This blog describes why art matters. You will develop a set of tools enabling you to see the art in works of art. You will learn to see the way artists’ see. You will transform the very world you thought you were seeing every day into visual adventures. You will be equipped to do this work by learning to see.
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.
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.
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?”
stopped working, turned to Ed, and said: “Ed, you know why I’m great?”
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.”
explained his process to other people as well, thus the title of the current
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
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.
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
His paintings answer
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
and the Woman of Samaria, 1940, Barnes
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:
Thanks, 1942, Barnes
Here it is upside
Inverted, a series of bright, vivid, flattened vertical
and gently curved color shapes dramatically contrast with dark, heavy,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Pippin, Old King Cotton, 1944, Oil on fabric, Davis Museum at Wellesley College
This semester I am teaching the traditions in art at
the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Wilmington, Delaware.I recommended my students purchase Dr. Barnes’
book, The Art in Painting, especially
if they had not previously enrolled in Color
Scene Investigations for Art Detectives, my introductory class to the
Complaints began immediately.
“It’s impenetrable,” one said.
“Impossible to decipher,” said another.
Over my head, too dense, too argumentative, too
nasty were some others.
I suggested they read it after the course ended, as
I did, when I studied at the Barnes Foundation in the late 1970’s.I told them I not only thought Barnes’ book
was difficult, I found Dewey’s Art as
Experience impossible to read when I started the classes, but no problem at
all when I completed them. I had little background
in art when I enrolled in the Barnes class.I could not follow the references to paintings I had never seen and were
not reproduced in the book.
Remember Thoreau’s words in Walden, I helpfully advised my students:“It is not all books that are as dull as
They did not find that helpful at all.
Neil Rudenstine, in his recent book The House of Barnes, further eroded my
case.He wrote, “Barnes’ theories have
long passed into virtual oblivion, and it is a rare day when anyone consults
his publications.” (p. 21)
Undaunted, in this post, I will once again make my
case for reading Dr. Barnes’ and Violette de Mazia’s books and essays to
appreciate the art in painting.
Let’s start there: the art in painting.Dr. Barnes very clearly defined his interest:
Not the history of art; not the world of art; not art; not the philosophy of art.The art in painting.Yes, he did argue theories.He did his homework of past and current
theories about art, and he rejected those he could not apply to his
When I teach the objective method to children, I
tell them to read what is on the flat surface called a picture.And what is on the flat surface called a
picture are color, line, light, and space, arranged in a certain way, and
expressive of certain qualities. Not trees. Not figures. Not apples.In other words, since the medium of painting
is color, I teach them the language of color.A six year old can apply the method more easily than an adult, perhaps because a child has not yet been exposed to the headphones, the wall charts, or the
guides in museums telling the stories represented
in the pictures (See Learning
For example, when I showed a group of six-to-ten
year old children this painting by Vermeer, it only took a few seconds for one of them,
a six year old, to grasp the picture’s key idea:
Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis, The Hague
She said, “Everything first goes
across the picture, and then some little shapes go up into those bands.”(Click here to read the entire post: Dr.
If you read Dr. Barnes analysis of
this painting in The Art in Painting, he
verifies my student’s perception.He
wrote this about pattern in the picture: “A series of horizontal irregular
broad bands, counterbalanced by smaller vertical units, map out the general
framework.” (p. 452)
He goes on to say horizontal
elements extend across the picture.Starting
at the top, a band of darker clouds and two bands of lighter clouds alternates
with strips of blue.The area of
buildings-and-trees follows.The canal
and the reflections in it join the triangular bank in the foreground.
The clouds, my children noticed,
puff and curl across the sky, and move back in space. The row of
buildings-and-trees moves in and out. The gables, steeples, and towers have
much the same “up-ness” (their word) as the people and posts in the foreground.The reflections in the water carry this
vertical pattern to the area of the canal.
The horizontal bands each contrasts
with a subsequent band: the gray-white sky sets off the darker, more solid and
compact blue-red-green shapes in the center.These, in turn, contrast with the gray-brown water.And the water contrasts with the tan-yellow
bank in the foreground.
What intrigued my students the most
was the “bubbles” or, as Dr. Barnes calls them, “the internal pattern of light
within each color-area, sometimes amounting to a series of superposed spots,
rather than a change of hue.”
Contrast of light and dark is the
essential characteristic of this landscape as it is in the Dutch
tradition.You see this easily in the
contrasting bands, but you need to look more closely to see the remarkable
internal pattern in each area.
I repeat this story because it is
one of major reasons I am so adamant about the value of The Art in Painting.Dr.
Barnes may be cantankerous, argumentative, and wordy, but no one surpasses him
in seeing and describing the art in paintings.Violette de Mazia is his only equal, and in her 50 years of teaching
after his death, she recorded her perceptions in the Journal of the Barnes Foundation and Vistas.
