Tuesday, July 27, 2010


There is a wonderful model named Stephanie who moved back to New Mexico over a year ago. Before she left, I prepared a painting of her for when she was gone: a reference drawing and a bunch of reference photographs. I do this for every painting, but usually I then paint from the actual model. This was not going to be possible with the last Stephanie painting.

I find it very difficult to paint without a model present - where's the fun in that? But I really liked this painting idea. Stephanie doesn't have an angry bone in her body, but I wanted the painting to be angry: almost impossible to look at. I had an idea for how to do that, too, and the idea was cadmium orange. Why cadmium orange? It's a hot color, and when used unwisely, an intense and ugly color. I had some idea of what it could do based on a portrait I painted when I was just starting out as a painter, in 2005:

I never painted the background, but I'm very fond of this painting, which was my second serious painting. The color in it is not unbearable - there is a cold light from the left which keeps it under control. But I used a lot of hot colors on the right, not really knowing what I was doing. I've thought about it since then, though, and what I wanted to do was a painting with only the hot colors on the right. A painting without relief from the hot colors. That was the idea for this Stephanie painting. Here's the palette I set up for it:

It's a simple palette, and I thought about it for a long time before I started the painting. It includes only naples yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, burnt sienna, burnt umber, and ivory black. There's no white, because white is too tempting - you can make anything brighter with some white, but it also cools the image down. It's a respite from the hot colors. And I debated long and hard about using black in the painting. Black also functions as a relative cool in a situation like the one I was setting up, and I didn't want to leave myself anywhere to turn when I inevitably sought to balance the colors in the painting. But I figured I could keep it under control.

Amusingly, what I ultimately wound up using for a cool was naples yellow. A cool yellow, relative to those fearful cadmium colors.

The painting was about fury, and the fury was in the image, but it was also in the color. Having a model present is like having a physical bedrock for your work. When you are wandering adrift in the nebulous region between your mind and your paint brush, you can look to the model, and the presence of the model will remind you what you're doing. A photograph is no substitute.

In this instance, the physical bedrock was the cadmium orange. It's simply unworkable, it's a horrible color. It's best used for little passages, like if someone is wearing a garish orange sash - that's a nice place to put some cadmium orange. I suppose you could mix cadmium orange into a perfectly acceptable flesh mix, but my goal was to deal with from-the-tube cadmium orange, the pure goblin. So I wrestled with cadmium orange the whole time, and that was the physicality underlying the making of the painting: the paint itself. I would shy away from using any more cadmium orange, and then I would force myself to cover a whole area with cadmium orange and then deal with it. If I found myself leaning on the comparatively civilized burnt sienna, I would immediately shift back to cadmium orange. Perhaps I got carried away, but I liked this experimental procedure.

I worked on the painting for four days, from start to finish. Four very long days - it's close to life-sized:

You Will Not Be Forgiven, 60"x36", oil on canvas, 2010

I don't know about you, but for my part, I have noticed that I am only permitted to do anything once. What I mean is this - I had an unusual degree of knowing in advance what the colors I chose for this painting would do. Usually, I don't know exactly where I'm going with any particular thing. It's better, for me, not to know: my best work rides along the very edge of failure. I struggle and sweat for all these skills, but the skills are best in the minute before I master them. Once I know how to control them totally, their use loses its intensity, it becomes complacent. With this painting, I threw everything I know about color at it, almost certain that it would work. It did work - it might not work for you, but it works for me in the sense that I asked the colors to do something, and they did precisely that. If I were to do that again, without introducing some element I do not know how to control, I think I would make a boring painting.

Since I finished this painting, I've started four new ones, with models thankfully present. I'm trying a new color theory for the flesh in the Claudia painting I talked about below. I'm trying to depict extreme light over-exposure with stylized hot midtones in a second painting. In a third, the entire figure is cool-color stylized midtones: I will have to go much farther with grays than I ever have. And in the fourth, I am painting everything in a completely lunatic greenish indigo, and working on distressing the image enough to make some parts of it unreadable. We'll see how that goes.

