shaman

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. 

Art and the Healing Power of Dreams by Chris Hall

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

“Physician, heal yourself:  thus you will heal your patient too.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

“It is only by retaining and enhancing the original power of the image that the artist can take back his or her role as a redeemer and healer of the psyche from the theologian.”  Ann McCoy.

Many modern and (some) contemporary artists are aware of the power that dreams can have on healing the psyche.  In the Western culture, however, we have stepped away from dream analysis as a tool for healing, viewing it as irrational nonsense, favoring instead physical medicine, psychiatric drugs.  But dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires (the domain of Sigmund Freud). Dreaming can be a shamanic technology.  Dreams can be used for healing, guidance, and power — the classic domains of shamanism (championed by Carl Jung).  Jung considers the dream to be a vital and natural expression of the unconscious psychic process, and an X-ray of not only what is going on inside us individually, but also collectively within our culture.  Dreams are made up of a matrix of symbols, and as such, can be deciphered and analyzed.  The West hasn't always eschewed the power of dreams.  The Bible is full of episodes where dreams are used as signs to guide people on a proper course of action., from the psychopomp Joseph who correctly interprets the Pharaoh's dreams, thus avoiding starvation from a future famine, to Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, whose dreams foretold of consequences (the Massacre of the Innocents) if they did not flee with the Christ child to Egypt.  But dreams can do more than predict the future, they can also heal.  The ancient Greeks knew this well.  

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

In ancient Greek culture, dreams had a special significance.   The Greeks had not one, but three gods responsible for dreaming, and several other accessory gods to help produce the conditions necessary for dream to take place.  First and foremost were the three gods known as the Oneiroi (meaning Dreams).  Morpheus was the god of dreams, specializing in projecting human forms.  It is from his name that we derive the name morphine.  Phobetor was the god of nightmares, who excelled at projecting images of birds, beasts, and serpents.  We get the word phobia, “fear,” from his name.  Phantasos was the god of false dreams and illusions who was an expert at projecting the landscape, and things made of earth, rock, water, or wood.  From Phantasos we get the word phantom.  The father of the Oneiroi was Hypnos, the god of Sleep.  We derive the word hypnosis, meaning “sleep condition,” from the Greeks.  The Roman name for Hypnos is Somnus, from where we derive “somnambulism” (sleep walking) and insomnia (the inability to sleep).  Hypnos' wife, Pasithea, is the goddess of hallucination and relaxation.  Hypnos' twin brother is Thanatos, the god of Death, or the eternal sleep.  Hypnos' parents are Erebus, the god of Darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of Night.  Together they live in a mansion in a cave, where they never see the rising or the setting of the sun.  At the entrance to the cave grows a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants.  Their home doesn't have a door or gate, so that they might not be awakened by a creaking hinge.  The underworld river Lethe, known as the river of forgetfulness, flows through the cave.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Jungian psychologist Carl Alfred Meier tells us that “the Greeks, especially in the early period, regarded the dream as something that really happened; for them it was not, as it was in later times and to 'modern man' in particular, an imaginary experience.  The natural consequence of this attitude was that people felt it necessary to create the conditions that caused dreams to happen.”  To induce these dreams, the ancient Greeks would go to one of the thousands of temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine, hoping that their dreams might prescribe a healing course of action for everything from chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  These healing temples, called Asclepieia, were set in beautiful natural surroundings, often near a cave or a spring (the home of the Oneiroi and the source of Asclepius' healing powers).  

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

Asclepius, the god of Medicine, is the son of Apollo.  Asclepius' daughters Hygieia (health and cleanliness), Panacea (universal remedy), Iaso (recuperation from illness), Aceso (healing), and Aglaea (Beauty - yes beauty is important to healing and well-being) helped him in his practice.  The original Hippocratic Oath, used to swear in doctors up to the 1960's, began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..." The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still used as a symbol of medicine today.  Apollo (himself known as a healer) carried the baby Asclepius to the centaur Chiron (Sagittarius) who raised him and instructed him in the art of medicine.  It is also said that in return for some kindness shown by Asclepius, a wise snake licked Asclepius' ears clean and also taught him secret healing knowledge  The Greeks believed snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection.  Today the non-venomous Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus), is named for the god.  

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he eventually surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.  Ascelpius was even able to raise the dead.  This caused a population boom, which displeased Hades, who had a lack of fresh souls in his kingdom.  Hades complained to his brother, Zeus, and Zeus resorted to killing off Asclepius in order to regain a balance.  After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder (acknowledged as the 13th sign in the zodiac).  Some sources, however, state that Zeus later resurrected Asclepius in order to prevent a feud with Apollo, but only on the condition that Asclepius never revive the dead without his approval again.  

