Art I Like

16 More Weird Christmas Traditions by Chris Hall

Burning the Devil in Guatemala....

Christmas can be a weird holiday....  I love it.  We’ve already covered the bizarre history of Saint Nicholas, investigated into Santa’s pagan origins and some of Santa’s weirder contemporaries, and we’ve explored some of his devilish companions and personal assistants.  We’ve also learned about Catalonia’s Caga Tio and El Caganer traditions and about Japan’s Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas tradition.  But this only the tip of the iceberg that is weird Christmas.  Here are 16 more weird Christmas traditions from around the world.  Merry Christmas everyone!

     

 

 


1.  South Africa – On Christmas Day many people will enjoy eating the deep-fried caterpillars of Emperor Moths….


2.  Norway – Here you must hide your broom on Christmas Eve lest it be stolen by a witch or evil spirit.


3.  Venezuela – In Caracas it is a tradition to go to Christmas Mass on roller skates.


4.  Greenland – Be sure to eat try one of these traditional Christmas dishes… Mattak:  raw whale skin served with blubber.  Kiviak:  500 dead auk birds stuffed inside a seal skin and left to ferment for seven months.


5.  Germany – Here it is a tradition to hide a pickle inside the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.  The first child to discover it in the morning will receive a small gift.


6.  Ukraine – The Christmas trees are not hung with tinsel and ornaments, but with a fake Christmas Spider and spider’s webs.


7.  Czech Republic – When a lady stands by a door and throws a shoe over their shoulder, and if the shoe toe is pointing toward them, then the lady will be married in the coming year.


8.   Estonia – It is a tradition in Estonia for families to go to the sauna together on Christmas.


9.  Wales – Small villages will perform a Mari Lwyd ritual on Christmas Eve where a lucky villager is chosen to parade through town with the skull of a mare hoisted on the end of a long stick.

 Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem

Burning the Devil - photo by Santiago Billy Prem


10.  Guatemala – Here it is a tradition to sweep out the house before Christmas.  Each neighborhood will create a big pile of dirt and place an effigy of a devil on top, which is then burnt.


11.  Greece – A race of evil goblins called the kallikantzaroi are said to leave their underground dwellings and wreak havoc over the twelve days leading up to Christmas.


12.  Slovakia – The most senior man of the house will take a spoonful of loksa pudding and throw it at the ceiling.  The more that sticks the better.


13.  Finland – Here it is a tradition to honor the dead by lighting candles and leaving them in the grave yards.


14.  Austria – In Gresten people will dress up as Krampus, and parade around town hoping to scare children.

USA Running of the Santas.jpg


15.  USA – Some cities will enact a Running of the Santas, where groups of people dressed as Santa Claus will make a boozy bar crawl.

South Africa Danny Ghost.jpg


16.  South Africa – It is a tradition to tell the story of Danny, who upset his grandmother by eating the cookies left out for Santa Claus.  The grandmother becomes so upset that she kills Danny.  Danny is said to haunt homes on Christmas.


Recent Scribblings on Art by Chris Hall

Notebooks with sketches and writings with studio detritus...

Although I haven’t posted in this blog very much lately, it hasn’t been for a lack of want.  I am always thinking and writing on art.  Here are some fractured thoughts from my notebook and various Facebook postings…


1.  On attending Flux night in Atlanta:  So, I enjoyed going to Flux night yesterday.  I enjoyed the Fast Food Mascot Fight, the Disarm sound work made of old weapons, the Spelman College Choir, and the large drawing of Civil Rights Activists.  I was a bit disappointed by Yoko Ono's work.  Too frequently she relies on the good intentions of others to complete her work. I love and respect her idealism, but sometimes it comes across as hopelessly naive.  I saw this in the way many people were butchering the spirit of her work by smearing the ink and drawing inappropriate things on it.  I respect her never failing optimistic take on life - but it is a place I cannot go to and settle in for any length of time.  But Yoko Ono is a sacred cow in the art world - and I doubt anyone would criticize her art in print.  And maybe I'm fine with that.  Although I cannot make an art that is so blindly optimistic, I am glad someone is.  We definitely need more of that.


2.  I think I make more interesting work than great work, and by great I mean sublime and profound.  I want to make more great work.  More often I make an art for the now, though sometimes I want to make an art for a forever.


3.  Last night I wanted to be wild.  I knew I wanted to be wild.  No one would join me so I went out alone.  It paid off.  I had a drunken epiphany as to why my current painting isn’t working.  I can’t wait to work in a bit.  Didn’t Hemingway once say, “Compose drunk, but edit sober?”


4.  In response to the stabbing at the recent Art Basel Miami:  Hello art world, please think about this sentence pulled from the attached article: Some patrons thought the stabbing was a performance art presentation. Others believed the police tape cordoning off an area of the convention center was part of an art installation. ------ this statement speaks to - 1. the current over conflation of art and life in contemporary art - and 2. a kind of jaded attitude where nothing is genuine or sincere and everything is suspect or a performance or a facade of some kind.... time to wake up my friends, and learn some sincerity, some trust, some wonder, some belief . . . some empathy.


5.  I am king of the night!  Now, if I can only master the day.  Good night everyone!


6.  So, this is 40:  a good a time as any to take stock of one’s life, I guess.   For those of you who know me well, you must know that my life so far has been . . . challenging.   But despite these challenges, I have zero regrets.   I’ve always done what compels my heart, I’ve always done what needed to be done, and I’ve always tried to do the right thing.  Perhaps it is because of these things that my life has been so full of challenges.  I can honestly say without any exaggeration that I would not be here without you, my fantastic friends and family, who have given me support during the many, many, and many less than ideal times in my life. . . But the lesson here is not how many bad times there have been, but how many times you all have come to help me out!  And remembering these times, these are sweet, rich memories!  I will never forget this, and I am eternally grateful to you all!  Thank you! 

Ahab (1998), oil on wood panel, 24x48.


7.  I recently sold an old favorite of mine to a good friend and collector.  The work?  Ahab (1998).  Obviously it is referencing Moby Dick, one of my favorite books.  Looking at this painting I remember a line from a poem popular with 19th century American whalers... "Death to the living, long life to the killers." How metal is that!  This painting used to hang in my parent's house where it would scare the neighbor's kids.   I picked it up tonight and am giving this old friend a good bye.  It will be in good company with two other Moby Dick themed paintings.


