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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

As Light Is Said To Do

A light has gone away. The painter Melissa Carroll died March 31, 2014. She had Ewing's sarcoma, a vicious cancer that jumped to new parts of her body even as her doctors got its existing sites under control. Melissa was 31.

I wrote about her show "Recurrence" at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2 last year, and I'd like to share some more thoughts about her work and life with you today. I did not know her well. I only met her five times. This is a photograph of the first -- a show we were both in at Gitana Rosa Gallery, in Brooklyn, in 2010. She stands in profile foreground left. Her painting is on the back wall, and mine is on the left. The cancer was already in her foot, I think, but nobody knew.

I followed her work from then on, and when she got sick, I followed that too. We corresponded a bit. I was blown away by "Recurrence," her body of work depicting herself and her friends at various stages in their struggle with cancer. I wrote at the time, and I'll repeat now, that she made the kind of breakthrough in "Recurrence" that artists ordinarily take another 10 or 15 years of practice, experiments, and creative leaps to achieve: she went from flexing her talent and following the work of others, to creating her own unique and mature art. She didn't have any time to waste. The second time I met her was at the opening of the show, in 2013.

You can see me sweating; the room was packed and horribly hot. There were many beautiful people I didn't know, and many who knew Melissa and had more claim on her attention than I did. Salman Rushdie was there; the remarkable Ricardo Kugelmas, her friend and guardian angel in the art world, was there. I met her mother, Cecelia, who was as simultaneously proud and frightened as you would imagine. I didn't know what to say to Melissa, and she didn't know what to say to me. I think we were mutually happy to see one another. I didn't appreciate how tremendous a special effect her attendance at that opening was. They let her out of chemo for the week, and she was wired to half a dozen hidden devices and drips the entire evening, enabling her to stand, and talk, and withstand the pain.

The third time I met her I ran into her on the street in Williamsburg. She was back from her hospital universe, walking around and enjoying a pleasant Brooklyn afternoon. The fourth time I met her was at a craft fair. These two chance meetings are small demonstrations of a characteristic of hers -- to the extent she could go on living life, she did. She went to India. She fired a rifle. She had adventures.

The last time I met her I went by her apartment in Greenpoint to take some pictures of her for a portrait. I like to paint my creative friends, and I wanted to paint her. I was glad to see her. As usual, we struggled to make conversation. We were all right in writing but did not know one another well in person. She showed me what she was working on, and some of the keepsakes of her travels. I took a few pictures and made my goodbyes. I never saw her again.

This was in December. Sometime after that, she made her final breakthrough as an artist, and that's what I really want to talk with you about today. We're here to consider her last three paintings (that I know of), and to mull them over in light of two categories of art: final bodies of work, and late bodies of work. All sufficiently late work is final, but not all final work is late -- Egon Schiele, for instance, had no idea he was going to drop dead from the flu at 28. He was just starting to get the body he craved into his dessicated oil paint surfaces. Whether this would have been better or worse than his early work, we can't say. It was promising, but it was cut short. It was final work, but not late work.

Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918, 60"x64", oil on canvas

Contrarily, consider Titian, 1490-1576. He began as a master of clarity, color, movement, and the dramas of men and gods. Here is a late self-portrait, painted between 1565 and 1570.

Titian, Self Portrait, c. 1565-70, 34"x26", oil on canvas

It partakes of one of the great privileges of age: cutting through the bullshit. The hand grows weak, eyesight fails. He paints simply, painting only what is needed, but that part that is needed, he paints with force and confidence. Considerations of being in and out of the zone are far behind him. He has fused entirely with his identity as a painter. He is always in the zone. He brings to mind the famous quotation from Hokusai, which I have had occasion to repeat on this blog before:
From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create - a dot, a line - will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.'
Or let us turn to Picasso, who drew this less than a year before the end of his very long life:

Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait Facing Death, 1972, 26"x20", pencil and crayon on paper

Picasso draws here his own unweaving. His face grows gaunt and stubbled, his eyes frightened and unfocused. A triangular wound opens his cheek on the left, and his blood pours out unchecked, the last blood he will ever have, leaving his skin cadaverous and greenish-grey. He is at the end of the long corridor, staring at the black wall at last. There is no way through it, it is the end. He addresses death and fear of death here, and not just any death, but his own. This is what we mean by late work.

Carroll painted this in 2013 for "Recurrence," depicting her own illness:

Melissa Carroll, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired, 2013,15"x11", watercolor on paper
It is one of the pieces that struck me so strongly at the time. It still does. In this same pictorial paradigm, she groped toward a model of hopefulness in What Would I Do Without You:

Melissa Carroll, What Would I Do Without You, 2013,15"x11", watercolor on paper

This is middle-period work.

