Monday, August 4, 2014

The Fault Is Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves

I wrote my previous post, Much Ado About Everything on June 6.

In the past two months, I have been building a new course titled “Adventures in American Art,” and that has sucked up just about every minute of every day, leaving me neither time nor energy to write posts.

I am not complaining: I learned a lot, and I am eager to start teaching again in September.  What I do miss, however, is doing aesthetic analysis.

Does this surprise you?  Why, you may be thinking, would I not be doing aesthetic analysis as I built the course?

As much as I hate to admit it, the reason is quite simple: the research seduced me.

Many books are scattered on my family room floor.  I finally read them, all of them, and I learned everything about the artists whose work I will discuss in the course.  I know their life stories; I know whom they married or did not marry; I know where they went to school; I know where they traveled; I know whom they hung out with, what illnesses they had, what setbacks and triumphs. 

In short, I took the road most traveled and, so far, I neglected to study their paintings myself to understand and evaluate their aesthetic contribution.

Two days ago, a colleague shared with me the first class of the course he is building on Harry Sefarbi’s work to coincide with a Sefarbi exhibit at the Wayne Art Center opening September 21.  Unlike me, he had limited information about Sefarbi’s life and work, so he did the objective analysis, himself, painting by painting.

I felt a stab of envy.

Where had I gone astray and why?

Dr. Richard Wattenmaker, one of the sources of my dilemma because his scholarship is superb,  supplied part of the answer to my questions.  In his book, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, he wrote, “Barnes’s method took interest, patience, application, careful firsthand observation, and easy access to works of art, as well as willingness to ignore the adventitious and to be guided constantly to refine one’s perceptions.” (p. 38)

Ignore the adventitious.  There it was, almost.

The more important reason: laziness.  Careful, firsthand observation takes time.  It takes energy.  It takes confidence.  After almost 40 years of using the objective method, I found it easier to research what other “experts” said about individual paintings then trust my own judgment and do the laborious work to define their aesthetic content.

The other important reason: feelings.  I have written posts regarding the role of feelings in objective analysis (See What’s Feeling Got To Do With It?)

From the beginning, Dr. Barnes argued, “Perception as a part of a phase of the general process of experience, is both subjective and objective: subjective in choosing for attention and emphasis the details in an objective situation which are relevant to feeling or interest; objective, in registering a set or group of details which are present in the environment whether we wish them to be or not.”  (“Method in Aesthetics,” The Philosopher of the Common Man, 1940, 93)

I knew what I had to do. I had to take some medicine, and this medicine had to be compounded carefully.

I selected the following two pictures for those reasons, and because Dr. Barnes, as early as 1925,  compared Demuth’s Bermuda: Houses Seen through Trees with Portrait of an Abbot, a late 18th century portrait of a Chinese figure, illustrating them side by side, in the 1925 edition of The Art in Painting.

I found the comparison “stretched,” as my students often complained when I showed them traditional similarities in the work of seemingly disparate artists or subjects. 

If this method is to work, it is our job to verify the analysis of others, even if those others are Albert Barnes and Violette de Mazia.  We must scrutinize and ask questions of books and persons.

Didn’t I say this takes courage?

Here are the two images:

Demuth, Bermuda: Houses Seen Through Trees, 1918, Watercolor and graphite on wove paper, Barnes

Korean, Portrait of an Abbot, mid to late 18th century, Black ink and heavily applied pigments on silk, Barnes

First, I will turn them upside down:

Upside down, their subjects morph into color shapes, and the differences between a landscape and a man seated disappear.

A series of patterns emerge.  Tree trunks in the Demuth become mottled, gray, vertical, curvilinear, sinuous bands that push back and set off rectilinear, shimmering, orange/tan color shapes.  These rhythmically repeat in varied arabesques of gray, white, and tan.

The figure in the Korean picture becomes a series of vertical, light, tan curvilinear color shapes (the arms and hands) that set off and push back a series of red, sinuous color shapes (the decorative fabric of the robe).  Rhythmically supported in the dark brown grids (the verticals and horizontals of the arms and back of the chair), the picture units move back and forth in shallow space in ways similar to Demuth’s.

