Okay, so now I’m standing on the shore of Lake Como looking at the water, mountains, and sky. My easel is set up. My palette is loaded with color. And I’m there with brush in hand, squinting at what is before me. Then what? Just what am I supposed to do?
Well, if I were doing this during my first ten years of painting, I would muster all the skill and knowledge that I possessed and I would basically make a copy of what I saw. Then I would, if I thought it were good, bring it back to my teacher for a critique – anticipating kudos, of course – and I would hear him say, with a tone of disappointment, “You need to get past the facts.”
What he meant, without having to say it, was that my painting, while correct, was dead. Way too literal. I realized, as time went on, that I would have a reasonable chance of creating something that is alive if I were alive, if instead of seeing water, mountains, and sky, I saw a tangle of line and color only, as would a visual artist opening to the music of visual sensations.
So why was not I getting this simple admonition during my first ten years? Because I just didn’t hear it. I assumed that what I was doing (and suppose to do) was making a painting, in effect managing a production process, with no emotion, and guided mainly by the desire to do well by some external measure. So naturally I focused on results and the method I used, which breaks the process down into line and color, became nothing more than an assembly line. My thinking, my assumptions, my approach were fine for making a cake, let’s say, or a pair of shoes, but in terms of injecting a life into my canvas, my approach was, to put it bluntly, ass-backwards.
Getting Past the Facts
Allow me to construct the necessary paradigm shift. The painting process is not an assembly line because the point of it all is not production. Think of each step as an invitation to – as Baudelaire implored – be drunk with visual experiences, the movement of things or the veils of atmosphere in which the subject is enveloped, for example. Then each step of the process is simply a prompt to look for visual pleasure. Each step is an invitation to not just express an emotional response but to realize a larger sense of self. That’s the payoff. I can illustrate this by showing you how great artists have responded to such prompts.
In the image above, we see how Degas responds to the movement or gesture of the model. Notice that he cares not about results. There are two heads, several arms and legs. And yet the lines are varied and lyrical. I can feel his feeling. The drawing is alive because he is intensely alive as he gets lost in gesture. Does he go further? into color? No. He stops. He has realized feelings that he wishes to leave in place. Is it finished? Wrong question. He’s not making shoes. The only appropriate evaluative question for a work of art is, “Is it alive?”
The work above is by Manet. It is a painting of Monet and his wife. Look at the face and the hand of Monet. They are messy because, for Manet, there is no face or hand. Manet is squinting, not looking for results, getting past the facts. He seems to be lost in the tonality (atmosphere) or harmony of the thing. In the detail on the right we see reconstruction lines. They are done with verve and authority. Clearly these lines are not mechanical, or assembly line steps to the painting stage. They are pleasure driven. Is the work unfinished? Wrong question. It’s complete and it’s alive. It’s a realization of who Manet was precisely in that moment of intense feeling.
The work above is by John Singer Sargent. On the left is a drawing of an orchestra pit and on the right is a painting that follows. Is he copying the facts? No way! In both, he simplifies the darks, the middles, and the lights into three distinct values. He gets the orchestra pit through line, both with gesture and with value separations. He also is captured by the sense of atmosphere: the people farther away are a bit lighter and they melt into the space around them. Does he get into the painting stage much? Not at all. The variety of color is played down. Could he have gone further? No doubt, but he chooses not to. It’s not about finishing a product or about producing a picture of the facts. It’s an expression of the feelings of the artist. Therefore, it’s not a painting of an orchestra pit. It’s a Sargent.
The above painting is by Robert Henri. He has gotten well into the painting stage but a literal fact cannot be found. The faces are just barely faces. The people further back are executed in the same way as are the flowers to the left: just strokes of color. Do you suppose he was bored when he did this? Or was making a product to please someone or to sell? Or did the visual menu before him simply invite him to get high?
