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.

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