Here is something Carroll painted in March. As I said, to my knowledge it is one of her last three paintings. I don't know its size or title, or if it even has one. It is watercolor on paper, the only paint nontoxic enough for her to use:

Melissa Carroll, 2014

The figure is submerged here in a vaginal sequence of arcs of bloody energy, nearly vanishing, as the image nearly vanishes. As in the case of the aged Titian, the hand and eye weaken, and the interest in effects evaporates. There are only resources to paint what is needed, and the wisdom and insight to use the resources correctly. As with Picasso, there is almost no image, and death is the subject.

Melissa Carroll, 2014

Carroll draws close here to the very heart of things. Her vision of human being dissolves into a vivid and vital universe which precedes and follows and surrounds it. In the hand of this awakened reality, what is important about a life, any life, persists, because it is only borrowed a little while from an eternal and active wonder. She reaches here, in her own way, the same conclusion Harold Brodkey reached when he too neared the end of his illness: "It is death that goes down to the center of the earth, the great burial church the earth is, and then to the curved ends of the universe, as light is said to do."

Melissa Carroll, 2014

This is not only final work, it is late work. It is late work because she knew she was dying. Schiele was around her age, but he thought he had all the time in the world. Carroll knew her time was almost up, and this turned her thoughts not only to the subject of death, but her hand and eye and vision to the mastery needed to complete her work. Her life was short, but her work is not incomplete. She made the complete cycle of work of an organism designed to persist only 31 years. We are not missing the rest of her work, because that would have been the work of a fundamentally different Carroll. This is all of the work of the Carroll that was.

I knew her. Not as much as I would have liked, but more than most, and I count myself lucky for it. She looked like just another talented Brooklyn hipster when I met her. It would have taken her much longer to mature if her body hadn't betrayed her. Her disease gave her a binary choice: go over it or go under. She chose to go over it. The cancer kept getting taller, and she got taller to match it.

She was loved by her family and friends, and inspired in words and deeds many people who were suffering as she suffered. She lived fully. She became unbending of will and great of heart. She made the life she had make sense, but that speaks for her, not for me. For my part, I am so sad that she's gone.


All Melissa Carroll paintings courtesy of the artist and her family
Schiele and Titian via wikimedia commons, Picasso via

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another Solution to the Problem of the Head

Many problems have more than one solution, and not just more than one workable solution, but more than one optimum solution. This means that one may prefer one solution over another, but that no defense can be made of the preferred solution such that the disfavored one is reasonably eliminated. Certainly this scenario pervades the broad and unevenly lit universe of making art.

Case in point: ways to represent the head. I just worked up a pretty appealing argument for one means of representing the head. It happens to be a means I myself have worked on for many years. But it’s not the only way to do it.

As you may have noticed, I do a lot of work with Leah, a model who is, relative to me and a fair number of other artists, muse-grade. I ordinarily draw and paint her head at various points in the structural/emotional paradigm I was working up last time. Here, for instance, is the preparatory sketch for my painting Blue Leah #2:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Blue Leah #2, pencil on paper, 15”x22”, 2012

It leans on the emotional, sacrificing some structural accuracy for the sake of mood, while still maintaining approximate fidelity to form. That sounds awfully clinical, like I go in the studio, set a few dials to the desired values, and hit EXECUTE. The act of drawing wasn’t like that at all - this is just how it came out.

Here, on the other hand, is the preparatory sketch for a version of Blue Leah #3 which I later abandoned:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch #1 for Blue Leah #3, pencil on paper, 15”x22”, 2012

This happened to come out much more technically: sometimes you start a drawing, and you realize you are getting everything in the right place, and you excitedly ride that wave as far as it will carry you - it is very rewarding to draw without mistakes. That’s what I did here. The elements of personality and mood are still present, but they are subordinate to right form, right shadow shape, right highlight position, absolute line…

Different though these drawings are, they still represent two points in the same continuum. Consider now a third drawing of Leah - this is a preparatory sketch for Meiosis #2 (we’ve discussed it before):

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis #2: Head, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2013

This conforms with something we’ve discussed in the remote past, which I call my natural line. I am always not using it very much because it is so reminiscent of Matisse and Picasso, who got there first, and I am always vowing to use it more, because it is genuinely mine and I like it.

Because I do not practice with it very much, I can really only access it around models I have worked with so much that I have the sense of them in my hand and heart; it is a blindfolded true line, if you like. To my eye, it is outside the architectonics-of-the-head paradigm altogether. Certainly there is something right about it, but that rightness is no longer empirical or derived from an analytical model deeply compatible with the empirical. You can’t shade one of these the way you shade an ordinary drawing, or it turns into crap:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for Meiosis #2: Body, pencil on paper, 15”x11”, 2013

That turning-into-crapness yields an important clue, that this mode of linemaking exists outside the classical accounting of observed form.

So anyway, I decided I wanted a more worked-up take on the version of Leah’s face I drew in my natural line. I wanted to make a painting of it. How? How? How? Well - it’s eventually a question of diving in and seeing what happens. So I drew something very like it onto a canvas and got Leah to come in and we sat down and banged out a painting in three hours.

