Monday, April 08, 2013

A Fine Line

Hans Hofmann

Some artists I know love to talk about tension in painting, and I find it annoying. We've all heard it. One suspects that it is the influence of artists like Hans Hofmann, maybe Albers, maybe Held. That it is Germanic. Aggressive. 

The function is clear enough. Life! But I always have the feeling that a lot of artists who thrive on tension spread the energy and maybe, spread the misery. Like people who can't sit still. 

Ultimately the question is what state does a work of art, let's say a painting, find itself in when it is finished? Has it run its race and then come to a stop? Does it come to rest? Or instead do we catch it in full stride? In action? Pose, pause, or freeze frame?

Seems to me this tension thing is yes, part of the physics of art, and yes, part of the physics of talking about art, either as a teacher, an artist, or a critic. Tension is the pulling force. One half of Hofmann's famous "push pull" in painting. A stick he used to beat his students, and his paintings to... life! And don't get me wrong, I love Hofmann. But seeing his work is probably instructional enough for me. I endured the Hofmann school of teaching from a student of his and that was plenty.

Hans Hofmann

At this point in my life I think I almost prefer Calder's contribution to the conversation a little more, since he was actually working with physics. His mobiles and stabiles found that fine line between rest and action which so many people like to call tension. They hung on that point. They lived on that point. 

Sandy Calder

And what was it really? Besides the pull of gravity? People will tell you that there is good stress and bad stress. They define it in terms of positive and negative stress. The first brings vitality, the second debility. Life/death. Maybe the difference between going for a run, and running for your life. Stress doesn't only play a major role in the physics of architecture, but the physics of all art as well. 

Tension is the same I suspect. Good tension and bad tension. Life/death. My complaint is that this distinction of good and bad tension is overlooked, and that tension is overrated as a result. When a painting comes to rest, when it is finished, we want it to be alive, not dead. I think too many artists confuse tension with life, and think that if there is tension then there is life. I think that what makes a painting alive is when it has light, and promise. These intangibles make a painting active. Active is the positive we like about promise. Granted, it is only a suggestion, but isn't that really all a painting is? A suggestion? Tension for the sake of tension is just tension. Instead it is the promise of something that creates positive tension. The promise of motion, action, change, even sound, that keeps us, holds us, even pulls us. Positive tension. 

Which brings me to stillness. The thing the tension folks can't achieve. Stillness is what we need to meditate, muse, dream, imagine, and think abstractly and in depth. In layers. Connecting dots, maybe an infinite number. In stillness we can imagine the possibilities. Infinite possibilities. A painting that sits still can point to those possibilities. Suggest those possibilities. Well beyond our reach. Tension pulls us back. Keeps us tethered. Keeps us on a string.

Calder with Nino Franchina, Rome
Addison Parks, Spring Hill, 2013


Martin Mugar said...

Have read it several times.Feel there is so much that an artist could learn from.There is another world beyond the noise of push and pull that I feel is not explored, and because there is not the sound of the bull ring or the boxing ring observers and artists feel nothing is happening.Just have to listen more closely.

Addison Parks said...

Interestingly enough I think that the real is balance. We are always being pushed or pulled to one side in this world. There is a time for action and a time for stillness. Like Calder, we have to find that balance.

Addison Parks said...

By real, as in Search For The Real, I mean "find." Hofmann's find: balance!