There Is No Avant-garde
If I paint ten paintings, I generally keep about 3 or 4. That’s it. Most don’t work out. I think the reason for this is that it is just plain difficult to get into that other dimension where I’m not making pictures but where I just get swept away. There are times when I really do believe that I have forgotten how to paint. So I have to remind myself: don’t paint pictures; let what is before you act as a prompt. Respond. Realize your feelings as you make the marks. Get it through the color. Get beyond the facts. Trust in your creativity. Let go.
Then one day I’m out there painting and I sense that it’s coming back to me. I remember. In fact, I think I’m growing, getting better. It goes on like that. Up and down. Up and down.
I mention this because I think it is worth restating particularly for young artists who feel an inordinate pressure to do something “that is cool,” “heavy,” “dark,” or “challenging.” There is something to be said for big, dramatic breakthroughs – the advent of abstraction for example, and/or the subsequent return to figurative painting in the Bay Area Figurative movement where Diebenkorn, Park, Bischoff, Oliveira, Neri and others used big, simplified, almost abstract strokes of color to express who they were. But for the most part, we would do well to drop the term avant-garde and to stop thinking in terms of art movements generally. So much of the “it has never been done before” shock-of-the-new during the latter half of the 20th century was contrived, top down, investment driven efforts to turn junk into iconic art products.
Does anyone out there remember Fabian? He was a teen idol who came after Elvis. Well, he didn’t exactly come after Elvis. Because of Elvis, record producers wanted to cash in on the creation of a second Elvis, so they discovered Fabian. I guess you could say he was okay, but like most 20th century art “movements,” he was totally manufactured.
You don’t have to sprout wings and fly about your studio to do something “that has never been done before.” It has never been done before if it is new and refreshing to you.
Many years ago, I went outside to paint for the first time and did two little 8”x10” landscapes. I brought them in to show my teacher, Bill Schultz. He made some supportive comments, suggesting one was more “successful” than the other. Then he said, “I’m glad to see that you are going outside and starting small. Now, after you do two or three hundred of these, go on to 9”x12.” I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.
The image at the top is a detail from the image on the left. The people at the café were moving about. How was I to paint them? I had no interest in a literal interpretation. I was more interested in loving what I saw simply as visual elements. So if I saw a flash of blue, I made a mark to try and get the color and didn’t care much about anything else. I think it works.
So here’s my point. I don’t care about the need to prove to someone that I’m doing something that has never been done before. When I was much younger I did try to do things in an effort to “break through” into something different only to realize that it was pure crap. So now I’m quite happy to grow painfully slowly. That’s what makes it so challenging.
Monet is said to have painted 15 hours a day in all kinds of weather for many years. He’s always pulling his hair out, destroying dozens of paintings at a time, right up until his death at 86. I like a lot of his early work, but the work that really impresses me wasn’t done until he was in his 70s.
About a year before he died, someone asked him what his message was to young artists. He replied, “Painting is very difficult.” I can live with that.