Late last year, I showed some paintings with The Great Nude, a New York arts organization focused on a subject with regard to which I will give you three guesses, at the New York Contemporary Art Fair. I was fairly dismayed with how my paintings looked under the angled hard lights:
left to right: me, Cassandra, dismay-inducing presentation of painting
Why? Because they weren't varnished.
Varnishing is a process whereby a dry painting is coated with a layer of transparent medium. It has a couple benefits:
1. It protects the painting itself from dust, smoke, and naturally-occurring floating acid droplets.
2. It restores color saturation and value contrast. Oil paints are not unlike wet rocks - the wetness of the oil enriches the colors and darkens the darks. The oil, however, loses its wet-like qualities as the painting dries. Some of the oil sinks into the primer on the canvas. The rest polymerizes, altering its optical properties. Long story short, your gorgeously deep colors and blacks wind up faded and chalky, as mine looked at the art fair. Varnish acts like a permanent surface wetter. It makes the paintings look fresh even when dry.
While varnishing has been around for hundreds of years, and varnishes have evolved from their early "turn brittle and yellow and screw up the underlying painting" period, varnishing as a practice is not intuitively obvious like painting itself. You kind of need to learn how to do it.
As you may remember, I have never gone to art school, so among the many things most painters know which are a total mystery to me is the practice of varnishing. But after my dismal showing with The Great Nude, I decided - enough: I'm going to learn. I discussed the matter with co-exhibitor/surrealist Scott Goodwillie, who is a charismatic painter and awfully nice guy. He gave me some good tips. And I also looked at Sadie Jernigan Valeri's blog post on the topic, which, if you are starting out with varnishing, holy smokes, this is the blog post to read.
Armed with knowledge and varnish, I entered my studio. My heart was in my throat, because if you varnish your painting wrong, it can be next to impossible to fix it.
So I started on a crappy painting I had stopped halfway through because it was such a catastrophe. The varnishing went perfectly! And its promised properties materialized - the blacks went clean and black (the painting was monochrome). It looked like much less of a catastrophe with varnish.
The next day, I started varnishing the two paintings I had scheduled for another show, at 950 Hart Gallery in Bushwick. I was using a modified form of Valeri's prescription. And by modified, I mean sloppier. For instance, she recommends removing stray hairs from your wet varnish with a #1 filbert brush. This is a small brush which can be used to gently lift detritus without disturbing the varnish surface. Well, I find a fingertip will do the trick too, if you don't mind leaving a smudge and not getting the hair off your varnish.
Why yes, some of my paints are Wintons, why do you ask?
Anyhow, let me give you a rough idea of the effects of varnishing. Here's the unvarnished painting with a little puddle of varnish freshly poured on it. Notice the difference in the reds inside and outside the puddle:
The same painting I had shown at the art fair was showing at the 950 Hart show - selling confrontational nudes is hard, yo. Now look at the effects of that puddle as spread over part of the painting. You can see exactly where the varnish stops:
Here's a completely pointless diptych of me smoothing varnish using the Valeri-recommended foam brush. Because I like to take pictures of myself:
And here's a picture displaying the startling vividity that varnish produces in black areas of a painting:
When I got done, the painting not only looked better than it did dry, it looked better than it did when I was painting it. I generally work with a model on a painting once a week, to give the previous week's work time to dry. That way I don't get involved in any sticky areas where two painting sessions overlap. So I had *never* seen it all looking fresh at once.
Now, art is grounded in technique, but its substance is emotion. So how did this technique of "varnishing" make me feel? I tell you what, it made me feel like I had superpowers. You can keep your flying and your invisibility, your phasing and your magnetic eyeballs. I'll take the superpower of varnishing. It's awesome! Just look at these intimidatingly hip people, enthralled with my lovelily varnished painting at the 950 Hart opening, December 7, 2011:
No, it didn't sell there either. You want it, call me. It's nicely varnished.
Now, let's zoom back to an issue you might call the Achilles Heel of the Autodidact, which can be summed up this way: he's ignorant. Varnishing is a perfectly legitimate and extremely useful technique but, like the integral of the cosine and knotting a tie properly, it is not intuitive. It builds on generations of expertise. You're not going to just figure out how to do it right, or at all, on your own.
I am an autodidact, so I am highly vulnerable to the achilles heel. Don't trust my opinions because I can write. If you had had to generate the number of five-paragraph essays I had to generate in middle school, you'd be able to drop a thousand words on any old heap of cow flops too. The example of varnishing provides a vivid instance of my ignorance in action, but it is not the only example of it. The troubling part is that I don't know all the examples. This is a case of, to use Don Rumsfeld's underappreciated system of classification, unknown unknowns.
