Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I’m sure this quirk of mine is true for most artists - how could it be otherwise? It is this: I have a catalogue of elements from other art which persists in my mind, and which I seek to use in my own work. Or, rather, I don’t seek, usually. But when the opportunity presents of its own accord, I am eager to follow up.

Consider this painting by William Merritt Chase:

William Merritt Chase, Back of a Nude, 1888, oil on canvas, 18”x13”

It made a strong impression on me right away. What grabbed me was that gleaming highlight on her back. Her back is almost without anatomy, the merest of rounded forms, the spine only a hint of furrow. Everything is subsumed by that swoony gleam.

I conceived a craving to paint my own gleam like this. It became a long-term, nearly unconscious craving. It took care of itself in the back of my mind, with perhaps a hundred or five hundred or a thousand other bits and pieces of artwork I have admired.

In fact, I never thought it could be reproduced, because I didn’t expect to see so rounded a back as to support this gleam, and I have difficulty simplifying forms to produce theatrical effects. But then one day, not having pondered the Chase in years, Leah was in my studio, on a break, checking her text messages, and through some accidental confluence of light and angle and pose, the detail bleached right out of her, and that spectacular gleam swam into being. I said, “Stop! Right there!” I have worked very hard at responding more decisively to hunches and accidents.

Leah stopped, and I pulled out a little canvas, and I thought - what color shall I start from? And I answered: raw sienna - which, when spread thinly, produces that strange caramel yellow that I had forgotten anchors Chase’s painting. I spent the next hour or two finally fulfilling this one particular craving, to paint the smooth and gleaming back.

Daniel Maidman, Leah Checking Her Text Messages, 2014, oil on canvas, 14"x11"

More crudely sketched in, yes, and the regions of value less blended. But I am not Chase, and he is not me. I simply stole his beautiful idea. Now I have this painting on the wall of my office, where I enjoy it all the time. I have to imagine most artists are this kind of magpie.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Your Model Knows You Better Than You Know Yourself

Here is the painting I am working on of Rachel just now.

The Athlete Wraps Her Ankle, work in progress, oil on linen, 40”x30”

We were actually working out other poses for the painting, all of them seated. Seated, because Rachel’s ankle is injured and she can’t do a sustained standing pose just yet. So I was drawing other poses, and then she was wrapping her ankle, and I said, “Stop - that’s it.”

Preparatory Sketch for ‘The Athlete Wraps Her Ankle’, pencil on paper, 15”x11”

As I was drawing, I realized it had triggered some memory in me - it took a little while to place it, but then I remembered.

Boy with Thorn, Also Called Fedele, and Spinaro, Roman Copy of a Greek Original

The next session, we got to work on the painting. I was using the impasto technique I’ve been teaching myself lately - first a heavy burlap-like canvas, and then the sculpted transparent oleopasto underlayer, and finally thick paint (for me) on top of that. And I was getting the same satisfyingly physical results I have gotten since I started.

detail, The Athlete Wraps Her Ankle, work in progress (apologies for blurry cell phone picture)

At the end of the last session, I had a little time left over - not enough for the face, but more than one wants to waste. Rachel had a very clear tan line from a week in the Caribbean, so I figured we should do a drawing of that. I love tan lines in art, a thing I learned as a child from the dazzling, carefree, sunlit world of Hockney’s Beverly Hills, so similar in its drowsily sensual way to the unmarked glowing hours of Matisse’s afternoons in Nice.

David Hockney, Sunbather, 1966

As I was getting ready to do my drawing, I explained to Rachel that I had recently switched from a 2b pencil to a softer 3b pencil, because I was finding I wanted to make my darks darker and heavier. And she said, “Oh, so it’s like your painting.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “You went from your thin, delicate surface to this thick paint in just the same way.”

I hadn’t thought of that. But of course it’s true.

Rachel’s Tanline, pencil on paper, 15”x11”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Hunter

I’m working on painting in a different way right now, and I thought I’d tell you how it came about.

I’ve long had a problem with the surfaces of my paintings. I like how they function as representation, but I don’t quite like them as physical objects. The paint is too thin. It has little or no tactile presence; it does not say “I am here” or “touch me.” This deficit has been a low-level background irritation for years. In the foreground, I worked on improving my techniques. But I had an anxiety about the lack of sensual presence of my work. It felt not quite real.

Blue Leah #11, 2012, oil on canvas, 24”x24”

This situation could have gone on indefinitely, but I encountered a startling chain of inspiring events. First is a precursor process: for the past year and a half, I have frequently drawn a model, Rachel, at Spring Street. Rachel is a dancer, and has a massive and powerful body, particularly her upper legs.

Rachel Reclining, 2013, pencil on paper, 15”x11”

I absolutely loved drawing Rachel, and decided to do a painting of her, the first full-length life-sized figure I had felt inspired to do in a long time. I pictured the painting as drawing on her overwhelming physical presence, and reflecting it with warm earth tones, a clay wall background, and a unified, classical pose. This was going to be the first of six paintings, which is why it’s called The Hexagon 1a.

The Hexagon 1a, 2013, oil on canvas, 72”x48”

However, that same ethereal quality overcame the piece. This made me incredibly upset. I wanted it to feel corporeal, fleshly, real. But it felt like an image rather than a thing. Stung, I abandoned the project, and moved the dilemma of the weak surface closer to the front of my mind. No solution presented itself. Or, rather, the solution was always obvious but I could not accept it and focus on it yet.

Around this time, or a little later, the Met had a show of Balthus paintings. Balthus is a really mixed bag; my favorite work in the show was the drawings of his cat Mitsou, allegedly made when he was 11. Given their pictorial maturity, and that his mother shepherded them to publication with her buddy Rainer Maria Rilke, I am inclined to suspect that they are her work, cleverly ascribed to him to boost their star quality. This, for instance, is a “self portrait” crying after Mitsou has run away, the last illustration in the sequence. If Balthus drew it, nothing he made before or after reached not only the degree, but the kind, of direct pathos and unflinching self-awareness displayed here.

Balthus, Mitsou drawing #40, 1919, black ink on paper, 6”x5”

That’s not really my point though. There was a painting in the show, The Victim, which, sadly, I could not photograph, and of which there is no good reproduction online. So here’s a bad one.

Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas, 52”x86”

This is an enormous painting, the woman dauntingly and tantalizingly life-sized. What struck me was the paint toward the top of her belly, just below her rib cage. It is a thick impasto. It has a texture to it, and this texture is delicious. It is simply wonderful, possessing all the physical presence that I was craving in my own work. I became absorbed in this texture, soaking up everything I could about it.

Although I could not photograph it, the texture was by no means unique, so I can show you what I’m talking about. This is from the forehead of a portrait by van Dyck, courtesy of this excellent blog post:

Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest [detail], 1620, oil on oak, 15”x13”

Visible here are pale tendrils edged with darker regions. They look like waves frozen as they crested, and in a sense they are. Solids with this structure tend to be composed of long molecules. As they oxidize, they harden, but their length allows them to retain some of the dynamic-looking structure they had when they were whipped-up fluids.

