Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thinking back on more than twenty years of art criticism by Jed Perl on the occasion of the publication of his most recent collection of essays by the Eakins Press Foundation

 Phil Press, fellow Boston artist and founder of Cambridge Adult Ed's Studio School, first introduced me to Jed Perl and his writing in the early 90’s. They had met as young painters at Skowhegan in the early 70’s and remained in contact during the intervening years. Occasionally, Phil would invite Jed to Cambridge to lecture to his students on some topic related to the New York art scene. I would always make a point of attending these talks, as his insights into the vacuity and hype of whatever scene was current, were an inspiration to persevere in my solitary struggle to make paint and painting a vital language of self-expression.

We are all three products of the figurative revival of the late sixties and early 70’s that gave credence to the language of painting from observation, a method that had been brutally sidelined by Abstraction, Conceptualism, Minimalism and Pop Art. Phil had studied at the Studio School in New York City, which was a stopping off place for many painters who wanted to work in a representational visual language, when it was hard to find such instruction elsewhere in the academic world. Phil went on to get his MFA at Queens where Louis Finkelstein, a luminary of the figurative movement taught . Phil seems to think that Jed studied painting for a while at Brooklyn College, where Philip Pearlstein and Gabriel Laderman were instructors. Laderman was known as much for his polemics on behalf of figuration as for his painting. I studied at Yale, whose identity as a center of the avant-garde was tempered by the arrival of Bill Bailey, who succeeded in bringing in as visitng artists many of the above-mentioned artists of the figurative movement.

To understand Perl’s philosophical stance, that he has steadfastly held for more than twenty years, it is necessary to see his thinking as formed in the context of that figurative revival. For a moment and in retrospect a very brief moment there was the hope of an alternative direction for art, or at least that figuration could continue on a track parallel to the avant-garde. I have written elsewhere that figuration wanted to revive the particular experience of being in the here and now, in contradistinction to an art object totally Greenbergian: on the one hand with its obsession with absolute forms, and mediatized on the other with its need to place the individual in an absolute socially defined identity. I recall vividly wandering the museums and galleries of New York and Boston and feeling a deep sense of alienation from the minimalsim, the conceptual sculpture, the media based Warhols, all issuing from an extreme rational analysis of modern life. A language that jumped out of the physical space that our bodies moved in replaced the magic of  art that could make real and tactile the present. There was never the smell of grass, the wind in your face nor the vibrancy of the seasons. The paintings of Gretna Campbell or Stanley Lewis that Perl admired were  literally a breathe of fresh air. The human existential reality of being in the world had found a place to stand. For one brief moment the grey clouds of rationalism opened up to a vivid blue sky where the senses of the body pulsated.

Another key to understanding Jed Perl can be found in his admiration for the great critics and artists of early modernism. Confronted, with now several generations of American artists that see art as  providing a wonderful playground for experimentation with lifestyles, Jed, whose understanding of the tradition of Western Art allows him to talk intelligently about Chardin, Poussin and Vuillard sets up camp in the tradition of the art critics and shapers of early Modernism, such as Edmund Wilson, Meyer Schapiro, Lincoln Kirstein, (all of whom are dedicated individual essays in the “Magicians and Charlatans”). When the Bourgeois world of the 19th c fell apart under the weight of science, there was in part a dancing on the grave of the past by the new guard but there was also the awareness that something had been lost as well as gained.The representational language that had held the real in its thrall for over 500 years had broken open, and that deconstruction liberated incredible energy. Perl sees that energy in Picasso’s semantizing of Cezanne in the “Les Demoiselles ‘d’Avignon” or in his appreciation of Edmund Wilson’s understanding of Stravinsky’s musical energy. These were makers and shapers (the title of his essay on Lincoln Kirstein) who would pick up the pieces like Eliot and Pound and make new realities. They knew and cherished the pieces of the past and ruefully accepted that the Europe they loved had suffered a catastrophe and like Humpty Dumpty no one could put the pieces back together again.  There still was the will to recreate a whole in the face of the wholesale destruction of the first World War. In the laissez-faire aesthetics of the contemporary art scene (the title of the introductory essay in this new collection of his essays) that is hell bent on chopping up bourgeois reality into smaller and smaller pieces, Perl sees no love of history. And when the past is referenced by contemporary figurative artist like Currin it is distorted to appear to be as ironic and cynical as their own work. It is brought down to their level.

I still have several photocopies of Perl’s essay from the October, 1992 issue of “The New Republic”, entitled ”The Art Nobody Knows” . It spells out the way in which the art scene, in its ever anxious need to promote the “new”, makes it impossible for those artists, who see art as a coherent language, deserving a lifetime of study, from having the air, space and money to pursue that goal. I would hand the article out to my painting students at the Art Institute of Boston in order to give them some perspective on where the tenets of my classroom came from and hopefully encouraging them to avoid being sucked into the latest fad at Yale and New York. The essay referenced the English artists Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff as paragons of figuration. From a pedagogical point of view, they were valuable as stopping off points on the road from figuration to abstraction, which was the essential goal of my teaching experience. Unfortunately, few of my students, despite intelligence and talent, heeded Perl’s message. Their talent got them to Yale and to New York, but the human all to human need to belong to a status quo got the better of them, and they imprinted on whatever was then the current scene.

Many of the issues in the essays in “Magicians and Charlatans”, culled from his writing of the last decade, are already present in the essay I have from 1992:  The Whitney Biennials, commercialism, the art industry, the importance of the slow making of art over time, the need for patterns and form and the way the structure and culture of the New York scene make this slow growth impossible. His interests represent the effort of someone ,who cares not only about New York artists, but always tries to put his finger on the pulse of a larger meaning or zeitgeist in which they all participate. I recall a more recent essay that appeared in the “The New Republic” on the Cindy Sherman retrospective at t MOMA, that was sent to me by Mark Gottsegen, the author of the “Painters Handbook.” This one pulled out all the verbal weaponry and pearls of wisdom that he is capable of. It was a full-fledged frontal assault on Sherman, deconstructor of female myths mythologized in a major retrospective. After the smoke had cleared she still remained intact. Cindy as Perl points out is an industry supported by dealers, curators and collectors. When you unleash an assault on her you are only one person fighting an army.

The worlds of Rome and Bernini are so well fathomed as to appear as fresh and new as the early 20thc in New York, that he exquisitely depicts through essays on the writing of Meyer Schapiro, Edmund Wilson and Lincoln Kirstein. The contemporary scene of Oursler, Viola, Gober and Currin leave him for the most part without a label. Except for Gober they are dismissed as lacking the seriousness that he would like to see in their work but he does not dismiss them out of hand. He gives them their day, tries to understand why they have achieved their notoriety. Why this refusal to give them and others such as Yuskavage, Heilmann and Peytona a positive value? Those artists, who were reviewed in the earlier part of our new millennium are probably past their shelf life and for all I know aren’t even taken seriously today by even the hipster critics. I have to agree with Perl there is something missing. But what?

