Sublime

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.

 

Clyfford Still: Uncompromising Artist by Chris Hall

"Still makes the rest of us look academic."  Jackson Pollock.

"How can we live and die and never know the difference?"  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still was an American painter and a member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who made monumental works of art conveying universal aspects of the human condition, such as creation, life, struggle, and death, themes which took on considerable relevance during and immediately following World War II.  He was the first among his peers, namely Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others, to break free from representational work and into pure, non-objective abstraction.  Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and on the sprawling, wind swept plains of southern Alberta, Canada.  The harsh conditions in Canada would color Still's disposition and his approach toward art, fostering his need for solitude and an independent lifestyle.  He attended the Art Students League briefly in New York City, but graduated from Spokane University in 1933, and then Washington State College, in 1935.  In 1937, Still co-founded the Nespelem Art Colony, where he produced portraits and landscapes of the people and locales on the Colville Indian Reservation.

In 1941, Still relocated to the San Francisco Bay area where he worked in various war industry work to subsidize his pursuit of painting.  It was here that Still meet Mark Rothko for the first time, and the two became fast friends.  Still would have an influence on both Mark Rothko, and his friend, Barnett Newman, as by this time, Still was already painting pure, non-objective abstract work.  In 1943, Still had his first solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art.  From 1943 to 1945, Still taught at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth College), before moving to New York City.

“I want the spectator to be on his own before the paintings, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still lived in New York City for most of the 1950's, at the height of Abstract Expressionism.  Even among his peers, Still was considered an outsider.  During this time, Still became increasingly critical of the art world.  He rejected any attempts by others to explain his art, and began naming his paintings after numbers, letters, and the year made to make interpretation difficult.  Still also distanced himself from European Classical and Modernist traditions, believing them to be decadent and profane, and said he came up with abstraction on his own, without any influence from art history.  In 1952, Still severed ties with commercial galleries, and refused to show in New York City until 1967, as he felt the city was too corrupt for his work.

In 1961 Clyfford Still distanced himself further from the art world when he moved to a 22 acre farm near Westminster, Maryland, where he would paint in the barn during the warmer months.  Five years later, Still would purchase a house eight miles away, in New Windsor, Maryland, where he would live until his death in 1980.

“You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still's work, like those of his peers Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, is largely concerned with juxtaposing different colors and surfaces.  Unlike Rothko and Newman, whose work is organized in a relatively simple way (Rothko's rectangular shapes and Newman's single, vertical zip), Still's compositions are less regular, and are, perhaps, more organic.  His jagged flashes of color can leave one with the impression that  one layer of color was torn off the canvas, to reveal the colors underneath.  Still also departs from Rothko and Newman in how he applies his paint.  Rothko and Newman used flat, thinned paints, where Still used thick, impasto paints, often applied with palette knives, causing a subtle variety of shades and sheen which shimmer across the canvas.

Detail from a Clyfford Still painting, attempting to show the thick, impasto paint.

Still's large, mature work recalls natural forms and phenomena; the ancient stalagmites, mysterious caverns, foliage, and canyons bathed in darkness and light give the impression of the poetic sublime.  His vast, expansive canvases seem to go on forever and overwhelm the viewer, and it seems Still could have painted forever, if it were not for the edges of the painting.  Still once remarked that it was "intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."  Often Still's work seem to echo the earth tones and open spaces of the Western Plains where he grew up (although Still, true to his irascible nature, would deny any connections between his art and the natural landscape).  

Philosophically, the work might also reveal Still's obsession with the dualism of good and evil, as symbolized through his use of light and dark, although, most likely, Still would deny that, too.  As an artist, Still's difficulty and propensity for being a loner is on par with William Blake and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Like Rothko and some of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Still believed that his art had a living spirit and that it contained magic.  He believed his art was more than just the sum of their parts.  “I never wanted color to be color.  I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes.  I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”

Still, like many of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, was not interested in painting the specifics of his time, but instead interested in creating timeless, universal work, appealing to mankind's inner mythologies.  Still distrusted science, technology, and the works of man, especially after the invention of the atomic bomb, and wanted to produce work to counteract the damage done to humanity by them.  "I am not interested in illustrating my time.  A man's "time" limits him, it does not truly liberate him.  Our age - it is one of science, of mechanism, of power and death.  I see no point in adding to its mechanism of power and death. I see no point in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of a graphic homage." 

