Thursday, August 20, 2015

To See, or Not to See

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

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

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

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

I have William Glackens to thank.

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

This post will describe just how this worked for me.

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

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

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

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

Glackens, The Little Pier, c. 1915, Barnes

Glackens, The Raft, 1915, Barnes

Glackens, At the Beach, 1918, Newark Art Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now look at this diagram of The Raft:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Way I See It

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

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

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

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

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

This is the painting:

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

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

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

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

“Why?”  Ed asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress.

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

What did Pippin see?  

His paintings answer this question.

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

Examine the painting below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examine the following detail:

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

Now examine this detail:

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

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

Examine this detail:

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

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

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

All artists do this.  

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

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

Like this:

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

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

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

That’s the way I see it.

And so can you.

Friday, April 10, 2015

To Be or Not to Be Cantankerous

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 objective method.

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 their readers.”

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 interest.  

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 to See).  

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. Barnes’ Vermeer)

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.”

I agree.

Furthermore, in my preparation for my classes on the Venetian Tradition, I came across what Dr. Barnes wrote about Titan’s The Pastoral Concert.

Here it is:

Titian, The Pastoral Concert, 1508-09, oil-canvas, Louvre

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 rhythmic relationships. 

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’ experiment.