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I feel like a raindrop…

 

Hope whispered my name,

 

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Light danced through the glass.

 

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I'd go to the corners of the earth for you.

 

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Live your dance,

 

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tread gently but strong…

 

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and love the moments

 

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of this day.

 

A way of being human

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

I’ve been talking with some other artists lately about the motivation to make art–and how easy it can be to lose the intrinsic urge to make it by focusing on it as a means rather than an end. If you aren’t selling anything at the moment, or no one seems to be paying much attention, then it’s tempting to go outside and, say, plant some vegetables rather than struggle with a resistant picture. Art is hard work, but I do it mostly because it’s so pleasurable to finish a painting, and sometimes even more so if the image played hard to get. It’s easy to drift away from that zone where the effort is both constraining but also feels good, the reward of pushing back against a challenge, with the sequence of the hundreds of interim completions along the way toward being done. When it’s most frustrating, it’s easy to dismiss what Keats said about poetry: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” But I doubt that he meant all good creative work has to be a first draft: Kerouac, non-stop with his long scroll of paper, or Edwin Dickinson with his premier coup work. I think what he meant was that the urge to create something comes naturally, and that’s why people do it, with no other purpose in mind. It’s an end in itself: which is what the “fine” in fine art really means, fin, the end.

I had coffee yesterday with a young artist, Adam LaPorta, who also sells Piction software to art museums. He sat down with me, Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli, for a casual conversation about how technology has changed the way artists connect with buyers, or simply how it helps, or doesn’t help, increase the visibility for their work. He confirmed what I heard informally on my last trip to New York, that even the most successful galleries in Manhattan are struggling right now. Anyone who thinks this economy has recovered is deluded. Those who buy the work of emerging artists are harder and harder to find, and those with the most money apparently are still relying on the art fairs. (And that must not be bringing in enough income to pay all the bills even at established galleries throughout the rest of the year.)

Adam’s job is, in part, to help museums open up their collections to art lovers on the Web, but he also talked about how social media and other online platforms, like Artsy, can connect artists with those who enjoy visual art. As always, the incredible quantity of available art makes it harder and harder for people to spot what they would love if they had a chance to see it–anyone who keeps up with music knows how difficult it can be to discover what you love, even with a medium that has the level of widespread popularity music enjoys. There’s just so much of it out there. Adam had some interesting things to say about visibility that weren’t about technology at all. He suggested artists need to articulate as clearly as possible the idea behind the work and communicate it. (That’s a slippery slope, but it makes sense to try and put into as few words as possible words why you’re engaged in art, even if it’s an effort that resists conceptualization.) He also said something that I’ve heard before: people want to hear a story. A friend once suggested that he’d love to read how each work in a show came together and why–and Adam said exactly the same thing. People want to know why you made a particular piece, and also why you paint, period.

But all of this sidesteps the core issue, which is to stay focused on making art, not what’s going to become of it, once it’s done. I wrote to Jim Mott yesterday afternoon, having sent him a photograph of a northern parula warbler I spotted on our birdbath in the back yard–a rare sighting, according to Jim. I had no idea what kind of warbler it was, though I guessed correctly after a Google search, but I knew I’d never seen that bird before, which is a rare experience for me since the birds we get here are pretty much the same from year to year. (I’m an armchair birder–I keep track of what birds I can spot without actually standing up. I keep a short list of what I’ve seen through our sliding glass door, but Jim is serious about it. He’s spotted more than 500 North American birds in his life, and regularly heads to the shore of Lake Ontario in May to see as many warblers as he can before they head across the water on their way up to Canada for the summer.) I mentioned to him how most artists I know right now are, to some degree, moving slowly through their own version of the horse latitudes, still working, but feeling the struggle. I mentioned that, as the weather changes, it’s tempting to postpone the work. He wrote back:

Time in nature feels wholesome and good, and the sense of life and meaning is so transparently available. This sort of self validation or intrinsic reward is increasingly not there in the world of art, or in the artist’s dealings with the world. At least, the pursuit of art these days often feels the opposite of time in nature: It’s hard to feel the point of it.
Culturally, the art enterprise, especially fine art as practiced by people like us, seems almost completely irrelevant to the world at large. The “big” artists are servicing the 1%, and the regular artists don’t seem anything like necessary to most people. BUT I do think art still can be a meaningful, purposeful, necessary thing…. And hopefully others will agree, and support will slowly rally. In my better moments I think of art as a realm of life and hope that complements nature and, for society, may be similarly necessary. However, one has to be pretty strong, inwardly, to hold onto that sense of purpose, the confidence that people will get around to remembering why art matters, or will buy it or whatever.
It’s definitely a time of crisis for the regular artist: collapsing markets and expectations, way more supply than demand, and a cultural marginality that’s no longer made bearable by the cultural constructions and glorifications and reverence that once made it seem important to be an artist.  Everyone can make cool-looking stuff with their cameras and computers.
I think art making–responding to the world, exploring vision, making meaningful marks, etc–will always be an activity of intrinsic value for some people–both artists and viewers. Engagement with the world through representation and other kinds of image-working and mark-making (with substantive, resistant materials) is a vital part of culture-building (culture as a collective realm for promoting shared experience, articulating and storing meaning). But art as a cultural project is almost certainly going through a major transformation, possibly equivalent to mass extinction by asteroid blast. Who knows what will come out on the other side, but probably not a whole bunch of wall space for all those little framed pieces of art that fill the closets of countless earnest artists these days.
I’m not suggesting that traditional painting and drawing will necessarily become obsolete…I doubt they will… not to the artistically inclined. But the customary channels of appreciation and distribution and support seem to be breaking beyond repair. Or simply out of sync with the ways of the world these days.
I guess because I see it as a puzzle, and possibly a spiritual opportunity, a creative challenge (artists that stand up for value and meaning , etc. in ways that reach people may do some good and find support), I don’t get as discouraged and depressed as I used to about the situation. I may even have some advantages – certainly by having my work linked to a story and having the chance to regularly encounter supportive strangers with the IAP (as do you, with your philosophical arsenal). But I do get discouraged and depressed pretty easily in general. Warblers can be an easy antidote, but work and progress are a better fix.

I couldn’t have put it any better, and probably not even as well, as Jim did here (as long as I’m right in assuming he was being sardonic about asteroid blasts.) The other dimension of making art that he and I have talked about is how completely antithetical it is to our media-induced passivity and fragmentation of attention. When you make a painting you’re requiring yourself to live in a completely backward way (in a good sense) that throttles the flow of stimuli from smartphone/iPad/TV/computer screen, which for most people now is a non-stop pinging of incoming color and sound, ever changing, a mental IV drip. Like meditation, painting narrows your field of awareness down to one very slow spot of color at a time, and you might spend days looking at that spot and working on it. In its own way it’s an act of rebellion against the tide of monkey-mind, clicking from one thing to the next in flight from feeling captive in the present moment. That alone is all the motivation one needs to do it. It’s a way of staying human against all the forces that seem to be eroding the old assurances about what it means simply to be a person. We live in nihilistic times that are quietly redefining (destroying?) human nature, I think, and it’s worthwhile to stand back from it and say, “Enough’s enough.” A painting can still offer painter and viewer both the same kind of stillness, the inclusive awareness of the world, that it has offered for hundreds of years, of a sort that nothing else does.

So, I have some plants to put in the ground. (And then some painting to do.)

Paper & Egg

I’m housesitting at the moment, happily tucked away in the countryside, alone with several projects and a few animals. Those animals include two chickens who live waaaaay down the hill toward the bottom of the lane. After the first round of morning coffee and writing, I walk down to the coop with any veggie scraps, feed the hens, and collect an egg or two. I tuck the eggs into a fencepost nook and continue my walk, past barns and vineyards, taking at least an hour until the list of tangibles in my head dissolves and ideas of the heart can blossom. When I return to the base of the lane, I gather the daily newspaper and eggs, and climb the steep hill back to the house. Then it’s round two of coffee and the afternoon work—the stuff that doesn’t need “morning brain.” Some days that’s painting. Some days it’s catching up on pixel work. Often, it’s both.
Even when I’m not housesitting, my days have a similar structure—sans chickens. But when I started hiking back up the hill today, a fresh egg cradled in the Wednesday copy of the Medford Mail Tribune, I thought that “paper and egg” made a nice metaphor for the day’s ritual.
Somewhere on a social media discussion this week, I saw a comment about the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Curry. Though the book is on my overlong wish list, I haven’t read it. I looked up the book description and saw that it examines the habits of dozens and dozens of artists, past and present. Apparently—and this was from the lost discussion thread—there are four elements that most successful artists across genres seem to share:
1. Structure
2. Solitude
3. Simplicity
4. Exercise
And despite quoting someone I can’t remember about a book I haven’t read, I felt the “yes” of these enough that this little list stayed with me over the last couple of days and remerged this morning as I finally crested the hill and reached the house with the paper and egg.
In the kitchen, I set a cast iron skillet on the stove and turned on the burner. I thought about it; those four elements aren’t sexy or groundbreaking, but they work. And they are a gift that most of us can open in some way—whether easily when housesitting alone or with admirable effort in a household with a large family.
Today’s simple structure continued after my solo walk—including a very nice egg, over easy, to fuel the next creative project.
As will tomorrow’s….

Cormorant Roosting On A Snag at Hyatt Lake, OR

Yesterday my husband and I took a drive up into the mountains to nearby Hyatt Lake, OR.  It was a beautiful day and perfect for a drive.  After a good winter for snow and rain, the lakes are almost full.

