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Photographer Edward Weston is most famous for bell peppers that look like nudes and nudes that look like granite. He is one of a handful of American photographers that took the art from gauzy Edwardian Pictorialism to hard-edged industrial Modernism. Along with the patriarch Alfred Stieglitz and the radical Paul Strand, they put the wooden stake into the heart of the merely pretty.

In Europe, Modernism took a different tack, with photo-collage, political engagement and a series of “isms,” from Dada and Surrealism to Abstraction and street photography. But in America, the art went in the direction of monumentalism and the celebration of the “Ding an sich” — the thing as itself — a way of transmuting the object in the world into secular  icon. 

As Weston himself put it: “to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” And “To present the significance of facts, so that they are transformed from things seen to things known.” 

Unlike the soft-focus Pictorialism that sought to imitate the look of Impressionist paintings, Weston and the other American pioneers attempted a hard edge, sharp vision that took advantage of what the camera and lens could see.

“The camera sees more than the eye,” he wrote, “so why not make use of it?”

In fact, where he once called himself “Edward Weston, artist,” he began using the expression, “Edward Weston, photographer.” He was proud of being what he was. Not that that makes him any less an artist. 

He was born in Illinois in 1886, son of a doctor, who got him his first box camera when Edward was 16 years old. He dickered around with it and a larger 5X7 camera, and won several awards for the “artistic” images he made. In 1910, he moved to Tropico, Calif. (now Glendale) and opened a studio. He married, eventually had four sons and in 1913, met the bohemian bisexual Margrethe Mather, who joined him in his studio and introduced him to a more Modernist vision of art. 

From 1923 to 1927, he spent a good deal of his time living in Mexico with his new love, Tina Modotti, where he came into contact with many artists of the Mexican renaissance, including Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. 

While there, he began photographing subjects less overtly artistic, and more mundane, transforming them into Modernist form — such as his multiple “excusados,” or toilets. 

“Here was every sensuous curve of the ‘human form divine’ but minus imperfections,” he wrote.

When he finally returned to California, he was a full-fledged avant-garde artist, making his living with his camera. In short time, he became nationally known and joined such photographers as Stieglitz, Strand, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and several others, who all proposed a new esthetic of crispness and clarity. 

By 1937, he was awarded a $2,000 Guggenheim grant — the first ever given to a photographer — and traveled around the American West with his new squeeze, Charis Wilson, making in all some 1,200 images, mostly of landscape. The following year, he received a follow-up grant, that allowed him to process and print those negatives. Eventually, he married Wilson (she was 25; he was 53). 

Charis

After the war, they divorced and Weston was hit with Parkinson’s Disease, forcing him to give up making new photographs. He died on New Year’s Day in 1958. 

 

2.

We know the work of so many by their specialty. Ansel Adams has his pristine landscapes; Robert Frank has his street photos; Richard Avedon his pitiless portraits. But Weston encircled so much, so many subjects. 

He also tried so many different things in his career that he seems to prefigure most current movements in art photography. No matter what it was, Weston did it first: 

—He included man-made objects in his Western landscapes before Robert Adams. 

—He made surreal satires — a nude woman in a gas mask — before Les Krims. 

— He chronicled his family before Nicholas Nixon or Emmet Gowin did theirs.

—He used foreground to obscure background, preceding Lee Friedlander. 

—He prefigured the “New Color” of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore when he made his first Kodachrome pictures. 

—He photographed graffiti before Aaron Siskind. 

—He photographed ice crystals as abstractions before Minor White. 

—He prefigured what has been dubbed “photography in the directorial mode” when he posed his friends in oddball satires such as Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry.

—He posed cats before William Wegman posed dogs.

—He even began the “grantsmanship” syndrome, being the first photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1937.

—In fact, it is hard to find a genre of art photography that Weston did not essay before anyone else. He is ancestor to Frank Gohlke, John Pfahl, Lewis Baltz, Len Jenshel, Olivia Parker, Ralph Gibson, Linda Connor, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Sandy Skoglund and really every other working photographer/artist, including those who show his influence by their rebellion against it. 



You would be hard-pressed to find another artist in any medium so crucially seminal. 

