Friday, December 24, 2010

Time Out

You now possess all the tools necessary to uncover the art in art.

Mastery takes practice, practice, and more practice.

During late December and through January, I suggest you visit at least one museum.  Bring someone with you.  Do not accept the offered headphones. 

Try this instead: go through one of the exhibits I list in this post.  Go through it quickly. Briefly look at all the work exhibited.  Take notes.  Jot down your reaction, if you have one, to any of the pictures in the exhibit.  Don’t obsess over this.  Here is a possible set of notes:

1.     I hate it.
2.     I love it.
3.     YIKES! What is that about?

Include next to each entry the title and/or the number of the picture so you can find it again.

After you have visited the entire exhibit, select from your notes one or two pictures you really want to get to know.  You may have hated or loved the picture.  That does not matter.  Your goal is to get to know why you hated it or why you loved it.  You want to know what, in the picture, elicited that reaction. 

Then return to each of them, use the tools you have learned, and look at each of them carefully.  This will take some time and a lot of effort.  If you have brought a companion with you, explain to him/her what you see.  Involve him/her in the process.  Again, take notes.

After scrutinizing at least two works, and if you still have time and energy, return to some of the other pictures you listed in your initial “tour.”

If you feel exhausted and satisfied, leave and get something to eat.  If the exhibit intrigued you and you want to experience more of it, plan to go back.

In other words, trust your perceptions and work with your feelings as you move toward the aesthetic goal post: the delicious satisfaction attached to understanding the visual meaning in a work of art. 

Here is a short list of exhibits closing soon in the mid-Atlantic area.  Any one of them will provide excellent practice. 

If you visit an exhibit and you wish to share your experience, please do so by writing a comment here.  Ask any questions your exploration aroused.  I’d love to know your reactions.

I have already visited a few of these exhibits, and I intend to go to a few more in the next several weeks.  I also will be traveling to Nice in mid-January and visiting: the Musée Matisse in Cimiez; the Musée du Message Biblique Marc-Chagall; the Musée Picasso, Antibes; the Musée Renoir (formerly Les Collettes, Renoir’s home for the last 12 years of his life); the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (its black-on-white tile drawings, stained glass windows, chasubles and alter designed by Matisse); and as many others as I can get to in a week.

I should be ready to add new posts by early February.  These posts will fine-tune the concepts I have already explained and give you more practice in using the tools of discovery.

Washington, DC

National Gallery of Art

Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy

September 19, 2010-January 9, 2011

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

January 31, 2010-January 9, 2011

Phillips Collection

Side by Side: Oberlin’s Masterworks at the Phillips

September 11, 2010-January 16, 2011
This one deserves some explanation.  The exhibition showcases an unconventional hallmark of The Phillips Collection, the mixing of works of different periods and nationalities in changing installations to reveal new affinities between works of art. This approach reflects the views of museum founder, Duncan Phillips (1886–1966), who saw the history of art as a conversation through the ages among artists and works of art. In his collection of contemporary art, Phillips included several old masters, including Giorgione, El Greco, and Goya, and an early wish list included the names of others.
Going to the heart of Phillips’s claim, among Side by Side’s loosely themed groupings is one that brings together artists who copied paintings by their predecessors in the Louvre. The Allen’s Rubens appears with Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who is known to have copied works by Rubens. In the second half of his career, after abandoning impressionism, Renoir again looked to Rubens for inspiration. Related works in this section of the exhibition are from the Phillips, by Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix.

New York City

Museum of Modern Art

Abstract Expressionist New York

October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance

October 6, 2010-January 17, 2011

Miró: The Dutch Interiors

October 5, 2010-January 17, 2011

Cézanne’s Card Players

February 9, 2011-May 8, 2011

The Frick Collection

The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya

October 5, 2010-January 9, 2011

The King at War: Velázquez’s Portrait of Philip IV

October 26, 2010-Janauary 9, 2011


Baltimore Museum of Art

Andy Warhol: The Last Decade

October 17, 2010-January 9, 2011

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's the Matter?

I asked this question at the end of the last post. 

You know the answer.

I’ve said the subject does not determine what the picture will be.  I’ve said the subject dies as the picture is born. 

Subject matter, then, refers to the “new matter” every artist invents during the process of transforming a subject’s visual meaning into a picture.

Here is how it works:

The diagram shows you an artist confronting a subject.  The subject acts on the artist and the artist acts back on the subject.  In other words, at the first interested look, the artist subjects the subject to an idea (the intent, the design, the purpose) and, at that moment, he transforms the “real” world into a CSI (a color scene investigation).  He invents subject matter, orchestrates relationships among his means (light, line, color, space), and paints the picture. 

