Artists design Baltimore’s crosswalks. Like it.
Reader advisory: I’ve been slacking on this blog, because I haven’t had time to write. So I’m going to make up for it here and go on and on at lengths nobody but me will want to finish reading. If I actually finish, uh, writing it. So, herewith, another post on Vermeer. Ironically, seeing Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Frick, along with three other works from the greatest Dutch master, isn’t what made me want to write about Vermeer again. Nor did I get the urge to write about probably the greatest Western painter in history (who was ignored for a couple centuries) after hearing, by contrast, how so much lesser art is selling like gourmet hotcakes in Miami right now. The itch to write this actually began while I was finishing up a month of work on a recent painting for my solo show next May at Viridian Artists.
Two things occurred to me as I kept returning to the canvas every morning: I spend much of my time thinking my purpose is to match my paint to what I see on a computer screen off to the side of my canvas. I copy as dutifully as a monk with a quill and some parchment and a tome on comedy from Aristotle. Usually, a digital photograph I’ve taken serves as the guide. I look at the photograph. Then I look at the canvas. I try to make them match. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I do this for days, weeks, or months. With this last painting, I realized, as I always do when I pay attention, how much more I’m doing than simply copying what I see. I’m continuously altering all sorts of things: the exact hue of an object or area, the level of detail, and even the shape of certain patches of color or value. Occasionally I improve elements that aren’t there in the photograph, and, more often, remove things that are there. Often I make significant changes to color: intensifying a yellow or orange, compared to what’s in the photograph, MORE
Arthur Dworin’s current constructions on view at Viridian are an exploration, in three dimensions, of forms that have occupied him for many years in his paintings. The organic and geometric shapes that populate his colorful work in the recent past are raised off the surface now and coated with an iron-rich medium that he then rusts to produce a more uniform brown that ranges from sienna to orange. Like Kandinsky, Dworin’s improvisations with form and shape are meant to resonate with his own spiritual explorations, in his case yoga. As he puts it, he hopes that, “The spirit in these works will act as a key to awaken what is already deep within the observer and anew with each viewing, bring a greater awareness of our inner and outer universe.” One of his collectors, Peter Selz, former curator of painting and sculpture for MoMA, has said of his paintings, “Abstract as they are, they bring a new sense of visual order to organic forms of nature.”
After the Viridian board meeting a week ago, I had a chance to ask Dworin a few questions about his work.
How do you build up the surface exactly?
There’s something called Magic Sculpt which is a safe, two-part putty and it hardens like a rock . You can carve it.
What do you use for a support?
Masonite, with one-by-two poplar. The surface is gesso-ed and then there are areas taped off before I put in the texture with Golden molding paste and Golden matte gel. The blocks are pumice and then there are areas where I put the paint on and shred urethane foam into it to get the texture. Finally, I spread on a high-iron content coating.
Yes, I call these Swords to Ploughshares because it looks like MORE
“This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement. If you have (in Pierre Bourdieu’s useful term) the “cultural capital” to gain a tenured professorship at a university, play regularly in a major symphony orchestra or write mega best sellers, you can earn an excellent living doing what you love. Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.”
More than ten percent of all 34 (maybe 35) Vermeers in existence are on view right now at The Frick. It’s a little show, a tour of 15 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, on loan from The Hague, yet it’s a powerful and enlightening one. I’ve seen about half of all Vermeers in the world. The Metropolitan offered 15 of them in 2001 and then The Milkmaid, all by her ownself, in 2009. So, yeah, maybe I could have skipped this one. I hear that. But this show taught me a thing or two, or three, about Hals and Rembrandt, and introduced me to Jan Steen, whose work felt the most contemporary, out of everything in the show. Plus the goldfinch Donna Tartt is making famous at the moment. Most of all, though, when you surround this show with The Frick’s permanent collection, it’s a rare chance to see four Vermeers at once, and it’s a truth universally acknowledged that one can never get too much of Vermeer. The Girl with a Pearl Earring has a room all to herself, as The Milkmaid did. In the room adjacent are the three from the permanent collection. I hope to write at more length about what I saw here when the necessity of word smithing for my supper lightens up, if ever.
I stood in line for 40 minutes with at least 60 other shivering and likemindedly unhinged art lovers last week, with temperatures around 20 in New York City, and 40 mph gusts driving wind chills down to around zero. With my typical worldly foresight, I wore a wool sweater covered with a fleece, clothing options that should have sentenced me to the fate of this frog. But to my credit I thought to climb into some thermal underwear at the last minute before my friends and I headed into the city from New Jersey. ( I’d brought the underwear in case I decided on an outdoor run in the morning.) It felt as if those skivvies saved my ass, as well as a few other more expendable parts. Bottom line: the show was worth the painful wait. What did we learn this week? Most of that, that even old, old art, if it’s great, still draws crowds that require scheduled admission into a museum. Give the human race a chance, and it will always make you believe that what once mattered still matters. Makes me want to paint, right?
