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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

These paragraphs subvert the message of my book when I recall Heidegger's dictum that Western Philosophy does not think


Chapter 1

The cognitive structure of the eye and the road to pure color painting

(An aside on the role of abstract thinking in seeing and art)

Abstraction that is created by the power of the concept to shape and establish structure is visually exciting. When it becomes mechanical, it loses its élan. The concepts that we teach are not new to the world but they are new to the student and the freshness of discovery is part of the experience of drawing and painting. All the concepts that give us space and the objects in it are embedded in the visual apparatus of the eye and mind and when they are uncovered there is often a sense of surprise and enhanced power. The revelation of the concept can carry the student’s work along for weeks, as it seems to magically shape their visual world.

For example, the simple understanding of the underpinning of value in all perception can have a liberating effect on the student who once labored under the misconception that everything has its own technique. “How to paint” the still life or the landscape or portraiture is the title of many an art textbook that can befuddle the student. Even watercolor is best understood as grounded in the perception of light and dark and color and at least should be seen as an extension of ink wash; however, many people love technique and will pay enormous amounts to study with a watercolorist guru with some magic formula that will create the veneer of professionalism. 

On the other end of the educational spectrum and typical of the education I had in the liberated 1960s and ’70s is the idea of the individual as a source of novelty and invention. We were taught to startle and to wow the viewer with something surprising. It often had to be big and bold. I remember a classmate who threw himself through his painting in one blazing gesture of self-expression. To navigate between the cult of the self, premised on the uniqueness of individual vision and the dry concepts of visual technique was a challenge, to say the least. The personal epiphanies about the role of perception in art became my touchstone. 

From the first discovery of the primacy of value, to the role of directional lines, to the reversal of figure and ground and how each would shape my work for months on end was the grounding of my existence first as a student and then as an artist. It often meant moving in territory already trod by others and, within the culture of self-absorption in which I grew up in, I was considered reactionary. Comments about how such and such a style was dead were standard. My freshman design teacher told me that painting was dead when I decided to paint the grill of an Oldsmobile for a design project on the automobile. Take a photograph, he said, to which I replied I don’t have a camera but I can paint. 

In the 1990s, I became engaged in Abstract Expressionism and tried to integrate its concepts into my work. An art history professor at UNH saw abstract expressionism solely as an event in the art historical record and therefore as something that was over and done with. But by pulling this art out of the historical context and seeing its connection to perception makes it accessible at all times to all artists. It isn’t inaccessible but grounded right here in the human brain. In truth, it always astounds me how the major figures of 20th century art work with the gradual liberation of the underlying principles of seeing. Take the example of Cy Twombly mentioned above: His linear work is said to be inspired by ancient Roman graffiti but it can be seen also as a continuum of the gradual liberation of the line from form that began with Cézanne, advanced through Mondrian and finally reaching its apotheosis with the Abstract Expressionists. You have to have Gorky before you have Twombly.

As I write about the role of perception in Western Art I begin to hear the words of Heidegger that most of Western Philosophy does not think, that it is, for the most part, technological. If Mondrian’s work can be seem as having its origin in perception, it could be 

seen as only a generalization of perceptual structures. As I stated earlier, the hidden linear structure that Cézanne liberated became the source of Mondrian’s further abstraction. His attempts to reduce everything to the simple language of line filled in with color seems in its seductiveness to pretend to be an underlying metaphysical structure and Mondrian’s theosophical interests seem to support this thesis. But like so much Western thinking it does not doubt in any way its own validity and inevitability. 

Matisse’s life long reduction of color from its Impressionist roots to the color cutouts can seem some sort of triumph over complexity. But when seen as being propped up by the ability of the eye to simplify complex value into shape it appears purely technological. Al Held’s “Big N” is a play on shape recognition that jumps out of abstraction into letter recognition from a low level to a higher level of cognition but it does not say “So what.” This is in keeping with the Humpty Dumpty theory where for example the liberated lines of Cézanne which are imbedded with color and planes and a feeling for the holistic pull of gravity become an end in itself in the work of Mondrian and devolve into a kind of quirky liberated gesture in Twombly. But the whole that was still attempted in Cézanne is abandoned. We are left with a pile of parts that can’t be put together again.