To shed some light on this, it is interesting to try to sift out Perl’s politics. I am sure he often gets backed into a corner where someone says: if you are so conservative in your tastes in art you must be right wing in your politics. He never hesitates to say he is for Obama or that Reagan destroyed the economy by cutting taxes, which in turn inflated the art market of the 80’s. In art he is an elitist but in politics he is an egalitarian. This distinction is current in some circles of New York Intelligentsia and was said of William A Henry 3rd’s book “In Defense of Elitism” in the early 90’s, that he bemoaned the weakening of the hierarchy of excellence over popular culture but was still egalitarian in his politics.  Maybe this is why Perl uses the economic expression laissez –faire culture (the title of the introductory essay of this collection) to point blame to the conflation of commerce and art culture, as seen in his attack on the multi-millionaire Eli Broad’s museum in LA, where the endower and the endowed see no separation of interest. The collector who purchases Jeff Koons gilded pop items then builds a museum/supermarket to promote his purchases.  Castelli is depicted as no more than a crass opportunist. The guilty parties are the capitalists, that need something to sell the public and choose art that pretends to challenge the commercial enterprise they are involved in.  I beg to differ: I think a different reading of history would point to egalitarianism as the cause of the vacuity in the art of today as much as unfettered capitalism.

I think what haunts Perl’s work is that the generation that came of age after the Abstract Expressionists, in particular, the boomers let themselves be defined by the media. It was a cultural narcissism in extremis, where the inner world becomes "colonized" by the outer world. But what if all these successions of styles and cultural moods only reflect a slow unraveling or winding down of the unmediated self. The Abstract Expressionists had found some latent strength in the systems of Jung and Freud to map out an inner landscape. There were drives to be defined that could push out against the world and psyches rooted in a collective consciousness that would surprise us about our true selves. These systems were a modern religion for those who were no longer capable or willing to embrace traditional religion.They created a map of an inner life that has  been replaced by several generations now that are medicated and mediated on all levels. If the inner and outer are the same, can we even talk about the self.The hipsters don't care.

”Postcards from Nowhere” points out that the art collectors and the artist are on the same page. This state of things could be seen as the result of the loss of a mandarin class, of an elite that could differentiate the good and the bad, but it must follow that this demise of an intellectual aristocracy will end in an egalitarianism that validates any and every attempt of the masses at self- expressions. I think the modern art scene is the result of "here comes everybody". The skill necessary for painting is abandoned for installation that appeals to the practical craft of the ordinary citizen as renovator of her own space. Painting was always based on the metaphysical power of the artist’s gaze to take their momentary observation and turn it into the eternal moment. Marxist critics felt that stability came from having money to buy the time to stop the visual clock and impose their vision on the world. Now that the metaphysical base has been undercut, there is no direct contact between man and nature, man and the cosmos that one finds in Cezanne and Van Gogh or the raw imposition of the Freudian id on form that you find in Picasso or Pollock. Warhol, our John Singer Sargent, best embodies this shift of private consciousness to a totally mediated self. Now the parts are reduced to miniscule grains that are too small to piece together. To quote Nietzsche:

“Are we not well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small soft round, unending sand.” The ability to put things back together has long past? The reduction ad infinitum has become a reduction ad absurdum/. Perl is the chronicler of this never-ending train wreck.

I find it telling that the frontispiece of “Magicians and Charlatans” is dedicated to Leon (presumably Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of “The New Republic”) with a quote from Po Chu-i (a Tang poet):

To Leon:

"Till day broke we sat in the moon’s clear light
 Laughing and singing, and yet never grew tired.
 In Ch’ing-an, the place of profit and fame,
 Such moods as this, how many men know?"

If Po chu-i, who was exiled for having violated Confucian precepts in his role as an assistant to the Emperor, had been born during the Maoist cultural revolution, such private moods would have made him a candidate for a good rinse of brainwashing. What Perl could explore more thoroughly is that the Marxist notion of how the bourgeoisie suffers from “false consciousness” has so permeated our culture that, although we don’t send our artists off to a gulag for not toeing the party line, there is a shunning that is prevalent in academia for those who are not always current in their tastes. The real heroes for Perl are those artists that didn’t win the jackpot. Whether they rose to the stature of those artists like Matisse that they emulated is not the issue as Updike and Plagens insist it is in their reading of Perl. Artists such as Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, and Stanley Lewis embody and embodied a tradition of artists, who understood painting as being as subtle and structured as the language we speak. You can’t judge them badly for not rising to the same level as their predecessors. They thought it more valuable to codify the magic of the language of seeing and like the monks of Ireland in the Dark Ages, who preserved the wisdom of Greek and Latin culture in their codexes, to save it from the barbaric hordes.The invasions have already begun: to quote Perl:"For Matthew Barney, Richard Prince and now Cai-Guo qiang, having a retrospective at the Guggenheim is like being a Visigoth, who has been given the keys to Rome."

Perl’s essays are a lamentation for a paradise lost, for what little we have gained on this modern train to nowhere. Like the old man on the train who bemoans the fact that he missed his stop but won’t get off at the next stop to take the next train back, he understands the arrow of time points  forward. But maybe we have the wrong metaphor. Maybe we are just going around in circles.

Friday, November 16, 2012

I published this on my blog awhile ago.Charles Giuliano thought this was a good sequel to his critique of MFA programs today

"Impressions of France",1995 Museum of Fine Arts,Boston
It was picked up by Karen Wright at "Modern Painter" for an issue on Cezanne and was considered
"thought provoking" but ultimately was not published.

Elodie LaVillette,(1842-1917)

Paul Cezanne(1839-1906)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rethinking the premiss of my Nichol's blog as to the notion of insider and outsider

Berkshire Fine Arts has picked this up. -->
Charles Giuliano picks up on my rant with his own insights

My blog on Tim Nichols and the subsequent comments from people who knew him, opened up my eyes to the difficulty of simple descriptions of a life as long as Tim’s. As we all navigate our life, how we must appear to others is so variegated that in the end there is not one Tim but as many as there were observers of his life. My take on him was colored by what stages of our lives our path’s crossed. The Nichols, several years out of grad school that I first met in the late 70’s who was running his own summer school to earn extra money was not the well-established teacher of the Museum School, who was one of the artists I showed in the mid-nineties at the Art Institute. The comments on my blog, one from a former student, and another from someone who was aware of Tim’s public persona in the Boston scene both belied my take on him as an outsider. The student saw the power he had as a teacher over his students and felt marginalized by his criticism, the latter saw him from afar as a player in the world of Boston art with the prestigious Museum School his platform. Both saw themselves more outside the orbit of the Boston scene than he was.

I guess my effort to perceive in his contrarian demeanor artistic, authenticity, has a good deal of self-projection in it. I see myself as an outsider but I am sure with my Ivy League pedigree and almost 30 years of teaching at the college level, most people would not allow me any pity that I did not have access to the punch bowl.

As social beings we must have an innate sense of there being a scene and what is our relationship is to it. It is hard to shake. It is the childhood image I have of the guys hanging out in my hometown of Watertown at the drugstore, that I would walk by on my way to church on Sunday. By standing out there for all to see, they wanted to let you know they were the insiders. They were going to play the game. There were stories of rumbles and territory and stabbing deaths at Five Corners in Arlington, where an Armenian gang had it in for who knows an Irish gang an Italian gang or maybe it was just Arlington vs. Watertown. As we exit another political silly season, I can see that these fellows were driven to set themselves up as the go-to guys, ersatz politicians.

