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.

 

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.

Taking a line for a walk

"The Precocious Whispering of Desires", mixed media, 20 x 12 in.

“The Precocious Whispering of Desires”, mixed media, 20 x 12 in. ©David Lee Holcomb, 2013

I just completed a piece of artwork that is both a departure and a return to basics for me. It’s essentially a drawing, scribbles of glue and black ink in layers, each layer painted over with off-white gesso and sanded, then elaborated with textural passages in black ink and red, sepia, and brown watercolor, accented by areas covered in pure white acrylic.

Described like that it sounds pretty mechanical, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

I generally avoid doing art that might be described as “abstract”.  Although I enjoy such work by others, for myself I prefer to remain grounded in the material world whenever possible. A piece like this, however, is about process, rather than an image of something: the mechanical, physical acts involved in creating the thing provide the driving force, rather than some predetermined theme or subject.

Dribbling paint (or ink, or glue, or tar, or whatever) onto a flat surface and then working with the result is hardly a new concept. When Andre Breton, the godfather of the Surrealism movement, finally accepted visual artists into his exclusive little club, one of the techniques that he regarded as most valid was “automatism”, in which random processes — rather than conscious, planned decisions — guided the painter’s hand. In practice, of course, this is impossible, since even if the painter is relying on something as supposedly “random” as dribbling paint, he is still guiding the dribbles onto the canvas instead of the floor, toward or away from each other, toward or away from the edges, etc. — not to mention deciding when to stop.

So is my picture abstract? That’s a word that we use an awful lot in describing art, usually any time we find ourselves unable to see something familiar, concrete. Mirriam Webster defines “abstract” as “relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions”. When something is “abstract”, it is unreal, unbounded by physical reality: “beauty” is abstract, a beautiful woman is not; “nature” is abstract, the tree outside your window is not; “death” is abstract, the departure of a loved one is not.

When we slap paint or tar or glue or whatever onto a surface, we are already moving away from true abstraction: the surface and the medium applied to it are solid physical materials, defined by physical laws that affect what the artist is able to do with them, grounded in the “real”, phenomenological, world.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)", circa 1506

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)”, circa 1506

“We should remember that a picture — before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story — is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.”
— Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890

But now we have a problem: if we view the concept of abstraction by this strict interpretation, no plastic art (meaning art created with physical materials, as opposed to singing a song, or playing Hamlet) can be considered truly abstract, and we’ve just lost a century’s worth of art terminology. So let’s unclench a little, close the dictionary, and look at some of the common terms.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to leave sculpture, installation, film, and so on out of the discussion now and focus on painting alone:  If we take as given that a painting must be physical at some level, or in some degree, most pictures separates out into some basic categories (or sometimes combinations of more than one):

Illusionary — this is a painting that offers what appears to be a window into a three-dimensional space, occupied by physical objects. When we look at the Mona Lisa, we interpret the picture as a woman, sitting in a chair in front of a window or parapet — which is, of course, nonsense: what we’re looking at is nothing more than a thin piece of canvas covered with little smears of colored matter, but with a little effort we have no difficulty suspending our disbelief and recognizing the woman, the chair, and the landscape beyond.

Cubist — this is also illusion, but intellectual, rather than purely visual. While still creating an illusionary three-dimensional space, cubist painting is extremely aware of the flat surface of the canvas, and incorporates that plane into the overall work. The 3-D illusion is never very strong, and the “fake” space depicted is very shallow, never far from the skin of the canvas. In a cubist painting, the representation of the space is more important than the objects that occupy it; it may even be impossible to determine what exactly the artist was looking at — all we see is a kind of schematic of space and volume.

Geometric — here, both objects and the space they occupy have been abandoned. Geometric art depicts mathematical concepts like the square, the circle, and the line, without any effort to provide a visual — illusory — narrative tying the picture to some scene or object existing under “real-world” conditions. We can all agree that pure mathematics are abstract, but what about painting based on math? Well, there’s the rub: a picture of an abstract mathematical form is still a picture of something, so — yes, a circle is an abstract concept, but is a picture of a circle?

