Friday, February 24, 2012

I've Said It Once But It Bears Repeating

As you may remember, I've had a strong affection for Patricia Watwood's paintings for a long time. I went by the opening of her solo show "Myths and Individuals" at the Forbes Galleries yesterday evening. The Forbes Galleries are some galleries on the ground floor of the Forbes building at 5th Avenue and 12th Street:

It's an impressive building, and an impressive show - if you're in New York, you might consider dropping by and taking a gander at works covering over a decade of Patricia's creative output.

The opening, for a figurative painter like me, was like Facebook: The Real Life. I was Friends with half the room, on the basis of a shared practice of figurative painting, but hadn't actually met most of them. There was one guy that I recognized, and I could picture his paintings, but I had no idea what his name was. Very dislocating sensation.

I got to congratulate Patricia:

And say hey to Leah. This whole past year that I've been working on the Blue Leah paintings, Leah has been working with Patricia as well. I put them together; if you hang out long enough, with enough artists and models, you start to get a sense of who might go with whom. I recommended Leah to Patricia, and it went much better than I could have anticipated. The recent work was all Leah paintings. You'll remember this one - it inspired the first painting in the Blue Leah series:

Leah and one of her many doubles

But enough about all that. I wouldn't trouble you with this anecdote if I hadn't learned something interesting. Here's what happened. The show included the first two paintings of Patricia's I ever saw, in issues of American Artist in the early 2000's. I won't use professional photographs of the paintings here - rather, I'll show you how they looked in the show. The first painting was Patricia's self-portrait in a windbreaker:

The second was her female nude, Flora:

These paintings made a huge impression on me at the time: the vivid color, the solid flesh, the serenely classical composition. Seeing them in person, I was able to appreciate dimensions invisible to photography: the gentle dabbing of the brushwork, the sensual thickness of the paint, the modulation of unblended adjacent colors.

I am not too proud to admit that, when these paintings joined the body of work that guided me toward making a serious attempt at figurative painting, part of the guidance was just basic jealousy. I wanted to be able to paint those paintings. This is a childish motive, but a very powerful form of inspiration to improve. When I started, I was like a kid in a toy store: I wanted this, and this, and this, and this...

What I learned, seeing them in person, was that I myself have changed. Several steps of evolution separate me from my first encounter with Patricia's work.

The first step was the hunger to be like her, to be like Da Vinci, to be like Rubens, to be like Sargent, Titian, Velazquez, to be like everyone whose work appealed to me.

Then, when my painting began to resemble itself, it frustrated me that it was not like any of the painters I admired. I would nudge it in one direction, then nudge it in another. And yet, elastically, it returned to itself.

Now, I find I am like Aeschylus (I think it's Aeschylus) who, in his old age, breathed a sigh of relief that his lust had died down at last. Which is to say - I continue to have an immense affection for Patricia's work, but I no longer suffer from a lust to be Watwood the painter. Now, I recognize what I am, and what I am not; I am pleased with what I am, and at peace with what I amn't...

This state of reconciliation is accompanied by a change in my affection for Patricia's work, which makes it a much more pleasing thing to experience. For the first time, I can look at it without toothed envy: happy only that it exists, that it has its distinctive nature, and that I have a chance to enjoy it.

Here is her most recent Leah painting - in a professional photograph, so you can see it properly:

Venus Awakes, 2011, oil on canvas, 38"x34"

How different her vision of Leah is from mine! And yet, how marvelous, how sheerly sparkling in its reflection of what Patricia brings to her encounter with her paint and our shared model. How excellent is this, that there is more than one painter in the world, and we are different from one another?

Thank you, Patricia, and congratulations, and I wish you many more years of fulfilling creativity.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vincent and Theo

There's a distinction I've been meaning to draw on this blog for a long time, and now seems as good a time as any to draw it.

Let's say that you are pretty serious about being an artist: not just going off somewhere alone and making some work, but actually having the work be a career. Well, then, you're going to be facing a series of demands that are not only conflicting, but very possibly irreconcilable.

On the one hand, you have absolutely got to follow your inspiration and produce work that is as true as you can muster.

On the other hand, you've got to go out in the world and convince other people that your work is worthwhile. This particular going-out is especially nasty in the art world. There are three reasons for this:

1. Art doesn't really matter. Sure, you can claim that art nourishes the spiritual life of Man. That is a noble claim, and I encourage you to make it to somebody who remembers the value of their index fund before 2008.