His presence has been so overwhelming that one critic, A.D. Coleman, has called Weston a “vast boulder blocking the path of photography.” It is nearly impossible to make a photograph for at least the remainder of the century without either imitating Weston or reacting in opposition. 

It was the same complaint that T.S. Eliot made of John Milton: Being so good, a century of followers couldn’t think of any better way of doing it and so wound up as epigones. It sometimes seems that Weston, like Plato, was the original, and everyone else is a footnote.

That is, of course, an exaggeration, yet his achievement is monumental. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai or Beethoven, his imagination is vast and inclusive. Like them, he combined a brilliant formal sense with the realization that form alone isn’t enough. An art work must have meaning, also. His images are richly sensual, dark, at times brooding, always emotionally and psychologically fascinating. 

Weston, more than any other single figure, has defined the directions photography has taken in the second half of this century. His is an influence that is only now being transcended.

 

3.

What we think of as the ur-Weston photograph is sharply focused, tightly cropped, so immaculately composed each element in the picture fits with the others like Lego blocks. Light defines shapes, moving across their curves like a masseur’s hands. And everything, whether the skin of a woman or the porcelain of a toilet, became abstract form.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1926, he began the series of photographs he is best known for: his close-ups of vegetables. Of his famous Pepper No. 30 (1930), he said, “It is classic, completely satisfying — a pepper — but more than a pepper; abstract, in that it is completely outside subject matter. … This pepper takes one beyond the world we know in the conscious mind.” 

Weston called what he did “a revealment” and said, “This is the ‘significant presentation’ that I mean, the presentation through one’s intuitive self, seeing ‘through one’s eyes, not with them,’ the visionary.”

He said he wanted to make a picture of a pepper, for instance, ”that was more than a pepper.” He wanted it so sharp, our attention focused on it so intensely, that it verged on the psychedelic. Of course, that word didn’t exist at the time, and Weston certainly would have resisted any label, but it is hard to avoid recognizing the visionary quality of his best work. 

This is something we might lose sight of in the later landscapes, if we are fooled into thinking of them as postcard pictures — a way of remembering scenery we have driven past. All of Weston’s work, whether portrait, still life or landscape, were made and meant to be seen as metaphor. 

As his esthetic progeny, Robert Adams, put it: “Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities — geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring; autobiography is frequently trivial; and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact — an affection for life.”

In 1941, he visited New Orleans and made a passel of photographs of graveyards and abandoned plantation houses, some burned out with old family pictures and children’s dolls left in the debris. (He even traveled around New Orleans with arch-surrealist Clarence John Laughlin, whose pictures are hardly weirder than Weston’s.) 

And there always had been the pictures of scorched car wrecks on the beach, twisted dead pelicans, sandstone concretions in peculiar shapes, a giant cup of coffee in the desert and a particularly modern-looking photograph of a steam-shovel bucket in the High Sierra. Ansel Adams he is not. Weston saw the world as it was, not a pristine version he might have wished. 

His shells and peppers are often noted for their sensuous beauty, almost more flesh than calcium or chlorophyll. It can almost become comic.

It is almost perverse, the way he conflated skin with rind.

 

Often his nudes are mere fragments, as if he were making a new set of Elgin marbles.

His nudes were another form of his Modernism. No “September Morn” for him.

 

4.

I mention all this in prologue to the three points I really wanted to make. The first is the simplest: That seeing the images here on your screen, or in reproduction in a book is a poor substitute for seeing the actual silver prints. 

Most of us get to see Weston’s images only in books. (And I own, or have owned, at least a score of them — some I have since donated to museum collections). 

But I remember as one of the highlights of my esthetic and critical life, getting to see and handle several Solander boxes of Weston’s originals at the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This was in the early ’70s, before such access was limited by new conventions of conservation. I was permitted to take each print from its box, open its hinged matte and examine the prints as close as my eye could get and still focus. 

And what is more, and more important, I could take it to the window in the viewing room and let the incoming blast of sunlight ignite the print to its true glow and incandescence. Parts of the print that in reproduction might look like a uniform black turn out to have infinite detail, which is only revealed by the intensity of the light.