I always admired Charles Giuliano’s sense of Boston as an art-hood. He put himself out there like the guys at the drugstore with his column “Perspectives” in “Art New England”. He went to the openings and knew because of his clout as a critic there were many good bashes and meals to be proffered by those who courted his opinion. Although he pissed off a lot of people by not writing about them or offering only grudging praise, by being there in the trenches on the scene like a good reporter or politician he helped create the warp and the woof of an art community.

The Boston art scene is a hard neighborhood to define and a minefield of potentially wounded allegiances. There was a lot of homegrown stuff coming out of competing schools and the history of the Boston Expressionists and Boston Realism to accommodate. But hovering beyond all that was New York and Europe. Major movements that would come and go that gained footholds at MIT or the Krakow gallery. You could have enormous success in Boston but never be considered hip enough to be talked about by the cognoscenti who read “artforum”. There were even subcultures of realists like Robert Douglas Hunter, married to the daughter of Ives Gammell who sold his pictures for enormous amounts to the Suburban rich, that I am sure most of my art buddies had never heard about. Artists, who taught in the Boston art schools tended to achieve some notoriety within one scene or another, which often lead to their being hired in the first place. But as the tide moved out on their scene, they found themselves stranded without much relevance to the current scenes and amazingly ignorant and disdainful of the younger artist who came along. If they had tenure they could remain employed and ignorant. But the younger generation would have their chance at irrelevancy. Their time would come to be ignored.

So we have worlds within worlds, parallel universes, constellations appearing and disappearing with the seasons: all coming under the same tent of Boston art. Sargent probably embodied that ambiguity as much as any contemporary Boston artist of what it meant to be a Boston artist. Born in Gloucester MA, he grew up abroad and created a reputation as one of the great European Portraitists of his time. He came back in the end to Boston to reclaim his reputation as Boston’s premier artist in the 20’s when he did the Boston Public Library Murals. But he was nothing without the international imprimatur.

I had a conversation recently with Addison Parks in which he related his unpleasant dealings with Bernard Chaet in the 80’s when Parks applied to Yale from RISD. It started me thinking about Bernie in terms of insider/outsider, and art allegiances. I first met him in 1970 when I took his drawing seminar along with several students’ including Gary Trudeau. In regards to the hierarchy of the art scene, the Yale MFA program was way up there. It cut a pretty impressive figure. First lead by the epigone of modernism, Josef Albers, Al Held came in the 70’s to anchor the program and stayed into the eighties putting the school on the map as the place to go for the the young ambitious artist. Under Albers it produced Serra, Close, Eva Hesse. Chaet had taken over from Albers as department head, a moment related to me by a student at the time, Don Lent, who headed up the art department at Bates College.

Bernie was never a Modernist. Born in Boston he initially painted with the Boston Expressionists. I recall seeing early paintings in his home of Talmud’s and menorahs. He told me, when I was a finalist for a position at BU, where many of those Boston Expressionist artists ended up teaching, that he broke away from that group and was considered an apostate by them for his interest in French art. According to some of the literature surrounding the Boston school, they detested the abstraction of the NY School, which was for them an offshoot of Paris in the early 20thc;Abstraction was somehow sinful for not embracing the human condition in the raw and direct way of the German expressionists. I related this story to a professor at Tufts who is Jewish and he thought it ironic that the Jewish Artists of the New York School such as Rothko and Newman were probably more in keeping with the Jewish religious taboo on creating graven images of God than the Boston school of Jewish artists. So here was Chaet, rejected by his Dorchester shtetl for being too French and in the period of High Modernism at Yale, this guy was painting in the style of the artist despised by Picasso as a “piddler”. Of course, Held was the cock of the walk. He despised everybody and anybody who did not embrace his aesthetic. You didn’t have to be a grad student to be the recipient of his wrath. He walked by my undergrad friend Bob Sabin, who was doing a landscape on the roof of the Yale A&A, and made a “feigning  throw up” gesture. He wanted to put himself at the center of the art universe and marginalize everybody else.

Therefore, by any account, Chaet stylistically was twice over an outsider: Apostate Boston Expressionist and misguided follower of Bonnard at Yale. I was grateful for his presence at Yale as my work came out of an infatuation with the stylistic variations of realism and I would have finally left Yale if he had not been there to recognize the validity of my endeavor. He understood the subtleties of looking at a Matisse or Corot etc that never made it into the conversation of your typical Yale student, bent on scaling the wall of New York Art. But to head the Yale art department made him an insider politically. He could get you into the school and get you jobs outside after graduation. He knew it. He could turn the faucet on and off at will. Although no longer living in Boston he never lacked for representation either there or in New York. When a recent book on Boston artists came out he was included in it. To spend an afternoon with him in Rockport was to inevitably reminisce about your classmates from Yale and if you didn’t know what they were up to he was sure to fill in the blanks.

Addison sees him as the consummate gatekeeper. If Addison wanted to get within the orbit of the New York Power grid Chaet made sure it didn’t happen at least via the Yale conduit. Getting to the point in the acceptance process where he was being interviewed directly by a committee including Chaet, he was astounded that Chaet kept his back to him during the whole interview.  Only later did he learn that his mentor at RISD a Yale grad was Chaet’s mortal enemy.

As an artist trying over a lifetime to incorporate a little of the universe‘s infinite into my work, I think back with gratitude to whomever kept me focused on understanding the language of paint whether that of Bonnard or Albers without reference to the hierarchies and powers of the current scene. To separate out the love of art from the talk of who had more centrality and power within the art world, was at times really hard. My ten years at AIB was spent constantly trying to assert my relevance within the shifting balances of who was a rising star within Boston Community. Colleagues who were nullities themselves would invite the latest art hero of the week to the department and try to expand on their reputation by association. On the one hand there was the large group within the department who took pride in their tangential affiliation with the Boston Expressionists, an historical fact and well engraved in the Boston psyche. On other hand, there were older artists who loved to tout their connection with some avant-garde movement of the sixties long in desuetude. One faculty member imagined himself the protégé of Michael Mazur. A new faculty member pumped herself up by playing the new game in town, Installation. Another made a smart move with a“none of the above” decision to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard in Critical Studies. I remember my last semester there my always well subscribed class in painting with color was scheduled next to a course on art and gender which the dean of students felt compelled to run. No one took my class. The language I was struggling to give birth to in my shows at Crieger-Dane over four years on Newbury St did not fit into the allowable niches of Boston Art and never sold at all. My colleagues never showed up at the openings.

There must be a strong political instinct in me as I take some pleasure in sorting out who controls what territory, but my naïveté shows in how long it took to realize that a lot of the decisions that were made about whether I got tenure or not were all about political power, not absolute notions of being a good artist.

This brings us to another topic: Is the world we perceive out there the result of an endless proliferation of errors. To be continued…

Saturday, October 20, 2012


B.Chaet dies after battling with dementia for several years

Here are some words I wrote about his work in 1991 for an essay that accompanied a group show of landscape painters at AIB."For Chaet no sun will create  the same patterns of color from morning to morning.Every day greets him with so many variables:humidity,cloud cover,wind conditions,wave patterns and time of year.Yet undaunted he succeeds in creating the fleeting uniqueness of each dawn."