2. Quality in art is presently unquantifiable, and is likely to remain so for the indefinite future. It is simply impossible to authoritatively claim that one piece is better than another without coming off as a jackass. This doesn't mean that you and I won't try.

3. Supply vastly outstrips demand. Between MFA factories and off-the-street savants, radically more art - even good art - is produced every year than the scarce dollars assigned to the art market can absorb. Don't be confused by the enormous price tags of famous sales. Money in art is unequally distributed, but even if it weren't, there is nowhere near enough of it to support the number of people who want to be artists.

These three problems divorce the art world from most of the dynamics which we assume govern any industry - things like value and common sense. When an industry is untethered from optimizing its product, a more evolutionarily primitive set of behaviors obtains. Art, like the other useless industries - fashion, film, and high school - is largely governed, at a political level, by the most simple-minded of primate dynamics; all the nonsense about eye contact, silver backs, exposing the teeth, and so forth. Experimentation (seriously twisted experimentation) has shown that rhesus macaques will pay good money (cherry juice) to look at photographs of the perineums and faces of, respectively, the most high-status females and high-status males and females of their communities.

I can haz porn?

Useless industries function on the same basic principles: dominance by sex, by force, and by social rank.

So, once you decide to be a serious artist, you face a set of conflicting demands which can make you lose, first, your soul, and then, your mind. You have to be both Saint Francis and Caligula.

How to deal?

For my part, I encourage a healthy split personality. I have cultivated one myself. One of me exists inside the studio, and never comes out. The other of me exists outside the studio, and never goes in. They are encouraged to IM one another to make sure they're generally on the same page, but often they disagree and go their separate ways.

For the sake of convenience, I call the inside-the-studio part of my personality Vincent. Vincent makes the art.

The outside-the-studio part of my personality is Theo. Theo sells the art.

the notorious Van Goghs

You may have noticed that some of my blog posts are about art, and some are about art in the world. The first kind of post I think of as a Vincent post; the second a Theo post. I get anxious when I write too many Theo posts in a row because, basically, this is a secondary set of considerations.

Now, let me Theo at you for a minute.

In my previous post, I invited you to an opening at Dacia Gallery on Thursday evening, for a group show, "Reflections," in which three of my Blue Leah paintings were shown. Some friends came by, and I was glad to see them. The caliber of work was high. The presentation was professional. The dealers are nice guys and, even better, not clueless. The opening went really nicely, and I had a good time. Here are a few pictures.

the gallery from outside, at the beginning of the show

Theo, with Vincent's work

a gratifying number of people


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Red Hot Barbeque - Tonight!

Well, no. There will be no red hot barbeque tonight. There will be no barbeque of any kind. If you want barbeque, I have nothing to offer you.

However, there will be an opening at Dacia Gallery, at 53 Stanton Street in Manhattan, from 6-10 p.m., of the group show Reflections, which will include three of my Blue Leah paintings (numbers 1, 3, and 4).

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

I even varnished them. And there's work by plenty of other talented artists as well (spot the hidden assumption). If you're around, why don't you come by?

Let's hypothetically suppose that you can't come by. Let's further stipulate that the reason for that is that you're at home, in Astoria, Oregon. Not to worry! Next Thursday, the annual surprisingly-good juried group figurative show Au Naturel: The Nude in the 21st Century is opening at the Art Center of Clatsop Community College. My painting with the long title is in the show:

The painting known, for convenience's sake, as Self-Portrait as Hockney, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2011

This is my most recent completed painting of Piera. You may have been asking yourself, "Where's Piera in Maidman's work lately?" That's a good question. It turns out, having a baby takes a whole lot of time, and Piera's been busy. This is a huge bummer, but I guess I can understand. Lorenzo is adorable.

As far as I know, there will be no barbeque served at the Au Naturel opening either. But all you Astoria people, head on down for that on the 23rd anyway. They have all kinds of good paintings.

I'm out.

Monday, February 13, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings

Spot 1: The Proposition

Let me tell you a story which does not necessarily reflect well upon me, but which led to some interesting thoughts. As we've discussed, New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz makes himself extraordinarily available for interaction with his readers via Facebook. I've availed myself of this propensity of his in the past to sponge up a little criticism of my work.

left to right: Jerry Saltz, Jerry Saltz

Art critics, in one sense, play a role in the art world not unlike the role played by transistors in the electronic world. Transistors amplify signals. A transistor responds to a low-current input signal by unleashing a high-current output signal. Critics are kind of like this, as viewed from the perspective of broke-ass artists. To the broke-ass artist surrounded by paintings nobody wants to buy, attempts at getting a career going are a low-current input signal. Attention, shows, and sales are high-current output signals. The response of the critic can amplify one into the other.

