Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Expanding Kandinsky

Perception is a funny thing. Most of the time we would rather not think about it. Disturbing. Demanding. Destabilizing. One good way to recognize how it changes, and that it does change, is to think about age; if you're 10 years old then 30 seems incredibly old, and then when you're 50, it seems even more incredibly young. Our perceptions change so fast and all the time, and most of the time we don't have a clue.

Take the Kandinsky show at the Guggenhiem. It could be too much. Hard to believe, but it could be. You have a hard time taking it in. Too many people, too many paintings. Nevermind that you're on a bias, slanting up or down, going up or down hill. The problem of looking at painting in the Guggenhiem is legend. The best thing about it is the worst; you can see a lot of paintings at once. You can't take them in in that one at a time way some museums offer, each painting a private viewing experience up close and personal, bread crumbs on the way to a greater understanding of art or artist.

Instead what we really get is like peering from the rim of the Grand Canyon, and then slogging down the designated path. It is totally linear, no bouncing around from gallery to gallery, but instead a gauntlet of art, at arms length, like standing in so many little swimming pools, leaning, one leg shorter than the other, weight always on your right leg, the way that they say that the leg you favor will lead you in circles in the desert. Circles and circles of art. Circles and circles of Kandinsky. Dizzying. And that is what I was left with, more than experiencing any one painting, it was the cumulative experience. It was seeing a coil of them from across the way, exponentially, the trail of abstraction spiraling through space, a strand of colors and shapes and marks from the balcony of the opposite side, taking it in the way an emperor must have gazed upon his empire, a presidium, a sum, an expanse. Expanding Kandinsky.

That is Frank Lloyd Wright's gift. An altered perception; seeing painting a way you're never seen it before, for better and for worse.

What did I get out of the actual work this time? In particular? It was how often Kandinsky used black to nail a painting down, to complete it, to resolve it, to bring it to fruition. The opposite kind of metamorphosis of the butterfly in one sense, but in the end the results are the same: they fly! Abstract color and shape float across the picture plane as free as the wind, like colored clouds and leaves floating softly down a summer's breeze; and then black is applied like a kind of clamp to hold it all in place. Quite remarkable. If not a little disappointing.

What else? Around 1923 Kandinsky used a compass to make his circles. There are holes in their centers. Surprising. Apparently he abandoned the practice shortly thereafter.

And just a reminder: he started his career as a lawyer. He was also Russian, spent half his life in Germany, moving to France to escape the Nazis in 1933, enjoying his last five years as a French citizen. How his perceptions must have changed. Communism, the Nazis, Paris, and the rise of a New York art world. Blue Rider to Bauhaus, brioches and Broadway.

Even though the endless parade of paintings exercised a gravitational pull down the long and winding rows that was something like a slow motion drive by shooting of canvas and paint, again it was the view of Kandinsky that will stay with me: the windows of color and light across the way, not just the spiritual in art, but what I imagine is the powerful Russian folk spirit that was the heart and soul of so many artists that emerged from that part of the world at that time.

They all shared that sweetness with the rest of us, and in that way that sharing is showing, showed us another way to live, to perceive life, to celebrate life. They brought their culture through art, through painting and literature and music, and enriched our lives. Kandinsky abstracted that for us. Literally. He was just painting maps. Directions to a beautiful place he once knew.

-- Post From My iPhone

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Say Something!

I'm sure you've all heard this, from your mother or your teacher or your spouse: if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Words to live by. No harm done. Genteel. Polite. Thoughtful. Considerate. Safe. We can all agree on this, no? And live happily ever after!

NOT! These have never been the words I live by, and not for the obvious reason. The obvious reason being that: OMG, something bad is going to be said. Something that is going to make people upset, uncomfortable, offended. No, that is not my thinking at all.

If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something! That's right! Unless we're talking about something that is evil, find something nice to say. Hey, Satan, nice cape!

Seriously. I wasn't brought up with the "if you haven't got anything nice to say don't say anything at all" wisdom. Shocker. So if I ever heard it I didn't think much about it, ignored it, but on some level always knew it was cockeyed to say the least. Here's why.