Hoping to get a look at the actual painting soon at Tom’s studio in Canandaigua. It’s one of three monumental oils he did a couple decades ago, while he was still wrestling with the absurd murder of his brother, Robert, a deputy sheriff who was serving a warrant in 1987. Tom’s brother died instantly when the naked suspect opened the door and shot him in the head. This painting’s full title: Dedication No. 3, Man’s final resting place is in the hearts and minds of other men.
I learned yesterday that Grant Holcomb is retiring from his position as director of the Memorial Art Gallery here in Rochester, after nearly thirty years of service to the museum. He’s been ambivalent about concluding his tenure at MAG for many years, but now that he’s pulled the trigger he sounds happy to embark on his next chapter. And he isn’t completely disappearing from the organization. He’s going to stay in Rochester, continue to participate with MAG and, well, write a few books. Speaking of next chapters. (By the way, thanks for making me feel like a slacker, Grant.) What surprised me is that only one of his books will be about art: a catalog exploring the 2009 MAG exhibition “Lincoln in Rochester.” That’s definitely up his alley. He’s been a Lincoln geek, in the best sense of that word, for most of his life, and he can summon up almost anything about America’s greatest president at will. One of the other books he’s planning will be about Ed Crone, a Rochester man who was a prisoner of war with Kurt Vonnegut in Germany and became the inspiration for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Finally, he wants to write a book about the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe detective novels. In other words, his plate will be as full as it has been at MAG all these years.
A couple days ago, he sent me his prepared remarks when he announced his departure (as of next July) to his board and staff. It made me laugh out loud a couple times, yet the humble, appreciative quality of his words are emblematic of his personality and beloved leadership. In their own way his words reflect, in places, why most painters get up every day, or nearly every day, and try to make art. Part of why he’s going to be deeply missed at MAG is easily discerned in what he says here:
If I refer to my notes and keep drinking from a bottle of water, forgive me and remember that even Brett Favre choked up when he retired, as did Peyton Manning when he was traded. In fact, knowing this would be a difficult message for me to convey, I googled “How to Announce Your Retirement with Dignity” and what popped up was “Three Early Signs of Dementia.” I feel a bit like Lincoln when he faced an emotional trial . . . he said, “I feel like the young boy who stubbed his toe and said, ‘It hurts too much to laugh, and I’m too big to cry.’”
I was recently told that, today, the average tenture of an art museum director is four years—to extend that tenure by a factor of seven is due to the quality of the people I have worked with for now close to three decades. Early one morning this summer, I walked the Centennial Sculpture Park with a cup of coffee in hand. Starting at the western end, I approached the lyrical sculpture of George Rickey, swept by the “Unicorns” of Wendell Castle and looked beyond to the open grounds and the elegance of Jackie Ferrara’s sidewalks and the playful delight of the Otterness Plaza. Walking east, I turned the corner and looked north to see what I consider to be one of the best works by Albert Paley.
I knew right then that together we had created a magical, poetic, in fact, award-winning Sculpture Park. Together we have left a lasting legacy for both the Gallery and this community. I knew the timing was right (for retirement) when Dana Gioia spoke at the Gallery ten days ago. This was not only our last major Centennial event, it was an event that wrapped up everything we have worked for, cared about, and treasured together—the importance of the arts to our lives as individuals, as members of the community. Gioia spoke of Shakespeare’s “sweet . . . lessons of adversity” and he intoned Dosoevsky’s belief that “beauty will save the world.” The Centennial Year of the Memorial Art Gallery ended on not only a high note but the perfect note. This staff and board have enriched my life. You have enriched the lives of my children. And you have even enriched the lives of two of my ex-wives! I owe you so very much.
Beauty may help save us, but only if people like Grant are returning the favor, now and then.
On Sunday, on another visit to New York City, I’m heading to the Frick with a couple friends from New Jersey to see the Vermeers and this painting in particular, on tour from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. At first glance I thought it was a remarkably precise Hals, for a number of reasons, but then discovered otherwise. It’s more or less an illustration of a Dutch proverb about parental responsibility, which more than one painter interpreted in similar scenes of domestic partying. The title comes from a Dutch proverb: ‘as the old sing, so pipe the young’ (soo voer gesongen, soo na gepepen). (What you do in front of the kids.) The motivation behind this sort of painting is almost the antithesis of what drives me to paint: it’s symbolic, narrative, moralistic, and essentially conceptual. Yet the way it’s executed, the color, and especially the light, is remarkable, at least in this photograph. I’m hoping they’re even more impressive when I’m standing in front of it.
