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

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Phenomenology of Twilight

A twilight landscape by 19th century Tonalist Alexander Wyant

Nebulous and uncharted, twilight is the interposition of the veil, a fluid borderland between light and darkness.

Twilight bears the same relation to daylight as poetry to prose. Its visual mode is indeterminacy, the elusive: objects softened to indistinct outlines, things half on their way to becoming thoughts.

Like all cosmic transitions, its realm is that of liminal experience, partaking of the timeless suspension between waking and sleep, the realm of daydream, reverie, and the lucid dreamer.

George Inness, Home of the Heron, 1890

Psychologically, the analogy is to the dissolution of concrete knowledge into emotion, but also speculation, uncertainty, intuition, the life of the unconscious. Twilight's ground isn't the "enlightenment" of rational, logical argument but the associative cognition of dreams.

I think that in historical Tonalism (American landscape painting from c. 1880 to c. 1920s) the twilight mood often corresponds (as in much of Innes's work) to a spiritual transformation of the visual world.

An Inness dusk, c. 1885

Certainly the attraction of these paintings has something to do with individuals' experience of these moods. The natural world found in Tonalist paintings exists within a settled and "cleared," fully "civilized" America such as we ourselves inhabit.

That is to say, the Tonalist twilight is a "mood" of the natural that remains available to us as direct experience-in-the-world, in contrast to the vanished views of unspoiled, majestic or pastoral wildernesses of the pre-Tonalist, pre-Inness, 19th century Hudson River School (c. 1830-1865).

Personally, I've spent uncounted hours since my teenage years gazing at the looming shadows of twilit trees and branches. I respond to these scenes on some kind of unconscious, symbolic/arhcetypal level charged with thought and emotion yet inaccessible to analysis.

Spring Dusk, Hollis, NH, 8 x 10, 2011

Even rural environments offer handholds for a similar psychological/emotional response. It isn't just vertical elements like buildings or trees, either, as proved out in contemporary painter Susan Holcomb's urban-cosmic "Nightscapes."

Astrum by Susan Holcomb

Friday, April 8, 2011

Among Trees: Tonalist Backlighting

George Inness, Early Autumn, Montclair, 1891

In "pure" landscapes - those with minimal, or no human figures - trees as often as not become the principal actors, or "characters," of the picture.

No wonder - they do resemble us in odd ways; their rooted trunks and outstretched, straining branches suggest the human condition as well as any other "objective correlative" (in early American landscapist Washington Allston's phrase).

They aspire to light, yet they're wholly of earth.

Of course they're bigger than we are, invariably healthier, and if left to themselves, generally outlive us. Among old trees one may often sense something essential about the nature of being human. Surely, when we look at them, they're looking back at us.

From the painter's perspective, whether after midnight or in broad daylight, most of the trees we see are at least partially silhouetted by light coming from behind them. Hence, a variable balance of shadow and highlight is required to render them in proper visual harmony in keeping with a definite space and a particular time of day.

The earliest landscape painters clearly appreciated this. Even in the idealized landscapes of 17th century French painters Claude (Lorraine) and Poussin, the trees are often dramatically back-lit, not without the the effect of emphasizing evening's effusive, honeyed glow.

Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Merchants, c. 1650

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic landscapists like American Frederick Church and German Casper David Friedrich pushed this idea to extremes for emotive effect. Truth be told, we're still under their spell. As one of my art history students last week remarked, Friedrich's Abbey in an Oak Forest looks as though it was painted last year.

Casper David Friedrich, Abbey in an Oak Forest, 1810

Abbey in an Oak Forest
In painterly terms, Friedrich's Abbey in an Oak Forest is a tonal study of twilight, and therefore, because this is early 1800s Romanticism par excellence, a visual meditation on mortality and time. It's a ruined abbey (read: Christianity), at sundown, during the waning of the year, with a funeral procession (barely visible in the foreground churchyard) evoking an overall feeling of mortality and evanescence.

But whether or not we look closely enough to appreciate the symbology, why does this painting "just work?"

In the words of Hermann Beenken, "Instead of many tones, he (Friedrich) sought the one; and so, in his landscape, he subordinated the composite chord into one single basic note." (1938)

Tonalist painters of the late 19th century heard the same single tone and tone-cluster music, and they incorporated the "one single basic note" into their renderings of settled, evening-darkened North American nature.

Charles Warren Eaton

It's subjective, but for me these paintings evoke a sense of being alive in time, of appreciating our predicament, and yet of wanting to stand tall against "the dying of the light."

Charles Warren Eaton

What is it about these shadowy images? Contemporary painter Dennis Sheehan keys into this feeling.

And here's another contemporary take on the same,. Note the kinship to Eaton - none of this is the province of one person. It's an ongoing project - artists mapping the periphery of subjective life.

Contemporary Landscape with tonal Eaton overtones. 

This is some of what drives my own desire to add my voice, such as it is, to the fray.

Christopher Volpe, Evening Hush, 12 x 16, oil on canvas, 2010