Thoughts on Dickinson

photo (18)

Bay of Sanary From La Cride, 1938, oil on canvas, 23″ x 28″

This image comes from an exhibition catalog published by Tibor de Nagy gallery for a show of Edwin Dickinson’s work in 1996. It arrived last week after I found it online, in new condition, with several good color reproductions of his work, though not as many as I’d hoped. It includes an appreciation by the poet Mark Strand, whose writing about art has been included in a number of art books I’ve bought over the years:

Edwin Dickinson may be one of the least known and least appreciated twentieth-century masters. The reasons probably have to do with the reticence of his best paintings–the quick, improvisational ones he called “premier coups” or “first strikes.” These small, gestural canvases manage, with uncanny ease, to combine airiness and precision. In painting after painting we experience a rightness of scene, a simplicity and directness in suggesting, say, the haze of a summer’s day, or the damp dispersal of seaside light. There is a softness about his paintings that seems the visual correlative of affection, an immediacy that seems a form of surrender to the view at hand. Dickinson’s scrupulous attention to atmosphere, to the feel and prescence of light, to what is most ephemeral in our daily lives, give his paintings an elegiac cast. They are intimate depictions of nature at its most elusive and beguiling.

From the Brooklyn Rail:

Throughout his life, Dickinson credited (Charles W. Hawthorne, an underrated realist painter) with teaching him “That plane relationships (i.e., subtly shifting tonalities) are more representable through comparative value than through implications of contour.”

From the catalog:

Anyone who wishes to elucidate the art of Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) is confronted by a stubborn paradox: the painter developed and mastered two apparently contrary modes of expression, and skillfully mediated between them for more than fifty years. Dickinson’s first way of working was manifested in large visionary canvases, for which a painstaking understanding of three-dimensional design was demanded. Created from memory and imagination, each elaborate painting could take years to construct, and the artist never deemed any of them completed to his satisfaction. Dickinson’s second principal means of expression was manifested in several hundred landscapes distinguished by their air of spontaneity, liquid fracture, and vivacious handling. Painting directly from nature and out of doors, these canvases were created au premier coup, mainly in Western New York, Cape Code and rural France, each in one sitting. After a session of three or four hours, Dickinson considered a picture done and walked away from it . . .

Art vs. technology

Some light bedside reading.

Some current light bedside reading.

This past summer I was driving from Rochester to Chautauqua, to spend a few days helping Peter Georgescu put together a new book proposal, which turned out to be productive (and gave me a chance to work with Andrew Terrell, a very young former White House staffer who seems to know everything that’s going to happen in Washington before it actually happens.) On my drive, somewhere in the Southern Tier, using a podcast app on my iPhone, I stumbled onto a program that has since become something I regularly listen to while painting: Entitled Opinions, by Robert Harrison, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford. It’s an intellectual oasis, a golden island of conversation that constantly makes me whisper, yes, exactly to myself while I’m absorbing it. Its archive makes available ten years of programming, a buried treasure. I can’t wait to make my way through it. Harrison’s professorial post doesn’t reflect his depth of learning in a wide variety of fields: either he’s a very quick study or he retains everything he’s investigated from decades of research and reading. Many of his guests also teach at Stanford, or Berkeley, or at another school here or in Europe. He’s not only erudite but persists in thinking along lines that have been abandoned by many philosophers these days. As far as I can tell from my layman’s perch, philosophy these days wants to find a safe harbor in brain research, rather than interrogating the mystery of things in a way that does little more than ponder unanswerable questions. These days thinking about consciousness tends to regard it as just one more phenomenon to be objectified, on the assumption that human nature is yet another biological mechanism to be understood and eventually improved upon through some kind of intervention. In the podcast I listened to in the car, a conversation about Heidegger with Thomas Sheehan, the guest and host mentioned at one point a philosophy convention where all the Heidegger specialists huddled in one corner and talked amongst themselves, with little contact with anyone else at the event, an anecdote that made me laugh with approval. Good for them! That image probably offers a clear picture of how much weight Continental philosophy carries these days in American academia.

The discussion with Sheehan, who has a book on Heidegger coming out shortly, was primarily about Being and Time, Heidegger’s most influential book. I never managed to get through it in college, though I studied Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which grew out of Heidegger’s work. Ever since then, I’ve dipped into Heidegger’s later writing, with special attention to The Origin of the Work of Art. And since I heard this podcast, MORE

The Big Draw

draw contest

The World’s Biggest Drawing Festival runs throughout October; you can read more here. You can sample a charming children’s book on drawing/painting/printing like the great artists from The Guardian here.

