Monday, September 14, 2015

Cezanne & Pissarro in Pontoise

This morning I spent a fascinating hour or two contemplating images of paintings by Cezanne and Pissarro side by side, as they were when the two artists created them together in a Paris suburb beginning in the early 1860s.

Such different approaches to the same scene ... Cezanne left, Pissarro right.

Perhaps by necessity, they were rebels, bohemians, outsiders both, intent on shattering prevailing ideas about painting and about beauty. Newly arrived in Paris at the age of 22, Cezanne played the provocateur, flaunting his outsider, country-bumpkin status like a hipster in flannel and a lumberjack beard (or, as an astute New York Times reviewer of the show lovingly described him, "a furious misfit with the face of a hobbit, the mind of a scholar, and the mouth of a (dockworker).". He'd been packed off to Paris to study law, but instead he enrolled in painting classes at a walk-in art school.

Cezanne, left, Pissarro right, same delft vase.

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro was a Dutch citizen, a Jew born in the West Indies, who grew up learning French in an all-black school; he was shunned by the local rabbi because his father'd come to the island to deal with the estate of a deceased uncle and ended up staying and marrying the man's creole widow (his niece by marriage). Pissarro was one of the few artists or students in Paris who didn't either avoid, disparage, or make fun of Cezanne, so friends and allies they became.

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro was nine years older than Cezanne, a restless innovator with a single-minded drive to redefine painting that would eventually allow scholars to recognize him as the "pivotal" figure in avant-garde painting of the time. He sought out radical teachers like Courbet, settling eventually on Corot, but soon outgrew the soft focus approach with work that had the plein-air plainness of Daubigney - and "the future geometry of Mondrian" (Cotter).

Cezanne (l.), Pissarro (r.)

Pissarro afterward anchored and unified the young Impressionists, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas, and then pushed into the new territory of Post Impressionism, a father figure to Seurat, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gaugin. Cezanne's work fits into the Modernist narrative as a turning away from Impressionism, but Cezanne was working it out with Pissarro as early as 1866 (the first Impressionist exhibition wasn't until 1874).

Again, same houses.

In Pontoise, the Paris suburb where Pissarro lived, the two painters often painting the same motif, sometimes in fundamentally different ways, a bit like Picasso and Braque, who together invented Cubism, picking up where the earlier odd couple left off ("My one and only master," Picasso called him, "Cezanne was like the father of us all").

Although the exhibition of 2006 has come been and gone, the Museum of Modern Art keeps a wonderful interactive catalogue parked on their website that's well worth poking around in. It's even got details of the brushwork of each painting. The article I cited above by Holland Cotter's great too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lisa Noonis' TIDAL at the Banks Gallery

Painter Lisa Noonis, who's a friend of mine, has hit it out of the park with a new series of beach-based paintings being exhibited in a show opening this Thursday (August 27, 2015) at Portsmouth's Banks Gallery.

The paintings (in oil) are large, semi-abstract evocations of the oceanside - sometimes overcast, sometimes that summer saltwater ritual close to my own Long Island-born heart, the proverbial "beach day." But they are never conventional or cliche.

I've admired Lisa's work for as long as I've been painting. Her work has tons of vitality, and it's very evocative for me - I connect right to it (she consciously paints in an "open" way, suggesting rather than declaring or describing with unnecessary detail, an approach that invites the viewer to complete the picture). Her work is wonderfully painterly - she revels in the material, the textures and colors of paint. She often constructs volumes in her paintings with color changes rather than shading, applying lush brushstrokes in patches, somewhat in the manner of Cezanne

Lisa and I found ourselves in a master class with Eric Aho some time ago, and since then we've been toying with a similar landscape painting process. The idea is to mount a "campaign" on a particular place (in Lisa's case, it's the beach), the first stage of which is to paint in front of the motif every day, en plein air. 

The second stage is to again paint the motif in the studio, but this time from memory, on a much larger scale, and with the goal not of painting what it looked like but what it felt like; that is, to paint imaginative equivalents, rather than pictures of, nature. This approach has the advantage of comprehending the innovations of modernism and abstraction. 

I wrote the essay for the catalogue that accompanies Lisa's show. I love these beach paintings -- I think they're Lisa's best work to date and my favorite of the many paintings of hers that I've enjoyed (I'm happy to say I own three small originals). 

