Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Excitement of Jean Michel Basquiat

A few years ago I attended a talk given by a leading figure at one of New York's most prominent auction houses. It was sponsored by the Baltimore Museum of Art which had asked him to come down and speak about the comtemporary art market. He had a lot of Jean Michel Basquiate paintings coming up at his next auction, so he naturally included that artist's work in his talk. When he came to the Basquiats he commented to the audience "My hedge fund managers really eat up the Basquiats."

Proabably so. Basquiat was a young artist who fell in with Andy Warhol and managed for a few years to get into the headlines. Then a heroin overdose took him. Below are two paintings by earlier artists, George Inness and Caspar David Friedrich, two 19th century landscape painters. What do they have in common with Basquiat? At first glance, not much.

Well, beyond all the paintings being made with paint, they share a few other traits. All three place dramatic large dark shapes against lighter background planes. Basquiat shows what looks like a black skull at the left and two indecipherable black spots at the right. Inness counterposes a silhouetted pine at the left and a spindly thin tree trunk at the right against his pale snow and copper sky. And Friedrich places three wistful figures against a lighter cool moonlit sea.

The Basquiat canvas is larger than the other two put together. It has an immediate,  impatient quality to its execution. Basquiat paintings always remind me of a hastily assembled pizza where the ingredients haven't had time to get to know each other yet. In a way the almost "you-can't-believe-how-casual-my-painting-is" stance of the painter is purposeful. I honestly think the artist intended it to hit you like a slap in the face.

Is there a place for art like that? Well, I do know there have been at least a few times in my life where I've been slapped, and sometimes I needed that. But that's not a sensation one seeks out again and again.
(Maybe the hedge fund managers who collected Basquiat unconsciously wanted to be either awakened with a slap or wanted some abuse). In a way contemporary life can hit you like a slap in the face, and Basquiat is like a painting metaphor for that. Still I confess I would grow tired of a Basquiat in my collection pretty quickly. He starts with quite an impact, but once his slap is over, there's not much a a second act.

The George Innes above is admittedly a far quieter painting than the Basquiat. While it doesn't shout at you there is a expressive power in its whispered restraint. Inness does two critical things that  Basquiat doesn't get around to. The Basquiat tries to leap off the wall at you. Instead Inness is deeply invested in pulling the viewer into the space of the landscape. One of his key tools is spendng lots of time mixing countless gradations of his colors and tones. The snow that starts out a crisp white in foreground imperceptably shifts itself over to darker and cooler greys and way in the distance even hints of violet. So too Innesses' sky, a color that's actually remarkably intense  and slightly surprising as a color choice. Inness carefully sneaks in little shifts in its temperature and tones to make it feel penetrable and atmospheric. Yet at the same time it contrasts the cool snow with a sharp drama.

The other tool Inness gets great mileage out of is his variety of edges. In the Basquiat there's not time to adjust the quality of the edges- the artist puts it down once and leaves it to dry. As a result every edge is the same. With Inness there's no knowing ahead of time how he's going to present a form. Will it crisply delineate itself from its neighbors like the tall tree trunk at the right? Will it be half lost in atmosphere like the suggestive blurrs that form the grey foliage on the horizon? Or will it be a mixture of both as in the prominent pine at the left? What I find so intriguing about this Inness is he seduces you into wanting to explore the painting to see how he treated each form- you don't know ahead of time what he's going to do. You want to go and see for yourself.

Basquiat, in his determination to paint at lightning speed, pretty much dispenses with such mystery.

Is there a place for a painter like Basquiat? Maybe so, even if only because it will allow museum curators in the next century to say things like "Let me show you what the hedge fund managers back in  the early 2000's were excited by." Sure, I'm ribbing the Basquiat collectors. And in my own art collection the space reserved for the Basquiats would be pretty small.

In a way arguing about painting is a little like arguing about food. My wife and daughter love artichokes. To me they taste like chalk. Who's right? So if someone really wants Basquiat in their life, who am I to tell them they're wrong? What makes more sense I think is to spend most of my energy making the most important, expressive paintings I can. And on the side telling people why I find an artist like George Inness to be so exciting.

