One More Little Squares Story about Beginnings

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I can’t help it.  All my inner squares wish to be heard.  I remembered this story while noticing the tiles in the bathroom, as I wondered if my bathroom tiles could ever possibly inspire me to paint pictures as great as Pierre Bonnard’s fantastical tiles of paradise inspired him to paint Marthe in the Bath.

Anyway, while I pondered, I remembered a time when I was a little girl.  We visited my uncle and his wife and my cousins in Dobbin Heights at their little house on the edge of town.  My cousins were playing with tiles in the paradise that was my uncle’s quirky back yard.  They had tiles of all colors, and we quickly turned the handling of these tiles into a rich game.  Whether my uncle had recently redone his kitchen or whether it was for some other reason that he had all these tiles I never knew.  But they were small tiles about an inch square and there were all sorts of beautiful colors.

I played with my cousins the entire time of our visit, and when it was time to go home my uncle put a large bunch of tiles into a paper bag for me to take home from the family’s huge supply.

And I loved those tiles.  It was one of the earliest times that I became aware of loving color — just loving color plain and deep and pure.

Interesting to notice now that the tiles were a gift.  People often give us the very things we need before we’re even aware of needing them.  My uncle (who has always loved to build things) was thus one of my earliest art teachers.  He gave me a bag full of tiles.

I wonder if some of my readers would be willing to share your art stories?  What got you started along your path of color and line?
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Papa Cezanne’s Flowers

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I’ve looked at a lot of Cezanne paintings over the years, and I know some of the flower pictures first hand.  The National Gallery has two beautiful flower paintings.  One of them would more correctly be described as magnificient.  The great Vase de fleurs painted in the artist’s last years.  Philly has a great flower painting by Cezanne too. But nothing prepared me for this painting which I only know (alas) from a book.  It’s printed in color in John Rewald’s catalog raisonee of the artist.  Meanwhile, the original painting, which is about 32 x 39 inches, belongs to a private collector in Japan. 

To me, it’s super exciting to see a painting like this.  To have the flowers spread out horizontally rather than to expand vertically — I don’t know why — it just shakes my cage!  I guess it must have shook Cezanne a bit too.  He painted it, after all.

So this is the other thing I do.  I study how my heros painted their stuff, then I do my version.  It’s like jazz.  You learn from the greats, then you improvise your own.
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Into Paradox

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I’ve continued working on this drawing.  None of the changes and additions that I’ve made to it are even noticable so far, and I haven’t taken a new photo yet.  But I post it again to illustrate what I notice about my thoughts as I continue drawing, trying to go deeper into the image.

One  thing I notice is how difficult it can be to look at the same things — the same still life, the same drawing — day after day and try to find the “new” in it — the present moment.  One’s thoughts can get so crowded with extraneous ideas.  I sit down to draw, but I might actually be thinking about something else.  It’s not that it marrs the drawing to think about other things, because it doesn’t necessarily do that.  It’s just that one might as well have the experience of seeing the things!  That’s what it’s for, isn’t it?

As with playing a musical instrument, once you have learned to play a piece you can reproduce it — almost mindlessly.  But, where then, has the music gone?  One wants not only to hear the music, but to feel it also — to be swept up inside it.  And the challenge in drawing is to be swept up in that.

There’s a paradox about art (perhaps true of all the arts?).  When you are very new to it, it presents lots of technical difficulties.  In painting, learning to draw or to mix color or, in piano learning to read music and to manage ambidextrous fingerings of lots of notes!

Eventually one gets increasingly comfortable with the difficulties — so much so that eventually they aren’t even difficult.  While a beginner, though, one has so much raw desire.  And after one has become more practiced, some of the desire has perhaps been unintentionally tamed.

One needs to find the desire again — even the difficulty needs to become a new discovery.  The uncertainty one fought against, the feeling of failure or the fear of it, the absent confidence — ah, they were friends if only one knew!

To not know how to draw is the most marvellous thing!  In not knowing, one is searching and striving.  Would that make all beginners masters? And are masters all washed up?  No, of course.  But the spirit of beginning is always something to strive toward no matter where one finds oneself in a continuum of “skill.”

