Thursday, December 24, 2009


In his novel The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick mentions a concept, wu, which has stuck with me for years now. Preparing for this post, I did a perfunctory bit of internet research, and it seems that Dick likely made up this concept and name himself.

In the novel, a character designs jewelry or something like that, in an alternate America occupied by the victorious Japanese and Germans. A Japanese officer, or somebody like that, sees his designs, and says, these have wu. He explains that wu is a quality of intense itself-ness about an object. There is such an absence of divergence between what the object is and how the object seems, that to study the object is an opportunity to reach a kind of enlightenment about the nature of being.

The concept of wu is very appealing, as you can see, and can be applied to many things. Some chairs have wu; others do not have wu. A beautifully designed industrial object, following perfectly the form-follows-function principle, can often be said to have wu. A ceramic bowl of just the right width, depth, and texture, is a prime candidate for wu.

The concept of wu, of vivid itself-ness, is a forceful concept for still-life painters. The struggle to elucidate the soulfulness of objects starts with grasping the itself-ness of objects. For most still-lives to have life, they must first have wu.

David Hockney, in his extremely uneven book on the so-called secret knowledge of the masters, compares the still-life apples of Caravaggio and the still-life apples of Cezanne. He describes the unsatisfying quality of Caravaggio's apples in terms of how they "read at a distance" compared with Cezanne's apples:



This is a technical approach, and a useful one, but to me the important difference is conceptual - the difference is that Caravaggio's apples do not have wu, and Cezanne's do. Caravaggio's apples are beautifully, even obsessively, rendered. Every detail is perfect. But they remain in the realm of seeming. Cezanne's apples, blunt, simple, solid, move past the realm of seeming to the realm of being. They have wu.

A modern painter (about whom I will have more to say, eventually, in my discussion of object edges) who has followed in Cezanne's path is Giorgio Morandi. I had the good fortune to see an exhibit of Morandi's paintings at the Met last year, where I was dazzled by his still-lives of bottles, paintings like this:

These paintings, like Cezanne's, show amazingly crude brushwork up close. From a distance, they slip into perfection, perfect solidity and presence.

Sadly, this degree of wu seems to be almost unavailable to the more technical painter. Many objects can be painted beautifully by masterful painters, but they tend to lack that itself-ness, that necessity:

From favorite whipping-boy Bouguereau, whom I will remind you I actually like. But the lemons? Kind of meh, for my money.

Sargent, who knows what he's doing, embraces the crude when the wu of the object demands it (and many other times as well):

detail of the jar from The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Matisse, who follows itself-ness through line rather than painted area, captures wu many times - including in painted area in his bowl of fish (visit this one if you live in Chicago, it's at the Art Institute):

Rembrandt has one of the most famous instances of wu in art history, and again, his rendering is crude. This is the celebrated gold chain that Aristotle wears in Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer:
The paint is splotched and slathered on, it's Rembrandt at his thickest.

I believe the crudity of depiction is deeply linked to wu. There is a way that fine depiction distracts the mind from the essence of the thing. Too much naturalistic verisimilitude cheapens the experience of the thing; it clutters up the perception with virtuosity, and seeming-ness. To reach wu, one must strip away the properties of seeming and seek the properties of is-ness.

Study this paper lantern in a Stephen Wright painting:

That lantern, with its shadows and its rip, is very crudely handled at the level of paint. And it is rich in wu. It could be nothing but itself; its intense itself-ness relieves us of distraction, of hazy vision and hazy understanding - it brings us into confrontation with an unadulterated quality of being which goes on to infect our perception of whatever we look at afterward. This humble paper lantern purifies us.

Now this all popped into my head because Charlotte, my wife, is no big fan of nudes. Which is to say, she likes them alright, but if you wanted to give her a painting for Christmas, say, you probably wouldn't want it to be a nude. Charlotte likes things, particularly simple, natural things. So, because I wanted to paint her a painting for Christmas, I started thinking about Morandi again, and I decided to try to apply what I learned from him to the problem of a seashell I had lying around the studio (it came back with us from Italy earlier in the year). This is what I came up with:

I was very pleased with this! I do paint things aside from naked ladies, but I've never been very happy with them. I just didn't care all that much. This time, I felt a sense of possession of the painting, as if it were something I would have painted anyway.

Trying to evaluate why I liked it, I recalled the concept of wu, and I thought, well, maybe I have finally painted a thing in such a way as to capture wu.

Now it just so happens that my mom and her husband had sent me a Harry & David gift basket at about this time, and in this basket there were some pears. These pears were not just green - they had some red spots. And they were so goddamned beautiful that I thought, well, really, I ought to paint one of them as well. So I did, with itself-ness in mind:

This also was very pleasing! This seemed very pear-like to me. As you can see, these objects are much cruder than my figure paintings usually are. But to me, they are very satisfying. In fact, I think I will paint some more little still-lives (these are 8"x8", oil on board).

I hope I have taken the first step toward having wu in my own work.