Here's another landscape below by Friedrich that does the same wonderful things with gradation and variety of edges as the Inness. I like them both a lot. Will I ever come to like the Basquiats? It could happen, right after I ask for a second helping of fresh, steaming artichokes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My Traveling Museum Show

The Saginaw Art Museum up in Michigan just posted a bunch of great photos from their recent opening for their Art 4 All group exhibition. My eight museum nationally traveling show Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch will be showing in these galleries starting Dec. 9. Hope any Midwestern readers in the area will come and say hello. Just before that the show will be at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia July 23- October 2. Here below is one of the spaces where my work will be hanging at PFAC.

Since these gallery spaces are huge and I'll be expanding the show by adding some new paintings and drawings to the exhibition. The idea for this show came from Eva J. Allen, Ph.D., an art historian, who graciously curated the exhibit and wrote a scholarly essay on how my work relates to the grand tradition of American landscape painting in the show's 92 page color exhibition catalogue.

When the first serious landscape painters started working in this country they borrowed a host of conventions that had developed in Europe to give the artists a basic vocabulary. But while Europe had been densely populated, cultivated, and citified, these Ameircan painters were confronted with a land of a very different sort. To them it was Wilderness!   A largely unsettled (by Europeans anyway) and heavily forested landscape, they openly called  it "The New World." Very frequent references to the American landscape as "the new Eden" came from critics and the artists themselves.

I think what was at the core of the American landscape painting, our first original art movement in this country, was a deep emotional connection to the spirit of fresh starts, new beginnings, and awesome creative power so apparent in untouched wilderness. The American landscape swept over them and they feverishly painted to share their excitement.

Philip Koch, Ascension, oil on panel, 40 x 32", 2008,
one of the paintings in the Unbroken Thread exhibition.

I came to landscape painting only after reaching graduate school in 1970 at Indiana University. Louis Hawes, an Art History professor there had organized a huge show of 19th century American landscape painting in honor of the university's 150th anniversarly. I just missed seeing the show, but had my mind blown by the beautiful reproductions in the exhibition catalogue. I literally took it out into the field with me as I struggled to paint my first serious landscapes. It helped a lot.

But I found I couldn't simply copy the work of a Thomas Cole or John Kensett. There was a spirit to their work that attracted my eye but that somehow didn't quite fit the way the world felt to me as an artist in the late 20th century. To our eyes, wilderness and the eternal balances in nature seemed far more precarious and threatened. As they painted in the 1800's a shining optimism for and delight in nature's creative power just oozed from their brush. Now in the back of the mind of anyone painting wilderness lies the fear their painting may end up more a requiem for nature than a celebration.

Still, I think my impulse to turn from abstract painting to looking at the landscape as my subject was a good one. We humans need to reflect on nature as a source of our creativity and our ability to discover, change, and grow. Surely the power that energized the American landscapists of 150 years ago is real. It can recharge our inner batteries. It reminds us of where we came from. It points a way forward for us through the dense undergrowth of our lives. We have to look a little longer than our paintng forebearers to feel the pulse of wilderness in our contemporary world. But it is still there if you look for it. Grab ahold of that thread, and follow it. It can lead one back to who we truly are.

Here below is a photo of my studio yesterday afternoon. I'm looking at a whole bunch of small oils that are preparations for the larger paintings I'm finishing up now. Many of them will be making their debut at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center July 23 - Oct. 2 and then moving out to Michigan for Saginaw Art Museum's showing Dec. 9 - February 19, 2012.

Below are two more photos from Saginaw Art Museum's recent opening. I'm excited to see my paintings, including the newest ones, hanging there later this year.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Surgery for Artists

In a real operating room I'd faint at the first incision. Yet isn't there a fascination at the notion of plunging beneath the surface to grasp things by their bones and move things around to make them work right. Painters are partly just squeemish surgeons. Like them we want to grab a scalpel  and get to work, we just don't do so well with real blood.

