The mystery of painting

Still Life with Pocket Door

Still Life with Pocket Door

If someone were to ask me right now what my painting is about, I might offer something that would probably occur to me if I were someone else appraising the work I’ve done over the past couple years. I might say Dorsey is continuing to work in several different modes: adding to the series of large jars he has exhibited in the past, doing a few suburban landscapes, and exploring smaller alla prima paintings executed very quickly, almost like Japanese sumi-e. In all of this work, he’s drawn to the ordinary and everyday. Mostly, though, he has continued his central pursuit of fairly traditional still life. His love for this genre seems to come from a variety of influences. Yet the effect of these paintings when seen together, aside from whatever virtues still life has always had, is to make one feel as if the artist is wistful, even desperate, for a world that’s fast disappearing. There’s something about these paintings that reminds one of the rag waved in the air by the uppermost member of that pile of survivors in Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, the one trying to catch the eye of a savior on the tall ship just emerging over the horizon before time runs out on the life raft. In a time when the middle class seems to be rapidly disappearing, taking with it the promise of opportunity for most people in our society, Dorsey seems to be drawn again and again to the subject of domestic serenity as embodied in a little heirloom sugar bowl or a couple flowers from a backyard garden. Intentionally small potatoes—though, strictly speaking, he hasn’t painted any potatoes yet. Domestic happiness was the daemon of both Chardin and Vermeer, two painters who have had a powerful sway over his work so far. It isn’t a small thing, though, to have reminders of what it meant in America to have a flourishing middle class, a thriving bourgeoisie so despised by intellectuals, the economic topsoil of a robust free society, something fast disappearing in the world right now.

This might be what someone would say about the paintings in this show, though it’s merely hindsight and speculation on my part. None of this even crossed my mind as I’ve done this work, MORE

Black Mirror

black mirror

For an bit of interesting commentary on the power of contemporary media, try the first episode of Black Mirror. It’s also a sidelong statement about . . . well, watch. The series as a whole is well done.

 

Perceptual painting on view

Dining Room into Living Room, Mark Karnes, 2009-2012, acrylic on board

Dining Room into Living Room, Mark Karnes, 2009-2012, acrylic on Masonite

In fortuitous lulls during the Siberian Express of snow and frigid temperatures here in the Northeast during the past week, I drove six hours to Maryland to see two fantastic exhibits, both devoted to “perceptual painting.” One, organized by Matt Klos, tracks the largely unrecognized history of this movement, showing how perceptual painting enables representational art to evoke a liminal, dreamlike intimation of a world around and within the surface of things. That may be a pretentious-sounding way to say that perceptual painters enable you to see what they saw, mostly through direct observation, but they also convey a loving, sustained hunger to evoke something much larger, the poetry of the everyday. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I want to write a long post about both shows, or maybe several posts, when I’ve tackled some other things on my plate, and this is simply a quick reminder for anybody within a few hours of Annapolis to invest an afternoon on these shows before they come down. It’s some of the most compelling painting being done right now, and it’s also an interesting attempt to further define what “perceptual painting” is, in the wake of earlier shows, such as the one recently at Manifest and a year ago at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. It kills me not to be able to attend the exhibition events today, but I pass this note along from Matt Klos for anyone able to attend:

My curator’s talk for “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painting” has been moved to Wednesday, February 25th at 5:30pm located at St. John’s College in the Drawing Room adjacent to the Mitchell Gallery. There will be ample time to walk through the gallery before and after the talk. St. John’s College, Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401 
A panel discussion for the exhibition will be held this Sunday February 22nd at 3:00pm also located at St. John’s College. Follow signage when you arrive to the gallery… we will either meet in the auditorium or the drawing room depending on turnout. Although not required please call the gallery to rsvp for both events, 410-626-2556.St. John’s College, Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave, Annapolis, MD 21401
“Lineage” Artists and Panel Discussion participants will include: 
James Fitzsimmons
Elizabeth Geiger
Philip Geiger
Mark Karnes
Scott Noel
Charles Ritchie
 
