January 31, 2012

A New Textile: "Empty Center: Turquoise/Red"

 Empty Center: Turquoise/Red, hand dyed wool on linen, 9 x 9 inches.

This is the second in my series of Empty Center textiles; you can see the first below, and here. The shapes at the edges give this work a very different feeling from the first: where the rectangle and truncated circle seemed to be calling to each other across a vast expanse, the red and turquoise curves seem to me to be embracing the center, or holding it within bounds.

As with the last piece, I dyed the wool for the center using very dilute amounts of the colors at the edges, then hooked it in a random pattern, different from the regularity of the colored shapes. The transformation from small sketch to finished piece brought an unexpected kind of mood and energy in these two works. It's fun to be surprised by your own work.

Note: I'll be away for a few days; see you next week!

January 30, 2012

Balthus' Memoir: Beautiful, and Infuriating

 Balthus, The Mountain, 1936-37; oil on canvas, 98 x 144 in. From the Metropolitan Museum website.

Of what use are an artist's words about their work? do they elucidate or obfuscate? How do they make us feel about the artist as a person and does that affect our view of the work? I remember my first encounter with van Gogh's letters and how stunned I was by his vivid, intelligent writing, so far from the popular image of the disturbed artist. While I was mulling over writing this post, I read a blog post by the artist Deborah Barlow about Philip Guston's writings and life; reading his daughter Musa Mayer's memoir left her feeling uneasy about his life. So I come to Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), certainly one of the great 20th century painters, but one who engenders continuing controversy. When I recently wrote a blog post on originality,  using Picasso and Balthus as examples, a lively conversation about Balthus on Facebook ensued. I mentioned this to my friend, the artist Susan Jane Walp, who then loaned me her copy of Vanished Splendors, an "as told to" memoir compiled during two years at the end of Balthus' life.

 Balthus, Nude with Cat, 1949; oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. This and the following images from Wikipaintings website.

Balthus speaks beautifully about his vocation as an artist:
what painting really is, a skill like that of a laborer or farmer. It's like making a hole in the ground. A certain physical effort is needed in relation to the goal ones sets for oneself. It is a discernment of secrets and illegible, deep, and distant paths that are timeless.
He then goes on to berate modern painting, decrying Mondrian's desertion of landscape painting. He is deeply conservative, and religious, which evokes an eloquent statement:
To paint as one prays. By doing so, to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world....To join with what is essential in this sacred world through a humble, modest availability that is also presented as an offering.
After this lovely statement, he goes on to complain of the "majority of morons mak(ing) so-called contemporary art" and I fume as I read it. And what of his most controversial paintings, those of young girls in sexual poses, paintings that make us horribly uncomfortable? 

 Balthus, The Room, c. 1953; oil on canvas; 106 1/2 x 132 in. 

I remember seeing this huge canvas at the Balthus retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art many years ago. The light, the paint, are beautiful, but the image is shocking, almost violent. The girl pulling back the curtain seems evil to me as she exposes the prone girl to the light of day. These complex images of young girls, mixing seduction and grace, light and darkness, sexuality and death, with deep mystery, push Balthus' work beyond that of mere figure painting. What does he have to say about his young models?
Some have claimed that my undressed young girls are erotic. I never painted them with that intent, which would have made them anecdotal, mere objects of gossips. I aimed at precisely the opposite, to surround them with a halo of silence and depth, as if creating vertigo around them. That's why I think of them as angels, beings from elsewhere, whether heaven, or another ideal place that suddenly opened and passed through time, leaving traces of wonderment, enchantment, or just as icons. 
Is it possible he really did not see what he painted? but he also wrote this, which seems to belie his more simple statement above:
Behind nature's docile stillness and people's behavior, I've always perceived a secret, dark complexity that attracts all artists and makes them advance to the depths of forests and the abyss. This mysterious architecture gives art its vertigo.

 Balthus, Large Landscape with a Tree, 1957; oil on canvas; 51 x 64 in. 

Balthus' landscape paintings have a deeply quiet presence; a distillation of form, and a quality of paint make them timeless. They are an aspect of his work that draws no controversy.
This love of landscape remained with me always...I don't try to paint of reproduction of nature, but signs of a universal community and identification of a thought and deep meaning, at the same time coherent and obscurely mysterious. 