In both, you see a rhythm of interpenetrating angular planes with an intertwining arabesque movement of various units set in shallow space.  In both, you see delicacy and floating lightness.   In both, the lines are carefully drawn, fine, linear boundaries.

Since this is exactly what Barnes and de Mazia wrote in the catalog to the exhibit of Ancient Chinese and Modern European Paintings held at the Bignou Gallery, NY, in 1943, I verified their perceptions.  They wrote, “The watercolors of Charles Demuth, an American, are allied to the Chinese by their highly decorative angular and curvilinear arabesques, their disposition of planes in space, the pervasive delicacy and floating lightness.  A striking similarity exists also in their carefully drawn fine linear boundaries.  These delicate, clean-cut contours are contrasted, as in the Chinese, with loosely defined outlines, and the result is a dainty crisp quality injected into the vaporous lightness.”

There are differences as well.  Demuth’s picture is less illustrative.  Demuth combines decoration and illustration in a highly effective design based on elements in C├ęzanne’s form.  It is a series of delicate, well-defined planes of contrasting color which draw and model the units and set them in space. 

This dose of medicine restored me.  These pictures shared their secrets with me because I spent time with them, used the tools available to me to do the work, and I felt that warmth of excitement that accompanies genuine perception.

I will conclude by sharing information Dr. Wattenmaker provides in the chapter “Albert C. Barnes and The Barnes Foundation,” in his book American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation.  He discusses the critical reception of Dr. Barnes’s first book, the 1925 edition of The Art in Painting.  Reviewers were genuinely positive, but Leo Stein argued that Barnes erred by telling readers what was good and bad in the works he analyzed.  He wrote, “Mr. Barnes insistently and not incidentally offers valuations to the student as though such valuations would mark the successful student’s observation.  I believe that there is in this a serious defect of method.  Valuations are personal and not systematic.” (p. 40)

Many current students say this too.  They feel offended by Dr. Barnes’ strong “opinions,” as they term his conclusions, especially when they do not agree with them.

Here is how Dr. Barnes replied: “It is not assumed that the conclusions reached with regard to particular paintings are the only ones compatible with the use of the method; any one of them is of course subject to revision.  What is claimed is that the method gives results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience and that it reduces to a minimum the role of merely personal and arbitrary preference.” (40)

I am grateful personal and arbitrary preference can be mitigated by the careful and skillful application of a set of tools that uncover the art in painting.

How do you feel about this?  Do you resist doing objective aesthetic analysis?  Please let me know either below on the blog or via email.  For an email response, Click here.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

Much Ado About Everything

If, like me, you attended “The Armory Show at 100,” the exhibit held at the New-York Historical Society last year, this headline in the New York Times summarizing the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art will not surprise you: “Reliving the Show that ‘Dropped like a Bomb.’” (October 10, 2013)

Ira Glackens put it this way:

               America was never the same again!
No accounts of the Armory Show can exaggerate the sensation.  Men of God thundered in their pulpits, warning their flocks away—which may in part explain the huge attendance…The rich and mighty gave their servants time off to take it all in.  The man in the street, who had never looked at art before, appeared in great numbers….
Some of the critics were delighted because it gave them so much to write about and explain to those of lesser perspicacity.  Others were equally infuriated, which was also good.  Several nearly burst.
The Show was taken to Chicago, and the hullabaloo did not diminish there.  In fact, it accelerated.  Students at the Art Institute, which housed the exhibition, went so far as to burn Matisse in effigy, and the counterfeit presentment of kind, gentle Walter Pater, who was lecturing on the exhibition in the city, was also fed to the flames….
Everyone who wished above all to be on the bandwagon turned into a Cubist or a Fauvist over night, and the galleries soon blossomed with works that would have been  inconceivable a short time before.” (William Glackens and the Eight, pp. 182-184)

I tell you this because it illustrates the climate surrounding Glackens’ work.  The innovations of Glackens’ color I explored in the previous two posts (Something Borrowed—Something New? and Something Borrowed—Something New? Cont’d), according to Dr. Richard Wattenmaker, “were produced in a critical climate that was competitive if not downright hostile. The reception of Modern art between 1910 and 1920 in the American art world was characterized by controversy and vigorous polemics.”  (American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 67)

Consequently, I will continue the picture by picture examination of Renoir’s and Glackens’ work to explain what Glackens borrowed from Renoir and what he paid back with his own “interest,” so we can objectively evaluate Glackens’ achievement.  

