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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.

Chardin’s dreaming

 

When I was a boy, I used to take a toy, whether or not it was meant to represent something aeronautically sound, and I would hold it out in front of me and “fly” it above the sofa mountains of our living room or, outside, over the terrain in our East St. Louis yard: a stone wall, peonies and day lilies, an actual manual pump (like the ones in Westerns) drawing air from an unproductive well, apple trees and woods. The scale of everything would be altered by whatever I was holding in my hand, an airplane, a Superman, or a scuba diver. I wanted to be a scuba diver more than anything in grade school. (Or a sardonic gambler with a six-shooter on my hip in a frontier Nebraska saloon.) A little molded plastic figure of a diver, lime green or blue, would swim over vast underwater canyons carpeted with bluegrass. I was the invisible giant holding him up: a giant or a god. The world was my diorama. Everything became more interesting.

I get the same feeling looking at a close-up detail I shot a few months ago at The Getty of a masterful Chardin still life I’d never seen before. Up close, the objects on Chardin’s mantle look massive, like magical alien minarets and a flat-topped stadium, a terrain out of Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a strange city built with things from his kitchen. Bachelard would have been nudged by this scene into a reverie, another unique poetic measure of space, if he imagined everything in the picture a thousand times larger than its actual size. (I suppose you have to leave out the fish.) It becomes like one of those clockwork models of cities rising up out of the earth during the title sequence of Game of Thrones. This effect is partly what draws me to enlarged images of ordinary objects—making them massively larger on canvas than they are in my daily, disenchanted world—to bring out their formal resonance with so many other things with similar shapes and tones. In a way, I think this is related to what Braque meant in his notebooks about the centrality of transformation in painting, the alchemy that takes an ordinary interior space, full of utterly familiar things, and turns it into a painting’s dream. His transformations were more radical, obviously, but Chardin is just as concerned with the feel of the paint itself and the tactile quality of what’s seen–making you aware of the medium that invites you into its world, the same as yours, but cooler, fresher, more alive.

I was familiar with many of the objects in this picture from his other paintings, because he kept returning to these old inanimate friends again and again, as still life painters like to do: shallots, garlic, a couple gougeres (they look like cream puffs), several ceramic bowls with covers secured by lengths of twine, and a silver dish designed to hold two glass-and-silver cruets for oil and vinegar. Freshly-caught mackerel in the background are the wild card. Chardin did this at least a couple times—showing you fish and game ready for cooking. But he indicates the shining white underside of the fish with impasto streaks of paint uncharacteristic of his usually subtle handling. In a photograph, it looks right. In front of the actual painting, it distracted me and felt like the part of an overexposed photograph where highlights wash out into too much white. In the end, though, the problematic fish and the way he painted them make the painting even more interesting.

My detail shot is of the two cruets and a few other objects, and I’ve been gazing at them fondly this morning because of Chardin’s brushwork and his color. The ziggurat of silver tiers forming the lids on these cruets is done in such a way that it looks scrupulous about edges and mass. But the pair doesn’t even really match up: the stem for the rear cap is longer than it appears on the near one. Yet everything looks perfect. What’s so delightful, and triggers dreaming, is the way Chardin shows interior and exterior light on the surface of those cruets. If you look at the handle jutting toward you, behind it in the curve of the tray there are warm tones that echo the color of the vinegar while indicating something reddish in the room near where the painter was sitting. Maybe it’s what he’s wearing. It’s evident in the lid as well, little daubs of pink. So the warmth of the room, or the painter himself, itself shines back toward you subliminally. Yet in the S-shaped handle and the lip of the tray, you see the most perfect hint of blue/green/gray, the chillier glow of the entire outside world concentrated into small areas that bank it toward your eyes. Somehow Chardin gets these areas of the cruets to look as if they are shiny objects covered with another skin of shine, a transparent glaze. A tiny world of greenery swims between the lights.

