On Becoming a Painter (A Memoir)
“If you’re a painter, you’re not alone. There’s no way to be alone. You think, and you care, and you’re with all the people who care . . . To be right is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in . . .”
—Franz Kline to Frank O’Hara in “Franz Kline
Talking,” Evergreen Review Reader, ed. Barney Rossett
(New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1968), p. 204.
AFFIRMATIONS AND CURRENT ANXIETIES
For more than four decades, I have sought to make consciously informed paintings, drawings, and wall constructions that have been rigorous, complex, and resonant in visual and material terms. As well, it has been crucial to me to pursue directions and issues that seemed authentic to my own particular temperament, curiosities and capacities while maintaining a sense of wonder and admiration in relation to the great art of the past and present that I have encountered. Having now produced thousands of works, I have come to recognize in my sustained practices that I have had no desire to have my own art replace the accomplished art of others. Rather I have been more interested in building my own critical contributions on an intellectual and psychological foundation of historical art and pictorial knowledge and understanding. Over these many years, my studio practices have increasingly acknowledged, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, historical precedents and cultural continuities, while investigating perceptual experiences and expressive circumstances that engage the urgent present. Although aspiring to be an artist of ambition and substance has been at the core of my personal goals, my essential sense of social responsibility has, in fact, compelled me as well to participate actively in the development of necessary cultural, educational, and social infrastructures whenever useful opportunities presented themselves. Furthermore, these simultaneous efforts as an educator, administrator, and writer have been deeply informed by my intense commitment to serious art making as a profession and a life’s calling of aesthetic and ethical consequence. In doing so, I came to realize that I cared little about material success, but rather hoped to serve my diverse communities in meaningful ways. Nevertheless, I have also recognized that worthy insights in the studio demanded a particular kind of courage, focus and discipline if I was to develop a convincing body of art that truly embodied a sense of human continuity, insight, and perceptual immediacy worthy of prolonged contemplation. Painting has come to serve me as an essential metaphor for the negotiation between the individual and the collective, between the intellect and the hand, between emotion and analysis, and between the past and the present. I long ago realized that my unconscious need to make art would have to be integrated into a more comprehensive and explicit understanding of the origins, possibilities, and responsibilities of art making and its diverse histories if I was to make a serious contribution as a practitioner. I have immersed myself deeply in the great western traditions of painting that have set the highest standards of aesthetic accomplishment, and have provided, for me, the most profound paradigms for visual expression and communication.
Unfortunately, in recent years I have become increasingly aware that the majority of those models and standards of creative achievement that first nurtured my ambitions and stimulated me to seek to be a serious painter are no longer fashionable nor of much interest to the current generation of dominant Canadian curators, critics, and artists. Sadly, a genuine desire for an understanding of and a responsive engagement with certain fundamental philosophical sources, essential varieties of visual experiences, and formal complexities of profound visual art seem largely to have given way to a level of self-satisfied superficiality, smug ignorance, and self-delusion that is deeply troubling. The urgent and often transcendent works of visual art that, in the very recent past, had attracted disinterested criticism and scholarship, and were catalysts for many ambitious artists have, apparently, lost much of their currency with many of the people who now seem to control most of the contemporary Canadian art world. The influential interventions of these equivalents of self-interested “spin doctors” and fashionable marketing strategists can be characterized by their ideologically driven advocacy, apparent lack of long term knowledge, and blindness to plastic form. Their overt desire for personal control has diminished the nature of much critical discourse, and has also deeply infiltrated the curricula both of studio and art historical studies in art colleges and universities. This is also a time when some of these same curators, cultural entrepreneurs and other self-interested interpreters brazenly appropriate the hard earned, and often slowly resolved efforts of artists of integrity, and subjectively manipulate the actual art into fictive displays and thematic spectacles, or appropriate works of art as mere specimens in a mode of simulated research or textual speculation.
For knowledgeable observers and mature artists of integrity, this is a generally disturbing time in which the visual arts, particularly painting, seems to have been trivialized by many of those same individuals whom we have traditionally expected to be principled and discerning guardians of culture.
Although my assertions may seem to be coloured by a generational nostalgia for an ideal time of widespread cultural awareness, balanced analysis, and professional standards that never really existed, I am convinced that there is ample current evidence in art periodicals, public gallery exhibition catalogues, and university course descriptions that intelligent visual art has been generally marginalized by a repressive flood of seductive, technological diversions, pointless commodities, and textual tyrannies. That said, I am also aware that a few public intellectuals, scholars, and critics of genuine learning, empathy, and insight remain committed to serious inquiry and expression while resisting the temptation to replace the truly “visual” in the visual arts with clever, linguistic confections that do little to elucidate the perceptual experience and content of works of visual art. For the sake of moving my ideas along, I must resist citing at this point the many writers, educators, and artists who have stimulated my thinking, and have inspired my practice. In my previous writings and in my teaching, I have regularly referred those to whom I owe much, and will do so again elsewhere in this article. I am certainly heartened by the few persistent, artistic peers who continue to trust the worth of the visual, and bravely investigate their deeply held interests and sense of necessity. Moreover, because I occasionally encounter recent works of accomplished art, uncommonly inventive painters, and wise analysis in unlikely places, I remain guardedly optimistic that reason and a mature desire for challenging visual experiences will eventually, again, find empathetic and generous audiences. It is with these hopes in mind that I write this text, and spend so many days in my studio anxiously seeking aesthetic results that are convincing, personally essential, and seemingly inevitable.
