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Know thyself

Selfie, oil on panel, 12 x 12

My recent self-portrait, premier coup mode, will be in the upcoming invitational exhibit at Viridian Artists, “Selfies & Self-Portraits: 21st Century Artists See Themselves.” Sept. 5-30. Between my current effort and the next painting I hope to do a small series of faces in a similar way, on thick MDF panels, as this one was done.

Thanks moms; thanks pops

Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre, and his brother Tyree, far right

The The Defiant Ones on HBO is a stirring documentary that made the hair on my arms stand up, exactly the way Dr. Dre got “goosechills” on camera as he remixed a favorite track from the past. The show humanizes this billionaire rapper in a way I haven’t seen since I spotted the snapshot of Nas when he was seven on the cover of Illmatic. That moment in the documentary, with Dre in thrall to a song from his past and the hair prickling on his arms, reveals the endearing nerd, the Dennis Wilson-obsessive, inside Dre—and, even moreso, within his business partner, Jimmy Iovine. An inner nerd drove each of them to the success they enjoy. Iovine’s incessant, fanatical, round-the-clock pursuit of production excellence resulted in a string of incredible career breaks as the skinny brilliant studio rat adjusting the mixer for John Lennon, Foghat, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Smith, all of that just a launching pad for the success that followed. He and Dre both had the drive of Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash: a kind of zombie apprenticeship to an insatiable talent.

My first taste of Dre was his work with Snoop Dogg on Doggystyle. That mashup of funk and hiphop into a nasty celebration of gangster pleasures reminded me immediately of my forgotten delights in Johnny Guitar Watson back in the 70s. In both cases, funk and G funk, it was fun transgression, the way rock had once been a slightly forbidden pleasure. You knew it was just wrong, as it made you grin. Tipper Gore aside—remember her campaign against all of the foul language?–if you’re rapping, you can pretty much get away with anything. All is permitted, and so we’re free to enjoy all that badness vicariously, a musical day off from your own well-behaved boogie life. Along with Nirvana, it felt like a cure for everything that had happened to music in the 80s other than the rest of the bands that emerged out of punk.

Hiphop had been keeping alive the worship of a certain kind of beat that MORE

Stop moving

Scott Alan Adams Sr., George Bush

Jim Mott paid a visit last week and we talked for a couple hours, as he sat in one of our Adirondack chairs and sketched a bit of what he saw in the yard, probably some of the birds attracted to our feeders. He was wearing a Red Sox cap someone had left in his car once, and was in a good mood, thanks to the fact that he has a job working with a nature conservation group to supplement whatever he makes from his art. Most of the time, Jim trades his paintings for room and board, when he’s in his Itinerant Artist mode, but he also sells and has a show coming up with several other regional artists. It was a good conversation, and here is some of it:

JM: On those rare cases when I sit down and really draw something it’s so refreshing but it’s hard to make myself do it. I do a sketch and think maybe I’ll do a painting from it and then I see everyone else holding up their phone cameras. Working from sketches, we’d be doing art the way we did it thirty or forty years ago. Richter certainly relies on photography.

DD: Richter’s name has come up a lot in the past few days. I was just emailing with Rick Harrington who was talking about how he’s been watching Richter’s videos. And I was emailing this morning with Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli and we were talking a little about Richter.

He does those big squeegee paintings which I really like.

I do too.

I saw some of his photo-real paintings in Chicago.

We talked about that.

Up close the presence of the paint is so sublime.

I think he focuses a lot on the quality of the surface. I think he’s looking to Vermeer and Old Masters for the photorealistic paintings. He gets that very soft edge.

But what makes the paint feel so there is that there’s such a sense of material. Its like the feel of something done with limestone.

Rick and I have talked about our disappointment with Walton Ford’s paint. You stand back and it’s one hell of an image and it really works, but the love of the paint doesn’t seem to be there. You can see the paint and it’s very evident; it’s a jumble of paint up close but it doesn’t have that quality you’re talking about. But it works.

