Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Means Justify the End

Machiavelli had it backwards.  For us, it is not “the end justifies the means,” but the means that justify the end.  In other words, you must pay attention to all the plastic means—light, line, color, space, subject, and tradition—as you search for the art in a painting. 

At the end of my last post (“Subject Facts, Picture Facts, and Us”), I asked you to examine two pictures: Renoir’s Pomegranates and Soutine’s Flayed Rabbit.  I also asked you to reconcile, in each picture, if the starting point (aka the subject) affected the outcome (aka what effect, if any, did the subject contribute to the expressive meaning?).  If it did, describe it.

Your responses accurately stated the similarities:  sinuous line and shape, juicy, rich, and vibrant color, and structurally rendered, centered volumes set off by a platform device.  In each picture, the central volume is “split open,” or “exposed,” which one of you described as an “inside out” presentation.

Here are the two pictures:

Renoir, Pomegranates,c. 1910, Barnes

Soutine, Flayed Rabbit, c. 1921, Barnes

The two paintings are expressive of such qualities as dramatic activity, color richness, gritty unctuosity, and luminosity. 

Yet, all of you said the Soutine picture repulsed you—the “Yuk effect.”

In short, we feel differently about a depiction of a skinned rabbit on a tabletop than we do about pomegranates. 

How do those “human values” relate to the picture idea?

We faced a similar dilemma in the post “What’s the Subject Got to Do With It?” when we confronted Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons:

1821-23, Plaster mounted on canvas, Prado
In this case, I argued Goya rendered movement, power, and drama via a color statement.  The color statement connected the plastic, aesthetic reality to the horror of the subject.  The transformation into color converted our repulsion toward a brutal act into the order and consolation of art.  We felt horrified by what Saturn did, but we enjoyed what Goya did.

Pomegranates as a subject, therefore, can’t mean what a flayed rabbit can mean.  We react differently to a depiction of a dead animal than we do to cut fruit, and the transformation into art does not do away with that difference.  Rather, in the hands of an artist, as Dr. Barnes stated, both the intrinsic interest of the subject and the perfect coördination all the means, color, light, line, space, make up the total esthetic effect and can establish a painting as … a great achievement of plastic art no matter what the subject was and, in essence, the opposite: because of what the subject was.

How do you work with this?

Here’s the way.  Try objectivity.

Let’s first examine the Renoir painting upside down:

Make a list:

1.     Three globular volumes “float” in the shallow space of two undulating horizontal bands.

2.     Glowing color chords of ribbon-like strokes build solid volumes: the central volume opens into a crevice composed of smaller orbs, ruby-like in color and sparkle.  This “inside-out,” back and forth in space establishes the central theme.

3.     To our left, the yellow/green color volume slips behind the central one causing the central volume to levitate.  To our right, the smaller ruby-red color volume hangs in space barely touching the central one but gently vibrating next to it.

4.     The brush strokes on the globular volumes create a soft, velvety, “skin” that appears thick yet supple, and connect with other brush strokes in the background, creating a gently curving, flowing movement.

5.     In the lower brown band, darker shades of brown/red/and gray echo the roundness of the three volumes as well as move the eye back (on the left) and forward (on the right). 

6.     In the wider, upper “white” band, the horizontal color strokes of blue, pink, white, gray, and brown flow, ripple-like,  toward the center.

7.     At the top center, a series of short blue/gray strokes that say “fold” in the “cloth” connect, skewer-like, to the “peeled back skin” of the central volume in an arabesque that draws attention to its rhythmic counterpart on the bottom right where the smaller volume meets the brown background.

Renoir’s picture holds together by a tightly knit continuous interflow of color.  Solid color volumes infused with light join with the banded setting because of the interflow of their respective colors.  Compactly organized ribbons of color flow throughout the picture.

In this case, pomegranates on a table transform into a continuous sequence of arabesque-movement of line, light, color, volumes and spatial intervals varying in luminosity and definitiveness of shape.  Foreground, middle ground, and background form an integral part of the main compositional theme, the arabesque-movement of solid volumes in colored space.

Now look at the Soutine upside down:

 Make a list:

1.     In this case, when the subject’s hold diminishes, the picture facts can be perceived with less emotion: a large central twisted mass of unctuous, contorted, pulled, smeared, vigorous, forceful brushstrokes pattern the highly luminous color shapes. The central mass is set off by the two receding slightly diagonal rectilinear flattened projectors:  an irregularly shaped, crumpled “white” rectangle and a solid brown rectangle.  These two areas are surrounded on three sides by a darker brown/black.  This creates a pocket of space that “floats” the first two.

