Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I just finished a painting which, by an amusing coincidence, is directly related to a talk I heard over the weekend by Donald Kuspit, an art historian, professor, and critic for ArtForum. Kuspit was advancing the thesis that abstraction in art is anti-feminine to its core. Proceeding from the predominance of representations of women in the earliest known art, and the continuous quest for integration of the parts (with women ever as the subjects) thereafter, he contends that the modern art movement, first with its fragmentation, and then with its complete abstraction, is in large part an anti-female movement.

Well, that's a lot to swallow, and I'm not entirely convinced, although the macho swagger we associate with Jackson Pollock and the "men's men" artists, certainly give it the intuitive ring of at least a half-truth.

Anyhow, Kuspit cited Piet Mondrian as evidence for his argument. The contention is that Mondrian's straight-line abstractions are not only implicitly misogynistic (women being associated with curves), but explicitly misogynistic in the stated aesthetics of Mondrian himself. A little googling has gotten me only this for textual support:
The New Plastic in Painting, a text published in the first issues of the journal De Stijl in 1917, defines "representation of any kind" as "predominantly female art." The historical dominance of representation is the expression in art of "oppression by the female, a legacy of the old mentality," which "in our time... stil weighs so heavily on life and on art that there is little room for male-female equilibrium." The way to the establishment of this equilibrium can be sown by "abstract-real" art (Mondrian's earlier term for his "neoplastic" art), where it is given form in particular by the relation between feminine horizontality and masculine verticality. The victory of the masculine principle of abstraction is evidenced by the disappearance of curves, with all lines "tensed," as Mondrian put it, by the dynamism of rational control.
Well, at least as much of that statement is interpretation by the authors of the passage (from Critical Terms for Art History, Robert S. Nelson, Richard Shiff) as it is old Piet himself. But assuming it to be correct for a moment, it seems to suggest that Kuspit, by focusing on the "masculinity" of the straight line, is elliding Mondrian's own proposition on the male-female duality of straight lines, depending on their vertical/horizontal orientation. In a sense, Mondrian has made two statements about whether or not straight lines are entirely masculine, and Kuspit is taking the less dualistic statement for the entirety of the argument.

But let's take Kuspit at his word, that the Mondrian pictorial system is anti-female. Well, that brings us to this painting I happen to have been working on, which I am calling Integrity, because, again, I suck at names. Here's the painting:

That would be a female model (Jordan), integrated into a single relaxed form so much as I and the wonderful Jordan were able, and painted in a manner I borrowed as much as possible from the great integrator, Da Vinci (I used the color scheme of the early Renaissance for the flesh, and the pictorial convention of the fresco for the emphatic outline). From its conception, I wanted this figure, with its organic irregularity and unity, to sit in front of a Mondrian. So I hunted around until I found this 1921 Mondrian here. I think it's called Untitled:

By means of simple photoshop tricks, I eliminated the colors and thinned the lines:

Then I rotated it until it I felt like it serendipitously matched the divisions of the figure:

Then I placed it into the painting:

So I happened to have foregrounded, in a way, the very point that Kuspit was making, by bringing the warm, integrated, organic, and feminine image into juxtaposed conflict with the cold linear Mondrian grid. What the effect of this conflict is in terms of the final painting, I cannot say - that's up to the viewer.

Maidman, you may be wondering, are you some kind of an intellectual?

No. I'm not anti-intellectual as regards my work, but I would say that I'm non-intellectual. What this means is that I am open to an intellectual interpretation of work, but my work does not arise from an intellectual mechanism. I didn't sit down and say, "Well, I'd like to explore the conflict between the masculinized modernist paradigm and the classical concept of the feminine." I drew Jordan at a life drawing workshop, and the painting just popped into my head. It seemed like it would be a good painting, so I painted it. That's more or less how all of my paintings happen.

But you could ask me the question, "Are you some kind of an intellectual?" from another angle. You could say, "Do you believe that paintings have intellectual content?"

I would say to you, sure they do. I will even go so far as to say that they are capable of having profound, complex, and even revelatory intellectual content. But I will not hold with the critics in contending that this content is particularly historically important. I think you're looking at a certain excitable revolutionary quality to the French with or without Liberty Leading the People:

And I think you're looking at The Terror with or without the Death of Marat:

I think paintings can illustrate the thought of the times, and prophesy the thought of the ages following. But I do not think that one woman more or fewer gotten beaten up, snubbed, or leered at based on Mondrian's frankly idiotic musings. People are people, and history has more important things to shape it than pictures. Pictures are one doorway to the transcendental, but the transcendental is hardly, to date, the prime motivating force of mankind.

No doubt I will find reason to argue against this position regarding the role of art at some later date.

A final note: Mondrian came to mind for this painting because I happen to like Mondrian. I've got a soft spot for Mondrian, Sol LeWitt, and all artistic geometers, because had I been one whit less interested in girls and more interested in number theory, I might have been a mathematician myself.

Next time I will explain what on earth I was doing at a talk by Donald Kuspit.


If you've been following this blog, you know that I've navigated some pretty tricky reasoning based on involved neurological research. I try hard not to misunderstand or misrepresent the work of the scientists and scholars I cite.

Well, I sure did it here. Donald Kuspit clarifies that he did not say abstraction per se was anti-feminine. His point was in regard to Mondrian only, and based on the solid documentary evidence that Mondrian called the curved line female, and the straight line male, and then went right on ahead and did away with curved lines in his work.

With typical categorical abandon, I extended Kuspit's argument to cover the entire rest of abstract art. So, uh... just ignore this post. And many apologies to Mr. Kuspit.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Prime Number Model of Progress in the Visual Arts

Well, this is going to be a philosophy-for-poets sort of a post.