Oil paint is mainly a mixture of pigment and oil. Multiple websites on the kind of impasto we see in the van Dyck painting report that this particular texture results from lead white paint made with thickened or “bodied” oil - this means the oil has been exposed to light or heat to begin its oxidation process. Its small molecules have already begun to polymerize into larger molecules, the beginnings of the hard oil film of a dry painting. This makes the paint sticky and allows it to retain the sculptural qualities imposed on it by the painter’s brush.

I stumbled out of the Balthus show, ears ringing as if I had been punched - this was what I needed to do! In a sense, I could only learn this from Balthus, and not from the Rembrandts displaying the same techniques only a few rooms away. Why? Because Balthus, when you get right down to it, is a mediocrity. He did one thing brilliantly, and that was to render himself like so much fat; he melted down his neurosis about young girls and made a crystalline observation of his own deformity. Apart from this single shining achievement, as much moral as artistic, he is an indifferent painter. And yet his impasto lends mass and dignity to the figures in which it appears. It makes something monumental out of the otherwise trivial.

Balthus, The Room, 1948

Balthus’s lousy painting clarifies the influence of the impasto, as if he were constructing a single-variable experiment. In Rembrandt, any of a thousand brilliant techniques, touches, and ideas could lead to the bedazzlement of the work. In Balthus, there is very little apart from the impasto. Its thundering impact clearly belongs to itself and nothing else. This is highly instructive.

Therefore I stumbled out of the show, ears ringing. The way forward was challenging, but clear!

Naturally, I went to the gift shop next, because that’s what you do before leaving an art museum. And here the final event in the inspiring chain took place. I came upon a sculpture reproduction from behind.

Jane Poupelet, Woman at her Toilet, 1909, bonded bronze reproduction (my photograph)

This graceful back, so streamlined and feminine, so powerful, was very like Rachel’s back. When I say that Rachel is massive, I don’t mean that she weighs a great deal. I mean that she has the aerodynamic might of art deco aesthetics. Her build seems designed by the same elegant hand that made the locomotives, the skyscrapers, the lights, and the bridges of the 1920’s. The heart of deco was simplified mass-production design, seeking to imbue everyday objects of the industrial age with a formal beauty affordable and appreciable to the common man. Deco was optimized for strength and mass, youthful and electric with hope. This sculpted back suggested all these things to me, and suggesting them, recalled Rachel’s back.

Abruptly, the circuit closed. My long-standing interest in impasto meshed with my interest in finding a suitable way to paint Rachel. From being two things, they became one thing.

I knew what to do next, but I didn’t know how to do it. I took to Facebook to ask around about impasto techniques. This generated a bewildering profusion of suggestions, but I went with Dorian Vallejo’s recommendation of Oleopasto - a modern thickener, analogous to bodied oil. It turned out to be similar, in practice, to fast-drying vaseline.

It took some wrestling to get it to work at all: I describe the process in detail in the current issue of International Artist, and will post the article here once the issue goes off the newsstands.

On top of that, though, I wanted to replicate something else I noticed in the Balthus - the burlap-like heavy weave of the canvas. I think of this as “macho canvas” and have noticed a number of contemporary painters, whom I think of as macho painters, using this kind of canvas. It lends an air of Authority to the work, and I have been a bit scornful of it in the past because I really didn’t think these painters had earned the stentorian tone of Authority. However, I needed all the ammunition I could get to accomplish two goals, one negative and one positive:

The positive goal was to further texture the hashed-up sensual surface I was working toward.

The negative goal was to disrupt my anticipated tendency to go back to smooth, blended, thin brushwork. I wanted to enlist anything I could to keep that from happening.

So I got over my thing about the heavy canvas and found some. I started alone, as I often do when using a radically new process with which I am likely to fail embarrassingly and expensively. I painted a small painting from a reference picture of Rachel’s back I had taken for some other work we were doing together. I used my knuckle-dragging, ball-scratching canvas, and plenty of Oleopasto and broken brushwork.

Rachel’s Back, 2014, oil on linen, 24”x18”

Now, I don’t think this is bad at all (happily, it was not-bad enough to make it into the highly competitive annual show of nudes at MANIFEST, an arts organization in Cincinnati which I admire very much). Here’s what I think works: it has the very quality I was seeking. It has body. Take this section of the right shoulder.

Rachel’s Back [detail], 2014, oil on linen, 24”x18”

The canvas imposes a deep set of bumps and valleys, and on top of it the Oleopasto layer ridges the surface, and the paint proper adds a final layer of textured directionality. The paint physically comes forward from the canvas. It has sensual presence. For all that, it seems like a first effort to me; in tackling the new territory, my other skills were thrown years backward. Here’s the Rachel painting I did immediately before this one. It’s the same size as Rachel’s Back.

Rachel and the Colors, 2014, oil on panel, 24”x18”

Compare the fluidity of anatomy and pose in Rachel and the Colors and Rachel’s Back. In Rachel’s Back, I cleverly concealed my clunky draughtsmanship with a centered and monumental figure - nobody expects dynamism from that sort of figure - see Balthus’s The Room above. The anatomy is simplified and unsubtle, and the crudity of the form seems to me to act against the complexity of emotion I usually see in my work. I sacrificed a great deal to reach that force of surface, that sense of thing instead of image. But I am hoping, with practice, to claw my way back to much of the rest of my vocabulary as well.

This first attempt was not the back painting of Rachel that I meant, that illuminating morning at the Met.

So I practiced. I painted a few more paintings, with mixed results. And finally, having forgotten the original inspiration, I came on my own to the same figure I saw in the gift shop. Noodling around with ideas for paintings of Rachel, I had her sit curled up and I drew this:

Preparatory Sketch for a Painting of Rachel, 2014, pencil on paper, 15”x11”

This was a brutally difficult drawing to do. I could not get the relative heights of her back and her butt right. I kept screwing around with the basic drawing, making myself crazy. And all this time I did not think about the sculpture in the Met at all. A true theft should be unconscious, don’t you think? If it isn’t, how are you supposed to take ownership of the stolen work?

Anyhow, I was going to paint something else, but at the last minute, I decided to paint this instead. I had finally found a stable source for pre-stretched pre-primed burlap canvases: the Odessa line from Jerry’s Artarama (although given that it’s Ukrainian, who knows how long it’ll be around).

I laid out the image on a 40”x30” canvas, making it dauntingly life sized. Then in two very, very fast sessions, I painted the whole fucking thing.

Large Portrait of Rachel’s Back, 2014, oil on linen, 40”x30”

That, amici, is exactly the painting I meant. Once it was done, the charm lifted from my eyes and I realized I had painted the thing I saw when, ears ringing, I stumbled out of the Balthus show.

So - what do you do from there? I suppose you continue building, and that building never stops. I decided to paint a companion to this one, making use of these tools to express something more involved - not better necessarily, but harder to do. Here are the preparatory sketches, which I liked very much. The figure seemed to me to take on a rhythmic sequence of lights and darks, while the face expressed very much of the shining humanity which makes faces, in their endless uniquenesses, fascinating to me after all this time.

