Follow by Email

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Modern Artist" considered this article for publication in an issue on Cezanne.The editor, Karen Wright, said it was "thought provoking".

Impressions of France: Money, Renoir, Pisarro and Their Rivals
Fall 1995,The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Impressions of France”, a somewhat unwieldy exhibition of French landscape painting from the mid to late 19th century documents parallels and differences between mainstream landscapes painted principally for purchase by the French State and those of the Impressionists which although contemporaneous were not initially considered worthy of acquisition by the French Government. The work of Cezanne, Pisarro, Monet and Sisley on view represent a way of seeing that is now considered to be the foundation of modernism; on the other hand in the Salon landscapes we witness the winding down of a universally accepted style that had had its origin in the Baroque and which in the hands of the French Salon painters becomes decidedly decadent . This simultaneous winding down of one style and the burgeoning growth of another raises questions of how historically styles succeed one another. The notion of what is decadent and what authentic looms large in this show and most importantly the role that individual vision and imagination play in establishing a new style.

According to Michael Baxandall’s book ”Shadows and Enlightenment” scientists and artists of the 18th century were interested in the nature of perception and in particular the way the retina translates patterns of light and dark into form. According to Baxandall the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is the invention of the seer. #1. The paintings center of gravity is always within the observer. The acceptance of a unique light source and the fluency and immediacy of the brush strokes contribute as well to the sensation that we are inside the artist’s consciousness. Although the narrative and the social implications are important, the studied expression of the perceptual experience as visual event is primary. In the case of the salon painters the center of gravity seems to lie outside the viewer in the landscape and with the story the landscape would convey to the socially dominant class that might purchase the painting. All socially relevant detail is explicitly represented: The geographical location, recognizable monuments such as Chartres Cathedral, the social class of the people in the landscape (usually peasants). The brush strokes vary within each painting depending on what they are conveying .The formulas and motifs are repeated enough to be identified as such: over and over we are served up the road narrowing in perspective and several individuals strolling along this road which reaches its vanishing point midpoint in the horizon.

The overwhelming mood of the Salon paintings is one of melancholy . The oversized canvasses with their large expanses of sky, sea or field induce a feeling of disorientation . The preferred time of day is dusk. The self that is manifest is not the strong self that eventually dominates 20th century art from Picasso to deKooning and Serra. In the salon painting man is clearly not the measure by which the expanse of space is parceled out. These artists believe naively in the illusion that chiaroscuro creates.  Once that illusion is established, the references to social narrative abandon both the facticity of the objects represented and the object making ability of the eye. The artists space is neither universal nor personal but one of shared social assumptions and prejudices, especially those assumptions based on institutions such as the Church and the bourgeoisie which represent the conservatism of the dominant social order. To convey the dominant role of the former, Churches figure prominently in many of the paintings and to reassure the bourgeoisie of its control over the working class comforting images of peasants quietly accepting their burden of labor in the fields fill numerous landscapes.

How were the Impressionists capable of becoming the “forerunners of modernism” affecting ultimately a sea change in art, which relegates their competitors of the academy to the dustbin of history. Merleau-Ponty in an insightful essay on Cezanne, entitled “Cezanne’s Doubt” provides a possible explanation in his description of the psyche of the most important artist of the pre-modernist revolution. #2 In Merleau-Ponty’s view Cezanne is clinically schizophrenic. Felicitous human interaction is beyond him. Most of his personal relationships are fraught with suspicion. Over the course of this life he appears according to the observations of townsfolk to become more and more embittered and alienated. Although lacking in the social skills of the world and according to his childhood friend Emile Zola insensitive to the social and political issues of the late 19th century France, he was exquisitely attuned to the shape that the impressions of the observed world took within him. These are impressions not shared with his fellow citizens. There are no labels on his paintings either figuratively or literally like the name on the stern of a boat on Elodie La VIllette’s painting that situates the landscape for the viewer in Dieppe. A church or anything recognizable except primordial rocks, trees and sky, does not dominate Cezanne’s landscape. The impressions are configured into an architecture where each stroke is part of a whole. There is no sloppy variation of style from part to part as we see in the Salon painters.

The thrust of Merleau-Ponty’s essay is that Cezanne’s illness defined his attitude toward painting. Merleau-Ponty goes to great lengths to distinguish this emotional background from Cezanne’s project, which starting from the hand that nature dealt him builds out of it a noble oeuvre. What I find helpful in this analysis is the notion that that Cezanne’s illness made him incapable at both the personal and the societal level of reading the social signs that bind us to society; so that at heart he remained unsocialized and therefore eminently qualified to focus on the inner experience of apprehending the landscape as landscape rather than the role is plays in French Culture. Everything is turned inside out. The roads that meander off into the horizon from the bottom of the painting in a large number of the Salon landscapes are present in Cezanne’s paintings but he subverts the expected reality so that the road ends up closer to the viewer at its vanishing point than where it began. What serves as an entry point into the painting for the salon artists actually functions as an obstacle to entering into Cezanne’s painting.

