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stella flowers italy 1931 copy

I spent 26 years of my life in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to know the collection at the Phoenix Art Museum intimately. There were paintings I loved and a very few that I disliked intensely. Most, of course, fell in the middle somewhere.

One painting I felt strong aversion to was Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy, which always seemed to me like a cheap piece of junk-surrealism. On the whole, I am not simpatico with even the best Surrealism.

There is only one thing to do when you don’t like a painting: spend a lot of time with it. So, I figured, if I stayed with the Stella for a while, I would either fully define why I did not, like it, or I would change my mind.

I finally wound up spending more than five hours with the painting, and, another hour or two afterward, reading about the artist and his work.

It was an enormous expense of time and energy, but it paid me back many times over. Now Stella’s Flowers is one of my anchors at the museum and, I cannot get enough of it.

Since the question I am asked most often and most imploringly is “How do you look at art?” it seemed like it might be helpful to describe what I found over those seven hours.

LOOKING AT A PICTURE

Most people like pictures of flowers. They come upon Joseph Stella’s Flowers, Italy at the Phoenix Art Museum, for instance, and they are likely to respond, ”I like flowers; they’re pretty; I like this painting,” and move on to the next.

But there is much more packed into any good painting, a world of meaning and experience that can only be squeezed out with time and effort.

So, mister wise-guy art critic, how do you look at a painting? It’s a question I have often heard. The answer has three large parts.

The first is looking.

And by looking, I mean spending a very long time noticing all the component parts of a painting, its colors, brush strokes, subject matter, design, size and proportions.

The second is thinking.

After you have noticed every square millimeter of the work, you are then obliged to figure out what it might mean. You dig into yourself — the well of your experience — and try to parse out what all those many bits might add up to.

And third, after you have some good idea what the painting might be communicating, there is the learning. You are interested enough that you want to find a book or person who might tell you more and help you fit this experience into the larger picture. But make sure to wait for this last: After you have experienced the painting, then you can worry about facts.

Too often, we want to start with facts, but if you place them first, they only blur your vision.

Once more, the three steps are: looking, thinking and learning.

Let’s take those same Stella flowers and try the method on them.

It is a large, square painting, about 6- by 6-feet, of dozens, maybe hundreds of flowers in a tangle that seems almost architectural, all against a deep, blue sky.

From a distance — and the way it hangs in the museum currently makes it difficult to view any other way — it seems finely painted and detailed. The paint seems smoothly brushed onto the canvas.

But try to get up close, and you will find that the surface is sloppy with thick gobs of rough paint. The flowers almost seem crude, as if drawn by a not-so-talented child.

Step back again. They regain their refinement.

This is only one of the many contradictions of the work.

Its overall impression and the first thing most people notice, after the flowers, is that the painting is rigidly symmetrical. Draw a line up and down through its middle and you find that the right and left sides mirror each other.

Yet, on closer inspection, nothing on one side exactly reproduces the other. What is a calla lily on one side is balanced by a hibiscus on the other. The painting only appears to be literally symmetrical.

There are two distinct axes to the design. Splitting the painting vertically is a line of plant stalks, pistils, racemes and petals. Each half of the painting is equal.

But cutting the bottom portion from the upper is a line of large white blooms. They sit lower than the halfway mark, settling as if gravity had pulled them down.flowers cross

That giant cross is the basic organizing principle of the work, like an airplane nose down, crashing into the bottom of the frame.

Another contradiction: Most of the blossoms are fairly realistic. You can tell the hibiscus from the aster, the lotus from the lily. Yet, the plant stems are greatly distorted. Many are rigidly straight, up and down. Others are not connected to anything recognizable. The upper portion of the picture, in fact, is divided into three panels by plant stalks that curve around at the top to make what look like Roman arches.

The background is blue sky; the closest part, on the bottom of the frame, is blue water, filled with waterlilies and fish. There are a host of white and red flowers, and a smattering of yellow. But considering this is a painting of foliage, there is surprisingly little green.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned what any of this might mean. Your first obligation is to discover what is there; only then can you worry what it might mean.monkey face

And what about the ”monkey” face?

Human beings are genetically programmed to recognize faces. It is why we so often find virgins in tortillas and aliens staring back from Martian mountains.

At the bottom of this painting, filling the middle third, is an animal face, with two rosy hibiscus for eyes, two birds for ears, and what looks like a red proteus for a nose ridge, crowned with a great white waterlily flower.

arcimboldoLike one of those crazy Arcimboldo faces from the Renaissance, made from fruit or vegetables, it is a visual pun, functioning on two levels at once: face and flower.

Stella is having it both ways once again.

Notice, too, that the bottom third of the painting acts like a very close, in-your-face wall, like a hedge that blocks the distant view behind. The painting then, maps out very clearly the near and the far.

Over and over, there are contradictions: things split into two — near-far, up-down, flower-face, greenless plants, realistic distortion.

There are dozens of other things you might notice. I’ve only listed a few; a complete list could fill an entire book.

But what does it all mean? The experience is all well and good, the looking slows us down and we discover scores of little details that we could not have noticed racing through the museum.