Preparatory Sketches for a Painting of Rachel, 2014, both pencil on paper, 15”x11”

I whipped out another 40”x30” swaggering Ukrainian gangster of a canvas, and got to work. Again, it was a two-session painting - six hours working live with Rachel, maybe another four messing around on the canvas without her present. I didn’t know what to call it, but that question answered itself. Rachel is going through one of those cursed corridors we all must weather eventually: one after another, people important to her are dying young. It is a terrible thing to endure, and terrible to observe from outside. She is having the worst hard time. On the day that we did the face, she was coming fresh from finding out about another death. Her conversation and her gaze kept drifting into her grief. Instead of asking her to present a different face or hiding from it in the work, I tried to paint how she was then. So I called it Rachel Grieving.

Rachel Grieving, 2014, oil on linen, 40”x30”

Stepping back from its dramaturgical meaning to its formal properties, I maintained the rhythm of light and dark while focusing the light along a central axis, from the highlights on her legs up to her face. I used the texture of the Oleopasto and the overlying impasto to convey presence and mass, in her powerful legs and mighty ribcage. This is not so fluid and graceful as the portrait of her back, but to me it still has that thingness I am always chasing.

Rachel Grieving [detail], 2014, oil on linen, 40”x30”

The paint is thickly built here, and the drawing is simple and inaccurate. That’s alright. I don’t need the thing to be sophisticated or clean. I will go on suffering pangs of envy when I see artists doing that, but in this particular instance I chose not to attempt it, and I have to live both with what that loses me and what it gains me. The loss is an appearance of clumsiness and lack of facility. But I think that the crude work gains me a certain emotional force I could not personally otherwise access. Her eyes glisten as they slide away from us. Her mouth pushes forward slightly, and her lips are a thin tense line. This to me is a picture of a person suffering, and it is neither more nor less than what it needs to be. I asked for Rachel’s permission to make this so much about her awful passage, and she gave me her permission. She was glad, it turns out, to have a memorial of it. I would perhaps be a better artist if I took without asking, but I do not have the stomach to be better at that price. And I can get most of what I want without becoming a bully or an outlaw.

Next time we get together I’d like to talk with you about Stephen Wright’s very sensible objections to what I am doing with my so-called impasto, and my response to that. But for now, I’d like to talk again about something that has come up throughout the history of this blog, and that is the question of assertion. As you know by now, I believe that art must not come humbly up to you, begging to explain itself. It must assert itself, often recklessly and without explanation, nearly to the point of assault.

Two instances of assertion link themselves for me now in a way that they have not in the past. Both have made a strong impression on me. First, Marsden Hartley’s Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, a large oil painting I saw at the Art Institute in Chicago not long ago:

Marsden Hartley, Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy, 1940, oil on hardboard, 40”x30”

The edge of light on his left arm (picture right) is what struck me. It is such a ridiculous pictorial streak of light, slightly plausible but really just there to make that arm stand out from the dimness. It originates in a purely utilitarian purpose, and it is transparent about this purpose. This very transparency turns it into art. It is a naked assertion of the power of the artist. It demands respect because it does not justify its presence on any aesthetic grounds at all; this, paradoxically, is what makes it an unanswerably self-sufficient aesthetic mark. The utilitarian, filtered through the intentionality of art, attains the enigma of the arbitrary. There is a good chance that the most profound images are arbitrary. Looking backward, one finds that no road leads to them. They simply are.

This same exact edge of light, transformed from the utilitarian to the arbitrary, made a lasting impression on me many years before - in 1999, in fact. It was a particular shot in the The Matrix, a shot which is never far from my mind.

The Wachowskis, The Matrix [still], 1999, motion picture

I direct you here to the edge of blue light on Morpheus’s jawline picture right. This is a movie. That didn’t just happen. The cinematographer, Bill Pope, decided to separate the shadowed side of Morpheus’s face from the equally dark background, so he put up a light to edge his jawline. In itself, this is not so surprising. It’s a classic technique dating to the earliest days of studio-shot Hollywood movies. It’s called a kicker. What makes this particular kicker so special is how understated it is. It’s barely there, and yet it is there enough. It trusts itself to be no more nor less than is absolutely necessary. This little tiny kicker is a poem in the plainly visible but little appreciated language of cinematography. It forms its own island of the aesthetic in the multi-channel maelstrom that is any movie. In its dimension, it makes the same leap from the utilitarian to the arbitrary as Hartley’s rim-lit arm, and for the same reason: strength of assertion.

These two images swam back into my mind, and linked for the first time, as I was painting the large painting of Rachel’s back. Her dark hair was threatening to vanish into the dark background. I didn’t want that, and I thought, “What the hell, I’ll put in a rim light.”

Large Portrait of Rachel’s Back [detail], 2014, oil on linen, 40”x30”

There is no physical justification for that rim light at all, and no particular reason you should notice it. It is nothing much for you. But for me, it was a tiny marker on the path to assertion. I have been many things in relation to art in my evolution as an artist: lover and beloved, disciple, analyst, supplicant, celebrant, receiver of visions. But in relation to art as assertion, I am a predatory closed loop. I am and always have been a hunter hunting myself.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Jerry Replies

Perhaps some of you were wondering what happened with Jerry Saltz after that post. He replied.

Dear Daniel Maidman;

Thank you for sending me your “Dear Jerry; Notes on Life Drawing.”

Thank you for giving my few-lines of Facebook comment so much serious thought. I am touched. And not surprised knowing you the way I do. I respect your seriousness and diligence about art.

You write that I have “an enormous framework of doctrines within which (your) work makes sense.”
I suppose so; I love art. I don’t love your drawings. (Just as you have made clear on numerous occasions that you don't like what I have have written about artists.)

I’m sure your whole diagram about “art drive” and “sex drive” and “prior erotic force” makes sense as a theory to you. I found it tedious. Whatever theory works for you is good by me. (Probably if I had to reduce mine to a formula like that it would make no sense to anyone.)

You use the painter Jenny Morgan in your argument about your work.
I like her work very much; I have since she was a Graduate Student at SVA. I see nothing whatsoever in common between your work and hers. (Less now that you have written about your work.)

You write that me not liking your work is “a failure in” me. I have many failings; my failings “contain multitudes.”

You write and I subjected your work to “categorical dismissal.”
It may have seemed that way to you in the comment I quickly wrote on your fb. But I love a lot of highly-skilled academic figuration and “life Drawing.” Contemporary and otherwise. Of course.

I’m just not that into your work.
If you deem that as a failure on my part, fine by me. Your work leaves me cold and strikes me as typical life-drawing with nothing else to recommend it. If that’s my fault, fine.

You write that I should “transcend” my taste.
Art makes me do that every day.
Just not your art. (And I have given it years; this isn’t a “kneejerk” “categorical” dismissal.” I’d like to think that I’m at least more giving than that.)

You write that I should “drive my taste beyond my inclinations.”
Art makes me do that every day. Every day. You can’t believe the sort of art that I like that horrifies me that I like. (How do you think that I felt when I thought about George Bush’s self-portrait in the shower or bathtub “I’d buy those at a yard sale”?)