This is a distraction but you’ve probably seen this book. (Jim handed me a coffee table book he’d brought with him, a catalog of George W. Bush’s portraits of war veterans.) MORE

The sublime and the beautiful revisited

Kant

In the The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, Iris Murdoch rexamines an aesthetic distinction that most people would associate with Edmund Burke—how what is beautiful and what is sublime occupy completely different modes of human experience. Her subject is Kant, though, and Kant presented Burke’s distinction in a slightly different way. For Kant, art creates a beautiful object, worthy in and of itself. A painting doesn’t instruct, or serve any purpose at all, but is a self-justifying object where human imagination and understanding come together in harmony. A work of art, by definition, has to be entirely intelligible, in this view—or, rather, its value resides in its intelligibility, even though it has nothing specific to say. It just is, and that’s enough, the way things in the world are what they are and are nothing else—and you recognize and appreciate it immediately for what it is, as you would a flower or a vase. It is what it is, transparently beautiful, and that’s quite enough. Kant isn’t interested in what doesn’t surrender to reason—reason equals freedom equals virtue. Moral choice for him was the exercise of reason, cutting through the murk and mess of individual human experience and emotion, facing toward what was universal and just plain reasonable, so that the individual could act on that knowledge. Beauty, in art, is the experience of seeing a hint of this order, this understanding, shine forth from something created.

With the sublime on the other hand, Kant follows Burke’s earlier distinction: it is an experience of the tension between reason and what’s beyond its grasp, the threatening mystery and magnitude of nature. In that confrontation between understanding and what resists reason, intransigent and hostile and overpowering, there was a thrill in which a human being feels gratified at being free of that threat, of being guided by the “dignity of reason” in the face of the inaccessible and inhuman snow-covered Alpine peak. Half a century later Melville felt only dread, even horror, at the whiteness of the whale—inscrutable, blank, pitiless, and alien. (That shift, the rise of dread and despair, in Melville and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche–and I suppose you could go on indefinitely with other figures, Munch and the expressionists and so on—would seem the most significant development in 19th century culture, emptying out into the angst and nausea of the existentialists.) Kant would have smiled with bemusement at Melville’s anxiety: Herman! Buddy! You’re troubled by the color white, sailor? Really? A color? For Kant, humanity transcends nature because we can establish and affirm what is intelligible and therefore superior to the opacity of the natural world, and thus exercise our freedom from it and give it meaning—which sounds very much like an apology for what we are now doing in science and technology and nearly everywhere else in our postmodern realm. We’re remodeling the unsatisfactory natural world, to our liking, along with human nature itself, as the genetic code becomes our sandbox. Good luck with that.

Murdoch takes Kant’s idea of the sublime, though, and brings it down to earth—what replaces the implacable and opaque in nature becomes, for Murdoch, the other human being. The woman in the seat next to you on the flight is just as stubbornly resistant to human will, and just as confounding to one’s solitary comfort as the vast silence of the starry sky. And yet with the passenger staking her claim to both armrests in 13A, you have a choice to make: you can tolerate and understand her or you can hate her. There’s no avoiding her, unfortunately. Loving her is probably out of the question, unless it’s a flight from New York to Sydney and the conversation takes a novel turn. By contrast, the Alps don’t care how you feel about them. She takes Kant’s acknowledgement of the way in which the world resists understanding and turns it into a certain kind of attention and the moral choice that can flow from it. For her—her essay was published in 1959—what Kant saw in the individual’s uneasy relationship with nature’s power transfers directly into what’s missing in contemporary art, especially fiction. For her, most fiction, and by implication other art forms, avoids this uneasy apprehension inherent in Kant’s notion of the sublime when applied to other people. What gets written is either a self-absorbed elaboration of the author’s own experience or obsessions—stripped down into mythic form—The Stranger or The Catcher in the Rye—or else it’s a thin journalistic/political account of contemporary life, full of verisimilitude, with characters that serve whatever predetermined purpose the novelist has in mind for them. Given that choice, she prefers, say, the pointlessness of The Catcher in the Rye. Yet, for her, the greatest novelists, such as Tolstoy, created a world populated by characters whose reality vastly exceeded whatever purpose they could have served for the writer—they demonstrated that the author succeeded in the heroic effort to forget himself by imagining, making real, other human beings completely distinct from the author’s personality. Their reality was the achievement, not anything the author wanted to say by making them real. And this is the heart of Murdoch’s entire philosophy: a human being’s greatest progress in realizing what is good comes as a consequence of being intensely aware of anything other than the self, but best of all, other human beings. That effortful awareness makes love possible. And one of the ways this love can manifest itself is by creating art—the most powerfully moral form of art being fiction. Updike criticized J.D. Salinger for loving his characters more than God loves them, but Murdoch would say there is no such thing as loving one’s fictional creations too much, as long as they aren’t just your avatars.

