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Minute particulars

He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. 
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars,    
And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power . . .

-William Blake

In the passage below, I think Jeff Blehar’s question was getting at something crucial when it comes to any art. It was from a podcast in which three political journalists took off their current affairs hats and spent some time talking about what they really love—music. In particular, Blehar was marveling at the sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River. He’s really speaking about all the tiny incremental “minute particulars” that go into any band’s unique mature sound. I was struck by his comment because I had a similar thought listening to “Bootleg,” the second song on another of the band’s albums, where, when the bass comes in, suddenly their sound surfaces—an illusion of looseness, the casual way the four instruments seem to lope along, in no great rush to get the job done, and come together as if by accident, two of them riding on the bus just jamming, waiting for the bus to stop and pick up the other two. The way its elements converge make any great work of art unique and individual in a way that’s impossible to duplicate or even describe clearly—and I don’t think it’s something that could be translated into a set of reliable algorithms. In other words you can’t learn how to do it repeatedly—you end up imitating pieces and parts, but not the whole. You can copy a Vermeer, but it won’t be a Vermeer. The jury will be out for a while on whether a computer could create a convincing Vermeer forgery, but I doubt that it ever will. Blehar says:

This is one of the things that gets lost but you hear it in everything they did. It’s that sound. Green River is the best embodiment of the band’s sound. That sound . . . every time they could just walk in and create a song that sounded good, like ear candy, something about the way Fogerty’s guitar, and his brother’s rhythm guitar and the bass and the drums came together on an elemental level is fundamentally satisfying. I guess I’ve never understood why nobody else can reproduce this. Why doesn’t every band try to sound like CCR on Green River? It shouldn’t be hard to do in theory. This is not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s four guys in a room. There isn’t even much over dubbing. But nobody has ever sounded like that. It’s such a remarkable achievement. And it gets neglected because you don’t even notice it. They are so good at it, they draw you away from one of their primary virtues by making it seem so effortless.

What’s distinctive is how minimal CCR kept things, like the earlier Spoon, the simplicity in their production and instrumentation, but I don’t think any of that was a conscious choice. After ten years of work, the band had a perfectly realized style—in Susan Sontag’s sense of style, as unconscious and fundamental, not a calculated choice, not stylization. The style was who they were, something they arrived at involuntarily, an act of discovery, not the outcome of calculation. CCR wasn’t trying to sound like itself. It couldn’t help it. It was groping its way toward the supple, funky momentum of this particular song, and succeeded, by feel, not really knowing in advance how to do it in a reliable way—though they certainly seemed to find a magic formula for an explosion of creativity in a mere two years. In some ways, an artist can’t even recognize the qualities that make his or her work most interesting and individual. The fragrance that’s always there in the room eventually isn’t even noticed: we’re all too close to ourselves to even recognize our own genuine strengths and flaws. They had certain aims and their songs would evolve the way any creative act evolves, within its own internal, instinctive boundaries—but that instantly recognizable sound was a byproduct, not the conscious goal. The conscious goal was to make irresistible music by any means possible (isn’t that always the point, and if not, shouldn’t it be? I’m talking to you, Parquet Courts) and they ended up doing it the only way they could. What resulted was individually unique, in a way that even CCR probably couldn’t explain—and maybe not even recognize as clearly as someone who hadn’t created it—even if it had its roots in certain general genres of music, the tropes of country and blues.

This is part of the problem with categorization of artists. For example, to say that Thiebaud and Hockney and Warhol are all Pop artists is to say almost nothing, because it lumps three unique and distinctly different artists, with completely distinct aesthetic aims—and results—under a single rubric that does little more than identify the decade in which they emerged or maybe suggest that they were simply popular and more accessible to the general public than most 20th century artists. The same is true if you pick artists classifiable as photorealists:  Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, James Valerio and Antonio Lopez Garcia. Their work, to one degree or another, relies on photography as a source, but what else do they really have in common? According to Hockney, photo-realism, in the sense of using a lens to project an image onto a surface for tracing, goes back centuries and is embedded in Western painting as a kind of trade secret. Which means that calling someone a photo-realist conveys almost nothing about what a particular artist is up to in his or her work. The persistence of grouping artists into particular schools—both John Currin and El Greco can be called mannerists—conveys little or nothing about what the work actually communicates to a viewer, which has less to do with history and membership in a movement or school or general way of painting and much more to do with what makes a person an individual.