Daniel Maidman, Leah, oil on linen, 20”x16”, 2014

A few thoughts on this painting. First of all, it doesn’t look like my ordinary work. The values are much less contrasty and more clustered toward middle grey. I have preserved the centrality of line. There is no real three-dimensionality to the forms. It doesn’t really look real.

And yet it has other qualities which I have pursued a long time and feel like I caught here, a bit, at last. Leah appears not in her guise as a highly particularized set of forms, but as a day-to-day person; we don’t see her forms more astutely than we do those of people we run into in normal life. That backgrounding of form provides space for aspects of personality I can’t catch in my more developed work - the casual facets of personality: a turn, an interested glance, the intake of breath, a fleeting thought. I asked her to put her shirt back on because I realized I wasn’t painting an Eternal Nude, but a civilian. This is how you paint a friend. It comes closer to what we like about Hals - Hals is the master of the brief and the transitional. That’s why art history puts up with his sloppy, half-assed brushwork. Those awful marks are the byproducts of the only means of catching spontaneous liveliness: painting fast and not trying to get it right.

I liked this pretty well when I got done, and I like it more now. It’s been growing on me, in a friendly way.

I hope this works for you as an example of another optimal solution to a problem. I sometimes worry that the breadth of my techniques (not that broad, but not monopolar either) will make my body of work seem uncommitted. But it’s not that; it’s that life is very various, and I want to make room in my own life and work to say “yes” to as much of it as possible.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Architectonics of the Head

I posted the following portrait of Rachel on Facebook a few weeks ago. Rachel is a model I have drawn frequently at Spring Street over the past couple of years, and about whom I will have much more to say down the road.

Daniel Maidman, Melancholy Portrait of Rachel, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15"x11”, 2014

I had my doubts about this drawing, but there was a unity to it which is something I’ve been working on. Artist Joseph Podlesnik commented, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?”

Podlesnik himself knows what the hell he’s talking about in terms of the unity of organic forms.

Joseph Podlesnik, Untitled, pastel on paper, 12.25”x7.5”, 2014

I promised to follow up on his analysis (which is what I’m doing here), because it answered closely to something which has been much on my mind for maybe the past year or so. I can’t find a record of the instigating incident, which was also a Facebook thing. Somebody somewhere posted this closeup of the face in the painting Ramsay MacDonald by British (and, pleasingly, Jewish) painter Solomon Joseph Solomon:

Solomon Joseph Solomon, Ramsay MacDonald (detail), oil on canvas, 35.5”x28.5”, 1911

Solomon is a hero of the current crop of neo-academic painters. Whoever posted this closeup remarked on Solomon’s amazing grasp of the architecture of the head. Sometimes in life a single turn of phrase will change some fundamental thing for you, and for me, this concept of “the architecture of the head” was one such phrase. I rephrased it for myself to “the architectonics of the head” - the system of the architecture, over and above the specifics of the particular architecture.

What I mean is this. The remark, in either form, elevates the given head from simply a nicely-done head, to a comprehensible head. One can understand what makes it work so well: every element, from the distribution of values over the surfaces, to the varying yellows and pinks, to the placement of the parts in correct perspective, answers flawlessly to the geometry and structural unity of a convex bony object wrapped in a little meat and skin. The lack of error to this head gives it its sense of rightness. Encountering this head, the eye unclenches, because it senses it will not have to paper over any differences between what is presented and what was meant.

This conceptualization of the topic as a matter of architectonics was new to me. I was familiar with the ideas of knowing the structure of the skull, and the proportions of the face, and so forth, before. But I had never integrated the diverse implicated topics into a single concept, called architectonics, which subsumed all the relevant sub-topics. All the parts fell into place: they became a single thing. There was one head-ness to the head.

This sudden sense of the parts falling into place effected a quiet revolution for me. I had been self-consciously avoiding heads based on “what I know” - I follow this avoidance in general, but especially for heads. I don’t want to draw first what I “know” is there, and then see if I can shoehorn the specifics of the model into place once I’ve answered to the strictures of knowledge. So I build up heads from features, making sure each feature has its right shape, and doing my best to get the features to sit in the right places relative to one another. This method is prone to mishap, but it encourages me to focus on personality and emotion in the faces of the people I am looking at, and that is my highest priority.

Indulging in that sense of superiority which I, for one, cannot quite overcome, I have been faintly dismissive toward the knowledge-oriented drawers of heads. Those aesthetes, I allowed myself to think, were really drawing concepts, and not people. And most of the time, this may be true. It is not easy to draw either a concept or a person. But I think there are two things a fair-minded observer would have to concede about Solomon’s MacDonald: that indeed it does have an amazing grasp of the architectonics of the head - and that it is rich in character, mood, and presence. That is, it neatly leaps over the dichotomy which I was proposing, of the head from architectonic and humanist perspectives.

