Friday, February 6, 2015

Gerhard Richter: Art is Still "Sublime"

Gerhard Richter, Abstrakt Bild (1980)
Gerhard Richter is probably the world's leading painter - not just because of his dazzling technical virtuosity, but for his work's important insights into the nature of seeing and picture-making. Then there's the range of what he's done; there's very little progressive contemporary painting that Richter hasn't already done, implied, or rendered irrelevant. It's like what a friend of mine told me about B.B. King's reaction to Stevie Ray Vaughn's playing: "The kid never runs out of ideas!" 

His output at first glance appears a bit schizophrenic - much of it is polarized between, on the one hand, the hyper-realism of paintings that pretend to be photos and on the other "random" abstractions created by purely mechanical means such as dragging a giant squeegee through the paint.  The constant? the work deceptively appears to circumvent the hand of the artist. But the reality is quite different and at once more comforting and complex: it has everything to do with Richter's "eye" (his vision for painting) and the artist, of course, is always and intensely present. 

Richter's paradoxical practice, always in a sense about the nature of painting now, has succeeded in proving painting's ongoing relevance even as choruses of art world authorities continue to proclaim its death.

Gerhard Richter, Lesende (Reader), 1994
As it has many times over his long (60 year) career,  Richter's work has morphed again into two totally disparate modes: this time, apparently chance-induced paint pouring on one hand and algorithmic digital manipulation based on one of his paintings on the other (for example, see the "Strip" painting below). There's an insightful a little interview and write up in the Wall St. journal on his latest work and the new London Gallery it's put on the map. 

Gerhard Richter, one of the new poured works

Richter says, "Hope and belief are…unique to humans. Animals don’t go around hoping. [Religion] slowly broke down over time. Perhaps starting right before Nietzsche. And nowadays there aren’t many believers. But there’s an unbroken urge to believe—whether in Prada, or some other brand of clothing, or in anything.... "

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting

"Abstract pictures do indeed show something, they just show things that don’t exist. But they still follow the same requirements as figurative works: they need a setup, structure. You need to be able to look at it and say, “It’s almost something.” But it’s actually representing nothing. It pulls feelings out of you, even as it’s showing you a scene that technically isn’t there." -Gerhard Richter

Richter, spry at 82, in front of one of his new "Strips" works.

It's all a glorious, dizzying conundrum. I see abstract painting, if not all painting  as "a secular pilgrimage toward universality," as the WSJ article puts it: "Most of the Ab-Exers shared an impulse to bring the hope of the world into their art." Not Richter. Richter wanted to close the gap between Duchamp and painting, to make objects out of signs without definite referents, confronting us with the inexplicable beauty of our bewildering and often horrific modern lives. 

September, Gerhard Richter
The processes Richter uses to make his paintings are at times themselves a metaphor for human vulnerability, striving, and patient questioning. 

All of Richter's diverse works spring from the same artistic project, namely his 'belief in painting's necessity born of radical doubt in its potential .... a credere quia absurdam' (from St. Aquaina's phrase 'I believe because it is absurd.') Despite his refusal of sentimentality in any form, for Richter art and beauty are humanity's saving graces in the face of often hard-to-bear reality. 

Gerhard Richter, Sphere (note the crouching figure reflected in the steel ball)
As he has said many times, if our better selves are to survive, "we need beauty in all its variations." I'm down with that.

Gerhard Richter, Two Fiats
Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1982

(*A. Borchdardt-Hume, Gerhard Richter Panorama, p. 174)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Successful Failures

For today, just two quotes and some pictures:

Stephanie London
"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

(That's a favorite of mine.) This one's by George Nick, the painter:

"One is usually bewildered by all the sensations of real life. And the impossibility and danger tempts us.... 
Lucien Freud self portrait

... So we struggle like headless chickens flouting madly about at anything to try to succeed...

