Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.

Although most Americans know the phrase “Bonfire of the Vanities” as the title of a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe, it actually comes to us originally from an event in 1497, when the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola and his followers collected books, art, musical instruments — anything that might tempt the faithful to the sin of vanity — and burned them in the the town square of Florence, Italy. A passionate reformer, Savonarola alienated everyone from the Pope to the powerful de Medici family and eventually ended as the star attraction at yet another bonfire, when he was hanged and his body burned in that same town square.

For me, personally, the urge to destroy has nothing to do with what I think of the quality of the work. It encompasses good pieces, bad pieces, even pieces I love: any product of my hands and mind can suddenly cry out to be included in the autoda. Instead, it has more to do with the way the products of creative effort can slowly accumulate into a kind of crust, cutting off air and light, stifling new ideas.

* * *

William Faulkner once advised his fellow writers to “Kill your darlings”. The Nobel laureate was speaking about the risks of becoming so emotionally invested in certain characters or situations that the work as a whole becomes nothing more than a tribute to those “darlings”, devoid of interest to anyone outside the author’s own head and heart. (After all, listening to someone singing the praises of his own offspring, while endearing in small doses, can pale rapidly when no other topic is ever permitted to intrude.) This can apply to a visual artist as well: the artist finds a technique or a subject that works well, that gets the results that she craves, and then slowly allows everything else to atrophy. Innovation, risk, and experimentation are lost, and after everyone has become sated with the confections she’s been providing, she realizes to her dismay that she’s forgotten how to do anything else.

As with so much in art, there are no hard and fast rules. Some artists have repeated themselves endlessly, and yet remained endlessly fresh and relevant. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Degas’ dancers, Modigliani’s mistresses, the collages of Hannah Höch or the little theatres of Joseph Cornell: all of these tap into a vein of creativity that could not be exhausted in a year, a decade, or even a lifetime. Others, like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, having successfully made important statements about art and life, then proceeded to repeat those same pronouncements ad nauseam, until only death could save their bedraggled artistic reputations.

Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Nicolas de Staël, upon reaching a level of success that most artists can only dream of, each woke up one day to realize that he had become little more than a machine for turning out lucrative and popular Pollocks, Rothkos, and de Staëls. The creative landscape is littered with the corpses of careers that died a slow and ugly death as artists found themselves paralyzed by a moment of success, the reports of their activities gradually moving from ARTnews, the NY Times Review of Books, or Variety to the supermarket tabloids and the police scanner.

In 1950 Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning, after decades of poverty and obscurity, produced a painting titled “Excavation“, that catapulted him overnight to the pinnacle of the New York art scene. Influential critic Clement Greenberg praised “Excavation” as one of the greatest paintings ever produced in America; collectors began snatching up works that a year before they wouldn’t have accepted as gifts. The artist had arrived.

De Kooning never produced another painting even remotely akin to “Excavation”; in fact, he turned away from abstraction completely and began working on “Woman I“, the first of what would become a series of savage and terrifying explorations of the female form. A horrified Greenberg condemned the new work, and de Kooning once again slid — for a time, at least — back into the shadows. In retrospect, we can see what a courageous act this was: with “Excavation” de Kooning achieved fame, but then, rather than allowing that moment of success to define him forever, he simply descended back into the mines for dig for new treasures.

Like de Kooning, Richter has been both acclaimed and ridiculed, but he has never allowed himself the luxury of becoming “the man who paints Richters”. Instead, he continually reinvents himself, a strategy that has allowed him to become financially and critically successful while still remaining artistically relevant. Occasionally destroying valuable artwork is part of that process of reinvention.

Richter himself has expressed mixed emotions about his periodic pogroms. He speaks of some of the lost works with regret, yet he does not question the need for the cull. His ruminations evoke the Hindu tradition of Shiva, the Destroyer, who destroys not out of malice but impersonally, arbitrarily, to make room for the ongoing work of Brahma, the Creator: push and pull, constant movement between the two poles.

* * *

The market value of the works that Richter is known to have obliterated is estimated at somewhere around $65 million. My bonfire of the vanities would encompass little more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of paint and plywood. Still, it is strangely comforting to know that sometimes the cat and the king may both warm themselves at the same blaze.


Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays.

Later on, of course, with shows like Star Trek and Batman, color — or its absence — became more significant, but for the first half of the sixties much of the available programming was only broadcast in black-and-white. Color technology was new, color televisions were big and expensive, and The Addams Family and The Donna Reed Show didn’t use it anyway — why spend all that money for a new TV if the only things happening in color were Clairol commercials and the second half of The Wizard of Oz? The fifties B-grade horror/sci-fi flicks to which I had been addicted from the time I could work the dials had all been produced in monochrome, and the antics of Bugs Bunny and Huckleberry Hound were no less funny in shades of gray.