Abstract expressionist — this category is a bit of a hybrid of a number of things, a sort of convenient umbrella of the kind popular with art critics that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal to the artist. At its heart, however, the idea is that the abstract expressionist painting is attempting to depict an emotional or philosophical state — “nature”, “beauty”, “truth”, etc. — without relying on any illusion whatever. Here, the surface of the canvas is embraced, the materials exist as themselves — the paint is simply paint, not part of an apple, or a woman, or a tree — and if the viewer wants the picture to tell a story, he has to come up with it himself. In a sense, an abstract expressionist painting is the least abstract of all: one of Jackson Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings is a picture of paint, and of the process of getting paint onto the surface; no naked women, no bowls of fruit. The paint is there, physical and obvious, not pretending to be a chair or an eyebrow — just paint. If we see something more than that, it’s coming from us, not the artist. [I should mention that many abstract expressionist work do have evocative titles, like “Autumn Rhythm”, or “Vir Heroicus Sublimis”, but these are arbitrary, they label the picture without describing its content.]

Mark Tobey "Night Celebration", 1971

Mark Tobey “Night Celebration”, 1971

Color/Energy field — here is another term that means more to people who write about art than to people who do it. “Color field” painting relies on large, usually featureless, areas of pure color, sometimes alone, sometimes a few colors grouped on a single canvas.  Drama is introduced by placing particular colors next to each other, or by dividing areas of color with simple linear boundaries, but the colors themselves are the subject of the painting. In “energy field” painting, even color becomes unimportant, and the surface becomes animated by patterns or strokes or squiggles that cover the entire surface, without a single focal point and sometimes without a clear recognition of the edge of the canvas. Energy field painting is usually saved from becoming little more than wallpaper by introducing a certain amount of randomness in the patterning or the type of marks used, so that some areas appear slightly more dense or less dense, like poppy seeds sprinkled onto a piece of paper. While an abstract expressionist may create a painting about the artist’s emotional state while in the process of painting, a color field artist is creating paintings about color and an energy field artist is creating a painting about distributing marks on a surface, again without narrative, without illusion.

So. What about my picture (remember where we started?) Is it really abstract?

The word “doodle” is actually a bit of slang, dating from the Great Depression, probably coined in the American Midwest in imitation of a word used by German immigrants, dudeltopf, a simpleton or fool, a “dawdler”. German-Swiss artist Paul Klee spoke of his artistic process as “taking a line for a walk”, which I think is a great definition of a doodle.

I’m going to call it a doodle. The word itself sounds a bit silly, so we tend to shy away from using it to describe a serious work — and the doodle I opened this essay with is, I believe, serious work — but it’s a good word, and it works. A doodle is universal: anyone can do it, we all understand the process; it also adapts itself to a wide range of artistic techniques and styles. You can doodle with color, with line, with shapes; you can create illusions, or avoid them; you can fill up the available space, or wander around in it, drifting over the edges of the page or canvas, or shying away from them. So again: is it abstract? I think it is — there is no overriding concept or visual intention in a doodle, it is its own reason, its own purpose. There’s no attempt to fool the viewer into believing something that isn’t true. Even if there are recognizable images scattered here and there, they have no concrete meaning, they’re just — well, doodles within the doodle.

Is it art? This question I’ll leave for you to decide for yourself.

Timeless

"Aseneth"

“Aseneth” — Mixed media, 8 x 10 inches.

I’ve recently undertaken a couple of pieces of artwork that involved human faces. In both cases, the style of the piece was such that I had a lot of leeway — I wasn’t looking for some sort of photorealistic presentation, I just needed a female face. The only requirement was that the face be beautiful, and that the look not obviously belong to a particular time or place.

For one of the projects I was working on — “Andromeda“, the Greek myth of the daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus — I ended up using a variation of the style of illustration used on ancient Greek pottery. The style, itself remarkably timeless, suited the story, and the simplification and stylization avoids the kind of detail that dates an image. This was, however, a bit of a cop-out, since I wasn’t really solving the problem, just restating it in a way that made the question irrelevant.

 

For the other project — “Aseneth”, based on the apocryphal story of the wife of Joseph (son of Jacob) — I didn’t have a ready-made solution available. The Hebrews of Old Testament times produced little in the way of lasting visual art; unlike their more sedentary neighbors in Africa and Mesopotamia their constant warfare and nomadic lifestyle did not encourage lasting artistic monuments, and the dictates of religion (“create no graven image”) made permanent representations of people problematic. There are no paintings or figurines like those of the Minoans, no epic tales painted on stone or papyrus like those of the Egyptians.