Cormorants Roosting On Snag, Hyatt Lake ORNaturally, I took my field painting box.  There is an old snag that’s been taken over by the cormorants.  They’ve even established some nests.  I thought I’d sit down and do a watercolor study.

Its funny, when I get into focus mode, trying my best to work with the paint, I forget things like all the little gnats flying around.  Or the killdeer that keeps calling trying to distract me.  Or the ants on the log I was sitting on.  The ants left me alone, so, I left them to do their business.

The next cove down we saw a bald eagle.  We were looking for the osprey; the bald eagle will do!

To crown the day, we stopped to have some ice cream at another lake – Howard Prairie.  Nice indulgence!

All in all, a lovely day at Hyatt Lake in southern Oregon!

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Women and nature

Heart of the Matter, Jean Stephens, oil on canvas, 12" x 16"

Heart of the Matter, Jean Stephens, oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″

An interesting two-artist show opens this week at Patricia O’Keefe Ross Art Gallery at St. John Fisher College, with a reception Thursday evening. Entitled “Where Two Women and Nature Converge” it features new work from Jean K. Stephens and Raphaela McCormack. I’m familiar with Jean’s work from exhibitions at Oxford Gallery, and have always loved her nests and the less frequent skulls she does. This show also features images based on still lifes she has assembled from various materials–natural and human–many of them in the shape of female figures. McCormack assembles sturdy-looking but delicate urns, vessels and images of sailing ships from natural materials. Both artists honor the physical qualities of the materials they gather and shape in the process of creating an image that has human resonance–without obscuring the actual nature of what you’re seeing.

Color Bias: Its Relative; Lesson in Primary Color Mixing & Mood

First Lesson

Color bias was one of the first lessons I learned when I started learning about watercolor painting.  Understanding color bias is useful, particularly in mixing color and creating color mood.

Early Advice – Look For Color Bias

Early in my watercolor painting education, I received some guidance and advice from family friend and retired Arts Student’s League instructor Mr. Vincent Malta.  One idea he shared was that all colors have a bias.  They have a warm bias or cool bias.  Warm bias would be a tendency for the pigment to have a little bit of red or yellow in it; cool bias would be toward blue.

Learning - Its all relativeFor personal clarification, and to assist in color mixing, I refer to the bias as toward yellow, red or blue.

Primary Colors

To begin, lets consider the three primary colors – red, blue and yellow.  Easy enough.  Yellow and red are considered warm colors – think fire.  Blue is a cool color, like ice.

But, its not quite so easy because of pigment bias. That is, most yellows have either a slight red or blue tinge.  Reds are either just a tad bluish or yellowish. You figured it – blues either slightly yellow or slightly red.

Why is this important?  Color mixing. Color mood.

In other words, color bias can be huge!

Color Wheel - Its All RelativeColor Wheel – Simplified

To explain, I thought I’d create a simple color wheel.  I selected two examples of each primary color from my watercolor palette.  I created a wheel, arranging them according to bias or tendency.

Regarding the yellows, new gamboge has a bias toward red; hansa yellow tends toward blue.

The reds I selected are scarlet lake – yellow bias, and quinacridone rose – blue bias.

The blues I chose are Prussian blue – yellow bias, and French ultramarine blue – red bias.

For Instance…

Lets do a “for instance”.  If you mix two primary colors with a bias toward each other, then you get a more “clean” color.  If you mix two primary colors where a third is present through bias then you get a “muddied” color.  Its best to look at pictures.

Color Bias - Its All Relative

Two Primary Color Mixing

Above are the pairings of my paints if I only want two primaries in the mix:

  • new gamboge (red bias) mixed with scarlet lake (yellow bias)
  • quinacridone rose (blue bias) mixed with French ultramarine blue (red bias)
  • Prussian blue (yellow bias) mixed with hansa yellow (blue bias)

 

Clear as mud?  🙂

Color Bias - three primaries

Three Primary Color Mixing

Compare the two primary mixes with pairings where all three primaries are present.

  • hansa yellow (blue bias) mixed with quinacridone rose (blue bias)
  • new gamboge (red bias) mixed with quinacridone rose (blue bias)
  • scarlet lake (yellow bias) mixed with Prussian blue (yellow bias)
  • scarlet lake (yellow bias) mixed with French ultramarine blue (red bias)
  • quinacridone rose (blue bias) mixed with Prussian blue (yellow bias)
  • French ultramarine blue (red bias) mixed with new gamboge (red bias)
  • French ultramarine blue (red bias) mixed with hansa yellow (blue bias)
  • Prussian blue (yellow bias) mixed with new gamboge (red bias)
  • hansa yellow (blue bias) mixed with scarlet lake (yellow bias)

You might notice that even though the mix might be interesting, the colors aren’t “pure”, or clean.