Ross Blechner, Architecture of the Sky
... That drives us beyond our capabilities and thrills us if we even succeed a little. With dogged practice we bleed and grow.... 

Cy Twombley, "So Says Sarah"

.... We eventually live in a state of constant failure with little sparks of surprises that we do not control or understand and realize we are where we really want to be."

Lennart Anderson, Standing Nude

Onward and upward.
Antonio Lopez Garcia, a still life

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fill in the Blank

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that great art reflects a profound moment of insight into human life. I realize that , depending on your orientation, that may sound totally cliched and wooden, or far too abstract/ivory tower (or just plain too obvious to need stating), but stay with me.

I've recently had the good fortune to see three fantastic artist retrospectives in the past few months - Turner (and the Sea) at the Peabody Essex Museum, M.C. Escher at the Currier Museum in Manchester NH, and Goya at the MFA (the latter two are still up, you should go if you can, and there's a third - Calder - in place of Turner at the PEM). 

Turner, Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, exhibited 1840

They weren't billed as retrospectives but they all surveyed decades of work to trace important developments throughout the artist's career. Each experience (and they were Experiences) reinforced a growing realization: being an artist means gathering up the necessary tools and immediately turning to the work of expressing one's personal view of life. Great art conveys deeply felt ideas about being human, as discovered and embodied in authentic revelations and epiphanies that emerge directly from a life lived within devotion to an artistic practice.

Tracks, MC Escher, 1952

Note "that emerge directly" from the artist's life. This means that while it's essential to immerse oneself in the past and present history of art, one refuses to adopt a second-hand mythology. The images in the work have to come spontaneously from making the work and directly from life experience (though the latter can and should include the experience of great art).

Goya, Yard with Lunatics, 1793-1794,

Unless they're prodigies and effortlessly and rapidly master the tricky business of learning to paint, very few artists ever reach the stage I'm talking about. But I think the reason has less to do with native ability than with intention. There's an awful lot to think about just trying to get something halfway decent from the paint tubes onto the canvas. The way to learn is to study the ways and means of the masters and others whose work you respond to. But to do so is necessarily to take on another's vision as well. And here I'm just talking about technique! The matter of making something meaningful is something else.

Alexander Calder, The Star, 1960

Personally, I've realized that it's admiration for the great works that inspires me to paint  - but it's attention to the craft that continues to dominate my practice. In other words, when I approach a canvas I'm often thinking about things like design, color, and value - or, a step above that, rhythm, feeling, and expression - all of which is exciting and motivating and as likely as not to result in a "keeper." But this I think is why they say one must "learn the rules and forget them" in order to do anything worthwhile - there's so much going on in the act of creation itself.

But when do we finally know enough of the rules to really begin? Naturally, some artists just go on learning and practicing the rules all their lives, producing gorgeous work that sells a ton, never feeling the need to get more than a rumor of meaning into the work. The latter is left for the gods of art. But it seems to me that not losing sight of art's true purpose (to express profound truths about humanity) can't help but make us all better and more earnest painters.

This week I'm going to challenge my weekly studio class to a "fill in the blank" exercise. They're to bring an image to class of a painting that moves them and write a short paragraph or two about it in which they complete the phrase, "this painting expresses the ___________ of life." 

To account for paradox and complexity  there need not be only one word in the blank. For example, I might say that the Calder above expresses both whimsy and the precarious balance of life - I'm seeing this in the amorphous black void on the left opposed to the golden red star on the right and the playfully organic, leaflike shapes, both living (red) and dead (black) that punctuate the spaces between and around them. That's just me, of course, and that's fine. My interpretation tells me as much or more about myself and my concerns as a painter as it does about the work I'm responding to. 

And of course I expect there will be as many visions of life as there are painters and paintings - after all, everyone sees life a little differently from everybody else, no? My theory is that it will tell each of my students a little about why they desire to paint and what might be a fruitful (because personal and thus genuine) direction worth pursuing in their art.