Seeing the work of Cezanne side by side with his once well-established contemporaries accentuates the common notion of Cezanne as “farouche” and renders the Salon artist more insipid than they would appear beyond the context of this show. Cezanne’s choice of what to paint reflects the thought processes of someone who “just doesn’t get it”. In one small landscape (most of the impressionist works are noticeably smaller than those of their salon counterparts) he paints a landscape with branches obscuring the road. One can almost imagine that he was dropped blindfolded before the scene and asked to paint unflinchingly the scene before him when the blindfold was removed. He would be forced to abandon all conventions and go beyond the narrative constructs that lock us into daily life. Whereas La Villette, Bavoux and the countless unknown artist of the late 19th century continue to paint in the now fatigued manner of the of the once radical concepts of chiaroscuro and perspective, Cezanne drops down from the retina which is the locus of value perception to the striate cortex of the brain where the values are analyzed according to verticality, horizontality and diagonality. #3 Just as Caravaggio’s rigorous and powerful use of chiaroscuro spread rapidly throughout Europe to define the styles of Velasquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer, Cezanne’s understanding of the role of line direction and its relations to seeing space becomes the raw material for cubism, minimalism and various optically based art forms of the 20th century.

The implication of my interpretation of Cezanne’s personality on a general notion of the evolution of the language of painting is that stylistic change can be achieved not only by deconstructing the current visual language but by going beyond it to the underpinnings of that language which are not yet culturally appropriated. Those thinkers and artists who promote modern paradigms of cultural revolution that aim to deconstruct accepted ways of seeing at a cultural level in order to go beyond them would do well to study Cezanne. Oblivious to the social signs and symbols, the accretion of his inherited culture he could more fully discover the inner visual structure of the eye/mind. The battle of transformation is not won only by questioning the notions of the current visual order but by digging deeper into the structure of the eye/mind itself. That the possibilities of the language of chiaroscuro had run their course could only be understood by a few people who were not easily seduced by its current incarnation as a vehicle for describing the social order of the late 19th century. The creation of these artists was a new language, more vigorous and inclusive of varieties of the visual experience, which grew out of how the landscape was internally apprehended, not what is was supposed to represent externally to the class of collectors and cognoscenti of the time.

#1 Baxandall, Michael.” Shadows and Enlightenment”, (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

#2Merleau-Ponty,Maurice “Cezanne’s Doubt” in “Sense and Non-Sense”, Translated by Hubert L. Derives and Patricia Allen Derives, 6th edition (Evanston Illinois: Northwestern U. Press, 1991) pages 9-25

#3Hoffman,Howard S, “Vision and the Art of Drawing”, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989) pages 48-67.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Paul Pollaro, a student at UNH, when I taught there in 1980, asked me to write something about his work for a show we had hoped a local gallery would give us.We never heard back from them and in the meantime he landed a show at HP Garcia in New York.Scorned by a backwater gallery(both literally and figuratively) in Kittery, ME, but now showing in the Big Apple,I thought I would publish the words just the same.

When I was an undergraduate art student at Yale I would observe the work of the graduate students during the critiques. There was one grad student whose name I can’t remember and work I always admired. He looked like James Dean, and had his kind of moodiness as well.  He was married and had a child, which set him apart from the other grad students, who were already building their careers on the backs of the well-connected faculty.  He painted scenes of cars parked under street lights at  dusk with a few people lingering around the cars. They were big paintings and picked up on the photorealism of the time without the cooling affect of the photograph. They were full of sentiment, the kind of emotions that overwhelmed me as an adolescent. Seasonal moods that provided the titles for so many songs: e.g. ”August Moon”, “Ebb Tide” or “Autumn Leaves”.  All the tunes expanded the moment and let the self leak into the environment.  Both self and environment are captured in the moment, a kind of synchronic meshing with the wheels of time.  This momentary expansion of the self implied a sort of vulnerability and  permeability, where the self is cracked out of its solipsistic shell.

It was not this now nameless artist’s vision that would define the next thirty-five years of  art world production. Most of grad students I observed were under the thrall of the minimalist dicta. As a grad student at the same school a few years later I would be subjected to the same, which amounted to a sort of exorcism of the individual personality.  I was now in the Church of Modernism and the inquisitorial priests wished to cure me of any romantic tendencies.  And in the art world after “minimal self” there came “no self”, which can be learned like any trade.

