Yellow Snow


In the previous post I complained about the Carolina snowfall that has intruded upon my travel plans.  I had contemplated the possibility of making a picture of the snow  à la Monet, but gosh darn it, even looking at the stuff from the window makes me cold.  Then I fell upon this very modern idea.  And it’s partly a tribute to my Ellsworth Kelly fans since it’s just a rectangle filled with one color, and I know they like that sort of thing.  Yet, it has meaning too for those who still want a little narrative in their art.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you with my latest work: “Yellow Snow.”

It’s certainly faster and easier to do this Ellsworth Kelly inspired art, I gotta tell you.  Think how much more trouble it would be to follow Monet’s example (below from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris), to say nothing of how it might freeze my delicate toes.


Still I am very grateful to how the Ellsworth Kelly folks boost my stats.  Thank you!

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Denouement of the Little Squares



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



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


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.

Find picture here.

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.

Square Made More Complicated


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.”

Teachable Moment


In the previous post I revisited my complaint about Ellsworth Kelly, who is representative, who perhaps even exemplifies, the false art that has become a staple of contemporary museums and university art history programs.  It has dawned on me over night that this topic brings with it the potential of a teachable moment.  So, I have decided to launch a kind of anti-Ellsworth project here, which can begin with Ellsworth (a topic that brings many viewers to this blog) but which leads toward what I hope can be a more fulfilling and genuine encounter with a living, everyday art.  Since I’ve always felt that one should begin wherever one finds oneself, I will begin this “tour” for the Ellsworth visitors with an Ellsworth Kelly-like idea.  Perhaps other readers may find something fun and useful in it as well.

So.  I was at Lowe’s hardward store this morning, and seeing the paint sample display I thought naturally enough about Ellsworth Kelly, my blog and my previous arguments.  Having already told readers that they could do their own “Kelly” pictures quite as easy as pie using hardward store paint samples, I decided to grab a bunch and do it myself!  Hardware stores are devoted to the “do-it-yourself” ethic, so it seemed entirely ripe and just and good to apply this ethic to art — even to the High Museum Art.  Let the art world learn something from the world at large, I say.

Above is the first result.  I took the squares and placed them side by side.  You can compare them with the Kelly image that I first posted here.  This one has fewer squares, they are all colored squares with no white or black spaces.  I arranged them quickly in what struck me as a pleasing harmony.  This pattern is more “raw” in comparison to Kelly’s chessboard-like image.  But then, I was in a hurry and felt that spontaneity has its own virtues.  Mine has shadows and messy elements of things not lining up perfectly.  I think they lend it character.

You can do the same thing, obviously.  In subsequent posts, I will complicate this project.

Creativity verses Ellsworth Kelly


Vincent Van Gogh, back when he was a nobody, wrote eloquently about the dangers of putting over much confidence in “names” in art.  He was prescient.  Today the official art of the museums consists almost entirely of names — which is to say that the contemporary objects on display do not necessary strike a visual person as being particularly interesting to look at, yet we are urged to accept the objects as the highest forms of art.  And it strikes me as significant that the chief selling points of the objects is that they are purportedly made by “important” artists of our era, who are usually people that we’ve never heard of.

A certain kind of art is plausible only for audiences that possess a university degree.  No farmer from either Missouri or Bangladesh is likely to be persuaded that a uniform grouping of various colored squares is important to look at or to contemplate.  However, the same inartistic farmer might be very moved by the extraordinary skill evident in something like the precise rendering of forms found in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

It’s obvious in the case of the uniform squares that anyone could produce a similar effect and equally obvious in the case of the Leonardo that one is seeing something rare, difficult, meaningful, enigmatic and skillfully made.

I’m discovering from my blog stats that a surprising number of people are visiting here specifically in search of information about Ellsworth Kelly, since my one previous post on the man has garnered the most traffic of any of my posts!  (Sigh.)  I’m guessing that these unknown visitors are students from classes in contemporary art, come hunting perhaps for useful quotes or information.

To demonstrate my willingness to be helpful, let me refer you to a video on Youtube of an interview with the not terribly interesting and now elderly artist.

The problem of Ellsworth Kelly, which needs to be explained only to educated people and never to farmers from Missouri or Bangladesh, is that he isn’t really doing anything.  It ought to be perfectly obvious, but your college professor is standing there telling you that the man is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and meanwhile perhaps you don’t possess the highest confidence in your own powers of visualization.  But you are being duped.  I’m sorry that there’s no kinder way to phrase it.