The above image is a detail of a painting by Joaquin Sorolla. When the method invites him to reduce everything into three values, he doesn’t see a barrel, bushes, or flowers. He sees shapes of color, which then makes it easy for him to place these colors on the canvas in a scumbling-wash type manner. The darks are greenish but notice the subtle variety of the greens: some are slightly warmer or darker. Could he have seen those subtle differences were he not delighted by them? The red flowers are just spots of color. The bright yellow flowers are not flowers but simply a mass of light. Simple. Simple. Simple. But I don’t think he could simplify like this unless he got past the facts and got into opening himself to what nature was whispering to him. If he were not moved, do you think he could have reassembled the parts of his vision in such a powerful way? If he had simply copied the facts, do you think the work would compel us, not just to look at it, but to stare?
The above landscape is by Wolf Kahn who is now in his late 80s. Given his unusual use of color, I asked him if he made it up or if it were based upon what he saw as he painted in plein-air. He said it was the latter. As with so many painters he has made it clear that his work is not driven by external concerns or career. “I don’t need a feeling of success,” he once stated. “I just need an appetite to work to feel alive.”
The floral above was done by Jacques Truphèmus. He is a living French painter who is over 90 years old. I suspect that for many of you, this painting may be a tad too messy. But if that is the case, understand that the flowers were only a prompt for him to show us the feelings he had and that he realized as he looked for color.
Let me end with Monet. The image above is a detail from a painting which itself is 10 feet high and the full painting is also 30 feet long. What is it a painting of? Well, on one level I think the appropriate response would be, “What does it matter?” But for the record, it is a painting of his lily pond. Notice how Monet is combining line and color. His strokes of color (the last stage) are also gestural lines (the first stage). This makes the important point that a painting method is never an end in itself but a vehicle that empowers us and sets us free.
 William J. Schultz
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances. – Atisha, 1000 AD
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this blog. I discovered that I have been getting comments. I had not realized that one has to sift through hundreds of spam comments and approve the real ones. So if you never made it to the comment section, check again. I have responded to all that I found. In any case, I was very pleased to find that I had intelligent, interested readers who also happened to be painters.
Now I don’t feel like I’m talking to myself. Instead, I feel like it is possible to have a conversation. The one comment that got me thinking was more of a brickbat than a pat on the back. It’s from Joy who was commenting on my last blog about how artists might succeed if they, through their work, tell the “right story.” Here’s Joy’s comment:
Geez Jerry – Have you been smoking too much weed? Reading lots of Dan Brown? How do you explain Mondrian?
Joy has a sense of humor. My answer to the first two questions are No and No. Explaining Mondrian in the context of “telling the right story” is an important question and fits in perfectly in terms of what I wish to say to painters, but I fear my response would either be boring or not make sense unless I laid bare the way I think the world works. So let me respond to what I perceive to be Joy’s general reaction and probably the reaction of a good many others. Here is what I hear Joy saying: “Jerry, I think you may be completely off the wall.”
I understand the reaction, but what I would say to all readers and consumers of information is, be careful, especially if a seemingly off the wall point of view is documented (which is the reason for footnotes) and shared by people who have given the subject some serious thought. You could get caught flatfooted. I’m speaking from experience. The following story may help you understand what I mean and “where I’m coming from,” as they say.
When I was 16 (1964), I wrote letters to the editor explaining how it was “our duty” (just young men at the time) to go and fight in Vietnam to defend America. Yes, I had drunk the “Kool-Aid.” That is what “education” is all about, after all. By the time I was 17, I had found my way to a military college (VMI). I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and went off to defend America from the Commies. I spent over 700 days in Korea with a fighter squadron, as an intelligence officer, as well as a year in Omaha, at SAC HQ. I had a top secret clearance and got an inside view of what the US was doing in Vietnam. Sigh! It was a rude awakening.
