Sunday, December 09, 2007

Whois George Rodart?

It’s the game show answer to the question, "who writes FutureModern?" As an artist working in relative solitude I started writing FutureModern two years ago as a way of interacting with a larger audience.

On a hot day in the summer before last, I was walking through the cool dim room in the Met where the Christmas tree is now. It’s a gallery filled with artworks from centuries ago, artworks that I suspect not many people pay much attention to anymore. It happened to be a day when the news from Iraq was an order of magnitude worse than normal. It was an unbearable weight to consider, contemplating the viciousness of mankind as no better than the rest of the animal kingdom.

Yet, as I was walking through the cool dim room in the Met, the one where the Christmas tree is now, I experienced the opposite side to my despair, with an overwhelming sense of the potential goodness in mankind. These artworks from centuries past stand witness to the higher aspirations of mankind, it gave me a moment of peace. It was a profound moment, it is what art should be. It is why I paint and write about art.

For the past several years I’ve been working quietly in relative seclusion. In an effort to expand my audience, I decided I should change that.
This is my website   This is what I do.

George Rodart, "Vertigo"
2007, Oil on canvas, 28 x 36 in. / 71 x 91 cm.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Guennol Lioness, oh my.

Tiny Sculpture Brings $57 Million, that's the AP headline on Dec. 5, 2007. Funny how money grabs all the attention.

Take a look at this small miracle of hand fashioned stone.
Forget about the money. Just look at this swirling form, human and lion merged, poses intertwined, what was this magician thinking? This mythic woman-lioness is facing us down with a penetrating sideways stare, her arms flexed, rippling in a muscular display befitting the alpha female. Five thousand years ago, some ancient tribe faced down and defeated a lioness, sowing the seeds of a mythology which was fertile for the next four thousand years. Looking at the face of the lioness, it should be clear that this carving was the result of close observation and that five thousand years ago, close observation of a big cat meant either victory or death. This small edifice became a fitting way to celebrate the victory, one which has entered into the collective memory of mankind. This seems like a good definition for art. It’s just a small piece of carved and incised stone, but what a piece of stone. WOW!

Guennol Lioness
A Magnesite or Crystalline Limestone Figure of a Lioness.
Elam circa 3000-2800 B.C.
Height 3 1/4 in. 8.26 cm.
Location: Sotheby's New York, 12/5/2007-Lot 30
Pre-Sale Estimate. 14,000,000—18,000,000 USD
Lot Sold.    57,161,000 USD (inc. Buyers premium)

Guennol Lioness - circa 3000-2800 B.C

Guennol Lioness - circa 3000-2800 B.C
Photos: © Sotheby's

The price is a record for a sculpture, etc... Link to Sothebys lot details, (requires registration.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The State of the Art Market – An Analysis

One has to imagine the players were sweating bullets after the November 7th evening sale of Impressionist & Modern Art at Sotheby's failed to make the low end of the pre-sale estimates. What a difference a week made, the Post War and Contemporary Art sales came in strong, and everyone seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief.

This feeling of well being may be premature, as the auction markets are indicating that a topping process has begun. The rate of price appreciation peaked in 2006 and is showing signs of slowing, indicating increasing resistance on the parts of the new buyers to pay "any price" in order to participate. This is not to say there were no new price records set, to the contrary this was the case, but at a market peak, price records are the norm not the exception.

All this talk of money is enough to make one dizzy, it is confusing to say the least. It has less to do with the art being sold and more to do with speculation on a volatile commodity in a bullish price environment. So, I am going to take off my beret and have a look at the art market as an investment vehicle, as a commodity, a pound of flesh to be bought and sold.

"Capitalism I & II," 2006, Oil on Aluminum,
24 in x 37 in / 61 cm x 94 cm overall, 2 panels
Follow the money. Last year we saw several paintings change hands at prices which would have been unimaginable only a dozen years ago. Who would have thought paintings, and not just one painting, several, would sell in excess of $100 million dollars? What is happening?

In my previous musings on the art market I have mentioned the notion that we are living in an unique era, one that has seen an unprecedented creation of wealth world wide. The internet boom, the revolution in information technology, had an effect on the US economy unlike anything since the build out of the railroads at the turn of the last century.

