Over the past year I have had different people tell me that I have become somewhat spiritual. One person actually said that I’ve become warm and fuzzy! Well, warm and fuzzy I can understand – there’s no surprise there. But spiritual? That’s a different kettle of fish. Let’s take a look.
I think this whole spiritual thing arose because I have been thinking in terms of painting as enchantment. I cautioned against equating my sense of enchantment with the more available sense of enchantment, the la-di-da Ezio Pinza kind that one can access without effort (the kind that can be had by simply setting up a nice little dinner table outside, sipping great wine, and listening to Pinza sing Some Enchanted Evening as the sun goes down). That kind of Pinza enchantment may be great for kicking back and revitalizing happy hour, but the kind of enchantment that makes art both edgy and life-giving is the kind that rips us out of fru fru land and yet has us all a tremble as we watch two shadows come together. That kind of enchantment, following Jane Bennett, turns on a revitalization of wonder.
But there’s a catch. Before one can slip into these moods of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, where we are then in a position to notice sensations, like color, previously ignored, one must find ways of escaping or exiting from our ordinary realms of perception and being – which begs the question: Why must we exit our everyday, ordinary realm? The answer is this: not only do our widely shared ordinary ways of thinking subvert access to the kind of enchantment I’m getting at, they are also celebrated as right ways of thinking at the very center of the good life we embrace (the institutional setting that we have inherited).
Let’s Take A Look
I think it may be useful to explain this kind of spiritualism (if you wish to call it that) by showing you some of my recent work at the same time that I describe my own strategies of escaping the ways of thinking that we all know and embrace. However, I will show you only details of paintings at first (you will be able to find each of the paintings from which the details were taken at the end of this blog) because I want to bring you into the sensual realm with me. The key, I believe, is to see just the sensual pieces of the subject. I will try to explain to you what is happening to me as I respond to those sensations and how I let go of my “ordinary” ways of thinking, being, and seeing that tend to block my passage to enchantment. There are four barriers, as it were, that I must think about getting past: 1) thinking that matter is inert; 2) not staying in the moment and seeing painting as a means to some external end or what is called instrumental rationality; 3) the urge to master nature instead of opening oneself to it; and 4) certain career path strategies that might slip into what is called a calculating rationality.
1. Letting go of the belief that matter is inert
I’ve arrived at my location. My easel is set up. I have two clamps on my palette and a clamp holding the canvas to the easel. It is cold but I wear no gloves. Everything must be absolutely solid; I may have to attack the canvas and I want nothing to move. My fingers must be absolutely sensitive to the handle of my brush. My palette is freshly loaded and absolutely clean. I am anxious. It’s like walking a tightrope, I suppose. There are lots of ways of slipping and falling and, therefore, lots of “absolutes.” I will exit and soar and breathe, see, and be in wonder, or when I throw the switch, nothing will happen. I won’t get off the ground. I won’t exit from my everyday mechanistic, desiccated world where I am separate from everything, where I have “work” to do and ladders to climb, and then I will pack all my gear back into the car, drive home disappointed and look forward to my stupid drink at the end of the day – okay, late-afternoon – where I – oh dear me – yes – unwind. Might as well shoot myself.
I try to relax and to focus. I need to escape and as Robert Henri has pointed out, “Nature doesn’t reveal herself to the negligent.” Nature loves to play, to hide, to tease, to play tricks, to seduce, to capture and take you away. But I must also learn to surrender totally for any of this to happen. I look over there. Ugh! Just silence. So I just start in and begin to mix a color. I feel stiff. Nothing is happening. Everything is dead. I’m hoping that nature will begin the conversation. Without using words, I ask, “Are you there?”
My iPod is now pouring, almost at maximum volume my special “take me away” music – and besides, the music encapsulates me – shelters me from the people who will be watching and hovering about. Interference from them breaks the spell. I’m ready.
In my ordinary realm, I must pay the bills to survive. I’m trapped in the realm of necessity like everyone else. But notice how I’m a different person in that everyday realm than in the realm of enchantment. The imperative to pay the bills introduces a flatness to the way in which I perceive the world.
For example, as much as I love the aesthetic of the house we just built, part of me was thinking resale value throughout the entire time that it was being built. And equally as empty, the glass, steel, cement, and wood used to build the house was just so much inert matter, piled up, waiting to be used.
But now as I hope to enter an entirely different realm – one that is magical and mysterious in ways – I must confront those prior feelings where nature is dead stuff or a simple resource to one where that same “dead stuff” may provide me with a meaningful sensual experience. Now I’m deeply yearning for an affective attachment with glass, steel, cement, and wood. And with some patience and resolve, as I begin to mix paint with an attitude of self-surrendering, I have feelings not unlike the feelings one has as when a drug noticeably starts kicking in. It’s an impulse of color I feel within. Matter has once again become affective. Where do you want to go? – I respond silently.
2. Letting go of an instrumental rationality
A deep yellow vibrates at me. It moves, dances, and seduces me. With a caressing stroke, I try and mix the color back, and as deftly as I possibly can, I drag and turn and push my brush around, following nature’s lead. I want to vibrate too. My own trillion molecules and that of those yellow vibrating photons seem to merge. With a deliberate swirly stroke of an olive greenish color, I respond to an olive greenish prompt. I’m being drawn in. I feel my brush being pulled up, delicately and off. I am welcomed. We are one, dancing. A silly thought passes through my brain: who needs a Porsche?
An intensely entrepreneurial friend has pressured me to embark on a failsafe project (we have replaced the term bourgeoisie with the euphemistic term entrepreneur; it sounds so much more – well – superior): we would organize weddings on Lake Como. But I don’t care about weddings, I protested. Nobody does. But think of the money you could make. Great. I make money and die in the process.
Let me see if I’ve got this: I do things for an external reward and the doing part of the activity means nothing to me. Isn’t that the definition of meaningless? Ah, but the meaningless activity, the instrument, gets me the reward and with the reward I can buy things like, say, a Porsche.
Instrumental rationality, with painters, is like some furtive stalker. Nearly everyone is compelled to paint for an agent of one kind or another. Therefore, a painter is under pressure – and I mean right during the process of painting itself – to think about results, or what will please the agent. The act of painting then becomes like the act of eating a sandwich. Each beginning is a kind of starting gate where one chews through the process until one reaches the end – all in one go. If I were to approach painting like that it would be impossible to sink into and get lost within pulsating moments because I would be riveted to that future moment called finished. If nature is to speak with me, I must never look for results, or know where the painting is going, or whether I will continue with it after the spell is broken, when I am finished (my emphasis). I have to push all those ordinary modes of making – a cake, a car, a house – and all the respective agents out of my head and escape from the sense that what I am doing is production. “Begin everything, finish nothing,” Sargent reminded us. I am there, with brush in hand, only for the purpose of savoring magical moments. Did you see that? A whisper of purple twirling. Yes! I’m alive. Possess me, then. I’m with you. Carry me away. You see, for me the payoff isn’t the pat on the back, the sale, or the freaking prize; it’s the pleasure in the moment of creation, where I’m fully whole and vibrating with what I see. If I weren’t getting these little surges of pleasure as I painted, I wouldn’t be painting.
