Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Surprise of the New

Recently, I attended a talk about the traditions in Harry Sefarbi’s work given by the Violette de Mazia Foundation’s Director of Education Bill Perthes.  The Wayne Art Center currently has Sefarbi’s work on exhibit, and Bill provided a thorough, interesting, and informative look at several of the paintings on display to illustrate how, as he put it, “Qualities and elements from the great traditions of painting unconsciously found their way back into [Sefarbi’s] pictures, reimagined and reinvented.” (See “Harry Sefarbi: Artist and Teacher,” by clicking here:  Harry Sefarbi). 

At some point between the talk and the next morning, I connected the Maurice Prendergast class I will teach at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in several days and what Bill said about stacked space in Sefarbi’s and Prendergast’s work. 

Here is the Prendergast painting:

Maurice Prendergast, Central Park, c. 1914-15, Met

Here is the Sefarbi painting in the exhibit:

Sefarbi, Untitled 1, 2007, Oil on panel

Now the hard work began, and since I have been writing about how hard it can be and how time consuming it is to uncover the art in a painting, I wondered why I felt both excited to do it and afraid to do it in equal measure. 

Those conflicted feelings accompany this work, but I forge ahead because I learn new ways of seeing, or what I have called Informed Perception, and what Violette de Mazia called Learning to See.  Quite literally, paintings teach me to perceive ordinary, everyday visual experience in new and interesting ways.  Paintings educate my vision.  In my previous post (Re-molding Visual Reality to Our Heart’s Desire), Dr. Barnes described his experience this way: “paintings stretch to the beholder’s personal vision which they progressively develop.”  In other words, we see more in paintings if our personal vision increases, and our personal vision increases because we see more in the works of art. 

Let’s look at the Prendergast first:

Horizontal bands interwoven with vertical curvilinear rich color shapes provide the framework for a crowded orchestration of in and out movement in shallow space.  The lower, narrow, green band, followed by the wider, creamy white one, followed by the wider still yellow-green band, culminates in the barely visible blue-white band.  The vertical units seem pasted to each background band, but the figures, horses, tree trunks, and buggy wheels move forward enough to act as repoussoir units creating a slight depth of space. 

The canopy of foliage at the top, constructed of small, rectilinear dabs of overlapping color units assist the space recession of the carriages, horses, and figures peeking through the pockets of space divided by the purple tree trunks.    

If you have trouble seeing this, examine this detail:

Now examine this detail of the lower section of the painting:

Figures, horses, and carriages are set in multiple positions: figures walk both left and right, stand, sit, and ride in carriages; horses move from right to left then turn slightly upwards at the left of the canvas as another horse and rider enters and moves to the right.

In one color unit, the lines demarcating the bench slats run over the figure giving it a vaporous quality.

A variety of line binds and sets off each color unit.  In places, it is thin and broken; in other places, it is wide and sinewy.  In all cases, the line rhythmically continues and enhances this painting’s theme: a curvilinear procession of glowing, vivid, color units moving through a stacked backdrop of banded shallow space that expresses the pageantry of New Yorkers enjoying Central Park on a sunny day. 

Did you catch that phrase: stacked backdrop? 

Now look at Sefarbi’s painting:

In this picture, seven stacked horizontal bands set off groupings of vertical, flattened, sometimes elongated and sometimes boxy, muted color shapes seemingly pasted to a band, slipped into it, or bobbing in front of it.  The top band suggesting gray sky, and the rippling sallow green band suggesting the ocean, set off tiny “pebbly” blobs of peachy ochre interspersed with touches of red and cerulean blue suggesting people cavorting in the surf. 

Here is a detail of the top bands:

Sefarbi’s deft touches of tiny dabs of peachy ochre fully express the frolicking movement of individual people and small groups of people, an expressively decorative essence of a sunny day at the beach.

That said, what do you make of the band to the left?

Here is the painting again:

At first, it made no sense to me.  I could see the horizontal divisions of the picture continue through it, and I enjoyed the lower diagonal “family group” sliding into it from the “beach” area.  But I could not see how those stacked tiny curly car shapes fit the theme.  Yes, they repeated with variety colors from the main section of the picture and, yes, they indicated a parking lot with parked cars adjacent to the beach area, but the scale seemed odd and distracting rather than purposeful.

Here is that vertical band by itself:

No matter how long I looked at it, I could not justify it.

I felt frustrated.  I thought of ending this post here, uploading it to my blog, and asking you to email to me your experience with this painting.

Then, as often happens, I began to see.

My analysis so far verified Sefarbi’s ability to achieve space recession without lineal perspective, something he adapted from Prendergast and from the Flemish Tradition, the stacked space seen in Van Eyck’s Last Judgment, in which each figure grouping is viewed head on in its own vertically oriented band of space:

Jan van Eyck, The Last Judgment, 1430, Met

As in Sefarbi’s painting, we perceive deep space in the left panel because the shapes get smaller and smaller and the color gets bluer and bluer toward the top of the painting.

Below is another helpful Prendergast painting:

Maurice Prendergast, The Beach “No. 3,” c. 1914-15, Barnes

Look closely so you can see the weaving of the horizontal background bands to the figures.  The line suggesting the edge of the beach as it meets the “water,” and the lines suggesting the ripples of water attach to the figures at elbows, dress folds, bathing suit patterns, and feet. The groupings of figures, sit, bend, play, and stroll in tightly knit groups. 

Look even more closely at these cropped sections of the top and bottom bands:



Prendergast transformed what were rocks on a beach into a series of coiled color shapes that make their way across the lower band of the picture and get smaller and smaller as they reach the left side.

Prendergast transformed what were clouds in the sky into a series of pebbly, sparkling dabs of color to close off the space recession at the top and rhythmically repeat the pattern at the bottom.

Rocks on a beach, cars in a parking lot: Sefarbi transforms the subject facts of his experience into a series of coiled, lumpy, blobby color shapes that ascend to the upper section of his painting.  His coiled, wiggling, color units saying cars build a visually convincing vertical movement each seen at eye level just as do the leaning, tilting, reclining, sitting figures.   

Here is the Sefarbi painting again:

Look at it now.

If you are like me, you can now enjoy the vertical, gleaming golden bands filling each horizontal one.  You can enjoy the rich, luminous pinks, spots of red, deep blacks, and shiny grays.  The “reclining” figures at the right of the middle band look like a heap of beads, and reminiscent of Matisse’s bronze sculptures of 1907 minus their bulk, their clumped variegated dots, arcs, and squares of color shapes, reinforce and repeat ones seen in every other figure and car. 

In addition, the leaning “family group” of color units on the bottom left are sandwiched between the “beach bands” and the “car bands,” just as “figures” and “figure groups” in the “beach bands” settle in a band, or link several bands together, or project out from a band, establishing a back and forth, in and out, up and down rhythm to the entire picture.

The idea that had escaped me is really quite simple and ingenious:  a rhythmic movement of color-areas and patterns incorporated within a continuous succession of horizontal, glowing, color bands leads the eye back and forth from one part of the picture to another.

When I reached this point in my exploration, I felt satisfied.  More than satisfied, I felt exhilarated.  I looked at this painting as though seeing it for the first time and wondered why I took so long to get here. 

Even better, the rewards kept coming.

A few days ago, the New York Times featured a story on its front page, “As Apprentices in Classrooms, Teachers Learn What Work.”

I spotted this photo:

New York Times, 10/11/14, Page 1, Photo by Jim Wilson

It arrived like a gift, just when I could appreciate it.  Notice the odd perspective created by the camera positioned above the seated children.  Notice the tilted rectilinear “desktops” moving upward and to the right with the rounded heads and shoulders of the seated children popping up at right angles.  Notice the brightly patterned and colorful “mat” on the floor on the right side, its irregular and colorful “state” patterns moving upward and to the left.  Notice the binders on the rectilinear desktops rising upwards in space creating boxy shapes in which the rectilinear white papers, tilted and turned, continue the patterns in space.

Think about whether you would have noticed this photograph or enjoyed its qualities so much if you had not experienced Sefarbi’s painting.

Earlier today, I went to a lecture held in the Comcast Auditorium of the Barnes Foundation.  While I listened to the speaker, I found myself studying the rectilinear backs of the seats as they moved toward the front of the auditorium with the rounded “heads” and coiled shoulders of their sitters creating patterns and colorful groupings between them. 

I would not have noticed that before I struggled with this post.

And that is the surprise of the new.

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