For example, French ultramarine blue (red bias) and hansa yellow (blue bias) create a muted green.  I might use this green in depicting the soft greens of desert sage.  I would not use the mixture to depict the bright, clean greens of new leaves

Idea Restated

Just to re-interate, two primaries mixed together results in a cleaner, often more vibrant color.  Three primary colors mixed together create more muted, muddied and sometimes richer colors.

And, they’re all good!  The subtle differences help the painter use color to meet expressive intent – that is to say color mood.

So, now what?

I recommend looking at your own palette and experimenting.  Create triads of reds, yellows and blue and think about each pigment’s color bias.  Then, do a small study.  What kind of mood do you create?  How about the colors?  Is it useful to you?

Experiment

With the left triad, you might notice that all three pigments have a cool bias.  With the middle triad of pigments, there is a warm bias.  The right most triad has a mixed bias, though I would say that it is cool dominant since both hansa yellow and quinacridone rose tend to be cool.

Color Bias - Its All Relative

Share!

Please feel free to comment about your own explorations in color bias and mixing.  If you do a blog post of your own color pallet and experiments, please share your link!  Thanks!

PS.

Though I talk about watercolor paint, the principle of bias applies to all pigments and paints, from color pencil to oils.

 

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Myths and mythologies

Cupid and Psyche, charcoal on paper, Barbara Fox

Cupid and Psyche, charcoal on paper, Barbara Fox

On the heels of my visit to New York to see contemporary interpretations of Medusa and Pandora at Danese Corey, I recently toured Oxford Gallery’s Myth’s and Mythologies. The invitation to this themed group show went out half a year ago and the results are thought-provoking, rewarding, and occasionally stunning, built around various interpretations of mythological figures as well as modern “myths” begging to be busted—the glory of motherhood, in one case, and “trickle-down economics” in another. In other words, there’s a little something for everyone. It ranges from an astonishingly beautiful example of classical sculpture in cararra marble from Italy to a minimalist abstraction painted on a metal panel. A small figure of Daphne, carved by Dario Tazzioli at his studio in Italy, has already been sold—the highest priced piece in the exhibit. It’s easy to see why: astonishingly well done, the female figure seeming to reach up and dissolve into a filigree of roots and branches around her head so delicate that it’s hard to imagine how the sculptor did it. It’s a rare example of centuries-old artistry done by someone trained in Renaissance techniques, using the kind of marble Michelangelo used and a bow drill—reason alone to visit the show. At the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Schroeder’s “Trickle Down Economics,” a large, vigorously executed oil showing the half-demolished interior of an abandoned building, with what appears to be a sinkhole almost underfoot—overall a sardonic reflection on how one man’s ceiling is another one’s floor, economically speaking.

Most of the work relies on traditional mythology. Icarus gets a lot of attention here, as does Persephone, as well as a crew of other Greek or Roman figures: Medusa, Pluto, Neptune, Pandora, Romulus and Remus, Cupid and Psyche, and Pegasus. But the subjects are wide-ranging and the artists find clever ways to put a mythical spin on something otherwise typical of that artist’s work. Helen Bryce Ely’s “Angel of Lock 32” offers a cascade of water rushing through an Erie Canal lock in the shape of wings. And Matt Klos’s painting of his own basement studio, a favorite subject of his, is appropriately presented as an alchemist’s workshop. It’s a small canvas that has a distinctly spiritual aura, a single window shedding light into the dim interior work space that seems to become more distinct and summery as your eyes adjust. It put me in mind of another myth, though. It’s as if, from the back of Plato’s cave, you were to look over our shoulder at the light of day behind you—toward where you’ve been and where you’re headed, if you let the artist take you there.

Amy McLaren offers another of her glimpses into the craziness of parenting in the ironically titled “I Am Atlas” where it’s impossible to discern who is the puppet in this mother and child duo entangled in a sort of cat’s cradle of improvised climber’s rope. Bill Santelli’s “All Things Are Buddha Things” offers a glimpse into a multi-dimensional space that feels enormous even though it’s on a fairly small scale, compared to many of his abstractions. It’s almost a psychological hall of mirrors, combining script, silhouettes of figures that seem caught in motion, and the profile of the foreground face, the one witnessing it all. Tom Insalaco’s large figure of a triumphant horse in an Italian piazza with fireworks exploding in the distance refers to the Festa del Redentore, a celebration of the end of the plague, a tradition that began in 1576 in Venice. Though the canvas is dark, as is most of his current work, it’s a stubborn assertion of endurance and survival, an affirmation of life and art both—and a bit of a self-portrait, maybe. It hinted to me of a rebirth for the dying horse in Picasso’s Guernica, now with a backdrop of harmless bombs bursting in air.  And Bill Stephens offered one of his improvisational drawings, part of a series he’s been doing for months now, as finely delineated as etchings, mysterious and evocative, a dreamlike depiction of the creation that looks more Gnostic than Hebrew.

