Saturday, March 2, 2013

Response to What Picasso Said About His Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Now here's my promised follow-up to the piece about Aleah Chapin's show. I wrote it before the show opened - the gallery gave me access to the paintings before they were hung, and I spent a good long time looking at them and testing the ideas I had already partly formed against the observations I was making in person. There was something I noticed which I really wanted to add to my essay, but which had no good place in it - Chapin had painted a cricket in the right foreground of the painting Interfold, which depicts the only man who is accepted into the company of the aunties:

Aleah Chapin, Interfold, oil on canvas, 72"x120", 2012

You can't see the cricket here, but the cricket is very charming, and also reminded me of Tithonus, the mortal lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Eos petitions Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, but forgets to ask that he be given eternal youth as well. As you can imagine, it doesn't end happily for poor Tithonus, who gets so old he eventually turns into a cricket.

Was Chapin citing this myth? Probably not. But it came to mind.

I started this blog - this whole project of writing about art - as a kind of adjunct to my painting itself. It was a parasite, an appendix, a thrall. But I am increasingly recognizing that the writing has a separate and self-contained life. I am not altogether pleased about this, but I'll take success where I can get it. Anyhow, I went to the opening of Chapin's show, and I had an experience very rewarding in my life as a writer.

I had another commitment that evening, so I could only stay for a few minutes at the beginning. Chapin and her mom were there - I had never met Deborah Koff-Chapin. Here they are (on the left) with Dorian Vallejo, another extraordinarily talented artist, and Dorian's friend Kelly, who was very nice:

Deborah told me something which was moving and humbling. First she unfolded the story of the actual aunties a little bit - that they are indeed a gang of lifelong friends who live on an island off the coast of Washington State; my impression of their hermetic sisterhood was not off-base.

The moving and humbling part was that they had read my article and it touched them in a way corresponding to how my study of Chapin's paintings had touched me; they thought I had looked closely, and seen clearly, and written a description in which they recognized themselves. This made me tear up. I cannot tell you how important this is to me. Let me try to explain. Perhaps you know the story about Picasso's 1905-6 portrait of Gertrude Stein, shown here with Stein herself, in a photograph by Man Ray:

There are two versions of the attendant story. Each begins with someone pointing out to Picasso that the portrait of Stein doesn't actually look like Stein. In the first version, Picasso replies, "It will." In the second version, he replies, "In a hundred years, nobody will care what Gertrude looked like, but they will still be looking at my painting."

The second version concerns us here. Picasso is right, except for the part about nobody caring what Stein looked like by 2005. Broadly speaking, he is right. Ars longa, vita brevis, and so forth. He is right, but still I disagree with him.

Nobody has one eye fixed on eternity more than I do. Trust me, or ask people who really know me - I very much give a shit what happens with my work once I am gone. But Picasso in the second version of the story has both eyes on eternity, and no eyes on the present. To me, this is cruel. So ardent is his chasing after the good opinion of posterity that he has nothing left for the people who are actually living and breathing around him. This betrays to me the instincts of an asshole.

But, saith you, wouldn't he have to compromise his vision in order to accommodate Stein's vanity?

I think this is only a surface reading of the question; the core of the issue is not a conflict between the observer's sense of Truth and the subject's Vanity. Think of eye-on-eternity as an eye sweeping out a vertical region of aesthetic space; it corresponds most strongly to the artist's concerns with the great themes, and contributions to the evolution of forms. It is solitary and profound. Then think of eye-on-the-present as an eye sweeping out a horizontal region of aesthetic space. It is social, and often trivial, and changeable with regard to many things. It answers to the artist as a human being among human beings.

These regions overlap. The vertical art is informed by the temporal human life of the artist, and feeds on it. The horizontal humanity of the artist learns to set priorities, and gains moral weight, from the pressure of the eons, thundering onward. Surely the region of overlap between the vertical and the horizontal is smaller than the total region of each. But making art is very much a question of finding excellence in the face of what your formal restraints deny you; and the region of overlap is enormous.

Now, I don't actually think that Picasso's reply is necessary relative to his painting. What he should have said was, "I have discovered a new mode of looking at things; you don't understand it yet - but you will." And maybe that's what he's getting at in the first version of the story. But if he actually said "nobody will care what she looked like," then he exhibited a kind of default indifference to the people around him which rubs me very wrong.

I try to work inside of the huge region of overlap - the region where I can respond to the present without denying the future. So far, I think this is going pretty well for me. I cannot bear, as Picasso seems to be able to bear, to use the people around me as simple tools; not for my vision, and certainly not for my career. Perhaps, as a result, my work is not as good as it could be. But I think it probably is.

So when Chapin's mom told me that she and the aunties recognized themselves in the things I wrote about them, based on my study of Chapin's paintings - that was like vindication. You can spin stories for yourself based glancingly on external stimuli, and have those stories bear no relation to the people who generated the stimuli. But if you have spent many years trying to understand and appreciate other people, and then you spin some stories about some particular people, and those people make their way across a great distance, and you end up in the same room with them, and they say, "Yes, I saw what you wrote and it is just so! Very much so!" - then that is an excellent thing. It means you are not alone in your universe of supposition, that your so-called empathy is not, after all, narcissism dressed up as Saint Francis.

This is why I teared up when Deborah Koff-Chapin said that to me. Many things mean that much to me as a human being who makes and writes about art, but no things mean more. I am very grateful to her and her friends.

Have one more picture from the opening - this is me and Aleah Chapin in front of Interfold:

I don't take being in this kind of picture for granted: to share happily in the company of artists I admire. If you are an artist, I would recommend that you remember and treasure pictures like these. You are lucky to appear in these pictures. You're lucky that these people are glad to know you. These pictures are evidence that you have not, in the end, used your work as an excuse to do injustice to the people living in the same time as you. You got to make art and still keep your humanity. That's a great privilege.


I believe this counts as thinking a lot about something to do with art. The topic of thinking-a-lot-about-art is on my mind because of the very kind description of this blog in such terms included in painter-blogger Jane Gardiner's list of useful art sites. This was part of her highly productive month of blogging every day, an exercise which would surely drive me around the bend, but she did a marvelous job of it.


  1. Being human is a great privilege - and for me art is one of the ways we can celebrate that.

    (being mentioned in the same blog post written by you as Aleah Chapin and Picasso is of course also a privilege. Or should that be pleasure?)

    1. Jane - I agree, although as is likely clear by now, I am always worried that the price of excellence is that its pursuit unbalances the human part, and gradually displaces it, and in the end, you get neither...

      But call the second thing a pleasure, OK? Not a privilege. I'm in no position to be handing out privileges. I'm just some guy, and I'm glad to know you.

  2. Dani, it's amazing how much reward you get from not just your work, but all the stuff around it too. I agree with your analogy of the vertical vs horizontal (you have a genius for analogies, it seems). However I think you take Picasso too much at his word. It's ultimately the painting itself that determines whether he is sacrificing the x axis for the y, not some clever quip he said afterward that might help get the painting sold. Having seen the painting myself, I think Picasso hit a nice balance.

    1. Chris - I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply. I'm glad you think my analogies are appropriate. Thinking about it now, I suppose I spend a lot of time pondering analogies - "in what way do the features of system B replicate those of system A? are these replications sufficient that demonstration of the validity of an operation in system B can be considered to demonstrate the validity of the parallel operation in system A?" This is a very useful knowledge-amplifier, if you can discern the aesthetics of distinct systems enough to figure out whether an analogy is valid.

      You do, however, take me to town on Picasso the shit-talker versus Picasso the artist. You're right. I overestimated one, and underestimated the other.