I like operating on little paintings, especially when doing exploratory work. You make changes quicky, can graft limbs back on if amputations don't work out so well, and families of your patients who die on the table never coming after you with pesky malpratice suits. I love painting large canvases, but it's my work on "little patients" that teaches me how to master the big ones.

Above is a plein air vine charcoal drawing I did on Deer Isle in Maine two summers ago. I was drawn to the contrast of the light early summer greens of the foreground peninsula contrasting the heavy darks of pines on the second promentory farther into the distance. In reality, their was a third band of darks along a far shore that stretched all across the background at nearly the same height as the pines. In short: too many trees. It's amazing what you can do with a mental chain saw.

One of the key things people ask of us artists is to pare down reality for them. With too much information bombarding their eyes, the ordinary person gets distracted from the most meaningful contrasts. Often making a drawing means clearing away distractions. 

This second drawing, also from Maine is more truthful. It's from the Otter Cove area of Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park. (The famous Hudson River School painter Frederick Church stood within yards of this spot to paint studies for one of his best oils of Maine about 150 years before). A pair of pines had grown together almost as if they were hugging. That sort of intimacy intrigued me. I spotlighted it by casting a shadow over probably 50 surrounding sunlit branches. Again clearing away distractions.

I looked at these two drawings on and off for a long time before trying them out as paintings.

Above is Stillness, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2011. While it's a faithful response to the first charcoal drawing as far as shapes go, it departs more radically in color. I had the idea of playing off a blue violet gradation in the water against an extremely pale yellow sky.  The entire painting was done on top of a bright golden-hued ground. When I got to painting into the foreground I was pleasantly surprised to see I could leave a little bit of the yellow underpainting showing as the bright yellow grasses. 

The remaining charcoal I wasn't as sure about. I liked it as a drawing, but felt an exact transcription of its shapes wouldn't fire up my imagination sufficiently. So I adopted a more "oh what the hell" approach and moved over to the realm of nocturnal fantasy. I wanted to do something with contrasting intense color against a neutral grey. There is an old saying for painters that "All color is no color." It's true. Conversely, there's nothing more expressive chromatically than a pure grey pushed up next to a bright hue. 

I'd recently done a moonlit landscape that was predominately blue to blue-green. This time I wanted to try that color's chromatic opposite, an alizarin violet red. So here surgical expediency dictated borrowing neutral greys to play off against the more fanciful violets. Actually my favorite area in this painting is the near shore with the many variations of pure grey against subtle dark pinks.

I'll be doing expanded larger versions of both these small oils in the next period. I'm curious to see what my little patients will grow up to be.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Most Over the Top Painting, Ever

This is a painting that was a huge inflence on my decision to switch to painting landscapes. It's by the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Altdorfer. He's often credited as being the first european artist to do a purely landscape oil painting (instead of having the landscape just be a background for human figures). This one is titled Battle of Issus and was completed in 1529. If my memory serves me correctly, I ran into this completely-over-the-top painting in the art history textbook I was required to buy for my Art History 101 my freshman year at Oberlin College, Jansen's History of Art. (And if I'm wrong about that being the book, it was in another survey-of-art book I purchased shortly after that). 

At the time I was painting abstract canvases under the influence of the art stars of the day, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. Lacking much in the way of drawing skills, this was about all I could muster at the time. But blasting away in acrylic paint I churned out dozens of zappilly colored paintings and actually taught myself a lot. Still in the back of my mind I'd worry that my early paintings weren't really very ambitious. They'd have only a few shapes in them and deliverd no real sense of light or space. So I gradually was coming to the conclusion I had made a good beginning, but that I needed to start casting my net more widely for ideas if I was ever to become a serious painter.

This Altdorfer painting fascinated me. Not so much the clashing armies in the foreground, though they are impressive. But rather the landscape of the middleground and far distance called out with an enchanting magic. Altdorfer seemed to be expressing the whole world like nobody else I'd ever seen. Sure the painting seemed a little crazy, but I liked its overarching ambition. 