From the perspective of the critic, some properties of this analogy are frustratingly true. The critic necessarily sees him- or herself as a mechanism for directing attention toward or away from certain art objects. But for all this, the critic remains a conduit, not a primary destination. The critic doesn't make the art, and the critic usually doesn't have the money to buy the art.

Jerry Saltz, who is something of a maverick, has figured out a clever way around this problem in limited instances. Sometimes, when he has gone particularly crazy for the work of a specific artist, he has posted a call on Facebook for any of his 4,978 friends who is up for it, to make him a knock-off of the work, the trivial fee for which is only to be paid if the resemblance meets Saltz's requirements.

He did this last time he went gaga over Gerhard Richter.

I think this is the kind of Richter he meant.

I gave his call serious thought, but eventually decided that producing an original work, mimicking Richter's aesthetic sufficiently closely to match Saltz's needs, involved nailing so many formal variables that it wasn't worth the effort. So I passed.

More recently, mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, bravely resisting his native sense of understatement, opened a show of 331 of British art huckster Damien Hirst's spot paintings at all 11 Gagosian galleries worldwide:

Damien and a Hirst

Turns out, Saltz is an enthusiastic fan of the spot paintings, and once again he posted a call: Who will paint me a Damien Hirst spot painting?

Well, I thought, these paintings are sufficiently retarded that it should be a snap to make one. So I told Saltz I was game, and got down to work.

Apart from the paintings seeming easy to knock off, why would I want to actually knock one off? Well, basically so I could add Jerry Saltz to my collector list. This isn't a particularly noble or even effective motive - if anybody ever asked, I'd have to cop to the fact that the work collected wasn't me, so much as a really good copy of a Hirst. But the idea tickled me nonetheless. Richard Scott once asked, in another context, if something bizarre I had done wasn't mostly motivated by self-promotion. In that case, the answer was no. If you're reading this, Richard, this is what "mostly motivated by self-promotion" looks like.

As an aside, I am divided over whether this particular self-promotional move is awesome and hilarious, or garden-variety pathetic. You'll have to be the judge of that.

Be that as it may, I wasn't motivated by self-promotion alone. These spot paintings Mr. Hirst has done are a big deal, art-scene-wise. As far as I can tell, virtually everyone in the art world knows about them, and almost everyone loathes them, except for the people shelling out millions of dollars to own them. (And, of course, Jerry Saltz.) I thought, "These fucking things are so blank, so indifferent - I bet if I learned them from the inside, the way you learn a piece of music from the inside by playing it - then I would have some interesting thoughts." And I was right.

Spot 2: Thought Density

Let me clarify something which lurks around the edges of my writing, but which I don't think I've ever spelled out. My encounter with artwork triggers thoughts in my mind. I think of this process as exegesis - the drawing out of meaning inhering in the art. Charlotte drily suggests that much of it is eisegesis - reading meaning into bullshit. Whichever it is, much of the work I find most rewarding to consider is work that triggers many thoughts quickly: it triggers high-density thought.

One of the dimensions in which I evaluate work is the density of thoughts it inspires in me when I look at it. You may have noticed that the concept of density, of how much can be stuffed in, appears again and again in my analyses. Why? Because we're mortal. Time, thought, information - I want all of them to exhibit a maximum of density, because each of us is doomed to run out of them.

Now, looking at a Damien Hirst spot painting, I had the fairly unusual sensation of encountering something of zero thought density; a perfect thought vacuum. I shook my head, and thought, "This can't be right. Surely there is something here - or, if I am right, how did he manage to produce something so utterly un-present?"

Spot 3: In Person

So I hied me to the two Gagosians in Chelsea, on 21st and 24th, and took a good hard look at the Hirsts they had up. A hard enough look, in fact, that a guard moseyed over and encouraged me to take a less hard look. I had gotten what I wanted - observation that you can, in fact, see the pencil lines of the circular stencils marking out the compositions, if you stand close enough. That was important in determining the degree of precision required for Saltz's Hirst.

Standing back, I looked at the paintings:

They appeared to follow a simple set of rules:

1. Objects: circles of identical diameter
2. Arrangement: grid symmetrical about x and y axes
3. Object color: nonrepeating

The colors were going to be the hard part - Hirst uses very weird mixed colors. I had learned from another comment of Saltz's on Facebook that he is quite sensitive to the spectrum which characterizes Hirst's work; he can recognize when a set of colors is outside the characteristic range. Therefore, I needed to nail the colors, individually and as a group, even more than I needed to nail the circle precision.

