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15JaneWhatFour
You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
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LaurieAnderson
That’s the sign on the side of the Elmhurst Art Museum. Notice it’s bright yellow, like signage on highways that are designed to keep you alert.

With great wit, David Foster Wallace gave this attention message in a commencement speech at Kenyon. “This is Water:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI

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Oehlen3
“People don’t realize that when you are working on a painting, every day you are seeing something awful,” Albert Oehlen said in an interview with Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker. I burst out laughing when I read that. I don’t mean, that Oehlen was joking, not at all. What he said was funny because it’s the truth, but so awful a truth, that nobody wants to come out and say it. Once you hear somebody say that, you have to admit it’s true. It has to be true. If a panting looked wonderful after the first splash of paint, it would be done. While that can happen once in a rare while, we know that artists work on a painting for hours, days, sometimes weeks and months. During all that time, they would have to be dissatisfied with what they’re looking at, otherwise….it’s obvious. So, what drives the artist is that, as Oehlen says, he’s looking at something awful.
This is not how the public sees artists’ work. The public prefers the kitschy, idealized image of the smock wearing, beret topped artist who merely channels “inspiration.” Ha.
Oehlen2The dramatic mood of the work is comic, beset by existential worry, Oehlen continued. It’s as if each picture wondered, “What am I? Am I even art? O.K., but what does that mean?”
The article by Peter Schjeldahl appeared in the New Yorker, June 22, 2015, p82.
More paintings by Albert Oehlen at https://www.google.com/search?q=albert+oehlen&biw=1321&bih=796&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0CI0BEIkeahUKEwirxaLszdHHAhVKeT4KHWRkBpQ
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MatisseOpenWindow

Amélie Parayre married Henri Matisse in January 1898. Part of her family came from Corsica. Since Henri’s career wasn’t going too well in freezing Paris, they spent their honeymoon in sunny Corsica. For Matisse it was work as usual. He produced fifty-five paintings in those five months. What’s important is not the prodigious output, but that he GOT COLOR: “Soon there came to me, like a revelation, the love of materials for their own sake. I felt growing within me a passion for color.”
Well, you might say, he was twenty-eight, what took him so long? We take it for granted that not only painting but our daily lives are filled with color and we assume that it was ever thus. The sky’s been blue, the grass green and flowers in flowery colors since the dinosaurs. That’s true, but cloth for clothing and furnishings was dreary and drab until very recently, januaryducDuBerryspecifically the second half of the 19th century, when analine dyes were invented. Prior to that only king and gods could afford color. Everyone else slogged around in browns and grays.
We can see this reflected in the illuminations of the 14th and 15th century and in Renaissance paintings, which depict only the rich and divine and therefore give us color to enjoy. But there was also a tradition of painting that honored the browns and considered them noble, RobertHubertdignified, stately, eternal. The Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Salon and their powerful judges looked down on color. In drawing classes, for example, color was expressly forbidden. So was working from nature. Students worked strictly from plaster casts and en grisaille (in shades of gray).
Matisse grew up in the north of France, in Bohain, a drab, cold, confining town where the main industry was weaving textiles and growing beets. After he dabbled with the little paint set his mother had given him, he knew that he wanted to become a painter. At twenty he went to Paris, where he abandoned his law studies and struggled for fifteen years before anyone bought a painting from him. His Corsica “revelation” about color was reinforced by an older artist living in the south, Paul Signac, who worked in a style called Divisionism, later known as Pointilism. Lucky for us, Matisse stuck with it.
In 1905 he worked for a few month in Collioure in the foothills of the Pyrenees. That fall he submitted to the Salon d’Automne exhibit two paintings made in that southern light. They were hung in the then infamous Salle VII, where visitors gestured obscenely and doubled over in derisive laughter. The critic Louis Vauxcelles noticed a couple of conventional, academic sculpture in the room and made the now famous wisecrack: “a Donatello among the wild beasts.” Fauves, French for wild beasts, became the nickname for a group of artists, including Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck. Matisse liked the name: “Frankly, it was admirable. The name of Fauve could hardly have been better suited to our frame of mind.” They were artists who felt that art made of shades of brown and gray was passé. They didn’t know where their experiments would lead, but they knew it was time for a revolution that would replace the worn out pictorial language of the 19th century.

MatisseWomanHat
One of those two Matisse paintings sold. Woman with a Hat was priced at 500 francs and an offer came in for 300. Henri and Amélie Matisse were flat broke. They had three children, who needed  winter coats. Amélie wouldn’t accept the 300. They waited. The prospective buyer agreed to pay the full 500. He was Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude Stein from San Francisco.
The Steins thought the new pictorial language might just be the next big thing and might be worth investing in. By investing in it, they made it happen.
Stay tuned.

