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On the surface, water lilies would seem to be an unpromising subject for painting. Except for their flowers, there is little color to them. Their shapes are mostly just repetitive ovals on the surface of the water. Unlike a rose or a tulip, there is little structure to be seen — a pad floating on the water, a bloom — usually plain white — in an open space here or there. 

But Claude Monet managed to turn them into an icon of both Impressionism and Modernism. The water lily is as identified with Monet as sunflowers are with Van Gogh or soup cans with Warhol. And since then, a gazillion artists after him have imitated his work. 

Like photographer Edward Weston and his peppers, no one before him thought it worth their attention; after him, hordes of artists and Sunday painters have taken their crack at it. An artist sees something nobody notices, and suddenly, everyone can see them. 

The problem is, very like Weston and his peppers, his epigones don’t merely see water lilies, but some reflection in their minds of having remembered Monet’s water lilies. The paintings reshape reality. 

In some ways, Monet actually made it harder to see the real water lilies. 

What is missed is that Monet wasn’t painting water lilies in his some 250 canvases on the subject. They are merely pretext. When he first began painting them, he wanted to paint what he saw. Monet was the great transcriber. As Cezanne said, “He is only an eye; but what an eye.” 

He could see nuance of color and was able to paint not what he knew but what activated his retina — that is, not a house or a peony, but whites, reds and blues, shaded from highlight to shadow. When put down on canvas, those hues and tones could be seen as a house or peony, but it was never the object itself that he attempted to capture, but the visual impression of them. 

“Perhaps my originality boils down to being a hypersensitive receptor,” he said, “and the expedience of a shorthand by means of which I project on a canvas, as if on a screen, impressions registered on my retina.”

But at some point as he turned into the grand old man of Impressionism, the outer world ceased to be of much importance and became merely the armature for his work, the reason for wiping across his canvas his flake white, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and emerald green.

In a letter, he wrote, “The subject doesn’t matter!”

In the earlier work, there is usually a subject; in the later work, he developed a sort of “overall” design, almost like wallpaper. He prefigured the world of such later painters as Jackson Pollock. Indeed, it was really only after the Abstract Impressionists that common audiences could understand what was going on in Monet’s late water lilies. 

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

They were, to paraphrase Pollock, not water lilies at all, they were paintings. 

The best and most memorable of them are the mural-size nymphéas. Any museum in the world worth its salt has one of these: MoMA, the Carnegie, Chicago, etc. They tend to be huge, wide, paintings, almost ribbons of paint stretched 10-, 15-, or 20-feet wide as grand Cinemascope wide-screen visions. And where, in the earlier paintings, the water lilies were often the foreground to a more conventional landscape, backgrounded with trees and a shoreline, the later ones eliminate the horizon and become sheets of color. 

Museum of Modern Art, NY

In those museums, a single Nymphéas (as he called them) could eat up an entire gallery wall. 

But the grandaddy of them all are the eight paintings mounted in two oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris. If you lined them up end to end, they would be longer than a football field. The two rooms are end-to-end, making a floorplan in the shape of an “infinity” symbol. Along the longer sides, panels are some 42-feet long and 6-feet high, and the pointy end of the football shaped rooms, the paintings are 20-feet long. Between each pair of panels is an entrance. The ceiling is a kind of skylight, flooding the paintings with natural light. The walls are white. 

The whole is one of the wonders of the art world. Critic André Masson famously called the installation the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” 

The whole thing came together because of time and place — a confluence of the World War and the room in which to hang the pictures. 


Even 30 years before the Orangerie finally opened, Monet had in mind the idea. “One imagines a circular room, the walls of which, above the baseboard, would be entirely filled by water dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of a transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still water’s calm and the silence reflecting the opened blossoms; the tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” 

He was thinking primarily of a private patron decorating his home. 

Some years later, he was still mulling the project. In a 1905 article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, he was quoted, “At one point I was visited by the temptation to use the theme of nymphéas for a decoration. Carried the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity.”

Still, nothing came of the idea. It sat in the back of the painter’s mind for another decade. Then came the war. The Western Front and the trenches of World War 1 were as close as 35 miles from Monet’s home in Giverny. At times, he could hear the artillery fire. In 1914, his wife had recently died, and so had his elder son. The younger son and his step-son had joined the army. Monet was devastated and anxious. Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety but Monet remained: “If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” He saw, as an old man, his painting as his patriotic contribution.

{French filmmaker and playwright Sacha Guitry captured silent film of Monet painting in his garden in 1914.) 

At the end of the war, the painter formed an idea for a memorial, a gift to the nation commemorating both the victory and the loss of life. He proposed this to his longtime friend, now prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, two large panels, one of flowers to mark the victory and the other of weeping willows as a memorial to those who died. (Willows were a common symbol of mourning in the 19th century.) 