Stop motion wisdom

Phil Tippett

A quote posted on the door of the stop motion effects creator for the first Star Wars trilogy, Phil Tippett:

Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the Latin root, pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.

Benjamin Bjorklund

Oven, Benjamin Bjorklund

What’s old is also new

Alma Deutscher

Some people have told me I compose in the musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music but today they say I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world. And the point of music is to show the complexity of the world. Well let me tell you a huge secret. I already know the world is complex and can be very ugly, but I think these people have just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?

— Alma Deutscher, British composer, b. 2005

 

A continuous yes

Christopher Isherwood, detail from Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Most painters who try to do what a beloved, earlier painter did end up as imitators. Others, like David Hockney, begin where an earlier painter, or set of painters, left off and find a new, idiosyncratic path. Hockney’s a cheerful, sincere post-modernist, borrowing as a tribute to his passion for earlier painters and always using their influence to find himself. They include Matisse, above all, but also Picasso, the Impressionists and post Impressionists, Chardin, Vermeer, Freud, Balthus, and, a recent surprise for me, Piero della Francesca. It isn’t as if this was a secret, since he puts his admiration for the Renaissance painter in plain sight, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to his work to notice it until now. An afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a week ago elevated my admiration for Hockney dramatically. Until last Saturday I had no idea how powerful his best early work is, and how wonderfully strange his paintings can seem even when he’s devoted to nothing more than honestly celebrating domesticity, bourgeois happiness and the simple pleasure of human relationships—in other words, the placid order of civilized life.

Having never seen his paintings other than in reproductions, I started paying serious attention to Hockney only around the turn of the century, when I first saw his Polaroids at Retrospektive Photoworks in L.A. during its run there. I immediately loved them, many assembled from dozens of Instagram-square Polaroids. Until then I’d been appreciating him in a sidelong way, fond of his color and the Southern Californian light that transfigured his work when he moved to the U.S. Hockney’s paintings are so intensely illuminated, it makes you realize that Venice Beach is nearly a thousand miles closer to the equator than Venice, Italy and the light of the Midi has nothing on the light that inspired Diebenkorn. To walk out of LAX for the first time into that brilliance must have been like stepping out onto another planet, compared to the Northern glow of Hockney’s native England.

The Metropolitan show highlights the radical simplicity of the earliest famous work that followed Hockney’s migration to the U.S. In each individual painting, he restricts himself dramatically, stripping away detail, narrowing his palette, designing his pictures in order to achieve one or two things. In his early paintings after the move to California—A Bigger Splash, Mt. Fuji and Flowers, Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Luc—he leaves out far more than he includes, until the image verges on minimalist abstraction. Yet the color is full of feeling, a continuous yes to the world around him. Each painting has an immediate impact, and you feel as if your eye is darting around a realm in which every detail works together within a perfectly organized whole, a world where everything is almost equally interesting and every effect seems painstakingly earned. In painting after painting, it’s as if he’s trying once again to make visible the buzz of that intense Southern California light, the translucent color of the Pacific coast. You can see in this show how Hockney brought the memory of that brilliant light back to England with him to use in the double portraits he did there, when he depicted rooms and figures that seem lit from within even back in his Northern native land.

The three central galleries of the Met’s retrospective are the best reason to see the show: one devoted to the most famous early California paintings, followed by a comprehensive look at the nearly life-sized double portraits, and the third showing his masterful line drawings and a slightly disappointing glance at his photo collage work. It’s a real weakness of the show that none of the greatest of these collages are included. Perhaps they are saving the best of them for a retrospective devoted to nothing else. It would be worth it.

The most revealing and powerful gallery in the show, though, is the one devoted to his double portraits. I’d seen all of them in reproductions, in books or on the Web, but it didn’t prepare me for how these large paintings concentrated his imagination and enabled him to break through into a vision of three-dimensional space that feels different, for me, from the work of most other painters. The volume of space in these paintings is tactile and weirdly visceral. It’s an effect heightened by the fact that much of what he does ought to flatten an image: minimalizing shadow and rendering what he sees with large areas of uniform color. This format absorbed him from 1968-1971—the paintings look as if they required extensive labor and feel as if they played a role in his career similar to the large Cubist-influenced paintings Matisse did after returning from Morocco. The account of how Hockney painted Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy provided by the Tate gives an indication of how immersed he became in each of these double portraits, working on this one over several years, painting from life and from photographs: “Hockney painted Ossie Clark’s head as many as twelve times before he was satisfied.”