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. The Open Window, Collioure, 1905.  Woman with a Hat, 1905.

Paul Signac, 1863-1935Robert Hubert, 1733-1808 Les très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416


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Kandinski3
This extensive exhibit of Kandinsky’s work is well worth the hour-and-a-half drive to Milwaukee’s Calatrava by the Lake. Word has gotten out that the show closes Sept 1st and if you’ll go in the next three days, you’ll have to share the gallery with a large, rather elegant crowd.

I was there two days ago and heard a women say, “he was arrogant.” Well, consider this: you’re meeting a 19th century Russian aristocrat who gave up law to study art in Paris, convinced that the avant-garde’s mission was to elevate human consciousness from lowly realism to a lofty, spiritual, transforming art.
About “spiritual.” Kandinsky’s short, pity book Über das Geistige in der Kunst , 1911, appeared in English in 1914 as The Art of Spiritual Harmony. The title was later changed to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a more literal translation of the original German, but still, there’s that troublesome word “spiritual.” In New Age parlance “spiritual” is used to mean “good, feeling, non-thinking, non-analytical … inclusive, us.” Geistig in German doesn’t mean any of that, however.
In German Geist means ghost + spirit + intellect. So, at universities you can study a Naturwissenschaft or a Geisteswissenschaft. Wissen = to know, Wissenschaft = science, knowledge. So, Naturwissenschaft = natural science, that’s easy to see. Geisteswissenschaft means “Humanities.” Here you’re studying the mind: philosophy, art, history, literature, et al. It’s definitely intellectual. You can see that this doesn’t at all remind you of crystals, pyramids, and holding hands around a bonfire at the winter solstice.
Around 1900, when Kandinskiystudied art in Paris and Munich, his mind was spinning in the explosions of all the arts, the Geisteswissenschaften. The achievements of the Renaissance had exhausted themselves—there’s just so far you can go with anatomy, perspective and mixing oil paint to create the illusion of flesh tones. The revolt against Renaissance principles that we see in Cézanne, Braque and Picasso (just naming a few) went hand in hand with an anti-hierarchical social & political consciousness. Renaissance art was seen to glorify wealth, power, status—what Kandinsky calls “the nightmare of materialism.” To negate all that, where did artists turn for inspiration? They were inspired by and identified with the uncivilized, with African and Oceanic art. Kandinsky felt a spiritual (geistig) relationship to “primitives,” who, he writes “sought to express in their work only internal truths.”
You can see that “internal” is a synonym of geistig. And you can see that this verbal analysis is getting tedious and self-referential. In his book, Kandinsky tries to get at his feeling for art—and it is about feeling, despite the categorizations and definitions—but it’s only when we see the analogy between painting and music, where words fail, that we get what he’s getting at. (We’ll do that in the next post.)
Here’s Kandinsky, from Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
“The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality. This doubt, and the still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy, divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives. Our soul rings cracked when we seek to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more. For this reason, the Primitive phase, through which we are now passing, with its temporary similarity of form, can only be of short duration.
These two possible resemblances between the art forms of today and those of the past will be at once recognized as diametrically opposed to one another. The first, being purely external, has no future. The second, being internal, contains the seed of the future within itself. After the period of materialistic effort, which held the soul in check until it was shaken off as evil, the soil is emerging, purged by trials and sufferings. Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc., which belonged to this time of effort, will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”
Arrogant? Try courageous.
He was not alone in his energy and courage. Think of the courage it took to be Woolfe, Joyce, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, Strauss, Rilke, Kafka, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kokoschka, et al. Think of all the censors, ridicules, accusations of insanity and immorality, and all those vegetables and rotten eggs thrown at the stage. Nobody knew if modernism would survive.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944

“Impression III (Concert),” 1911, oil on canvas

Quote from “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” translated by M.T.H. Sadler, 1914

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13EdithAltman“Reclaiming the Symbol,” the exhibit by Edith Altman at the State of Illinois Building drew in a large crowd for the panel discussion.  This was many years ago.  I have been puzzling over it ever since.

The panel consisted of professors from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, most impressively,  Wendy Doniger, the American Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought. I had been reading her “Other People’s Myths,” one of several books on symbols, mythology and poetry that I was trying to decipher at the time.  These were  my big interests and still are.  Why do we do this?  How do symbols work?  Why do people create gods?  How does the brain function when it’s playing with metaphors?