8.  I use a lot humor in my work and it pleases me to make people laugh, but I also want to make art to move people spiritually with beauty, and also to challenge people to think.  Art is such a strange thing.  There are still other reasons why I make art, and some more altruistic than others.  Selfishly, I use art as a catharsis to help with assimilating pain, but also to confront my shadow side, the potential madman, killer, chauvinist, dictator in me.  I often manifest my darker self in my art so that it doesn’t manifest itself as much in my life.  I know that I can never be perfect.  It is silly to try.  But if I confront the darker aspects of myself and acknowledge it in my art, I can at least attempt to be whole.


9.  I’ve been working a lot on some older works lately, the earliest dating back to 1999.  I honestly thought this might be harder than it is.  I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do this out of sense of respect or sacredness to a moment long past.  I am finding destruction can be just as integral to the process of making art as creation.  I feel as though I am taking some great risks here.


10.  Work on the dictator series continues, but I am already planning ahead for a future body of work, strangely enough on Art and Art Making.  I am pretty excited about this.  Of course there are other sketches for works that don’t quite fit into this plan – I hope I can find time to actualize a few of them.  And then there is the backlog of over 100 topics I’d like to write about for this blog, reworking my book, etc… Time is a bastard-bitch.

 

Billboard Liberation Front by Chris Hall

Last week I posted a blog where I briefly discussed the differences between art and advertising, how the two are often confused, and the ubiquity of advertising in our lives.  Many people have come to accept the visual pollution and propaganda as something normal, and even welcome in our lives (more people relish the idea of watching Super Bowl commercials than going to a museum).   But advertising, like propaganda, have ulterior motives that are self-serving and not always beneficial to the people whom they are directed.  While art and advertisement both use aesthetics in order to communicate a message, there are some notable differences in their intent.  Advertisement seeks your money, art, however, seeks the truth.  Fortunately, some artists are fighting back.  

Meet the Billboard Liberation Front.  The Billboard Liberation Front was founded by Jack Napier and Irving Glikk in San Francisco in 1977 and has since been altering billboards in the bay area in order to turn advertising into art.  Advertising seeks to seeks out your money, and not always by benevolent means.  Sometime what they advertise for are outright lies.  Art, on the other hand, aspires to truth, sometimes, beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always truth.  Using a practice developed by Guy Debord called detournement, the Billboard Liberation Front uses the language of the enemy, in this case, advertisement, in order to tell truths.  Below are some examples of their work.

Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann: Veteran Artists of World War II by Chris Hall

Today I want to honor two artist veterans of the Second World War, Bill Mauldin and H.C. Westermann.  Mauldin was an Army veteran in the European Theater of Operations and Westermann was a Marine veteran in the Pacific Theater of Operations, aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Bill Mauldin

bill mauldin (2).jpg

Bill Mauldin was an editorial cartoonist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.  Prior to the outbreak of war, Mauldin took art classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Army and was present for the invasion of Sicily and the Italy campaigns.  During his tour of duty with the 45th Infantry Division, Mauldin was inspired to create his “Willie and Joe” cartoons, depicting two struggling and war weary soldiers of the ETO.  Mauldin's cartoons are clearly sympathetic toward the ground pounding enlisted men and they resonated with his fellow GI's.  

In February 1944 Mauldin was officially transferred into Stars and Stripes magazine and by March 1944, he was given his own jeep, in which he roamed the front, collecting material and producing six cartoons a week.  The War Office supported the syndication of Mauldin's work, not only because they helped publicize the ground forces but also to show the grim and bitter side of war, which helped show that victory would not be easy.  

Nevertheless, those officers who had served in the army before the war were generally offended by Mauldin, who parodied the spit-shine and obedience-to-order-without-question view that was more easily maintained during times of peace.  General George Patton once summoned Mauldin to his office and threatened to "throw his ass in jail" for "spreading dissent" after one of Mauldin's cartoons made fun of Patton's demand that all soldiers must be clean-shaven at all times, even in combat.  But General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander European Theater, told Patton to leave Mauldin alone, because he felt that Mauldin's cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. Mauldin told an interviewer later, "I always admired Patton.  Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy.  He was insane.  He thought he was living in the Dark Ages.  Soldiers were peasants to him.  I didn't like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes."  

Mauldin's cartoons made him a hero to the common soldier.  Many GIs often credit him with helping them to get through the rigors of the war.  His credibility with the common soldier increased in September 1943, when he was wounded in the shoulder by a German mortar while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war he also received the Army's Legion of Merit for his cartoons.  

Mauldin wanted Willie and Joe to be killed on the last day of combat, but Stars and Stripes dissuaded him.  In 1945, at the age of 23, "Sergeant Bill Mauldin" of United Features Syndicate won the annual Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.  

After World War II, Mauldin turned to drawing political cartoons expressing a generally civil libertarian view associated with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. These were not well received by newspaper editors, who were hoping for more apolitical Willie and Joe cartoons.  In 1956, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress as a Democrat in New York's 28th Congressional District.


H.C. Westermann

Acrobat and aspiring artist H.C. Westermann served aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise during World War II as a Marine Corps anti-aircraft gunner, where he was witness to deadly Kamikaze attacks the sinking of several ships.  Covered in tattoos, Westermann was a larger than life character with a tendency to swear like a sailor.  In 1947 Westermann attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he developed his talents for drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, but left in 1950 to re-enlist in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.  Westermann finished his degree upon his return.  

The war violence he witnessed, along with its psychological effects, greatly informed his work.  In a letter and drawing from 1978, Westermann relives his 33 year old nightmare of how he discovered his friend’s body, identifiable from the eagle tattoo on his chest, after a naval battle, on top of a pile of dead sailors:

I looked down on the fantail of the ship and they had all the dead people stacked there like cordwood.  It was a pretty ungodly sight.  Well the moon was bright and the dead sailor on top of the pile was a good pal of mine.  That’s him in the drawing . . . he was naked and on his chest was a huge beautiful tattoo of an eagle that he was so proud of . . . Well the next morning the placed each dead man in a mattress cover with a five inch projectile tied between his legs and we buried them at sea.

Westermann was a master craftsman in the wood-working arts and prided himself on the quality workmanship of his sculpture.  A frequent subject in sculptures were his “Death-Ships.”

In time, Westermann become a well known artist, and in 1967 he was one of the celebrities featured on the cover of the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Westermann resisted giving interpretations of hiw work.  In one interview, when asked what an object meant, Westermann replied, “It puzzles me, too.”  In 1978, Westermann was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Westermann’s work is known for its honesty, cathartic expression, and humor, but equally important is his anti-materialistic, anti-militarism message.  Westermann was able to transmute his nightmarish memories of Kamikazes and “Death-Ships" into artistic gold.  