Silver coated on paper is an actual piling up of image, and the blacker the image, the thicker the coating of tarnished silver. A strong light enters into that layer, hits the paper behind and reflects back out through the grains of silver, so that, the more light hitting the photograph, the more luminous become the shadows. 

What is more, even the grays and highlights pop in a way they cannot as the photos are now usually presented, in reduced light in museum galleries under the constraints of current professional standards. Those standards are meant to protect the artwork from UV damage and other light damage, so it’s hard to complain too much. But a silver image is one of the least affected by light. It is by all measures, archival. 

Nevertheless, if you ever get a chance to view a silver-image photograph in a strong light, you will understand what glorious thing it is. 

And seeing the original print can be a revelation. I remember seeing at least one image in my first-edition book California and the West, published in 1940, which featured his Guggenheim images, and that image seemed so uninteresting, that I labored over trying to figure out what Weston was thinking. But there in the Library of Congress, I held the original and it was amazing. It popped. 

He took two versions of the scene, and I have seen both live, and they both jump out with life: What looks like bland areas of light gray turn out to be deeply textured with detail that is completely lost in reproduction. These are now among my favorite Westons. 

As a P.S.: During that trip to D.C., there was a Weston show at a local gallery and they were selling original prints (albeit printed by his son, Cole) for $100 a pop. I drooled, but I was a poor student and just didn’t have the C-note to put down. I have regretted it ever since. 

5.

Famously, the last photograph Weston ever made, from 1948, is of a  few beach pebbles flying out from the center of the frame, which is left blank with its empty sand. Rather like the blank, unprimed canvas untouched by the paint that Morris Louis has thrown down along its edges. 

“Weston arranged his compositions so that things happened on the edges; lines almost cross or meet and circular lines just touch the edges tangentially; his compositions were now created exclusively for a space with the proportions of eight by ten. There is no extraneous space nor is there too little,” wrote Weston scholar Amy Conger.

Notice how, although the center of the image is largely empty, the rocks cluster at the bottom, as if drawn down by gravity, giving the photograph, although nearly abstract, a firm sense of what is upside-right. 

The cluster along the bottom of the image is nearly a constant in Weston’s design sense. It is almost as if, like a child drawing a “ground line” at the bottom of his painting before adding his house and sun, Weston wants to provide a solid base to build his composition on. 

Certainly not every image has this, but if you rifle through a book of his pictures, you will come across the ground line more often than would be expected. Sometimes, it is an actual ground line, sometimes it is a fence that runs across the bottom of the landscape, sometimes it is a row of items. Often it is near the bottom, but sometimes, he raises that ground line up in the frame, even to the halfway point or even above. But over and over, there is a foundation poured for the rest of the picture to settle safely upon. 

Take one of these images and turn it upside down and see how the gravity affects it: The picture dangles from its fence. Upside right, it sits comfortably. 

6. 

Finally, I would make a plea to some curator, scholar or writer, to publish a book concentrating on his work for the edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was first published in 1942. 

In 1941, he was commissioned by the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate a deluxe edition of Whitman’s poems. Weston and Charis traveled something like 24,000 miles across 24 states in their Ford, named “Walt,” and visited places in the East that he had never photographed before. 

Unfortunately, the war interrupted the trip, and he had to come back to California prematurely, with some 700 negatives in the sack. Forty-nine were chosen for the book. (Weston was always inclusive: He photographed many African Americans for the book; the publishers chose not to use any of them.) The book sold poorly during the war, and has only been available since in a very badly printed re-print edition, with grayed-out images. 

This period of his work is the least studied, the least exhibited and the least published — and the least respected. Which is unfortunate, because they are some of his best work, an opinion shared with Weston himself. 

Two exhibits have been mounted in recent years, one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2012, and one at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., in 2016. But each was rather small, compared with the number of images available, and each was rather slightly remarked in the art world. 

There are hordes of books about Edward Weston out there, many of them huge and gorgeous, with hundreds of images printed, often in beautiful duotone, nearly approaching the beauty of the originals (sans the caveat above), and they all repeat the peppers, the shells, the Guggenheim landscapes, the nudes, the portraits, even the Surrealist goofs from the war years, but no one has seen fit to gather the Leaves of Grass work together for a well-crafted presentation.  

