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Walk-Zoom-Click

The back-lighting stopped me in my tracks.  The shadow was as dark as the tree trunk itself. They looked continuous as if they were of the same substance. The lawn looked as if it had been spray painted DA-glo.  Mind you, this photo is not tweaked.  My phone camera saw this strange light effect.  Drama like this is momentary. Click.

I immediately zoomed in.  No distraction, no nice residential context with a house.  What we get now is…

…a repetition of forms.  On the right, spiky triangles.  On the left, and spilling onto the big triangle, you see amorphous meanderings.

Do we still have trees, lawn and late afternoon lighting?  Yes, we’re still reminded of how wonderful these real lawns in our neighborhoods are.

We also have just the opposite:  flat patterns on a flat surface confined in a rectangular frame.

Now it may dawn on you that you’re having an art experience.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself” –Fairfield Porter, remember.

You can focus on the picture surface or what it represents, but not both at the same time — as Gombrich said in Art and Illusion.

But you can practice toggling back and forth between the two ways of seeing.  Practice that!

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You’re walking in late afternoon when the shadows are very long. You notice that shadows can take strange, aggressive shapes on an expanse of lawn.  Click. In the picture the shadow looks even stranger than it did in reality.  Why is that?

Walk on. At an intersection you see shadows on the distant lawn. Click.

But you took a wide angle, getting the street into the frame of your camera.  It’s merely a documentation of this corner of an unremarkable street.

You raise your arms and you zoom in on the distant lawn.  Click.  Now you have an image of triangular shapes on a green surface with some rectangle in the upper part of the frame.  This is getting interesting. But you still have the street in there.

Now crop the reference to the street because it’s too much context, which makes the image point to something outside itself.

Why is this interesting?  Because now you have an image that can be seen two ways: one, as a reference to a green lawn with triangular shadows cast by neighboring buildings and two, as a pattern of geometrical forms that refer to nothing outside of themselves.

If you want to see this duality even more clearly, take out the color.

Now you have an arrangement of shapes that “does not stand for something outside itself.”  Is this art?  Hmmm, maybe.

On second look, yes.  Notice how the image has a unifying texture: the bricks of the wall have specks of black shadows that echo the specks of leaves on the lawn.  This unifying texture has nothing to do with what’s being represented.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself,” as Fairfield Porter would put it.

You can frame this, hang it on a wall, glance at it in passing and momentarily inhabit the realm of form, which is pure feeling.  Like music.

 

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Artspeak, Now

If you plowed through those two pages from Fairfield Porter (in the last post), you noticed that his thinking has peaks of clarity and ruts of generalizations.

He says, the new American painting is “more accurately called non-objective than abstract.” That’s a peak. It’s a good distinction.  Whenever we hear painting described as “abstract” we should translate that as “non-objective.”  Thank you, Fairfield.

Then, on the second page, we have “art does not stand for something outside itself.”  That’s another peak.  Oh, thank you, thank you, Mr. Porter!!!!

The rest of that page is erudite theorizing that must have pleased his publisher.  This new non-objective art was shocking enough; the critical language had to break it gently to the public.    After all, everybody assumed that art had to represent something. It was a cultural given that it would be absurd to look at art that was so presumptuous as to stand on its own.  It took a while for the shock of the new to wear off.  But the shock did gradually dampen down and now Artspeak unabashedly talks about art as it is.

Here’s a review, chosen randomly, from last September’s Art in America.

The whole review describes the physical materials and how they were placed in the exhibit space. There’s no mention of symbolism, historical references or why anybody should go see this.

Yes, indeed, art does not stand for something outside itself, as Fairfield Porter said sixty years ago.  But I wonder if he would find this installation too challenging to look at. Too absurd?  Too hard to pay attention to?

Paying attention!  That’s the key. Paying attention to what’s actually in front of you is not so easy.

In the next few posts, let’s zoom in on this problem of paying attention. How hard can that be!? For example, if I say this image is art, can I say it does not stand for something outside itself?  That is, how hard can it be to pay attention to this image–as image?