For her, George Eliot and Tolstoy and Jane Austen, were the masters of this self-effacement—Shakespeare even more so, as a playwright. She moves back and forth between philosophy and fiction/art, pointing out that you can find the same dichotomy among the philosophers, like Sartre and even Kierkegaard, on one side—the spiritually solipsistic freedom of the individual wrestling with God or just the contingency of life—and the linguistic philosophers like G.E. Moore or Wittgenstein, who seem to simplify all agonized moral choice by ironing out the various meanings of the word “good” in ordinary human language. (Admirably she gets through the entire essay without ever quoting Sartre’s famous “hell is other people.”) Define your terms and the way becomes clear; simply figure out what the “good” means in any given usage of the word and then do it. She doesn’t put it that simplistically, but makes it sound just about that dry and lifeless and easy. To know what’s right will lead to doing it—that idea goes back to Socrates. For her, in this choice between what she recognized as the two dominant modes of philosophy, what got lost was the problem of other people, all of those beings who exist and have needs beyond the boundaries of the thinker’s head and whose behavior creates dilemmas that can’t be solved by thinking about them, or making choices, in isolation. And doing what’s right, even when you know it, is generally a challenge for nearly everyone. And this is precisely what was getting lost, in her view, in fiction—the necessity of getting to know people who are completely different from you and wrestling with the demands for attention they place upon you, demands for sympathy, for action. For Murdoch, the art of the novel peaked with George Eliot and Anna Karenina and then began to decline.

Hers is an intensely moral vision of life. So it’s no wonder that the person who is missing in all this—a novelist she so strenuously avoids mentioning—is Proust. In Proust it all comes together in a way she probably wasn’t able to acknowledge—mostly because in Proust, as in Heidegger (whom she didn’t grapple with until it was too late in her career), an explicit concern with morality is almost entirely absent. Proust improvised an astonishingly complex social world from his own experience while obsessively examining a kaleidoscope of subjective, finely-calibrated emotional experiences—a fractal vortex of internal states (mostly having to do with sexual jealousy) of mind and heart. For Camus, Proust was the best example of the ideal of the artist who refuses the intellectual/philosophical extremes—he explores the rain forest of his own inner life and the inner life of others without ever going so far as to become a surrealist, and he constructs a beehive of human beings around his narrator, who give the reader a sense of the real, actual, objective world, though his approach never becomes journalistic. He embraces a poetic and yet exhaustively observant Middle Way. His characters are probably the most complex creations in all of fiction since Hamlet. But there is no moral dimension to his world—Harold Bloom puts him almost in a class by himself in Western literature, linking him to the Hindu sages, having recognized some fundamental unity in the good and bad, life and death. He looks past it entirely and gives to his characters his dispassionate and tolerant and inexhaustible curiosity and delighted awe—as if each human being, no matter how depraved or perverse or silly and shallow or great and admirable, were equivalent to a work of art so fascinatingly intricate and integrated that to pass any sort of moral judgment on his or her behavior would overlook that character’s marvelous complexity. The rain of his rapt attention falls on each of them, the just and the unjust, in equal measure. In a way, Proust sees people with the same detached but avid delight that a collector of insects brings to his display case, and yet he’s anything but detached about human life—the slippery, fluctuating continuum of feeling and intuition are almost all that matter in his world. It’s his medium. What’s diminished in Proust isn’t just the moral dimension, but love which is more than erotic compulsion or emotional dependency. As Bloom points out, the only real love in the novel is evident mostly in the narrator’s relationship with his mother and grandmother. To say the least, his vision lacks a certain friendly warmth, and so I think Murdoch, whose philosophy is all but Christian—a sort of gospel of goodness and love without God—had to avoid grappling with this figure who did exactly what she required by creating a multitude of unpredictable, living human beings, each dramatically distinct and independent from the author himself. He has no designs on them, they are allowed to be simply what they are, the sprawling mess of their behavior seeping like colors of the rainbow throughout hundreds and hundreds of pages, free to do whatever they most naturally do, because the huge novel is orchestrated almost without a plot. The problem for her had to be that Proust didn’t recognize the significance of moral choice—we are what we are, and it’s a marvel, for better or worse. He was a mystic for whom paradise is everywhere, in all the minute particulars of the world around him—completely out of reach to his purposeful, everyday (and moral) mind, but present everywhere in the pages of his book. Proust’s creative relationship to the world is, for me, identical with a great painter’s who presents the world–his or her world–just as it is, for its own sake, without any agenda or purpose other than to make it alive and real.

