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. As Novak says, Ryder might have said, along with Paul Klee, "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible."

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 rejects.

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Just a Couple Good Paintings


Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939. Oil on paper laid down on gauze, 19 3/4 x 33

Eric Aho, Sylvan, 50" x 60" 2014

Monday, September 14, 2015

Cezanne & Pissarro in Pontoise

This morning I spent a fascinating hour or two contemplating images of paintings by Cezanne and Pissarro side by side, as they were when the two artists created them together in a Paris suburb beginning in the early 1860s.

Such different approaches to the same scene ... Cezanne left, Pissarro right.

Perhaps by necessity, they were rebels, bohemians, outsiders both, intent on shattering prevailing ideas about painting and about beauty. Newly arrived in Paris at the age of 22, Cezanne played the provocateur, flaunting his outsider, country-bumpkin status like a hipster in flannel and a lumberjack beard (or, as an astute New York Times reviewer of the show lovingly described him, "a furious misfit with the face of a hobbit, the mind of a scholar, and the mouth of a (dockworker).". He'd been packed off to Paris to study law, but instead he enrolled in painting classes at a walk-in art school.

Cezanne, left, Pissarro right, same delft vase.

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was a Dutch citizen, a Jew born in the West Indies, who grew up learning French in an all-black school; he was shunned by the local rabbi because his father'd come to the island to deal with the estate of a deceased uncle and ended up staying and marrying the man's creole widow (his niece by marriage). Pissarro was one of the few artists or students in Paris who didn't either avoid, disparage, or make fun of Cezanne, so friends and allies they became.

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro was nine years older than Cezanne, a restless innovator with a single-minded drive to redefine painting that would eventually allow scholars to recognize him as the "pivotal" figure in avant-garde painting of the time. He sought out radical teachers like Courbet, settling eventually on Corot, but soon outgrew the soft focus approach with work that had the plein-air plainness of Daubigney - and "the future geometry of Mondrian" (Cotter).

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro afterward anchored and unified the young Impressionists, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas, and then pushed into the new territory of Post Impressionism, a father figure to Seurat, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gaugin. Cezanne's work fits into the Modernist narrative as a turning away from Impressionism, but Cezanne was working it out with Pissarro as early as 1866 (the first Impressionist exhibition wasn't until 1874).

Again, same houses.

In Pontoise, the Paris suburb where Pissarro lived, the two painters often painting the same motif, sometimes in fundamentally different ways, a bit like Picasso and Braque, who together invented Cubism, picking up where the earlier odd couple left off ("My one and only master," Picasso called him, "Cezanne was like the father of us all").

Although the exhibition of 2006 has come been and gone, the Museum of Modern Art keeps a wonderful interactive catalogue parked on their website that's well worth poking around in. It's even got details of the brushwork of each painting. The article I cited above by Holland Cotter's great too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lisa Noonis' TIDAL at the Banks Gallery

Painter Lisa Noonis, who's a friend of mine, has hit it out of the park with a new series of beach-based paintings being exhibited in a show opening this Thursday (August 27, 2015) at Portsmouth's Banks Gallery.

The paintings (in oil) are large, semi-abstract evocations of the oceanside - sometimes overcast, sometimes that summer saltwater ritual close to my own Long Island-born heart, the proverbial "beach day." But they are never conventional or cliche.

I've admired Lisa's work for as long as I've been painting. Her work has tons of vitality, and it's very evocative for me - I connect right to it (she consciously paints in an "open" way, suggesting rather than declaring or describing with unnecessary detail, an approach that invites the viewer to complete the picture). Her work is wonderfully painterly - she revels in the material, the textures and colors of paint. She often constructs volumes in her paintings with color changes rather than shading, applying lush brushstrokes in patches, somewhat in the manner of Cezanne

Lisa and I found ourselves in a master class with Eric Aho some time ago, and since then we've been toying with a similar landscape painting process. The idea is to mount a "campaign" on a particular place (in Lisa's case, it's the beach), the first stage of which is to paint in front of the motif every day, en plein air. 

The second stage is to again paint the motif in the studio, but this time from memory, on a much larger scale, and with the goal not of painting what it looked like but what it felt like; that is, to paint imaginative equivalents, rather than pictures of, nature. This approach has the advantage of comprehending the innovations of modernism and abstraction. 

I wrote the essay for the catalogue that accompanies Lisa's show. I love these beach paintings -- I think they're Lisa's best work to date and my favorite of the many paintings of hers that I've enjoyed (I'm happy to say I own three small originals). 