Apart from these formal concerns, and a kind of residual optical vibration when looking at those ginormo spot paintings, I really had no response at all to the work. Well, I was mildly annoyed. I think Gagosian should be showing, for instance, this:

Blue Leah #2, Daniel Maidman, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

But I get that feeling every time I set foot in a Gagosian, so it doesn't really have anything to do with Damien Hirst's work.

Spot 4: Two Equations in Two Unknowns

Then I went to the studio. I had the 18"x24" canvas Saltz and I had agreed on, a ruler, and a stencil with lots of different circles on it. I was ready to go. Then I sat down to work out the sizes of gaps between the circles. I figured I had a two-equations-in-two-unknowns problem. The horizontal painting dimension, 18", had to be divided into my choice of 4 circles with three gaps, and the vertical painting dimension, 24", had to be divided into my choice of 5 circles with four gaps. All circles had diameter x, and all gaps had length y, yielding the system of equations:

4x + 3y = 18
5x + 4y = 24

Here's the revolting mess I made of working this out after not having bothered with this branch of elementary algebra in some years:

I kept getting x = 0, y = 6. It turns out there are no other solutions for this set of equations.

I tried a few other combinations (on an online two-equation/two-unknown calculator), and found that it is not so freaking easy, my friend, to find any whole-number solutions for the standard rectangles you can get at an art supply store. So I wrote to Saltz and said, "Jerry, how would you feel about a square?"

Squares are much easier to solve.

And he said, "Roberta's favorite Hirsts are the squares!" Roberta Smith, his wife, is an art critic at the New York Times.

Spot 5: How Ignoring Roberta Smith Probably Insulated Me From a Lawsuit by Damien Hirst

At the time, I hadn't gotten around to reading Smith's review of the Hirst multi-show. She mentions something which completely eluded me (and Saltz, when he examined and approved my Hirst - no takebacks now, Jerry). I had been thinking that Hirst's rectangular spot paintings show a fairly sophisticated use of algebra, for an artist, and that he must be super-fussy about the lengths of his canvases. Not so much. Smith notes:

He is showing nothing but... smooth discs of color applied to white canvases in orderly grids at intervals equal to the diameter of the discs.1

I missed it! I just assumed that Hirst was choosing intervals not greater than the diameters of the spots. I didn't notice that they were, in fact, equal. This makes the algebra much simpler - instead of two equations in two unknowns, its two equations in one unknown. Neither type of problem is hard, but the second is very, very simple.

So the three rules are actually:

1. Objects: circles of identical diameter
2. Arrangement: grid with intervals between circles equal to circle diameters
3. Object color: nonrepeating

In my knockoff Hirst, I assigned the intervals a length of 2.25 inches, while the circles have a diameter of 3 inches. Hirst's rule set is simple. It has three clear rules. I figure getting 1 out of 3 wrong makes me lawsuit-proof. Right?

Spot 6: Execution

I settled down and started the nerve-wracking process of getting those spots as perfect as possible. If I learned nothing else from this project, I learned a lot of respect for Hirst's assistants, who are making the actual paintings. This is tough stuff:

Getting those edges to curve properly, not jumping past the boundaries: it hurt my eyes, my back, my hand. The stress of avoiding any error, at all, gave me a headache. It really, really sucked.

I strongly recommend you don't ever set up a situation where painting and disarming a bomb swap places.

Spot 7: Nonrepetition versus Randomness

I did, however, have a fair amount of time to contemplate what this formal system was, exactly.

Consider what Hirst has set up: there are lots of variables possible in any painting. As much as is humanly possible, Hirst has eliminated variation in all but one of them. His grid is constant and symmetrical in multiple axes. His shapes are circles, which are as close to featureless regularity as shapes can get, and all of his circles are the same size. His white background is simply blank gessoed canvas, while his circles are glossy house paint, applied very evenly.

The colors, however, vary. And not only do they vary, they do not repeat - he makes a big fuss about this. What he wants to say is that his colors are random. It is easy to mistake "nonrepetition" and "randomness" for one another. They aren't the same. Consider this pattern:


It doesn't repeat, but it's not random - you can tell what the next digit is going to be.

Hirst himself confused the issue early in his career of producing spot paintings:

Once, an assistant painted five yellow spots in a row. ''I told him those aren't random,'' Hirst recalls. ''And we had a big fight. Now I realise he was right and I was wrong.''2

So we have a situation of zero variation in all parameters except one, which shows maximal variation, with a goal of true randomness.