2.     The “head” of the central mass slides back in the lower center because of the darker “shadow” color to its right and left on the brown background.  Because of the darker color next to each “leg,” another “sinking” occurs at the top center

3.     The “exposed” area that makes up the “body” reveals gristly, contrasted swirls of thick, vibrant, rich layers of reds, pinks, oranges, and brown/black. 

4.     Echoes of the central mass occur in the white “cloth”: the ovoid “body” appears in the upper right as a lighter circle of white within which grays and blacks recede; the foreground “legs” are echoed to their left and right; the “white cloth” pushes away from the upper left “leg” as the upper right leg sinks into it.

5.     The brown “tabletop” equally pulses with swirls of pulled bands of color.  Less “thick,” these color bands agitate and animate its surface.

One of you argued that the Renoir painting portrays fruit, a subject that is life giving.  The Soutine blatantly displays death—a flayed rabbit—at its most gruesome—violent, bleeding and dramatic. 


Each of us will have an emotional response to the subject.  Accept it.  If we intend to make rabbit stew, a hunter, a butcher, or a cook will feel quite differently about the rabbit than those of us used to buying meat already cut and packaged and far removed from the slaughtering.  We will feel differently about a pomegranate than we do about a skinned rabbit when we are in the grocery store, but when we are in a museum looking at a picture, we must connect our human emotions to the plastic reality depicted.

So feeling is involved.  Fruit as a subject has been used for centuries, but it is the individual artist’s conception of fruit that matters.  Dead animals have been used as a subject for centuries as well.  Soutine, himself, used all sorts of dead animals and fish as subjects: turkeys, sides of beef, ray fish, etc.  And we respond to these differently if we feel compassion for suffering or if we feel contempt for the destruction of life.  Illustration arouses sentiment, and this is legitimate it we respond to what the artist shows us, not to what he doesn’t. 

In the Renoir and Soutine paintings, the plastic means unite what the subject was with what the work of art demands: a visual theme that unifies all the means into a coherent whole.

Think about Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring One of His Sons.  Here, Goya’s expressive illustration of an insane act of infanticide and cannibalism exaggerates the qualities that renders the subject repellent:  dark/light drama; sharp, jagged angularity; light shapes emerge from darkness, and light shapes are sucked into darkness.

No matter what feelings the subject may arouse in us, our job is to examine what we have in front of us: colors on a flat surface.  And read them. 

Remember Matisse’s words: “the [subject] is an actor.  It must act powerfully on the imagination.  It means only what [the artist] makes it mean.”

I wish all my readers a wonderful holiday season.  If you have questions or ideas for the next series of posts, just click here and send them to me.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Subject Facts, Picture Facts, and Us

You are probably feeling you understand the relationship between subject facts and picture facts.  You may feel the subject does not matter much if what you are after is the art in the picture.  Or you may feel it does matter a lot because it refers us to our everyday world and makes the picture facts more relevant.

After I studied at the Barnes Foundation for four years, and I believed I understood the method and could use it effectively, I actually “read” page 77 in The Art in Painting.  I don’t know why I had not “read” this page with understanding before, but I hadn’t.

On that page, you will find the following two pictures:

Titian, Entombment,1584, Louvre

Cézanne, Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, 1893-94, Collection Mrs. John Hay Whitney

At the bottom of the page, Dr. Barnes described the design of both paintings as very similar in structure and expressive content because the interrelationships of plastic elements is basically similar.    

I had no problem with that statement.  I could see the similarity of compositional device (see diagrams below). 



However, I now had a problem with Dr. Barnes’ discussion in the pages that preceded page 77.  In those pages, he argued that the subject of entombment arouses very different feelings then the subject of a jug and fruit on a table.

He said our emotions aroused by subjects like “entombment,”  in so far as there is an appeal to “such sentiments as sorrow, pity, wonder, awe,” or an awareness of human suffering and compassion,  are perfectly reasonable so long as they are “united with the other elements in the substance of the painting—the  plastic form.” (p. 25)

OK so far.