When I consider how I became the artist that I am today, I take great pleasure in remembering the first hand encounters with works of great art, as well as those conversations with wise and educated teachers and mentors who helped me grasp the necessities of disciplined personal commitment and the critical understanding of formal structure required of truly serious artists. Conversely, I sometimes search for those obvious signs of the corruption of the same values that have been precious to me. In my more cautious, self-effacing, even doubtful moments, I wonder if the changes that I observe are simply the results of the shifting priorities of an obviously unstable and irrevocably consumerist society, and wonder if they are simply inevitable. I worry regularly about these apparent symptoms of a pervasive cultural and ethical decadence that may have permanently undermined the genuine search for hard won pictorial insight and integrity. However, when I am able to set aside, even briefly, my own version of romantic idealism and am truly honest with myself, I must also acknowledge that the seeds of cultural and ethical decline have probably always been present in the character of the human condition. It seems to me that the territories of serious art making have possibly always been contested, certainly in living memory. On the other hand, for those of us who care about the freedom and responsibilities of being fully engaged visual artists, it is crucial that we remain vigilant as we reassert the viability of our chosen studio disciplines, and that we affirm our commitments with confidence and unembarrassed authority. I believe that as independent artists we have the responsibility to be agents of legitimate cultural specificity as we resist the leveling influences of the mass entertainment industries and global capitalism. The sum of all the visually intelligent art of the past and present reminds us of how formal elements, physical matter, technical developments, and an infinite range of subjects can be integrated into causally structured objects of contemplation and discernment. These rigorous and resonant works of art embody what it is to be human at a given time, and in a specific circumstance. It is in relation to that art of high ambition, complexity, and coherence that I measure my own practices, and have learned much about the expressive potential of pictorial form to be continually rethought in accordance with newly emerged meanings. Life experience has also persuaded me that rigorous art making can also be a crucial process of evaluation and re-interpretation of the familiar that may result in a fresh awareness and a sense of renewal.
OPPORTUNITIES AND EDUCATION
“The individual in search of personal expression, when confronted with the local stock of possibilities available to him upon his entrance, must select the components he will use. This gradual accommodation between temperament and formal opportunity defines the artistic biography.”
—George Kubler, The Shape of Time, (New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1962) p. 65.
In the previous paragraphs, I have mentioned some of the disturbing factors that must be faced by today’s professional visual artists as they pursue their careers both in public and in the privacy of their studios. Nevertheless, given the attendant uncertainties, I expect that it has always been difficult for most sensitive individuals to find their way as serious artists, particularly those from economically modest backgrounds, as well as to sustain and to renew their creative lives over an extended period. In this regard, I would like to pause to reflect on those conditions that enabled me to follow the uncertain path to becoming an artist and to consider, in retrospect, what factors may have influenced my aesthetic choices, my evolving understanding of pictorial form, and my many career opportunities. I am hopeful that my brief account of the journey that eventually led me to direct my talents toward the challenges and joys of being a painter may be more broadly instructive. I suspect that my experiences have not been fundamentally different from those of countless other North American artists.
Through the imperfect filter of memory, I recall that during my early childhood and adolescence, more than fifty years ago, I began to test my interests and opportunities as an artist. Thanks to my early public education, I was introduced to the worlds of literature and art that provided glimpses of life’s wider possibilities. In primary school, the specialist art teacher in the big hats, Miss Tricker, swept into the classroom with bags full of materials and her expert enthusiasm that encouraged my creative potential. In grade six, there was the exotic and kind Miss Lafitte whose beauty and association with her pirate ancestor encouraged my imagination beyond the confines of the seemingly grey walls of Hill Street School and the working class neighborhood where I lived. Then, in junior high school, the inspiring Miss Mabel Jackson introduced me to the books of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway. Moreover, I also remember fondly my first trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my grandfather, who pointed out the extraordinary paintings of Thomas Eakins, including the remarkable Max Schmidt in a Single Scull. Other visits to that temple of visual culture perched high above the Schuylkill River, where Schmidt himself had rowed, provided memorable encounters with Stuart Davis’s intriguing Something on the Eight Ball, and Andrew Wyeth’s luminous Groundhog Day. At some moment during this time, I learned that Andrew Wyeth lived in nearby Chadds Ford, and that his father, N. C. Wyeth, had illustrated my cherished volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island.
