The painting, which her late husband had purchased for several dollars in St. Augustine in the 1970s, was authenticated as a late Heade marsh landscape. It sold at auction to an art dealer for $218,500.

The standard source for information about Heade and his work is by the curator of American art at the Harvard University Art Museums, Theodore Stebbins, Jr. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Humble Virtues of a Cup of Tea

Here in New Hampshire, it's supposedly spring, but that doesn't mean it isn't the season for many warm cups of sweet, milky tea curled up in an overstuffed chair with a book, by a glowing fire if possible.

"Tea is wealth itself, because there is nothing that cannot be lost, no problem that will not disappear, no burden that will not float away, between the first sip and the last."

The cups in this post were all painted by British artist Diarmuid Kelley

I used to think that quote issued from no less an authority than Thoreau. But Henry David, on the contrary, frowned on tea, along with coffee, dismissing both as foreign and pernicious extravagances, artificial stimulants inimical to living simply and deliberately.

But in this I believe the anarchist of Puritan New England was mistaken.

"You can never get a cup of  tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." 
- C.S. Lewis 

“I shouldn't think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book.” 

- Bill Waterson

“As far as her mom was concerned, tea fixed everything. Have a cold? Have some tea. Broken bones? There's a tea for that too. Somewhere in her mother's pantry, Laurel suspected, was a box of tea that said, 'In case of Armageddon, steep three to five minutes'.”

- Aprillyne Pike

“If you are cold, tea will warm you;
if you are too heated, it will cool you;
If you are depressed, it will cheer you;
If you are excited, it will calm you.” 

- William Gladstone

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” 

- Sydney Smith

(All cups by Diarmuid Kelley)

Send me your favorite tea quotes and paintings and I'll happily add them here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Spring and All (A Painting and a Poem)

Spring and All, oil on canvas, 8" x 8"

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue 
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcdarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

- William Carlos Williams, opening poem from his 1923 book, Spring and All

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Vermeer, a poem by Tomas Transtromer

Note: In this poem, the late Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer imagines Vermeer’s studio sharing a wall with an alehouse … the chaos on the alehouse side, the quiet light and life on the art-studio side … and the transposition in the final stanza of mother-to-be and the speaker, suggesting the dissolution of inner walls and the openness to whatever may come through the wall or from the airy sky.

Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1662


It’s not a sheltered world. The noise begins over there, on the other side of the wall
where the alehouse is
with its laughter and quarrels, its rows of teeth, its tears, its chiming of clocks,
and the psychotic brother-in-law, the murderer, in whose presence
everyone feels fear.
The huge explosion and the emergency crew arriving late,
boats showing off on the canals, money slipping down into pockets
— the wrong man’s —
ultimatum piled on the ultimatum,
widemouthed red flowers who sweat reminds us of approaching war.
And then straight through the wall — from there — straight into the airy studio
in the seconds that have got permission to live for centuries.
Paintings that choose the name: “The Music Lesson”
or  "A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”
She is eight months pregnant, two hearts beating inside her.
The wall behind her holds a crinkly map of Terra Incognita.
Just breathe. An unidentifiable blue fabric has been tacked to the chairs.
Gold-headed tacks flew in with astronomical speed
and stopped smack there
as if there had always been stillness and nothing else.
The ears experience a buzz, perhaps it’s depth or perhaps height.
It’s the pressure from the other side of the wall,
the pressure that makes each fact float
and makes the brushstroke firm.
Passing through walls hurts human beings, they get sick from it,
but we have no choice.
It’s all one world. Now to the walls.
The walls are a part of you.
One either knows that, or one doesn’t; but it’s the same for everyone
except for small children. There aren’t any walls for them.
The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
and whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

Tomas Tranströmer
trans. by Robert Bly
in The Winged Energy of Desire (2004)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Art, Defined!

Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all - oneself. Nobody knows his own frontiers.... I don't think I'd ever want to take a road if I knew where it led.

-Louis Kahan

Louis Kahan, Three Female Figures

Louis Kahan, Paris, from a Kitchen Window, Evening

Louis Kahan, Two Female Figures

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Albert Pinkham Ryder and the "ceaseless melody of the northern line"

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlit Cove, 1890

Albert Pinkham Ryder is one of several great 19th century American artists yet to become familiar to the general public at large.

There are many reasons for Ryder's low profile, not the least of which is that his work has imploded over time; his already scant number of paintings have seriously deteriorated because of his heedlessness to sound oil painting technique. Living like a hermit in a tiny, squalid New York apartment through the late 1800s, Ryder would evolve his paintings over decades, heaping layer upon wet layer on his canvases and liberally using bitumen (a distant cousin of road tar, apparently), which, apparently, puckers, warps, and discolors over time.