I studied this painting for hours. Several things occurred to me. For one thing, Altdorfer loved the idea of close v.s. far and wanted that to just grab a hold of his viewers. I noticed he used a simple device over and over again- spotlighting a few selected tall forms to overlap the shape behind. Right smack in the middle of the foreground some spirited soldeir is holding aloft a yellow banner. Its job visually is to tell us he's in front of the thousand of desperate sword-wielding men just behind him. The banner makes us feel it. The same is true of the pyramid of a mountain just in back of the battle. And wildest of all is the flying billboard in the sky with the draw string hanging down like the chord on an old fashioned roll down window blind..

The other big lesson was the painting's color, with the systematic placement of the cool colors in the distance and the warm hues up front. This was typical of Renaissance painting of course, but I didn't know that then. But this was the painting that got me thinking about how closer spaces needed to feel different than distant ones. And that color change was a great tool to make this happen. 

So in addition to my other teachers, I have to tip my hat to old Albrecht. Some 500 years later someone was learning from him. What a nice complement to him. Wouldn't we all like to influence someone in the future through the works we accomplish now? It's not immortality, but it's close second.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Roofs and Skies

This is a photo I took at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts out in Hagerstown, Maryland this morning. Here the workers who constructed the new roof over the Museum's enclosed courtyard are painting the beams that hold the large sheets of glass in place. It will be a couple more months before the courtyard project is completed but you can see it's going to be a great addition to the Museum.

Below is an oil that's hanging in an exhibit now of the WCMFA's galleries of 19th century work from the Museum's Collection curated by Elizabeth Johns. The Museum has an amazingly good collection of American painting from this period, especially so when you think of what a modest sized city Hagerstown is. This one is Pool in the Meadow by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927) who I'm proud to say studied at the art school where I teach, the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Some years ago I got to talking to a professional gardener. He was an aging hippie but seemed a very thoughtful guy. We had fallen into talking about world's religions. He brought the conversation to a beautiful conclusion by gesturing up to the sky and saying " It doesn't matter what you call it, we're all here living under the great dome." I've always remembered his phrase- in my mind's eye I picture a giant glass lid from a cooking pot being placed out top of the world. It's a very useful visualization for us landscape painters to study the color and qualites of the air itself as it sails over our heads. What the sky is doing colors everything. I think Hugh Bolton Jones' painting show him delighting in exactly that..

Jones has painted an oil where you can feel the  hot summer haze on your skin. It seems to have descended from the sky and pushed the warm earthy colors of the cows and the pasture into a palette of cooler hues. You can tell Jones had a ball painting the cows, especially varying the colors of their hides. I love the two who face each other with the white spots on their backs. Maybe their talking as they have so much in common. Jones connects the dots of his forms to draw a diagonal path moving up from the lower left hand corner of the canvas and into the middle distance, hopping across the backs of some of his willing beasts along the way.

Above is a terrific little oil by Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. It's a preparatory study for the first canvas of his cycle of four marvelous and slightly wacky paintings, The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  It depicts a newborn child in a small craft issuing out of a mountainside cave. The atmosphere couldn't be more different than in the Jones pasture painting. Certainly Cole was fascinated by the idea of emerging from the fertile darkness of the womb into the light of the living world. He fashions a Rembrandt-like brooding dark atmosphere to give weight to the unfolding drama of birth. It's not so much a roof of the sky overhead as the darkness of night surrounding us. Who wouldn't want to be guided out of such darkness by a glimmering angel like the one steering the vulnerable little boat.

And here's a final oil, Nahant Rocks, New England, by William Stanley Haseltine (1835 - 1900), painted in 1864. Here a painter comes back closer to Hugh Bolton Jone's bowl-like roof of atmosphere coming down over the earth. Haseltine makes his atmsphere a green grey and lets it etch away the darks and the details from the ships on the horizon. There's a hint of sun trying to glow through the clouds, but mostly the land and sea are middle tones without bright highlights. The real drama in the painting happens right along the shore itself where Haseltine contrasts the one whitecapped wave against his largest and darkest rocks. I could look at that one spot where the pointed rock juts out into the sea forever it's so perfectly imagined by the painter.

