Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

This statement reassured me as I began to write this post.

Here’s why.

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:

Jamie Wyeth, The Headlands of Monhegan Island, Maine, 2007, Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

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.

Here it is:

Jamie Wyeth, Sloth (The Seven Deadly Sins), 2008, Oil on canvas, Wyeth Collection, ©Jamie Wyeth

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 up.

This is it:

          Titian, Assumption 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. 429)

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 Wyeth’s painting.

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 vertically.

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 “feathers.” 

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, expansive space. 

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, Prado

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. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Shut Up and Look

Long ago, when I was a painting student of Edward L. Loper, Sr., I described to him conflicting feelings I had about my work. 

“One day,” I said, “I love what I am doing, and I think I am God’s Gift.”  God’s Gift was a term he often applied to himself when he was particularly pleased with his work.

“The next day,” I continued, “I work on the same painting, and I think it’s terrible, and I am stupid, and I will never paint worth a damn.”

He laughed.

He told me I was attaching my own variable moods to the silent object we call a painting, and those moods have nothing to do with the painting.

His advice: “Shut-up and paint!”

In fact, his students heard “Shut-up and paint” so often to any complaints they made, they designed tee shirts with this instruction on their front. 

I tell you this because recently I visited an exhibit of Harry Sefarbi’s work, and I fell in love with one of his paintings (see Putting it Together for a description of Sefarbi’s career and an analysis of the first painting of his I purchased).  I loved it so much, I purchased it, and I waited eagerly for the show to close so I could bring it home.

When I finally hung it on my living room wall, and I looked at it, I thought, “I don’t like this painting.  Why did I buy it?  I don’t see anything in it that makes sense.  Is that a window?  What is the nude woman holding?  A baby? A cloth? What is the man doing?  Where is he?”

This went on not for days, but weeks.

Then I remembered what I had to do:  Shut up and look.

Here is the painting:

Sefarbi, Gentleman Caller: By the Sea, 1963

You probably remember, not too long ago, I felt stymied by another of Sefarbi’s paintings in this same exhibit.  (See The Surprise of the New).

This time, however, the subject facts coupled with the title muddled my seeing. I looked for the gentleman caller because the title refers to him. I looked for the sea for the same reason. Since the title indicated a relationship between the gentleman caller and the nude woman and both were involved somehow in a seaside setting, I could not get past all this information and see the picture.

Once I turned the canvas upside down, my work could begin.

Here it is:

Upside down, a central trapezoid angled to the right pushes its left side into the frontal plane of the picture.  The “peachy” right edge of the trapezoid recedes as the “light-blue” edge pushes forward.  Now on the left side of the picture, half of a triangle pulls to the left while on it two dome-like shapes, one gold and one pink edged in cerulean, move on an upward angle.  They join a rich green band that “almost” slides over the “leg” of the trapezoid, and links to a cool blue and gold band inside it on the same spatial plane.  This band pierces a blue/black mass pointing like a finger in the opposite direction.  The entire color unit saying “sea” slides under the right side of the trapezoid.

Here is that section cropped and enlarged:


Now examine the central trapezoid.  Within its borders, a sideways broken triangle of deep greens, cool blues, and blue-blacks edged by a border of pulled gold bands and dabs separates the internal bottom light blue trapezoid from the top ochre one.  The top ochre trapezoid, edged in strips of gold bands contains, on its top left, a boxy shape of cool blue edged in gold, and the entire unit recedes to the right.  The strip of cool blue/green of that boxy shape immediately connects it to the cool blue-green strips in the central unit of “sea” that divides the space.  The bottom blue trapezoid of “sky” neither leans to the right or the left but simply flattens in the frontal plane. A slightly darker adjacent color band to the right “leg” of the trapezoid cause the ochre area saying “beach” and the blue area saying “sky” to recede.  However, where that color band goes over the blue/black unit, it causes it to slide behind it. 

These are clues, albeit complicated ones.

Still upside down, now on the right side, a series of crusty, thick, pulled pinks, oranges, lavenders, and ochres, layered, angled, and smooth build ovoid volumes: (1) the “woman’s head” resembles a soft pocket containing ochre slabs; (2) the upper “body,” like a bowl tilted on its side and seen from above, is balanced on the “neck” and contains lavender and peach triangles of color; (3) the lower “body” swerves upward to the right like a Modigliani elongated torso with its arm bent back. These soft, pulled, rich, sensuously appealing color shapes within their inverted trapezoid border are held in place by a pointed peachy band that overlaps the right edge of their border. 

Here is that section cropped and enlarged:

Upside down, next to the half-triangle on the left, is an inverted triangle containing a coiled series of diagonal and dramatic zigzag strokes of orange and yellow bands that spew forth an elongated column-like series of golds, pinks, and oranges ending with a black dome that pulls to the right.  Boxy or triangular, green, thinly applied color backs this area punctuated by a glowing orange blob.

Here is that section cropped and enlarged:

Notice how the rich viridian triangle defining the “man’s shoulder” as well as the light blue/gray triangle below it moves under the trapezoid’s edge and emerges as the “sea” within its frame. 

This left side rhythmically repeats the right side by the repetition of the zigzag orange/gold bands that slide behind the lower “body” of the “woman,” become “her” hair at the bottom, and echo the seven horizontal red/gold stripes on “her” right—all sections of the same “towel/rug.” 

