The Hand of the Past on the Art of Today

Sometimes I'm asked if I only like art from the past. Far from it. But there is a reason I so often write about work done some time ago. It's often one of the best places to pan for gold.If you go to art museums or art galleries a lot, you are guaranteed to run into some work that leaves you cold. For professional artists, the problem gets worse, and you're likely to feel driven up the wall by some things you see. Being committed to making paintings and staying at one's easel for years brings with it a deeply emotional investment. It's an occupational hazard for artists. I was at a major American art museum yesterday and saw work that made my heart leap, and things that offered me very little. Generally I think it's more productive to spend my energies talking about work I find exciting rather than running down art I think is unsuccessful, especially when those artists aren't around to defend themselves.

One of the artists I love to talk about is George Inness (American 1825 - 1894). Above is Saginaw Art Museum's George Inness oil Golden Glow, 1880 that the Museum hung alongside my own work in their Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch show (through Feb.19, 2012). Inness is a fascinating guy, someone who provides a sort of bridge between the earlier American Hudson River School painters and the more impressionist inspired works that came into favor towards the end of the 1800's. 

In this painting we see the darks of the foreground foliage being pushed together to form what looks like a strong abstract painting (think of a good Robert Motherwell). Inness is working to form the most intriguing silhouette possible for his darks.There's even one place where he carves out what looks like a key hole in his foliage to let the sky shine through.

Looking at painters like Inness taught me to search out ways to make my shapes expressive . Here's a photo from the Saginaw Art Museum's show of my oil From Day to Night, 36 x 72". You can see how my two dark islands have been consciously maneuvered to squeeze the narrow channel of light water between them. It's pushed into a abstracted "S"shape. To make the viewer care about the world you are painting for them you have to install intriguing form into even the empty areas. In fact, it is how you handle the empty areas to my mind that makes or breaks a painting.

Here's another of the works from the Museum's Permanent Collection in the show, Landscape at Sunset by Felix Russman (American, 1888- 1962). Russman shows that same imperative to insert extra form into his painting with how he places his handful of trees. See how he pushes them together into essentially two "teams". The trees enclose an area of sky on the horizon that looks an awful lot like the silhouette of the triangular roof of the solitary building. Russman is saying, through how he arranges his shapes, that the human presence (building a roof) is just part of the overall scheme of nature. It's an optimistic view of us living in harmony with the natural world. It's a real beauty of a painting too.

In the same gallery space with the Russman oil is my painting Under the Moon. Like Russman, I'm choosing shapes to express the feeling I intend for the painting. If you look closely you'll see how I've reversed the actual direction of the edges of the yellow house so it gets wider as you look up towards the roof. What I wanted was the feeling of the house as an almost living thing, straining to rise up closer to the unseen bright moon. Playing with the usual rules of perspective like this can give an inanimate object like a house the sense that it is subtly gesturing. 

William P.Ritschell (American, 1844-1949, one long-lived artist!) painted the oil below, also from Saginaw's Permanent Collection and now hanging in their Unbroken Thread show. Ritschell is using one of the time honored "tricks of the trade" for painters with color. He makes a surprisingly green sky look believable by carefully gradating its tones from lighter to darker. Imagine a black and white photograph of this painting. Sure, we'd miss the delicate color, but the sky would still feel spacious and convincing. Then, compared to the cool greens of the sky, look at how warm the overall hue of the land and trees appears. He organizes his colors.

Here below is my oil Ascension in the show. As in the Ritschell, ignore the colors and notice how the sky is heavily gradated from light to darker greys. Even more so for the ground plane that's intersected by all those waterways. Gradation is a huge key to evoking feelings of movement, light, space, and atmosphere. It only makes sense for us contemporary painters to study how the old time painters like Ritschell, Russman and Inness used gradation. We don't have to use it just the same way. In fact we shouldn't in my opinion. But it's foolish to assume these old painters have nothing to teach those of us painting now. 

In the beginning of this blog post I said I usually try not to publicly criticize other painters whose work I feel falls short. Very often what I'm missing in their work is the remarkable visual richness I find in the best of the art from the past. It's not that the art of the19th century was better. It wasn't. There are tons of awful landscape paintings done 150 years ago mouldering away in basements and attics all over the land.
Over time, work that should be forgotten usually is. But if people are still paying attention to a painting done generations ago, it is probably because the forms and colors in it are doing something remarkable.

 One thing that helps me enormously in my own pursuit that necessary visual richness is to do lots of paintings on a small scale. The best of them become guides for me in making larger and more ambitious oils. Here's a little "room" of small oils grouped together in the Saginaw Museum show. That's a final lesson I've gleaned from looking at the art of the past. The best of those painters, like Inness, did tons of very modest sized paintings. They were believers in keeping their numbers up as a tool to lead them to seeing on a higher level. The best of their small paintings and drawings were used as studies for their major works. It's one heck of a good idea for us painting today.


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