I imagine the sun that he greeted each morning is now wondering where his friend Bernie has gone.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What is fair and foul in the art world.Tim Nichols Boston Artist

-->Reprinted on Berkshire Fine Arts with some interesting comments not printed here.
Tim Nichols(work from around 2007)
My friend Addison recently wondered if we both had the tendency to churn the same ideas over and over in our blogs. He chides his readers for not appreciating how to enjoy the freedom they have been bequeathed as artists by spending too much time trying to figure out where they fit into the art scene. The art culture does a good job uniting buyers, critics, galleries and museums to convince us of a status quo and we are hard wired to bow down to authority whatever it may be at any given time. I have tried in my blogs to jump out of the noise of contemporary art as well by imagining an ideal art scene where artists speak to each other from across generations and participate in a kind of cosmic art dance. Its only premise is that the past has a lot to teach and any movement forward has to arise out of a dialogue with the past. I suspect that Addison would find that too much of a constraint. But unlike me he can make the claim that he once had a niche within the scene in the 80’s with shows at blue chip New York galleries. If he says ignore the scene and be free he knows what kind of stranglehold that world can place on one’s creativity, as his novel so passionately stated in its title:” Life and Art, in that order.” For me there was nothing to lose as I had an inordinate talent for always going in the opposite direction of any group that claimed to be the center of the universe, such as going to Paris after my MFA at Yale when the scene was clearly in New York. I have always just plodded along talking to my artistic ghosts.

So some artists are picked out of a hat or so it seems to strut on the scene. Their work is shown regularly, collected and written about. Of life’s unfairness we should be constantly reminded. It is a subject of a few of Addison’s blogs. His answer: get over it. There is one and only one reason we should not dwell on it: it is bad for your health. Nietzsche devoted a great deal of ink to his analysis of “ressentiment”. Dionysian that he was, He too wanted people to be free to create not weighed down by anger at the system. He preached Health.

In a private collection purchased in the 90's

Tim Nichols, Boston painter, legendary teacher at the Museum School and friend, who died several years ago in his late 70’s, comes to mind as someone who struggled for recognition and was never granted it. He was someone who cared deeply about a lot of things. Maybe because he was already a practicing Harvard and Columbia trained corporate lawyer when he decided to pursue painting he knew that art comes from within, and is in conflict with the veneer of the world of commerce. Unlike the contemporary content providers that litter Newbury Street and SOWA he was incapable of giving the galleries what they wanted. Boston has always suffered from a sense of its own history and the current choices in the galleries run the gamut from Boston Expressionist schmaltz to John Singer Sargent wannabees with a good deal of neutered art objects that go well over the divans of Boston’s moneyed class...I gave him a show at the Art Institute of Boston in the early 90’s and to my mind he was the best painter in Boston. It was work informed by abstract expressionism, which was banned by the Boston expressionists as too French, but he didn’t pursue its purely energetic goals. In that sense there was always something indigestible about his work. Each painting seemed to deal with some inner vision tangled in the web of day to day life. The only artist I can think of who resembles him is John Walker. He went off to work each day like someone going into battle. There were wars to be won, wrongs to be righted. I recall an all night bout of drinking that ended with a discourse on the misery of the lives of those in the ghetto that he knew his art could not help. He brought this same kind of proselytizing to his teaching and in turn did attract admirers such as Jim Falck, an artist who abandoned a career as chief landscape architect for the MDC late in life to become an artist.

We first met at the Bromfield Gallery, a coop gallery, in Boston where I was briefly a member in the late 70’s and again in the mid nineties. He was living with the Chicago based still life painter Catherine Maize, whom I had met at Yale / Norfolk in 1970. He remained a committed member of the gallery until he died. Exhibiting in a coop gallery provided him a self-image as outsider, free from the art industry and allied with the community of artists. Since I was out of touch with him in later years I don’t know what kind of success he had there .The last time I heard about him was when we were included in Addison Parks” Severed Ear “show at Crieger Dane. There was some chatter about how he had someone deliver the work for him while he waited outdoors on Newbury St
.He did not want set foot in a commercial gallery. He did not come to the opening.

The only images I have of his work are several that exist on a site” Slow Art”. They are among his last work. They seem serene not tormented and not typical of the work I recall from the 90’s. When I learned belatedly of his death I tried to introduce his work to Chawky Frenn who was writing at the time a two-volume work on Boston Artists for inclusion in the series. I did succeed through the dean at The Museum School in contacting is children by email but nothing came of it. It is unfortunate. I would like to think that future historians will stumble across his work and acknowledge its superiority.

Tim Nichols(around 2007)
Nichols stayed committed to being an artist in Boston. He stayed loyal to his coop and taught vigorously until his retirement. As far as being continuously out of sync with Boston’s artistic seasons I suspect that he didn’t heed Parks’ advice: He didn’t get over it. Unlike current artists who favor antidepressants he was more in the style of Bukowski when it came to self-medication.

Tim was always on the ramparts, trying to overcome what he saw as the inherent unfairness of a system where people go about their roles in the art establishment like somnambulists. Art has become corporate and the artists are just content providers. Art had saved him from a life as a corporate lawyer and he spent the rest of his life spreading the word of art’s sacred content, that a painting is a poem where as Wallace Stevens said we perceive “ghostlier demarcations keener sounds”.

follow up blog

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jim Falck and Addison Parks,artists


Addison Parks

Art at its best reflects on its own optical origins. Even when it appears to be breaking away into new territory as in the work of the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, it is meditating on its roots that were evident in the optics of the perspective of the Renaissance and the chiaroscuro of the early Baroque. Western art seems to fluctuate back and forth between seminal periods of rigorously based optically grounded art and art that takes that construct as dogma and perceives it as reality. My favorite concept from Marxist criticism is the notion of reification. It is used to critique concepts of social organization that are taken for reality rather than as human inventions. It can be applied to art when the world of Bourgeoisie, for example, is solidified into the Realism of the late 19thc. Although used by the Marxists to accuse people of Bourgeois bad faith and to recommend them for a curative stay in the gulag, when used to critique art it does a pretty good job of detecting when large groups of people smugly take the shape of things in the visual world as just the way things are.

A good example of reification was evident in the work I saw of many, heretofore unknown to me, Realists at the Petit Palais in Paris, who appeared to be followers of Courbet’s Social Realism. Their subjects were the poor of Paris. One huge large scale painting showed a street theatre presentation comprised mostly of young children, whose sorrowful looks conveyed obvious exploitation. In my essay on my blog on the Impressionist show at the MFA from the the mid 90’s I quoted Michael Baxandall, who felt that the work of Chardin drew its strength from the way it understood that the structuring of the visual reality had its roots in the eye/mind and its language of chiaroscuro.
This notion becomes reified in the hands of the artist of the late 19thc where the balance between seer and seen is lost. The paintings are too much about the sad-eyed urchins and not the event of seeing them. The limpidity for example of the work of Caravaggio is achieved by its hypersensitivity to how the eye organizes the visual world. Subtle distinctions between the seer and the seen (scene) are the sine qua non of great art.

In the 20thc, this balancing of that distinction is most evident in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. The evanescence of Rothko’s late work appears as an optical apparition. It partakes of the reductionist chromatic trope supported by Greenberg’s philosophy but stays rooted in the language of seeing in its use of subtly juxtaposed warms and cools. It stays in the Western Tradition of seeing that goes back to Vermeer and in fact his work seems at times to be a detail of, say a pearl, on the necklace of the woman in one of his most famous paintings, the so-called “Woman with a Pearl Earing”.

