The Laws of Nature

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The First and Second Steps to Becoming an Artist

According to psychologist Otto Rank, The first step in becoming an artist is when one calls oneself an artist. This is a powerful statement. I remember years ago when I first adopted that identity and it was precisely such a moment. Sure, I had studied fine art at universities and privately, but, at that time I didn't really feel like an artist because I hadn't made many sales nor had I established a relationship with a gallery. In fact, my work wasn't all that great. Then, someone came to my home to look at my paintings. I was embarassed and made some lame excuse that I was working hard so that one day I could become an artist. The person looked up at me in astonishment and said "You ARE an artist!" That was the turning point for me. That's when I realized that self-identification as an artist is essential to becoming an artist. This is where it starts. OK - so the rest of the world might not always agree with the label, but who cares? Over the summer I read a wonderful biography of Louise Nevelson written by Laurie Lisle. I was taken with the fact that Nevelson self-identified as an artist at a very early age. It was her identity and passion from youth even though it took her nearly four decades to get her first solo show. According to Lisle, Nevelson early on developed the ability to dissociate herself from the objective reality and enter completely into the emotional truth of an experience. This was essential to her development as an artist. Is this the second step to becoming an artist? If, as Theresa Bernstein once wrote, The language of art is the prime language of a human relationship with life, then wouldn't the acquisition of that language be essential and the logical next step after one has self-identified as an artist?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sheer Guts and Determination

One of the many things I truly love about artists is their openess. Let's face it: sometimes it's psychologically tough to put your work on exhibition. After all, it's a reflection of your internal self. More often than not, we artists experience rejection and indifference (even worse!). BUT - there are those golden moments when someone really "gets it", when the painting is juried into a major exhibition, wins an award, when we get a show, or even included in books. Sure, the external validation is an important motivator, but self-satisfaction with the work is more important. I say all this in light of the fact that some artists have a harder time of it than others and we need to keep things in perspective. For instance, Louise Nevelson - one of the greatest sculptors of our time. After decades of rejection marked by bouts of serious depression and near starvation, she was finally given an exhibition - the 1941 Nierendorf exhibition. What a triumph! That is ... until the reviews came out. Here's the review: "We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among artists." What a blow! But, she kept trying and through sheer guts and determination she succeeded. Of course, it takes more than guts and determination to be a successful artist. One also must skillfully execute a unique and meaningful work of art. However, if we engage in self pity, or even quit, we'll never "make it." I've read many blogs or heard from artists who hit a wall, who get discouraged. Think about what Nevelson had to endure and keep going! I'm rooting for you :)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Abstracted objective painting

One of my favorite artists, Georgia O'Keeffe, once stated "It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it's a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me, that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." Much earlier this past year I experimented with the Fibonacci spiral based on the Golden Mean ratio of 1:1.618 (the study to the left is one of the experiments). This proportion is completely mathematical and, therefore, abstract. There's a better explanation of this in one of my earlier blogs. Although this painting is only a study, an interesting effect and new meaning occurs because I've imposed abstract design on the eggshells. Are they spiraling down a drain? Are they rising up through a tornado? Are they tunneling sideways? There's force, direction, dynamism. It's not just about broken eggshells, but about something acting on them causing them to move in a spiral. This implies not only volumetric space but also time, the fourth dimension. O'Keeffe offers us a valuable lesson in how to make our work dynamic, meaningful, and original.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Illusion vs. Reality

Louise Nevelson, a noted artist of the last millenium, once said "Illusion permits anything. Reality stops everything." I could ponder that statement forever. It reminds me of an incident in a watercolor workshop that I took nearly a decade ago. One student was laboring to exactly reproduce a photograph of a harbor scene - boats, water, pilings, near shore features, etc. The student had no idea about what was important in the scene, what had attracted him to it in the first place, or even the creative possibilities he could derive from it. At one point, the instructor stopped by the student's table and remarked that he should consider editing. Not everything in the photograph had to be in the painting. Not surprisingly, the student didn't know what to do. He couldn't veer from his path, so he kept going. The painting wasn't successful, the reference photograph was better. Back to Nevelson: "Illusion permits anything. Reality stops everything." Amen!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Role of Beauty in Art

Last year I attended a lecture entitled "What is Art?" given by Arthur Danto, Professor Emeritus in Philosophy from Columbia University and art critic for the New York Times and Art Forum. In defining art, he identified two criteria necessary for something to be deemed a work of art: 1) it has meaning, and 2) it embodies that meaning. (This inspired me to begin teaching workshops across the country based on concept development.) But, Danto asks, what about aesthetics? Should art have an aesthetic dimension? NO, he says. Beauty is important in life, but not in art. He cited Duchamp who viewed beauty as "retinal flutter" and pointed out the Dada movement as examples. So, Danto adds, beauty is important in life, and certainly is one of the virtues, but art isn't impoverished if it isn't beautiful. ART IS AN AESTHETIC OF MEANING, it needs conceptual weight.
I agree with Dantoto a point. Although I tend to make eggshells look beautiful, that's not the point. It's really about the concept - FRAGILITY - of the psyche, of life, of our investments and the beauty that can be found in chaos, in the fragments of our psyches, in the remains. If you'd like to read a really great opinion about all this, please read Margaret Ryall's blog: She wrote an informed response to my comments on Danto and beauty on her October 21st entry comments area. Take a look!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Formula vs. Interest