If anyone paints with this kind of mastery now—technique so skilled that it disappears into a seemingly unmediated translation of feeling into paint—I’m not aware of it. The close-up reminds me only of John Singer Sargent, except that Chardin’s brushwork isn’t showy. He was as confident as Sargent, but behind and around the visible brushwork are laborious and careful layers of glazing, like Vermeer’s but less exact in the result, and that’s the magic. Things seem to disappear into the recessed areas and yet persist. There was no flourish in his work, no flaunting his sorcery by resorting to Sargent’s swaths of paint, even though the surface is his obsession too, getting the paint to look almost as delectable as whatever it renders, the way Thiebaud does.  From a foot away you see indefinite forms that resolve into clarity as you back away from the painting when your eyes find the weighty presence of whatever Chardin wanted you to see. The effect is to see both a seamless field of paint and also this delicately modulated scene lit by a nearby window, almost but not quite merging—in the shadows—into the wall behind it, alive with almost indiscernible shifts in tone, warm and cool, like a silty creek bed at the height of summer. 

“It’s tough” is relative

Face Painting, Jonas Wood (2014). Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Bill Santelli sent me this interview, which is a good read. Jonas Wood makes Hockney-esque paintings that look like graphic art, colorful in unpredictable and interesting ways, and dense with detail. They feel immediate and carefully observed but executed with almost childlike simplicity. I love the embrace of flatness because it forces him to put so much of his feeling into the color and his color can be extremely good (but sometimes not all that interesting.) What you see is what you get and that has to be part of his appeal, the ordinary quality of the experience he conveys. It’s funny to hear Wood talking about his staff and his office. Who does he think is going to hire a staff after reading this? The only staff I could imagine wanting or needing is Gmail with a good spam filter and auto-reply as my receptionist. Which he would applaud, if it worked to manage the tsunami of demand I anticipate any day now. It’s sort of his point: detach yourself from all pressures other than the work and get it done, but that’s easier to say when you are selling work for $2 million in an auction. There’s a no-nonsense fearless voice here, but it’s speaking back towards us in a foreign tongue he picked up in this other dimension of big art world success where nothing is commensurate with the way all but one percent of one percent of artists live. All of this reminds me of France before the storming of the Bastille. Where did Fragonard go after the revolution? I think he just dematerialized. Or maybe he finally hired a staff. But it doesn’t seem we are at that point, income inequality notwithstanding. We’re facing something different. Economically, Wood is among the elite of the elite. This world the rest of us live in, the world nearly everyone else lives in, can’t imagine hiring a staff. But who doesn’t envy Wood’s ability to just do what he loves doing and, voila, the money and attention flows? Reading his comments feels like watching the Kardashians have breakfast while they talk about how you need to become an Instagram star as practice for your reality TV show. Working hard isn’t what gets these results. Most of the factors that make Wood’s work so lucrative are beyond anyone’s control–and if art schools teach anything about the market it should be that you aren’t going to face his choices. It happens to an infinitesimally small number of people who get beamed up to this rarified world, and then have to find a way to shelter in place from the abundance of their new planet, the way Wood does, in order to keep working. Hard work is a given, but it isn’t enough. Van Gogh ramped up to a painting a day, more or less, near the end. Nobody has ever worked harder. It got him something far preferable to sales. 

Some good advice here, with the intro from art.net:

Jonas Wood is not shy. He won’t hold back, takes aim when he fires, and doesn’t seem concerned about ruffling anyone’s feathers. He’s also busy—very, very busy—and seems to have a lot on his mind.

When artnet News spoke with the artist earlier this month, he was preparing for the first institutional survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, which opened last week. The show is a real boon; although Wood has earned a solid reputation for his lush interiors, tender portraits, and vibrant still lifes, which he has shown in dozens of commercial gallery exhibitions, museum support has largely eluded him until now. Not that he has much time to bask in his success. In April, Gagosian will present new works by the artist in New York, which means he has to quickly shift gears and look ahead.

