Making Paintings

Stuart Davis The Mellow Pad

Stuart Davis
The Mellow Pad

I’ve always had trouble making abstract art.  I admire the ability, but it’s difficult for me to overcome the delight I feel when I capture a likeness or represent what I see.  For me, abstraction isn’t easier than representation (the “my kid coulda done that” school of thought), it’s harder.

I love creating the illusion of space and depth on a two-dimensional plane.  Some abstract artists embrace the same challenge, and some work hard to avoid making any allusions to the natural world.

Jackson Pollock Number 8

Jackson Pollock
Number 8

In my second-year seminar class last week we read articles about Alfred Stieglitz, the ground-breaking New York Armory Show of 1913, and several of the artists working then. Not all artists are good writers (of course, not all writers are good painters), but Stuart Davis, a painter from that period explained abstraction in a way that makes the most sense to me.

Stuart Davis Swing Landscape

Stuart Davis
Swing Landscape

In his article, “Autobiography” (included in Diane Kelder’s collection Stuart Davis – Praeger Press, 1971), Davis discussed why he hated when viewers asked what his paintings were “about”.

“There is no simple answer to these pesky questions because in reality they are not questions about art at all.  They are in fact demands that what the artist feels and explicitly expresses in his work be translated into ideas that omit the very quality of emotion that is the sole reason for its being.”

He goes on, “In the first place let me say that the purpose of so-called “abstract” art is basically the same as all other art, and that it always has a subject matter.  In fact the difference between ‘abstract’ and ‘realistic’ art is precisely one of subject matter.  It would be more accurate to say that it is a difference of aspects of the same subject matter. The ‘abstract’ artist lives in the same world as everybody else and the subject matter available to him is the same.”

“…But the development of ‘abstract’ art has not been merely a matter of temperaments.  It is the reflection in art of that attitude of mind manifested in scientific materialism by which the world lives today.  Through science the whole concept of what reality is has been changed….  why should the artist be questioned for finding new realities in his subject matter?”

Stephen Maine HP12 - 0301

Stephen Maine
HP12 – 0301

Or perhaps in Hamlet’s words,

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your Philosophy.”


My seminar class is taught by the wonderful abstract painter (and writer) Stephen Maine ( Here he is in an interview with Gorky’s Granddaughter discussing his paintings and his process.  If I could paint like he does, I might give up reality, too.


The Ubiquitous Celebrity of Lenin

The Propeller Group Monumental Bling

The Propeller Group
Monumental Bling

In a lovely example of synchronicity, I am suddenly surrounded by Vladimir Ilich Lenin.  When he was alive, being surrounded by him was rarely lovely, I believe.

First there are the readings for this week’s Seminar – about the Russian   Constructivists, Kasimir Malevich, and the government-directed art produced in Russia after the Revolution and World War I.

Lenin as Jay Gatsy

Lenin as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby

Secondly, as I was hopping the galleries this afternoon I ran into Lombard Freid Gallery at 518 West 19th Street (  Their new show by The Propeller Group is titled Lived, Lives, Will Live! which is based on a quotation from Kim Il Sung (founding dictator of North Korea) who said, “Lenin lived.  Lenin lives. Lenin Will Live.”

The exhibition shows Lenin as he might be viewed today – wearing bling, trying on new hairdos a la Leonardo diCaprio, and riding high on the global spin machine. Everything old is new again.

Lenin as Jack Dawson in Titanic

Lenin as Jack Dawson in Titanic

Which leads me to synchronicity part 3: the fact that I am just finishing rereading one of my favorite books: Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson.  This is the fascinating story of the decades-long job of the Zbarsky family to preserve Lenin’s body so that it could remain on display to the public. Their own lives were dependent upon pleasing Stalin for years, and then ironically they had to preserve Stalin (and Mao) as well.  Lenin is still on view in the former Red Square in the former Leningrad, but Kruschev had Stalin removed in disgrace and buried in 1961.

Lenin's body on display almost 90 years after his death.

Lenin’s body on display almost 90 years after his death.

Imagine going to Graceland and being able to see Elvis displayed in a glass coffin. After the creepy frisson down your spine, it might be kind of cool, in a Walking Dead kind of way.

I recommend The Propeller Group exhibition.  It is a very clever take on publicity, fame, and the kind of celebrity that lives on after death.  (Think Marilyn, or Ho Chi Minh – whose body is also preserved).

If you can afford a team of scientists working around the clock, year after year, just think of the wonderful legacy you too can leave.

Open Season on Art

There is enough brilliant and exciting art in New York to fill every gallery from floor to ceiling.  Which is not the same thing as saying that all New York galleries are full of brilliant and exciting art.  They are not.

Mike Womack Observer Effect Installation View

Mike Womack
Observer Effect
Installation View

Saturday was a beautiful day, and several friends and I went gallery hopping in Chelsea.  We visited five or six galleries and saw bad paintings, bad videos, and bad sculpture.

