Saturday, April 5, 2014

Breaking the Fast

For personal reasons, which if you know them I’d appreciate your not mentioning, I have been prevented from going to life drawing, or in fact from drawing and painting at all, for the past five weeks.

Throughout this time I have been curating artwork for an issue of Poets/Artists magazine which will come out in June, and for the content of which I am, by generous invitation, entirely responsible. To this end, I have gone through thousands of images of work by hundreds of artists. Many of them do things I don’t do; others do things I can’t; and still others do things that I also do, but I don’t do them as well.

This industrial-scale procedure has given me occasion to reflect on just what exactly I’m up to. This was an interesting and involved process, but the upshot of it was that my well-known ego of steel ensured that my self-esteem as an artist remained at its ordinary high level.

However, I could not help succumbing to a more localized neurosis: the creeping fear that because I wasn’t making art, I couldn’t make art. What if I were finished? What if I were, from here on out, nothing but a secondary participant in art - not a maker, but a writer-about and a compiler-of? What if my hiatus had frozen my hand, withered my vision, and turned me into a hanger-on, a parasite? Art writing is a primary occupation for some people, a core inspiration, but for me it has always been peripheral. So this fear was a grave fear.

Then finally, this past Monday, I managed to break the fast: I got back to Spring Street to draw. Apart from the fear of paralysis, I had a fear of ordinary rustiness. At the level of technical demand I place on myself, drawing is something like playing an instrument or athletic performance. It requires constant attendance, or it begins to decay. My perpetual life-drawing is much like practicing scales in this sense, or whatever ice skaters do to stay good at ice skating.

Returning to my seat, setting out my paper, picking up my pencils, and then looking up and seeing the model was, it turned out, like being exposed to overwhelming symphonic sound. It was like morning; it brought tears to my eyes. I was carried away on a tide of the rightness of it. The model was Sarah, who is a wonderful, beautiful model. She is small and curvy and a nearly glistening white. She has the kind of 0.85 x human surface area aerodynamic classicism one sees in Prud’hon’s models. She enjoys modeling and is therefore energetic of pose, while being gifted with a vast creativity regarding interesting possible poses. Here is an older drawing of her - a 20-minute pose, and not so great a drawing, because the pose was so delightful I decided to draw as much of it as I could, just to remember it - it is in my very small stack of “never sell this” drawings:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, 20 Minute Pose, January 6, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

This kind of sense of overall composition of the body is what makes some models very popular.

Drawing Sarah again on Monday, the kalotropic side of my mind took over. It is a strong side. I am intensely kalotropic. Kalotropism is a word I made up many years ago - “turning toward kalos” or “kalos follower.” Kalos is the Greek word for beauty, but it is not exactly like our contemporary conception of beauty. We think of beauty now as something like candy: it comes to us and caters to our desire for sweetness. It is just another form of indulgence, starting in the world and ending in our appetites. The kalos, contrariwise, summons you to it: it attracts, and requires discipline, and awakens the virtues. To see it, one must achieve clear sight - and clear sight leads to lucid thought - and lucid thought leads to right action. The kalos yields pleasure as much as does the beautiful, but pleasure is not its utter end as it is for the beautiful. It is an end, but it is also a tool of education. One does not receive the pleasure of the kalos without putting in the effort which the kalos seeks to inspire.

Sarah is, in herself, beautiful; but, as happens for all true models, the elevation and lighting of the model stand, and the tone of the room convened to draw, transform her beauty and replace it with kalos. Sitting and drawing her, I was overwhelmed, as I said. I was shocked into one of the states most becoming and natural to humans, the state of praise. To seek to draw well is to praise, it is to say, “The world is marvelous, and I acknowledge its marvels. I rise to meet creation, and to praise and serve so well as I can. This is why I pursue excellence: from a sense of justice. I wish to do right by the miracles that abound. I have a role to play - to join the chorus of praise - and in order to do good, I must become great.”

This state of mind carries implications for art criticism. The soul is larger than the world; it has many seasons. I have exerted myself constantly to include as many of them as I can in my criticism. I failed before, but I have not failed again. I made myself learn to see the many kinds of work that come from the many seasons of the soul. And I will say this - any criticism that does not make room for the kalos, for the rightness of beauty that is without flaw or deformation, any criticism that says the age of the kalos ended with the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace, and the adoring eye that opened with Vermeer closed for good, and good riddance, with Sargent - any such criticism, is a crippled and deficient criticism. It may have much to offer, but it is incomplete, and must not be trusted for a model of all that can and ought to be.

Thus did I draw, and this was the first thing that I drew - a one-minute pose, Sarah’s back:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah (detail: one-minute pose), March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

I was transported. I was not rusty, really, at all. I was a little different, but it is good to be a little different. One day I may be a lot different. For now, I was after a long wandering returned to myself. I had missed being me. I was suffused with so thoroughgoing a sense of being on the right track that a thing ran through my mind, a kind of unwilled mantra which always drifts across my mind when I’ve got it right -

Deceive me who may, no one will ever be able to bring it about that I am not, so long as I remain conscious that I am; nor cause it one day to be true that I have never been, for it is true now that I am.