In this series of paintings, Hockney found a way to pay homage to Vermeer, Chardin, and Piero, while discovering a new and exhilarating way to use light and color to make you feel as if you are inhabiting a peculiar space that seems to open up and envelope you. What was most striking about finally seeing the actual work was how magnetic these canvases are: from a few feet away his rooms fill your entire visual field, in a coherent, tangible world where every surface is smoother, simpler, and stranger than your own. Hockney doesn’t let you forget you’re looking at a painted surface and yet the images are alive and three-dimensional. You feel as if you can step into them. As a result you remember the paintings themselves as being much larger than they actually are. Hockney achieves all of this while making his image work as a flat pattern of crisply defined areas of carefully modulated and often complex but nearly uniform color (you can’t see the subtlety of the color in photographs of the work), arranging his forms with the precision of geometrical abstraction. The most commanding paintings in the show are three of these interiors: Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Again and again, his simplified forms create a crackling tension with the way the entire image pulls you into its illusion of depth. This paradoxical effect is most striking in the portrait of Isherwood in his slacks and white dress shirt, where his form alone has been radically simplified and cleaned of most irrelevant detail and yet the legs and even the features of his face project out toward you in almost starting relief. Hockney’s space is real while everything in it seems just slightly unreal. The room is filled with these seemingly dreamt-up people and objects, each self-contained and complete, assembled randomly with all the others, and yet everything is unified by the same brilliant, nearly shadowless light.

Seeing for the first time how Hockney included a small reproduction of Piero’s Baptism of Christ in the portrait of his parents helped me make sense of the entire series. There’s nothing remotely religious about Hockney’s work—except maybe in the sense that Matisse meant when he told his friend, the nun, that his career had been a lifelong pursuit aligned with her own devotion. Yet the double portraits seem to call back to the Renaissance painter’s light, and the precision of his dreams. The two painters have much in common: the use of architecture to organize an image geometrically; an intensity of light that nearly swallows every shadow it casts; the awkward and slightly stylized rendering of human forms that look both flat and three-dimensional. Like Piero’s paintings, these portraits radiate the mystery that emerges when an artist pushes himself to do multiple things at once and somehow makes it all work —in Piero’s case, to convey the truth of both geometry and the actual look of everyday life, while hinting at what’s beyond or behind the visible world. In his choice of subject, Hockney does reach back to the genre scenes of Vermeer and Chardin, but he takes the everyday and gives it the eerie, intensely pleasurable oddness reminiscent of Piero’s Nativity and Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels. Everything feels both monumental and delightfully weightless.

The eerie quality of these effects are perfectly balanced by the warmth of the light and the subtle use of color, so that you feel as if you’re seeing a beloved world refracted through the artist’s particular eyes, a world he belongs in, even though for the viewer it feels slightly alien, distorted by Hockney’s idiosyncratic way of rendering what he sees. He said he struggled with these paintings and the work shows. They are his most accomplished paintings, an epic achievement.

As successful as he can be when he cuts loose in his later work, disavowing lens-based painting as he describes in Hand Eye Heart, I miss the tighter restrictions he set for himself earlier on, the sense that he needed to reduce the range of color in order to infuse the most feeling into the ones he chose. The need to be naturalistically true to what he was seeing in the double portraits, at least in part, makes the subtle way he manipulates color in these paintings even more powerful and beautiful than the strident hue in much of his later work. This is most evident in the painting of Peter Schlesinger, wearing his sport coat, gazing down into the swimming pool at a bather underwater, with the backdrop of a generic Los Angeles canyon, familiar to anyone who has ever driven through the Hollywood Hills or Topanga. The color is everywhere a little more intense and vibrant than it would be if you were actually standing poolside, but only a little. He did what Fairfield Porter advised, to be true to the way things look, but to “make everything more beautiful . . . a painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.”

Hockney at the Met

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney

I got a chance to see the David Hockney retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, and was knocked out by seeing, in person, so many paintings I’ve only seen in reproductions until now. A long response to the show will be forthcoming, if I can find the time to finish it. The double portraits–the one above offers a sense of their scale–make the show worth attending.