Jean Stephens

A detail of Summer Storm by Jean K. Stephens, one of many great paintings on view at Oxford Gallery in the summer show.

Americas 2017

Chevron Bowl, oil on linen, 12″ x 16″

Chevron Bowl and Red Bartletts will be on view at Minot State University in the Northwest Art Center’s Americas 2017 from August 15 through September 28.

Red Bartletts, oil on linen, 10″ x 18″

Chevron Bowl was included in an exhibition at the New Jersey Center for Contemporary Art late last year. This is the first exhibition for the pears. They are both part of my effort, in parallel with the more highly realistic work I do, to experiment with a faster, simpler, and in some ways more painterly method–closer to Dickinson’s premier coup paintings, as he referred to them. In this work, I’m thinking always of Fairfield Porter, the perceptual painters, and, inevitably, Matisse. The aim is to keep a fairly tight sense of draftsmanship with a greater focus on value and color rather than detail and line–even though crisp delineation is always there in some areas of the work. I was very happy with the results in Chevon Bowl, and loved the outcome with the pears as well, though it ended up being more consistent with what I traditionally have been doing.

Butler award

Breakfast with Golden Raspberries, detail. oil on linen, 22 x 46, 2016.

I was honored to be informed that I won Director’s Special Mention at the Butler Institute of American Art’s 81st Midyear Exhibition for “Breakfast with Golden Raspberries.” I had intended to attend the opening this year, but was sorry to miss it, coming back from California two days later. Hard work is rewarded: it’s probably the most labor-intensive painting I’ve ever done, with some areas that needed reworking repeatedly. From what I can tell, at this distance, it looks like a fine show, and I may get there to see it, yet.

Emperors of ice cream

Two Flavors (Ice Cream Cone), Wayne Thiebaud 2003

I’ve often talked with Bill Santelli about having personal, felt rules, a set of boundaries for how I paint, which create a skeleton of principles around which to make a picture I want to see–which is my first rule, actually, to paint only what I really want to look at, with almost no other consideration. It’s odd, but I can stray from this rule so easily, for one reason or another, without quite being aware how I’m gradually drifting from the delight of the true path. For a while, Bill tended to push back whenever I asserted this and then began to understand what I meant. This was no surprise since his work operates so obviously in accord with what I was saying; I think it was just that he bristled at the onerous associations he had with the word “rules.” Today, I heard the same kind of idea expressed in an interview on All Songs Considered, put into our larger nihilistic, postmodern predicament of having the license to do anything at all and call it art. It was a comment during an interview with the members of Phoenix in a discussion of the French band’s new album, Ti Amo:

The issue is that there are no more limits, in terms of music. Everything is possible. Most of our time we spend in the studio we spend it to create a frame, just to have . . . limits, so we have something coherent in the end.

All of this seems related to Kandinsky’s idea of “inner necessity,” the desire that impels you to make art in a certain, individual way–and the long search to come upon that feeling of necessity. To discover that internal compass, Phoenix will come up with a single image, like a high concept for a movie, around which to create an album. I loved hearing how the spirit of the new Phoenix album, the aesthetic of its overall sound, was centered on the gestalt, the feel, of ice cream. There was something so Thiebaud about that, to embrace that spirit, especially in Paris, of a particular kind of lush pleasure as a guiding aesthetic for a new album in this era of political vitriol and spurts of terrorist violence. It struck me as a radical affirmation of joy in art, for its own sake–like Matisse cutouts or Agnes Martin’s glowing stripes. That’s a delight to the ears of this painter who continues to paint his share of confection and candy.

We could not have released this kind of record in a period of relative happiness. We needed the darkness to come up with this naive and joyful music. We didn’t control it. It’s just what happened. We write music not really knowing what we’re doing, but when it’s done, we realize . . . we have a safe harbor for ourselves. We have hope. It’s uncontrolled.”

Those words almost sum up what I expect and desire from the unknowing act of painting, naive and joyful and willfully ignorant of whatever others think painting needs to be–how “important” it should strive to make itself–in order for the work, when it’s done, to be exactly what I want to see, even if I’m the only one who’s looking.