Come on, guys, it’s just begging to be done. 

Click on any image to enlarge

I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

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The Morris Museum of Art

I have been out of the art game for nearly six years now. A good deal of the need for currency has sloughed off me. I was an art critic for 25 years, but now in retirement, I no longer keep up with this week’s latest and greatest. 

There was a time when I believed that knowing where the art world was headed seemed important. The biggest names were those breaking new ground, forging ahead into an unseen future of art history. Now, such things seem unimportant, and the concern misguided. For one, prognosticators are almost always wrong; we always seem to head in some new directions unforeseeable. When I was very young, the future of art was most certainly found in abstraction. Nothing was so disparaged as figurative art, and worse, art with narrative. 

Then came Pop. Cool, ironic, lowbrow and — fun. After that, bingo, along came Robert Longo, Mark Tansey and Cindy Sherman. Narrative and figurative — albeit with a great frosting of irony. There was politically engaged art, conceptual art, ironic politically engaged conceptual art. Comic book characters came, signing the Declaration of Independence. Then balloon animals made of shiny chrome. And, of course, the shark in formaldehyde. 

I am not writing to disparage any of this art, but to remind you that trends come and go. Julian Schnabel is first the new thing, then the forgotten thing and then the joke reference. 

But none of this actually matters. That is all stuff for the “Art World.” The Art World is only tangentially related to art. It is a parallel universe. The Art World in 1890 paid no attention at all to Vincent Van Gogh. Later, his paintings sell for million and millions. Did they get better over the years since his death? 

Making such judgments of art-value are really rather pointless. You can fix the price of any painting or painter at auction, but, like the stock market, the values go up and down. The art remains unchanged.  

No, keeping up with the latest shows, the hottest news, the catchiest trend, it has all fallen away. I no longer care. Let CNN announce the latest unfathomable number from the latest Christie’s auction; let Fox make fun of Jeff Koons. The art remains, waiting for us to see it for ourselves. 

I am reminded of all this once again as I walk through the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. The Morris is a small museum, dedicated to Southern art: art by Southern artists; art by non-native artists living in the South; and art made anywhere about the South. It opened in 1992 on the second floor of an office building in downtown Augusta, by the river. With some 5,000 works in its collection, it is small by comparison with any of the Big Boys. 

“Candidates for the Horse Show,” 1893, John Martin Tracy

Yet, walking through its galleries gave me immense pleasure. There were a few familiar names, but most of the art was made by those with either regional reputations or little reputation at all. But what I came away with is the sense, reinforced, that there is an amazing amount of talent out there. You don’t have to be a brand name in a New York gallery to be worth the time. There is a great deal of art being made that is well-made, thoughtful, distinct and individual. Art that, if the cards had been shuffled just a bit differently, might well be the work we cover in the big art magazines. 

“Toula Waterfalls,” William C.A. Frerichs

I knew at least five artists in my years in Arizona who could have shown in any 57th Street gallery with pride. I loved their work: Jim Waid; Mayme Kratz; Marie Navarre; Anne Coe; Bailey Doogan. Actually, I can think of another dozen whose work I enjoyed. Each state has its share of excellent artists who just never won the Blue New York Ribbon. All giving great pleasure and thoughtful content. 

“Mrs. James F. Robinson,” Trevor Thomas Fowler

The Morris Museum features some historic art, mostly portraits from the 19th century, and a treasure of modern and contemporary art. There is glass and there are prints. 

“The Art of Drawing” 1998, James William “Bo” Bartlett III

The longest gallery contains the modern and contemporary work and moving from canvas to canvas provided me with one pleasure after another. This may not be cutting edge, but it is sharp enough. 

“The Merry Boatmen,” 2000, Terry Rowlett

The currents of Postmodernism are strong, but also the awareness of cultural roots. 

“Gospel Sing,” 1997, Dale Kennington

The artists represented are diverse; not all old white men. 

“Col. Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame,” 1995, John Braeder

The sense of Southernness is strong, and since I have been an adopted Southerner, deeply buried in a profoundly Southern family, much of it resonates strongly. 