In the developing countries, especially since the collapse of Communism, rapid economic growth has occurred in both the industrial and technological sectors. Without breaking down the details, it is apparent that personal wealth rapidly expanded at the end of the twentieth century.

The last bear market in art occurred in the early 1990’s and the auction markets that followed it into the turn of the century were not making headlines, prices were behaving more or less normally. Around 2002, a change seem to take place. After the bursting of the internet bubble, art was promoted as alternative investment, one that could perform on a par with the stock indexes. Whether or not this was true didn’t matter, it became fashionable to collect art. The result was an influx of capital into the art markets, it appeared to pick up steam around 2003 or 2004 and prices jumped.

The Range Shift. This is an important concept which may help explain some of the behavior in the art market. Markets may trade in an orderly fashion, typically range bound, for a number of years and then suddenly move higher, a lot higher. Typically, the participants who understood the previous range bound pricing, are caught flat footed, betting that the new market move is unsustainable, and that prices are "too high."

A good example would be the Dow Jones Index which made the breakout from the old sub 1000 range and made the sprint to 10,000. This move was accompanied by the doubters who perpetually suggested the indexes ‘had’ to return to the 1000 level, next week, or next month, whatever, they were wrong. This type of price change is what I call ‘range shifting,’ and it can occur without any apparent fundamental reason at the start.

This is what I believe occurred in the art market over the last five years. Prices increased suddenly, across the board, and rising prices draws in new buyers. New buyers push the prices higher, and the speculators join the game.

I believe art market prices have experienced a range shift, a ratcheting higher in prices, which is much greater than what we would consider normal price appreciation for artworks.

This is a once in a generation occurrence, the range shift is over, at best some market sectors are playing catch up but the rapid expansion in prices cannot continue going forward.

For example, let us look at Hugh Grant’s sale of Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, "Liz," for $23.5 million. In the previous post I inferred that I thought this was an astute move. (For the record, I used publicly available prices, didn’t subtract the commissions, etc. It doesn’t matter, this is just a rough example.)

The Buy and Sell Reportedly, in 2003 Mr. Grant paid $3.5M (million) for the Warhol "Liz." This is just about the time I am suggesting the price range shift began. At the Christie’s auction last week it was sold for $23.5M, or roughly five times what he paid only 4 years earlier.

What’s it worth? A reasonable expectation for the rate of appreciation of an asset class like art works might be close to expectations for equities. The compound annual price appreciation for the Dow Jones Industrials, from the 19332 low to the 2007 high, is approximately 8% per annum. Since the bull market began in 1982, this figure is a bit higher at 11.4%.

Using stock returns as a benchmark, "Liz" should have been worth in the vicinity of $5M to $6M today, this range is calculated using 12% [DJIA] and 20% [NASDAQ] as a growth rate. Since $23.5 million is substantially above the expected price range of $5M to $6M we can either conclude their was a bidding war or that some other event is affecting pricing. If this sale was an isolated incident, then we could ignore the results as a statistical outlier. "Liz" was not an outlier, a number of paintings, across the board have been trading at significantly higher prices than normally would be expected.

This is the range shift, it appears that art prices got an additional zero as a millennium present. The new ten thousand is a hundred thousand, but not a "million" as some wag offered up.

Range Shift Confusion One of the interesting characteristics of the equity markets is that whenever there is an abundance of the participants in agreement, they tend to be wrong. If 65% of the participants think the markets are headed higher, it is usually a good indicator that a top is near. In other words the consensus is usually wrong. By the time everyone is in agreement, has read all the ‘news’ and understands ‘why’ prices should move higher, their is no one else left to sell to, poof!

I suspect many readers would like to think the art market is different, it is not. The art market behaves in the same way as other markets which are subject to the psychology of ‘group thinking.'

Participants tend to doubt the initial price increases. They tend to recognize when the market is hot. They tend to make straight line assumptions, tomorrows prices will behave approximately like today’s. They tend to increase in numbers near the market peak. There has to be someone to sell to, someone who is more optomistic than you, maybe they will be right, usually not.

It is the point about making straight line assumptionsabout price behaviour which is about to cause severe problems for the participants who are buying and selling art as a speculation. In particular for those new to the game of speculating on artworks may discover when it is time to "flip" they flop.