(Link to a blogpost from the mid-nineties on the primacy of perception that I critique here)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Project #4 Black and white still life that is cut up to make abstractions

Project #4:

Studies of both still life and indoor/outdoor repeated with Ink and Brush 

 After doing several sessions using charcoal, this project also could be repeated with black ink. The proportion of the white to black is a variable that the student can play with. The white takes on more power as it becomes increasingly isolated. There are other qualities that can be exploited with black and white as well. There is the Rorschach effect where the shapes become evocative apart from their role in the purely visual black-white dynamic.

 Most of what I teach arises from a self-reflective process of a stable viewer looking at the same set of objects in a controlled visual event over time. This allows the student to get in touch with the stabilizing structures of the visual event as it is created within the eye. However, once the student liberates these shapes, they are free to be manipulated by the unconscious so that black shapes can take on unexpected meanings. Also and probably more importantly is the introduction to the shape making ability of the eye. The eye tends to interpret things as shapes if they are of uniform value. You can imagine a person moving toward you: at a distance they may be just a dark value against a lighter surrounding. As they approach the viewer, details are more prominent and the person may even be recognized. 

Matisse Dahlias and Pomegranates
Matisse Interior with window and palm trees

The tension between figure and ground and its deconstruction can be explored in this exercise. In our day-to-day life, all that we need to focus on are the things at hand. They are always seen against a ground but the ground drops away and only serves as a backdrop. In the indoor/outdoor work of Matisse and Bonnard that I referred to above, the outdoor view is seen simultaneously with the background and engages in a sort of flip flop where neither one assumes any dominance. This ambiguity can release a good deal of visual energy. It in- forms the paintings of Al Held; in particular, the famous “Big N” at the MoMA, which is, in fact, a big N created out of two small triangular shapes at the bottom and top of the canvas. The eye cannot see both interpretations simultaneously and flip flops back and forth between the N and the triangles. These are issues that come to the surface, as it were, when you work with black and white abstract shapes. The student stumbles into these issues which, if they were treated as technical exercises, would not have a lasting impact on the student. 
Student Drawing from NHTI Concord,NH
Project #5: Cutting out black and white shapes from black and white drawings. 

After the study is done, an exercise that can be fun and revelatory of the eye’s cognitive strength is to use a mat cutter to cut out the black and white shapes and then using the cut-outs to rebuild the drawing. Not only are these cut-out abstract but the eye tends to interpret simple shapes as recognizable things. With this exercise, the student is also participating in the transition that Matisse made from observational drawing to his cut- outs. We do not literally see patterns in our day-to-day experience. Just like lines that we discussed above, they are structures that allow us to see but are not seen. (As I have said elsewhere in the book, drawing makes explicit hidden visual structures.) 
Sarah Griswold at NHTI(cut out ink wash still life drawing)looks like a person riding a dragon

To see patterns, you often have to screw up your eyes or do what I have suggested in the last exercise: push the student into an extreme visual situation of indoor/outdoor. If it took Matisse decades to move from the chiaroscuro of the Salon School to the abstraction of the cutouts, then it makes sense that the student should be led through a recapitulation of the process to experience the deeper visual that makes Matisse's cut-outs work.
Matisse cut out

Often this project is taught as a design exercise without understanding the origins of abstraction. The student’s understanding will be stretched like a rubber band only to revert back to its original shape after the exercise. The ability to recognize shapes as objects without detail also reminds the student of some higher cognitive functions that con- nect us with the real world of things. The “Big N” functions ambiguously as it moves back and forth between abstraction and letter recognition. The deconstructive process that takes you back to raw material of perception i.e. value, can in turn move back to a literal description of things in our world. 

 From “Seeing” by John Frisby. The abstract shapes add up to a knight on horseback. By permission of Oxford University Press, 1990 
 The Big “N” by Al Held (1964) 93/8 x 9 Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY © 2018 Al Held Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by ARS, New York NY

Authors painting 1995(is it two separate entities glowering at each  other or  one shape split in two?)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Part One Drawing:HIstory and Science of Seeing


Chapter 1 

History and Science of Seeing 

Theoretical: Caravaggio’s breakthrough a new basis for the real and for drawing 

The most radical change that took place in the history of painting following the Renais- sance was Caravaggio’s exploration of chiaroscuro (Italian for light/dark values) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was a self-revelation of the inner structure of the ret- ina. To access that structure, it is surmised that he used a camera obscura, which allowed him to stabilize all the objects in his field of vision, illuminated by a single source of light into a coherent whole or visual event. The camera isolates what I like to call a visual event. When a view is fixed and then studied, it is observed that some objects are closer to the light source and therefore lighter; others are further away and therefore lost in obscurity.