Spot 8: Information Theory

What was becoming apparent to me was that, while Hirst's paintings are not interesting from the perspective of art criticism, they are very interesting from the perspective of information theory.

Information theory was more or less single-handedly founded by Claude Shannon in his 1948 paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication.3 In this fascinating piece of work, he considers how to define how much information is actually transmitted in a single unit of transmitted signal. For instance, let's say you have a transmitter that can only send a 0 or a 1. If you know that, in reality, it always sends a 1, then when it sends you a 1, it hasn't sent any information - you already knew you'd be getting a 1. Likewise, if it always sends a 0, then getting a message from it doesn't transmit new information.

On the other hand, if the transmitter is equally likely to send a 0 or a 1, then when you get a signal from the transmitter, it's something you didn't know in advance - it's new transmitted information.

Shannon graphs the amount of information derived from receiving a single-digit signal from a 0-1 transmitter against the probability of getting a 1 out of the transmitter. The horizontal axis is p, probability, measured from 0 to 1. The vertical axis is H, amount of information, measured in bits, which, oh yeah, he motherfucking invents the bit in this paper as well:

information received against probability of a 1

As you can see, the maximum amount of information received, 1 bit, occurs when a 0 and 1 are equally likely signals. This property - how much information a system transmits per amount of signal transmitted - he calls entropy (because he describes it using math similar to that used in physics to describe entropy). Signal entropy reaches a maximum at a 50% chance of getting a 1 out of a 0-1 transmitter.

The "opposite" of entropy is redundancy - whatever causes a system to send less than the maximum amount of information the transmission system will support. Redundancy, at its most basic level, helps to overcome transmission errors due to noise. For instance, let's say you know that 10% of transmitted information will be screwed up by your transmission wire. One way to reduce garbling of the signal is to send the same message five times in a row, so the receiver can compare the copies of the message. This produces a "consensus" value for each unit of information in the message. The procedure reduces entropy, because the receiver has a very good idea what the transmission system will be sending much of the time. But it increases redundancy, allowing compensation for noise in the system.

Now let's consider language. All languages are information systems, but not all information systems are languages. Languages transmit not only information, but meaning. It turns out that to encode meaning, redundancy is necessary. Here are a trivial and a profound example of redundancy in language:

1. The u after every q in English is redundant. Because we know that there is always a u in this position, we could easily leave it out without altering the comprehensibility of the word at all. Just ask an American how to spell "colour."

2. Examine this sentence: "I went to the store." Now take out the "went": "I [ ] to the store." If I asked you what part of speech goes inside the square brackets, you would tell me a verb goes there - you might even say a verb of locomotion in the first person singular. Because the syntax and vocabulary of the remaining part of the sentence indicates that such a verb is required by English grammar. That is, you can partially reconstruct a corrupted sequence in the message. You can do that because the presence of the verb is indicated both by its actual presence, and by the structure of the language. The system is redundant.

Language is necessarily redundant. In considering the construction of artificial languages, linguist Isabella Chiari sums up the situation as follows:

A language completely deprived of redundancy would not even have the form, needless to say the usage and communicative functions, of a language.4

Now let's get back to Damien Hirst and his three rules:

1. Objects: circles of identical diameter
2. Arrangement: grid with intervals between circles equal to circle diameters
3. Object color: nonrepeating

Let's modify the system of rules for what Hirst wants as opposed to what he accomplishes:

1. Objects: circles of identical diameter
2. Arrangement: grid with intervals between circles equal to circle diameters
3. Object color: nonrepeating random

This amounts to an information transmission system with 0 entropy with regard to all dimensions except color, which has maximum entropy. Remember too that language is a mix of entropy and redundancy - it needs enough entropy to allow variation, and enough redundancy to retain meaning.

The spot color system that Hirst is setting up has maximal information, which means that it must be formally meaningless. Hirst has produced a perfectly blank system. Through the lens of information theory, all responses to this system, from Saltz's delight to everyone else's revulsion, are reflections of concerns outside the system itself. The system itself is like Kubrick's monolith in 2001: it claims nothing more than that it exists.