DISCLAIMER: As always, take what I say with a huge grain of salt. Plenty of counter-examples in art abound, and this model is not meant to be complete or exclusive. Consider the skull in De La Tour's Penitent Magdalene if you want to see my argument break down.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tools of Expression: Shadow Edges

OK, I've got one for you. Here's another one of those little-appreciated tools of expression. Well, not so much little-appreciated, as rarely-verbalized: the quality of the edges of shadows. Not cast shadows, but regions where the turning of a form takes it from lit to unlit. In this case, we will compare the arms in two of my paintings, because the comparison illustrates my point fairly clearly:
The left painting is that Emma painting I finished recently. The right painting I am working on now, with Cassandra (actually, let me throw in a plug for her fantastic dance company, Desert Sin, as long as we're talking about her).

Now, the light sources in the two paintings are actually the same - I'm using my 500-watt tungsten softbox raised on a C-stand to a height of about 7 feet. The diffusion is the same for each painting. The models have similarly lean, muscular arms. But the images, obviously, look very different.

Apart from the choices I made in terms of color and value contrast, the quality of the edge of the shadow is different in each case. For the Emma painting, I wanted to produce a sense of simplicity, starkness, and stripping down of appearances to essentials. So I made the shadow edge artificially hard and stylized. In the upper arm, much of it is virtually a straight line.

This comes across as crude, childish - but I wanted it to; I wanted to avoid the trappings of skill, which slip so easily into tricks.

For the Cassandra painting, I want a sense of light and floating. And I have allowed this to inform the shadow edge on her arm as well. This shadow edge occurs only on the forearm. I have followed the actual curve of the edge much more closely than I did in the Emma painting, and at each point along its extent, I have asked, and tried to answer, the question: how hard is this edge? Often it subsides into soft indistinctness. But sometimes it is hard, where it is near the joints of the wrist and elbow.

In cinematography, a very simple version of the dichotomy illustrated here is always addressed: is the lighting hard (as in the Emma painting) or soft (as in the Cassandra painting). The issue is rarely pushed much farther than this, because film involves coordinating so many elements that people really don't have the time to screw around with lighting as fancy as the resolution limits of film allow.

In painting, there is much less to worry about, and painting isn't photographic anyway. There's plenty of time to resolve and stylize the most sophisticated analysis of the hard/soft distinction over every part of the painting (if you go back and look at the Emma painting, you'll see it's not hard everywhere). Be that as it may, the edges of shadows are powerful expressive tools, and one ought always to consider how the depiction of these edges integrates aesthetically and thematically with the painting overall.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Let Me Phrase That Better

My critique of the Impressionists in the post below got kind of out of control. I meant to sum it up clearly. I'll try to do that now.

Impressionist: Armed with the insights of modern science, I am going to depict the figure/ground phenomenon as we really perceive it, stripped of hoary aesthetic considerations. I will conduct a scientific inquiry into the nature of sight.

Neuroscientist: Actually, you're 0 for 1 on that, Georges.

Impressionist: Sacrebleu! How come?

Neuroscientist: Because what you're doing isn't science. What made you think that a painting is a controlled experiment?

Impressionist: Uh... le scientisme?

Neuroscientist: Bingo.

To be fair, the undifferentiated visual field of the Impressionists does provide scientists with very interesting material - but the material has to do with analyzing how we build up an undifferentiated field into a coherent image, and not with any kind of "scientific relevation" that what we really see is an undifferentiated field. So the Impressionists kind of hilariously flame out on their stated intention, but wind up being useful to scientists anyway.

The moral for artists remains that you should put art first, science second.

Figure and Ground

Chris asks:

Do you normally think of the background at the same time as your subject? Do you consider the background to be the same thing as your subject? I would gather it is a pretty important part of the Mona Lisa, but I wonder if any of it came as an afterthought.

He's talking about Emma Twice. This is an interesting question, and it varies by artist, and even within an artist's work. I started out not considering the background when I started, but it led to too many compositional problems over time, so now I'm pretty careful to have a good idea of how the figure fits into a complete composition before I begin. Let's compare a painting with a similar background that I did before I adopted this approach, with Emma Twice. Here's the very old painting - I did the figure part in early 2006, and the background in late 2006:

I chose this one, On the Stairs, as an example of a "good save." I had a general idea about light and color, but not anything specific. So I had to cook something up after I had completed the figure. It's a lousy approach, I think, because you are likely going to sacrifice overall unity in your drive to just go ahead and start painting a figure you're excited about. Now let's look at Emma Twice again:
To me, this reads as much more coherent as a complete painting. You never anticipate everything, but you can anticipate a lot. For instance, here's how this painting came about: I thought of doing a painting of Emma, who is a delightful model to work with. Then I thought of the color. Then I thought of doing two of her. I initially had two different poses in mind, but they turned out to have no emotional connotation, and to be very difficult to hold. So then I came up with these poses and this mood. And then I had the idea for the stone she's sitting on and the flat wall with the value gradient across it. After that, I thought of the texturing on the wall by means of opaque and transparent paint interacting.

All of that was before I put paint to canvas.

The only part of the background that I came up with after the figures were complete, was those lines and corroded spots. That was a response to the Georgia O'Keefe show.

I hope that helps answer your question. My backgrounds tend to be somewhat detached from the figures because I'm not one of those guys that either: a) paints the figure in his studio, and puts the studio in, or b) comes up with a scene in a literal space, within which the figures are relatively less important parts.

