April 13, 2021

Artists and Critics


Honoré Daumier, "Well, if you look very closely you might ending finding some quality; the color seems to be good."

In Jean Frémon's marvelous little book, The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman, he writes almost apologetically about his role as a writer on art:

All of us who write on art or artists have an extreme presumptuousness. We hold forth on the ins and outs, means and ends, and in reality we know nothing; nothing of what it is to truly take, on the end of a brush, the color from a palette and put it on a panel. We dissect thoughts while the painter searches for the form. Thought is within it and cannot be formulated in words. The thought of a painting is not discursive. It matters to the greatest degree and at the same time is on no consequence. It is everything, but it is nothing. It is there. In any case. Before and after. The only thing that matters is the form that it takes here and now: a little bit of white pigment taken up the this palette, on the end of a brush, and set down on that surface. 
In this modest declaration, Frémon shows himself to be a most sensitive and thoughtful writer. He has so many insightful things to say in this book that go beyond referencing just Ryman, such as:
Miro, Rothko, Ryman....deepened their thought in order to enlarge our understanding of the work of art, and our perception of the world. They do it not as historians or as sociologists but as artists; the proposition that they advance is not along the lines of semiotic analysis or chemical experiment; it is an object, an unexpected object, even if all the steps of its production have been carefully prepared, an object with no other purpose than itself, made to be seen, simple, and whose mystery holds us attentive, whose mystery touches us. 
This quality, obviousness and mystery, is what one speaks of the least when one speaks of a painting, because it is that whereof one cannot speaki. Thus, it is necessary to fall silent. Wittgenstein would say, Fall silent and look.
Frémon has not fallen silent, for which I am grateful because he's a wonderful writer. Artists cannot fall totally silent either, not about their own work or that of others. I've long believed that it is a good thing to be somewhat articulate about one's own work, to think about it as clearly as possible, as it allows us to move forward intelligently. But as the maker of the work, we can't ever have a new eye to see it in a different way.

Many years ago I was at a lecture given by Lucy Lippard, and one thing that she said has stayed with me because it is so important: she believed that the role of the critic was to be a "sympathetic observer". The critic can look at the art object and find connections, explore meanings of both form and content,  respond in an open and intelligent way to what they are seeing; this enlarges our understanding.  Over my long career I've been lucky to have had many reviews in which the writer was certainly sympathetic, and observant, pointing things out in my work that I hadn't thought of. Having the physical object of a painting translated into poetic prose is a delight and a gift. I did once get a nasty negative review, almost 40 years ago, and in the NY Times. I was a young artist and it crushed me (I did get other laudatory reviews in that paper). I now wonder what the point was of writing something so mean spirited? I don't read these kinds of blistering reviews any more, or perhaps I'm just not aware of them. It seems to me that writers on art have adopted Lippard's credo and  have provided us with a rich and informative range of texts, and the arts are definitely better for it. 

April 6, 2021

Regret: Bertrand Tavernier's "A Sunday in the Country"


On a lovely Sunday morning in 1912, the elderly artist Monsieur Ladmiral prepares for a visit from his son and family. We see that M. Ladmiral must be a successful painter: his house in a country setting near Paris is large and beautiful, his studio situated in the garden is spacious and elegant. It is evident from the paintings hanging in the house and studio that he is a very traditional painter, conservative in style; the upheavals in art of the late 19th century passed him by. 

The sense of life not being fully lived pervades this poignant film. Ladmiral's reserved middle-aged son Gonzague visits regularly, bringing his straight-laced wife and three children. At one point Gonzague wonders if he should have pursued painting when he was young; but perhaps he wouldn't be as good as his father, or, he would compete with him. Ladmiral also seems a bit disappointed in his son, a feeling that is thrown into vivid contrast with the unexpected arrival, via motor car, of his beloved daughter Irene. We can see that he adores her brilliant free spirit, her unconventionality, her need to liven things up. She is the only one whose opinion about his work he seeks, and fears. In the studio, she disparages a painting in process on the easel as yet another "corner of the studio" painting; how dull, how ordinary.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876