Truly the beginner spirit is more realistic also.  To suppose that one already knows is inaccurate.  Reality is always bigger than we are.

I have been looking at my nearly “finished” drawing of flowers and finding a blank slate inside it.  So much about it is still tentative, I think.  Like the edges of the flowers in the vase where they juxtapose the flowers in the textile.  Where does one begin and the other end?  How does one put this into the drawing?  And space and dimension, how are they to be represented in this flat image?

I find that I am almost more interested in ways of thinking about appearances than strictly in depicting appearance. Sometimes my pictures have a strong life-likeness (you see the vase and the flowers, right?) and sometimes the features I find most intriguing lead to decisions that break the illusion.  If you discover a wonderful line, let’s say, and put emphasis on it, the line may bring the whole thing forward, making the picture flat again. And yet one discovers all kinds of beautiful things in the motif — percepts that are hard to resist.

There’s still so much that’s possible in a drawing like this one.  How much more so in the blank page.  The beginner mind is desirable — it is the continual possession of the newness of the moment.

Any Picture Will Do

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Here’s another detail of the drawing I posted earlier.  I could have started another still life.  In fact, I’m hoping to do this still life again from another angle before I take the objects down.  But for now, I’ve considered it just as interesting to go forward with this drawing as though I were started a new version of it

What is the difference between doing a new version, or making many small alterations to the existing image?  In many ways all my pictures are the same idea played out into different forms.  By that logic, I figured I could continue working on the same image and be doing something “different.”

I was reading something lately that persuaded me I should relax and go more deeply into the picture that’s already on the easel.  Already, I begin seeing the still life in a different way.  There is so much more to observe than I noticed up to this point.  And even if the drawing were to change little even just the difference in quality of my observation seems marvellous to me.

I find that looking at the still life, I encounter so much beauty in these things.   Subtle relationships of color, quiet spaces of empty air in the interstices among objects, a strange and  quiet and perplexing beauty in the cloth behind the flowers that present a picture within a picture.  The “real” verses the depicted flowers offers a continuing challenge.

And of course, it is all artifice.

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Like a Bug

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I have been revisiting my large drawing of flowers, posted previously here.  I have been trying to get further inside the details of the thing.  I am trying to see into the structures of the individual flowers and into the empty air that surrounds them.  Both flowers and the air are one and the same for the artist since both equally represent the surface of the picture.  Both flower and empty air matter to a bug, too.  One is the destination and the other one’s medium of travel.

So, I have become like a bug.  I travel vicariously through the flowers of my picture, looking for nectar.

Denouement of the Little Squares

 

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This will be the last essay devoted to the subject of little squares for a while.  One hopes that the Ellsworth Kelly audience is paying attention, though I fear that this group of readers has not ventured any further than the original post I wrote in which I bad-mouthed the currently fashionable (and now also rather elderly) artist.  I will not have scratched the surface, really, of the full significance of boxes as a form in art.  However, one needs to move on.  For whomever might be interested in the saga from beginning to denouement, it began with a post called Less than Perfect.

Above is an amazing and strange drawing by the great French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.  He made the drawing as a study for his famous portrait of Mme. Moitessier (now in London).  Though the real Mrs. Moitessier never posed nude for the portrait, the artist realized this drawing either by working from memory — or, as is more likely — having a studio model assume the pose so that he could better study the structure of his pictorial idea.

What is most strange, however, is not the nudity of the model but the strange conjunction of the figure with a grid of squares.  Even if Ingres had intended to use this grid to firm up his drawing as he transferred the idea from drawing to canvas or from one study to another study,  this grid is not even placed over most of the figure.  Indeed the focal point of the grid (assuming that the middle position relates to the focus) is located approximately at the model’s left elbow.

Seeing the drawing in reproduction, I can’t detect whether the grid or the drawing was made first.  Either alternative presents questions.  If he made the drawing first and the grid after, one wonders what purpose the grid serves.  If he made the grid first and then the drawing, one wonders why he didn’t choose a plain sheet for such an elegant study.  As things stand, though, with model and grid both occupying prominent places on this sheet, we find a drawing of sinuous organic lines contrasted with a delicate, spider’s web of incisive geometric boxes. 