I think of the "scenes" I paint as occurring in something I call Zero Space. That is, the figure is isolated from the world as we know the world, and rather, is lit in the final light, when everything else has been stripped away and weathered to dust. This is one of the main reasons for the nudity as well - I think of it in terms of an imaginary dictum, "It is only naked you will enter into the house of the truth."

That said, I'm not painting figures on figure-shaped canvases. I have to do something with the background. So I try to make it work with the composition overall, and at this point, I force myself to conceptualize it pretty completely before I start.

To tackle the problem from a different angle, we have here an opportunity to examine once again the weaknesses of scientism as an approach to art. First, let's clarify "scientism" a little. It turns out F.A. "Road to Serfdom" Hayek has a very good description of what I'm getting at. This is from The Counter-Revolution of Science:

It need scarcely be emphasized that nothing we shall have to say is aimed against the methods of Science in their proper sphere or is intended to throw the slightest doubt on their value. But to preclude any misunderstanding on this point we shall, wherever we are concerned not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice. Although these terms are not completely unknown in English, they are actually borrowed from the French, where in recent years they have come to be generally used in very much the same sense in which they will be used here. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.

I haven't read the book myself. I'm guessing he's talking about economics and the social sciences. But this problem infects the arts in the modern period as well. The example I wanted to give was that of the Impressionists in relation to the figure/ground distinction:

Seurat, in case you're wondering.

Now to my understanding, the Impressionists made a big fuss about how Modern Science had demonstrated that there is no distinction between figure and ground (background) when light strikes the retina - it's all just light. And since they were going to be very modern and truthful, they were not going to indulge in any of the classical figure/ground separation tricks in their paintings.

What they failed to recognize is that the story is never finished with science. As Livingstone and her colleagues have more recently demonstrated, this claim about a lack of figure/ground distinction may be true about the raw light, but as soon as the light strikes the retina, it is subjected to increasingly complex and powerful neurological processing mechanisms which absolutely do seek figure/ground distinctions (starting with color and value contrasts and autonomously building up to lines and shapes) so that by the time the image is consciously understood by the mind, it has fundamental and irrevocable figure/ground properties.

So what did the Impressionists accomplish with their scientistic approach to image construction? Well, hell, they made some pretty good paintings. And you could even argue that their totemistic scientism enabled them to go off on a very interesting path that would not otherwise have occurred to anybody, in regard to the figure/ground phenomenon. They also happen to have produced some real crap based on this false unification:

Ooh! Blurry edges! You'll have to forgive me, I have it in for late-period Renoir. So look - he'd have been making crappy softcore porn even without this figure/ground stuff. But the point is that the figure/ground work they did was not any kind of scientific innovation the way they thought it was. As science-following, it was not faithful to the mechanism of sight, because the mechanism of sight was poorly understood then. Hell, it's probably poorly understood now, and anyone who thinks "I'll apply science to my art" would do well to consider that current science is also not definitive.

So as science, the figure/ground formulation they applied was meaningless. They weren't scientists. Of course it made for interesting art, but it wasn't science.

Worse, this particular historical tic does not respect the actual functional relationship between science and art. Which is to say, in the best instances, the intuition of artists leads scientists to discover new things. You remember how Shakespeare's characterization of Ophelia was eventually found to be a surprisingly accurate description of some pathological state later identified specifically by psychology? The same is true with regard to art and optical neurology, although of course, optical neurology, unlike modern psychology, is a real science.

Margaret Livingstone was good enough to forward Patrick Cavanagh's The Artist as Neuroscientist (that links to a google search, the first result of which is a PDF of the article), a fascinating and easy-to-read article on contributions of art to the modern understanding of how the brain processes visual stimuli to construct coherent spaces and objects. In this article, the proper relationship prevails: artists certainly learn from science, but before they slavishly try to perform cargo-cultish "scientific investigations," they depict things based on their insight and experience of how things look. And the way they do this, absent scientism, provides fascinating material for scientists to learn what "looks real" to the brain.

But hell - the Impressionists themselves, for all their scientism, made similar contributions, which you can read about in Livingstone's book. These contributions provide strong evidence that art overcomes even the stupid ideas of artists.

Anyhow, when Chris raised the topic of figure and ground, it reminded me of this particular art historical anecdote.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Emma Twice

I finally got around to finishing the background on the Emma painting a couple days ago:

I had had something like this in mind all along, but I got more specificity, and a kick in the butt, from seeing the Georgia O'Keefe show at the Whitney over the weekend. Here's a piece that wasn't in the show, but since I couldn't find any good images of the ones in the show, it'll have to do:
What I got from O'Keefe was the idea to think seriously about the lines in that wall behind Emma as a significant compositional element. I'm glad I did, too, I don't know what I was thinking when I was like, "I'll just make some lines, it'll work out."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Optical Black: Part 4

Let's see if I can finish off this topic, shall we? The first three installments are here, here and here.

I've had a lot to say about the difference between using color to establish darkness, and using black to establish darkness. I've claimed that the black system appeals to an older part of the brain than the color system. I've claimed that the systems are immiscible. And I've claimed that you cannot express the profundity available to the black system in the color system, while you cannot express the sensuality available to the color system in the black system.

I've been thinking over what all this means and how to sum it up. And here's my conclusion: for whatever reason - very likely the scientific reason - the two systems produce (at least for me) these effects:

The color system shows how things look. The black system shows what things are.