First, look at these two pictures:

Renoir, Coco, 1904, Flint Institute of Arts

Glackens, Lenna at One Year, 1914, MOA/FL

I selected these two paintings because they help me answer this question: how do Renoir and Glackens’ color volumes differ?

Examine the head and shoulder in each painting by exploring these details:


Look at the spatial recession as the head of each figure meets the background.  In Coco, the space into which the side of the rounded volume recedes is deeper than in Lenna.  The fully three-dimensional cheek in the Renoir appears to bulge forward as the triangle of hair sets back a   deeper space.  The cheek in the Glackens, with arc shaped color units flowing laterally and adjacent to each other as they continue over the boundary of the head into the background, meets a relatively shallow space.   

Because Glackens’ flatter, airy color volume does not carry the weight, depth and structural solidity of Renoir’s unit into the background, it accentuates the decorative pattern of arc shaped bands, exactly what Glackens’ interest led him to do.

These two sketchy oils lend themselves to this investigation.

Now look at the following two, fully developed, flower pieces:

Renoir, Bouquet of Roses, c. 1882, Barnes

Glackens, Zinnias in a Striped Blue Vase, c. 1915, Barnes

These two paintings hang in the Barnes Foundation, in Room 6 to the far left of the West Wall, one above the other, making comparison easy.

At first glance, you may be thinking, “Look at the vases; that Glackens’ vase sure looks fully three-dimensional.” 

So it does.

But examine its edge.  As the color unit of vase becomes the color unit of tabletop and background, what happens to the space? 

Then look at the Renoir vase, and do the same thing.

Do you notice the deeper space in the Renoir?

Now do the same experiment with these two cropped and enlarged images of the flowers:



Glackens adapted Renoir’s structural solidity, its lush richness of color and atmosphere, and its heavy fluidity to his interest and intent: uniform color areas rather than color chords; a stress upon the pattern of areas; shallow and clear atmospheric space; and vivid, sharp color contrasts derived from Matisse and oriental art.   

Examine the following drawing.

Glackens, Eight Figures, c. 1910, Black crayon with gouache on brown wove paper, Barnes

These sketchily drawn figures give the gist of movement and liveliness, along with a terse depiction of brisk or slow, through the character of Glackens’ line and compositional movement (look at the figure on the lower right moving back into space).

The difference, therefore, between Glackens and Renoir’s work, is concisely stated by Violette de Mazia: “… a matter of their respective adaptation of means to different ends: for Glackens, the principal concern was illustration, although it never fails to be decoratively presented and expressively stated; for Renoir, it was the merging of all three aspects—decoration, illustration, and expression of broad human qualities—which in his form stand on a par with each other.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 23)

Dr. Richard Wattenmaker sums it up this way:

William Glackens’ work, his paintings and his drawings, provides us with a deep sense of aesthetic satisfaction not to be derived from that of any other artist preceding or following him, on condition, however, that we do not demand of Glackens what he does not intend to give—for instance, the warmth and full-bodied color volumes of a Renoir, or the bold and exotic color decorativeness of a Matisse—but, rather, look for what was Glackens’ very own—the picturesque aliveness of everyday things and episodes caught with an eye and a mind quick to observe and absorb and, with as quick, sure and knowing a hand, transferred onto the canvas or paper by way of those tersely descriptive, gently crisp touches and lines of his, and the color itself that bespeaks, by its own sparkle and vivacity, the unmistakable and inimitable joy of life that was Glackens’. (The Art of William Glackens, University Art Gallery, Bulletin, Vol. I: No.1, Rutgers, The State University, 1967, p. 11)


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Something Borrowed--Something New? Cont'd

In the previous post, Something Borrowed—Something New?, I mentioned Dr. Richard Wattenmaker’s rebuke of critics who pointed out Glackens’ debt to Renoir but did not compare their pictures.  He argued that “no writer during [Glackens’] lifetime ever made an explicit comparison with a specific Renoir, such as, for example, his Madame Charpentier and Her Children, 1878 (acquired in 1907 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art), which influenced the composition and scale of Glackens’s Family Group (National Gallery of Art) and one of Glackens’s three entries in the Armory Show.  This failure to identify exactly what the American had adapted from Renoir is a lacuna that has persisted in Glackens criticism.”

