Friday, October 30, 2009

"There is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

Read in the current issue of Art in America that John Baldesarri, while teaching at Cal Arts years ago, had a special stamp he liked to use. He had a T.A. order one that said, "Nice idea, but it's been done before by ___________. He laughed and said he'd never say something like that to a student today, because of course everything truly has been done.

Also read somewhere else that Picasso, during a late night rant, "fell to shouting that he had "discovered photography and might as well kill himself, as he had nothing left to learn." (p. 111, Modigliani by Jack Flam.

Below is Nose and Ears, Etc.: Couple and Man with Gun.

So I guess it's time to stop being so disturbed by questions of originality and just get to work. I have one corner of a painting that's working. As my Otis instructor suggested, it helps to cover up the part that's working. Then you won't mess it up by over-working it. I've stumbled on the fact that letting it fragment while you work is helpful.

I think fragmentation comes naturally, as evidenced by the look of my house today. . .

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"When things become peculiar, frustrating and strange, I think it's a good time to start painting." James Rosenquist

These words of James Rosenquist appeared in today's NY Times as part of review of his new memoir, Painting Below Zero, but they jumped out at me as I struggle to get going again after an exhibition. The doubts creep in: is my work good and no one knows it yet? or is it not that good and everyone knows it but me? Nothing else to do, I guess, but keep pushing the paint around and try not to let that small voice get loud.

How did Jacob Lawre
nce, who didn't finish high school, find his way so quickly and assuredly that he was already exhibiting in his twenties? Local art historian Susan Olds gave an interesting talk on Lawrence this month, and I left wondering how a young man from Harlem growing up in the 1930s learned about art.

Not exactly 5 miles thru t
he snow, but as a teenager Lawrence would walk sixty blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. He connected with other artists and important mentors such as Augusta Savage and Charles Alston. He also spent a lot of time with the art books available at the Harlem Art Workshop he attended.

Above is The Builders, 1947.

In Ellen Harkins Wheat's book, she recounts Lawrence memory of studying at the Harlem Art Workshop.

There were many books there. I saw Goya's D
isasters of War. . . I think most of what they had were figurative things. There was a great interest in Pieter Breughel (the Elder), like The Wedding Dance. There was a whole book about Breughel, and I was very impressed with that - the color, the movement. The artists around used to talk about his composition, his picture structure, in looking at the works. He talked about the fact that others would respond to my composition and picture structure because they thought I had a feel for it ,and my work was hard-edge and rather flat.

In recalling how he became interested in the Black history, he talks about two influences: hearing about early black leaders from those in his community, and reading about these leaders on his own. It's not a big surprise to hear that he recalled no mention of black history at school. After the artist heard a talk about Toussaint L'Ouverture, a black slave who led his country (Haiti) to freedom from French rule, he had the spark of an idea for his first large series. He was only in his early twenties when the Toussaint L'Ouverture series was exhibited.

This work from the series, Toussaint at Ennery, can be seen at Woodside Braseth Gallery in Seattle.

How many artists learn about art thru books these days? Am I hopelessly quaint? I could forget the books and start a new series on . . . .patterns of bird dro
ppings on car windshields . . in some quarters, that sort of thing seems to make a splash (no pun intended). What compels you?

Lawrence said, "A painting should not be a commenta
ry, but the fact itself; not a reflection but light itself. Not an interpretation but the thing to be interpreted." Does this still make sense in 2009?

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's always fun to meet artists you admire, even if the only words that came out of my mouth weren't exactly original: "I love your work." I mean, come on, I should have been able to do better than that for Thomas Wood, Bellingham artist. He is both a painter and printmaker, and creates both intricate, whimsical etchings and quietly beautiful oils of the Northwest. Above is an etching, entitled Fishing Boat.

Below is Wood's Chuckanut Bay from Woodstock Farm. Sometimes just one shape is enough to provide harmony - my eye goes immediately to the graceful bend of the tree on the left.

Lately I've been increasingly interested in prints. Even though the painting of mine below is not a print, I've been fooling around with mimicking some of the style, flatness, surface quality of prints, etc. using acrylics. Came across a photo I took years ago, noticed a tiny figure off in the corner in the background, and used her because of her marvelous shape. Not sure if it's done; don't want it to slide toward the sentimental. . .