These are the sensations I have when looking at paintings in these two systems. Obviously, Rouen Cathedral does not look like this, or this, at any time of day:

But you look at these, and you have the feeling that they catch some profoundly true thing about how this Cathedral looks in light, and air, and time. Similarly, no scene was ever this perfect, and so utterly bleached of real color:

And yet I cannot help but think, when I see this, that this is absolutely solid and real. The Monet is the epitome of appearance, and the Caravaggio the epitome of being.

Your mileage may vary.

You may remember that I claimed these two dark systems, color and black, cannot be fused because they are neurologically distinct in their effects. While I was thinking this over, I turned my mind to the possibility of exceptions to my own rule. I thought of a few candidates: Vermeer, Velazquez, and Sargent. The first two came to mind because Harold Speed claims that, among their virtues, was a panchromatic color system hundreds of years before everyone else figured it out. Let's take one more look at these guys and see what we can see.


Another Velazquez:
Another Vermeer:
You notice anything interesting about these paintings? All of them? Let me tell you what's interesting to me in this context. The eye, to varying degrees in each painting, is convinced that it is looking at a panchromatic system. And yet the shadows are brown or black. Speed allows that this is true - that Velazquez and Vermeer chose lighting situations which resulted in monochromatic shadows.

So this isn't truly color-dark painting at all. It is color-light painting. That makes all the difference, and this is very very interesting.

Why? Because, as painters, we discover something that looks like a fusion (though it isn't really). Go nuts with color in the light areas, but get those shadows to go colorless dark! And you will produce the impression of a full-color world, without losing the profundity of the dark-from-black system. Which brings us to John Singer Sargent.

Your impulse might be to say, Well, Maidman, Sargent works in the full spectrum. Why, I can picture a blue shadow of his right now. I don't doubt that you can. What I'm claiming is that Sargent switches back and forth between the darkness paradigms at will. When he is interested in celebrating the beauty of the world, particularly the outdoors, then he works in the panchromatic system, generally in watercolor:

Those are some blue goddamned shadows right there!

And yet, when the man wants to express something about human nature, he moves indoors, he switches to oil (or, later, charcoal), and suddenly, we're looking at darkness from brown and black:

Examine his work here - he's still working full spectrum in the lights, but the darks are dropping into monochrome. He has grasped the same principle as Velazquez and Vermeer. There is somebody else who figured this out in a very sophisticated and interesting way: Giorgio Morandi. But I'm going to discuss him in my upcoming work on edges.

Some sociology-type people would no doubt have something to say about seeming profundity coming from black-dark scenes being set indoors, not from the color system used. To them I say this:

Rubens, Prometheus Bound.


Shall we consider the case closed on optical black? At least until the suspect busts out of concept-jail once again? Because they always do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Moving Drapery in Art

I modify here a chapter title from Rodin on Art, which you will love if you read it. Chris cites this book in his question:

You'll have to do another post some time to explain exactly how a canvas can undulate. I remember something in Rodin on Art about evoking motion with the motionless art. But I think that was either physical or psychological motion. Not the monotonous swaying something does when left to the mercies of tender elements, which is what I think of when one says "undulate".

For the sake of argument, I'll consider that a fair definition of undulate. Let's take a look at some key bits of the Rodin text and see if they don't apply to the problem at hand. Rodin speaks to his amanuensis, Paul Gsell, on page 68:

"Note, first, that movement is the transition from one attitude to another.

"This simple statement, which has the air of a truism, is, to tell the truth, the key to the mystery. ...

"It is, in short, a metamorphosis of this kind that the painter or the sculptor effects in giving movement to his personages. He represents the transition from one pose to another - he indicates how insensibly the first glides into the second. In his work we still see a part of what was and we discover a part of what is to be."

Gsell then applies the principle Rodin has just described to Rodin's own sculptures. First he looks at Iron Age, which I'm pretty sure is the sculpture we call Age of Bronze:

Gsell writes:

I noticed that in the first of these works the movement appears to mount... The legs of the youth, who is not yet fully awake, are still lax and almost vacillating, but as your eye mounts you see the pose become firmer - the ribs rise beneath the skin, the chest expands, the face is lifted towards the sky, and the two arms stretch in an endeavor to throw off their torpor. The subject of this sculpture is exactly that - the passage from somnolence to the vigor of the being ready for action.

Well, you have to have pretty developed taste to figure all that out. His description of his second example, John the Baptist Preaching, proves easier to understand when you look at the sculpture:

In the same way I next studied Saint John. And I saw that the rhythm of this figure led, as Rodin had said, to a sort of evolution between two balances. The figure leaning, at first, all its weight upon the left foot, which presses the ground with all its strength, seems to balance there while the eyes look to the right. You then see all the body bent in that direction, then the right leg advances and the foot takes hold of the ground. At the same time the left shoulder, which is raised, seems to endeavor to bring the weight of the body to this side in order to aid the leg which is behind to come forward. Now, the science of the sculptor has consisted precisely in imposing all these facts upon the spectator in the order in which I have stated them, so that their succession will give the impression of movement.