Color was pretty, but it was just the red/green/blue icing on the black-and-white cake.

 *  *  *

I don’t like the word “abstract” with regard to art: it has been used and abused to such a degree over the last seventy years or so that it no longer means anything at all. I prefer the term “non-figurative”, meaning that the forms you see in such a painting are not images of some objective external object or scene — a bowl of fruit, a swimming pool, a nude woman — but purely vehicles for the artist’s ideas or processes.

Over a period of two or three years, between 1946 and 1949, New York painter Willem de Kooning created a series of non-figurative (see sidebar) canvases in black and white. To me, these are among de Kooning’s most interesting and appealing works: he began with drawings, rough sketches painted on newspaper — scenes of women, the studio, the street — which he then transferred to canvas by the simple expedient of mashing the paper onto the prepared surface while the paint was still wet, and then peeling it off. Into these fragmented and often illegible frameworks he would slather the syrupy sign-painter’s enamel, creating messy, multi-layered masterpieces.

Some art historians have speculated that de Kooning fell back on the unconventional materials because he was so impoverished that he simply could not afford expensive artists’ oil paints. This makes an appealing story, but in fact many of the artists of his circle were experimenting with black and white, including his friends and rivals Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. Limiting color is a way of emphasizing form, and these artists were all exploring new formal territory, looking for ways to depict what was going on in their heads or on their canvases independently of real-world objects and images.

For artists like Kline or Motherwell, the limited palette was a considered choice, a means to focus attention on the forms and rhythms of their pictures without the distraction of color, but for de Kooning the monochrome works were a way to explore new ideas during a period of stress or creative block, stripping the artistic process down to its bare essentials and rebuilding it from the ground up.

* * *

Anyone who knows me is painfully aware that, for me, conversation is not a gentle give and take, happening in some quiet shared space, but is more like a door thrown open to a hurricane. The door can be slammed and bolted, but as long as it’s open, the blast coming through it can only occur at the intensity of the storm itself. Hurricanes don’t have “low”, “medium” and “fan only” settings.

I exist in a perpetual cyclone, anchored inside my own skull only by the weight of the information that I accumulate like chunks of storm debris blown up against a wall, tree branches and roofing metal and items of pool furniture that chip at the bricks and mortar when they strike, but then help protect the wall against subsequent turbulence as they pile up. I have no quiet center, no place from which I can look out and meditate on sunlight through leaves, the gloss on an apple, or the expression on the face of a friend. It isn’t possible for me to readily zero in on a visual experience and say: “This is my model, my muse, my meaningful thing.”

This means I can’t always access the external universe — the “real” world — for my subject matter. I have to build a new vocabulary with each project, a new visual syntax. The more limited the vocabulary, the simpler the goals, the more manageable the undertaking.

I think this is why I find black and white art so appealing: the rules are simpler, the goals more easily defined. In black and white, structure becomes clearer; light and shadow take on more meaning. Detail can become clinical, precise, or it can dissolve into mere texture, like the fabric of a tapestry when the colors have faded away. Removing the colors renders much of the hurricane’s airborne debris less visible, allowing other factors to clarify: movement, temperature, the response of people and things to the wind’s force.

*  *  *

When I’m tired or stressed, I scour YouTube for movies with titles like Night of the Demon, or House on Haunted Hill, or The Gorgon, old black-and-white films where Dana Andrews or Vincent Price or Peter Cushing pursue evil through big, airy rooms in bright, indirect light. Underlying themes are clear, villains are always doomed by their own excesses, and everyone speaks in complete sentences. These were the films of my childhood, first viewed on that tiny B&W portable, and they still quiet the noise like nothing else can.

Likewise, when I feel the wellsprings of creativity running low, I turn back to the basics: black ink on a gray or white surface; tiny marks, no finer than a hair, accumulating one by one until they depict a leaf, a stone, a house, an idea. No color, just structure, line, light and dark — a moment of quiet in a turbulent universe of color.



Nothing if not critical …

"The Art Critic", by Normal Rockwell

“The Art Critic”, by Normal Rockwell

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.


Journal: Thursday, March 19

Richard Diebenkorn: "Girl and Three Coffee Cups" 1957

Richard Diebenkorn: “Girl and Three Coffee Cups” 1957

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
by Richard Diebenkorn

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. DO search.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.