The Laws of Nature

Monday, January 31, 2011

What's worthy of expression?

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: On White II, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Moving on past the first two paragraphs of this section, Kandinsky expresses his despair over the “harsh tyranny of materialistic philosophy” that “divide(s) our soul sharply from that of the Primitives.” These diametrically opposed entities are defined as the difference between being purely external with no future (materialism) and being internal containing the seed of the future within itself (primitive). This philosophical distinction should be interpreted within the context of Kandinsky’s psychological transition at the time.

Disenchanted with the effects of materialism, Kandinsky saw it as the catalyst for the expression of the basest human emotions and behavior. In contrast, removing oneself from the pursuit of materialism awakens the “subtler emotions” that, when expressed in a work of art, “give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”

Before moving on to the rest of Kandinsky’s explanation, I’d like to explore this part. I’m interested in Kandinsky’s fascination with the Primitives. He seems to equate “primitive” with “simplicity” - an unsophisticated and uncomplicated state. Apparently, without the complications of our materialistic society we artists could more easily tap into ourselves to reveal our “lofty” emotions. Kandinsky elevates our emotions to the noblest level, worthy of artistic expression to the exclusion of all else.

At least, that’s how it seems to me at only three pages into his short book. Kandinsky looks to our motivations in artmaking. He challenges them and looks for value or worth. So, what is worthy of artistic expression? What do you think?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Revivals, Soullessness, and Depth

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Harmony Tranquille by Wassily Kandinsky, 1924

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Kandinsky begins this section with Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. His point is that art is produced within a culture at a specific time that can never be replicated. Therefore, a revival of any past art form is a dead exercise since we can’t relive the past.

This is so true. About a decade ago, while I was still teaching at a nearby liberal arts college, I witnessed the revival of the hippie culture. My students began to wear knock-off clothes from the 60’s and adopted the language and attitudes. However, they had no understanding of the time and our disillusionment with the war in Viet Nam, the “establishment,” the sexual and drug revolutions, and the push for civil rights. We lived in a riotous time of fear and passion that these students hadn’t experienced. I remember standing before a class and asking them “What would you die for? What cause do you care so much about that you would give your life for it?” They looked completely confused and had no answer. They didn't understand.

Similarly, Kandinsky points out that our art must reflect our time. We can’t relive the past and we can’t revive the past in a meaningful way. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks, he writes. In the same way those who strive to follow the Greek methods in sculpture achieve only a similarity of form, the work remaining soulless for all time. Such imitation is mere aping.

Nevertheless, the human condition is timeless. There are internal processes and emotions that transcend time and inform artists throughout the ages. It is these “fundamental truths,” as Kandinsky puts it, that link us with the past and are worthy of revival and expression.

When we think of works of art that are deemed a “masterpiece” it seems that they must possess two characteristics: technical mastery and a depiction of some aspect of the human condition. These works evoke emotions from viewers of all ages and cultures. They reflect what we all experience: love, hate, vengeance, lust, solitude, companionship, disease, hopelessness, hope, and so on. This statement may be too general, but there’s an element of truth in it.

I’ve covered only the first two paragraphs of Kandinsky’s first chapter but it’s enough to reflect upon for awhile. When I look back on my body of work, I need to consider its depth. Depth … an important and interesting word.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Birth of a Philosophy, Kandisky's transformation

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler
image: painting by Kandinsky

Continuing where I left off (the introduction written by the translator, Sadler) it’s interesting to learn about what transformed Kandinsky’s early work into “groundbreaking” work. Changing careers and moving to Munich to study painting in the 1890’s was critical to this transformation. At that time, younger German artists had broken free of the academy-dominated art world and began a new style called Jugendstil, noted for its simplified abstraction and beauty. Therefore, Kandinsky was able to simultaneously engage in traditional painting at the university and the avant-garde art practiced by his contemporaries. This was an important influence on his later painting style and philosophy.

Rather than discussing all the details of Kandinsky’s professional life, I’ll run through the transformations in his work as he developed his distinctive and original personal style:

Initially, the Jugendstil influence led him to interpret fairytale narratives with bright colors. A little later, feeling the need to travel extensively, Kandinsky was exposed to the early exhibits of the Fauves which had a lifelong impact on him. According to Sadler: in their paintings, he saw the liberation of color, and the artist spent the rest of the decade absorbing and incorporating the implications of this freedom in his art.