3. Letting go of the need to master nature
It’s not surprising that they call the financiers on Wall St. “masters of the universe.” Making tons of money mastering stuff is where the action is, I believe. They use algorithms you know. Very bright people. But the mentality that is about mastering is the mentality that shuts down my oneness with the subject that I so enjoy, need, and feed off of. Suppose I were to say to myself: I’m bright too and capable, just like those mastering types. Okay then, let’s master this thing: I am not particularly interested in the color of the lake I see today – rather drab; I want the color “to pop” (a common motivation it seems) so I add in some white with a perky blue. Well, if I move in that direction, I might just as well paint from a photo or out of my head because I would then be separate from the subject anyway. Either way, the subject is objectified. Goodbye oneness, seduction, goodbye getting carried across the universe, and goodbye being able to see beyond the ordinary. (No wonder the color that I saw bored me.)
Look, one doesn’t have to be one with nature to be a painter but I do. I often push colors or if there are 3 or 4 colors swirling about, I may choose just the one that I seem to be tasting more. But when I manipulate nature in some way in the service of an idea, my ability to see deeply into things simply dies away because my feelings have died away. I’m totally in my head. Moreover, if I spend 10 seconds mastering the results and downplaying what I see, it’s ten seconds not really seeing. I must let go of mastering nature as an approach. Absolutely. One lifetime is not enough time to go very deeply anyway. As many artists have said at the very end of their lives, Degas being one of them, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!”
4. Letting go of a calculating rationality
Remember Hillary? Sigh. She was a calculator. And what was the line on her? She was inauthentic. We all know the feeling when we are in the ordinary realm, networking, maneuvering. Air kissing. The perpetual frozen smile. On the make constantly. We are not ourselves. Look at Damien Hirst. The cow’s head covered with maggots. Was that inspiration or calculation? Now he is the highest paid “artist” in the world. No wonder Matisse and so many other artists have been so hostile to the practice of calculating out strategies to succeed.
If and when I’m calculating out my super career path, here’s the big problem: I’m never the person who is able to get drunk on pink and blue photons dancing before me. I would be too busy thinking about what particular painting direction will advance my career. It took me years to even begin to feel a twinge of color. Now I use all my energy to slip into that realm where I can see a twinkling and seductive lime green. I crave for it to propel me. I want it to curse through me. I’m a color junkie. Or maybe I’m a color tripper? Who knows? If I become a hoop jumper, a contest competitor, a super-duper award winner and resume builder, great. I will move step-by-step up the freaking ladder; but again, I let go of all that for the simple reason that seeing more deeply – which is to say becoming a better painter, is not something that is or can be calculable. There is a greater imperative: I need to believe in myself where I am now. I’m too obsessed at the moment with being unnerved by that orange that seemingly keeps twinkling at me.
I don’t know if any of you still think I’m spiritual. I hope I’ve made it clear that whatever my “ism” is, it is not the kind that sits off to the side of or is disengaged from the success treadmill, or something that I can access at will or with ease. When and if enchantment happens it is because I have developed a bit of a strategy to access it and, apart from the music, it turns on consciously confronting and then letting go of those ordinary ways of being I have inherited. It requires, I’ve learned, a sense of anxiety. Not only am I unsure that if I access enchantment I won’t fall off my little tightrope, I know I must be a different person during those few precious moments when I am painting, that is, a somewhat different person than the person I am when I’m navigating the choppy seas of basic survival. I have a foot in each realm. This can be joyous to be sure, but it is also tormenting.
Bennett acknowledges this tension. She notes also that moving out of an atomized and predictable routine and into a realm where we are enamored with existence and able to feel moments of pure presence, creates within us a sense of being charmed but also a sense of being disturbed. The feeling of wonder is never far from the feeling of unease. This kind of spiritualism, if that is the correct word, for me at least, turns on a scraping off, a starting over, a letting go of what I already know, what I already can do well (especially as a painter); it is a kind tearing away, an uprooting, a dislocation, a resisting, a disobeying, a being bad! Eugene Bodin, Monet’s teacher, once said that when he painted the clouds it was “such a joy and such a torment.” Manet also used those exact same words to describe his realm of freedom. Funny, huh?
Let me end with a brief description of Cèzanne to re-enforce these points. He deplored competitions and awards. Many who knew him said that his only friends were trees and, therefore, would feel compelled to buy property when an entrepreneur saw in the respective trees only a resource and was prepared to chop them down (Renoir did this too). He constantly talked about sensations (as did Monet and Pissarro), vibrating and germinating with nature, and he regularly conversed with the nature that he painted. He declared again and again, that he would never allow entrepreneurs or to use his language, the bourgeoisie, to get “their hooks” into him. In fact, so hostile was he to those who lived exclusively in the realm of what I have been calling, following Bennett, “ordinary perception,” that he never simply used the term “bourgeoisie” by itself. He would always say instead, “the dirty bourgeoisie.” And why was there that burning hostility? It might be because he was obsessed with “realizing” (his word) who he was most. In other words, painting for him was, at its most fundamental, an activity of becoming. And so he would say, “With each canvas, I’m never the same man but I’m always Cèzanne.” “With each stroke I risk my life.”
Definitely a serious guy. And, I don’t know, rather spiritually engaged, don’t you think?
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). It is Bennett’s concept of enchantment that I have been working with and it isn’t a stand-alone idea; it is part of a pairing with the concept of disenchantment, which is a critique of modernity advanced by sociologist Max Weber. When I read Bennett I was stunned by her use of language and by the fact that her articulation of what she calls “sites of enchantment” bore an uncanny resemblance to what many great painters and writers have been pointing to as the realm we painters need to enter if we are to have half a chance at making art. Hence my desire to identify the activity of painting, when properly understood, as enchantment. All the italicized words in this blog unless otherwise noted are taken from Bennett.
 I’m referring to the ways in which we make and distribute our work in the larger art industry without thinking much about it. For example, if a private dealer wished to exhibit Monet’s work, he would have bought the work outright. Today, we beseech gallery owners to allow us to provide them with a free inventory so that they may sell our work on consignment. The difference is significant, but it is an inherited way of selling our work that we don’t think twice about and, worse, consider the practice to be just fine.
 As Monet once stated, “What people do not understand about my work is that it is a total self-surrender.”