Buying at the top My stock player friends have a word for traders who buy at the top, they call them "investors." We might call failed speculators in the art market, "collectors."

Looking at the "Liz" price. From purchase to sale, the price of this painting appreciated at a compound rate of 61% per year.

This is a phenomenal rate of return. There is no way the buyer of this painting could ever experience the same rate of return, by 2015, at 61% per annum, the selling price would be $1,000,000,000 (a trillion bucks).

Suppose the buyer is only hoping to double his money. The buyer will calculate that if prices continue firm and the average return is about 8% per year, it will take seven or eight years for the painting to double in price to $47M.

While this may seem like a reasonable investment decision, it is based upon a faulty assumption which ignores the range shift principle. The range shift principle only implies that prices can move abruptly into a higher price range. Barring hyper-inflation prices will tend to revert to the mean, the normal expected price over time. Current prices are well above the mean, either they collapse or move sideways in order to normalize.

The green line in "Liz" chart above is the normalized 8% price growth curve, starting from $3.5M. Over long periods of time one would expect the price of "Liz" to approach this value. This means the new buyer should expect to hold the painting for at least 20 years in order to realize a 100% return on his initial investment. On an annualized basis, ignoring ownership expenses, the real return would be only 2.88% per annum. It is a lousy investment.

The Basquiat painting, "Black Figure" This work sold at Christie’s for $9.87M. I made an unfounded assumption that one might have been able to buy this painting in 1982 for $50,000. I’ve normalized all the curves to this price.

Based upon my hypothetical purchase price of $50K, the annualized price growth is 23.5% per annum. This is high but surprisingly close to the NASDAQ growth rate from 1992 to 2000, which was about 20% per annum.

While I believe a $10 million tag is a bit steep for any painting, I suspect the Basquiat was a better investment because the range shift was smaller, closer to $2M to $3M, rather than $18M for "Liz". Since the range shift is a potential price risk and definitely a potential extension of the holding time risk, a smaller value is more desirable.

Drawing Conclusions The Van Gogh buy-in is probably a good indication that the market has peaked in the historical sector. I believe that artworks over one hundred years old have been more thoroughly analyzed, that conniseurship and the quality of the work are more important considerations.

Vincent van Gogh, "The fields" (Wheat fields), 1890
Oil on canvas, 19.7 x 25.6 in. / 50 x 65 cm.
Sale Of: Sotheby’s New York: 11/7/07 [Lot 9]
Estimate 28,000,000 - 35,000,000 US$

If we consider the psychology behind the failure of the Van Gogh offering, what can we conclude? First we can suggest that the pre-sale estimates were set to high and as a result the initial bidding momentum stalled, then stopped entirely. The obvious solution to this problem would be to lower the pre-sale estimate. This has the implication that prices are "soft" and that for the next auction the pre-sale estimates will probably be more conservative.

It is better to risk a slightly lower sales price, betting on good bidding momentum, than take the chance a greater number of artworks will be bought-in. If the participants see an increasing number of artworks failing to sell, they will become tighter with their bids, and prices will decline.

The damage has already been done with the resultd from recent Sotheby's sale of Impressionist & Modern Art. In spite of the very positive results for the following sales, the seed of doubt has been sown and both auction houses will think twice when making the pre-sale estimates. This is a psychological negative for prices and I believe it is also a leading indicator for the future.

The final factor, the major factor, is still the US economy. The current credit problems have the potential of become more difficult to correct. This may drag the economy into more than just a shallow recession I initially expected. So far the FED has cut interest rates another 1/4 point, but I think it will take more than that to solve the problem. It’s dicey at the moment.

Next, How is all this money stuff affecting art? Do we care?

Monday, November 19, 2007

The State of the Art Market – Auction Week 2007

Whew, I was paying attention, and auction week felt like a ride on the Cyclone, the anticipation, then that awful sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, and finally the exhilaration at the end.

11/6/2007 - Christie's evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art came in at $395 million, nicely between the pre-sale estimates of $348 million to $486 million. Henri Matisse’s 1937 painting "L'odalisque, harmonie bleue" led the list, selling for $33,641,000, well above the high estimate of $20 million. Close behind were Modigliani and Picasso, also with paintings coming in above $30 million. The top ten sales totaled out at $204 million, the ride was a bit slow but the view seemed great.