Although there were no paintings on our walls at home as I grew up, my father’s copy of a 1938 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was bound in thickly woven, green cloth, offered instructive illustrations of the great Camden, New Jersey poet’s expansive text. In addition, the reproductions of paintings in the World Book Encyclopedia and John Canaday’s reactionary survey, Mainstreams of Modern Art, a gift from my parents, provided useful versions of aspects of art history that stimulated my curiosity. Finally, my wonderfully flamboyant high school art instructor, Miss Katherine Starr, praised my developing talents and, in my senior year, arranged for me to receive a scholarship to attend a Saturday class in illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art. I began to focus my tentative creative ambitions in the visual arts while I continued to maintain a relatively un-critical attachment to the comforts and challenges of literature. On the other hand, with my immature awareness and insecurity about what a serious artist actually did, and how one earned a living, I accepted my parent’s well-intentioned counsel and applied to the nearby Kutztown State College, which was well-known regionally for its art education program, and which would enable me to earn a primary school through high school teaching credential for Pennsylvania. To my knowledge, I still had not actually met a practicing artist. I certainly didn’t understand the career implications at the time of choosing to enter a publicly funded, teacher preparation program instead of enrolling in an independent, professional art college.
At Kutztown in the early sixties, I began to be awakened to what it might mean to pursue a life as an artist because of the encouragement of such empathetic, practicing artist-professors as Rosemarie Sloat (an expressionist painter), Bruce Carter (a humanist printmaker), Karl Karhumaa (the figurative sculptor), Nunzia Alagia (a graphic designer), and Robert Baumler (an abstract painter). Moreover, the curriculum required me to take a diverse range of art and design studio courses that ranged from drawing, painting, and printmaking to ceramics, illustration, jewelry making, costume design, and stage design. A selection of other required and elective courses in art history, art education theory, and liberal arts and sciences completed my education. Textbooks, rather than primary sources, tended to dominate the assigned literature. I developed a familiarity with certain general assumptions about pictorial composition, including notions of balance, harmony, rhythm, and variety. Unfortunately I recall no intense studio critiques of specific works, and certainly no rigorous discussion of the construction of pictorial space, or the orchestration of dynamic form. Equally important to my maturing consciousness were remarkable student friends who introduced me to the fiction and poetry of the Beats, to Dylan Thomas’s life and poetry, and to the honesty of traditional folk music. With Gino Bianco as our compelling leader, I was persuaded to work on the campus newspaper, the literary magazine, and at numerous other campus organizations while I became increasingly political and compulsively active. We challenged the campus status quo when many of us were elected to student government, and became crucial irritants to the college president’s restrictive policies. Of course, this was the period of the developing Civil Rights Movement, greater student activism, and the assassination of President Kennedy. Together, Bianco, Killeen, Santoro, and I, traveled to Washington to cover the solemn ceremonies and the funeral of President Kennedy for the college newspaper. When the article describing the tragic events was published the next week, a couple of my drawings accompanied the text.
Despite the hostile efforts of certain reactionary faculty, I graduated with a degree in art education in June 1965. Surprisingly, I received the Honor Prize for Painting, for a small painterly interior with a figure. Reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn’s work of the time, this acrylic on cardboard was purchased for the College’s collection, and continues to hang in a hallway of the art department. Within two weeks of graduation, I received my notice to report for a physical examination, as the beginning of the process for my induction into the United States Army. The Vietnam War was underway.
Thanks to a generous scholarship, I spent much of the summer of 1965 at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine where I had the extraordinary good luck of studying with two distinguished artist-teachers, William Holst and Morton Grossman, in a physical environment of inspiring natural beauty. Holst was a very accomplished abstract painter who had been a student of Hans Hofmann, and shared his deep understanding of the relationship between visual expressiveness and plastic form. (See note #1 below.) Through Bill Holst, I began to understand Hofmann’s ideas concerning the construction of pictorial space as well as to consider more rigorously the inherent potential of each medium, painterly process, and visual elements. This pragmatic introduction to many of the tenets of modernism persuaded me to reflect more carefully on the possibilities of abstraction and non-objective painting to communicate a quality of purposeful exploration and philosophic insight. Morton Grossman was a gifted painter of gestural abstractions in watercolour and acrylic who was extremely enthusiastic about my abilities and encouraged my greater understanding of colour as an essential component in the construction of dynamic pictorial space. The additional presence that summer of numerous other artists of exceptional character and achievements among the faculty, such as the visionary educator-poet, M. C. Richards, the textile sculptor, Lenore Tawney, the ceramist, Toshiko Takaezu, among others, created an exciting and nurturing learning community in which art and life seemed to merge. Furthermore, the highly gifted, small student body came from across the continent and from other parts of the world, and pursued their work with seriousness and skill. Fran Merritt, the founding Director, wisely guided all aspects of the school with a gentle and bemused knowledge and sensitivity that seem to celebrate the individuality of each student, staff, and member of faculty. His deeply felt assertion that there was a place for everyone at Haystack permeated daily interactions. In addition, the simple framed and shingled buildings of the school itself, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, suggested the vernacular architecture of the coastal region, and integrated beautifully into the natural surroundings of the rockbound island. Haystack was a place of creative harmony and provided me a cherished opportunity for great personal growth. I felt for the first time that I might have a life as an artist. Unfortunately, this idyll was shattered when I reported for my military physical exam in Bangor, Maine. Within two months, I found myself on my way to boot camp in Missouri.
