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Max Gottschlich on the limits of knowledge

Max Gottschlich

A few months ago, I came across what for most people other than professional philosophers would be an obscure, academic essay on Kant in the journal Metaphysics from 2015. I stumbled onto it after skimming through some art criticism online and finding a phrase about “Kant’s theories on the limitations of logic.” This intrigued me; anything about the limits of human reasoning draws my attention, but especially in relation to this foremost German critic of human reason, who also happened to be the fellow who established the philosophical framework for the reliability of the scientific method.  So I Googled “Kant on the limits of logic” and this essay topped the list of hits. The title of the paper almost sounded like a Monty Python parody of Continental philosophy: “The Necessity and Limits of Kant’s Transcendental Logic, with Reference to Nietzsche and Hegel.” Yet the content of the paper has held my interest, off and on, for months. 

I have reread Gottschlich many times, and though I’m still bemused by a few passages toward the end, the essay strikes me as both a useful explication of what Kant was doing in his philosophy and also a way of putting logical reasoning into proper perspective. All of which has a bearing on what visual art can do outside the scope of what Kant was exploring. The quietly radical implications of all this probably wouldn’t bother those who think science is the last word on truth—but it should. In other words, it’s an effort that seems at least partly consonant with Heidegger’s own critical views on the entirety of Western thought and the nihilism at the heart of it.

Max Gottschlich, the essay’s author, starts by pointing out that Kant sets aside metaphysics—all the theories of truth that have arisen in Western philosophy since the Greeks. Instead, he examines, in The Critique of Pure Reason, only the marriage between logic and the knowledge it offers. Instead of postulating an ontology—a theory of being—he shows how the system of logic gives form to the manifold world of sensory experience and thus give rise to our understanding of a world that operates by natural laws. All other forms of awareness are set aside in this process. What the world or anything in it actually is remains beside the point–and unknowable through logic. Logical understanding—transcendental logic as it is called in the essay—provides the superstructure within which all individual things become comprehensible within this ordered world of appearances.

Kant no longer undertakes the inquiry into being and its determinations, but more fundamentally asks about the conditions of the possibility of knowledge of objects in general.

It’s pertinent to note that logic isn’t only the ground for scientific investigation, but also provides the structure of computer software and artificial intelligence, as well as an individual’s common sense problem-solving in daily life. Logic itself is reshaping our entire world–it’s what rules the spirit of our age. Gottschlich wants to understand how this sort of knowledge functions as a whole. For him, Kant isn’t interested, per se,  in particular operations of formal logic, as a computer engineer would be, but in the role that logical understanding and knowledge play in forming the boundaries of thought and human awareness. He aims to think about how logic structures knowledge, how it generates it, rather than about how the rules of formal logic lead to particular valid propositions that can be proven.

He points out that Western philosophy perennially begins with the identification of thinking and being: it is taken for granted that rational thought is how we come to unveil the being of things and the world. Thought corresponds with the world in reliable ways—and the goal of much philosophy has been to propose a theory, a metaphysics, to explain how and why this is so. Until Kant, the author says, philosophy assumed an equivalence between thinking and being. In this view, the actual being of an object in the world, what it is, reveals itself through its intelligibility—it becomes transparent to thought. If you think in a logical, non-contradictory way about the world, it has been assumed you will arrive at an understanding of the world’s inherent nature. To achieve this consistent, non-contradictory realm of thought—and being—much of Western philosophy has situated truth somehow apart from this changing, imperfect world: Plato’s realm of Forms or Ideas, for example.

Yet Gottschlich suggests that this consistent, non-contradictory world of logic exists only as a way for the thinking subject, “the transcendental I”, to maintain itself in time, to persist and endure, to survive–to maintain an integrated sense of personal identity and also to successfully impose one’s will on the world. Witness the power and benefits of science and technology, the children of logic. Yet, as much as logic enables us to master the world, that world  itself, in its actual nature, is almost essentially contradictory–it undermines itself. 

Concepts like κίνησις, οὐσία, ἐντελέχεια, σύνολον, causa sui, monad, and, as Kant indirectly shows, the concept of freedom and the “I” have something in common: they cannot be conceived other than as a unity of opposed determinations (being–nothing, rest–motion, particular–general, possibility–actuality, matter–form, unity–plurality, cause–effect, determination–indeterminacy, subject—object).

Even with pure reason, even putting aside the polarities of the actual world, the mind finds itself ultimately in a state of contradiction. The abstract idea of causation can’t resolve the contradictions inherent within it. Every effect has a cause, each cause has its own antecedent cause, all of which must have been started in motion by a Prime Mover, a first cause. And yet there is no such thing as an action without a cause: the notion of a first cause is self-contradictory. We can’t rationally conceive of a first cause. 

Kant looked at the philosophy of his own day—from empiricism to pure idealism—and found that both opposing schools led to self-contradictions and the inability to ground reason in a valid way. The outcome of this realization is that thinking and what is, the actuality of the world, come apart. Thinking isn’t commensurate with actuality. So, for Kant, all these other attempts at philosophical thinking offered no way to establish a reliable connection between thinking and the phenomenal world, the “spacial-temporal manifold” of sensory information.

(With David Hume’s empiricism, if every idea or content of consciousness should be proven to be grounded only in sensation,) then not only does all objectivity immediately vanish into a “bunch of impressions,” so that something like a common world is a fiction, but also the so-called subject is nothing but a Heraclitean flow of impressions in which it immediately dissolves. Thus, not only metaphysics, but all scientific knowledge and its presuppositions, are fundamentally unjustified.

If all knowledge is simply grounded in sensation and the mind is a provisional epiphenomenon of the random behavior of the world, then all knowledge is equally random, simply a mirroring of the endless, orderless shifting river of experience. Science and natural laws are just as fungible as the ideas that arise out of this ever-changing kaleidoscope of phenomena. In this case, knowledge is either inherently contradictory—a thing is both there and then not there, changing slightly into something else, just as you try to pin it down with a name—or ultimately illusory. But science works, the world is predictable, up to to a point, so this can’t be the case. 

Kant establishes how, in fact, there can be any identity between thinking and being: how thinking can actually reflect or represent an intelligible, ordered world—in a way that works for human purposes.

Kant inquires into that which lies behind previous epistemologies, the prerequisites of the interrelation of the logical and reality.

Kant’s endeavor is consequently to unfold systematically all the presuppositions that guarantee that thinking in accordance with the forms and principles of formal logic does not result in mere tautologies or lead to contradiction but is objectively valid.