Henri Matisse "L'odalisque, harmonie bleue," 1937,
Oil on canvas, 23.7 x 19.5 in. / 60.3 x 49.5 cm.
Sale Of: Christie's New York: 11/6/ [Lot 24]
Estimate 15,000,000 - 20,000,000 US$
Sold For 33,641,000 US$
11/7/2007 - Sotheby's evening sale of Impressionist & Modern Art didn’t fare so well. The sale totaled $269.7 million, falling 24% shy of the low end of pre-sale estimates of $355 million to $494 million. The top ten sales totaled out at $165 million. More significantly, 25% of the artworks offered failed to sell compared to 17% for Christie’s on the previous evening.

11/8/2007 – Sotheby’s stock (NYSE:BID) is downgraded by two analysts citing the poor results from the prior nights sale and market risk. Sotheby’s stock closes at $35.84, down 28.4% from the previous days price of $50.04.

11/8/2007 – Caught up in the dour psychology of a 500 point swoon in the Dow, Sotheby's day sale of Impressionist & Modern Art fares a bit better than its stock, but 32% of the lots still failed to find buyers, in comparison to 17% for the Christie’s day sale.

Joan Miró
"Le fermier et son épouse," 1936,
Gouache on card, 22.8 x 16.7 in. / 58 x 42.5 cm.
Sale Of Sotheby's New York: 11/7/07 [Lot 24]
Estimate 9,000,000 - 12,000,000 US$
Sold For 10,401,000 US$
The results from the November Impressionist and Modern Art sales indicate that the auction market is becoming a bit more cautious. Some of this may be directly a result of the negative psychology in the US financial markets.

It also appears to me that Sotheby’s was a bit aggressive in their pre-sale estimates. While the estimates might have been reasonable last year, the current financial climate has become significantly more negative and the estimates seemed overly optimistic by about 15%, or just enough to stifle the initial flow of the bidding process.

With that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach, that nausea of the Cyclone’s free fall, the players all begin to put their hopes on the Contemporary sales the following week.

11/12/2007 - Christie's Selections From the Allan Stone Collection fared fairly well, bringing in $52.4 million, just shy of the pre-sale high estimate of $59.7 million. Hey, what’s a few million between friends, everyone could breathe again.
Joseph Cornell "Untitled – Aviary" 1950 - 1952
Glass, gouache, wood, mirror, metal, and printed paper collage in wood box
20 x 12.2 x 5.7 in. / 50.8 x 31.1 x 14.6 cm.
Sale of Christie's New York: 11/12/07 [Lot 616]
Estimate 800,000 - 1,200,000 US$
Sold For 1,217,000 US$
11/13/2007 - Christie's evening sale of Post War and Contemporary Art came in at $325 million, nicely between the pre-sale estimates of $271 million to $373 million. The top ten sales totaled out at $177 million which is impressive. Breathing a sigh of relief, in jubilation the players shouted whee!

Ok, so they didn’t, but I bet they applauded. I am quite sure that Hugh Grant is happy he was able to sell his Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, "Liz," for $23.5 million. It seems that there was a bit of newbie resentment going on in the press prior to the auction, Mr. Grant bought the Warhol for $3.5 million in 2001, it was a nice flip for a five bagger, good for him.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled - Black figure," 1982
Oilstick and acrylic on paper collage laid on canvas
74 x 96.1 in. / 188 x 244 cm.
Sale of Christie's New York: 11/13/07 [Lot 47]
Estimate 8,000,000 - 12,000,000 US$
Sold For 9,897,000 US$
11/14/2007 - Sotheby's evening sale of Post War and Contemporary Art came in at $315.9 million, nicely over the high pre-sale estimates of $283 million. The top ten sales totaled out at $173 million, or about 80% of the pre-sale low estimate for the entire auction.

The highest price realized was for the Francis Bacon painting, "Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1," which sold for $45.9 million. In the second slot was a 1969 Bacon Self portrait which went for $33.1 million , combined the two paintings totaled out at $79 million, that’s bring home the bacon. (couldn’t resist)
Francis Bacon, "Second Version of study for bullfight no. 1," 1969, Oil on canvas,
78.7 x 58.1 in. / 200 x 147.7 cm.
Sale of Sotheby's New York: 11/14/07 [Lot 29]
Sold For 45,961,000 US$
11/15/2007 - Phillips de Pury evening sale of Post War and Contemporary Art came in at $42.3 million, with 85% of the lots finding buyers, respectable.