Balthus, Japanese Girl with a Black Mirror, 1967; oil on canvas; 59 x 77 in.

Later in his life, Balthus painted his much younger Japanese wife, Setsuko Ideta, who he calls "The Countess", much to my annoyance. How do I feel about this admittedly great artist after reading much of the memoir? I don't like him. He was extremely conservative, snobbish, arrogant, and in love with aristocracy. Does that change my view of his paintings? I don't think so, any more than knowing about the bad behavior of so many of the New York School artists changes my attitude toward their work. Can we separate the art and the life?

January 29, 2012

A New Painting: How Do We Evaluate Our Work?

Black Dot, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 4 5/8 x 6 inches.

I wasn't going to blog about this just completed painting because for me it is not a success: it has an awkwardness to it that makes me uncomfortable; the space is too complex; it's funny but not funny enough. But then I thought this would be an opportunity to discuss that most difficult of issues: how do we judge our own work? What are our criteria for success or failure, and how clear are they? For me it's often difficult to pinpoint why I don't like something; the negative feeling just hovers, unarticulated but still insistent. A sense of happiness with a work can also be similarly vague: I like it; it works; it fills me with satisfaction. 

I do know that when I look at the four most recent paintings I've completed–––here seen on my office bookshelf and wall––I sense that I have achieved something solid, something I've been aiming for. I began to make a list of the positive attributes of these paintings, to clarify for myself and for you, my readers, why I think they're successful. 
  • There is harmony between the various elements––color, shape, value––leading to a feeling of complete balance, a just-right-ness.
  • The paint is applied with grace and self assurance (or loss of self), so that the form is clearly described.
  • The sense of form, the light, and color being just right bring a strong sense of presence, of holding a place on the wall, of "speaking" to the viewer.
  • There's a stripped down simplicity paired with a conceptual reality, one that is tactile.
  • All these parts combine for a sense of sizzling life, a frisson of energy. And beauty.
  • And oh, I realize this is all so subjective!
It's possible that this list will still seem vague. I'm sure I can add to it and I'm sure it will change over time, just as my paintings have, just as I'm sure that your lists will be different from mine, as your judgment will be different. Please share any of your own criteria.


When I add Black Dot to the group of recent paintings, it doesn't hold up for me. It does not have the inevitability of the other works, their serious, quiet presence (though from time to time humor also appears in my work). In years past, my landscape paintings were full of implied narrative and socio-political subtext (see this link for a taste of those ideas, and this link to a page on my website to see an overview of past work). Now, although I still picture agricultural equipment, the painting's meaning must come from its formal elements, which I hope transcends the specificity of its origins.

The four paintings:
at top: White Behind Red, Gray Cross
below: Blue Circle, Blades.

January 26, 2012

Ardent Pagan: The Poems of Fernando Pessoa's Alberto Caeiro

 I feel that I am being born each moment 
Into the eternal newness of the World . . .
For Alberto Caeiro, the world is not a place of mystery or of meaning, but is simply itself, to be absorbed with all one's senses. He was one of the heteronyms, the alter-egos, of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Pessoa's prose writings have moved me, and I wrote a blog post, Memory: Constructing a Life, inspired by one of his sentences. But I was unaware of his poetry until a Facebook friend, Martyn Ravensdale, introduced me to his long poem "The Keeper of Sheep", lyrical and revelatory; I feel that it's close to being a guide to appreciating life. Pessoa wrote his poetry in the guise of several different characters; he described the appearance of Alberto Caeiro in him as "In me there appeared my Master." Caeiro wrote of meeting Jesus Christ come down to earth as an innocent small child 
And enjoying our common secret
Which is knowing through and through
There is no mystery in the world
And that all things are worth our while.
The doings of mankind, the commerce and wars and kings make him smile
Because he knows it all lacks that truth
A flower has in bloom
Which moves with the light of the sun
Changing mountains and valleys
And making eyes ache at whitewashed walls.

Caeiro argues against intellect and for pure sensation:
I'm a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.

