Hands On


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.