Rothko’s work has been seen as an example of Talmudic mysticism. When it comes to respecting the namelessness of God it seems Abstraction is a most authentic vehicle .It intrigues me as I hear myself use seer and seen that it resonates with the words of mystics from the Upanishads. Or the constant reference to the struggle to merge the observer and the observed in the work of Krishnamurti evidenced by his constant frustration at finding the right word for this conundrum.

There seems to be a relationship between the interest in how the eye sees and mysticism .If the cognitive structure of the eye shapes reality, then an exploration of this structure puts the artist on the edge of knowing and unknowing. Is it any surprise that the artists, who walk this line, this razor’s edge are not the happiest people in the world? The comforting sense that the world we move in is a seamless whole has not been granted to them. A simple figure/ground exercise for Rothko becomes a meditation on Being and Nothingness.

For the artist ,who pursues abstraction, the risk of reification becomes enormous. There is the assumption that, of course, abstraction is not reality, so there is no risk but it can be as leaden as a Bougereau. It seems that artists think they are given two choices, that they think are incompatible: Either you have a unique vision or you are a follower. That you have to be both seems to escape them. If you are influenced, you really can’t be an artist. This seems to be the case of the winners of a recent annual art show and competition comprised of New England Artists, in which I was included. In its generosity to include as many artists as possible it ran the gamut between sophistic and amateur. The art is divided into work selected by an outside curator and the rest is included in a concurrent show with another name. In the end there was not much difference in quality between the two groups. For the most part the show is made up of Abstraction, that wallows in a mix of expressionist mark making and a vague sense of pattern and Photorealist work, both of which seemed to catch the eye of the outside curator. The abstract artists who did not question or embrace their roots  were among the winners of the competition. It would have been refreshing to see some humble exploration of the rich language of 20thc abstraction.

We are in a post-ideological era in art. Therefore, the realism is not suported by the doctrines of a movement, as it did in the late Sixties and the Abstraction does not have the austere words of  Ad Reinhardt to push it toward purity. Maybe that is a good thing. But the results are not encouraging for the future of painting. In this show the work floats on its own merits, which are no longer to seduce the viewer with its ideological purity, but to do so by the lowest common denominator of emotionality in the case of abstraction or crass facticity in the case of the realism. I suppose that this is a normal evolution similar to that from the High Renaissance to the Mannerists in Italy, before chiaroscuro regrounded painting in the Baroque. But in the case of the prizewinners, they show no intelligence in regards to their sources. Like little bubble boys and girls they can’t absorb any influences. They suffer from terminal narcissism. Maybe that is the Modern aesthetic. The current manifestation of reification.

I can think of two artists who are presently painting in the Boston area, whose art radiates a gracious interest in the tradition of painting .Jim Falck and Addison Parks.For them the Tradition is the period from the beginning of the 20thc: the world of Matisse and Picasso, which could be summed up as the pushing of paint, with the dynamics of color and figure ground, toward the simplicity of the written word. Recently I witnessed the finished product of a mural Jim was asked to do at the gallery at Montserrat College of Art. It was a full-sized mural, that was constructed of abstracted figures woven together with as much understanding of time and space as Picasso’s “Desmoiselles d’Avignon”. Figure and ground give the figures a visual life that keeps the viewer’s eye constantly moving. The colors bounce back and forth between warm and cool to create a mood of sunlit Italy and the Mediterranean. This is not a blind use of the tradition but a respect for how it can integrate the figure into the environment to create one organic being, which is “Life”. Jim’s favorite word. All one had to do was compare his mural to the other ones done on adjacent walls to know how smart Jim is. The others used paint  in a additive manner. One mark on top of the other with no sense of integration.

Addison nourishes his work with the artists he loves, Hoffmann and Marin, Hartley and Miro. Here is the love of painting as language, that allows for buoyancy and joy, to permeate the work. The language paints the painting. This guy lives art, thinks art. There is such an abundance of letting things be, through the language of painting. Parks, who is a writer, knows how words live as part of an organic whole. You never know how they will react, when they are juxtaposed with each other. 

In a culture where everything has its shelf life, I don’t expect the art community to carry these artists on their shoulders through the streets of Boston, as local heroes. I have been in Boston long enough to recall the hushed tones with which a new local art hero is discussed, and remember that in every case the work of these artists has reeked of emotionality. The art dealers knew that was needed for it to jump off the shelf in the art supermarket. None of these artists were capable of organic evolution. Their success made that lack of organic growth inevitable.  For Falck and Parks, their love of art as language gives their art a life of its own and because it is "Life" itself, it breathes and pulsates and continue to grow.


Monday, July 16, 2012

An interesting movement centered around Leland Bell that still exists in enclaves here and there in academe .

Addison Parks has this on artdeal with more comprehensive illustrations

Leland Bell self-portrait

In a discussion with Addison Parks about his recent acquisition of a painting by Pegeen Guggenheim, the name of her husband, the French painter, Jean Helion came up. I recalled that he had been the hero of William Bailey who as a young artist made a point of seeking him out in Paris. Addison then remarked that Helion was greatly admired by his teacher at RISD, Leland Bell. Through Helion we were able to piece together a group of American artists that was a subset of the figurative revival of the late 60’s and 70’s that featured more prominently Bailey, Pearlstein, Leslie and Beal. These artists included Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Louis Finkelstein, Gabriel Laderman and Stanley Lewis among others. In fact Bailey, Laderman, Matthisadottir and Bell showed at the Schoelkopf Gallery in New York. It is a world gone by at least in terms of what is being written in the art press, but in the 60’s through the 80’s they had a following among critics and as all of the members of this group were teachers in prominent art programs they shaped the styles of many young artists. Knowing how the art world works they may be due for a revival.

I was included in a show in the late 80’s entitled “Vision and Tradition” curated by the painter Hearne Pardee to whom I had been introduced by the poet Rosanna Warren. It included many of the aforementioned artists and another artist not usually mentioned along with the group Robert deNIro. The show travelled from Colby College to the Morris Museum in Morristown NJ in 1987. In 1991 I participated in a show with the same group less deNIro at the Art Institute of Boston but with the addition of Bernie Chaet, who stylistically belongs to the group but up until that point had not shown with them. Janet Cavallero who was a student of Louis Finkelstein at Queens College curated it.

The title of the Colby College -Morris Museum show sums up the ambitions of these artists. Their work was optically based deriving its language from the progenitors of abstraction such as Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard and Derain. These founders of abstraction never made the leap to pure abstraction but hovered in a world of direct observation of the things of this world with sensitivity to the underlying perceptual structure of seeing.  Derain, unlike Matisse who pushed his work to the edge of pure abstraction, returned to a chiaroscuro based realism in the latter part of his career. He seemed to embody best the notion of vision and tradition.   

Pedagogically that penumbral world is very fecund. It respects the role of visual cognition in the work of the Impressionists and Postimpressionists, yet avoids turning it into a cold sort of scientific methodology, which eschews the naïve acceptance of the world we live in. As a teacher with this approach you can still use the still life setups and live models of the academic tradition as vehicles to move out of the 19th c into the color notions of 20thc. A Midwestern artist Wilbur Niewald who taught at the Kansas City Art Institute was tangentially part of this group. He influenced several generations of artists with his theories on teaching with a primary color palette, and although not his student I would include his one time colleague Stanley Lewis as a protégé. The Studio School in New York where Stanley now teaches is still a haven for those sympathetic to the tenets of this optically based approach to painting.