Dr. Wattenmaker, throughout his career, has carefully and elaborately illustrated exactly what Glackens borrowed from Renoir and how Glackens made it his own.  Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia did as well.  However, as far as I know, no one compared the two pictures Dr. Wattenmaker cited, so I decided I would.

Here is Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and Her Children:

Renoir, Madame Charpentier and Her Children, 1878, Met

 Here is Glackens’ Family Group:

Glackens, Glackens’s Family Group, 1910-11, NGA

Before we go any further, I will share with you what Dr. Barnes wrote about the Renoir painting.  He said, “The general effect is conventional, banal, unexciting, and the color-ensemble is dull.  The blacks…are here mere areas of dull paint, unappealing as color and unsuccessful in rendering textural quality in either the woman’s gown or the dog’s fur.” (The Art of Renoir,
p. 398). 

The only unit in the picture Dr. Barnes complimented is the still-life grouping of objects at the upper right.  Here it is cropped and enlarged:

Dr. Barnes said it is the “sole source of real aesthetic pleasure in the picture…particularly in the distribution and relation in space of its various units—the objects on the table, the chair, the legs of the chair and table, the plane of the floor, the curtain at the back, and the well-realized space receding underneath the table back into the distance behind the curtain.” (p. 399)

Dr. Barnes declared the picture a “typical conventional group-portrait, plastically weak, and only mildly pleasing as a decorative illustration.”   Do you agree?

To find out, let’s look at it upside down:

The three figures establish a central pyramidal unit balancing a diagonal sequence of volumes extending across the canvas from the still-life grouping now on the lower left to the dog now on the upper right.  That pyramidal grouping slopes inward on both sides.  The black/white contrasts of the woman’s dress, dog’s fur, and the children’s socks and shoes rhythmically repeat the ripples of white trim on the girl’s and woman’s dresses as well as the dog’s fur.  These squiggly decorative units contrast with the vertical bands in the screen and the geometric pattern in the floor. 

Examine this detail of the child on the couch:

Shadows are slightly bluish-gray, the flesh shiny-smooth, and while the volume is fully three-dimensional, it is slight and without internal luminosity.  The curls in the hair echo the curls of the dress’s center and contrast with the more crinkly decorative whites of all the dresses. Similarly, short stripes ripple the socks, enliven the sofa’s pattern, and flute the folds in the figure’s  dress’s and hair as well as the dog’s fur, but Dr. Barnes argues this “sort of painting represents the bad influence of Delacroix in color and of Monet in technique.”  I translate this to mean the pattern is “on” the surface rather than integrated into the color volumes, more a “showing off” of brushwork rather than a unified expressive statement.

Glackens’ picture measures 71 15/16 x 84 inches; Renoir’s 60 ½ by 74 ¾.  When the Met acquired Renoir’s painting in 1907, it was the most recent work in the museum’s collection and received extensive publicity, so it could have influenced the scale of Glackens’ painting as well as its composition.  

If it did, how?

Look at it upside down.

From the point of view of subject, this picture also organizes figures in a room.  Ira Glackens, when he was five years old, and depicted in the center, said he was taken to the 1913 Armory Show.  He wrote, “I do not recall seeing, though it was surely pointed out to me, my father’s large canvas “Family Group,” with myself looking like a monkey in it.” (William Glackens and the Eight, 1957, p. 182)

Monkey or not, the four figures in this picture, whether seated, standing, or leaning, bend, turn, and rise upwards with the graceful, delicate elegance of a luminous praying mantis.  The figure now on the left, unlike Renoir’s Madame Charpentier, bends inward, not outward.  The chair back, now on the right, arcs inward more dramatically than the girl in Renoir’s painting.