What I began to realize, after a fashion (I’m referring to my patriotic fervor; but unreflective obedience is part of our identities in many other ways as well), was that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Those who were opposed to the war and who had their information together would shoot me down in a matter of minutes, as I would stumble through my inane, regurgitated, talking points. I was just mouthing what came through the tube, dismissing out of hand every position that had probed the issue more deeply than the windbags I had believed in and who not just disagreed, but who offered what could be called a competing or off the wall perspective.
I’m Not an Art Historian
I survived my period of blind allegiance unlike the millions who did not. I then went on to grad school, but this time I studied political science. I was interested in how a tiny handful of people, in every society, could boss lower types around, get them to fight wars, and, at the same time, grab a disproportionate amount of the surplus that every society generates, and not only get away with it, but be admired, even celebrated. It became clear to me that if a class of people were to get a disproportionate share of whatever it was that the society produced, there had to be widely shared ideas that somehow justified this uneven distribution.
So for example, in a feudal era, it was taught – and widely believed – that the power and wealth of the aristocracy as well as the station of the lowly serf was “God’s will.” In a slave society, the ideology turned on the belief that the owning class was of a superior race. In a capitalist society, wealth and power is distributed, we are told, according to merit: those at the top are better (smarter, work harder, etc) than those at the bottom and that most people deserve to be where they find themselves in the hierarchy. These ideas find their way into culture and into art. Thus we find famed muralist Eva Cockcroft concluding that “To understand why a particular art movement becomes successful under a given set of historical circumstances requires an examination of the specifics of patronage and the ideological needs of the powerful.”
Here is noted American philosopher, Robert Paul Wolff, nicely summarizing the point of view that I’m trying to articulate:
In virtually every known society, the surplus is appropriated — taken — by some relatively small subset of the population, with the result that the members of that subset live better than the rest of the members of the society. We know these appropriators as kings, princes, oligarchs, pharaohs, priests, generals, landed aristocrats, tyrants — and as entrepreneurs, merchants, advertising executives, lawyers, professors, and elected politicians. Almost always, the appropriators trick out their appropriations with justifications, rationales [or rationalizations] designed to persuade those from whom the surplus is taken of the rightness of the appropriation. The surplus getters suggest that they are bigger, stronger, more handsome, more charismatic, smarter, more productive, blessed by the Gods, sanctified by immemorial tradition, chosen by a vote of the people, riding the wave of history. And for the most part, those from whom the surplus has been taken — the expropriated — accept these rationales, sometimes grudgingly, quite often willingly or even enthusiastically.
Now, the Impressionists, before they were free to be who they were most, met in cafés (as in Café Guerbois, drawn by Manet above) and talked politics and art in order to get clear about what they had to do in order to block the aristocracy, the Salon elites, and gain control over their work. It is simple as that. One of the points I am making is that today only a tiny slice of art that is made is considered important by powerful people and that art is designated as important precisely because it helps tell a story that advances the interest of those who are often thought of as the “better people.” On the other hand, if you are a plein-air painter it matters not how good you are, if you move your audience, if you find new and exciting ways to do landscapes or head studies, if you teach thousands to discover their power and live more fulfilled lives, or even if you happen to market yourself into a comfortable income and acquire your own brand of paint: you’re out, you’ve been done before, you’re not part of the club, and your work will never be considered important, which is to say, sanctioned by the cognoscenti.
So let me leave you with this thought: when Ralph Nader was about 9 or 10 years old, he came home from school and was asked by his father, “Well Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think?”
Sorry, no Dan Brown here.
 For those of you who don’t know who Dan Brown is, he is the author of the best seller, The DaVinci Code, which was a “great read,” but historically apocryphal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Brown
 For those of you who may not be familiar with the reference, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drinking_the_Kool-Aid
 Major elites (for example those who ran the Trilateral Commission) admitted that education is “indoctrination of the young” (their words). I agree with Chomsky’s take on this. I would encourage to watch this 7 minute video where he explains his view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVqMAlgAnlo
 As you know, over 58,000 Americans lost their life in Vietnam. But let me ask you: what side was the US fighting on, the North or the South? And how many Indochinese were killed according to our own government figures? Ans: the South; 3 to 5 million. What does one make of a culture that is generally clueless as to what its own government and private corporations do in the world with their tax dollars?