 “If he’s sincere, if he’s entirely taken up with what he’s researching, he can’t do painting that flatters art lovers. If he’s concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling he neglects his gifts and eventually loses them.” Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, Tate Publishing, p. 56.
 “….where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfillment or wholeness.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 425
Based upon everything that I was taught, and which I have learned on my own, points to a basic truth: to be human is to be able to create yourself and to be able to create yourself is to be able to create your life. Now, unfortunately and particularly due to institutional pressures, very few people ever have the opportunity to do that. Yes, there is more opportunity to make a ton of money, but I’m talking about having the opportunity to be free to create the person you become.
It all begins with a deep desire to be able to respond to things that truly move you. So when I hear someone say, when looking at a painting, “I wish I could do that,” I think to myself, “She absolutely can.” All she needs is a teacher to show her how to get that desire out and express it on a canvas in a way that makes the desire come alive.
Okay, I have a story for you that makes the same point, but before I tell you the story take a look at the painting and a detail of the painting below:
The painting, of course, is by Van Gogh. It is a simple study. Notice how free his brushstrokes are. He is past the flower, just enjoying who he is, expressing who he is, becoming who he is most. Okay, let me tell you a story about someone whose favorite painter was Van Gogh.
It was 1995. I lived in San Francisco and was exhibiting my work in an outdoor art exhibition in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was one of those rare days in San Francisco. It was just hot as hell. I was sitting down when I noticed a young woman walk into my display area. She was looking at my work carefully, moving from one painting to the next. She seemed to be genuinely interested so I decided to approach her. By the time I was close enough to say something, she was leaning forward looking very intently at a particular painting and I heard her say, acknowledging my presence, “I wish I could do that.”
Oh my goodness, she said the magic words.
“Have you ever painted,?” I asked.
And she looked up toward me and I noticed – how could I not – that in addition to saying the magic words, she was quite attractive.
Now before any of you jump to the conclusion that I was some lecherous old geezer, I was single, still had dark hair, and wasn’t the basket of flab that I am now. Anyway, I quickly developed a strategy: I decided to project magnanimity.
“Well, you know, if you have a deep desire to paint like that, you can. All you need is someone to teach you how to express the visual sensations that move you.”
“So let me tell you what I’m going to do.”
A look of caution crossed her face.
“If you would like, I will give you a free lesson.”
“Yup. Are you free Friday night? I’ll set up a still life in my studio and I will walk you through the method I use. Trust me. If you are moved by what you see, I can teach you how to move others.”
“Yes young lady. It’s your lucky day!!”
No. I’m just making up that last line. But the rest of the story is true. Well, not entirely true. The painting above is not by Van Gogh. It was painted by the young lady who walked into my exhibition that day, Conchitina Miguel. If you’ve ever taken a class with me, you know her as my gracious and helpful wife who organizes our workshops and runs our gallery.
What I get a kick out of when I see the paintings that she does is that had she and I not met that day, the odds are pretty good that she never would have painted, ever. Unfortunately, Conchitina, while she paints when she can, really hasn’t painted that much over the years. (We are working on ways to make that change. Ahem!)
But the point is this: do you wish you could paint? And you are a bank executive making gazillions? Well, there is good news. I or some other teacher can set you free. You can become the person you are most. Of course, as with everything else, it takes time to learn, so there is a good deal of frustration. It comes with the territory (or used to!). But painting is an activity that can be joy driven when you let go of many valued but not terribly important things. So regardless of the results, when you paint, you have the chance to feel your strength and to exercise your powers. Find a good teacher and become more of who you really are. Forget the secret technique baloney; we are talking about your freedom to be you – but only more!
Thanks for playing along, Vincent. But the painting above was actually signed…
All things being equal, would you rather paint little plein-air paintings in one sitting (alla prima) or would you prefer painting larger paintings that require many sittings? I prefer the latter, hands down.
Below are the smallest plein air painting I’ve ever done (8.5 x 8.5 inches) and the largest (6 x 9 feet).
The painting on the left is the smallest. I guess the virtue of doing small paintings is that there are not the kind of weather problems that one confronts when painting large (as I shall describe in a moment). Small paintings, to me, are sketches really. Fun to simplify. Spontaneity is key. Bing, bang, boom and you’re out of there. And that, for me, is the problem. I’m unable to get drawn in. There’s not that transfiguration that mysteriously takes place after hours of searching. Besides, I don’t like treadmill, knowing that every time I paint, a tidy, finished product will result. Sure, once in awhile, then it’s play. But regularly? No. Then I feel house trained.
Below is my largest painting. Given the size, the painting required a lot of planning, and a few smaller studies. Plus it was a commission, so the process was a bit structured. But the size of the canvas was also an opportunity to be bold and splash around with a large brush (about a 12) and invite some titanic force of nature to emerge. Not possible with a dinky canvas.
The virtue of working big then, for me, is that you can do so much more with a large canvas. For example, here’s a golden oldie (from the mid ‘90s) that I did in San Francisco. In this painting of City Hall (3 x 6 ft), I built up the texture and was able, therefore, to drag subtle colors over the little textural bumps to get a sense of shimmering evening light. Impossible in a single sitting.
But the big negative with large canvases, however, is the weather. In the painting below (2’x4′), my intention was to go very deeply, to push the thing to the edge of abstraction, to await that unveiling that often appears when one is patient, when one surrenders.
I began the painting in April. My approach was to go slowly each evening for an hour or less as the sun was setting (the window when everything came together was really only about 25 minutes) and get consumed by the dazzling variety of subtle, changing color as the shadow crept up the mountain and, by contrast, the way the mountain became jewel-like as it reflected the setting sun. All of this would begin at around 6:30 PM or so and in April, when there was minimal humidity, the experience was a kind of a bright trippiness.
The detail to the left reveals the challenge. The warm, pervading blues in the large cast shadow seemed to sit behind the veil of warm green, at least on some of the evenings. I cannot get that sense of looking through atmosphere on small canvases or on canvases where one is forced to paint wet on wet.
On other evenings, the veil of quinacridone (left), seemed to slip down from a sky curtain, making some of the blues turn purpleish. So often, this pinky cool veil seemed to want to blanket everything.
On other evenings the bright yellows just didn’t appear. Instead, warm oranges took their place. I worked on this painting about a dozen separate evenings and as the weeks rolled by (keep in mind, I had to wait for an absolutely clear sunny evening), I began to realize that my dalliance with sharp, bright, flickering lemon yellows was drawing to a close. Spring was slipping away.
What to do? I had already shifted the entire painting first one way and then another, struggling to keep up with nature’s never-ending parade of colors. So I decided to wait. Sigh! The bright humid-free colors never returned.