From Wood’s answers to artnet’s questions:

I think it happens to be that I have a broad audience right now. Maybe that’s not always the case, but the reason I paint is not for those people. I think it’s for my own mental health and for my own sort of goals as a painter, but I’m aware of the viewer.

I worked with Laura Owens. And I got this really good advice—and from other people too—which was just, if you want to separate yourself from the noise, you’ve got to create some distance.  Another thing was just saving my own work and not being so greedy, and being aware that, okay, $5,000 now is $5,000 now. If I sell three more paintings, yes, I’ll get a little bit more money, but it’s not like life-changing money. Maybe I should start holding onto things for myself and not selling everything. I mean, the dealers are going to hate hearing this, but maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s good because they want an empowered artist. But they would offer to give me money to buy stretchers and buy stuff for my studio, and I didn’t really want them to buy stuff for me because I didn’t want them to know how many paintings I was making.

I was painting for me, and I knew that I didn’t want to paint for the collector audience. I wanted to paint for me. 

So establishing that was really important for me because I was able to keep my practice open. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed right away. I showed a lot of different kinds of work, and I didn’t really cut myself off and be like, “He’s the tennis court painter.” Or, “He’s the sports portrait painter,” or, “He’s the guy who makes the still life.” I guess I’m kind of all of those things, which is better than just being one of those things.

Well, when I was at school in 2002 at the University of Washington, my goal was to teach at a liberal arts school, have a studio on campus, have the summers off. That was probably my ideal.

Man, it’s fucking tough because people say crazy shit about your work. You have to be super thick-skinned, and it’s hard. That’s a big part of it. I would say that you just have to take all that energy back to your studio and try to be critical in your own way and just take that criticism. Just say, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to keep looking because maybe these people have a point.”

But that type of shit is tough. Dealers saying crazy shit, your friends saying crazy shit, collectors saying crazy shit, having a show where you don’t sell a bunch of stuff. That shit is tough.

 

 

Magnetic and inexhaustible reality

Iris Murdoch

I’ve just reread Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of the Good, in reaction to my rereading of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, in an effort to see the contrast between their ideas about beauty. Hickey speaks about beauty and desire. Murdoch about beauty and love. One might think they are speaking the same language, Hickey at a very high rate of speed, full of rebellious spunk, and Murdoch deliberately, cautiously and in the dry language of a professional philosopher. They were both pushing back against a tide of thinking and theorizing, in their time, about what it means to be a responsible social human being. There is some commonality. It would seem Hickey would have been very uncomfortable with Murdoch’s wisdom. They arrive at what sound like very different conclusions, yet I’m wondering if Hickey might have appreciated Murdoch’s embrace of Greek philosophy a little more than he lets on in his own book. On the evidence, his view of beauty seems entirely utilitarian compared to hers, but his assertion that artists need to do beautiful work in familiarity with a tradition of past beauty that has some kinship with Murdoch’s concept of attention.  

She starts off in the weeds of shop talk, fending off one academic philosopher after another, trying to somehow save the idea of individual subjective consciousness against all the 20th century efforts to render human beings merely an agglomeration of genetic/cellular activity–or an isolated will, an abstract freedom of choice, completely detached from any governing reality external to the individual will. (The latter, existentialist view, has certainly receded since she wrote her book.) In rereading the book, at first, I was annoyed and puzzled by how dense her thinking gets, right out of the gate, as she fends off the other thinkers–analytic and existentialist both–who want to dismiss the idea of what used to be called the human soul, a consciousness that isn’t simply the epiphenomenon of bodily activity. She tentatively asserts subjective consciousness as the only way to describe the actual experience of being alive and human–an inner life apart from actual behavior that proves to others it exists–in order to build her philosophy of Goodness. Everything good in human behavior for her depends on a lone individual’s effortful attention to other people and things external to the self and she needs that inner life, that inner struggle of attention, which goes on invisibly from moment to moment (essentially a sort of continuous, daily discipline of contemplation) for her view of moral goodness to make sense. (Though she probably would have been disheartened by the current ubiquity of mindfulness meditation, complete with helpful apps on your phone, her thinking isn’t all that far from the moral dimension of mindfulness.)