Big skylights are difficult to build and are tricky to maintain. They can develop leaks in the rain. No wonder so few builders bother with them anymore. But there's something magical about being inside and still having the natural light play over you from above. If a cloud goes by, you feel its passing shadow. How fitting that a museum like WCMFA would try to bring some of the spirit of the outdoors inside. It's doing with its architecture what the painters of the landscapes hanging on its gallery walls did so well. 

This is going to be a good marriage.

Below is a photo of the workmen this morning power washing what until recently was the exteriour wall of Museum.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Memorial

Philip Koch, Asgaard oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2011

Here's a new small oil I just finished painting last evening. This is one of those out-of-my-head compositions that summarize a host of memories and emotions. I used to live out in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. They're huge, snow covered for many months, and have improbablely sharp pointed silhouettes. When I lived out there I was deeply involved in my enthusiasm for the East Coast mountains that had fascinated my favorite 19th century painters. Those eastern mountains were forested, rounder, and a little restrained. The Cascades seemed almost like a stage set or an invention from the Disney studios- I just didn't know how to deal with them back then. And there was something else too. For reasons I didn't understand then, the snow covered Cascades, beautiful as they were, left me feeling uncomfortable and lonely. 

Years later I started looking more at Rockwell Kent's work, especially his wonderful engravings that illustrate his book N by E. In his work I found an artist's vision that could encompase sharp and imposing peaks. I had them in the back of my mind while I worked up this new oil.

Kent was a voracious reader and enthusiast of all sorts of culures. He named his final home in the Adirondack Mountains of New York Asgaard Farm.  Asgaard is the mythic home of the Norse gods. 
I worked in a Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks as a teenager and had been a scout camper there earlier when I was just a boy. Coming from the more civilized farmland that lay along the shores of Lake Ontario in western New York,  I thought the Adirondacks were just about the wildest thing I've ever seen. Here is Kent's Asgaard Farm below, with the tallest peak, Whiteface Mountain, in the distance.

When I was about 9 my father taught me how to ski and for a couple of years he'd take me to the little ski hills in western New York. He was fascinated by the then new big Whiteface Mountain ski resort and promised that he would take me skiing there soon. To my imagination Whiteface seemed mythic.  I couldn't wait. Then he came down with lung cancer and died one June just after I turned 13. My mother hated skiing, but to her credit, drove me and my sister that following winter to Whiteface for two days of skiing. It was a strange experience- I was torn between enjoying the mountain and missing my father who'd wanted so much to take me there.  Over all I think all three of us were too sad to take in that much of the mountain's natural spectacle.

Many times on this blog I've written about how the batteries of our memory power so much of the arts, If something burns through the years in our minds or hearts it undoubtably holds a force that can spark the imagination. Properly handled, strong emotion can lead us to do our best crative work. I go back to see Whiteface and to paint in the Adirondacks often now. When I do I think of my dad and of Rockwell Kent. Both these men in their way put a firm hand on my shoulder and gave me a gentle steer towards becoming the artist, and the man, I am today. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Artist's Guide to Tea and Chocolate

This is a vine charcoal drawing I did on loecation in Deer Isle, Maine that I'm thinking about turning into an oil painting. It's restrained and sparse  In reality there was also a background- an unbroken line of trees that stretched off to the right side of the drawing. It didn't fit with the shimming atmosphere I was aiming for, so I eliminated it. 

There's an amazing flexibility to working in vine charcoal- with just flick of a finger you can change a whole hillside. It invites you to make alterations in  the idea you started out with. Honestly I'm not sure I'd have been able to be so radical with my "surgery" of this place had I been working in another medium. Sometimes vine charcoal seems so subtle and light that it reminds me of drinking a delicately flavored tea.