He further declared, “An object is more than a pattern of lines and colors; it is an individual thing, and its form, as we have seen, is what gives it individuality and significance.  Its significance may reside in its appeal to our more specific instincts, or it may be due to the realization of mass and space, of the qualities common to all material objects.” (48)

OK still.

But here is where I got confused:

“In either case, the particular colored and patterned object takes on a more universal appeal, and moves us not only by what it is, but by what it suggests and embodies.  Obviously, the greatest satisfaction is possible from an object which combines these decorative and expressive interests and in which what is expressed is not only the universal qualities of the natural world, but human values also.” (49)

Human values?  What’s human emotion got to do with it? I asked.  I thought we left that behind when we embarked on the plastic analysis.

The following paragraph worsened my confusion:

“In Titian’s ‘Entombment,’ the subject is solemn, sad, pathetic; but the solemnity and pathos are restrained and dignified…When viewed plastically the picture presents a group of figures unified into a firmly-knit, self-enframing, oval composition, similar to, but more complex than that in Giotto’s ‘Lamentation over Christ.’ The drawing is highly expressive of movement and gesture but does not indicate exaggerated grief or despair, such as we find in treatments of the same subject by many lesser men.  The color, though glowing, does not flaunt itself, but is of a subdued richness which pervades the whole canvas and contributes to compositional unity.  The robes in the bending figures to the right and left are brighter in color and serve as a sort of secondary frame, enclosing the members of the group, and setting them off from the background.  The color, in other words, functions as an organizing principle.  Finally, the use of light, powerfully enhanced by color, brings out the figure of the dead Christ, and is so distributed over the whole canvas as to form a pattern in itself, reënforce and harmonize the color-values, contribute to the composition, and heighten the sense of mystery and awe characteristic of the event depicted.  In this painting it is both the intrinsic interest of the event and the perfect coördination all the means, color, light, line, space, which make up the total esthetic effect and establish the painting as one of the great achievements of plastic art.  One need not be a Christian, or indeed have any special interest in the event itself, to obtain from the painting the rich human values, the nobility, intrinsic to sympathy, solemnity, tragedy.  These values are rendered plastically, by means of color, light, line, mass, and space, all unified into a rich, rhythmic design.” (74)

Why, you might be thinking, was I confused?

And, even odder still, why did it take me so long to know I missed something?

The answer is akin to “looking” at a picture for years, but not “seeing” it.

It happens.

Here I was, a converted practitioner of the objective method, well into my 4th year of study at the Barnes Foundation, and my 3rd year of study with Violette de Mazia herself and, before I really read these pages and understood what the words were saying, I thought I just needed to get past the subject to “see” the art in the picture. 

But that is not the case at all. 

Subject facts connect to picture facts and, most important, also connect to us.

Subject facts converted into “color stuff” (also known as subject-matter or substance) and plastic form are not separable.

Violette de Mazia told me Titian’s Entombment and Cézanne’s Curtain, Jug, and Compotier, while sharing plastic characteristics, do not share human values as those values relate to expressive meaning.  They can’t.  We do not “feel” the same about the burial of a person as we do about fruit on a table.  And our feelings count; they factor into the objective equation.

At that moment, in that class, I knew I still had much to learn.

My challenge centered on my ability to understand that a picture of a crucifixion or a wedding may, when converted into works of art, read the same plastically. We can abstract from each the form which is made of the plastic elements—line, light, color, space—and determine the quality of that form as a unified fusion of those elements.

Or, as Violette de Mazia said, “all art is always the same, and always different,” when I again asked her to help me resolve my confusion regarding the human response—the feelings of pity, awe, grief, horror, inspired by the subject—as opposed to the objective one—the form revealed via plastic analysis. 

Now that you and I have acquired the habit of objective analysis, the appeal or repulsion of the subject should not thwart our understanding of the art in the picture.  In fact, the reverse is true: a work of art based on a subject of profound human significance made by a gifted artist through his re-action and re-creation of it, elicits strong feelings that we objectify as we do the work of aesthetic analysis.   

In other words, in the previous post, “What’s the Subject Got To Do With It?” you and I were horrified by what Saturn did but enjoyed aesthetically what Goya did.

Or, as Dr. Barnes said, “this ultimate dependence of esthetic appreciation upon something which much be felt, and cannot simply be abstractly formulated, is the final proof of the affinity between art and instinct. . .In the final analysis it is a matter of interest, and interests, as we have seen, are themselves determined by our instincts.” (44)

You may not yet be ready to tackle the question of how much the subject matters, whether you feel a loss when you confront a non-representational picture, or feel no difference at all, or feel, finally, freed from dealing with recognizable things. 

