Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Here, this is something very interesting which came up in correspondence with abstract sculptor Jesse Soodalter. She wrote:

...although I've admired many different kinds of art, figurative and otherwise, for a million years, it wasn't until I had a kind of damascene realization of the power and, in some sense, legitimacy of abstraction that I began to conceive of myself as any kind of creator of visual art.

It took me a short while, and then I realized I recognized this sentiment; I recognized it very precisely and completely, so much that I could narrow my damascene moment to sometime between September 27 and November 8, 2003.

At that time, I was in Los Angeles, going to life drawing in Santa Monica on Tuesdays and in Los Feliz on Thursdays, and generally screwing around with drawing and painting and calling myself a student of art. I didn't quite feel that I was ready to call myself an artist. But I was definitely a student of art.

When I was a kid, my mom had a book of Francesco Clemente around the house, which I never opened, but I do remember the cover, because you're not gonna forget that face or that font.

So I was vaguely aware of the existence of Clemente from a young age. In 1998, I saw this movie, "Great Expectations," which when you think about it isn't that good a movie, except for the spellbinding artwork attributed to the artist main character, Finn...

ripped off from here

...and the amazing integration of the actual artist into the cinematography, so that Ethan Hawke as Finn, and the hands of the artist actually making the artwork, cut together beautifully.

Ethan Hawke, artist
we all totally look like that

After I saw it, I looked up who this amazing artist was, and lo and behold, it was Francesco Clemente. Best decision CuarĂ³n made in that film, I thought. From then on, Clemente had a specific, if relatively unexamined, place in my mind - the guy who does the very recognizable big-eye portraits and totemic images.

totemic image

On this basis, I went to see his show at Gagosian/LA in the fall of 2003, sometime between September 27 and November 8. This show did not, ahem, exhibit him at his best. Mostly because the set-piece artworks were enormous paintings done on denim.

Francesco Clemente, Liberation Self Portrait, 2000, mixed media on denim
14 goddamned feet tall by 14 OMG and a half feet wide

This is one of those things that's really only obvious in hindsight, but it turns out denim is a shitty medium for Francesco Clemente to work on. It looked blotchy, contrasty, unsubtle, and stupid.

Also, there were some small watercolors in the back room.

I did, however, have a revelation in that show which was a turning point in my life as an artist, and it would not have happened if the work had been good. It had to be bad for the point to be clear. The point was this: no matter what he was doing, Clemente's work radiated self-confidence. It said, "I made this, it is my art, I will not explain myself, and if you don't like it, fuck you."

When the work is good, you can mix up its self-confidence and the quality of the work itself. They only manifest separately when there's really no excuse for the work apart from the reckless assertion of the artist that you're going to damn well look at it. It swaggered. Clemente's work swaggers, it is downright Captain Kirkish. It can be insufferable, but there is no mistaking it for something apart from what it is.

I realized that without this forceful assertion, this possibly swaggering awareness of your classification as an artist, it did not matter how good you got; you weren't going to be making art. I had been holding off calling myself an artist because I lacked confidence in my skill and my vision. I thought, "Well, I need to learn to draw and paint better; I need to figure out what I want to say." And here Clemente was telling me:

"Screw that - you already know everything you need to know, you're avoiding the issue by claiming you don't know what you want to say. Take responsibility for yourself and start making the work. In fact, Maidman, let me quote to you the immortal words of Xenophon, Anabasis, book III:

"'Why am I lying here? The night advances; with the day, it is like enough, the enemy will be upon us. If we are to fall into the hands of the king, what is left us but to face the most horrible of sights, and to suffer the most fearful pains, and then to die, insulted, an ignominious death? To defend ourselves—to ward off that fate—not a hand stirs: no one is preparing, none cares; but here we lie, as though it were time to rest and take our ease. I too! What am I waiting for? A general to undertake the work? And from what city? Am I waiting till I am older myself and of riper age? Older I shall never be, if today I betray myself to my enemies.'