 Eva Cockcroft, https://www.msu.edu/course/ha/240/evacockroft.pdf
 Robert Paul Wolff, http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.it/2011/01/thought-of-karl-marx-part-eight-first.html
The Islamic State (Isis) recently destroyed priceless artifacts in a museum in Mosul, Iraq, and in other places they demolished ancient churches, tombs, and statues. Shock has been expressed by commentators across the globe. These are appalling crimes, to be sure, and the perpetrators have been rightly called “thugs.” But shocking? I don’t think so. This is what conquerors do. Moreover, artists, in particular, need to understand that there is method to the conquering madness.
For example, after World War II, US forces destroyed “thousands” of Nazi paintings and “artists were also restricted in which new art they were allowed to create.” Or if we go back to the 1920’s, we find our friends, the Saudis, smashing artifacts in a fashion similar to what we find our enemies doing today. Or we can go back to the 16th century when invading Europeans, in the name of Christianity, destroyed a thousand years of Mayan artifacts and books.
So what do we make of all this smashing and historical cleansing? Charles Taylor, in a different context, helps explain:
…a nation in order to have an identity requires and develops a certain picture of its history, genesis, development – its sufferings and its achievements. These stories envelop us and form our pictures of ourselves and our past, more than we are usually aware. 
The key word here is stories. Artifacts of culture authorized by the elites of history are intended to tell very specific stories. The essential reason elites in Paris freaked out over the Impressionists, for example, had less to do with their artistic innovation than it did with their disobedience; which is to say, that by refusing to paint images of Napoleon heroically marching about, or aristocrats looking noble, or religious images suggesting the order was a moral one, the Impressionists were, in effect, saying, “Go justify your own hierarchy. We quit.” What is a ruling class to do? Or consider the “thug” Nelson Rockefeller, who, after commissioning Diego Rivera in 1933 to paint a mural (Man at the Crossroads) at the newly erected Rockefeller Center, had the piece jackhammered to smithereens. Why? Because in his concept of “man at the crossroads,” Rivera had inserted an image of Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade. SMASH, SMASH, CLEANSED. Wrong story!
Here’s my point: if the proverbial man from Mars were to visit planet earth in order to find out what artists do, and were he to survey all the works of art for the past 10,000 years, he would report back and say, “Well, they do many different little things off to the side, but their primary task is to make propaganda pieces for various ruling classes.” And here’s where it gets interesting because here’s where the jobs are. Let’s look at two instances where artists were made stars because they were able to tell the right stories at the right time.
The Story Required by the Medicis
Suppose you are a cloth merchant who does very well, so much so that you accumulate so much money that you can do better as a lender of money than as a merchant of cloth. Before you know it, your family is in the banking business, and soon after that your family pretty much runs the world in which you live. If all this were true, you might very well have been a member of the Medici family of Florence in the middle ages. So here’s your problem: how do you convince people that your accumulation of unspeakable wealth and power over the “average Joe” is okay? One way of justifying your wealth and power, would be to frame it within a story of righteousness. Enter Cosimo I. His idea for a story was to have Greek Gods explain to the people, through works of art, that the Medici empire, in contrast to previous Dark Age barbarism, was a welcomed new era, a “rebirth.”
How did Cosimo spread the rebirth story? He founded an art school where ambitious artists would come and “decorate the walls of Cosimo’s medieval palace with stories of Medici courage, nobility, and achievement and turn the palace into a temple to the Medici dynasty.” The rebirth or renascita (in Italian) would come to be known to the world as the Renaissance.