I will tackle those questions next year.

For now, I offer you an end-of-year challenge.  Diana Meyers-Bennett Roberts commented after reading the previous post that she was “reminded of Soutine's flayed rabbit painting. It shares qualities with Renoir's benign still life of a cut open pomegranate.”

Study the following two pictures and, based on the ideas in the previous posts, write an analysis comparing and contrasting them.

Send your responses to me via e-mail.  I will reward each responder with a copy of my book, Edward L. Loper, Sr., The Prophet of Color.

Renoir, Pomegranates, c. 1910, Barnes

Soutine, Flayed Rabbit, c. 1921, Barnes

Monday, November 14, 2011

What's the Subject Got To Do With It?

At the end of the last post, “What’s Feeling Got To Do With It?” I asked you to examine this Goya painting, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons:

1821-23, Plaster mounted on canvas, Prado

When I show this picture to children, they say, “gross,” or “yuk.” They look away.  They ask why anyone would paint such a horrible picture.

This, from the same kids who have no problem watching vampire movies, or play video games, like “Call of Duty,” in which they, in one way or another, blow up, maim or kill their opponents without breaking a sweat.

I tell them the subject facts: (1) that this is one of Goya’s “Black Paintings,” uncommissioned and not meant for public display; (2) that Goya painted it with oil directly on the wall of his house, along with 13 others; (3) that the subject depicts the mythological Saturn swallowing one of his sons because he feared the prophesy that a son would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus.  Usually, they remain unmoved.  They still feel repelled by the savagery and grotesqueness of the subject. 

That’s the power of the subject.

However, our job is to discover the aesthetic meaning in this picture.  When I turn it upside down, you can see how the “color stuff,” as I call it, tells quite a different story—a story that has to do with visual qualities and volumes in space and a story that, when understood, produces a far different feeling.

Inverted, we see dramatic light-and-dark effects, somber richness and ruggedness of paint application, thrusts and counter thrusts of sinewy, bony volumes, and a forceful pattern of color units that set up an animated, subtly varied composition expressing jagged, angular movement. Light shapes emerge from darkness, and light shapes are sucked into darkness.

Emerging from blackness, the lights force you to follow them: (now from top to bottom) the v-shaped “legs” extend like a wishbone; the “baby’s calves,” “thighs,” and rounded “buttocks,” undulate up to the lineal, horizontal vise-like grip that were “hands” as they dig into the “back”  to continue a skewered line of “back-bone” that bends to the left.  Moving to the right, a sliver of curved light enters the black hole of the “mouth,” where it disappears; the “whites” of the “eyes” punctuate the receding “forehead,” from which “flames” of “hair” shoot out into the darkness and connect to the extended T-bone pocket of the right “arm.”  The “pupils,” black dots in white circles, continue the rhythmic, jumpy movement.

The light-and-dark volumes jut, bend, sink, squeeze, and pulse. 

Then, within this over-all brown/black tonality punctuated by lighter, but dull whites and yellows, we see the red.  The “surprise” of it arrests attention.  We follow it from the twisting, edginess it gives to the “arm” and what is left of the “back” as it leads our eye to those gripping “hands,” an extraordinarily expressive lineal movement that says captured, held, and sucked into—like a chicken neck into a vacuum hose.

Squint if you can’t see it.  Do whatever you can to loosen the grip of that subject.

In this case, the subject repulses, but the aesthetic experience of power, drama, and movement, satisfies perception.  As we experience the color statement, instead of disgust, we feel rewarded.

The pieces fit. 

The color story is not one we have “read” before, so we feel a sense of excitement as we piece together the various components, establish the relationships of light, line, color, and space, and recognize that a horrific myth becomes a convincing plastic reality because Goya can render movement, power, and drama via a color statement.  The color statement gives plastic, aesthetic reality to the horror of the subject.  The transformation into color converts the chaos and horror of life into the order and consolation of art. 

The medium is the message, and this message connects to a recognizable, if terrifying, subject. 

Look at this Soutine painting:

The Soutine has a lot in common with the Goya once you get past the warm richness of color (I know, that is a lot to ask).  However, upside down, you can’t “see” the subject. You can see thrust and counter thrust, power, drama, and movement.  Do you miss the subject?