The show's up through September, 2015, and the essay text that I wrote is online here, at The Banks Gallery blog

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Clyfford Still

1962-D by Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still's large abstract canvases initially predated the abstract expressionism of Rothko and Pollock, between which Still occupies a middle ground. His uncompromising work is about pure experience at its elemental extreme, the profundity of a Rembrandt stripped of imagery. 

He shunned fame and stated in his will that his 2,000+ paintings be kept under lock and key for 40 years after his death and then shown publicly only if a museum, without a cafe or a gift shop, could be built with the sole purpose of  housing them. That museum was built in Denver just four years ago (2011).

Most of Still's paintings, executed in palette knife and all untitled, reflect a stylized iconography of veils or flames in which everything trivial, personal, or transitory is smothered or burned away. In the above painting a jagged red shape not unlike a sun butns either in front of or behind ragged black and white veils.

“I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”  — Clyfford Still

"Thus all concentrates....Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions by a simple declaration of the divine fact." -Emerson

Monday, July 20, 2015

Six Tips on Landscape (and other kinds of) Painting

Rockwell Kent, Moonlight in the Adirondacks. 
1. The late Canadian landscapist Robert Genn suggested that, “rather than go with your first choice in a composition, go with your second choice.” Why? I think because we’re scared little puppies and we want to be told we’re good artists, so we stand there summoning up every bit of what we know works before we even beginBut the first composition that “comes to you” is probably one you’ve received from paintings you’ve studied and liked. "It’s likely to be in your comfort zone, but it is your second choice that will stretch your capabilities and expose new creativity. How to do this?" Genn suggests the following: “slowly rotate yourself in a full circle, taking every possibility into consideration. Sort out and at least anticipate the potentials of every angle before you start.”

Sometimes it'll just click. Something jumps out at you and suddenly you can imagine the the general outline of the finished piece, even though you have no idea how to even start - and that's your painting. 

The Flying Dutchman, by Albert P. Ryder

2. Feel, don’t think, your brushstrokes. Try to occupy your mind by imaginatively entering into your subject. Feel your subject in your imagination and let your hand follow. Painting is about expressing a feeling. Allow your feelings, not just your eye or your head, to move your hand. Paint from your arm, not your wrist. There will be time for fussing - er, I mean "polish" - later.

Stuart Shils, Urban Landscape, An Unexpected Place, 2012
available at Somerville Manning Gallery
3. Mix colors promiscuously, apply them relationally. Pare down your palette to the primaries and a few earths, forget "color theory" and just play. Be an alchemist - mix nameless colors (as Eric Aho is fond of saying). Make a color and put it on the canvas. Make another one and place it next to the first one. NO FEAR. It isn't possible to mix "mud." Don't believe me? Look at the foreground color in the square that's front and center in the painting by Stuart Shils above. Well, yeah, that's "mud color," but it only makes the painting better when you notice it: look how well it relates to the surrounding colors, especially the warm pale yellow immediately above and the deep, electric violet to the bottom right. Paint that is the color of mud is beautiful and absolutely right when placed on a canvas relationally and with intention. "Mud" (the bad kind) is something that happens not on the palette but on the canvas when you smear colors together, usually because you're using numerous brushstrokes in a desperate effort to "fix" something (I think in most such cases the cause of the trouble isn't with the color you've put on but with its value. We end up trying to blend it into submission (resulting in muddy colors) - much better is to take off the stroke, remix the color to the proper value, and put it back fresh). Ideally: "Put it on and leave it on." 

Eric Aho, March

4. Design, design, design. Pay more attention to what’s happening on the canvas than to what’s “out there.” Consider everything - color, shape, value, stroke - in relation NOT to exactly what's "there"  in the world but to everything else on the canvas. Reject received compositions. Be a brilliant composer. Improvise: Play jazz. Ultimately, it’s not accuracy or faithfulness to the visible (to a particular marsh, mountain foliage color, or ocean wave), but what ends up on the canvas that makes the painting live or die. 

Jake Berthot

5. Maintain a dialogue with the painting. To open up this dialogue you have stop frequently, after every few strokes. Consider what’s just happened and instead of worrying about how to fix it, ask what it suggests about what might happen next. React imaginatively - yes, to your subject - but also to each new relationship of color and brushwork that you create. Everything you do changes the equation; the sooner you notice how it’s adding up, the better you’ll feel at the end. Oil paintings are infinitely changeable, and creativity ultimately mysterious - but if you can stop insisting that it it's your way or the highway, your painting may just start leading you where you really want to go (whether you know it or not).