Spot 9: Spotting the Flaw

Taking all this into account, I object to the very quality of Hirst's body of spot paintings which most engages Ms. Smith:

It seems crucial that the colors have been chosen by different people; it is part of their randomness and creates a variety that might not be possible if the paintings were made by one person. In this regard Mr. Hirst’s spot paintings are more collaborations than art made by assistants. They are made not only by different hands but also by different minds, and this may be the most interesting thing about them.5

From an information-theory perspective, what Ms. Smith is describing is not randomness, but redundancy. Each assistant makes characteristic color choices and juxtapositions, causing the spot paintings, as executed, to deviate from true randomness, from maximum entropy: "This crimson spot tells me Joe the Assistant made this painting; I can assume there will be no pale pink spots in this painting, because Joe does not use that color."

I can report that these distinctions are more or less borne out by my own experience with the spot paintings (while his assistants choose the individual colors in the paintings, I suspect Hirst has carefully identified the parameters of the palette - an oddly shaped color space, for instance, would make sincere forgeries - unlike mine - next to impossible to produce).

But look - is anybody going to look at a spot painting because of its aching humanity? Not unless they're autistic or schizophrenic. So when you balance one consideration - the humanity - against the other - the striking information-theoretic formalism - which facet of the spot paintings is more interesting? I think it's the formalism. And I think the flaw in the spot paintings is that Mr. Hirst, as evidenced in the episode with the five yellow spots, himself brings a residual humanity to his project which interferes with the most interesting part of its nature.

When Kubrick, also in 2001, wanted a set that was a gravity-simulating centrifuge inside an enormous space ship, did he go to set-builders? No. He went to the Vickers-Armstrong Engineering Group, which took a break from designing airplanes to help Kubrick meet his formal ambitions.

Damien Hirst's assistants' color sensibilities shouldn't be infecting his work with soul. His spots should be selected by proper random-number generators and painted by industrial robots. Hirst shouldn't be "collaborating with assistants" to make his spot paintings. He should be collaborating with Cisco and Boeing.

Oh - in case you were wondering, here's how mine turned out:

current configuration, front end of right wall of my studio

Happy birthday, Jerry! And if you're reading this, Damien, would you consider waving your 13.5" yew phoenix-tail-feather-core wand over Saltz's painting and transubstantiating it into a real Hirst? It would mean the world to him. Come on, man, it's his birthday.


Hirst, Globally Dotting His ‘I’
Roberta Smith,
New York Times, Jan. 12, 2012

Completely dotty
Carol Vogel,
Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 21, 2012

A Mathematical Theory of Communication
C. E. Shannon
, The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 27, pp. 379–423, 623–656, July, October, 1948

Redundancy Elimination: The Case of Artificial Languages
Isabella Chiari,
Journal of Universal Language 8, September 2007, 7-38
In case you're wondering whether a set of colored circles can
ever form a language, consider the vocabulary of train line identifiers for the New York City subway system, and their grammatical use in giving trip directions.

op. cit.

Not quoted in the post, but the starting point of this adventure - Jerry Saltz on Damien Hirst:

Friday, February 3, 2012

Edges and Edge Detection Part 4: The Genius

It has been, shockingly, almost two years since we discussed the links between edge, brain, line, and mind - the first three posts in this intermittent series are here, here, and here. I had one more entry to make on the subject. I would like to bring the work of Giorgio Morandi to your attention in the context of edges.

I didn't really understand what the fuss about Morandi was until I saw his work in person at the Met (I had a similar experience with Gaudi in Barcelona). Morandi (1890-1964) spent most of his life living in amiable semi-seclusion in Bologna, painting one still life after another of carefully arranged permutations of his collection of bottles, cups, vases, and other unremarkable domestic objects. The work is quiet and subtly colored. Reproduced in photographs, the quiet of the work is muted down to silence. Its subtle colors crumble nearly to monochrome. In person, it is little, and in photographs, nothing. Still, we will depend on photographs here:

Still Life, 1954

Up close, Morandi's paintings dissolve into that indecipherability I have been so interested in previously. There are several different ways to cover a canvas in paint in the context of visible brushwork. It is possible to produce a kind of a "wet" feeling by applying a sufficient amount of paint that a viscous layering occurs, leaving a sense of moisture to the completed piece. Karen Kaapcke, whose work we have discussed before, deploys this kind of generous visible brushwork here, using no thinners or mediums at all:

Self-Portrait Right After Taking a Shower First Thing in the Morning, 2012, oil on panel, 8" x 10"

Stephen Wright, another favorite of your loyal correspondent, goes farther, building up the paint beyond the limits of the approximately two-dimensional surface into heavy sculptural impastos - note particularly the yellowish highlight on the right:

Skull 6, 2011

Morandi goes in the opposite direction. Over much of his area, he thins his paint with turpentine in order to make a thin, parched glaze cover a large area. Consider the background of this painting:

Still Life, 1962

The striations in those scrubby brushmarks represent regions where the stroke of the brush caused the extremely liquid mix of paint and thinner to pool. It dried where it pooled, leaving the originating marks visible.