“Tobacco Setters on a Hilltop,” 1938, Stephen Alke

If the South ever was the “Desert of the Bozart,” it no longer is. (Really, it never was — count your Nobel Prize winners, the writers anthologized in school texts, the “classical music” of America: Jazz. The South is more profoundly aware of its cultural heritage, Black and White, than any other region I have lived in). 

“Boundary Marker,” 2000, Kesler Woodward

We are misled if we think that art only counts if it is published in books. The fact is, that most of us only get to see the famous works in reproduction. But halftones can never capture the reality of a live work of art. You can gain more from seeing a lesser-known regional painting in person than from any slide in an art history class or jpeg on Google. The real thing is alive, not embalmed. 

“Azalea Cafe,” 1994, Shirley Rabe Masinter

Indeed, just the work you read about is already second-hand; the opinion you have of it has already been filtered and siphoned by those who have gone before. 

“Daughters of the South,” 1993, Jonathan Green

Seeing something fresh, uncategorized by authority, gives you the chance to discover it for yourself. Finding something unknown to the urbanized critics can make it your own. Like discovering a geode in the woods, or a Hermes handbag at the Goodwill. 

“Cotton Barn at Beech Island, S.C.,” 1998, Wolf Kahn

There are many such smaller art museums around the country. The Portland Art Museum in Maine; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut; the Storm King Art Center in New York; the Brandywine River Art Museum in Pennsylvania; the American Visionary Art Museum in Maryland; the Delaware Museum of Art; the Maier Museum of Art in Virginia; Bainbridge Museum of Art in Washington; the Reno Museum of Art in Nevada; the Rahr-West Art Museum in Wisconsin; the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan; and too many others to list. Check out what you have near you. 

“Rock Shop Billboard,” 2007, Julyan Davis

Most universities have art museums or galleries that are worth visiting. 

Pretty much any way you can get to see art in the flesh is worth it. There is an astonishing amount of talent out there to be enjoyed. 

Art is not some unimaginable enterprise reserved only for the cognoscenti. It is not something only made by the Enormous Reputations. Any art you actually get pleasure or ideas from is worth the time. And it’s all around. 

Click on any image to enlarge

How many is enough? Beginning in 1917, photographer Alfred Stieglitz began making portraits of his new squeeze, Georgia O’Keeffe. But he soon developed the idea that a single image could not adequately express the essence of a person. Over the next 20 years, he photographed the artist some 350 times, making what to Stieglitz counted a single, all-encompassing portrait of O’Keeffe. 

“To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person,” he claimed, “is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.”

As he took up the camera once more after several years of editing his magazine, he wrote: “I am at last photographing again. … It is straight. No tricks of any kind. — No humbug. — No sentimentalism. — Not old nor new. — It is so sharp that you can see the [pores] in a face — & yet it is abstract. … It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person — heads & ears  — toes — hands — torsos — It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.”

The series went well past the hundred pictures he mentioned, and became one of the signature events in the progress of American art photography. The photographs were shown in galleries and museums and a selection of them were published in a book issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

He photographed O’Keeffe nude, surly, playful, artsy and in snapshot mode. He seems to have had a thing for hands. There are a boatload of hands, all very arty. Certainly, they are expressive, but they are also a bit arch. And do they actually tell us anything about O’Keeffe, the woman who kept her privacy like a recluse, so that even when she seems to be opening up to us, she is really just assuming a simulacrum of candor? She simply doesn’t want us to presume we might know her. 

But despite his intent, it is obvious that while 350 images may be more varied than a single portrait, it is no more complete. To achieve his goal, Stieglitz would have had to film every second of O’Keeffe’s life from birth to death and show it unedited. Attempting to capture a personality in any finite number of moments requires that some editing and interpreting will be necessary. Is Irving Penn’s portrait of Carson McCullers any less an accurate version of the author than Stieglitz’s O’Keeffe? 

In fact, I might say that O’Keeffe, even photographed by her husband 300 times, is more reserved, and lets less of herself out into the frame of the picture than McCullers does in one single instant. There is infinite sadness in those eyes. 

As a “control group,” we might include the three versions of Truman Capote made by Penn over time: First in 1948, then in 1965 and 1985. Does the grouping tell us much more than any of the single images? Only that Capote got old. We knew that. 

