Wednesday, January 18, 2012

To Thine Own Self Be True

For the past few days, I felt prodded to write another post, not by a new idea, or by a work of art that moved me, but by “hints” from disparate places that seemed directed to me.  One came from a student who asked me to “tell her” exactly what “she was supposed” to see in a picture.  Another came in my horoscope in my local paper (yes, I sometimes read them).  It said: “Your sign mate Ellen DeGeneres said, ‘Stay true to yourself.  Never follow someone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path.  By all means, you should follow that.”

I liked that one.

Then I read in the New York Times (Sunday, January 15, 2012) that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.  In fact, introverts, the psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, are creative by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand.”  They do not get distracted by matters unrelated to work.

Finally, as I was looking for a quote by Dr. Barnes in The Art in Painting, I saw (for the first time after reading this book for more than 45 years) this statement in the preface to the first edition: “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 had no choice.

I had to tackle, again, preference as it relates to aesthetic appreciation.

I say “again” because you might think I exhausted this issue in the past four posts:
(1)  What’s Feeling Got To Do With It? (2) What’s the Subject Got To Do With It?
(3) Subject Facts, Picture Facts, and Us and (4) The Means Justify the End, but this time the emphasis is different.

This time I want to explain how our own reluctance to approach this work by ourselves, in solitude, without listening to what anyone else (particularly an expert) tells us, or what our friends think, or what our teachers say, or what the wall labels tell us, or the headphones tell us, or what we read in books, magazines, and newspapers—that reluctance prevents us from making honest, personal, and creative discoveries.

The analyses you read in these posts are shorter and less scholarly then those in the books and essays written by Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia.  I use fewer allusions.  I write shorter sentences.  I use a simpler vocabulary.  That I do this keeps me up nights.  I agonize over my “shortcomings.”  I worry I do not do justice to the method or the work of art I explain.  Mostly, I feel inferior to their “legacy” and intimidated by the innovative contribution they made to aesthetic appreciation, their dedication to their work, and their fierce defense of their discoveries.

My life would definitely be easier, less stressful, and more fun if I functioned either as a student of Ed Loper or a student of Barnes and de Mazia. 

You are thinking, I am sure: “They are all dead.  You could not have continued as their student.” 

Ah, but I could. 

While Ed Loper and I remained friends, I stopped studying with him 25 years before he died.  I stopped because I had to figure out where his vision ended and mine began. 

As with these posts, for many years I worried my painting suffered.  I feared I did not have what it took to do my work on my own with no help from anyone.  I struggled to make decisions about my work.  Sometimes I had no idea what to do with a picture, and I had to put it away and take it out again a long time later.  I missed his classes, the group of Loper students who hung out together, traveled together, and had parties together.  I felt lonely.

What kept me going was Ed Loper’s life story.  He taught himself. He worked alone.  He hit dead ends.  And he kept working.  He may have been a tyrant to his students, and he definitely liked to paint other people’s pictures by “telling” them what to do, but no one, absolutely no one, told him what to do.  He struggled with his pictures himself. 

Artists do that.

Violette de Mazia believed an artist’s vision was a special and fragile thing.  She told a story of Dr. Barnes and Soutine to make this point.  She said Soutine begged Dr. Barnes for a long time to tell him what his weaknesses were.  Dr. Barnes resisted.  But one day he told Soutine that some of his pictures lacked organization. 

When he returned to see Soutine the following year, Soutine proudly showed him his new work and declared them “better organized.”  However, the Soutine-ness that Dr. Barnes admired—the animation, motion, vividness, intensity, and drama—was compromised.  Dr. Barnes later argued that “the bulk of [Soutine’s] work is very uneven—excess of intensity prevents synthesis of all the parts of the picture into an organic whole, even when individual units are effectively done.” (Art in Painting, 375).  Despite his shortcomings, Barnes said, Soutine, at his best, compared “in strength and dramatic power with important painters of the past and present.” 

Dr. Barnes practiced objective judgment.  This results in measured evaluation, not adoration.

If, therefore, I had continued to act like a student of Ed Loper even after I no longer studied with him, and I did not attempt to find out what interested me and how to solve my own aesthetic problems, I would have been a “Loperino,” an acolyte making pictures that were more his than mine.  Better to make bad Bauman’s than derivative Loper’s, I told myself.