Art at the X

Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen, oil on linen, 16" x 24"

Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen, oil on linen, 16″ x 24″

I’ll be showing Spiral Bowl with Flat Screen at Xavier University Art Gallery’s “Art at the X” from Aug. 25 through Sept. 22. It’s been a number of years since I’ve shown there, and I’m happy to be joining the exhibition again.

Art and consciousness

campbell

The past two years have been a desultory mix of so many obligations that it has been nearly impossible to hew to a daily painting discipline. Typically, I’ve enjoyed two months of fairly uninterrupted work and then faced a month when I might have only a few days available for painting–earning some money as a writer, putting in time as a caregiver for my parents, working on our house, visiting my kids in California. As of this June, though, I’ve been able to paint every day and should be able to stick with this schedule into the foreseeable future, with only some short breaks here and there. It’s put me in a much better mood, in general, though that’s tempered by the fact that I’ve reached a point where I’m more critical of the work I’m doing, as I do it. I keep wrestling with a specter of what I recognize as a hyper-sensitive discouragement about results, when the results are actually perfectly fine because what I’m doing and seeing in the work is part of the evolution, the path. Ironically, I feel as if I’m at a threshold where my methods and skills are such that I can reliably do certain things now that weren’t possible before, so I have to fight an impatience that arises when I’m not surprised by what I’m doing. (I’m still struggling as I go, facing uncertainties, but it’s more within a broader range of confidence, so my success at this or that doesn’t impress me as much.) I need to be patient and do what I know how to do for a while, consolidate what I’ve learned about how to paint, in order to build a body of work over the next couple years–which means I have to fight the impatient urge to push past this stage into something a little bolder. More on that later.

Meanwhile, in an email alert from Open Culture, I learned that I can listen to hours of Joseph Campbell lectures for free now on Spotify. Quelle pleasant surprise. I immediately started listening to his lectures at Cooper Union in the late 60s, and after only a few minutes Campbell got right to the heart of the matter and confirmed that I will have some pleasant hours ahead of me:

One of the problems man has to face is reconciling himself to the problem of his own existence, and this is the first function of mythology is that reconciliation of consciousness with the mystery of being, not criticizing it. Shakespeare and his definition of art where he says, art (or the art of acting,) holds the mirror up to nature. It is a perfect definition I would say of the first function of mythology. When you hold a mirror up to your self, your consciousness becomes aware of its support, what it is that is supporting it. You may be shocked with what you see; or you may be pleased that you become aware of yourself, your consciousness becomes aware of that darkness, that Being which came into being out of darkness and which is its own support. The first function then of a mythology is the reconciliation of consciousness to the foundations of being and the realization of their mystery as something that consciousness is not going to be able to criticize, not even going to be able to elucidate, not even going to be able to name. It is something beyond naming, beyond all definitions, and when that is lost one loses the sense of awe, which Goethe calls the best thing in man. One loses the sense of gratitude for one’s privilege of having a center of consciousness aware of these things.

Art is not thought

Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Agnes Martin, Gratitude, 2001, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Thoughts on how not to think, from Agnes Martin:

The life of an artist is a very good opportunity for life.
When we realize that we can see life we gradually give up the things that stand in the way of our complete awareness.
As we paint we move along step by step. We realize that we are guided in our work by awareness of life.
We are guided to greater expression of awareness and devotion to life.

You must say to yourself: “How can I best step into this state of mind and devote myself to the expression of life.”
You must not be led astray into the illustration of ideas because that is not art work. It is ineffective even though it is often accepted for a short time. it does not contribute to happiness and it is finally discarded.
The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fatal pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.
Dependence on intellect means a consideration of observed facts and deductions from observation as a guide in life.
Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from awareness of beauty and happiness.
To live and work by inspiration you have to stop thinking.
You have to hold your mind still in order to hear inspiration clearly.

Doppelgangers

Introspection, Dario Tazzioli, carrara marble.

Introspection, Dario Tazzioli, carrara marble.

I had some fascinating conversations with fellow artists at the reception for Doppelgangers at Oxford Gallery, where Jim and Ginny Hall have assembled another fine group show. It drew a large crowd, and it may have offered the largest number of pieces of any show they’ve ever put together, more than sixty. Many of the contributors took the theme as a pretext for submitting a pair of works, some two- and some three-dimensional, and yet everything seemed to fit perfectly into the available space. The idea of doppelgangers inspired or at least drew some exceptional work that had already been completed. As always, it’s impossible to do justice to everything on view, but again Dario Tazzioli’s sculpture was a magical affirmation that the artistic past is also its present and future. His Introspection, the bust of a young woman with a mane of flowing, wavy hair, carrara marble carved with a hand-turned bow drill—delivered to the show from Italy—stands as a quiet traditional tour de force, a testament to how nothing is off the table in art now. “Anything goes in art” used to mean that Warhol could fill a room with balloons and call it a masterpiece; now it means that the heritage of Donatello can still speak powerfully to a contemporary audience.