I think the key is this - to continue finding a way to be at the very start of things. It is at the end of things that we stiffen and become inflexible. Our masterful technique reads as dead. It is at the start that there is excitement, a sense of opportunity and possibility. There is inevitable awkwardness, but I have always thought that awkwardness was a reasonable price to pay for life.

Look, I'm no romantic about crudity. The more masterful you become, the more this mastery serves as a foundation for your sense of being at the beginning. It is a background noise, but a background noise that makes the painting, overall, well executed. The awkwardnesses rise to higher levels. But the awkwardnesses continue to serve as a talisman of vitality and the beginning. Without the mastery, the expression falters, and without the excitement of beginning, there is rarely anything to express.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Well! Let me tell you a little bit about Claudia and then send you packing to her blog.

I just started working on my first painting with Claudia - she's a model I've drawn many times at Spring Street and gotten to know over the course of one delightful chat after another at various art events around town.

Modeling, as with so many other practices, involves elements both of talent and skill. Skills can be developed - professionalism, strength, endurance, good body-position memory, a knowledge of the types of poses that work with one's body and are interesting to the life drawing student. Talent is one of those things you are either lucky enough to have, or not. With regard to modeling, these involve creativity, passion, and a face and body that are suited to expressing emotions.

Claudia is a wonderful model: fortunate enough to be talented, and dedicated enough to have become skilled.

Apart from these, though - and this is very important when considering whether to work with a model privately - she is great fun to chat with. You spend a lot of time with a model when you paint or sculpt them, and it's not a bad idea to have an eye, in choosing models, toward people you think you might want to be friends with anyway. Claudia is one of those kinds of people.

But don't take my word for it. Almost uniquely, Claudia also keeps a massive and popular blog chronicling her life in art. She's a brisk and funny writer with insight into her work and excitement about art: all sorts of art, all the phases of making art, the history and gossip of art. Scroll around the blog if you have the time and inclination, and get a sense of what makes Claudia such an excellent person to spend time with:


When I paint, I think of my work with models as "doing justice to," the rather harsh Greek phrasing of the matter. I hope to become good enough to do justice to the marvelous people I paint. I hope that my Claudia painting will do justice to Claudia.

Here's a mediocre drawing of her I did at a workshop not long ago. It's not much of a drawing, but I think it catches a little bit of her electric presence:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Nerdrum Affair

Perhaps you remember that, a while back, I wrote that I was not in the business of trashing successful living artists. Because maybe I'd have to work with them later. Well, I've exhibited with one, and I'm about to talk some smack about him, because this was what he had to say:
There is no doubt about it: In the previous century Hitler was the greatest Artist, greater even than Picasso.
Who said that? Well, you might not have heard of him. He's a Scandinavian painter named Odd Nerdrum. As these things go, very successful - his paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. Mine, ahem, do not. Nerdrum saw fit to post this little observation on his Facebook page, where he is in the habit of posting delphic epigrams once in a while. I was among the first to notice the post, so I had the opportunity to be an early commenter. Let's see what I had to say:
I'm sorry, I find this unbelievably offensive, and I will be deleting you from my friend list now. This kind of pathetic wit is harmless enough until you start treading on the dead bodies of my relatives. You can go to fucking hell.
So I crossed that rubicon, and I may as well elaborate a little bit on how, exactly, Nerdrum can go to fucking hell. I've been thinking it over.

Nerdrum's post has a plain-language meaning, and its plain language meaning is a praise of Hitler.

Nerdrum's post also has an ironic art-world-critical meaning, in which he is attacking the moribund state of art by saying that, if Picasso is your paragon of good art, then Hitler, in your aesthetic cosmology, is even better.

Nerdrum's post is further modified by a labored and, by my lights, dubious distinction he has been working on for years between what he calls Art, of which he disapproves (think: modernism and post-modernism), versus Kitsch, which is supposed to be the good stuff (think: Rubens, Velazquez, Titian, etc.).

