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The example of method

Post #1114 • January 23, 2008, 10:56 AM • 18 Comments

Bridget Riley wrote an essay for the beautiful catalogue for the recent Seurat show at MoMA, in which she describes copying his Bridge at Courbevoie.

I discovered that Seurat used a ground prepared with diluted yellow ocher rather than the alla prima canvas of the Impressionists. It may not have been his reasoning, but this mid-tone allowed him to pitch his lightest colors very precisely. By doing away with the white ground, he also avoided another source of transparency and thus achieved a beautiful, soft luminosity in his painting. Furthermore, Seurat underpainted his dots or "points" with larger strokes of crosshatching, laying in the main areas. The very small scale of his pointillism was calculated to increase the interaction of color. My larger brush mark allowed me to analyze his optical mixture - the perceived blending of color as opposed to the physical mixing of pigments - back into its constitutent colors. The lightest area is the river close to the bank, in the foreground. There, a very pale blue and a contrasting yellow (degraded to an ocher and lightened with white) act against one another. Softened by pink, they give rise to a host of subtle pearly grays that establish the deepening in tone as they go. Along with these slight shifts, the movement of color crosses the expanse of the river and travels through the reflections of the jetties and the bridge, up to the bridge itself; there it regains a lighter passage below the opposite bank before climbing up into the sky. Against this delicate open orchestration of space are placed the finite forms of trees, little boats, masts, sails, figures, and the grassy bank, using deeper yellow ochers, dark and aple blue, greens, crimsons, pinks, and reds, all shifitng the basic optical mixture. In the center of the painting our eyes are seized by a few astonishingly pure yellows, pinned like some bright ornament to the pier of the bridge.

Apart from the pleasure in making my copy of Seurat's beautiful painting, I learned a great deal. I went on to make a number of paintings of my own based my understanding of his use of color. One of these, Pink Landscape, played a key role in my thinking at the time and could almost be said to have precipitated my black-and-white work, though it is in fact built on strong color contrasts. In the summer of 1959 I was traveling in Italy, visiting museums and looking at works of art. I stopped near Siena, got out of the car and stood looking out over a great plain. It was an immense arid expanse shimmering in the heat. The sheer volume of light seemed to shatter everything in sight. I wanted to make a painting showing the disintegration of this landscape under the fierce sun. A thunderstorm was advancing and had already obliterated the horizon. I made a line drawing of the general disposition of the hills across the plain, a tonal study and a color analysis. Back in London I worked on a painting that I hoped would recreate the experience outside Siena. Whent the painting was finished I was both pleased and disappointed. It was a competent application of Seurat's use of color, but the sensations of light and heat over the Sienese plain were simply not to be found in it. In trying to relaize these sensations, "la méthode" (Seurat's term) was unfortunately of no use to me. I had more to learn about method and its role. I came to see that any method, it it is too firmly formed in advance of its function, inhibits or may even block original work. At the same time, an ordering of work is unavoidable, indeed essential. But how is this to be accomplished? Method was surely relevant, but in what capacity? As a modern artist, one could not simply "find" the right method, any more than one could "find" the right criteria for one's activity. Such securities had vanished with tradition. It became clear that one's first task as an artist is simply this: to create a way of working, to discover "doing" and to establish the terms upon which a creative dialogue could be sustained. In short, to start again. From Seurat I took the example of method rather than the method itself.

Comment

1.

Fred

January 23, 2008, 12:10 PM

Seurat is spelled screwy throughout

2.

Franklin

January 23, 2008, 12:21 PM

Nuts. Should be better now.

3.

opie

January 23, 2008, 12:32 PM

Good grief, all that sensitive observation, sharp seeing, hard work, visual understanding and wonderfully intelligent observations like "I came to see that any method, it it is too firmly formed in advance of its function, inhibits or may even block original work" going for her and she ends up with that completely arid Op stuff? What a ahsme!

4.

Franklin

January 23, 2008, 1:57 PM

She really got caught up in her moment. I like a few pieces of hers, but you should have seen that Pink Landscape. It could have given a Henry Edmond Cross a run for its money.

5.

Eric

January 23, 2008, 2:19 PM

She writes about paintings vlike only a painter can.

6.

opie

January 23, 2008, 2:51 PM

And we type vlike ashmeful typists, Eric.

7.

Jack

January 23, 2008, 3:00 PM

Well, OP, everybody can't do what Manet did with Goya. Which is the same as saying, I suppose, that everybody can't be a Manet. Riley (or someone else) can dissect Seurat's (or anybody's) technique very minutely, but using it in an artistically inspired way is another matter. I believe it's called major talent, or something to that effect. That's obviously why so many direct pupils of so many great artists have failed to come anywhere near greatness.

8.

Pretty Lady

January 23, 2008, 5:00 PM

Well, no kidding. This is where Deborah Fisher's 'Don't Trust Craft' motto should come in handy. I think a lot of painters get themselves into trouble because they just love painting so much that they get entirely immersed in the mode, swimming in all the pretty colors, that they forget to form some sort of objective.

I recently attended a critique in a painter's studio who painted like this. I honestly could not think of a thing to say to her; her paintings were nice, they were big, they were committed as paintings, and they were vague, vague, vague. She had some general 'themes' that she worked with, but no coherent vision; she seemed so infatuated with paint and colors in general that she seemed to have no ability to pursue anything specific.

That's why technique and process can only take you so far, if you don't teach yourself to really see. And seeing includes the metaphysical elements of the piece, just as much as the physical ones.

9.