Now, it is mid-summer, hot and hazy. The predominant tonality is a pinkish glow. Just wonderful. But I was seduced by those sparkling yellows and I needed more time to really see them, to get into a position where I could actually play with them. Moreover, now the summer sun is in a different position in the sky. The shadow now appears at about 8:30-9:00 PM and quickly covers the little village across the lake that was once just a jumble of sparkling light streaks. The truth finally sunk in. My seductress had left the building. Maybe I’ll wait until Spring next year and see what nature has to offer me. Or not. It’s complete in every stage, right? But I did want to go further. Please gods of color, one more date?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy small studies too. But it is the difference between a single flower and an abundant garden overflowing. If I had my druthers, I would paint with an army of art Sherpas, helping with the easel and large canvases and keeping the palette fresh with about 40 colors, no 70 – or even more, wheeling in a new painting after about a half hour. Just looking for color, placing the color, not a care in the world, no results to worry about, never finishing, always beginning. Now, that would be the life.
A group of Renoir “haters” protested in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts the other day. The general thrust of the protest it seems was, simply, that “Renoir Sucks At Painting.” Above is a painting by Renoir. Value and color relationships are spot on. There is a wholeness, a harmony, a wonderful sensitivity to atmosphere. The brushwork is vigorous, fresh, and authoritative. But here is the key thing: Renoir was painting this when artists such as Meissonier (the painter of slick – or “licked” according to certain Impressionists – propaganda pieces) were winning medals by the cart load. He, Renoir, was just 28; and yet he had the capacity, the courage really, to allow us to see and feel how nature was touching him. He must have been intensely alive.
Let’s hold that thought – about being intensely alive. We all know that good painting is not just about technical virtuosity. I believe that good paintings are those that genuinely move people in unexpected ways and this, in turn, requires that the painter be moved in ways that most people are not, that liberate us in some way. It is in this realm of painting, of feeling intensely alive, that I think Renoir may have something to teach us. First, a slight detour is in order.
Are you familiar with George Carlin, the comedian? Well, by about the year 2000 he was a social critic –savagely so, I would say, and at least to me, very funny. If you don’t know him, you’ll have to google him, but trust me, he wasn’t what you would call “mainstream.” However, when he was in his late 20s (about the same age as the Renoir above), he had hit the big time. He was doing the late shows, first Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson, just as those shows were becoming big in the 50s and 60s. And when he hit the big time, George Carlin was, what we might call, “really straight.” In other words, he hadn’t found himself yet. Eventually he made the decision to dump the “success” that he had achieved because the real success would be (and I use this phrase all the time, I know!) for him to become who he was most. Okay, back to Renoir and company.
By the time Renoir was 28, he had exhibited in 4 Salon exhibitions. What Parisian artist wouldn’t kill to be at that level in 1869? But Renoir and the other “intransigents,” while they could have focused strictly on making it within the institutions they had inherited, painted what Salon jurors were looking for, and served the interests of the powerful, they didn’t. They threw away their careers so that they could find, not medals, fame, and wealth, but fulfillment in feeling larger, more powerful, more beautiful (to paraphrase Emma Goldman) in becoming who they were most. That’s painting!
Now, allow me to frame this more tightly. As anyone trying to make a living today as a painter, I investigate various “opportunities” and marketing gambits. Oh my god, they are so depressing. For example: one I was looking at just today uses language like “make your dreams come true…learn, grow, and improve….” Not bad, I’m thinking. I could go for that. Then they spell out what “learn, grow, and improve” means to them: you will be able to “secure your first major client contract, convert more visitors into sales on your website, launch your next product and make 5 times as much revenue as you did in the previous quarter….” But wait, there’s more: “Go on a round-the-world trip while running your business.” That’s the freaking Jack Parr show! I don’t want it. I want to be who I am most as a painter. I’m not interested in empire building, even if I can go on a world trip while my elves crank out the product.
Okay, now here’s where Renoir can teach us something: he confronted the same dilemma we all face and Renoir and his group came up with a solution, the only group of artists in the history of the world to do so. They took control over their process (of making paintings) away from the art elites of their day and they largely took control of the distribution of their work as well. They created a way of painting and exhibiting that enabled them to become completely independent. They were free, and poor for a time, but they turned the tables on those above them. They got control of the goose that laid the golden egg. Now, they were painters with a capital P! Sigh! This amazing historical achievement was not to last.
Fast Forward: Artists in the Age of Finance Capital
“There’s been a seismic shift in the past 10 to 15 years,” notes Tom Eccles, executive director of the curatorial studies program at Bard College. “Art is seen today as an equal asset class to stocks, boats, houses and jewelry, and people don’t want to give their assets away.” Of course they don’t, not in a world where American corporations sit on $1.4 trillion dollars in cash and where the main source of profit in the American economy is asset price inflation. In fact, the new “masters of the universe” are art masters, buying (and buying control over) and manipulating every aspect of an unregulated system of art production, marketing, and distribution:
Hedge-fund managers, who play a vital but disruptive role in the broader financial markets, are increasingly throwing their weight around the art market: They are paying record sums to drive up values for their favorite artists, dumping artists who don’t pay off and offsetting their heavy wagers on untested contemporary art by buying the reliable antiquity or two. Aggressive, efficient and armed with up-to-the-minute market intelligence supplied by well-paid art advisers, these collectors are shaking up the way business gets done in the genteel art world…. Nearly all are applying their day-job tactics to their art shopping, dealers say.
So welcome to 2015. This is the institutional setting that we painters inherit. This is where we are. We could go the Jack Paar route: we could lock into the logic of the entrepreneur, focus on the latest ways of self-promotion, and, to paraphrase Robert Hughes, chase after external rewards with the voracious single-mindedness of a feeding bluefish. But then painting would be reduced largely to a process of production. More and more of our energy would be spent in self-promotion. We would start thinking about things like productivity. And our self-worth would be linked to all the external measures – sales, expert endorsements, prized exhibitions, and all the rest. Given that only a few are going to be anointed as “blue chip,” our sense of self will sink to whatever marketing level we reach. And we will believe that it is all legitimate. It’s just. It’s how the world works. How dreadful is that?
Let’s go back to what a real painter can teach us. Let’s go back to the disobedience of Renoir and the members of his group who proudly stated, quite explicitly actually, “I know my self-worth.” Of course they were concerned about sales. They thought about it all the time, but they refused to be defined in terms of some larger power system, some set of economic interests not their own. Renoir and company thought that if you really want to be a painter you need to have the freedom to be self-defining. To be honest, I really don’t have the energy to get that big client contract. I know that if I want to grow as a painter I have to really buckle down and keep right in front of my mind, night and day, the idea that my first need is to enjoy the exercise of my own power for its own sake. I can’t be the person who is consumed by trying to get 5 times more sales this quarter than last. I’d rather dig ditches. Sorry! I have all I can do to understand and then practice what Baudelaire urged Renoir to value, “the presentness of the present.” I don’t want a world trip while the elves crank out – whatever. I want to stand on the shores of Lake Como and try to see beyond those obvious colors again. I want to stand before nature, with brush in hand “vibrating with nature” as Cèzanne did, trying to do the impossible as Monet did, or as Mallarmè counseled Renoir and Morisot to do, and that is to get a thrill by embracing “the untouched alive now.”
