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.