It is interesting to note that unlike the “Vision and Tradition” artists, the prominent realists of the time never worked in a style that could be taught.  Who are the followers of Bailey or Pearlstein? They were both idiosyncratic and their enduring commercial popularity has something to do with their inimitability. Their techniques are more like barriers set up to hide their emotions. Pearlstein said as much in a catalogue for a show at Betty Cunningham where he was tellingly matched with Al Held.

But the painterly figurative painters (the best I can do with a label, though vision and tradition might work) had lots of ideas. Visually the Postimpressionists and the Fauves gave them a methodology for painting, and the direct observation of the lived world gave them an association with Existentialists who feel we know the world not through analysis but through the haptic subliminal notion of the self in it. Unlike Pearlstein and particularly Bailey who seem hermetic they are open to describing the world in which they move no matter how prosaic and banal. In contrast to Bailey’s hermeticism they are hermeneutic, in other words, engaged in a dialogue with the past and the things of this world at the same time.

Addison Parks describes Bell’s teaching style as pugnacious and his message as “Hoffmanesque”. There was a lot of talk of the energy of mark making and the power of color to create space. In that sense it is a hermeneutic similar to Abstract Expressionism that grew out of an encounter with Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky. But their attempt to engage the past without any “anxiety of influence”(to borrow the title of Harold Blooms canonic book) so obvious in deKooning, Pollock and Rothko’s efforts to forge a new style is strange and in the case of Bell his work is a wholesale imitation of Helion.

That artists should worship at the altar of a certain style is no sin and the codifying of the late 19th and early 20thc project of the Postimpressionists and Fauves into a teaching method preserved ideas and techniques about paint that leap frogged over the ever recycled deconstructionist ideologies to a new generation who might not have been exposed to it otherwise. In sum, it is about the love of paint and color and its musicality that had always been part of Western painting. Imagine(no need to imagine just look around you) a world without the pleasure of pure sound and harmony and you can see why these artists wanted to spread the good word of pure color.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Champing at the bit to take a bite out of the Champ.

"To be Looked at....." 1918 

Duchamp studies are the terrain of some of the brightest minds writing about art today and his ideas are so universally championed in art academia I am quite fearful of being pilloried or more likely ignored for what will appear to be pedestrian ideas about the subtleties of his thought. I can only deal with this hero of the avant-garde from my own anecdotal experience toiling in the fields of artopia and from an accumulation of observations try to sort out why his influence is probably more pervasive now than ever before. I would have liked to deal with the issue in a more scholarly fashion but am champing at the bit to get to the suffering inflicted by his acolytes on anyone who still believes in painting.

Duchamp’s legacy functions on multiple fronts. But philosophically it is grounded in the 20th century project to deconstruct representation. This is not just visual representation to which it is obviously related but philosophical representation, which believes that the truth of what we represent gains its validity in the coherence of our consciousness. Originally that coherence was rooted in the onto- theological ground of God’s infallibility and humanity being created in the image of God. Later the work of Descartes places that coherence in the logic of mathematics. Even then he leaves God in the picture albeit in the background. His famous dictum “Ego Cogito ergo Sum” translates: Cognition makes me who I am and everything I can think about gains its validity in the clarity of that cognition, which is most evident in mathematics. The Baroque through the beginning of the 20th century is a period of the glory and majesty of Western egoism. I will never forget the segment from Herzog’s “Aguirre the Wrath of God” where Aguirre the explorer descends the Amazon and lays claim to everything that he sees from his canoe, although at that point in the film he is alone and helpless. Perspective, which radiates from a fixed view and its power to subsume everything in its gaze, is the visual paradigm for this era. Versailles’ s gardens are laid out on a perspectival system radiating from the bed of the Sun King himself, Louis the XIV.Moreover, it is the canvas and the use of Chiaroscuro which orders whatever the human eye lays its eyes on. From the use of the camera obscura in Vermeer and Caravaggio to the study of color theory in the Impressionists the eye/self brings order to all it sees.

This coherence begins to break down in the late 19th c and early  20th c with Freud’s theories that put the ego in the vise of Eros and the superego. The Copernican revolution continues to devolve man from the center of the universe. Quantum mechanics puts in question the notion of a fixed reality that we can pin down. If you look at the art world of the late 19th century (which is on display for the first time in Paris’s Petit Palais) you see a sort of schizophrenia developing where the followers of the Salon and Courbet continue the representation of the world from the perspective of the individual but creeping into the work is a lot of emotional baggage that is not well contained in the format of realism. Impressionism is already dissolving that fixed reality and cubism is waiting in the wings to use Cezanne’s version of Impressionism to create a language that integrates time and space in a way that leaves one point perspective behind for good. Duchamp joins this revolution with his “: Nude descending the staircase”. It is an incredibly masterful treatment of this Heraclitian view of the world, where nothing stays the same. Unlike Cubists Braque and Picasso who remain within the tradition of painting on canvas for the rest of their careers, he sees even his masterpiece as part of the optically based language of western painting that must be extirpated. The canvas as a mirror to the world and its long reign in Western art for him has to come to an end. What better artifact to use than transparent glass as he used in "To look at..."that reflects nothing and captures erotic odds and ends like amber traps insects. I get the feeling that he is  a Bolshevik like Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago who wants to destroy all the trappings of Chekovian bourgeois culture.  Symptomatically, he is on the right side of history .Who can look at the images of Sargent’s imperious lords and ladies of baronial splendor and not feel the ending of an era and moreover a sense of irrelevance and that the future will be in the hands of those who can manipulate mass culture like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and FDR.

Several years ago I was recommended for a grant or as a fellow artist said recommended for a rejection .The only compensation for this rejection was a gift of a catalogue of the winners. More than half of the winners were installation artists. That was not the case forty years ago when I did my graduate work at Yale. The population of students was divided between the figurative acolytes of Bailey and the minimalist followers of Held. 

This shift to installation is abetted by Duchamp’s preference for the readymade. Here the displacement from the creations of the individual genius to utilitarian objects made by consensus in factories is another acknowledgement that we live in a corporate and highly socialized culture. It is this gesture that sets the stage for installation art where the artist tries to take the pulse of the culture through the artifacts that it creates. Warhol is pure Duchampian as well in his preference for images and objects of mass-production. The unique canvas that had once been the surface on which the individual acts of authenticity were recorded are now no more than objects of mechanical reproduction.

What permeates all this art is a kind of hipster ethos embodied by Warhol’s life which mocks the individual who thinks that the power of their private consciousness can overcome that fact that they are part of a larger social structure that manipulates them. I remember attending a lecture by Robert Longo in North Carolina , which he ended with the statement that on his death bed his last thought will be to eat at Burger King.

Everything from politics, philosophy and technology militates against the power of the individual vision expressed on canvas. The psychic weight of a Caravaggio or a Van Gogh will always have their place in the museums and attract the melancholy art student lost in the waste land of modern art. The linguistic turn from Wittgenstein to Tugendhat analyzes language as a purely social phenomena where meaning is not achieved privately but in a shared language. The space where meaning was achieved by a self-conscious bracketing in Husserl is considered a bad faith remnant of attempts to ground everything in the  Cartesian ego. The inextricable web of technology such as Facebook traps us into a fantasy of individuality which the system uses to track our habits so as to better exploit us. And in politics individualism is only a posture assumed by certain politicians who are helpless to turn back the clock of the every expanding leviathan of the state. In the theatre of Becket the romantic hero is reduced to the sadistic and cruel Pozzo .