As I continue to share with you the parts of Ben Shahn's Book ("The Shape of Content") that interest me, I'm reminded that this is only one man's perspective of art and artists. There are so many other opinions and many of you have shared yours on this blog. I'm grateful. The sharing of ideas and opinions is important to expanding one's horizons and maturing as an artist.
Today's blog is about this statement by Shahn: "If a painting is to be at all interesting, it is the very absence of formula that will help make it so. Paintings must emerge from a personal vision." I spent many years teaching college students who frequently sought a formulaic approach to problem-solving rather than engage in the struggle of independent thought. I called this "cook-booking." They wanted a recipe; someone to tell them step-by-step how to get from A to Z. I refused to provide such a crutch because it prevents students from engaging in creative thinking and in developing analytical skills that enhance understanding and give birth to creative solutions.
How many painting workshops have you attended where the instructor provides a "formula" for creating a work of art? How many times has an instructor asked you to imitate his/her approach? How many of us prefer to learn this way? It's hard work to think independently - t0 break away from the crowd and make a work of art that's uniquely personal. Yes, we still have to learn the traditional techniques so that the quality of our work doesn't suffer, but we then must use those techniques to make our work interesting by making it uniquely personal. Over the past few years, I've learned of others who decided to try to paint eggshells the way I do. Some tell me that this is a form of flattery. I don't see it that way. I think it's sad, because the imitators don't have enough confidence or belief in their own ideas to express them. It's like refusing to speak because what you say can never be as good or as important as what someone else has to say. This is becoming invisible. Shan also wrote "If there is value it rests upon the human ability to have idea, and indeed upon the stature of the idea itself. For me, there would be little reason for painting if idea were not to emerge from the work."
Embrace your ideas - express you ideas - share your ideas!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Value of Art

The value of art is a hotly debated topic, and one that directly affects us as artists. We can view the value of art as being both its monetary value and its value to society. During this week, I've been sharing with you ideas from Ben Shahn's book "The Shape of Content" because I find that his analyses are important to me during this period in my career as an artist. Here's what Shahn says about the value of art:
"It is not the degree of communicability that constitutes the value of art to the public. It is its basic intent and responsibility. A work of art in which powerful compassion is innate, or which contains extraordinary revelations concerning form, or manifests brilliant thinking, however difficult its language, will serve ultimately to dignify that society in which it exists. By the same argument, a work that is tawdry and calculating in intent is not made more worthy by being easily understood. One does not judge an Einstein equation by its communicability, but by its actual content and meaning." Once again, we return to the intention of the individual artist in order to give value to the work. How many of us paint in order to reveal our relationship with this world, and how many paint only for praise/fame and income? If I read Shahn's idea correctly, it looks like we artists are directly responsible for imparting value to our work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Content and Form

Thanks to those of you who've joined in my discussion about Ben Shahn's concepts as they are expressed in his book "The Shape of Content." I hope more of you will join in.
I'd like to focus on Shahn's statement that "Form is the visible shape of content." He sees the two as inseparable in a work of art, because form is the "turning of content into a material entity, rendering a content accessible to others, giving it permanence." He sites a number of examples such as the influence of the concept of the Holy Trinity in art by creating triptychs, or figures in threes and the use of other religious symbols, or forms, that reveal a specific content. And, Shahn sees the influence of Freud's ideas on contemporary art, which is directed toward a public conversant with Freud, and so on.
Finally, Shahn sees form as a discipline according to the needs of content, because form follows a logical order:
1) it's based on a theme
2) it requires the marshaling of materials to cast the theme
3) it sets the boundaries of the outer limits of the idea
4) It relates inner shapes to those outer limits creating harmony, and
5) it abolishes excessive content (content outside the limits).
This all ties in to my earlier discussions about decision-making as an artist; about concept development; about creating a work of art that is unique by virtue of the fact that it embodies the artist's unique point of view; about being deliberate. As an artist, what legacy will you leave for the art world?

Monday, October 19, 2009


I just finished reading "The Shape of Content" by Ben Shahn (Harvard University Press, 1985) and am very impressed with his keen analysis of the many aspects of art and being an artist. I heartily recommend this book and plan to write about it in future blogs. Today, I'm interested in Shahn's comments about the artist as a nonconformist. He states that "to create anything of worth in any field, it requires nonconformity - or want of satisfaction with things the way they are." He cites many examples of this - for instance, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Charta, Martin Luther's theses, etc. wouldn't exist if nonconformists hadn't brought them to life. Shahn identifies the major motivators for conformity in the arts as: "1) a large number of artists adopt the view of one artist who is deemed outstanding , 2) artists who cater to the popular market, 3) trends and yearnings of artists to be in the forefront of things, and 4) by doctrine and tribunal." Aren't we all encouraged to conform by jurors of major exhibitions, gallery owners, museum curators, and art critics? They are the gatekeepers at the transition point between art stored in our studios and art displayed for public consumption. Thank goodness for the world wide web! At least we can bypass the gatekeepers at one level. Finally, Shahn writes that "conformity is the retreat from controversiality." Now, there's something to think about!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Self interrogation

Acting upon the recommendation of an artist friend, I decided to read the book "The Shape of Content" by Ben Shahn. His candid analysis of his own art reminded me of how difficult it is for an artist to produce work that's a true reflection of one's self. In his book, Shahn asks himself "What kind of person am I?" and "What kind of art coincides with who I am?" I think these questions are essential to original expression. In answer to the first question about what kind of person I am, I can say that,outwardly, I'm drawn to vivid colors and reflective light. I love to see light dance on moving objects, like water or rotating crystal or ... falling eggshells. I don't care much about local color, but rather the enhanced colors of my imagination which I seem to impose on everything. Inwardly, I'm analytical and prone to see my weaknesses and flaws rather than my strengths. Yet, I feel self-protective about the few good traits that I do possess, especially my ability to endure great difficulty. I guess eggshells fit my inward personality - they're very strong, but break easily when inward force is applied outward (self-criticism), rather than outward force applied inward (criticism from others). Therefore, in answer to Shahn's question: this kind of art DOES coincide with who I am.