You write that your “way of making art is not a threat” to me.
Of course it isn’t. Ways of making art don’t threaten.

You write that you are not my “enemy.”
I am not yours, either.

You write that you want to teach me to draw the way you draw. (You mention that it is great as a heterosexual man to be around these naked women.)
That is a very very generous, sweet offer, Daniel. I am genuinely touched. Really.
Alas, you are right in saying, however, that I would respond by saying that I have no time. I don’t. Weekly critics only wish they had that kind of time.

Finally, Daniel, if I did have time to take you up on this extraordinary offer (especially considering the level of skill which I still think that you are mastering and have mastered), I would not want to learn to draw the way that you draw. I would not want to learn the ways that you translate the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one; the ways that you consider space and perspective and possess and surface or color or line. And more.

Again, I love a lot of academic figuration and so-called “life-drawing.” Just not yours, is all. (And I’ve given it a lot of time.)

Thank you again for taking the time and thought to write your statement. I saw that a large community of like-minded artists felt rallied to your call. I love that. I love people who use their energy that way rather than simply criticizing how others use their energies.

Now we both really have to get back to our real work. Thank you so much again.

Jerry Saltz

Dear Jerry: Notes on Life Drawing

This post appeared at Huffington on June 5, where it is now my most popular post yet, at 2,600+ "like"s. This startled me, since it is a 4,500-word monstrosity of a piece. I meant to repost it here, and I'm finally getting around to it.


The Gift-Challenge

“Life drawing” is an accepted term for making drawings from direct observation of (often nude) models. In any major American city, you can find uninstructed, open-to-the-public life drawing workshops without too much effort. You show up with your pencil and your sketchbook, you pay your fifteen dollars, and you draw for three hours.

I am self-taught as a figurative painter, and the major means of my self-teaching has been such life drawing workshops, first in Los Angeles and then in New York. I have been attending them, on average, twice a week, since 1998. Going by the boxes I keep them in, the drawings I have produced in that time would be around 75 inches tall if stacked atop one another - taller than I am.

 Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis VI, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

As some of you know, I scan and post most of my life drawings to Facebook. In my current folder, “Selected Drawings: 2014,” I received the following comment a few days ago:

Facebook comment, May 31, 2014

Jerry Saltz is the senior art critic at New York Magazine. We know one another a bit. On the face of it, his comment is pretty harsh and dismissive. That’s not the whole picture though. Saltz is compulsively extroverted over social media, but his seeming omnipresence doesn’t mean he has infinite time. More people want Saltz to pay attention to more art than any one person can look at. So it’s very flattering when he turns up to admit in public that he’s been thinking about your work. By his standards, this is a fairly long comment. All of that factors into its meaning.

What I read in it is that Jerry has been looking at my drawings over time, and mulling them over. He has an enormous framework of doctrines within which my work makes no sense, and yet he finds he either can’t, or won’t, ignore what I’m doing. In one sense, he is asking me to defend my work. But in another sense he is asking me to make my work available to him too. I would never say no to either request. The first makes us both stronger, and the second makes us both richer.

As it happens, I use Jerry as a handy stand-in for a set of concepts about art largely opposed to my own. As he likes me, so I like him. I don’t need to agree with somebody to like them and consider what they have to say. He’s pretty sharp, so when I’m figuring out in my mind how to describe what I do, I sometimes find it helpful to phrase it in terms of a response to Jerry’s doubts. I had been planning this essay anyway. It’s gratifying, though, to be replying to the actual Saltz, and not a fantasy stand-in.

I’m going to answer Jerry’s questions by backing way up and taking a running leap at the subject.

 Daniel Maidman, Magic Reclining, Foreshortened, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2013

Why We Life Draw: The Prior Erotic Force

The day after a bachelor party some years ago, I snarled to a buddy of mine, “That’s the last time I go to a strip club.” He said, “What’s your problem with strip clubs?” I said, “I think they’re tawdry and depressing, and overall, they’re just not my favorite venue for hanging out with naked women.” Pause. I looked over. A little vein was throbbing in his forehead. I said, “What?” He said, “Most of us don’t have a variety of venues where we hang out with naked women we’re not dating.” [Julia, this was, of course, Jonathan]

This is a funny instance of the question one gets asked repeatedly about life drawing: aren’t you really just using this as an excuse to hang out with naked women?

I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and here’s what I think. I think that in a sense, yes, we are. Non-life-drawers often assume that life drawing involves a sideways translation of one impulse into another impulse:

But this assumption is flawed. I read the sex drive as a powerful force, but a specific one. I think it is one channel into which a much more profound and general force can be diverted, which I label the prior erotic force: erotic, because it is the force of the life-drive itself, and prior, because it comes before all other forces. The sex process and the art process bear certain structural similarities, not because one is a simulacrum of the other, but because both have a common origin.

A naked woman in the context of the art drive - and, if the artist is a straight male, and serious, a naked man - becomes the subject of an erotic craving, but that craving is not sexual. It is artistic. (1) It has to do not with physical reward, but with the enlightenment that we crave in knowledge of one another as human beings with human forms. The persistence of the figure in art from the first known art objects, down through the present, answers neither to sex nor to chance, but to spiritual necessity. We need to know one another, by means of sight. This will not become obsolete or irrelevant until the brain leaves behind its facial and body recognition circuitry (2), and the soul its desire for companionship and possession.

Daniel Maidman, Leah Seated, Facing Away, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014

Excellence in Seeing: Life Drawing as Technê

In modern English, we would tend to draw a distinction between talent and skill. To illustrate the linked concepts, let’s consider a clear instance of excellence in both, like superstar athlete Michael Jordan. It is Air Jordan’s talent that gives him the potential to become one of the greatest ninjas of his or any age. But it is only through years of training in ninjutsu, such as by climbing mountains, collecting rare flowers, drinking hallucinogenic tea, and leaping from tree stump to tree stump while fighting multiple warriors with a stick, that he actualizes his talent by means of an acquired set of skills.

This model of talent, which is inborn, and skill, which comes from training and experience, is useful in many contexts, but I think it doesn’t quite serve our purposes here. Since we’re talking about philosophy things, it seems sensible to turn to the Greeks for terminology. I’d like to re-introduce a Greek concept similar to skill, but not quite the same - technê. (3)

The Greek technê varies in meaning over time, but it seems to keep two essential components: a. it involves skilled action, and b. the action is performed in the context of a mindfulness in regard to the purpose of the action, which resides outside the action itself. Technê is the workingman’s poiesis.

Aristotle distinguishes technê from virtue (aretê) in that the merit of aretê does not lie in some exterior object. Virtuous people display aretê by choice and character, and its end lies in itself and in their virtue of character. The account of life drawing above, as an activity rewarding in itself because of its relation to the prior erotic force, is an account of life drawing as aretê. Many people with no further ambitions as artists partake of life drawing for this reason alone. It makes their lives better. It makes them happy.