I was reflecting on my previous musings on Clyfford Still. They could be interpreted as unkind. I don't have a problem with that - I sincerely believe that his work is trash and that it reflects a sadistic streak a mile wide. Here's my problem: I haven't a clue why this opinion is not universal. I'm not saying that reading the body of criticism and theory attached to his atrocious paintings would either make me see that there's something to them, or decide that they are any good at all. But it troubles me that I don't know this stuff, and moreover, that I am recklessly using my voice, which I know sounds authoritative, to denigrate his crappy, crappy art.
I still think that one ought to be able to approach a painting clothed in nothing more than one's experience as a human being, and have that painting mean something, if it is a good painting.
But lots of thought has gone into painting from other perspectives, and I am relatively ignorant of it.
Having a will to self-improvement, here's my pledge to you: this year I'll make more of an effort to acquaint myself with the thinking that underlies post-war art. Even if it means actually parsing the obstreperous grammar of pill-popping French theorists.
Some of you will be thinking: finally. To you I say - shut up, OK?
Others of you will be thinking: why would you bother, Maidman? And to you I say - knowing more is almost always a good thing. If our hunches prove to have been correct, our study will allow us to snark about Still and his like from the more comfortable position of knowing the theoretical basis of the work. And if our hunches prove to have been wrong, then a little study will open vast new territories to us. That would be exciting.
I want to speak, but I want to speak responsibly. So it's a little remedial reading for me.
Welcome to 2012. I haven't thought of any cool ideas to share with you yet, so I've been quiet. But I would like to draw your attention to this amusing news story:
"A 36-year-old woman is accused of causing $10,000 worth of damage to a $40 million painting after she punched, scratched and rubbed her behind against it before urinating on herself."
The painting in question was Clyfford Still's 1957-J No. 2. The museum was the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Alcohol may have been involved in the incident. This is the painting:
This is the civic-minded young woman who tried to lift this curse from the world:
Let me tell you something. I dislike a lot of painters, but I hate the holy fuck out of Clyfford Still. This is a fairly newly-minted hatred. It dates to February of last year, when I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The Hirshhorn has several Stills, and viewing them was an experience akin, for me, to torture. I actually took a few pictures at the time, because I was so furious I wanted to write a blog post explaining my feelings. I never got around to it, but here are a couple pictures:
1962-D, as if the title matters
1960-R, like I care
To explain my beef with Cyfford Still, let me take you back to Austin, Texas, in early 1996. At the time, I was writing for the entertainment section of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper of UT-Austin. One thing that's interesting about this paper is that Berke Breathed got his start there, and if you go down to "the morgue" and dig up the papers published when he was a student, you can see his pre-Bloom County work, when he was doing stuff even more similar to Doonesbury.
Be that as it may, every music person in the entertainment section was into one brand of rock or another. So when Philip Glass was coming to town with his musical accompaniment to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, I landed the interview by default. I didn't know didley about Philip Glass, so I listened to some of his albums and tried to think up some interesting questions. And he gave some interesting answers. I paraphrase, since I don't feel like digging up the dictaphone tapes:
"Mr. Glass, it seems that apart from the pure structural rigor of your music, there is also a kind of emotional rigor, where specific emotions are evoked in specific sequence and intensity."
"Yes, absolutely, it's quite easy to identify the emotions associated with particular notes and series of notes, and then to structure the presence and repetition of those series to induce an emotional composition in the listener."
Well, that's quite fascinating, que non? Philip Glass sketches out here the power of the formal elements of aesthetic systems. They are powerful not only because of their formal structuring of the work, but because they carry emotional implications. The skillful deployment of the formal elements allows the subliminal coordination of the viewer response.
As you can imagine, I would localize the link between element and emotion at the level of the interaction between stimulus and neurology. I don't know much music theory, but circling back to the visual arts, the fact of the matter is that we are wired to respond strongly to sharp-edged high contrast, for instance, and to saturated color. Every artist knows this and uses it. Consider John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo - go to Boston and consider it in person if you can:
El Jaleo, John Singer Sargent, 1882, oil on canvas, 93 3/8 x 138 1/2 in.
Sargent places his highest contrast and sharpest edges in the dancer's dress. Your eye leaps there first. But he also wants to convey motion. So he places his point of highest color saturation in the red dress of the woman on the far right. By means of this trick, he produces a second focal point far from the center of the composition. He manipulates your brain into dragging your eye back and forth from center to right, right to center - suddenly a static, centered composition awakens into vibrating off-balance motion. The elements of design themselves induce a sensation of the dance and motion Sargent is seeking to convey.
This is an example of the civilized use of the formal elements of a medium to support the meaning of a particular piece.
Clyfford Still, conversely, partakes of the kind of infantile poo-poo play which characterizes American art after World War II. This strikes me as a period when painters affected a kind of cosmic ignorance and went around saying, "Holy shit! Did you know that if you put some yellow on a canvas it makes you feel happy when you look at it?"