In his will, written in 1978, two years before his death, Still left a portion of his work and his complete archives to his wife, Patricia, but left the rest any “American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”  After Still's death in 1980, the Still collection of approximately 2,400 works was sealed off completely from public and scholarly access for more than two decades.  Finally, in August 2004, the city of Denver, Colorado announced that they would, with Patricia's blessing, receive Still's artworks and build a museum for them.  Patricia also bequeathed her own collection of paintings and the complete archives to the museum as well.  The Clyfford Still Museum opened to the public in 2010.  It contains approximately 3,125 works of art completed between 1920 and 1980, 95 percent of Clyfford Still's lifetime artistic output.

Clyfford Still's art was noble in nature.  He spent his career focused on human aspiration, the personal search for identity, and the liberation of the spirit.  It was a path from which he never strayed.  To me, Clyfford Still's art is emblematic of a life lived with no compromise and the maintenance of personal integrity.  I think more contemporary artists should look to Clyfford Still as an example of an artistic life well lived. 

“I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”  Clyfford Still. 

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

Friedrich, Constable, and Turner by Chris Hall

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

The Romantic artists were my first love.  In them I found spiritual nourishment and a companion to my own turbulent soul.  I first discovered them as a high school student, in a book I found in my public library.  It was a great place to begin my artistic journey of self-discovery.  

Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich – Friedrich’s work produces in me a sense of wonder.  Nature becomes a source of contemplation and a portal to notions of the sublime.  And by portal, I mean that literally.  Many of his works show a figure standing with their backs toward us as if in a doorway.  We are invited to follow.

John Constable

John Constable – Constable’s work is hit or miss for me.  He produces such wonders as Hadleigh Castle, 1829 which is a nice meditation upon ruins, but he also makes such unintentially comical pieces as Portrait of Master Crosby, 1808, from which I was inspired to create my drawing Backwards Butt Boy.  However, something happened around 1822, when Constable began making cloud studies.  Constables cloud studies are a profound meditation on the transient nature of life, as symbolized by changeable nature of the skies.  Each cloud study has an emotive character of its own, little personalities and temperaments.  Divorced of the ground, necessary for landscapes, these skyscapes almost become little abstractions on their own.

J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner – Turner was a profound master of the sublime.  Like Constable’s cloud studies, the compositions in his works are almost proto-abstraction, all over swirls of weather, fire, and natural phenomenon.

Search for the Sublime by Chris Hall

I long for a spiritual revival in Contemporary Art.  The last time a formal movement championed this was Abstract Expressionism/Art Informal in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The sublime works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others was a refreshing antidote to the dead, propagandistic art coming out of the Eastern Bloc at the time (though it was recently declassified that the CIA secretly championed the movement to help attract intellectuals to the freedom of expression tagline, this, despite the fact that many of the artists were radicals and former Communists).  

But in today’s Contemporary Art theory, which is largely Marxist in nature, there is no room for religion or spirituality.  They too often confuse the sins of organized religion with spirituality, which is more personal in nature.  To these critics, spirituality is considered anachronistic and kitsch (not so much dangerous, because danger is sexy and inviting).  I would like to see more spirituality in art, more of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime, such as described by the philosopher Edmund Burke, but interpreted through a new, contemporary lense.  Humanity needs this nourishment.  We drink eight glasses of water a day and still thirst for the infinite.  

 

Click on the images below for larger size and image details

Anselm Kiefer,  Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior , 2005

Anselm Kiefer, Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior, 2005