Sunday, October 12, 2014
Recently, I attended a talk about the traditions in Harry Sefarbi’s work given by the Violette de Mazia Foundation’s Director of Education Bill Perthes. The Wayne Art Center currently has Sefarbi’s work on exhibit, and Bill provided a thorough, interesting, and informative look at several of the paintings on display to illustrate how, as he put it, “Qualities and elements from the great traditions of painting unconsciously found their way back into [Sefarbi’s] pictures, reimagined and reinvented.” (See “Harry Sefarbi: Artist and Teacher,” by clicking here: Harry Sefarbi).
At some point between the talk and the next morning, I connected the Maurice Prendergast class I will teach at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in several days and what Bill said about stacked space in Sefarbi’s and Prendergast’s work.
Here is the Prendergast painting:
Maurice Prendergast, Central Park, c. 1914-15, Met
Here is the Sefarbi painting in the exhibit:
Sefarbi, Untitled 1, 2007, Oil on panel
Now the hard work began, and since I have been writing about how hard it can be and how time consuming it is to uncover the art in a painting, I wondered why I felt both excited to do it and afraid to do it in equal measure.
Those conflicted feelings accompany this work, but I forge ahead because I learn new ways of seeing, or what I have called Informed Perception, and what Violette de Mazia called Learning to See. Quite literally, paintings teach me to perceive ordinary, everyday visual experience in new and interesting ways. Paintings educate my vision. In my previous post (Re-molding Visual Reality to Our Heart’s Desire), Dr. Barnes described his experience this way: “paintings stretch to the beholder’s personal vision which they progressively develop.” In other words, we see more in paintings if our personal vision increases, and our personal vision increases because we see more in the works of art.
Let’s look at the Prendergast first:
Horizontal bands interwoven with vertical curvilinear rich color shapes provide the framework for a crowded orchestration of in and out movement in shallow space. The lower, narrow, green band, followed by the wider, creamy white one, followed by the wider still yellow-green band, culminates in the barely visible blue-white band. The vertical units seem pasted to each background band, but the figures, horses, tree trunks, and buggy wheels move forward enough to act as repoussoir units creating a slight depth of space.
The canopy of foliage at the top, constructed of small, rectilinear dabs of overlapping color units assist the space recession of the carriages, horses, and figures peeking through the pockets of space divided by the purple tree trunks.
If you have trouble seeing this, examine this detail:
Now examine this detail of the lower section of the painting:
Figures, horses, and carriages are set in multiple positions: figures walk both left and right, stand, sit, and ride in carriages; horses move from right to left then turn slightly upwards at the left of the canvas as another horse and rider enters and moves to the right.
In one color unit, the lines demarcating the bench slats run over the figure giving it a vaporous quality.
A variety of line binds and sets off each color unit. In places, it is thin and broken; in other places, it is wide and sinewy. In all cases, the line rhythmically continues and enhances this painting’s theme: a curvilinear procession of glowing, vivid, color units moving through a stacked backdrop of banded shallow space that expresses the pageantry of New Yorkers enjoying Central Park on a sunny day.
Did you catch that phrase: stacked backdrop?
Now look at Sefarbi’s painting:
In this picture, seven stacked horizontal bands set off groupings of vertical, flattened, sometimes elongated and sometimes boxy, muted color shapes seemingly pasted to a band, slipped into it, or bobbing in front of it. The top band suggesting gray sky, and the rippling sallow green band suggesting the ocean, set off tiny “pebbly” blobs of peachy ochre interspersed with touches of red and cerulean blue suggesting people cavorting in the surf.
Here is a detail of the top bands:
Sefarbi’s deft touches of tiny dabs of peachy ochre fully express the frolicking movement of individual people and small groups of people, an expressively decorative essence of a sunny day at the beach.
That said, what do you make of the band to the left?
Here is the painting again:
At first, it made no sense to me. I could see the horizontal divisions of the picture continue through it, and I enjoyed the lower diagonal “family group” sliding into it from the “beach” area. But I could not see how those stacked tiny curly car shapes fit the theme. Yes, they repeated with variety colors from the main section of the picture and, yes, they indicated a parking lot with parked cars adjacent to the beach area, but the scale seemed odd and distracting rather than purposeful.
Here is that vertical band by itself:
No matter how long I looked at it, I could not justify it.
I felt frustrated. I thought of ending this post here, uploading it to my blog, and asking you to email to me your experience with this painting.
Then, as often happens, I began to see.