But life drawing for the professional artist also has the character of a technê. Its end lies not only in itself, but in that which is produced. There are two things produced, only one of which is obvious: the drawing. Of course these artists want to make beautiful drawings from their time in life drawing. We can argue beauty another time - for now, let’s say that each artist approaches the technê of life drawing with some exterior goal in mind, defined as beautiful/true/accurate/what-have-you (4), by the artist, and the artist strives toward this kind of beauty. The senses of beauty are as varied as the artists who approach the work. And the sense of beauty evolves over time in each artist as he or she discovers themselves through the work.

The less obvious end produced by life drawing as a technê is “excellence in seeing.” A moving quotation from Ruskin has been wending its way through the representational art community lately. He describes excellence in seeing very well.

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane. (5)

Note how eroticized his description of nature is - channeling the prior erotic force, as he does, not into figure drawing, but nature drawing - and also his implication that excellence of seeing helps to remedy an overly logocentric outlook: the sketcher has experienced the place, but his friend knows only its name.

The technê of life drawing, then, consists in becoming excellent with regard to the ability to make a fine drawing, and the ability to see finely. These are not prerequisites for all kinds of art, but they are for certain kinds of art. New York artist Jenny Morgan has this to say about life drawing: “I have a strong background in life drawing and painting. I have wavered in my practice the last few years, but I think of my life drawing experience every time I draw out my figures on canvas.” Consider a couple of her life drawings, unpublished before the piece in Huffington:

 Jenny Morgan, untitled life drawings, pencil on paper, 2006

She follows certain classic strategies here for comprehension of the figure. On the left, you can see how she started with light lines down the structural centers of the torso, arms, and legs. Additionally, she marked the frontward tilt of the top plane of the pelvis. With these spatial markers laid in, she went on to loosely outline the body around them, confident that she would have the proportions and positions about right while depicting the body as a single cohesive unit.

She pursues the same strategy in the figure on the right. She starts with the angle of the spine, the key curves of the ribcage in perspective around it, and the core lines of the legs. She uses here another nearly-universal life drawing strategy: for the mass of the pelvis and butt, she sketches out an ovoid, lightly defining a general mass before elaborating it with the darker outlines of the hips.

She summarizes the work thus: “I never get super detailed or in depth with my sessions - I've always enjoyed the freedom of fast, loose studies.” It is this practice of life drawing which gave her the technê required to express her particular form of towering creativity, as she does here:

Jenny Morgan, You to Me, oil on canvas, 92” x 78”, 2013

Her vision as an artist involves a conflict between image and its erasure. She localizes the conflict in the figure, but her sense of erasure is not universal across the image, as in the case of Richter. Rather, it has a psychosexual topography: the face tends to fade, while hair and nipples and hands retain detail. This complex effect is impossible, in the form unique to Morgan, without the viewer unquestioningly “buying” her figures. Her seemingly effortless, fluid figuration results from the technê she has developed in life drawing and other art-auxiliary practices.

To restate from this specific instance, to the general principle: Practice in life drawing provides the necessary technê for the full-flowered poiesis of art-making itself. If poiesis is the making of a new thing in the world, a microscopic recapitulation of the creation of the universe, then life drawing and related species of practice provide the artist-demiurge with the mighty powers required by the task.

What About the Viewer?

OK, great. But why should anyone actually look at a life drawing?

Let’s consider again the example of Michael Jordan. Say he’s in his dojo in the morning, practicing his dakentaijutsu with a sparring partner, or even just running the Eight Gates on a mannequin. His Airness must practice daily in order to keep sharp. Because of the supreme development of his bushido, his form takes on a grace of its own, quite apart from any utility it might have in fighting the criminal element. Thus a viewer could well take joy simply in the spectacle of the focused practice of this master.

We turn our gaze from Jordan to his spectator. What capacity in the spectator provides him or her with the ability to take joy in the spectacle of Jordan’s practice? There must be two possibilities at least. Either the spectator can take joy in beautiful things in and of themselves, for no reason further than excellence of form relative to the aesthetics of the medium, be it a well-made table, a beautifully-played bit of music, or a display of gymnastic prowess - or the spectator takes joy in the excellence of the constituent parts of more elevated things: that is, while Jordan is merely practicing, the excellence of his practice serves as a constituent part of his more elevated goal (striking fear into the hearts of the criminal element).

Very much of a similar thing applies to the viewer of a life drawing - and I know this, because I have spoken with my collectors about it. In some cases, they merely like beautiful things, and what strikes me as beautiful in my pursuit of life drawing strikes them as beautiful in their appreciation of it. In other cases, they value the life drawings as building-blocks from which more fully-fledged art is constructed. These people appreciate the fruit of technê inasmuch as it is a portent and kernel of the fruit of poiesis.

And, because little in life is really so categorically clean, once in a while a life drawing transcends its nature and takes on the qualities of art per se. And that is a fine thing too.


Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Blue Leah #2, pencil on paper, 15”x22”, 2011
To Answer Your Questions, Jerry

Running leap: done!

Having built up a context for this conversation, I can now address your note properly:

>Your skill is extraordinary.

Thank you!

>I ask this 100% sincerely.

>Is this 'art' though?

It is not art, and not not-art. It is the product of technê. Without it, much that you see as art could not exist; and yet it is also worthwhile in itself.

>Isn't it just so-called academic figuration?

This is really the crux, isn’t it? That “just” tips your hand. If I say “yes,” then you dismiss it, because you dismiss academic figuration categorically - you’ve set it up as existing in opposition to ‘art.’ But if I say “no,” then I have to explain why not, and implicitly sanction the categorical dismissal. I’m not in the market for either of these options.

This happens not to be academic figuration, because I see academic figuration as pursuing a convergent goal: that is, the perfected course of academic study would lead all students, presented with the same visual field and the same assignment of a fully-rendered drawing, to make approximately the same representation. This would demonstrate successful acquisition of a certain skill-set. And I think that this extraordinarily challenging skill-set is worth acquiring. It is a model of total skill as yielding total freedom. This Earth-shaking skill-set is so profound, in fact, that its apotheosis is not yet born. Bouguereau was the Isaiah of academic art, one might say, or its John the Baptist. We are still waiting on its Christ.

But it is not for me, and that’s not what I’m doing.

I’m part of a completely chaotic and un-self-aware faction of divergent life-drawers; our work tends to become more distinct over time. But these distinctnesses, like all distinctnesses within a genus, are available only in the context of some knowledge of the genus. One cannot distinguish Handel from Mozart on day one, nor the Ramones from the Sex Pistols.

>I do not question your ability, desire, etc.
>I really like you too.

Let me point out here that one of the great rewards of my life as an artist in New York has been the opportunity to get to know you a bit, and to expand the boundaries of my tolerance by challenging it with your opinions. I do not always, or even often, agree with you, but you have done so much to expand the art available to me, and I am profoundly grateful for that.

>But when I look at this something inside of me dies.

However: this response is not legitimate. It is a failure in you, and it should raise all of your red flags. There is no room in a serious appreciation of art for categorical dismissal, because all categories simply represent sets of aesthetic rules and references. That is, all categories are languages. The language is not the text. A worthwhile text may be written in any language. It is acceptable for a tourist or a layman to ignore a text because they dislike the sound of a language - but it is not acceptable for a serious thinker -

>Again, I do not say this with any meanness or with intent to insult.