Same thing with these posts.  If all I did here was summarize what I learned at the Barnes Foundation, I doubt you would be reading them.  They are not as learned or groundbreaking as my predecessors’ explanations, but they are mine.  They grow out of my experience. 

Here is my point.  If you do not approach a picture and see it as a challenge you can confront, as an adventure you are equipped to undertake, or as work you and you alone are able to do, you will continue to rely on what others say, what I say, what other readers say, and you will not gain confidence by jumping in and doing the best you can.  What do you have to lose?  Maybe you will feel embarrassed if you miss something important in a picture, but as far as I can tell, there is nothing life threatening about this.

For the start of this New Year, I invite you to look at this painting by Edward Loper, Sr.  As always, see what you see.  Spend some time with it.  Turn it upside down if that helps.  Do this before you read my next post.

As Warren Buffet says, “Put some skin in the game.”  Do not sit back and wait for me or anyone else to do this work for you. 

If you wish, share your discoveries with me via e-mail (click here).  I look forward to hearing from you.
The Magnificent Bouquet, 2009, Private Collection

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lost Art and How to Restore It

My New Year began with a treat.  My granddaughter, Lily, a third grader, attends Schuylkill Elementary School.  Each month, her teacher invites a “mystery reader” to come in and read a book to the class.  Before the event, she provides some clues to the reader’s identity.  The children try to guess who it is.

My clues were: someone who works with colors; someone who likes to go to museums; someone who makes things to see.

On January 3, Lily guessed it was me.

I read When Pigasso met Mootisse by Nina Laden, a delightful tale of Pigasso, a talented pig, meeting Mootisse, an artistic bull, and their relationship.

At the end of the book, biographies of Matisse and Picasso tell the “real” story.

In the real story, Matisse said this to Picasso: “We must talk to each other as much as we can.  When one of us dies, there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.”

That gave me pause.

While I never said those exact words to Ed Loper (see the post Mysticism in Art), I certainly understand their veracity.  What are the “things” artists talk about with each other?  Why are they unable to talk with anyone else about them?

Here’s why.

I brought in a few of my paintings to show the students.  They wanted to know: (1) If I was famous; (2) How much each painting cost; (3) How long it took to paint each one.

I told them none of that mattered to me, that fame and fortune were overrated.  I painted pictures because I loved the process.  When I see a world full of color and meaning, I am happy.  I told them it was hard work, but my reward came when someone looked at one of my pictures and appreciated it, enjoyed it by understanding it.  I told them each picture took 70 years to paint, because that is how long I have been seeing.

Their eyes glazed over.

This is heady stuff for 8 year olds.

But it is what Ed and I would discuss. 

When I visited him a few weeks before he died, I told him I wrote about his picture Table and Flowers (see Pentimento).   I asked him why he no longer “fractured” his spatial planes.  I asked him why he now adapted visual ideas from Renoir and Bonnard rather than CĂ©zanne. 

He told me he could not paint “that way” anymore. 

“Could not, or would not?” I questioned.  “Could not,” he said.  “I see differently now,” he told me.

“But you always argued Renoir was a dead end.  You said he did not leave any ideas for other artists to develop.” 

He gave me one of his “looks,” a combination of a smirk and a challenge: “I haven’t the least idea.  You figure it out,” he said.

And so it went.  We talked about the loneliness of making pictures.  We talked about how hard it was, as time went on, to feel inspired.  We talked about the strength of our interest in doing the work.

When I read to him what I had written about his picture, he thanked me.  He said, “I had no idea I did all that.”

The best compliment I ever received.

Dr. Barnes said:

To see as an artist sees is an accomplishment to which there is no short cut, which cannot be acquired by any formula or trick; it requires not only the best energies of which we are capable, but a methodical direction of those energies, based upon scientific understanding of the meaning of art and its relation to human nature. (Art in Painting, 7)  

This New Year, I thank Albert Barnes, Violette de Mazia, Angelo Pinto, Harry Sefarbi, Barton Church, and Edward Loper for inviting me into their world.  Their teaching and/or writing and painting informed my vision and my life. 

You, the readers of and responders to these posts, by your commitment to this process, continue the conversation.  We talk of “these things” with each other, and in so doing, according to Dr. Barnes, we build up the habits of perception and background which admit us to the world of aesthetic experience.