Does this mean what they say about individual
paintings is all there is to say?
Not at all.
We each will, using objectively
verifiable language, perceive what we, at our level of ability, can see.Years later we may see more, or
differently.When I attended Penn State
as a 22-year-old graduate student majoring in English literature, my professor
tried valiantly to get my class interested in a passage in Ulysses by James Joyce.We
could not understand it, nor did we care.He finally said, “Read it again when you are 40.”And when I did, it made sense.Life experience helps.
Dr. Barnes understood this, so it is
unfair to complain, as Leo Stein did, that Barnes’ “scale of values points very
clearly in the direction of his own interest” but it would be “a great mistake
on the part of any student to direct his effort towards a similar vision” because
Barnes’ evaluations have “no validity” except in relation to his own experience.
(See Leo Stein, “The Art in Painting,” The
New Republic, December 2, 1925, pp. 56-57)
Dr. Barnes knew this.In the January 1926, Preface to the First
Edition, he wrote, “It is not presumed 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. Preference will always remain, but its existence is consistent with
a much higher degree of objective judgment than at present prevails.”
Furthermore, in my preparation for
my classes on the Venetian Tradition, I came across what Dr. Barnes wrote about
Titan’s ThePastoral Concert.
Dr. Barnes wrote (drum rolls please)
this is “one of the greatest achievements in the history of painting.” (p. 422)
Does this sound like something Dr.
Barnes would say?
He goes on to laud the colorful
space, the rhythms of color, line, space, mass, and light, and the mellow,
warm, all-pervasive golden glow that participates in the fluidity of all these
The composition, he says, is one of
color masses gracefully set and moving in colorful space.
“The charming Arcadian quality, the power,
majesty, peace, splendor, and deep mysticism conveyed, are legitimate values
because the attendant emotions are rationally anchored in the objective
features of the picture,” he concludes.
I saw this analysis for the first
time last week, and I laughed because I did not expect it.
And it is this surprise that, for me
at least, brushes away most of the criticism of Dr. Barnes’ achievement.
He was human, not perfect.
He pioneered an objective method
that could reveal the art in painting. Violette de Mazia developed his
findings, formalized them, and continued his work, as did Angelo Pinto, Harry
Sefarbi, and Barton Church, the Violette de Mazia Foundation and all its
teachers, and many others who have had their lives enriched by Dr. Barnes’
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.
This statement reassured me as I began to write this post.
I read a review in the January 25, 2015 Sunday News Journal of Jamie Wyeth’s retrospective exhibit I first saw at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in December, and then recently visited again at the Brandywine River Museum.
In the review, Betsy Price quoted Wyeth saying several things: (1) “He doesn’t enjoy the shows. When he walks through, he says, ‘All the inadequacies jump out at me;’” (2) “He is aware his work is ‘scattered’ stylistically and thematically, ‘almost like a group show;’” (3) “My work is all over the place,…I don’t know if that is a good thing,” Wyeth told her. (p. F3)
I liked him. How could I not. He said what I thought.
I attended the exhibit at the MFA accompanied by my 4-year-old granddaughter. She enjoyed the “flying” pumpkins, her description of the painting The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine:
She also enjoyed his paintings
of animals and birds.
I felt less impressed.
After my MFA visit, I agreed with the review by Sebastian
Smee published in the Boston Globe: “Wyeth, who has just turned 68, can paint. He can
draw. He has lived an interesting and impressive life. But what’s missing from
this show, which covers six decades and is made up of more than 100 oils,
watercolors, drawings, and even a couple of humorous tableaux vivant, is a
sense that it all adds up to something original — something that goes beyond
the frisson of family gossip, the sentimentality of a compelling life story, or
the romance of a storied place.Too
often, in place of the deep-down conviction that marks out exceptional artists,
Wyeth gives us an awkward amalgam of capability and whim. It’s not quite
enough.” (July 17, 2014)
I said this, one way or
another, to anyone who asked me what I thought.
However, when I visited the
exhibit again in Chadds Ford, I felt surprisingly confused and captivated at
the same time.Something about some of
the paintings’ qualities of distorted space, drama, power, and luminosity attracted
me.Then one painting grabbed me like a
leech and would not let go.
That painting, Sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins
series, haunted me, and I knew I had to figure out why.
At this point, I ignored the
“title.”I stopped thinking about
everything I had already read.The time
had come for me to start seeing for myself whether there was art in this
picture, and if so, describe it.If I
changed my mind about Wyeth’s work, so be it.
Memory kicked in, and Titian’s
The Assumption of the Virgin popped
This is it:
of the Virgin, 1516-18, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
According to Dr. Barnes,
this painting “illustrates a successful solution, on a large scale, of complex
plastic problems.” (The Art in Painting, p.