For now, here’s a long series of excerpts from throughout her book. Any painter, including abstract painters, will recognize how much this describes the act of painting, how little depends on personal choice and how much relies on obedience to the requirements of a given picture, even though her focus is on moral behavior. She sees very little space between moral attention and creative attention:

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is what Simone Weil means when she said ‘will is obedience not resolution.’ As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve. Artists who have reflected have frequently given expression to this idea. (For instance Rilke praising Cezanne speaks of a ‘consuming love in anonymous work.’)

And here we retrieve the deep sense of the indefinability of good, which has been given a trivial sense in recent philosophy. Good is indefinable not for the reasons offered by Moore’s successors, but because of the infinite difficulty of the task of apprehending a magnetic and inexhaustible reality. Moore was in a way nearer the truth than he realized when he tried to say both that Good was there and that one could say nothing of what it essentially was. If apprehension of good is appreciation of the individual and the real, then good partakes of the infinite elusive character of reality.

We need a philosophy in which the concept of love, so rarely mentioned by philosophers, can once again be made central.

Stepping away from her argument briefly, for me, the problem with discussions about art, such as this, is that the terms goodness, beauty and love all sound trite or can easily be taken to refer to their most shallow examples. Goodness can be misinterpreted as the rote obedience to socially acceptable customs, beauty a meretricious commodity when seen in a fashion plate or a showroom car, and love merely romance or sex. What Murdoch refers to is goodness not tied to the self—anyone who has ever worked weeks and months on a painting knows how much pleasure has to be sacrificed, how much gratification has to be postponed or relinquished, and how much the self has to be subdued to simply see what needs to be done, let alone do it. Pursing order and beauty in the work itself, paying such diligent attention to what the work requires, that you simply try to fulfill whatever it demands in a sort of endless submission to the work’s necessities. The question simply becomes “What do I need to do to get this perfectly right?” The only motivation and reward for this is love. 

Back to Murdoch:

In the moral life, the enemy is the fat relentless ego. Goodness appears to be both rare and hard to picture. It is perhaps most convincingly met with in simple people—inarticulate, unselfish mothers of large families—but these cases are also the least illuminating.

There is nothing odd or mystical about this, nor about the fact that our ability to act well ‘when the time comes’ depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual objects of attention.

Of course the good man may be infinitely eccentric, but he must know certain things about his surroundings, most obviously the existence of morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what is there outside one. Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint “I like it,” he painted “there it is.” One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.

A deep understanding of any field of human activity (painting, for instance) involves an increasing revelation of degrees of excellence and often a revelation of there being in fact little that is very good and nothing that is perfect. Increasing our understanding of human conduct operates in the same way.

Art presents the most comprehensible examples of the almost irresistible human tendency to seek consolation in fantasy and also of the effort to resist this and the vision of reality which comes with success. Success in fact is rare. Almost all art is a form of fantasy-consolation and few artists achieve the vision of the real. The talent of the artist can be readily, and is naturally, employed to produce a picture whose purpose is the consolation and aggrandizement of its author and the projection of his personal obsessions and wishes.

The consumer of art has an analogous task . . . the appreciation of beauty in art or nature is not only the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into (and not just an analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real. But the greatest art . . . shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.

It is important too that great art teaches us how real things can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self. Unsentimental contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen. Beauty is that which attracts this particular sort of unselfish attention. It is obvious here what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.

The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from self. . . toward the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability to so direct attention is love.

It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is the proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. In the case of art and nature such attention is immediately rewarded by enjoyment of beauty.

Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action. It is what lies behind and in between actions and prompts them that is important, and it is this area which should be purified. By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.

Beauty appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good itself is not visible.