Aaron Lubrick and Matt Klos will moderate. Several questions will be asked of the panel including this one, The painter Jake Berthot in a letter to Ryan Smith once wrote, “The mind lies and is capable of making a justification for anything. The eye and the hand are incapable of lying. Look with your heart and it will tell you through your eye what your hand needs to do.”  Can you talk to us about what you think Mr. Berthot may have meant? What does that statement mean to you? I hope you’ll come join the conversation.
Special guests Erin Raedeke, David Campbell, and John Lee will also attend the Panel Discussion. These artists currently have work on view at Anne Arundel Community College in the Cade Gallery in an exhibition “Subject & Subjectivity” curated by Matthew Ballou. On the day of the Panel Discussion (Sunday, Feb. 22nd) artists will be on hand in the Cade Gallery to discuss the exhibition starting at 1pm. John A. Cade Center for Fine Arts, Cade Gallery, 101 College Pkwy, Arnold, MD 21012

Elmer Bishoff

Orange Sweater, Elmer Bishoff

Orange Sweater, Elmer Bishoff

Phenomenology and painting

husserl

My lifelong, simmering interest in Martin Heidegger, plus my recent quick rereading of early Nietzsche, has a couple friends wondering if I’ve become a dreaded existentialist, whatever that is. (No doubt this would mean someone who understands what “existential threat” means.) The answer would be “no.” My faith, humble and simple and nonsectarian as it is, remains unshaken—it’s a way of life, not a set of propositions about the world. But Heidegger keeps appearing in my path, even when I’m not seeking out books or essays about him. For example, while painting this week, I caught up with some of the latest episodes of In Our Time, a great, brisk discussion from the BBC about almost any subject as long as it’s dense with information: history, music, religion, art, and philosophy. I clicked on the “Phenomenology” episode and listened to a discussion that repeatedly reminded me of why I started painting years ago, as a way of seeking “meaning.”

Melvyn Bragg had three guests: Simon Glendinning, from the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Joanna Hodge, from Manchester Metropolitan University, and Stephen Mulhall, from the University of Oxford. The discussion turned out to be a sort of back door into an examination of what has generally been called “existentialism” though none of the panelists ever once used the word, instead referring to Heidegger and Sartre as phenomenologists because their work descended from Edmund Husserl’s. This off-the-cuff dissection of phenomenology was articulate and effective—and quick—so I’m going to reproduce some of it here, partly because by the end of the podcast I was struck by how much painting is, or should be, a phenomenological exploration.

Here are portions of the conversation, paraphrased and condensed in places, starting with an overview whose bearing on representational painting should be glaringly obvious:

Stephen Mulhall:

Phenomenologists are fascinated and struck by the fact that we grasp and comprehend all of the various entities that the world throws at us in the course MORE

Cloud

cloud

I’m an avid admirer of Suzie MacMurray’s work, after stumbling onto her show at Danese/Corey in 2013 and spending quite a bit of time there absorbing it. I got an email from her about a new installation, Cloud, to commemorate the loss of British soldiers in the First World War. Wish I could get across the pond to see it, but I’ll be checking for glimpses via the Internet. Sounds intriguing, and substantial, and no doubt brilliantly done.

Mindfully uncertain

Memorial Art Gallery at Night, Jim Mott, oil on board

Memorial Art Gallery at Night, Jim Mott, oil on board

I had a desultory conversation with Jim Mott recently, touching on why we paint, so I’m just going to leap into it in media res:

Jim: In a better world the agenda for painting since the Sixties might have been to integrate the abstract and the real.

Dave: Everybody tries to some degree. I think that’s really what painting is, even the most abstract is representational and vice versa.

J: But to have the dialog between them . . .

D: Right. What I love about your work is that you create that tension between the painterly quality and the image.

J: My worldview isn’t defined very well. I try to do tighter stuff but it doesn’t work. I would love it if I could do a Van Eyck. But I think it doesn’t mesh with what reality is.

D: How so? MORE

I need a dollar, dollar, dollar is what I need

dollar

This story in the Sunday Times seems like a brief scenario from a Kurt Vonnegut novel, as he might have imagined the world decades into the future. A high-tech, high-security warehouse where art can be stored and never need to be moved ever again, while traders buy and sell it at their computers, capitalizing on fluctuations in price. The physical reality of the artwork ceases to matter or even mean anything, since no one ever needs to see it again. The headline for this report yesterday in the print edition was “Art in Residence” but now, online, it has been improved to “Art for Money’s Sake.” From the article:

The wealthiest Americans have grown wealthier since the Great Recession, and many are investing their wealth in art. Especially with bonds and other assets offering rock-bottom yields, the art market — where reports of record-high sales now emerge regularly — has an obvious appeal. According to a survey last year by Deloitte and ArtTactic, an art-research firm, 76 percent of art buyers viewed their acquisitions as investments, compared with 53 percent in 2012. And with more collectors viewing art as a financial investment, storage can become an artwork’s permanent fate.