The cynicism of 20th c art has worked its way down to the masses so that every wannabe musician and artist knows the cynical logic of the modern aesthetic. Keat’s romantic “Ode to Autumn”, the consummate blending of self and environment finally had run its course culturally in the the pop tunes of the 40's and 50’s. The wheels keep turning and we don’t know sometimes where we are in the gyres. Most often we are crushed or rendered irrelevant by them.

In my conversations with Paul Pollaro, it is the emotional side of his work that he’d rather talk about. From studying his work I can pick out his indebtedness to Modernism’s love of technicity and labor. He knows how to push and pull the figure-ground like Matisse, and his figures float in a field worthy of Cy Twombly.  His gestural mark-making  and love of material  can only be made by someone who studied the breakthroughs of de Kooning and Pollack.  These are paintings that are worked on, not hiding the labor, with a sense of being forged in heat, sweat and soot.  But he could care less about that. He knows that technique is not an end itself; it has to be put to work, i.e. used.  It has to take you somewhere. Somewhere beyond the physicality of the paint.  As the Buddhists like to say it is not the finger pointing at the moon but the moon that we should be looking at.

Pollaro is looking to break the solipsistic shell, a visionary looking for signs of life out there beyond his own. The work doesn’t say exactly where they are.  Is it in the earth that he is digging for artifacts of a civilization without rhyme or reason?  Or does it go beyond just knowing and become the vision of a mystic in the darkest night, where visions barely illuminated flit fitfully in obscurity?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In rereading this essay I was struck by the author's reference to "willed vulgarity".I think what she is refering to was my conscious decision to accept our basic human condition of irrationality and raw will.It is something picked up stylistically from the late Guston.We must start from "the cruel chaotic base" before we can pretend to have any"raffinement".