The day after the Armistice in 1918, Monet wrote to Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.”

The prime minister liked the idea, but suggested a larger series of a dozen panels. It grew to 19 panels at one point, before winding up with the eight we see today at the Orangerie. Monet fussed and painted, and fussed and destroyed paintings he was unsatisfied with, and fussed over where they might be displayed. Several venues came up and were dismissed, for various reasons. 

Ultimately, two rooms at the Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries gardens in Paris, near the Place de la Concorde were chosen and prepared. It had been built in 1852 by Napoleon III as a place to house citrus trees.

 Unfortunately, Monet never got to see the paintings in place. He died  in December, 1926, and the water lilies at the Orangerie were opened to the public May 17, 1927. 

Orangerie

At the time, both Monet and Clemenceau were seen by the post-war generation as old-hat, a holdover from a previous century and for the next 40 years, they were occasionally walled over to allow the showing of newer art. But after the next great war and with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Monet was recognized not so much as a holdover, but as a prophet of the coming abstraction.

Musee Marmottan, Paris

During his life, Monet was enormously popular and became rich — something very few artists, even great and now-famous artists failed to achieve — but his water lilies were not always understood. For a show of water lily paintings in 1909, one critic wrote: “One’s first reaction to these 48 pictures is bewilderment. In most of them, objections having little to do with painting are the cause of this malaise; they have to do more with the identity of the subject and the number of duplications and with the at first seemingly fragmentary aspect of these pictures. The paintings manifest an authority and independence, an egocentric quality that is offensive to our vanity and humbling to to our pride. M. Claude Monet is interested in pleasing only himself.”

Nelson Atkins Musuem, Texas

But at least one critic seems to have grasped something essential about the paintings. They are not designs carefully laid out inside a frame, with horizon lines and identifiable primary subjects. French critic Roger Marx noticed that same year, “The painter deliberately broke away from the teachings of Western tradition by not seeding pyramidal lines or a single point of focus. The nature of what is fixed, immutable, appears to him to contradict the very essence of fluidity; he wants attention diffused and scattered everywhere. He considers himself free to place the small gardens of his archipelago wherever he pleases: to the right, to the left at the top of at the bottom of his canvas.”

Several Impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese art at the time. Monet, like Van Gogh, even copied some of them in oil paint. He built a bridge in his water garden at Giverny in the style of a Japanese bridge on a Hokusai print. He was photographed on it with Clemenceau.

But the influence on the large water lilies has not always been mentioned.

One of the salient characteristics of Chinese landscape painting is that one doesn’t just stand back and take in the whole as a coherent design, but rather, might follow a path the artist has laid out, along a river or up a mountain, finally coming to rest at a little halfway house for contemplation.

  Many such paintings are not even possible to view in toto, since they are scrolls that must be slowly unwrapped and rerolled as you follow a journey from one end to the other. The details along the way are to be lingered over. In such work, there is no controlling or overarching composition or design. Only the detail.

And in Monet’s earlier paintings, there are horizons, rivers, trees, umbrellas, flowers — something to make a shape within the shape of the canvas, a single pattern that one can step back and take in at a single bite.

But when you have a 42-foot long panel that is 7 times longer than it is high, and in a room too narrow to step back to take it all in at once, you are forced to view the work as if it were a scroll, and enjoy detail after detail as you walk along the painting’s length. 

And so, you step from detail to detail in the Orangerie, relishing the daub of yellow and the streak of blue and, if you are in the receptive mood, you let go anxiety and discontent and let the water and floating lily pads calm you into a restful and meditative state. 

Orangerie detail

Or, as Monet put it, “it would attain the illusion of a whole without end, of a watery surface without horizon and without banks; nerves overstrained by work would be relaxed there, following the restful example of the still waters, and to whomsoever [visited], it would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation at the center of a flowery aquarium.”

Click on any image to enlarge

I don’t know if it is just me, or my generation — a cohort of Baby Boomers who once felt, or more precisely, knew they could change the world for the better (sigh). 

Or perhaps it is some random mutation of the Protestant work ethic. I think of stately plump Buck Mulligan telling Stephen Dedalus, “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” Only, in my case, it is a dour Lutheranism, a faith I have never believed in nor practiced, yet discover somehow in my Scandinavian blood, where it lingers and makes me feel that if I am not working, not producing, I am not making quitrent on my existence. 

It is not simply a compulsion to work, but a crippling sense of guilt if I do not. The joke is that I am fully aware in my rational mind that there is no reason to feel this way. I am 71 and no one will threaten me with a cat-o-nine-tails if I don’t pull my oar till I drop dead. I worked steadily during my working years, and even after I retired, I managed to pump out more than 500 essays on this blog in just a few years. 