A pervasive colorfulness prevails, a rich brightness and vibrancy in the hues and tones.  Acidic greens, deep blues, and orange-reds produce vivid color, a quality Violette de Mazia says has a “sharp, at times even a slightly piercing acidity, a bite and an exotic, piquant, tangy flavor usually associated with oriental color effects.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 10) The green in the face and neck in the diagonal figure now to the right imparts a “phosphorescent gleam,” a translucency and lightness that contrasts with the hot reds and yellows elsewhere in the picture.  De Mazia says, “All these positive features are novel, distinctive, of an aesthetic character and Glackens’ own.” (p. 12)

Three-dimensionality in the Glackens is slighter, the volumes lighter, and that puts the emphasis on color areas functioning as units of decorative pattern.  Unlike the fluid, compositional poise in the Renoir, where one color unit flows into another, in Glackens the beat is light, gentle, and quick, more like a staccato tapping than a legato flow, similar to the rat-a-tat-tat made by the red belly woodpecker on the tree outside my bedroom window that wakes me up in the morning. 

Look at this cropped and enlarged lower section of the painting:

Notice the patterned areas of floor and tiles.  Examine the space under the chair legs, and around and between the feet—especially the four feet shown in the middle.  Check the series of color units and spatial relationships to the right.  A fan-shaped repoussoir constructed from two color units of the dress (the bright red and the striped cerulean/blue and white apron) push back the pocket of space under the chair leg.  This orchestration of patterned areas, gentle movement, and vivid color in intricate spatial relationships sets the motif of the entire painting.

Finally, examine the center of Glackens’ picture with the still life in the upper right of Renoir’s:

In the Glackens’, orange/yellow/red color units recede to the triangular pulled-back curtains.  Each color unit: (from the ultramarine/alizarin dress covering the crossed legs which echo the triangular opening in the background; to the standing boy wearing a cerulean tunic while leaning on a hot orange table top and backed by the orange/cerulean blue pattern of the chair) carries the eye, like a series of tightly orchestrated repoussoir units, to a glowing orange-yellow-cerulean-ultramarine open space beyond the curtains. 

In the Renoir, the spatial recession moves from the foreground slant of the black dress to the rich, warmth of luminous gold, red, tans and deep blues, in an equally geometric series of “steps and risers” (look at the golden horizontal base of the table, the seat of the chair, the shelf and the table top) to the dark space created by the pulled-back tapestry.  However, in the Renoir, each color unit also stresses its illustrative identity: the vase holding the flowers has a silky smooth surface gleaming with ceramic hardness; the decanter bubbles with metallic golden highlights; the wicker chair’s roughness contrasts with the curtain’s heavy wooliness.    

Perhaps the most striking and obvious difference defining each artist’s interest occurs in the vase of flowers.  In the Glackens’, the sharp, cool green of the cone-shaped and flattened vase contrasts with the vivid, red/orange of the flattened, fluted cone-shaped flowers.  In the Renoir, the silky-smooth, blue-patterned fully rounded vase holds a series of pink, white, lavender, and green three-dimensional, puffy, soft, shimmering color units. 

Violette de Mazia described the difference this way:

“[In Renoir], the pattern as such appears much less pronounced than in Glackens.  There are two obvious reasons for this: first, the areas in Renoir are less compartmental (i.e., their boundaries are less sharply defined) because of the continuous, free intermingling of the color-chords as they flow from one area into adjacent areas; and, secondly, the pattern of these areas plays a relatively inconspicuous role in the more conspicuous three-dimensional compositional pattern made up of the color volumes and their colorful intervals as their rhythmic sequence recedes from foreground to deep distance.  In other words, a Renoir unit is so constructed and so related in space to its companions that our perception is made to focus upon the shape of the three-dimensional unit rather than of the two-dimensional area it occupies on the canvas.  In Glackens, the tendency is towards the opposite effect.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 13)

Before Dr. Barnes published The Art in Painting in 1925, he sent Glackens the manuscript version of his essay evaluating Glackens’ work.  Glackens responded, in part: “My Renoir influence is obvious, so I shant mention it—except that I have found out that the pursuit of color is hard on drawing just as the pursuit of drawing is hard on color.” (Quoted in Wattenmaker, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p.69)

So far, we have merely compared and contrasted two paintings.  In the next post, I will compare  Glackens’ and Renoir’s drawings and concentrate on line and space to show how Glackens perfected his ability to express what interested him: active movement, colorful light, vivid color, and sparkle.  In so doing, I will further define and evaluate the visual ideas Glackens’ adapted from Renoir as well as other artists.