The show's up through September, 2015, and the essay text that I wrote is online here, at The Banks Gallery blog

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Clyfford Still

1962-D by Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still's large abstract canvases initially predated the abstract expressionism of Rothko and Pollock, between which Still occupies a middle ground. His uncompromising work is about pure experience at its elemental extreme, the profundity of a Rembrandt stripped of imagery. 

He shunned fame and stated in his will that his 2,000+ paintings be kept under lock and key for 40 years after his death and then shown publicly only if a museum, without a cafe or a gift shop, could be built with the sole purpose of  housing them. That museum was built in Denver just four years ago (2011).

Most of Still's paintings, executed in palette knife and all untitled, reflect a stylized iconography of veils or flames in which everything trivial, personal, or transitory is smothered or burned away. In the above painting a jagged red shape not unlike a sun butns either in front of or behind ragged black and white veils.

“I hold it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which will aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision can be achieved. . .and I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”  — Clyfford Still

"Thus all concentrates....Let us stun and astonish the intruding rabble of men and books and institutions by a simple declaration of the divine fact." -Emerson

Monday, July 20, 2015

Six Tips on Landscape (and other kinds of) Painting

Rockwell Kent, Moonlight in the Adirondacks. 
1. The late Canadian landscapist Robert Genn suggested that, “rather than go with your first choice in a composition, go with your second choice.” Why? I think because we’re scared little puppies and we want to be told we’re good artists, so we stand there summoning up every bit of what we know works before we even beginBut the first composition that “comes to you” is probably one you’ve received from paintings you’ve studied and liked. "It’s likely to be in your comfort zone, but it is your second choice that will stretch your capabilities and expose new creativity. How to do this?" Genn suggests the following: “slowly rotate yourself in a full circle, taking every possibility into consideration. Sort out and at least anticipate the potentials of every angle before you start.”

Sometimes it'll just click. Something jumps out at you and suddenly you can imagine the the general outline of the finished piece, even though you have no idea how to even start - and that's your painting. 

The Flying Dutchman, by Albert P. Ryder

2. Feel, don’t think, your brushstrokes. Try to occupy your mind by imaginatively entering into your subject. Feel your subject in your imagination and let your hand follow. Painting is about expressing a feeling. Allow your feelings, not just your eye or your head, to move your hand. Paint from your arm, not your wrist. There will be time for fussing - er, I mean "polish" - later.

Stuart Shils, Urban Landscape, An Unexpected Place, 2012
available at Somerville Manning Gallery
3. Mix colors promiscuously, apply them relationally. Pare down your palette to the primaries and a few earths, forget "color theory" and just play. Be an alchemist - mix nameless colors (as Eric Aho is fond of saying). Make a color and put it on the canvas. Make another one and place it next to the first one. NO FEAR. It isn't possible to mix "mud." Don't believe me? Look at the foreground color in the square that's front and center in the painting by Stuart Shils above. Well, yeah, that's "mud color," but it only makes the painting better when you notice it: look how well it relates to the surrounding colors, especially the warm pale yellow immediately above and the deep, electric violet to the bottom right. Paint that is the color of mud is beautiful and absolutely right when placed on a canvas relationally and with intention. "Mud" (the bad kind) is something that happens not on the palette but on the canvas when you smear colors together, usually because you're using numerous brushstrokes in a desperate effort to "fix" something (I think in most such cases the cause of the trouble isn't with the color you've put on but with its value. We end up trying to blend it into submission (resulting in muddy colors) - much better is to take off the stroke, remix the color to the proper value, and put it back fresh). Ideally: "Put it on and leave it on." 

Eric Aho, March

4. Design, design, design. Pay more attention to what’s happening on the canvas than to what’s “out there.” Consider everything - color, shape, value, stroke - in relation NOT to exactly what's "there"  in the world but to everything else on the canvas. Reject received compositions. Be a brilliant composer. Improvise: Play jazz. Ultimately, it’s not accuracy or faithfulness to the visible (to a particular marsh, mountain foliage color, or ocean wave), but what ends up on the canvas that makes the painting live or die. 

Jake Berthot

5. Maintain a dialogue with the painting. To open up this dialogue you have stop frequently, after every few strokes. Consider what’s just happened and instead of worrying about how to fix it, ask what it suggests about what might happen next. React imaginatively - yes, to your subject - but also to each new relationship of color and brushwork that you create. Everything you do changes the equation; the sooner you notice how it’s adding up, the better you’ll feel at the end. Oil paintings are infinitely changeable, and creativity ultimately mysterious - but if you can stop insisting that it it's your way or the highway, your painting may just start leading you where you really want to go (whether you know it or not).

Samsara (oil, 12x12") Zhaoming Wu, 2015
available at Abend Gallery
6. Sit at the feet of masters. Not literally; I mean find the paintings that humble and excite you, that make your head explode, that make you say "Yes - THAT'S painting." They don't have to be by dead people (though some of them probably should be). Just let yourself be blown away by what an artist you've encountered has achieved. This isn't the time to ask "how?" Just feel it. Take it in. Look long. "Listen" to the painting, in part and in whole. See what someone has done, take a deep breath, and remember how it makes you feel. Implicitly understand the "why" - the only answer to which you need to know is: "Because Damn - that's PAINTING."

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Railway, 1844

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wolf Kahn: Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently spent an hour with Wolf Kahn for a profile I’ve written for Art New England, which will be published in the September/October 2015 issue. I wound up with a lot of good material that wasn’t going to make it in. Here are the quotes as I wrote them down (though not necessarily in order). All of the paintings are, of course, by Wolf Kahn.

On why he chose and stuck consistently with landscape: Always gnawing the same bone allows me to have a coherent development. Of course, you know, only after 70 years does that appear.

I tried to paint the figure, but I found out that if you needed an extra limb you’d have to be Michelangelo to do it. In landscapes you can add another limb and no one is the wiser.

I was a faithful (Hans) Hofmann student. Probably I still am. 

I thought I was going to be like Bonnard and van Gogh, who painted everything (landscapes, the figure, the still life) but I found out that it was in landscape that I could contribute, that I had something personal to say. I painted a painting called “The Artist On the Way to the Motif” - but it didn’t have the artist in it. I kept painting him in and out and in again. Finally I painted him out all together. Then I was home free.

I’m interested in an overriding rhythm. I’m trying to get beyond intention. As soon as you have a brush in your hand you have a tool that’s going to make you descriptive. I didn’t want to be a descriptive artist.

I never think about color. Color came as a byproduct of other concerns. 

I thought of myself as a formalist, building recognizable structures - that would arrive at their meaning easily. 

I’m not a programmatic painter. I try to let things happen. 

I try to do things I haven’t done before and that I haven’t seen other people do and that allow me to be surprised.

If it’s a surprise for me, it might be a surprise for the audience.

I never had any kind of program. 

Like T.S. Eliot said, immature artists are influenced, mature artists steal. Who did he steal from? Oh, well Rembrandt, Kokoshka first, Bonnard, van Gogh, Vuillard... 

More recently I’ve allowed myself to become very influenced by Jackson Pollock - his process of painting was that he didn’t want to know what his painting would look like when it was done. 

I like to paint. I go to the studio, I go out with my friend Raymond in his Volvo, and we drive around till we find a place that’s conducive to work. How do you know it’s conducive? Until you see some relationship between things, and you can start out that way.

People say there’s a spiritual element in my painting. But I say if there is, you put it there.

People think that I’m painting Vermont, but I keep saying I’m painting paintings. 

What really interests me now is to create textures. I’m still painting the landscape, but I find the more stuff I put on, the better the painting. 

On the influence of abstract expressionism: It gave a certain weight to being an artist - What did you have to go on? Some kind of idea of accident and beauty and strength, and trying to stay away from description. 

On not becoming an abstract expressionist painter: I found out that the fact that I liked to draw kept getting in the way. I was always a hotshot draughtsman. I didn’t want to make that sacrifice. 

But I wanted to draw with as much freedom as I could possibly could. As soon as you TRY to describe something you’re already abrogating that freedom. 

I was always on the edge of abstraction without being an abstract painter. I was always interested in the brushstroke and the way different forms appeared on the surface. 

On the oft-proclaimed “death of painting”: You know, I went to school with Alan Kaprow and he said, “Every brushstroke I make reminds me of another artist.” So he quit painting and became a “Happenings” guy, and he said, “Painting is dead.” But at the same time we had a show in San Diego, and he gave a lecture in which he said some very nice things about my paintings. So what is that quote - about how only a fool would not permit himself to hold two contradictory ideas in one head? (His assistant later dug up the quote in question - Wolf was thinking of Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”) 

What advice would you give to beginning painters? To express enthusiasm, which literally means to be inspired by the gods. The most important thing is the capacity to feel and express enthusiasm. Allow whatever enthusiasm you have - whatever it is - to come into your work.

I have a feeling painting is its own discipline, has its own language. Painting is one of the things that makes life more interesting. It’s like talking in public - you try to make painting as interesting as baseball. It is like some exciting sport - painting has its own set of rules. You don’t really get to know them all, but you can sure as hell see when they’re being violated or not considered. 

But I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I think of myself as a workman.

The official art world doesn’t recognize my work because it’s not provocative - I’ve never tried to be provocative. I think when you paint you should be wearing your best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes - so that the best of you comes out rather than things that are going to shake people up. I never wanted to shake people up .... shaking myself up, yes!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Moving the Eye - A Study in Sargent

Though known for his masterful paint handling and virtuosity in rendering light and texture, John Singer Sargent created striking, original compositions that did not rely on previous models or inherited rules of thumb. In fact, all of the "bravura brushwork" for which he is justly celebrated would be for naught -- if not for the unsung abstractions beneath those gorgeous surfaces.

John Singer Sargent, Venice boats, a watercolor

For me this painting by Sargent suggests the state of feeling very much alive, as when visiting a new place on vacation, where one's transported out of the everyday dullness of ordinary life. It's a moment of mild astonishment at the sparkling visual spectacle of life fully lived and fully seen.

The motif matters little (he has invested Venice's harbor with no metaphorical or symbolic value). Yet Sargent firmly places the moment's lively, semi-chaotic (physical!) properties fully at the service of the overall feeling expressed: the jostling boats, with their counterpoised rigging, prows, and sails, the gondolas' sweeping shapes, the marching masts' verticals vs. the rounded ropes and gondolas'  horizontality, and the arabesques of light and shadow on the water together convey visual excitement and beautifully "capture the moment" (a phrase I abhor, as it pretty much glosses over the whole astonishing reality that is painting).

Rather than teach my students the stock of familiar compositions, I try to encourage spontaneity within certain limits. By "stock" compositions, I'm thinking of the type illustrated in the pages of Edgar Payne's overpriced and out of print Composition of Outdoor Painting, the diagrammatic heart of which I've posted here for your downloading pleasure (it's a PDF of four pages of illustrated compositional strategies and if you don't know it, you should - it's definitely worth internalizing).

Creativity loves limits. The limits I impose on myself and my students are pretty simple, and come down to 1. fit the form to the content, but move the eye through the painting (and not out of it) and 2. create variety within unity (vary everything - size, shape, color, placement, temperature, tonality, marks/strokes, etc). I try to resist known compositional strategies, but I'm not often as successful as I'd like to be. Let's look at how Sargent accomplishes these things in the watercolor above.

Sargent's composition is original; he isn't repeating the successes of others. He always seems to bring out and cunningly arrange intriguing tensions and rhythms within his motif.

Sargent has set the gondola in the middle of the painting apart by contrasting its light with the more shadowy forms surrounding it. He has placed the greatest point of contrast here as well. And while there's no "rule of thirds" here and no obvious "point of interest" these help create a subtle one, as we'll see. Instead, there's a virtual choreography of the surface that I've tried to indicate with arrows and numbers.

At 1 or 2, the bottom of the canvas, the eye enters the painting and jumps toward the center cluster of connected shapes via the strongly directional prow of the boat on the lower left.  Much of the painting's immediacy and excitement come from the way "our" boat's prow is jutting up from the viewer's space into the picture plane - a hallmark of Italian Baroque painting.

at 2, a directional line (perspective is used to create its directional thrust INTO the picture) along the rope swoops in from the right like a roller coaster with enough propulsion to carry us up to the far left corner and then, at 3., down again and to the right.

At 4, we might end up leaving the painting if not for the masterful use of the gondola's graceful curving shape to scoop us up and cary us to the top right until gently returning us back to the center and starting point, which we now realize happens to be...

5. one of two figures, not at all visible at once. It's true the painting's lightest lights and darkest darks are here, in one of the "power quadrants" of the picture. And yet, the figures are only suggested (the female, to the right, though dead center in the painting, is so enveloped in light that I only noticed her after doing this analysis). In fact, it's so subtle a "point of interest" that it becomes only a brief resting place for the eyes which immediately continue circulating in and around the picture, creating that lively feeling of interest and dazzle we identified at the beginning.

It's a good idea to do studies like this of great painters' compositions once in a while, I think. I think it's preferable to memorizing lists of basic "design principles" said to inform good composition, especially as no one can seem to agree once and for all what those principles are anyway.