Below is a photo I took of my palette earlier this week as I was just starting to go into painting a big passage in the sunset of one of the six foot wide paintings in my studio. Oil pigments are essentially greasy colored mud, elegant to be sure, but still mud. It's heavy and often thick. It's flexible alright, but compared to charcoal you think twice before trying out major changes to your composition.

These puddles of oil paint were headed for my canvas, but lying on my palette they reminded me of nothing more than Hersey's chocolate. That's a dark chocolate at the left and milk chocolate at the right. Everynight my wife and I eat a square of dark chocolate. She chews hers and consumes it within a minute. I'm more likely to let is slowly dissolve in my mouth, gradually melting from a solid to a sweet syrup. I like the bulk of on my tongue. If we could eat our oil pigments (we can't, don't try it), I think they've have dense textures like this.

Orchestrating color is really at the heart of my painting. Oil paints are unmatched for subtle shifts of intensity or sliding smoothly from one hue to another. Without oil pigments I'd be completely lost. But an oil painting needs to be constructed, almost like laying bricks in cement. You need a firm idea of where you'd like to go.

Drawing is different- you're making forms with only the most minimal of means. It requires none of the bulldozing to make changes that come with oil painting. Above is another drawing from Maine, this one from Mt. Desert Island's Otter Cove area. Just this morning I went back into it and changed the patterns in the water all around. It took a few minutes, only a little longer than to steep a tea bag in my cup.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Secrets About Seeing from Edward Hopper

Here's a striking portrait of Jo Hopper, the spouse of the famous painter, by Hopper himself. It has a forcefulness to it. You get the feeling Jo was a woman of energy and substance (she was). She looks like the kind of person who could surprise you at any moment.

Artists have to evoke such feelings with their limited means of shape and color. So over the centuries they've learned what works and what doesn't. Hopper was a master at finding expressive shapes for his paintings. By shapes I really mean silhouettes.  Let's take a fresh look at Jo Hopper by turning her upsidedown. This is one of the best studio tricks artists have been using all these years to see more than the average person- try it. It works.

Standing on her head like this Jo is in some ways far easier to see- our usual habit of looking first to the eyes and mouth gets subverted. Instead, your eye goes to bigger issues. Look at how architectural Jo looks. Mostly her silhouette is drawn with straight lines. In real life her hair is soft and fiberous, but here it looks more like the peaked roof of a house.

A particular triumph of this oil is the intriguing wedge-shaped space between her jaw and far shoulder. That empty space feels packed with compressed energy. Overall the head feels really massive, like a sculpture, yet through most of the face there is hardly any modeling with shadows at all. Instead Hopper focuses on the contours of her chin, nose, and eye socket to give you the feeling of the woman. It works beautifully.

One other critical area is the hairline marching in series of abstract and jagged straight lines from the forehead, down and around her ear, and then falling vertically down her neck. Hopper's bold drawing provides a road map for the viewer's eye. How many inferior portaits have you seen where the eyes are automatically made the focal point of the head whether or not they're of any genuine interest. Here Hopper finds a more surprising note of interest in Jo's ear, and he puts a bright highlight on it to draw our attention. In comparison, Jo's eye is understated.

I think we all look to our friends for a sense of generosity and surprise. We want to learn something new when we talk with them. So it is with this portrait of Jo Hopper. You notice things about her you've overlooked in other people a thousand times before. It's ironic that Hopper was a legendarily remote and asocial. But as a painter he's like your closest friend, showing you all sorts of secrets and surprises about his wife Jo. In his daily life perhaps he was unable to share his generous side, but in his painting life he gives us far more than most others. What a guy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Layer Cake and Picture Puzzles

When I was a kid my sister Kathy and I would spend inordinate amounts of time putting together those big 1000 piece picture puzzles. I loved them. One particular favorite was of a covered bridge flanked by maddeningly intricate marsh grasses and forests. To put the darned thing together required incredibly sharp observation of the colors and patterns. But just as much one had to study the distinctive silhouettes of the cut out puzzle pieces to see if they might be the right one to fit the annoying empty hole in the left size of the bridge. Honestly, I can't imagine a better training for an artist-to-be.