To appreciate the work of art, we come into this equation at the end: at the picture.  We study the picture, describe the relationships, see what new matter the artist created, and state the intent: the picture idea.  When we reach that point, we understand the visual aesthetic experience the artist has recorded in the picture.  We understand the picture.

Let’s try it.

Here is a digital image of a subject I used: a vase of flowers.
Here is a digital image of my painting:
Bauman, oil on canvas, 24 x 36, 2000

I realize I transformed the subject from our real world into a photograph, a medium of expression with its own characteristics—as much color on a flat surface as a painting, but with light as the dominant means.  We will have to live with this.

Look at both images for a few minutes.

Then answer this question: what’s the new matter in the picture? What matter did I invent based on the visual meaning I discovered as I explored this subject?

Or, more simply, how does my painting differ from the subject I used?

1.     Color: the color in the painting is softer, more pastel-like, and chorded.
2.     The space in the painting is shallow and the background unit acts as a projector, pushing the vase of flowers forward.  Subtle spatial recessions occur between flower petals and the vase’s decorative black container.  The patterning and light areas in the background curve backwards and up, creating a push back and up of the space.
3.     The light in the painting infuses the color with a subtle glow, moves the eye in and out and up and down in the shallow space.  The color shapes quiver like aspen-tree leaves.
4.     Line in the painting swirls, is patterned, separates petals from background, is color made (including white), and assists the vibration of the entire surface.
5.     Composition: I cut off the tabletop, halved the vase, centered the main color units, and filled a horizontal format with curlicues and faceted triangular color units that shoot upwards and descend downwards while overlapping and sparkling into shudders of color.

I transformed a simple vase of flowers into a dramatic, upward thrusting, bursting out, rush of multiple color units pulsing in and out and up and down in subtle variations of space.  Like fireworks.  In fact, I titled my painting Fireworks.

Nothing in the original subject accounts for the decorative patterning I invented.  I found those ideas in cubism, in Delaunay, in van Gogh, in Rousseau.  I transferred visual ideas, in other words, from relevant traditions of art.

Which brings me to another point: the idea that fueled my work attached qualities from fireworks to this very still vase of flowers.  I saw into the subject and expressed: (1) upward burst of small color units; (2) dramatic and pulsing activity of small color units; (3) small, intricate, moving patterns of color. 

The qualities of things, situations, and experiences transfer from life to the picture via the subject.  The subject acts like a catalyst, propelling an idea into an artist’s consciousness.  And that idea, informed by everything that artist has experienced, guides every brushstroke.

Or, as Matisse has said: “The object [subject] is an actor, . . . it must act powerfully on the
imagination. . . . The artist’s feelings, expressing themselves through it, must make it worthy of interest; it says only what one makes it say.”   (quoted by de Mazia, in “Subject and Subject Matter,” Vistas, Spring-Summer 1980, Vol. 2, No. 1, p. 48)

Or, as Dewey has said: “the work is formed matter.” (Art as Experience, p. 114).

Compare the next painting to Fireworks. Carolyn Wonderly, a friend and artist, used the same subject as I did.  How does her picture differ from my picture? Why?
Wonderly, Christine's Flowers, oil on canvas, 16 x 20, 2000 
 Please share your responses.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The CSI Transfer

What do our eyes register when we look at a canvas? 

We have been exploring the answer to this question since my first post.

Now we can answer it.  Consider CSI not the Crime Scene Investigation you know from television shows, but the Color Scene Investigation you have been doing as you have read and practiced the exercises in these posts.

If you ponder everything I have said so far, you will probably come up with the following responses:

  1. Areas of color—that is all that is there, whether the picture is representational or non-objective.
  2. The areas of color occur on a flat surface.
  3. Relationships ensue among the light, line, color, and space and things happen. 
  4. Sense registration leads to the discovery of plastic qualities.  We recognize—know anew what we have known previously—three dimensionality, for instance, the volume-ness of color units that are actually two dimensional. We transfer this knowing onto the color areas.
  5. We also transfer recognition of what the subject was (the illustrative aspect) from our lives and the category of things: figure, lemon, table, sky.  Neither the plastic nor the illustrative transferred values are of a strictly personal nature.
  6. Expressive transferred values are personal.  These stem from our own background experience and thus endow the plastic and illustrative transferred values with precise significance.
  7. Transferred values occur according to each person’s makeup, with imagination being the star performer. 
You may be thinking two questions now: (1) what are transferred values? (2) what are expressive transferred values?

Miss de Mazia defines transferred values or qualities this way: “transferred” means “having been caused to pass from one thing to another”; “value” means “something intrinsically significant”; “quality” means “of a distinguishing attribute.” (“Transferred Values: Part I—Introduction,” p. 4)

Expressive transferred values, then, come to life through you, through your experience, sensitivity and imagination.  Essentially, you are bringing together two perceptions: the quality of the color shape and something you associate with that quality that makes your perception clearer. 