Ellsworth Kelly is a classic case of “what you see is what you get.”  His canvases are plain shapes painted different colors and hung on museum walls.  Anyone, however, can get their image on a museum wall these days.  At the top of the post I feature a lovely scene where my painting Lattice shares space with Joan Mitchell abstractions in an enormous exhibit at MOMA.  Lattice really holds its own, don’t you think?  And look how bravely the guard protects my painting, too ….

It would take a long post to explain what art does that Kelly does not do.  The range of things that genuinely comprise what art is includes a great variety of images and objects.  But certainly one short cut to a definition of art in purely practical terms is that it equals something that matters in your own life.  If my readers find genuine meaning in Ellsworth Kelly, if they look at his colored surfaces and find rapture, well far be it from me to dissuade them from whatever works.  But the more visually alert a person is, the more of sensibility that one possesses — whatever intuition of nuance and mood and evocative power stirred by seeing the ordinary objects of common living experience, the images that draw out our deepest feelings and thoughts — these are not, I think, found in his spare fabrications.

They are squares.  That’s what they are.  Somebody tell the professor.  But don’t believe me.  Believe Van Gogh who diagnosed this problem over a hundred years ago.  It’s the worship of “names,”  though even that doesn’t quite explain it in Kelly’s case. Here, it’s the odd worship of nothing.

I first discussed Kelly here.

What if

      A thoughtful reader has challenged me to offer a more particular definition of what I consider “junk.”  And in time I will try to do so, because having raised the issue myself, I ought to be willing to face it squarely.  But until such time, I would refer readers to the previous post where I criticize the work of Ellsworth Kelly, who I put forth as representative of the artist-as-charlatan.  I do so boldly from the sense that Mr. Kelly himself is unlikely to stumble upon my remarks and is therefore in little danger of having his feelings hurt.  Or, even if he were to read them — “famous” as he has become, he cannot expect everyone to gush about what he does.  Obviously he has critics, as assuredly he’s aware.  If one cannot take the heat (as we all know), one has the admonition to stay out of the kitchen.  Right?

Now then, to more pressing concerns:  self-confidence.  What about the artist who fears that his own works are junk?  What about the over-fastitious individual who cannot accept the merits of what he does, who is overly critical, who is perhaps crippled by a sense of failure?  Sometimes highly talented people — just the sort who we’d expect to be “great” artists, are of this type.  So what about them?

Van Gogh had perhaps the best answer when he said, “if you hear a voice telling you you cannot paint, then paint My Boy, and that voice will be silenced.”  Van Gogh heard that voice.  He fought that voice, which sounded in his own head.  The paintings he left — in their great beauty and brightness — are the answers he gives us. 

The cure for a lack of confidence is work.  Just do it.


Less than perfect

If I were giving a prize for the most overrated artist in history, it would be Ellsworth Kelly, who in truth deserves not to be rated at all for his oeuvre is painted in the purest snake oil.  (For an interesting opposing view click here.) Chief among his vices is pretentiousness, for if Mr. Kelly is an artist then so is the person who lays out the paint cards at Home Depot’s paint section.  Indeed, I would argue that the latter work is more fulfilling since one) it’s interactive and two) you can take the little cards home and arrange them to your heart’s delight for free.

However, more than one friend has said to me, “I hate it when somebody sees a work of art and says, ‘I could do that.'”  My feeling in sharp contrast is a great sigh of pleasure in the candour of the remark.  Yes, anyone could do that.  So true.  Moreover, I feel that when anyone can do a thing — supposing the thing has value — one should probably just do it oneself.  If Mr. Kelly does this on our behalf, mind you, I’m perfectly content to pay him a decent wage not to exceed whatever they’re paying the guy at Home Depot.  But if I am supposed to pretend that his achievement is equal to, say, Rembrandt’s or the Rohan Master’s or Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s then, no.  I will not play that game.  My own painting is far superior to Mr. Kelly’s and I make no bones about it.

I can do what he does — easily.  He cannot do what I do.  Not at all.  (Let him try!)

Kelly is a cheap Matisse knock off.  (Whew, it feels good to get that off my chest.)

UPDATE:  A second post on Ellsworth Kelly can be found here.

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