To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning.
 As he argues against anthropomorphizing nature:
To talk about the soul of flower, stones, and rivers,
Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.
Thank God stones are just stones,
And rivers nothing but rivers,
And flowers just flowers.
Being that I am now over 60 years old, perhaps with two thirds of my life done (much of my family is long-lived), I occasionally wonder what it means, this being a human on earth. There are many possible answers, but lines from another poem by Pessoa's Alberto Caeiro gives one that feels true and deep and full of grace:
The startling reality of things
Is my discovery every single day
Every thing is what it is,
And it's hard to explain to anyone how much this delights me
And suffices me.
. . . . . . . 
Occasionally I hear the wind blow,
And I find that just hearing the wind blow makes it worth
      having been born.

January 25, 2012

The Glitter of Hoarfrost

The most beautiful of winter phenomena is hoarfrost, which turns every twig and branch and weed into a sparkling presence. According to Wikipedia, these ice crystals are formed "on cold clear nights when heat losses into the open skies cause objects to become colder than the surrounding air." I awoke to everything outdoors aglitter on Sunday morning.

The branches of the Nannybush are brilliantly lit,

as are the tangled stems of weeds and grasses, turning them into something more than themselves, into a poetry of light, 

 and the world becomes a dazzling place.

January 24, 2012

"Microcosmos": The Hidden World of Insects

The camera is high above a pleasant, bright meadow, then swoops down lower and lower until we are in grass, towering above us as in a fecund tropical jungle. An insect climbs a stem with gravity-defying grace, and we are now in a microcosm of our everyday world. The 1996 French film 
Microcosmos: The Grass People shows us usually unseen miniature life, full of color and beauty, and sheer strangeness; the technical prowess of the macro photography is awe inspiring.

This marvel of a caterpillar looks like it was put together by a very hip, inventive fashion designer, with vivid pink on its head repeated in the tips of a kind of double tail. This should have been the design for the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar.

Another caterpillar has colors that mimic leaf and stem, part of nature's protective mechanism.

The film presented insects that are familiar to us, along with the surprises. This sequence showed a bee entering a flower, and as it pushed inwards, the pollen bearing anther dips downward to deposit pollen on the bee.

Not only plant fertilization is filmed, but also a remarkable view of a pair of snails (mollusks, not insects) mating to swelling music, with all the romance and passion of any steamy sex scene. There is a marvelous wit in this film, with all the drama we expect from a nature film featuring much larger species.

We see sinuous mating, and we see a vigorous battle between two beetles.

A creature is born, emerges from a delicate egg and then turns around and eats it.

There is the terror of death, as an insect is entrapped by a carnivorous plant...

or is amazingly wrapped by a spider, whose silk comes pouring out of its body.

There is the storage of food, with ants dragging seeds many times larger than themselves into an underground chamber. Here is the true to life illustration of the La Fontaine fable of the grasshopper and the ant.

And there are tales of endurance, as insects survive floods and drought. In a display of clever perseverance, a beetle whose ball of dung was caught up on a stick manages to dig out around it, giving itself leverage to push the ball free. There were quite a few tense moments as I rooted for the beetle's success.

At the end of the film, an embodiment of light emerges from a dark watery background. It rises higher and begins to spread its fine legs. I feel as though I am watching an apotheosis, an exalted moment in insect life as something emerges from primordial ooze and takes shape. In a film with many moments of stunning beauty, this caused me to sit with mouth agape. It wasn't until I researched the film later (the cast of characters was in French, and not translated) that I discovered that this was a mosquito hatching! I think I will carry the images of the mosquito as goddess the next time the pesky little things are biting. This film reminded me that the diversity and ingenuity of life is greater than I realize, and even more full of wonder.

January 23, 2012

A New Painting: "Blue Circle"

Blue Circle,  egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 x 5 1/4 inches.

The painting gods were angry with me when I began work on this painting, just as they were with White Behind Red. After working on the painting for 2 or 3 days, suffering with dust and lifting paint leaving white spots, I calmly wiped the entire painting off, down to the bare parchment. My second attempt was a success as far as achieving the color and form I wanted, without any dust whatsoever. A mystery to be unraveled.