He wants to show how thought can be objectively valid, neither contradictory nor a matter of empty equivalences—how and why rational thought itself creates its own necessity.

What knowledge do we achieve or obtain about being or actuality by means of formal logic?

This line from Gottschlich is his central interest: what sort of knowledge do we achieve through formal logic, or to put it more compellingly, what is modern science actually teaching us? What is human knowledge, as defined by Western thinking, and how does it reveal to us—or potentially divert us from—the nature of actuality?

Against the background of this question, we can capture the main difference between formal and transcendental logic: formal logic presupposes the constitution of the objectivity of the object, whereas transcendental logic shows the mode of the constitution of objectivity.

The eyes want to glaze over here, but his argument pivots on this assertion: logical thinking presupposes the objective validity of its own processes, which can’t be proven from within the procedures of logic itself—an observation akin to Godel’s incompleteness theorem—while Kant’s “transcendental” examination of logic tries to reveal how objectivity itself is established, without going beyond this question to ask exactly what “objective thinking” is doing in the world, and in the foundation of human nature itself. Kant is critically thinking about the nature of objectivity as a whole, not simply looking at ways in which objective knowledge of particular things is acquired.

This justification requires necessarily establishing an a priori (universally valid and necessary) relation between the logical form and what we call the object.

Therefore, the logical must be regarded as forming form, as logical activity a priori, which constitutes the identity of something as something, the objectivity of the object.

“Logic must be regarded as forming form” is a pivotal phrase in the paper. Max G. shows how human understanding, at the level Kant was trying to elucidate, the “transcendental level,” prior to particular thoughts, actually creates the forms which provide the structure of thought itself: thought unifies multiple sensory impressions into the perception of an object, establishing the identity of things in the world, in such a way that this act of “forming form” constitutes both the objective world and the mind that understands it simultaneously.

(A) concept is not like an empty box, waiting to be filled with content or to be applied to given objects or particulars. Rather, the concept is a concept if and only if it grasps something.

Logic is prehensile, almost creative. A concept isn’t something that exists in the mind waiting for the individual to come across its equivalent in the world: a concept is formed only when it grasps something in the world: takes manifold sensory impressions and actively unifies them into a useful idea or perception. Without that soup of sensory data, there is no concept. Logic gives form to the world itself. So much for Plato. And yet this entire complex network of understanding itself, structured by logic, remains ungrounded and unproven. 

The logical principles (mainly the principles of identity and noncontradiction) are no longer simply axioms. According to formal logic, the principles of logic cannot be positively grounded or proved, as every proof or every syllogism already presupposes these principles.

This is where the argument here veers toward Godel, who suggested that every mathematical system depends on certain axioms that have to be assumed and can’t be proven by the system itself—because they need to be used in order to work out any proof at all.  It’s a bootstrapping problem inherent in human thought.

All deductive (as well as inductive) reasoning must therefore ultimately rest upon principles which seem to be given patterns of reason. This is true given that formal logic cannot ground its own principles. Now, in transcendental logic, thought can proceed a step further and enlighten the relative necessity of this positing. Transcendental logic reveals that these principles are demands of consistency that are to be set in order to maintain or preserve the identity of . . .  self-consciousness.

In a philosophical sense, this transcendental logic is precisely the structure of self-preservation for the thinking subject—the “transcendental I.” It enables rational consciousness, a sense of self, to survive through time and gives it continuity—while at the same time being the framework for useful, purposeful behavior essential to physical self-preservation. Logic is essentially at the heart of the will to power, or put another way, in common terms, the survival instinct.

Objectivity is not, as common sense believes, the representation of something beyond the I, of an object outside us, but a system of necessarily related representations. Therefore, according to Kant, the objectivity of the logical form requires the givenness of the matter as a separate source of knowledge and a necessary relation of the representations to each other. Again, it is important to note that the limitation of knowledge to the object of appearance must not be regarded as an expression of skepticism or the modesty of telling a story about alleged finite human capacities. Its purpose is rather the opposite: this and only this limitation will guarantee the necessity of knowledge . . . 

This strikes me as a rare, remarkable insight (I suspect, not being a professional philosopher and not knowing how much this field has been tilled in the past few decades). Gottschlich points out that Kant’s transcendental logic and the way in which it arises through its own action in establishing objects of thought and their interconnections, as they yield themselves to logic itself,  represents the only way to assure the validity of scientific endeavor, or “the necessity of knowledge.” Logic, or what we consider the only reliable form of human understanding, represents a system of knowledge in which all things in the world have reality only in relation to the way they appear to fit into this system of knowledge.

There is the problem inherent in this Faustian power. We have no way to consciously step outside this system and behold things as they are, no way to willfully set aside our pragmatic, manipulative (and self-interested) understanding of how appearances behave—and this doesn’t detract from the validity of scientific, logical thought. In fact, it’s what makes it work—this limitation.

Necessary knowledge of objects is not possible with regard to a thing in itself, but only with regard to a coherent, contradiction-free, and therefore unequivocally determinable system of appearances. This is nothing other than the object of modern natural science.

It is important to note that in this perspective all phenomena (individuals, particulars) as appearances must not have something like an identity within themselves, an internal or imminent identity which presents itself in the way a thing changes or reacts, as previous ontology conceived it. To put the point more sharply, they are not selves at all, that is, they have no internal self-relation. Rather, they are merely functional elements in a system, and their identity or determinateness is rooted only in this system of appearances.

The living, changing self of things endures beyond the ambit of rational thought. For the purposes of logical thought, things have no inherent being in and of themselves, but exist for us only as nodes in a vast matrix of appearances ordered by the human mind. What a thing is, in and of itself—Kant’s thing-in-itself—is irrelevant when it comes to reasoning. And operating only in this logic-generated world of appearances, logic finds its supreme power. The manifold world of appearances reveals itself as orderly, useful, an enormous resource, or in Heidegger’s terminology “a standing reserve” of raw material for human purposes.

Now, we must not think that this is only a matter of the scientific worldview. The logic of objectification or identification with which the transcendental logic deals is of course a matter of our everyday life, too. Without this objectification, human beings could not survive biologically.

Kant’s transcendental logic unveils the hitherto hidden teleological character of formal logic, its imperative character: formal logic is the logic of knowledge for the sake of domination, of control. The goal of modern mathematical natural science is knowledge that can be applied. The transcendental logic shows that this is made possible only because this object, the world of appearance, is not alien but thoroughly constituted by the logical I.  . . . .. It is a logically transparent world. This enables prognosis, and prognosis enables technical mastery of nature. I can control something completely only if I am able to predict action and reaction a priori. This is the one side, namely, that Kant’s transcendental logic shows under which conditions this knowledge of domination is possible.