During the nearly two years of disturbing military service, between 1965 and ’67, in several locations in the United States and Germany, I managed to find opportunities to enrich my first-hand experience of historically significant art that deepened my sense of what might be possible as an artist and what choices might be required in the creation of substantial visual art. A posting near Nurnberg gave me a valuable opportunity on several occasions to visit Albrecht Durer’s home and to see actual examples of his intensely observed and invented drawings, paintings, and prints. In addition I saw a large exhibition of Paul Klee’s intimate watercolours and paintings that impressed me with their visual intelligence, expressive diversity, formal invention, and sensitivity to the character of chosen materials. Upon my first visit to the Tate Gallery in London, I encountered Mark Rothko’s darkly emotive and large-scaled paintings, and they moved me greatly. The hovering, atmospheric expanses of colour truly seemed to be the spatial embodiment of the sublime, while transcending their material facts. Originally painted as a commission for the Four Season’s Restaurant in New York City, I was convinced that Rothko had created remarkable paintings of great spirituality and mystery with purely pictorial and technical means. Also, I was very impressed by the purposefully designed gallery at the Tate where the paintings were then housed, and in which these very particular canvases could be slowly and carefully savoured. That singular experience remained unmatched for me for years, and continues as crucial evidence that non-objective painting can provide profound perceptual experiences.
Another significant experience at the time involved a fortuitous discovery in the base library of a deeply informative article, “Impurity,” by Alan Kaprow in a recent issue of the then influential magazine Art News. (See note #2 below.) In this remarkable text, Kaprow, the reputed originator of the Happening and a former student of Hans Hofmann, astutely compared the contrasting intentions, pictorial means, and individual content that were evident in the paintings of Pollock, Newman, and Myron Stout. I was deeply impressed that Kaprow had so empathetically discussed the major achievements of these different artists without foregrounding his own practice in the article. Although the details of his analysis have faded from memory, his respectful interest and deep understanding of the influential achievements of the preceding generation has remained an important model for me.
Upon the completion of my military service, I returned to Haystack toward the end of the summer of 1967 to study with English designer, Peter Gee, who offered a colour workshop that deepened my sensitivity to the systematic use of colour in the construction of pictorial and evocative space. Gee also urged his students to consider the use of emerging plastic materials and Day-Glo colour as ways to invoke cultural artifice and social meaning as an alternative to more conventional references to nature and related subjects. This learning experience helped me to trust pre-meditated planning, visual judgment, and improvisation as equally valid processes in the making of coherent and meaningful art.
Following nine months as a social worker in Wilmington, Delaware, I accepted a teaching position in an inner city junior high school in Reading, Pennsylvania, and pursued a master’s degree in art education at Kutztown University. Benefiting from the guidance and encouragement of James Carroll, I began to read historical aesthetics, and contemporary art theory and criticism, with particular attention to the writings of Clement Greenburg, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krause. Specifically, I explored systems theory, and paid close attention to the paintings of Hans Hofmann, Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and others. My interest in sculpture was stimulated by Cleve Grey’s book, David Smith on David Smith. (See note #3 below.) I found Smith’s writings in this volume extremely poignant, and they greatly influenced my aspirations as an artist at the time. Later, I also saw the David Smith Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This extraordinary experience compelled me to contemplate how welded steel sculpture might simultaneously address the pictorial and the physical. I soon came to realize how Smith’s sculpture at times denied gravity, implied movement, employed colour pictorially, and acknowledged the properties of materials. My interest in David Smith led me to the study of and admiration for the abstract sculpture of Tony Smith and Tony Caro. The paintings that I produced during this period explored hard-edged, geometric structures that were formally reconciled to the rectilinear support. In a few cases, I explored modestly shaped canvases as I struggled to explore my newly acquired understanding of formal organizations, and colour as an essential structural component. Although I continued to be interested in most serious art, whether explicitly representational or non-objective, I was determined to make paintings that relied primarily on their internal visual logic, and resisted overt references to the externally observed world. I completed a series of systematic colour paintings during 1968-69 academic year. Fortuitously, I came across an announcement in a Philadelphia newspaper about a new Fellowship Program for young artists and writers at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts that had been founded recently by Robert Motherwell, Jack Tworkov, Myron Stout, Fritz Bultman, Stanley Kunitz, Alan Dugan, and others. I applied for and received that life changing Fellowship and moved with my family to Provincetown at the end of the summer of 1969.
