Sunday, November 24, 2019

UNC-Greensboro Professor Michael Ananian reviews my book on Amazon

“Drawing and Painting” should be read by anyone who cares about the current state of art school education and its future. Mr. Mugar’s treatise about visual perception and the role of 20th century modernist art theory in the education of painters is timely and relevant, much in the same way as Charles Hawthorne’s “Hawthorne on Painting,” Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit,” Ben Shan’s “The Shape of Content,” and Frank Stella’s “Working Space” were during the time of their creation.

Mr. Mugar asserts the primacy of visual perception and seeing as the basis for constructing any kind of painting or drawing, be it abstract, non-objective, representational, perceptual, etc. This challenges current thinking about art’s principal purpose as a mouthpiece for community-engaged political and social change that anyone who wants to engage in can. He accurately concludes that the form-as-content issues of 20th century modernism originate in the perceptual experience of the visible world and in the visual/cognitive functions of the brain. He makes a compelling argument that these ideas are still relevant and important if future generations of painters, curators, critics, etc. want to know how to look at and interpret painting and its history as visual experiences and not merely as arcane, sociopolitical artifacts.

Michael Ananian
Professor of Painting and Drawing
University of North Carolina at Greensboro


  1. Dear Mr Mugar,
    Unfortunately I have not read your book. However, I have seen comments on it, and I read here under the pen of Professor Ananian, that you are, like me, dismayed by the preponderance of socio-political artifacts in the apprehension that ''future generations of painters, curators, critics, etc. want to know how to look at and interpret painting and its history''. Indeed, it seems that from now on, it is only "at best" artists involved in fashionable causes, at worst mere activists who do not even produce art, who have the honours of the arts fairs, of the most prestigious prizes such as the Turner Prize, which this year will be awarded to a group of (non-artist) activists, and of most galleries. How can we, as teachers of art history (I also teach architecture, its history and criticism, both at the University and the École Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Bordeaux and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the same city), turn our students away from this sinister, meaningless current affairs and open their eyes to true art, and this across the centuries? The majority of today's artists do not care at all about claiming to be part of a historical movement, let alone founding one or more, and aesthetics has been forgotten in favour of the socio-political commitment that you denounce. The works in the world's greatest museums are "covered in dust" with the general indifference of their curators, and even the Met in New York recently bought a plastic banana taped to a wall for a fortune... or exhibited the most recent photograph of a black hole, which would be better placed in a science museum, but inspires so much, for the worse, our contemporary artists. They have no eyes to see, no head to think, ignore the past and its masterpieces, and 'surf' on the waves of the unifying movements most likely to make them exhibit and sell the sad productions of which they are the authors. I have nothing against socio-political commitment, but I don't see the connection between this commitment and artistic creation today in any case. Opening your eyes, learning to draw to see better, are practices that have been forgotten for a long time already...
    I will therefore order your book, to read you at greater length, and to take comfort from it.

    With many thanks and my best regards,
    Delphine Costedoat, University of Bordeaux, France

  2. While Mugar never mentions the construction of cathedrals in Drawing and Painting, his approach got me thinking about what that might mean in one’s own art and teaching.

    Humans are tremendously fickle creatures, and sometimes when things go out of style, we have a hard time seeing them for what they are.

    In April of 2019, while the world held its breath and Notre Dame burned, I couldn’t help but think of certain ironies concerning the near universal esteem – or even veneration - being expressed for that cathedral at the prospect of its loss. This in contrast with the ubiquitous scorn the structure was viewed with only two-and-a-half centuries before. In fact, the rise, fall, and rise again in the fortunes of its reputation – from the late Medieval period to the Enlightenment and through to the Romantic era - could be seen as a classic case study of the vagaries of stylistic perception over time.

    The Gothic style’s plunge into disrepute got me thinking about current trends in our perception of Modernism, whose once powerful cache has seen a significant drop in our lifetime. We tend to forget that Modernism wasn’t a monolithic movement or aesthetic, and neither was the Gothic. Rather, the modern period was a century of varying forms where a whole spate of conflicting definitions of art’s essential nature were proposed. Because of its general ideological fervor, our Postmodern eyes tend to see Modernism in hindsight as a highly controlled set of styles, ideas, and institutions. The paradoxical thing is that this race to delineate and limit the parameters of art came out of a desire for freedom from traditional, academic forms and constraints. The early Modernist’s initial impulse was the ambition to build something new from the ground up, not as groups or a collective society (that happened later,) but as individuals.

    Martin Mugar’s book, Drawing and Painting, grows out of much of the same soil early Modernism did, i.e. the desire to build painting anew, one artist at a time, with individual human eyes. This book places the act of visual perception squarely at the center of both drawing and painting. It encourages the student to cultivate their own cognitive awareness in the act of seeing. Its underlying premise is that vision isn’t just an open window for plundering stylistic preferences or narrative material. It’s not merely a tool in the shaping of our aesthetic or conceptual inclinations, but a deeply significant, ongoing, experiential act, never ancillary. The “eye is always in the process of stabilizing the world” according to Mugar, and the very essence of drawing is grounded in “this ordering of perception.”