But unlike Kant, Nietzsche stresses that the concepts we build up via logic are sheer positings, hypostases. By “hypostasis” we mean something that is factually ontologically dependent and yet is regarded as if it could exist on its own.

We accept that this vast system of logical understanding exists on its own, but it is in fact adopted provisionally–the entire system is posited–for its usefulness, rather than because there is any way to establish that it is actually commensurate with the world as it actually is. In his shift to Nietzsche, Gottschlich tries to elucidate what is implicit in Kant’s critique of reason—that it establishes objective validity for thought, but also shows implicitly that logical thought isn’t impartial or without “interest” in the world. Logical thought is the central way in which human beings exercise the will to power over the world, for better or worse, from the wonders of arthroscopic surgery and targeting cancer drugs to Chernobyl and Hiroshima. And it all rests on our collective agreement to trust in logic as if it were the most faithful way of being aware of the true nature of things–with no way to prove that this is actually the case. Logic works. That’s the best we can say for it. 

Nietzsche claims that all of this vast body of reliable knowledge is founded upon the illusory assumption that there is such a thing as truth. This was the first note in our now familiar, discordant symphony of postmodernism. While this assumption gives us power over nature, truth is nothing more than pragmatic, useful “hypostases.” We act as if logic is more than simply a tool with which to assert our power, but it is actually merely a ploy for bringing the world to heel. Postmodernism follows inevitably from this. For Nietzsche and for Gottschlich, actuality doesn’t square with logic–the world exceeds what we regard as the truth of it. What he’s also suggesting is that there may in fact be something true beyond our pragmatic rational science, but it is outside the reach of logic–he’s not siding with Hume and Heraclitus or, necessarily, the postmodernists.

If actuality or life is conceived as becoming, then it cannot be conceived as free of contradiction. Therefore, the model of a world which is free of contradiction amounts to a perversion of actuality or, according to Nietzsche, the expression of the will to dominate life. For this reason, formal logic cannot serve as an organon of knowledge of actuality.

Formal logic cannot serve as a means of gaining knowledge of the thing-in-itself, but only of the thing as appearance, which is contradiction-free.

Logic tells us nothing about the actual nature of anything as a whole. From within its bounds, we are as clueless about what the world actually is as we ever were. We understand only how to make the world work for us.

Formal logic—as basis of all science. . . .enables us to gain control over the becoming of life, to domesticate, to govern it. Indeed, Nietzsche wants to uncover the construction of our scientific view of the world by means of logic as a mighty tool of domination. Kant would agree with this by responding: Transcendental logic demonstrates exactly the preconditions under which we can gain objective knowledge qua knowledge that may serve to dominate actuality.

To know actuality, the living world itself,

. . . .is knowing which interprets something as presenting a self. Actuality is not a possible object of scientific experience in Kant’s terms, or a Tatsache in Sachverhalten, <a fact in a state of affairs> as Wittgenstein puts it in the Tractatus, but an event (Ereignis). This requires us to overcome the interest toward this being and to exercise a theoretical perspective (θεωρία), which means letting it be or present itself.

. . . . transcendental logic elucidates how formal logic has always been a logic of technical-practical knowledge. Transcendental logic is the logic of our technical conduct, which shows what it must presuppose and how we must regard actuality—namely, as (a) world of appearances—if we want to gain knowledge that serves as a means of domination.

What began as a technical, academically philosophical examination of Kant’s theories of knowledge has suddenly become a critique of the Western world’s foundational assumptions about truth–about the agenda of domination behind the seemingly impartial search for scientific facts.

The spirit of our age is imbued with the myth of technology in all domains of our life. This myth is the one-sided, abstract enlightenment, the totalitarianism of the standpoint of utility or finite purposiveness. Kant’s transcendental logic is the first inner-logical step of the enlightenment of this myth.

Kant wants to shed light on what’s operative in logical reasoning: the inability to witness or behold the true nature of things as they are, but to control and utilize the world for human purposes. This is pure Heidegger, yet it’s also surprising and refreshing to hear a philosopher say such things without having to slog through Heidegger’s language. In this case, Gottschlich arrives at observations Heidegger arrived at, but he gets there in a much less mystifying way, simply by examining Kant’s reasoning about logic.

What the world needs as desperately as selfless love is what goes by the term “reasonableness,” a sense of disinterested, balanced response to the behavior of others and the vagaries of life. Reasonableness is the best tool we have for getting along. But that isn’t what Gottschlich is talking about when he speaks of about reason and logic. Toward the end, his essay is a reminder of how the myth of science’s omniscience so governs the contemporary spirit that the limitations and true nature of our assumptions about truth have become virtually invisible, simply because—with our thinking moving only within the boundaries of logic—we assume scientific knowledge is the only way to understand the actual world, when in fact the full nature of human life can’t begin to be addressed by rational thought alone, if at all. We have good justification for ignoring this inconvenience, because reason affords such incredible power over the world—though that power begins to look more Mephistophelean (Iris Murdoch equated “Kantian man” with Milton’s Lucifer) with each passing year, despite the benevolent marvels of medicine and computers. The benefits are irresistible and wondrous—until they aren’t, of course. I’m not only thinking of nuclear risks, or the Pandora’s box of genetic engineering, but also simply the way in which purposeful thought quickly comes to be the only way to apprehend life, shutting out all other ways of beholding the world, all of which are an essential yet unconscious backdrop for human life. To be fully alive is to be able to step outside all sense of purpose and recognize something larger, more encompassing and so innate to being alive that it’s nearly impossible to recognize—simply because it can’t properly be an object of thought. Painting’s great virtue is that it offers a way to see beyond human purpose, outside the box of reason, to reconnect with this ever-present backdrop—a world unavailable to reason–that gives life to human purposes in ways that purposeful (logical) thinking itself can’t objectify. And in this way, visual art–when it isn’t being used as a tool–is a counterforce to something far more fundamental than politics and economics, it’s a pursuit fundamentally contrary to the hyper-rational spirit of the age that began with the Enlightenment and the growing hegemony of science. 

Perfect plaid

Audition #4, detail, Chris Hyndman, acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 48″

From INPA 8.  I have to say, this doesn’t look humanly possible, if it is painted in the traditional way–you know, uh, with brushes. The regularity and exactitude of the lines in the fabric, draped across what looks like a sheet of old Ben Day dots, the way in which little specks and lines of white backing show through the surface of the curtain fabric–it all looks as if it would require months to complete. Hyndman’s intentions are highly conceptual and the feel of the work resists emotional engagement. He says on his website that he imagines them as backdrops–like ambient music, presumably–for people to pose or express themselves, such as a prop for a stand-up comic. I can’t help feel there’s more going on here, at the technical level, than “acrylic on canvas” is willing to divulge, but if not, then these paintings are an astonishing act of hyper-obsessive skill.

