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


  1. What I see is that nothing is painted as it was... but was painted as he wanted it to be. You see this in the way the lines curve on places that they should be straight. You see it in what might be described as flashes of light in dark areas. You see it in his color choices... I have an unfair advantage as I was there when he struggled with this work. He and I spent lots of time discussing things... He thought it looked dead and wanted it more alive. I remember the discussion that caused him to move his chair up closer so he could see more reflection in the bottom unit. So my opinions are clouded by memories of our discussions. He did exactly as you described... he painted it his way... not how he had instructed his students during every class. He did not cheat as he might have put it. He had made choices and decisions based on what was impacting him that day. He painted in the moment. He never copied himself or was satisfied to paint how he had... like you said in previous posts... he wasnt sure he could paint any other way than how he did at that moment. He had his "tricks" like using pure colors to add drama... like the pure cerulean blue or his famous Cad Red light that he would flash here and there to give sparkle. I never asked him about these tricks as I just called them, and he only spoke of them occationally, but my guess was they were automatic to him. Like how he spoke or how he walked. It was his way of finishing a sentence.

    I love the composition. I would say it was a blend of traditions... you could say that there was a decided X running from edge to edge... or even the platform, angel, roof, angel... madonna and child too... Nothing quiet about this... from the hot colors to the sliding diagonal lines... even the eggplant looks like it might roll at any second. It's not Cezanne. It's not Renoir or soutine... it has some of their soul, but no bones there... Even carravaggio is whispering in there...

    To me this is an excitement... a shiver of tension, a shout of glee... Not in a crowd, but alone.

  2. In some ways this painting has characteristics I associate with Van Gogh: an explosive exuberance of color and brush strokes. In another way I am reminded of Cezanne, but a failed Cezanne. The severe tilt of the objects sliding off to the right (facing the painting) are not sufficiently held back by an object or opposite tilting line. For me the work lacks the tension of balance/imbalance that keeps your eye constantly moving in cezanne's still lifes. The pears and the persimmon(?) nesting among the bird of paradise flowers are silly. But maybe it was the artist's design to spoof Cezanne. That said, however, doesn't take away for me the pleasure of looking at this painting (oh yeah - reproduction) over and over and joining in its dance!