But it is the meaning we are after.

Well, the first thing you are likely to think about is the flowers. Any painting with this many maniacal flowers is likely to be about fecundity. This is one fertile painting.

And the details certainly substantiate that. Look at the top, with the day lily hanging upside down over the long, white tendrils that draw up the center line of the painting. It sits with its pollen-laden anthers just touching the tendril, which we must read as an abstracted pistil. The very moment of fertilization.

It is the climax of the painting, so to speak.

But the rest of the painting is no less orgasmic. Look at all the large flowers. Almost every one is a yonic horn with a large, phallic nub at its center. They are hibiscus and lotus, contradictory male and female at the same time. Near the very center of the painting is a jack-in-the-pulpit, with a lurid phallus sticking straight up from its bowl-like pulpit.

You would need an computer to keep track of the phalli and yoni in this picture.

Even that monkey face, looked at again turns into the female reproductive organs, with fallopian leaf fronds and ovarian hibiscus.

So, does this mean Stella had a dirty mind? Or was his subconscious playing Freudian games?

No. There is something else going on.Hubert_Robert Roman_Ruins

If we were to search the history of art for this painting’s ancestors, the most direct would be the 18th century picturesque landscapes of Hubert Robert and his like.

They usually showed a Roman or Greek ruin taken over by vines, with animals or people living and playing around them. Nature reconquers the works of man.

Stella has given us the ruin, in the form of the vegetal arches at the top of the painting. In his ”ruins” nature reconquers the world in a fit of fertility.

In the older paintings, we know that conventional iconography implies that the ruins symbolize death; the vines, the recurrence of life.

In Stella, the ruins are only suggested, and death — the arching plants that roof the painting — is itself seething with life.

The contradictions are all the more emphatic when we learn more about Stella and his art.

stella mugHe was born in Italy in 1877 and immigrated to the United States in 1894, where he died in 1946. He first achieved notice as an artist with a series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island, done before 1920.

In those, he brought the current Italian movement called Futurism to the U.S. Futurism glorified modernity, machines, speed and motion. Most of the noted Futurists were Italian; Stella was America’s only serious member.

But the contradictions in Stella’s personality kept him from continuing in this direction. Something in him mistrusted machines, even as he felt awestruck by the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge.brooklyn bridge stella

”Many nights I stood on the bridge — and in the middle alone — lost — a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness — crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers,” he wrote.

In another place, he called his home, New York City, ”Monstrous dream, chimeric reality, Oriental delight, Shakespearean nightmare . . . its enormous blocks of buildings barring one’s way . . . its dreadful closed windows barren of flowers.”

In his mind, Stella contrasted the steel, cold, northern city with the fertile, warm, sunny southern Italian town he had grown up in.

”Returning to my birthplace, I find all of nature smiling like a friend, greeting my arrival with festive salutes.”

And in another place, ”My drowsing energy, tortured by the cold of Northern countries, was awakened as if by magic, set aglow by the radiance of gold and purple light. All the ardor of my youth surged through me with the overflowing, stinging, demanding desire for new conquests in the virgin lands of art.”

Over and over in Stella’s letters, you find a man driven ecstatic by the abundance and plenitude of nature. Man’s works, so glorified in the Futurist paintings, became the fodder for ruins, which were ennobled by the fecundity of nature.stella purissima

It is a theme that shows up in many of Stella’s better paintings (and it should be noted he was a very uneven painter). They have titles such as Joy of Living, Dance of Spring, Apotheosis of the Rose and Tree of My Life.

Stella had an almost Hindu sense of the ecstasy of nature, the sense that everything is burning with aliveness.

And in the end, even his famous paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge were not about human life and technology, but, as he wrote, ”I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion, or in the presence of a new Divinity.”

He was one of those painters, like Van Gogh, who yearned to express the exploding aliveness of the world, a man with a visionary sense of cosmic energy.

Finally, his Flowers, Italy is no more about mere sex than the cave paintings of Ajanta or the athletics of Henry Miller. It is a vision of perpetual life, renewing itself and burning, a non-Christian version of Dante’s Divine Rose, or the sacred Garden of Eden.

And it is at this level that, in Stella, as in the Vedic religion, all contradictions are transcended.

NEXT: Looking at an earlier painting, using the same techniques

bruckner stamp austria

Are you old enough for Bruckner?

Poet Ezra Pound said there is no reason you should like the same book (or music or art) at 40 that you liked at 16. At 16, I liked Ezra Pound; now I’m 65.

The author graduates high school in 1966

The author graduates high school in 1966

Our tastes change as we age, or they should. My introduction to classical music was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and concertos pumped new-generated hormones through my arteries like adrenalin — when I was in high school.

It wasn’t long before I left him behind for Stravinsky, then Beethoven.

By the time that I was middle-aged, I had gone through Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, and most recently had added Bruckner and Haydn to the list. I get things from each of them I was deaf to earlier. Now that I am retired, I have finally come to appreciate Verdi. But, boy, it was hard to get past all the oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah.