Largely hidden from public view, an ecosystem of service providers has blossomed as Wall Street-style investors and other new buyers have entered the market. These service companies, profiting on the heavy volume of deals while helping more deals take place, include not only art handlers and advisers but also tech start-ups like ArtRank. A sort of Jim Cramer for the fine arts, ArtRank uses an algorithm to place emerging artists into buckets including “buy now,” “sell now” and “liquidate.” Carlos Rivera, co-founder and public face of the company, says that the algorithm, which uses online trends as well as an old-fashioned network of about 40 art professionals around the world, was designed by a financial engineer who still works at a hedge fund. The service is limited to 10 clients, each of whom pays $3,500 a quarter for what they hope will be market-beating insights. It’s no surprise that Rivera, 27, who formerly ran a gallery in Los Angeles, is not popular with artists.

 

Kneeling

Onion on a Carved Table, oil on linen

Onion on a Carved Table, oil on linen

If you wanna kiss the sky better learn how to kneel.       –U2

I posted a picture of Onion on a Carved Table a while back in a state of trepidation right before I started work on the onion, which I’d saved for last. In the post I talked about how I had to deal with the anxiety of tackling that onion skin. I worked through it, and I’m happy enough with the results that this will be in the two-artist show in March at Oxford Gallery.

I’m at the same point in a larger and more involved painting right now, hoping to finish it in time for the show, as well as submit it for consideration for the Finger Lakes Exhibition at Memorial Art Gallery. The current painting is completely done except for its most complex object, in the foreground, an ornate wine bottle holder that is more or less a family heirloom, which sits, in the picture, on the countertop in our kitchen, with the sink behind it. It is slightly tarnished silver, and capturing the way that surface shines and also doesn’t quite shine in places is enormously challenging, partly because there isn’t a flat point anywhere on the surface of that metal cup, embossed with tiny grapes and pears and vines. I woke up a couple nights ago at 2:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep, which hasn’t happened much this winter so far, so I came downstairs and looked at the progress on the painting and felt an impulse to toss it out (which must overcome any painter at some point). I didn’t, but sat down in the artificial light and worked on it for two hours, long enough to feel that I may manage to complete it satisfactorily by the end of the month. At the end of February I will have invested two months of daily work into this painting, seven days a week, longer than I’ve put into any previous work. Essentially, right now, it’s more a matter of will and desire than skill: if I can work quickly enough on the first coat of paint and then slowly enough on the successive modifications to it, within the time left to me, it will come together. But that’s more a question of character, focus, determination and perseverance–as well as an ability to suppress the anxiety that two months of work will end up wasted. It won’t. But, even if its satisfactory, the painting might not be exactly what I’d hoped or what I know I could have done, and that’s almost as discouraging as the prospect of giving up.

My familiarity with this kind of inner test of tenacity is why two recent movies about the creative process moved me so deeply: Birdman and Whiplash. I didn’t think Birdman could be equalled for the way in which it portrayed the pain of creative effort, and the joy of its fulfillment. That link between the pain of struggle and an ability to be joyful as a result of it is what I heard in my recent rereading of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy where he had already begun to suggest how art can be a counterforce to nihilism. It can reconcile you to suffering and transform it into joy. A little painting, as much as a Greek tragedy, can be a way of affirming that joy in life as a whole, with all of its unavoidable suffering and tragedy. This may sound a little pompous in relation to worries about how to paint a wine bottle holder, but when you are in that state of doubt about your ability to create something that does affirm the joy of appearances, the prospect of failure can feel excruciating. On top of whatever struggle you happen to be going through in your non-painting life–which was Nietzsche’s real subject, the agonies of life itself. Which is where Whiplash–to get back to my point–may have surpassed Birdman in the way it shows how extreme creative effort is willing to put up with any level of sacrifice, and those stakes are raised to harrowing levels in the movie, before the drummer can break through to something greater than what he’d ever been able to do, because joy was waiting there. Even if that joy is nothing but your own response to having done exactly what you’d hoped and, even so, still feeling more than pleasantly surprised by the results.