 Moreover, some objects reflect light onto adjacent objects. Just as a photo tends to over- expose areas that are brightest with a loss of detail, and underexpose others with an equal loss of detail, a similar thing happens in Caravaggio’s work. The overexposure creates highlights and the underexposure creates shadows. It were almost as though he had studied Ansel Adam’s zone theory of photography.

The retinal processing of light derived from Caravaggio’s insight into seeing became the lingua franca of Western Art for the next four hundred years. Within a hundred years of his breakthrough, one style dominated the western world from Velazquez in Spain to Rembrandt in Holland. According to Michael Baxandall in his book “Shadows and Enlightenment,” both scientists and artists of the 18th century were interested in the nature of perception and particularly the way by which the retina translates patterns of light and dark into form. For Baxandall, the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is an invention of the seer. The painting’s center of gravity is always within the observer. Although the narrative and its social implications are important, the studied expression of the perceptual experience as an event is primary.

 At L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the late ’70s, I took a course in the techniques of Baroque painting; in particular, the mixed oil and tempera technique used by Vermeer. Professor Wacker had us imitate the steps used to achieve a finished Baroque painting (on a small scale). What struck me about the process is that you did not need to show a figure in its entirety in order to represent it convincingly. Drawing was more of a rough sketch to sort out the placement of various zones of light. The highlight with its lack of detail is painted with white tempera, the middle ground again with tempera but with various color is glazed with oil to blend into the shadows, which was often a large part of the picture.

 The artists of the Italian Renaissance artists like Raphael had to draw out every inch of the human figure while an artist like Rembrandt could throw 80 percent into obscurity and still create a believable image since he mimicked the way the eye organizes reality in patterns of light and dark.
#1 Baxandall, Michael. Shadows and Enlightenment,”London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995

Artist's Drawing at age 20 with compressed charcoal

20th Century Watershed in Understanding The Eye 

In my peregrinations as a teacher, I have observed many schools do a decent job teaching the value based drawing and painting dominant in Europe from Caravaggio until the end of the 19th century. Many more schools base their more advanced teaching on whatever is the current flavor of the art scene. It is the 20th century that has not been codified into a teaching method and is woefully absent from most curriculums. There is an interesting parallel between the development of the 20th century visual language and the under- standing of perception that can facilitate the teaching of 20th century art.

 One cannot talk about drawing technique without discussing the organizational force of the eye. The organizing of our visual space is very complex, so much so that the language of the eye has succumbed only piecemeal to our understanding. Although they do not make specific claims about the structure of the brain, the artists always precede the scientist in understanding how the eye works. Take for example the development of cubism. It has its roots in the work of Cézanne who focuses on the planar surfaces of objects and starts to separate out the linear boundaries of the forms from the forms themselves.

 This separating out of the lines foreshadows the work of cognitive scientists in the latter half of the 20th century who located the striate cortex of the brain which responds to lines that move in precise directions. Some parts respond to vertical lines, others to diagonals. Grouped together they help create deep space and a sense of our relation to verticality. Of course, these lines are hidden from our experience of seeing but they are implicit in our understanding of the space we move in. This bringing to the surface (and we can say that the surface of the paper or canvas is where this elicitation takes place) of what is hidden in the perceptual process and turning it into an aesthetic defines the evolution of painting in the West. The inspiration for using these ideas as a method of drawing is that we find work that uses these concepts convincing since it reveals the inner structure of the eye. A “good” drawing is grounded in the hidden structures of our perceptual experience.