Mike Womack Hypnosis Drawing #9 (Earliest Memory of Pain)

Mike Womack
Hypnosis Drawing #9 (Earliest Memory of Pain)

But we also saw Mike Womack’s exhibition Observer Effect at Ziehersmith (516 West 20th Street), which was truly stunning.  Mr. Womack has cast concrete around his own drawings so that only the edges of the paper remain to be seen by the viewer.  This is very provoking in the best possible way.  What might the drawings be about?  Why are they hidden?  Do they relate to the shapes in which they are encased?  Why would an artist make work and then make sure no one can see it?

Mike Womack Hypnosis Drawing #15 (Earliest Memory of Drawing)

Mike Womack
Hypnosis Drawing #15 (Earliest Memory of Drawing)

The concrete and wood forms remain wholly visible, and are interesting enough on their own to hold our attention.  One never forgets, however, that each one is also an art tomb.  That makes the crucifix-shaped installation even more poignant.  What vision died here?

Mike Womack Hypnosis Drawing #3 (Earliest Memory of My Mother)

Mike Womack
Hypnosis Drawing #3 (Earliest Memory of My Mother)

The press release for the show (read it on the way out, NOT the way in) gives a very specific description of the process through which Mr. Womack made his pieces, and why.  It’s quite compelling (and you can see it on the gallery website but I think I prefer making up my own stories.  Go to this show and then let me know what you think.

Sol LeWitt Untitled (gouache)

Sol LeWitt
Untitled (gouache)

The other exhibition that grabbed me on Saturday was Sol LeWitt.  He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite dead artists.  Perhaps it’s because he’s ubiquitous, although that could work equally against him.  Right now there’s a huge LeWitt installation at Paula Cooper Gallery at 534 West 21st, and it’s very worth the walk to see LeWitt’s preliminary gouaches and the final enormous work to which they led (originally completed for the 1988 Venice Biennale).  You can admire his mastery of color, as I did, and then wish you lived in an apartment big enough to install his work, as I also did.

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed

Sol LeWitt
Wall Drawing #564: Complex forms with color ink washes superimposed

That would cost you $1.2 million, and rumor has it that’s just for the plans, not including the actual painting.

If the art in the galleries was always bad, I would stop going.  It is not.  There is always at least one magical piece, or one independently creative new artist who is worth seeing.  Just when I think I am out, they pull me back in.

Still Crazy After All These Years

Low Tide - Old Saybrook

Low Tide – Old Saybrook

I spent a large part of last week and the Labor Day weekend back in my Connecticut home town, relaxing a little before the start of the new school year.  It was wonderful to catch up with my family, to turn off my work email, and to do almost nothing productive. But I did stop in at my undergraduate art school, Lyme Academy, to view the current alumni and student exhibits, and I was struck both by the quality of the art and how different it is from what I see in New York.

Jack Broderick's La Boca

Jack Broderick’s
La Boca

Lyme Academy teaches the skills needed to produce representational and figurative art. At the School of Visual Arts where I’m getting my M.F.A., skills are rarely discussed, and aside from a few of us diehards the students are not producing representational work.  It’s all abstract, and conceptual, and performance, and video.

Alex Cox Untitled

Alex Cox

When I’m in Old Lyme, my heart sings to see blue shadows cross nude figures and then climb up the wall.  When I’m in New York, I respond to pain and ugliness in art.  In Connecticut I will spend two or three hours drawing the random still life on the coffee table – emphasizing light and dark, perfecting the ovals that represent circles in perspective, and working very hard to achieve a likeness of my subject matter.  There is no such thing as too much time spent drawing the label on a Poland Springs bottle.

Andrea Anderson's Max Thompson Chevy

Andrea Anderson’s
Max Thompson Chevy

But in New York I draw with my left hand to achieve an unattractive immediacy. Everything is faster and uglier.

One of my New York pieces   with an unquotable title.  At 8 months old, it is due for urban renewal.

One of my New York pieces with an unprintable title. At 8 months old, it is due for urban renewal.

So after this weekend, I finally get it.  Rural coastal Connecticut is full of the seascapes and portraits that are made by artists who know in their bones that life hasn’t changed much in fifty years, and is unlikely to change much in the next fifty.  The tide will always take six hours to go out and another six to come in.  It is possible to paint on the beach for hours and not see more than a dozen people, at least once school starts.

Still low tide in Old Saybrook

Still low tide in Old Saybrook

But in New York, a 20-year-old building is considered old and ripe for tear-down. Walking people regularly race cabs at intersections because they’re in such a hurry. There are beggars on half of the corners I pass.  My realizations aren’t new or profound. You have just to look at Andrew Wyeth versus the Abstract Expressionists, or Edward Hopper lighthouses versus Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.  Where we live and work greatly affects what we make.

I guess my question now is whether it’s possible to go beyond back-and-forth and actually integrate what’s happening in the various art worlds. There is pain in small-town New England, just as there is great beauty in the city.  But am I a good enough artist to show you?