The Hitler quip triggered a flurry of comments, about 180-200, before the brave Mr. Nerdrum deleted the post. Hearteningly, many of the comments were to the effect of Nerdrum being a prick. The rest were defences, mostly on the basis of contending that those opposed suffered either a lack of relevant information, or a lack of proper interpretation, or a lack of sense of humor. Two actual Nazis crawled out of Nerdrum's list of 5,000 friends to defend, not so much Nerdrum, as Hitler.

I am going to tell you happy few right now that you have enough information to formulate a valid opinion of Nerdrum's post. It is obviously an ironic comment on some particular of the state of art, art criticism, and the art world.

What is just as obvious is that, by collapsing the moral distinction between anything to do with bad art, and the most profound monstrosity of which humanity is capable, Nerdrum has betrayed an astonishingly flattened moral topography. Let's consider the comment in light of a few options with regard to its interpretation:

1. Its plain-language meaning is its true meaning: he's praising Hitler.
2. It's an ironic critique: he has the moral topography problem.
3. It's meant to provoke: he has the moral topography problem.
4. It's meant to "inspire thought and discussion": he has the moral topography problem.

There is no way around concluding that he is either a Hitlerite, or has a disturbingly casual indifference to, and incomprehension of, evil.

Imagine spending time with a madman. In every particular, he is quite ordinary. He is friendly, considerate, perfectly reasonable in his conversation. Walking along the street with this madman, you pass a random stranger, and, out of the blue, he says something about how funny it would be to do this stranger a grievous harm of a particularly inventive and gruesome type. He chuckles a little bit, then continues with the previous discussion. He continues to be friendly, considerate, and reasonable. But the comment cannot be unsaid. Now, you have become aware that he is a madman, and nothing else he ever says will make it possible to consider him sane.

Nerdrum is not a madman. Rather, he is evil. His Facebook post is akin to the chance utterance of the madman: to Nerdrum, it was an acceptable comment. Perhaps meant to provoke, perhaps meant to outrage the squares - but overall, acceptable. And this makes us aware of something about him which any subsequent apologies (and they have not been forthcoming) cannot undo.

In kind, it is similar to, if less audacious and original than, unlistenable German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's public comment of September 16, 2001:
Well, what happened there is, of course—now all of you must adjust your brains—the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. [...] It is a crime, you know of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the "concert". That is obvious. And nobody had told them: "You could be killed in the process."
Nerdrum's supporters can, and have, argued that whereas Stockhausen was serious, Nerdrum was ironic. This is a distinction without a difference. The same moral flattening occurs in both instances, regardless of intent. It is not a comment you could think of without the moral flattening.

The moral flattening is not idiopathic. It is not the outcome of some lone lunacy. It is a symptom of a so-called artistic demeanor, a demeanor which considers the question of good and evil to be terribly passe, to have no claim on the artist's attention. It is a symptom of the decadence of culture. And in this respect, Nerdrum's comment was marvelously clarifying for me. Why?

Because I have spent years worrying about Nerdrum. I could never reach a conclusion about him. He has fabulous technique, and sometimes I am inclined to think of him as a legitimate artist. Other times, I am inclined to think of him as a fetishist whose work is best suited to the cover of Omni magazine. I have never been able to put my finger on what bothered me about his work, until now. Let's take a look at a few of his paintings:

In the last instance, you might recall my previous thoughts on mouths and eyes. The partial or total effacement of the eyes is a common motif in Nerdrum's portraits. He has a mouth fixation similar to that of De Kooning, who cut photographs of mouths out of magazines and stuck them directly on the canvas as a starting point for his faces. When he is not painting portraits, Nerdrum often paints hieratic figures in barren, threatening landscapes. Frequently, violence is implied or explicit:

...and for years, I have been unable to solve what it was about Nerdrum that was troubling me. Lately, I have fallen in with a crowd of painters who are huge fans of his. Many have studied with him, and many emulate the qualities of his paintings: the thick impasto, the mimicry, not so much of Rembrandt's technique, as of a romantic half-memory of Rembrandt's technique, the gauzy depiction of idealized faces, the hieratic figures, the threatening landscapes, the peculiar clouds, the funny hats. In fact, Nerdrum seems to be encouraging his students to paint ersatz Nerdrums: you can often recognize who has studied with him, as you can recognize the work of people who studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, because they all built ersatz Wrights.