Ways of seeing

Eu09 Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno RiverPeople say that Florence teaches you to see differently — that as the soft light moves across the ocher buildings, you see colors you never noticed before.

It taught Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, to see differently. He attributes his inspiration to a photography class he took in Florence while at a Stanford study-abroad program about a decade ago. His teacher took away his state-of-the-art camera and insisted he use an old plastic one instead, to change the way he saw. He loved those photos, the vintage feel of them, and the way the buildings looked in the light. He set out to recreate that look in the app he built. And that has changed the way many of us now see as well.

–T.M. Luhrmann, New York Times

One last Strat

HENDRIX_strat_1970

Little did he know he had only a month left to play it.

Deadlines

Selfie, Oil on Panel

Selfie, Oil on Panel

I’ve begun to have a deeper appreciation for deadlines. I’ve been painting on firm deadlines for a couple years now, first for a two-person show at Oxford Gallery in 2012, then a solo show at Viridian Artists this past summer and now another two-person show at Oxford in March, 2015. This last deadline is pushing me to do things I haven’t done before, such as work on more than one painting at a time, and it’s also motivating me to develop more efficient ways to paint.

There’s a certain optimum pace for developing a painting. Too slow and fastidious, and the life drains out of it. Executed rapidly, it can sometimes come alive in a rare way, but it’s an unreliable and risky way to proceed with something that might quickly fall apart—which are then wasted in a discouraging way on a deadline. When I attempt premier coup work, as Edwin Dickinson referred to it, and I know it’s going well, the propulsive momentum of the work adds a different kind of vitality to the image. The effort gets concentrated into a comparatively brief time, and the life of the marks vibrate with the pressure of that quicker execution. It’s the most difficult way to paint well, because much is at stake and there’s little “going back over.” I read somewhere long ago that Francis Bacon loved tight deadlines. He would do much of his work for a particular show at the last possible minute and hang the paintings still wet. It isn’t hard to believe, given the the way he pushed paint around. For him, it worked. Yet I love, just as much, paintings that take weeks or months to complete, and they convey something far different and more subtle, some hint of what Keats called “solitude and slow time.” I’m attempting to finish examples of both kinds of painting for the show next year. In either case, deadlines are giving me a greater sense of discipline, as well as a wistful sense of how much time I used to have to do other things. (On top of the daily painting, seven days a week, I’m also up early, working on writing projects that bring in the bulk of my income. I paint with the time left free—and I’m able to do it every day.)

I tend to work in successive shifts of three or four hours, with breaks for meals or errands. I’m learning to get more done in each of these windows of opportunity. I calculate exactly how much I need to finish on each day throughout a given month and then track whether or not I’m ahead or behind of my quota. I expect by the end of the work for this next show, I’ll be producing probably twice as much work as I have in the same period of time in the past. One thing I’ve observed, no matter how much I’m enjoying work on a given painting, I procrastinate before sitting down and picking up a brush. Once I do, and once I put down the first mark of the day, it’s as if I’m already at full speed. There’s no ramping up, no acceleration: I’m fully immersed on the step-by-step progress of making the image come to life.

On balance, deadlines are helping me take my work to the next level, not only because it’s making me refine my work methods, but also because there’s no way to adhere to them without bringing the most focused sort of attention to the process. That attention—a heightened awareness of what I see and what I’m doing—is what it’s really all about. It would be nice if I could bring it to my entire life.

Always be painting

The actual Bob Ross, who never sold real estate in Florida.

The actual Bob Ross, not needing to sell real estate in Florida.

A friend sent me “Glengarry, Bob Ross” from McSweeney’s. As I read it, I could see Baldwin, in a Malcolm Gladwell wig: First place, my BMW. Second place, a set of palette knives. Third place, penniless immortality.  

Get mad, you sons of bitches. Get mad. You know what it takes to paint cozy log cabins that speak the softest parts of the human soul? It takes BRASS BALLS.

The link will yield even funnier lines.

Dark and slow

Ansonia, Connecticut 1985.