When the whole appears to be more than the sum of the parts, as here, one can only speculate that perhaps for an enigmatic reason that we can only feel without quite understanding, the figure drawing and the mathematical grid both enliven each other.

For me it demonstrates that in true art, a complex psychology lives.  It resides inside certain images, giving them a force and resonance that speak to the heart and the mind in the silent language of sight.  Certainly, this life of little squares possesses more ingenuity and more poignancy and more insistence than do Mr. Kelly’s very less ambitious images.

I may not have persuaded his fans, though.  Alas.  Thus it is still true that you can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.

The Squares that decorate the Tesselated Heavens

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In this continuing saga of little squares, brought here in contradistinction to the art of Ellsworth Kelly, which I criticized in a much earlier blog, we now turn to a perhaps strange conjunction of interests.

In the Middle Ages little squares were often a feature of the skies which illuminated Bible stories in innumerable decorated manuscripts.  In those pictures the tesselated sky seems to harken the divine presence.  Certainly the use of tesselations in art is often associated with divinity and not merely in Western cultures.  The example above comes from a manuscript at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting the Last Judgement.

Whether Bonnard was inspired by illuminated manuscripts or by other medieval imagery — or not — he certainly uses little squares to achieve something of a similar result.  Only in Bonnard’s world the “heaven” has become a bathroom where Marthe his wife plays the role of a kind of “Eve.”  Interestingly enough, though, when Bonnard painted the series of pictures devoted to Marthe and her bath, his wife was quite elderly.  Indeed, Marthe died before the picture above was completed.

The bathroom that was the real setting for the picture was not multicolored either.  It was simply and completely white.  The colors of Bonnard’s many squares are entirely inventions, quite similar in their way to my little invention of squares described in a previous post.  Here this “exercise” in arranging colors becomes a  metaphor for something like a paradise on earth as well a kind of prevision of theoretical physics.  In Bonnard’s bathroom the tiles twist and distort into a warped space/time of memory, regret and desire.  We can note certainly that the squares are not rigorously defined in a representation of true perspective.  Yet they are not disorderly in an unmeaningful way either. Bonnard possessed a great ingenuity and feeling for distortion. It becomes a crucial aspect of his art. These distortioned tiles contain a method in madness both as regards perspective and color.

So, we still have little squares quite like Ellsworth Kelly’s — in their way — yet invested with meaning and with roots that flow back deeply into history.  So far our squares are still part of the picture, but there are ways also that squares play a role in picture making without being at all visible.  We’ll turn to these invisible squares in the next post.

Bonnard’s painting, Marthe in the Tub, belongs to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

The Story of Little Squares Continues

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An image from the Rouen Book of Hours takes us down another path in the journey away from Ellsworth Kelly, while staying inside the land of little squares.  One could easily suppose that squares lack meaning, particularly in an exercise such as I described in the last post.  However, the square itself (along with the imperfect, but square-ish box) is an intriguing shape and one that does not occur in nature — so far as I know — at least not on the scale of things visible to ordinary sight.  If it exists in the microscopic world of small scaled things, or in the subatomic world of the structures of things perhaps some scientist will let me know.

However, the square as an idea — as a perfect form — holds a certain fascination for some people, and in the medieval world, squares play a very prominent role in images of divine events.  Squares appear in medieval art in a variety of ways.  The image posted here shows how three squares are used to decorate the left side of a page illustrating the Kiss of Judas.  Each of the three squares has illuminations within it of patterned flowers.

I can’t say why the squares are there or what the particular significance is of three squares — whether it relates to the Trinity or to something else — why two squares are colored pale gold and one is red or why the squares are decorated with flowers — or why these squares share so much of the page with the narrative picture which is quite small in comparison.  All I can say with certainly is that squares have an important, playful/serious role in the art of very early times.

This post is part of a series of short essays related to answering why Ellsworth Kelly is not a “real” artist, while I take the reader into a meditation on the meanings and “true” uses of squares in art.