Harvard’s historian Mario Biagioli has described the Medici’s use of art patronage in their rebranding efforts as “the first time in western history in which we have a systematic form of propaganda, of a regime that is in need of legitimating itself and producing a state ideology that is not existing.” It may not surprise you, however, that as the Medici dynasty declined, a new religious grouping headed by Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola, didn’t buy the Medici story (too much luxury) and “many great works were ‘voluntarily’ destroyed in the Bonfire of the Vanities.”
The Story Needed by the US Just after WWII
Following WW II, the US emerged as the hegemonic world power and commensurate with its power, it sought to be the cultural center of the world as well. What to do? Simple. Bring in the CIA. Why the CIA? For one reason, the top-down design of an art movement had to be covert. How can an art movement really be identified as a movement unless it bubbles up organically from the artists themselves, or appear to. Right? Just as important was the fact that in the post-war period, many of the world’s leading painters, writers, and musicians (many from Europe) had long embraced anti-capitalist values and many were sympathetic to Soviet ideology. Thus, the creation of an American art movement would become not just an important cultural weapon but a necessary cultural weapon just as the Cold War began. And one key instrument in this Cold War would be the Rockefeller family-run museum in New York City, or MoMA.
Organizers of the new Western art movement stipulated that 1) it had to be entirely divorced from previous European art movements, and 2) it had to be entirely abstract, that is, it had to be “politically silent;” no more pesky Rivera-types painting pictures of Lenin. Naturally this killed off the careers of some top-flight artists, some protested, and the more ambitious ones simply flipped over to doing abstract art. Now, you may be wondering, if the work had to be abstract, how could it tell a story? And how would that story have anything to do with the position of the US vis-à-vis the Soviet Union following WWII?
For one thing, it was said, abstraction was “the triumph of American painting, …vigorous, energetic, freewheeling, big.” Nelson Rockefeller referred to Abstract Expressionism as “free enterprise painting.” Chosen as the break-out star of the movement would be Jackson Pollock, a real American, a virile Marlboro-man type guy, born on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, influenced not by Europeans but by the Mexicans and Native Americans. Of course this was all BS; Pollock never rode a horse and left Wyoming as a young child, but who’s to know?
Painted stories don’t have to be true, just effective, as in what we fondly refer today as marketing and branding. Besides all this, the Soviets hated abstraction (and loved social realism) so it was very easy to draw a contrast and say, “Look, here it is, abstraction ‘in its infinite variety and ceaseless exploration;’” it is the “foremost symbol” of democracy. In March 1949, Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA, contacted museum trustee Henry Luce (of Time, Life, and Fortune) suggesting that Abstract Expressionism, as his boss, Nelson, had announced, was “artistic free enterprise.” Five months later, Luce had Life magazine publish a lavish piece on Jackson Pollock in which it asked its 5 million readers, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” A star is born.
Simple, eh? Now you too can vault to the top of the heap. Just be sure you are telling stories with your art that your ruling class wants told. But how do you know what they want? Don’t despair. Remember, trustees went through a good deal of trouble to take the teaching of art away from master artists in their studios, many decades ago, so it would be easier for you to get “proper” instruction. So just see what top university art departments consider to be “important” (hint: it’s not painting) and do that. If all else fails, there is always networking.
 ISIS’s War on History, Zack Beauchamp, March 11, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/3/11/8184207/islamist-monuments
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989),
 This “story,” of course is not the one with which we are most familiar; the story of artists simply doing their own thing, rebelling against established artistic methods, and creating work that outrages the “stupid” public is the one told over and over because it is, essentially, part of the story of our own self-understanding.
 An important book on this subject is Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
 Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? (London: Granta Books, 1988), Chapter 16. Nelson Rockefeller was an intelligence asset during and after the war. John Hay Whitney, William Burden, Rene d’Harnoncourt, William Paley (later of CBS fame), Henry Luce (of the Time-Life empire), Joseph Verner Reed, Gardner Cowles, Junkie Fleischmann, and Cass Canfield were trustees of the museum who also had extensive links, personal and otherwise, to the CIA.
