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.

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.