My analysis so far verified Sefarbi’s ability to achieve space recession without lineal perspective, something he adapted from Prendergast and from the Flemish Tradition, the stacked space seen in Van Eyck’s Last Judgment, in which each figure grouping is viewed head on in its own vertically oriented band of space:
Jan van Eyck, The Last Judgment, 1430, Met
As in Sefarbi’s painting, we perceive deep space in the left panel because the shapes get smaller and smaller and the color gets bluer and bluer toward the top of the painting.
Below is another helpful Prendergast painting:
Maurice Prendergast, The Beach “No. 3,” c. 1914-15, Barnes
Look closely so you can see the weaving of the horizontal background bands to the figures. The line suggesting the edge of the beach as it meets the “water,” and the lines suggesting the ripples of water attach to the figures at elbows, dress folds, bathing suit patterns, and feet. The groupings of figures, sit, bend, play, and stroll in tightly knit groups.
Look even more closely at these cropped sections of the top and bottom bands:
Prendergast transformed what were rocks on a beach into a series of coiled color shapes that make their way across the lower band of the picture and get smaller and smaller as they reach the left side.
Prendergast transformed what were clouds in the sky into a series of pebbly, sparkling dabs of color to close off the space recession at the top and rhythmically repeat the pattern at the bottom.
Rocks on a beach, cars in a parking lot: Sefarbi transforms the subject facts of his experience into a series of coiled, lumpy, blobby color shapes that ascend to the upper section of his painting. His coiled, wiggling, color units saying cars build a visually convincing vertical movement each seen at eye level just as do the leaning, tilting, reclining, sitting figures.
Here is the Sefarbi painting again:
Look at it now.
If you are like me, you can now enjoy the vertical, gleaming golden bands filling each horizontal one. You can enjoy the rich, luminous pinks, spots of red, deep blacks, and shiny grays. The “reclining” figures at the right of the middle band look like a heap of beads, and reminiscent of Matisse’s bronze sculptures of 1907 minus their bulk, their clumped variegated dots, arcs, and squares of color shapes, reinforce and repeat ones seen in every other figure and car.
In addition, the leaning “family group” of color units on the bottom left are sandwiched between the “beach bands” and the “car bands,” just as “figures” and “figure groups” in the “beach bands” settle in a band, or link several bands together, or project out from a band, establishing a back and forth, in and out, up and down rhythm to the entire picture.
The idea that had escaped me is really quite simple and ingenious: a rhythmic movement of color-areas and patterns incorporated within a continuous succession of horizontal, glowing, color bands leads the eye back and forth from one part of the picture to another.
When I reached this point in my exploration, I felt satisfied. More than satisfied, I felt exhilarated. I looked at this painting as though seeing it for the first time and wondered why I took so long to get here.
Even better, the rewards kept coming.
A few days ago, the New York Times featured a story on its front page, “As Apprentices in Classrooms, Teachers Learn What Work.”
I spotted this photo:
New York Times, 10/11/14, Page 1, Photo by Jim Wilson
It arrived like a gift, just when I could appreciate it. Notice the odd perspective created by the camera positioned above the seated children. Notice the tilted rectilinear “desktops” moving upward and to the right with the rounded heads and shoulders of the seated children popping up at right angles. Notice the brightly patterned and colorful “mat” on the floor on the right side, its irregular and colorful “state” patterns moving upward and to the left. Notice the binders on the rectilinear desktops rising upwards in space creating boxy shapes in which the rectilinear white papers, tilted and turned, continue the patterns in space.
Think about whether you would have noticed this photograph or enjoyed its qualities so much if you had not experienced Sefarbi’s painting.
Earlier today, I went to a lecture held in the Comcast Auditorium of the Barnes Foundation. While I listened to the speaker, I found myself studying the rectilinear backs of the seats as they moved toward the front of the auditorium with the rounded “heads” and coiled shoulders of their sitters creating patterns and colorful groupings between them.
I would not have noticed that before I struggled with this post.
And that is the surprise of the new.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
In my last post, “The Fault Is Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves,” I asked you to let me know how you felt about doing objective aesthetic analysis.
Many of you did let me know. You confirmed what I suspected: you resist doing it because it is hard and takes a lot of time and effort.
You said you had to spend many hours looking at works of art to figure out their aesthetic content. Often, you just don’t feel like doing that.
I argued we do it, even if it is difficult and time consuming, because it helps us uncover the art in painting, and applying the objective method is still the only way to appreciate aesthetic meaning in a picture.
In this post, however, I am adding something I have never said before and you may not believe: we also do it for the fun of it, and I do not use the word “fun” to imply something trivial. I believe it is fun to remake the world as we would like it to be, and that is what artists do and what we do when we experience their work.