Just so I myself don't forget, I'm working (not very fast) on 1. two more posts about edges and edge-detection, one of which is basically just a long reply to Chris's comment on the last post and 2. two more posts about the depiction of eyes. One requires some art-historical research, and the other requires finding a bunch of images that are tough to find.

Down to business. Consider this: we can't help agonizing about whether we are doing something "new" in art. Well, mostly, we're not. Imagine being the first guy to contrast blue and orange in a picture! Wow - that must have been one hell of a thing, and that guy was probably very pleased with his genius, and his friends probably bought him dinner until he got to be all insufferable about his own awesomeness. Then he had to top himself. So what does he do? Violet and yellow!

step to this

That guy's friends resign themselves to Mr. Artistic Genius having done it again. Nobody has ever thought of this before! And when they get tired of his attitude, what stunt does he pull next? He invents Christmas, that's what he does:

...and then he lives happily ever after, because who could hate Christmas?

But now all the juxtapositions of complementary colors have been discovered. Nobody will ever again be the first person to juxtapose the big six complementary colors. So art moves on. Some other new thing is required, if new things are what we seek.

In the history of art so far, there is a finite list of discoveries of absolutely fundamental new things. Complementary color. Value. Line. Shape. The figure. The still life. The landscape. Narrative scene-making. Perspective. Anatomy. Psychology.

Notice that these discoveries gradually become more complex. The simple ones come first, the tricky ones emerge once the simple ones are available and mastered.

Now let's look at prime numbers. For those of you who have forgotten, those are the integers evenly divisible only by 1 and themselves. Of the first 100 integers, 25 are prime numbers:

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97

By gentleman's agreement, 1 is excluded from this list.

I am a dirty monotheist.

If you look closely, though, you'll notice that the density of prime numbers falls across this interval. Of the first ten integers, four are primes. Of the ten integers between 91 and 100, one is a prime. Two properties of the distribution of primes across the integers have been proven:

1. Primes are infinite in number.
2. Primes continue to get scarcer.

How to predict the locations of large primes in the vast universe of integers has occupied the brains of some unusually clever mathematicians, leading to formulations like this:

And this:


And yet for all this cleverness, nobody has found a road map to the large and increasingly rare primes. Computers still find big ones, but even when they do, these elusive leviathans take a while to prove their bona fides. For instance, this is a prime number:


It is the second largest known Sophie Germain prime, discovered in 2009. All ye need to know, and this you figured out for yourself, is that it lacks the grace and intuitive clarity of your 3, your 5, or your 7.

You can see where I'm going with this. I'm proposing that new, genuinely new, things in art are like the primes. There were a lot of them at the beginning. But they get rarer over time; rarer, and less intuitively beautiful. We will never run out of them, but increasingly, it will take centuries, and then millenia, to discover them. After all, we cannot assign a computer to the problem of innovation in art, because art is an artifact of the interaction of the soul and the universe. Every new discovery will demand a larger number of artists broken on the wheel of fruitless effort. Not just lousy artists either; geniuses, who had they been lucky enough to be born earlier, would have discovered the juxtaposition of complementary colors.

This presents a quandary to the artist. What should he attempt to accomplish? We have discovered so many fundamental things about art, art-primes if you like, that each art-prime is like a village, or a city. Each has a community of artists devoted to it, who live in the comfort of its fire, which is not a new fire, but has neither ceased to shed heat and light. Moreover, there are roads between these art-prime cities, well-traveled roads of familiar composites. Just as 10 is the composite product of two primes, 2 and 5, so your average Matisse or Picasso is a composite of two art-primes, line and color.

It is enough to live on these cities and to travel these roads. Our current art culture places a very high value on discovery of new art-primes, but they are rarely to be had, and many loudly-hailed discoveries turn out to be composites, or nullities. Many artists set out on the path of discovery, but few are rewarded.

My belief, in fact, is that the next art-prime will be discovered by someone who isn't looking for it. That's how it goes in human affairs. Do you think Proust sat down and said, "I'm going to invent Proust On Time?" I don't think so. I think he had a good idea, maybe he thought it was even a new idea, but I don't think he thought it was a New Idea. So he started writing, and when he got done, he said, "Well, that's a hell of a thing." And then he died.

So it will go in the visual arts. Some hard-working resident of a city of the known will strike out in a slightly new direction; he will not conceive it as a totally new direction, just something a little different to try, to set himself apart from the crowd, or to respond to that inner drive which is how most people think of art. And when he gets done, he will have changed the world, and made it larger and more glorious. But his innovation will not be so clear and beautiful as the complementary colors. It will not have the intuitive unity of a 2; it will be the artistic equivalent of a large and incomprehensible Sophie Germain prime. It will take many years for other artists to understand what this one accidental innovator has accomplished.

Now that I've written it out, I suppose this is a very dark view of innovation in the visual arts. But we are not young, as artists, any longer. If we continue to pursue the visual arts, we will either grow more mature and more comprehensive, or we will find some unanticipated way to reset the clock and become like children again.

For my part, I have painted this, and it is getting a little bit of attention as part of an art fair I am participating in this week:

Red, 60"x36", oil on canvas, 2009

A note on methodology: one of the things I like most about science and math is that it provides just wonderful similes for things in the humanities. In this respect, science and math are like the Bible. What could more perfectly capture how it is tough to enter, and tough to leave, a close relationship, than the concept of the Coulomb barrier? At the same time, while such similes are marvelous, they should not be mistaken for metaphors or identities. One thing is not the other thing. I cannot abide people who think that quantum mechanics "proves" Zen buddhism. Some things are structurally similar to other things, so that if you understand the structure of one, you can understand what is meant by comparing it with the other. This is the full extent of what I mean when I say that progress in the visual arts is like the series of prime numbers.