Art, Not Advertisment by Chris Hall

Recently I've read that the iconic mural at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Deborah Whitehouse's Spirit of Atlanta, is being deinstalled after nearly 20 years in residence, to be replaced by a Porsche advertisement.  The mural was installed in 1996 to commemorate the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  Though Spirit of Atlanta is not as cool as Leo Tanguma's ballsy murals at Denver International Airport (parts of which have also been deinstalled), I've always liked seeing this welcoming work of art as I headed up the escalator from the terminal trains below (well, everything except that diaper kid on the right; that kind of creeped me out).

Art to be replaced by an ad . . . no matter if you liked the mural or not, it certainly is better than yet another advertisement (visual pollution).  Although art and advertisement share the same language, their motives are completely different things.  Art aspires to truth.  Ads, however, are no different than political propaganda, as they both have an ulterior agenda behind the facade.  Since the 1960's (with Andy Warhol and Pop Art) and the advent of Postmodernism (with their expanded definition of what could be considered art) many have accepted advertisement as an art-form.  I will proudly remain a stick-in-the-mud, however, and a misanthrope if I have to be, working outside of the cultural norms and in defiance of this trend.  Nor will you find me a visitor to the High Museum of Art's Coco-Cola exhibit, either.

I can understand (but never agree with) how many people can be uncomfortable with Leo Tanguma's murals, In Peace and Harmony With Nature, and The Children of the World Dream of Peace; most people would choose ignorance and bliss over truth and consequence, but to favor an advertisement over art, as many have done in the comments section of the article I read, that I can not fathom.  Take this gem from the comments section by a person identifying themselves as DrSocrates:

Finally the airport is making some sense.  The airport is no place for artwork, museums, shopping malls, or fine dining.  It is a place for travel.  It could be a place for revenue-producing ads.  There are many places for ads.  Where the mural was, where you wait for the trains (think New York's subway), on the trains, at baggage claim.  Whether these ads increase business for the sponsors doesn't matter.  The airport should try to maximize its revenue generation so it can DECREASE taxes and fees. Period.  End of argument.  

What an obtuse ass.  And it only gets uglier from there.

In case you were wondering about Leo Tanguma's murals at Denver International Airport, it seems they have become part of a conspiracy theory involving a secret underground base, the Illuminati, the New World Order, Neo-Nazis, and Subterranean Reptoid Aliens.  I think we need more of this kind of art!  You can learn more about it here:  

Words of Encouragement by Chris Hall

 Photo by Bob Mullen.

Photo by Bob Mullen.

“Artists are fiery, they do not weep!” - Ludwig van Beethoven

"What is to give light must endure burning" — Viktor E. Frankl


Life can be hard for artists, especially artists with an uncompromising vision.  But just remember who you are.  You are a force of nature, an artist!  Unlike others, you had the strength, the balls to pursue your artistic vision, irregardless of what other people think.  Many people wish they had your life, but they were cowards, and they followed other pursuits.  You dared to live, dared to fail!  Remember the poem “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence:  

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

You are that wild thing.  You are that rare bird who delights in singing songs in the dead of winter.  Keep making art, no matter what happens.  Art is your weapon against death in life.  Always remember why you make art.  As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Finally, take comfort in Charles Bukowski's poem, “The Laughing Heart”:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you. 

Now get up, and get back to making more art!

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

 Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

 Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Music, Art, and Spirituality by Chris Hall

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913.

“Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Painting is a thundering conflict of different worlds, which in and out of the battle with one another are intended to create the new world, which is called the world of art. Each work arises technically in a way similar to that in which the cosmos arose – through catastrophes, which from the chaotic roaring of the instruments finally create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of the work is the creation of worlds.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Blood Promise (recorded live in 1997), by Swans, composed by Michael Gira, from the album Swans are Dead.

Ah!  If I could only make a painting that sounds like this song, I would retire my paint brushes forever! Like a good painting, listening to this song requires time and patience. It builds slowly, then at a certain point, it overwhelms and consumes. You lose yourself in spiritual, transcendent experience. The first part of the song is the sound of mankind's universal experience of pain, but then at the 8:17 mark, the bottom drops out, and you begin to float, you make the first hesitant steps at flying, at escaping, trying out your wings for the first time, fighting for joy, demanding entrance into heaven, the right to be dissolved into the universal void . . . only to begin again, born again, reincarnated.  This song gives me the shivers and puts goosebumps on my skin.  Today I want to write about music, art, and spirituality, while referencing two of its most famous practitioners, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.

“Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” Ludwig van Beethoven

Music has always been an important part of my life.  I may have been born with a crayon in my hand, but it was music that gave me the inspiration and courage to use it.  I was born on December 16th, 1975.  I share this birthday with my brothers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.  Like both of these artists, music is a big part of my life.  When I paint, I always have music on – it allows me to loosen up, to more easily channel my primal-self, that deeper part of myself where I act more on instinct than intellect, where I can better pick up on unconscious inspiration.

“With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist's soul, in musical sound.”  Wassily Kandinsky 

While it is more known that musicians have attempted to portray visual imagery through sound (both figuratively, as in Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and abstractly, as in Alexander Scriabin's synesthetic oeuvre), it is less well known that artists have pursued painting with an eye toward music.  Wassily Kandinsky is one of these artists.  But music is by nature abstract.  How does one paint sound?  What shape does it take?  What color is it?  Wassily Kandinsky was profoundly inspired by music, and it is thought he may have even experienced synesthesia, where a person gets their senses confused, and they literally can hear colors, or see sound.  Kandinsky's synesthesia may have inspired him to create the first truly abstract works of art.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky sets up a color theory in order to merge ideas of music and art, with an eye toward using art as path toward spiritual transcendence.  

“Each color lives by its mysterious life.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Wassily Kandinsky

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural... The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Musical notation by Ludwig van Beethoven.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Like Beethoven and Kandinsky, I believe in the power of music and art to elevate notions of spirituality in people, and like them, I often seek spiritual transcendence through my work and the work of others.  Who can not listen to the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy and not get the feeling of spiritual transcendence!  

Excerpt from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy, taken from the film Immortal Beloved (1994).

