July 14, 2011

Do We Have an Innate Style?

Untitled, 1970, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches.

Untitled, 1970, oil on canvas, 40 x 35 inches.

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my artist friend (rappel) – whose work you can see here – telling me this story: she had run into someone she knew from art school who reminded (rappel) that 40 years ago she was working similarly to her current practice, cutting up drawings and recombining them; this was a real surprise to her. This got me thinking again about whether we have an innate sensibility or style that underlies our art making.

A few years ago, when preparing for a slide lecture, I had some of my very early painting slides scanned; I painted these works in 1970 during my first year of graduate school; I had forgotten about them until then because they didn't fit in to my narrative at the time. (rappel's) anecdote brought them back to my mind because I can see a relationship between these stylized still lives and my current body of work, leapfrogging over 40 years. When I was in school, my teacher Philip Pearlstein told me that I had an "architectonic sensibility" and I believe he was correct. I also have a desire for precise form and crisp edges and this seems evident from the very beginning. I've only made a couple of very brief forays into painterly painting, soon abandoned.

Chinese Maple, Catskill, NY, 1981, oil on canvas, 14 x 28 inches.

My first exhibitions in a commercial gallery consisted primarily of "portraits" of Victorian domestic architecture. These paintings were literally architectonic; I loved the clear horizontals and verticals and the complicating of large masses by fine detail.

After Rain, Pawlet, Vermont, 1988, oil on canvas, 50 x 72 inches.

I gradually included landscape surrounding the architecture of houses and barns, and even here in an almost pure landscape, I think my structural concerns are still evident, with diagonals crisscrossing the space. And of course there is always the sense of the real, the tactile, that has excited me during my entire painting life.

Blue Bolts, 2011, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 4 7/8 x 5 1/2 inches.

After over 30 years of painting architecture and landscape and machinery in the landscape, I feel that I have come back to the simplified near-abstraction of still life, very different but in some ways closely related to those student paintings done so long ago. I wonder if other artists have had a similar trajectory; do you see yourself as having an inherent style? or has your work changed greatly over the years?


  1. How very interesting to see your pictures over the years; wonderful work, and I like the latest ones best. Also interesting that we have a common teacher, though I was in contact with him for only a short time. I am seeing why I am so attracted to your work. I have been told that I have a style that has not changed much over the years, and "architectonic" might be in the description. I feel like I probably do have a style, but I would be hard pressed to define or even describe it. My brother says he always recognizes one of my pictures. There are paintings done from 1963 through 2008 on my picassa site

  2. thanks for the comment, Erik, and phew! I'm glad you like my recent work best. I took a look at your Picassa album and I see a definite sensibility at work, structured, but with a somewhat painterly approach. Nice.
    I guess some of us do have our style hardwired into us.

  3. enjoyed seeing some of your early paintings, Altoon - I love the journey that a body of work made over time delineates. rich! it's the whole internal conversation that spans decades laid bare.... Milton Resnick was fond of saying we only have one story in us, perhaps this is getting at the same idea. I pick up journals I wrote 10 years ago and find the same considerations... this makes me think that knowing something/ getting to know something is a deep spiraling gesture of activity....

  4. It is wonderful to see your paintings over the years. I will have to wait until I am 90 to have this kind of retrospect. I like your landscapes as well as your work now. I feel comfortable looking at the landscapes. Drawn into them. I feel very edgy looking at your paintings now. Don't get me wrong I greatly admire them. I come here time and time again to look at them. I want one even but they evoke a whole different feeling in me than the landscapes. I don't feel like I have the vocabulary to express exactly how I feel about your art. I always wish I could touch them. Not good for a painting I guess.

  5. rappel, I love the Milton Resnick quote, though I also think we tell different stories to ourselves. It's interesting about your journals.
    Lisa, the landscapes have a space that you can imagine yourself into, while my current work is up against the picture plane, which is part of what accounts for your responses. Wanting to touch, the sense of this-ness, is one of the things I think a lot about while painting; I love that you feel that way.

  6. Altoon, I can always find something inciteful—visually and/or verbally on your facebook page and blog. This time it was the photograph of your cherry tomato Sungold (that I thought was a painting and should be) that sucked me in to your thoughts about “innate style.” Thanks for the ongoing ideas and images. I visit more often than I have time to respond to. Eat a tomato for me. They look delicious.

  7. thanks so much, Joan; I'm happy that you enjoy my photographs and musings. I'll think of you when I pop the next tomato in my mouth.

  8. thank you Altoon for this insight into your life as an artist over time! I do love your latest work but enjoy seeing this very much.
    i just keep finding many deeper and deeper layers it goes but I think I knew what I wanted long ago and still want it now. The work of an artist is the song of his life. somebody said that.

  9. and thank you for not correcting my stupid spelling of insightful . . . where was my mind?

  10. I have been thinking about this. I just finished listening to My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk on an audio book; much of the illustrators' conversation is about style, individuality and tradition. I wonder if style is the right word for this, for what we have in us -- a mix of the way our hands move and the things that capture our attentions and imaginations from the time we are very young and the things about colors that set us vibrating. Those things don't seem to change much, though we evolve and abandon things about our younger selves. I see that all these images are yours, and your concerns have threads of connection that are continuous throughout.

  11. Anonymous, "song of his life" is lovely.
    Susan, I agree that style is a somewhat problematic word for what I mean because it is so often used for superficial things, like changing fashions. I suppose it's like our personalities, which even babies seem to have, so it's not surprising if most of us have a continuity in our work.

  12. I was recently cleaning out my late mother's house and came across a painting I had done when I was about 16 or so that looked so very much like what I was working on currently that I was really taken aback. This was done before art school, before 40+ years painting. I hadn't remembered it at all. I found it somehow comforting and amazing that I was in some ways the same me. I guess we look at the world through the same eyes and process it through the same brain. I have often felt I'm circling and going back to things.

    I also thank you for the retrospective of your work. I first encountered your paintings in Kent, CT, years ago. I've been following you ever since.

  13. Bettina, finding that work must have been amazing. Other friends have mentioned to me that their aesthetic sense was fixed when they were young children.
    and thanks for following my work over the years.