“It is a very slow process in comparison with taking the photos and it is the opposite in that you are confined to a small dark room instead of being out and about in the light and the air,” Steinmetz said about doing his own developing and printing. “The darkroom is where I really confront what I’ve been doing, whether I have been successful or not and whether making a print is really worth all of the effort. Doing darkroom work yourself helps you to become a better editor of your work, which in turn helps you be a better photographer when you are out there working. Today’s world is so fast-paced with instant results in so many aspects of our lives, that in comparison, darkroom work seems to be an alien relic from an ancient world.”  –Mark Steinmetz

The crying-on-the-inside kind

Gadino with Lauren Ashley Bishop

Gadino with Lauren Ashley Bishop

When I paint, as I’ve pointed out before, I listen to music or podcasts, often about comedy but also about history, music, and there’s always Radiolab. I should get Audible.com but my attention to what I’m hearing contends with what I’m painting, so there would be way too much re-listening. Besides, for several years now, while listening to comedians talk casually about how they get by and do what they do, I’m constantly seeing parallels with a painter’s life, at least in the range I’m doing it—getting some recognition and awards and some sales, now and then—but otherwise laboring away obscurely in Rochester, NY. At their best, comedians speak truths that make you uncomfortable, but in a way that lets you enjoy the discomfort—because you’re laughing. It reminds me of Dave Hickey’s dictum that art can depict something very uncomfortable as long as it does it beautifully—beguiling you into looking at what you don’t particularly want to see. Jim Norton’s recent address to Just for Laughs, a big comedy festival in Canada, was profoundly truthful about the enforced politesse of our PC culture. He talked about how comedians need to keep violating norms and conventions and rules for what can and can’t be said in public, all in the pursuit of laughter. As he put it, murder isn’t funny, but jokes about murder can be funny, and the laughter takes precedence over any responsibility for those who don’t get the humor. Cruel laughter isn’t the goal, but rather the laughter that’s also a confession of recognition of truths in what might otherwise be censored in this culture of complaint about hurt feelings. Hurt feelings are a part of moving around in the vicinity of other people. Just walk down a sidewalk in New York City and five or six things or people will somehow affront your sense of self-importance or propriety or good taste. That walk will also make you feel utterly alive. Conversely, way too much art attempts to do what comedy legitimately does: shock people in a way you discover isn’t so bad, once you realize the context, that it’s art. (Or comedy.) I prefer art that seduces in such a way that you hardly realize you’ve been charmed. It requires you to pay attention, but doesn’t fulfill your expectations that art needs to be radically unlike other art or just ordinary life. Shock value isn’t high on my list of priorities. I can handle it with comedy and actually like it, if the shock is subtle and clever.

Continue reading ‘The crying-on-the-inside kind’

TMI

Zero TheoremFrom an interview with Terry Gilliam at Slate, about his new movie, which sounds more like something Aronofsky would have made: “His new movie, “The Zero Theorem,” starring Christoph Waltz as an isolated computer programmer searching for the meaning of life in an overloaded info-society not far removed from our own, has been in the works for at least six years.”

Going back to the character that Christoph plays in this film, there’s so much going on on the surface, but what really got to me was the tremendous sadness. This person who has a creative drive, a creative urge, and is in a situation where there’s no way for him to fulfill that. That struck me as a situation of extreme pathos.

Well that’s how I see the film. It’s very funny but it’s basically tragedy. It’s very sad. It does move me. You can sort of do the parallels between me and that guy, but at heart that’s not really what it is. Not getting to do what you want to do is one thing, but his problem is that he lets life and relationships fall apart because he can’t grasp them. He’s so damaged — I think the scene when Bainsley [a femme fatale played by French actress Mélanie Thierry] leaves and offers for him to come along, he can’t do it. For me that’s the core scene of the film. What happened to this guy? So in the end, I had to leave him with some kind of sense of dignity and a kind of peace. It may only exist in a virtual world and at least he can let the sun set. He can control that much. I mean, when I make a film, there’s always a big autobiographical element in it, that’s the only way I know how to make films. I have to identify with the character in one way or another. And this one, in retrospect, ended up being quite interesting because when I started it I didn’t think it was going to be that film exactly, but that’s what it became.

Your portrayal of the world is so interesting, people will inevitably look back to your earlier films and other people’s. I felt like you were referencing “Blade Runner,” which came out just before “Brazil,” more directly than you ever have before. But the important thing to me was that this portrait of the informational clutter of the world is almost not a satire or an exaggeration. It’s maybe a tiny bit exaggerated, but it’s almost a portrait of the real world.