 

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/10/27/artspeak-then/

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Artspeak, Then

We’ve met Fairfield Porter (1907-1975)  before, back in August:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/08/30/fairfield-porter-and-your-interesting-junk-mail/

Surprisingly, while he was a hugely successful painter, Porter thought of himself primarily as an art critic.  His criticism was featured in Art Journal, which was started in 1941.  The book,  Art in its Own Terms, is a selection of his critical writings, edited by the itchingly named Rackstraw Downes. I scratched around in these pages and found some insights about Artspeak, then and now.

In the 1940’s New York Abstract Expressionism had hit America’s culture fan with shocking force. It must have felt like a threat to common decency, meaning American decency. In 1959, for example, the popular, middle-brow Life Magazine called Jackson Pollack “Jack the Dripper.” But fairly high-brow readers were also puzzled. These were the cultured-and-curious who would have read Art Journal to find some guiding thread through this new art mess.

Who better for the job than someone who knew art from within, a painter who could convincingly use the word “soul” and still could articulate his way through the maze of these new art-isms.

I imagine that if you could memorize a few of Porter’s sentences and quote them at the next cocktail party (it was the 50’s), you would be assured that you looked as smart as your suede pumps.

Who could challenge a quote like, “Polish artists admire American painting, and Russian art circles take time to express disapproval”?  If you said “Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec,” would the hostess whip out a screen and a Kodak Carousel complete with relevant slides so that you could demonstrate exactly what you were talking about?  She would not. She would pour you more champagne, darling, aren’t you clever.

Was Porter ever asked to give a slide show at the 92nd Street Y to illuminate his generalities?  Today he would be asked. Today he would be expected to present split screen comparisons and be specific about what he was comparing to what.  By the time of the Q&A people would have fact-checked his historical claims and editorial generalities.

Here’s a split screen for the claim that Picasso derives from Toulouse-Lautrec.  He would have some splainin’ to do, wouldn’t he.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

Fairfield Porter, 1907-1975

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Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born on October 25, 1881 in Málaga, Spain.

A photo shows him at the age of six with his younger sister. She is obedient and he is supremely self-confident.

He drew all the time, even in school where he filled the margins of textbooks with drawings.

Here’s a page showing pigeon studies and a drawing of a bullfight, possibly  done from memory, at the age of about 9.

When he was fourteen, his father, an art teacher and successful painter, handed him his own brushes and paints because Pablo had surpassed him.

Picasso’s self-portrait at fifteen:

He was a serious young man, here at eighteen:

In his self-portrait at twenty, he’s already mature:

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Some years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago I was walking towards gallery 240, just behind a woman and two well-dressed, well-behaved children who were about six and eight years old.  The woman might have been their mom or an aunt.  She bent down to them and said, “And now we’re going to look at Pointillism.”

I was immediately upset and wanted to say something to the woman. But I didn’t know what to say and lingered in that gallery hoping I could handle this gracefully.

Next time I’ll just say discretely but firmly, “Don’t say that to a child.”

Or anybody.

When you go to a gallery or art museum allow yourself to be ignorant.  Ok, how about unknowing.

Even if you go twice a month, enter the building with no expectations. Wander around as if you were illiterate and had never heard of any ism in art history. Let your jaw drop and your mind go non-verbal.

This takes practice.  It’s not easy to be…ignorant…unknowing.

Ignorance is the precondition for astonishment.

Please, let’s all be erudite, elegant and articulate.  But not so fast.  Not when we’re six. Or even sixteen.  Or however old you are when you start looking at art.  You should be allowed, or allow yourself, to look and react with your gut feeling.  Ooh, ahh, yukk, eech, meh, whatever.

But you keep going back and keep looking.  You will inevitably learn a few things about art history. But what’s most fascinating is that you learn something about yourself:  how you react, how you see, how you think and feel.

I pulled the above photo from the internet.  I love it because it shows people really looking.  Whether they’re seeing this for the first time or coming back every week to study Seurat’s technique, they are astonished.

There’s a lot of self-knowledge in the capacity to be astonished.

