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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Art as Survival of the Fittest


At Yale 1972-1974

Our relationship was fraught with conflict, a conflict he enjoyed, I am sure, as his notion of teaching was more based on pugilism than on dialogue. The few punches that got through both early and late pushed my art in surprising directions. Our relationship got off to a great start at the first party for faculty and students when he seemed intrigued by my year in Paris between undergrad and grad school on a fellowship from Yale College (we both had studied at La Grande Chaumiere) and my notion that the Yale School of Art should invite poets such as Robert Penn Warren to speak to the students, as there seemed to be little dialogue between the Yale’s artists and its creative writers. As I think back on our relationship at this point in my life, his comments on painting all pointed toward his interest in creating “flatness”. In 1972 flatness was something taken for granted by most students. It was not something to be created or achieved. I marveled at how easily my fellow students pushed paint around on the surface of the canvas. I subsequently learned the inertia of flatness had become a worry for Stella as well, which he spelled out eloquently in “Working Space.” When I first started studying with Held, I was completing a six-year devotion to figuration. The word “devotion” may seem overstated in regards to a painting style but there was a religious component that could be heard in the language of Bill Bailey or Al Leslie. In the case of Bailey it was a sense of cultural decline that he hoped to reverse by tapping into the spiritual bases of Renaissance painting. (A course I took in the art history department concurrently  “Art and Magic in the Renaissance” spelled this out for me explicitly) and for Leslie a kind of messianic Marxism that did battle with the forces of capitalism. Both attitudes I espoused at different times during those six years. By 1972 I had studied with Leslie (at the BU School at Tanglewood), Laderman (critiqued my Scholar of the House show at Yale), and Bailey (as an undergraduate advisor of the same project). I spent a year on a scholarship traveling through Europe at one point seeking out the work of Piero in Italy whose work I discovered in a lecture by Phillip Guston at Yale /Norfolk. Flatness for me was a sort of blasphemy, since in my mind humanism was related to deep space and the way it enveloped people in a shared environment. I had just started to consider color my last year as an undergraduate, but I would have been content to paint in the style of the Macchiaoli and in fact my first fall as a grad student was spent working on a large 6 foot by 10 foot historical painting of a murder in a New Haven parking garage in a pointillist style.

Matisse's Wife
In the fall of ‘72 I saw a show of Matisse’s early still lifes that came from the Pushkin in Moscow to New York at Pierre Matisse. It was quite an event to get the work here considering where we were in the Cold War. For me it was my Armory show moment. Seeing the liberation of energy through the color and the dynamism that it set up brought an end to my ambitions to create the large historical machines I had painted my first semester. Al was a good person to have as a teacher at that point because he knew what Matisse was about. He talked once to me about a portrait of Matisse’s wife from 1913 and we marveled at its flatness but I think the word he used was the compression of space. There was always the act of flattening, not flatness, hence it was a dynamic act not a play of patterns. One other bit of advice he gave me came back to me ten years later when I was working on a large still life in North Carolina, where I was teaching at UNC-Greensboro. I was painting an indoor/outdoor space from observation, where the outdoor was a large expanse of playing field, the indoor a table of objects. Al had told me once how to revive a stagnating painting by placing a piece of paper on the canvass and reworking the painting so that the paper instead of being just stuck on the canvas would be an integral part of it. At the time he made the suggestion, it made absolutely no sense but it worked its way up from my memory bank to suggest a solution to a painting that was bogged down in disparate detail. I slashed large black and red lines from the top of the painting to the bottom and diagonally through the nicely sculpted still life objects. I then started to rework the painting and noticed that I was giving attention to the negative spaces as well as the positive, which resulted in a great liberation of energy. It flattened the space out, connected inside and outside, but in a dynamic way and brought all parts of the painting into a whole.

The” Big N” is all about the compression of space. At UNC-Greensboro where I taught for several years there was a small Held in the museum called “Black Square marries orange circle”. It showed a square that had squeezed a yellow circle into the corner of the painting. I realized that the goal of his color was not to seek harmony but was based on a Nietzschean use of color as “will to power”. I had to laugh that he used the word marriage to describe this relationship. Harmony is the word most often used to describe marriage and in this painting the marriage allowed for no merger but rather domination of one element over another. An honest portrayal of marriage to say the least.
Black Square Marries Orange Circle(Held)

I had heard from Joe Nicoletti who graduated from Yale in the early 70’s and saw Al occasionally in Todi during Al’s later years that he had mellowed and had come to show some remorse about the aggressive teaching style of his early years. In a show of the later work at BU I seem to recall some reference in the accompanying literature to metaphysics, Platonic higher realms etc., the very sort of thing that he avoided talking about in the 70’s.If that is in fact the case and it allowed him to create the deep space of the later work that he so vehemently suppressed in his early work, it was unfortunate. It didn’t seem to be built up out of the dynamism of the early work. Then again the black and white geometric paintings may have already been a movement toward Pythagorean imagery of essential forms. It appears in the last work he wanted to understand the whole of the universe, how all parts add up to one large cosmos. In his early work he was like a scientist who liberates subatomic particles in an atom smasher. His legacy, if any young painter is willing to receive it, is this tight compression of space and the subsequent explosion of energy generated by that compression. He had learned it from Matisse so there is continuity historically. But that language of painting has not been picked up by subsequent generations. They don’t study its antecedents in Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. They didn’t bother to contradict standard visual expectations that all three were capable of. It is unfortunate that Deconstruction focused on social constructs and political issues, all imbedded in language and didn’t realize that Cezanne, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse were ardently deconstructing the visual language of 2000 years of painting. Held pushed that deconstruction one step further. Held understood that there is always conflict and tension between any two things. No two things sit passively side by side without turning on each other; that conflict creates real relationship. This also introduces the notion of time, which has not often been considered as a vital component of painting. In Al’s figure/ ground play the picture does not permit a uniform scan but rather pulsates between being taken in as a whole ,where for example the “Big N” is seen as flat space with triangles in the corners and then as an N that is suppressing another color shape behind it. Thus a passage of time is marked by two distinct events.

He once showed a glimmer of sympathy towards me. I was painting still lifes in my studio where I was beginning to introduce color in a more potent manner but the work was not on the scale required by the Yale Faculty and I knew they preferred the over–sized, over ambitious attempts at story telling from my first semester. Al sensed the difficulties I was having transitioning from history painting to color studies and told me that I was probably torn apart by too many influences. The advice was aimed at directing me toward what was typically said in critiques, simplify and master one thing well. e.g. do black and white before color. At the time I bristled at that sort of criticism and said ,”You are right and you are one influence too many. Get out of my studio”.This is probably the response he wanted. He got me to enter the ring.

My reworked still life from 1986

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