At the right time, all it takes to make progress is the recognition that progress is possible. I bumped up against the Solomon and the description at the right time. Thenceforth, I found that I could approach the head as Solomon did: from both an analytic (architectonic) and an empirical (humanist) perspective.

Actually, let me not make so audacious a claim. Let me say that knowing it was possible, I could no longer not try. I finally had enough knowledge and experience on both sides of the divide that I was comfortable simultaneously throwing both methodologies into the effort. I could see the unified skull beneath the flesh, and I could also see the complex configuration of tensions and relaxations of the muscles of the face, which gives faces their emotions and characters.

So when Podlesnik says, “Finesse and control, not an errant mark - like building a house of cards, placing one element carefully before the next, ensuring the former supports what follows... yes?” what I read is, “I understand what you have been trying to do, and it worked.”

Looking at it again, you can see the Solomon to this face, can’t you? It is not as good a picture, but Rachel happened to take the same pose, under the same lighting, at the same angle relative to me. Or close enough. The two instances partway fused.

Under more generous conditions - that is, in paint and with all the time in the world - I continued to deploy the model of the architectonics of the head, emphasizing and eliding detail to accomplish individuality and unity in a portrait I was working on of my friend Rupa DasGupta.

Daniel Maidman, Rupa, oil on linen, 20”x16”, 2014

Eliding detail? you ask. Yes, in one very particular way - I brightened the side of her nose, so that the upward planes of her cheeks and nose appeared more fused into a single structural unit. They don’t actually look like this - but it’s how the eye understands them. This kind of selective de-emphasis can only fail to interfere with the personhood of the model if you’re coming at the problem from both sides. Thus, you see me here applying to their fullest the principles I learned from my own practice, and from this Facebook poster whose name currently eludes me, and from Solomon Joseph Solomon.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I'll Stand With Chaos

Let’s pretend I didn’t just ignore you for a couple months. Of course, what we feared has come to pass - Huffington both drained the energy I pour into this blog, and changed the tenor of my writing. Perhaps this is alright; one might propose that when I started with you, I was in training, and my training yielded its results, and now most of my writing is of a different character, for a broader and more professional context. Perhaps. But I don’t like to think that what I am doing here is not an end in itself. I like to spend time with you here, and to ruminate in a leisurely way on my work and the work I am looking at. Everything just seems so much more busy these days. Let’s say, then, that life is more busy, and leave it at that. To the topic at hand.

I was on the subway the other day, looking at some ads which a little googling suggests are ubiquitous in the United States right now - the ads themselves are Google ads, for a service called Google Play, which I’m going to guess has something to do with streaming music. Here’s one I pulled off the web.

I found myself resenting these ads even more than I resent most Google ads. I was looking at them, thinking about their design; about how Google likes to throw resources at everything it does. I pictured focus groups and psychometricians generating viewer response scores on sets of icon juxtapositions, and a designated Clever Artist coming up with the quarter-turn white highlight on the speaker cones, leaving an implied sans-serif G in the negative space; and Swiss designers in lab coats carefully rotating elements by pre-specified scientific increments in Adobe Illustrator, displayed on enormous flatscreens at the ends of flexible chrome arms in surgically clean white rooms.

Google HQ

I pictured this entire antiseptic apparatus of advertising throwing the enormity of its muscle into generating these images and making them perfect.

But you know what? They still kind of suck. They suck a lot. They are terrible ads. They stand in relation to good ads as PC design stands in relation to Apple design. The only reason to register their presence at all is that you cannot avoid them.

This is an important lesson in what makes good art. Google has undoubtedly thrown a generous budget at their big ad campaign. But they threw it in the wrong direction. Good art is not a question of money, scientists, experts, and committees. Quantitative validation of your output does not make it functional. Art is a system so tremendously multivariate that it cannot yet be regularized by means of rational protocols. Like Asimov’s hypothesis about extremely advanced technologies, it is indistinguishable from magic.

The practical outcome of this non-reduceability property is that any miserable art student with a No. 2 pencil has in his or her hand a tool as powerful for the creation of good art as does Google with its well-paid army of image engineers; more powerful, perhaps, because Google makes the mistake of thinking that quality control controls quality, and the art student lacks the resources to indulge in this corporate delusion.

When Google gets it right, if it ever does, it will be because they got their hands on the right single person with a great idea, and then got out of the way. They will get it right the same way the humblest of artists does, not by throwing money at the problem but through inspiration.

There is no means of controlling the system through which good and bad art are generated. It takes the fiery form of democracy explained, not particularly surprisingly if you consider their overall body of work, in Pixar’s 2007 movie Ratatouille:

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, “Anyone can cook." But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.

Pixar never dolls up the brutally exclusionary nature of art. Some artists can become great and others never will. But they consistently combine this elitist insight with its egalitarian complement - that who can become great and who cannot is a wild process answerable to no budget, aristocracy, inheritance, education, authority, or even justice. Art stalks where it likes and strikes whom it will. From a mortal perspective, it appears to be chaotic.