 This underpainting from my first attempt gives me a clue. I tend to want to load the paint on when I begin (as much as one can with the thin egg tempera), as I search for the correct color balance. Here, I'd put a light layer of color over a darker one, because white mixed with a color will make it more opaque; the blues are quite transparent pigments. But I went too light, so had a very hard time, using many layers of paint, trying to get to the colors I wanted. The more layers, especially if the paint is thicker, the more they seem to attract dust. The winter dust from my wood stove probably doesn't help matters.

In my second attempt, I decided to begin with darker, more saturated color, so that the transparent pigments I was using––ultramarine blue, cobalt blue light, and cerulean blue––weren't fighting the light underpainting. I worked with more thin layers, building them slowly, using the quality of the paint, its transparency, as a positive force rather than something to argue with. Yesterday I started a new painting, and noticed right away that I wanted to quickly layer color, one atop the other––warmer, cooler, lighter, darker––as I searched for my color ideas. I saw that the loaded brush brought dust with it, so began to work more slowly, in more transparent layers. Now I have to remember that lesson going forward, as it seems to keep slipping away from me.

This is a detail of the painting that gives some sense of the different hues of blue, and of the painting surface. For the darks which look close to black, I simply painted many thin layers of ultramarine blue and cadmium red deep, mixing the colors and alternating them. I put a teeny bit of cadmium yellow medium in there to warm it a little. You can see some of the layering in the process image above.

This composition uses a flat, frontal grouping of overlapping forms, an idea I work with occasionally (see for instance Red Construction). I think of cubism and of artists such as Liubov Popova, and of minimalist abstraction, in making this painting and in all my work. My challenge is to transform a group of abstract forms so that they have presence, and feeling, with or without the lurking metaphors.

January 20, 2012


Mid-January, mid-winter: the season of snow and ice. Snow brings happy thoughts for us northern dwellers; it means snow shoeing and skiing and snowmobiling. It brightens indoor light as sun reflects from its white surface. Ice is another matter: it is treacherous for walking and driving, causing many a fall and automobile accident. But it can also be very beautiful, as when a glittering mass surrounds the stems of honeysuckle...


or when the freezing overnight temperatures leave a complex pattern on a window, which catches the glow of early sun....

as do the icicles flowing from the roof, pushed from their vertical fall by the strong west winds.

Even on my car, whose windshield I have to clear of ice, there is a beautiful gathering of ice crystals, which have captured a seed blown from the woods.

Driving on icy roads is dangerous, but this glistening relief sculpture of tire tracks is a small thing of beauty.

January 19, 2012

A New Textile: "Empty Center: Blue/Brown", the First in a Series

Empty Center: Blue/Brown, hand dyed wool on linen, 9 x 9 inches.

This small piece is very different from my last textile, Wave, which had a curved volume moving forward and back in space, with light catching its surfaces. My initial impulse to make the hooked wool "ruglets" a few years ago was to explore minimalist abstraction, and this piece returns to that form. Two shapes, which seem cut off by edges, separated by an expanse of texture, push toward each other? converse (maybe shout across)? yearn?
(As I wrote this what amazingly just came to my mind was the old tv show, The Goldbergs, with Molly shouting from her window)

How I came to the idea of an empty center, with shapes hugging edges, is an interesting story. After writing a blog post on Tantric painting, I started to paint on a few scrap pieces of parchment, which I described here, and which helped my painting process. I had many tiny scraps, about one inch square, left from stretching parchment panels; I began to paint on them. The piece on the lower left had a tiny cut in the surface, so I followed it with yellow paint, adding a stroke of blue at the bottom; then I did others with the same idea of leaving the center empty, except for that one stroke of yellow.


Of course it's not empty, really, because the wool has an engaging texture, and a subtle shift of color. I achieved the color by scrunching the wool in a flat pan and dropping very diluted dyes, the two colors of the shapes, onto the wool by the spoonful. There's an austerity in form such as this, but I hope also some interest and some humor.

January 18, 2012

Winter Light: Folds

 The brilliant light of January sun has been rare this winter, but when it does appear, I go on a treasure hunt for images. This year my eye is drawn to austere compositions, emphasizing geometries, sometimes softened by a complexity of detail as in this piece of lace, whose folded circles are broken by patterns of light and dark.