  Camp on Canvas: Martin Mugar        

“My painting is about the desire that underlies the facts,” writes Martin Mugar in the handsomely illustrated announcement for his recent show of Oil and Wax series paintings at Suffolk University. The verb “underlies” provides one key to this enigmatic and sensuous new work: the fatty tissue of Mugar’s strokes springs out from the canvas, introducing a third dimension to this art of the flat surface, and teasingly suggesting the presence of a truth under the visible evidence. “Facts,” provides another key. Considering Mugar’s evolution from the still life paintings of the 1980’s through the Hofmannesque Abstract Expressionism in the 1990’s and into his new color field phase, we are led to ponder the different sorts of “facts” that painting proposes. And, “desire.” That word is not carelessly printed on Mugar’s announcement with its luscious, sherbet colors. Nor, for that matter, is the word “painting.” These days it takes either a very naïve or a boldly sophisticated artist to put brush to canvas. Mugar is of the latter breed.
            He loves the brush, and the delicate materiality of paint, and the symbolic properties of light and shape. An early still life from 1984 shows his allegiances: behind the blockily painted, laterally displayed cups, jugs and conch shell, and in the subdued tones of ivory, cream, granite grays, and umber, stand Chardin and his later interpreters, Cézanne and Derain. Mugar’s brushwork here is forceful, and most of all one notices the subtle distinctions in hue and value on the busily articulated tablecloth, the sides and shoulders of the objects.
            Two years later, in “Still Life 1986” shown at the M. I. T. Museum, Mugar has declared a certain independence. This is no longer homage or canny apprentice work. Table top, room, and objects have been severely reduced, and the palette has lightened to a kinky range of pinks, lavenders, mustards and crocus green. In their simplified shapes, the three discernible cups or jugs are no longer presented with any gesture toward three-dimensional illusion; they hover as sculpted cloud shapes in the dense atmosphere of the painting in which solid matter and air share the same molecular formula.
            In the 1990’s, Mugar moved into a phase he calls his Abstract Expressionism. At his own pace, thoughtfully, privately, he worked his way through the idioms and evolution of Modernist painting, years in arrears of the path-breakers DeKooning, Pollock, Hofmann, Guston et al., but proving the integrity of his own shape-making and of his translation of the tradition into his own terms. Mugar’s paintings from the 90’s are exuberant affairs. Often five or six feet wide and high, painted in bold, risky, but controlled strokes, these works often suggest landscape while disturbing spatial logic and playing depths against abrupt blockages of foreground. “Self in Landscape” of 1990 depicts no “self,” but some swashbuckling black calligraphy outlines a slender central rectangle within a larger frame and arranges a perspective reminiscent of an outside scene—mounds of juicy foliage and hillish backdrop, with a deep cobalt swatch of sky above—perceived through a window. The window itself seems to be promenading through outdoor-space, not attached to any indoor architecture. Thetwo awkward calligraphic rectangles might be taken as focusing devices, and thereby as a mark of an organizing human vision—the “self” in the landscape. “Still Life” (1989) proclaims itself, in its wadded block-like shapes, a kind of assemblage of objects crowded on a table top, perhaps beneath a window sill above which succulent green stalks and a golden background are visible.  The painting permits no conventional reading of objects in gravitational space, however; planes of color—the cerulean cloud in the foreground, the salmon pink box astride it—announce their own proud color and texture rather than “objectness.”
            By the late 90’s, Mugar has cut loose still further from referential conventions. “Mulch” (1996) shares a gestural language with “Mackerel Crowded Seas” (1997), so the titles no longer serve a descriptive function so much as an obliquely symbolic one. In both of these large paintings, a massive central cluster of drippingly brushed ovals dominates the surface. In “Mulch,” this Easter egg fantasia emerges from a background of slurpy, billowing cream, salmon and mustard, while the eggs themselves are outrageously striped in peacock blue, lemon, rose and burnt sienna. “Mackerel Crowded Seas” (the phrase from Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium”) suggests nothing fishy in its crayola-flesh cluster of ovals and trailing tentacles, except perhaps a dream of explosively fertile fish eggs. In both of these paintings and their weird coloration, a strong element of camp and of willed vulgarity generates a peculiar energy.
            Around 2000, Mugar’s work took a significant turn. As he has described it, “The third period is a stepping out of the push-pull of self and group and is a painstaking sensitizing of every mark, every stroke out of which is created a purer self.” Purer self or no (a matter impossible for an outsider to judge), these new paintings, including the Oil and Wax series shown last fall at Suffolk, have radically changed their focus and their organization of incident. They present a unified surface of repeated gestures, symmetrical drips, in a limited chromatic range. They flaunt bubble gum and sherbet colors: strawberry, pale lime, baby blue, café au lait, tangerine cream, lemon ice… To distinguish one painting from another and to read each individual painting, one finds oneself peering hard at the facture of the strokes. Some of the paintings have a tighter weave than others; some allow more ragged drip at the base of the canvas; some allow one color (say, pink) to predominate in the quasi-pointilliste scheme, while others yield (say) to lime.
            Let us take, for example, a pinkish 36 by 40 inch painting from 2003. Because the wax thickens the oil pigment to an almost sculptural medium, Mugar is able to energize the surface not only by chromatic variation across the surface, but in the goopy three-dimensional events that add the further graphic element of shadow. In the 2003 canvas, a considerable downward tension is provoked by the gobs at the top of the canvas that initiate the downwardly overlapping leaf shapes. In the main pattern, the elevated strokes, tightened by wax, cast shadows beneath their scales and stalactite drips, so that suddenly this light-hearted weave is complicated, in mood, by shade, the dark underlining of each stroke, the suggestion of secrete depths and cavities. The bottom edge has an even more sinister development: the final smears protrude beyond the border, leaving a ragged bottom with bits of bare canvas exposed. Some kind of illusion is broken here, about the tidy, sugary harmony proposed by the whole painting. That order is revealed as produced by a process, possibly a violent one, capable of dissolution.
            Scanning the works in the Oil and Wax series for their small but significant differences becomes a lesson in seeing.  They all enjoy a democracy of stroke and color. But then a tiny irregularity will announce itself—such as the small salmon scale with no overhang just below the center of the small square from 2005—and become an event that affects the entire composition.
            At times these strokes suggest leaves, at times scales, at times electrons. They seem to argue that reality is composed of an underlying geometric regularity. And it appears a celebratory regularity, funky and outrageous in hue. Celebratory, that is, and even pretty, until the unnaturalness of the colors become alarming; and until we note the shadow schemes and border clots that tell a more disorderly story. With this new series, Mugar has invented a mode that is entirely his own. It has visual and tactile authority, a high degree of craft (something one no longer necessarily expects from art presented in public), and a powerful metaphysical suggestiveness. It is intelligent, sensuous painting that has kept faith with its traditions and has at the same time registered an original mode of seeing for our age of quarks and fractals.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The last few paragraphs of my book on teaching painting and drawing

It was the goal of art from the Renaissance to the end of the19thc to put in front of the viewer a world of verisimilitude .. At its best it has allowed artists to show events  that are not immediately present to the viewer whether representing the “Last Judgment “ by Michelangelo , the “Disasters of War” of Goya or Frederic Church’s views of the Amazon jungle.