Well, as a matter of fact, I did know that. Your point?
What Clyfford Still made paintings out of was the elements of design stripped of all content. His mature work is nothing but high-contrast sharp edges and saturated color patches. Unlike, for instance, Helen Frankenthaler, he focused on the most jarring arrangements of the elements - the utterly crude black/white contrast, and the hard reds and yellows. These elements do not serve any purpose beyond inducing their predictable neuro-emotional effects in the viewer.
Do you see my problem here? All serious painters understand that the emotional implications of the elements of design are tools which serve some purpose beyond demonstration of their existence. Still, on the other hand, made a career out of what amounts to a neurological experiment proving the hypothesis, "If I arrange elements A and B as follows, I can evoke responses X and Y in the test subject." And Still's taste in A and B ran to the harsh and painful.
You know what, Clyfford? Art isn't a science experiment, I'm not a test subject, and I'm not going to hang out with elements A and B unless you give me a good reason to do it.
Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children, 1819-23:
a good reason to hang out with a violent combination of
high-contrast black, orange, red, and white
But ascribing to Still the honesty of a scientist does him too much credit. Because this strutting around, saying, "Didja know yellow makes people happy?" - it was all a pose. Nobody, not even Jackson Pollock, is so stupid that these kinds of completely obvious linkages come as a surprise. Still isn't actually discovering anything new with his work. He's really more of a dentist who gets off on hurting his patients. He is a sadist in a lab coat.
So when I say, "He deserved it," I mean that you could hardly find an artist more deserving of having his work defaced. And in truly Dantean let-the-punishment-poetically-mirror-the-crime style, it is deliciously appropriate that Carmen Tisch rubbed her ass on his painting.
But I can't really condone this sort of behavior, for the same reason that it's a good idea to abide by the Geneva Conventions when you capture a lawful enemy combatant. You don't do it because the guy doesn't deserve to get slapped around, but so that your lawful enemy will treat your guys decently when they get captured. As long as we've defined Clyfford Still as a lawful artist, by doing things like building him his own goddamn museum, we ought to keep our hands off his execrable work so that his partisans will refrain from pissing on Rembrandts.
As usual, take everything I say with a wheelbarrow of salt. I tend to believe you ought to be able to get artwork by looking at it, and I tend to dismiss the dimensions of artwork that require specialized knowledge - be the artwork allegory or abstract. I've never read a word of theory or criticism of Clyfford Still.
And, of course, my opinion is liable to joltingly change without notice.
Now, let's move on to something nicer: my friend Kevin Mizner, a wonderful blogger and talented painter, has given me something called the Liebster Award:
This is an award that bloggers give to other blogs that they like, which have fewer than 200 followers. It is given with the instruction that the award be paid forward - that the recipient pass the award along to blogs they, in turn, like. I think that's how it works, anyway.
So with much gratitude to Kevin Mizner, let me pass the award forward to a few blogs of which I am particularly fond:
Christmascraftproject: This is my wife's laconic and hilarious blog on her crafting endeavors, which turn out to have both diverting technical details and wider implications for the art of living well.
Museworthy: This is Claudia's fabulous blog on modeling and art, one of the key inspirations for this blog and a continuing treasure of new thoughts and images. She's probably got more than 200 followers, but Wordpress doesn't make this clear.
Drawing Life: This is Fred Hatt's lavishly illustrated diary of his art and thinking on it. Like me, Fred spends a lot of time thinking about art, and he shares his insights beautifully.
Confessions of a Recovering Critic: This is RC Speck's excellent and highly idiosyncratic blog of cultural criticism. He turns his eye on many subjects, and thinks deeply and originally about each of them.
There are many other artists who post blogs of work I admire, but I am focusing here on people who have a lot to say about the work, which is a specific capability of the blog format. Thank you all for the magnificent advantage you've taken of this format.
Daniel Maidman is a painter who applies a classical grounding to a contemporary sensibility. His art has been shown in juried exhibitions in New York, DC, California, Ohio, Missouri, and Oregon, and was selected by the Saatchi Gallery to be displayed at Gallery Mess in London. His art and writing on art have been published by ARTnews, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, Manifest, The Artist’s Magazine, the New York Optimist, and SUNY-Potsdam. He blogs for The Huffington Post and Artist Daily. His writing on Da Vinci is currently taught at DePaul University and Roosevelt University. * His paintings range from the figure and portraiture, to still lives and landscapes, to machinery, architecture, and microbes. His images occupy a spectrum from high rendering to almost total abstraction. * His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, best-selling novelist China Miéville, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and author Kathleen Rooney. He is represented by Dacia Gallery in Manhattan. * His paintings can be found at www.danielmaidman.com.