Tom Insalaco’s two paintings of faces offer the same lesson in a darker mood. They are the work of a man who has, for decades, been inspired by and driven to honor the Renaissance and baroque periods. He continues to quietly labor at his home studio in Canandaigua, NY, with more than one room turned into warehouses for his past work, all of it deserving a serious retrospective, but as if often the case with brilliant work done in obscurity, no one seems to be knocking on his door offering to revive interest in his remarkable career, which moved over the years from photo-realism to a reverence for the Old Masters. Since last year I’ve been studying and reading about Piero Della Francesca, whose work, especially, toward the end of his life, strikes me as powerfully alive and evocative and stylistically individuated in a completely contemporary way—which again suggests that emulating the mannerists or the Old Masters or the early Renaissance, or any other period, doesn’t need to be even a quasi-ironic undertaking, as it is with John Currin or Kehinde Wylie.

I had a long, probing conversation with Phyllis Bryce Ely about the recent work of hers I’d seen earlier in the day at Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs, NY: MORE

Aimless beauty

Iris Murdoch, by Ida Kar, 1957 National Portrait Gallery

Iris Murdoch, by Ida Kar, 1957 National Portrait Gallery

Iris Murdoch, from Existentialists and Mystics:

Following a hint in Plato (Phaedrus, 250) I shall start by speaking of what is perhaps the most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’, and that is what is popularly called beauty. Recent philosophers tend to avoid this term because they prefer to talk of reasons rather than of experiences. But the implication of experience with beauty seems to me to be something of great importance that should not be by-passed in favor of analysis of critical vocabularies. Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something that art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something that we may also do deliberately: give mention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care. It may seem odd to start the argument against what I have roughly labeled as ‘Romanticism’ by using the case of attention to nature. In fact, I do not think that any of the great Romantics really believed that we receive but what we give and in our life alone does nature live, although the lesser ones tended to follow Kant’s lead and use nature as an occasion for exalted self-feeling. The great Romantics, including the one I have just quoted, transcended ‘Romanticism’. A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees. ‘Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical.’*

I take this starting point, not because I think it is the most important place of moral change, but because I think it is the most accessible one. It is so patently a good thing to take delight in flowers MORE

Butler Midyear bound

Breakfast With Golden Raspberries, oil on linen, 22" x 46"

Breakfast With Golden Raspberries, oil on linen, 22″ x 46″

I was pleased to learn that Breakfast with Golden Raspberries was invited to another exhibition, the Midyear at the Butler Institute of American Art, July 9-August 20. It will be its third event since last fall, after exhibitions at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art and at Manifest Creative Research Gallery. There were almost 900 entries from 313 artists, with 83 pictures accepted.

 

 

 

A Sarasota feast

IMG_1573

Head of Bodhisattva, Pakistan, Gandhara, 3rd-5th century, gray schist.

As art collectors, John and Mable Ringling fished with a net. And you get the impression that they wanted you to see nearly everything they snared in their trawls through Europe and Manhattan, even though what’s on exhibit at The Ringling in Sarasota is only a fraction of the permanent collection. You’re confronted with a numbing quantity of art in quick succession, but with a recurring revelation of brilliance in every gallery. Those little epiphanies of mastery kept luring me into a sort of Easter egg hunt as I moved from room to room.

I spent a few hours inside the museum on my last full day in Florida last week and came away extremely impressed which much of what I saw and grateful for having the chance to see the Asian wing—a rich little vein of ancient Asian art and antiquities. The exhibit of Cypriot treasures is a profound experience of the past conveying a deep spiritual resonance for any contemporary visitor interested in Asian spiritual traditions. The museum did a beautiful job in giving you an enormous roadmap, as it were, almost as long as the entire Asian wing, showing how Cyprus was positioned so that the Silk Road’s routes converged near the island. Most of the Eastern routes funneled through or around the island and then moved into Europe, therefore Cyprus naturally snagged a lot of the cargo moving from East to West. This show has been as expertly mounted as anything you would see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—from which Ringling purchased the bulk of the collection in 1928. (One wonders how much of a bargain he might have gotten by waiting a couple years.) The Cypriot exhibit proves that this particular purchase was one of the most amazing and successful casts of Ringling’s net into the sea of world art. He may not have had the cautious and flawless taste of, say, a Duncan Phillips, but as a collector the efficiency of his methods sometimes worked beautifully.

