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Pearls from artists* # 282

"The Champ," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“The Champ,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

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

The longstanding, at one time almost universal, dismissal of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century as essentially decorative and superficial is based, at any rate in part, on a simplistic response to the poise, clarity and radiant colour of Matisse’s work that fails to take account of the apprehensive and at times anguished emotional sensibility from which it sprang.

Hilary Spurling in Matisse the Master, A Life of Henri Matisse:  The Conquest of Colour, 1909 – 1954  

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Pearls from artists* # 213

Matisse Book Cover

Matisse Book Cover

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

I am astonished by the accuracy with which Matisse remembers the most trifling facts; he describes  a room that he went into forty years ago and gives you the measurements, where every piece of furniture stood, how the light fell.  He is a man of astounding precision and has little time for anything that he has not confirmed for himself.   In art matters, he is not the sort to go looking for a profile fortuitously created by cracks in the wall.  Elie Faure writes that Matisse is perhaps the only one of his contemporaries (in particular Marquet and Bonnard) to know exactly where he comes from and the only one who never allows it to show “because his inveterate, invincible, vigilant willpower is always focused on being himself and nothing but.”

Matisse neglects nothing.  He seems to know as much about the art market as about painting.

So many stratagems to sell a painting, from intimidating the purchaser to seeming to avoid him:  Vollard used them all and used them successfully.  Not least the lies that he told to  reassure the client.  “It works like this,” says Matisse:  “To make a sale, you invent lies that have somehow disappeared into thin air by the time the deal is done.”

We talk of the difficulties faced by dealers hoping to gain access to Renoir in his Cagnes residence.  Renoir didn’t like having people talk to him about selling his work,” says Matisse:  “It bored him.  About the only one who got a foot in the door was Paul Guillaume; he dressed up as a young worker with a floppy necktie:  “You see, I’m a local.  I’ve always loved your painting.  I’ve just inherited a little money; I’d like to buy something.”       

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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Pearls from artists* # 201

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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

Matisse needs to find life difficult.  There has to be opposition and struggle:  “You come out by your own means,” he says:  “The essential thing is to come out, to express that sense of falling head over heals for a thing;  the artist’s job is not to transpose something he’s seen but to express the impact the object made on him, on his constitution, the shock of it and the original reaction.”

I sense that Matisse has little faith in the way his painting is feted nowadays.  A man of scrupulous integrity, he must wonder how much truth there is in all of that.  There is a vein of gutsy courage in him that is as unyielding now as it ever was.  Hard times have accustomed him to rely entirely on his own judgment and accept the solitude that this implies.

HM:  I’m already a little too official.  You need a bit of persecution.  When you’ve been controversial and they finally welcome you in, something goes wrong.  Very few people can see the picture itself; they just see the banknotes you could turn it into. You love your paintings less when they’re worth something.  When they’re not worth a cent, they’re like desolate children.

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

Comments are welcome!

         

Pearls from artists* # 188

"Offering," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Offering,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

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

HM:  In order to create a work of art, you need an artist, an object, the work, and the audience.  Indeed, where there’s no audience, there’s no artist.  Renoir used to say, “No painters in Hamlet.” meaning that on a desert island you wouldn’t paint.

( I confess I am a little surprised.  For my part, I find it difficult to believe that the true artist cannot work without hope.  It seems to me that art is first and foremost an internal necessity, a need to escape from life.  It is true that this is closer to the mystics’ point of view and that the artist, if he does not work directly for his contemporaries, at least looks forward to some future resonance.  Nonetheless, I ask the same question again.)  

PC:  Even a true painter wouldn’t paint on a desert island?

HM:  No…  Painting is a means of communication, a language.  An artist is an exhibitionist.  Take away his spectators and the exhibitionist slinks off with his hands in his pockets.

The audience is the material in which you work.  You don’t see the face of the audience.  It’s huge, an immense mass.  The public is – listen, it’s the man you encounter one fine day, who says, “Monsieur Matisse, I can’t tell you how much I love your picture, the one you exhibited at the salon,” and this man is a clerk who could never spend a red cent on painting.  The public is not the buyer; the public is the sensitive material on which you hope to leave an imprint.