Yes. Thank you for that. People talk about it in some sort of future, dystopic view. No! It’s exactly what’s going on right now as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.] When I walk out onto the streets of London, I’m bombarded exactly like Qohen is at the beginning of the film. It’s endless, it seems to me. And that’s why I sort of built that world around him. Everything in the world out there is colorful and people seem to be having a good time and shopping is bubbling away and things are being offered to you left, right and center. The workplace is a colorful place with people zipping around having a great time. There’s only one bit of darkness and grayness in the thing and that’s Qohen. And that’s what intrigued me about him. He’s very much like a monk. He’s in a burned-out church and it’s a church that has no meaning anymore. That particular construct of life has passed him by. And yet, that’s why I love when another character tells him, “Nonetheless, you’re a man of faith. And that is the very thing that has made you not live your life.”

Average and ordinary

milkmaid

Alain de Botton on Vermeer: “But he had communicated a crucial – and hugely sane – idea: much of what matters to us is not exciting, urgent, dramatic or special. Most of life is taken up dealing with things which are routine, ordinary, humble, modest and (to be honest) a touch dull. Our culture should focus on getting us to appreciate the average, the everyday and the ordinary.

 

Summoning stones

lange stones

From the trailer for a documentary about Dorothea Lange, Grab a Hunk of Lightning, on view at Vimeo:

“When I said I’m trying to get lost again I really expressed a very critical point of departure. That frame of mind that you need to make fine pictures of a very wonderful subject you cannot do it by not being lost yourself. I’m trying to get lost again.”       –Dorothea Lange

“I had a handful of shells and stones and thrust them out toward her asking her to look. She said, ‘I see them but do you see them?’ I said, ‘Yes I see them.’ She said, “But do you see them? and snapped a photo.’ ”     –Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s grand-daughter

“When you’re working well, all your instinctive powers are in operation and you don’t know why you do the things you do. Sometimes you annihilate yourself. That is something one needs to be able to do.”   — Lange

Technology rules

tech addicts

Interesting idea for a show, our technology addiction.

We subject ourselves to constant stimuli, without even knowing what this dependency bodes for the future. Artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian already feels the fatigue, which she investigates with a new art exhibition, Plastic Perfect, at Leila Heller Gallery in New York.

“I’ve definitely become an addict, and I really feel the repercussions when I don’t connect back to nature,” Hovnanian tells me over the phone from New York. “I’m just as guilty, but I know that I need to unplug, otherwise, I’m going to become anxious.”   --Maxwell Williams

Words vs. images

frankenSchjeldahl seems to choose the longest linguistic route between the first and last words of this paragraph from a review of Helen Frankenthaler’s work. It weaves its way from here to there in a way I enjoyed. Google maps could have gotten him from start to finish in about a third of the time, but he’s dancing around his topic here like Francis Bacon writing about truth. I’m pretty sure he’s veering toward and away from something fundamental for me: that great visual art often has no content apart from the work itself. I would go further and say visual art that best embodies what visual art alone can do should have no narrative content, no story, no “meaning” expressible in any way other than what’s seen in the image. It evokes a world more than a story. Yes there are plenty of great paintings that serve to illustrate a story or make a “statement” about something good or bad: much of the work of one artist I love, Bruegel, is hard to distinguish from illustration. Icarus falling from the sky, a peasant wedding, a drunken dance, Spain’s invasion of the Low Countries, and so on, all of which almost require a cinematic narrative the paintings reduce to a single frame. Even Winter Hunters evokes a day in the life of the men coming home through the snow, though its power, I think, comes from the way it conveys an entire season, if not an entire life, all at once, lifted out of time and any sequence of events. The story drops away and all you see is winter, winter, winter, in the ecstatic way Elizabeth Bishop forgot about the act of catching a trout and saw nothing but rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. The story of Vermeer’s milkmaid begins when she starts to pour and ends when she stops. It’s the timeless world her image evokes that matters. Anyway, here is Schjeldahl’s meditation on how the mind refuses to give up its thirst for narrative when looking at a work of art, even if that hungry mind has to frantically start imagining the painter’s circumstances, the world that gave birth to a painting, rather than narrative “meaning” intentionally embedded in the image itself. In other words, he seems to be saying, a brother’s gotta think!  With all due respect, to Peter and Pieter both, I beg to differ:

Color-field climaxed a modern ambition to expunge narrative content from painting. You were meant to be alone—“autonomous” was a byword—in wordless communion with art, as with a sunset. But art, unlike nature, requires someone to perform an act of will, and where there’s a mind directing a hand there’s a story. If the story is excluded from a picture, it will reconstitute around it as art criticism, which provides a set of thoughts for the reasons that, as you look, you should abandon thinking. That isn’t fair to individual aesthetic experience, which may find drama in abstraction and transport in realism. It also leaves out of account the worldly circumstances that impel and reward changes in art. Those turned out, by the end of the sixties, to endorse almost anything but more color-field. Color-field paintings are period artifacts, some of them lastingly enjoyable, of a peculiar presumption. — Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 2014

 

Is art really “for” something?