    As I read this book, I was struck by the notion of someone still believing, in very strong and certain terms, that artists can truly innovate through persistent looking, analyzing and feeling. One senses there is still something of the same naive sophistication bouncing around in the author’s head that was present when painters like Monet, Matisse, Braque and Marquet first stepped out into the French countryside to re-discover painting via the observation of nature, or “nature seen through a temperament,” as Zola put it, though I’m guessing Martin might be prone to replace Zola’s use of the subjective term “temperament” with language more firmly grounded in visual function. This is because 150 years later, Mugar’s book is backed up with more cognitive and art historical data, which he mines to make a logical argument for his premise.

  3. (continued from above)
    Martin’s theory emerges out of decades of experience, from both his studio work and his teaching practice. It is informed by his extensive knowledge of Art History and an intense personal interest in philosophy. Alongside this there are specific investigations into cognitive science as it relates directly to certain visual issues. Most all the details of this knowledge stay in the background however, as Mugar offers up a series of practical exercises. These are laid out as something like arenas for the exploration of vision itself. We are given points of focus, each designed to tap into certain aspects of visual processing. Discoveries are left for the student to unearth through a visual, Socratic question and answer process. Formal issues are dealt with experientially and through looking rather than by describing a particular design concept: Drawing, cutting, collaging, finding negative shapes, using the imagination and redrawing. On the painting side, certain lighting and color parameters are established. There is a strong emphasis on starting out each exercise within its given boundaries, but there is also a feeling that the thoughtful game of chess, once established by those original limitations, could land the student just about anywhere. The destination is not restricted. There are unlimited possibilities in starting from inside those borders.

    I would be hesitant to strictly call these exercises or assignments, and I doubt they are something to which one could firmly attach a grading rubric of the check-list variety (thankfully.) This doesn’t mean they lack objectivity, as Mugar is a stickler for really making you look at what’s going on in front of you. Caravaggio, Seurat, Cezanne and Braque figure prominently in this book, not for any emphasis on their stylistic flourishings, but because Martin relates certain perceptual functions to what each of these artists did on the picture plane, and how each one saw in new and innovative ways. He orders these exercises according to a different logic of sequence than most teachers I have encountered, starting with those visual processes that happen deeper down in the brain: A nod not only to cognitive science, but to simple intuitive experience as well.

    While Martin doesn’t explicitly stray into the depths of philosophy proper in Drawing and Painting, we get hints of how his knowledge in that field enriches this book. One can see his interest in the thought of Heidegger - or perhaps other flavors of phenomenology and existentialism – permeating the mental atmosphere of its pages. Martin’s approach is also philosophical in this way: he does not offer up recipes or a set of instructions. Even with specific projects given, one must attempt to penetrate the meaning of each working situation he sets up through action and reflection. Though simple and straight forward in some ways, all is left open enough to be somewhat opaque and elliptical in terms of end points. Single sentences can be mined and reflected on for manifold implications. This book will utterly elude and exasperate the student who is looking to memorize technically rehearsed answers for surety and peace of mind. It is not a how-to manual.

  4. (continued from above)
    Drawing and Painting calls us to ask questions, frame inferences, and create something of our own conclusions while being given a partial tour of the territory. The whole map is not handed to us, a priori. Instead, we are initiated into a knowledge of how to navigate the wilderness. What we discover in that wilderness is left up to us.

    With its compact, elliptical prose this book is somewhat short, and I found myself wanting more. While he dips into certain aspects of perceptual science – the striate cortex was one that was new for me – there are many others that he leaves alone. I went away feeling like other, unmentioned aspects of vision, like depth of field, the fovea, and center surround, could each have had their own set of exercises tailored for them – along with many others. Or did the author decide that in the case of this book, less really was more? This would leave open the possibility that Mugar treats teachers like he does his students, and those things are left for us to figure out in our own curricula.

    In any event, this is an important and timely book. Much of its significance is its tendency to go against the grain of our present-day reasoning. The algorithm, the template, the prefab architectural plan, these are the spirit of our current artistic age. We are offered an array of various templates which give the illusion of freedom. If followed, no thinking or feeling of your own is required. Sharpen your pencil, measure this, measure that, rinse, wash repeat.

    Part of the beauty of Gothic cathedrals, and much of the reason we admire them today, is that they were constructed with no architectural plans. Their engineering specs were worked out during the construction process. The builders of Notre Dame defied gravity by experiment, by an intuitive understanding of their materials and the laws of physics. Drawing and Painting is a call to something similar. It is a call to build painting from the ground up, but in this case through an intimate, experiential knowledge of the laws of visual perception. To some that may seem old fashion. To others, it may be the only new way through.