Wednesday, May 15, 2019

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


Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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