Art is as a noble profession, a profession I want to protect from pop culture banality and commercial interests.  These people are the real killers of art.  It seems so strange that I have so much in common with Beethoven and Kandinsky, in terms of personality and a deep love of music.  Of course we are all artists as well, but what is more fascinating is that we also share the same motivations for making art, and share a belief in the possibility of it being divinely inspired.  Perhaps there is some truth to this whole astrology thing.  The website thesecretlanguage.com claims to have collected and studied the life stories of 20,000 people over 40 years, and this is how they describe people born on December 16th:  visionary, imaginative, guided, impractical, out-of-touch, and troubled.  The website also has this to say:

Those born on December 16 are among the most imaginative people in the year. This is not to understate their physical side, however, which is highly developed and stakes out its claims on their personality as well. As a matter of fact, one of the major themes in the lives of December 16 people concerns transcending physical limitations of the body and reaching for the stars . . . December 16 people are not the easiest to live with. Emotional problems of all sorts plague them, usually as a result of their own complex nature. Those who live with them must be extraordinarily understanding and sensitive to their needs, not the very least of which may be a need for periodic solitude . . . Often December 16 people feel guided or even instructed by a higher power in whose service they find themselves. This power may be social, religious or universal in nature, but ultimately liberating for them. Through this association they are freed from their earthbound problems at least for a time . . . December 16 people are capable of feats requiring titanic energies. Once they are directed towards an inspiring but also realistic goal, there is little that can stop them from achieving far-reaching success in their work. Yet, they can be easily sidetracked and fall prey to all sorts of slights, real or imagined, annoyances and (to them) trivial problems involving other people’s feelings, to which they are not always the most sensitive. Living on what may or may not be a high spiritual plane or metaphysical cloud they can have trouble relating to those mere mortals busy with more mundane and petty considerations . . . Explosive reactions alternating with remoteness or indifference, manic periods followed by depressions, the highs of laughter and the depths of deep silence are all colors found on the December 16 palette. The most successful of those born on this day find expression for their high idealism and feelings through creative work, hobbies or social activities. Thus they are able to communicate with and touch their fellow human beings through shared interests.

Not exactly glowing reviews, especially the whole prone to mental illness and depression thing, but if I am honest with myself and my flaws, and I am, I have to admit this is very accurate.  And this is where art comes in for me.  Art (music, visual art, and writing) is not only a catharsis for me, it has allowed me to confront my flaws, and to hopefully work at getting beyond them.  Art, then, is my path toward spiritual growth and transcendence.  Art is my religion.

“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”  Wassily Kandinsky

If you enjoyed the live version of Blood Promise by Swans (recorded 1997) above, I hope you may enjoy the studio version below, released in 1994.  It is a very different song, and short, about four minutes long.  It is the kind of song I think I might like to fall in love to.  

Blood Promise from the album The Great Annihilator (1994).

Lee Krasner by Chris Hall

Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) was an influential American painter among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists known as the New York School.  Not only is she an iconoclast by being a part of this vanguard movement in American art, she is doubly so, as the movement was at first a kind of men's club.  For this reason I have mad respect for both her and her artwork.  She is one of the few women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held posthumously in 2008.  

Krasner was born in Brooklyn, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia in Odessa.  Growing up, she had little interest in Judaism, as she could not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women.  Soon she announced to her parents that she was done with religion, and enrolled herself in a secular public high school.  Born Lena Krasner, she decided to call herself by the more gentile sounding name, Lenore.

After high school, Krasner moved on to study art at Cooper Union.  At Cooper Union, men and women were strictly segregated, even entering the building through separate entrances.  Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male.  While at Cooper Union, Krasner grew tired of the name Lenore and once again changed it, to the more androgynous sounding Lee, so that those looking at her artwork would not know if she was a man or woman.  Cooper Union was not a pleasant experience for Krasner, and she decided to enroll at the National Academy of Art.  To gain admittance, she began working on an large self-portrait, facilitated by a mirror which she nailed to a tree outside her parent's modest home on Long Island.  The National Academy of Art accepted her for a free seven month period.

Soon after arriving, Krasner found life at the National Academy not much better than at Cooper Union.  At the Academy, fish were kept in the basement for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs.  Krasner described the faculty as being “worried by the French,” and as being stuck in the old, traditionalist ways.  Her report card read, “This student is always a bother . . . insists upon having her own way despite school rules.”  Despite the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show, where European avant-garde art was first introduced, American art remained in long isolation.  Later, with the influx of European artists immigrating to America to escape the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, things would change very quickly.  Meanwhile, in 1928, the students at the National Academy of Art were getting their first glimpse of French Impressionist work, some 60 years after the movement had began!  Krasner and her classmate's work shifted direction in dramatic fashion.  Disgusted by the “new” art, one instructor even hurled his brushes against the wall, shouting, “I can't teach you people anything!”  Later, Krasner would describe the effect Impressionist paintings had on her, saying, “Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism.”

From 1935 to 1943, Krasner worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, in the Mural Arts Division.  She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936.  Her first impression of him was not great.  Deeply inebriated, he cut in on her dance partner, only to ask, “Do you like to fuck?”  Krasner was fired and rehired from the Federal Art Project, and then permanently let go, when a policy of terminating everyone who had worked more than 18 months was enacted.  Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend though the mail.  Finding herself in a low point in her life, she moved to a cheaper apartment, where she would write on the wall Rimbaud's words:  

To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?


Starting in 1937, Krasner took courses from the German emigre Hans Hofmann, who taught the principles of Cubism.  Hofmann was impressed with Krasner's work, saying, “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman."  Nevertheless, Hofmann would be a big influence on Krasner's work.  In 1940, she started showing her new abstract work with the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1942, she met Pollock again, under better circumstances, as they were both preparing to exhibit their work in the same show.  Krasner and Pollock would later marry in 1945.

While Krasner would continue her own work in her own studio, she dedicated a lot her time promoting Pollock's work.  It could be argued that Pollock would not have been as much of a success in the art world without Krasner's support.  Artistically, Krasner and Pollock treated each other as equals, and she would lend her critical eye by helping Pollock develop his work.  They would also give each other reassurance and support in the early days, when neither of their work was well-appreciated.  Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while it did have its peaceful times, would become strained due to Pollock's troubles and alcoholism.  Their marriage would come to an abrupt end in 1956, when Pollock died in an alcohol related single car crash.

After Pollock's death, Krasner had a difficult time getting her work shown.  “People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter,” she said in an 1981 interview.  “Someone like (Clement) Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter.  He had power.”  Although Greenberg had been closely acquainted with Krasner for decades – he even met Pollock through her – he never once wrote a word in support of her art.  Krasner would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create collages, and, at times revised and discarded entire series of work.  As a result, her surviving body of work is quite small.

After Krasner's death in 1981, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio.  It is now open to the public.  In 1985, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established, functioning as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  As stated in her will, the foundation serves “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need.”

Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler by Chris Hall

Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell.jpg

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) was a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of a dermatologist and a poet.  She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA (1947) and her MFA (1950), respectively.  After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she had wanted to study at Han Hofmann's school, but after attending only one class she left, declaring, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified."  With a $2,000 travel fellowship, she also studied in Paris and Provence, France, where she would spend much of her later life.