This led to a major breakthrough for Kandinsky when he moved back to Munich in 1908 at a mountain resort. There, he combined Fauvist color with the primitiveness and directness derived from his Russian heritage. At first, he produced expressionist landscapes and then moved into abstraction. During this time, Kandinsky aligned with the group Der Blaue Reiter because their focus was to express their inner selves rather than conform to a single style. The artist stated: I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise. Thus, Kandinsky’s artmaking became a search for spiritual reality through art and his philosophy was born.

We’ll delve into part one of his philosophy next time.

Reading this progression in Kandinsky’s philosophy made me wonder more about my own evolution as an artist. There are some major influences, but I can’t quite put my finger on more than one or two “aha!” moments. I’ll have to spend more time reflecting on this.
How about you?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
By Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

It’s time to review another book! I’m reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art written by the famous nonobjective painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) as an explanation of his theory of painting. The book is divided into two parts: part one is “a call for a spiritual revolution in painting that will let artists express their own inner lives in abstract, non-material terms” and part two is a discussion of “the psychology of colors, the language of form and color, and the responsibilities of the artist.”

Today, I’ll begin with some background information provided by the book’s translator, Sadler. Most of you already know that Kandinsky was born in Moscow to an aristocratic family and was raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, which influenced him during his entire life. Successful in academics, he studied political economy and law at Moscow University where he was appointed lecturer in jurisprudence. By the time he was thirty years old, he was offered a professorship at another institution and turned it down to travel to Munich to study painting. Quite a change in direction, but a little predictable since he had been fascinated with the arts since childhood.

In 1895, Kandinsky was profoundly influenced by an exhibition of the French Impressionists in Moscow. When he saw Monet’s “Haystack” he said: “I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wondered if it would not be possible to go further in this direction.” So, that’s why he moved to Germany to study painting.

I’ll stop at this point in Kandinsky’s life in order to reflect upon the importance of early influences coupled with opportunity. This artist was very lucky to have been born to wealthy parents who provided ample support, education, and exposure to many art forms from his earliest years. Often, I’ve reflected on how much my parents encouraged me to become an artist, even before I entered kindergarten. Likewise, there was a specific painting that made me imagine what could be if I pursued art as a professional.

How many of us have a similar story to tell?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Imagination and The Box

Image on right: The First Law of Thermodynamics by K.A. Cartwright, watercolor on paper

Imagine” is the most powerful word I know aside from the word “love.” It’s essential to artmaking and the process by which we conceive ideas for our work. Webster’s defines imagine as the ability to form a mental image of something that is not present or that is not the case.

Joseph Joubert once stated that “Imagination is the eye of the soul.”

Muhammad Ali said “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

and, Napoleon Bonaparte felt that “Imagination rules the world.”

The power of imagination cannot be overstated. For artists, it’s our greatest and most essential asset. So, I’m wondering why we often choose to underutilize this asset. Here are a few self-imposed reasons:

1. Inhibitions and fears
2. Biases and prejudices
3. Lack of confidence in one’s own imagination (which leads to conformity and imitation)
4. Unwillingness to expand one’s horizons to learn about more possibilities
5. No sense of adventure

Perhaps you can add to this list.

Since childhood I’ve indulged my daydreams. I think they deserve lots of my time although only a small fraction of my imaginings become works of art. But, being a daydreamer as a child was difficult. Teachers, and sometimes parents, scolded us children to stop daydreaming and pay attention; to "get our heads out of the clouds." It’s as though society conspired to beat the imagination out of its children so that we would all think alike and “behave.” We grew up to become unimaginative adults and then face the confusing task of contributing to “think tanks” when we enter the work force. “Think outside the box” is our mantra. Well, who built the box and put our imaginations into it??

Where is the key to unlocking this box? We’ve had it in our hands all along. As adults, we control how much or little we use our imaginations and our art reflects our choice. My persoanl fault is in allowing inhibitions to interfere and that’s something I’ll continue to work at.

Our old friend, Anonymous, once said that imagination is intelligence having fun. Are you having fun?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chasing rabbits and losing direction

Have you ever spent years working on just one series of paintings and then abandoned it? I have, many times. The "All Cracked Up" series (image) includes over fifty works in watercolor, acrylic, and oil that took five years to complete. I've sold all but a dozen of them and decided that was enough. Well ... never say never. Lately, a lot of folks have shown interest and so now I'm considering returning to it, or at least working at it on the side while I continue to paint "The Laws of Nature" series.