Georges Seurat, 1859-1891

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,  painted 1884–1886

 

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That Fly

This article appeared in The Conversation on October 9, 2020. The author is Sally Hickson, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Guelph 

After this week’s vice-presidential debate in the United States, the fly that landed on Vice-President Mike Pence’s head was more of a sensation than the details of the debate — at least on social media. The fly has already been immortalized as a Biden/Harris fly swatter (sorry, they’re all sold out) and sparked a Halloween costume.

In many circumstances, flies are unremarkable. That’s probably why a French word for spy is connected to the same word for fly, mouche. When a fly becomes famous, it’s worth wondering why.

Flies have long held symbolic meaning in the history of art. In portraits made in Renaissance Europe, the presence of a fly symbolizes the transience of human life (buzzbuzzpfft!). In the great scheme of things, our lives are no longer than that of a fly. For me as an art historian, the fly was a moment to reflect not only on the history of flies in western painting, but to begin considering what the long history of this symbolism may reveal about why the fly generated so much buzz.

Humility, impermanence, illusion

Take, for example, an extraordinary little painting known today as Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, painted in about 1470 by an artist from the German (Swabian) School, now in the National Gallery in London. Her elaborate white head covering highlights a perfect little fly, that’s settled on her just to remind us that our life, like hers, is impermanent.

The corollary is that we’re supposed to do the best we can with the time we’ve got. When it comes to time and eternity, as painter and poet William Blake wrote: “Am not I / A fly like thee? / Or art not thou / A man like me?” The fly is a little reminder of humility.

Painters could also include a fly to draw attention to themselves, demonstrating with their “trompe-l’oeil” (deceiving the eye) tricks that they could paint in a manner that seemed so real, a viewer of the portrait would be tempted to try to swat the fly away. The 16th-century Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, tells a story about the painter Giotto fooling his teacher Cimabue by adding a realistic-looking fly to a painting.

Salvador Dalí, who was pretty much the lord of the flies (he painted them a lot) included a fly on the watch face of his painting The Persistence of Memory (now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He also used an army of ants to signify the decay of time and life’s impermanence.

All is not what it appears

Portrait of a Carthusian, the most famous portrait featuring a fly, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446. It depicts a bearded monk. The fly perched on the ledge in front of him signifies we’re entering a zone where all is not what it appears: we might say that what seems real is only an illusion. Or, perhaps the artist has enhanced “the quality of the subject’s ‘real’ presence by the fly resting momentarily on the fictive frame,” according to the museum.

 

Entomologist Ron Cherry has explored how insects have long-standing mythological associations with death. In Renaissance thought, which tended to blend medieval fabulist tales about nature with ideas about religion, flies were considered to represent supernatural power, mostly associated with evil and corruption, because they seemed to be spontaneously born from decaying fruit and rotting organic matter.

In the book of Exodus in the Bible, God mustered swarms of flies as punishment. They were harbingers of worse things, like pestilence and death. That’s a lot of deliverables for a bunch of tiny flies.

The point is that flies still remind us of unpleasant things, or as commentator David Frum noted, unpleasant things in a presidency we’d rather ignore — which is why, I suspect, given the administration’s record, some people found it so delightful.

________________________________________________________________________________________

The Conversation is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers.

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family,’ c. 1470, by an artist from the German (Swabian) School. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

‘Portrait of a Carthusian’ (1446), by Petrus Christus, oil on wood. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Wikimedia Commons), CC BY

Original article by Sally Hickson:   https://theconversation.com/mike-pences-fly-from-renaissance-portraits-to-salvador-dali-artists-used-flies-to-make-a-point-about-appearances-147815

SNL: Fly Debate:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI_lxFv203I&list=PLS_gQd8UB-hLlAHDdSUdIYLjk9WCDnjWx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conversation_(website)

 

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For several days I’ve had a tab on my computer for this image of a recent California wildfire.  I would open this photo, stare at it and feel mesmerized.  What must that be like, to have left these houses or to still be in them? What is the sound of that enormous roaring fire in the proximate distance?  How fast is it approaching?  How terrified these people must be!

