abstract

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!

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. 

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. 

Happy Birthday . . . Brother! by Chris Hall

I've known for a long time now that I share my birthday with Beethoven.  Today I discovered that I also share a birthday with Wassily Kandinsky, author of "On the Spiritual in Art" (1910) and the world's first true abstract expressionist artist!  I have always appreciated both Beethoven's music and Kandinsky's art.  Based on my reading, I know that my temperament and personality is a match for Beethoven's, and I suspect it may also match Kandinsky's.   Strange.  Idealistically our art is really about the same thing, the desire to find transcendence in a troubled and tumultuous world.  I might not always reflect that in all my art, but that desire underlays all of my thinking and art process.  Happy Birthday Beethoven.  Happy Birthday Kandinsky. 

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.

Revisiting the Moby Dick Paintings by Chris Hall

Between 1997 and 1998, and again in 2006, I made several paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I had just read Moby Dick for the first time in 1997, after reading that it was a favorite among the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Pollock and Motherwell.  Moby Dick had a dramatic effect on me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.  These are some behind the scenes commentary on the creation and meaning of some of the work:

1.  In the first one, Tashtego (2007), I discovered the whale and bird (which the character Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod in the closing scene) by accident.  It was part of my Divination Series, a series of 16 collages where I tore up pieces of paper, photocopies of pages from a book on Marc Chagall, actually, and glued the pieces down randomly in order to discover subject matter and composition.  

2.  Confrontation (2007) came next.  It is pretty much a straight forward symbolist piece.  Like Tashtego, and many of my other works from this time, my subject matter and composition was not pre-determined.  Once again, I discovered the whale by accident.  I was painting the ground of the composition for the skinned horse to walk on, and somehow it transformed itself into the specter of the whale.  It is one of my many visionary pieces from this time, and the meaning of this work is an enigma, even to me.

3.  The portrait of Ahab (1998) follows. Ahab is presented as a contorted and painful figure, with the ever-present eye of the whale figuring behind him.  In my hot-blooded youthful ignorance, I had come to identify somewhat with Ahab and his madness.  After some meditation I realized that this was unhealthy.  If you identify with an archetype, your fate becomes a self fulfilled prophecy.  I would later decide that I did not want to go down like Ahab.

4.  The Whale (1998) is a straight up Expressionist painting.  It is a bloody revenge fantasy, from the point of view of Ahab, who wanted to revisit violence on the world for its evils and for mankind’s suffering, revenge on that nameless thing that the White Whale had come to symbolize for him.  On the tail of the whale, the Pequod makes its appearance, and foreshadowing the Pequod’s demise, the whale’s flipper transforms itself into a tombstone.  

5.  The Whale Hunt (1998) closes out the Moby Dick paintings of 1997-1998.  If The Whale is hot with subjective energy, the point of view of Ahab, then The Whale Hunt is the outsider, universal perspective.  The turbulent white sea brings forth notions of the universe as sublime, indifferent nihilism.  The churning sea is filled with seman (sperm and egg feature in the composition), milk, and blood . . . it is the source of life, and in the case of the Pequod’s crew, the source of death.  The Pequod makes its appearance in the upper left, and opposite the Pequod is the Sun (which doubles as the previously mentioned egg).  The Pequod is sinking; it is being consumed by the sea and the indifferent all devouring universe.  No one gets out alive.  But where is the whale?  The whale is there, because the whale symbolizes the universe, it makes up the entire painting.  The Sun/Egg serves as the all seeing eye of the whale.  

6.  For Ahab Monomaniac (2006) I thought I would once again revisit Ahab, from a more sober, mature perspective.  Somehow I lost my way, and the result is a bit of humor.  It is critical of Ahab (and by extension, my youthful self).  At the time I was learning how to deal with suffering and pain with a sense of humor.  If Ahab had developed a sense of humor, Moby Dick would have ended very differently.  

7.  Ocean #9 (2006) is another sober, mature look at the subject. I had wanted to illustrate Moby Dick, without illustrating its narrative elements.  What I decided on was to do a series of works illustrating the moods of some of the chapters, and have this reflected in psychological seascapes.  The composition of each of the works was pretty similar, the point of view forward from the masthead of the vast and open sea.

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

Abstract vs Figurative by Chris Hall

Abstract vs. figurative.  My work documents the battle between both.  On one hand abstract work is my internal vision, my zen approach to painting.  It is the result of when I am the most spiritual in the studio.  On the other hand is my figurative work.  It is the result of my realization that I am still a man of this world.  Perhaps my figurative work is my middle finger to the world and all its woes, and my abstract work is attempt to transcend those woes.  I would like to think that my best work, lately, incorporates elements of both tendencies.  

Christopher Hall,  Seminal Sacrifice , 2007

Christopher Hall, Seminal Sacrifice, 2007