“. . .just because you have looked at [a painting] does not mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.” –Jessica Lahey, The Atlantic
The amazingly prolific Carol Brookes, a fellow Viridian artist, has an opening Dec. 7 at Troy Fine Arts Services, in Southport, Connecticut.
Nice of Jeep to make us aware of Mr. Dylan’s early adoption of Blind Willie Johnson. Dylan uses Johnson. Jeep uses Dylan. Something gets obscured the second time around, but not much, if you just quit looking at the flat screen. Does it make sense to watch a Cherokee moving around while Dylan sings about how God doesn’t treat him as well as a mother would? Not much. But I wouldn’t have heard the song without the commercial. I can’t afford a new Jeep, but I like the soundtrack to the invitation. Whenever I hear this recording from now on, I guarantee I will never think of a Jeep. Just as I never think of Volkswagen–though I do think of fireflies–when I hear “Pink Moon.”
This is quite nice, from Schjeldahl:
What do we see when we look at a painting? Decisions. Stroke by stroke, the painter did something rather than something else, a sequence of choices that add up to a general effect. If you’re like me—and, yes, I count myself a middling connoisseur—you register the effect and then investigate how it was achieved; walking the cat back, as they say in espionage. As a trick, ask yourself, of details in a painting, something like, “Why would I have done that in that way?” The aim is to enter into the mind, and the heart, of the creator. Attaining it entails trust, like that of a child attending a fairy tale.
Looking with this kind of absorption won’t immunize you to falling for a fake, but you are apt to be confused by false notes if the supposed artist’s style is familiar to you. The game then deepens. The forger hopes that, because you’re credulous, you will revise your estimation of the artist to accommodate the surprises. Or consider a reverse case: you’re told that an authentic work is a forgery. Paranoically, you view everything in it as sham. Again you’re bewildered, this time thrown into doubt about your powers of perception. You conclude that you’re a hopeless sucker.
To judge a work of art involves self-surrender.
You are something other than your own person when in art’s spell. If you dread being made a fool of, you will steer clear of art altogether. But risking foolishness, and succumbing to it occasionally, builds up antibodies of wisdom.
A list of artistic powerlessness du jour from Hyperallergic: brick and mortar galleries, anything that isn’t reheated modernism, photojournalists, negative critics, (wait, all critics), self-portraits (Instagram has it covered, thank you very much), and non-celebrity artists. (In other words, almost everything and all of us.)
In other emerging news, cats maintain their effortless tyranny over the popular imagination.
Life’s unfair. Therefore, one paints. Work’s what’s kept us happy.
“One should not be selling something, but rather finding something. Just because something is a hit doesn’t make it interesting. The noble failure is often more enlightening than the thing with immediate appeal.” As told to Spencer Bailey –New York Times, print edition
Ben Folds is also a photographer, and the fact that it isn’t his main profession enables him to be refreshingly humble, simple and honest when he talks about how he doesn’t intend his work to mean anything. It’s always nice to hear someone say this. Painting has, for me, no intellectual component whatsoever. I paint what I want to look at repeatedly, without pinning down why. If the image causes me to become aware of more than the literal object or scene, all the better, but this isn’t something I can consciously make happen. The process is subconscious. The “meaning” of the picture, if it has such a thing, as well as the title, come later, when I extract or attach them in a parasitical way. James Hall, my dealer here in Rochester, always mocks my simple, literal titles. Two Pears. Candy Jar #10. It amuses him, but I never think to suggest that he ought to check the titles of thousands of paintings down through history. They add no more than mine to the visual power of the work. Mona Lisa. Starry Night. Sunflowers. Nothing that wouldn’t have been available from a glance at the painting itself. The Tempest, Bathsheba, Lunch on the Grass. . . Not detecting much in those titles that wasn’t there at a purely perceptual level, except maybe the Biblical reference.
Greg Proops on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show:
“This year I did Oslo, Amsterdam, Paris . . . I try to take it all around. There’s always an English-speaking crowd. We did a show in Oslo. We went to the Munch Museum. He painting The Scream, the most abject depiction of terror and despair in the face of modern alienation. Of course they sell Scream erasers, Scream bicycle reflectors, Scream everything, pencils, hilarious. Of all the things you want to see all around you all the time is the I-can’t-handle the-world anymore moment. They have Munch for children on the weekends.”