 

Here, also, we face the differing standards of culture and race: late Egyptian sarcophagus portraits show women with carefully cultivated Frida-Kahlo-esque uni-brows. Phoenician women were depicted with large noses and tiny waists; Persian women were depicted with vanishingly small noses but hips and thighs that we would view today as almost obese. What would a beautiful woman of the book of Genesis look like?

 

In practice, this turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds. Anyone who’s watched a movie or television show that was billed as “stylish” at the time of its release knows how bizarre yesterday’s standards of beauty can look, even within a single lifetime: Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads in 1940, Joan Cusack’s teased hair in 1988; Marilyn Monroe’s curves, Mary Tyler Moore’s boyish lines; Brooke Shields’ heavy straight eyebrows, Louise Brooks’ penciled-in arches … We look at the women we once considered beautiful and today we find them jarring, unreal; the paragons of their time, alien to ours.

So, what to do when you want to specify that your subject is “beautiful”, but you don’t want her to be so much a product of one era — either ours or her own?

Throughout history artists have generally depicted the men and women of times and places remote from their own according to the styles most familiar and comfortable to them. This was often for very valid economic reasons: make your Cleopatra look like the wife of a wealthy patron and you’ve got a much better chance of finding a buyer for the painting. The influence of the Church or government could also impact fashions, and could dictate the need to reflect their concerns even in depictions of persons and scenes completely foreign to either.  During the eighteenth century, the gods and goddesses of classical mythology were presented in the fluffy, frilly world that the French monarchs enjoyed, frolicking in voluptuous but tasteful nudity; by the twentieth, those same figures were more often portrayed shrouded in drapery, lurking in a dark and dramatic pagan wilderness.

More recently, artists have sidestepped the question: Paul Klee depicts a female saint as a delicate scribble of lines; Mark Rothko’s Iphigenia is a striated black cone with a pair of stick legs and no head; Georges Braque’s canephorae are massive, lush figures, small-breasted and heavy-bodied, fleshy and androgynous.

Klee observed in his Bauhaus lectures that simplification was the key to making an image universal. A child’s stick figures are recognizable as human and timeless; only when we start to elaborate on the basics do we begin to limit the image to a particular time and place. Rothko dissected his figures, reducing them to symbolic fragments that could only be read as human by someone who had learned to “read” his visual shorthand.

But how do you define a stick figure or a symbol as “beautiful” or “terrifying” or “modest”? What makes a stick figure of Andromeda waiting to be devoured by the monster different from a stick figure of the god Poseidon ordering the monster to eat her? The answer to this question is actually fairly easy: context. Poseidon is not chained up on the rocks at the water’s edge; Andromeda is not rearing from the waves brandishing a trident.

But beauty? Can this be defined by context? I think so. When Picasso paints a wildly distorted image of his lover staring at her own reflection in a mirror, we understand that she likes what she sees, and so does he. Braque’s canephorae are massive and fleshy, but they are also luminous, ripe, like the fruit spilling from the baskets they carry; their lavish health and vigor makes us know that they are beautiful, much more than their tiny, simplified faces ever could — even further, their beauty is timeless, independent of fashion or custom.

What Klee doesn’t mention when he makes his observations about simplification is the importance of the artist’s personal commitment: like the fashionable painter with his Cleopatra, it is much harder to meet the demands of an objective art than to fall back onto a marketable adherence to current standards. In other words, it is easier to paint an Aphrodite who looks like Kiera Knightley than one represented by a mysterious map of arcane symbolism. Picasso’s images of women are not for everyone: they have to be interviewed, read, their context and their attitude deciphered; Braque’s nudes would not be welcome on a fashionable beach; and Klee’s whimsical scribbles could never even exist outside the pictures that they inhabit.

But there is something to be said for immortality, after all: when an image operates outside of current fashion its message is not so likely to be obscured by superficial considerations of taste and style. Symbols endure while trends in hair and makeup change with the seasons. Katherine Hepburn once observed that age was liberating — once she got past fifty, moviegoers lost interest in her hair and her clothes and they started paying more attention to her acting.

The projects I’m working on today are a bit more esoteric than “Andromeda” or “Aseneth”. Neither has human figures in it (at least not recognizably), so I have some time to think about all this before the question comes up again. The visual depiction of beauty that has nothing to do with appearance: this is going to be interesting.