As you can see, while specific movements are dissected here, the principle is universal: by combining elements of the before, the during, and the after, the artist is able to produce an impression of motion in the work. Let's take a closer look at my undulating cloth:

What's going on here? The same, well, let's call it Gsellian Transition. Because fancy words are cool. What is the transition? Between domination by gravity and domination by wind. The cloth has mass, it should hang down. It is anchored over the arm, and by the hand. All the cloth should droop away from the arm and the hand. Instead, it seems to rise at the bottom, as if a force - an upward gust - were pushing it upward, and it were rippling because it is not a rigid body. But on the right side, it flairs outward as well. This is against gravity, but it is also inconsistent with an upward gust from below. It would only do this in real life if it were starting to be inflated from inside.

In fact, I was thinking of none of that while I was painting it, because I was painting it from the perspective of shape, not physical justification. I was seeking a combination of curves that read naturally to me, but had this strange floating quality. It is this that I called "undulation," and it is common in the sort of Renaissance and Baroque religious paintings I was discussing before. While the eye perceives it in terms of a fairly loosely defined, but internally consistent, set of physical laws, producing a strange wreathe-like movement of the cloth around the figure as if it had its own serpentine intelligence, for me at least, producing the effect is a matter of shape, not of depiction. One must simply evaluate and understand the internal aesthetics of folding in drapery. This reaches a highly advanced state in Art Nouveau, particularly as done by Mucha:

But it has been going on for a long time. This is Botticelli working during the Renaissance:

The cloth in this painting follows an internal cloth-aesthetic, which is never seen in reality except in starched cloth made to billow unnaturally, or in instants when cloth is lifted by wind. I would contend that it is a hold-over from medieval iconography. It does not appear in ancient Greek sculpture, but in the crude representationalism of the medieval period, it does appear. It produces such a majestic effect that, even after the revolution in representation of the Renaissance, it was simply polished up to look more real - and persisted down to the present age because there is something delightful to the eye about unrealistically billowing and undulating cloth.

This is what I'm getting at in my own painting, in my unpracticed and clumsy way. We'll see how good I can get it by the end.

Let me get back to Rodin and Gsell for a second:

"Have you ever attentively examined instantaneous photographs of walking figures?" Rodin suddenly asked me.

Upon my reply in the affirmative, "Well, what did you notice?"

"That they never seem to advance. Generally they seem to rest motionless on one leg or to hop on one foot."

"Exactly! Now, for example, while my Saint John is represented with both feet on the ground, it is probable that an instantaneous photograph from a model making the same movement would show the back foot already raised and carried toward the other. Or else, on the contrary, the front foot would not yet be on the ground if the back leg occupied in the photograph the same position as in my statue.

"Now it is exactly for that reason that this model photographed would present the odd appearance of a man suddenly stricken with paralysis and petrified in his pose...

"And this confirms what I have just explained to you on the subject of movement in art. If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same twentieth or fortieth of a second, there is no progressive development of movement as there is in art."

This is tremendously important for the painter, and Rodin sums it up a little later:

"It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional that the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended."

Let me avoid endorsing Rodin's judgment of relative truth one way or another, and simply say - this is a fundamentally important difference between painting and photography. Painting carries within it a small extension of time. Photography is very bad at doing this directly - after a few initial 19th century efforts at "painterly photography," photographers gave up on the category entirely. Painting and photography only look the same: painting is pregnant with time in a way that photography is not.

We've covered here muscular motion and the undulating motion of drapery influenced by multiple poorly-defined forces. But the really important category of motion, for me, is the motion of the soul. Because painting can diffuse the time within the painting over several moments, it is possible to capture the soul in a state of transit between what was before, and what will be after.

This is a nearly mystical description, although I'm sure you could reduce it to inconsistent juxtapositions of muscles of the face. This juxtaposition is the physical substrate: the evolution of the soul is the subject. Every time you have a sensation of complexity in a face in a painting, you are responding to an image which contains not an instant, but a moment. Painting can show every subject changing, even the most important one, and this is one of the core means by which it is able to change you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


OK, I apologize for the light posting. Holiday season. I'm cooking up a piece about edges, and I still have more to say about optical black...

In the meantime, thank you Pengo for your thoughtful description of the art that moved you. It immediately struck a chord with me - in the performance arts, the two pieces that most changed my life were a production of Equus I saw my freshman year in college, and Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris, which I saw the same year. Oddly, what I found shocking about each of them was their sharp evocation of the limits of information that can be obtained from rational analysis of available sense data. Or, more simply, they both pointed out the mystery of things, which I had forgotten at that time.

Here's the progress on the Leah painting:

The cloth is in an underpainting state - it will be red in the final version. I spent a long time noodling around with it after Leah left, trying to get it to be more voluminous and floaty - or, as Steve Wright phrased it when he saw it, more undulating. That was the exact word I had been looking for. The painting was inspired by my visits to the art museums in Venice earlier in the year, and the cloth is modeled on the standard undulating cloth in Assumption of the Virgin paintings, particularly by Giovanni Batista Tiepolo:

Tiepolo sets a pretty high standard for undulating cloth. Happy Thanksgiving to you all...