The relation between the work by neuroscientist David Marr in the 1970s on the structure of object recognition and Mondrian’s early breakthroughs in his language is uncanny. Mondrian’s famous serial study of a church façade is made up of a series of drawings that show a gradual reduction from a value-oriented representation of the subject to a final product of short discontinuous lines all assuming various positions in relationship to the vertical. It is iconic for art historians who wish to represent the move from the 400 years of light/dark-based art to the start of 20th century abstraction. It does to drawing what the late Monet studies of the Rouen cathedral did with color. Both dissolve the object as being there in front of the subject. Everything is now made up of parts, which can be used to construct new realities. Strangely, it becomes emblematic of the new age of mass culture where the present as experienced by the individual (which was always the focus of chiaroscuro) is less important than their function in the whole of society, or more simply a coherent sense of the parts to a whole. The implication of this for a general notion of the evolution of the language of painting is that stylistic change can be achieved not by going beyond the current visual language in a kind of hip one-upmanship, but by going into the underpinnings of that language which are not visually determined. It is not surprising that Cézanne was considered “farouche,” incapable of normal human interaction. Merleau-Ponty thought he was schizophrenic while I would guess he was autistic. #2
Liberated from social conventions he was more attuned to the raw visual experience of what he saw.

#2 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.“Cézanne’s Doubt,”in“Sense and Nonsense,”Translated by Hubert L. Derives and Patricia Allen Derive 6th Edition (Evanston, Illinois; Northwestern University Press, 1991) 9-25

Starting in the ’50s, scientists Hubel and Wiesel discovered specific locations in the brain dedicated to the perception of lines that assumed vertical, horizontal and oblique directions. What they did not understand was that the derivation of these lines came from value shifts perceived on the object being observed. Crucial to this thinking and of relevance to its relation to drawing is the primacy of light and dark to line. The value shifts perceived by the mind come first and are the raw material out of which line is perceived. Some scientists call this low order vs. high order structure. Dramatic value shifts indicate that three dimensional form is moving in space, away from the light source. It is a phenomenon of crucial importance to the viewer who needs to see the world as real in order to function within it and is therefore reinforced by the imposition of lines. All these lines combined create wedges that perspectively create space. Moreover, the relationship of these lines to each other is one of proportions. They lend themselves to measurement to allow the observer to establish their exact relationship to objects. The outcome of this process is what we call space.

 This understanding of line on my part grew out of an article by Israel Rosenfield titled “Seeing Through the Brain,” in The New York Review of Books (October 11, 1984) on the work of David Marr at MIT. In retrospect, I suspect that my interpretation of the role of these discontinuous lines creating space was my own interpretation of an image that was reproduced in the article. It shows a photo of a teddy bear that is then turned into a more #. pixilated version by a computer. The computer subsequently imposed straight lines on the value shifts and ended up with a third image of the teddy bear looking like something like a cross between a Cézanne and a Giacometti. I recently tracked down the image and bought the book from whence it came; “Seeing,” by John P. Frisby.

Frisby stated that Marr saw these lines as providing insight into the structure of forms but there is no mention of space. The dropping off of value and its role in describing volume seemed essential in putting the object into space. Each object loses its isolation in the cube of theatre/space created in the Renaissance and now participates in a spatial continuum. In the work of Cézanne, it seems to open up objects to the forces of gravity as well. Struc- ture is also the outcome of this and further work by Marr talks about some innate ability to see axes and symmetries. But I still believe in the epiphany that I had reading the article and the correspondence between that image and the role of space in the work of Cézanne, Mondrian and Giacometti. Image on the upper right shows similarities to Mondrian and Giacometti.
Scientific study by David Marr from Frisby’s “Seeing,” p. 110. By permission. (Oxford University Press, 1990)s

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

First few pages of my book on drawing and painting

                         Premise of Book 

Drawing is based in the structure of how we see and how we see is revealed from the Renaissance onward in Western Art 

Drawing grows out of our understanding of how the eye shapes our reality but from my exposure to myriad books on how to draw, it is usually taught as an exercise in aesthetics which, by definition, is a branch of philosophy dealing with beauty, art and taste. I am a believer in all three but to worship at that altar can be a real hindrance to learning how to draw. 

Another definition of aesthetics says it deals with the senses. The immediate message we can take from this definition is that knowing and understanding which are the realms of science have nothing to do with art. The aesthetic world is where we go when we tire of the dry world of science and need to breathe directly the fresh air of the sensory world. It is a world where we ask: How does it feel? 

I believe that the visual language at its base is one of cognition. If you were to ask a class of first graders to draw where they would like to be if they were not in school they have at their disposal literally a language of circles, squares, triangles and lines to describe their world. They can take us to a baseball diamond, a zoo or their room with all the objects in it. 