I’ve got a lot of work left to do before I get there. Six weeks in, this is the hard part.

The tyranny of theory

Tolstoy

Tolstoy

In a passage replete with quotable sentences from the linked article: “Levin at last realizes that if one lives rightly moment to moment, one can sense life’s meaningfulness, but one will still not be able to express it.” From a fantastic essay in The New Criterion about how science has narrowed and blinded us to its own limits, on the path toward wisdom. One can substitute the word “literature” with the word “art” at the end of the second paragraph and do no harm to the meaning of the paragraph:

Tolstoy in particular shaped Wittgenstein’s thought. As a soldier in the Austrian army, Wittgenstein carried copies of Tolstoy’s stories and Gospel in Brief everywhere. His friends jokingly referred to him as “the man with the Gospels.” The end of the Tractatus makes sense the moment one recognizes it as a loose paraphrase of Levin’s meditations in Part VIII of Anna Karenina.

For Wittgenstein, logic and science are indeed powerless to address questions of life’s meaning. “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all,” Wittgenstein explains. But that does not mean these problems do not matter. It means that they must be addressed otherwise—for example, by literature.

Like Levin, Wittgenstein reasons that “the sense of life” cannot be a fact in the world, but must lie outside it. It cannot belong to the chain of cause and effect, or anything connected with natural laws, because it must illumine life as a whole. Or as Levin comes to understand: “If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness lies outside the chain of cause and effect.”

Levin at last realizes that if one lives rightly moment to moment, one can sense life’s meaningfulness, but one will still not be able to express it. What changes for him is not some fact in the world, but the world itself, which, as Wittgenstein paraphrases the point, “must wax and wane as a whole.” Ultimate questions are not answered, but they vanish in the face of meaningfulness and goodness directly experienced. Wittgenstein at his most Tolstoyan explains: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?).” Russell notwithstanding, the genuinely inexpressible is indeed real. We come to know it not by logical deduction but because “it makes itself manifest. That is the mystical.”

When Levin comes to this realization, he understands that meaningfulness has always been there right before his eyes, hidden in plain view. Cloaked in its ordinariness, it is a daily miracle. “And I watched for [material] miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle that would convince me,” Levin thinks. “And here is the miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it!”

Long looking

Two Cheese Cubes, 2011

Two Cheese Cubes, 2011

I saw comparatively few exhibits over the past year, but I did manage to catch Wayne Thiebaud at Aquavella, where we lingered quite a while in front of his work. It appeared to be a selection from throughout his career, though I’d hoped for more of the recent large non-urban landscapes. It did have at least one smaller work in that mode: a luminous view of a shoreline with a file of beachcombers, who appeared, on closer inspection, to be armed with metal detectors. It’s no shock that Thiebaud is whimsical enough to turn a potentially grubby-looking subject into something gorgeous. The show in general was as energizing as I’d hoped it would be, and it offered some interesting surprises including a small self-portrait in graphite, a pencil sketch that captured his young likeness with great economy despite the paper’s dimensional constraints. You could discern the slightly pensive good cheer behind his eyes even at that small scale. His handling of paint varied in surprising ways even within individual paintings. He trowels the paint onto a surface in his backgrounds and in uniform areas of color, but when it comes to rendering the human body, the paint becomes smooth and less visible, as if it’s been rubbed smooth from so much polishing. So he’ll show you a figure where the background might be so thick it looks as if he was able to drag a fingertip around the edge of his sitter’s figure, almost as if to indicate a saintly aura, but then the arms are so carefully finished the paint disappears into the illusion it creates. My favorite: a brilliant little painting of two blocks of cheese, as minimal as a Stella, but filled with the light that Thiebaud owns. Simple or not, he can work on a painting for years.

He extolled the value of “long looking” in an interview with Art News about Morandi’s influence on his work, and I wholeheartedly concur with every word: “There are such good lessons to learn from looking at his work. They have to do with certain propositions that I think serious painters need to be aware of. One of them, I think, is the wonder of intimacy and the love of long looking. Of staring but at the same time moving the eye, finding out what’s really there, and there are so many things that are subtle and may look like something at one moment but not the next. There’s always that kind of “not quite” with Morandi and yet the feeling of totality is so nicely complete. It’s always a joy to look at his work.”

