Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Is "Pure Painting?"

George Nick, Indian Memories

Part of what draws anyone to a fascination with painting is how artists can imbue their work with a powerful, expressive reality quite apart from the representation of subject matter. I'd like to think the essence of “pure painting” is the exuberant exploration of color and form.

Forget about how realistically someone can paint; pure painting involves giving form to an inner life and communicating emotion directly, as in music, with varying degrees - or without any - reference to an intermediary subject. To art lovers, paintings are magnifcent things, primarily, before they are representations of things. Who cares, at first, which objects occupy the amazingly complex yet harmonious space of George Nick's Indian Memories? The painting announces its own beautiful, stunning existence before we even begin to parse its content!

(Esoterica: While this has always been an aspect of painting,only the 20th century modernism of Kandinsky and the Fauvists, Futurists, Orphists, and others made it possible to understand this aspect of the past. Look closely at the details in Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, or Vermeer and you'll be amazed at how abstract and impressionistic the old masters could be. The paintings didn't change, but thanks to modernism and Impressionism, our actual perception has - think art doesn't change the world? Think again. It changes what humanity can see and understand).

According to independent curator Karin Wilkin, “On a visit to Venice, exasperated by the endless allegorical pictures and scenes from Gerusalemma Liberata and Orlando Furioso and “all that rubbish," Edouard Manet is supposed to have told an artist friend that “a painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds.” That's perhaps the first verbal definition of "pure painting" on record.

However, the first to create purely abstract paintings, Russian modernist Wassily Kandinsky, coined the term. Pure painting, he said, is “ … a mingling of color and form each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life which is called a picture by the force of inner necessity.” Kandinsky theorized about the psychological effects of color tones and their relationships and the expressive qualities of organic and geometric forms.

Improvisation 28, Wassily Kandinsky

But does it really matter how abstract the work is? You can see a painter's exuberance in the properties of color, abstract design, and the expressive qualities of paint in all kinds of paintings. Take the early 20th century landscapes of Aldro Hibbard - here's his 1943 Rushing Stream as a case in point:

Rushing Stream, Aldro Hibbard

Here's a closeup showing just how infectiously taken with the paint itself he is (and this is a huge part of what people love about Hibbard).

Rushing Stream, Aldro Hibbard (detail)

Yet, below is a far less impressionistic painting that I'd argue also has these qualities of "pure painting." The artist is clearly just in love with light and form and using paint to express his joy, which has led him to pursue a vision of correspondence between the scattered puffs of flowers on the ground and the exploding puffs of clouds in the sky above. The result is not primarily an "accurate" landscape - this is any location, and we don't care where - the point is the "pure" expression of joy in light, form, and color.

Field of Daisies, William Henry Holmes

This kind of joy and exuberance needs no apology. At any rate, I've been seeing "pure painting" all over the place, ever since reading John Updike's tribute to the work of plein-air painter George Nick, In Praise of George Nick.

Updike feels the need to buoy his critique with a moral subtext, extrapolated from a remark by Rilke, concerning the “good conscience” and “simple truthfulness” of color in Cezanne. Perhaps it's the word “pure” that misleads him into disparaging, on one hand mural paining, on the other photo-realism, with "theatricality" caught in the middle (Caravaggio anyone?) Still, I like his insight that, for some paintings (including "pure paintings"), “any subject will do" because they're built on “a faith that a painting does not have to be forced upon reality, through some trick or exaggeration or other, but can be drawn forth by a simple attentiveness, a patient scanning of what lies beyond the edge of the canvas.”

Schooner Bay, Desert Isle, George Nick


  1. Wonderful essay Christopher. And the Nick still life is a honey. And the Hibbard.

  2. Thanks Philip! I saw the Hibbard in person at the Whistler House Museum in Lowell, Mass, by the way.

  3. Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!

    wassily kandinsky paintings

  4. Thanks for the essay! Very informative and a great help when I try to explain Modern Art to my children.

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