28 November 2010

From the mailbag

Paul Cezanne, Bend in Forest Road, 1904-1906

Letter to Clara Rilke-Westoff from R. M. Rilke
21 October, 1907

"...There's something else I wanted to say about Cézanne: that no one before him ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colors, and how one has to leave them alone completely, so that they can settle the matter among themselves. Their intercourse: this is the whole of painting. Whoever meddles, arranges, injects his human deliberation his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity. Ideally a painter (and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights: without taking the detour through his reflective processes, and incomprehensibly to himself, all his progress should enter so swiftly in the moment of transition. Alas, the artist who waits in ambush there, watching, detaining them, will find them transformed like the beautiful gold in the fairy tale which cannot remain gold because some small detail was not taken care of."

From Letters on Cézanne, edited by Clara Rilke-Westhoff, translated by Joel Agee, 1985.

03 November 2010


In the past couple of days, while putting together some information on my work, I had to look at paintings from some years back and articulate ideas about my painting vocabulary and the way it developed at that time. The motivations for the changes I made then were visceral skepticism of certain types of marks and gestures, and a desire to rethink my syntax. It was a complicated process. A few years ago, I was recounting it in some detail with my brother—who is very knowledgeable on contemporary thought—and he said, “You know all those weird French theories? Well, you got there by yourself.”

Around that time, I was noticing more and more different types of marks around me: oil slicks on the street, paint spills on the floor, coffee stains on the table and other similar things. These were interesting in part because they were the remains of other actions. They had a kind of authority, that of an unselfconscious activity, that a gesture in a painting could not. For example, one day I had cut out a piece of card stock and walked away, then returned to see this framed bit of my work table:

A few weeks later it had turned into this:


These seemed to me completely satisfying as images. Paint can rings, gel spills, sand embedded into the table via unintended adhesive effect, the slices of a razor into the wood—all artifacts of prior tasks. It also got me started thinking about color in a different way, too. The colors artists use are gorgeous, unguent, saturated things. They are both immensely attractive and utterly unlike most of colors around us in our daily surroundings, which are more neutral, utilitarian and unspectacular.

When we do see an astounding color, it is unforgettable, like the late spring day I saw one of these outside my window in Brooklyn:

Scarlet Tanager, photo by Glen K. Peterson

By contrast, I looked six floors straight down at the pavement one morning and caught this zany mess:

Someone had dumped two five-gallon containers of ice cream on the sidewalk and left them to melt and decompose.

I decided to start working with a vocabulary of residual marks, or marks that were ambiguous regarding their origin in some way. Doing a painting while obscuring traces of how the marks arrived presents some curious challenges, especially if one wants to retain dynamism in a painting while abjuring the more conspicuous fingerprints of the maker. Of course, it requires artifice to achieve the effect, but artists know better than anyone how much artifice it takes to make art seem artless, and once that is accepted it vaporizes some of the conundrums around ideas of authenticity and genuineness. Often there is a negative correlation between what something looks like and how it got there. Malcolm Morley told me that the red “X” he painted on “Race Track” that looks dashed off was painstakingly planned and applied. This is another example of how our conditioning to the syntax of painting after 50,000 years (at the minimum) is so complex, vexatious, unavoidable and rewarding.

Malcolm Morley, Race Track (South Africa), 71.6 in. x 91.7 in. (182 cm x 233 cm), acrylic, wax and acrylic resin on canvas, 1970, Ludwig Museum, Budapest (photo: Ludwig Museum)

In my studio, these meditations led to this right out of the gate:

Increase, 28 in. x 42 in. (71 cm x 107 cm), oil, silicon, spray paint and pencil on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2005.

And a bit later this: 

I Ask You, 30 in. x 44 in. (76 cm x 122 cm), oil, acrylic and spray paint on paper mounted on linen over panel, 2006.

And developed into this after about a year:

Brú na Bóinne, 68 in. x 68 in. overall (173 cm x 173 cm), oil, alkyd, acrylic, metallic paint and sand on canvas over panel, 2006.

I usually find particular things for a reason, and the reason is often that the groundwork or foundations that need the “discoveries” are already inside, waiting to be paired with an external catalyst. After a while, the tacit motivation for a particular result becomes less important, and things flow more organically while working. In general, doing things for a prescribed end in painting seems less and less a good idea to me. At best such a concern can be distracting; at worst it skirts dogma, which is toxic to art.