Once you've established that no one says anything if they don't have anything nice to say, what have you got? ALL SILENCE BECOMES NEGATIVE! All silence becomes damning. Every time someone sees you and is silent you're thinking, do I smell bad, did I do something, am I bad? People brought up in this world with this philosophy interpret all silence as judgment that is critical, disapproving, and negative. Never mind that it ruins silence. Never mind that what is really going on is pure evil of another sort, laziness, the failure to get off your butt and find something nice to say. Absolutely. Think about it. If you are one of these people that has deluded yourself into believing that this idea of not saying anything bad makes you a nice person, think again. It makes you a first class jerk!

Do I need to answer the question about how this applies to art and artists? I don't think so. They very act of making art is an expression of appreciation. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that what an artist does is what they care about. Dot dot dot. What they care about is what they appreciate. Art is the appreciation business. Has been since someone could draw on a cave wall. The artist bridges the gap between self and life/world/nature/dreams/others through art. They ask the question do you feel what I feel, think what I think, see what I see, etc, etc, etc. Well? Do you?

Yes. Art is a force. It is an action. It initiates a response, a reaction, or resistance. Maybe, according to physics, these things are equal. Great art generally creates all of these things and history plays this out. Great art provokes both response and resistance. Love and hate, or, which is more accurate, love and FEAR.

This idea of saying nothing at all is fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of sounding stupid. Fear of offending. Fear of your own enthusiasm. Let's face it, every artist wants a response. Charles Giuliano, the retired Boston art critic , photographer, old friend and former colleague, once said that to be ignored is the worst thing that can happen to an artist; so I know that he and I at least agree on this one thing. Ha!

So I say, find something to say! If you haven't got anything nice to say, then find something nice to say! Life is a two way street. Love is a two way street. Art is a two way street. You like it when other people go to the trouble of finding something to say, and you HATE it when they don't. You HATE it when they come into your studio and don't say anything. Of course you interpret that as negative judgment. If they don't give you a yes, a wow, a thumbs up, but instead act like: what? Or worse, that there was nothing there, well, that sucks, doesn't it. Everyone feels this way. And still, these are the very people that often pass the poison. They want to be a one way street. They love getting a response from someone, but can't give a response in return. They are the problem. They are dropping the ball. Art is energy, and energy begets energy, and when you don't say anything, when you are silent, you stop the flow of energy.

This raises other questions of course, like, well, what if I really don't have anything nice to say? What if I really don't like something? Well, my answer to that is WHY? Ask yourself why? Are you threatened on some level.

I'll give you a difficult and embarrassing personal example. I don't hate a lot of work, but lately I found myself really hating the work of this one artist. Now what I should say up front, is that I don't really hate their work at all. I probably like it just fine and could easily find lots of nice and worthwhile things to say about it. What I hate, what I really hate, is that all these people love this artist's work for what I believe are the wrong reasons. Because it isn't modern art, thank God! What a relief! Because it is cute, like gift soap. Because they think it's pretty and that's that. No challenge. I hate that the world might be turning its back on the art I love. The art of Pollock and de Kooning, the art of Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, the art of Kandinsky and Popova and even Picasso. Yes, I love Picasso. There, I said it.

So you see, I'm threatened. Not at all by the work, but by what I'm afraid of, that the work I cherish, the work I am passionate about, the work I believe in and am wowed about and appreciate, will die away, and all we'll be left with is gift soap. Crap. In fairness to this artist, they are clearly carrying the torch of an artist like Frida Kahlo, making art that is about intense personal interior experience. Is there a place for that? You'd better believe it! That is what it is all about. They just use a more literal kind of code. Figurative. I find myself hopelessly aligned with abstraction. I wasn't always. I used to paint like this person. I used to make egg tempera paintings that fed off of Botticelli. But my roots are in abstraction now, and it is from there that I grow for the time being.

See, and along the way I even found something nice to say about an artist I supposedly hate.