Most of you are probably thinking: "duh!" OK, I admit to being a little dense but I like to compartmentalize my creativity so that I don't get lost in it. I think we all have more ideas for paintings than time and energy. It's easy to chase a whole herd of rabbits down their maze of individual holes and lose focus. I used to do that when I started painting, but soon learned to hone in on one or two ideas and do them well.
There is no one correct approach to artmaking, so it's really a matter of finding a process that matches how we think. I can stick with the same series for at least half a decade and not get bored. There's always something new to "say." Other folks would find this tedious and a creativity killer.

Now that I have so little time to paint, I have time to think about the next steps. I think these steps will be working on my new series while resurrecting two previous series. I'll chase three rabbits and, hopefully, not lose direction.

What's your process?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"European definition of art is absurd"

Recently, I was reading an article in “The Art Newspaper” online entitled “European definition of art is absurd.” (click on title to read entire article) Of course, any article with that kind of title catches my attention since we’ve spent so much time on this blog discussing what IS and ISN’T “art.”

The catalysts for this European controversy are two video works installed at the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery: Hall of Whispers, 1995, by Bill Viola (image) and Six Alternating Cool White/Warm White Fluorescent Lights Vertical and Centred, 1973, by Dan Flavi. Last August, the European Commission determined that these works of art are merely equipment. That is, they are “DVD players and projectors” as well as “light fittings” and not “art” at all. Naturally, this meant that the works were subject to higher taxes and customs duty rather than a greatly reduced rate that would normally be applied to art when it’s imported for exhibition. But, the money really isn't the issue.
The real issue is what makes something a work of “art”? Defenders of the “this is art argument” state that “it is the content recorded on the DVD which, together with the components of the installation, provides for the modern art”. Personally, I agree because I believe that the artist’s intent is critical to making something a work of art.

However, the Commission “rejected the classification as sculpture because it is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it.” The author of the article asks: “Does this mean that if a Flavin is switched on, it is a work of art, but if switched off, it is not?” Good question!

You may read the rest of the article yourself to get all the details. I’m just getting to the heart of the controversy and speculating about what this decision means for artist and art in general. Do artists who use electronics as a medium fail to make art? I mean, does the medium really matter? I just use paper, canvas and paint. Louise Nevelson used scraps of wood she found on the street – parts of old chairs, desks, tables, and crates. Isn’t that art? What’s the difference here?
P.S. Sorry for the long absence. Hubby had operation, house is up for sale since he just retired and we're moving to Maine, and lots of other stuff going on!

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Rose is Not a Rose

My job is to see what other people have seen and to find something new in it. I heard this on a video about scientists the other day and wrote it down because it applies to artists.

There’s plenty of redundant subject matter in art. Here’s the typical list for paintings: landscapes, seascapes, flowers, portraits, still-life settings, allegorical and historical scenes, and non-objective. Most of us can say “been there, done that” when it comes to these subjects. But, the reason these subjects are so popular throughout time is because that’s what people want to see. So, how can we continue to produce artwork and avoid pointless redundancy? By, as the scientist stated, finding something new in what everyone else sees.

For example, many paintings of roses exist. But, here are some unusual examples that best illustrate that these artists were able to find something “new” in a rose:

by Georgia O'Keeffe

by Wayne Theibaud

by Salvidore Dali

Years ago, I became aware of the fact that I was only painting “pretty pictures.” There was no substance, no unique viewpoint, and no indication that I had anything important to add to the dialogue of art. This realization occurred during my first semester of studio painting in college three decades ago. The professor commented that my work was worthy of a department store and not much else. It was unoriginal and ordinary - vacuous. His comment was critically important to making me realize that I was a technician and not an artist. I had great painting technique – and that was all.

It’s taken a long time for me to find my voice and express it effectively in my paintings. I see it as a life-long quest and look to my dear friend as a role model. She’s an 84-year-old sculptor/painter. Each year, without fail, she expands her repertoire by creating something entirely new that expresses her unique ideas. Her work appears in venues around the world every year as she pushes it out the door. She’ll persist until she takes her last breath. I aspire to this, myself.

What about you?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Self-censorship and Fine Art

In this country, censorship is a controversial act. On the one hand, it’s used to protect society (especially children) from that which is deemed too violent, lewd or indecent. On the other hand, the act of censorship infringes upon our guaranteed individual rights and freedoms. In the world of fine art, censorship is extremely controversial because the artist’s freedom of expression is valued to a certain extent. So, society is more tolerant and even outraged when artists are censored on occasion.

Extrinsically imposed censorship isn’t today’s topic, however. Instead, I want to focus on intrinsically imposed censorship. That is, how and why do we artists choose to censor our own work? Do we adopt the same standards as external censors? How do we censor our work? And, why?

