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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rembrandt and the Face of Loper

What’s in a face?

From the aesthetic point of view, everything we need to know.

Unfortunately, most exhibit catalogs, headphones, or wall posts do not help much if what you want to understand is the art in the painting of a face.

Case in point: On August 3, the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched an exhibit titled “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.”  Most of the information about the exhibit has nothing to do with Rembrandt’s visual innovations and everything to do with his contribution to “humanizing” the face of Jesus.  The focus is on religious and historic significance, not aesthetic.

A few months ago, I visited an art exhibit of Edward Loper, Jr.’s work in Wilmington, Delaware.  There I saw a self-portrait he had recently completed.

Eddie Loper (I will call him Eddie to distinguish him from his father, Edward) had provided me a wonderful gift: a chance to show how a 21st century artist could use visual ideas invented by a 17th century Dutchman.  And make them new.

On the right is Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with Beret and Turned up Collar.  On the left is Loper's Self-Portrait.

Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Beret and Turned up Collar, 1659,NGA
Edward Loper, Jr., Self-Portrait, 2011, Private Collection


Let’s compare and contrast these two self-portraits. 

What did Eddie Loper borrow from Rembrandt, and what did he do to and with those borrowings?  What visual ideas did he borrow from other artists? 

1.       Obviously, Eddie Loper knows the Rembrandt painting.  He used Rembrandt’s painting as his subject, and he dressed and posed as Rembrandt did.  Nothing new here.  Artists have done this sort of thing throughout the history of art.

2.       Loper’s picture is more colorful, with light illuminating both the figure and the background.  Rembrandt’s color is limited in variety, but his use of chiaroscuro creates a richness and depth of color.  Consequently, while Rembrandt’s colors are limited in range, somber, and not bright, they have expressive power.

3.       The space in the Rembrandt recedes limitlessly.  The shallow space in the Loper acts as a projector, and this makes the central mass (the head) loom forward.

4.       Loper’s brush strokes, visible as pulled, banded, overlapping, and full of energy and movement, create a convincing, solid, central mass.  Rembrandt’s brushstrokes are so subtle they are imperceptible.  They build a solid, three-dimensional mass that stands out from a receding background and create color units that render the different feelings of hair, flesh and textures, but how they do this is impossible to detect.  

5.       Loper’s line demarcates edges and outlines detail decoratively, while Rembrandt’s line does not exist as a separate entity.  His line merges so completely with chiaroscuro, the central volume emerges from the background as if by magic. 

Rembrandt is a tough act to follow.

That said, let’s see what other visual ideas Loper borrowed to make his self-portrait and whether those borrowings lead to a new and personal end.

Dr. Barnes argues that few painters have been able to use Rembrandt’s ideas creatively.  He mentions Daumier and Monticelli as two who achieved some degree of success.

Look at the Daumier and Monticelli pictures below:

Daumier, The Painter at His Easel, 1870, Barnes

Monticelli, As You Like It, n.d., Phillips Collection

Like Rembrandt, Daumier, in this tiny picture measuring 4 5/8 x 3 1/8 inches, modifies chiaroscuro to achieve deep, rich color-harmonies with somber colors.  The solid three-dimensionality of the figure results from the surrounding space, a type of “space-decoration” Dr. Barnes calls it, decoration that is an integral part of the structure of the picture.  The Painter at His Easel shows line creating dynamic movement, a quivering, curly, wavy activity producing a convincing drama and force.

Monticelli’s juicy color takes Rembrandt’s somber color-harmonies up a notch while maintaining the effects of chiaroscuro to create glowing, three-dimensional masses moving in and out of a relatively compressed space.  The thick, impasto color creates a decorative charge in itself.

Now consider Soutine and Matisse.

Examine the cropped details of the pictures below:

Soutine, The Pastry Cook (detail), c. 1919, Barnes 
Matisse, The Woman with the Hat (detail), 1905, San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art



Loper’s painting incorporates Soutine’s rich, variegated color and Matisse’s decorative bright, vivid, contrasted color areas.  While he does not stress Soutine’s animation and motion, nor Matisse’s dramatic cold/warm color contrasts, he adapts their pulled, banded, vigorous brush-strokes , their bold distortions, and their vivid, intense, and dramatic rhythms.

To what end?

Eddie Loper’s Self-Portrait draws us in via the illustrative: something about that “wicked” eye, and that angry, set jaw, start us on our journey.  It would be so easy here to slip backwards into a biographical discussion of the artist’s life, what might have made him so “angry,” or “fierce,” or “determined.”  However, our goal is to understand the color statement.  To do that, we need to subdue the subject by turning the picture upside down.

Now you can see the sweep of banded, saturated, vivid color units.  To the upside-down picture’s left, you see a dome-like mass bulging forward (the shoulder) echoed by several strips of lower-key color bands receding to the right (the other shoulder).  Bulging further forward and centered is a large, solid warm color mass (the head) made up of thick, pulled, and dragged color units topped by receding arcs of violet and cerulean blue (the cap).

The head sinks into the peachy, rosy background like a melon into Jell-O.  The amorphous browns and violets in the mid-section of the picture, between the background and the body, recede slightly.

Did you see this before I turned the picture upside down?  I didn’t.

“Faces,” or anything to do with portraits present an additional challenge.  We easily stop seeing the aesthetic message conveyed by color on a flat surface once curiosity about the subject is aroused.