In 1949, Mitchell married the American publisher Barney Rosset, in Paris.  Rosset is, perhaps, best known as the man who published the controversial and sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  Mitchell and Rosset soon divorced in 1952.  Mitchell would remain active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950's New York, despite the increasing amount of time she would spend traveling and working in France.  In 1955, Mitchell severed her ties to America, and moved to France to join the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have a long, tumultuous relationship (1955 to 1979).  They would maintain separate homes and studios, but would meet everyday for dinner and drinks.

 Joan Mitchell,  No Birds , 1987 - 1988

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Wassily Kandinsky, and later by the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.  Mitchell's work, like that of her Abstact Expressionist peers, are expansive, and usually made up of two panels.  The landscape was a primary influence on her subject matter.  Like fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell would sometimes paint on unprimed canvas, but with gestural and sometimes violent brushwork.  She has described painting as, “an organism that turns in space.”

Beginning in the early 1980's, Mitchell's health began to fail, and it impacted her work significantly.  In 1984, She was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and was she was advised to have jaw completely removed.  After a second opinion, radiation therapy was pursued, and her jaw was saved (although it would leave her jawbone dead).  Her health continued to fail, however, and she fell into a crippling depression complicated with anxiety.  While Mitchell had quit smoking, but she would remain a heavy drinker for the rest of her life.  With the help of a psychoanalyst, Mitchell returned to painting.  Long an admirer of Vincent van Gogh's work, Mitchell began to look at what is perhaps his final painting, his Wheatfield with Crows (1890) as a kind of suicide note, filled with hopelessness, despair, and death.  Mitchell made a painting entitled No Birds (1988) as a response and homage.  Like Van Gogh, Mitchell also began to investigate the subject of sunflowers, saying she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.”

Mitchell was also a great admirer of Henri Matisse, favoring his vivid use of color and the vivacity of his line.  She once claimed that, “If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.”  In October of 1992, Mitchell flew to New York to visit a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Mitchell returned to France on October 22, and entered the American Hospital of Paris.  Mitchell died on the morning of October 30, 1992.

Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was a “Second Generation” American Abstract Expressionist painter.  She began exhibiting her large-scale paintings in galleries and museums in the early 1950's and is also labeled as being a Color Field Post-Painterly Abstraction artist.  Frankenthaler was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg.  Post-Painterly artists generally set themselves apart from the “First Generation” of Abstract Expressionists by eliminating the emotional, mythic, and religious content from their work and for eliminating the highly personal, gestural, and painterly application of paint.

Growing up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a progressive Jewish family under privileged circumstances (her father Alfred Frankenthaler was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge), the Frankenthaler family encouraged Helen in her pursuit of art.  Frankenthaler found herself influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings, and by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Frankenthaler studied art at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo, and also at Bennington College in Vermont.  Upon graduation, she continued taking private studies with Hans Hofmann, in 1950, who she met through Clement Greenberg (with whom she would have a five year relationship).  Also in 1950, Frankenthaler saw Pollock's paintings for the first time (Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 and Number One - Lavender Mist, 1950) at Betty Parsons Gallery.  Of the works, Frankenthaler said, “It was all there.  I waned to live in this land.  I had to live there, and master the language.”  In 1958, Frankenthaler married “First Generation” Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, though they would divorce in 1971.  Because both Frankenthaler and Motherwell were both born to wealthy parents, and were known to host lavish parties, the pair became known as “the golden couple.”  Frankenthaler never considered herself a feminist, saying “For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue.  I don't resent being a female painter.  I don't exploit it.  I paint.”

Frankenthaler, like her Abstract Expressionist peers, is known for her large scale paintings with simplified abstract compositions emphasizing spontaneity, which she would make by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.  She once stated that, “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once.”  Although she painted in many different abstract styles and used a variety of techniques over her 60 year career, she is best known for her color field painting using a “soak stain” technique, where she would heavily dilute her oil paint in turpentine which she would us to soak and stain her unprimed canvas.   While the technique produces a beautiful result, resembling the translucent application of watercolor, the major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

During the course of her life, Frankenthaler would be a faculty member of Hunter College and, in 1989, would be one of the few women artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

A common criticism of Frankenthaler's work, along with that her “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist peers, was that it was “merely beautiful,” and without much substance, aping the style pioneered by “First Generation.”  But we do need beautiful things in the world, to give us pause in our lives.  Beauty is good medicine, good for the soul.  It heals.  Asclepius had five daughters who helped him in his practice of medicine:  Hygieia (Hygiene),  Iaso (Recuperation), Aceso (Healing), Panacea (Universal Remedy), and Aglaea (Beauty).  “Art,” Picasso reminds us, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career thus:
“Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."

Three Painters from Across the Pond: Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully by Chris Hall

 Howard Hodgkin,  Learning About Russian Music , 1999.

Howard Hodgkin, Learning About Russian Music, 1999.

Sir Howard Hodgkin

Sir Howard Hodgkin (1932 - ) is a British painter and printmaker.  Despite often being small in size and deceptively simple,  Hodgkin spends a considerable amount of time with each work, some taking years to complete.  Hodgkin's work are associated with abstraction, in its original understanding, as he abstracts from nature.  His paintings are rich in color, and are often compared with the work of Henri Matisse.  In 1984, Hodgkin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in 1985 he won the Turner Prize (a reminder that the Turner Prize was once painter friendly and not so favored toward conceptual art).  In 1992 Hodgkin was knighted.  In 2003 he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as a Companion of Honour, as if the title “Sir” wasn't fancy enough.  In September, 2010, Hodgkin and five other British artists including John Walker (who I will discuss next) participated in an exhibition entitled The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art From the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie, at the Yale Center for British Art. 
 


John Walker

John Walker (1939 - ) is a British painter and printmaker whose earliest works are inspired by Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction.  Rendered in acrylic paint, they often combine three dimensional elements with flatter elements.  Starting in the late 70's Walker moved to using thick impasto oil paints, while making pictorial allusions and quotations from earlier painters, such as Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, and Henri Matisse.  During this time Walker also started to collage pre-painted canvas cut-outs to his work.  After spending time in Australia, Walker got a position teaching at Victoria College of Art in Melbourne.  It was during this time that he produced his Oceania series, incorporating elements of native Oceanic art.  Walker won the 1976 John Moores Painting Prize in 1976, and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985, which went Howard Hodgkin instead.  Walker is currently the head of the graduate painting program at Boston University.  

