September 28, 2013


Titian (ca. 1490-1576), Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23

Titian, The Death of Actaeon, ca. 1559-75

A friend recently asked me if I missed doing the large, complex paintings I used to make. I don't at all miss them; I'm very engaged in the work I'm doing now. The question got me thinking about how so many artists changed their painting style or content during their working life. The giants of the 20th century, Picasso and Matisse, were always trying new approaches; sometimes they were subtle shifts and sometimes dramatic. Titian's early work was influenced by Bellini and Giorgione, since he worked with both as a young artist. His color was brilliant, the forms crisp and clear, with a planar ordering of space. Later, his brush became more active, color less crystalline, the space flowed in sweeping curves. I could say his paintings went from precise to painterly.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Fontainebleau, Black Oaks of Bas Breau, 1832-33

Corot, Landscape, 1860

Corot's work followed a similar path, from the clear light and form of his early work to the soft, painterly effects of his mature landscapes. This change, from a more controlled expression to one that is more open seems not uncommon, for instance in the work of Constable, Turner, and Monet.

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), The Harvest Moon, a Drawing for 'A Pastoral Scene', 1831-32

Palmer, A Dream in the Apennine, 1864

A very different kind of change happened in the work of the British artist Samuel Palmer. When a young man, he was in the circle of followers of William Blake. For about 10 years he produced intense and mystical landscapes while living in a cottage in the village of Shoreham. These small works, which I saw several years ago in a show at the Met, are compelling and strangely beautiful; they are very personal expressions of landscape as symbol of spirituality. Then he moved to London and became a rather conventional landscape painter out of a need to make money. Walking from the gallery full of the Shoreham works into that of later paintings was moving from exhilaration to a dull thud. The later painting I've reproduced above, though, has some of the lyrical strangeness of the early work, but doesn't quite rise above its rather ordinary format.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), The Gray Tree, 1911

Mondrian, Composition in Blue and White, 1935

In the 20th century we have some greater changes, as artists move from representation to abstraction. Mondrian did so in stages, from early work that was stayed close to perceptual reality and gradually became more abstracted until it became line and color. Then for many years he worked variations on his ideas until the final exuberance of Broadway Boogie Woogie.

Philip Guston (1913-1980), Zone, 1954

Guston, Ancient Wall, 1976

Rather than a gradual change in his work, Guston stunned the art world in 1970: instead of showing his beautifully atmospheric abstract paintings, his new show was full of cartoons! I was at that opening, and we just didn't know what to make of these wild images, disturbing and bitterly funny. Guston was torn to shreds by the critics at the time. It was brave of him to make this enormous change, and it took us a while to catch up with him; now his figurative work is revered.

Guston, Drawing for Conspirators, 1930

The interesting thing is that he was going back to concerns he had in his early years, when he was a representational painter. Years before he returned to figuration he was dissatisfied with abstraction; in 1960 he wrote (via Wikipedia):
There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and for itself.....But painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden. 

Thumbnail details of my paintings, 1981-2005

And me? My changes in painting have been less of style, which has stayed consistently precise and based on perceptual reality, and more of subject, focus, and size. (The photos above are a screen shot from my website; if you click this link, you can then click on each image to see the entire painting.) My early paintings were "portraits" of Victorian houses; I love the way light played over the large forms and small details. Later I expanded my view out from architecture into the landscape; the landscape then became the subject, but it was a working landscape of agriculture. I found myself more and more interested in the stuff of farming, and how its ordinary ugliness contrasted with the beauty of the land around it, and how the inputs of fossil fuels and plastics affected our environment. Then I focused entirely on the objects, seeing the abstract qualities of their forms. Over time my paintings got simpler and more abstract––I tired of the insistent narrative––though still using the same subject matter of agricultural implements. Now they are very small, inspired by medieval manuscript painting. My desire during the past couple of years has been to make intimate paintings, very simple and abstract, yet calling forth mood and feeling.

Blue Box, 1970, 16 x 20 in.

An interesting correspondence with Guston is that my most recent work can seem to be a reprise of work I did when a young artist, still in grad school, something I only realized fairly recently. Flat forms played against volumetric folds, color was invented, and was bright and contrasting. Maybe here can even be seen the seeds of all of my abstract work in textiles, drawings, and prints. We all go through many changes in our lives; in our work some of us are consistent over years, and some of us change. I believe that the important thing is to allow ourselves the freedom to do whatever it is that feels right.


  1. Wonderful post, Altoon! Coincidentally, I was just thinking of this topic myself this morning. I had an epiphany in the 80s, at the big Picasso survey at MoMA, realizing that *change* is the definition of life in art, for the art and the artist; that moment I was galvanized in my vocation, knowing I could define and redefine for the rest of my life.

    1. Thanks, Ravenna. It's great to hear of the simultaneous thoughts, and that you have a similar view of the role of change in our artistic lives.

  2. enjoyed this Altoon - and Ravenna's comment also. after all, creative means not doing things mechanically, or by rote -- . I think of it as staying on top of the wave of energy - and when that wave flattens out on the shore, find another wave....

  3. You, Altoon, who express yourself as well in words as in paint, are a great mentor who gives permission ( for those that might need it) to allow their work to change. After all we change all through our lives: physically, spiritually, intellectually and personally. It makes little sense to me that artists would keep doing the same thing forever. Yet, it still comes as a surprise to others. tonight, a very old friend, commented in a phone conversation about how different my new work is from what she had seen at my last show. Changes don't always mean the work would be better, but that there was an inner urge for change and it needs to be followed like that proverbial thread, to see where it will lead.

    1. Thank you, Bascha, for your comment. We certainly do change throughout our lives, but when people like a body of work, they regret its passing. As you say, we have to follow that inner urge.

  4. Thank you for this Altoon. I've been thinking of going through my work over time, making some sort of essay about it for myself.There have been many changes. I often wonder at my need to change the way I'm working and struggle with the feeling that some how this is not a good thing. That there is no thread. Your point of view here is helpful.

    1. Elaine, I'm pleased that this post resonates with you. I often write to try to clarify my thinking about something, which is what I did here, so your essay will likely help you too.

  5. Another wonderful post, Altoon, with its focus on one aspect of the creative life. While recognizing the necessity of letting my own work evolve, I sometimes wish that an artist (or writer, choreographer, musician) hadn't moved on in their work. What were they thinking?!?!? How could they abandon what I found so wonderful? With some artists, over time I come to love the new work, but not always. But of course, to resist change often means stagnation and boredom. (By the way, I love the way the final image in your post, from 1970, points to the direction of what would emerge decades later.)

    1. Thanks, Tamar; I'm glad you like the post. I know I am an artist who many people wish hadn't changed my work, but one doesn't have a choice in the matter; we have to go where our hearts tell us even if we disappoint.

    2. I agree with you completely--we go where the work takes us, come what may. It's not about what the audience is looking for, it is all about what we need to do.