The presumption involved in Google’s lacking Pixar’s wisdom regarding the creation of personal artwork in a corporate environment - and further, Google’s abysmal bad taste in going wide with their dull, mediocre campaign -

- was what stirred my resentment. But ultimately, their money can only buy them ubiquity. In taking their stand, they defeat themselves. This is true of all art institutions reliant on something apart from the art itself for their claims to art status, by which I mean museums, galleries, graduate schools, the press, the academics, the collectors, and anyone else with authority who might want art to be orderly and predictable.

I myself am some of these institutions, and I interact with the rest. I would never dismiss the best among them. These best understand that they are subordinate to art, and that art is untamable. There is not yet a complete theory of art, and it is not demonstrated that it will become possible to form a complete theory of art in the future. There is only good art, bad art, learning to see and respect the difference and, for artists, chasing like demons after quality.

I emerged gladdened from the subway, having been reminded of the radical democracy of art, which is functionally identical with chaos. I’ll stand with chaos.


That last line sounds very dramatic, but in fact it is not a brave act in any way, and I wouldn't want to imply that it was.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Superman Vs. Edgar Allan Poe

This will probably work better if you click on the first image, then go through them in sequence via the little graphics menu at the bottom of the screen. Don't even scroll down in this view.

Happy new year, youse.

Art and Artists III: Forms of Beauty

The Blind Prophet

Let me conclude this sequence of posts with a slightly more detailed examination of what it means to an artist - in this case me - to be able to follow in real time the work of another artist - in this case, sculptor Sabin Howard.

Howard lives and works somewhere in New York, but most of my fairly minimal interaction with him is over Facebook. Lately, he has been working on some remarkable drawings. Here is the first one he posted:

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

Before we get down to analysis here, let me explain that I had an immediate and visceral reaction to this drawing. I thought, "Oh, I love this." Sometimes you fall in love with drawings; I fell in love with this.

Now that we've got the intensity of my reaction clear, I can attempt to dissect its cause. But I can make you no promises. The analysis is after-the-fact.

The first thing, which is evident to any artist with experience in figure drawing and which Howard confirms when asked, is that there was no model for this drawing. It is a construction: Howard constructed it based on his knowledge of anatomy, and the theory of the body he has derived from that knowledge. As he puts it, "I wanted to do more experimentation with the conceptualization of the body in geometric terms, how all the parts fit together. There is a lot about the architecture of the figure being the skeleton. And the musculature being the spinning organic element. As a sculptor I am an architect working with organic form."

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

That kind of offhand remark can only occur in the context of a wide, deep knowledge of the body as a machine. This mode of knowing characterized a sect of artists over many centuries, from Michelangelo to John Tenniel. It is pursued internally out of a thirst for absolute understanding, for a sense of the body that does not leave any part about right, but rather utterly right, exact as to itself. This pursuit replaces the real bodies of real people with a set of Forms derived in the mind: the body as parsed and created in the mind, cleaned of its inconsistencies and variations, made perfect and harshly true. It is only in this mode of art-making that the artist becomes really god-like, in the sense of creating a world. The artist becomes a calipers-god, working from first principles all the way up to something with a complexity like life, but a life owing nothing to nature, and everything to mindfulness.

Such a pursuit etches its nature into the aesthetics of its creations. There is a sense of glaring reason to the work, a pitiless, shadowless brilliance. In The Secret History, Donna Tartt does some writing which has stuck with me on the Greek mindset. Discussing words for "fire," her narrator says:

"I can only say that an incendium is in its nature entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt and screamed on that desolate, windy beach, from the funeral pyre of Patroklos."

"Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it."

Yes, that is it. The form of beauty Howard pursues is the Greek beauty, awful, unmerciful, scouring. There is no more hiding from the crushing demands of virtue or from the stark final nature of things in his conception of the figure. Howard is, after a manner of speaking, a servant of Apollo, and not just any servant. He is trying to become Tiresias; he scarcely requires eyes to see what he sees.

Sabin Howard, Untitled Study, 2013, 18"x14", pencil on paper

This is not the only thing we need, but if we do not have this, we might as well have nothing.

Now, this is not how I myself ordinarily draw. My fundamental means of drawing is not knowledge but sight, specifically sight of shapes. I've written about my native mode of visual cognition here. For all that, the mind has difficulty integrating pure shape into unified human forms. So I got around the problem by taking gross anatomy - I hacked up cadavers for a couple years, and drew my own anatomical atlas.

Daniel Maidman, Front and Back Views of the Spine, 2002, 14"x11", pen on paper

This emphasis on explicit knowledge of anatomy allowed me to introduce a convincing internal structure into my figures, but I never sought to foreground the practice. For Howard, the body in itself, as a noble machine interfacing with a world of forces, is a topic of obsession. For me, the body was always a secondary concern, beautiful but mainly as the repository of the invisible person. It's the sheet the ghost wears so you can see it.