Sean Scully

Sean Scully (1945 - )  is an Irish-born painter and printmaker, raised in South London, but who now lives in the United States.  He was nominated for the Turner Prize twice, in 1989 and in 1993.  Scully's paintings are often made up of a number of panels, which when assembled, form an abstract pattern.  Painted in thick layers of oil paint, his colorful works have heavily textured surfaces which need to be seen in order to be properly appreciated.  In an 2005 interview Sean Scully had this to say of his work:

“I hold to a very Romantic ideal of what's possible in art, and I hold to the idea of the 'personal universal.' This is a complex agenda. My project is complicated in this way, and in that sense I'm out of fashion. I'm going against the current trend towards bizarreness, oddness; as you just called it, the 'esoteric', which of course was around in the 1930s. That's what is being revisited now. In between the two great wars, there was a very strong period, particularly in Europe, of a strange, bizarre, distorted and perverse kind of figuration, with freaks in the paintings. Very disturbing twins, subjects like that. These paintings were mostly coming out of Italy and Germany. Now we have a return to that—again in a strange period, after the end of Modernism."

Scully's statement is interesting to me, and I think it is a fair assessment of art between the World Wars, and also the current state of contemporary art.  Personally, I look upon Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully's works as an ideal.  Somehow they transcend the nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work being produced today.  But every work has a place and purpose, and every age gets the art it deserves.  The nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work is a reflection of our times.  Ah, but to escape!

Joel-Peter Witkin by Chris Hall

Joel-Peter Witkin (born 1939) is an American photographer, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His photography celebrates the grotesque and society's outsiders, as he often uses dwarves, transsexuals, inter-sex persons, and the physically deformed as models.  His complex tableaux often recall religious themes, sex, death, and classical paintings. 

Witkin was born to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother, who soon split because of they were unable to overcome their religious differences.  His twin brother, Jerome Witkin, and his son Kersen Witkin, are also painters.  Between 1961 and 1964, Witkin was a war photographer documenting the Vietnam War.  He attended Cooper Union in New York where he studied sculpture, attaining a Bachelor Arts degree in 1974.  Later he would get his Master of Fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  Witkin claims that his photographic sensibility springs from an event he witnessed as a young child, an automobile accident in front of his house in which a little girl was decapitated:

“It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away.”

Witkin's favorite artist is the early Italian Renaissance painter Giotto.  His photographic techniques draw on early Daguerreotypes and on the work of E. J. Bellocq, who also specialized in photos of society's outsiders.  Bellocq is known for his haunting photographic portraits of Storyville prostitutes in New Orleans and images of life in the opium dens in the early 20th century.  Like William Mortensen (a fellow champion of the grotesque), Witkin also uses techniques to manipulate the image, such as scratching the negative, bleaching and toning the print, and a hands-in-chemical printing process.

Witkin also uses corpses and body parts in his photographic arrangements.  I have not posted any of these photographs (interesting though they may be to look at) as I believe the dead should be respected and not used for art (documentation in war photography is another subject all together, and the ethics even here are in a moral gray zone).  To get around restrictive US laws, Witkin creates his photography using the dead in Mexico.

Many critics have come out to label Witkin's transgressive photography as exploitative, made to purposefully shock a weak stomached, bourgeois public.  Corpses and body parts aside (the dead have no choice as to whether or not to be included in art), I believe that Witkin's use of subjects that society would rather ignore is a noble occupation with a long tradition, from Diego Velazquez to Pablo Picasso.  Showcasing society's outcasts and outsiders in art forces people to acknowledge their own prejudices and hypocrisies.  And once you get past the initial shock of the grotesque and unfamiliar, many of Witkin's photographs can become quite beautiful.

Joel-Peter Witkin's work was the major source of inspiration (along with Francis Bacon) for Mark Romanek's video for the Nine Inch Nails song Closer.

Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Children by Chris Hall

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children, c 1820

Francisco Goya created the 14 works comprising The Black Paintings between 1820 and 1824, when he would have been 74.  Perhaps the most iconic of the series is his painting of Saturn Devouring His Children.    Goya created Saturn and The Black Paintings by painting his oils directly onto the plaster walls of his house, named La Quinta del Sordo, "The House of the Deaf Man."  Saturn Devouring His Children, with its icy stare and gruesome subject matter, was in Goya's dining room.  The painting is large, measuring 32” x 56”.  Goya also gave Saturn a giant, erect penis.  By the time he had painted Saturn, Goya had given up on Spain, which, after the liberal Pretender King Joseph Bonaparte was expelled, returned to a conservative and repressive monarchy under Ferdinand VII, reconstituting the Inquisition.  Goya no longer made artwork with the intention of sharing them with others.  The Black Paintings were made entirely for himself.  

In 1874, some 50 years after they were painted, Saturn and The Black Paintings began the slow process of being transferred onto canvas.  In 1878, they were moved to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  Sometime during the transfer process, Saturn lost his penis.  Whether the loss was an accident or a deliberate act by prudish conservators will never be known. 

Sandro Botticelli by Chris Hall

 Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from  Adoration of the Magi  (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.  

Technicians of Ecstasy - Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Chris Hall

I recently finished reading Technicians of Ecstasy – Shamanism and the Modern Artist, by Mark Levy.  In it he profiles 27 artists in three different categories, Seeing, Dreaming, and Performing, and gives details about various Shamanic techniques that contemporary artists can use to advance their own work.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and my copy is now marked up with underlined passages, asterisks, margin notes, and tea stains (I spilled tea on it on the day I finished reading it and had to dry out the pages).  I can not recommend this book enough to anyone who might be interested in the areas where spirituality, psychology, and fine art intersect.  In the final pages of the book, Levy advocates a return to spiritual values in art, and gives us a kind of call to arms.  The following quotes are culled from the Conclusion of Mark Levy's book.  I thought they might bear repeating here. 

“In the beginning, in prehistoric times, the roles of artist and shaman were not separated.  Shamans were, in fact, the most gifted artists in their community.”  

“Currently, in post-modern art where, in the words of Nietzsche “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” the task of re-valuing the world with spiritual meaning becomes especially urgent.”  

“I believe the role of the artist as shaman will become increasingly attractive for artists who are seeking to go beyond the idiosyncratic selfishness, commodity fetishism, adherence to fashion, and sterile appropriation that informs much of contemporary art.  Many contemporary artists simply borrow spiritual contents by appropriating images and styles from a wide range of cultures, including tribal art.  The result is a simulacrum of meaning which lacks depth.  Art that uncovers authentic truth requires difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys.”

“Shamanic techniques, when used properly, offer essentially non-destructive means for artists to invite visions and gain knowledge about themselves.  Works of art evolving from these visions continue to nourish their audiences.  The opportunity for artists to make positive contributions to their communities also eliminates their own feelings of alienation and exclusion.”

“In shifting attention from common sense or “consensus reality,” artists as shamans succeed in expanding their consciousness and the consciousness of their communities and offer blueprints for spiritual development.”  