Here is the painting, right side up:

 The Philosopher, c. 1921, Private Collection

Violette de Mazia argues a recognizable subject makes more specific what the picture says.  The subject gives us a clue to what started the artist on his aesthetic adventure. 

Dr. Barnes argues, “forms may be charged with esthetic feeling even when they represent nothing definite in the real world or when what they represent is clearly without appeal in itself…When we cannot find in a picture representation of any particular object, what it represents may be the qualities which all particular objects share, such as color, extensity, solidity, movement, rhythm, etc.”  (Art in Painting, p. 35). 

In other words, in the case of the Goya painting and the Soutine right side up, we have a clear starting point, albeit distorted.  In the case of Mitch Lyons’ clay print, Medicine Man, described in the previous post, we did not. 

Check your pulse. By that I mean, consider whether your aesthetic understanding transmitted more or less “delight” as you uncovered the art in each of them.

Now you can answer the question that began this post: what does the subject have to do with it?


Sunday, October 30, 2011

What's Feeling Got To Do With It?

This is the post you expected to read, and I expected to write.

At the end of “The Heart of the Matter,” I asked you some questions. 

Here they are:

Have you felt a sense of union with something not yourself?  Have you felt something to be intensely real and felt your individuality absorbed and carried along like a drop of water in a stream?  Have you felt everything or anything to be full of life?  Have you perceived something beneath appearances to the reality underlying them? 

Some of you responded to these questions.  I wrote “Mysticism in Art,” the previous post, as my response to Edward L. Loper, Sr.’s death, and this included my answers to those questions.

Now I will add a postscript. 

As practitioners of the objective method, we tend to be suspicious or even hostile to feelings. 

The “feeling” question comes up repeatedly in the classes I teach.  “Why,” I am asked, “can’t I just like a painting?” a student wants to know.  “What is so wrong with having a strong feeling about a painting’s subject?” a student will ask. 

We’re human, after all.

Feelings happen.  The emotions of everyday life (i.e. love, hate, fear, anger, grief, loneliness) bubble up when we see a picture that moves us.  If we were to look at what “causes” those feelings, however, we would admit we have strong feelings about the subject depicted, or to say this more accurately, we have strong feelings about what the subject WAS.

You learned a long time ago as you read the posts in this blog that what the subject WAS is not IN the picture.  Colors on a flat surface make a picture.  Nothing else is there.

Now that you can read color, you see spatial intervals, rhythms, contours, shadows, lights and darks, etc.  The visual qualities created by the relationships of color, light, line, and space speak a different language, and this language is just as “real” as the original subject WAS, and produces a very different kind of feeling—aesthetic understanding that feels like a revelation, a gift, or a surprise—a mystical feeling.

Look at the following pictures:

                         Follower of Tintoretto, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Barnes                             
             Tintoretto, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Courtauld Institute of Art, UK              
Tintoretto, The Finding of Moses, Met

Pippin, Christ and the Woman of Samaria, Barnes    

The artist of three of the four paintings used the same subject: Christ and the Woman of Samaria.

Tintoretto, however, in the third picture, used a different subject: The Finding of Moses.  But the picture orchestrates plastic means similar to the first one.

No matter how you “feel” about the biblical stories of Christ and the Woman of Samaria or the Finding of Moses, no matter how each artist felt about those stories, each picture has its own picture idea, its own expressive message.  That visual idea, expressive message, or color statement, when we understand it, produces a sense of satisfaction far more resonant, moving, and sustaining than transient “feelings”—what we call the emotions of everyday life, and what Dr. Barnes calls “human values” as opposed to “plastic values.”

If all you do is react to the subject, you miss the aesthetic adventure, the art in the painting.

Let’s try to make sense of this with a non-representational picture.

Look and study the following clay print by Mitch Lyons:

Lyons, Medicine Man, 19 x 13 inches, Clay Print

No problem with the subject here, is there?

No need to turn the picture upside down.

What do you see?

1.      Swirls and squiggles of vivid, dry, floating color ribbons actively moving over receding space (top half) and shallow space (bottom half).

2.     Anchoring the activity, skewers move the eye in geometric patterns throughout the space:

a.      On the top right, the light-yellow “forked” shape moves the eye up and slightly to the left

b.     On the left, the light band moves the eye across the picture plane as it also pushes back into space

c.      That light band, backed by blue, and overlaid by horizontal orange and purple lines establishes the spatial theme: colorful lineal activity creating subtle back and forth, in and out, spatial rhythms.