Italian painting, circa 2019

 

A page from INPA 8, work from Salerno, Italy. From Manifest Creative Research Gallery’s website:

For the INPA 8 Manifest received 1301 submissions from 389 artists in 42 states and 26 countries. Entries represented works made from 2014 through mid-2017. The publication will include101 works by 62 artists from 27 states and 6 countries including Canada, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States. A written work by Anne Keener (Columbus, Ohio) is also included.

Twelve professional and academic volunteer advisors qualified in the fields of art, design, criticism, and art history juried the eighth International Painting Annual. The process of selection was by anonymous blind jury, with each jury member assigning a quality rating for artistic merit to each work submitted. The entries receiving the highest average combined score are included in this publication. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexy yet serene

Hope, Yolanda Heijnen, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″

This large oil on canvas is from the recently published INPA 8, from Manifest Creative Research in Cincinnati. (I’m going to post a series of paintings I love from the publication over the next couple weeks or more.) This is one of two offerings Manifest selected from Yolande Heijnen, of New York City. The remarkable handling of the paint gives the image the quality of something seen through a streaked, clouded window, yet it also flattens out what appears to be a couch or bed where the woman kneels in a surrendering pose. The way in which the artist abbreviates the blue sheen of the cloth in loose handling on a tan undercoat, with that one crisp line to designate a seam in upholstery or slipcover or bedspread, works beautifully to convey a tactile sense of the fabric without indicating any level of detail at all. The assertively, sensuously unfinished quality of the painting reminds me strongly of Diarmuid Kelley–and Mark Tennant to a lesser degree, though with Tennant there’s less love of the paint itself and an a more acerbic emotional distance from what’s depicted. This is an economical study in three or four colors, depending on how you parse it: dark gray, dull blue, yellow tan for the furniture and redder tan for the skin tones.

The sorrows and joys of taffy

Here I am with a taffy painting I started in February, but have been deterred from finishing because of multiple family obligations. Nevertheless, slow but steady.

I embarked on a series of enlarged images of salt-water taffy last year, unable to reach cruising speed for the work because of a slow flood of continuous family obligations. Over the past year, I’ve had to keep halting my painting (and writing) every two or three weeks for multiple reasons, including several trips to Florida to prepare my parents’ condo for rental or sale, since they’re no longer able to get down there—as well as flights to L.A. to spend a welcome week with my kids and grandkids, after long absences. Having just gotten back from one of those weeks in L.A., my mother fell and broke her hip and then amazed the Highland Hospital staff with her rapid ability to get moving again after a partial hip replacement at the age of 94. So, with my time devoted to helping both parents adapt to all of this at home, my work has been on hold for yet another week as of today. 

Caring for aged parents has provided an energizing counterpoint to work at the easel, especially because I’ve been focused on such what seems at first such a trivial subject, dollops of salt-water taffy veiled behind twists of waxed paper, in contrast to the somber, chastening experience of advanced age. Lauren Purje, after she saw my paintings of candy jars seven or eight years ago, remarked, “There’s sadness in them.” It was undoubtedly what charmed her about the paintings, though at the time I was nonplussed by the comment, unconscious of everything about those paintings other than my formal intentions. Sad candy seemed like an oxymoron. They offered me a way to bring more color to a still life—giving me a softened geometric image, a grid, and the format let me choose the colors I could put down. It also offered a balance between flatness and representational depth. The emotional pull of the image wasn’t even on my radar—I was too aware of my formal goals to be alert to what the act of painting had smuggled into the image on its own, while my attention was diverted to the paint itself. In other words, the candy jars were a reminder of how I think art actually operates, embodying a world of feeling and imagination despite an artist’s conscious intentions, conveying more than the artist is, or can ever be, aware of.

I chose taffy for formal reasons as well: the way in which it enabled me to pick and choose different color harmonies and presented loosely abstract properties in the shapes of the paper and the molded nougat-like candy full of supple curves with a few sharp edges. Each bit of wrapped taffy, when the image is enlarged, looks sculptural, muscular, but also ethereal and vulnerable to me—like the contrast between the modeled wax and fabric of Degas’ sculpture of an adolescent dancer. The spirals and tiers and spots of color in the candy itself feel—to me—like wistful, sotto voce references to color field painting, translated into three dimensions. Stacking them and setting them near a window for the shadows cast by a single source of natural light, I’m fascinated by how much drama the images can evoke, like glimpses of rare birds. Their shapes and lines, and the variation in opacity and transparency, give them an almost psychological resonance when I look at the finished work. They seem full of personality. And, simply in their shape and the way they catch the light, a stacked pair of these treats evokes for me a dozen different things: insect wings, tropical fish, rock faces, raptors, carved marble, Elizabethan portraits, skulls, and flesh clothed in sheer fabric. There is a slightly erotic allure in the way these little chunks of sugar present themselves for viewing though the lumpy quality of their form makes this sort of reflection amusing. All of it is amusing. It’s a little funny simply to find oneself painting images of candy and talking at any length about it. Thiebaud kept having to fight the notion that he was crazy to pick his sweet subject matter in the beginning. 

Whether or not anyone else has an inkling about any of this while looking at these paintings, it’s what makes me want to stick with it for quite a while: all of these associations give the act of painting these images a luxuriant feel of being immersed in an encouraging certainty that this is exactly what I should be painting right here and now. That’s a rare feeling, because it’s so easy to get away from the feel of settling into exactly what you most want to do with paintings that answer to what you want to see when you are done. I forget about how slowly the work proceeds and delight in the process itself, in the feel of the paint as I apply it. When you are in that zone, it hardly matters what you are depicting or how, because there’s a sense of perfection in the process that justifies itself anc conveys something essential about painting to a viewer. Again, this is ironic. I’m representing objects riddled with imperfections, wrinkles, crimps, dimples, and cracks, squeezed, smudged, torn here and there, and yet by painting all of that a certain way, they look exactly right and they evoke for me the perfection of any and all imperfections in a subject when they are subsumed into a good painting.  