In Provincetown, with my partner, Fran, and our son, Paul, we found ourselves in a community that had a long and rich history as a place where independent thinkers, artists, writers, and political radicals lived in an interdependent community with fishers, merchants, entertainers, and tourists. Traditional values, divergent sexual orientations, and unconventional behaviour were also evident, at times in surprising combinations. I finally found myself in a context where being an artist was not regarded with suspicion. At the Fine Arts Work Center, I had regular contact with staff members, Myron Stout, and Fritz Bultmann, both of whom had been students and friends of Hans Hofmann. (See notes #4 and #5 below.) Through informal conversations and critiques, Stout and Bultmann shared their vast knowledge of art, as well as their profound understanding of plastic form. Moreover, they welcomed me into their homes and studios, providing alternatives to my suburban and working class origin. Additional studio critiques with Robert Motherwell, Alan Kaprow, Jim Forsberg, and other visiting artists reinforced my comprehension of and commitment to the particularities of visual and expressive structure in my own paintings. Encounters with resident staff writers, Stanley Kunitz and Alan Dugan, and such visiting authors as Robert Lowell and Norman Mailer, further enriched the stimulating environment. Moreover, writing Fellows, Louise Gluck, and Roger Skillings (See notes #5 and #6 below.), were deeply disciplined and exemplary colleagues who provided compelling models of commitment and resolution. The privileged year of living in that remarkable village offered us many opportunities for extraordinary conversations, short-term employment opportunities, and social interactions with cultural figures of note such as Jack Tworkov, Ross Moffett, Mary Oliver, Larry Rivers, Jacob Druckman, Hudson Walker, Edwin Dickinson, Karl Knaths, and many others. We also learned first-hand about financial insecurities as independent artists. We were challenged and transformed by the experiences, and better prepared to return to life in a less compatible and supportive milieu. With the encouragement of Morton Grossman who had taken up a professorship at Kent State University, I accepted a graduate assistantship to pursue my Master of Fine Arts degree at that Ohio school, turning down several other offers. My brief period of excitement and optimism about further graduate study soon turned to anxiety and disgust when the National Guard tragically murdered unarmed students on the Kent campus on May 4, 1970. Unfortunately, with no other immediate option, I naively rationalized our relocation to Ohio.
The education that I received at Kent State University far surpassed my expectations. With a full graduate scholarship, teaching income both from Kent and several local museum education programs, as well as from the G.I. Bill, I immersed myself in my studies, which included a broad range of courses in art history, literature, philosophy, and studio. My advisor, Mort Grossman, introduced me to the other faculty and graduate students, and enthusiastically encouraged my maturing studio practices that broadened to include sculpture, installation, and printmaking, as well as painting and drawing. I discovered that many of the other MFA students were extremely gifted, critically informed, and ambitious. I particularly valued the extraordinary paintings and insights of Craig Lucas, who has remained my good friend over these many decades. I was also provided with an excellent personal studio and access to first-rate technical facilities.
Although I flourished academically in all aspects of the MFA Program, we became increasingly alienated from government foreign policy under Nixon and began considering leaving the United States. Remarkably, the Kent State University library had excellent holdings on Canadian art, and Dr. Ben Bassham, a superb art historian, guided my independent investigations of Canadian culture. Moreover, KSU’s Blossom-Kent Summer Program gave me an additional scholarship and employment to study with R. B. Kitaj and Leon Golub with whom I had a wonderful rapport. Additional contacts with other significant visiting artists such as Lynda Benglis, Dorothea Rockburne, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, and Robert Duncan were important catalysts for my learning and growth as an artist. Daily encounters with Robert Smithson’s iconic earthwork, Buried Woodshed, on the Kent campus further suggested to me that my suspicions about the deterioration of the once-perceived, just political and social aspirations of the United States were probably correct. Due to unprovoked police violence on the anniversaries of the May 4th shootings, the discovery of undercover agents among student groups, and other related travesties, we resolved to leave. Miraculously, an offer from Otto Rogers of a sabbatical replacement teaching position at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon enabled us to begin our seemingly new lives in western Canada. In August 1972, we loaded our blue Volkswagen bus with Fran’s piano, our daughter and son’s toys, and assorted necessities; hitched up the over-flowing, home-made trailer with the rest of our meager belongings, and continued our northern journey in search of a safe and nurturing community. When we eventually crossed the border, passed the strip-mined landscape of southern Saskatchewan, and, then, found ourselves travelling on the open prairie beyond Regina, we were greeted by Humphrey and the Dumptrucks as they played the tune, Going Back to Saskatoon, on CBC radio, and felt sure we were coming home.