Many of us think of Dr. Barnes as serious, ponderous, belligerent, or argumentative. We do not think of him as lighthearted or humorous. Long ago he wrote an essay, “How to Judge a Painting,” published in the April 1915 edition of Arts and Decoration (pp. 217-220; 246-250).
Check the date: 1915. That’s almost 100 years ago.
In it, he explains his joy of collecting. What are some of its pleasures? He wrote:
The least is the mere possession, the best, the joy that one can feel but not express to others; between these two extremes are pleasures that can be compared to the notes of a piano, limited in what can be produced only by the performer’s skill and knowledge. Good paintings are more satisfying companions than the best of books and infinitely more so than most very nice people. I can talk, without speaking, to Cezanne, Prendergast, Daumier, Renoir, and they talk to me in kind. I can criticize them and take, without offense, the refutation which comes silently but powerfully when I learn, months later, what they mean and not what I thought they meant. That is one of the joys of a collection, the elasticity with which paintings stretch to the beholder’s personal vision which they progressively develop. And that is portionate to what a man thinks he sees in it (p. 248).
I quote Dr. Barnes as affirmation of our struggle to confront paintings and wrestle from them what they are trying to show us.
I also quote him because, at first, when he started to purchase paintings and build his collection, he did not know how to talk to or listen to paintings nor did he possess an education in art appreciation. Dr. Richard Wattenmaker’s book, American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, documents and describes Dr. Barnes’s relationships with artists he befriended: Glackens, Hartley, Maurer, Demuth, among others. He asked them questions; they suggested to him the work of artists they thought were creative; he looked, and questioned, and studied, and listened. He read books on art appreciation and found most of them useless, but others helpful. And he looked some more. Slowly, he began to develop a sensible way to evaluate creative achievement, and he credited his frequent association with his life-long friend Glackens, “who combines greatness as an artist with a big man’s mind,” as his most valuable single educational factor. (p. 248)
Then he wrote books so we could apply the insights and tools he invented. During his lifetime, he changed his mind about some of his conclusions, and he deepened and enriched his ability to see and describe his discoveries.
All the while, he enjoyed himself immensely.
Recently, I showed a book to my daughter, a book I loved as a child, and one I wanted her to treasure and not discard some day in the future when she “cleaned out” my possessions as she just did for her grandfather. An eleventh century Persian mathematician wrote original rhymes (literally rubá-i or rubáiyát, a collection of rhymes). His name was Ghiyáthuddin Abulfath Omar bin Ibráhim al-Khayyámi—or, Omar, son of Abraham, the tent-maker.
We know his rhymes as the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. When I was about 7 years old, my mother showed me the illustrations in this book and, to this day, I remember them. A thirty-one year old artist, Mahmoud Sayah, illustrated the edition she had, a reprint of the First Edition, published by Random House in 1947.
The 73rd stanza goes like this:
Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
Artists do this. They remold the world and bring it closer to their heart’s desire.
And we do this too. By examining works of art, we bring them closer to our heart’s desire. As Dr. Barnes wrote, the work of art stretches to our personal vision, and it is the work of art, every step of the way, informing, developing, and stretching our personal vision. Our skill and knowledge allows us to share our discoveries as best we can.
Today, therefore, I will share with you two paintings I have been studying. To be honest, not studying so much as researching whether Demuth actually saw the following Pascin picture before he painted Interior with Group of People around Red-Headed Woman:
Pascin, Cuban Hospitality, 1915, Oil on canvas, Barnes
Here is the Demuth:
Demuth, Interior with Group of People around Red-Headed Woman, 1919, Watercolor and graphite on wove paper, Barnes
At first glance, I saw striking similarities in the subjects, the color schemes, and the compositions.
I have scoured Dr. Wattenmaker’s writings on both Pascin and Demuth; I have scrutinized every footnote. Yes, Demuth knew and borrowed visual ideas from Pascin, but these two pictures suggest he might have set out deliberately to use Pascin’s Cuban Hospitality as a starting point.
Research did not verify my suspicions. A librarian at the Barnes Foundation told me the1915 Pascin was acquired by Dr. Barnes in 1921. The Demuth, painted in 1919, does not have an acquisition date. If Demuth saw this Pascin painting before it reached the Foundation in 1921, Pascin would have had to show it to him since there are no other references listed for it before a 1921 exhibition—the same year it was acquisitioned by Dr. Barnes.
Today, I finally decided to get to know both paintings and let the paintings talk to me. Once I made this decision, I felt that mixture of excitement and fear that attends every objective exploration I have done.