Lately, too, these paintings feel like an intersection between life and art for me. I’ve been surprised at how the light itself, the way it falls on these punished-looking yet stubbornly cheery servings of empty calories reminds me of the slow, suffering decline my parents are enduring. A sentinel of mortality hovers in my peripheral vision every day now, the sense of impending surrender that skulks around the emotional family campfire, waiting for the flames to gutter.  They aren’t going anywhere. Their health is comparatively good, broken bones notwithstanding. But the erosion of age is relentless. The perky quality of this candy, seemingly eager to be unwrapped and enjoyed, reminds me inevitably of how my parents continue to crack jokes despite the indignities and disorders of advanced age and how they delight in the simplest things, the company of nearly anyone—how they still revel in the color of new leaves in the spring, the beauty of their grandchildren (as hard to make out through the distortions of macular degeneration as it is to see edges of candy behind waxed paper), the weary smile of a son showing up every other day to help. The nurses and techs who came to my mother’s room loved her after three days. She and my father still live independently at home, but it’s a cluttered place now, full of devices to help my father move around, countless pill bottles, machines to magnify whatever my mother needs to read, and lingering smells that wouldn’t have been there ten years ago. They are at the age when they still want to live, and be with the ones they love, though they are ready for whatever might follow the encroaching squalor of a struggle that gets harder from one month to the next.  I could try painting portraits of my parents, but in an oblique way, for me, these taffy paintings are representations of their lives, their struggle, their spirit.

So the sadness of jelly beans may be in the process of being upstaged by the brave tristesse of taffy. Whether the work conveys joy or sadness, life or death, if they turn out the way I want, the images this subject gives me will—I hope—hint at a larger beauty that encompasses all of those polarities. One thing that hasn’t changed and doesn’t fluctuate is love and much of this work is a celebration and direct expression of it. I love my family. I love my work. I may be painting taffy for quite a while, and all those wings that will never fly. I hope I can find time to paint other things as well, though maybe I shouldn’t worry about that just yet. 

David Smith’s material magic

Lakeside-sunglare, oil on birch ply, 8×10 inches, 2019

I recently received my copies of INPA 8, from Manifest Creative Research Gallery, and I’ve been finding much to admire in its pages. I’m going to post some of the work over the next few weeks. It was especially pleasant to see David Smith represented yet again. He’s pitching almost a perfect game since Manifest started publishing INPA: getting his work into, I believe, all but one of the annual compilations of great contemporary painting. He used to have his studio in Hong Kong, which was appropriate, since in most of his work there’s a very Asian sense of unoccupied space, a philosophical void. As in the work of Clifford Still and Sam Francis, that sense of vacancy has as much to do with the effect of his images as whatever emerges from the emptiness. It links his work as well with sumiye painting and Chinese scrolls. It’s a Taoist esthetic that he doesn’t address candidly in his own statements about his work, though what he does say about his process echoes the principles of gutai, which finds new forms of creative expression by exploring the effects and properties of physical materials, again an Asian tradition, but out of Japan, rather than China.

From his website:

These paintings depict natural forms and spaces on solid, wood panels. They use the chemical qualities of oil washes to disrupt, dissolve or decay the image surface. Light, space, time and environmental decay play against natural elements. The images exist in a state of flux; location and time are not always apparent. The light, space and forms are shifting, living and dying, displaying a fragile and temporary nature. Influenced by ink painting, abstraction and photography, they aim for a sense of the mysterious and the elemental.

I recall the earliest work of his I saw in some of the initial INPA publications, work from nine or ten years ago. It showed a helicopter or jet suspended in fog, giving me the sense of being an entomologist discovering an unclassified caddis fly, with human technology seemingly as evanescent as a newly hatched insect. Having moved back to Ireland, he has evolved a process that, more than ever, prompts me to ask a question I emailed to Jason Franz years ago, knowing there would be no answer on the other end: “How in the world does he do that?”

I suspect there may be some originating step using the transfer of a photographic image onto his support, which is then worked by hand, the way R.H. Quaytman begins by silkscreening a Polaroid image onto a surface and then improvising on it with other materials. It’s possible, but the evidence of his brush is often so distinct that he doesn’t seem to be working from a transferred photographic template. Whatever he’s doing, I’ll bet he doesn’t want to talk about it in detail. I wouldn’t. He should consider his techniques proprietary. Like Quaytman, Smith reduces his image to the simplest possible interlocking layers of differing values—usually eliminating almost all color other than dark-to-light grays. The effect is wondrous: it’s as if he creates an astonishingly convincing landscape that recedes into a more and more atomized haze, each tier of earth or trees or water inhabiting its own particular distance from the eye. In some of the most recent work this year, he shows land masses rising from a remote lake, and these forms could be rock or trees or both, it’s hard to tell, and yet without being able to actually identify what you are seeing, the image looks perfectly real, even with the long parallel lines clawed into the paint, as if with a comb, on the shining surface of the lake. The effect is to make you feel a sense of convincing verisimilitude, true to dawn landscapes you’ve seen in the past, while at the same time introducing you to an entirely imaginary world, an almost abstract collage of shapes, where the scraped and squeegeed-looking ridges of paint somehow magically are both an inert substance disrupting a flat surface and yet exactly what the eye needs in order to seize on a perfectly-rendered, natural vista.

Serene solitudes

In Her Mirror II, detail, Shawn Downey, oil on panel, 2018

I visited Arcadia, in Pasadena, after Shawn Downey’s solo show closed nearly half a year ago now, yet some of his work was still hanging in the rear gallery and I was able to get a close look at half a dozen paintings, which was a great treat—including this one hanging above its shipping crate, ready for its trip home to Canada. Downey’s minimalist interiors, with a single contemplative woman, with the occasional tattoo, in stripped-down, geometric spaces, were a marvel. It felt like a contemporary fusion of Vermeer’s light and Hopper’s sympathetic eavesdropping on urban solitude, but with a brighter, more serene glow. I wish I’d been there to see all of the work.

Fractured literacy

Ben Tankard’s kids posing with some of his book cover paintings.

It always cheers me when Ben Tankard posts something new on Instagram. The Australian painter works in several modes, one being his surreal landscapes where ordinary people confront things they can’t quite comprehend—if we’re honest with ourselves, we are those people, all the time, aren’t we?—and in another series he does Monopoly board images that have been slightly modified, as well as classic Penguin paperback covers. It’s all done with an ebullient wit. My favorites are his simple, uniformly produced fractures of Penguin covers, where everything has been slightly scrambled, as if the books are slowly becoming illegible as a result of macular degeneration. For me, the fragmentation of vision is cultural and his Pop version of those paperbacks speaks to our fragmented literacy in an age of inane social media telegraphy and knee-jerk rants. It’s refreshing to see a painter posing his two youngsters in front of images he’s completed of Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s work. Just putting those books side by side feels tolerant, appreciative, and encouraging. Just painting the covers of great books, period, is a nice, humble way to class up the joint. 