I invite you, given a favorite painting of your own, to try this at home. Surely at least thinking along these lines once in a while can't hurt us mortals of the brush.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Caput Mortuum

With All Hallow's Eve nigh upon us, I'm taking a minute to salute a peculiar color with semi-macabre overtones, a pigment I delight in using called "caput mortuum."

caput mortuum
(Other terms for this pigment are cardinal purple and Mars violet)

The translation of the latin caput mortuum is literally "dead head," or "death's head," a term for the symbolic drawing of a skull (hence the famous Death's Head Moth).

The Death's Head Moth. Why have you gone so silent, my Little Lamb?

(Fun fact: I used to think the word "kaput," meaning broken down or dead, came from "caput" but apparently not. Autocorrect nonetheless insists upon a link between them...)

The term caput mortuum comes from alchemy, where it was used to denote the residue at the bottom of a heating flask after the solution's "nobler" elements had "sublimated." (Alchemists thought in symbolic terms, so it's a metaphor for how the soul was thought to ascend into the Aether after death, leaving the body's material remains behind). The alchemical symbol for the discarded residuum was a death's head, a version of which remained in use by chemists through the eighteenth century.

Symbol for caput mortuum (bottom right) from a ms. by Isaac Newton.
It's made from hematite, the common name of which is "blood ore," a form of iron oxide (rust is also a form of iron oxide, and incidentally, transparent red iron oxide is another color in my box).

Hematite (Blood Ore)
Painters used a version of caput mortuum as a substitute for mummy brown. If you've ever seen a real mummy, you may have noted the intriguing ochre and other warm earth tones of the ancient wrappings; Mummy brown was a pigment made from ground-up bits of mummies, both humans and cats. Artists stopped using it once they learned what was in it! Here's a painting that uses it extensively. Color look familiar, museum goers?

Interior of a kitchen by Martin Drolling, a painting made almost entirely of the pulverized remains of dead Egyptians.
Several brands of caput mortuum can be found, but I stopped at the first one I tried: Old Holland. I love how Old Holland colors mix - they make the most sumptuous and complex grays - and caput is one of the less expensive pigments (around $10 for a regular 40 ml tube). It's so packed with pigment that a single small tube can last me about a year.

Out of the tube, the paint looks the color of dried blood. But mixed with white it becomes a beautiful, moody shade of rose-violet
Caput mortuum mixed with WN's Soft Mixing White
and mixed with almost any blue, it makes the most gorgeous violets and mauves.

Caput mortuum mixed with mixed with WN's Ultramarine Blue and Soft Mixing White
It mixes beautifully with anything, actually, but I'm especially fond of blending it into a warm white (a Titanium/Zinc plus Yellow Ochre, say, or Old Holland's Brilliant Yellow). I love the harmonious contrast between the resulting yellowish-pink in proximity to the mauves and violets you get from mixing it with blue.

Closeup of a painting of mine using various mixtures employing caput mortuum
On a related note, I stumbled upon this mixing chart some guy made using Anders Zorn's very limited (three colors!!) palette (ivory black, cadmium red deep, and yellow ochre + white used as a value-adjuster, not a hue). These can be used to make many gorgeous colors including a variety of Mars violet-like tones.

Just a fraction of what ivory black, cad red deep, and yellow ochre can do together.

Ridonculous Anders Zorn painting presumably done with just the three colors above, Sommerabend, 1894

 Incidentally, Zorn's palette forms the basis of celebrated landscapist Scott Christensen's work.

Christensen rocking the Zorn palette with the addition of ultramarine blue.
There's a lot of caput-color in this, though I don't think he uses the pigment. One of the best things about oil painting has got to be the alchemy of mixing colors.

An artist mixing colors in his studio.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Painting in the White Mountains - Field Report

View of Crawford Notch from our base at the AMC Highland Center
The White Mountains, arguably the east coast's most "sublime and picturesque" terrain, have never ceased to fascinate lovers of the outdoors. So it makes sense that some of nature's most rapt admirers - landscape painters - are coming back as they once did to explore the Whites in their art.

The AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch.
A couple of weeks ago, six men and women joined me for a three-day beginners-welcome workshop at the AMC Highland Center, a wonderful, hotel-like lodge at the base of Crawford Notch in the White Mountain National Forest. . From Sunday till Tuesday all we did was get up in the morning, have an all-you-can-eat breakfast, and walk out the door, set up, and start painting. There were easy hikes to elevated viewpoints and a van at our disposal to take us anywhere in the Whites, but who needs them when everywhere you look there's a painting to be made? We'd break for lunch, paint until 4, and then we'd all meet at 6 for the gourmet dinners served family style complete with beer, wine, and freshly baked bread. 

Painting at the edge of Saco Lake, across the street from the Highland Center.

After dinner the first night I gave a slide talk on the history of White Mountain painting. The next day we painted from a different side of the lodge and that evening we watched Brush and Pen, Artists and Writers of the White Mountains, a documentary on White Mountain history, art, and literature.

The inaugural AMC Highland Center Crawford Notch Artist in Residency was an unqualified success. In a wonderful circularity, two of the participants in the first revival of the Crawford Notch residency - Lisa Shapliegh-Koepke and her mother Elizabeth - were actually descendants of the same Shapleigh family as was the site's original artist-in-residence Frank Henry Shapleigh. 

Frank Henry Shapleigh

Frank Henry Shapleigh's restored 19th century studio building, part of the Highland Center.

Frank Shapleigh was artist-in-residence for 16 years from 1877-1893 at the Crawford House, one of the grandest of the grand hotels, the abandoned hulk of which burned to the ground in 1977. 

Early engraving of the original Crawford House

The Crawford House in its heyday.

Crawford House in 1977, the summer before the fire.

At the age of 86, Elizabeth was an inspiration to us - despite using a walker to get around, she wasn't held back at all and painted with us in all of the locations (it's that easy to find spectacular scenery to paint within easy walking distance of the lodge).

The unstoppable Elizabeth Shapleigh (age 86).

My rendering of the gate of the Notch from Saco Lake.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the official close of the workshop, I hiked up 2,864' Mount Willard (the trailhead is right there). I invited folks from the workshop to join me and three took me up on it. I brought my paint kit so I could sketch the same view that Shapleigh famously painted.

Shapleigh's view from Mount Willard

My photo from roughly the same spot as Shapleigh's painting.

 The view was unbelievable and more than worth the effort of the hike, which wasn't all that bad actually, even with a 30-pound paint kit on my back. The sketch doesn't look like much, but it's got the information I need to build a study and then I can work from there on something larger.

My sketch of the valley of the Notch.

I was fascinated by this peak, and I still want to paint it.

This was nearby but we didn't end up painting it. Next time!
Burning Off, an 8" x 10" I painted from outside the Highland Center

I'm hoping the AMC Crawford Notch residency will become an institution of American plein air painting. The idea is to invite artists from all over the country - plein air painters, mostly - to spend a week in residence at the Highland Center. Each artist will conduct a painting workshop for a set portion of the week and is also encouraged to present an evening program, a talk or presentation, of some kind.

A White Mountain landscape, c. 2013, by contemporary painter Eric Koeppel. 

I think it's great that plein air painting is surging in popularity. The secret is out: oil painting is no longer the difficult, smelly, esoteric, highly specialized art it once seemed. With terabytes of free how-to videos and web texts online, getting started and learning the basics is the easiest it's ever been in the history of the world. It is only a matter of time before the rich history of American landscape painting again becomes common knowledge.

Who knows but a new era of White Mountain painting may even now be on its way?

THE CREW: (L-R) Volpe,  Carrie Masci, Ann Marie Corbett, Lisa Koepke, Elizabeth Shapleigh, Catherine Bickford, David Kimball