Try it:  Look at the picture of the Still below.  This is a real piece of equipment used to distill alcohol.  Describe its visual qualities.

Still, Winterthur, 1990.0028

One of my West Chester University students said, “The Still looks like a large, rotund, aroused male bird with a long beak and curly tail standing on three spindly legs.”

That nails it, doesn’t it?  He described how it looked to him based on his interest (he was about 20 years old). 

You may have attached its qualities to something else.

The point is to combine its qualities with its expressive transferred values.  You start by saying what it is (that was its subject): this Still, displayed at Winterthur, expresses visual qualities of delicately balanced heavy roundness and sharp and curly projections, like a large male bird lusting after his mate.

It’s a simile: “like a large male bird lusting after his mate.”  That was the WCU student’s simile.  For you, it could be something else.

The point is to describe what you see based on your life experience and interest so your “listener” or “reader” is better able to grasp what you discovered and, consequently, understand it.

You think and see, therefore, like a poet.

Yes, this is subjective (I bet you were thinking this: what about being objective, you may be arguing right now, huh?)

Out of your subjective experience you connect what you know with the qualities of the “thing” you are trying to describe.  As long as you make a relevant connection, we can verify your perception. 

We either say: “yes, it looks just like that, I can see what you are saying,” or we say, “I don’t get it.”  Then you have to try again.

The major point, however, is this: everything we see in a picture is “transferred” from our experience.  The subject is not there.  Only color is there. 

You know how to read color. 

We transfer everything else.  We “recognize” what the subject was from our life experience.  We transfer what we know of three-dimensionality, space recession, weight, solidity, or lightness of color volumes, glow of color, rhythms of color units, from what we experience every day.  We even, if we are prepared and have acquired a rich background of visual ideas, understand how this picture re-presents visual ideas of previous artists’ discoveries—a k a The Traditions of Art.

We do it all.

We have been doing it all along.

For example, remember my analysis of Renoir’s Woman Tying her Shoe?

I said, “The figure becomes a central solid but light- in-weight mass of linear light-in-color strokes, glowing rosy (skin) tones, and golden (hair) highlights.  The hair swirls into at least three concentric circles establishing a donut-like mound, and this circularity repeats and becomes balanced by the figure’s backside—donut rounded again and planted on the small chair.
Similarly, the mass to the figure’s right, the mass behind her head, and the cushion on the floor repeat the theme.  In the unit to the left, the color units fan out and encircle the head creating internal clover patterns, then subdue on the floor unit and background wall into muted strokes of syrupy pastel tones.” 
Donuts, clovers, and syrup:  my connections that make more specific the color shapes I wanted to describe for you so you could see them.
I said, “In my picture, you can see distortions of scale: the looming, craggy, pyramidal color mass that was a mountain dwarfs the brightly colored grouping of structures below.  Those structures “float” on a raised platform that was a street and road. 
Skewers, like those barbecue tools that hold the meat and vegetables on a stick, stitch together the color masses with a geometric underpinning.  The rectilinear color shapes (in the sky) in the blocks of color shapes defining the buildings and the street, create both a flattening of volume and a profusion of decorative pattern.”

Float, raised platform, skewers, stitch, blocks: the word choices themselves help you share my experience.  Word choice matters. 

Remember the work you did to understand David Hockney’s Garrowby Hill?

Susan Weiss, one of the readers of this blog, wrote: “With its smooth and sweeping curve, the blue-violet accentuated road in the forefront of the canvas catches my eye, and by repeating this same shape in the brown plowed earth on one side, (repeated also in the near distance), and again in the full and leafy dark green descending trees on the other side, I am quickly brought over the sunny, yellow-green mountaintop above, arriving with great speed and depth into the wonderful hazy, bright green, orange, yellow sunny opening expanse of the countryside. The straight-lined geometric shapes of the fields continue to fan outward, becoming smaller and smaller, with hazier and darker blue, violet, green coloring again. A sprinkling of texture in the cultivated fields, a scattering of trees here and there, all together give a sensation of great distance and space. Visually I experience a wonderful sense of journey, freedom and escape, not unlike the exhilarating feeling I have whenever I am riding on our motorcycle, riding through the open Pennsylvania countryside.”

In this case, while the “subject words” (trees, road, earth, mountaintop) are not converted into “picture words” (red vertical bands, red and green curved lines, yellow dots, pink, blue, and green rectangles), Susan connects the “exhilaration” of her motorcycle rides through the hilly Pennsylvania countryside into this visual statement of a dramatic sweep into deep space. 

What’s the matter?

No, I am not asking you if you are OK, or if you understand what I just said.

In the next post, I will answer this question.