This is, of course, Rene Descartes. It is from the third meditation - he is in the midst of deriving what he can from what he is certain that he knows, a strange and wonderful project. Here is the remainder of that first sheet of drawings, 10 one-minute poses and 10 two-minute poses:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Ones and Twos, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

Well, things went really well from there. I don’t know how you draw, but how I draw is, when somebody does something I like enough, I try to learn how to do it too, so that I can use it if the need arises. How do I know I like it enough? Because I can’t resist trying to learn how to do it too. This has happened with regard to three properties of life drawing over the past few years:

1. From Odd Nerdrum and his students, the recurrent interest in light fall-off outside of a narrowly spotted area (look, I have problems with the guy, but I don’t dismiss anything that I can learn from). This is a fascinating manifestation of the phenomenon of light and dark, transferred from Rembrandt’s depiction of spotlit regions of architectural spaces to the more obsessive spotlighting of parts of individual bodies - but once you start looking for it in real life, you see it everywhere, especially under small-diameter artificial lights, like for instance the scoops that light the model at Spring.

2. From Sabin Howard, a renewed interest in the intellectual construction of the body - the body that emerges out of reason and knowledge, so intensely conceived as to supersede the observed body. This is an ideology I cannot subscribe to entirely, and yet its influence has zoomed me back a bit from the purely empirical approach I had been taking, and invited me to think about the total structure I am observing in the course of attempting to depict it.

3. From so many people - Dorian Vallejo, Elana Hagler, Christopher Pugliese, John Currin - a different renewed interest, in the line, that wonderful, living, vibrant line, which can on its own define a form and which spreads joy wherever it wends. I’ve fallen back in love with the line.

So, like a magpie, I have adapted elements of these, and all of them come into play in my sheet of tens and twenties from the workshop:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Two Tens and a Twenty, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

From there, a bit of really good fortune - Sarah happened to take a pose functionally almost identical with one of my favorite Balthus’s at the recent show at the Met. Here’s the Balthus:

Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas

The reasons this made such an impression on me cannot be clear in this image of the painting, but it opened a broad new avenue for my work which I am excited to explore in the year or two ahead. I will explain about all that as it proceeds. But in the meantime, it was very pleasing to run across so similar a pose, because it refreshed my memory of the Balthus and was, in itself, good to draw:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah Reclining, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

And, finally, the other nice thing about this pose was that generally speaking, if a model does a reclining pose for the first of the two final forty-minute poses, they will, through some sense of “doing a good job,” do a sitting or standing pose for the other. As often as not, I will then get a good angle from which to draw a face.

Daniel Maidman, Portrait of Sarah, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

For all the flaws of my work here, I think you can see from it that one would really want to do a drawing of Sarah’s face.

I was so excited to tell you right away about this entire chain of ideas and drawings. But at the end of the evening, in the bathroom, I checked Facebook on my phone, and found out that while I was drawing, and thinking all these happy thoughts, Melissa Carroll died.

I could not collect myself enough to leave the bathroom for a while, and I spent the next day writing the previous post and getting it up on Huffington. I often do not trust my own writing. It has become too easy for me to write vividly and persuasively. Usually this facility is a joy, but sometimes it makes me suspect I am full of shit. It would be so easy to lie to you! But I did not want any trace of the possible lie - even the unthinking, unnoticed lie - to infect what I had to say about Melissa, so I made the writing very hard on myself.

That delayed this post.


  1. worth waiting for. Both the drawing and your post. <3

    1. Yaaaaay! I'm so glad you even read this! Thank you Kathy - can't wait to see you and Bob and young N when we get a chance.

  2. Wow. This has touched on so many things that I myself go through it's actually eerie. And, that word you made up…I shall use it because it is very much needed in our language. I've never put a label on it, but now that you say it, kalotropism is the reason I paint, write, do…just about everything!

    I loved reading this Daniel! Thank you for taking the time to write this beautiful reflection. I am so sorry about Melissa Carol too. Finding out she had passed on the heels of such an amazing drawing session makes it all the more poignant and meaningful…if I was a believin' kinda gal, I'd say her spirit was hovering around you while you were drawing. Since I'm not, its probably that all the things that deeply affect you in life come out in raw, profound and unpredictable ways when you create. And the drawings and the subsequent writing are absolute evidence of that.

    Thank you.


    1. Judy - I am glad it resonated so completely for you, and happy to contribute an imaginary word to your vocabulary! I found myself going into the amplified thinking mode of fast associative idea-forming which I get in intensely creative or emotional states, and was hoping I'd have a chance to transcribe most of it...

      Thank you for your condolences as well. I am staggered at how upset I am about this; I didn't know her well. But I guess I cared more than I understood. I thought it was bitterly ironic that I was having a set of thoughts so contrary to what she was going through, but I like your idea that she circled by on her way out. I can't quite believe in these things either, but I can think about them.

      All the best,


  3. Daniel, this was so transparent and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing! By the way, have you ever read "The Arts of the Beautiful," by Etienne Gilson? Gilson touches on many of your points regarding kalos, and I suspect from this post that since you are interested in the philosophy of beauty, you would find it an enjoyable read. :-)

    1. Anna - thank you very much! And no, I haven't even heard about this book. I spend a lot of time considering the concept of the beautiful, so you'd think I'd have run across it. But I don't do very much research. I'll look this up, thank you for the recommendation! And I hope the rest of your pregnancy is comfortable and happy and that the baby is awesome. :)