Thursday, February 2, 2012

The How and the Why

Dr. Megan Hunt, the testy medical examiner played by Dana Delany on ABC’s Body of Proof, in a recent episode, told a forensic pathology student she must “first find the how and then the why.”

We must do this too.

In a former post (What to Look for in Art, Cont’d), I quoted John Ciardi.  In his book, How Does a Poem Mean? Ciardi argues poems hold their meanings in the relationships among their means.  To understand poems, you must know the language of word sounds.

For us as well, the question needing an answer is not “what does a picture mean?” but “how does a picture mean?”  We learn and use the language of color.

If we were a forensic pathologist doing an autopsy, therefore, we would first determine how the person died.  Then we would try to find out why (and, in the case of the TV show, by following the clues our forensic scrutiny revealed, we would figure out who committed the murder). 

If we think of our work as doing an autopsy on a picture, we first determine how its body of color evidence looks: (1) its relationships of light, line, color, and space and what qualities those relationships express; (2) its composition or plan; (3) its rhythms and motifs.  In other words, we dissect it, and we look for clues.

We are not looking for a cause of death.  Quite the opposite.  We are looking to bring alive its visual sensuous information, its aesthetic meaning. 

Only after we do that are we able to ask why: why was it all done this way? And the answer to that question reveals the BIG IDEA, the visual experience recorded in the picture.

In the last post (To Thine Own Self Be True), I asked you to examine this picture by Edward L. Loper, Sr.
The Magnificent Bouquet, 2009, Private Collection

The first time I saw this picture, I feel in love with its vivid reds and its luminosity.

I started, therefore, with a preference.  However, as Dr. Barnes said in The Art in Painting, “…the method gives results as objective as possible within any field of aesthetic experience and…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.”

Let’s see if I can be objective.

First, I always turn pictures upside down:

Now when I look at it, I see shallow, almost claustrophobic space.  I start questioning myself: seems like a hodge-podge of colors without a focus; confusing; a jumble.

That surprises me.  Why did I like it so readily when it was right side up, and now I can’t find a place to start?  Since I can’t answer this question, I keep looking.

As I do, I notice that units start to move backwards: in the frontal plane a circular mass of red, orange, and yellow color strips joins forces with a dark flattened rectangle (aka the vase), a dark ovoid volume (aka eggplant) and a curly medium blue funnel (aka drapery) that wraps around all three units.  This entire unit floats in front of the darkened background to its right.  To its left, another lighter gray/white rectangle (aka cloth) slips back pushing forward the white bowl of red grapes.  The entire ensemble sits on a tilted forward pushing ledge backed by a vertical brownish rectangle.  Behind all this, an amorphous dark space causes the entire structure to float.

It reminds me of the pop-up books my grandchildren love, and how the  contents jump out when they open them. 

Ah, I think: drama.  A color drama of rich, vivid, glowing units set in subtle spatial intervals and looming forward.

That’s a start.

If you analyze what I just did, you will see how I study a picture.  It is not the only or the best way; it is my way.

You may find making lists of the plastic means (the light, line, color, and space) works best for you.  So long as you are looking at color units in space and not flowers and fruit, you can’t go wrong.

After that start, I go on.  Upside down, I now see strips of color applied side by side.  The strips build each unit.  Look at the following (right side up) cropped enlargement:

Each color unit orchestrates strips of color.  If these color strips look familiar to you, as they did to me, you are thinking Van Gogh. 

Look at this picture:

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1887, Rijksmuseum
Notice how Van Gogh builds color units by applying strips of color side by side, not just in the sunflowers but also in the background.

The difference, however, between Loper’s ribbonlike brush strokes and Van Gogh’s is that Loper’s are not linear.  Van Gogh draws lines to create a striking pattern of line and color.  Loper pulls his bands, or applies them with a heavier application of pigment.  This results in a less decorative statement and a more expressive one.  Van Gogh contrasts the dynamic quality of his banded streaks of striking, vivid color units producing an active, lively color statement, but the result is not as moving aesthetically compared to Loper’s more structurally powerful form. 

The reds in the Loper attracted some of you.  Beth Ann Kessler saw a similarity between Loper’s reds and those of Biagio Pinto.  What do you think?

Biagio Pinto, Modernist Still Life, 50 x 40 inches, n.d., Private Collection
Full disclosure: Biagio Pinto (1911-1989), was born in Philadelphia, studied at the School of Industrial Arts and the Barnes Foundation as well as in England, France, Italy, and Spain.  Two of his five brothers, Angelo and Salvatore, were painters.  Angelo Pinto was my traditions' instructor at the Barnes Foundation.

Tom Del Porte said this about the Loper:

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.

Diana Meyers Bennett Roberts said this:

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. That said, however, doesn't take away for me the pleasure of looking at this painting over and over and joining in its dance!

These all are good places to start.  As you keep looking, fueled now by your interest and clues, you will find more and more either to support or refute your hypothesis.

As I continue my adventure, I see the twisted yellow strips now at the top (of the inverted picture).  I enjoy their bony finger-like projections setting off the receding space between the “digits.”  I see how the spatial recessions are subtle and shallow, reinforcing my original picture idea. 

Then I find their repetitions in the bird of paradise units, in the crenelated edges of the flowers, and in the spiky trio of color units now at the bottom.  These rhythms create aesthetic satisfaction.  I enjoy them.

Continuing my exploration, I look to see what holds this picture together.  I am curious if my upside down picture unifies and balances.  The more I look, the more I conclude that, unlike Cézanne, Loper does not resolve a perceived imbalance by creating an architectonic structure to pull the units into equilibrium.  That downward and right tilt of what was a table top with its right and left sides creating a perspective push back in space is so tilted the entire picture seems off balance.

And then I look some more: the markings on that rectilinear unit of tabletop, like rescue girders, pin each color unit in place.  Look below the white bowl on the right (right side up now).  See that vertical pinkish-grey band?  Look at the base of the dark vase.  See that vertical brownish-pink vertical band? Look how the light area to the left of the eggplant skewers the blue-grey cloth.  Look at the leftward tilt of the dark vase.  Notice how all the color units that were flowers follow a darkened path to the top of the picture.

That one darkened pathway pulls all the tilted units leftward and helps balance the entire picture.

You can find many more skewers.  Keep looking.  They all serve the same purpose: to hold the color units in place and to balance the entire picture with an underpinning of directional thrusts. 

Since the reds seduced me, I knew I needed to decide whether they were derivative.  The only way to do this is to determine what Loper gave back to the traditions from which he borrowed. 

In a previous post (Making Connections), I traced Loper’s warm glow back to Renoir and Bonnard. I argued that Loper’s luminosity resulted from dabs of intense, juxtaposed color along with layering of color on color in order to build structurally solid color volumes that lure, beguile, and captivate the eye.  I have not changed my mind.  However, in this picture, the resulting luminosity, the lure of the red, occurs not because of “dabs of intense, juxtaposed color along with layering of color on color” but because of the application of color bands that build volumes coupled with dabs of color applied to them that make them glow.   Biagio Pinto’s vivid, vibrant reds, set off by clean-cut, clear spatial atmosphere, do not smolder.  They achieve their color drama from the contrasts created by the color units around them. 

In this picture, then, the ribbons of color surprised me.  Still, the resulting picture takes its place with Loper’s late work. In all of his pictures of the past 10 years, luminosity unifies the design.  Because of Loper’s adaptation of the broken color of the impressionists via both Cézanne and Renoir, his color strokes tend to echo and repeat each other whether they occur in dabs or strips, creating intricate rhythms that move the eye from one color unit to another.  Continuous successions of color-chords fill each canvas and create a color-in-light suffusion. 

My next post, titled “What’s Next?” will offer you some choices.  I spent four days in New York City recently to celebrate my birthday, and I visited the Met (with its stunning renovated American Wing), MoMA, the Neue Gallerie, and the Frick, along with seeing a David Parsons Dance performance, War Horse (the theatre production, not the movie), "The Artist" (the movie), and the 9/11 Memorial.

I came home with many ideas for future posts.  In the next post, I will share some of them with you and ask you to let me know which ones I should pursue.


  1. Marilyn,
    I don't often go on your posts, but I do at times because you move me to say things that I will regret; but since we are friends, you will forgive me. You do manage to take the mystery out of discovering for oneself. Reading your new post made me feel like I just witnessed a complicated surgery. I appreciate your extensive research, but I will forever remain interested in finding inspiration in not knowing.

    1. Thanks Mitch for responding.

      I love what you said. Spoken like the true artist you are.

      Miss de Mazia ofen told the artists taking her classes at the Barnes Foundation that when they were working on their own pictures, they must NEVER do the analytical work she was teaching us how to do or even think about it.