Aquavella is one of the nicest art spaces I’ve visited in New York City, a former residence, not nearly as spread out as the former garages in Chelsea, but with very high ceilings, including one room with rows of sculpted busts sitting far up in a recessed alcove that runs along the wall just beneath the crown molding. It’s a phalanx of likenesses of luminaries from the Enlightenment. I recognized Voltaire and hazarded some guesses about many of the others.

 

Tonal meditations at Oxford

Luminous, Sharon Gordon

Respite, encaustic on panel, Sharon Gordon

“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” –William Blake

At the Oxford Gallery here, Jim and Jinny Hall have assembled a finely unified show of two regional artists, Karl Heerdt and Sharon Gordon, who are working in the stylistic neighborhood of Tonalism, a school of art that has drawn Jim’s devotion as a collector and dealer for many years. You’ll see many of Tonalism’s earmarks in the work of both painters: an emphasis on evoking landscape rather than denoting its details, a sense of diffuse twilight, and quiet hints of transcendence. In the 19th century, Tonalism was in part a response to the work of thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau, whose writing affirmed a Yankee Romanticism, a perception of the world where the human soul and the natural world sprang from one unifying spiritual source. I suspect neither Heerdt nor Gordon would go so far as to call themselves transcendentalists, but in the current work of both painters, the indeterminacy of what’s being depicted gives their elusive images the sense of withholding as much as they disclose–hinting at a life behind appearances that glances out at the viewer and then withdraws. The paintings return your gaze in a way that makes you want to know more about what’s happening behind the look of things. Heerdt lives and works mostly around Buffalo. Of all his work, his simple scenes drawn from the Niagara River have always captured and held my attention the longest. One of these, in this show, a very small oil, includes little more than a hump of snow to indicate the bank of the river and then a stretch of indistinct water with a few whitecaps, a scene nearly devoid of subject matter–or distinctly even visible objects. It has the simplicity of a Milton Avery, dividing two dominant colors/values diagonally. Yet it’s intensely recognizable, a glimse of our region of excruciatingly familiar gray winter light that,in January for anyone living on the shore of Lakes Erie and Ontario, becomes the dull, dreamy ground of one’s consciousness. Yet it’s masterful and seemingly effortless, his handling of the paint as essential to the effect as the way he seeks that illusion of our somber Rust Belt twilight. His other work is every bit as masterful, a tangle of brushwork up close, but, a few steps away, an amazingly precise evocation of a particular hour’s slant of light. One small oil, of another river, in Yellowstone, with vaguely purple reflections on the water, looks as if it could have been done en plein air, in a single sitting, and yet there isn’t a false move or needless bit of paint anywhere in the image. In other words, Heerdt is getting better and better. He told me at the opening that he’s trying to simplify his methods in a radical way, working toward an image from four, three, even two abstract areas of value, building outward from that flat map of light and dark. He said he’s also working in more hints of color, sometimes almost arbitrary, into what has been his past adherence to blues, grays, browns and whites. He has started a series of much larger canvases, and I can’t wait to see what emerges from that shift in scale.

Sharon Gordon’s experiments with encaustic and cold wax form the core of her portion of this show, and these mostly square, fairly small images hover at the exact halfway point between representation and abstraction. They work perfectly in either mode. They evoke Turner as much as the Tonalists, and some verge on color field painting. MORE

Must see

 

An Anniversary, Edwin Dickinson, Oil on Canvas, Albright Knox Art Gallery

An Anniversary, Edwin Dickinson, Oil on Canvas, Albright Knox Art Gallery

From Matt Klos, I got the notice below about a couple exhibits of perceptual painting which I’ll be heading down to see in Maryland next month. The first show is a must-see, if for no other reason that the fact that it’s a chance to see An Anniversary, by Edwin Dickinson, which is in the permanent collection in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox. Matt was able to wrest quite a few paintings like this from various sources to put together this overview of how perceptual painting has evolved. I discovered it by chance a couple years ago at the Albright Knox while wandering through its permanent collection after having lunch there with A.P. Gorney. But since then, it has been in storage whenever I’ve been there. While down in the Baltimore area, I’ll spend some time talking with Matt about what went into curating what looks to be such a great show. Can’t wait. The announcement from Matt, including details on a second show of contemporary painters, including his work:

Exhibition 1, “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters,” curated by Matt Klos 
Please join me for the Opening Reception and Family Program on January 25th from 3:30-5pm to see “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painting” at the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. I’m really excited about the show and I would love to share it with you in person! http://www.sjc.edu/programs-and-events/annapolis/mitchell-art-gallery/2014-2015-exhibits-and-programs/
A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters, January 15 – March 1, 2015
 
This exhibition of American Perceptual Painters focuses on a lineage of American Realism begun, in part, by Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978), a student and contemporary of Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930), through the present day. Though representing various genres, themes, and approaches, these artists share a commonality which involves painting from direct observation. This exhibition celebrates a representational lineage that has persevered through the antagonism of the Modern era and continues to enrich the discussion of contemporary American art.
 
Artists:
Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930)                      Susan Jane Walp (b. 1948)
Gwen John (1876-1939)                                       Tim Kennedy (b. 1954)
Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978)                             Charles Ritchie (b. 1954)
Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)                                Eve Mansdorf (b. 1955)
Arnold Newman (1918-2006)                               Scott Noel (b. 1955)
George Nick (b. 1927)                                        Philip Geiger (b. 1956)
Lennart Anderson (b. 1928)                                James Fitzsimmons (b. 1957)
Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000)                            Neil Riley (b. 1957)
Gillian Pederson-Krag (b. 1938)                          Tim Lowly (b. 1958)
Rackstraw Downes (b. 1939)                              Gideon Bok (b. 1966)
Stanley Lewis (b. 1941)                                      Elizabeth Geiger (b. 1967)
Mark Karnes (b. 1948)                                        Sangram Majumdar (b. 1976)
 
St John’s College
The Mitchell Gallery
60 College Avenue
Annapolis, MD 21401
Gallery open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. on Friday before the College lecture or concert. Closed on Monday.
I’ll give a lecture about the exhibition on February 17th at 5:30pm and there will be a panel discussion with some of the artists on February 22nd at 3pm. All are welcome to attend!

MORE

Work zone, reduce speed

IMG_4867

This studio of mine is humming with work right now, which is why it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything. I have a backlog of about a dozen posts I want to write, including a long conversation I had with Jim Mott recently, as well as an assortment of random thoughts, some long overdue praise for a long-gone Thiebaud exhibit I saw at Aquavella,  and hopefully something about the fine new show of quasi-Tonalist contemporary work at Oxford Gallery right now, if I can pull away from painting long enough to focus on this blog. I’m almost done with work for my two-person show in March at Oxford, but still have plenty left to do–slowly and steadily–which generates a bit of anxiety as time grows short and the work proceeds at its own insistently careful pace. I’m loving the work though.

I’m also going to do a series of posts in reaction to my impulse purchase of The Birth of Tragedy, through the Kindle app on my tablet. I’ve been devouring it over the past few days. It’s an incredible book, very short and dense with original thought, and it’s hard to believe it’s so early in Nietzsche’s career, his first published work. The thinking is so subtle and complex, and the compression of his thinking reads like something from late in a philosopher’s career. In it, he questioned the role of science long before it became clear that technology could actually replace human beings, as it appears ready to do, and he went back to Greek tragedy to find a creative focus around which he could cluster glancing insights into art, philosophy and religion–in opposition to the notions of progress and rationality that arose with Socrates. I was softened up for a rereading of something by this German thinker after listening to so many podcasts from Entitled Opinions (whose host regularly revisits Heidegger’s interrogation of Western civilization, a project he inherited directly from Nietzsche, whose name also comes up regularly with guests on that Stanford University program.)

Now that I’ve reread this book, I think Nietzsche might actually have disapproved of the sort of painting I do, and that itself might be worth a post, because I would have something contra Nietzsche to say on the matter, but he’s making me examine the assumptions underlying what I do. Very little of what’s so powerful in this book relates much to the notions for which Nietzsche eventually came to be known: the ubermensch, eternal recurrence, and so on. He returns again and again to the effect of music in classic Greek tragedy: how it unveils an entire world and an obliteration of the self in a kind of cosmic sorrow and wonder that employs the events and characters of the drama as a shield through which that sorrow can be experienced as joy. His thinking strikes me as insightful when it comes to how the cleverness and conceptualism of art in the past century has broken it free of its moorings. The loss of a central mooring is what he was lamenting already, just as modernism was coming to life–without being able to express directly what the crucial impetus of creative work was. So much to write, so little time . . . but I’ll be able to get back to posting soon.