When I was employed, even on my vacations I managed to squeeze out travel stories for my newspaper. I was writing all the time, and making the photographs to accompany those stories. “Your business is producing; your business is producing,” a tiny Stalinist voice is grinding in my subconscious. 

So, even now, five years on from my paycheck, when I go visiting out of town, I am compelled to spend at least a portion of my time on one project or another. Several of these projects have been displayed on this blog over the years. One such project was to photograph nothing but circles; another to photograph ceilings and floors; another to document every house on a given street. 

Well, I am just back from visiting my brother- and sister-in-law. I drive three hours from Asheville to Reidsville, N.C., several times a year to spend a few days with them. He is an artist of some reputation; she keeps him in line. And this time I managed to work on three different ongoing art projects. 

The first I’ll mention is a series of images of fruits and vegetables in bowls. A bit of the round rim usually crosses and edge of the frame. I love the organic and geometric shapes interacting. 

I am also responding to a famous sumi-e Zen painting by the 13th century Chinese artist Mu-Chi, in which he lines up six persimmons and cleverly evades the monotony of an even number of fruits by making three groups, of one persimmon, of two, and of three. I have always loved this painting.

There is no way I can ever match it. But I have my own interest in the roundness, the ripeness and the color of fruits and vegetables. 

There is a one-off I made this trip. Looking out the window in my bedroom and seeing the branches through the Venetian blinds, I was reminded of a three-part Japanese shoji screen. 

The second project is a continuation of a lifelong fascination with the complex, ungovernable patterns of tree branches in the winter. I always think of them as a metaphor of the tangle of axons and dendrites in the human brain. The macro mimics the micro. 

It is a series I have called “tree nudes,” and I feel toward the rough bark, the curves in the tree trunks, the graceful dance of the end-twigs in a breeze as a similar kind of sensuousness you find in a classic nude painting or photograph. 

I made my first tree nudes at least 50 years ago and my solander boxes are filled with old silver prints I made from that point until I gave up chemical photography and took up digital. Now my hard drive is silting up with jpeg tree nudes. 

I used always to photograph in black and white and tree nudes are a perfect subject. The trees are usually rather color-drained in the winter and their silhouettes are perfect for a monochrome. But I have also discovered the magnificently subtle colors that can be found in a completely grey image. Grey is never just neutral; it always hints at something on the color wheel. 

In my senescence I have discovered color. I never thought to think in chroma, perhaps because color film, whether Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, or Agfacolor, was always such a poor conveyer of color. A Kodachrome image looks jammed with Kodachrome colors, not the colors of the world. And transparencies never printed out well enough to make a satisfyingly crisp picture. Even Cibachrome looks always like a Cibachrome. 

But, for some reason, my own sensitivity to color has rejuvenated and I find myself seeking out images that work best in color, and I like the look of digital color, which I can control so much better, thanks to Photoshop, than I used to be able to control the color of a transparency or a print from color negative film. 

Almost all my art has been unmanipulated. I am not a fan of solarization, double exposures or all those godawful “filters” that Photoshop provides. But I did make one experiment this trip. 

The tree nudes were inspired, perhaps, when I was a teenager visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manahattan — I lived just across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey — and I came to love the great Jackson Pollock hanging there. The business of the paint drips was the first neuronal metaphor I was aware of. 

So while in Reidsville, I made three photographs of some vines out the front door. Here’s one of them as an example:

I then edited the three images, lightening them up, and layering them one atop the other. The result is my simulacrum of a Pollock, only with the lines and shapes of nature. 

I made a second version in which I tinted one of the images yellow, a second one cyan, and the third magenta, so they might make a color version of the monster I had created. 

Finally, I had my third project this trip. I sought out the older parts of Reidsville and made a series of images of post-industrial Piedmont. For those images, I will wait for the next posting. 

Click on any image to enlarge


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

 

Mathematics. We all have our personal sums and divisions. I was once 20; I am now 70. The years have added up, and what is left is now a fraction. 

When I entered college in 1966, I was just over half the age of the professor who had the most influence on me. He is now 85 and have become exactly 14/17ths his age. I am catching up. The ratio has narrowed. 

(If we both live long enough, I calculate by my birthday in 2025, I will be older than him by seven months.) 

There was once a great difference in our ages and in our wisdom; now we are roughly equal. The piling of years does that; the gathering of experience. 

I have spent my life learning. It is the basic drive, like women for Don Giovanni, or gathering corporate acquisitions for Warren Buffett. But more math: Every time I increase what I know by 2 percent, I double what I don’t know. I learn arithmetically, I become ignorant exponentially. It is as if I am splashing in an inflatable wading pool on the beach next to the ocean.