I thought, “I can’t do this; I don’t feel like doing this; I do not know enough to do this well?”
Courage does not imply fearlessness. A courageous person feels fear and goes ahead anyway. Rollo May wrote a book about this, The Courage to Create.
Knowing that encouraged me to go to work.
Here are two cropped and enlarged details from each painting:
The center-right of the Pascin oil shows warm chocolate brown, ochre, and orangey tans contrasted with cool blues, greens, and lavenders. The curvy, loose outlines, made up of arcs and arabesques, occur within and outside of the color volumes. The lines are various hues of brown, blue, and black, as well as crisp, broken, and rhythmic, creating an active sense of movement.
The soft, pillow-like, shimmering color volumes, including the background spaces between the figures and hugging the small green bottle in the lower center, move from left to right. If you look back at the entire painting, you will see how every unit actively pulses, and every line and volume swirls in animated motion. Dr. Barnes argues each “unit in [this] canvas is alive, and so, thanks to the pervasive, delicate, graceful rhythms, is the composition as a whole.” (The Art in Painting, p. 376).
The enlarged section of the 1919 Demuth watercolor exhibits deep, luminous black and grays contrasted with ivory and ochre. The orangery tans are similar to the Pascin. I felt surprised when I realized the similarities ended there. Demuth’s figures are set against a rhythmic background of repeated linear strokes. The cucumber-like leg extended diagonally right sets off a series of angular, delicate, upward moving geometric planes derived from Cézanne, but with greater fluidity and lightness. Individual facial expressions and gestures rather than generalized movement become the keynote: the reclining man’s right hand holding a card; his left hand bent at the wrist fingers bent under creating an open C-shape of space; the redheaded woman caught in a moment of surprise or anger holding the glass, her hand wrapped around it like soft dough; the black-haired woman, mouth wide open in a C, nose pointed, her profile echoing the dark/light contrast of the angular C shape and the object’s pointedness in the man’s left hand. At the same time, the tip of his knee repeats the triangle of her nose.
Here are both pictures upside down:
As I now look at these paintings, I wonder why I felt they had so much in common. Yes, both are crowded with figures and backed by a rectilinear screen that divides the spatial areas. Yes, both have an overall color scheme of brown, ochre, and tan. The luminous color units overlap, their linear boundaries are loose and undulating, and the linear patterns repeat, creating motifs of their expressive and/or decorative design.
Individually, the differences are striking. The impact of the Pascin is a series of circular color shapes with sinewy, undulating, verticals rising from them—all blocked by the diagonal greenish screen on which the semicircular bands repeat.
The Demuth is a semicircle of dark/light color units that move in front of the rectilinear wall (now on the right) and behind it (now on the left). At the (now) top, chair rails form tube-shaped cages, a big head looming forward on the right, and a smaller head moving backward on the left. These intricate color units set up all the relationships of the orchestrated planes in space.
The figures finally settled the matter.
Examine these cropped and enlarged sections of both paintings:
In the Pascin, the figure is a solid, three-dimensional volume ruggedly constructed with bands and patches of deep, rich, brown, tan, and cool gray, and outlined with sometimes delicate and sketchy lines and sometimes thick and heavy ones. The resultant volume is heavier in weight than Demuth’s.
In the Demuth, the figure is softly rounded, delineated with graceful curvilinear lines, and mottled, lightly applied, washes of color. The resulting volume has, according to Dr. Wattenmaker, a “luminous, atmospheric shimmer that heightens the drama.” (American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 261). A series of lines applied in sections of the volume and surrounding it repeat motifs occurring throughout the picture.
Laurence Buermeyer wrote in The Aesthetic Experience that the “story of fine art is only half told when we have said that is expression, and expression more complete than the conditions of ordinary living allow. To finish the story we must add that it is expression in a medium of sense.” (p. 85) When the purpose of an artist’s work is grasped and understood, we feel consoled, and this is what art offers “for our relatively infirm hold on the real world,” he said.
In that 1915 article, here is what Dr. Barnes wrote about the negative criticism Glackens’ work received in the Armory Exhibit of 1913, illustrating, at the same time, his understanding of how visual ideas evolve:
Manet’s spirit says to the Glackens, “You put your paint on like a painter”; Renoir chimes in, “You have bettered my skill in making figures merge with the landscape”: Monet adds, “Your sunshine, play of light and color, atmosphere, make you my rival”; Degas’s grunts, “Humph-he-ha, fine drawing that.” (p. 246)
Spot on, as the Brits say, and fun.
Monday, August 4, 2014
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 Cézanne’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.