 “In 1952, some fifty American artists, including Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Jack Levine, attacked MoMA, in what came to be known as the ‘Reality Manifesto’….” Ibid p. 265. If you wish to see the impact of the requirement of total abstraction, look at the work and timeline of many of the key abstract artists like Pollock or Rothko, for example.
 Rene d’Harnoncourt, Ibid, 262.
 Louis Menand, Unpopular Front, The New Yorker, October 17, 2005; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/10/17/unpopular-front
It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. – Cézanne
I just finished a book on Cézanne. Many of his thoughts, the thoughts of the artists he knew, and of the many writers that he cherished keep bouncing around in my head. The ideas are somewhat difficult to talk about. The world of Paris circa 1870 in which these creative types lived seems to have been so broadly different than ours. Not only would we not recognize it, if we were to magically inhabit that world, alla Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris let’s say, we would probably feel uncomfortable. We might even be mocked, so different are we contemporaries today.
In my choice of books to read, I try to stay away from what various experts think these artists were up to. Instead I look for letters and conversations, recorded by friends for example, so I can get a sense of how those artists interpreted themselves and what they thought they were doing as painters. I want to know their motivations in their own words, their own explanations for their work and way of life.
For example, the phrase “the sensation” was used again and again by a few of the Impressionists and Cézanne was no exception. He talked about it endlessly. One stands before nature, “vibrates” with nature, does not recognize things (a “head is painted as a door”), “realizes” feelings as one paints, and “becomes” who one truly is. The emphasis was on what today we might call personal growth. Cézanne lamented the fact, for example, that he never had a master teacher who could have “restored me to myself.”
And whom did Cézanne, and the others, perceive as enemies of this project of the senses? Anyone or anything that might undermine or disturb the experience of “the sensation,” especially those who wanted “to get their hooks into me.” The rising entrepreneurial class (“the dirty bourgeoisie”) were high on Cézanne’s enemy list. They were predators whose feelings had been “castrated” (a paraphrase by the author), and who engaged in the disgusting practice of self-promotion. Flaubert, a writer whom Cézanne enjoyed greatly, targeted anyone with “power.”
“Stupidity about art, wrote Flaubert, comes less from the public than from ‘(1) the government, (2) theater managers, (3) publishers, (4) newspaper editors, and (5) official critics – in short, from holders of power, because power is essentially stupid.’” Or, more cryptically, Cézanne put it this way: “What bastards respectable people are.” It is a tad ironic that today’s art world elites, who profess their love of “challenging” ideas, sidestep this splendid group of Parisian painters and writers and their terrific insights.
Cézanne and company had precursors, of course. Fed up with the power of the Salon over who and what was exhibited, Courbet was the first to bolt, setting up his own independent pavilion where he exhibited only his own work. That was 1855. Manet, similarly frustrated, did the same thing. In 1867 he, too, set up his own independent pavilion and exhibited only his own work. Then of course came the biggest break of all: a group of painters, known as “the intransigents” organized independent exhibitions over a 12 year period (1874-1886). The intransigents, of course, would later be known as the Impressionists. The need to be free to respond to sensations, it seems, was congenial to a way of exhibiting that was independent.
Fast Forward 140 Years
I’ve never had a good feeling about being in galleries. In spite of the “niceness” of some gallerists, my relationship to them was clearly worker-to-boss. In one gallery in San Francisco that had accepted me, my paintings of boats in a harbor were rejected. The masts of the boats went out of the painting. I was told that the masts couldn’t be cropped – a pragmatic market consideration, no doubt. In another gallery I was the “street scene guy.” They wanted only paintings of San Francisco streets. However, in one painting, I had put some older guys standing around on a corner. Nope. “Who wants to see that?”