When I was young, I was a complete idiot, and my ambition in life was to know everything. Seriously: everything. I suppose underneath the surface, I understood that was impossible. But you have to have some kind of aspiration. 

But back then, being an idiot, I still thought being intelligent meant knowing a lot of stuff. And I knew a lot of stuff. Piles of facts and factoids. I could explain the Defenestration of Prague in 1618: the shifting taxonomy of lions from Felis leo to Panthera leo to Leo leo; the use of the Neopolitan sixth chord as the subdominant in a minor key. And perhaps I showed off a bit too much. But now I understand that knowing stuff is mere accumulation. Nothing to take credit for: These things stuck in my mind because my brain is gummy. 

Besides, the more you learn, the more you discover that what you once took to be fact has either been superseded by later research, or been misunderstood, or turned out to be canard and cant. I.e., Cliff Clavinism. 

I have a pile of books and music scores that keep me going, and I add to that all the things of the real, the physical world, that I observe — the seasons changing on the trees, the birds chirping, the clouds ranging over the skies.

I am hungry to take it all in. 

But there is another delusion: that being intelligent somehow means being rapid of apprehension. Quick. Sharp. Fast on the uptake. While it is true that a fast comprehension comes with intelligence, it is, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. 

People who know they are smart tend to sort things very quickly into their silos, eager like tennis pros, to volley the next shot back. C’mon, you can bring’em faster than that! But sorting isn’t intelligence. Quickness of wit is fine; it is fun, it is exhilarating, but it doesn’t get us to the core of things. 

This is something I have come to understand over many years. Two people, more than any others, more than any book or class, taught me what to value in whatever mote of intelligence I possessed. 

The first was my wife. She was the most intelligent person I ever knew, although, on first hearing her, you might be confused over that issue. She could say the most surprising things: “Andrew Wyeth is more abstract than Jackson Pollock” or “You can fall into blue.” (We once argued over that last one for three full days and nights, before I capitulated. I always gave in. She was always right, although you had to think sideways or give up long-held unreflected prejudices. Wyeth is abstract in the sense that he abstracts a visual essence from the world and flattens it into an image made of blurts and squiggles, while a Pollock painting is no abstraction: It is palpably and solely a painting; it is what it is and nothing else. As for blue, I have been drowning in it since that fight.)

What she had was complete and utter openness to input. A failure to plop input into those silos. She didn’t so much think outside the box, but was unaware there was a box. I marveled at her insight, which she was basically oblivious to. It just was. 

It led me to my doctrine of volitional ignorance. That is, to approach any subject from the point of view of complete innocence. Forget what you think you know and just take in the new experience. 

The second person, and earlier lesson came from that professor, now frail and failing, who forced me to engage with the material. 

When I first got to college, I knew I was bright, and I responded to classes by doing what I had always done: giving the teacher what he or she wanted. I was good at that. But in my class of English Romantic Poetry, I handed in my first paper, saying exactly what I knew my professor wanted me to say and he gave me back my paper with a big, red “D” on it. (Technically, it was a D-plus). I was dumbfounded. There was nothing in the paper that didn’t repeat what he had said in his lectures. It couldn’t have been that far wrong.

But what he wanted from me was not what I thought he wanted. He wanted me to engage with the material. To know something, not to know about something. There is a difference, not just in magnitude, but in kind between knowing about and knowing. 

That is where engagement comes in. Paying attention. Not sorting to be done with, but holding something between your thumb and fingers, twirling it around, seeing it from all sides, squeezing it to see how hard it is, cutting it open to see what’s inside. 

You must start from the simplest things. Looking at a painting, do not decide what the subject is or means, but first look. Long and hard. Describe everything you see, however slight. Don’t forget the corners, what is hidden in the shadows, describe the exact color of the blank parts of the background, what the fingers of the subjects left hand is doing. Get all the bits in first. Take time. I once spent seven hours in front of a single painting. It takes time and commitment. It takes engagement.

Only when you have spent all the time you need should you then essay to understand what the art might be about. Ingest it first, digest it second. 

Fifty years ago, my professor forced me to engage with the material. I wasn’t there to learn facts about Shelley, but to engage with the work and see what it might teach me. I have been attempting that ever since. It is a hard practice to keep up: so much easier to categorize and dispense and move on to the next. More efficient. Gets things done. 

But if you really want to partake in this life, be embedded in the world into which you have been dropped, it is essential to pay attention, to know in your bones how little you truly understand.  

 For the world is infinitely complex and can obey no schema you toss over it. Engage with it on any level and extract whatever you can. Savor it.