Monday, November 23, 2009


Well, I finally killed off the rest of the background on that painting of Theresa. Since I'm not only lousy at self-promotion, but kind of mediocre at titles, I'm calling it "The Shock." Let's look at how I changed the background:

Final Painting

Original Background

I thought the squiggles were too thick - overwhelming the figure. And all it really took was going back to my compositional source material to figure this out. What source material? Gustav Klimt, of course. Apart from the blue fever theme, the whole thing was designed as a photo-inverse of a gold period Klimt. It didn't completely turn out that way, but you can see what I mean:

Why on earth would I do that? Well, the short answer is that's just how I thought of the composition, when it popped into my head. The analytic answer, I suppose, is that painting takes such a long time, and there's so much room in a painting to put in interesting things, that sometimes I do stuff like that just to see if I can get it to work. Lately, I've been thinking about graphical elements in the backgrounds, so this was a natural development along those lines.

I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Here's How Lousy at Self Promotion I Am

I forgot to say that I'm in American Art Collector's November issue. This is the main painting featured: all means, run out and buy a copy. Already off the newsstands, you say? Never worry - I'm in the December issue as well (smaller notice, page 41, with this painting featured).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Optical Black: Part 3

Well, a while back I promised to continue the inquiry into modes of representing darkness in painting. These are the first two posts on the subject:

Part 1

Part 2

You may remember that I left the discussion at the point of asking: is it possible to use the panchromatic Impressionist palette to produce a painting of the ethical or psychological profundity of a Caravaggio?

Let's say I were to say "no." This no can arise from one of two possible causes:

1. Nobody is that good (a contingent argument based in art history).

2. It is categorically impossible (the technique and the content are mutually exclusive).

I am, in fact, going to say "no." I think that both of the two possible causes are true, but only cause 1 comes close to being provable. Cause 2 is a matter of speculation which I will cover in the fourth and final Optical Black post.

As I commented before, the Academics provide a useful counter-example to the Impressionists. Why? Because they are using the same panchromatic palette as the Impressionists, but unlike the impressionists, they are deeply invested in the themes that dominated Western art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I'm using the term "Academic" loosely here to mean "guys who painted painstaking figurative paintings appropriate for exhibition at the Salon even after Impressionism was invented." For practical purposes (laziness), this post will allow Bougeureau and Alma-Tadema to stand in for the rest.

And while I'm going to talk a lot of smack about these two, please keep in mind that I adore them. Appreciating art over the long term involves appreciating more than one thing. They don't offer some things, but they do offer others. Those things are worthwhile too.

So let the flaying begin. Here's a fairly typical Bougeureau:

He painted a lot of pictures of young girls. His fans describe his sensitivity to the plight of the lower classes, like he was Millet or something. From the historical record, his sensitivity seems to be true.

But it's not reflected in his paintings. His lower-class individuals are all young girls, and they all look like this - pretty, clean, sentimental, well-fed. Not exactly Dickens (although I think I remember reading that Dickens was a fan).

On the other hand, look at those colors - he expresses light and dark in terms of transitions between warm and cool, saturated and desaturated. He is using the same appreciation as the Impressionists of the machinery of optical perception of brightness in terms of color. Unlike Renaissance figures, his outdoor figures really read like they're outdoors.

OK, moving on from Bougeureau's favorite subject, let's see how he handles the Greek classics:

Birth of Venus. That is a pretty goddamn snazzy composition there - he's obviously competing with Boticelli, and I think he's come up with a formulation to match the riveting quality of the Boticelli. Swirls of slow-motion distributed over a large number of figures. And look at those lush colors - the dazzling pastels, the superb integration of the figures into their environment.

And yet, the figures all look posed. This painting reeks of the studio. You can argue, and you would be right, that Boticelli's figures also take contrived positions. But Boticelli really believes in his figures. This animates their poses, it makes them work, because they are so sublimely weird and personal. In contrast, Bougeureau's figures seem to be the outcome of Bougeaureau asking himself, "What would be the right pose for this picture, to result in my prefered composition and maintain verisimilitude and interest?" It is analytic, it lacks blood.

Now let's consider his take on a scene with some more vivid emotions in it:

Hmm. What do we have here? One figure turned upward, in a classic Grace pose. Another looking downward, brow furrowed in a state of ardor. I'm not buying it. These are stereotypical poses. I don't see the artist digging into himself to find an expression of his theme that hasn't been done a million times before. I'm no big fan of originality either - I think it's perfectly acceptable to repeat something, as long as you do it well. But to do this well takes a personal commitment to the psychology of the scene, not a skilled rehashing of commonplaces.

The problem becomes even more glaring in his treatment of Biblical themes:

Adam and Eve mourning Able. Notice how brilliantly the painting is arranged in terms of lights and darks, so that the jagged shape of the dead Able slashes across the dimmer field. Bougeureau is slipping out of his comfortable contrast range here, all the way down into black, to express the emotions of this story. And yet he is still failing with regard to the figures themselves. Everything just feels posed - Adam's hand on his breast, Eve's face buried in her hands, Able's outflung arms. Again, there is no personal contribution to this painting. In the course of researching this post, I found out that Bougeureau painted this right after the death of his own son. And yet, this practitioner of the well-made picture couldn't summon up a single authentic feeling for his figures, only for his colors and values.

Doubt it? Take a look at Ilya Repin's 1885 depiction of Ivan the Terrible just after having murdered his son:

Click on the image so you can see Ivan's expression clearly. That is real fucking agony. Repin has drawn on everything he has to understand and communicate the emotions of the scene. Technically, the painting is nowhere near as flashy as the Bougeureau; it is entirely in the classical black=dark mode. But Bougeureau himself was struggling toward this mode for his own dead son painting, and he flubbed it.

