Paintings done on canvas in Mary Beth McKenzie’s class at the Art Students League. When painting from life I tend to tighten up in the work in a way that I can avoid in drawings, and so set out this session to change that, working more quickly on several sketches in paint over the course of each two week pose, leaving work in various states of finish, and moving on–to take what I like in the drawing and work to get that with the paint.
I also have been increasing the scale of the image, to pull it up closer to the surface of the picture plane and to get away from reflexively setting the figure back into space–the relationship of viewer to image changes, moves closer. There is also less “other” space to contend with, and I can deal with the elements more abstractly and have larger surfaces to paint into with both more control and freedom.
I drew portraits from life, various charcoals and pencils, and typically during a six day pose, a drawing over one or two sessions. Starting again, from one drawing to another, and in each drawing.
Every drawing begins with an intention, to use a particular tool, or scale–some arbitrary form of entrance–and then if it goes well, the drawing unfolds in accord with some self-organizing logic. Which can change. I was listening to a Bob Dylan recording and while playing the bridge on guitar he made a mistake, and just as quickly changed the flow of the music to make that part of the piece. I thought… well, that’s it.
It has been said that to draw is to always start again. That is the ideal, the sense of the drawing continually taking shape. And then, not having known what the drawing should look like–it is a challenge to know when you are done.
Friedel Dzubas told a story about visits he made with Helen Frankenthaler to Willem de Kooning’s studio in the early 50’s. They would see paintings underway that looked incredibly strong and complete. Later they would see same work when he was finished with it, and think the earlier versions had been the better. I guess it is likely that de Kooning was the only one to have seen some his best work.
“For many years I was not interested in making a good painting–as one might say, ‘Now this is really a good painting’ or a ‘perfect work.’ I didn’t want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found out it was not my nature. I didn’t work on it with the idea of perfection but to see how far one could go–but not with the idea of really doing it. With anxiousness and dedication to fright maybe, or ecstasy, like the Divine Comedy, to be like a performer: to see how long you can stay on the stage with that imaginary audience.” –Willem de Kooning, Content is a Glimpse: Interview with David Sylvester, 1963.
Well, I didn’t always get off the stage as soon as I should have. All of these on paper, about 18×24.
A favorite artist these days is Alice Neel–as I am able to see more of her paintings the greatest of her achievement becomes more obvious–is there a late 20th century American painter of the figure who is her equal?
It is inexplicable that the current exhibition of her work, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and now in London at the White Chapel Gallery, is not slated for a showing in New York, her home, it’s people her subject.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a telling exhibit of figurative artists, Facing the Figure: Selected Works from the Collection, 1962–2007 on view this summer and I have made it a point to try and visit most lunch hours to look at the 2 portraits by Neel, of Henry Geldzahler and Arthur Bullowa. Also included, paintings by Alex, Katz, Fairfirld Porter, Richard Diebenkorn, Phillip Pearlstein, Will Barnet and Andrew Wyeth.
The installation in the mezzanine gallery is intimate, and makes it possible to study the surface of the painting, faces of her subjects, at a few inches distance, and to discern the traces of initial drawing in paint and begin to understand how she put these pictures together. She had a complete understanding of the structure of the human figure and of styles of representation which gave her the freedom to either depict elements of the figure broadly or in detail, flatly or in volume, with greater realism or expression, and to select freely from this vocabulary as she worked across the figure or face the modes of representation that the picture required.
I try to see what the structure is that an individual painter has developed that allows them to manage all the varieties of information contained in a human face. Neel seems most always to emphasize the contour of the shape of the face, and within that the volumetric shape of the face, with clearly observed side planes that push the front of the face forward, and to draw the volume of the forehead and nose together. This provides a good foundation to support a variety of possible treatments of the details of the features, which may be drawn in line or more fully rendered.