What, then, has Loper given back that is his: a picture built of fiery color bands organized into vibrant color masses and compelling spatial intricacies informed by ideas he adapted from Matisse, Soutine, Monticelli, Daumier, Rembrandt, and his father Edward L. Loper, Sr.  You have seen Edward L. Loper Sr.’s work in these posts, enabling you to verify his work as one source for his son’s work.   If you  wish to re-read those posts, click on the following titles: Loper’s Link; How Creation Happens, Cont’d;  Making Connections; Tackling Transfers; Pentimento.


Monday, September 5, 2011


Last fall my 11-year-old grandson broke his wrist when he fell from his pogo stick.  Not a big deal in itself, except that he broke his right wrist and that made writing (and because I was teaching him to draw and paint), very difficult. 

We adapted: he posed for me, and I explained to him how I made the picture as I worked.

Trouble was, I had made a painting using him as a subject when he was five months old.  He liked that picture.  He did not like this one.

Zig Zag Josh, Oil on canvas, 2010, Private Collection 
Baby with Ball, Oil on canvas, 1999, Private Collection


After a back and forth debate on my work process, he asked, “Why can’t you just paint it like you did the other one?”

“Because I can’t,” I replied.  Then, to be more precise, I added, “because I don’t see that way now.”

In other words, as the saying goes, I changed my mind.  To be more precise, my perception changed.

What I just described explains how I adapted new visual ideas resulting in a transformation of perception.  I used two very different subjects separated by an 11- year span; this is not the definition of pentimento.  Pentimento means the artist has changed his mind either during the process of making a picture or after.  The same picture.  The word derives from the Italian pentirsi, meaning to repent.  Pentimenti (the plural) may show changes in composition or reveal over-painting (via X-rays, infra-red reflectograms, and photographs), a covering up of the first painted application.    

Table and Flowers, the Ed Loper painting I showed you in the last post, is a good example of pentimento.  He changed his mind after he completed the picture you studied.

I first saw the original painting in Ed Loper’s house.  Then I later saw it in an exhibit at the Stuart Kingston Gallery in Wilmington, Delaware.  Then I purchased the painting last week.

Before I purchased the painting, I analyzed the picture in the previous post using a digital image Ed’s wife Janet provided me.  When I picked up the painting a few days ago, I knew immediately that the image was not the same as the painting now in front of me.  In that instant, I remembered Ed telling me at the exhibit he had “re-worked” the entire picture.

Look at the two images below. On the left is the digital image I first used, and on the right is a digital image of the painting I bought.

Table and Flowers 1 

Table and Flowers 2


My reaction, I am embarrassed to say, matched my grandson’s.  I grumbled, “I liked it the way it was. It was perfect.  Why did he touch it?”

When rationality returned sometime later, I knew I had to get to know the painting now hanging on my living room wall, not the image.  And, to be honest, I would have had to do this anyway, even if Ed Loper had not changed a thing, because the painting hanging on my living room wall is not the same as either of the digital images above.  That is the frustrating, but true, fact we have to remember when we look at digital images.  A digital image bears the same resemblance to an original painting as a description of sex bears to the actual sensuous encounter—a very different experience. 

We must work with what we have.

List what you see as the differences, and then compare your list to my list below.

  1. Painting 2, at first glance, looks cooler.  This results from the application of cerulean blue in the wall unit, the plant in the left corner, and the addition of a carpet on the floor.

2.     Painting 2 looks lighter.  The drama of Painting 1, a result of the darker background wall setting off the sharp brightness of the chair cushion and the tabletop, now has become a softer, more suffused, pinkish glow.

3.     What Painting 2 lost in color drama it gained in spatial drama: the space opens up on the right because the table is smaller and the floor unit now contains two deep pink bands that push back in space.  Moreover, the tabletop now tilts further up rather than sweeps downward to the right.  The “surfboard” has become an elevated rounded oval on which the objects precariously hang.

4.     That plant. When I first saw Painting 2, that one unit disappointment me the most. In Painting 1, the plant swelled, pulsed, and danced as it connected to and “rode” the “surfboard.”  Soutine-like in exuberance, its energy captivated me. In Painting 2, it quietly glows in a cool fusion of greens, blues, and violets, creating puffs of luminous, rounded, volumes receding into the corner.  To give the devil his due, this does make sense from the point of view of reality.  That said, it also makes sense from the point of view of rhythm: those “puffs” now connect to the flowers on the right, the fruit in the bowl on the table, and the foliage outside the window.

5.     The tablecloth, the unit that established the rhythms of bands and stripes in Painting 1, no longer sparkles in Painting 2 but, instead, resonates with a depth and richness of oranges, yellows, reds, and greens that reoccur in the edges of the picture frames, the chair slats, the cabinet, and the stripes on the floor.  The tablecloth also possesses a more illustrative lacy edge, and that “lacy-ness,” as a color unit, connects with the pattern on the flowerpot on the cabinet as well as the patterns of foliage outside the window.

What we have here is a slight variation on the same picture idea.  Painting 1, I said, was not a picture of a dining room, but a series of luminous, sparkling, fiery, geometric, solid, color units that push and pull through relatively deep, color-in-light space.

Painting 2 is not a picture of a dining room, but a series of luminous, rich, warm, geometric, solid, color units that push and pull through deep, color-in-light space.

When I asked Ed Loper why he felt the need to “re-paint” Painting 1, he shrugged and said, “I did not feel satisfied.  Something was wrong.  So I fixed it.”

I eagerly anticipate my getting to know Painting 3, the one hanging on my living room wall.