Shock artists specialize in rebelling against imposed standards. In the grand scheme of things, they are few in number but they do push and even blur the boundaries that define fine art. Although it seems ridiculous today, remember the controversy that surrounded John Singer Sargeant’s painting Madame X? A single strap fallen from the shoulder of a married woman was scandalous! He was forced to repaint the strap back up onto the shoulder. Today, no one would give it a second thought. So, the line between what is moral and “decent” and what is not is ever moving. It’s subjective and changes with time. Artists from all disciplines are frequently the catalyst for this change.

So, when we self-censor our work, are we artists guilty of inhibiting the advancement of the arts? Does advancement necessarily occur by challenging the social norms? I often think about this because the status quo is so comfortable, but if I want to grow artistically I have to shake up my world. I need to question it.

For instance, I have uncensored thoughts all the time. But, before I speak, write, or draw them I make them more socially “acceptable.” I think about whether or not my thoughts will offend others and modify the expression of them to something more palatable. I’m polite. Maybe, too polite. Should I be?

Furthermore, if I find self-censorship to be necessary for my own work, will I impose my standards on the works of others? Should I?

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do Unto Others ...

In previous posts I’ve spent some time discussing how to handle criticism of our work. It’s important to know how to filter through criticism to keep only the useful stuff. That’s an acquired skill. Budding artists tend to either accept all criticism or reject it all out of frustration. Neither choice is beneficial for advancement. Since I’ve covered this ground many times, I’ll move on to a more difficult topic: criticizing the work of others.

There’s a time and place for criticism, and carelessness can do irreparable harm. Budding artists need a lot of encouragement, so expert criticism needs to be truthful but also carefully delivered to avoid discouragement. And, even “expert” opinions can be wrong, which means that all criticism needs to be qualified when it’s given.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who claim to lack artistic ability altogether. When I ask them why they think that, the typical response is that a parent or teacher told them so when they were children. How tragic! Every human being has an aesthetic side that can be beautifully and effectively expressed in some way if recognized, nurtured, and given the chance.

So, I’m more worried about criticizing others than I am about receiving criticism. How will my words impact that person? I’m not implying that my opinion is important at all, but some people respond like it is. I try to limit my artistic opinions to those times when someone actually asks for them and let them know that my opinions are just that – only my opinions.

Back in the 1960’s I was an art major at a private school. My instructor delivered brutal critiques because she felt she had a duty to prepare me for the “real world.” I’ll give her credit for making me tough-skinned, but I never encountered that type of brutality anywhere since then. If my instructor had been less brutal I probably would have been more experimental and confident in my work. This held me back, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. You never know whose flame you might accidentally extinguish!
What are your thoughts today?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Art in the Attic

Yesterday, I confessed that stored in my attic are paintings that I’ve deemed unworthy for public viewing. They’re all works that I painted with conviction and enthusiasm. However, my intentions didn’t always work out or, when they did, I felt the work was too personal. The one posted here is a good example. It’s entitled “Measured Life at 51” and is part of my annual series of self-portraits. This one was done years ago during my second round of chemotherapy. I was fed-up with measuring everything: food, drink, medications, my weight, and so on. Measuring became tedious and a constant reminder that I was ill. I’m pretty certain that no one would want to purchase this work and hang it in their living room! So, it’s in my attic.

This has led me to question my judgment about what’s “good” or “bad” art. Is there really such a thing as “bad” art? I’ve decided to explore this a little more.

According to the Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Massachusetts, bad art is “art that is created with the best of intentions, but gone horribly wrong." I’m not certain what they mean by “gone horribly wrong,” but it might mean that art critics and the general public would find it amateurish or offensive. When I look at some of the work posted online by this museum that seems to be the case.

But, there must be more to it. Tolstoy wrote a lot about art, and expressed strong opinions on “good” versus “bad.” In a nutshell, he wrote that good art is intelligible and comprehensible while bad art is unintelligible and incomprehensible. Among my attic paintings are works so esoteric that Tolstoy would label them as “bad.” Maybe he has a point. Is the purpose of visual art to communicate? Is that the purpose of all the arts?
By extension, how important is the artist's intended message? The viewer won't necessarily interpret it the way the artist intended. If there's miscommunication, does that make the art "bad"? I don't think so.

Can art ever be “bad” if what makes it art in the first place is the intention of the artist? What do you think?

Monday, January 3, 2011


The history of art includes notable artists who defied established social norms in order to freely express themselves. They were willing to live in poverty for awhile or even permanently and found their place in the world of fine art by unconventional means. For instance, Jean Michel-Basquiat (photo) and Al Diaz began as graffiti artists on buildings in Lower Manhattan, working under the pseudonym SAMO. At that time, their artistic vision was more important to them than social approval or money.

