Paintings of Infinite Worth
In the postscript to Umberto Eco’s dense and philosophical historical novel, The Name of the Rose, he observes: “…I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”
Such interesting language, and of course relevant to all art forms. I have often mused on the first part of this observation, knowing that the art that moves me the most and that I am intent upon creating invites interpretation and projection on the part of the viewer. But the second part is so delicious—“without ever being completely consumed.”
So which pieces from my formative years, my “comfort” art, can I point to that continue to nourish with new information, new sensation, never being finished?
The four paintings below send me into an almost conditioned swoon. So, pulling myself out of my art-induced trance, I will take a close, fresh look at them.
Rothko said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
I enter into a Rothko like looking at the ocean. This phase can last for quite some time. Eventually, as the eye wanders toward the edges, my consciousness is popped back out again and onto the surface of the painting, the blues anchoring me to the here-and-now. The gorgeous uneven edges of the main shapes going into the brighter blue…they make me feel stirred up and moored at the same time, as does the color. On the whole, I would say, deeper than tragedy, ecstasy, or doom… way down deep, sub-verbal.
“I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it,” Frankenthaler has said. The flat surface at work here is quite evident—and beautifully so. The mauve shape has the illusion of sheen that brings silk to mind. The most complex shape in the piece is without paint at all, bringing the eye firmly to the surface of the raw canvas. The small dark shape in the upper left looks like a piece of tape or paper placed on top, emphasizing flatness.
What is denying the flat in this piece? I see a subtle vibration in the mauve field that is full of movement, as if rippling in the wind, inviting the viewer to float into it.
What delights my eye the most is the interaction of shapes. The edges are softly stained and jagged with lovely variation. Each shape is a statement in its own right, but all are nudging the eye toward the unpainted angular form as it moves across the canvas. The dark corner at the top left presses the eye down and into that shape. The spot on the lower right where it almost but not quite goes off the canvas also leads the eye back into the piece, and both of these elements create a needed tautness to the otherwise open surface.
It is nowhere clearer than in minimalist non-geometric abstraction how much a play of edge and composition can directly reach the viewer’s heart. Without the descriptive content of a representational image, it is much easier to see how these shapes interact. There are good (dynamic, interesting, disconcerting, playful, assertive, and/or pensive) shapes and not-so-good (boring, overly regular, static, needlessly complex, and/or repetitive) shapes. Even more importantly, their interaction and directionality define the feel of the painting.
“With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft. “
Clearly, I love color-field painting. This iconic Matisse painting was already there back in 1911. It does as beautifully as any painting I’ve ever seen what a non-realist representational painting should do: both describe the space and flatten to the front of the picture plane. This is much like Frankenthaler’s observation above, made more complex by the descriptive aspect of the subject matter.
I have always delighted in the way that the white lines, created from negative space underneath the red, are the drawing element. (The grandfather clock is brilliant!) I am now noticing for the first time that it is the perspective, I think quite accurate, that really describes the room for us.
Whites and pinks punctuating the space and a handful of curved shapes keep the eye circulating and create clusters of compositional interest.
All of this is embedded in one, flat plane of red; a red so rich you can almost breathe it in.
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
Shapes, stunning shapes. This painting has a complex composition that still leaves the piece feeling open, mostly due to the reduced palette. The whites and almost whites along with the Chinese Lantern snaking up behind create the most startlingly interesting element of the piece, to my eye—the small white shape sitting on top of the shoulder of the figure.
There is narrative here both in the painterly treatment of the figure and in its placement and expression. Schiele depicts himself with his signature angular shapes and dramatic cropping. The harsh texture on the face projects a view of self while the subtler texture of the black shirt brings movement to the largest single shape in the painting. One is pretty and the other is not.
The head is cocked and the gaze quizzical but challenging.
Knowing that Schiele died at the age 28 of the flu, and viewing this piece from my current age and perspective, I can’t help but feel that along with its pictoral brilliance, the painting projects a young man’s working-it-out doubts and hubris, all very raw.
Some of these emotions I remember feeling at 17 or 25, and other observations are fresh. Looking at these pieces today, I find the sensations that they provoke, familiar or new, are more exciting and moving than ever.
So it is a conversation that never ends.