The sculpture in this show, including Tazzioli’s “Daphne”, in many ways quietly upstaged the paintings and drawings. Most of the three-dimensional work is modestly sized, but magnetic: Wayne Williams contributed two versions of Icarus, and one of them captures the chaotic fall of a human body through space perfectly, with two wings outstetched toward the upward-hurtling ground, the feathers frantically contracted into cylinders, so that they look as if their weight is actually pulling him down—hubris in nutshell. And John Lombari’s “Winged Figure” sits like a mystical marble cairn, its detail reduced to minimal forms, with wings of smooth, hard rock. Leonda Finke’s “Expulsion of Eve” reminded me of a figure study by Rodin, the woman caught in mid-flight, full of shame and fear, like a notorious celebrity fleeing the paparazzi, but in her case far worse: naked, vulnerable and lost.  It’s achingly human, full of pathos.

It’s impossible to do justice to all the great work on view here. I expect to see new things to love when I head down to see if for a third time on Saturday evening.

“Organic Grind” Coffee Kiosk – Drawing Talent Series*

Grinding Another Drawing

Greetings!  Its “Organic Grind” time!   And, time to add another entry in my “Drawing Talent” series.  The series is about on location watercolor drawings of my hometown  of Talent, OR.  (See the bottom of this post for more about the series).

Today I took the opportunity to walk to “Organic Grind”, a local drive through coffee kiosk.

Organic Grind, Watercolor & Ink

 

About “Organic Grind”

“Organic Grind” is located on one of my exercise routes.  Its also located near one of the main intersections in town where Valley View Drive crosses the Pacific Highway. Its a busy place with lots of customers driving though every morning.  I went out late morning to draw the kiosk and it was still busy.  There was a steady stream of cars driving through.  It made drawing the kiosk interesting as the cars blocked part of the view.  Fun, though.

Today’s baristas were Shawna and Crystal.  I met Shawna; she was nice and enthusiastic about the fact I was drawing the kiosk.

Today’s Lesson Learned

Oh, I learned something today.  As I said above, the kiosk is located near one of the main intersections in town.  The first location I chose for drawing was near one of the roads.  I set up just inside of the sidewalk that borders Valley View Road.

OOOPS!  Not so good.  Valley View Road gets plenty of truck traffic.  Even though I wasn’t on the road, I felt its effects.  The first truck that went by sent my paper flying.  I was received a nice back-blast gust of air.  Not so fun.  I retrieved my equipment and found a better place to draw.

Lesson learned when drawing and painting outside, make sure you are away from truck traffic!

We Love Our Coffee

One thing about the Pacific Northwestern states – we like our coffee.  Its my impression that most towns have several places where one can get an excellent cup of espresso or coffee.  This is one of the things I like about the Northwest.

Double Espresso – Of Course

Naturally, I had to have a double espresso after completing my drawing.  In my opinion, the best way to test a coffee place is to try the espresso – neat of course.  No milk, sugar, cream, syrup or other foreign things in my espresso.

I like an espresso that leaves a satisfying, slightly citrus-ie after taste.   I enjoyed “Organic Grind’s” espresso and recommend it.

Organic Grind, Ball Point Pen

The Drawings

Back to the drawings.  This past February, I did a quick study of the kiosk.  At that time, there were people ordering from one of the coffee windows.  I did this small drawing during my morning exercise session.  I gave myself five minutes or less to do the drawing.  Such time limits force me to look at the big shapes.

Today’s drawing was the watercolor and ink study.  It was done in about an hour or less.  There is nothing particularly magical about the timing.  I’m just working on my ability to focus.  Plus, I want to do the studies quickly so the light doesn’t change too much.

Drawing Talent Series

*Note:  The intention of my “Drawing Talent” series is to get to know my home town one watercolor and ink study at a time.  I started this series in May, 2014.  Its fun and interesting.  Its the type of the thing that one might not ever finish.  Already, some buildings have changed businesses a couple of times.  And, there are plenty of places I haven’t drawn yet.  I have only gone to places within walking distance.

More soon!  I hope you enjoy the drawings!

 

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Why I avoided art school

 

Bathers by the River, Matisse

Bathers by the River, Matisse

I woke up at 1:15 a couple nights ago and couldn’t get back to sleep until around 2:30, which has been my sleep pattern for years, but while I tossed and turned, my thoughts came together on Matisse, whose work and life I’ve been studying intermittently for half a year now. It occurred to me that he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the famous line in 1908, a year after Picasso’s outrageous Demoiselles D’Avignon was painted, and this short passage of prose probably relegated Matisse to a back seat, in comparison to Picasso, with critics and historians ever since. (Do a search for the many biographies of Picasso and then try Matisse. Incredibly, as far as I can tell, only one biography has been written of Matisse, and it was published only a decade ago.) I came across his personal declaration of independence again yesterday reading Matisse on Art:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.