There is no question of taste and sensibility, in fact, the performance of these kids is pretty much uniform. There is no one who excels for his or her aesthetic sensibility. Their drawings are a cognitive act, not an aesthetic one. From an adult perspective we tend to be in awe of their spontaneity but the cognitive power of the universal language they use lets them pragmatically express what they know about the world they live in. 

Ask those same kids four years later to do the same exercise and, except for a few, they would all say, “We are not artists, we can’t draw.” What has changed? The verbal has supplanted the visual language as a way of description except for those “class artist” relatives of the “class clown” (the one you ask to draw some cartoon character for you) who still feel there is some possibility for further use of the visual. 

The class artist knows that the stick figure world is not going to cut it anymore. It cannot describe the complexity of the world they now inhabit; something the spoken and written word can do. The verbal is also a social medium and allows for interpersonal action, which is what is needed in order to be human. What do you teach students that represents a step forward in their development?

 Left to their own devices, the student of artistic ability will take an interest in texture and detail and will receive accolades from their teachers and peers for that achievement. Or there is often an interest in what I call the degenerate form of classical drawing that we find in cartooning especially that of superheroes with its obsession with anatomy and pneumatic form. I have been often asked over the years to judge numerous art contests at the high school level and find that both these modes of drawing dominate the work submitted. Both are dead ends. Or are just ends in themselves, but lead nowhere. There is always the rare cartoonist who goes on to establishing a career or the master of detail who goes on to success as a photo-realist. 

 The only way out of these options is to relive the history of western art and the way it mimics in an oddly self-recursive fashion our self-awareness of the inner cognitive structure of seeing. What has to be pointed out is that we move through the world with ease physically, encountering people and things and cognitively interpreting it, a monumental task that happens as fast as we can “see.” 

The eye is always in the process of stabilizing the world so that we won’t stumble and wallow in the quicksand of incomprehension. I will demonstrate in this book that drawing is grounded in this ordering of perception and is a language that is just as descriptive as the spoken language. Aesthetics is an edifice built on top of this descriptive ability. Beauty and taste are achieved by those who know the language by heart and can stay with it and shape it to speak to more complex issues of the meaning of life. 

 When Kant developed his notion of aesthetics, the language used in the creation of art was fairly homogeneous. It was taught and acquired by all artists in Europe and by the time these artists were ready to create their own body of work, they had years of experience mastering the craft. Art historians could talk about the difference between Raphael and Michelangelo in terms of sensibility and refinement. Their language was for the most part identical, based on some rather solid visual structures, some of which were recent acquisitions such as perspective, but for the most part the language they used already existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The goal was not novelty but emulation of the past, and the glory went to the most perfect mimesis. 

Self Portrait done in 1969 at BU Tanglewood with compressed charcoal

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Donald Shambroom's"Duchamp's Last Day" and some musings on art and technology

Donald Shambroom has added to the long list of exotica on Duchamp with the publication of “Duchamp’s Last Day” by the David Zwirner Gallery. Exotic in that everything about Duchamp is strange at first although the more one understands his oeuvre the more one realizes his notion of the visual image would be exoteric to its unfolding in the 20th and the 21st century. With Marcel we are always playing catch-up. He is central to understanding the shift of the image from the individual-made to the proliferation of machine-made imagery. Not that anything he created bespoke of the assembly line as did the silkscreens of his follower Andy Warhol. The “Large Glass” remains gnarly and difficult in its homemade construction, oddly metamorphic in its subsequent history and prescient in its anticipation of the glass TV screen as the platform for mass-produced imagery. Nietzsche’s death of God quickly translates into the death of man but we would be better served to think that Duchampia presages not the death of man but just presents another concoction of man, a man whose boundaries are physically dissolved so as to function more as an object among objects in mass culture. Another epithet of Nietzsche comes to mind: ”There was one Christ and he died on the cross.”  You can see Duchamp’s destruction of the flat reflecting image all over Rauschenberg but Duchamp himself left traditional painting far behind. He makes it nigh impossible to go back to the image reflected off the flat canvas, unless like the Zombie Formalists you drain it of any residual power.
The large glass

The book describes the movements of the characters, who were present before and after Duchamp’s death. Crucial to Shambroom’s telling of the story is Duchamp’s visit earlier in the day to a bookstore to buy a book that came with 3D glasses to create Geometric anaglyphs. He had used it in the past as it allowed him to playfully dally at what he thought to be the edge of the 3D and the unimaginable fourth dimension. Shambroom cites Gertrude Stein’s statement that Duchamp was a young man who “talks very urgently about the fourth dimension.”  This strangeness will be featured at the end of the book in a playful Duchampian act of the imagination by Shambroom, which I will not relate so as not to spoil a very fanciful summation to the story.