But that’s not the worst of it, of course. Talk galleries with painters and before you know it you are talking horror stories. One time, a meeting was arranged at an upscale San Francisco gallery where I was invited to bring in some work to be reviewed. I was hoping to be accepted at the gallery. When I arrived, with boxes of paintings in tow, the gallery owner, whom I had never met, was upstairs in her office. I was asked by an assistant to wait downstairs in one of those viewing rooms. So I waited and waited and I waited some more. The more I waited the more I began to feel like some kind of homeless bum. I was convinced the owner had totally forgotten about me. Then I had an epiphany. Given that I had all this time to kill, I thought I would do a little installation, a kind of artsy shock-and-awe. So I took down all the paintings that were hanging in the downstairs level of the gallery and replaced them with the paintings I had brought in. After all, what better way to demonstrate the impact of my art in her gallery? The owner eventually did come down. She wasn’t pleased. After the assistant was ordered to remove my paintings immediately and after she calmed down, I did manage to have a conversation about my work.
“Where’s the angst?” she asked. No fool was she.
“Angst?” I responded. “You want to see my angst? Really? You haven’t seen enough?” We weren’t, as they say in the trade, a “good fit.”
Then came the final break. I had invited the gallery owner of the place where I was the “street artist guy” to visit my studio so I could show him my latest breakthrough. “Yes, that would be fine.” We made an appointment. I still remember the time: Thursday at 3PM. And so I cleaned up my studio and positioned my paintings with great care and waited. He never showed.
That did it. That’s when I said to myself, “I’ll never exhibit in a gallery again. They treat you like shit.” (I hadn’t yet armed myself with the clever little sayings of Cézanne.) That was 1990 and I’ve kept my word and, not coincidentally, have made a living from my art and from teaching painting – exclusively – ever since.
So it was with serious ambivalence that I made a recent gallery inquiry, I must confess. A friend of mine visited my gallery in Bellagio and purchased two paintings. He seemed to like what I was doing and offered, “Why aren’t you in a gallery in Milan?” Rather than go through the whole bloody story, I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I like being able to paint anything I want.” “Yea,” he said, “but you could really make some serious money in Milan. Besides, I have a close friend who runs a good gallery there. I could introduce you.”
So I thought about it. Gee, big bucks! Maybe that could work. Our gallery in Bellagio is quite small so maybe I could put my larger paintings in a Milan gallery. I like painting large but I don’t have the space to exhibit anything very big. So I jumped through the hoops and eventually sent off a PDF version of my recent Lake Como book with over 100 images, as mutually agreed upon. “We have received all your information. Let us reflect on it.” That was six months ago. Not a word. Apparently, they are still reflecting. Boss-worker anyone?
An Old Friend Visits
A few weeks ago my old friend Monte from grad school visited me. We hadn’t seen each other in 35 years. I showed him my gallery. “What? You only show your own work? I thought only people who painted on black velvet did that.”
“Yup,” I responded. “Well, that’s what it has come to, Monte. Me and the black velvet people.”
“Well,” added Monte in a consoling voice, “At least you’re independent.” Bright guy, that Monte.
 Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life, Profile Books (Great Britain, 2012).
 IBID, 147.
Readers of this blog may know that I am fond not only of Wolf Kahn’s work (he says that he does “non-descriptive landscapes”), but also his approach to painting. He’s now 87 and his point of view, which resonates with views articulated in late-19th century Paris, is instructive.
I call your attention to a recent talk he gave entitled Control and Letting Go. I encourage all to watch the talk; he is very funny, using his forgetfulness to full advantage. Here are a few of the points he makes:
- If you aim in a painting, you know too much where you want it to go, you’re already at a great disadvantage because it means that all the alternative moves – you can’t make them – don’t fit into your scheme.
- The one thing you don’t want to know how to do, as a painter, is knowing how to do the thing too well ahead of time. You don’t want to make it into a performance. There has to be a bit of uncertainty attached to it.
- You are constrained by things you’ve done before.
- Students have to learn control, to do the thing so that it comes out right. As soon as you are no longer a student, you better forget all that and become something else. Become an amateur again.