3.     Now that you see the clues, you can explore the picture and enjoy the intricacy of the multiple rhythms created.

a.      Look at the bottom half:  here, some of the squiggles float just slightly above the riot of color units setting them off. 

(1)  You must look carefully to see the spatial drama: look at the light blue line rising from the right of the center bottom edge.  It goes up as it moves slightly to the right, then bends back to the left where it threads under and over a muted, green-blue, footprint-like shape.  That shape wraps around and clings to it like toes on a bar.  The blue line then joins a broken orange-edged, yellow band that goes under another muted green-blue arc and then over a muted green-blue line, then under a muted green-ochre blob.  It ends on the left edge as a yellow band sliding under another blue-green stripe. That entire unit becomes a boxy shape projecting in the lower left.  Within it, all sorts of squiggles, lines, geometric shapes, and active color units float and dance like confetti.

As I see and write this, I experience a feeling of delight.  I can think of no other word to describe such a delicious, warm, feeling of excitement—akin to a sense of wonder or amazement. Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, said in the New York Times this kind of concentrated scrutiny is fueled by “the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge.” It melds aesthetic appreciation with objective perception and experiential learning. 

I have shown you how to begin. As you explore this picture on your own, you will understand, as Dr. Barnes argues, that aesthetic appreciation ultimately depends “on something that must be felt and cannot simply be abstractly formulated.”

That’s what feeling has to do with it.

This begs the next question: what’s the subject got to do with it?  Mitch Lyons’ clay print does not have a recognizable subject.  Do you miss it? 

Please study the following picture: Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of his Children.  What role does the subject play in this picture?  Does the subject relate to the picture idea?  How?

That’s the topic of the next post.

Goya, Saturn Devouring One of his Children, 1819-23, Plaster mounted on canvas, Museo del Prado

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Edward L. Loper, Sr. April 7, 1916-October 9, 2011: Mysticism in Art

This is not the post I expected to write or the one you expected to read.

I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning not at all happy about it.  I did not go to bed until 1 a.m., and I anticipated sleeping in. 

I knew why I woke up when my phone rang at 8 a.m.

Janet Loper told me Ed had died.

His spirit, as it passed, woke me up to say goodbye.

Sound crazy?  I think so too, but I believe it. 

That’s mystical.

Last night I heard Herbie Hancock play acoustic and electronic jazz at the Kimmel Center.

At one point, he told the audience he called Chic Corea to ask him to listen to a piece he had composed.  Herbie told us, “When I wrote it, I said to myself, 'Chic could have written this.'  I had to be sure I had not heard it before.”

Chic said he had not written it.  “It’s one that must have gotten away from me,” he told Herbie.

Herbie channeled Chic’s musical ideas as well as others.  Miles Davis said in his autobiography, “Herbie was the step after Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I haven’t heard anybody yet who has come after him.”

Dr. Barnes says, “Mysticism is a sense of union with something not ourselves.  It is felt to be intensely real even though any one lacking the mystic’s sensibility cannot be compelled to share it.”

I have argued repeatedly in these posts artists channel ideas, musical ideas if they are composers, and visual ideas if they are painters.

Ordinary experience offers clues to the mystical experience.  In my case, I enrolled in Ed Loper’s class at the Delaware Art Museum more than 40 years ago because his was the only one that had a space left.  I wanted to continue my painting “hobby.”  Despite his telling me I did not know anything about art, how to paint, or what I was doing, I stayed.  Despite his badgering, his insistent criticism, his relentless demands, I stayed.  I wanted to “see” what he said was possible to see even though I thought he was crazy and/or I was blind to it. 

When I saw color for the first time, it was a revelation.  I felt “born again.”  He made the invisible visible.

That’s mystical.

The world of art Ed Loper opened to me is a world of concentrated, informed vision.  When I paint, I see what I need and want to see.  Everything else disappears, becomes invisible.  Herbie channels Chic.  I channel Renoir, Delaunay, and Matisse.

In my head, despite the fact I have not studied with Ed for more than 25 years, I still hear him hollering: “how light is that?” “put color next to color; you’re skipping”; “you’re not seeing color; you’re making mud.”  His words continue to challenge me to see more, not so I paint pictures that are like his, because they are not, but to paint pictures that, as he has said, “may be rotten, but not ordinary.” 