Windows onto the world

Selkie, collograph monoprint, Elizabeth King Durant

The current group show at Oxford Gallery, “Metamorphosis,” is one of the strongest James Hall has put together. Maybe because the theme signifies the essence of art itself. Art is alchemy, taking common human experience and transforming it into the idiosyncratic terms of an individual artist’s ornery insistence on his or her skewed way of seeing things. It’s a transformation of what could easily be a generic glimpse of something familiar into the odd, particular demands of one person’s heart. The greatest art goes a step further and somehow magically uses the unique weirdness of human individuality to open a window on the universal. A fleeting depiction of something partial and provisional offers a glimpse into what’s essential and enduring. Metaphor is metamorphosis. Yet, as Stephen Wright joked, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” You can’t squeeze the whole world into a frame. But you can offer a door into it. In art, the part becomes the whole.

The best work in this show opens that door into the world as a whole. The pieces I keep going back to are the work from Debra Stewart, Elizabeth King Durant, Amy Mclaren, Barbara Fox, Phyllis Bryce Ely, Alexandra Latypova and, yes, even a few male artists, like Tom Insalaco and Daniel Mosner. (Has anyone else observed that the art women make right now often seems more vital and interesting than the work of their male cohort?)

Of all the work in Metamorphosis, my favorite has to be Durant’s Selkie, a perfectly executed and easily overlooked collograph monoprint visualizing the Celtic myth. Think Splash in more ancient terms, the shape-shifting of seal into woman and back again. There’s a perfect marriage of technique and subject in the print, with bravura, gestural lines seeming to articulate the shapes of seal and human in a sort of Taoist swirl of opposites. Her lines appear to be the edges of a three-dimensional surface, as if she had pulled the print from dried spackle applied with a knife—the wave that gives birth to both woman and seal also has the quality of a rock face, water transforming into stone. And yet another gentle polarity obtains in the tension between earth and heaven suggested in the extremely subtle shift between the emptiness of the grayish ultramarine sky above the slightly greener but almost metallic aqua of the sea under a mountain shoreline that quarantines those two regions. Her technique is spare and restrained and simple, yet the image looks timeless and primordial, an entire myth worthy of Joseph Campbell in a glance.

In a felicity that may be entirely unintentional, Alexandra Latypova’s misty landscape looks almost apocalyptic in the way she has suppressed the color of anything touched by the fog creeping toward the viewer from the horizon. The golden tones of what appears to be a foreground vineyard recede to a line where, at the edge of the fog and deeper into the haze, everything is sapped of hue. In Fog from The Bay, the ominous shapes of trees and shrubbery are faded to browns and grays, and somehow they seem to be in motion, becoming the fog that envelopes them, both collapsing and billowing up from the ground. The image reminds me of the live television feed from 911, the fall of the World Trade Center, where structures looming on the Manhattan skyline disappeared into dust. What may have started as a placid, idyllic morning on a lake’s shoreline has turned in a disquieting but eerily lovely reminder of the world’s end.

Amy Mclaren’s offering for this Oxford show, Retired, acrylic on canvas, upstages nearly all of her previous work in the gallery’s shows. Here she reminds me, surprisingly, of Norman Rockwell, his ease at suggesting deep emotional warmth through the depiction of facial expression and body language—in this case the stance and look in the eyes of an old dog. A single greyhound, a retired racer, waits patiently at attention, wearing his worn racing color—it’s more of a visualized memory than an actual uniform here, dissolving into his flank. He poses against a nearly monotone but luminous blue background. The image has an iconic Pop simplicity, and the brushwork, as well as the way in which Mclaren positions the dog, boxing it in with the edges of the picture, flattening out the form, echoes Jim Dine’s robes. The very loosely applied globs of white to designate the greyhound’s paws are wonderfully accurate even though they almost look splattered onto the surface from the end of a brush fat with paint. The tension in the legs, the heartbreaking eagerness of the posture—please someone anyone give me another spin around the track—and the magnificently human look in that visible eye, the way it sadly studies whatever is happening in our faces as we loiter around this ex-champion indifferently, makes this image a wonderful, beautiful salute to all forms of guileless excellence and passion, especially when they have fewer and fewer chances to make their mark in the world. They also serve who only stand and wait . . .

I had a similar response to Debra Stewart’s small, intricate oil on panel, Sea Change, with its title from Shakespeare that has come to be almost the generic term for alchemy and metamorphosis. This lapidary dreamscape reminds me simultaneously of Botticelli and Disney, with a dash of Piero Di Cosimo’s strangeness. Like Mclaren’s greyhound, this little girl riding on the hips of a reclining mermaid strikes me as the most perfectly realized image out of all Stewart’s work I’ve seen. It uses symmetry to simplify a wealth of sedulously rendered detail: glistening highlights that appear to be laid on with gold leaf, but might simply be expertly handled oil.  The way she presents the pink, vital face of the central girl in contrast to the murkier tones  in the faces of her supernatural friends reminds me of the subtle distinctions in skin tone in Piero della Francesca’s Virgin Enthroned with Four Angels. The sense of depth, the way the bright ocean falls away behind the more shadowy figures, the transparency of the mermaid’s tail and the ghostly flying dolphins swimming through the girl’s arms, and the way the entire scene emanates from the figure of the central girl—Stewart’s self-portrait as a child?—give the image an undeniable quality of psychological truth despite its fantastic content.

Barbara Fox, as with many of her fellow exhibitors, contributed one of her most realized pieces, a composition as simple and iconic as a Gottlieb burst painting. Entitled Fly Me to the Moon, it offers a leaf of sheet music, folded like origami, under a full moon. The theme is the polarity, and unity, of art and the world it represents—a song about a moon launch inscribed on an earthbound sheet of paper folded into a bird-like form. It both can and can’t transport you to that destination only inches away in the charcoal and pastel drawing, suggesting bittersweet ironies held in perfect balance. Look again and the folded sheet music could be an opening hand tossing the moon into the sky.