After several days of this intense emotional involvement with the scene in the photo, I noticed that I found the photo “beautiful.”  Given the content of the photo, this was disturbing.  So I asked myself if the photo was constructed to have this mesmerizing effect on the viewer. I turned on the part of my brain that does analysis.

What I found was a centrally focused composition.  The houses in the middle of the image, i.e. the human interest, were perfectly in the middle. The house in the middle of this cluster stands out because it is brighter than all the rest.  The hills on both sides sloped perfectly towards the middle of the cluster of houses.

Thus we have a symmetrical composition with human life in the middle. The symmetry makes it static with the message that this is not going to change. Human life in the middle hooks us emotionally.  No wonder this image is mesmerizing.  The composition tells us that this terror of the fire is enormous:  it’s here to stay, permanent without any dynamic that may bring change.

You can be sure that the photographer took dozens or even hundreds of frames on this assignment.  We don’t know if this frame came out as we see it here or if it was cropped to achieve this feeling of terror.  Either way, it was not randomly chosen.

A second example makes this power of composition even clearer.  The firefighter is in the middle of the frame.  Because of the stability inherent in symmetry, he appears to be there forever. This makes his situation all the more hopeless and makes the image painful to contemplate.

You can test this out be cropping and moving him off-center. Now the composition is unbalanced and we feel that he is moving.  He’s in danger but he’s at least not stuck.

Analyzing an image like this does not desentize you to its content.  Not at all. You’re still shocked by the content but you’ve added the awareness of how emotions are communicated visually.

 

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Alain de Botton published this book in 2006. His prose can be purple and dense.  You’ll be inclined to read slowly and thoughtfully.  That’s a good thing because you’ll want to reflect on our built environment.  How does the space you live in effect you—your view of life and your  imagination?

I recommend you savor the book at your own pace whenever you get to it, but watch the three episodes that he narrates on you tube—as soon as possible:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80fb7Lt0z58

Why the urgency and why now? Simply put, because we go for walks now.  It’s nice to head for the woods, but it’s also stimulating to walk through the half deserted streets of our towns.  Alain de Botton will nudge you to observe and question why buildings are the way they are.  Do the buildings you encounter and the spaces you enter make you feel happy, optimistic, resourceful, energetic?  Or, do you feel, ermm, locked down?

 

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Banana on the Wall

A banana in a grocery store is an excellent source of potassium.  You go to the grocery store for practical reasons. You evaluate the displayed fruits and vegetables according to how they will benefit your body.  You pay money for things that will impact your life and improve it immediately.

A banana taped to a  museum wall is a mind game.

You go to the museum for no practical reason at all.  The entrance you pay at a museum doesn’t get you anything.  Why on earth would you go to such a place?!  You go precisely because you feel it’s time for a mind game.  You want to have your brain scrambled.  Name a piece of art that didn’t have that effect on you!

Correction:  Name a piece of MODERN Art that wasn’t a mind game. That’s because art since the middle of the 19th century has engaged the viewer in the literal sense of that word,   meaning involve.  Meaning you have to think about it, to puzzle it out.

Engaging with Modern Art means identifying your assumptions and expectations.  That takes practice.

You don’t even have to go to a museum to practice that, you can do it anywhere, with anything.  Right now, for example.  Go to your kitchen and look at a banana and at the assumptions you have in your head about its characteristics, like the color yellow.

Becoming aware of your assumptions and expectations is actually easier in a museum than in your kitchen. That’s because in the museum the objects are already taken out of their normal, habitual context.  A banana taped to a museum wall is a mind game if you stare down your assumptions about what’s supposed to be on museum walls and what art is supposed to be.

If you think museums should show this…

and this…

and this…

…you’re also being asked to play mind games.  You may think that ancient images are more real and therefore not mind games.  But that’s because we tend to be in awe of very old objects, whether coins, pottery, murals, inscriptions, monuments or paintings.  Even in their own day, they already were mind games.

Actually, you don’t have to think about anything.  But what’s the fun in that?

 

I recommend this article:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/arts/design/banana-art-guggenheim.html

 

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