Monday, October 26, 2009

Spanish Black

A thing you should know about me. Probably my favorite painter working today is Stephen Wright. It just so happens that I'm lucky enough to be friends with him, and I'll likely refer to him a lot in this blog, prefacing his observations with, "Steve says this," and, "Steve says that."

What happened was, when I lived in Los Angeles, I started painting seriously. And the first model I ever hired for a painting was Kem:Kem is one of the most inspiring models I've ever worked with, not to mention a wonderful friend. Anyhow, it turned out Kem was also working for Steve, and Kem started passing messages back and forth between me and Steve, such as, "Steve says to remember that the length of my jaw from the back to the center is the same as the length of my jaw from the back to the ear." Which was actually really helpful.

Once I moved to New York, I met Steve in person at a gallery opening, and we hit it off, and have been corresponding since then. I wasn't a very good painter when I started talking with Steve, but he was really generous about my work and my prospects for improvement. Along the way, he noticed I was using black a lot. He concluded that I was using black as a crutch, and encouraged me to think about not doing that.

I went to an art high school where we were forbidden to use black. It had to be a mix of french ultramarine and burnt umber if we wanted a dark dark. When I started painting, I carried on still in thrall to this proscription. Then a few years ago I read Harold Speed's excellent book on painting (an Adam Miller recommendation), and he mentioned the reduced Velazquez palette of black, red, and white. I had been noodling around with a little black before that, but reading that got me over the last of my hesitation, and I went nuts with the black.

So at that time, it probably was a crutch, as Steve said. But I ignored his opinion and kept on going with the black. I felt like there was a depth to it which I had not yet plunged into, because I hadn't gotten good enough. The early black was clunky, awkward.

I disagree with a lot of what Peter Schjeldahl has to say about art. But every once in a while I feel like he nails it. He wrote an article recently; I forget which painter it was about, but he mentioned their debt to the Spaniards for his black. This abruptly crystallized for me the approach I was moving toward with black. It was Spanish black.

What is Spanish black? It is an invasive black, an overwhelming black. It is a black from which light struggles to emerge. It is not the black of a shadow here or there, of the corner of a dim room at night. It is a universal black in which the world itself is plunged. All light that comes out of this black is miraculous, and under perpetual threat:

Where could such a black come from? My hunch is that it's another one of the aesthetic consequences of Catholicism, like the Italian knack for making horrific zombie movies. This black of the Spaniards seems to me to arise easily from an outlook in which the world is in a pitched and possibly losing battle against evil. The black is a vicious and obscuring black, an all-pervasive and throbbing black. If the devil is walking abroad, and horrors abound, and virtue must clench its teeth and face defeat squarely - then how could you see the world as anything but a failing dichotomy, and black as an active presence? Not a lack of light, but a mobile character with a will and personality of its own.

Consider this painting by Zurbaran, which our friend Schjeldahl also recently extolled to the heavens:In this painting, black has been forced back to the edges of objects. The pure black does not inhabit the objects, but rather surrounds them. The objects themselves are clear, but their hard edges make them brittle, as if they might abruptly fall out of the painting. They are the argument that reason makes against a cosmic seething chaos - they are not native to the world they inhabit. The painting is characterized by utter control, because it is overwhelmed with menace. This is a metaphysical take on the theme of Spanish black. It need not be the specific goal of Zurbaran the man to produce this particular philosophical statement. All we need ask is: what does Zurbaran the painter naturally select as the background for his carefully arranged objects? The void.

Velazquez, in contrast, approaches black from the psychological end of the spectrum. His primary interest in his people is not moral analysis, but psychological perception. Morally speaking, his people are not wicked. Rather, they partake of the moral failures of all men: they have performed wicked acts, acts of self-humiliation, of lack of resolve, perhaps of petty cruelty. But this is not what interests Velazquez. What interests him is the psychology of his people. His people are half-sunk in black. He does not force black back out to the background. Black bleeds into the people themselves, softens the clarity of their image, infects them. Consider his The Dwarf Don Juan Calabazas, called Calabacillas:
A mental defective, possessed of a cheer that is indifferent to his suffering because he himself is deaf to his suffering. He radiates goodwill. He wants to help Velazquez make this painting, and perhaps he is pleased to be painted. But his hair is already pure black, his eyes are losing themselves in black. Black is creeping into simple goodness, and preparing to destroy it. But goodness will not be destroyed. Calabazas has an easy familiarity with this encroaching blackness, he accepts it and welcomes it. It does not occur to him to rebel against it because the blackness is part of the nature of things. He would not think to put it this way, but he lives in equlibrium with the blackness, and it does not interfere with his joy. Go on making fun of him all day; you cannot defeat him.

This kind of virtue is a mighty virtue, mighty in its humility, its ease, its unselfconsciousness, its light-footed understanding of evil.

Consider another of Velazquez's famous dwarves. We don't seem to know his name:

Black hovers around him and within him. He is in full possession of his reason - he understands his humiliation. His hands are balled up, and he glowers. Black is upon his eye and beneath it, like a mold which cannot be scraped away. It twines in his hair, his moustache. He rejects the blackness, but it is so interwoven with his self-conception that without it, he would dissolve. He shows us all the emotions that arise when reason and virtue confront the tragedy of a ruined world: outrage - pride - scorn - rebellion - resolve. This man, the most humiliated of all, is the proudest of men. But he cannot win.

The theme of black plays out in variations up and down Spanish art. Consider that dark room behind Murillo's strangely threatening flirts:
Or perhaps you'd like to see Goya tackle a similar theme:
Well, while we're at it, let's see where else black crops up in Goya.
Had enough? No?
Well, you get the point. This black is utterly unlike the black you will find in England or Italy. Can you imagine Tiepolo making skies so black, or people so cognizant of cruelty? Or Rubens - Rubens is full of drama, but never despair. In Rubens, there is no apocalyptic darkness. Only the Spaniards understand it.

In Velazquez, Spain does for psychology in painting what Russia does for it in writing, through Dostovesky.

So it is this black which attracts me, a black inconceivable to England and Italy, a black that surpasses even Flanders and Germany, the bottomless black into which one can plunge, the black from which all light arising is wonderment and fragile triumph.

Here's the face of the current Leah painting:
No, I'm not Velazquez. But I'm working on becoming me.

Sometime soon, I'll write about the idea of optical black. This is a very interesting topic as well, pertaining to the interaction between meaning in painting and the neurology of perceiving darkness.

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