Like this:


Let’s look at it right side up again:

Bill Perthes, in an essay titled  Harry Sefarbi: Artist and Teacher,” wrote:  “Each picture is an opportunity for discovery. Nonetheless, no matter what he painted, his work is rooted in color: color directly applied, usually with discernable brushstrokes; color that is intermixed, whether applied wet-on-wet, scumbled, color-chorded, or glazed, creating variety in depth, richness, and texture; limited picture space, often narrow or shallow, yet which rarely feels cramped or confining; a sense of light inseparable from color itself with little need for a directional light source; shallow volumes of structural color – color that forms dimensionality independent of light/shadow modeling – even when color is thinly applied or translucent; and a unfailing sense of wit and humor whether in the subjects he chose – a small man in a dark suit and tie perched atop the shoulders of a large seated redheaded woman in a bright red dress – or through the means used to construct a subject – small interlocking compartments of solid to semi-opaque rich, luminous reds set off by contrasting acidic green color lines. Neither the subject itself nor the colors used to create it are conventional. All the same, each supports the other creating a humorous, unexpected effect.”

Once I got this far, I started to see other connections.

For example, I remembered the Ghent Altarpiece:

Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Notice the greens and reds for starters.  Then notice the geometric compartments within which the “stories” unfold.  Then notice the sizes of the figures, particularly the nude figures on the left and the right in comparison to all the other figures.  Pay special attention to Eve and her very round belly.

Similar features define the following Flemish painting: 

Master of Flemalle,  Robert Campin,  The Annunciation Triptych,  1425, The Cloisters, Met

This triptych provides clues to Sefarbi’s painting: a large kneeling figure in the left panel, the donor, looks into a room from outside; while space is shallow and compressed in the left panel, it opens into a relatively deeper space in the central panel; the third panel includes a “window” device opening up an even deeper space recession.

In both the van Eyck and the Campin paintings, however, the compartments in them enclose the “stories” within them.  Sefarbi’s compartments don’t.

How, then, I wondered, do I reconcile the subject facts in Sefarbi’s painting with the qualities expressed? 

I reexamined the Sefarbi painting.

In all of Sefarbi’s work, the “gentleman” theme usually involves courtship or rendezvous.  He often is dressed in a jacket and tie and wears a hat.  He often seems to be arriving or waiting.

In this picture, he emerges like a “Jack in a Box” above a coiled spring.  His post-like neck and head paste to his deep viridian jacket and are topped by a “hat,” part blackish dome pointing to the left and part green brim connecting to the shoreline out the trapezoid “window” to the left and the rocky shoreline pushing forward on the sliced inverted triangle to the right.  The “gentleman” figure is tucked in a shallow space behind the zigzag spring-like “carpet” or “beach towel,” the “shoreline,” and the washy cool-green triangle behind him, neither inside nor outside, but both.

Like a voyeur, he watches the “nude woman.”

Examine his “head”:

Dabs of glowing red/orange indicate nose and mouth; pink strips indicate eye and cheek; squiggles of light tan suggest a beard; a glowing dab of red/orange a boutonniere.  Ultimately, however, each color dab or line or squiggle moves slightly forward in a confined space.  His “neck,” “head,” and “hat,” are rimmed in gold, echoing the gold scumbled paint of the “rug/towel,” and the “coastline.”

On the left side, the “red-headed, nude woman,” her back to him, stands in front of a “mirror.”

Notice the zigzag pattern of her “body.”  Notice the projecting angled “belly.”  Notice the horizontally “slashed” pulled color suggesting facial features.  Notice how longer, diagonally “slashed” pulled color define the arm, the flattened buttock, and the leg.  Notice how the entire color shape fills the space in which it is set, with space receding to the left washy cool blue-green rectangle of “window,” the seven red/gold bands continuing the “rug/towel” pattern below it, the deep green to its right, and the zigzag red/ochre bands to its bottom right.  The “nude woman,” filling the left side of the picture space, pushes forward in space at the same time the “gentleman caller” literally pops up, smaller, and tucked back in space, like Poseidon emerging from the sea. 

Except—“he” is both emerging from the sea and in the “room” as well.  Except—the green “wall” behind the “woman” also backs “him.”  Except—at the same time, the far bank of the “sea” also runs behind him and emerges at the top of the far right inverted triangle.  Except—that inverted triangle is on the same spatial plane as the brown interior “floor” covered with the decorative zigzag “towel” or “rug.”

At this point, my adventure felt challenging and revealing.  And I was laughing.

Sefarbi’s painting moved me aesthetically on many fronts: an ingenious play on traditions; the unique appeal of his color; the intricacy of spatial relationships; an unnerving disregard for the expected: inside and outside juxtaposed to create rhythmic connections; subject facts contorted to amuse, not shock.  

What’s the visual idea?

If Sefarbi titled this painting “Zigzag Ribbons of Luminous Color in Unexpected Spaces” or “Swinging Spaces” would it change anything?   How about “Homage to Magritte: This is Not a Woman, a Man, or a View of the Sea”? 

Now that I look at the painting again, I am leaning toward “Swinging Spaces.”  Look at it again, and notice how the “swing shaped” central trapezoid causes the “woman” on the left to push forward in a deep space while the “man” on the right slides backwards in a shallow space, and the inverted triangle on the right and the edges of the “mirror” on the left frame and contain both sides. 

Try this.  Send me your suggested titles, and I will make a list and email it to you.  Click here to send me an email:  Marilyn’s email.

My aesthetic adventure proceeded the way objective discovery always does, slowly,  guided by my interest, the clues in the picture, and the tools I employed to facilitate the work.  I “played” the aesthetic appreciation game, and I experienced the visual impact of this painting as best I could.     

I hope you do too.

Sefarbi’s rules of engagement are direct and simple.  At the conclusion of his essay “The Clue to Klee,” he wrote, “You must investigate the traditions, and sharpen your perception. Or you can’t play.” (in The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department,  Spring 1972, Vol. III, No. 1, p. 42)