In Becoming Ice, what seems to be another painting inspired by photographs her father took of the Arctic, Phyllis Bryce Ely keeps finding fascinating ways to turn so much whiteness into beguiling imagery. Here it seems frozen flotsam,  breaking away from icebergs, swirls around itself in the ocean forming what looks almost like a huge lens, an eye of water, gazing up at the cold heavens. At first, the viewer takes pleasure in the sensuous quality of the paint, the way it has been so loosely and vigorously applied with confident gestures. The sky is chunky, a chock-a-block assembly of warm and cool lights and darks, with her bright orange undercoat peeking through here and there—in a way that looks both unnatural and yet real. Yet for all that rocky solidity in the clouds, it all looks like a brilliant sample of the sky from Western New York, over Lake Ontario or one of the Finger Lakes. The way the surface of the water works in this painting is equally mystifying: it looks shiny and reflective without any symmetry between the shapes in its surface and the clouds above. It almost seems a visualization of Emerson’s most awkward metaphor, the transparent eyeball, signifying the unity of subject and object, observer and observed.

The rest of the work in this show is just as interesting: Tom Insalaco’s magisterial, Baroque depiction of time and eternity, Daniel Mosner’s sumptuously rendered, alien-looking vegetables sitting on an abstract table in an expanse of negative space, and Helen Santelli’s two ceramic paeans to the magic of insect metaphorphosis—a recurring theme in the work of several artists.  What I especially liked was the inclusion of a cicada in Santelli’s constructions—an insect that was almost a talisman of my childhood, an enduring emblem for me of spiritual freedom emerging from the confinements of life. There are instances of wry humor in the show—cheerful laughter being a quality in short supply throughout much of the art world—in Doug Whitfield’s middle-aged, slightly gone-to-seed Superman revealing his inner superhero without a phone booth to conceal his metamorphosis in the age of smartphones. Bill Santelli’s Mindstream #3, a prismacolor drawing quite different from his usual swaying stalks of field grass. Striking and bold, it looks deceptively like a lithograph. Jean Stephens, again with a touch of humor, depicts one of her southwestern monoliths or wind-carved dolmens, with an enormous paper bag, bringing out the visual kinship between brown paper and sandstone, large and small, natural and human. Ryan Schroeder continues down the path he appears to be on, limiting his pallet to depict fields of light, condensing into objects, focusing on how to convey a kind of timeless illumination in a carefully rendered, but entirely blurred interior full of poetry, seemingly a memory from half a century ago, before he was born. Amy Chen’s work, just inside the gallery’s entry, is marvelous—a study in deliquescent, meandering washes of ink and watercolor on rice paper, working with traditional Asian materials and media and yet letting the round image evolve into something almost entirely abstract and ethereal, reminding me of how Bill Santelli works with acrylic in his other modes. Chris Baker offers a beautiful single-object still life, if you don’t count the objects almost lost in the shadows behind the simple glass jar with flowers. And with Bunker, Jacquie Germanow depicts an almost cinematic and unearthly scene that held my attention as long as any other painting on view. A shaft of light connects sky and sea, like those alien beams for transporting people in the X Files, if it’s actually the Earth and one of its oceans we’re viewing rather than a landscape from a lost Dante canto. Water seems to flow down over a long tunnel, a bunker, that glows like a furnace and has a barred entrance adorned with a ram’s horns. It’s all ominous and beautiful in a way that makes it impossible to pin down why all of this beckons to you, but it is mysteriously, disturbingly inviting.

A long goodbye

I was pleased and surprised when I got the notice that the Butler Institute of American Art wanted my painting of taffy for its Midyear exhibition, since other work had been rejected this year by our local museum and another regional gallery. After a decade of selling my work and showing it in juried exhibitions, it was still a game of percentages, entering these events. This year it might be only the two small museums that showed my work—Arnot and Butler—mostly because I haven’t had the time to finish enough work to enter other shows. Last year, I’d vowed not to enter anything larger than 24” in at least one dimension, and if possible enter nothing larger than that in any dimension. The difference in cost, and the amount of hassle that goes into the whole physical process of getting a painting to and from a show, is dramatic, when you exceed a certain size. But I had nothing else to enter, having submitted smaller paintings to other shows. So in the week I was home in Pittsford, I had to build a new crate, the largest yet, and figure out how to get it to Youngstown, Ohio and back.

The only reliable way to do this was either to drive it there myself—about ten hours of a round trip on the road to deliver it and another ten to pick it up after the show, which I had done for the last show I was in at Butler—or ship it through the UPS Store. I had tried both Fed Ex and UPS before, signing up for accounts, but in every case I got lost in the obstacle course of being transferred to other people, or put on hold, or told to do things that weren’t available to me in the online forms. This time was no exception. The shipping companies aren’t terribly interested in a non-commercial shipper who wants to do things—like print out a return label—that only retail companies usually need to do. Getting that return label pre-paid and printed and inserted into the crate was the stumbling block. I called and the UPS help desk and they told me I had to actually create a permanent account with them, and so I did. They supplied me with my own account number, but it changed nothing in the form. Still no option to print a return label. Which is when they put me on hold for a transfer—and no one picked up. So I surrendered to defeat again and decided I would have to lug the four-feet by four-feet crate to the UPS Store, all sixty pounds of it, rather than have them pick it up.

Before 8 a.m. I drove to Home Depot and got a 4′ x 8′ sheet of quarter-inch plywood sheathing— thin and flexible and lightweight. It’s more delicate than typical plywood and pretty easily punctured if you were to drop the crate onto something like a giant paper spike, which UPS once apparently tried to do with a previous shipment, luckily without damaging the painting inside. I had a friendly, helpful worker cut this sheathing into two identical squares and then slice the six-inch boards I would use for the sides of the crate into a pair of four-feet long planks and another pair of slightly shorter ones. I’d create the box out of them and then screw the sheathing to each side, using drywall screws. I’d done this many times, so I was finished by noon. Inside the crate, I attached a convoluted foam mattress top to the sheaths as cushion for the painting, and constructed an inner “lid” out of foam core to slip over the front of the canvas, so the lining wouldn’t press against the canvas inside the crate.

In transit, linen quickly gets slack if it isn’t stretched tautly to begin with. Any pressure against it will leave it buckling slightly like a loose sail, so this last little component, the foam core, is essential. I’d ordered a box full of these sheets, and though I could never find any large enough for my biggest work I would make two of them and slide them together until they overlapped to fit snugly around the edges of the painting.