Anyhow, Nedrum's comment finally clarified for me my problem with his work: flat moral affect. In depicting good and evil, he does not choose sides between them. He has a lurid fascination with brutality, but he does not define himself relative to it. Goya, whose work was more brutal, depicts horror, and is horrified. Nerdrum depicts horror, and is fascinated. In Nerdrum's universe, beauty is more important than virtue, and boredom is more repellent than evil.

My revulsion at this teaches me something about myself as an artist. It is often said that beauty and virtue are the same, or that the virtuous is beautiful. And this is often true. But when they diverge, I am obliged to choose virtue. I would rather be bored than wicked, and I would rather do right than be fascinating.

There is room in the world for wicked artists. Evil too must take an artistic form, from the perspective of evil, in order for us to complete our understanding of the dilemma of being human. Kundera has a wonderful quotation, which I am unable to find now, on the necessity of morally compromised writers, because otherwise history will be a tale told by choir-boys: a tale told from the perspective of moral innocence, which is to say, ignorance.

To be a successful evil artist, you must not only be good - you must be great. And you will still deserve the condemnation heaped upon you. But Odd Nerdrum is merely good.

Let's zoom back for a moment from the issue at hand, to the long-standing problem it exemplifies so well, to wit: what about this business of artists being assholes? What about that?

I have thought about that long and hard. After all, I'm an artist. Does this give me a right to treat people badly? Well, in my case, it would little serve my purposes as an artist, because the pictures I make come from love. So not being an asshole is very difficult for me as a practical career artist, but it is necessary in order to preserve the source of my inspiration. I am simply in love, in one way or another, with most of the people I know, and with my pictures, and with the people who sit for them. For me, a big part of love is a desire to know - not the good only, but the good and the bad, about that which is loved. And for people to be willing to show this to you, the good and the bad alike, again, the method of brutality is less effective than the method of adoration.

But leave aside the practical considerations. Many well-known artists and even great artists are notorious assholes. Caravaggio? Murderer - well, man-one, five to seven years, if this were Law and Order. Michelangelo? Grumpy as all hell, really stinky feet. Bernini? Had his girlfriend's face slashed. Picasso? Serial asshole to every woman he knew. The list goes on, and all the examples are more impressive than a shitty little Facebook post.

So what are we to make of the asshole problem, and of the link between artistry and assholery?

Here is my latest thinking on it. With regard to those who have already died, there is nothing we can do any longer. They lived; they died; they abused those around them and made what work they did. If the work is good - by all means, appreciate the work.

With regard to those who are living, absolutely - let them be assholes. But do not make a special exception for them because they are also artists. Treat them with the contempt you would treat any asshole. You don't get special dispensation to be an asshole because of what you can contribute to humanity. If it's really so important for you to be an asshole, for you to renounce your first citizenship, to the human race, then suffer the consequences. Nobody said it should be easy - it should be hard. There is no whining in art.

And if the work is good, then still appreciate the work, even the work by the living asshole. Just don't make it easy for the asshole to get away with being a jerk. Ostracize him. Humiliate him. Mock him. If he wants to make his own cost of producing art higher than it needs to be, make him pay every penny.

To go back from the general to the specific, I imagine some of my Nerdrum-following friends and acquaintances will, at some point, stumble on this post. Many of these friends are young; virtually all of them are extremely talented. This Nerdrumism of theirs appears to me to have the fanaticism of youth. It is in the nature of youth - I have suffered through this myself - to attach to heroes. Nerdrum has cultivated himself as a hero to many young artists. He has promulgated a system of virtues, many of which are legitimate virtues, and he has promulgated his own work as the ne plus ultra of quality and legitimacy. Part of becoming an adult is learning to recognize the faults of your heroes. It is learning to identify a set of principles which you can reliably advocate, and learning to separate those principles from men. It is a difficult and lonely process, setting your principles first and being skeptical even of them. Principles are fallible; our thinking is not perfect. But more fallible than principles are men, and sometimes even our heroes turn out to be cranky old Nazis.