In the interim after Duchamp’s purchase of the “Geometric Anaglyphs” we find him in conversation with the poet Georges Herbiet whose wife has recently passed away. In the evening he dines at his apartment with his close friends Man Ray, Robert Lebel, who had published the first monograph on Duchamp and their respective wives.  The topic of death keeps cropping up. The transition from life to death seems to haunt him. a phrase keeps recurring, which would become the epitaph on his tombstone: “Besides, it is always the others who die.” In other words very simply we witness the death of others but not our own.  At one point while walking Lebel outside to his car after dinner, Man Ray slipped and fell. He blurted out:” You’d thought I dropped dead.” Another premonition.

Duchamp and Man Ray taken by Cartier-Bresson
After all the guests had gone, at one in the morning, Teeny, Duchamp’s wife, found him collapsed and moribund in the bathroom. As though Man Ray was ready for this eventuality, when informed of the death, he returned camera in hand to take a deathbed photo. This photo was only made known to the public in 2011, suggesting some sort of intentional act on the part of the Duchamp estate to withhold it from the public realm. This delay provided Shambroom with ample opportunity to discuss notions of the artist deciding what is art and what isn’t and in this case something controlled conceivably from the grave. Its reproduction in the book is apparently its first appearance in the public realm.

At the very end of the story some very intriguing words are cited apropos Duchamp that were written by the artist collective: Lu Cafausu:

“Perhaps art demands that one play with death. Perhaps it introduces a game, a bit of play in the situation that no longer allows for tactics or mastery.”

“To die well is to die in one’s own life, turned towards one’s own life and away from death…the good death shows more consideration for the world than regard for the depth of the abyss.”

These words express the sine qua non of Duchamps's work that looks away from  mastery, fear and trembling before the abyss that underlie so much of Western and Eastern art for that matter. It brought to mind an essay I wrote on the sculptor Billy Lee whose early work embodied that sort of seriousness, that I always found appealing. Sculpted out of granite and shaped like the helmets of hoplites, it conveyed a notion of power and conflict embedded in the very substance of life. His new work done in China has jumped out of conflict and is all about play and fabricated in glossy material that is produced in Chinese factories.  It is also done to be part of the urban fabric not an aestheticized sculpture garden. In its use of industrial car finish it is reminiscent of the work of Anish Kapoor. In one instance of playfulness it makes fun of the imagery of his early work. It got me thinking about the energy that can be liberated when you break the barriers of art and technology and the global media.

Billy Lee Sculpture

The media of mass culture lifts the individual out of its locality and lets she/he vibrate in a global holism, especially now as globalism has reached its apogee and maybe subcomeing to populism. Duchamp made that merger allowable in his destruction of the flat canvas. It has since split the art world irreparably into several camps: Those who still believe in the canvas and the power of its language to affect the viewer, those who want to use that language but as something absent of any power like the Zombie Formalists, those who still try to deconstruct it in the ongoing tradition of Duchamp and finally those who take advantage of the split to merge art and technology.

Billy Lee Sculpture in the urban landscape

Don Shambroom has achieved the latter merger in his new work, taking his paintings online to merge with moving images and sound. He does not cool down the story with irony but heats it up with a kind of global and even cosmic power. If Duchamp according to Lu Cafausu turns toward his own life  and away from death Shambroom turns his work toward the depth of the abyss. His creations start out from his paintings and are augmented with news imagery and sound to take their place on the global scene.
Painting by Shambroom that leads into video manipulation