For foreground objects, he has applied paint a little more thickly, but only just. This almost watercolor-like brushwork produces a sense of agonized reaching, of the paint and painter struggling to grasp all the way to an image. Schiele frequently does the same thing:

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1912

Morandi pushes this technique as far as it will go: the brushstrokes really look just awful - thin, scrubbed on, half-hearted and weak. Where there are lines, the lines are wobbly:

As we have seen repeatedly with art exhibiting rock and roll, one must only step back to have it leap into startling clarity. By now, there is no great mystery amongst us about this transmutation. It is difficult to do well, and many artists have done it well. But what I'd like to discuss about Morandi are those edges.

Reducing color and value contrasts as he does, and using frontal lighting, he has eliminated most of the markers by which our brains are stimulated to identify the modeling of forms. He lights everything as if it were directly illuminated by late afternoon light from an east-facing window. It is falling toward indistinctness, toward the palor of night. Now what benefiteth Morandi from his highly specific lighting situation?

He gets a sufficiently subdued context to produce dark edges. As rounded objects curve away from his eye, the frontal light dims, until at the very edges of objects, perpendicular to the light source, the objects are unlit. Like Ingres (see External Variables: 1), he has focused on a natural situation which results in the formation of real outlines. In our previous discussions of edge, we talked about how the circuitry of the brain produces outlines which frequently do not exist in nature. Rarely, they actually do exist, in the very situations upon with Morandi depends.

Having established a setup in which outlines naturally occur, Morandi opens up a language rarely available to the artist: its words consist in the distinctions between naturalistic outlines. Consider it - outlines are almost never naturalistic. When they are, they are generally too fleeting to afford deep consideration by the hand of the artist. When Morandi discovers the topography of his dimly lit tabletop, he enters an aesthetic universe which he has almost entirely to himself. Look at this one:

Still Life, 1955

Notice the astonishing variation of outlines in this seemingly simple image. The left side of the neck of the white bottle is outlined more thinly than the right side, because the light is coming from the left. Both partake of the warm grey of the background, and both are lighter than the outline on the right side of the body of the bottle. In this region, the darkest in the composition, a gap exists between the bottle and the yellow box on the right. Moreover, the bottle is casting a shadow on the box. The greys go steeply toward black here - but Morandi has carefully positioned his box so that the shadow is not too wide. He wants an edge, not a plane, for his darkest note. Compare this darkest-dark line with the outline of the body of the bottle on the left. Where the bottle is in front of the top pale object, the outline virtually disappears, becoming both thin and indistinguishable in value from the surrounding identically toned objects. The pale object is bouncing light onto the bottle, preventing the darker outlining of the neck above. There is, of course, another gap between the bottle and the orange-ish object on the bottom, yielding another steep, thick shadow line. Then there are the lines at the bottoms of objects, each colored by the bounce light from the objects themselves.

But what I really want you to consider are the outlines on the left sides of the leftmost objects. These are flat objects (bottom) or only slightly curved (top) - they don't produce natural outlines like the curving bottleneck. Nothing is casting a shadow on them on the left side. So what the fuck are those outlines?

Those outlines are where Morandi tips his hand. They don't exist in nature, but they sure as hell exist in your brain. Having manipulated nature so far as it will go to yield the outlines that interest him, he goes one step further where nature fails him, and directly paints the mechanism of visual cognition.

Wait a minute, quoth you, every fool and his sister paints outlines:

Fruit, Every fool, and his sister, 1897

Yes, say I, but nobody except Morandi paints outlines in the context of an otherwise naturalistic lack of outlines, and goes to so much trouble to conceal that he is painting outlines:

Still Life, 1954

We learn from this that for Morandi, more than for most, his painting is not his medium. You are. Morandi's work, its seemingly paradoxical confluence of crudity and hyper-reality, stems from the fact that his subject is not his subject. The objects and scenes of his paintings are incidental. His real subject is how we see what we see; his real work as an artist is not the link between external object and emotion, but the link between seeing and emotion. The serene, even melancholy stillness of his work results trivially from what is in it, and maximally from the reduced-to-a-minimum interaction of light with how our eyes interpret light.

His main tools are subtle variation of value, and quality of outline. He is the genius of edges and edge detection.