There is some kind of naive innocence in Stieglitz’s attempt, that there is a possibility of “capturing” a person in an image. 

The problem is that an image has a reality of its own, a separate reality, which may or may not partake of the person photographed. Irving Penn’s famous image of Picasso becomes a piercing eye, but then, so does the eye of Richard Avedon, also photographed by Penn. Or, for that matter, a portrait of Pam Henry I made in the 1970s. 

The image carries meaning in and of itself. Consider that 1968 image of Capote, eyes closed, glasses carried lightly between his fingers. Both John Malkovich and Philip Seymour Hoffman have sat for publicity photos mimicking the Penn photo. The pose trumps the person.

Or take Malkovich trying on the 1948 Capote. Again, the image is instantly recognized, and if you were turning the page quickly in a magazine spread, you might just well assume you had looked at the writer rather than the actor. 

Malkovich seems to have had fun doing this. He has mimicked many overly familiar images, from Hemingway to the migrant mother photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936. 

Avedon often said that all photographic portraits — including and especially his — are really portraits of the photographer. It is the version of the subject transmuted by the picture-taker, and made into a vision of how the photographer understands the world. You look at that lineup of Malkovich parodies and you can as easily — or more easily — name the photographer as the name of the sitter. Top row: Irving Penn, Yousef Karsh, Philippe Halsman, Arthur Sasse; bottom row: David Bailey, Alberto Korda, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus. Each a distinct style; each a distinct image. 

Surely many a celebrity has felt defined and constrained by the immutable image that has usurped the actual life. Could Norma Jean live up to the image of Marilyn? Either the Bert Stern, the Avedon, the Eve Arnold or the Cecil Beaton version (l. to r.)? 

We run into the same problem we have with language. It cannot bear a one-to-one relationship with reality; it is rather a parallel universe, which can imitate our perceptions but never fully embody them. The image exists in another reality; we can name what we see, but the name is not the thing. The photo is not the person. Stieglitz’s attempts are heroic but doomed to failure. None of those 350 pictures of O’Keeffe is O’Keeffe, and the whole together is no closer to being her. 

We are left to enjoy them, then, as works of art. The eyes of Carson McCullers are not her eyes, but the sadness in the photo speaks to us clearly. That has to be enough. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had. 

What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.

“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant. 

He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped. 

A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello. 

The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound. 

Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.

Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history. 

One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” 

When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry. 

But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.

Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.

Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words. 

Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration. 

So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones. 

This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power. 

In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train). 

In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)

Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.

Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer. 

Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon. 

The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times. 

In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is. 

More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside. 

The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading. 

Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that. 

But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.


Why do I do this?

The year I was born, the New York School of painters was coalescing. When I was an adolescent, they were ascendant. They were my boys: Jackson, Willem, Franz, Barney and Mark. 

(And they were boys. It was years before Helen and Lee were fully recognized.) 

During those years, the boys were flying high, but they still needed to be argued for. The mass of people continued to make fun of them. “My three-year-old could do that.” 

But to me, their power and meaning was manifest. During my teenage years, I spent many hours at the Museum of Modern Art, soaking in those great works. I spent way more of my time at MoMA than I did at the MET. 

They were called “Abstract Expressionists,” but at the time, for most people, abstract meant distorted. Picasso was the most famous artist in the world — the most famous abstract painter, and his subjects were still recognizable as bulls and guitars.

But for the New York School, it would be hard to name a subject. When Jackson Pollock was quizzed about what was his audience looking at, he said, “A painting.” 

There came to be a distinction made between abstract art and what was called “Non-Objective.” My boys were the latter. They weren’t imitating the world, but creating a new one. 

Yet, while I can honestly say I spent 10 hours at MoMA for every one I spent at the Metropolitan, the museum that became my spiritual home was the American Museum of Natural History. I didn’t just enjoy it; I loved it. I still do. 

At AMNH, I met the wonders of the natural world, from the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling to the “Soil Profiles of New York State.” There were dinosaur bones and the colossal Olmec head. Rooms filled with rock collections and the great, illuminated theater of dioramas with their dramatis personae of stuffed bears and lions. 