Then she whisks her beloved father away in the motor, to a café near a river, where there is dancing. For me this scene is the heart of the film, where Tavernier calls up the spirit of Renoir. And here is where father and daughter have a candid talk about his work. Irene says to him, pointing to the dancers, "That's what you should have painted". His response is beautifully thoughtful, and relevant, I believe, to choices all artists make: 

I painted the way I was taught. I believed my teachers: to respect the traditional rules, maybe a bit too much. I saw originality in others' work. Cézanne's major exhibition in '96 or '97 was interesting, but I thought "Where can that lead me", like van Gogh's work. I'd singled him out. I spent a summer painting in Arles. Perhaps I lacked courage. Some years ago, I considered changing my style. I thought about it seriously, but it hurt your mother that I was still groping at that age. I'd just been decorated; our future was assured. If I'd imitated what was original in other painters––Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir––I'd have been even less original. I'd have lost my own special melody; at least it was mine. I painted as I felt, with honesty. If I didn't achieve more, I at least glimpsed what I could have done. 

Then he recounts his dream about Moses, who saw the Promised Land, so could die without regret. Irene listens to his passionate, yet hesitant words with attentive love. 

When all his guests have gone, M. Ladmiral sits alone in the studio. Although his talk with Irene made it sound as though he had no regrets, the expression on his face––he is sensitively portrayed by Louis Ducreux––reveals uncertainty. He removes the unfinished painting of the studio corner from the easel and turns it against the wall. He places a smaller blank canvas on the easel, which he turns so he can look at it from the studio couch. The camera lingers on his hands, moving as though seeking answers. This scene was so touching, even heartbreaking. Although he spoke of having no regrets, he seems full of self-doubt.

I loved this about A Sunday in the Country: it wasn't only sensitive to family relations, but also astute in its portrayal of an artist's questioning of their work. I wonder if artists reading this have felt that. I certainly have: that sudden crushing sense of bewilderment, the "what am I doing?", the ground sliding out from under my feet. We go on, as best as we know how. 

April 1, 2021

Matzoh, Tradition and Commemoration


There are many foods that I eat in season––asparagus in the spring, tomatoes in summer, brussels sprouts in the fall––but only Passover matzoh is so rich in associations. The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, where Jews were enslaved for 400 years. Because they didn't have time to make raised bread in leaving Egypt, their bread was unleavened, so unleavened matzoh became a ritual food during the 8 days of Passover. For me it's also a tie to family, to our holiday traditions. I love the large family seders, sadly missed the past two years because of Covid. 

I look forward to my breakfasts of matzoh cereal, invented by my father (or are there any other people out there who make this?)  I remember him sitting at the breakfast table, chopping at his cereal. Just crumble two matzohs into a bowl, sprinkle generously with sugar, and pour on plenty of milk. My brother informs me that he has two bowls of this every morning, with lots of sugar. Not very nutritious, but good nonetheless. This is food as remembrance.

Another commemorative food eaten for the Passover seder is Haroseth, symbolic of the mortar that the Israelis enslaved in Egypt used in buildings for the Pharaoh. In my Sephardic community, we make it with dates rather than apples. For me it's a treat spread on matzoh, and is quite simple to make; it can also be thought of as date butter: 
Soak one pound of dates (I use medjool dates) in 1 1/2 cups of water for 1 hour. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 45 minutes until soft and breaking down. Drain the dates; when cool you can slip off their skins, then process them until smooth in a food processor.

My final Passover matzoh treat is matzoh brie––a kind of fritter––another very simple recipe. 
Run cool water over two matzohs until they soften, then crumble them into a bowl. Beat with two eggs and a little salt. Shallow fry them with vegetable oil, butter, or a combination of the two; I use oil. Top with something nice: I like the tart-sweet flavor of rhubarb jam on mine. You can also add a little grated onion for a savory fritter. 

Having food traditions that tie us to history and to family add richness to life.