Enough about Bougeureau. Let's take a look at the same arc of emotive failure in Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Here's a fairly ordinary composition:

Once again, the colors are very Impressionist - full-spectrum, responsive to bounce light from surrounding surfaces, varied and vibrant. (You may note there's a lighting resemblance between this painting and that Bougeureau of the beggar-girls above. There are technical and practical reasons for this which I'll get into sometime.)

Alma-Tadema is better at poses than Bougeureau. These people do look like they're hanging out together on a relaxed afternoon. His technique isn't as solid as Bougeureau's, although I personally would drive a large truck over any number of defenseless old ladies to be able to paint even this well. Anyhow, nothing major happening in this painting - just some friends chilling, reading Homer, as groups of friends tend to do.

Let's go up the emotional dial a little bit and see how well Tadema handles the challenge. This is called "The Unconscious Rivals," so I'm guessing they both like the same guy:

Look at that unbelievable bounce light on the interior! Holy crap is that lighting incredible! And the flowers - and all those colors! Wait, there are people in the painting? Yeah, sure, whatever. You see where we've arrived? The same sensual overwhelming that we have with the Impressionists. The way things look is very important. The people are not so important.

Shall we go up the scale a little more? How about another dead son painting (Pharoah, in this place - the one who tangled with Moses):

Hmm. No facial expression on Pharoah - I do believe he's frozen with grief. Dead son with arms flung out. Woman bent over covering her face. And Tadema's clearly been reading from the same Book of Tragic Aesthetics as Bougeureau (Rule 3: Make dead son scenes dark. Dark, and brown.). This image is pictorially compelling, but it is not psychologically revealing.

But this isn't the top of the emotional scale on scenes that Tadema tackled. For that, you have to go to his Heliogabalus painting. In case you don't know, Heliogabalus was a strong contender for the title of most psychotic Roman emperor. One time, he threw a dinner party and then killed all the guests by dumping several tons of rose petals on them. Tadema thought this would make a pretty good subject for a painting...

...I guess because it involves lots and lots of freaking rose petals. And no doubt this is the finest depiction in the history of painting of several tons of falling rose petals. In fact, it is not much different from any good floral painting by an Impressionist. What Tadema completely fails at is insight into any of the characters. The people getting killed by rose petals: not particularly fussed about it. Heliogabalus: bored.

Now you could make a fine argument for Heliogabalus actually having been bored during this scene. For him to be bored is an expression of absolute decadence. It's a frightening proposition. But the decadence bleeds from Heliogabalus to Tadema. You can search high and low in the works of Tadema and not find a single strongly felt emotion. Because this is the case, one starts to suspect that Tadema isn't so much expressing a choice in his Heliogabalus painting as he is covering up a deficiency.

As I did with Bougeureau, I contend that part of the problem here is that Tadema is spending all of his energy worrying about light and color, and there is nothing left for the integration of strong feelings into the work. The work is so technically demanding that, mighty though these painters are, they cannot create their paintings at this degree of technical polish, in this panchromatic paradigm, and also express the greater part of their humanity.

This is not a monovalent explanation for the essential failure of the Academics. The Academics to me are a haunting and tragic subject which touches on many of the themes and pathologies of modernism itself. As with so many other things, I will have more to say about this.

For now, I hope I have demonstrated, at least rudimentarily, that arguably the most technically accomplished painters who ever lived:

a. did work in the panchromatic idiom.
b. did care deeply about and did tackle the mighty themes of Western philosophy, mythology, and drama.
c. did fail, at least in part because of the technical strictures of the panchromatic idiom.

In the last post, I will cover this failure of integration in terms of aesthetics, psychology, and philosophy. Or, to put it in a more positive way, I will describe what I see as the divergent strengths of each of the two major idioms (darkness from black, and darkness from dark colors).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Scariest Painting in the World

Well damn, it's been a while. I'm sorry I left all two or three of you in the lurch like that (hello Cleveland!). Traveling left less blogging time than I expected. I've just gotten back to New York...

Here's a little update for you: I thought the most frightening painting I had ever seen was a particular Magritte. In fact, it was two particular Magrittes that I had conflated in my memory. This is the first one. The image is small, but that's because it's the only image of it I could find on the Internet - not a particularly good image:

And here's the second painting:

How are these scary paintings? Well, when I was very small, I had a distinct terror of scale distortions. Even now, when I am dead tired, the relative sizes of things seem to fluctuate before the eye of my imagination, in a very frightening way. So Magritte's room filled by a rock was naturally terrifying to me.

But in my memory, it wasn't the rock filling the room, it was one of those odd spheres. Why? Because before I saw either painting, I had a nightmare of a room filled by a stone sphere, sliced horizontally. The top hemisphere rotated in one direction, and the bottom hemisphere rotated in the opposite direction, so that they made a terrible stony grinding noise against one another. This nightmare included the scale distortion and the, for some reason, elementally horrifying bisected sphere.

Naturally, when I saw Magritte's spheres and Magritte's filled room, I reacted strongly to them, and eventually fused them in my recollection.