"Hear the moral of it, Maidman, for it is this: make a decision. Your decision may be wrong! Look at these christawful denim paintings - that was a bad decision. But it is better to make a bad decision than to make no decision at all. From a bad decision, we lurch on to a better decision. From no decision, we waver along an endless road of indecision. Your studies are finished; you are an artist. Make art."

All these things Francesco Clemente said to me, and I listened to what Clemente said. I changed what I was thinking about, or rather, how I was thinking about what I was thinking about. The revelation was a revelation of legitimacy, just as Soodalter described in her own damascene realization. It was in reaction to it that I finally made that leap, and became an artist.

I did not make art right away. Early the next year, I began; a friend commissioned a painting, of whatever I liked. I decided, for painting #1, to do a female nude. This has perhaps set a pattern that has persisted. At the time, I had been working with burnt sienna and white for a while, but I had no real idea how to paint, or how to color, or anything.  So I bought John Howard Sanden's Portraits from Life in 29 Steps. I was worried I would wind up painting like Sanden, but more worried about my total ignorance. It turned out that Sanden is a tremendous teacher, and, because I was swaggering like an artist, learning from him didn't compromise how I painted at all. Here's a Sanden:

John Howard Sanden, Dr. Kim B. Clark

And here's a detail of my first serious painting, done in response to his instructions for how to paint like him:

Daniel Maidman, Kem (detail), oil on canvas, 48"x24", 2004

Looking at it now, I see a couple of genes of Clemente thrown into the mix. But this is the first time I've thought of that.

Anyway, that's the story of how I became an artist. Let me return to Soodalter's story for a minute. She writes about it beautifully, more beautifully than I have here:

For me it was a specific Rothko.  Having never really thought about him--or indeed Abstract Expressionism at all--much before, I wandered into a room at the Art Institute of Chicago and found myself faced with this painting,

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Purple, White, and Red), 1953, oil on canvas, 197.5 x 207.7 cm

and out of nowhere it just reached into my chest and yanked, hard enough to make me choke up.  It really was a single transformative moment, and it unroofed some profound sink of emotional and aesthetic responsiveness to abstraction that has been the absolute and literal making of me as an artist.  It took time to root, and lots of tentative and sheepish but infatuated gestures, before I found my voice, so to speak, with the object and wire pieces.  That came very much with getting into Arte Povera too, that sense of a kind of profane sanctification of objects/spaces/events by the means of the artist's attention.

This is a piece by Soodalter:

Jesse Soodalter, The Only Way Out is Up, found object (asphalt), copper wire, paper, October 2012

Now, I don't know what I'm talking about when I talk about abstract art. I don't have a good sense of the terms of debate and discussion. But there is something that is so perfectly correct to my eye to this.

There is the found object, pure matter, close to the alchemical prima materia - raw, cruel, base, meaningless.

Then there is the first level of intervention by the artist, the wrapping of the object in a gold-colored wire. This wrapping is the sanctification of which Soodalter speaks. The eye of the artist perceives the object, the palm holds it, the soul blesses it - and the fingers express the blessing with wire. The artist interacts with the object at the most visceral, physical level.

Then there is a second intervention, the fixing of the object to the paper. This to me is the equivalent, by means of reason, of the first emotional-spiritual intervention. First the heart and hand absorbed the object, now the mind does too. The paper is flat space, the cartesian plane, the page of text. The sanctified object becomes part of the map of the universe in the mind of the artist. It is set in its right place, here and not there.

This minuscule thing records the confrontation between the human presence and the universe: a confrontation characterized on the human side, for Soodalter, by fascination, love, and ultimately, integration.

That's what I see in these humble materials. But part of the reason I see that at all in a jumble of stuff which I might otherwise overlook is that Soodalter has passed through the revelation of legitimacy. You are walking along, and you pass by her, and she holds up her hand and says, "Stop. Thou shalt look. This is art."

It is essential for the artist to have the revelation of legitimacy, to learn to make the assertion. You can make the assertion and still be wrong. But if you don't make the assertion, you can't be right.

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