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?

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