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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

 

warhol

Andy Warhol was a sphinx. His public pronouncements were often so bland as to be dumbfounding. Yet he is one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Because his public persona was so passive, we cast our ideas upon his blank slate: There are as many Warhols as there are viewers of his work.

To some, he was the great democratizer; his prints were — originally — affordable to all. To some, the great charlatan; he admitted his favorite thing was money.

To others, he was the harbinger of celebrity culture while to still more, he was a mocker of celebrity.

He either knocked off commercial imagery, or he allowed us to see that imagery for the first time as art. marilyn

Was he ironic or sincere?

We each have our own Warhol.

My Warhol is the best artist of the past 50 years, not only influential but unlike some other influential artists such as Joseph Beuys, Warhol also provides us with beauty. Like Picasso or Matisse, his work isn’t just about theory, but about pleasure.

The academicians and theorists point out that Warhol’s art is about repetition and multiple versions of the same thing: a dozen Maos or Marilyns. And although that is tangentially true, what is truly astounding in Warhol’s work is the variation. Each repetition is brand new. The artist’s inventiveness is magical. 1972 mao 1

You can look at a dozen Maos and see repetition, or you can see a dozen variations on a theme, ranging from Mao in blackface to Mao in green, each version with its own particular scribbles. Not repeated, but varied. jagger

1964 soup canThen, there’s the Mick Jagger series from 1975, in which the images are partly photographs, partly abstract shapes and partly line drawings — and make no mistake, Warhol’s line was as distinct and fluent as Picasso’s.

There are Campbell’s soup cans here, too. Warhol made his reputation with these.

It is the job of artists to direct our attention to what is going on around us, whether that is the grand landscape of 19th-century America or the commercial landscape of Pop Art. In this sense, Warhol is no different from Thomas Moran.

Once we’ve seen Warhol’s soup cans, we cannot be blind to the originals in the store: Instead of their disappearing into the background noise of our lives, we pay attention.

Paying attention is the sine qua non of art. car wreck five deaths

And though we think of Warhol as being the abettor of celebrity (and at his crassest, he provides “Warhol” portraits of anyone rich enough to commission one), the celebrities he chose for his uncommissioned work tended to be those with the aura of tragedy about them, like Marilyn Monroe. His early work often included car wrecks or disasters from the news. One of the sets is about the Kennedy assassination. geronimo

Warhol is more committed to the real world than he often is given credit for: Even the seemingly simple Pop images of cowboys and Indians remind us of the tragedy of Native America. There is Geronimo; there is John Wayne.

Or the series of “Jews in the 20th Century,” which may show us the Marx Brothers and George Gershwin as well as Martin Buber and Albert Einstein, but behind them all is our awareness of the tragedy of Jews in the century past.

As Percy Shelley said, “Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught.”

Warhol the celebrity was a bright blot, a blank face of banal utterance, but it was a mask he was forced into in order not to have to trivialize his work by talking about it. His famously obtuse interviews were a defense mechanism: When you have torn the veil, as Warhol had, how can you come back to this side?

Andy preferred to let his work speak for itself, and that is why everyone can have his own Warhol.