Saturday, September 21, 2013

Further on Play

I've wanted to write about a series of drawings by Matisse since I saw them in a Matisse show at the Met some months ago.

These drawings, begun early in 1940, were Matisse's preparatory sketches for a painting, The Dream, which he made later in the year. But I doubt they were made as preparatory sketches particularly.

I think Matisse was working his way around a vague compositional idea, looking to see where it took him. That is, the way I picture it, Matisse didn't have a final painting in mind. I think he would have been glad if his noodling led to a painting, but I think he was just noodling.

The noodling itself can be interpreted in two ways: either he was seeking some perfected form of the basic idea, or each of his versions was, to him, a perfect and final form of the idea, and he was simply exploring different ways in which the idea could be expressed. Each version, then, would be more or less as desirable as the others, and all of them ultimately desired.

I tend to favor both. I think Matisse worked toward his favorites, but I think he liked each intermediate step, and took each such step as a valid end-point in itself.

Apart from these procedural hypotheses, there is an attitude question which is central to me. This attitude question defines my relationship with Matisse and his buddy Picasso. For me, they are the great practitioners of play without fear.

This is a profound attitude, and I have written about it before, especially here. There are many ways to phrase the problem of fear in the arts, but the one on my mind is the relationship of fear and time.

Fear arises in the context of time because we're all running out of it. So there is an impulse to make work which arises from twin capacities: skill and control. Skill is the set of procedures you've practiced enough that you are good at them, and control is the set of activities in which you can compel your media to conform to an idea you had at the outset.

this is my favorite of them, by the way

I do not trust accident, so I seek control, and I do not think I can make good things by means of procedures I am bad at, so I depend on skill. Control and skill are the scaffolding for making important work. Important work is the real boogeyman of fear arising from shortage of time. If you are acutely aware of running out of time, then of course you will want to make only important things in the time you have left.

But you cannot - or cannot entirely - will important work into being. It comes about unexpectedly. You can only make yourself receptive to important work, and work hard when you find yourself in the grip of important work. But you can scarcely demand of it that it present itself. What you get, when you try, is turgid work.

So when I say that Matisse and Picasso, for me, are the practitioners of play without fear, what I mean is that they carry on as if they had all the time in the world. They do not, but their shortness of time does not seem to weigh upon them. Can you see Matisse heading anywhere in particular here?

Of course you can't, because he was already where he was going when he started. Every minute that he makes work is where he is going. His work is a continuous end-in-itself. If it culminates sometimes in a painting, all the better. But he is simply making.

His making is light-footed. He has a new idea, and tries it out. He is able to play like a child, because he trusts everything like a child: he trusts himself, he trusts the world, he trusts his materials and his work, and he trusts that he will have enough time to finish - he will have *all afternoon.*

In the end, he does make a painting. I don't even like the painting all that much - I think lots of the drawings are better. But I don't think I need to like the painting to like how he made it, how all those months of play produced a terrific momentum, and with this momentum he smashed into the canvas and made a thing.

Henri Matisse, The Dream, 1940, oil on canvas, 32" x 26"

In general, when I write to you about ideas, these are ideas which, one way or another, I am applying in my own life. So how am I applying these ideas?

I am not discounting intention, control, and skill. I apply these aggressively. Here, for instance, is a portrait of my friend, the artist Lauren Levato Coyne (this painting is currently on view in the 3 year anniversary group show at Dacia Gallery).

Daniel Maidman, Lauren, 2013, oil on linen, 20" x 16"

This painting was absolute murder to paint. It usually takes me about 3-5 hours to paint a face. But I worked on Lauren's face for four days, because I could not fucking get it right. I haven't had such a hard time with a face since 2006. I would paint it, and wipe it off, and paint it again, and wipe it off again. I never did get exactly what I meant, but I got something that had a combination of emotion, integrity, and resemblance which satisfied me. Or, rather, I gave up.

One or the other.

