Unreal Nature

January 19, 2017

With Thorny Points

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… the treatment of edges, corners, and directions; its angularities, its coloring …

This is from Vincent Van Gogh by Meyer Schapiro (2003). After a biographical synopsis, Schapiro does close readings of single pictures. Here he’s writing about L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux) painted in 1888. Please note that the online reproductions I can find all have the red book looking very orange:

L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux), 1888

… Astonishing and risky is the idea of bringing within one frame the portrait of an individual in reverie and the powerful pattern of extreme contrasts of hues, lights and darks, and intensities. As we fix upon it, the yellowish background, of which the face is a pallid reduction in color, begins to swallow up the portrait. (This ecstatic yellow, which darkens the image of the woman, perhaps sublimates a hidden eroticism.)

[line break added] But in the opposed dark blue of the costume and hair — a daring identity — are contained the strongest and most refined forces of characterization: the irregular silhouette with thorny points, unexpected little projections that belong with the fine breaks produced in the outline of the face by the eyelash and the nose. This dark blue mass is contrasted with the glowing yellow around it and the subdued, bleached, green-whiteness that it encloses. The dark green table supporting the figure in turn encloses that light greenness in the pages of the open book, a yellow like the background, and an intense vermilion, which refers us to the chair and the little touches of red on the face and the fichu.

[line break added] This fresh, un-Japanese still life of the books is of a particular beauty and originality, very refined in the treatment of edges, corners, and directions; its angularities, its coloring, are perfectly integrated with the larger masses above. After the shock of intense heat and stark contrasts, we perceive subtle relationships, a most interestingly broken, whimsical, changing silhouette, and inspired juxtapositions of object forms and reserved ground forms.

[line break added] A little detail that reveals van Gogh’s artistic tendency: the resemblance of the inclined dark yellow arm of the chair to the slanting spot of yellow in the background under the sitter’s right arm. Because of too rapid painting — the picture was “slashed on in an hour,” according to van Gogh — the work has suffered; the surface is deformed by numerous cracks and scaling.

My most recent previous post from Schapiro’s book is here.




January 18, 2017

An Aesthetic Idea Has Nothing to Do with Final Results

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:40 am

Evans’s pictures were more likely to [his words] “call attention to the seriousness in certain small things” and “the emptiness of certain large things.”

This is from ‘Walker Evans in 1946/Labor Anonymous’ by Jerry L. Thompson found in Labor Anonymous: Walker Evans edited by Thomas Zander (2016):

Evans was in part a “puritan explorer,” a “disembodied burrowing eye” (Kirstein’s phrase) in search of a vision of his country. This searching for a vision indicates a certain kind of ambition — a literary ambition, one as grand as that expressed by a character created by Evans’s idol James Joyce: Stephen Dedalus, who aspires “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

But Evans was not only a visionary explorer of his own country; he was also an artist (however he understood that mysterious, even holy term), a creature with special powers liable to come into play anytime, in front of any subject, even at moments when he didn’t happen to be holding a camera. At such moments, immediate sensuous experience — the ravishing physical presence of some beautiful (to him, at that moment) thing — became, for him, the only thing, the only thing in the world that mattered.

Evans’s susceptibility to immediate sensuous experience was not merely a cosmopolitan dandy’s preference for beautiful, stylish things — good pictures, tasteful furniture, pretty women, etc. His relationship with the beautiful was of another order — not merely stronger, but also different in kind: his love of the things that attracted him was deep, urgent, and terrible.

… An aesthetic idea has nothing to do with final results: it is indeterminate, endlessly stimulating rather than tending toward closure, infinite rather than conclusive. When a scientist examines a rose, he tells us what it is and how it works. When a poet looks at a rose, he might focus on its color, on its scent, on the brevity of its life, on its beauty, on its fragility, on its thorns, on the unimportance of its name, on repeating that name three times in a row.

[line break added] The artist sees a thing (and shows it to us) in a way that prompts associations, worlds of imaginative thinking “animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations” — kindred representations means the stuff of metaphor: related, if unexpected, concepts as well as images — “stretching beyond its [the mind’s] ken” — that is, beyond the range of the normal, rational thinking we use when we consider roses in an everyday, nonpoetic way.

… When we today review Evans’s situation in 1946, we think like art historians assessing a career we understand as a shaped whole, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We think of the great “decade of the thirties,” watch it turn into the quieter “decade of the forties,” and anticipate his resurgent reputation following the reissue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1960, after Agee’s death.

[line break added] But Evans in 1946 was no more aware of the “shape of his career” than he was of Agee’s death in 1955 and of the effect that death would have on his “career.” What he did have, as a constant, was the mark he bore, his identity as an artist, his need to treat everything he encountered in the visible world as a possible occasion to exercise who he was.

[line break added] To a cultural historian, nothing Evans did afterward can compare with the comprehensive magnificence of prints made from the detailed 8×10 negatives he made of long views of the Delaware Valley, southern towns, and rural churches. For Evans the artist, a gutter full of trash glimpsed at his feet (and snapped with his Leica) as he waited to cross a Manhattan street excited him just as much. He told the Time reporters in 1947:

After 20-odd years of work I still have great difficulty maintaining enough calm to operate well, at moments when some sort of perfection is in sight.

He had the same difficulty when I watched him work twenty-five years after that. When “some sort of perfection” (he also called it “my subject”) was in sight, everything else — parking rules, the daily schedule, doctor’s appointments, his characteristic politeness, even his valued personal dignity — ceased to exist, for the moment, as the perfection was embraced, the subject recorded, the brightly colored bit of trash collected from the pavement by a slow, stooping bend of a frail, stiff body.

Walker Evans, Trash #3, New York City,  ~1962-67

… Unlike much of the photojournalism published in magazines such as Life, Evans’s pictures of the American scene were as likely to confound s to gratify a reader’s expectations. Pictures published in Life tended to show the reader/viewer what he expected to see: soldiers are heroic; country doctors are noble, if exhausted; movie stars are glamorous; etc. Evans’s pictures were more likely to [his words] “call attention to the seriousness in certain small things” and “the emptiness of certain large things.”




January 17, 2017

A Check As Well As a Stimulus

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… In non-figurative art it is the reality, the presence, of the painting itself that has to fulfill this function [… ] of firing and resisting our imagination so that our relationship with the work always remains reciprocal.

This is from ‘English Abstract Art’ (1957) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… it is precisely a dependence upon the picturesque that is the flaw in British abstract painting of the free, painterly kind — its dependence upon vague poetic allusion rather than the properties of painting as such. If the specimens of ‘painterly non-figuration’ — to use the neat term with which Alloway covers Tachism, Abstract Expressionism and Abstract Impressionism in the catalogue — are compared with the work of Americans such as Pollock, Rothko, Kline, Motherwell, Tomlin, Still, they strike us as peculiarly lacking in physical substance, physical presence, in a word, concreteness.

[line break added] They do not hold the wall, they float, they melt away as we look at them, do not affirm their physical reality as canvases covered with paint. We have the impression that, whereas the Americans have improvised on their canvases with the positive and unafraid intention of turning those canvases into live things, for these British painters improvisation has meant playing about with paint on the assumption that if they go on long enough something is bound to turn up, the something being some vague poetic suggestion.

The difference is not between a poetic art and an art which has physical presence and no soul: it is the difference between an art which relies on evoking things outside itself, an art that is somehow transparent, and an art which evokes other things only when it has firmly and decisively established its own reality. By the same token, the difference is not between a subtle art of tenuous suggestion, a shifting, ambiguous art, and an art of simple positive statements: it is the difference between an art that is all ethereal echo and an art in which there is something there to shift, something to be ambiguous about.

[line break added] None of our English paintings are more subtly pale and evanescent than Mark Rothko’s, but the Rothkos have the decisive reality of a rock-fact: they could scarcely be more transparent in texture, or more opaque in effect. Sam Francis, on the other hand, gets Rothko’s subtle paleness but not his concreteness, and this may explain why he is so much more highly esteemed in England than in America.

Sam Francis, Untitled (SF56-003), 1956

… ‘It must be recalled that a picture — before it is a picture of a battle horse, nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a plane surface covered by paints arranged in a certain order’ [Maurice Denis]. The basic assumption of modern art — I speak of the major trends, those related to Matisse, Bonnard, Braque, Picasso, Soutine, Klee, Mondrian — is that the first concern of a work of art is to present a configuration of shapes and colors and marks which in and of itself stimulates and satisfies, and that only after this condition has been fulfilled can the subtlety of observation, the depth of human feeling and insight, the moral grandeur, expressed in the work, have validity: before the work conveys reality it must achieve its own reality, before it can be a symbol it must rejoice in being a fact, and the more it affirms its autonomous reality the more will it contain the possibility of returning us to the reality of life.

American-type painting is simply the extreme logical conclusion of this doctrine: its credo is the Denis definition shorn of its last words, ‘arranged in a certain order.’ For the earlier consequences of the idea of art formulated by Denis were forms of art in which the order of the work was too obviously emphasized. In answer to the schematic rhythms of Cubism and its offshoots, American-type painting has shown that the picture can have a life and presence of its own without having to look like ‘flat, colored architecture’ (to use an expression of Juan Gris’s): it only has to look like paint on canvas.

[line break added] Furthermore, American-type painting implies that, just as a painting does not have to depend for its vitality on resembling pre-existing phenomena, neither does it have to depend on conforming with any pre-existing canon of order. Its order as well as its subject matter can be evolved in the act of painting, for the ultimate reality lies in painting.

And in this kind of abstract painting, it is only after the reality of the picture itself has been established that its evocation — of states of feeling, of sensations remembered and half-remembered — have meaning and point. [By contrast] British paintings of this kind are like coals in the fire or cloud-formation or damp-stains on the wall — they are not seen in themselves, they merely serve to stimulate the fantasy of the spectator. In a sense, they do not begin to be works of art, for the work of art must offer a resistance to the spectator’s fantasy, a check as well as a stimulus.

[line break added] In figurative art the reality, the presence, of the object represented has this dual function of firing and resisting our imagination so that our relationship with the work always remains reciprocal, does not become a one-way traffic into daydreaming. In non-figurative art it is the reality, the presence, of the painting itself that has to fulfill this function.

Sam Francis, Untitled (SF78-255), 1978

Note that Sam Francis’s work is exemplary of what does not meet Sylvester’s description of strong American non-figurative art.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.




January 16, 2017

In This Way, Nothing Is Left Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:35 am

… “Do not form habits. You do not possess a way. You do not possess a style. You have nothing finally but some ‘mysterious’ urge — to use the stuff — the matter.”

These first bits are from ‘The Figurable’ by Achille Bonito Oliva found in Go Figure! New Perspectives on Guston edited by Peter Benson Miller (2014):

… A gesture of sane discretion attends to Guston’s work, which does not dramatize the encounter, nor does it attenuate it; if anything, it makes visible a figurative, precarious, and problematic possibility: the figurable.

… In the work there exists the double requirement of art to assert itself and to bear witness to the world. In this way, nothing is left out.

Next is from ‘Guston and Central Europe: On Germany’s Response to Guston’s Work’ by Christoph Schreier:

… “Bad Painting” offers a disrespectful and cheeky criticism of all the utopian claims formulated by modernism. Against modernism’s pictorial dogma aiming for clarity and purity of expression, the proponents of “Bad Painting” — be it Picabia, Polke, Jorn, or Schnabel — cultivate an aesthetics of calculated stylistic inconsistencies and breaches of taboo (not excluding the ugly). Even if one prefers not to subsume Guston in these categories, his own art is also one big settling of accounts with modernism’s holy cows: consistency, purity of style, and refinement.

[line break added] Accordingly, in a famous statement directed against the purity laws of Clement Greenberg, he pleads for “impure painting”: “There is something ridiculous in the myth we inherit from abstract art: that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself. … But painting is impure. It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity.”

Hence, purity of style and artistic accomplishment are being replaced by a painterly process that cannot be controlled by the artist, one that lacks a clear aim. In this sense, all that remains for the artist is, and here I quote Guston again, “the nervousness of the maker [ … ] — very little else. [That’s why I tell myself] do not make laws. Do not form habits. You do not possess a way. You do not possess a style. You have nothing finally but some ‘mysterious’ urge — to use the stuff — the matter.”

[line break added] This sounds “dark,” perhaps also a little resigned, but it can also be understood as a plea for artistic freedom that has broken free of dogmas. This is at least how Guston’s attitude was understood by a younger generation of artists active since the 1980s. These artists no longer want to follow any stylistic precepts and have left behind the battle of the isms of twentieth-century art. They paint without a “concrete image in their head,” as Albert Oehlen said, and appreciate therefore the openness of Guston’s work.

Albert Oehlen, Born To Be Late, 2001

It is for this reason that Guston is “one of my favorite painter,” according to Oehlen, who began to paint in the year of Guston’s death and who is among the most important artists of his generation in Germany. This esteem manifests itself, as I said above, not in stylistic emulation but in “the eros of impurity and of provocation” that guides Oehlen’s creative work. He describes it in a definition of painting that could have been uttered by Guston: “I think that the formal burden and pestering that a work of art can endure defines its dignity.

[line break added] Also in the sense of blotchiness. And this blotchiness means openness.” What this means on an artistic level is illustrated by Oehlen’s art that moves between crude figuration and “post-non-figurative” (Oehlen’s term), but it might also be visualized in a single picture, such as Born to be Late. It defines itself as a mixture of different imagistic languages, as a sensual playing field of painting in which the gestural and the geometric, the formless and the formlike, the abstract and the figurative blend into each other.

[line break added] Does Oehlen thus draw conclusions from Guston’s work? This thesis certainly seems a little audacious, but Guston counts without question as one of the precursors of this “impure,” undogmatic painting. It ensures for Guston a topicality in discussions of art that one cannot concede unconditionally to Pollock and Newman. While Pollock’s furor and Newman’s spirituality appear somewhat aged, Guston’s works document a freshness of artistic expression from which young and younger generations of artists can still draw inspiration.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




January 15, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… The individual must become answerable through and through …

This is from Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (1990):

A whole is called “mechanical” when its constituent elements are united only in space and time by some external connection and are not imbued with the internal unity of meaning. The parts of such a whole are contiguous and touch each other, but in themselves they remain alien to each other.

The three domains of human culture — science, art, and life — gain unity only in the individual person who integrates them into his own unity. This union, however, may become mechanical, external. And, unfortunately, that is exactly what most often happens. The artist and the human being are naively, most often mechanically, united in one person; the human being leaves “the fretful cares of everyday life” and enters for a time the realm of creative activity as another world, a world of “inspiration, sweet sounds, and prayers” [Pushkin].

[line break added] And what is the result? Art is too self-confident, audaciously self-confident, and too high-flown, for it is in no way bound to answer for life. And, of course, life has no hope of ever catching up with art of this kind. “That’s too exalted for us” — says life. “That’s art, after all! All we’ve got is the humble prose of living.”

When a human being is in art, he is not in life, and conversely. There is no unity between them and no inner interpenetration within the unity of an individual person.

But what guarantees the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person? Only the unity of answerability. I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life. But answerability entails guilt, or liability to blame. It is not only mutual answerability that art and life must assume, but also mutual liability to blame.

[line break added] The poet must remember that it is his poetry which bears the guilt for the vulgar prose of life, whereas the man of everyday life ought to know that the fruitlessness of art is due to his willingness to be unexacting and to the unseriousness of the concerns in his life. The individual must become answerable through and through: all of his constituent moments must not only fit next to each other in the temporal sequence of his life, but must also interpenetrate each other in the unity of guilt and answerability.

Nor will it do to invoke “inspiration” in order to justify want of answerability. Inspiration that ignores life and is itself ignored by life is not inspiration but a state of possession. The true sense, and not the self-proclaimed sense, of all the old arguments about the interrelationship of art and life, about the purity of art, etc. — that is, the real aspiration behind all such arguments — is nothing more than the mutual striving of both art and life to make their own tasks easier, to relieve themselves of their own answerability. For it is certainly easier to create without answering for life, and easier to live without any consideration for art.

Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself — in the unity of my answerability.




January 14, 2017

We Have Been Taught

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:41 am

… We have all been taught, in looking at pictures, to look for too much.

This is from ‘The revision of vision’ by S.I. Hayakawa found in Language of Vision by Gyorgy Kepes (1944):

… we match the data from the flux of visual experience with image-clichés, with stereotypes of one kind or another, according to the way we have been taught to see.

And having matched the data of experience with our abstractions, visual or verbal, we manipulate those abstractions, with or without further reference to the data, and make systems with them. Those systems of abstractions, artefacts of the mind, when verbal, we call “explanations,” or “philosophies”; when visual, we call them our “picture of the world.”

With these little systems in our heads we look upon the dynamism of the events around us, and we find, or persuade ourselves that we find, correspondences between the pictures inside our heads and the world without. Believing those correspondences to be real, we feel at home in what we regard as a “known” world.

… like other instruments, languages select. The thermometer, which speaks one kind of limited language, knows nothing of weight. If only temperature matters and weight does not, what the thermometer “says” is adequate. But if weight, or color, or odor, or factors other than temperature matter, then those factors that the thermometer cannot speak about are the teeth of the trap. Every language, like the language of the thermometer, leaves work undone for other languages to do.

… We attempt to visualize the eventfulness of a universe that is an electrodynamic plenum in the representational clichés evolved at a time when statically conceived isolable “objects” were regarded as occupying positions in an empty and absolute “space.” Visually, the majority of us are still ” ‘object’-minded” and not “relation-minded.” We are the prisoners of ancient orientations imbedded in the languages we have inherited.

The language of vision determines, perhaps even more subtly and thoroughly than verbal languages, the structure of our consciousness. To see in limited modes of vision is not to see at all — to be bounded by the narrowest parochialisms of feeling.

… Purposely depriving us of the easy comfort of all aesthetic stereotypes and interpretative clichés, Mr. Kepes would have us experience vision as vision.

… The vast majority of us — and by us I mean not only those who profess to know something about “art” but also the general public that delights in magazine covers and insurance company calendars and hunting prints and sailboat pictures — are sophisticated by our cultural environment beyond the point where it is possible easily to understand what people like Mr. Kepes are driving at. We have all been taught, in looking at pictures, to look for too much. Something of the quality of a child’s delight in playing with colors and shapes has to be restored to us before we learn to see again, before we unlearn the terms in which we ordinarily see.




January 13, 2017

Marked by a Shadow

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… The ruffled genius might in his acuteness realize that sometimes he fights with that with which he is agreeing, and is like the hour, marked by a shadow which seeming to cut the sun, defines it.

This is from an untitled piece written for The Dial in 1926. It’s found in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore edited by Patricia C. Willis (1986):

To exclude the speciously attractive is difficult. The ideal director of a “zoo,” we are told by Mr. William Hornaday, must at this time when tempted to “take on” mammals, birds and reptiles, be a master in the art of refusing. The avowed artist must also, unless we are to have fads rather than individuality, be an artist in refusing. In each phase of art, interrelated influences of technique are apparent. The writer, however, seems in certain respects, either more pridelessly or more recklessly than others, susceptible to current cleverness.

[line break added] Much as the victim of the fashionable couturier participates in successive epidemics of cut and color — of shutter green, serpent blue, or Venetian fuchsia — of the wet seal coiffure or the powdered wig, the sciolist subscribes to the tyranny of timelessness, of delightful dubiety, of what is acute or effective. Imagism, the hokku [aka haiku], the coon song, the story true-because-I-have-lived-it, a morality of immorality, significantly concocted equine unselfconsciousness, these several modes have found prompt adherents.

There cannot be too much excellence. … [W]e may admire, and the shock of admiration may serve us as an incentive to writing, quite as may that which has been experienced by us; but like the impelling emotion of actual experience, literary excitement must be assimilated before it can be reproduced. Experiences recorded verbatim are not fiction and verbiage is not eloquence. Much may be learned by consciously noting the merits of other writers. Apperception is, however, quite different from a speedy exchange of one’s individuality for that of another.

Next is from anther untitled piece, also from 1926:

… The aesthetic malcontent is out of court, for wherever there is art there is equilibrium — a basic adjustment toward which the most distinguished and the most extinguished works of art alike converge. As we are aware, it is determination with resistance, not determination with resentment, which results in poise. In blindly disparaging another, one shows merely that one envies him his realness and wishes that he were what one says he is.

[line break added] Agitated in the disposing of his own turbulent business as were “the Egyptian sculptors who set themselves problems a little beyond their comfort,” the artist is in a state of profound activity, emerging from darkness into light … unable often to recognize in himself that “summer in December” of which enduring art consists. The ruffled genius might in his acuteness realize that sometimes he fights with that with which he is agreeing, and is like the hour, marked by a shadow which seeming to cut the sun, defines it.

My most recent previous post from Moore’s book is here.




January 12, 2017

Pure Artistic Decision

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… Magnificent in audacity … joyous in its abandon …

This is from Vincent Van Gogh by Meyer Schapiro (2003). After a biographical synopsis, Schapiro does close readings of single pictures. Here he’s writing about Oleanders painted in 1888:

Oleanders, 1888

… Heavy, profuse, fertile, these fragrant flowers are painted with a virile touch in circling strokes and thick parallel dabs, in sharpest contrast to the spiky, entangled green leaves outlined in black — the carriers of another vitality. Opposing and completing this span of reds and greens are the yellow and violet chords of the books, the table shadow, and the jug; between these pairs of complementaries mediates the yellow-green background, a strong note in harmony with both.

[line break added] This is not, however, a system of parceled decorative coloring: in the rich variation, interweaving, and stepping of tones, Oleanders retains the vibrancy and freedom of van Gogh’s landscapes. Pink tones in the flowers approach the color of the table, and their whites, the edge of the book. The purple handle makes a triad with the flowers and the lilac shadow. The yellow band at the neck of the jug reappears as wavy stripes in the bouquet.

[line break added] The green of the leaves reappears in a cooler whitened tone at the base of the jug, and in brusque strokes at the right of the table, but also in the ornament off the jug; and this turquoise note returns unexpectedly among the leaves themselves. The strongest accents of red in the flowers are applied again with great daring along the edge of the table — a pure artistic decision, unmotivated by nature. The lilac shadow is another bold choice, justified by its place between the yellow book, the turquoise and blue-violet vase, and the yellow-green of the background.

[line break added] Striking to modern eyes is the drawing of the two books; odd in perspective, they form a succession of oblong and triangular strips, distinct in texture, which we find again in late cubist designs. Magnificent in audacity beside the carefully drawn leaves is the painting of the table, joyous in its abandon and in the variety of colors and brush strokes. Like most of van Gogh’s still lifes, this one possesses a high luminosity together with an astonishing firmness and tangibility of the objects.

My most recent previous post from Schapiro’s book is here.




January 11, 2017

Their Domain

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… In consistently pressing so close to so many subjects, Evans passes some kind of boundary.

This first is from Heinz Liesbrock speaking in his conversation with Thomas Weski found in Walker Evans: Depth of Field edited by John T. Hill and Heinz Liesbrock (2015):

[ … ]

Heinz Liesbrock: … His visual language is emphatically down-to-earth, and it avoids any formal embellishment. It relies entirely on the direct depiction of things in ambient light conditions. At its core lies an inner aloofness that the artist maintains between himself and people and things. He does not seek to establish an empathetic connection, at least not an obvious one. This detachment is the prerequisite that allows phenomena to emerge with exceptional clarity. The artist never enters their domain; he insists on maintaining his own personal space and exclusively follows his own artistic ideas.

Compare that to this, from the essay ‘A “last lap around the track”: Sings and SX-70s’ by Jerry L. Thompson in the same book:


… In the summer of 1973 [when Evans was 70 years old; two years before his death] a technical discovery allowed Evans to harness the energy building up as a result of the various themes attracting him — color, trash, weathering, lettered signs. He discovered a new color camera, the Polaroid SX-70, a tool that promised both directness and immediacy. The camera was small, easy to hold and carry, and had few controls.

[line break added] Its operator had only to look through a large, bright, easy-to-use (even while wearing glasses) viewfinder; focus (by means of a convenient ribbed wheel operated by a single finger); and press the button. The camera could focus on subjects as close as a foot or less, and a handy flash mounted near the lens (so as to produce almost no distracting shadows) allowed the photographer to work in near darkness.


… Many of his portraits are so close that the face or head of the sitter fills the entire picture area (which is only about 3¼ x 3¼ inches). Looking at a number of these can prompt multiple, complex responses in a viewer familiar with Evans’s other pictures. For one thing, the photographer’s contact with the sitters seems real, actual and personal. He is looking at these people, one at a time, apparently with the goal of getting as close to them with his camera as he can.

[line break added] For their part, the sitters look back, in very many cases with attitudes and facial expressions registering some kind of specific response to the photographer’s attention. There are a few “Kodak smiles,” faces prepared with average, pleasant, have-a-nice-day good will. But such responses are not evident in the majority of the close portraits. Often what shows is quite specific, and difficult to place with certainty in some broad, easily nameable category. One gets a sense — a slightly unsettling sense — of looking at people, not at portraits.

Allie Mae Burroughs

Evans’s best-known portrait is the close portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs (identified in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as Annie Mae Gudger). … There is a tension, or a balance, between the two impulses. On the one hand, a viewer of this picture notices the artist’s rigorous framing of the subject — his severe disposition of the lines of clapboards, of the collar of her patterned dress, of the severely parted hair, of the tension lines in her brow that echo the grain of the wooden clapboards behind her.

[line break added] On the other hand, the artist’s placement of his hyper-descriptive [8 x 10 view] camera so close to his subject ensures that any gesture visible in the subject’s face (along with such minute details as signs of early aging, etc.) will threaten to take over the picture by virtue of the strength of human content so forcefully described. The picture is balanced precariously between artistic shaping and raw, assertive human presence.

Evans’s late SX-70 portraits are unsettling because, in them, this precarious balance begins to topple. In consistently pressing so close to so many subjects, Evans passes some kind of boundary. He is still in control of the pictures — he remains a master photographer — but the visible elements of this control are so diminished that the human presence of the subjects — and consequently his desire for, his reaching out toward, his desperate need for something this human presence will give him — threaten to overwhelm the artistic intention of making pictures at all.

[line break added] The act of taking these pictures was not a means to make or please friends, or intended to set up some real-world activity (a date, etc.) at some future time. The act of taking these pictures was the real-world activity. This work was his life.


My previous post from this book is here.




January 10, 2017

A Miraculous Teeming Substance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… The object is not so much tortured as lovingly torn apart.

Second post from ‘Soutine’ (1963) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… There were only two painters whom Soutine is reputed to have felt any warmth in his mature years: Courbet — him in particular — and Corot. And Courbet’s influence upon him was probably greater than Rembrandt’s, especially during the last ten years of his life. What Soutine liked about Courbet, he told René Gimpel, was that he was ‘direct’; Corot gave him the ‘same sensation of immediate contact with things.’