Thus the “sterile” use of Kelly’s squares has had a vibrant, adventurous life elsewhere in art’s long history.  But stay tuned for more squares.

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Hands On

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Here’s the next sequence in the series of posts whose goal is to move from a false idea of art into a true one.  I had used poor Ellsworth Kelly as my whipping boy in a post written months ago.  Finding that the Kelly post received lots of views from readers looking specifically for information about him, I decided that I could use Kelly’s example of anti-art to teach visitors something about the nature of genuine art.  To  get the benefit of the whole argument, one needs to consult earlier posts.  However, this post begins in medius res.

Here are simple squares.  It harks back to an exercise I used once while teaching an art camp to a group of mostly 10 to 14 year-old boys.  The idea came to me from my desperation since these energetic boys were driving me bonkers.  I needed something to calm their dynamism and thought that a ten minute session spent doing something quietly repetitious might be just the ticket.  All I asked them to do was draw a sequence of squares and fill each square with a solid color.

To my great surprise, ten minutes drifted into twenty minutes then into thirty minutes.  I told them we had to finish up and was greeted with lamentful moaning, “please — just a little more time!”  I couldn’t believe it.  What was even more wonderful was to observe that each kid had turned this seemingly robot task into evidence of individual temperament.  Each drawing was different.

Before switching to our next topic, I first collected all the drawings and gathered the kids round in a circle in a dark corridor outside our classroom (hoping that dimness would hold them in their quiet mood).  I displayed each drawing one by one, asking the author to raise a hand.  Each kid readily found his own drawing for there were no two alike.

The first “gesture” of art is the introduction of the individual into it.  Even something as simple as drawing squares can unmask the self.

The fact that one physically draws the squares also holds great significance.  To draw squares this way was like learning to write letters of an alphabet. It’s not a great achievement, but it can be a first step toward marvellous possibility.

I use the idea of “drawing squares” because it has so much structure and seems like the very opposite of “creativity.”  Indeed, I think that Kelly’s kind of art hinges on mindless sterility in that he produces a manufactured kind of image and makes it “art” by affixing his name to it and charging large sums of money for it (which quite strangely he has succeeded in getting).

But the simple art of the hand does not gain or lose in virtue by the vagaries of monetary value that society attaches to it.  This first exercise of squares consists merely in making lines, in rubbing down color, in choosing colors, all through which one catches the sense that colors have great innate beauty and can become emblems of mood or state of mind simply by virtue of their powerful combinations.

Meanwhile the role of the hand — the drawing something by hand — even something as simple as these squares — it’s here that both accident and serendipity creep into view.  And the memory of the hand — we begin to realize that the physical memory of gesture is different from yet related to sight.

More squares evolving in the next post.

Square Made More Complicated

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To fully appreciate what’s going on here you have to begin with the post about Ellsworth Kelly that I posted here, and work forwards.

Using the same hardware paint sample squares, I’ve taken and covered some of the interior colors up with other squares, layering them in various ways.  The result produces rectangles of many shapes, strong contrasts between light and dark and/or warm and cool colors, and narrow vertical bands of color that play off against the bulkier more squarish shapes.  The final image is produced in a camera. I just arrange the squares and then unarrange them — which means that the great work of art thus produced is forever lost to those high-rolling collectors who might have desired to own them.  Que sera sera.  (I’ll be happy, of course, to reproduce any of these on commission.  The price for one of these better-than-Ellsworth-Kelly pieces is only 8 million dollars.  Quite a bargain.  That’s half what one pays for a Damien Hirst.)

Anyway, since the image exists chiefly in the camera’s digital memory and upon your computer screen, it means that it can be manipulated in one’s software.  I rotated the image until I found the orientation I liked best.  One could also reverse it, change the colors and jazz it up in lots of ways, playing to one’s heart’s content.

And I hope your heart is content.  However, I think your hands should have something useful to offer as well.  The next image will take us back into the mists of time to when people made things by hand.  Or back to memories of kindergarten.  Same thing.  Children are savages.  But they can teach us all the savage pleasures, such as crayoning and drawing for the pure joy of it.

So, next post.  The plot thickens.  Remember, we’re on a journey looking for “real art.”