Imagine the derision this remark must have inspired from all quarters, and still probably does even now in the Age of Koons, especially over his “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” From the point of view of those who saw art as a continuous shocking overthrow of prevailing artistic norms—modernism’s hollow legacy—this sentence sounds like blasphemy and backsliding, or worse. I think, in reality, it was a way of taking a stance against history, in a way. Matisse knew the risk he was taking, that he was setting himself at odds with the elements and theories he expected to be most celebrated in painting as it emerged in the 20th century. He asserts that he’s painting for the middle class, the businessman, the ordinary art lover, the loathed bourgeoisie—all of the people modernism was trying to outrage and unsettle and disturb. Instead, like Van Gogh, he was painting for everyone and anyone. That passage in “Notes of a Painter” was his refusal to be indoctrinated away from his own deepest instincts and aspirations—his faith in what art was meant to do. The man who, near the end of his life, told a nun that his aims as an artist were nearly identical with hers, as a follower of God, would have had a hard time recognizing a place for himself in the rhetoric of modern art as a destructive, revolutionary force. He was describing art as meditation, something that rises up from individual silence and joy, with no other agenda than to induce silence and love and joy in the viewer, and maybe even an occasional pleasure.

He was asserting that art is about the individual, one at the easel and the one in the armchair looking at the finished work. It is about the web of unarticulated imperatives that drive each individual artist to make a particular kind of mark and choose a certain way to paint—which grows and develops in fits and false starts, leaping forward then backtracking, exactly the way a complex personality does. Only a few paragraphs later, he writes:

Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as a Racine. I am ready to admit that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian, a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from those which suited their temperaments, and I prefer the most minor of their paintings to all the work of those who are content to imitate the Venus of Urbino or the Madonna of the Goldfinch.

This sounds perfectly consistent with the modernist code: it was throwing out old rules and encoding new ones into each new image. Yet, I think for Matisse, any set of inherited or borrowed rules would once again lock the individual into a certain way of painting, a new school, the safety of the herd. And he never actually says the Impressionists were creating a new cage of shared rules: simply that they were following their own individual imperatives. In reality, there are plenty of rules embedded in Impressionism, and in any consistent body of work, and they are both limiting and liberating. His first sentence is the heart of it: rules in art have no existence apart from the individuals who generate them. The rules grow organically from the ungovernable passions of a practice, not the other way around. The rules are nothing more than hard-won personal habits an artist discovers at the end of the act of painting not before it begins.

When I was in college, I’d already been painting for four or five years, and I was urged to go to art school, but I backed away from it and got a degree in English instead. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated into anyone else’s way of making art because I felt alienated by much of what was happening in painting in the 60s and 70s. Though I’ve come to love many of the painters whose work left me cold back then, at the time I distrusted the way theory had come to seem more important than instinct and feeling. I was too young and lazy to discern the deep individualistic passions in much of the work being done at that time, feeling loyal to a panoply of artists who had already inspired me, from half a century earlier: Braque, Chagall, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and many others. For example, I didn’t see in Diebenkorn a sort of fulfillment of what Matisse began in 1913 and then abandoned four years later, the monumental paintings he reworked for years that were so stunning in the Radical Invention show I attended at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. (The bathers Matisse painted in those years are as much his calm reply to Demoiselles as they are an homage to Cezanne.) I didn’t warm to photo-realism, which Tom Wolfe celebrated as a cure for the oppressive influence of theory on visual art: it seemed at the time too spiritless and robotic, though I’ve come to love much of it since then. I didn’t even know Fairfield Porter existed, nor that he was exploring the stylistic space Matisse opened up in Nice, after he abandoned those large experimental canvases in which he internalized the challenge of Cubism and pure abstraction.

So, feeling as if the work I imagined doing had no place in my era—that my only hope was to be an irrelevant late-comer, if I were to amount to anything—I continued to paint, without thinking I had a chance of exhibiting, while finding a career as a writer. (It wasn’t clear to me that there’s no such thing as a late-comer now. As Danto pointed out, art history is over.) I chose and continued on that path in a spirit of defiance, because the art world seemed to become only more alienating over the next couple decades. I felt I had no footing anywhere—though, again, this was only because I was missing much of what had been happening in less celebrated corners of the art world. Eventually, I became aware of other artists who were continuing to work in a representational mode, and I studied their work in books and exhibits: Louisa Mattiasdottir, William Bailey, Neil Welliver, Lennart Anderson, Chuck Close and all the others who chose a path as Matisse did, without regard for whatever was being celebrated as avant garde at the time, finding a more individual means of expression by relying partly on the past, but adapting what could be learned from previous work and making individual choices to create visual worlds all their own. (One of the very few times I’ve wanted to be rich—or at least rich enough to be an art collector, that is—was when I went to New York in 1991 and saw a little exhibit of Matthiasdottir’s work at Robert Schoelkopf’s gallery. Anyone with a moderately nourished savings account at the time could have afforded one of her paintings at that show. I should have worn old clothes and shelled out the money for art, as Hemingway did, when he bought paintings with Hadley’s money in Paris. But I didn’t. It happened to be the year Schoelkopf died and the gallery closed, and I got there just in time, as it were, to stand a few feet away from one Matthiasdottir painting after another. When will there be another opportunity to do that?)