Make it timeless, not new

Chaucer, as new as he ever was

Chaucer, as new as he ever was

I was browsing through the squibs in the front of the most recent The New Yorker fresh from my mailbox, hoping to find something to see on a quick trip to Manhattan where Nancy and I, along with a couple friends, have tickets for the Matisse show at MoMA. I spotted three things that stood out, not for what they were critiquing, but for the thoughts expressed in these A.D.D.-friendly five-sentence reviews. Here they are:

1. Museum of Modern Art: “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in the Forever Now.”

“The ruling insight that the thoughtful curator Laura Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it.”

(But my first response to this was: I will see your nugatory and raise you a negatory. Yes, history has run its course for visual art. The notion of progress is dead. But I have some humble qualifications that fly in the face of what I this show’s apparent tone and spirit. More below.)

I turned the page and found my counterpoint already put into words:

2. Marcus Roberts

While raising money on Kickstarter for his latest project–recording a suite of music that he wrote some twenty years ago, called “Romance, Swing, and the Blues”–the pianist and composer declared that “all great jazz is modern jazz–whatever the age of the piece, we make it ‘modern’ (relevant to our own time in history) when we play it.” This multi-stylistic dictum informs his work with his new twelve-member band, Modern Jazz Generation, which recently released a double album of the material.

(Obviously, right? The individual performer makes it new. Anyone who has heard a great cover knows this.)

3. “The Contract” 

In the European Union, artists receive a royalty each time their works are resold. The U.S. has no such droit de suite, but in 1971 the curator-dealer Seith Siegelaub drafted a rarely used contract to guarantee artists fifteen percent of profits from future sales. The conceit of this show is that all the works in it . . . are subject to the agreement. Is this premise better suited to an article or a symposium than it is to an exhibition? Probably, but in this turbo-charged art market the show has the rare virtue of subordinating speculators’ profits to artists’ welfare. (The show, at Essex Street, was over on Jan. 11, even though this issue of The New Yorker is dated Jan. 12. Which is typical of these notices in The New Yorker: some seem to sit in the queue until after their use-by date.)

Last things first. I wish I’d seen this show just to have been in a place briefly  MORE

Irony meets comedy

(Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

From Kevin Pollack Show, #223:

Joel Murray: Back in the day, we were out one night, with Gilda Radner and my mother . . .

Kevin Pollak: We?

Joel Murray: My brother Brian and Bill. I wanna say this is the same night we saw Robin Williams at the Copacabana early in the evening with Lucy Arnez. Saw Robin do a show that blew us away. This is 1979, 1980. I laughed my ass off and I sat next to this strange guy who did not laugh once. White-haired fellow. I was like, who is the dead wood? Oh, that’s Andy Warhol. (Beat) Did not find the show funny.

Speaking of Warhol, even after he had become a major celebrity, I read this morning that Warhol more or less kept his day job, doing magazine illustration as late as 1986. That old Pittsburg work ethic dies hard. Plus, it was as much a work of art as anything else he did.

Silence

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

A shot from a small piece where poets pick their favorite photographs in the Paris Review. (Speaking of which, I read a few days ago that George Plimpton was at Bobby Kennedy’s side when the candidate was shot. Did Plimpton ever do anything boring aside from brushing his teeth? I’m assuming he did it the way the rest of us do.) Ann Lauterbach, on this picture of Wittgeinstein:

The Wittgenstein photograph is unsettling; it’s as if he can barely see out from his mind’s fervent activity. There’s something eerie about looking back at him, into his uncomfortable, intelligent eyes, and thinking about the silence that every photograph compels us to acknowledge. I think about this silence often, and the indifference of images to it, and the ways in which captions try, but ultimately fail, to undermine it. Wittgenstein thought a lot about the relationship of silence to words . . .

As did Heidegger. Images as far more akin than writing (and thinking) to the silence Wittgenstein pondered. Poetry gets closer to it than any other form of writing. “Indifference” puzzles me: “The indifference of images to this silence.”