I Am An Artist by Chris Hall

 John Walker,  Oceania - My Dilemma III , 1983

John Walker, Oceania - My Dilemma III, 1983

I am a Giant, a Brute, a Savage Force of Nature.  You try to deny me with your skepticism, bind me with your pessimism, erase me with the shallowness of your intellect, sedate me with the tranquilizer darts of mundanity, forget me by relegating me to the margins and footnotes of history . . . but I always come back, and I always triumph in the end.  I am a life force and I only grow stronger.  I experience death, only to learn its secrets and return, reborn in another body.  I insist on the authenticity of my wounds.  My paint brush drips red with the fire-blood of inner passion.  My words are the winds of wisdom that blows, chilling you to the core.  

I am a vessel for all that is vital in this world.  I am a channel for all that is hidden and ubiquitous.  I know the distance between the North and the South, the East and the West, the Upper and the Lower Realms, the Past, the Present and the Future.  My experience is electric and moves at the speed of light.  My nervous system reaches to the other side of the world, to the Moon and back.  I know the Universal Void.  I see colors impossible for you to see.  I can take myself apart and put myself back together again.  I can hear a pin drop on the bottom of the cold seas.  I feel things that you do not even have words for.   I am an artist.  What do you do?

Jackson Pollock Part Two by Chris Hall

From Triumph to Tragedy

When the WPA closed in 1943, Pollock was forced to take work as a custodian for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum).  It was here that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who encouraged him to submit work to her gallery Art of This Century.  Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in July 1943.  He received the commission to create Mural (1943), which measures roughly 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, for the entry to her new townhouse. At the suggestion of her friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable.  After seeing Mural, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "I took one look at it and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced."  Mural would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art, and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. 

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”  Jackson Pollock.

In October 1945, Pollock married the American painter Lee Krasner.  In November they escaped from what Pollock called the “wear and tear” of New York City to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island.  With the help of a down-payment loaned by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought a wood-frame house and barn at 830 Springs Fireplace Road.  Pollock converted the barn into a studio.  Life was almost idyllic for Pollock and Krasner at Springs.  Pollock expanded his family to include a dog, Gyp, and a crow, Caw-Caw.  He was also able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive.  For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many.  In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50.  

In the studio at Springs, Pollock perfected his big "drip" technique of working with paint, with which he would become permanently identified.  In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946).  The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards.  Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. 

Drip paintings (1947- 1950)

“New needs need new techniques.  And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements . . . the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”  Jackson Pollock.

The famous 'drip paintings' that he began to produce in the late 1940s represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century.  At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man's entrapment - in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.  Sometimes Pollock's work suggests the obliteration of the figure, the shattered and fragmented self as the modern condition.  At other times it suggests a peaceful destruction, as inner bleeds into outer, the self exploding into the universe, where there is unity, harmony, and wholeness.

Pollock first tried the drip technique in 1936, in a New York experimental art workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s.  He later used paint pouring as one of several techniques on canvases of the early 1940s, such as Male and Female, Composition with Pouring I and Composition with Pouring II.  By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. 

Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which, at that time, was a novel medium.  Pollock described this use of household paints, instead of artist’s paints, as "a natural growth out of a need.”  He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators.  Pollock's technique of pouring and dripping paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term “Action Painting.”  The term “Action Painting” was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952.  This style of painting focuses on art as a process rather than just a finished product.  The act of creation itself is the point and not just the painting alone.  By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, Pollock added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.  While painting this way, Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush.  Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint, which was expressed on the large canvases.  In 1956, Time magazine dubbed Pollock "Jack the Dripper," due to his painting style.  

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.  When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well."
—Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

James Joyce describes his work Finnegans Wake as being a “chaosmos.”  I think this description would be applicable to Jackson Pollock's paintings of 1947 to 1950 as well.  His drip works have no hierarchical organization, no figure ground relationships, no focal point, no perspective.  Everything is obliterated, everything but the All.  Pollock's art making process seems to me like he is channeling the forces of nature while working in a Shaman's ritual trance state.  Flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, he would move energetically around the canvas, almost as if in a dance, and would not stop until he saw what he wanted to see.  Pollock observed American Indian sand painting demonstrations in the early 1940s.  Referring to his style of painting on the floor, Pollock stated, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  This is akin to the methods of the Indian sand painters of the West.”   

While it was a mixture of controllable and uncontrollable factors, Pollock denied reliance on "the accident"; he usually had an idea of how he wanted a particular piece to appear. His technique combined the movement of his body, over which he had control, the viscous flow of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas.  

In the 21st century, the physicists Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas studied Pollock's works and technique. They determined that some works display the properties of mathematical fractals although this could not be replicated by others.  They assert that the works expressed more fractal qualities as Pollock progressed in his career.  The authors speculate that Pollock may have had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion, and tried to express mathematical chaos, more than ten years before "Chaos Theory" was proposed.  Their work was used in trying to evaluate the authenticity of some works that were represented as Pollock's. 

Pollock's most famous paintings were made during the "drip period" between 1947 and 1950.  He rocketed to fame following an August 8, 1949 four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"  In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale.  Pollock also signed the open letter protesting The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition American Painting Today – 1950, for its exclusion of Abstract Expressionist artists.  The 18 signers became known as “The Irascibles” and Life magazine published an article of the affair along with the now famous photograph of the group, which included artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell.

The Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg Film

In 1950, Pollock was at the pinnacle of his career, but by the end of the year he was drinking again.  In July 1950, Hans Namuth approached Pollock and asked to photograph the artist working in his studio.  Encouraged by his wife, Lee Krasner, who was aware of the importance of media coverage, Pollock agreed.  Not satisfied with black and white stills, Namuth wanted to create a color film that managed to focus on Pollock and his painting at the same time, partially because he found more interest in Pollock's image than in his art.  His solution was to have Pollock paint on a large sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from underneath the work.  As Namuth could not afford professional lighting, the film was shot outside Pollock's Long Island home.  This documentary (co-produced with Paul Falkenberg) is considered one of the most influential documentary films on an artist ever made. 

 

In November 1950, Namuth and Pollock's relationship came to an abrupt conclusion.  Jeffrey Potter, a close friend of Pollock's, described Namuth as commanding, frequently telling Pollock when to start and stop painting.  According to Potter, Pollock "felt what was happening was phony."  Namuth himself describes Pollock as being "very nervous and very self-conscious" of the filming at the time.  After coming in from the cold-weather shoot of the glass painting, Pollock, who had been in treatment since 1938 for alcoholism, poured himself a tumbler of bourbon whiskey after having been sober for two years.  An argument between Namuth and Pollock ensued with each calling the other a "phony,” culminating in Pollock overturning a table of food and dinnerware in front of several guests.  From then on, Pollock reverted to a more figure-oriented style of painting, leading some to say that Namuth's sessions robbed Pollock of his rawness.  Some have argued that Namuth made Pollock feel disingenuous about his drip technique, which he had previously done spontaneously, but in the film seemed coerced. 