All of which is to say, Matisse’s most significant period, for me, is the one least respected, the work he did while he was in Nice, when he reached back toward Post-Impressionism and backed away from the near-abstraction he had been obsessively perfecting for four years. It wasn’t that he was giving up on being a more integral agent in the art of his time; he was rejecting the notion that his historical context had to determine the way he painted. He was choosing himself over what was happening around him, market and critics and fellow painters and Surrealist poets and all other considerations be damned. That meant, for Matisse in particular, he was increasingly choosing color and line over theory, over ideas, over the notion that art rises up out of concepts instead of inchoate feeling embodied in physical labor and visual perception. Color became his medium, until he was essentially shaping pure color itself with a pair of scissors at the end. Those later cut-outs are the most joyous work any artist has ever done, and I never want to look away from them, but for me they aren’t as substantial or lasting as the modest-seeming interiors and still lifes and figures he did in Nice, which may seem to some critics little more than odes to pleasure. (He set himself up for that with his line about easing the life of the businessman in his armchair.) Instead, they are melodies composed with color, a balance of his desire to both represent the world and yet be just as obsessed with the physical qualities of a painting’s surface and of color for its own sake. And yet, for all that, they feel natural and effortless. More significantly, in each one, you sense what it was like to be this particular human being, at this time of day, in this warm and light-filled place, paying attention to how it felt to be alive, mindful of everything around him and within him, and trying to pass all of it along to anyone else who would pause long enough to notice.

Why I avoided art school

 

Bathers by the River, Matisse

Bathers by the River, Matisse

I woke up at 1:15 a couple nights ago and couldn’t get back to sleep until around 2:30, which has been my sleep pattern for years, but while I tossed and turned, my thoughts came together on Matisse, whose work and life I’ve been studying intermittently for half a year now. It occurred to me that he knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the famous line in 1908, a year after Picasso’s outrageous Demoiselles D’Avignon was painted, and this short passage of prose probably relegated Matisse to a back seat, in comparison to Picasso, with critics and historians ever since. (Do a search for the many biographies of Picasso and then try Matisse. Incredibly, as far as I can tell, only one biography has been written of Matisse, and it was published only a decade ago.) I came across his personal declaration of independence again yesterday reading Matisse on Art:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.

Imagine the derision this remark must have inspired from all quarters, and still probably does even now in the Age of Koons, especially over his “devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” From the point of view of those who saw art as a continuous shocking overthrow of prevailing artistic norms—modernism’s hollow legacy—this sentence sounds like blasphemy and backsliding, or worse. I think, in reality, it was a way of taking a stance against history, in a way. Matisse knew the risk he was taking, that he was setting himself at odds with the elements and theories he expected to be most celebrated in painting as it emerged in the 20th century. He asserts that he’s painting for the middle class, the businessman, the ordinary art lover, the loathed bourgeoisie—all of the people modernism was trying to outrage and unsettle and disturb. Instead, like Van Gogh, he was painting for everyone and anyone. That passage in “Notes of a Painter” was his refusal to be indoctrinated away from his own deepest instincts and aspirations—his faith in what art was meant to do. The man who, near the end of his life, told a nun that his aims as an artist were nearly identical with hers, as a follower of God, would have had a hard time recognizing a place for himself in the rhetoric of modern art as a destructive, revolutionary force. He was describing art as meditation, something that rises up from individual silence and joy, with no other agenda than to induce silence and love and joy in the viewer, and maybe even an occasional pleasure.

He was asserting that art is about the individual, one at the easel and the one in the armchair looking at the finished work. It is about the web of unarticulated imperatives that drive each individual artist to make a particular kind of mark and choose a certain way to paint—which grows and develops in fits and false starts, leaping forward then backtracking, exactly the way a complex personality does. Only a few paragraphs later, he writes:

Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as a Racine. I am ready to admit that from a study of the works of Raphael or Titian, a more complete set of rules can be drawn than from those which suited their temperaments, and I prefer the most minor of their paintings to all the work of those who are content to imitate the Venus of Urbino or the Madonna of the Goldfinch.