 

This reminds me of Alain de Botton’s continuous effort to show art is good for us. It’s therapy. It’s an education. It’s moral training. You can’t disagree with anything said here about literature–and by implication, art or music or movies–but why does it seem utterly simple-minded? I wonder if anyone, having read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, decided, “Ok, then, I’m not going to have that affair with the butcher (prince, corporate raider, bass player).” If so, that’s fine, but doesn’t it miss the point? Art isn’t “for” anything, unless life itself is “for” something.

 

 

It can be yours

“New York, 1950s,” by Garry Winogrand. Credit The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

“New York, 1950s,” by Garry Winogrand. The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

From today’s New York Times, Bill Hayes on art:

When you go — not if, but when (and soon, by the way; the show closes Sept. 21) — I suggest you bring a thesaurus. Because it wasn’t long before we found words failing us. An image of an acrobat caught midleap on a Manhattan street, for instance, struck the three of us as the epitome of “amazing.” So did another photo. Then another. Upon seeing the first few dozen of the more than 175 prints on view we pledged that we would not use that word to describe every single photo. Beautiful, incredible, joyful, strange, very sad — we made it as far as the second room before we were back to the A’s.

“It is just so… amazing,” said Katy, who’s 18 and an aspiring photographer, as if she’d been rendered helpless by yet another example of the Bronx-born artist’s particular genius for street photography. I nodded in sympathy. In a world plagued by intractable problems — police shootings, Ebola spreading, spiraling civil wars, planes falling from the sky — lacking sufficient synonyms for a work of art seemed a good one to have.

When we reached the last room, I asked Katy which picture was her favorite. She led me back to the one that had stumped her in the synonym department. Her sister, Emily, who’s 14 and had been off wandering through the Met’s collection of European paintings, then showed me her favorite piece in the museum: a Monet water lily painting (the first she’d ever seen) from 1919.

This is when I let each girl in on a secret: It can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own. Ownership does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention. The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing — say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.

Creativity creep

dean-vietor-not-bad-for-art-new-yorker-cartoon 2From The New Yorker, in an article about “creativity creep,” which has pushed the notion of creativity out into discussions about the nature of all work, a reminder about the purposelessness of creative awareness–non-practical, un-work-like, non-results oriented:

Among the many things we lost when we abandoned the Romantic idea of creativity, the most valuable may have been the idea of creativity’s stillness. If you’re really creative, really imaginative, you don’t have to make things. You just have to live, observe, think, and feel. Coleridge, in his poem “Frost at Midnight,” uses, as his metaphor for the creative imagination, the frost, which freezes the evening dew into icicles “quietly shining up at the quiet moon.” The poem begins: “The Frost performs its secret ministry, / Unhelped by any wind.” The secret, silent, delicate, and temporary work of the frost is creativity, too. It doesn’t build, but it transforms. It doesn’t last, but it matters.

Fragments of Fort Howard

Fort Howard #10, 24" x 24", Oil on Panel

Fort Howard #10, 24″ x 24″, Oil on Panel

A solo show of Matt Klos’s sabbatical project, Fragments of Fort Howard, runs throughout September at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD. I saw most or all of the work here at Oxford Gallery. It’s great, quickly executed, focused on the balance between representation and abstract formal issues, with a bright but subtle palette.  See it at John A. Cade Center for Fine Arts Gallery, Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold, Maryland.

 

A river runs through it

riverbed

“Riverbed” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

The drama of the work is unleashed only by the viewer’s interaction with it. When, at the official unveiling last week, I spotted two small children gleefully trundling a boulder into the middle of the artificial stream I felt a lurch of horror – and not just because the children happened to be my own. So ingrained is our expectation of the imperative to look but not touch when encountering an artwork, that there is something disorienting about a piece that so openly invites intervention. Indeed, Riverbed demands it; every visitor who walks across the unstable surface of this artificial landscape necessarily effects a transformation in it, causes damage of some kind.”    –The Telegraph

 

 

Embrace at Burning Man

embrance

“Embrace” at Burning Man on August 26, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

 

Now it’s gone, up in flames at the end of the Burning Man festival, but it looked wonderful while it was still standing, at least judging from this shot. Read more about it here.