I had the luck of growing up in rural New Jersey. While it was only a short bus ride to the George Washington Bridge and civilization, it was also a land of woods and streams — one ran through our property. Red fox and white-tailed deer would occasionally pass through our lawn. Tract housing and mini-malls had not yet taken over. 

So, I had these two very polar influences pulling me: On one hand, there was the manifesto of the art world that painting should be painting, and not an image of the world; on the other, I was in love with nature and the world of seasons, leaves, birds and geology. 

This tension still thrives in me. In 1998, I got to see the huge Pollock retrospective at MoMA and the painter’s 1952 masterpiece, Blue Poles, which was on loan from its home in Australia. The 16-foot-wide painting was intensely beautiful; I stood in awe — and that is not too strong a word, despite its current depreciation among the cell-phone generation, for whom even a cheese doodle can be “awesome.” 

Yet, on the same trip, I also went back to the Natural History Museum. Entering its dark and marble halls was an act of love — and that is not too strong a word. 

Since then, the art world has walked through several new rooms: Pop, Conceptual, Postmodern. And each of them seems to step further back from the physical sensation of the the natural world. 

Pop wants us to recognize cultural artifacts as worthy subjects for consideration — and they certainly are. 

Conceptual art removes us from even that, into a world of pure idea, and those ideas are often so removed from our everyday experience as to be unintelligible for the mass of people. And often kind of silly. Often the art would be better expressed in words. Write an essay. 

Postmodernism seems to tell us that there is nothing but rehash of old imagery, and what is more, even those are really about power relationships and keeping the little guy down, especially if he is a she or is melanin-enhanced. 

Certainly, there is among these isms, much art of value and meaning. And I often agree with the political ideas expressed. But I have always missed in them a sense of love for the things of this world — the smells, textures, colors, shapes of the things we use and inhabit. 

I have never given up on that. 

In some ways, this dichotomy is the difference between reason and empiricism. Conceptual and Postmodern art think their way through the world. What I value is experiencing my way through it. Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. 

But I still have this memory lodged in my psyche of Pollock and Kline and Rothko and de Kooning. 

So, I have at times attempted a synthesis. I love nature. Rocks and trees and birds and bees. The ocean and lakes; the canyons and grasslands; the swamps and forests.

Ah, but even as I read that, I know those are words. It isn’t rocks and trees, really. It is the hardness and grain of a particular granite, the different bark of birch and yew. It is the spot upon which I stand at any given moment and what I feel as breeze on my skin, what sun glare I shade my eyes from. 

And in that granite or in that tree bark, there are shapes, textures, colors. I touch them. I see them.

There is a place I have visited many times in Maine. It is Schoodic Point, which is a part of Acadia National Park. The main park on Mt. Desert Island, is crowded and developed, but some 40 miles northeast, by road, there is the Schoodic Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. At its tip, it is bare, hard rock and spume and surf. The wind is usually raw and comparatively few visitors come there, especially in the fall and winter. 

(The double-O in the middle of Schoodic is pronounced like the double-O in “good.”)

There, I can use my camera to record the abstract expressionist details that combine the emphasis on form and texture with an engagement with the natural world. It is a chance to reconcile those conflicting parts of my being. 

There is in some religions and mystical philosophies a contemptus mundi that I cannot share. The world is beautiful — not pretty, but beautiful; even its ugliness is beautiful. 

In 1928, the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published a book in which his images of the world, both natural and industrial, found pattern and form in details excerpted from context. It was named, Die Welt ist schoen. 

That has become a watchword for me: When you engage with it as deeply as you can — and we are each different in this respect — when you so engage with it, you discover that Moses was not exceptional; every bush is the burning bush.

That is what makes those cypresses of Van Gogh so penetrating, the haywain of Constable, the waterlilies of Monet, the peppers of Edward Weston, the simple crockery of Chardin, the rabbit of Durer. Die Welt ist schoen. 

So, I cannot worry if my humble images are important art or not, or whether it is art at all. Muche wele stant in litel besinesse. 

This is my tiny translation of Schoodic into image, the finding of the same elements Pollock sublimated into his canvasses, but here extracted from the hard edge of stone.

Click on any image to enlarge

 

Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake.