Friday, October 16, 2015

A Tap on the Door of Perception

I felt bored for the past several weeks.  If you remember the Lerner and Loewe song from Gigi, “It’s a Bore,” sung by Gaston and his Uncle Honore, you will understand how I felt. 

Here are the first few stanzas:

H: Look at all the captivating fascinating things there are to do
G: Name two.
H: Look at the pleasures of the myriad of treasures we have got
G: Like what?
H: Look at Paris in the spring when each solitary thing is more beautiful than ever before! You can hear every tree almost saying, "Look at me!"
G: What color are the trees?
H: Green!
G: What color were they last year?
H: Green!
G: And next year?
H: Green!
G: It's a bore!
H: Don't you marvel at the power of the mighty Eiffel Tower knowing there it will remain evermore? Climbing up to the sky over 90 stories high.
G: How many stories?
H: 90
G How many yesterday?
H: 90
G: And tomorrow?
H: 90
G: It's a bore!

I dragged around doing what I had to do, but mostly going through the motions.  I had no ideas for a blog post, I had no enthusiasm for painting, and even teaching the traditions class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute felt routine rather than innovative.

I blamed my malaise on the shorter fall days with the resultant decline of sunlight, on approaching my 75th birthday, on being burned out with painting, on having nothing left to say about art appreciation.
I rationalized that posting 79 essays on my blog since 2010 was a remarkable accomplishment.  Maybe it was time to quit. 

Still, I loved writing them, and I missed that.

I remembered how I used to see painting subjects everywhere I looked, and I worried I might never again get excited by a new visual idea. I also knew I did not want to grind out paintings I did not feel inspired to make.

I felt even more enervated after I visited Edward Loper, Jr., the 80-year-old son of my mentor, Edward L. Loper, Sr.   There to retrieve some tomatoes he had grown in his garden, I looked at the abundance of paintings and pastel drawings he had produced since I last saw him.  “I work day and night,” he told me. “When I wake up at 2 am, I go to the studio and start another picture.”  He found everything around him worthy of his effort—the window to his backyard; the objects on his living room table; the photographs of friends and colleagues he used to paint their portraits.  

Edward Loper, Sr., used to insist an artist could make a painting out of a pile of dirt if he knew what he was doing.  However, I knew Loper, Sr. had dry spells similar to the one I was suffering through, and he went long periods without painting, filling up his time with teaching. 

And complaining.  

I did my share of complaining.

A few days after my visit, Eddie asked if I could stop by so he could take some photos of me for him to use as his subject for a portrait.  He had me stand in his doorway so I caught the light, and he asked me to face left.  Then Connie, his better (very patient) half, took several more with me looking directly at her as Eddie grumbled in the background he did not like that pose.

As it turned out, he started this picture using the photo Connie took:

In an email, Connie wrote, “he began on Sunday and has rarely left it . . . an artist possessed.”

I wanted to do something, anything, which might allow me to feel that way again.

I decided to send an email to my grandson asking if he would pose for me with his two cats.  I knew he might not be willing to do so himself, because he did not like the last painting I did of him.  But he loved his two cats, Ming and Mae, a brother and sister with feline exuberance. He immediately emailed back saying “sure.”

My husband and I arranged to come to his house to take the photos.  

When we arrived, my son cautioned, “You’ve heard about herding cats, haven’t you?”  I had, but I had no idea what that really meant. I soon found out.

The cats would not curl up in his lap, sit on his shoulder, or stay still for a second.  We took many pictures, but they all had both cats leaping on or off  my grandson, or lots of other arms and hands in the picture trying to keep them somewhere near him.

Finally, Josh stretched out on the floor, and Ming, the larger of the two cats, curled up next to him.  

When we arrived home, and my husband started showing me the photos he had transferred from his camera to his computer, I watched them go by.  I felt more discouraged than before.  None of them appealed to me, until he showed me this one.

 “STOP,” I shouted.  That’s it!  I could feel my heart race.  I had an idea. 

It came, not as a tap on the door of perception, but as a BIG BANG. 
In that moment, I also knew what had been wrong with me.

Habit and routine had deadened me.  It does that to all of us.  

The only antidote is action.  

Rollo May, in The Courage to Create, wrote that “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” (pp. 2-3)

And when an artist moves ahead, a vital element in the creative act is the strength of the encounter, an experience characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.  As May wrote, “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved…are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating….” (p. 38)

While we do not know why an idea emerges at a given time, we do know that when one occurs, it strikes us as true, as important, as valuable, even though we have no idea what it is exactly, and we have to, in my case, paint the picture to discover it.

Stravinsky said this best: “Step by step, link by link, it will be granted [the artist] to discover the work…. All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique.” (Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons, pp. 51-52)

Stravinsky also said a composer “improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about.  Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out…So we grub about in expectation of our pleasure, guided by our scent, and suddenly we stumble against an unknown obstacle.  It gives us a jolt, a shock, and this shock fecundates our creative power.” (pp. 56-57)

I had been grubbing about. 

No more.

Now I am painting my picture.  

In the past few days, I wrote this post.

As I happily did both this week, I presumed Eddie, in the same few days, finished his portrait of me and completed several more paintings.  

In the next post, after I finish my painting,  I will discuss both Eddie’s painting and mine.  

Sooner than later, I hope. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

To See, or Not to See

Recently I traveled to New Hampshire with my son’s family for a week of painting and vacationing.  We stayed at Abakee Cottages, knotty pine, cozy cabins on Lake Winnipesaukee. 

Once I got there, nothing said, “Paint me.”  I had, as we say in my business, no visual ideas.  I felt burned out and frustrated.

I could easily have moped, but my grandchildren were gleeful to be there. My husband, son, and daughter in law were happy as well. They welcomed the cool, clear air, the small beach and dock, and the “fun” to be had at nearby Weirs Beach and in the surrounding area.  

Little did I realize, in Wordsworth’s words, what “wealth to me the show had brought.” 

I have William Glackens to thank.

In previous posts, I said knowing paintings permits us to see more in our everyday world. 

This post will describe just how this worked for me.

First, I will show you a few of Glackens’ paintings that informed my vision:

Glackens, Bathers at Bellport, c. 1912, Phillips Collection

Glackens, Bathing at Bellport, Long Island, 1912, Brooklyn Museum

Glackens, The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, 1910, Barnes

Glackens, The Little Pier, c. 1915, Barnes

Glackens, The Raft, 1915, Barnes

Glackens, At the Beach, 1918, Newark Art Museum

In 1910, James Hunecker described Glackens seaside paintings this way:  “these waters, skies, beaches, bath houses of uncompromising lines, these drifting or moored boats, with humanity strolling, sitting, bathing, are nevertheless so real, or rather evoke the illusion of reality, that you experience in their presence what Henry James calls ‘the emotion of recognition.’” 

Dr. Barnes described them this way: “[Glackens] shows with detachment the essential picturesqueness and humanity of the events represented, and his only comment upon life is that it is pleasant to live in a beautiful world."

Glackens’ paintings helped me appreciate what I saw in front of me, and I enjoyed my here and now “show” in real time.

For example, this photograph captures the movement of my grandson jumping off the floating dock as I climbed on it. 

It reminded me of a detail in Glackens’ painting The Little Pier:

I am not saying we have identical visual statements in these images.  I am saying that the activity in Glackens’ painting of small, vivid, contrasting color units set in receding arcs of oranges, greens, reds, and blues, express lively, active, colorful drama. In the detail of the Glackens’ painting above, the row boat tips to the left as the floating dock tips to the right creating an inverted pyramid echoed by the steps up to the pier; the diving figure, a diagonal torpedo, enters an exploding upwards splash of pink, yellow, and blue vertical strips rhythmically repeating the rippling arcs of the water.  

The photo of me climbing up to the floating dock as my grandson jumped off is not as orchestrated as The Little Pier. However, when I made the connection of its qualities to the Glackens’ painting, I felt as though I had experienced something important.  Perceiving connections will do that to you. 

Now look at this diagram of The Raft:

The diagram marks the triangular compositional devices connecting the large floating dock on the left with the smaller pier on the right and includes the “rescue boat,” as Violette de Mazia labeled it, linking the two.  It also diagrams the color units circling the dock and pier, adding to the animation of the entire ensemble.

As I observed children and their parents on inflated tubes or swimming in Lake Winnipesaukee, I enjoyed the spectacle of colors, shapes, and movement of their actions because I knew Glackens’ painting.

My photo does not come close to the aesthetic qualities in the Glackens’ painting, but it does illustrate why the spectacle intrigued me.  Examine the next two photographs and see if you agree:

If you isolate the patterns in the color units in my photographs and then compare them to the patterns on the floating dock in the Glackens’ painting, you will see why I found my visual experience fascinating.

Compare the next Glackens’ detail, with its repetitions of stripes and bands and lights and darks, with my photographs above, to see if you agree:

Finally, here is a detail from Glackens’ painting The Bathing Hour, Chester, Nova Scotia, and my photo of my grandson swimming:

Granted, the kid is cute, but what attracted me and held my interest was his shape, color, and movement. Glackens’ color unit floating across the picture plane, buoyant, fast, and “wet,” not made of flesh and bones, but of slabs of luminous color units on a flat surface, is art.  My grandson swimming echoed visual ideas sparked by the painting.

Works of art bestow this gift.  They enable us to see our world through an artist’s eyes, and this not only enriches our visual experience, it changes everything. 

That’s why we call it “Informed Perception.”

Try it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Way I See It

At the beginning of her essay, “Naïveté,” Violette de Mazia quoted a Russian proverb: “To a worm in a radish, the radish, his radish, is the whole world.” (The Barnes Foundation, Journal of the Art Department, Autumn, 1976, Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 57)

Naïveté, she argued, “does not merely indicate a manner of doing, but embraces personality, attitude, understanding as a whole.”

In 1938, Horace Pippin described how he painted pictures: “The pictures I have already painted come to me in my mind, and if to me it is a worth while [sic] picture I paint it.  I go over the picture several times in my mind and when I am ready to paint it I have all the details I need.” (from “Horace Pippin,” in Holger Cahill et. al., Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America, MoMA, p. 125).

The current exhibit, “Horace Pippin: The Way I See It,” at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, presents 65 of his paintings, the first major retrospective of his work in 20 years.

One of those paintings, West Chester, Pennsylvania, I wrote about in Making the Invisible Visible: Part II.  

This is the painting:

West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1942, Oil on canvas, Wichita Art Museum

The story goes like this: A young Ed Loper, a high school graduate with no art background, trained by the Works Progress Administration to produce exact watercolor reproductions of early American antiques, went off one day to watch Horace Pippin work on a painting in West Chester, PA.  He stood behind Pippin and looked at his picture and at the scene Pippin was using as a subject, a block of row houses near South Adams Street in West Chester.

As Ed Loper watched Pippin work, he thought these thoughts: “What is he doing?  The road isn’t black. It’s light tan in the sun. The houses are not flat. They are three-dimensional. Doesn’t he know anything about perspective?  Why does he have all those little flower shapes in the tree? Why did he make some windows black and some white?” 

Pippin stopped working, turned to Ed, and said: “Ed, you know why I’m great?” 

“Why?”  Ed asked. 

Pippin replied, “Because I paint things exactly the way they are…. I don’t do what these white guys do.  I don’t go around here making up a whole lot of stuff.  I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.”

Pippin explained his process to other people as well, thus the title of the current exhibit.

The way I see it, what Pippin said verifies the following diagram, shared by Violette de Mazia when she taught at the Barnes Foundation:

An artist confronts a subject and feels interested in it.  The subject acts on him like a catalyst acts on a chemical reaction: it triggers an insight, the clue.  This is what Pippin meant when he said the picture came to him in his mind.  Pippin may not have needed the subject directly before him as in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  His painting may have originated in an experience in WWI, in something he read, in church, in the Bible, in a room, anywhere or anything at all.  But what he saw in his head established the clue he needed to make a painting.  That clue was a new thing: a picture idea.

Then he could go to work inventing the relationships of color, line, light, space, mass, and pattern to record on a flat surface what he saw in his mind.

When I said in a previous post an artist, at that first interested look, no longer “sees” his subject as it “is,” as we would see it, some of you did not understand how this could be so.  If you re-read What Dreams May Come, you will get a detailed description of what I call informed perception and also my analysis of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  If you don’t feel motivated to visit the current Pippin exhibit, please consider doing so if only to see this painting.  Digital images never do justice to originals, but West Chester, Pennsylvania, which I had never seen before except in printed or digital format, captivated me with its size (29 3/8 x 36 3/8 in.), richness of color, and dramatic light/dark rhythms.

I digress.

In 1940, Dr. Barnes argued, “Pippin’s art is distinctly American; its ruggedness, vivid drama, stark simplicity, picturesqueness and accentuated rhythms, have their counterparts in the Spirituals of the American Negro…. Pippin’s closest kinship is perforce with the group of natural, untaught painters to be found in all periods and in all nations, and to which custom has attached the word primitive. America, in the early nineteenth century, produced many such painters, mostly anonymous and a number of them genuine artists endowed with a high degree of esthetic insight and talent for expression…. It is probably not too much to say that he is the first important Negro painter to appear on the American scene.” (Quoted by Richard Wattenmaker in “Horace Pippin,” in American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 305) 

What did Pippin see?  

His paintings answer this question.

Violette de Mazia said his Christ and the Woman of Samaria has an intensity of color drama, a stark vividness, a clarity of space, a sense of naïveté.” (“What to Look for in Art,” The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Autumn, 1970, Vol. I, No. 2, p. 21.

Examine the painting below:

Pippin, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, 1940, Barnes

Richard Wattenmaker said “the picture shocks by its drama, which is due primarily to Pippin’s original use of color.  The intense gradations of fuchsia and gray in the sky meet dramatically at the horizon with an intense purplish red against the green-blacks of the foliage.  The placement of Christ’s crisp, silhouetted purple cloak, firmly situated as if in a niche between the well and stones and the dark foliage behind, is a powerful color statement as bold as any color juxtaposition of Henri Matisse, while the carpet-like effect of the stones in front of the well, with its fringe of deep green-on-black grass on their border, is as subtle a color ensemble as any found in the work of Henri Rousseau.” (“Horace Pippin,” American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 308)

Let’s examine one of Pippin’s paintings in the Barnes Foundation:

Pippin, Giving Thanks, 1942, Barnes
Here it is upside down:

Inverted, a series of bright, vivid, flattened vertical and gently curved color shapes dramatically contrast with dark, heavy, horizontal bands.

The stark white of the man’s shirt, the woman’s apron, the pillows on the bed, the lamp, the ovals in the floor mat (now on the upper left), the stripes in the rectilinear mat (now on the upper right), the rim of the bowl, and the cups and saucers on the table move the eye in-and-out through the picture.

Upside down, it is easier to see the series of arcs, semi-circles, and rippling units contrasted with the rigidity of the floorboards, shutters, chair legs, and bedposts.

The units of figures at the table and the quilt draped over the bed reveal the constricted space each color unit occupies.

Examine the following detail:

Color patterns of stripes, dots, and bands establish rhythms of blue-white-tan-black in the man that become red, cerulean, and black rows of linear dots on the woman’s blouse and gray-black dots on her red headscarf.  The boy’s cerulean shirt reverses this with stripes of black dots on red.  The girl’s hair and face is a series of dark-brown and tan while her ochre arms bookend a warm-brown napkin. The tablecloth continues the series of horizontal and vertical cool-blue and orange-red arcs and stripes.

Now examine this detail:

The left side of the picture rhythmically varies the theme of arcs, bands, and dots while, at the same time, introducing a color note of emerald green.   

Notice the in-and-out movement under the bed and the chair.  Notice the stark brightness of the white fringe and the white diagonal stripes on the floor mat.  Notice the “surprise” of the addition of the green stripe to the white, black, gray, and red ones.  Notice the space created by the boy’s leg, the legs of the chair, and the bowl under the bed.  Notice the “spaghetti-like” strands of darker tan patterning the light ochre of the bed frame. Notice the repeated, golden arcs of the “edge of wicker” chair continuing the dark-light theme. Notice how all of this is off-set by the vertically rising, dark-brown floor boards and the brown-black horizontal bulging wall logs.

Examine this detail:

By including some more color units to the right, you can see the rhythmic connections between the patchwork of the comforter, with its rectilinear color units and reversals of dark green on light gold, dark gray-black on red, and bright red on black, with the units in the floor mat, the boy’s shirt, and the woman’s blouse. You can also see more easily how the white units move in-and-out in space.  

Judith Stein, in I Tell My Heart, The Art of Horace Pippin, the book published in conjunction with the exhibition organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1994, quoted Pippin as saying: “Pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead.” (p. 2)

The pictures come to his mind.  He sees what he sees, and then he makes his picture.  

All artists do this.  

Pippin’s pictures reveal, however, an artist with “intense conviction, faith, a viewpoint...believed in,…accepted, pursued, with no concern other than its own dictates,…and imbued with the positive, intrinsic appeal of its honesty, straightforwardness and…individuality,” Violette de Mazia said. (“Naïveté,” p. 75)

We, when we appreciate his pictures, learn to enjoy aspects of our real world.
For example, today I took a walk through a nearby park, and I noticed that three Kwanzan flowering cherry trees had dropped most of their flowers, blanketing the ground under them.

Like this:

I examined the soft puffs of pink, delighted in the richness of the color, and enjoyed the dark green shoots creating crevices and projections in the shallow spaces between each flower.

Pippin’s painting, Old King Cotton, educated my vision, and I re-made my world based on his vision:

Pippin, Old King Cotton, 1944, Oil on fabric, Davis Museum at Wellesley College

That’s the way I see it.

And so can you.