Eric

January 23, 2008, 7:02 PM

Thanks for the gotcha moment opie. Here I was mocking someone for making a typo and then I went ahead and made one.

I will take Goya and Manet over Riley and Seurat any day. (Seurat is a major talent though)

Riley's excitement about the Seurat painting is infectious, but I think her analysis becomes overqualified and bogged down in some way. Obviously as it relates to her own work, it makes sense that she focuses on how the juxtaposition of colors alter the whole and how colors connect or blend and become something else. I saw her recent stuff and I couldn't help but feel disappointed, because it really felt like she didn't go anywhere during her very long career. The crisp edged geometric abstractions felt cut off from something important. Al Held's recent monumental geometric abstractions are city like, utopian, science-fictional. They don't feel like they exist in a decorative vacuum. He gives his imagination some room to move around.

10.

opie

January 23, 2008, 7:06 PM

The problem is not mediocrity with an excess of craft but weakness without it.

11.

Jack

January 23, 2008, 7:44 PM

I think that when truly extraordinary technique is an essentially natural talent or capacity that has been sufficiently polished or developed, it is never mere craft. It is not the same as profound psychological insight or great emotional power, but it can be ravishingly beautiful and the source of true delight.

I am not referring to an assiduously and painstakingly acquired "bag of tricks," which is more a superimposed application than a natural outflow. This can be observed in various arts, not just painting, but the key issue is the difference between a basically innate gift and an adopted one. The effect is never the same.

12.

opie

January 24, 2008, 4:47 AM

Identifying craft as an inhibiting influence is a modern conceit in art which arose from the example of modernist artists who "broke the rules" and is now supported primarily by the universal desire to make making art easier and by the example of artists who have craft ability but little art ability. This false notion now pervades our art culture.

Genius subsumes craft just as it does everything else. A mediocre artist is mediocre with or without craft, but at least a display of craft excellence is interesting for what it is.

Bad art is not caused by craft. It is caused by bad artists.

13.

Eric

January 24, 2008, 5:22 AM

Jack you have mentioned Ingres in the past with regards to an artist having "truly extraordinary technique". Could you elaborate on the idea a little bit? (Someone who even has decent technique gets people's attention, at least when it comes to the majority of the human race. When I remember back to my childhood, the student who was really good at drawing, who could paint the best copies of Led Zeppelin album covers on denim jackets was revered as a god of sorts. I was always envious of those guys.) Also the whole discussion about whether talent is natural or not makes me a bit uncomfortable simply because their can never be final proof on either side of the argument and most likely it is a mixture of innate and learned elements no? (Maybe some day there will be proof who knows.)

Don't you think there is a backlash in the insular art world concerning the modernist dismissal of craft opie? Look at the big blow job the New Yorker just gave John Currin and look at the prices Gagosian gets for his canvases. Currin admits that he isn't even as good as a mid-level nineteenth century painter in the piece and I agree with him, but don't you think his technique is crucial to his monetary success, his critical success, his placement within the historical narrative of painting as the establishment records it? I was always left completely cold by his work (except for one or two straightforward portraits of his wife) but every major critic makes a big deal about him just because he at least attempts to have a painting technique that occasionally does not come across as entirely ironic.

(I am at work and do not have time to proofread this a second time so please excuse any typos opie.)

14.

opie

January 24, 2008, 6:04 AM

You don't have to apologize for typos, Eric. I am a major offender. I hope you noticed that when I kidded you above for your typo I included one of my own.

I don't think it is a backlash, but a co-existing condition. The public always like what they take to be meticulous craft rendering - look at the phenomenon of Dali, who is really an awful painter but painted such exacting realism. Currin isn't much better but he is supported by the same inability to see on the part of a public that is impressed by this kind of thing.

I didn't know he was praised by the New Yorker but that Magazine has been a solid repository for mainstream taste in recent years, like the New York Times - "Sophisticated New Yorkers" doncha know...

The "naturalness" of talent is something for the biologists to decide. Look at Picasso who was painting furiously at 13 and Matisse who never even thought much about painting until he was in his twenties, and then almost by accident.
Who knows? It's the results that count, anyway.

15.

Jack

January 24, 2008, 7:24 AM

Eric, the best thing to do is to look at his paintings and definitely his drawings. His draftsmanship was both immaculate and exquisite. In painting, his textures and finish achieve a kind of perfection, a wonderful mixture of great precision and sensuality. He's never harsh like David, for instance, or prissy like Meissonier, or saccharine like Bouguereau. Obviously he was inspired by Raphael (as were many lesser painters), but in his case the inspiration really was inspired, so to speak, because it was informed by major innate artistic capacity.

Anybody, even with the best possible intentions and the greatest determination, can try to pick apart a great artist's technique and incorporate it into his or her work, but this will only succeed (as with Manet and Goya) if the second artist is also a great artist.

16.

opie

January 24, 2008, 8:58 AM

Yeah. Check out

http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/ingres/ingres.broglie.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/ingres/&h=1097&w=797&sz=134&hl=en&start=1&um=1&tbnid=zvlEmUVqC1DFWM:&tbnh=150&tbnw=109&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dingres%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN

An exaltation of blue if I have ever seen one.

17.

Jack

January 24, 2008, 10:30 AM

Here's an Ingres drawing (of the famous violinist Paganini):

http://www.wga.hu/art/i/ingres/08ingres.jpg

18.

Eric

January 24, 2008, 11:51 AM

This is an image of an Ingres painting in the permanent collection of the Frick that had a profound influence on me as a teenager and undergraduate. It is in my top ten that is for sure.

http://collections.frick.org/CUS.18.zoomobject._502$45978*5173825

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