Under the governance of Florida State University since 2000, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has become a significant cultural resource—and walking through it now you get the sense that you’re seeing a chrysalis that’s just beginning to open up. You get glimpses of the butterfly’s anatomy, and it’s going to be a while before you see it fly, but the metamorphosis is underway. The challenge facing those who run it now will be how much they need or want to honor John and Mable Ringling’s original intent. In many galleries, the founders created interior spaces that resembled the sort of European rooms where the work originally might have been hung—coffered ceilings in one gallery, red walls, wood paneling and trim, in many—offering an historic replica of aristocratic European interiors. For me these spaces distract from the mastery and brilliance of many individual works. The crimson walls loom around the edges of the paintings. I kept wanting to see particular paintings given a little more room to breathe and to forget the walls the way I would in the neutral white cube of a contemporary gallery. I wondered how much more powerful the enormous, lavish, maximalist cartoons Rubens painted as models for tapestries would have looked in the luminous and neutral ambiance of, say, David Zwirner’s Chelsea gallery. And there were Old Masters—Cranach, Velazquez, and Hals—that towered over neighboring work and would have been better served by being a little more removed from their lesser company. The museum is planning, over the next few years, to completely redesign the way its collection will be viewed—which was part of the pleasant anticipation I felt as I got more and more acquainted with what’s happening there. The curatorial challenge has to be both interesting and frustrating: whether or not to remain as true as possible to what the Ringlings wanted and (if those constraints matter) how to do justice to the full potential of the collection’s best work.

The overall impression you get from the core collection is that Ringling liked to buy his art in bulk to create a major cultural resource tout suite—and his focus on volume suppressed what might have grown into a more selective passion for Old Masters and Baroque art. He seemed to have been following the traditional path of the American capitalist mogul: build wealth by any available means and then elevate (and maybe redeem) yourself in the third act of your life by becoming a philanthropist. J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick perfected this sort of shape shifting by creating what have become two of Manhattan’s cultural crown jewels. Likewise, the Ringling could end up being the pinnacle of Florida’s art museums. It’s one of the greatest virtues of capitalism’s concentration of great wealth into individual ownership: it can leverage world-changing projects, in very short order. Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind, among many others, and Ringling was cut from this same mold.

What’s on view right now is remarkable—for me, the survey of Cypriot Asian objects was the best reason to visit the place. The small Searing Wing, though it’s a slight overview of modern and contemporary work, offered me my first look at a painting by Jon Scheuer, a stunning piece—I’ve loved his work in reproductions but it was impossible to see the sensuous complexity of his brushwork from photographs. Seeing the actual work had a big impact on my understanding of his work. As I wrote to Bill Santelli afterward, Schueler is closer to a Romantic than an abstract expressionist, more Turner than De Kooning. It was odd that photography was prohibited in this wing when I couldn’t find a catalog for what was being shown there—and catalog sales seems to me the only rational argument against photography now, given that the current pandemic of Compulsive Instagram Syndrome seems the best way to bring people into an exhibition.

The most impressive exhibit, by far, though, in terms of the intelligence and scholarship that went into gathering and presenting the show was A Feast for the Senses—a sort of Babette’s Feast of artwork from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance assembled to show the marriage of sensory and spiritual experience in courtly and religious ritual. It convenes more than a hundred objects from multiple sources: the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Designed to offer a “multi-sensory experience,” through multiple galleries, the show infuses rooms with scents and background music or bird songs, and a few things visitors can touch. It was put together in conjunction with Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, and deserved a much longer span of attention than I gave it. You come away from the exhibit with a view of the Late Middle Ages as a period of time much more illuminated by intelligence and wit than one might have thought, and where earthly appetites and the senses were incorporated into religious devotion. It was a fertile period, and in every piece you feel an entire civilization awakening from a long retreat from Hellenic civilization—the doorstep of an explosion in knowledge and creativity that set in motion the events that led to the world we’re living in now.