- sure, sure - I’m thick-skinned too; no worries -

>This is only about MY tatse, my eye.

>Many will just say my tatse is in my ass & I have no idea about art.

>They could be right.

- and my feeling is that you are, or try to be, a serious thinker about art. You have a responsibility to transcend your taste, to drive your taste beyond your inclinations. A tourist or a layman does not have such a responsibility, but you went out seeking authority as a critic, and you earned it. That authority comes with responsibilities, and one of them is to figure out what it is about the things you don’t, by inclination, like.

Now, that said, I think that when you turned up at my drawing folder out of the blue, and left your comment, you were actually working on this very project. I believe that the boundaries of your taste are no longer sufficient for your comfort, and that you are trying to grow, just as I am trying to grow. Contrast two statements of yours. Here’s you in 2005
“…to me ‘de-skilled’ means unlearning other people’s ideas of what skill is and inventing your own. All great artists (schooled or not) are essentially self-taught and are ‘de-skilling’ like crazy. I don’t look for skill in art; I look for originality, surprise, obsession, energy and something visionary. Skill only means technical proficiency. Real skill has to do with being flexible and creative. … I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or re-imagine it: an engineer, say, who builds rockets from rocks.” (6)

And here’s you at the end of last year:

“Call me conservative, but it's also time for grad programs to stress courses in craft and various skills — from blacksmithing to animal tracking, if these are things students need to learn for the visions they want to pursue.” (7)

This reads to me as an evolution in thinking. The evolution is toward an acceptance that it is not necessary every single time to re-invent the wheel or to go back to the stone age and make a rocket from rocks - an acceptance that for many kinds of art, technê is the scaffold on which originality and vision are built.

Consider, though, a second thing: even in December of 2013, you cannot quite bring yourself to write down what crafts and skills you really mean. You choose awkward and unlikely skills, feigning random selection off the top of your head. But there are already schools for blacksmithing and animal tracking, and they’re not offering MFA’s in fine art. The skills you cannot bear to name are drawing, painting, and sculpture.

Now it is June of 2014, and we have not traded ideas in a while, but I come to find you are looking at my drawings, and considering them, and trying to make heads or tails of what I’m doing and why it makes you feel as it does. This strikes me as another step in your evolution. I think, just as I have moved toward seeing art your way since we first met, you have been moving toward seeing it my way as well.

Your way is not a threat to my way. There is room enough in me for both. My way is not a threat to your way either. There is room in you, too, for rockets made from rocks, and rockets made from steel; I am not your enemy.

Daniel Maidman, Drawing of Kuan #5, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2014


I have tried to accept your gift here, and meet your challenge: to explain myself, and in explaining, make my ethos more available to you as well. I have no idea how far I’ve gotten but, like you, I am 100% sincere.

Now let me return the favor, and offer you a gift-challenge in return. Come sit with me once a week, for five weeks, for three hours at a time. We will hire a model, and life draw for two hours, with an hour mixed in for talking it over. I will teach you. I won’t teach you a lot, because I’m no kind of a teacher. But I can articulate one or two things, and help you try out doing what I do. I will, of course, be very interested to learn from you in the course of this as well. And we will both learn from our models.

A few conditions go along with this offer:

1. You’ve got to complete all five weeks.

2. You have to write a bit about your experience.

3. You have to show the drawings you make.

Let me address your objections as best I can anticipate them:

You’re chained to your desk - I know. But this is important, Jerry. Seeing art, knowing art, and loving art are terribly important to you. This is an opportunity you haven’t had in a long time, not only to expand the range of your taste, but the fineness of your eye. The hand profoundly trains the eye, and the hand goes with technê. Working as I work will refresh and deepen your eye. With your hand still stinging from its exercise, you will bring new insight to all the art you look at. You will see new subtleties of form, new potentialities. Everything will be renewed. That is worth the price in time. This is an adventure.

Your writing schedule is full. Fine - cram it in around the corners somewhere. This is a fun idea. Jerry Saltz, his sketchbook, his figurative painter semblable/frère, some naked people, and a world of concepts to grapple with. It’s a good story. It’s your kind of stunt. Write rough sketches each week: notes on what you see and do, and feel and learn. Embrace that your outlook is changing. Repudiate nothing but accept everything.

You are a critic and you do not show your art. Let me add to this - your drawings will most likely be terrible, from a technical perspective. You will be tempted to label the deformities of their technique as examples of personal creativity and expression. But just this once, you should not do that. You should say, proudly, “These drawings are terrible! I tried to do a particular thing with them, and I failed!” This is the magnificence of aretê in life drawing, of self-rewarding virtue. You are not here to do a good job - you are only here to try, and to learn from your trying. What glory is this? It is an opportunity to learn as a child learns, without preconception, without expectation, without fear.

- you do not show your art. Make yourself radically vulnerable. Nobody needs you to be good at it in any sense. The validity of your criticism does not rest on your prowess as an artist or a technician. I cannot stress enough how liberating it is to welcome humiliation. It will resound through the rest of your life. It will shake loose your sense of how things must be. Opportunity will flower everywhere.

Besides, you can totally auction off the work and give the money to an art scholarship.

Please let me give this back to you. You have walked over to me. I am walking back over to you. Let’s walk together a little ways.

All best wishes,

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketches for Meiosis III and IV, pencil on paper, each approx. 15”x11”, 2013


(1) For an account of my subjective experience of this phenomenon, see here. 

(2) For an introduction to the neurological basis of the phenomena described, see Dr. Margaret Livingstone’s faculty page here and buy her amazing book here.

(3) I rely in the material that follows on the excellent discussion of epistêmê and technê here.

(4) What I really mean is my idiolectic term ‘kalos,’ discussed here.

(5) From “The Elements of Drawing, in Three Letters to Beginners by John Ruskin” as quoted here.



Monday, April 21, 2014

Two Hands

If there is one thing I fear as an artist, it is facility. I fear becoming good at it. I fear that all of my work at improving my skills will result, not in an enhanced ability to observe and to express - that is, in greater wakefulness - but in the other outcome: the ability to pass-work-off, to suffer the senses and mind to deaden and slumber while the work chugs on, acceptably, with facility.

The problem of facility came to mind the other evening at Spring St., drawing Rachel’s hand. During a twenty-minute pose, she did a marvelous thing with her hand, and I decided to draw it, and I found myself thinking, “Lord, let me not be good at this.” And, happy outcome - I was not good at it. My drawing was aligned with one of the two major alternatives to facility, to the merely good at it, which have long occupied settled places in my intellectual pantheon. These alternatives sprang into clarity for me when I read (very little bits of) Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which he expresses something we all sense intuitively.

Introducing Da Vinci, Vasari writes:

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art. 

And indeed, this is the very thing we sense about Da Vinci - there is a nearly uncanny perfection to his drawing. Most of the time, the uncanniness is muted because the perfection is married to an intense and lyrical compassion.

this is, incidentally, my favorite drawing in human history

And yet, the mask of compassion sometimes slips, and we remember that we are seeing a record of the gaze of an angel; and that angels have their own agendas, not entirely congruent with those of men.