Friday, October 23, 2009

"But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic, mere glittering quicksilver, a blue soul breaking in upon my pictures." Chagall

Tomorrow is the opening of a 3-person show I'm in at Lucia Douglas Gallery. Pressure does funny things. After finishing all the paintings I needed to have done, and spending all kinds of time on other things like re-sizing images and putting on hanging wires, I felt like painting one more just for fun. With no pressure to make it work, the painting came together quickly and easily. Maybe the more time you have the greater the odds you will ruin a painting.

I guess no one ever really feels ready for a show. But I will refrain from bringing a brush to the opening for surreptitious touch-ups. Here's the new one, Monorail Tracks:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"But it doesn't mean anything!" Louisa Von Trapp

I came across the following excerpt in Jack Flan's book, Motherwell and while it's kind of long, I think it's worth the space because he so well describes his struggle to answer that irritating meaning question.

A few years ago, I was standing next to one of my huge black and white pictures (In Black and White No. 2) in a museum gallery, and a middle-aged man approached me and asked what the picture was about, what it "meant." Becaus
e we happened to be standing in front of the actual painting, I was able to look at it directly, instead of using an after-image in my head. I realized that the picture had been painted over several times and radically changed, in shape, balances, and weights.

At one time it was too black, at one time the rhythm of it was too regular, at one time there was not enough variation in the geometry of the shapes.
I realized that t
here were about a ten thousand brush strokes in it, and that each brush stroke is a decision. It is not only a decision of aesthetics -- will this look more beautiful? -- but a decision that concerns one's inner I: is it getting too heavy or too light?

It has to do with one's sense of sensuality: the surface is getting too coarse, o
r is not fluid enough. It has to do with one's sense of life: is it airy enough or is it leaden? It has to do with one's own inner sense of weights: I happen to be a heavy, clumsy, awkward man, and if something gets too airy, even thought I might admire it very much, it doesn't feels like myself, my I. In the end I realize that whatever "meaning" that picture has is just the accumulated "meaning" of ten thousand brush strokes, each one being decided as it was painted. In that sense, to ask " what does a painting mean?" is essentially unanswerable, except as the accumulation of hundreds of decisions with the brush. . . . In a sense, all of my pictures are slices cut out of a continuum whose duration is my whole life, and hopefully will continue until the day I day." (p. 8)

I think it's amazing how much intensity he gets out of these large shapes. He is not interested in subject matter at all - no figures, no things. "I am the exact opposite of an impressionist. I seek the eternal, which is like a rock, but Iwant m
y work to be sensual, too -- a cross between Mondrian and scribbles."

Here's In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961.

When eavesdropping on museum visitors I always think of the Woody Allen line, I think it's from Annie Hall, "it has a certain . . .negative capability."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The artist must live apart. His private life should be unknown." Degas

Jockeys in Front of the Grandstand. (1869-72)
Imagine if People or Us had been on the scene 150 years ago: Degas puts coal in the stove! He stops in a cafe for coffee! He goes to the racetrack!

Since these fine periodicals were not publishing in the 1860's, the next best way to learn why Degas would never have appeared on The Bachelor is to read The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe.

Here's the info according to Roe:

He always stated that he had no desire to marry. 'What would I want a wife for? Imagine having someone around who at the end of a grueling day in the studio said, "that's a nice painting, dear." The glamorous, bejewelled women with bare shoulders and plunging necklines, hauled by their husbands from salon to
opera box then on to some glittering dinner party, dismayed him.

He felt a particular horror for the necks and shoulders of women past their prime. Seated next to one such lady at dinner one evening, he told his friends she had been practically naked, he could not take his eyes off her. Suddenly turning towards him, she had asked, 'Are you staring at me?' 'Good Lord, Madame', he replied, 'I wi
sh I had the choice.'

Degas did spend time with his contemporaries, but preferred to spend the better part of the day working alone in his studio.

Despite having a husband and 3 kids, somehow over the years, I have practically become a hermit. Doesn't work for everyone - some artists I've talked to get a lot of energy from their interactions with friends and co-workers. How important is solitary time to you? Can you have too much of it?

Here's Apres le bain, femme d'essayant la nuque.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You are lost the instant you know what the result will be. Juan Gris

Not the words of a math teacher, I guess. . . still thinking about how creativity works - came across these words of Diebenkorn:

Part of painting is physical. Another part is intellectual. The most highly prized aspect is intuitive, which is operative. The percentage changes with each painting.
There should be a balance. (from Diebenkorn by Gerald Norland, p. 260.

Does the percentage change for you? What do you think? How do you work? Diebenkorn was known to work and re-work paintings, with countless revisions until he was satisfied with every element, every line, the relationships between the colors. Seems like planning a composition is an intuitive thing.

Here's Diebenkorn's Seated Nude - Black Background from 1961. Looking at that small shape on the right - not sure what it is, but I think it'd be missed if it weren't there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Idea Factory

“I have an idea a minute.” Fleur Cowles

Now that's a lot of confidence. Cowles passed away in June at the age of 101. She was a painter, writer and founder of the short-lived but legendary magazine Flair. The prevailing view was that Flair was ahead of its time, but even its financial failure didn't seem to throw Cowles off her stride.

I come from the opposite viewpoint - my head is usually empty. I need to really dig for ideas.

Everybody takes photos, flips through magazines, keeps journals. In Twyla Tharp's book, The Creativity Habit, she talks about scratching for ideas, by getting out and going someplace, rooting around in books, wandering the hallways of your mind. Fine, but I think the tricky part is developing the awareness of ideas as they flit by and the discipline to write them down.

Years after taking a class aimed at using more of the subconscious mind, I still recall the instructor’s analogy: the subconcious mind was like a trained pet. You can train it to retrieve things for you, fragments of half -forgotten songs, etc. But if you continually ask your subconscious mind to be on the look-out for cool art ideas and then you don’t bother to write them down or act on them, your "pet" may wander off. Does this make any sense??

Kind of breathtaking to notice how much the prolific Cezanne got out of his subjects. Many times what you're looking for is right in front of you. Cezanne had something like 18 sketchbooks haphazardly filled with sketches of subjects right at hand - his family, his surroundings. And it sure does not seem like he felt the need to go in search of any exotic subjects in order to explore his ideas about nature, volume, space, color and so on.

Here's Basket of Apples (Art Institute of Chicago).

Judging from my immediate surroundings, I am ready to start a dirty dishes series.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Whenever I'm idly casting about for some color ideas, I pick up the giant book my friend Mark gave me on Richard Diebenkorn by Gerald Norland. Sometimes I think you feel some pressure to have your artistic style solidify and not shift too often, so it's reassuring to trace the path of Diebenkorn's career as he begins with non-figurative work, moves to figurative, and then back to non-figurative, all the while both assimilating and responding to what he was learning about the painters he admired -- Cezanne, Matisse, Rothko, Mondrian.

I even found an excuse in the book for my awkward figur
es -- here's Diebenkorn on Hopper:

Hopper was a little more rough-hewn an
d cruder than I once thought and his figures are as awkward as the devil. But of course their awkwardness is their strength. . . . I would never consciously trade awkwardness for elegance. . .(p. 258, Diebenkorn by Norland)

Above is Summer Evening.

Below is Diebenkorn's Girl on a Terrace. Struck by the undefined
features, the artist's lack of concern with perfect rendering of features and interest in creating a mood instead, the way he plays with the depth and perspective, and how it somehow coheres. He says (elsewhere in the

In a (successful) painting everything is integr
al -- all the parts belong to the whole. If you remove an aspect or element you are removing its wholeness.

Diebenkorn's not interested in further defining her features, doing anything more with those hands -- but there's a mood in her gaze off the terrace and a sense of her connection to the space she's in. I like his feeling for geometry with that blue criss-cross chair, that line leading out diagonally to the horizon and that circular table that's not a full circle since part of the shape extends beyond the picture. It doesn't really bother me that I don't know what that is near her head. Does it bother you?

Ocean Park No. 30, painted in 1970:

So now I am off to look for coherence. Here's my homage to Diebenkorn called Back of the Herald.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Solvitur ambulando . . It is solved by walking. . St. Augustine

Augustine may not have been the first to say this, but the words are often attributed to him.

I first heard this at Loyola from a Jesuit priest who explained that there were a number of paradoxes from the time of Aristotle that puzzled philosophers and mathematicians for centuries. One such paradox states that "that which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal." (from Aristotle.) Y
ou can always divide a number in half, and so no matter what distance you have traveled, you will always have half that distance to go before you reach your destination. The paradox is refuted by contradiction: solve it by walking. Above is Sargent's Campo San Agnese, Venice with a lot of walkers, almost ghostly ones.