Samsara (oil, 12x12") Zhaoming Wu, 2015
available at Abend Gallery
6. Sit at the feet of masters. Not literally; I mean find the paintings that humble and excite you, that make your head explode, that make you say "Yes - THAT'S painting." They don't have to be by dead people (though some of them probably should be). Just let yourself be blown away by what an artist you've encountered has achieved. This isn't the time to ask "how?" Just feel it. Take it in. Look long. "Listen" to the painting, in part and in whole. See what someone has done, take a deep breath, and remember how it makes you feel. Implicitly understand the "why" - the only answer to which you need to know is: "Because Damn - that's PAINTING."

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Railway, 1844

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wolf Kahn: Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently spent an hour with Wolf Kahn for a profile I’ve written for Art New England, which will be published in the September/October 2015 issue. I wound up with a lot of good material that wasn’t going to make it in. Here are the quotes as I wrote them down (though not necessarily in order). All of the paintings are, of course, by Wolf Kahn.

On why he chose and stuck consistently with landscape: Always gnawing the same bone allows me to have a coherent development. Of course, you know, only after 70 years does that appear.

I tried to paint the figure, but I found out that if you needed an extra limb you’d have to be Michelangelo to do it. In landscapes you can add another limb and no one is the wiser.

I was a faithful (Hans) Hofmann student. Probably I still am. 

I thought I was going to be like Bonnard and van Gogh, who painted everything (landscapes, the figure, the still life) but I found out that it was in landscape that I could contribute, that I had something personal to say. I painted a painting called “The Artist On the Way to the Motif” - but it didn’t have the artist in it. I kept painting him in and out and in again. Finally I painted him out all together. Then I was home free.

I’m interested in an overriding rhythm. I’m trying to get beyond intention. As soon as you have a brush in your hand you have a tool that’s going to make you descriptive. I didn’t want to be a descriptive artist.

I never think about color. Color came as a byproduct of other concerns. 

I thought of myself as a formalist, building recognizable structures - that would arrive at their meaning easily. 

I’m not a programmatic painter. I try to let things happen. 

I try to do things I haven’t done before and that I haven’t seen other people do and that allow me to be surprised.

If it’s a surprise for me, it might be a surprise for the audience.

I never had any kind of program. 

Like T.S. Eliot said, immature artists are influenced, mature artists steal. Who did he steal from? Oh, well Rembrandt, Kokoshka first, Bonnard, van Gogh, Vuillard... 

More recently I’ve allowed myself to become very influenced by Jackson Pollock - his process of painting was that he didn’t want to know what his painting would look like when it was done. 

I like to paint. I go to the studio, I go out with my friend Raymond in his Volvo, and we drive around till we find a place that’s conducive to work. How do you know it’s conducive? Until you see some relationship between things, and you can start out that way.

People say there’s a spiritual element in my painting. But I say if there is, you put it there.

People think that I’m painting Vermont, but I keep saying I’m painting paintings. 

What really interests me now is to create textures. I’m still painting the landscape, but I find the more stuff I put on, the better the painting. 

On the influence of abstract expressionism: It gave a certain weight to being an artist - What did you have to go on? Some kind of idea of accident and beauty and strength, and trying to stay away from description. 

On not becoming an abstract expressionist painter: I found out that the fact that I liked to draw kept getting in the way. I was always a hotshot draughtsman. I didn’t want to make that sacrifice. 

But I wanted to draw with as much freedom as I could possibly could. As soon as you TRY to describe something you’re already abrogating that freedom. 

I was always on the edge of abstraction without being an abstract painter. I was always interested in the brushstroke and the way different forms appeared on the surface. 

On the oft-proclaimed “death of painting”: You know, I went to school with Alan Kaprow and he said, “Every brushstroke I make reminds me of another artist.” So he quit painting and became a “Happenings” guy, and he said, “Painting is dead.” But at the same time we had a show in San Diego, and he gave a lecture in which he said some very nice things about my paintings. So what is that quote - about how only a fool would not permit himself to hold two contradictory ideas in one head? (His assistant later dug up the quote in question - Wolf was thinking of Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”) 

What advice would you give to beginning painters? To express enthusiasm, which literally means to be inspired by the gods. The most important thing is the capacity to feel and express enthusiasm. Allow whatever enthusiasm you have - whatever it is - to come into your work.

I have a feeling painting is its own discipline, has its own language. Painting is one of the things that makes life more interesting. It’s like talking in public - you try to make painting as interesting as baseball. It is like some exciting sport - painting has its own set of rules. You don’t really get to know them all, but you can sure as hell see when they’re being violated or not considered. 

But I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I think of myself as a workman.

The official art world doesn’t recognize my work because it’s not provocative - I’ve never tried to be provocative. I think when you paint you should be wearing your best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes - so that the best of you comes out rather than things that are going to shake people up. I never wanted to shake people up .... shaking myself up, yes!