If Renoir sucked at painting, he at least found fulfillment in a process where both visual sensation and feeling came together. He once recalled, apparently fondly, his slow, somewhat painful process of becoming who he was most as “a gentle madness.” I suspect that the discovery of his ability to create himself through the expressive activity of painting was, for him, fulfilling. I also think that it is precisely that fulfillment that very well may be the measure of what it means to be a free human being.
So why would I be so foolish as to give up the chance to be who I am most or the rush of being carried to some new magical place when I finally connect in order to win some kind of market-directed success, my mind divided from my hands, and my time easily gobbled up by the endless and intense efforts to get the attention of people who have assumed the role of experts but who have never painted in their lives?
Here’s what I get from Renoir: first, paint, express who you are, think deeply about painting, get as good as you can, and then paint some more. I like to tell the story of when I first tried plein-air painting. I brought my little 8x10s back to show my teacher. He said, “I’m glad to see that you are going out. Now, after you do two or three hundred of these, go on to 9×12.”
I don’t know. I think Renoir did some really good work. Maybe those haters out there ought to go out and do two or three hundred little paintings en plein-air and feel the rush of exercising their own power. I bet they would change their minds. Who knows? They might even become disobedient and protest outside of universities and demand that art departments teach something about serious painting.
 http://money.cnn.com/2015/03/20/investing/stocks-companies-record-cash-level-oil/; also see http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/11/the-age-of-finance-capital-and-the-irrelevance-of-mainstream-economics/
 The Impressionists, A Retrospective, ed., Martha Kapos, (UK: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1991) p.33.
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
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.
I’ve always hated theories…My only quality is to have painted directly from nature…. – Monet
As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that? – Monet
My teacher, Bill Schultz, was as gentle a teacher as one could find. But when he demonstrated, questions about color use would drive him up the wall. Once, when asked what color he was using, he responded uncharacteristically tersely: “If you were listening to a concert pianist, would you ask what note he had just played?” Why would one of the gentlest and supportive teachers of all time snap at a student asking about color?
Questions about color are understandable; why wouldn’t I want to know what colors someone uses so that I may achieve similar results? But notice how quickly answers to such questions create problems. For example, I could respond by saying, “With dark pine trees I use ultramarine blue with a touch of deep cadmium yellow. Or, in blue skies I generally add a bit of quinacridone.” The student, then, is apt to go out and mix the “correct” color but in so doing she wouldn’t be feeling the colors. Instead she would be thinking the colors. The danger here is that the process, so wonderfully articulated by the Impressionists as one driven by sensation, would be transformed into a formulaic production process, driven by thought. The life-giving experience where one truly learns to see beyond the ordinary could possibly be lost. This is sacred ground. As Picasso once said about making love to a beautiful woman, “You don’t begin by measuring her arm.” We don’t begin seeing color by recalling some mixture someone else used in an entirely different setting!
Here’s a better way of asking someone about color use. “How do you see those colors?”
Robert Henri reminded us that the point of making a picture is not to make a picture. And why? Because for him, the crucial endeavor, beyond all else, was to visually get into an “extraordinary moment.” So many great painters keep coming back to the same point. Manet: you first have to be moved. Picasso: I do nothing except for pleasure. Hawthorne: find something that makes you “tremble.” Monet: “I’ve simply looked at what the universe has shown me, to bear witness with my brush.” And later, “It’s a total self-surrender.” And so often, “It’s all about the sensation.” Or Cézanne: “I vibrate with nature.” Or his wife noting, “He would halt and look at everything with widened eyes, ‘germinating’ with the countryside.” What are these artists suggesting? What’s going on?
Moments of Enchantment
Based upon my own experience, I would say that these artists are suggesting that nature is speaking to them and then, with their brushes, the artists are speaking back. They seem to be one with the subject. Think about that for a moment: to be one with something means to be entangled with something, to be drawn in or even captured by that something. This oneness, this capturing, may be thought of as moments of enchantment. Have you noticed the reversal that I’m suggesting here? Typically, commentators will say about Impressionists, “They wanted to capture the fleeting moment.” Or, “They wanted to capture the light.” But this is crazy. Why not capture butterflies? Or wild animals? Or escaped convicts? Such explanations make no real sense. First, I get a big net and then I run around capturing things. Why? I don’t know, I just do.
Notice what happens when we prioritize and pay attention to what happens to the artist in this process: for example, we could say that Monet, et al, were captured by the light. They were moved by the sensations of the moment. It gave them joy. The sense of wonder gave them pleasure. At least if we frame the moment or the capturing this way, it begins to make sense, doesn’t it? Oh, I see why someone would do that. It sounds like fun. Like joy. Like wonder. If I paint in this tradition, then, maybe I should be thinking more about the ways I might get into that joyful state, that state of being captured. I get it.
Here’s what happens to me: sometimes when I go out to paint – not always, but sometimes – and often midway into my two-hour outdoor session (generally), I find that I have drifted into a different state of being. Little sparkling colors begin to appear. I don’t want to confuse you: these are really tiny hints of color, very subtle, kind of like those “sprinkle” things people put on cakes. Tiny, tiny bits of color sprinkled around, that vibrate, that appear and disappear. Little tiny bright flashes. I only see them when I’m carried away, so to speak, when the visual sensations – line, tone, and color – capture me. And when this happens, I feel capable (more powerful?) and in the painting stage, in the proper order, I begin to paint them, one by one – here, there, everywhere. I feel good, alive – connected to something. Nothing else matters, and to put a fine point on it, if someone came up to me at that moment and said, “I will give you a Porsche of your choice in exchange for your ability to be captured by the sprinkles,” I would say, “Please. You’re going to break the spell.”
Now, believe it or not, there is much written on this subject – the seeing matter as affective in western philosophy, which is suggestive, given that we can then connect many of these thoughts to the ways of thinking that shaped the approach to painting found in Paris toward the end of the 19th century. A recent book that discusses this sort of thing is Jane Bennett’s, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics.
Let me conclude this way: I will explain to you how to see color (and line) in a way that has zero to do with mixing colors or color theory by offering four suggestions. Everything in italics is the language of Bennett; she’s not writing about art or painting, but rather the way matter has been understood to be affective. But to borrow her language is a great way to talk about entering into the realm “that makes art possible” (Henri).
