Monday, October 17, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #16: Writing About Art

By Carl Belz

Friends occasionally ask if I like writing about art. I say “like” doesn’t quite do it. Writing is a challenge, the words often resist, as if they’re actually physical. While their meanings are in many cases elastic, they can’t just be pushed around, they deserve respect. Though pleasurable to work with, they’re neither toys nor mere entertainments. Still, when responsibly employed in the job of writing about art, the words invariably guide and enable the urge to clarify my experience of the object at hand and articulate its content. And when all of that comes together the writing can be highly gratifying. To suggest what I mean, I’m here reprinting a few short essays, each devoted to a single painting, which I initially penned in conjunction with exhibitions at the Rose Art Museum. The pictures were all purchases for the Rose permanent collection.

Tina Feingold, Bleed, 1997-98, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
Bleed is dated 1997-98, indicating Tina worked on it over a two-year period, not unusual from what I know about her practice of embarking on a series by working on one picture for a few days, then starting a second, and a third, and maybe a fourth, at which point she’s likely to go back to the first one and add a couple of layers of color, or to the second, or the third, and so on, before beginning the fifth or sixth, for that’s how the series evolves, always back and forth, back and forth, layer upon layer upon layer, a matter of process more than product, as you can easily see if you look at the edges of the painting where the successive layers physically accumulate, as naturally as twigs and pebbles forming a line on the edges of a pond, into sensuous ridges of pure pigment gently rimming the surface but serving no pictorial function whatsoever other than to acknowledge how abundantly rich and rewarding the making of a painting can be, which, if you think about it, is actually saying an awful lot, and of a magnitude that you can easily imagine might require a couple of years to say, especially if you were determined to say it as fully and convincingly as Tina has, in which case you might also understand how the painting came to be titled Bleed.”

The painting, a gift from the museum’s Board of Overseers, was presented to the Rose during a reception held in my honor in June 1998, in advance of which curator Susan Stoops had asked me on behalf of the Board if there was an area artist I wished to see represented in the permanent collection whose work we had not yet acquired, and I thought immediately of Tina, because she had been a close personal friend for many years, seeing just about every exhibition I ever mounted, reading closely each of my catalog essays and providing thoughtful responses to them while prodding me to write more, sharing provocative books and articles I had overlooked, traipsing around galleries and museums with me when I wanted companionship, reporting on shows elsewhere that I was unable to get to, attending for a full semester every lecture on the history of contemporary art I delivered at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and telling me later that they regularly inspired her to go back to the studio and paint, all that and more, yet asking nothing in return, except maybe an occasional studio visit during which she would put up with my telling her to get rid of the image and go for abstraction and other stuff I doubt she wanted to hear, but that never impeded our conversation or affected our relationship other than to deepen it, which is why I thought of her in connection with this gift that has my name attached to it, and, as I’m sure you can see, why Bleed caries significances that range far beyond its being a wonderful painting.

Linda Etcoff, Still Life With “Chop Suey”, 1985, oil on canvas, 44 x 60 inches
As is her practice, Linda Etcoff carefully planned this picture before executing it from direct observation. This means she selected and arranged the trays and glassware, the Edward Hopper poster, the lemon, the umbrella, the cup and saucer, the ashtray and cigarettes, the flowers and vase and table, everything, even the colors of the walls and window. She selected them with the idea of creating a decorative ensemble to which each object would appropriately contribute in terms of design and color. Thus, not just any ashtray or pack of cigarettes would do, only the right ones, and thus, too, if the studio wall was initially white but the ensemble she envisioned called for blue, then she would repaint the wall before proceeding to paint the painting of it. In the painting itself the artist’s refined taste and scrupulous attention to detail are fully apparent in the crisp and exacting depiction of the objects and in the harmonious visual bouquet of their arrangement. We are presented with a high order of decoration.

Of course the painting is more than just decorative, more than just an attractive still life, a poster announcing the exhibition of an esteemed American master, and a view of the city outside the artist’s studio. Let’s look again.