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Patients at an Asclepieia would first purify themselves in the gardens outside the temple, often leaving token votive offerings called pinakes.  Many of these pinakes were clay depictions of the body parts to be healed, everything from hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads.  Patients would spend days, sometimes weeks, outside the temple before being let into the inner sanctum, the dream incubation chamber called the abaton.  Many abatons, like the one in the Asclepieia  Epidaurus, were located underground, in a labyrinth, symbolizing the dark and mysterious place where dreams come from, or a journey to the depths of the unconscious.  Here the injured or sick would sleep and pray in the chamber while non-venomous snakes sacred to Asclepius would slither around the temple floor unmolested.  The purpose of the incubation rite was to induce a vivid, ecstatic dream, a mantike atechnos or “artificial mania,” from which a dream interpreter might prescribe a course of action.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Sometimes the process of inducing a mantike atchnos would take days.  To help induce the healing dream, priests and priestesses would employ a number techniques.  First, the beds used in the ritual, called klines, were more like couches than beds, with a stone headrest encouraging the clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.  It is thought by many that this sleep position encourages active dreaming.  Patients were also given powerful soporific drugs, such as opium in order to promote sleep and dreams.  Being underground, in constant total darkness, also disrupts circadian rhythms.  Light sleep, with more awakenings and a longer REM stage is the result, leading to powerful lucid dreaming.  Priests and priestesses would also whisper into the ears of the sleeping in order to facilitate dreaming.  Today we know that dreams can successfully incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells.  It would seem that the result of all of these techniques, used in combination, produces vivid dreams, if not realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.  

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Asclepieia dream incubation chambers must have been powerful places.  These places were designed to produce dreams  providing healing wisdom as well as instant cures - and if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti, they were successful.  Successful cures were also honored with inscriptions on the sanctuary walls, advertisement for future patients.  The Greeks believed that healing is holistic enterprise.  Life vitality comes as a result exercise and proper diet, but also spiritual practice and mindful study.  In the Western culture today, the first two are now the exclusive domain of the physician, while the later (and too often neglected) is a role being filled by theologians and artists.  But as the role of dreams in our life are continually being downplayed in contemporary religious practices, mirroring the advance of scientific rational thought, the mantle should be picked up more by artists.  In this regard, artists ought to be considered professional dreamers and even dream interpreters, like the shamans of old.  Through our art we should hope to not only heal ourselves, but also the world at large.  

"... in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There it is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.”  Carl Jung.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

The Artist as Seer Shaman Healer Seeker Voyager Pioneer Visionary by Chris Hall

Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special.  Perhaps they are not special.  Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc.  These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.  

What made these old artists special?  They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths.  They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery.  The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics.  Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes.  Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.

Gordon Onslow-Ford:

The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.

The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.

When the mind opens, something original can come
In.  The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will.  It happens naturally.

The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously.   I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists.  Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves.  This is definitely not so.  It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work.  It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.  

“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger

If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience.  Some people are just more sensitive than others.  Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product.  The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better.  The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community.  Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.  

The Seer by Alex Grey

From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.

The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.

The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.

The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.

From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.

The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.

These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.

Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.

Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys

Shamanic Initiation, Spirituality, and Art by Chris Hall

In my earlier and more abstract work, I liked to explore notions of the spiritual sublime.  There is some truth to be mined there.  I like the notion of Zen Buddhist attitudes in art, that the very act of creating, as well as contemplation on the end result, can bring mental calm, enlightenment.  So it is with Sufism, a mystical sect within Islam.  Whiling Dervishes spinning until there is a total loss of all conscious thought, only union with the divine, and their music inspiring us to transcendence.  I am also indebted to Gnostic and mystic Christian beliefs for deepening the mystery.  

It was all there at the beginning with me.  When I was 19 I had a powerful dream.  It took place during my first bout of deepest, darkest, soul shattering, black howling depression.  I was taken away to a dark place, my body surrounded by spirits.  They took apart my body, piece by piece, and examined each part, arm and leg, flesh and bone, head and heart.  I was scared and in a lot of pain.  But these same spirits later put me back together again, only I was different in some way.  I had somehow changed.  I felt I was in possession of a powerful secret, that I could use this secret to access hidden corridors in my mind to produce meaningful works of art, and that this art would always be true.  

Soon after, I was reading a book on Shamanism by Piers Vitebsky.  I was shocked to learn that this dream is very common, and it signals an initiation rite by the spirits for newly minted Shamans throughout the world, but especially among those peoples found in Inner Mongolia and the steppes of Asia.  But that dream was a long time ago.  I don’t have magic powers and my art can not heal people (at least not literally).  Over the years my art has become more about this world than any alternative reality or vision.  

Perhaps one day I will return to it.  I still believe there is some magic involved in making art, and that the artist is somehow special, different from most people who are only pedestrians when compared to artists, with their ability to take spiritual leaps and find ecstatic truths, especially when tapping into the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious.  

Ah, but it is a double edged sword for those with this ability to conjure up ecstatic truths.  Modern societies do not have room for magic anymore.  This is even true in the contemporary, post modern art world, where there is a favoring of conceptual conceit over anything that smacks of spirituality, or anything divined from the heart.  Such work is deemed anachronistic and not worthy of investigation.  Maybe one day this will all change. . . .  

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”  Francis Bacon