Above is an oil by a German-American painter Oscar Bluemner done in the first decades of the 20th century. Look at the elegant spaces between the yellow houses where Bluemner planted his trees. Their thick bending trunks push back agains the encroaching architecture. Here the artist is consciously playing off two very different kinds of flat silhouetted form against each other. There's a little bit of a struggle going on, but it's fun to watch. I have a suspicion Bluemner played with picture puzzles when he was a kid too. His love of expressive flat shapes like these give him away.

Below is a seemingly different species of landscape painting, an 1860 oil by the Amerian Sanford Gifford.

Like the Bluemner though, Gifford is thinking about flattening out his shapes into an interlocking arrangement. From the left a sunlit foreground plane pushes in and overlaps an opposing dark row of trees that entered the stage from the right. They in turn overlap a looming orange mountain that came in from the left. And it lies on top of the final actor, a distant blue mountain who made his entrance from the right. It's like a fancy four layer wedding cake.

Notice though that each of Gifford's four major planes has its own distinctive silhouetter- he bends over backwards to not let them just be just vague organic shapes. Instead, like our friend Bluemner above, each flat plane has its own personality.

There is a richness to being alive. Good art speaks to that. In these two paintings we see two artists evoking some of that richness by drawing shapes with intrinsically expressive flat silhouettes.

Reality is also so much more than just silhouettes. We spend our whole lives swimming through a sea of space and air. Gifford very obviously wanted to express great spatial depth in his work. Bluemner, in a way that's less obvious, did too. Both artist built convincing spaces by piling lots silhouettes on top of each other.

Next time you're lookng at a painting, ask yourself to imagine eating cake, a tall piece of a three or four layer cake. And think back to when you used to put picture puzzles together, picking up the individual pieces in your fingers, studying the protruding and indented outer contours. If you can put the whole puzzle together maybe you can have a second piece of cake (I'm told it's really yummy).

Here's another Bluemner.

Bluemer met the famous photographer and pioneering art gallery owner Alfried Stielitz in 1908. Steiglitz championed Bluemner's powerful work. The aritst was included in the historic Amory Show in 1913 and two years later had his first solo exhibition at Stieglitz's famous 291 Gallery. Unfortunately his work never sold well and he and his family lived in near poverty. His wife died and several years later Bluemner, overwhelmed by his setbacks, committed suicide. Sadly, of course, now his work is avidly collected at very steep prices. Not much in the way of justice for Bluemner. But he did produce a vast number of very beautiful modernist landscapes.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Geometry of Living

Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 50", 1994
Collection of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa

I was once told it's important to live a balanced life. Couldn't agree more and ever since I've been looking for someone who's got that. I'll let you know when I find one.

For everyone I do know it seems more the opposite- that we're all caught up in the swirls and flows of currents we don't control. Of course we make our own lives happen by paddling and steering as best we can, but just as much, life happens to us. Precarious as it sometimes feels it's still very possible to have a good life.

That's why we have painting and music- reminders that the seemingly unconnected parts of our lives can achieve moments of elegant balance. Above is one of my paintings from a few years back (my scanning- of-old-slides-project continues apace). Sean Ulmer, the Curator of the Cedar Rapids Art Museum wrote me last fall to tell me he'd just installed this painting in the galleries showing selections from the Museum's Permanent Collection. Maybe some of you Midwesterners can go take a look.

The painting's composition places the yellow house smack dab in the center of the canvas. Left at that I could have had an overly centered arrangement where the house just sat there dead still. But what had caught my eye about the motif was the energetic asymmetry of the adjoining spaces. To the left the trees politely march, alternating between bands of light and dark. They're a bit like the white and black keys on a piano. To the right of the house, all hell breaks loose, with trees soaring up into the heights and the lower branches dancing around in the most irregular rhythm.