But that wasn’t enough. This particular painting had already gotten slack on the stretcher bars since I’d finished it in January—humidity alone is enough to loosen stretched linen—so I had to remove the frame and pulled out the staples from two contiguous sides of the painting and retighten it with canvas pliers, stapling it back into place until the canvas sounded like a snare drum when I flicked the back of it with my finger. All of this is slow and laborious. While I was doing it, I saw small imperfections in the surface of the painting—in the background color—so I took a sable rigger brush and touched it up. This would mean shipping the painting with a couple tiny areas of new paint, but they were tiny and would be fixed in place by the dried wax. It was at this point that I realized I’d never applied a final, protective thin coat of wax to get a uniform finish, a matte shine over the entire surface. Without this coat—which can be removed at any time, even years later, with a rag soaked in mineral spirits—the paint has an uneven, rough look from certain angles. In some places it shines more than others. A thin layer of wax is the best way to remove the disruptive shine. I managed to apply it without a problem, though I had to let the painting sit overnight before enclosing it into the crate.

The following day, I was still determined to get a shipper to pick up the crate at my home. I tried to weigh it using a bathroom scale but all I got in the digital readout was ERR. So I guessed 75 pounds and clicked to the UPS website whereupon I chased my tail for another hour.  I wouldn’t have even bothered with the online option if we had had an SUV large enough to accommodate a painting that size, but our Jeep is long-gone and my wife Nancy owns a smaller Honda CRV, because she has no need for a roomier cargo hold. (She likes to to sit up high on the road and in parking lots.) But there was no way I could slide the crate into the back of it. So, as I had many times before, I needed to drive to Victor, rent a cargo van from U-Haul and drive it back home, load up the painting and deliver it to the UPS Store a block away from the U-Haul office. When I got to the U-Haul, a retired couple ahead of me were waiting to unburden themselves with their tale of woe about their own truck rental the day before. It had broken down and they called U-Haul and it took two hours for someone to find them on the road. The men who showed up refused to help this elderly couple transfer their bedroom set from the bad truck to the good one. So they had to do it themselves—she was clearly the younger of the pair and in charge, while her husband smiled benignly but uselessly through the whole story. The fellow at the desk cancelled all charges and apologized, but she kept on for several minutes telling her story, not out of anger as much as simply wanting to release it into the air after having held it in since the incident. (She’d started telling me the story before her turn came up at the register. ) I got my van without a problem, drove it home and hoisted my sixty pounds into the back—the opening was just barely wide enough from top to bottom to get the crate into the truck, though I could have gone in diagonally.

I drove it back to Victor, unloaded and carried it into the UPS Store and waited while they weighed it and calculated the costs. It sat on that little scale on the countertop, standing upright, towering over everyone’s head as he printed out the two shipping labels, one for the trip to Youngstown and one for the return. I had left a manila folder inside the crate with the lip sticking out, with four screws in my pocket, one corner of the sheathing loose enough to slide the label into the envelope and then push the envelope back into the crate. “That’s a great idea,” Chad, the manager, said. I’d forgotten to grab the screwdriver from the passenger seat in the CRV when I parked it at U-Haul so I had to ask Chad for a screwdriver and he rummaged in back and found one. I fastened the sheathing with it, and it was ready for pickup. I snatched the shipping receipts with the tracking numbers and thanked him and drove across the highway to the rental, turned in the van and walked out to our CRV. A woman had just pulled in next to me.

“Are you renting from U-Haul?” she asked, urgently, as she stepped out.

“Yeah, a cargo van.”

“Well don’t. I called the better business bureau. The guy changed my mileage charge from $.59 to $.79. See?”

She held up her rental contract.

“I complained, but he wouldn’t do a thing about it.”

“Wow. The odometer seemed off to me,” I said. “It always racked up more miles than Google maps.” I had tracked the mileage during my delivery and it never matched up with my phone. The miles on my phone were always slightly fewer than the ones on the van’s odometer. The difference in the charge was negligible, but it wasn’t inspiring me with confidence in the company.

“Good luck,” she said, as she marched back into the rental office.

“Same to you,” I said.

An hour later, at home, I got a call from Chad.

“I don’t think you paid,” he said.

“I’m sure I did. I remember signing,” I said, but then wondered if I was thinking of my payment at U-Haul, across the street. “I have the receipts.”

“Those are the shipping and tracking receipts but do you have, you know, a long cash register receipt, like the one you get anywhere?”

“Hm, let me look,” I said, and pawed in the kitchen trash, found the other flyers he’d handed me but no receipt.

“I guess you’re right. Looks like I pulled a fast one, Chad. Can you take my card number?”

“Sure. Just a sec,” he said.

And I was done with a process that required many hours over two days: $418 to get the painting to and from the Butler Institute. Another $60 for the wooden crate materials, though I could amortize the cost of the crate over the time I would reuse it for other shows and other paintings. Around $40 for the memory gel egg crate foam—it was what I’d ordered the year before from Amazon without realizing how heavy it was, with the gel. So, all in all, $600 simply to get a painting to a neighboring state for exhibition and back again. (I have a story of a simple shipment to Cambridge, Mass. and back that is even more involved and more expensive.) If I’d been sending to California, as I’ve done many times in the past, the cost would have been significantly higher. When I was finally done with the process, having begun shortly after Home Depot opened that morning, it was around 2 p.m. My work day was over.

Being a painter, unless you are one of the most elite and successful, means being many other things as well: carpenter, shipper, renter of U-Haul vans and primarily a profligate spender. For someone selling out a show of work with five- or six-figure price tags, none of this is consequential. You can hire someone else to put on the gloves and submit your credit card. But for the vast majority of professional painters who make part or most of their living by creating and selling work, this is an integral part of the life. You are a physical worker in the actual, three-dimensional world—not a “knowledge worker” or part of some “creative class” that hovers above the rest of the toiling billions. Painting, and everything else it entails, is fundamentally a physical way of life that requires a body as much as, if not more than, a mind. Writing doesn’t have these physical contingencies. Stephen Hawking proves the point: to think and write books, one can very nearly be a disembodied mind. To be a painter, you are as wedded to the earth, its gravity and its elements as a plumber. And it not only drains you of calories, it slowly erodes your bank account as well: the cost of painting, the literal economic toll, is far larger than any act of writing ever exacts, unless it involves having a staff of researchers like Elmore Leonard or a factory of ghostwriters like the James Patterson book assembly lines. I imagine Keats hardly had to spend more than a few farthings to write his immortal odes, nor get up from his chair. With Turner or Sir Joshua Reynolds, it was another sort of life altogether. (Keats never tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to describe a storm accurately.) In the end, it’s worth the cost and the calories, but there is a unique toll in all of these ancillary logistics that you need to endure cheerfully and gratefully: emotional, financial, physical, and most of all, in the time it steals from your work and family. But all of this is an inevitable and essential part of the privilege of having your work seen, judged, written about, awarded money and sold, if and when that happens, so you try to do it with grace.

Or maybe stick to a rule of painting pictures no larger than a couple feet in any dimension.