PC:  Through the picture, the audience returns to the source of emotion.

HM:  Yes, and the artist is the actor, the fellow with the wheedling voice who won’t rest until he’s told you his life story.     

Chatting with Henri Matisse:  The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller

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Pearls from artists* # 107

 

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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

If the proper goal of art is, as I now believe, Beauty, the Beauty that concerns me is that of Form.  Beauty is, in my view, a synonym of the coherence and structure underlying life (not for nothing does Aristotle list plot first in his enumeration of the components of  tragedy, a genre of literature that, at least in its classical form, affirms order in life).  Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern that one observes, for example, in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the fiction of Joyce, the films of Ozu, the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse and Hopper, and the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange.

Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, “What is heaven anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.”  “Objects of consequence” cannot be created by man alone, nor can “actions of consequence’ happen in a void; they can only be found within a framework that is larger than we are, an encompassing totality invulnerable to our worst behavior and most corrosive anxieties.

… How, more specifically, does art reveal Beauty, or Form?  Like philosophy it abstracts.  Art simplifies.  It is never exactly equal to life.  In the visual arts, this careful sorting out in favor of order is called composition, and most artists know its primacy.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

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Q: Who is your favorite artist and why?

Catalogue of Matisse's late work

Catalogue of Matisse’s late work

A:  I admire the work of many artists, but if I have to choose only one then I’d say Matisse.  Whenever there is a Matisse exhibition in New York, I try to see it at least once.  Many years ago I read Hillary Spurling’s definitive two-volume biography (The Unknown Matisse, published 1998, and Matisse the Master, 2005) and became fascinated with how his life unfolded, how Matisse struggled and overcame daunting obstacles in order to  make art, and how his work continued to grow and evolve throughout his long life.  

I believe that Matisse and I are kindred souls in three respects:  we both came from unpromising beginnings (he from a textile family in northern France, me from a blue collar family in New Jersey), our fathers did not support our interest in becoming artists, and he famously worked in series (I am well into my third series).

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Q: Why do you work in series?

The studio recently

The studio recently

A:  I don’t really have any choice in the matter.  It’s more or less the way I have always worked so it feels natural.  Art-making comes from a deep place.  In keeping with the aphorism ars longa, vita brevis, it’s a way of making one’s time on earth matter.  Working in series mimics the more or less gradual way that our lives unfold, the way we slowly evolve and change over the years.  Life-altering events happen, surely, but seldom do we wake up drastically different – in thinking, in behavior, etc. – from what we were the day before.  Working in series feels authentic.  It helps me eke out every lesson my paintings have to teach.  With each completed piece, my ideas progress a step or two further. 

Last week I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see an exhibition called, “Matisse:  In Search of True Painting.”  It demonstrates how Matisse worked in series, examining a subject over time and producing multiple paintings of it.  Matisse is my favorite artist of any period in history.  I never tire of seeing his work and this particular exhibition is very enlightening.  In fact, it’s a must-see and I plan to return, something I rarely do because there is always so much to see and do in New York.  As I studied the masterpieces on the wall, I recognized a kindred spirit and thought, “Obviously, working in series was good enough for Matisse!”    

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Pearls from artists* # 6

"Quartet," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38" image, 70" x 50" framed

“Quartet,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

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

After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before.  This something  amounts to more than our memory of the incident represented, and also more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist used and arranged.  What we take away with us – on the most profound level – is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world.  The representation of a recognizable incident (an incident here can simply mean a tree or a head) offers us the chance of relating the artist’s way of looking to our own.  The forms he uses are the means by which he expresses his way of looking.  The truth of this is confirmed by the fact that we can often recall the experience of a work, having forgotten both its precise subject and its precise formal arrangement.

Yet why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us?  Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.  Not of course our awareness of our potentiality as artists ourselves.  But a way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action.  The kind of actions implied vary a great deal.  A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.  Yet each of these examples is too personal and too narrow to contain the whole truth of the matter.  A work can, to some extent, increase an awareness of different potentialities in different people.  The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement.  Nor need the work be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic.  For it is not the subject matter that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing his subject.  Goya’s way of looking at a massacre amounts to the contention that we ought to be able to do without massacres.         

John Berger, Selected Essays

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