Now, you may never have seen those spheres before, but I can guarantee you've seen something similar, which is also terrifying to children:

Lucas and his designers were pretty careful to push your buttons in the most reliable way possible. They put a lot of thought into how to make the first glimpse of Darth Vader terrifying, and they cooked up his black shape coming down that white hall as an optimal solution to the problem. So I'm guessing the design of the Death Star was no accident either.

Here's the question: is there something to this form that we are wired to find frightening?

Maybe. I don't know. It sure scares me, though. I'm still scared of that room with the stone sphere in it, grinding.

Let me add a word about something I will call scientism. You may have noticed that I've put a lot of scientific explanations of various optical and cognitive phenomena into this blog so far. Well, that's all very well and good. But I am also skeptical of my own urge to find a "scientific" explanation for every little thing. Not that I won't go right on doing it - I've got some more stuff planned along these lines, and it's very interesting.

On the other hand, it's worth remembering that to try to explain away every artistic phenomenon by reference to science, is a very weak approach. This approach, this scientism, is weak in terms of science, and weak in terms of art. How?

In terms of science, it's weak because it fails to acknowledge that science is constantly advancing and changing. I gave you a whole lot of stuff about the current understanding of the neurology of facial recognition a while back. Guess what? These surmises are guaranteed to change, eventually. That's how science works. So let's not get carried away with the idea of some deeply conditioned "facial templates," and let's not stop thinking about Rembrandt just because we think we understand some things about foreheads.

In terms of art, this scientism is weak because it misses the point. When we talk about art, we talk about soul. The chemistry of anger is not the experience of anger; the scientific description of the physical substrate of any subjective state should not be confused with the subjective state itself. Art pertains to the subjective state; science is irrelevant to it. Science is relevant only to the making of art - and only inasmuch as it helps us to understand the tools and vocabulary we have available for interacting with the subjective state within which the soul exists. Apart from that, science has nothing to say about the significance, and the magnificence, of art.

Which is to say - science may help us to understand how it is that a painting strikes us just so, but it cannot help us to understand why this is important to us, as human beings in a transit between what we have been and what we will be. Therefore, when we are dealing with the seductive charms of scientific explanation, it is worth remembering the limits of what science offers us, and not shirk our responsibility as artists to see science, like all of our painting techniques, as a tool and not an end in itself.

That is how we can obtain what science offers, without becoming entangled in scientism.

I'll try to watch for that myself - because there is plenty more stuff from the fields of cognitive psychology and neurology which I am going to draw on as this blog progresses. I think the mechanism of our ability to gain visual knowledge is fascinating, and useful for us as artists. But I'm trying not to make a totem out of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Favorite Sculpture

It's nothing large, heroic, or famous. A copy of it lives at the Tel Aviv Art Museum, which I had the good luck to visit yesterday. I've been visiting this sculpture, at this museum, since I was about ten years old. It's Rodin's extremely rough 1886 study Camille Claudel Wearing a Bonnet. How rough is it? Well, he seems to have dropped it before casting it, because there's a big flat spot on the right side of the bonnet:

When I first saw it, I sank into it. This person in this sculpture seemed to contain an awareness of the entire world. And yet she was suffused with a sort of sadness. I could not comprehend it at the time - how could somebody who knew the entire world be sad? I wanted to know what she knew, and I wanted to talk to her about it. I wanted to live in her, in the world she contained that was inflected with her personality and its sublimely sensitive awareness.

Also, she was beautiful. This face, the plainest of faces, the simplest, unfolds into beauty as you stand and study her. The seeming androgyny dissolves in the profound femininity of that curved jaw, the softness to the sides of the lips, the delicate nose. You keep returning to those mesmerizing eyes, whose gaze you can never quite catch, because they are defocused, they are staring into that interior universe.

After I first met Rodin's Camille, I had a teacher who stumbled on this same concept of containing the world. He suggested that genius might be defined as having the capacity to undertake, and succeed at, the process of reproducing the entire world in one's mind, to so great a degree of validity that, by examining the reproduced world, properties of the real world could be deduced. His example was Einstein, who, examining his interior model of the world, derived the principle of general relativity.

Take or leave this idea of genius. I don't necessarily find it completely useful myself. But according to its terms, this Camille would have to be described as a genius; and by extension, Rodin himself, who created, or re-created, her. This is one reason it is my favorite sculpture: many other sculptures capture large parts of the world, but only this one includes all of it.

When I was 14, I read Rodin on Art, a short but mighty book about which I will have more to say. And I spent many years after that thinking about Rodin.

During all that time, every time I came to Israel (I visit frequently - my father's family lives here), I visited that same Camille with whom I have been in love since I was very young, and who will haunt me all my life. One time, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I kissed her when nobody was looking. Every time I visit, I draw her a couple times. The drawings are always just atrocious. I am intimidated by the totality of this work of art; I begin to fail as soon as I try to capture it a second time. Camille will never be mine. I will have to create my own Camille.

Here are this visit's wretched efforts:

What, you thought I was kidding? I wouldn't lie to you. They really aren't ever any good. Maybe I'll scan some older ones when I get back to the States if I can find them.

This sculpture changed my life. From it, I learned the profundity available to art - the magnitude of the world - the beauty of women - and I got my first inkling of the tragic quality of consciousness itself, which is infinite, in the context of the human condition, which is finite.

What art changed you?