My approach is not better than his; his approach is not better than mine. There is room enough in the world for both of us, and I think there is need enough in the soul for both of us too.

Be that as it may, when you look at art that moves you profoundly, it rubs off on you a bit. So the next time I had a long pose to draw, this was what I drew:

Daniel Maidman, Aubrey's Torso, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

It's not really a Howard drawing, but it owes something to Howard. It is a more complete section of the body, more unified in its conception, than I usually bother with. I emphasized putting every part in, and getting every part right. And I did have to do a good deal of construction - as people who have drawn Aubrey know, she has hair down to her waist. During this pose, her hair was in front of her, on her left, blocking a hefty swath of my view. So I had to make up a lot of the right side of the drawing, based on glimpses, symmetry, and general knowledge.

After that, the effect of looking at Howard's work persisted, right through an event important to me for other reasons. What happened was, I had a chance to work with Piera again.

The Hope of Eternal Return

Over time, I think we tend to notice that life involves a lot of loss. You choose some way to live, you live that way for a while, and then you lose whatever it was. This is a constantly renewed process, and whatever the rewards of new things, the pain of loss persists. Rarely does life permit return.

I have had five primary muses in my life as an artist, and Piera is the fourth. My wife and I became close friends with her and her husband Emanuele, also an artist. Making people feel loved is a talent, or maybe a state of character. Whatever it is, I know of nobody in whom it is more inborn than Piera. My first painting of her was also my first painting as a technically well-developed painter:

Daniel Maidman, Piera, 2008, 28"x22", oil on canvas

But Piera has no time for modeling anymore; she and Emanuele had a baby a few years ago, and he is the focus of their lives. Over Christmas, though, owing to a combination of vacation overlaps, Piera had a few hours to come model for me. I elected to do preparatory sketches for paintings.

Well, it turns out that Piera actually looks a bit Howardish herself these days. When I first met her in 2007, she was strong but curvy. Almost seven years later, she still has the curvy skeletal architecture, but she's worked off a lot of the flesh that used to overlie it. She's wiry now, the kind of wiry that will be formally beautiful all the way to 70 or 80 years, like Saint Jerome. The first drawing I did of her reflected this combination of her revised anatomy and my exposure to Howard's work:

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for a Painting of Piera I, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

I like this very much; I liked that, like cigarette carcinogens, superpowers can be absorbed second-hand. It is good to draw the complete human machine sometimes, in its naked excellence. However, in my second drawing, my natural tendencies reasserted themselves.

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch for a Painting of Piera II, 2013, 15"x11", pencil on paper

Here I followed shape at the expense of proportion. There are no lines of perspective, there is no telling if I got it right or wrong. There may well be no right or wrong to this. It is as irregular as French in comparison with the martial Greek of the first one. It doesn't even especially look like Piera. And yet to me, it very much feels like her. It feels like her personality and mood; it is the Piera we both recognized when we considered it after the sitting. This is the landscape of my native sense of beauty.

Drawing Piera again, I felt a happiness unique to the restoration of some way of living we had loved, and lost. People, places, practices, things - all of them are ways of living, and we do not own any of them. I had the good fortune to live my life as an artist in the company of Piera for some years. Later, I lost her. I moved on, and I was happy, but time itself is an affront to my sensibilities, and I never stopped grieving for this absent part of my life. Then she came back to work with me again, and I felt right with myself and the world. This was the happiness of restoration.

There is no moral to this winding anecdote. Sabin Howard, in my opinion, has made a breakthrough in these drawings in his passionate pursuit of a particular fundamental form of beauty. If I were not me, as an artist, I might well want to be him. I have a different form of beauty which is natural to me. I am seeking to become excellent in mine as he is in his. I become richer seeing what he does, and I hope you become richer considering this account.


This is what my life is like as an artist, making art and writing about art, among artists. Many of the best I know are kind. I often write about friends, but I do not write well of them because they are friends. Rather, I sought to become friends with them because I first knew and admired their work.

Of course I want to be the best artist in the world. All artists must. But that's for later. For now, I do not even want to be the best artist in the room. I want to be an artist worth considering in a room with many splendid artists.

I worked hard as hell to get good enough even to gain entry to that room, and I think I have gotten through the door. I remain in New York so that this concept of a room will find embodiment, sometimes, in actual rooms, where I will actually run into people like Steven Assael and Dorian Vallejo, Claudia Hajian and Fred Hatt, Michelle Doll and Lisa Lebofsky and Bonnie DeWitt, Jean-Pierre Roy and Noah Becker, and Sabin Howard; and many more besides.

This is the best picture I can draw for you of my part of the art scene in New York at the end of 2013. In the next year, I hope to go on working hard, receiving inspiration sometimes, seeing work, talking with artists, self-promoting as I can, and trying not to turn into a dick.