[line break added] It is significant that this feeling for Courbet and Corot was one that Soutine shared with André Derain, who also came to turn his back on ‘modern’ art — at about the same time as Soutine did — though by reasoning rather than by instinct, or one might say through an excess of sophistication rather than a lack of it. The point is that Courbet and Corot were the last great masters before the beginning of modern art. They are the nearest to us of the old masters.

[line break added] Courbet, certainly, has in many ways a sensibility which the twentieth century can easily make contact with, in a sense that Delacroix has not (I am talking about them as painters; as theorists it’s probably the other way around). But his aesthetic is not modern: it’s closer to Titian’s and Rembrandt’s than it is to Cézanne’s. Impressionism is the great divide. In a sense there is a larger gulf between Courbet and Monet — even perhaps the Monet of the Seventies, certainly of the Eighties — than there is between Monet and Jackson Pollock.

[line break added] That Courbet and Monet were alike concerned to paint what they could see while Pollock’s marks were self-determined — even this difference, which is scarcely negligible, counts for little. What does count is that Courbet painted things and Monet painted sensations. And as soon as the painter starts to paint sensations, his canvas becomes an entity of quite another order than that of a painter of things. It ceases to be a sort of window; it becomes a sort of grid.

[line break added] It interposes between the painter and his motif an autonomous structure which, instead of effacing itself, asserts itself, because its rhythm and texture are meant to be the equivalents, embodiments, of the rhythm and texture, so to speak, of the painter’s sensations. The marks on the canvas become opaque instead of transparent, and their internal homogeneity becomes more important than the heterogeneity of the different elements represented by the picture — and it is this internal homogeneity of the marks that makes a Monet more like a Pollock than a Courbet in aesthetic conception.

[line break added] In other words, in an Impressionist painting or a Post-Impressionist — in the broadest sense — painting, a tree and the sky behind it are meant to look more like each other than unlike each other. In a pre-Impressionist painting — Courbet being the last great pre-Impressionist — a tree is one sort of thing and the sky is another; the different things represented are disparate entities, not adjacent areas in the field of vision.

Gustave Courbet, The Trout, 1871

… Yet there remains that freedom in Soutine’s handling, a boldness and arbitrariness used even within the framework of a pre-Impressionist idiom, which belongs to this century and lay beyond the compass of Courbet’s conception of what painting could be. And there is another thing that makes Soutine a modern painter: his instinct to paint the motif in close-up.

… The close-up view is an inevitable consequence of the twentieth-century’s predilection for flat and simple design. Its affective implications can vary. It can aggrandize. Most often it signifies a refusal to maintain ‘a respectful distance,’ expresses a will to intimacy, whether that of sympathy or that of insolence: either way it is anti-heroic; it probes. In Soutine’s work it seems to have another meaning. Close-up first becomes important to him in those Céret landscapes of c. 1920-21.

Chaim Soutine, Chemin de la Fontaine des Tins at Céret, ca. 1920

… in the Céret paintings the forms are dense and congested and their nearness makes them loom up, dangerously close, threatening to burst through the picture plane and having to be held at bay. As if fearing attacks from them, Soutine assaults them: the canvas becomes a battleground between the menacing force of whatever confronts the painter and the bending force of the painter’s will.

And this becomes Soutine’s pattern (one that is highly consistent with what we know of his personality): to put himself in a position from which he feels that something is threatening him, so that he must attack it, wrestle with it, twist it, wring its neck. It is as if he can only make contact with the external world through an act of violence and violation. It is painting as a form of in-fighting. The brush is a weapon, and the paint is a magical substance with which to obliterate and remould the contours of the object, and its identity.

[line break added] The object is not so much tortured as lovingly torn apart. It is no longer a hillside or a tree, a carcass of beef or a dead bird. It is changed by paint into a nameless organism writhing in the throes of love or death, heaving with life. The paint appears to act like a miraculous teeming substance that actually generates life under our eyes. It is as if matter and energy were being continually churned out, were forever being renewed by the paint.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book, and the first from this essay, is here.




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