In addition to the New York auctions, results from other venues also appear strong indicating the market if firmer than its detractore would have you believe.

Coming next: What does it all mean? Is the party over?

Nicolas Ghesquière – Balenciaga - Spring 2008

Runaway for the new century, brilliant.




  Balenciaga - Spring 2008

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Keith Tyson at Pace Gallery

This weekend I visited, for the second time, Keith Tyson's impressive sculptural installation the "Large Field Array" at the Pace Gallery in NYC This is one of the best exhibitions by a young artist I have ever seen.

The exhibition closes October 20th. Readers who live in or near NYC should make a effort to take in this show before it closes, go with a friend.


The Large Field Array is a complex work of art. I have a number of thoughts about it but less time to write than I would hope for, so I’ll just keep adding to this post as time permits.

"What is this? I have to wait in line?" fleeting and somewhat distracted thoughts flickering as I approached Pace Gallery on an unseasonably warm, late September day. The brief wait, limiting the number of viewers at any one time, increased my anticipation. My turn, through the heavy curtain into a great room visually buzzing with hundreds of individual objects. [10/17]

I have a small flash of anxiety as I move into the space, unconsciously thankful the elements are organized in grid, rendering a familiar order for my passage. I continue in, as I scan the room I am overwhelmed by a wave of sensation, this cannot be possible, it’s too much to comprehend, I am dizzy, afraid I will break something.

Maybe it’s because I’m a painter, I feel a comfort with the wall. Whatever, on my first visit I notice I drift to my left, towards the wall, rather than directly entering the room. As I look around myself I realize I am visually fixing on certain elements, I have an affinity for them, it is a form of recognition. The grid of little white cubes at the front, I have an internal association with this image, it is part of my world. It occurs to me that each viewer will have their own world, some random yet specific order, they bring elements of the Array into the focus of their consciousness, on that particular day. Tomorrow it will be different. [10/17]

Installation views © Keith Tyson and Pace Wildenstein Gallery

Images: © Keith Tyson

More to follow…

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The State of the Art Market

There has been a considerable amount of speculation over the fate of the current art market. Given the unrest in the financial markets at the current time, I suspect the question actually being asked is whether or not the art market is about to crash.

Certainly there have been signs of excess which one might expect to be followed by a contraction in the marketplace, but this alone is not enough to precipitate a major decline in prices. Desires for a puritan art market purge because art is "not the way it is supposed to be," reflect a lack of knowledge on how markets work and what the consequences of such a purge might imply.

In my opinion, the fate of the US art market is completely tied to the fate of the US economy. Attempts to rationalize art valuations based upon notions of aesthetic quality, taste, or scarcity, are relative within the current economic environment, and therefore less important to a discussion concerning the state of the overall art market.

It’s the economy stupid...

The US economy is currently undergoing a period of severe stress. The recent decline in housing prices has been leading the economy into a potential recession, and problems within the subprime lending markets threatened to spread worldwide with disastrous consequences.

In mid-August the credit problems began to visibly unravel, the US stock markets took a 12% hit which threatened to turn into a full fledged panic. The central bankers (FED and ECB)were forced to intervene in order to maintain stability. On September 18th, the Bernanke FED cut interest rates by 1/2 percent, this was an indication of the FED’s concern over the severity of problem and a signal that the FED was going to aggressively intervene.

If I am correct in my interpretation of Bernanke’s decision to cut interest rates I would expect to see the following:

1. The FED will continue to cut interest rates by another point between now and March 2007, most likely over the next three months.

2. The Dow Jones Average will continue to rally, finishing the year near 15,000, and continue to rise throughout 2008.

3. Although we will see a slowing in the US economy, a deep US recession will be adverted.

In short, I believe the US stock markets made a major low in September and as a result, will continue to outperform all other investments, including art, for the next few years. This would be a change in focus and could shift some speculative capital out of the art market into the equity markets.

I do not think the art market will crash.