Then the uncanniness returns. We see that he adopts a merciful gaze because he wishes by nature to be merciful, but that mercy is not always available under the strictures of his alien agenda. We see that should the mercy in which he cloaks and dims himself depart, we would be exposed to the awful, all-piercing light in which he sees everything: a glittering, inhuman brilliance, a light so hard that it not only illuminates but destroys. It is the light of the spirit. Matter cannot survive it.

This is what Vasari’s introduction clarified for me, and I carry in one hand this model of desirable drawing - not that one should draw well, but that one should draw perfectly. One’s hand should trace out curves that are like the song of the heavenly host. The drawing should be possessed of a shattering beauty, a categorical rightness which exists on the far side of a chasm. There is no from-here-to-there; there is only error, and Truth. This Da Vincian drawing I am always seeking exists in the realm of the Truth.

So that was the sort of drawing I managed to pull off in response to Rachel’s marvelous action with her hand.

Daniel Maidman, Rachel’s Left Hand, April 14, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

Am I saying I drew that as well as Da Vinci would have? No. You will never, ever catch me saying I drew anything as well as Da Vinci. What I am saying is that I made the categorical leap which is the prerequisite of drawing as well as Da Vinci. I crossed the chasm, I drew better than I can draw. I cannot draw a hand this well. I shook off my limited self, and the shapes that existed in Rachel’s hand drew themselves through my own hand, and that was how that drawing came to be. Many artists report a sense of possession. I think many different demons may possess an artist. Da Vinci was possessed by the demon of right line. I have sought this demon myself, and sometimes it visits with me. For me, there is an unearthly perfection in this drawing of Rachel’s hand which makes me weep in gratitude for having had the opportunity to have it pass through me.

That is the first of the two hands I wanted to discuss with you today.

Now we turn to another passage in Vasari, without which the passage about Da Vinci can be only imperfectly understood. Vasari introduces Michelangelo thus:

Meanwhile, the benign ruler of heaven graciously … decided to send into the world an artist who would be skilled in each and every craft… Moreover, he determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behavior and in every endeavor, and he would be acclaimed as divine. … his mind and hands were destined to fashion sublime and magnificent works of art.

This description superficially resembles the encomium to Da Vinci. But a review unfolds a fundamentally different evaluation. While Vasari describes Michelangelo as heaven-sent, he describes Da Vinci as heaven itself. Da Vinci’s work “comes from God” while Michelangelo’s is fashioned by “his mind and hands.” Michelangelo represents the “perfect exemplar” of humanity, “acclaimed” as divine - while Da Vinci “transcends nature,” and is in fact divine. This distinction has consequences. Da Vinci “leaves other men far behind,” but Michelangelo inspires men to “admire and follow.” Why? Because Da Vinci is a minor divinity. His presence suppresses and scorches. Men look at his work and despair in their own. But Michelangelo is human: clearly, achingly, sweatingly human. His work is obviously human. It is the greatest work of a man, not the least work of a god. Thus it inspires those who see it: it tells them that they too could do so well.

This passage clarified something I understood intuitively about Michelangelo. Look at his work.

This drawing has always looked inspiringly and endearingly imperfect to me. The concept of light fails, as it does in most of Michelangelo’s work - he was interested in form itself, and indifferent to light. And yet the representation of the back muscles is overdone - he fails at form too. The outline shudders forward, searching for the next structure. There is altogether too much of everything. It is a human drawing, riven everywhere with ignorance, doubt, and the possibility of failure.

But it is great.

The next night, I went back to Spring St. and drew Boris, a very charming Russian model with a big head and a small muscular body. During a forty-minute pose, he too did something marvelous with his hand. I recognized it instantly as a hand pose I cannot draw. I know what I can draw and can’t draw. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t draw the drawing I might want to draw, as with Rachel - the problem was that I couldn’t draw the observation I might want to draw. So I went ahead and tried.

Daniel Maidman, Boris’s Left Hand, April 15, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

I fought for every inch of this drawing. Each bone of the fingers was a struggle, the structure and foreshortening of the body of the hand was a struggle. How to shape his arm was a bitch. The lighting on the fourth and fifth fingers is not different enough from that on the second and third to reflect the difference in their angles. The width of the thumb is subtly incorrect in a way I could never quite pin down. Some drawings convince because they are right; this one convinces because nothing in it is wrong enough to make it fall over.

And yet, when I finished it I recognized that I had one of my better drawings in front of me. This drawing is along the Michelangelo axis of quality. Again, you will never, ever, evereverever catch me saying I can step to Michelangelo. But you will catch me saying that what makes this drawing interesting or worthwhile is one of the things that grabs you about much of his work, that you can tell it didn’t come easy. The sweat is fossilized right into it, alongside everything that worked. The sweat undermines the things that work, or makes them tense. You can see how close the entire thing is to failure. It grunts and heaves and earns its successes. They aren’t handed out by seraphim.

When I bring up this kind of analysis in conversation with reasonably well-educated artists, they feel obliged to generate examples of each principle which are more appropriate. So let me stipulate, in constructing this system, that better examples than Da Vinci and Michelangelo for the two opposed poles could be found. For me, though, it will always be Da Vinci and Michelangelo, because I first sensed these principles in them, and first had these principles eloquently drawn out by Vasari using them as the instances.

Now, where did we start? We started with facility, with being merely good at drawing. It is something I despise and fear. I hope the two alternative means of making good drawings I’ve been discussing help to illustrate the sense in which one can seek to draw well, and yet revile facility. I want to draw with the calm and unfailing perfection of an angel, or with the straining fallibility of the best of mortals. Both kinds of creature are awake. It is the wakefulness that is important, and the mindless automatism that is the enemy.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Breaking the Fast

For personal reasons, which if you know them I’d appreciate your not mentioning, I have been prevented from going to life drawing, or in fact from drawing and painting at all, for the past five weeks.

Throughout this time I have been curating artwork for an issue of Poets/Artists magazine which will come out in June, and for the content of which I am, by generous invitation, entirely responsible. To this end, I have gone through thousands of images of work by hundreds of artists. Many of them do things I don’t do; others do things I can’t; and still others do things that I also do, but I don’t do them as well.

This industrial-scale procedure has given me occasion to reflect on just what exactly I’m up to. This was an interesting and involved process, but the upshot of it was that my well-known ego of steel ensured that my self-esteem as an artist remained at its ordinary high level.

However, I could not help succumbing to a more localized neurosis: the creeping fear that because I wasn’t making art, I couldn’t make art. What if I were finished? What if I were, from here on out, nothing but a secondary participant in art - not a maker, but a writer-about and a compiler-of? What if my hiatus had frozen my hand, withered my vision, and turned me into a hanger-on, a parasite? Art writing is a primary occupation for some people, a core inspiration, but for me it has always been peripheral. So this fear was a grave fear.