According to one of the docents monitoring a gallery in the Asian wing, The Ringling recently drew 5,000 visitors in a single day (the adjoining Circus museum has to be a huge attraction as well)—so what’s happening there is certainly working. On my way back to my car in the packed parking lot, I realized how knuckleheaded I’ve been to miss what’s been going on there over the past 15 years. The last time I’d visited in the museum was in the 90s before the current long-term restoration of the institution. I’ll be visiting every time I’m in Sarasota now.

Unknowing

Utopia, Maria Popova

Utopia, Maria Popova

The truth, from Maria Popova in Brain Pickings:

“Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion,” the great painter Richard Diebenkorn counseled in his ten rules for beginning creative projects. “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going,” the artist Ann Hamilton wrote a generation later in her magnificent meditation on the generative power of not-knowing. “In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know.”

What is true of art is even truer of life, for a human life is the greatest work of art there is. (In my own life, looking back on my ten most important learnings from the first ten years of Brain Pickings, I placed the practice of the small, mighty phrase “I don’t know” at the very top.) But to live with the untrammeled openendedness of such fertile not-knowing is no easy task in a world where certitudes are hoarded as the bargaining chips for status and achievement — a world bedeviled, as Rebecca Solnit memorably put it, by “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate.”     —Brain Pickings

The shadow stalls

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While spending a few weeks in Florida this month—helping my parents with some condo-related chores they can’t do themselves now—and getting in some morning runs on the beach, I’ve set up a little provisional studio to keep working on a current painting. (Running at low tide on the hard wet sand is the perfect surface; it gives underfoot just slightly, like an old wrestling mat.) I’d shipped the painting down, along with all the supplies I needed ahead of time, but my labors here kept me away from it for a couple weeks. It’s a little harder to spend a few spare hours on a canvas after half a day of cleaning out a garage when you have the equivalent of a mild, sunny summer day beckoning to you from the open garage door. With mockingbirds singing, ospreys building nests, jatropha in bloom, and a continuous cool breeze moving through the place from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s not as easy as it is in Western New York to keep your eyes aimed at a canvas. I even spent one afternoon at Myakka River State park checking out alligators sunning themselves on the river bank. So many ways not to work, so little time. I even spent two days driving the seven hours to Key West and back, with a full day and night in the southernmost key, stopping in Key Largo on the return to snorkel in the Atlantic coral reef.

What I found during all this time away from a canvas is that it can begin to look less and less inviting, the further in time you get from your last brushstroke. Every glance makes you wonder how much time it will take to actually complete the area you’ve started, and doubts creep in about either your ability or your enthusiasm. The charm begins to wear thin. The mojo wanes. Yet—and this is what I’ve encountered over and over, and it still comes as a slight surprise—as soon as you pick up a brush and put paint to canvas, everything snaps back into focus, the painting stirs fully awake as you break the spell. It’s as if no time has passed and the momentum returns immediately—four hours go by and you have to force yourself to put down the brush to eat.

There’s some sort of axiom in nature and in human enterprise: something is either growing or its dying. It can’t be put on hold. The longer I stay away from the work, the more it shrinks into the emotional distance and exerts less and less pressure on my attention and drive. In a sense, I can put it on pause, and it will stay as it is for as long as I stay away from it. Yet I have less and less of an impulse to return–so in a sense, it’s dying to me. What Poe called the imp of the perverse eventually takes hold: the paradoxical urge not to even look at the half-finished work when the way is open and time available to return to it. I’m drawn into a fallow period, the inertia of not painting. Yet one touch and it all comes back—because at that point, again, it’s growing into what it will become and that forward progress pulls me right back into a satisfying engagement with the work. My heart is right back in it. And the painting is as alive as it ever was. Between that stagnation and revival falls the shadow, as T.S. Eliot would have put it. I wonder how many paintings I’ve lost sight of in that shadow, without realizing all I needed to do was one step back into the light by picking up a brush.

The craving to paint

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“In those days my world was no bigger than a couple of blocks. Huge worlds are in those two blocks. All I wanted to do was paint. It was like I couldn’t control it . . . I had tremendous freedom, my own little place that really would be such a world.” —David Lynch: The Art Life

Happy Birthday, Vincent

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Place

placeplace 3Still Life with Golden Raspberries, oil on linen, on view in “PLACE” at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati. I was very pleased to be invited to show at Manifest again this year. All of the shows there right now look excellent. Photos courtesy Jason Franz at Manifest.