Notice, Dr. Barnes is
talking about the solution of plastic problems.Yes, the painting illustrates the assumption of the Virgin into
Heaven.It does so, to go back to
basics, orchestrating light, line, color, and space on a flat surface.
In Titian’s painting, Dr.
Barnes argues, “The framework of the composition consists in a grouping of
figures at three different levels.Each
group greatly varies from the others in number and character of the masses, in
degree and kind of drama, in compositional form of organization, and in
pattern, color, light, and line.These
greatly varied elements, which give a distinctive identity to each group, are
rhythmically related to each other with the result that a continuous and
powerful upward rhythm of plastic units casts a bridge between the separate
groups and integrates the entire design.”
I saw connections to
In Sloth, the bright, white color unit in the foreground plane
establishes a soft but solid massive base behind which horizontal rippling bands
of black, tan, beige, green, and light blue, recede in space while also ascend
Here is a cropped enlargement
of that section:
Notice the repetition of
arc-shaped lines that both describe “feathers” and continue the rhythmic
theme.Notice the two luminous red “bubbles”
under the “bird’s” beak, and their repetitions along the painting’s edge. Notice
the richness of the blacks behind the foreground unit and the contrast of those
blacks with the stunning lightness of the whites, greens, and golds defining
the “bird.” Notice the thick, arc-shaped black band pressed to the “bird’s
chest,” the wide, diagonal, black band projecting forward under his “chest,”
and the wedge-shaped black unit book ended to the “bird’s bottom”—essentially stabilizing
the entire color unit.Notice the
flickering, eerie light on the edges of the “bird’s feathers.”Notice the crenelated edges of those lighter
Floating above this
foreground color volume and the rippling bands, a semi-circular cradle holds a
series of overlapping, vertically surging in-and-out movements of arabesque
volumes that rhythmically ascend to the top of the composition while, at the
same time, recede into space.
Here is a cropped
enlargement of that section:
“Wings” set up a series of
repetitions of dark-black and light-white arabesques with crenelated edges
moving back and front as they also recede into deep space. On the left, right,
and center, nestled in the crowded recesses of the “birds’ heads,” orange,
pink, tan, and green jagged linear ribbons hang in space. The linear ribbons on
the right are further back in space than those in the center or on the left. Jutting
out on the left, a shiny, fleshy, solid “leg” hangs in space consolidating the
warm pinks, reds, browns, and tan curlicue lines into an angled volume.This unit links the relatively serene lower
section to the upward tangle of agitated movement above.
The entire composition
ultimately does not feel claustrophobic because of the depth of space
orchestrated.Examine this detail at the
top right of center:
This small area rhythmically
repeats the theme of the picture: a drama of rich, glowing color volumes
interacting in a series of arabesques moving upwards and in-and-out in deep,
Unlike the Titian, Wyeth’s
picture contrasts immobility with movement, or sloth with energy.Like the Titian with its numerous arms, legs,
wings, bodies, heads, and clouds intertwined in all directions, the Wyeth color
units also move backward and decidedly upward.
Jamie Wyeth’s painting
originates from his life experience as well as his prodigious skill and
talent.He knows sea gulls and coastal
Maine.He derives his subject facts from
his acute perception of a landscape that speaks to him in the same way as
Titian derived his subject facts from his acute perception of 16th
century Venetian pomp, pageantry, and religious fervor.In this painting, Wyeth demonstrates his
ability to orchestrate one of the Seven Deadly Sins into a convincing plastic
composition of drama, power, and movement.
I do not assume
artist-illustrators lack “deep conviction,” as Smee declared in his Boston Globe review. In this painting, Wyeth’s plastic ideas hark
back to both Bosch and Brueghel.Like
Bosch, Wyeth sometimes portrays grotesque scenes, like the “birds” tearing
apart and devouring a “human body” in the center of his composition, a subject
fact less gruesome than many in Bosch’s Garden
of Earthly Delights or in Brueghel’s The
Fall of the Rebel Angels:
Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1604,
Pieter Brueghel I, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Musées royaux des
beaux-arts de Belgique
Like those paintings,
Wyeth’s dramatic, powerfully animated composition in which he uses sea gulls as
subject facts to illustrate “sloth,” is as plastically legitimate as Bosch’s and
Brueghel’s weird inventions, not because he does what they did, but because he
orchestrates his actively moving color units into a well-integrated expressive
design.Combined with the remarkable
luminosity of his unique color, he gives us something new.
“Something new” means we
are appreciating the work of an artist.
Viewers of works of art are
not always consistent in their reactions to, or their judgments of, them.
Like artists, art
appreciators learn and absorb new visual information, deepening and enriching
their perceptions.Based on their enhanced
sensitivity, they modify their conclusions.Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged this bigness of mind, and I hope that is
as motivating for you as it was for me.