Our optimism about our future in Canada has, of course, largely proved well-founded. Our family has worked hard to fulfill ourselves and to contribute to our chosen country. I have certainly pursued my work as an artist in several different communities, and have deepened my knowledge of historical precedent, my awareness of cultural difference, and aesthetic possibilities. Over the last thirty-six years, I have greatly benefited from the extraordinary examples of the numerous artists, writers, academics, and other exceptional citizens whom I have had the good fortune to know. In my judgment, my art has become more resonant, more expansive, and more accomplished because of these many experiences and opportunities for reflection and service. My professional work, particularly as an educator, administrator, and writer, has helped me to clarify my beliefs, objectives, and standards that I have sought to pursue in the studio.
LANGUAGES of the VISUAL
“To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure.”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves, (Harmondsworth,
Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1951), p. 100.
Over the years, I have sought to gradually internalize the countless influences in my paintings and related practices, and can, now, better articulate those fundamental beliefs that I am convinced are crucial to a truly visual art, particularly for the continuation of informed painting and drawing. Optical and physical facts and how they could be organized to assist my understandings of perception and interpretation have become an essential component. I longed to make paintings that celebrated the visual and could not be subverted into another art form. As I mentioned previously, I have had no desire to replace the practices of others, but rather have sought to make art that added my own efforts to the extended traditions in accordance with my own capacities and circumstances. I have felt that one could not escape the weight of the past, and that it was necessary to confront the visual languages to which I have had access. I did not want to avoid precedent that might be useful; nor did I wish to exaggerate that originality of my own efforts, as I had come to realize that many other artists often had. I was committed to learning from the past as well as to meeting the challenges and inventions of my contemporaries, as fully as I was able. I seem to have developed a love affair with all great art throughout history and in each culture that I encountered or intentionally sought.
In the late sixties, when I had first felt confident enough to make my entry as a professional, I began to understand the historical and ethical imperatives and responsibilities that the readily available versions of Modernism placed on my own practices. It became evident to me that I was most deeply affected by painting and sculpture that investigated immediate perceptual reality with a disciplined intelligence and a psychological profundity. The plastic interrelationships between the visual elements of colour, plane, line, scale, etc. presented expressive possibilities that could be perceptually accessible and did not depend on information that was external to the dynamic pictorial experience. Although the official art world was beginning to tire of the pictorial anxieties of the first generation of the New York School, I was personally intent on comparing the sublime grandeur evident to me in the evocative works of Motherwell, Newman, and Rothko, and the coherent improvisations of de Kooning, Kline, David Smith, and Hofmann with the ironic images and mechanized propositions of Andy Warhol and certain other Pop artists. My intellectual allegiance remained with the earlier generation while I developed a pronounced skepticism toward the often, formally arbitrary nature of Warhol’s actual paintings. Nevertheless, his clever exploitation of the strategies of mass culture and industrial production in the creation of his public persona demanded respect. My range of interests quickly expanded to include the systematic explorations of Albers, Stella, Tony Smith, and Judd, as well as the strategic colour-field processes of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. To this core of compelling, first-rank American artists from whom I learned a great deal, I soon also added Jack Youngerman, Al Held, and Ellsworth Kelly. Each of these painters impressed me with their vital examinations of seemingly familiar issues such as positive/negative interchanges, ambiguous spatial structures, and immaculately focused, formal situations. Moreover, I began to dutifully read the criticism of Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Rosalind Krause, and Michael Fried while I savored the writings of Hans Hofmann, Joseph Albers, David Smith, and Fairfield Porter.
Against this background of recent and contemporary American art, I began to look back attentively at the origins of Modernism in Europe in the obvious achievements of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian. I also began to read their own writings about art, as well as those of Paul Klee, Vassilly Kandinsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Almost simultaneously, I developed a deep fascination with English painting and sculpture that had been largely ignored by the art history and studio professors with whom I had studied. Early to mid-century painters such as Augustus and Gwen John, David Bomberg, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Ivon Hitchens, and Ben Nicholson captured my attention, and offered appealing alternatives to the aggressive, sometimes chauvinistic examples of much contemporary American art. Among the, then current, English artists who also seemed to raise significant issues, Anthony Caro, R. B. Kitaj, Richard Smith, John Walker, and William Tucker most intrigued me. In addition, I began to reflect on the earlier, still meaningful to me, examples of paintings in the United States that derived from observation but depended on a fully articulated, formal organization for expression. Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Edwin Dickinson, and Georgia O’Keefe, among others, seemed relevant models of aesthetic integrity. Moreover, the painterly distillations of Fairfield Porter and Richard Diebenkorn further convinced me that representation continued to be a viable option.