Imagine my excitement when Doniger was at the dais taking questions from the audience.  I was so engrossed and felt so much on this author’s wavelength that I simply asked, “what is a metaphor?’   She looked out at me over her reading glasses and got a little flustered.  In her helplessness, she turned to her fellow panelists, left and right, as if to say, “what’s this person doing here? How am I supposed to answer this question when this person is obviously barely literate, at best a high school drop-out? Every eighth grader knows the definition of a metaphor.”  Right.  I know the definition, thank you.  What I wanted to get into was the boiler room of the imagination,  the depth of the messy, noisy gray matter where things get connected when they seem  logically and rationally so far apart.  How does the mind do this metaphor business?  I did not defend my question by adding the context in which I asked it. I was momentarily shocked by Doniger’s shallowness and realized that she collected honorary degrees because she knows a lot of definitions.  I went home and took her book, not to a used book store, but to the alley where I dumped it in the garbage.

This fall I was reading Stephen Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.”  Finally!  Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, does get into the boiler room of the imagination. But it’s a demanding book.  Even though it’s written in clear prose and with abundant wit, I found myself resisting his findings, probably because of my lingering romantic ideas about free will.

As the brain evolved over eons, so did the brain’s “machinery” of induction and deduction.

Here’s Pinker:  “Why do we make …analogies?  It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery.  Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstance, and time.  That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed from reasoning about other subjects.”  (p.353)

“Space and force pervade language.  Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studies.” (p. 355)

“Location in space is one of the fundamental metaphors in language, used for thousands of meanings.  The other is force, agency, and causation.” (p.354)

In other words, in other metaphors:  The brain of our distant ancestors had to figure out how to navigate the body through space and time in the context of evolving notions of causation.  Ideas come much later, when the inferential machinery of the brain is already in place.  The Athenians of 500 BCE were hanging out in the agora to discuss truth and beauty.  But they did this with brains that had evolved to make certain causal and spatial inferences.  The boiler room of their imagination and rationality was already running smoothly, so to speak, as in a metaphor.

“The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.” (p. 353) This is how we write about ideas.  We try to talk about the mind and find ourselves talking about furniture and gravel soup.  The mind is endlessly funny.

I read Pinker on the mostly deserted beach, while bundled up next to a large sturdy umbrella to shield against forceful and shifting winds. The lake threw up high roaring waves.  Almost every afternoon, as it was getting late in the day, a woman named Denise would spend a half hour throwing a day-glow green ball way out  over the waves and a black lab retriever named Kiva would hurl herself into this absurdity, snap up the ball and rush it back to her human.  The dog couldn’t take her eyes off the day-glow throwing stick, ready for more absurdity.

On the beach, Pinker’s analysis of the mind became readable. Well, no, it was still hard to take, all this talk about “inferential machinery.”  I recommend reading “How the Mind Works” in turbulent weather. I, for one, found some consolation camped there in the sand with the lake coming at me.

Of course, the lake is doing no such thing.  “Coming at” is a spatial and intentional metaphor.  And so forth.

13BeachSunset

http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/witnessLeg/survivorsRefs/altman/

http://reclaimtheswastika.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

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13SAICsophiekahn2

When I saw the MFA exhibit at the School of the Art Institute in May, the piece that I found most moving was a sculpture, or rather the shadow cast by a sculpture.  The sculpture itself, the bust of a woman, was fragmented.  It wasn’t clear whether she was in the act of becoming or was being shredded to disintegration.  But in the shadow cast on the wall, she was whole.  It seemed to me that the work was not about a piece created by strips of white clay, but about the shadow. 

It seemed obvious to me that the artist, Sophie Kahn, was working with light. Her medium was not clay at all, but light and shadow. People who only saw the raggedy clay forms were missing the point.  Look!  The shadow!  That’s where we have the art—the life of this piece is in the shadow!

How did she create this effect?  I imagined her sculpting with a certain light source precisely placed on one side of her sculpting stand and a wall precisely distanced on the other side.  Then, for the installation in this gallery, she had to precisely duplicate these distances and angles.  A daunting task.  And for what? To create a shadow! 

This is profound, I thought.  When watching a movie, I’m inclined to think it’s about something other than the plot; when reading I’m inclined to be skeptical; in drawings and paintings, I’m inclined to look at the so-called negative space (an inclination well-documented in these posts) ; in general, it’s all about illusions.  Or as Goethe says in Faust:  “Alles Vergängliche  ist nur ein Gleichnis”…Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben.”  (All that must disappear is but a parable…We live our life amongst refracted color.)

Those lines are wafting through my brain whenever I contemplate art. Add to that the fact that in May when I was looking at this sculpture-shadow, I was reading “A Short History of the Shadow” by Victor Stoichita.

Well, I had to meet the artist.  I did and she talked about her work.————————–

13SAICsophiekahn1

Stay tuned.

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