Generally, markets do not crash because prices appear to be ‘too high’ and almost never when everyone is anticipating a crash. Excluding extraordinary outside events, markets tend to crash after an existing period of declining prices, at some point the participants panic in fear that the decline will continue unabated, and the markets crash in capitulation.

Given the unfolding of events which have taken place in the financial markets over the past three months, I would expect the fall auction results to be tempered by a bit more caution, this may have a dampening affect on prices.

On the street, in the galleries, it is a bit harder to say what the affects of the recent financial crunch will have. Since I expect a strong stock market for at least the next year, the galleries may continue to benefit, albeit in a less frenetic manner.

Finally, if I am wrong and the FED does not lower interest rates as I suggested above, then all bets are off, the US economy will likely enter a recession and the art market will decline in a manner similar to 1990.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Thoughts on Painting IV - JPEGs, Details and Density

Hans, an artist and blogger from Tbilisi, Georgia, posed the question in the comments section of the previous post which I found interesting. Hans asks, "But is a painting on screen still a painting, a translated painting ?"

I would respond: No, it’s a digital reproduction of a painting, but that’s the obvious answer. As painters we have always had to rely, much of the time, on reproductions of paintings, the originals are hidden away in private collections or in museums somewhere where we are not. So we make do.

Part of the problem with reproductions has to do with their size compared to the size of the painting. The image of the Fra Angelico painting "Saint Francis Receives the Stigmata" in the previous post is 800 pixels wide. So, this painting is actually relativly small, only 33 cm (13") wide so there are 800/33=24 pixels per cm (62 px/in.) so the finest detail that can be resolved is 0.04mm (less than an 0.02 in) which is quite a lot.

However, if we have a 200 cm (79 inch) wide painting and still only a 800 pixel reproduction we have only 4 pixels per cm (0.635 px in.) which means each pixel represents a 2.5mm (about 5/8 in) square area of the painting’s surfac. The resolution goes way down because the information in a pixel is only the average color and tonal value captured for its resolvable area. This means that while we may still be able to see blurry evidence of a small drip of paint, the resolution of the details and at the edges between different elements of the painting lose their distinctness and clairity.

Never the less, there are a number of things we can discern from a reproduction. In a reproduction we can identify the ‘image’ or subject of the painting. We can see the overall composition and the other formal characteristics where we do not need the fine details. For example in one of my earlier posts, I made an analysis of the composition in Fra Angelico’s painting Paradise and for this the jpeg works just fine. From the standpoint of a viewer who might be just interested in seeing what is happening in the artworld a reproduction might also suffice quite nicely.

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life with Compotier and Glass", 1914-15
Oil on Canvas, 25 x 31.5" (63.5 x 80 cm)
Columbus Museum of Art

However as a painter, I find myself interested in the details more often than not, I want to see the painting as it exists as a physical object. This point was made evident to me recently. I had been looking at a lot of jpeg reproductions of Picasso’s paintings. What I was interested in was not cubism per se, but how inventive Picasso was and how his ideas progressed from work to work over time. Today, rather than looking through an art book, I have a hand selected collection of Picasso jpegs on my computer. This is not something that was easy to do only 6-7 years ago before the internet.

At about the same time, the Whitney Museum here in NYC had an exhibition "Picasso and American art" which had several Picasso’s juxtaposed with "Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns." The exhibition received mixed reviews but I found it very interesting to see how these different artists tried to deal with Picasso’s influence or legacy.

Touching on the question Hans raised for a moment, since Warhol and Lichtenstein’s paintings are based upon commercial technologies, they come across fairly well in reproduction but the other paintings less so for the reasons I stated above. So when I went to the museum, I was able to reconnect with the physicality of these paintings again. Although I ‘knew’ all the Picasso’s and many of the other paintings from reproductions, I wasn’t quite expecting the positive response I had seeing them grouped together.

At the time I made my visit to the museum, I was in the middle of working on a painting which had reached the state of defining itself as a general image but still had a ways to go to completion. I often find this ‘middle stage’ the most difficult part in the process of making a painting, the painting more or less looks all right but I know I have to be willing to push it over the edge, to either resolve it or just create another set of problems. So this was on my mind when I went to the museum and when I thought about it a bit, I realized that what I was responding to was the physical presence of the paintings, not just their ‘look’. As I noted, a reproduction can provide a lot of information about how a painting ‘looks’ but in most cases it cannot give one the experience of how a painting feels, the actual experience of its scale and physicality.