Suggestion #1: Look to be charmed or captured by or enamored with existence. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism; that is, the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature. Painting (as opposed to production which turns on external evaluations) requires that we experience moments of pure presence, conditions of exhilaration, caught up and carried away, so that our mood is one of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example, noted this liveliness when he argued that Cézanne wanted “to make visible how the world touches us (Ponty’s emphasis).”
Suggestion #2: Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.
Suggestion #3: Long to become otherwise. We aren’t encouraged to feel color (or line) because it’s not a priority in our way of life. There’s no external reward for it; certainly not in contemporary art where language has displaced “the sensation.” Therefore, we must step outside that world. We must extend the limits of [our ] current embodiment; escape the confines of biography, culture, training, [and] expand the horizon of the conceivable. Open to an enhanced capacity to identify exits, escapes, passages. Art that liberates, it seems to me, is co-mingling, straddling two realms of being.
Suggestion #4: Think of the activity of painting not as a way of making an object but as a state of interactive fascination that propels us into a crossing, a metamorphosis, a becoming. To become is not to achieve a final state of being; it is to give more of a chance to that which rumbles in you, but you are not. At least not yet.
“As for the colors I use, what’s so interesting about that?”
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). Bennett is responding to critiques of modernity as “disenchanted,” an understanding most often associated with Max Weber. Bennett makes quite clear that her interest in “sites of enchantment” has nothing to do with “new age” spiritualism or theism. Rather she is interested in what may be thought of as the agency of matter itself and the way in which the experience of enchantment is related to ethics. To wit, she positions herself vis-a-vis a number of theorists, past and present, whose work makes contact with her understanding of the “liveliness” of matter.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” p. 7; http://faculty.uml.edu/rinnis/cezannedoubt.pdf
The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and colour…. genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.
A few weeks ago I was in Amsterdam. Seeing Van Gogh in the flesh, as it were, was a big part of the trip. The big take away for me was this simple insight: if I want to be a good painter, maybe even an artist, I need to get out of my head more!
Part 1: Enter Charles Baudelaire[i]
Baudelaire might be the perfect guy to help me get out of my head, to see and feel the world sensuously, to treat every line and color as a visual and sensual prompt to which I am compelled to respond emotionally. Look at the way he urges us, as artists, to do this:
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way….But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. And if sometimes…in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.[ii]
Or here, where Baudelaire in reviewing a painting by Eugene Boudin,[iii] suggests that paintings don’t need people in them. They don’t need to tell stories. Why? Because if you can get intoxicated by simply savoring the sensuality of form and color, then:
….all these clouds with fantastic and luminous forms, these yawning furnaces, these firmaments of black or violet stain….mount to the brain like a heady drink or the eloquence of opium….[iv]
And here’s the good news, according to Baudelaire: we are born relating to the world this way. As kids we are little intoxicated sensuality addicts (see quote on top). Kids are always drunk! Just look at the little painting by the kid above. It’s a flower but you would never know it. The kid is drunk, it seems, with the colors green and purple. I don’t think she even sees “flower.”[v] My teacher would always say, “Get it through the color.” Charles Hawthorne long ago urged us to paint “Color first, house after…not house first, color after.” But I prefer Baudelaire’s simple admonition: “Be drunk.”
Now imagine seeing and painting like this not just as a child but as an adult, and forever. Baudelaire describes such an adult as someone “who is never for a moment without the genius of childhood – a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale….[She has]…insatiable passion – for seeing and feeling….” Insatiable passion for seeing and feeling? Whoopie! This could be the ticket. Good-bye living in my head.
George Breitner George Breitner
Part 2: Enter the School Teacher
‘What is this, class?’ asks teacher reaching into her shoebox, holding up a red toy truck about two-and-a-half inches long.
‘A truck,’ answer the first-graders in unison.
‘What is it for?’
‘Going places,’ says one; ‘Carrying stuff,’ says another.
‘What is this?’
‘What do cows give us?’
‘Milk;’ ‘Ice cream,’ says someone in back.
‘Are you sure it’s not a store or a barn?’
‘It’s where people live.’[vi]
In this example, suggests Stephen Parrin, students are taught “to think in terms of broad categories of utility. She is having her students sort the world conceptually in terms of labeled ideas, not firsthand experience (emphasis added).”[vii] Sensory details don’t exist. And after 12 years of education, Parrin believes, “the ability to savor their sensory experience had been stripped from them.”[viii]
Floris Verster Floris Verster
In other exercises, Parrin found that even when students were on a walk, exploring blindfolded, as soon as they identified an object as “pinecone,” “rock,” “stick,” “tree,” “grass,” or “gravel,” they moved on to something else without pausing to explore “the feel or smell of what they had touched. Their approach was wholly and uniformly conceptual.”[ix] It is not surprising, then, how now as adults – and even as painters staring for hours at a subject matter – we “wholly bypass personal experience.” We have been taught to live in our head.
Part 3: The Exhibition
The one thing nice about visiting new museums is being introduced to new (albeit long since departed) artists. In addition to Van Gogh, I’ve posted images from the work of George Breitner, Isaac Israels, and Floris Verster. Breitner and Verster were contemporaries of Van Gogh. Verster came along a little later. I was impressed by their authority. It just jumped off the canvas. They were really in control of their craft. And I loved their amazing simplicity and tonality.
Van Gogh, Potato Diggers
It was nice to see some of Van Gogh’s famous paintings but I found the work of his that I had never seen before to be even more powerful. An example was his Potato Diggers (above). Lose. Simple. Direct. What impressed me most about Van Gogh was how even in the work that didn’t make my list of favorites, the charm and sincerity of his personality was powerfully present. As much as I like the other painters mentioned above, their passion for seeing and feeling is less on display, hidden to a degree by skill and convention. Not so with Van Gogh who makes himself entirely vulnerable, with all his against-the-rules way of painting.[x]
He really puts himself out there, like the painting below (VG2). There is a lot about this painting that seems off or wrong. And yet, the more I looked at it the more I got drawn in. Everywhere on the canvas he is alive, intoxicated, drunk. The painting just follows. It’s a by-product of his intoxication.
Van Gogh, VG2
Part 4: The Question of Talent
Baudelaire was critical of the concept of genius and/or talent shared by most at the time – namely that it is a rare thing, genetically endowed. It is a concept that still haunts us and inflicts enormous self-doubt upon everyone. Do I have talent, we all wonder? Am I good enough? Baudelaire’s insights alter the equation. For visual artists, it’s not about measuring up to some arbitrary standard; rather it’s about the ability to retrieve that state of innocence and sense of wonder that comes from engaging the world, not just through categories, but sensuously as well. Or to put it another way, instead of the concept “talent,” substitute “sincerity” or “freedom” and ask: am I sincere? Am I really free to be who I am?
