Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Early Years as an Artist

Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967

Here are two painters who were among the first artists I started looking at when I first studied painting in the 1960's at Oberlin College. The top image is by Frank Stella, a painter who was the darling of the moment when I first started paying attention to comtemporary art. He was one the favorites of my first teacher Christopher Muhlert. Since I greatly liked my first teacher, it was easy to be influenced by his enthusiasm. And Stella's work at that time was easy to like. It seemed to celebrate clear clean color and simple bold geometry. Usually done on a huge scale, it simply bowled you over. A lot of Stella's work employed masking tape and acrylic paint. Needing a place to start my own explorations in painting I figured that was as good a place as any to jump in the pool. So I grabbed a roll of tape and made some simple paintings of sharp edged rectangles of color. It's a quick way of working, and I made lots of them. I noticed some of them were more fun to look at than others, though at the time I couldn't say why. Still, I was starting to learn something.

The second piece is by Mark Rothko. At the time his statements about color that was bold yet atmospheric at the same time seemed very attractive to me. So in addition to the "hard edge" Stella influenced paintings I was doing, I also experimented with brushy and fuzzy edged painting with Rothko's example in mind. Looking back on it, it's intriguing that one of my favorite issues in my paintings today is the contrast between making sharply delineated shapes and shapes where the edges blend away into indistinctness. There's a tiny bit of Stella and Rothko still whispering in the corners of my studio I guess.

There was another side to Stella's and Rothko's work that attracted me as well. I was starting to make paintings and I while I could draw better than most people, I was still pretty shaky in this department. In Stella and Rothko I thought I was finding work I could imitate without having to spend years polishing my technical skills.

I churned out a whole pile of simple abstract paintings my first year and started learning a lot about color, proportion, and layering the surface of the painting. But after a year of this I became frustrated with my progress. I knew my life at the time was rich, full, and complicated. Yet my paintings didn't reflect that. They seemed more clever exercises than thoughtful explorations.

I realized I wanted something else and started casting around for other influences. In the college's art library I found books on the realist painter Edward Hopper and realized I wanted to study his sort of painting. As Hopper did a lot of work from the human figure, I decided I wanted to draw from the model. My teachers. all committed modernists, scratched their heads a bit. One of them told me I would be wasting my time, but the other two at least thought there couldn't be any harm in it. But as for providing models in any art classes, well, there wouldn't be funds for that.

Edward Hopper, Evening Wind, etching

Undeterred, I put up signs around campus advertising a figure drawing coop to be held Wednesday nights in an unused studio in the Art Building. I collected five dollars from anyone interested and hired models for the semester. To my surprise, we had lots of people show up- for the two years I ran the sessions. One semester I had 50 people pay the fee and come at least a few times. I also was fortunate that my family's finances didn't dictate that I work full time in the summer.. Instead, I enrolled in the Art Students League of New York and did 5 days a week seven hours a day in front of the model in the summer of 1968 & 69. I learned a ton of new things and saw my ability to see stretch way beyond where I'd started. This was a very sweet time for me.

I also started visiting New York's many art museums. The New York Historical Society of all places made a big impression on me with its collection of 19th century American landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. At first I thought it was odd that I was drawn to these distinctly out of fashion painters. They could be sentimental, and sometimes their shortcomings technically showed up in foregrounds fragmented with too much detail. But often their sincerity in depicting the earth and sky's vividness came through almost in spite of themselves. Most of all I loved their attachment to deep space, changes in the light, and their delight in the sense of atmosphere. These things were a part of me I knew. I had grown up in a remote woods along the shore of one of the northern Great Lakes. These painters could have been painting my childhood I often felt when I stood before their canvases. Below is a typical example by the painter John Kensett. It's a view from Newport, RI, but the look and feel of the light and the water looks like my old backyard where I played with my friends.

I had gone on to grad school at Indiana University in 1970. Most of my teachers were primarily modernist in their orientation, though several used the figure in their work (James McGarrel, Robert Barnes, Barry Gealt, Ron Markman) and one, Bonnie Sklarski, was an out and out neo-19th century painter. All of them to their credit were open to the idea that my growing interest in re-examining Hudson River School painting could be a good thing. And all in their way encouraged my new direction even when it was something far outside their own esthetic. Looking back, I have to admire their flexible outlook. Sometimes you can learn important lessons from people who are very different than you.

Tomorrow I want to talk a little more about my history and then compare it with the example of an artist Stapleton Kearns, a contemporary landscape painter who comes to his work from an entirely different trajectory than my own.


  1. I love your story and am looking forward to your comparison with Stape. Fun!

  2. Robert Barnes and Nancy told me to say hello to you!

  3. Barbara,

    Thanks. I keep trying to get to writing the next blog but event are conspiring against me. Maybe I can get to it now...

  4. Stapelton,
    That's great. They are both very good painters.

    Barnes was one of my teachers in graduate school and I learned a lot about taking one's brushstrokes seriously. He's build these amazing little abstract passages hidden in his brush strokes. I made it fun to look at his paintings super close up. He had a great sense of seriousness and playfulness in his work at the same time. I think that's important.