The point being, this painting is a product of skill and control, but it is also a product of giving up and trusting. I went through parallel difficulty and resolution with a parallel painting of my friend/Lauren's husband, painter Rory Coyne:

Daniel Maidman, Rory, 2013, oil on linen, 20" x 16"

This is the kind of work which is invigorated, but not inspired, by the set of Matissean ideas I've been telling you about. That is, when I've been applying the immortal play principle elsewhere, it breathes life into this intention-dominated work. Elsewhere, the Matisse principle comes to the fore.

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch 1: Meiosis #4, 2013, black pencil on paper, 15"x11"

This is a preparatory sketch for a Leah painting. I had decided to swap out my usual brown paper with a cream paper, and I got this far and I said, "You know what, this is perfect, now I stop."

So I started over, thinking I would not be so satisfied a second time with it part done, and I would be able to do a fully rendered drawing.

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch 2: Meiosis #4, 2013, black pencil on paper, 15"x11"

Not so. I think this is better than the first one. So I moved on from the face and did a body. And for this one I did compel myself to complete the drawing per plan.

Daniel Maidman, Preparatory Sketch 1: Meiosis #4, 2013, black pencil on paper, 15"x11"

I don't know about you, but I like this drawing much less. It has many virtues, but it is not riveting and perfect like those two accidental faces. It is merely good. I did not trust what the work and the play were telling me.

Here's another dimension in which I am acting on a Matissean principle. Earlier in the week, I was doing some underpainting with the most marvelous colors - cobalt blue, cobalt violet, permanent green light, and veronese green. When I got done, I had some color left on my palette. I am lazy as hell, so instead of having a durable wood or glass palette, I use, and throw away, wax paper palettes. And it suddenly struck me as a sin to throw away such beautiful paint. It would be better to do anything with this paint, than nothing.

Then I remembered that I had had some 5"x7" canvases on a shelf since forever. I hauled them to New York when I moved here, that's how old they are. Still wrapped, never had an idea for them. So I whipped one out and put some colors on it. This was the first time in my life that I had figured out a way around my mental block on non-representational painting.

Daniel Maidman, The Weather Report #1, 2013, oil on canvas, 5" x 7"

I liked this so much I'm going to do it all the time, and I'm going to call it the weather report, because what colors you have out on any given day is kind of like what clouds you have going past in the sky. And also because, from Da Vinci on down, it seems to be well recognized that looking idly at clouds is a form of play that is central to the human experience of play. It is cheering to the eye and delightful to the mind. My weather report is not ambitious about that kind of thing. It's just a way to mess around with color a bit. I'm not asking anything of it, except that I get rid of this excess paint without throwing it away.

I had another painting session later in the week. Here's the figure I completed - Leah, bien sûr - which is part of a much larger and weirder composition:

Daniel Maidman, Meiosis #4 (detail; work in progress), 2013, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"

And here's the corresponding weather report, using all of the same colors:

Daniel Maidman, The Weather Report #2, 2013, oil on canvas, 5" x 7"

Time weighs heavily upon me, and whenever I want to behave as if it didn't, I must exert initiative and create a zone of play; I do not slip naturally into it. Play itself is spontaneous, but for me, the fact of play is conscious. Again and again, I make myself do it. That's fine, it's good to be able to play at all. I do not know or care where it goes.


  1. Great post, Daniel. Thanks.
    Sharon M.

  2. Brilliant post, the connections you make about fear, accidents and control has connected the dots on some thoughts I have been having.

  3. Regarding play, I've found that if there is no 'press for time', I cannot play. Instead, I'm bored. But so long as there is some external pressure, some necessity (but not too much...) I feel creative.

    Odd that you mentioned Matisse, at a party this weekend the artist who is doing the frescoes in our church and I had a discussion about him. He told me that Matisse spent a long time studying Russian iconography, and used such materials with his students as well. Icons can be odd that way, free from the restriction of naturalism, but yet also rigorous in their imitation.

    Are there more Matisse sketches available than for most artists, or are his just more interesting? It almost seems like you could put them all in a grid with the 'final' one somewhere like the middle or one of the ends, and make a big picture out of it. It would be like if Matisse traveled into the future and critiqued Warhol.

  4. The weather reports are lovely, keep going, have fun!