Then finally, this past Monday, I managed to break the fast: I got back to Spring Street to draw. Apart from the fear of paralysis, I had a fear of ordinary rustiness. At the level of technical demand I place on myself, drawing is something like playing an instrument or athletic performance. It requires constant attendance, or it begins to decay. My perpetual life-drawing is much like practicing scales in this sense, or whatever ice skaters do to stay good at ice skating.

Returning to my seat, setting out my paper, picking up my pencils, and then looking up and seeing the model was, it turned out, like being exposed to overwhelming symphonic sound. It was like morning; it brought tears to my eyes. I was carried away on a tide of the rightness of it. The model was Sarah, who is a wonderful, beautiful model. She is small and curvy and a nearly glistening white. She has the kind of 0.85 x human surface area aerodynamic classicism one sees in Prud’hon’s models. She enjoys modeling and is therefore energetic of pose, while being gifted with a vast creativity regarding interesting possible poses. Here is an older drawing of her - a 20-minute pose, and not so great a drawing, because the pose was so delightful I decided to draw as much of it as I could, just to remember it - it is in my very small stack of “never sell this” drawings:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, 20 Minute Pose, January 6, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

This kind of sense of overall composition of the body is what makes some models very popular.

Drawing Sarah again on Monday, the kalotropic side of my mind took over. It is a strong side. I am intensely kalotropic. Kalotropism is a word I made up many years ago - “turning toward kalos” or “kalos follower.” Kalos is the Greek word for beauty, but it is not exactly like our contemporary conception of beauty. We think of beauty now as something like candy: it comes to us and caters to our desire for sweetness. It is just another form of indulgence, starting in the world and ending in our appetites. The kalos, contrariwise, summons you to it: it attracts, and requires discipline, and awakens the virtues. To see it, one must achieve clear sight - and clear sight leads to lucid thought - and lucid thought leads to right action. The kalos yields pleasure as much as does the beautiful, but pleasure is not its utter end as it is for the beautiful. It is an end, but it is also a tool of education. One does not receive the pleasure of the kalos without putting in the effort which the kalos seeks to inspire.

Sarah is, in herself, beautiful; but, as happens for all true models, the elevation and lighting of the model stand, and the tone of the room convened to draw, transform her beauty and replace it with kalos. Sitting and drawing her, I was overwhelmed, as I said. I was shocked into one of the states most becoming and natural to humans, the state of praise. To seek to draw well is to praise, it is to say, “The world is marvelous, and I acknowledge its marvels. I rise to meet creation, and to praise and serve so well as I can. This is why I pursue excellence: from a sense of justice. I wish to do right by the miracles that abound. I have a role to play - to join the chorus of praise - and in order to do good, I must become great.”

This state of mind carries implications for art criticism. The soul is larger than the world; it has many seasons. I have exerted myself constantly to include as many of them as I can in my criticism. I failed before, but I have not failed again. I made myself learn to see the many kinds of work that come from the many seasons of the soul. And I will say this - any criticism that does not make room for the kalos, for the rightness of beauty that is without flaw or deformation, any criticism that says the age of the kalos ended with the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace, and the adoring eye that opened with Vermeer closed for good, and good riddance, with Sargent - any such criticism, is a crippled and deficient criticism. It may have much to offer, but it is incomplete, and must not be trusted for a model of all that can and ought to be.

Thus did I draw, and this was the first thing that I drew - a one-minute pose, Sarah’s back:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah (detail: one-minute pose), March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

I was transported. I was not rusty, really, at all. I was a little different, but it is good to be a little different. One day I may be a lot different. For now, I was after a long wandering returned to myself. I had missed being me. I was suffused with so thoroughgoing a sense of being on the right track that a thing ran through my mind, a kind of unwilled mantra which always drifts across my mind when I’ve got it right -

Deceive me who may, no one will ever be able to bring it about that I am not, so long as I remain conscious that I am; nor cause it one day to be true that I have never been, for it is true now that I am.

This is, of course, Rene Descartes. It is from the third meditation - he is in the midst of deriving what he can from what he is certain that he knows, a strange and wonderful project. Here is the remainder of that first sheet of drawings, 10 one-minute poses and 10 two-minute poses:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Ones and Twos, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

Well, things went really well from there. I don’t know how you draw, but how I draw is, when somebody does something I like enough, I try to learn how to do it too, so that I can use it if the need arises. How do I know I like it enough? Because I can’t resist trying to learn how to do it too. This has happened with regard to three properties of life drawing over the past few years:

1. From Odd Nerdrum and his students, the recurrent interest in light fall-off outside of a narrowly spotted area (look, I have problems with the guy, but I don’t dismiss anything that I can learn from). This is a fascinating manifestation of the phenomenon of light and dark, transferred from Rembrandt’s depiction of spotlit regions of architectural spaces to the more obsessive spotlighting of parts of individual bodies - but once you start looking for it in real life, you see it everywhere, especially under small-diameter artificial lights, like for instance the scoops that light the model at Spring.

2. From Sabin Howard, a renewed interest in the intellectual construction of the body - the body that emerges out of reason and knowledge, so intensely conceived as to supersede the observed body. This is an ideology I cannot subscribe to entirely, and yet its influence has zoomed me back a bit from the purely empirical approach I had been taking, and invited me to think about the total structure I am observing in the course of attempting to depict it.

3. From so many people - Dorian Vallejo, Elana Hagler, Christopher Pugliese, John Currin - a different renewed interest, in the line, that wonderful, living, vibrant line, which can on its own define a form and which spreads joy wherever it wends. I’ve fallen back in love with the line.

So, like a magpie, I have adapted elements of these, and all of them come into play in my sheet of tens and twenties from the workshop:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Two Tens and a Twenty, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

From there, a bit of really good fortune - Sarah happened to take a pose functionally almost identical with one of my favorite Balthus’s at the recent show at the Met. Here’s the Balthus:

Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas

The reasons this made such an impression on me cannot be clear in this image of the painting, but it opened a broad new avenue for my work which I am excited to explore in the year or two ahead. I will explain about all that as it proceeds. But in the meantime, it was very pleasing to run across so similar a pose, because it refreshed my memory of the Balthus and was, in itself, good to draw:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah Reclining, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

And, finally, the other nice thing about this pose was that generally speaking, if a model does a reclining pose for the first of the two final forty-minute poses, they will, through some sense of “doing a good job,” do a sitting or standing pose for the other. As often as not, I will then get a good angle from which to draw a face.

Daniel Maidman, Portrait of Sarah, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

For all the flaws of my work here, I think you can see from it that one would really want to do a drawing of Sarah’s face.

I was so excited to tell you right away about this entire chain of ideas and drawings. But at the end of the evening, in the bathroom, I checked Facebook on my phone, and found out that while I was drawing, and thinking all these happy thoughts, Melissa Carroll died.

I could not collect myself enough to leave the bathroom for a while, and I spent the next day writing the previous post and getting it up on Huffington. I often do not trust my own writing. It has become too easy for me to write vividly and persuasively. Usually this facility is a joy, but sometimes it makes me suspect I am full of shit. It would be so easy to lie to you! But I did not want any trace of the possible lie - even the unthinking, unnoticed lie - to infect what I had to say about Melissa, so I made the writing very hard on myself.

That delayed this post.