Imagine for a moment how the house feels. One one side you have order and logical arrangement, and on your other shoulder you've got an explosion happening. Sound familiar? The poor house has to relate to both kinds of activity, and it does. Notice how the horizontal top of the roof lines up exactly with the tops of the trees at the left. And borrowing a note from the irregularity of the right side foliage, diagonal shadows snake across the most prominent of the yellow walls. In its way the house takes a nod in both directions.

The task of the painter is to spell out the relationships between the big actors. I wanted the house to stand out as an individual and also seamlessly become part of the team of architecture, roadways, and dense living forests. Painting the house much lighter in tone and brighter in its yellow hue took care of the house's unique personality. A little more tricky was getting the house to join up with the rest of the surrounding spaces. One device that helped was placing dark trees both in back of and in front of the house. It's a little like a sandwich with the bread holding the lettuce, tomato and mayonaisse together
(I'm vegetarian so my BLT leave off the bacon).

In the last few years I've become more intrigued with the image of the untouched natural world and have stopped including roads and architecture in my paintings. But for many years before houses and trees together were my bread and butter. My eyes always loved the high contrast of color and form between organic nature and the human-made geometry and colors. The hundreds of such paintings I made of that jarring combination radicalized my eye. I got comfortable with striking contrasts of form and color. Now as I explore painting of simply lakes, mountains and forests, I'm borrowing many of the abrupt movements of color change and colliding shapes that the architecture paintings trained me to see. It's a welcome part of my baggage now. And my sense of balance is getting better...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fighting the Headwinds

When you make a painting it's a little like sledding uphill or pushing back against a strong headwind. As difficult as this is, a lot of painters have succeeded. How? One way I'm convinced is their experimenting with the same basic idea. They give it different forms until they finally get it right. For painters, this means working on several different versions, often at radically different sizes.

Above is my studio this morning. On the left easel is a 45 x 60" oil I've been working on again after a long time. At the right is a new oil study, North Passage, oil on panel, 18 x 24" that I finished last week.
The new small painting is giving me great ideas on how to resolve the big guy at the left.

The large oil has a real history- it's had several different stages and I've had a continuing urge to keep fiddling with it. Sometimes I just plunge ahead and work directly on the large canvas. Other times though it just feels better to work out the in-progress painting on a smaller scale. That's what I'm doing here.

When you hop from one surface to another to try a different version of a composition, it feels different. The size changes, the texture of the surface is different, and the lack of a prevous history all conspire to push you into a different head set. Artist's use the term studies to label paintings (or drawings) they do to help them find their way on yet to be completed major pieces. There's a long history of doing studies- most of what we now call "master drawings" were studies for oil paintings.

Here's a photo I took inside Edward Hopper's Truro, Massachusetts studio in September 2010. We're standing in his painting room looking to the right out to Cape Cod Bay and to the left to his bedroom.
Below is a drawing Hopper made while considering this corner of his world. As you can see, he was
thinking about how the place would look if one was sitting down.

But Hopper used the fresh start that making a study drawing afforded him to free up his imagination in other ways. For example he moves the hinges holding the door to the opposite side of the doorframe. And he imagines a shaft of sunlight diagonally cutting across the empty white wall (that in reality never receives direct sun as it faces due north). Most radically of all, he bulldozes away all the ground so as you step outside the door you plunge into the sea.

I think Hopper's painting below, Rooms by the Sea, now in Yale's art musuem, couldn't have happened had Hopper not experimented with making changes from the actual reality of his studio. The study
drawing was small and rapidly executed. Doing it quick and causual like that gave Hopper the chance to nail down a new idea that wasn't yet fully formed in his imagination. Making big changes to his idea depended on playful experimentation. Artists have to have some slack in their reins to let creative horses find the way.

Below is my oil from 1993, Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 36 x 54". It's a more litereal view of the Hopper studio I painted from life during one of my many residencies there. My goal then was to be faithful to the facts of the place. It's a fun comparison.