Friday, August 24, 2018

Remembering the photographer Arthur Tcholakian

When I came back to Boston from Paris in the late 70’s I rented a studio space in East Watertown. I found myself surrounded by an Armenian community not far from where I grew up. It had been rejuvenated by an influx of Armenians escaping the political turmoil of Iran and Lebanon. One of my neighbors was Richard Tashjian, the founder of the Armenian Artists Association of America a group of mostly New England artists of Armenian extraction that banded together to bring their work to the attention of the larger Boston community. With my Armenian heritage I qualified as a member and joined the group.
review in the NYTimes  

Richard had developed connections with Soviet Armenian artists. Over the next few years I was selected twice to exhibit there and eventually had work included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Yerevan.  For the most part I participated in local shows in Armenian Church basements. It was at one of these shows I met Arthur ”Harout” Tcholakian. A photographer born into a family of photographers in Jerusalem, he had immigrated to New York where he became a highly successful fashion photographer. He was at that time trying to leverage that success and I assume the money he made in the world of high end fashion to do photographic essays on topics that had more social import. “The Majesty of the Black Woman” was very successful. His book on Soviet Armenia was paid for out of his own pocket and I don’t think found much of a market. However, I am unaware of any other books that dealt with the life of that strange mixture of Armenia and Communism that was the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.
William Saroyan by Tcholakian

I recall expressing some embarrassment to Arthur at showing with the AAAA in that church basement. Only a handful of the artists could be considered professional and many indulged in an Armenian predilection for Picassoesque cubistic language in. He seemed disturbed by the distinction I was making between professional and amateur which was reminiscent of the attitude of my late friend Addison Parks, who often cringed at such distinctions.  Arthur said we would go through the show painting by painting and try to figure out how each one worked. It was a lesson in humility and acceptance of the variety of human artistic expression. Moreover, it voiced a visceral reaction on his part on how preconceptions can limit our understanding of what is really in front of us. It was an acceptance of the moment without the boundaries of labels like professional and amateur.
Selection of photos taken from his son Ara's FB page

We became friends. I often visited him where he lived in the Queens NY. The apartment was illuminated with high wattage bulbs that eliminated all shadows. It was like Arthur, a man of high wattage intensity. On the wall was a world map that made one think we were in some military HQ. He stayed up all night as most of his communications by telephone were with countries, which were awake while we slept.  He was a globalist before the word was invented. We discussed so many issues related in particular to the survival of the Armenians. We would talk for hours on end. Once for 24 hours straight. Arthur never seemed to need sleep.

His notion of the “moment” is intriguing to me. The moment is where you can change the course of events. It was strangely expressed in one incident involving a plumber who came to do a repair on a drain in his Queens‘ apartment. It was routine of course but for Arthur nothing was routine. He asked the plumber who was Hispanic if he knew the traditional Puerto Rican song about the chicken. He hadn’t. Are you sure? replied Arthur. He gave him a few words of the song and started to hum a tune. He kept pestering the plumber to recall the song. Before long the fellow started singing a song that he now seemed to recall and we joined in. It turns out the song does not exist. Was he mocking in a mean spirited way the susceptibility of the plumber to be coerced into pretending to know the song? Or was it again the unwillingness to accept anything routine.

I remained with Richard Tashjian’s group into the 80’s missing out on one trip to   Armenia he organized with the Soviet Republic, because of its coincidence with a new teaching job. Apparently those visits were phenomenal, full of arak fueled discussions despite the omnipresence of spies. The ministry of culture had money for the American Armenian artists visit and even paid for the trip abroad.

When I moved to North Carolina, Arthur had already moved to DC into a spacious contemporary house in Wolf Trap. He was remarried and was working on some major projects, all related to getting into the international scene to which he felt he had better access via Washington. How he paid for his lifestyle was always a mystery? I vaguely recall his referencing of a Middle Eastern financier.
Arthur Tcholakian

On what was to be our last visit he invited friends over for a large feast. It became clear at one point in the middle of the meal that most everyone at the dinner table came from a different part of the Mediterranean: Arthur from Jerusalem, another from Alexandria, a third from Lebanon and my wife Alix from Morocco.

He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. He often repeated a saying that for me summed up his view of life: as artists we have to purge ourselves of the shopkeeper. We must maintain constant vigilance against the mentality of the accountant where all has to tally. He was a risk taker and a believer in the twinkle of the eye where you transcend your past to turn that instant toward the future. While people around him were trying to add things up or to add him up he was dancing a pirouette leaving us behind as he leapt into the unknown.