UPDATE April 6, 2011

I notice this post is still getting a lot of traffic. I feel obliged to add that if anyone is thinking of using material from this post to prosecute Mr. Nerdrum under any ridiculous European hate speech laws, I will do everything I can to undermine the utility of my writing as evidence in the case.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Actus Purus

Or, the perfect actualization, called God.

This medieval Christian term seems to descend from Aristotle's conception of God. For Aristotle, that which exists has properties which can be divided into the actual, which is a realized and existing property of the thing, and the potential, a property of the thing which does not exist now but which may come to be. The potential is converted into the actual by means of an external cause. Aristotle, reasoning backward through the chain of effects and their causes, reaches to the first cause, the first mover, which he calls God. Because this mover is the first, it must be unchanged, unmoved, unaffected, by other causes. It has no potentiality - it is pure actuality.

There is an opposite quantity, called prima materia by the alchemists: the formless base of matter, all potential, no actualization.

Aristotle makes no claims, as far as I can tell, for the actual existence of prima materia, the way he does for actus purus. All things in the world, says Aristotle, are a little of both; and God is only one.

He has more to say about it, but let's not get into that. Instead, let's look at an image we've looked at a million times before, and see if we can't see something new in it:

First, let's think about it in terms of a literal application of this actus purus/prima materia dichotomy. Naturally, in a work of art you can't have a literal interpretation of very abstract philosophical ideas. But in this image, Michelangelo gives us a God in a state of very high motion - the cloth on his robes shows him moving, and he is surrounded by fluttering forms, a frenzy of motion. He stretches forward, he reaches toward Adam. His potential for motion is actualized, and his potential for action is actualized. He is an actus purus.

Adam, on the other hand, is barely risen above prima materia. His muscles do not tense in order to act - he takes no action. God's finger reaches actively, Adam's finger droops passively. Adam's forehead is smooth, God's is furrowed. God acts out of a block of complex forms, swooping cloth and angels; Adam sits on a vague landscape, formless colors suggesting the Earth.

This is one reading of this scene. Let's take another reading. God acts; Adam does not act. Who is the more powerful, in the psychological dynamics of this interaction? Adam lets God come to him; Adam, in his passivity, drives an active God into a maelstrom of passions. It is Adam who is the superior, and moreover, he is superior in the form we traditionally ascribe to the feminine: by merely showing himself, being himself, languidly, he inspires action in the masculine party.

But perhaps it is not fair to Michelangelo to describe him from a modern perspective like this. Let's rephrase the same thing in terms of the Aristotelian concepts. Who is the unmoved mover here? Again, it is Adam. In the narrative, God's touch will cause Adam to gain motion. But in the picture actually at hand, Adam does nothing for God, and God does everything for Adam. Adam causes God to move; God does not cause Adam to move. This is a scene of first things, and in any scene of first things, we find a first cause. Adam is the first cause; God's motions are that which is caused.

So - interesting, a little: a sphinx of an image, shimmering between one interpretation and another inside of a single set of concepts. Who is the first mover here? It depends on what you're looking for.

But one ought not to read too much into it. Michelangelo surely knew something of the Aristotelian concepts and their scholastic Christian interpretation. But he was an artist. He almost certaintly did not intellectually derive this image from a logical process; he probably had this image simply pop into his head, an intuitive outcome of everything he knew, and of his inspiration.

Why think about it in these terms at all then? Because it is very difficult to look at something familiar with new eyes. The Mona Lisa, the Sistine Ceiling - we are in danger of losing them, because of their familiarity. If we experiment with analyzing them from an alien perspective, legitimate or not, we can scrape the scales from our eyes and see them again in their dazzling originality. We can restore to them the shock of the new.


Hei Oulu! On kiva nähdä taas. Toivottavasti kaikki on hyvin sinulle!