Rock star American art historian Barbara Novak devotes a chapter to Ryder in her very readable American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. She identifies Ryder as a visionary "in search of the impossible and the unattainable," who used painting as a visual language to express ideas and internal states of consciousness rather than "empathy with nature" like the Impressionists and many previous American landscapists did so well. "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible," Ryder said.

What does it make visible? In Ryder's art, Novak identifies two types of religious experience. On the one hand (in agitated canvases depicting storms, churning waters, Biblical mayhem, gothic episodes from imagination, and operatic and literary works like Macbeth), it becomes a visual metaphor for the self caught up in "a dizzying religious experience" signified by the intense animation of nature (as in van Gogh). In "Lord Ullin's Daughter," the opposing diagonals (of clouds, cliffs, and crashing waves) create a tension that Ryder further ratchets up with sharp edged triangles and counter movements from all directions, though the eye keeps coming back to the storm-tossed figure, a stand-in for the viewer.

Ryder, Lord Ullin's Daughter, 1905
Very much on the other hand (most clearly, in depictions of isolated boats silhouetted in an "abstract void" of Ryder's own invention), his art makes visible "a serene, almost Oriental absorption of the self into cosmos, an annihilation of the self." This Buddhistic dissolution of the self had a strong American precedent in New England Transcendentalism (and think of Melville for the chaos) and in "those painters who erased their own artistic presence in the attempt to realize the life of things," as Novak writes.

Here the forms flow into around each other in gentler, rhythmic patterns, the flatness of the picture plane serving to augment the design's quieter, primarily horizontal movements. Here Ryder subdues anecdotal detail in favor of mood.  

Surely for Ryder, these two forms of self-transcendence, the self's absorption in primal chaos and its dissolution into a oneness with the cosmos, are two sides of the same coin. But here's what's really interesting. These two strains in Ryder and American art and thought, we might call them the Sublime and the Transcendental, reemerged unabated in the 20th century, though rarely in one single artist. The chaos is there in the Abstract Expressionists who channeled untamed forces of nature, such as de Kooning,

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1948
Joan Mitchell,

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1950

and Jackson Pollock (who named both Melville and Ryder as influences),

Jackson Pollock, Silver over Black, White, Yellow, and Red, 1948
Jackson Pollock, Moby Dick, 1943

and on the other hand, painters who quieted the self into Buddhistic non-existence, such as Rothko, 

Mark Rothko, Black in Deep Red, 1948

and subsequent colorists and abstractionists such as Frankenthaler,

Hellen Frankenthaler, Madame Matisse, 1983
Morris Lewis

Morris Lewis, Blue Veil, 1958
and Agnes Martin.
Agnes Martin, Untitled, 2004

I see this as an America artistic and spiritual heritage, albeit one that, judging from what I've seen of late, contemporary and especially conceptual art since Pop and Duchamp mostly ignores.

Ryder would have loved abstract expressionism. "The artist should fear to become the slave of detail," Ryder cautioned. "He should strive to express his thought and not the surface of it. What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?" Pollock echoed those words when he explained, "I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them."

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens, 1888-91

Ryder worked on his painting Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens from 1888 to 1891. It's based on a scene from Wagner's operatic "Ring" cycle, but the back story's not important. Just look at the thing! As Ryder said, "the storm is within." In terms of line, these fluid, twilit forms of light and dark spin everything into motion. From the towering, undulating tree branches to the mythical hero stunned by the appearance of the wily water-spirits, it's a vision of man and nature in archetypal, everlasting turmoil. Okay, its hard to see on a jpeg smaller than a credit card, but who else had painted the fragility and resistance, the archetypal uncertainty of the human condition with such directness? Only the towering greats, El Greco, Goya, Turner, and Michelangelo (especially of the Last Judgment) come to mind. Of Ryder's Siegfried Novak enthuses, "The insistent rhythms... are fixed into the 'good Gestalt' of the perfect design. Siegfried belongs, like El Greco's View of Toledo, to that small group of masterpieces that stamp themselves on our minds with instantaneous - indeed, almost violent - authority." (p. 218)

Novak traces the painterly lineage of the Gothic sensibility in evidence here to what German art historian Worringer, whose ideas supported early 20th century abstraction, called the "ceaseless melody of the northern line," the "whorling, convoluted rhythms that worked their way into Baroque religious art 

Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1622
and ultimately through the expansive forms of Rubens," 

Rubens, Allegory on the Blessings of Peace, 1630
into the romantic color and florid mis-en-scenes of Delacroix, 

Delacroix, Sardanoupolus, 1827
and the sublime, off-kilter light of Turner and beyond. 

J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm, Steamboat off a Harbor, 1842
"It was this sensibility," novak writes, intensified emotionally, that informed the Expressionism of Munich and the German artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his Gothic visionary aspect, 'Ryder shared this sensibility.'"

Who knows what God knows?
His hand He never shows,
Yet miracles with less are wrought,
Even with a thought.

-A. P. Ryder