With the beginning of my appointment at the University of Saskatchewan in 1972, I felt a pressing responsibility to unpack this densely layered heritage, and to discern the essential visual structures and strategies through which painting and drawing could convey meaning. My more mature grasp of plastic form, as well as my pedagogical knowledge, enabled me to design courses that were comprised of rationally conceived, development sequences of assignments that would provide students with a relatively stable body of useful, transferable knowledge and experience. In addition to my confirmed objectives of equipping students with the knowledge and skills for constructing formally coherent and personally meaningful images, I sought to promote a greater awareness of the authentic contributions of Canadian artists that were certainly equal or superior to the accomplishments of practitioners from other nations. This, in turn, I believed would nurture their own confidence, and would encourage them to recognize that valid and pertinent art could be created in the immediate Canadian context. At the time, I developed great admiration for the historically significant work of Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, Paul Emile Borduas, Jack Bush, and Jock MacDonald, as well as the contemporary achievements of Paterson Ewen, Bill Perehudoff, Dorothy Knowles, and Otto Rogers. Eli Bornstein’s influential presence as former head of the Art Department in Saskatoon encouraged my interest in Russian and eastern European Constructivism as well. Consequently, my early educational responsibilities and pedagogical aspirations for my students greatly influenced my own essential aesthetic commitments, curiosities, and priorities that have, in fact, largely continued to the present day.
“Not by planning and not by choosing
I learned the mastery.
What a damnable trade
Where winning is like losing.”
—Stanley Kunitz, “The Bottom of the Glass,”
The Testing Tree, (Boston and Toronto: Little,
Brown, and Company, 1971), p. 56.
Embedded in the foundations of my beliefs is an unshakable expectation that truly profound painting requires a thorough integration of subject and form in the communication of a desired content. I also have come to believe that authentic meaning can only be achieved through the viewer’s perceptual engagement with the actual work of art. There are a few key painters in western culture whose work clarified a few essential factors that must be addressed if a painting is to have aesthetic integrity. In my view, Paul Cezanne was the first artist to understand fully the potential of a painting to embody its own inherent order. Although it may have, in fact, been inspired by the observation of the literal world, a completely convincing painting would, nevertheless, exist as a separate, though perhaps equivalent, expressive reality. Patrick Heron, the late British painter-critic once wrote that
when Cezanne resolved visual realities into countless groups of delectably ordered strata of fragmented brush strokes parallel to each other, he was magnifying something seen. But the stacks and shelves and clusters of square-ended parallel brush-strokes are not invented arbitrary abstraction: they are the intuitive magnification of fragmented stratifications which his remarkable eye saw hinted at absolutely everywhere in the visible world . . . these clusters . . . came into existence as a space-creating plastic device, and one of immense originality and power.
—In “Solid Space in Cezanne,” Modern
Painters. (See note #7 below.)
Cezanne achieved a remarkable union of emotive image, process, and formal specificity in his extraordinary paintings. Cezanne’s paintings are comprised of a relational accumulation of judiciously located planes and lines of nuanced colour derived in large part from observed subjects. For instance, in his paintings of Mount Saint Victoire, which rose above the farmland outside of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne employed the formal elements of subtle lines and small planes as “common denominators” that visually connect different literal objects and subjects such as sky, rocks, water, and foliage into gently rhythmic orchestrations of arresting, painted sensations and movements. Recalling the specificities of seen places and things, Cezanne’s compelling paintings seem to possess an inner necessity that demands the viewer’s careful scrutiny of their shimmering surfaces and complexly constructed spaces. His pictorial assertions and doubts function as equivalents of his own restrained confidence and human vulnerability. In my view, a deep understanding of Cezanne’s immensely original achievements has an ongoing relevance for any painter who aspires to an art of substance and continuity.
Also inhabiting my Pantheon of essential painters is, not surprisingly, Henri Matisse, whose adventuresome leadership in the conscious exploration of the dynamics of colour influenced generation after generation of painters throughout the Twentieth Century and into the Twenty-first. He recognized painting as a vehicle to investigate the optical and psychological tension that was possible between the physical facts of the picture plane and the perceived spatial properties of colour. Always sensitive to the potential of the interaction of colours to evoke light, Matisse was also capable of employing contrasting hues and tones, saturations and intensities, and atmospheric passages and solid surfaces in the purposeful construction of images of disarming beauty and deceptive, emotional complexity. In addition, he often tested the poetry of elegant and economical simplicity while, in other instances, he considered the expressive potential of the juxtaposition of complicated patterns and structures derived from the observed domestic environment. At other times he fashioned haunting images that were simultaneously exotic and on the verge of recognition even though they were conjured from direct perceptual experience in Paris, Morocco, or elsewhere. Later in life, when illness threatened to disrupt his inquiries, Matisse dug deeply into his vast visual memory and employed his profound pictorial intelligence in the construction of painted paper collages that ranged from poetic representations of the figure to seemingly non-objective integrations of structurally expressive colour and emotive shapes. As in Cezanne, I am thoroughly convinced that the insights and implications of Matisse’s hugely inventive paintings, drawings, collages, and sculpture demand the sustained consideration of every artist of serious ambition.