The path won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some general patterns that seem to hold.

In painting, we all loved van Gogh at about the same time we loved Tchaikovsky. There is a bigger-than-life striving in van Gogh that appeals to the adolescent, striving himself for some sense of the heroic.

The author 1975

The author 1975

That same aspiration drove us to read Catcher in the Rye.

With a few more years under an increasingly large belt, we drop Tchaikovsky as hopelessly sentimental, Salinger as naive and simply move past van Gogh as we become aware of the Impressionists, who tickle our eyes all over again. Hormones calm, reality sets.

When we are in college or as grad students, we tend to gravitate to those things that are trendy, new, and exclusive, that set us off from the proles: We read Umberto Eco or — in my generation, Alberto Moravia and Robbe-Grillet. We jumped on Marina Abramowic  and Bruce Nauman and listened to Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Harry Partch. Yes to Pina Bausch, meh to Swan Lake.

The author 1977

The author 1977

Yes, we were showing off. In many cases we admired more than enjoyed.

We then gave up the need to be au courant or exclusive as we came to distinguish between the gee-whiz and the substantial.

As adults, we craved the substantial. Adult tastes are acquired tastes: Poussin, Schoenberg, Milton, rutabagas, pickled herring.

Old age now brings something else: simplicity and inclusiveness. I am no longer quick to drop the critical meat-cleaver and sever away something I consider unworthy. They are all worthy. Tchaikovsky as much as Webern, Salinger as well as Joyce. We are enriched by each of them.

The author in his "Van Gogh" pose 1980

The author in his “Van Gogh” pose 1980

(No, I haven’t gone senile — I’m not ready to accept Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade, although I see some value in Norman Rockwell that would have shocked me to hear anyone admit when I was 20. No, Rockwell is no Raphael, but there is room for an entire spectrum of abilities and accomplishments. What I ask isn’t so much undying masterpieces, as sincerity of attempt, and a willingness to put in the work.)

So, growth isn’t just a case of moving on from one thing to another, but adding more and more to our trove. By the time you are my age, you will have a heady backlog of esthetic experiences to draw on.

What is most interesting to me is that, if we continue to grow, we can return to art we left behind and find something new in it. From age 17 to about 40, I couldn’t bear Tchaikovsky — it seemed like treacle. But then I began noticing his bizarre harmonic sense and what I might call ”orchestration from Mars.” You only have to read the scores to see how peculiar is his voice leading. When I could get past the heart on the sleeve, I discovered an intelligence there that was hiding, or rather, that I was unwilling to discover, having made up my mind and moved on.

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

An now that I am bald, bearded and grey, I find that there is something even in the emotional immediacy that once embarrassed me.

As we grow, we not only grow into new experiences, we grow out of our old prejudices.

This all came back to me this week as I watched Lust for Life on cable. The 1956 biopic starred Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The film is an odd combination of excellence and awfulness, mixing insight with bromides, sanitizing the painter’s life while emphasizing the insanity.

More than anything, this is the van Gogh who appeals to adolescents, the van Gogh of idealism, identity crisis and suicide.

Alienated, misunderstood.

But there is one more aspect of him that is included: his commitment and perseverance. These quieter virtues, more than his insanity, give van Gogh his stature as an artist.

the author lecturing 2005

the author lecturing 2005

There was a time, in my 20s, that I dismissed van Gogh. The peculiar paint-busy canvasses, I was convinced, were just the evidence of a deranged mind. If you were schizophrenic, you could be a great artist, too.

But more careful study in recent years, especially of the many notebooks filled with drawings, told me something else again. Van Gogh paints the way he does because of his unwavering honesty to his eyes. He kept looking till he got it right.

And ”right” for him was to notice everything that his eyes saw, not merely what he had been trained to see.

If you stare long enough and with enough concentration, you can see something of the granular reality van Gogh saw. We no more pay attention to it in daily life than we pay attention to the grain in a movie’s film stock. It is not the information, but the medium of the information. We filter out so much. Van Gogh didn’t.

the author at Giverny 2008

the author at Giverny 2008

The other wonderful thing about van Gogh is that he had so little talent.

We tend to think of great artists being as fluent as Mozart or Raphael. Yet talent is a poor indicator of quality in art. For every Raphael, there are scores of Geromes and Bouguereaus: accomplished and pretty, but ultimately empty.

Van Gogh shared a lack of talent with several other great artists: Cezanne, for instance; or Jackson Pollock. One searches the drawings and oil sketches of Cezanne for even the slightest encouragement of talent. His drawing is hopelessly awkward.

Pollock searched for years for an adequate means of expressing what was inside him. To do it, he had to give up everything he had learned. If he had no talent for drawing, he would not draw. He found a talent for splashing instead.van gogh landscape

Van Gogh’s notebooks are full of erasures. He looked, drew, erased, looked again, drew again, erased again. Many drawings are never finished, but those that are, are right in a way the more facile Ingres never is.

Van Gogh was stubborn. I admire that in him more than I admire the talent of William Merritt Chase.

But give me another 10 years and we’ll see.