Having an explicit teleological or “that for the sake of which” target for a work can obscure broader possibilities. I also think it’s intuitively obvious that one creates richer and deeper work when one yields to what one finds along the way, rather than working toward a predetermined conclusion, no matter how important the aspiration or noble the intent. Philip Guston once related a useful comment by John Cage that bears on this: “When you are working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, the art world, and above all your own ideas…But as you continue painting, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” (Michael Auping; “A Disturbance in the Field," in Philip Guston, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000.)

30 September 2010

Nathaniel Dorsky films at Anthology Film Archives

Still from Sarabande by Nathaniel Dorsky, 16mm, color, silent, 15 minutes.

Anthology Film Archives will be showing many films by Nathaniel Dorsky next week. Films for the 4 October program are the most recent; I am not sure if some of them have been publicly screened yet in New York. More information here. Interview with Dorsky by Darren Hughes here. A couple of my posts on Dorsky here and here. These films don't come around that often, although he seems to be becoming somewhat better known. They are gorgeous and challenging works. Not to miss.

02 August 2010

Museum of Modern Art "Artist's Pass"

Henri Matisse. Bathers by a River. 1909–10, 1913, 1916–17. Oil on canvas, 102 1/2 x 154 3/16" (260 x 392 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Good news for those artists (moi) who have been carping about MOMA's prices since they reopened. They offer an "Artist's Pass" which is significantly cheaper than an annual membership. For 25 clams you get admission to the museum for a year. All you need to do is bring to the museum a hard copy of an exhibition announcement, print out from a website announcement, or any document that shows you have been in an exhibition in the past two years. Take it to the information desk at the museum to get your annual pass. (They're not allowed to search the web for your show at the info desk; that's why they need the hard copy.) There are no member benefits (such as access to early viewing hours), but for shows like "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917," which has timed entrances, you can get in at any time. Where have I been?

Speaking of Matisse, I am very interested in seeing this exhibition; it is one of his most perplexing and difficult periods for me. The show is up until 11 October. Also, the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show opened, has a fascinating online tool that shows the above painting in its various states, with all kinds of gizmos to play with.

And why yes, since you asked, I do plan on spending a bit more time here.


“If, during an improvised solo, a sideman forgot whose music he was playing as he flew into the wild blue yonder, he might never be able to return. One night, at the Five Spot in New York, I watched John Coltrane get off the stand after a set with Monk. Coltrane looked dazed and dismayed. ‘I lost my place,’ he said, ‘and it was like falling down an open elevator shaft.’”

Nat Hentoff on Thelonious Monk, from “Listen to the Stories”

17 January 2010

Philip Guston

Untitled (Cup), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 11 in. x 14 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery, www.mckeegallery.com
A show of terrific paintings by Philip Guston at McKee gallery in New York closed a week ago Saturday. They were small paintings on panel, around 12 in. x 16 in., all the same size or close to it. The paintings were mostly of household objects—cups, shoes, etc.—as well as some of his hooded figures and cityscapes, done between 1969 and 1973. The photographs do them scant justice (but click on them for a larger view anyway).

These little paintings have immense vitality. The palette is restricted to red, white, black and occasional green. The objects or structures are simple and rudimentarily rendered. The elementary limitations give him a framework, and within it he lays claim to a kind of liberty in painting that is infrequently seen but always cherished by anyone who gives a damn about painting.

Untitled (Sole), Philip Guston, oil on panel, 12 in. x 16 in. (btw. 1969 and 1973). Photo McKee Gallery, www.mckeegallery.com

The marks are virtuoso: little hatches, wet into wet; swirls and smears; perfunctory dashes and blobs. Every stroke is direct, no-nonsense and unaffected; their aggregate conveys a feeling of honesty, authority and self-knowledge. The paintings, deceptively simple and generous despite exiguous means, radiate life. 


“The degree of intellectual honesty that is obligatory for me, by reason of my particular vocation, demands that my thought should be indifferent to all ideas without exception, including for instance materialism and atheism; it must be equally welcoming and equally reserved with regard to every one of them. Water is indifferent in this way to the objects that fall into it. It does not weigh them; they weigh themselves, after a certain time of oscillation.”

Simone Weil, Letter to S., Waiting for God, Perennial, 2001. Translated by Emma Craufurd.