There is a harsh honesty in the work of Duchamp . He coolly observes the demise of the bourgeois culture and its preferred vehicle for self-expression, the canvas and gives the next generation of artist’s tools to use in their Kulturkampf. That intimate space that we observe from our own self of  family friends and objects we care about or just what it feels to be alive, is nothing compared to the enormous web of highways, internet, industry and media that we are  are wired into. It was first about the death of god and then the death of the self. Issues of right and wrong only apply to how well we understand the irrelevancy of our private notions of the self. I think the battle has been won by the Duchampians not so much through the power of their irony but through a very scary non-ironic fact that the ties to the individualism of the Renaissance onward have been forever severed by the mass culture we live in. All Duchamp did was provide a path for the artist to be on the right side of history.

What Nietzsche said of Christ applies to Duchamp: There was only one true Christian and he died on the cross. No one except maybe Warhol will ever match the icy cerebral operations that he enacted. Even in the world of theatre, Becket his closest parallel seems warm hearted in comparison. His objects resist being turned into aesthetic objects, which you can’t say for Warhol’s. Rauschenberg’s deconstructions of the canvas look a little musty to me these days.  In a previous essay on BFA I commented that the little pasture of Duchamp has expanded into an infinite steppe including every world class gallery that all show the same exhibit of political commentary, a photo document on the wall and readymade or found object on the floor. Greenbergian aesthetics dead-ended in minimalism and Zombie Formalism and require as much mental contortions to figure out as Duchamp’s.The figurative resurgence of the late 60’s and 70’s exists in isolated cults in academia without much affect on the greater culture. So Duchampists have the field to themselves. That it is an arid infinite steppe, there can be no doubt.”The waste land grows”.

 I think the tragedy of Duchampian thinking rests in the following: in his single minded attempt to destroy painting as a mirror of reality he moved art permanently into a purely social act. Put in the context of late 19thc art his assault on the canvas as mirror makes a lot of sense but that it should be enacted ad infinitum as it is by the current Duchampians is absurd. It could be that the purity of his art objects and their resistance to aesthetic interpretation remain a lofty goal that each generation of followers aspires to. It puts a permanent damper on the use of painting as a vehicle for expressing any great intuitive insights into the shape of our universe as we saw in Piero de la Francesca and Botticelli in the early Renaissance or Cezanne and Van Gogh in late Impressionism or Hsia Kuei in the early Sung in China.There are times to build up and times to take apart.Those who deconstruct have the wind behind them and the attempts at metaphysics can’t compete.In my readings of Duchamp I came across a reference to Becket and him playing chess together.I couldn’t help but think of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

"Nude Descending a Staircase"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Julian and Julian

My great uncle was an anomaly on the Armenian side of the family, that came to this country at the beginning of the 20thc. The family was working class not by choice but by necessity, but Marvin was an artist and his sense of necessity was to follow the demands of his love of art. While still a young man in Boston, he befriended John Singer Sargent, who was working on the Boston Public Library Murals and received periodic instruction from him. He contintued his studies in Paris at the Academie Julian and came back to Boston, where he became a very successful portrait painter. Among his commissions were Admirals and Massachusett's Governors. Arshile Gorky, at that point known as Manouk Adoian, studied under Marvin at the New School for Art and Design on Boylston St, where he taught after coming back from France. He described Gorky as showman of sorts, who dazzled the female students with his ability to make perfect circles freehand. After Gorky moved to New York,  Marvin attended the opening of Gorky's first show in the city. According to Marvin, Gorky ignored him at the opening. My uncle felt that this response was due to some embarrassment by Gorky about his new work, which was no longer tonal but clearly influenced by the avant-garde. I learned from the film "Without Gorky" that Gorky did not want anyone to know he was Armenian and in fact his wife only learned of his heritage from the local grocer in Sherman CT. Even then when confronted with the truth he denied it. I suspect the presence of Marvin at his opening irked Gorky. Marvin, who knew he was Armenian, would have blown his cover as the son of Maxim Gorky. Hence the snub. I have subsequently studied the chronology of Gorky's life  on the Gorky Foundation website and noticed that Gorky borrowed Marvin's credentials as a grad of the Academie Julian and student of John Paul Laurent for his resume, when he was  a teacher at the Grand Central School of Art in New York.

Recently in Paris I was wandering  with my wife Alix on the West Bank, when we found ourselves by chance on the Rue du Dragon. Alix said that the school she attended, Ecole Met de Penninghen before going to the Sorbonne to study art education, was on that street. We decided to revisit her old haunts. When we walked into the courtyard I saw inscribed on the wall above the entrance:Academy Julian.There was a little confusion, as I tried to figure out what the connection was between the two schools, since Alix had never mentioned that the school she attended, which was rather new at the time, had been previously the Academy Julian. The school was out of session, but, by chance, we encountered a man who happened to be the director. He was interested in chatting with us in particular Alix, since she was able to recall some her fellow students, one of whom was now a teacher at the school. He explained the connection between the Academy and the current school, the details of which I don't recall. I told him about my ancestor who had gone there. The assistant director was writing a book on the history of the Academy.The director asked us to talk with him about Marvin. At this point the reader might have noticed that Marvin's last name is the same as the academy. Marvin's Armenian last name was Chooljian, just enough of a phonetic resemblance to swap one for the other.

The assistant director went through a data bank on his computer and found Marvin's name. He asked me to send him some information on him to include in the book.This is what I sent him:The list of some faculty at the Exeter School of Art in Boston from the 1930's.
an article from "The Boston Sunday Advertiser" from the 1930's

A Portrait of his father Hovaness

Another portrait of Hovaness,
Sarah:Marvin's mother.the painting that Tomas Jonnson refers to in his comment

Marvin in 1924

The photo on the top is of Marvin(Chooljian)Julian taken  from our family photos.The photo below is of Gorky and friends.It is taken from"Black Angel". The man on the right, identified as Felix Chookjian, looks a lot like Marvin. The photo is also published in Mooradian's "Adoian" with the man on the right identified as Felix Choolijian. Since they were all translating from the Armenian, spelling variations are to be expected..So far no one in the family remembers Marvin ever being called Felix.(Ellen Mugar,my sister, found the photo in "Black Angel" as well as the photo of Marvin).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Addison has reprised a conversation I had with him from 1999

A Painting from the show at Crieger-Dane on Newbury St Boston

Art Deal Magazine 

or read it here:

AP When a painting gels, it seems like it is much more than just getting it
to "work." In a funny way it seems like it is put to rest on the one
hand and set it motion on the other. That point when everything comes
together and the fusion sets in and it jumps into a kind of hyperspace,
that whoosh, and the whole thing becomes so much more than the sum of
its parts that it is almost an understatement. At that point it is as though
the work is out of our hands, and in that funny way, ready to go, like a
child that grows up. I find that I like it when this maturation comes in
the natural process of painting; however I also enjoy the challenge of
finding that certain something which propels the work to that other level. The hardest ones are those that are so close and could be really great but the next
second crash and disappear forever. Does this happen to you? Those
paintings that come along and promise so much and never deliver? What
happens there? I get tight, I guess. Pitching a no hitter into the ninth
and then losing my focus and blowing it because the promise was too
great. I would have to say t

hat most of my "best" paintings never made
it. What about those last few moments? How do you treat a painting at
that point? What sort of factors come into play? What does it depend on,hang on, how do we know?
MMWow!Where to begin.How a painting occurs and how it at its best can
correspond to some truth,not absolute,just an exhilarating correspondence
between it and some unknown part of yourself.I know the "dropping the ball"
sensation to keep with your sports metaphors or striking out as you put it
in the ninth.Someone said that the beauty of baseball is that 300% in
batting is damn good and as such corresponds to life.So the implication is
that you have a lot of failures for the few successes you have.I was
thinking that today in my studio that the last two days of new color,return
to brushes,lots juicy paint might not gel; I thought of the waste,but
recalled something from Robert Frost that waste is part of the
game.Something about butterflies destroying themselves as they gorge
themselves on milkweed nectar.All the little sperm that don't make it.
But I know also what you say about just feeling right about it doesn't mean
the painting works. Often I get sort of bogus recognitions in my work;for
example I'll see some contemporary philosophical principle at work."How
post modern of me""This is so intersubjective"I can rest assured that the
next day I'll wince at what I've done.The best work either is pushed over
the long term step by step piece by piece to a point where the whole goes
beyond the parts.(That is I sweat over the interrelationship of the
parts,back and forth,and may find by chance that the parts begin to resonate
unawares in a way that I may

never have intended)(is this the hyperspace you
are talking about) or having just discovered some new realm I can knock off
a series of images within that mode for a few weeks..Until its novelty wears
off(obviously the new mental configuration is initially pleasurable)then
some new problem presents itself or the painting wants to be more.
I think that what I want most is the painting to be a presence that people
will keep coming back to.I said something to that effect in response to
Richard Tuttle's NYT interview.He said it was an American phenomena this
need to create an intense personal presence.Not to clobber the viewer but to
grab them maybe but give them so much complexity they can't let go.Bringing
complexity into our visual space.He said it should not be fast like signage
or ads.But I think at some level it should be fast and then slow.
I think most people are very clever,clever to a fault.They've got their back
covered, they never let down their guard.I think I am easily mesmerized by
the surface of things,the beauty of light,the candy in the store window.And
I get burned,taken advantage of,while you are dazzled by the candy,someone
is picking your pocket.Now in day to day life which is made up of
deals,negotiations over territory,what's yours and mine I suppose one had
best not be too naive.But in art I think it is an advantage to be
susceptible,to be open,to lose boundaries.This "promesse du bonheur" thing I
was talking about. It gets you into new territory like the promise of fertile
and rich frontier lands for the pioneer.
APWhat about clarity of purpose, intensity, conviction? For better or worse,
is obsession a must for the artist?

MMThose are the things you hear about as a student.At least I did at Yale.If
you say that you are an artist than you must act like one.You got to do
art,obviously to be an artist.I was that way especially in the beginning.It
was all or nothing.Every day every event had to confirm this self image.I
wasn't much fun and the girlfriend I had at that time bore the brunt of my
obsessive nature.Self narrowly defined constantly needing to have the
definition mirrored back.It is a trap.I was definitely an insufferable
type.I see things differently now.Focus, clarity in art is a mode I can
shift into.When I am there in the studio,I am totally there.I let go of it
all when I am out of the studio.There is so much else that makes you an
artist,like being an engaged human being,involved with others and influenced
by one's surroundings.Eric Bogosian has a new great monologue which includes
a bit on the narcissistic actor who seeks a reflection of his fame at every
moment of the day; for relaxation at night he watches himself on TV.You
aren't real unless you are getting that reflection. It is the danger of

teaching.A built in cast of fans.
Teachers are like football coaches.I heard the pep talks,from my parents
too.Self immolation is the only way to get that recognition.All or
nothing,your whole life has to be in it.But you know if there is nothing
else feeding you,then you dry up.You end up imposing a very narrow definition
of self that boxes you in.I like to be surprised to see how I can
spontaneously be redefined by my work. The "lived life" contradicts the
image you had grown accustomed to. It crops up in my paintings.

AP How did you get going as an artist?

MM As usual you ask some tough questions.My experience in the art world is that
people just don't talk about the life,the struggle etc.I think that a lot of
people I have worked with in academia over the years are happy to have a job
in the arts and their art is just a kind of passport to that world.If there
is a struggle it may be that there is a part of that world that is closed to
them.A gallery,NYC,critical acclaim etc.But the struggle with the work,the
split between what is and what you want never comes up.I don't hear that
very often.Except from you.I remember once helping to organize a symposium
at the Art Institute for a group of narrative painters.They showed their work
and then talked about it.The essence of what they said was a long whine
about rejection,not getting from the art world what they thought they
deserved.All of that is real ,no denying,but someone asked what about the
work,the joy the pain,the vision,the hope. Well your questions get to the
core of it all to that inner debate and struggle that keeps us moving and
I'm just an ordinary guy.I enjoy the different kinds of

weather,landscape.(Sounds like I'm putting together an ad for men seeking
woman)I get lost in my senses very easily.They are like clothing, a a garb
that we cloak ourselves in.They define us.Until something catastrophic
happens.The cloak is rent.This oscillation gets me going.

AP What do you credit for your love of art, and what lead you to
dedicate your life to it?

As for dedicating my life to it:The seeing just happens unless you shut you eyes.And all that seeing,the whole environment,other art,the people in it has to
be digested.I really often suffer from a sort of visual indigestion.It can only get processed through art.I remember having a clear sense of this at the end of High School>I had dedicated myself to academics quite successfully,beginning to master the world of words and their meaning when I became quite lethargic as though there were 18 years of images that had to get processed.At that point I was doomed to be an artist or else go crazy with this excess of visual stuff inside of me.And so it continues to this day.And a love

of the language,like someone can love words. I like the underlying structure that keeps rising to the surface when I paint.

AP What do you think the kind of work you do has to offer the art community at large?

MM Thank god for other artists.Who else can truly the enjoy the games I play and the risks I take with the tradition.
AP A lot of people think that twentieth century art will end up on the
trash heap, if it hasn't already. What contributions do you think will
last and why?

MM The severed Ear show I think established an interesting connection between pure abstraction a la Polk Smith and a more lyrical approach embodied in Joan Snyder for example. Abstraction was moving away from a scientific,reductive trope to becoming something like abstract letters that when combined into words can begin to open up the world of life and emotions.It moves out of a self reflexive mode into a life world of meaning.It is just beginning.I feel that I am part of it.
AP How does being an art educator affect you as an artist? What about
your recent experiences?(optional)

MM Just as my life as an artist is based on all sorts of assumptions,so was my teaching.Not everybody wants to buy into them.I tend to think that
as a person I am quite transparent: What I am should be clear to others.In fact So much is lost in translation. WE should all have spin doctors just to survive in academia.The most important thing in teaching is to remain at heart an artist,Everything should come out of that.That is what the students want to hear in any case.I think a lot of people to teach because they want to be needed.The student teacher feed back loop is insidious.

Martin Mugar with Addison Parks, July '99--Part 2