A table with two trays and a vase of tulips stands in the immediate foreground; behind it on the right is a wall on which the poster is taped, and behind the wall is the studio window with a stool and still life before it. But wait: the window is not actually a window, nor are the stool and still life actually a stool and still life. They are parts of another painting, another Linda Etcoff painting that rests on an easel that stands behind the wall that stands behind the foreground table in the painting we’re actually looking at.

So we have three paintings in one: first, the painting we’re addressing, Still Life With “Chop Suey”; second, the unnamed painting on the easel in Still Life With “Chop Suey”; and third, the Etcoff painting of the Hopper painting reproduced in the poster, the title of which is Chop Suey. Paintings of paintings and of reproductions of paintings, art coming from art, as we know all art does. In this case, however, I want to say that that dictum lies at the heart of the painting, animates it throughout, constitutes its subject. Etcoff develops her art out of her own past, but equally she develops it out of the art of artists such as Edward Hopper, and thereby does she honor and extend the tradition of American realist painting. In the sheer quality of her picture, finally, she also—and notably—enriches it. A high order of decoration is invariably as meaningful as it is satisfying.
John Salt, Lunch Room, 1977, oil on canvas, 42-1/4 x 62-3/4 inches
This is a pretty bleak image. The lunch room is closed down, its windows boarded up. The Pepsi signs are weathered and dingy. There are graffiti on the on the wall, along with posters we can’t read, their messages forever lost. It’s been awhile since the place hummed with activity, if it ever did. Then there’s the car standing in front of the lunch room. It looks like an old Chrysler Newport, a newer model than the one my father bought in 1952—a dependable American car made by a dependable American company, a family car—but this one has sure seen better days. It’s banged up and filthy, its paint is faded. There’s rust around the wheel wells and on the rocker panels. The hubcaps are gone. The tires are probably retreads. Did someone park it there, or was it simply abandoned? It’s hard to say, just as it’s hard to imagine that it ever stood new in a showroom or that it was a vehicle for Saturday night cruising and good-time fun. It must have had another life, maybe several lives, but the pathos of its present condition effaces any past it may once have enjoyed. And finally there’s the snow, snow in the city, always dirty, never seeming really to be snow at all, just some kind of sloppy mess that clogs up the drains and forms deep puddles that make it impossible to cross the street, and you ruin your shoes anyway. Talk about the death of the inner city, you’ve got it here in spades.

When advanced painting jettisoned narration, which was about a century and a half ago, photography was there to rescue it for the visual arts, and with photography it remained, eventually giving rise to pictures that moved and told their stories through real time. (BTW If you think it’s merely coincidental that movies were invented at the very moment when vanguard painting was putting a stake through the heart of narration by eliminating all traces of the visible world and becoming totally nonobjective, then maybe you should think again.) It remained there, that is, as long as painting wanted to go in the direction of pure abstractness in the process of defining its separateness from the other arts, from photography, for instance, or literature and poetry. But that urge was pronounced dead by the 1970s when painting, via postmodernism, embraced anew all manner of concerns that had previously been discarded from it, including narration.

Yet, if you were schooled in modernist purity and felt an obligation to retain its moral imperative, and you also felt the appeal of postmodernism’s promise of freedom—which is how I see the situation of John Salt and other photorealist painters—how would you go about resolving your dilemma? Well, you could do it by using a photograph to make a painting that looks like a photograph. Because photographs are flat, they don’t violate the flatness of the picture plane that modernism taught you to honor, and because they’re inherently narrative, they free you to tell stories you want your paintings to tell, stories like the one about the car in the snow in front of the lunch room.

(This is the first of a two-part post)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Anonymous said...

I loved reading these responses to specific paintings. Your commentary about Tina was particularly compelling to me (as is her painting Bleed--just love that piece!) Looking forward to part 2, 3, 4...

Thank you for posting this.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you for writing this, Carl. Explicating a painting is always worthwhile because it helps the writer and the viewer to see it more clearly, realize what is there and begin to understand some of what it means.