The good news then is that there can be no one who anoints or announces or declares an artist to have talent. It is the province of everyone. Each of us feels fulfilled and exhilarated as we exercise and discover our power. Every human being begins life with the intense passion to see and feel. And then as we develop our ability to see everything through categories, our ability or freedom to savor our sensory experiences is neglected. It withers. Van Gogh seems to have escaped this trap. He was drunk his entire short life. No talent. Never a martyred slave of time.
[i] Baudelaire, as you know, was a writer-critic who was very close to Manet. He wrote a lot about a new way of being in the world that was changing the way writers and painters made art. The Impressionists, I would argue, very much expressed that way of being in the world.
[iii] Boudin was probably Monet’s most important teacher.
[v] This is precisely what Monet is getting at when he tells us, as painters, not to see the “thing” before us.
[vi] Stephen Parrin, Reflection 149: The Blind Walk, October 6, 2009 http://onmymynd.wordpress.com/tag/gerald-edelman/
[x] For example, we are told to not draw with the color but rather we should place the color. Or we are taught that our strokes should go against the form. Van Gogh ignores all this. Plus his values are clearly off in his very dark blue skies. But it works because the force of his personality is so uniquely Vincent. It is as if he is shouting “this is me” everywhere you look.
I have been making a living, entirely, from painting and teaching for over 20 years. There are a variety of ways of doing this, of course, but if one is interested in independence and the freedom to paint whatever it is that moves one, entirely self-directed, then my story may be of interest. Here it is.
The look of Red Umbrellas just getting set up for an exhibition in the 2002 performing art series.
As I have explained elsewhere, in 1989 I dropped out of academia and decided to move to San Francisco. It would be there, I had hoped, that I would be able to make a living as a painter. As it turned out, San Francisco was a good place to be. They had a long tradition of artists exhibiting and selling their work in the parks.
Initially, I was averse to selling in the parks. The “shows” had, to put it bluntly, the appearance of art swap meets. So, instead, I brought my work around to galleries. I was able to get into a few (San Francisco, Carmel, Northampton, MA). But the truth is that while I have sold over 1,000 paintings in my life (and to collectors in every state in the US and in a dozen or more countries), I have never – not once – sold anything in a gallery. What was worse, for me, was the way I was treated. I was the “street scene guy” – kind of a painter-worker-bee – who delivered a specific product to the gallery. Appointments to have gallerists come by my studio were regularly blown off. I could go on; gallery horror stories abound.
But let me jump ahead: in the end I decided to exhibit with one of the outdoor groups and guess what? I began meeting hundreds of people who expressed an interest in what I was doing – “my audience.” I began to develop a very good mailing list. Given the large number of artists who participated, I learned about framing and presentation, shipping, as well as other media and approaches. I began to sell. I began to paint more. And most importantly, I grew.
Given all these positives, the one remaining thing to change, I thought, was the look and feel of the group so that one could sincerely claim that it helped beautify the public space and provide to the public a direct access to art and artists. So with others, I began to re-invent the outdoor show. After about 10 years of building, we created a new group, called Red Umbrellas (RU), and in this video you can see what we looked like as we exhibited with performing arts non-profits (SF Jazz, a string quartet from the SF Symphony, the Gay Men’s Chorus, and the SF Opera) on successive weekends (a September performing art series) in Union Square in San Francisco:
If you wish to create an outdoor exhibition group in your town, here are some pointers:
1. Become a non-profit, not a promoted show.
Promoted shows are run by “promoters” who are profit motivated. This means that they are interested in as many fee-paying participants as possible. It is not a group. One pays a fee, participates in the exhibition, and goes home. The promoter (and/or board) makes up the rules and juries the show. In addition to fees, a percentage of sale proceeds generally go to the promoter (perhaps 15% – unless the fee to participate is large, then the commission may be waved altogether).
RU, a non-profit (501c3), was and is a group of artists who are juried into the group by other artists. Officers are elected. Decision-making is democratic. The jury is chosen from among the artists. As a non-profit, the idea is to first provide a public benefit, sales are technically speaking “incidental.” Artists pay a fee, which goes into the treasury, and the artists keep 100% of all sales proceeds. We eventually reduced the fee to zero by incorporating a “Lobby Program” (read below).
2. Develop a Uniform Look
The look of the show is critical. We wanted the public to see us as a group of artists, not a collection of individual booths, each with a different look and feel. Therefore, our display system for each artist was identical. Each of us used the same red umbrellas. And we agreed on a set of rules to insure that only the art displayed varied, at the same time that anything “junky-looking” was eliminated. Remember: outdoor shows are considered the last rung on the ladder. As an independent group, as an independent force, we set out to change the paradigm.
3. Make it an exhibition space, not a market.
A “show” that is a market is one where individuals are free to exhibit whatever they want. This inevitably leads to artists making copies of what sold last time and in the end, one sees the same artist selling the same cat painting or print over and over. In our case, we did not allow the selling of “mechanical reproductions.” No digital art, for example. With regard to prints – etchings for example – the artist had to have limited editions that met professional standards. Only photography developed in a dark room with limited editions was permitted. But obviously, your group can set whatever standards it pleases. We wanted to be taken seriously.
4. Have enough shows to make a living.
Our group consisted of about 20 artists (other groups were larger) and we organized anywhere from 60 to 100 exhibitions per year. Obviously, the goal is to find an exhibition space where there is a lot of commercial traffic. And access to “better” sites often depends on how the group is perceived. Hence the need for the standards noted above. It was much easier to approach property managers or city officials if I could say, “We are a non-profit with high presentation standards that first and foremost wishes to exhibit original work to the public.”
All the “regulars” who did most of the shows were able to make a living and make whatever kind of art they wanted.
5. Reduce or eliminate fees through special exhibitions.
In the video above, you can see our “Performing Art Series.” It was expensive to produce, but with in-kind and monetary contributions, we actually made money from the series. One of our best fundraising programs, which you can develop even if you never exhibit out-of-doors is the Lobby Program. As you will see, the goal here was to pay artists to exhibit, all the while they kept 100% of their sales proceeds. In addition to paying artists to exhibit (on average $1,500 per artist), we generated enough money so that we could reduce participation fees in the outdoor program to zero. Here’s how the Lobby Program worked:
The Lobby Program
Basically, RU replaced the “art consultant,” whose job it was to hang shows in SF’s financial district or “downtown lobbies.” It goes like this: generally an art consultant will approach an artist and say, “If you would like to participate in the exhibitions I hang in prestigious lobbies, just give me some photos of your work. If you are selected, I hang your work, and if you sell, you get 60%. Plus there is promotion and a reception.”