When I study his pictures, I understand his achievement:  his adaptation of Venetian luminosity with Cézanne’s power and, in his late work, with Renoir’s warmth.  He talks to me through his work.

When I remember his early struggles and persistence to be taken seriously in a society hostile to black people, to keep at it despite everything stacked against him, to insist his students stop complaining, or as he eloquently put it, to just “shut up and paint,” I feel a connection to something meaningful and profoundly motivating—“a seeing beneath appearances to the reality underlying them,” Barnes calls it. 

That’s mystical.

Here’s the summary: (1) An accident: I enrolled in the one class at the Delaware Art Museum that had a space left; (2) I survived a torturous apprenticeship; (3) I received a gift: a vision that intrigued me and I wanted, and needed, to pursue; (4) My teacher demonstrated through his own struggle that ordinary people could live an extraordinary life by making art. 

That’s mystical.

At the end of The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit, "The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Ed Loper made me Real.  He created an extended family of Real.  We, as the Dan Fogelberg song “Leader of the Band” goes, have his blood running through our instruments and his song in our soul.

Some of us continue to teach others, to pass on what Ed taught us.  Others do it through their paintings. 

My 12-year-old grandson Josh just completed a pastel of a stuffed animal, a sloth, he purchased from the gift shop at the zoo.  Ed would have given him hell for not “seeing” more color, but Josh, intrigued by the process, happily joins me each week to make pictures.  And I don’t give him hell for anything.
Josh and Ed a Few Months Ago

Mary Oliver writes In Blackwater Woods:

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

At 5 a.m. this  morning, I let Ed go.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

In August, you read a post “Making Connections,” in which I described how artists borrow visual ideas from other artists.

A few of you found this an unusual, if not impossible, notion.  One reader, in response to the earlier Twombly/Poussin post—“Seeing is Believing, Part II”—said it is “impossible to find a common thread in two distinct artists who lived 500 years apart.”

I begged to differ then, and I beg to differ now.

The key idea, one that you have been willing and able to verify for yourselves, is that there is nothing new under the sun: all creation is re-creation.

Artists borrow visual ideas and they pay back that borrowing with their interest—their own, personal, individual viewpoint. 

Scientists do this as well, as do all creative people in whatever discipline they work.

I ended the “Making Connections” post by asking you to consider a painting by Cézanne and one by Edward L. Loper, Sr. 

Let’s look at them together now:

Loper, Houses and Hotel, 2000, Private Collection

Cézanne, Chateau Noir, 1904-06, MoMA

Dizzy Gillepsie said of Louis Armstrong:  “Know him; know me.”

I say, know Cézanne; know Loper: two artists who lived 100 years apart.

These two pictures share a strikingly similar subject: a building or buildings sandwiched between foliage and sky.  Cézanne’s picture, cool, blue, and arid, contrasts with Loper’s warm, rich, and juicy color harmonies.

In the Loper, the diagonal tilt of the foliage connects to the slanted roof across from it in the lower mid-section on the right. Echoed by the thrust of the red building on the far right, a skewer brings the eye back to the sky.A diagonal tilt created by the foreground foliage in the Cézanne moves the eye from left to lower right as do the faceted “clouds” in the ski. 

Turned upside down, other spatial intricacies become apparent:


In the Cézanne, the foliage moves back in space in sections, as if each bulging color volume undulates in and out as it moves down and back.  A lighter bulge of rounded foliage now in the upper right sets back the curling mass of foliage.  It, in turn, pushes back the yellow building. The blue of the sky continues the recession.  The tops of the trees create lacy, jagged patterns against the ochre of the buildings and repeat in the white/gray cloud shapes against the blue of the sky. In contrast, the rectilinear shapes of the building halt and counter this progression, wedged between the foliage and the sky.

Follow each of the building’s edges:  the vertical edge now on the left connects to the darkened small bulge of foliage beneath it.  The middle edge connects with the semi-circle of foliage below it; the right edge connects with the large mass of foliage as it curves slightly.  The ochre line that defines the tree trunk bows forward toward the frontal picture plane rather than back in space. Far back in space, now on the left, its echo in the sky bows left.

The entire unit of foliage in the Cézanne, like a paper collage built of rectilinear slices of color units pasted on top of each other, pulses with the beat of volumes rumbling diagonally across the picture. 