Hockney at the Met

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney

I got a chance to see the David Hockney retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, and was knocked out by seeing, in person, so many paintings I’ve only seen in reproductions until now. A long response to the show will be forthcoming, if I can find the time to finish it. The double portraits–the one above offers a sense of their scale–make the show worth attending.

Simplicity

Stack of Tins, watercolor

Joshua Huyser, a Minneapolis artist who exhibits internationally, does the simplest possible water colors of single objects, or a small group of identical objects, on a nearly white ground. They’re a delight, and they do what all painting should do: make you look at something as if you’re seeing it for the first time.There’s a guileless quality to the execution that reminds me of Fairfield Porter in that it never lets you forget you’re looking at paint.  They’re precise and detailed but not overly so, and color is used very sparingly. Seeing each new painting on Instagram is like hearing a hammer drive a nail just a little more securely into its seat.

Cezanne’s gray

Cezanne’s studio, courtesy Paris Review/Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz makes some excellent observations about what he noticed when he saw color of the walls in Cezanne’s studio and how that color’s fluid properties, as the background for whatever Cezanne observed in his still life paintings, helped give birth to modernism. Delightful. It’s also wonderful to recognize the little sculpted Cupid still there, so familiar from Cezanne’s painting of it. Here’s an except from the fine little essay, which is actually itself an excerpt from Meyerowitz’s new book, Cezanne’s Objects

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

Desire and meaning

Jordan Peterson

Below are excerpts from two recent conversations with Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Intellectually, he is following a path laid out by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in an attempt to draw psychological truths from the wisdom traditions, otherwise known as major religions (before our culture turned the word “religion” into a political slur and before everything had to be interpreted politically). Peterson moves beyond that in the second conversation, which ought to be of particular interest to artists. I find his thoughts on this subject compelling because I think religious faith draws its vitality from non-conscious wellsprings, just as great art does—faith and creativity both attempt to tap into a larger mind, a larger awareness, than the ego-centric, rational consciousness with its attempt to grip the reins and remain in the saddle of daily experience. For most of my adult life, I would say I’ve been totally in agreement with what Peterson says here, and yet as I get older I worry about an unquestioning embrace of “meaning”. What he says about the fundamental need for meaning is absolutely true, though I think it’s missing an acknowledgement that it ought to be hedged with hesitancy and caution. (Maybe I can venture reluctantly into that in the next post. This subject is pushing me, again, to make sense of why I paint and to question whether or not it adds up, which makes me uncomfortably curious.)

The craving for meaning is fundamental, maybe more fundamental than the instinct to survive itself. It may, at least, be indispensable to that instinct, as Victor Frankl suggested in his account of his time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, where prisoners who had no framework of meaning died much more readily than those who had a way to make sense of their suffering. I think Donald Kuspit is pointing toward this in much of his published criticism by positing eros, desire, as fundamental in the production of art, and there is definitely an erotic element in nothing more than the energy of oil paint applied to canvas in a certain way. Eros is the affirmation of life over death; so by definition art is erotic. But he means more than that: he means great art springs from obscure desires which have physical origins. Agreed, though that doesn’t exhaust the origin of the impulse to make art. The Freudian scheme for understanding desire and the psyche seems narrow to me, as it did to Jung. Peterson recognizes the search for meaning as an attempt to fish for moments of perfect alignment between who you are and what you are experiencing: almost mini-enlightenments. For me, the pursuit of meaning is like moving blindly through a dark, unfamiliar house by touch, groping uncertainly forward until you come across a lamp—and suddenly you recognize somewhere you might live and thrive, even if you don’t fully understand where you are or why you are there. You recognize a home. That’s pretty much how it feels to come across a song or painting, or create one, that resonates with life—it’s a shelter for your soul, it has “meaning” for you, even though the melody or image doesn’t signify anything specific or even intelligible. Sexual desire can have little or nothing to do with this particular moment. The experience lights up a world and becomes something you can inhabit; it’s a world where all of its elements make sense and belong to whatever order governs it, and it opens up your ability to be awake to yourself and the world as a unified whole. I often return to a favorite movie or song the way someone heads home, once again, after a hard day at work. Continue reading Desire and meaning