Of artists, I probably had been aware of Van Gogh earliest–a large print of Sunflowers hung on the dining room wall of our home in the 50’s, which I still have, in tattered form–and continue to enjoy and study his paintings and drawings, and writing. There have been some very good exhibitions of his work in New York in the last few years, Van Gogh and Expressionism in 2007 at the Neue Galerie, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings at the Metropolitan in 2005, and many works regularly on view from the museums collections.
I began rereading his letters a few months ago and have just learned that all of The Letters have been published online by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The collection contains over 900 known existing documents in the original text and translation, with facsimile images of the original document and images of the artworks referenced in the texts.
I have been looking at mid-century American painting lately, in particular Philip Guston’s ‘black’ paintings of the 60s, and everything by Willem de Kooning.
As a young man in Rotterdam, de Kooning’s course of study, in the tradition of the guilds, melded training in decorative and art crafts. In Holland and then in New York he worked as a commercial painter while gradually committing to a life as an artist, and the tools and the tricks of his trade were adopted and transformed to become his process for creating an image.
The character of his mark making—his skill—is in his choice of the tool and quality of paint to match the requirements of the job at hand—the pragmatism of a worker.
The evidence of the making in de Kooning’s work and the face of the picture are one—as with a raku pot—the material of the object and transparency of craft is the appearance. So to look at his painting is always to see the image as it is constructed. And then, to think about how one decision must follow another. And consequence.
“During the last and most productive decade of his life Guston often quoted a remark made to him by John Cage in the 1950’s. ‘When you are working,’ he remembers Cage saying, ‘everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas… But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.'” –Michael Auping, Philip Guston, Hatje Cantz, 1999.
“I think of my pictures as dramas: the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.
Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition they are seen to have the quality and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.” –Mark Rothko, ‘The Romantics Were Prompted,’ Possibilities 1, 1947-48.
I took this painting as far as I could given the time, and would shift some values and color if I still had the model to work from—more interested to continue with new studies.
I picked up a book this past weekend by David Hockney, “Secret Knowledge, Discovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”, as much out of curiosity as anything. Given what I have known about Hockney, it seemed an unlikely subject. As it is, the book first published in 2001 and expanded and reissued in 2006, has caused a stir in some circles, and chronicles Hockney’s conjecture that the very rapid improvement in the quality of naturalistic representation in drawing and painting over a period of only ten or so years in 1420-30’s may have been made possible by the use of optical projections onto painting surfaces using concave mirrors, lens and other devices.
His research and study, which he has obviously taken very seriously, is based on his own experiments with “copying” devices as used in the past, the visual evidence in paintings, and his observations of how the characteristics of these devices might influence an artists’ choices in mark making and that the look of images the devices create might have influenced the development of style.
These practices have not been widely known he argues, because the knowledge was intentionally suppressed, by the rules and laws of the guilds, for fear of the power and condemnation of the church and because artists naturally protected the discoveries they made that gave them any advantage in their work.
The premise at first seems far-fetched, but he raises so many surprising questions about the artwork and demonstrates plausible ways in which optical techniques could have been used to create certain qualities, that for me, it has changed the way I will look at art in that period, and later. Moreover, it directs my attention to what the idea I have is of what an artist does, and where that idea has come from.
The book is also a great collection good quality reproductions of works by many of the greatest of painters. I am so glad I let my curiosity (and confidence in Hockney) over-ride my caution.
I have been drawing a week, painting a week. I take the drawings from life and draw from them, and from memory. One of many here, the one I am most happy with. Another model this week, I focused on seeing as much as I could and the focus, as it were, of the drawings increased from one to the next. The final drawing had a style that was just the result of the concentration. I have been reading Van Gogh’s letters, and it comes across how much he was able to see when he was looking, much more than he could put down. In his painting, style the result of his intoxication with looking.
I have been working on a painting at the Art Students League with Costa Vavagiakis that represents an welcome step forward in the way the image is made. A simple change—working with large brushes and no medium. I load the brush, strop away excess paint on the palette, and then drag the paint onto the canvas so that the color and value are built up in layers of pigment. I had been working with small brushes and thinned paint, brushing and drawing out shapes of color and value. This new approach feels better to me, and looks better.