My wish for you is that you will have something worthy of passion in your life; that you will have scope to work on becoming excellent at it; and that you will not be alone in your passion, but will be welcomed in the company of others who share in it. If you've already got those things, I hope you won't forget that they represent a wealth beyond measure.

As usual, I am seeking to instruct myself first, but if I'm saying anything useful for you, I'm glad for that as well.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Art and Artists II: The Angel of the Lower East Side

Deck the Walls

Last time, I told you about a chain of events triggered by running into artist Dorian Vallejo at Steven Assael's drawing show at Forum Gallery. Today I'd like to continue my incomplete portrait of the art scene in New York at the end of 2013 - incomplete even as to my own little corner of it. But still, better than no account at all.

The holidays were nearly upon us, and I went to the New York Academy of Art's Christmas party, called Deck the Walls (because they have art by students and faculty on the walls). I've gotten invited to these things a few years in a row now. I think they invite people who donate art to their fundraiser auctions, which I do, because I like the art that Academy graduates are making, so whatever they're teaching over there, I'd like them to continue to have a chance to teach it.

The parties happen in the main room of their building on Franklin Street, in Tribeca, and are invariably packed and difficult to navigate. What I like to do is alternate between finding somebody I know and talking with them, and finding the bartender and obtaining a drink. At this particular party, I mostly spoke with two people I'm very happy to know.

One is Michelle Doll. For my money, Doll has John Shaft beat on keeping it together: she got an MFA from the Academy, paints beautifully, and dresses fabulously. She's done all this while raising her son alone. Like Dorian Vallejo, and Claudia Hajian, she is an incredibly sweet individual. Here's one of her paintings:

Michelle Doll, Mother and Child (EE1), 2013, 30" x 20", oil on panel

Considering it again, it's a thing apart from the rendering I saw the first time that speaks to me now. This time, it's the warm-toned abrasions or marks on the surface. These run through the work, indiscriminate of the object they overlie. They serve to unify the composition formally, and thus the mother and child thematically. They are the undertow that sweeps the two of them in together, preserving them during this interval as one flesh.

The other person I spoke with quite a bit was Lisa Lebofsky. Lebofsky is a painter who has done something I've considered but never done, for all that I would like to and admire her having pulled it off. I am, like her, attracted to the colder regions of the Earth. Unlike me, she went deep into the lethal, endless cold, and dragged images out of that beautiful, hostile land for her art:

Lisa Lebofsky, Antarctic Islands and Glacier, 2012, 25" x 40", oil on aluminum

I am awed by this.

I don't know Lebofsky well, actually, and a lot of our conversation involved getting into sync. Neither of us could remember whether, or how many times, we'd met. She knows my writing and painting, and I know her work - in fact, I've been in her studio. As for hanging out, though, it was unclear.

I've been in her studio because a friend of hers showed it off to me. I guess we kind of broke in, you're not really supposed to go in somebody's studio when they're not around. Lebofsky's friend is Bonnie DeWitt, whom I think of as the angel of the Lower East Side.

DeWitt is a painter and the director of the oddly-located Kraine Gallery. As a painter, she has a cheerfully perverse sensibility, like an early Renaissance narrative painter, or a German fairy-tale writer:

Bonnie DeWitt, Horse Massacre, 2010, 32"x40", gouache on paper

I actually don't know her artwork extensively: she has foregrounded her curation in my encounters with her. DeWitt is a tiny little twinkly pixie with red hair and a black leather jacket, Faye Dunaway cheekbones and a startlingly deep, dry voice. If you've looked at network maps at all, you'll have seen the famous nodes – points with large numbers of network connections. In social networks, these nodes are people whom everyone knows, even though the members of this "everyone" may not know one another. DeWitt is a natural node. She knows and adores all the artists in a certain sector, and is reciprocally known and adored.

When I think of punk rock, I think of DeWitt. I think very highly of punk rock, but I should emphasize that my actual contact with it in the world is minimal. I have constructed my own punk rock in my head, taking some of the trappings of the real thing and fashioning the thing I deduced and needed. My personal punk rock is a combination of intense oneselfness, combined with a fuck-you attitude toward authority, and a bracingly nihilistic edge, a sense that it would be better for it all to burn down rather than to keep on going as it is. In this sense, DeWitt is punk rock.

She approximately haunts the Lower East Side, in which I include the East Village. Much of this zone is still poor enough for artists to inhabit, and it is infested with studios and little galleries, including my own, Dacia Gallery. Many of these artists are the outcasts of the art world - they are the high-rendering figurative painters. Ranging from the deeply expressionist to the tightly academic, these painters grapple in their work with the same contemporary cultural issues as more mainstream art world players. But because of their helpless and unswayable adherence to representation in their work, they have been consigned to the ecological niche that gave rise to punk rock (well, punk rock as I imagine it) in the first place: financially hobbled and socially outcast.

