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Pearls from artists* # 436

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Cassirer’s partial definition of art as symbolic language has dominated art studios in our [20th] century.  A new history of culture anchored upon the work of art as a symbolic expression thus came into being.  By these means art has been made to connect with the rest of history.

But the price has been high, for while studies of meaning received all our attention, another definition of art, as a system of formal relationships, thereby suffered neglect.  This other definition matters more than meaning.  In the same sense speech matters more than writing, because speech preceded writing, and because writing is but a special case of speech.

The other definition of art as form remains unfashionable, although every thinking person will accept it as a truism that no meaning can be conveyed without form.  Every meaning requires a support, or a vehicle, or a holder.  These are the bearers of meaning, and without them no meaning would cross from me to you, or from you to me, or indeed from any part of nature to any other part. 

… The structural forms can be sensed independent of meaning.  We know from linguistics in particular that the structural elements undergo more or less regular evolutions in time without relation to meaning, as when certain phonetic shifts in the history of cognate languages can be explained only by a hypothesis of regular change. Thus phoneme a occurring in an early stage of language, becomes phoneme b at a later stage, independently of meaning, and only under the rules governing the phonetic structure of the language.  The regularity of these changes is such that the phonetic changes can be used to measure durations between recorded but undated examples of speech.

Similar regularities probably govern the formal infrastructure of every art.  Whenever symbolic clusters appear, however, we see interferences that may disrupt the regular evolution of the formal system.  An interference from visual images is present in almost all art.  Even architecture, which is commonly thought to lack figural intention, is guided from one utterance to the next by the images of the admired buildings of the past, both far and near in time.

George Kubler in The Shape of Time:  Remarks on the History of Things

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 210

Lima bootery (with self-portrait)

Lima, Peru (with self-portrait)

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignores the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper, as though these things belonged to a different order of value from a church by Bramante or a Shakespeare sonnet.  Yet these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours.  They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility expressed and confirmed in them.  Moreover, the great works of architecture often depend for their beauty on the humble context that these lesser beauties provide.  Longhena’s church on the Grand Canal would lose its confident and invocatory presence, were the modest buildings which nestle in its shadow to be replaced with cast-concrete office blocks, of the kind that ruin the aspect of St.  Paul’s.

Beauty:  A Very Short Introduction, by Roger Scruton

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: What have you learned about the people of Mexico through your travels, reading, and research?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people.  It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead.  The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with them and with their beliefs.  My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West.  It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.

By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey.  Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place!  It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.”  As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico.  We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago.  And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala.   There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later.  I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals.  For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!  

Comments are welcome!

Q: Many artists can’t bear to face “a blank canvas.” How do you feel about starting a new piece?

Starting a painting

Starting a painting

A:  That’s an interesting question because I happen to be reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and this morning I saw this:  

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist.  At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study.  He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the school  of architecture.  Ever see one of his paintings?  Neither have I.  Resistance beat him.  Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway:  it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

I’ve never understood this fear of “the blank canvas” because I am always excited about beginning a new painting.  When you think about it, every professional artist can say,  “In the history of the planet no one has ever made what I am about to make!”  Once again  I am looking at something new on my easel,  even if it is only a blank 40” x 60” piece of sandpaper clipped to a slightly larger piece of foam core.  Unlike artists who are paralyzed before “a blank canvas,” I am energized by the imagined possibilities of all that empty space!  I spend up to three months on a painting so this experience of looking at a blank piece of paper on my easel happens four or five times a year at most.  Excluding travel to remote places, which is essential to my work and endlessly fascinating, the first day I get to spend blocking in a new painting is the most exhilarating part of my whole creative process.  This is art-making at its freest!  I select the pastel colors quickly, without thinking about them, first imagining them, then feeling, looking, and reacting intuitively to what I’ve done, always correcting and trying to make the painting look better.    

Comments are welcome.
 

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