“What we’re worried about forgetting … tends to be quite particular. It isn’t just anything about a person or scene that’s at stake; we want to remember what really matters, and the people we call good artists are, in part, the ones who appear to have made the right choices about what to communicate and what to leave out. … We might say that good artwork pins down the core of significance, while its bad counterpart, although undeniably reminding us of something, lets an essence slip away. It is an empty souvenir.”
“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.”
I’ve always thought the watercolors Sargent began showing in his 50s are his greatest work, when he finally began to grapple with color. What looks like a tremendous show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers a chance to look at 90 examples:
From The New Yorker:
The way in which he could just summarize optical effects is what boggles the mind,” Carbone said. With the eraser end of a pencil, she pointed to the back of one of the statues. Its shadowed curve is the color of dark wood in water, while behind it a sunlit plant is an explosion of yellow-green, the color of a light-skinned lime. “This kind of thing,” she said, “it’s crazy!”
Sargent’s watercolors, Carbone explained, were painted in a “spectacular shorthand”: “He was a master of corrective technique—he could make alterations where an amateur couldn’t.” We stopped in front of “A Tramp,” which Sargent made sometime around 1906. A bearded man, his skin tan and weathered, seems to emerge from a forested background. His face, and especially his eyes, are clearly defined, but below his elbows the painting becomes vague and abstract, as if in a fog. Carbone pointed to the lower-left corner, a blur of green and gray. “This area was a puddled area of wash that he just wiped off,” she said. “You can even see the stroke marks.” The blurred area seemed a little punk-rock. In a sense, Sargent had defaced his own art, but the hint of casualness only makes the painting seem more accomplished.
In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent announced his retirement from the kind of society portraiture that, with the help of some judicious investments, had made him so prosperous. By then, he had already begun painting watercolors outside of the studio, en plein air. At first, Carbone explained, he painted the watercolors for himself. “In his studio, apparently, he had stacks and stacks of them, just in piles. People describe parts of his house with stairways lined with framed watercolors. He would give them as presents—there’s this joke that people would get engaged just so they could get a Sargent watercolor.” (“These sketches keep up my morale,” he told a friend, “and I never sell them.”) Eventually, though, he grew serious about exhibiting and selling them, and came to see the watercolors as a body of work in their own right.
From David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, published earlier this month:
There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.”
When the artist Jules Holtzapffel didn’t make it into the Salon of 1866, he shot himself in the head. “The members of the jury have rejected me. Therefore I have no talent,” read his suicide note. “I must die.”
in 1865, the Salon, surprisingly, accepted a painting by Manet of a prostitute, called Olympia, and the painting sent all of Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay.
in 1968, Renoir, Bazille, and Monet managed to get paintings accepted by the Salon. But halfway through the Salon’s six-week run, their works were removed from the main exhibition space and exiled to the depotoir–the rubbish dump–a small, dark room in the back of the building, where paintings considered to be failures were relocated. It was almost as bad as not being accepted at all.
Did they want to be a Little Fish in a Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing? In the end, the Impressionists made the right choice.
The Impressionist’s exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. “We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worrying about opinion.”
As promised, here are interesting comments from Neil Welliver, this time from an interview in The Art of the Real, edited by the poet Mark Strand. As with the previous Q/A, some of what he says I listen to a little more skeptically than when I first read these books. He criticizes 19th century art on terms that seem to partly apply to his own painting, it seems, which strikes me as “systematic and structured”—isn’t almost all painting structured?—but in a good way. I understand what he’s saying: the painters he dislikes respond less to individual and particular qualities of a scene and do whatever they’ve learned to do in a uniform way. They become tree-painting factories, and don’t need to observe actual trees in order to do it. He says he responds to the particularity of a given place so that “generalities are wiped out of your life” but his method, reducing his technique to such a limited selection of colors, tends to create a “feel” when you look at one of his pictures, common to all of them. So his style generalizes areas of an image because of the way it simplifies what he sees: generalizing within a discreet area of color is what he does. (That isn’t what he means of course but I can here ironies in what he says now.) The particular variations between one Welliver and another seem slighter than what all his paintings have in common, which is what he learned from Abstract Expressionism. Even so, reading these interviews is a great way to understand a little better what you’re seeing with the Wellivers on display right now at the National Academy Museum:
In Maine there is an extraordinary clarity. You can look for a mile but objects seem right before your face; you can identify them. I’m interested in the character of the light—that northern flat light—where the sun doesn’t get very high. A lot of it is geologically young. The upheaval is still apparent, the gouging of all the glaciers, all of that. I paint what would, in terms of theater, be considered innocuous and banal—ordinary places. I could not paint where the landscape doesn’t interest me, where it’s not complicated enough, where it’s been too ordered by people.”
Hudson River pictures look to me procedural, systematic, structured, MORE