In such conditions, a punk attitude naturally results. Among the artists I've met in this neighborhood, there is a warren-like, off-grid feeling of community, and an edge of point-blank starvation, and above all a totally natural sense of selfhood. These are people who cannot be other than themselves, and they've got their poverty, and the indifference or scorn of the mainstream, to prove it. To this talented, alienated cohort, DeWitt addresses an attitude of boundless, broad-winged love; and to the rest of the world, the flaming sword.

Hence, the angel of the Lower East Side.

The Bottom of Chrystie Street

Sadly, DeWitt wasn't at Deck the Walls, and not only was it sad in the sense that I didn't get to see her, but also because they had free drinks, and DeWitt can drink like a fish. I had a fair amount to drink myself, but I had a second thing I needed to get to the same evening, so I ventured out into the winter cold in my suit jacket (who wants to take a coat and carry it all evening?). I had to get to The Lodge Gallery, on Chrystie Street, to see a drawing in "TGF Sports," a group show. The drawing was by the marvelous Jean-Pierre Roy.

Chrystie is a ways east of the Academy, so I had some walking to do. Unlike driving drunk, it seems you can mostly only hurt yourself by walking drunk. So I feel little compunction about praising the practice. I like walking around Manhattan very much, and I especially like walking around Manhattan while tipsy, and if possible, alone, at night, underdressed, in the winter. The textures of surfaces seem coarser, the lights more colorful, the towers more majestic. Individual people are more distinct from one another, and store windows endlessly fascinating. The light spirit of New York, of plans and their fruition - the glamor of the city - shimmers on everything under these conditions. One feels a feeling of being at the start of things, of excitement and high hopes.

In such an open mood, you discover new things. What I discovered is that at least some of those peculiarly cheap Chinese bus lines one hears so much about have their depots at the bottom of Chrystie Street. Did you know that? I didn't know that. I could have hightailed it down to Raleigh that night, although I didn't.

My advice about getting blitzed and strolling around a city at night might not be good advice for you. You might not be a 6'1" man. Or, you might not have the good fortune to react to moderate inebriation by experiencing a sense of universal affection and goodwill.

I made it to The Lodge, and saw Roy's spellbinding drawing, one of his highly detailed envisionings of himself occupying dreamily unlikely situations; in this instance, a quotation from Rambo III - two of Roy, bandanna'd, playing the Afghan sport of buzkashi, which is like polo but with a headless goat, bien sûr.

Jean-Pierre Roy, May god deliver us from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and from 80's American cinema, 2013, 22"x30", graphite on paper

I only saw Roy for a minute, which is too bad, because I like him very much. He's one of the few people I know who makes me feel a little short and insubstantial. He is an enormous bear of a man, sincere and outgoing, enthusiastic about his teaching and painstaking in his strange, ambitious work.

Instead, I spent most of my time at the opening chatting with Noah Becker. Becker and I have been interviewing one another at Huffington. We are both figurative painters, but our approaches are very different.

Noah Becker, Self Portrait #2, 2012, 24"x30", oil on canvas

In reproduction, Becker's work is nearly inscrutable - flat of affect, icily moderne, stripped of context and implication. He founded Whitehot Magazine and plays jazz saxophone. His answers to interview questions are frustratingly tangential. As one feels in encountering an image of his work, I felt I could deduce almost nothing about him personally. He seemed intimidatingly cool. Before I met him, I was a little frightened of meeting him.

I first saw his work in person at his solo show at The Lodge. It turns out that his paint, like mine, is thinly applied. There are hesitations and lacunae in it. You can see through it in passages to the faint ink scribbles of his underdrawings. The colors, which seem so blank on a screen, vary subtly in the flesh, a variation which betrays a diffident affection for paint and for sight.

Similarly, he is himself more rounded and human in person. To my enormous relief, it turned out that when I met him, I liked him, and the reverse seemed true as well. His encyclopedic interest and knowledge of art and the art world is modified by a quirkiness and self-doubt which make it possible to converse with him.

The Lodge Gallery, the night in question. 
Left to right: Noah Becker, me (photograph by Jason Patrick Voegele)
Fascinating historical note: it was this picture which convinced me 
to keep my hair buzzed to no more than 1/4" in length from now on.

I have nothing interesting to report about our conversation at the Lodge. It was mostly in regards to the ins and outs of e-publishing. He wanted to hear about the technical factors I experienced e-publishing the first novella-sized chunk of Railroad to Zanzibar, my epic historical fantasy novel.

Which, incidentally, is now permanently linked through the graphic on the right side of this blog. It's 99c and I think you ought to order a copy, because I have put so much effort into writing divertingly on art for you all this time and you'd like to support me, right? - and also it's the start of an amazing story, in my humble opinion.

More next time, and for once, what I mean is "tomorrow."