The ‘there is more than this’, if it is not to be corrupted by some sort of quasi-theological finality, must remain a very tiny spark of insight, something with, as it were, a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form. But it seems to me that the spark is real, and that great art is the evidence of its reality. Art indeed, so far from being a playful diversion of the human race, is the place of its most fundamental insight, and the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics must constantly return.

 

Picasso, the blind Minotaur

Pablo Picasso, Blind Minotaur Guided by a Girl at Night, burnished aquatint

I’ve been surprised that the exhibit that has occupied my attention the most since my last visit to LACMA was Fantasies and Fairy Tales. It was a small, quirky collection of prints from around the year 1900. The aim of the exhibit was to show how, within this tight, curatorial window of qualifications (prints mostly within a narrow, fin-de-siecle range of dates), a selection of work could suggest incorporeal states of mind or spirit, as well as hint at transcendence. The show was beautiful and eerie, dreamlike and occasionally chilling. There was a slightly morbid strain in the imagery on view, but it was tempered with stylistic wit in the work itself and the playfulness of the curation. Charles Addams might have brought an Edwardian folding chair to this one, the better to take it all in. David Hockney etched a simple rear view of the prince nudging his horse up to Rapunzel’s dangling locks. In Death the Strangler, Alfred Rethel engraved an image of a skeleton in a hooded monk’s habit pretending to play a fiddle with a pair of leg bones as people cowered around him. Max Klinger’s aquatint, Pursued Centaur, depicted three seemingly naked hunters chasing a centaur through long grass—right after the centaur has loosed an arrow backward into the leading horse’s neck. It shows you the moment when the hunters became the hunted. It’s all slightly magical, in an altered states sort of way.

But the revelation for me was a print from Picasso, the one of the blind Minotaur commonly considered the final image from The Vollard Suite—if you discount the concluding three portraits of Vollard required by the art dealer in his commission. I’d seen many prints from that suite before, but seeing it in person, for some reason, stopped me in my tracks. It was an entrancing exhibit, and this one print sent me briefly down a rabbit hole of study off and on during the past two months since my visit in January. Eventually, I’m going to post a long essay on The Vollard Suite—if I can sit still long enough to write it—because it has changed the way I think of Picasso and his career. I’m finding it hard to see anything else he did as equal to this suite of prints, especially if you consider Guernica the offspring of his years laboring on them.

The Vollard Suite is giving me a deeper respect for the sort of art—the kind of art that critics love because it can generate so much discussion—that doesn’t fit into my essentially modernist advocacy for visual art’s fundamental kinship with music, in the way it acts directly on the pysche, in contrast to language and narrative. Visual art and music are equipped to do something different from the meaning-making role of language, opening up an immediate sense of the world, but in a direct way that bypasses the intellect, and I consider this their most valuable role among all the arts. When this work gets tied to the notion of “meaning,” then visual art heads in a direction that usually seems less compelling to me. Yet the Vollard Suite is making me see the other side of this argument. It’s catnip for the thinking mind, but in such a way that it leads you toward the impenetrable paradox of Picasso’s own personal daemon. The Vollard Suite is a maze of implied, mysterious narrative, but it becomes, as Picasso is drawn toward greater and greater honestly about himself and his art, a work of tormented self-questioning and self-criticism. I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in his work, or in anyone else’s. It’s art that calls art itself into question. Out of this self-defeating struggle, one of the most worldly and pagan of 20th century artists created, in this image of the blind minotaur, a dead-end reverie of blind enchantment. It’s a depiction of himself as both baffled and instinctively creative with no way to see where he was going, yet obedient to the beauty that offered to lead him through his darkness. In a way, it’s an image of soon-to-be rejected grace. I think Picasso understood his own spiritual blindness. It’s his brief discovery of enchantment, as a consequence of his being honest about his inability to comprehend himself or his life, that takes him and the viewer by surprise. He had his secular equivalent to Beatrice in his teenage lover, Marie-Therese Walter, yet he parted ways with her. Yet while he created this print and its companions, she offered to light a path for him that he ultimately abandoned.