It certainly seems that I will never cover the distance, never finish the press releases, never re-size the images, never get the hanging wire on the last painting
, and so on. Who doesn't feel this way? What else can you do but just push on, working as much as you can to halve the distance?

Apparently John Singer Sargent was capable of working for incredibly long stretches, "literally all day till the light failed." His sister's friend Eliza Wedgwood says "I was the drone of the party, but allowed to sit and watch John for hours at a time: I don't think he was conscious of my presence. . .he was so absorbed in his work that he was oblivious of all else. . . it was such an experience to see him paint, every stroke telling." (from Sargent in Italy, edited by Bruce Robertson.)

Yesterday as I rushed down from my studio to make lunches before school, I fell down the stairs, quite a lot of them. . . so maybe it's solve it by walking slowly.

A painting by John Singer Sargent that looks spontaneous and rushed but probably took some planning:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"I have discovered that painting is an excellent form of escape. . I can recommend it." Russell Drysdale

One drawback of having young children at home, much as I love them, is that you don't get to go to Australia -- or anywhere else requiring long flights and extra money. At least not this year. Next best is leafing through Australian Painters of the Twentieth Century by Lou Klepac. Struck by the desolate paintings of Russell Drysdale who wanted to go off to serve in WWII along with his contemporaries, but was rejected due to the lack of sight in one eye. Hard to imagine today, but an army officer told him to "go and paint for your country." He turned his attention to the people who worked on this rather desolate land. Above is Man Reading a Newspaper from 1941.

Makes you think of Dali's Persistence of Memory which appeared ten years earlier, doesn't it? I like the playing with sense of scale, the low viewpoint, the man's elongated form. What are those objects off on the right? I guess they're fallen buildings. The landscape is not one that offers opportunity - the drought had left many in difficult circumstances.

Drysdale had successful exhibitions and achieved notoriety, but also suffered some devastating losses. In 1961 his son committed suicide; two years later his wife ended her life as well. According to Klepac, he managed to regain his stability, continue painting, and remarry several years later. Some years earlier he wrote to a friend about his experience as an artist:

I've never subscribed to the time-honoured role that an artist must subject himself to a ruthless discipline as a student or as a young man discovering the joy and power of self-expression - it is when he becomes an artist, when slowly throu
gh the experiences of his living and his training he becomes confident of himself and what he wants to say and his power to say it, that he must subject himself to discipline. And then one doesn't like that word: rather it is the beginning of a sensitive and very determined power of selection, the selection that places on the table the real gems from the intriguing heap that surrounds them. For an artist is not merely so because he is able to state one thing or another--he is essentially an artist firstly in that he shows an unusual selection and perception in what and how he states it.
page 98, Australian Painters, edited by Klepac)

Case in point - Drysdale's Basketball at Broome - comes out of the much-ignored sub-genre of nuns coaching sports:

Sunday, October 4, 2009


What about learning a new medium? Is it a dodge, a stalling for time when you fear you might be running out of ideas? I don't know. I'm hoping it's truly a worthwhile way to find some new working methods that will help when returning to oils or lead in a whole new direction.

Going to
take an encaustic workshop taught by Patricia Baldwin Seggebruch whose encaustic work, entitled Shellacing 2 is above. In the Artist's Handbook, Ralph Mayer describes this ancient technique that's undergoing a revival, especially now that portable, cheap heating elements are available. A good deal of our information about the methods and use is found in the writings of Pliny, who wrote in the 1st century A.D.

In his writings, Pliny described the painting of mythological scenes on panels, portraits created with wax on wood, and the weatherproofing and decorating of war ships. By adding color to the wax, the painters could create tinted effects and because wax is a preservative, the work would last. Encaustic paintings do not yellow and the wax is impervious to moisture, unlike tempera.

The method is thought to have originated with the Greeks as far back as the 5th century B.C., so it was already 4 hundred years old by the time Pliny describes the work.

Pliny would have been a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist had he lived today, or at least a National Enquirer star. Apparently he was so curious to check out the explosion of Vesuvius that he got into a boat to move in closer and investigate. The fumes were too much for him and he died of asphixiation.