A piece of brown paper draped over a table has a slice of light reminding me of an Ellsworth Kelly painting

The repeated forms of knitting and braiding catch light as would the elements of a landscape: the small rounds of hills or trees; the interlocking shapes of fields.


Light finds its way through textured cloth, the softness of its folds crossed by shadow.

Another kind of texture, a floured cloth that I use for baking bread, appears something like the surface variations of lichens seen in the woods: a bright curve against the darkness.

Some other Winter Light posts:

January 16, 2012

At The Met: The Surface of Things

Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (Detail), ca. 1510 -15; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go the museum website.

We often think of "surface" as a word that demeans; it is the opposite of depth. But an intense focus on things can be a way to explore their form and meaning: it can be a celebration of life. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month, I first spent time in the amazing exhibition of Indian painting, which I wrote about here, looking at those small, marvelously detailed paintings, full of careful attention to the smallest things of the world. So when I did my usual tour of the permanent collection of Northern European paintings, what caught my notice was the intense focus of those painters on the surfaces and textures of ordinary things, leading me to this photo essay. In his complex nativity, David of course made the figures of paramount importance, but he did not neglect the humble: the grain on the ground alongside the basket filled with cloth, the small plants growing between the stones of the walls. To me these details seem prayerful.

 Hans Memling, Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara (Detail), early 1480s; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

The Netherlandish painters did not only look at the ordinary objects of life; here Memling has painted a shimmery fabric with an elaborate pattern. Every part of his painting is seen with a uncanny clarity. 

 North Netherlandish Painter, Christ Bearing the Cross (Detail), ca. 1470; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

 In this very complex painting, what I decided to photograph was this delicately rendered round headdress, with a braid, tied in red, emerging from it; touching small tendrils of hair escape. When I look at these paintings, I can't help but think that to these artists, at this time, the careful rendering of every small thing is their way of praising God's creation.

 Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (Detail), ca. 1662; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

 Two hundred years later, there is a great deal of secular painting, made for bourgeois households. Vermeer is an artist who transcends his ordinary subjects through an all enveloping light and a sense of form that is weighty and eternal. A brass basin and pitcher are perfect in light and color, giving us a sense of their objectness without being fussy. Two years ago I wrote a blog post after seeing the small exhibition at the Met surrounding Vermeer's The Milkmaid, which you can read here; at the time I was most thrilled with the way he painted the wall in that painting; it had such physical presence that I felt my body react to it.

Sebastian Stoskopff, Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell and Chip-Wood Box (Detail),  ca. 1630; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

Other northern painters (Stoskopff is French) approached still life with precisely rendered surfaces, so that we can feel their differences: the smoothness of a glistening shell next to a very different kind of smooth surface of a wooden box. I love the small details of metal, which I assume are holding the box together.

 Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and Writing Quill (Detail), 1628; oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website

A vanitas still life points to life's brief span. But how carefully Claesz paints each different texture, so we can look into the glass' refection and feel a wisp of feather about to drift off from the bony skull.

 Georg Flegel, Still Life (Detail); oil on wood. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

Flegel's still life delicately renders some good things in life (not an image for my vegetarian friends). I marvel at the lemon. Its bright juiciness alongside the reflective glass and clay pitcher makes me happy. I come close to thinking of some of these paintings as magic, as they transform paint into a visually graspable thing.

 Gerard ter Borch, Curiosity (Detail), ca. 1660-62; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

I couldn't write a blog post on surface and not include ter Borch, whose female figures are usually clothed in sparkling satin gowns; they shine from the dark interiors with an internal light.

Jean Simeon Chardin, The Silver Tureen (Detail), 1728; oil on canvas. To see the entire image in high resolution, go to the museum website.

Finally, Chardin, a very different painter, who opened up his brush stroke, softening edges, giving tremendous life to his objects, while being true to the surface of each. I love this juxtaposition of the hard refective shine of the silver tureen behind the soft fur and hairs of a rabbit. An approach to the world that is attentive and deep can come by looking very closely at things.