Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Painter, The Painting, The Paint

As I have mentioned at various times, I spend a fair amount of time on Tumblr, mostly because I follow a lot of art-based blogs, and I like the way that each day my right brain gets massaged by what shows up on my dashboard. Re-posting the ones that speak to me has also allowed my to put together my own digital art archive which now includes more than 11,000 works. While I enjoy the process of scanning, selecting, tagging, and posting these works, one thing I have been more or less constantly aware of is that while I've been going very broad I haven't been going very deep. I haven't spent as much time inside any of the works I've posted as they deserve.

So tonight I thought I'd just pick a few and stay with them for a while. Three seemed like a nice round number, and one that offered hope that I would be able to find something to say about them individually and collectively without writing myself into the middle of next week.

So here's Number One:

I have come rather late to an appreciation of Matisse. Rembrandt and Picasso and Renoir and Van Gogh I heard about when I was a kid. I never heard much about Matisse. But over the last few years I have come to love Matisse and to appreciate his freshness, his daring, his individualism. He combines a child's willingness to just play with terrific innate sense of design and color. And he was just amazingly prolific. I keep running across "new" pieces by him that I didn't know existed, like "Anemones au Miroir Noir." Compositionally this is a very clean and simple picture: a tabletop, a vase of flowers, a mirror. It's got basic shapes, mostly squares and circles, that echo each other, and a limited set of colors —black, white, red, green, gold—that highlight and emphasize each other. It's composed, it's elegant, and it is, at least to my eyes, extraordinarily beautiful. It's a celebration of the beauty of the simplest things. I like how the brushwork is rough and gestural rather than slick and precise; it calls to our attention that this is not just about the flowers, it's about seeing the flowers and rendering the flowers, it's about the paint as well as the painting.

Number Two:

Diebenkorn is another painter I came to late. He's best known, of course, for his big abstracts like the ones in the Ocean Park series, which I love as well. But he has a lot of earlier paintings that straddle the line between representation on the one side and interesecting planes of color on the other. This is a pretty straightforward interior still life: a book on a table, a chair, a wall, a window, the sky. As in the Matisse, there is a kind of deliberate roughness about the rendering of the objects that invites us to look through the objects to the geometrical layout: the four horizontal bands of color and the smaller eco-zones within each band. Look at the swirling orange and blue on the right hand side of the tabletop, the way the scumbling colors on the pages of the book create their own center of interest, the lurid sky in the background and the weird reflected light in the room, the startling and yet satisfying reds on the wall just above the tabletop. Again, this is a painter in love with paint. It's not something to be seen through, it's something to be seen and tasted.

Number Three:

Here's a wild card. It's typical of what often shows up on Tumblr, in addition to classic works by "major" artists: amazing pictures by artists most of us have never heard of. "Interior with Opera Cloak" by Scottish painter Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell is another compositional marvel. You can start looking pretty much anywhere in the painting and be led by the colors into the implied space and back out again. Start by looking at the cloak, and follow the red elements back up and to the right to the wall and then up and to the right to the window, which upon closer examination is actually a reflection in a mirror. We thought we were moving away, but we're being led back out. Or follow the lush green of the door back to the green seats of the chairs back further to the green vertical panel at the very heart of the picture, bathed in the light that also falls on the rug leading us back out of the room, where we find ourselves looking again at the chair and the cloak. Or consider the vertical blue stripe in the back, which enforces the contrast with the reds and the greens, but also frames and highlights the figure on the corner of the mantel, which directs us to look at the whole mantel, which leads our eye back out again toward the door, and calls our attention to the faintest echo of blue on the edge of the doorsill behind the green door. The whole composition invites us to come in, move around, keep looking. Keep looking and you start noticing yet other things: the golden rectangle of the crown molding at the top of the wall in the back, and how it echoes and pushes our eye toward the red rectangle on the right, which encourages us to start following the trail of rectangles: the mantel again, the horizontal panels on the door which more or less bisect the composition. There is a kind of magic here in the way that the two-dimensional plane of the picture becomes an inviting and inhabitable three-dimensional space.

Why these three? What do they have in common? Well, in each of them, there is a there there, a space suggested by the arrangement of paint on surface. (This may seem obvious, a given, but I think it's not, at least not any longer.) They're each compositionally elegant in completely different ways.  Each of the artists has a highly individual and recognizable way of working. If I were to post three more pictures, one by each, it would not be hard to match them up. 

I could go on, either by looking again at each of these, or by choosing others. But this is perhaps enough for one night. Three down, 11,138 to go.

Tumblr links: Matisse, Diebenkorn, Cadell

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