During his time with Pollock, Hans Namuth had created two films and captured more than 500 photographs of the artist.  These photos have also allowed art historians to dissect the details of Pollock's method.  For example, art historian Pepe Karmel found that Pollock's painting in Namuth's first black-and-white film began with several careful drippings forming two humanoid figures and a wolf before being covered beneath several layers of paint. 

The Late Works (1951 - 1956)

“I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”  Jackson Pollock.

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.  After a brief period of producing dark, monochromatic works, he returned to using color and reintroduced figurative elements.  The new paintings were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.  During this period, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice and Pollock's gallery, Art of This Century had closed.  Gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over his contract.  There was great demand for his work from collectors, but critics were giving him bad reviews for returning to more figurative art.  In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened.   

His personal troubles only increased in his later years.  He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, as his reputation preceded him, he struggled to find another gallery.  He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say.  In 1955, Pollock painted Scent and Search, his last two paintings.  He did not paint at all in 1956, but was making sculptures at Tony Smith’s home: constructions of wire, gauze, and plaster.  Shaped by sand-casting, they have heavily textured surfaces similar to what Pollock often created in his paintings.  In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old art-star groupie Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar.  On August 11, 1956, at 10:15 pm, Pollock, age 44, died in a single-car crash in his green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.  Pollock lost control of the car on a curve and he plunged into the woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour.  One of the passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed in the accident, which occurred less than a mile from Pollock's home.  The other passenger, Ruth Kligman, miraculously survived. 

For the rest of her life, Pollock's widow Lee Krasner managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art world trends.  Lee Krasner died in 1984.  They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers. 

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Picasso's Erotic Art by Chris Hall

 Picasso dressed as Minotaur.

Picasso dressed as Minotaur.

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”  Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, like Klimt, believed that all art is erotic.  It is an interesting argument, one that I might have subscribed to in Picasso's time, before the proliferation of overly intellectualized, sterile, and cold conceptual art.  While all art in Picasso's time might have been erotic, this did not prevent Picasso from producing drawings depicting overt sexuality.  Here are some little drawings of Picasso's that I've managed to track down, dating from 1902 to 1968. 

Albert Pinkham Ryder by Chris Hall

“Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art. The least of a man’s original emanation is better than the best of a borrowed thought.”  Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Albert Pinkham Ryder was an American painter known as much for his eccentric personality as for his poetic, dark, and moody allegorical works and seascapes.  While his work reflects the subtle tonalist techniques in vogue at the time, his unique way of accentuating form gives his work a more Modernist feel.  Ryder's work would later become a heavy influence on Modernist painters, including the young Jackson Pollock.  Ryder was a poor craftsman and liked to experiment with his art materials.  As a result, paintings that were once described as glowing and jewel-like, have darkened, cracked, or even completely disintegrated.

Ryder was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1847, a bustling port connected with the whaling industry.  From here, Ryder developed his interest in the sea and all things maritime related.  In 1867, Ryder moved to New York City.  In 1877, he became a founding member of the Society of American Artists, a loosely organized group whose works did not conform to the academic standards of the day.  Beginning in the 1880's through the 1890's, Ryder frequently exhibited his work, which was generally received well by critics.  Sometimes he wrote poems to accompany his work.  Ryder's signature style is characterized by his broad, ill-defined shapes, or stylized figures situated in a dream-like land or seascape.  Often his scenes are illuminated by dim sunlight or a glowing moonlight cast through eerie clouds.

After his father's death in 1900, Ryder, already known as something of a loner, became an absolute recluse.  His artistic output declined, as he spent a lot of time re-working old paintings.  While Ryder was a recluse and did not seek out the company of others, he did receive company courteously and enjoyed telling stories about his art.  Visitors to Ryder's attic apartment in New York were struck by his slovenly habits.  Ryder never cleaned and his floor was covered in trash, plates with old food, and a thick layer of dust.  Ryder would have to clear a space for visitors to sit or stand.

While Ryder's creativity declined after the turn of the century, his fame grew.  Important collectors of American art sought out Ryder's paintings, and as Ryder no longer had an active interest in exhibiting his work, lent out their Ryder works to national art exhibitions.  Many Modernist artists began looking at Ryder's work with admiration, and in 1913, ten of his paintings were included in the historic Armory Show, which introduced Americans to Modernist avant-garde art styles, such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism.  In 1915, Ryder's health deteriorated, and he died in March of 1917, at the home of a friend who was taking care of him.  He is buried at his birthplace, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Ryder completed fewer than two hundred paintings in his lifetime, most of which were completed before 1900.  He rarely signed or dated his work.  Despite his minimal output, Ryder is one of the world's most forged artists, with some experts estimating over one thousand forgeries.  

“No two visions are alike. Those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama.”  Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Ryder's obituary in the New York Times reads, “[Ryder] was one of the most interesting artists America has ever produced.  Every picture that he painted was the result of years of reflection and experiment, and represented not only a deeply romantic temper of mind but infinite zest for perfection of craftsmanship.”  While Ryder might be “one of the most interesting artists America has ever produced,” he certainly did not have an “infinite zest for perfection of craftsmanship.”  Ryder used his painting materials without much care, an attitude that would later haunt him, as even during his own life his paintings began to fall apart.  He spent a lot of time in his later years trying to restore his own work.  Ryder often worked on his paintings for ten years or more, and he would build up layers of paint and varnish, applied on top of one another.  He would paint into the wet varnish or apply a fast drying, lean layer, over a slow drying, fat layer of paint.  Sometimes he would experiment, using non-traditional materials in his art, such as bacon grease and kerosene as paint mediums. Ryder's poor craftsmanship and his experimentation with materials and techniques resulted in unstable paintings that  grow darker over time, cracks readily, and that takes decades to dry completely.  Some of Ryder's work, once described as glowing and jewel-like, have completely disintegrated.

In a previous blog post I extolled the virtues of experimenting and championed a democratic approach to art materials, but with the disclaimer, “so long as it doesn't cause your project to physically fall apart.”  Ryder's laissez faire approach to art making should be a lesson on what not to do.  Experimenting is fine, but don't experiment blindly.  Knowing the rules of your craft is important if you want to prevent what happened to Ryder and his work from ever happening to you and your work.