Artspace in Harlem

It's gonna need some windows.

It’s gonna need some windows.

Will Harlem become the new Bushwick? “We should be cultivating affordable housing in general.” http://bit.ly/1zZny6R

The appetite for paint

Jim Mott's oil of a dog walker he saw in Arizona

Jim Mott’s oil of a dog walker he saw in Arizona

I could write a dozen posts based on my conversation this week with Jim Mott. Knowing me, I probably will eventually, one way or another, but one small point we talked about just surfaced while I was working on something entirely unrelated to painting. We both spoke about work habits and how difficult it can be to paint on a fixed schedule. He has intense resistance before sitting down to paint. He’s told me in the past that he approaches every new painting feeling as if he has to learn all over again how to make a picture, though he knows a wealth of things about how to paint. As painful as it is, he thrives on this sense of flailing at the start, struggling to simply get a grip on what he’s going to do, mark by mark–the instability of that moment seems necessary for getting a purchase on what has to be done each time he sits down to paint. My habits are much different. I have a set of methods that enable me to ignore those uncertainties, up to a point, and they make the earlier stages of building a painting almost routine–with the exception of the first stage, seeing the image I want to paint. That’s when I feel exactly as Jim does. Discovering that image is really the first moment of anxiety and struggle for me. Since I work with photographs I’ve taken, I can spend half a day or most of a day, just trying to compose and capture a picture that will end up as the source for a painting. Jim faces the same uncertainty when he wanders through a landscape looking for what he’s going to paint–and he had a funny story about how, on one of his peregrinations, he used a GPS coordinate generator to find utterly random scenes, and how he forced himself to paint even the most unappetizing views of the region, based on the locations his software calculated. He forced himself to stick with the locations without, as it were, rolling the dice again.

Normally, for me, finding a picture just means working within the slightest variations of light and setting around my own home, involving a few objects I’ve painted before. It’s amazing how difficult this can be, because I need to have some kind of emotional response to what I’m seeing; there has to be something enticing about recreating it in paint, and that’s not easy to inspire, even if I’m simply setting up a still life in an artificial way. It’s never a sure thing. I can even come up with a shot that I believe is exactly what I need but when I begin to paint it, I realize it won’t come together properly, and I abandon the painting. Also, I can lose what felt like a compelling image in the middle of painting it, which is when the struggle returns. There’s a point in almost every painting where I start doing things I don’t know how to do–problems I haven’t had to solve before. I discard far more paintings than I would like, but that moment of deciding that a painting doesn’t work–and it can be even after the painting is finished–is close to the mysterious crux at the heart of what painting is. A painting has to live, which is different from saying a representational image needs to resemble life itself. A painting can be an exact replica of what’s in front of the lens, either an eye’s or a camera’s, but that doesn’t mean it will come alive for a viewer. It needs to do more than simply look real; it needs to feel alive, both as a scene, and as a physical object on a wall. That comes, in my view, from the difficult delight of laboring, with an appetite for the work, hours and days and weeks or months, making a thousand marks, and another thousand, with a sense of wanting the paint itself to convey its own vitality, in addition to the way it persuades the eye that it isn’t simply looking at paint. To be that invested in something as fundamental and physical and mostly subservient as the act of painting is what’s required for the final work to strike others as vital and arresting. But what that life is, the quality of both presence and absence a good painting has, as people themselves do, the way it discloses and offers so much while also giving the sense of withholding just as much, and leaving so much out, unarticulated–there doesn’t seem to be any way of objectifying how this happens, or even describing it. The routines only take me so far, and then I’m as adrift as Jim before he starts working, from start to finish. The best indication that it’s coming together though, is nothing more authoritative than a feeling (which sounds nebulous but isn’t), a sense of anticipation and a willingness to keep working on a particularly tough section until it’s right, a surrender to the terms of what’s beginning to appear as you realize the unique challenge the work represents. Keeping that hunger alive, the appetite to keep applying paint, even when something resists everything you already know how to do, is what eventually makes the painting work. It’s something an individual achieves alone, and can’t be taught, though it’s easy to see its results in all the great paintings of the past. Seeing it in previous paintings is how I realized I wanted to paint in my teens.

We are Charlie

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weapon of mass