- The thing that being an artist forces you constantly to value and to chase after is the idea of freedom. You don’t want to be constrained in your work. You don’t want to feel that there’s limits to it.
We have seen these ideas before: painting is not about the product as much as it is about the painter growing, becoming larger, more of who she already is. Anything that compels us to stick with what we do well is a constraint, a limitation (think of all the jobs that you have had in which you are rewarded for doing precisely that).
That to escape from the constraints of career and the market – to site obvious constraints – is to return to “amateurism;” ie, the pure love of doing where the known end or finish is non-existent. Many others, as I have noted elsewhere, have used the idea of returning to innocence or to the ways a child who is “in wonder” in relating to the world.
These ideas, on first glance, seem congenial to our way of life. But I caution the reader: if you are interpreting Kahn’s self-understanding as some sort of touchy-feely new-age bromide, you are misunderstanding his instruction entirely. What he is saying is actually quite subversive of the way in which we, as a society, organize production. Imagine a worker, also born with the same creative urges as any “artist,” showing up one day and declaring, “Sorry, I’m going for a walk. I feel constrained by my previous work. I’m unable to make all the alternative moves that are deep within me because they don’t fit into your scheme.”
I recall one student asking with regard to making paintings, “What’s wrong with efficiency?” Nearly all students are fixated on finishing. Still others, who have enjoyed success with a particular result, continue with reproducing that result because they are good at it. These orientations are woven into standard practices called manufacturing. All of us are educated as manufacturers. We paint as if manufacturing hormones controlled just about every aspect of our art lives, from the process itself to marketing. Pissarro long ago said that a painter ought to move in the opposite direction from a manufacturer. Kahn is explaining to us ways of doing that. Let me give you an example.
I first met Jo McGovern about 10 years ago when she took a workshop with me. I can’t say that I remember her work from back then, but she herself was memorable. I have had few students who would express such utter frustration when things didn’t go right as did Jo.
Over the years (I believe she took three more workshops) it became clear to me that, indeed, her work was showing signs of life. She still would get noticeably upset from time to time and I told her what my teacher told me (my personality being similar to hers): “It’s fine to be disappointed with what you are doing. It’s even a healthy thing. But don’t be so hard on yourself that you stop painting.”
During one workshop, I told Jo: “Look, if you really want to be serious about this, do nothing but underpaintings for at least a year. Make many beginnings. Don’t finish.” I have told this to a number of students but few take me up on the challenge. Jo did.
The next time I saw her, she showed me the dozens of underpaintings she had been working on. They were nice, not great. Her palpable frustration, however, had turned into palpable determination.
Another few years went by. We exchanged a few emails and I thought she had disappeared. Then a few weeks ago Jo sent me about a half dozen images of her recent work. Wow! I was blown away. This stuff was really good!
You can see one of the paintings I have inserted here. What strikes me about it is precisely the kind of thing that Kahn talks about. It is a landscape and Jo’s control is manifest: it reads as a whole, it’s not plugged up. I can see through layers. There is a nice tonality or atmospheric harmony. The colors aren’t artificially punched up for effect – she knows what she is doing.
But notice too how the whole thing doesn’t turn on description. Jo isn’t being literal. It’s really not about the beauty of the building or beach scene. I don’t even know what half of those little things at the bottom are. It’s not a picture. It’s Jo.
When I look at it I feel her excitement. The brushstrokes are marvelous. They make me want to keep looking at the sky. It looks like she is carefree, having fun, enjoying life. At the same time that she is in control, she is letting go. Which brings me back to Kahn:
“Be inventive, careless, and irreverent, and playful. The word playful has got to be used more often. I think an artist should always remember that he’s always doing a dance. That he’s doing something that’s not terribly serious. And it should be taken lightly.”
Inventive, careless, and irreverent, and playful. The painting itself should be taken lightly. It’s a good way for a painter to be. Pissarro would approve.