Following the inspired alchemies of Matisse and Cezanne, the apparently logical yet daring deductions of Piet Mondrian seem, in retrospect, the product of cerebral investigations into a verifiable formal order disconnected from the experience of the world. Yet Mondrian, too, began his creative journey with the careful scrutiny of the visual offerings in the external environment and its metaphysical propositions. From his earliest works to his final canvases, Mondrian produced paintings of material grace and transcendent beauty. His early light-filled landscapes are characterized by colour relationships and organic structures that are coherent and refreshing gifts to the eye and the spirit. These paintings have a sense of necessary negotiation between sensory experience, spiritual faith, and conscious awareness. As his search for wholeness proceeded, Mondrian eventually understood the significance of the perceived spaces between literal things. This epiphany led him to the consideration of possible congruence and interactions between pictorial intervals, planes of specific colours, and the actuality of the physical canvas. His initial investigations sought to reconcile pictorial incident to the shape of the support that belied a desire for a logical order that had its roots in his spiritual beliefs. Through a system of provisional constants and variables, he explored oppositional relationships between horizontals and verticals, primary hues, black and white, contrasting rectilinear shapes, etc. At times, the literal or implied compositional focus seemed to acknowledge the field of vision. A faith in the relative stability and specificity of precisely structured formal and material elements seemed to offer an almost universal vocabulary that could transcend national boundaries, the flux of historical narratives, and the vagaries of previous knowledge and external reference. Of course, at the end of his career, while living and working in New York City, he allowed the social and cultural rhythms and colours of urban existence to enter his practice. This embrace of new experiences and his acceptance of these seemingly contradictory impulses reinforce the probability that art making must always be subject to reconsiderations and renewals. Mondrian’s rigorously human abstractions offer precise perceptual experiences that exemplify the possibility of unity and the value of ideals while also suggesting that the tyranny of absolutes belong to the domain of ideologues who desire control and have little respect for individual creativity or collective worth. For me, Mondrian’s rewarding paintings serve as monuments of aesthetic and ethical integrity and discernment that resist consumption and commodification, while existing into the future as resonant objects of contemplation and dignity.
In the previous pages of reverie and reflection, I have sought to make sense of my long journey, to date, and of those countless influences that have shaped my beliefs and practices as an artist. I have been obviously privileged to have known countless gifted individuals, and have seen great art in the many parts of the earth where I have lived and traveled. I was fortunate to have been invited to live in Canada many years ago, and have always taken my responsibilities seriously as a artist, educator, and citizen. I have come to believe that our nation has produced significant art and artists that offer complex examples of the intersection of unique circumstances and opportunities. Our best artists, many of whom I have known personally as colleagues, or have studied with respectful attention, deserve the admiration and support of the nation. They have contributed in estimable ways to the state of our individual and collective identity. Without them, Canada would exist as a valuable though largely unexamined piece of real estate to be plundered by external forces. As our artists have meditated on their experiences in Canada and elsewhere, and have acted with their hearts, and heads, and hands, they have also shared in that vast and varied enterprise of continuity and change that has been art around the world. I believe deeply that the experience of and practice of art develops an understanding and sensitivity to human commonality and difference.
As Hannah Arendt so wisely affirmed in her book, The Human Condition, “the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought . . . Works of art are thought things, but this does not prevent their being things.” She further asserts, however, “the proper intercourse with a work of art is certainly not “using” it; . . . It must be removed carefully from the whole context of ordinary use objects . . . their durability is almost untouched by the corroding effect of natural processes. . . . In this permanence, the very stability of the human artifice, which, being inhabited and used by mortals can never be absolute, achieves a representation of its own.” (See note #7 below.) It remains my own firm conviction that one of the most important objectives for great works of art is to embody the continuity of civilization and to encourage hope for human endurance and understanding.
- Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real, (Cambridge and London: The M.I.T. Press, 1967).
- Alan Kaprow, “Impurity,” Art News, January 1963, pp. 30-33, 52-55.
- Cleve Grey, (ed.), David Smith on David Smith, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968).
- Louise Gluck is the former Poet Laureate of the United States and received the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1992).
- Roger Skillings is well known for his short stories set in Provincetown and the novel, How Many Die, (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001) that examines the impact of AIDS on that community.
- Patrick Heron, “Solid Space in Cezanne,” Modern Painters, Spring 1996, p. 17.
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 167-168.
Tags: Issue 76