Most of the rest of us are less radical. While we want unrestricted creativity, we also need to support ourselves in a manner that keeps us from living on the streets as beggars. So, we artists find ourselves in an ironic situation where we want to be free of social constraints but we also need society’s approval and support. We like to think that the opinions of others and the marketplace don’t affect our creative expressions, but they do. Isn't it ironic?

I’ve had to find a middle ground – a place where I can express my thoughts and also make them acceptable enough to find patronage. Does this make me hypocritical? No, because I openly admit it and I do like and believe in the art I'm making. But, what would I create if financial and social constraints were completely absent? I suppose the answer to that is all the art that's stacked up in my attic that no gallery or patron would touch. Maybe future generations will find value in it and maybe it will see the light of day.

How about you?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Elevator Speech

Most of us have written an Artist’s Statement (AS). If you look online for advice about how to write such a statement, you’ll find so much information that it’ll make your head spin! Therefore, no single way of doing this exists. However, some approaches are better than others.

What most interests me is the first sentence in an AS. It's the most important sentence because it will either capture the reader's attention or be the reason they stop reading. A great first sentence encapsulates the primary reason that the artist creates art. It also reveals why the artist has something unique to offer.
Just for fun, I decided to take a look at some of the AS's that are posted on line. Here are a few examples of just the first sentence:
My artwork takes a critical view of social, political and cultural issues.

My artwork explores how camouflaged political controls filter our understanding of history and relinquish our ability to accurately observe and respond to current socio-political events.

First, my work is about color and texture - relationships, contrasts, and blends.

The process of painting has always been so much more valuable to me than the completed product.

I gather, collate, re-use, layer, peel, burn, reveal, locate,
question, duplicate, play and photograph.

My work was influenced in the early 1960's by the New York School of abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, Hans Hoffman, and Robert Motherwell.

These first sentences are really the same as an “elevator speech.” If you haven’t heard of one before, it's the short statement you make to a stranger who asks about what you do before you arrive at the intended floor. Of course, this speech isn’t limited to elevator encounters. I’ve had to use it at cocktail parties, chance meetings, and often when introduced to someone. Usually, people don’t care because they’ve heard too many people claim to be artists and it doesn’t seem like a credible profession to them.

Because most people won’t listen beyond a sentence or two, the wording is important. It must capture their interest and reflect something they can relate to and understand. Brevity is a must.

Admittedly, I’m no good at this. The first sentence of my AS explains why: My natural tendency is to think in images rather than in words, and my paintings are expressions of those thoughts. It would be a lot easier to SHOW people what I do rather than explain it. After all, I am a “visual artist.”

In reality, most people ask us what we do only to be polite – to break the ice. Usually, they don’t really want to know and they certainly don’t want a long detailed explanation. But, it would be great to find something to say that would capture their interest. So, I’ll continue to work on my elevator speech – or – maybe I’ll just respond with “I create whole new worlds with paint and paper.” They’ll either identify me as the lunatic that I am and get off at the next floor, or they’ll be intrigued enough to ask me to explain.

In one sentence, how would you best describe who you are as an artist and/or what you do?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR to all and best wishes for a year filled with joy, good health, and prosperity!!

It’s good to be “back” and time for reflection and future planning. This blog began in May 2009 and today is my 260th post. In that time, I’ve reviewed a dozen art theory books and we’ve had some rip-roarin’ discussions that have greatly enhanced my understanding. I’m grateful to all of you who, through your participation, have helped me gain a broader perspective by generously sharing your own. My intent is to keep on keepin’ on!

The past three weeks have been devoted to a big change in my life. “Hubby” just retired and we’re in the process of selling our NY home in order to move to Maine. We’re exhausted from sorting through our possessions and fixing up the house. However, most of the work is done and now it’s a matter of finding a buyer. So, now I’m free to return to my studio and the blogosphere. Yippee!!

I’ve packed up all my art theory books and moved them to Maine, so my source material will change for a little while. But, that’s not a problem since there’s so much to think about anyway. Today, I’m inspired by the New Year and what it could bring. When I think about how to proceed, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso:

What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.
Truly, this applies to artmaking and to the art of living. So, my New Year’s resolution is to put hands and feet to my intentions more frequently. Picasso’s wisdom coupled with the old adage that “procrastination is the thief of time” reminds me to get going! My intentions will die with me, but the results of what I’ve done will live on. I’m off to the studio …

What’s your New Year’s resolution?