Sounds pretty good. A better cut than most galleries. But wait. Think it through. I went to visit a variety of property managers and discovered that the art consultant, besides taking 40% of your sales proceeds, was getting a healthy stipend up front for organizing and hanging the show.
In one prestigious building in SF (101 California Street – about 30 stories, with a magnificent lobby and landscaped terrace outside) I found that art consultants were paid $7,000 for a 6-week show. Art consultant who can get a few properties can make a bundle. Thank you artists, who jump at the chance to get only 60%.
So as a group, we decided to replace the art consultant. We developed a portfolio of interested artists (we decided that artists could participate in our lobby program without having to do outdoor shows, too). We hung the shows. Half of the $7,000 was used to pay artists to exhibit. The other half went into the RU treasury, which enabled outdoor show participants to exhibit for free.
There is only one profession where the word “starving” is accepted as an appropriate adjective – ie, starving artist. To be honest, I think this is due to the fact that artists embrace and celebrate the market and the private economy instead of resisting it – instead of thinking creatively beyond the canvas. I don’t think it takes a whole lot of insight to figure out that the point of the art industry is not to expand the circle of art and creativity, but to insure that “art” is the province of a few very wealthy people (think auction houses, museum boards, the Venice Biennali). Branded galleries, for example, are intentionally designed to intimidate and to feel exclusive. The point here is that in this environment it is functional for artists to be dependent and poor.
Unlike other professionals, as visual artists, we accept the fact we are often working for free: we provide a free inventory to galleries (unlike, say, in the days of the Impressionists when dealers bought work straight out), we decorate restaurants and other spaces for free (in the off chance we might sell), and we give our work away for “benefits” (generally under the heading of, “Many rich collectors will see your work!!”). The worst indignity to me is what all this does to us. We become marketing freaks. These situations describe artists who are of the market.
I’ve just described two situations in which one sells – hence one is “in” the market – but obtains independence, meets more people in a day than she would in a year in a gallery, gets the names and numbers of interested parties (often disallowed by galleries), meets directly and often with her audience, has total control over production and distribution of her work, develops as an artist, and makes a living. In these situations we might be in the market but we would not necessarily have to be of the market.
For a painter dependent upon sales, the distinction is an important one.
 Once at an outdoor show, a gallery owner asked me how many paintings I sold in a year. At that point in time my answer was 75. He responded, “Well, you don’t need me.” I said nothing but thought to myself, “Yes, that’s right. But do you still want to have a conversation?”
Flowers are great to paint. I love painting them. But, and this is a big fat BUT, if you are not careful, they will quickly destroy the artistry within you. Let me explain.
I should alert the reader that I am writing from an Impressionist point of view. So let us recall some basic principles of Impressionism. Virtually to a person, they were explicit in their condemnation of the literal, which is to say, their paintings were not intended to be stories or social commentary (despite the gazillions of books to the contrary. The tendency is to assume that all realism is a kind of photo-journalism; hence, it must be literal. Or the converse, that if it is not literal, one must paint out of one’s head. Students of Impressionism would do well to pay more attention to what the artists themselves said. Pissarro lamented, for example, that most people only see the “subject” in his paintings. Monet talked endlessly about his need to convey his feelings. “We paint not to paint the subject,” Cèzanne reminded everyone, “but to realize sensations.”
So here’s Principle Number 1, so often articulated by Monet: Don’t see the thing before you. Or to put it another way, there are no flowers, just line and color that become prompts for us to respond to emotionally and realize feelings in the moment that our brush touches the canvas. If one loves flowers and wants to paint flowers, one is already in trouble because one will try like crazy to make a picture of flowers. So challenge Number 1, when you paint flowers don’t see flowers.
The second challenge in painting something that one is so focused on is that one is apt to neglect everything else. Principle Number 2: there is no such thing as background or tabletop or vases that play supporting roles. There are none of those things. There are no supporting roles. There is just line and color. Every square inch of a canvas ought to look as though the painter was fully involved with that square inch. Challenge Number two: everything else in the painting ought to reveal a fascination and an infatuation equal to the blasted flowers.
Principle Number Three: We are artists so do not paint what everyone else can see, ie, the obvious. Degas said that we don’t paint what we see but what we make others see. Okay, everyone can see the beauty in a sunset or a young child and, you guessed it, the “beautiful colors” in flowers. So what is an artist going to make the viewer see beyond the obvious? Challenge Number Three: say something about flowers that most people don’t see, and about that which moves you.
Let me give you some examples. First, I will show you some of my work (not the best example but it’s handy) and then I will show you some images by Monet.
The details on the left were taken from the image above. I chose these to show you that I was not seeing flowers as much as color and movement. In other words, I didn’t draw with the color but placed bits of various colors on the canvas as I engaged the subject emotionally, not seeing flowers, not looking for results but just enjoying my vision and moving through the process. Notice also that I have left parts of the canvas open in order to kick up that sense of light.
In these details I wanted to show that I did find other parts of the subject matter fascinating, certainly as fascinating to me as the flowers. Wait, there are no flowers! You see, and this brings us back to Challenge Number three: I am saying to the viewer, I want to make you see the beauty of the cloth and the colors of the grass and the reflections and colors in the vase: they are not separate from those red and white things in the vase. It’s all alive. It’s all dancing. And it’s all there, available to everyone. But if you think you are painting flowers, you will see none of it.
Now let’s go to a real painter and look at details of some of his work. Okay, Claude, you’re on:
It’s pretty obvious. Monet isn’t seeing flowers but realizing feelings. He’s intensely alive, which comes first, and so is his work, which then follows as a by-product of the experience.
Second, you can see even in these details how he is enamored with everything around the flowers. No supporting roles here. It’s all one thing. And it’s in virtue of his non-literal approach that he is showing us something we may not have seen had we been standing where he was: flowers are movement. They are swirling around, dancing, along with everything else.
I hope you don’t misinterpret all of this as instructions on how to paint flowers. You paint flowers the same way you would paint a nose or water or pavement on a city sidewalk. You see, painting is not about the subject matter. Painting is an activity where one lets go in her own particular way, realizing feelings that only she, as specific individual, could possibly realize given her age and experiences and needs. Yes there are techniques to learn, a craft to learn, but if you were only to get very good at those things, your work would look competent and probably boring. Painting is about learning new ways to be free and by that I mean new ways to be more you, more sincere, even if that means marching to your own drum.
Let me leave you with Monet’s thoughts that make contact to what I’m trying to suggest here:
“Paint as you see nature yourself. If you don’t see nature right with an individual feeling, you will never be a painter, and all the teaching cannot make you one [emphasis added].”