The thesis of this treatise on drawing and painting describes the continuation of this focus on seeing and visuality into the 20th c where it takes on a deconstructed and highly self-conscious form. ”Modernism” which embodies an art form built out of these reduced visual structures has come to an end culturally in the last twenty years .In a sense Greenberg’s logic pushed it to such simplicity that it really had nowhere to go. What is the next step beyond an all black painting of Reinhardt or Kelley’s panels of primary color,or Robert Ryman? All are more about the sculptural reality of how they interact with the walls behind them .There can be no dynamic within an all black painting and Kelley’s panels don’t really react with each other in the way Hoffman’ color does. Currently, Modernism has  been replaced by art as opinion or news ,most often political in nature .The need to ground an  image in a coherent visual structure is no longer required neither in academia nor in art world produce.I hope that this book serves the purpose of codifying for the student a world that seems to fade more and more into the past and could soon appear incomprehensible if its underpinning are not spelled out.It would be pleasurable to allow the student to linger a little within the ideas that envigorated painting for 500 years.I personally think that the language based on seeing has not been totally explored and even to reenact the discoveries of the past allows  the artist to still find new things to say as the Chinese did in a tradition which lasted for 1500 years .The image of Hsia Kuei’s painting shown above was done somewhere in the middle of the grand tradition of Chinese painting.The genius of Chinese Landscape painting is that it points to a metaphysical reality beyond itself.As the famous Buddhist said:Don’t look at the finger pointing to the moon but at what it points at,. That tradition has also come to an end as well judging from the art production coming out of Modern China,which maybe makes these words even more pertinent.Where do we go from here.

Recently,an artist friend sent me a letter to the editor of Art News written after Gorky’s death by Joseph Solman., a painter who knew Arshile Gorky.It  was an appraisal of the artists worth and although it was clear that Solman admired his talent he thought that Gorky remained an imitator and not an original genius.Mr Solman was so right but so wrong.

Here is the text,which was sent to me by Larry Deyab directly photocopied from the original Art News:

The posthumous celebration of Arshile Gorky’s paintings(A.n.,Jan.51) is  a rather pathetic mockery of the man and his work.During his liftime,his closest associates as well as more objective spectators were in common agreement as to his complete dependence on various manifestations of Picasso. Certainly his later turn to Miro,Matta and Kandinsky indicated no element of growth,except for a more brilliant technical dexterity.

Many of us admired his conversations as well as his rare taste and accomplished skill. Sometimes, after putting to rout an adversary in matters touching on Ingres’ supreme role in modern painting, the remarkable shapes in Uccello’s pictures and other lively topics, he would dumbfound a new concert to abstract art with the casual remark:”The only difference between us is that I saw those issues of Cahiers d’Art before you did”…
Gorky was always ready to hold forth on art in the company of friends and strangers. At such times he could be keen, scornful and theatrical by turns; yet, withal a very lonely man, unquestionably tortured by lavishly skillful and empty improvisations…

Gorky made tasteful, but never very daring variations on the works of other men. He never fully stated an independent theme. He lived in the sensations of others. That is all.

Time,the only objective appraiser, will probably level Gorky’s work to the stature it held during most of his lifetime and we will be able to retain our fond memories of a vital personality.

What Gorky was able to do and which sets him apart from many of the artists of his time is  his knowledge  that abstraction was in many ways a part of the Western Figurative Tradition although not foregrounded as it became in the 20th c  .It allowed him to make connections in his work between the Renaissance and Miro for example or the painterly quality of Rubens which gives his work such power and presence. What this book is trying to do is to place both past and present in the language of the eye.The comments of Solman have been common in my career as an artist.The ethos of art education has been since the 60’s one of  forcing the student to distinguish himself from others at all costs and the price paid is to ignore the language of art.Harold Bloom in his seminal work the “Anxiety of Influence” made most explicit  the dialogue between the contemporary writer and the past and his struggle to overcome it.Implied is that the poet read the past and knew its power. The greatest writers shadow is the longest and the stronger the poet the more they are capable of understanding the power of that shadow and the need to come out from under it.The work of the comtemporary poet is agonic and only via this struggpe can the poet show his or her worth. I would submit that the student of today is woefully ignorant that there is a visual language at all.So how can the student engage the past in a dialogue if they are  not  aware of  it.

Using Bloom's thesis one would see Gorky in a totally different light.He alone knew the tradition.He weighed it in the “smithy of his soul” and pushed it to a different place, a difference too subtle for Solman to see.That subtle difference,a difference that makes a difference set the platform that abstract expressionism used to define art for the next thirty years.