Given all that, let's tackle the question of Morandi from the question of the life of an artist. After a certain amount of exploration in his youth, he settled into his preferred still lives and spent decades painting them. This restraint allowed the extremely similar to take on a diversity which we rarely notice in our ordinary, varied lives. How different is this piece from those we've studied above?

It looks very different now, but only because we've busied ourselves becoming sensitive to the scale of difference within which Morandi works.

The question, then, is how much sense it makes to restrict our scale of difference to the point that microscopic differences take on the sense of a complete change in theme and subject matter.

I have two conflicting answers to this question. The first is that it makes total sense, under the heading of a line which has never stopped haunting me. It comes from the novel Jakob Von Gunten, by Robert Walser, p. 64:

One of the maxims of our school is, "A little, but thoroughly."

This line recurs in the 1995 movie Institute Benjamenta, an adaptation of the book by the Quay brothers:

Institute Benjamenta, still, 1995

I am prepared to make a serious argument that this movie is, by a wide margin, the greatest movie ever made. But I will not make that argument here. Rather, I will emphasize that this one line, "A little, but thoroughly," has taken on an almost talismanic significance for me. As you know, I tend toward monism, and the idea that one can stare at a single thing, and by means of this single thing, see the entire universe, makes a great deal of sense to me. All of the information in the universe is implicit in any fragment of the universe. Who sees but this, sees all - or as Eliot has it, I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

This is one possible interpretation of the ascetic paintings of Morandi. Contrarily, we should consider a thought by Philip K. Dick. It comes from his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, written in 1982. Let me set up this thought for you. Philip K. Dick's work is a chronicle of insanity; Dick, like Artaud, is one of those rare writers insane enough to have experienced the depths of madness, and sane enough to write about it clearly. In his final work, his hero is faced with a choice between the labyrinths of paranoia characteristic of his earlier novels, and rejecting all that - all the miracles and conspiracies. And the hero rejects them. In this book, Dick himself has crossed the stormy sea of madness and reached the far shore. He is sane again. And here is how he describes that particular insanity which he calls the over-valent idea:

I speak of an idea that once it comes into the human mind, the mind, I mean, of a given human being, it not only never goes away, it also consumes everything else in the mind so that, finally, the person is gone, the mind as such is gone, and only the over-valent idea remains.

How does such a thing begin? When does it begin? Jung speaks somewhere - I forget which of his books it is mentioned in - but anyhow he speaks in one place of a person, a normal person, into whose mind one day a certain idea comes, and that idea never goes away. Moreover, Jung says, upon the entering of that idea into the person's mind, nothing new ever happens to that mind or in that mind; time stops for that mind and it is dead. The mind, as a living, growing entity has died. And yet the person, in a sense, continues on.

[pp. 104-5]

So has Morandi followed "a little, but thoroughly," or is he the zombie of an over-valent idea? Does he have the sanity of a Buddha, or is he barking mad?

My friends, this is very difficult to tell. And of course, the problem of distinguishing between these nearly identical states isn't a problem for Morandi. Morandi, after all, has done everything he is ever going to do, and now he is dead. The problem is yours; obsession is a characteristic vulnerability of artists and mathematicians.

I have a proposal for making a distinction, but I'm not at all certain that it can be applied from within the grip of a possible over-valent idea. My proposal is this: that if the Idea is holographic, if it is "a little, but thoroughly," and covers the universe by means of a single subject, then it ought to be linguistic: that is, it ought to have that property of language by means of which a finite toolset (words, grammar, and syntax) can be rearranged without bound to produce new meanings. Conversely, if it is an over-valent idea, then it should not be linguistic - it should amount ultimately to repetition, and the zombie of the idea gladly repeats it, because it is the last word, it is the Logos, it is the name of God. Once you have found the name of God what can you do but continue to sing it, and nothing else, forever?

I am by no means certain that this distinction is legitimate, or useful. I'm not even convinced that the dichotomy it addresses, between "a little, but thoroughly," and the over-valent idea, is a real dichotomy. I'm just performing a little casual reasoning from the known to the unknown. As ever, please apply your own judgment in reaching conclusions.



1. I know there are a few comments on previous posts to which I have not yet responded. I apologize - I've been terribly busy, and I felt like a priority should be getting through this post while it was on my mind and I had a minute. I'll reply as soon as I'm able.

2. Most of the Morandi graphics in this post come from, where many other Morandi paintings can be viewed.

3. The still from Institute Benjamenta comes from, at which many more images from the film are posted.