Now look at the Loper picture.

Massed now on the top right, the foliage becomes a shallow, triangular slice of variegated color shapes. It does not undulate, nor does it rumble.  It serves as a repoussoir setting off and slightly pushing back the boxy color shapes of the buildings.  Within those boxy color shapes, units move in and out in a very shallow space.  Strong dark outlines skewer the buildings’ edges to both the sky and the foliage.  Jagged, dark, silhouetted, triangular volumes push into the sky area.  Boxy color shapes, the echo of the buildings, move in and out in the shallow space of sky.

Now let’s look at details:

Cézanne builds color volumes by applying bands of color adjacent to each other.  He manipulates these bands by contrasting dark and light so they construct a solid, structural mass.  In the detail, pencil-thin cerulean lines edge the golden-tan, color of the rectilinear building.  This compartmentalizes and flattens those color units into rectilinear shapes moving behind or adjacent to other shapes, creating color planes in very shallow space.

The viridian greens in the foliage, offset by warmer ultramarine and cooler cerulean blue and interspersed with ochre, look round, not angular.  Lineal curves edge sections of foliage creating overlapping and slight spatial recession.  The gray-white clouds curve as well as echo the crenelated edges of the foliage.

In the Loper, banded color units do not build subtle space drama.  Instead, the color units pay homage to Cézanne’s banding, but Loper uses them to build dramatic, powerful, blocks of vibrant, glowing color volumes.  Look at the rooftops now in the lower center of the detail:  list all the individual colors you see.  It will be a long list.  Reds, yellows, oranges, blues, browns, adjacent or overlapping, create a smoldering color glow.   

Compare the two skies:  Loper’s sky becomes a series of more buildings.  Each unit, solidly three-dimensional, transforms into a geometric block echoing the buildings in the picture.   

Ironic, isn’t it?  Cézanne’s picture, a dramatic recession into deep space of undulating as well as geometric color units sets the stage for Loper, an artist who discovers in Cézanne’s color statement an idea that reverberates.    Loper uses relevant features of Cézanne’s vision to inform his own interest in power and drama, but this is an interest also fueled by the work of other artists:  Picasso, Braque, Gris, Rouault, and Pollack.   Loper uses visual ideas from many artists.  He does not steal them.  He uses them, adds his own insights to them, and makes a legitimate and creative contribution to the traditions of art.

Matisse said, “The [subject] is an actor…. [it] must act powerfully on the imagination; the artist’s feeling expressing itself through the [subject] must make the [subject] worthy of interest: it says only what it is made to say.” (from Matisse on Art, edited by Jack Flam, 208)

The heart of the matter, therefore, means that the subject, any subject, is transformed by an artist based on interest, knowledge of relevant traditions of art, imagination, and feeling into new matter.  Think of matter as “color stuff,” not subject stuff.  Our world presents us with things, people, places, ideas: visual reality.  Artists make pictures.  That is something else.  As you all know, a picture is a two dimensional representation of something.  It is made of color on a flat surface.  You now know its language:  color. 

When an artist takes the first interested look at something (whether the look is of a subject in front of the artist or recreated in memory), everything changes.  An artist subjects the subject to a picture idea, a vision as real and compelling as if it were visible.  To make it visible, the artist births a picture.  This heart of the matter John Dewey calls “substance.”  He argues in Art as Experience that the “only distinction important in art is that between matter inadequately formed and material completely and coherently formed.” (116)

You do not have to be an artist to verify this for yourself.  If you have wrestled with a problem of any kind, and you suddenly know its solution, you understand this moment.  The “solution” may seem quite ordinary and simple when it arrives, and you may wonder why you did not think of it sooner.

It feels like magic, a gift, or a surprise. 

In the next post, “What’s Feeling Got to Do with It?” I will attempt to make sense of this  experience. Practitioners of the objective method tend to be suspicious or even hostile to feeling.  It’s time to examine its role.

If you have felt a “sense of union with something” not yourself, I want to hear from you.  Try to describe a feeling that is, according to Dr. Barnes in The Art in Painting,  intensely real and one in which your “own individuality is absorbed and carried along like a drop of water in a stream.” (45)  Have you felt everything or anything to be full of life or have you perceived something beneath appearances to the reality underlying them?  As you can tell, this is not an easy topic.  I need your help.  You can e-mail me your answer by clicking on this link:  e-mail to Marilyn Bauman.