This sounds perfectly consistent with the modernist code: it was throwing out old rules and encoding new ones into each new image. Yet, I think for Matisse, any set of inherited or borrowed rules would once again lock the individual into a certain way of painting, a new school, the safety of the herd. And he never actually says the Impressionists were creating a new cage of shared rules: simply that they were following their own individual imperatives. In reality, there are plenty of rules embedded in Impressionism, and in any consistent body of work, and they are both limiting and liberating. His first sentence is the heart of it: rules in art have no existence apart from the individuals who generate them. The rules grow organically from the ungovernable passions of a practice, not the other way around. The rules are nothing more than hard-won personal habits an artist discovers at the end of the act of painting not before it begins.

When I was in college, I’d already been painting for four or five years, and I was urged to go to art school, but I backed away from it and got a degree in English instead. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated into anyone else’s way of making art because I felt alienated by much of what was happening in painting in the 60s and 70s. Though I’ve come to love many of the painters whose work left me cold back then, at the time I distrusted the way theory had come to seem more important than instinct and feeling. I was too young and lazy to discern the deep individualistic passions in much of the work being done at that time, feeling loyal to a panoply of artists who had already inspired me, from half a century earlier: Braque, Chagall, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and many others. For example, I didn’t see in Diebenkorn a sort of fulfillment of what Matisse began in 1913 and then abandoned four years later, the monumental paintings he reworked for years that were so stunning in the Radical Invention show I attended at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. (The bathers Matisse painted in those years are as much his calm reply to Demoiselles as they are an homage to Cezanne.) I didn’t warm to photo-realism, which Tom Wolfe celebrated as a cure for the oppressive influence of theory on visual art: it seemed at the time too spiritless and robotic, though I’ve come to love much of it since then. I didn’t even know Fairfield Porter existed, nor that he was exploring the stylistic space Matisse opened up in Nice, after he abandoned those large experimental canvases in which he internalized the challenge of Cubism and pure abstraction.

So, feeling as if the work I imagined doing had no place in my era—that my only hope was to be an irrelevant late-comer, if I were to amount to anything—I continued to paint, without thinking I had a chance of exhibiting, while finding a career as a writer. (It wasn’t clear to me that there’s no such thing as a late-comer now. As Danto pointed out, art history is over.) I chose and continued on that path in a spirit of defiance, because the art world seemed to become only more alienating over the next couple decades. I felt I had no footing anywhere—though, again, this was only because I was missing much of what had been happening in less celebrated corners of the art world. Eventually, I became aware of other artists who were continuing to work in a representational mode, and I studied their work in books and exhibits: Louisa Mattiasdottir, William Bailey, Neil Welliver, Lennart Anderson, Chuck Close and all the others who chose a path as Matisse did, without regard for whatever was being celebrated as avant garde at the time, finding a more individual means of expression by relying partly on the past, but adapting what could be learned from previous work and making individual choices to create visual worlds all their own. (One of the very few times I’ve wanted to be rich—or at least rich enough to be an art collector, that is—was when I went to New York in 1991 and saw a little exhibit of Matthiasdottir’s work at Robert Schoelkopf’s gallery. Anyone with a moderately nourished savings account at the time could have afforded one of her paintings at that show. I should have worn old clothes and shelled out the money for art, as Hemingway did, when he bought paintings with Hadley’s money in Paris. But I didn’t. It happened to be the year Schoelkopf died and the gallery closed, and I got there just in time, as it were, to stand a few feet away from one Matthiasdottir painting after another. When will there be another opportunity to do that?)

All of which is to say, Matisse’s most significant period, for me, is the one least respected, the work he did while he was in Nice, when he reached back toward Post-Impressionism and backed away from the near-abstraction he had been obsessively perfecting for four years. It wasn’t that he was giving up on being a more integral agent in the art of his time; he was rejecting the notion that his historical context had to determine the way he painted. He was choosing himself over what was happening around him, market and critics and fellow painters and Surrealist poets and all other considerations be damned. That meant, for Matisse in particular, he was increasingly choosing color and line over theory, over ideas, over the notion that art rises up out of concepts instead of inchoate feeling embodied in physical labor and visual perception. Color became his medium, until he was essentially shaping pure color itself with a pair of scissors at the end. Those later cut-outs are the most joyous work any artist has ever done, and I never want to look away from them, but for me they aren’t as substantial or lasting as the modest-seeming interiors and still lifes and figures he did in Nice, which may seem to some critics little more than odes to pleasure. (He set himself up for that with his line about easing the life of the businessman in his armchair.) Instead, they are melodies composed with color, a balance of his desire to both represent the world and yet be just as obsessed with the physical qualities of a painting’s surface and of color for its own sake. And yet, for all that, they feel natural and effortless. More significantly, in each one, you sense what it was like to be this particular human being, at this time of day, in this warm and light-filled place, paying attention to how it felt to be alive, mindful of everything around him and within him, and trying to pass all of it along to anyone else who would pause long enough to notice.