My earlier remark, "A painting is just a painting." is not unique, other painters have said the same thing. It does say something about the very nature of painting itself, that painters use their media with the intent of making a painting. It is a visual history of all the tiny decisions, many totally subconscious, that coalesce into what we call a painting. A painting is, in most cases, made by hand and this process involves a complex series of iterative decisions, it may utilize a process of painting in and then painting out until the final result is achieved. Even if one cannot ‘see’ what us under the final layer, the ‘hidden’ work informs the final result, what the painter saw - in the painting - that led to the final solution.

Pablo Picasso, "Three Musicians", 1921
Oil on Canvas, 80 x 74" (203 x 188 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Click image for a larger but differently appearing and cropped version.

For example, in Picasso’s Three Musicians, the area at the lower left with the diamond patterned leg, in the underpainting, there is a continuation of the red rectangle which makes up part of the right leg. It’s painted over by the pattern, but not totally painted out, leaving evidence of an earlier state. Additionally, the diamond pattern in the right leg is cropped, and the red in the pattern is very close in color to this tilted rectangle.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Although subtle, this small detail adds another small piece of information which reveals the process and intent of the painter. This information builds up as a painting is resolved, it can add a sublayer of complexity to a painting. It is visible information which may not be fully appreciated in a quick look but which, never the less, is there. I believe it is perceived by the viewer, even if only in a subconscious way, and therefore enriches our visual experience of the painting.

Another aspect of my reaction to the paintings at the Whitney, was a heightened awareness of the density of the paint. In most of the paintings, both in the broader flat areas and in the details like Picasso’s pointillism and patterning, I found that I was personally responding to the physicality of the paint. Whether it is a densely painted section or just an area with the barest wash of color, one has the feeling the paint is applied with an intentionality, including the embracement of the ‘accidents’ of process. My observations are less of an issue biased towards approaches which utilize denser paint than an attempt to describe one the elusive qualities in a painting which can transmit to the viewer the sense of conviction the artist has in the process of creation. It is our ability to recognize and respond these qualities, which can generate within us a sense of empathy with the artist, through the painting.

It is about something more than just finding the painting ‘beautiful’, it may have something to do with our astonishment, our surprise that the painting exists at all, that its maker has managed to emotionally, conceptually and visually touch out to us from another time and place.

It was a good question with a number of currently relevant implications.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts on painting III

I made an comment in my previous post suggesting that an aspect of the aesthetic experience might be genetic trait which might have passed down through the ages in a Darwinian fashion. Over the last few months I began reading in the fields of neurobiology and cognitive science to examine whether or not my observation might have some merit. At this point, I still don’t really know the answer but this BBC lecture by the neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, makes some interesting observations which examine the neurological aspects of our aesthetic response.

At the end of the last century, both neuroscience and cognitive science made incredible, possibly revolutionary, advances into our understanding of the mind, of how the brain might work, of how we perceive, understand and interact with our environment. The human brain is the most complex biological object on this planet, and although current science has made discoveries on an order of magnitude greater than what was known in the past, it has just begun to scratch the surface of what may be, in the end, something that is not totally quantifiable. Never the less, what I have discovered so far is both exciting and revealing.

One of my reasons for reconsidering the aesthetic experience was that I believe that the relative deprecation of the visual in post-structuralist (postmodernist) critical theory was an unfortunate and incorrect decision.

Over the ensuing year I shall try to present an alternative course of critical thought. I shall primarily confine my discussions to painting, since I have been a painter for several years and over the course of my practice I have devoted a considerable amount of thought to what it is I do. In addition, I spent an eight year period at the turn of the century working for a digital imaging software company, there was a paucity of time to paint and no time at all to keep up with what was going on in the ‘art world’. I believe this cultural sabbatical allowed me time to meditate upon painting and what we call art without embedding myself in a pre-established critical viewpoint. At the end of this period, I felt it would be interesting to investigate the topic from a fresh point of view, one based upon my prior experience but also like one I might have naively assumed as a young artist.

The purpose of this commentary is to foster a different course of intellectual inquiry, one which is relatively general in its scope, one which is inclusive rather than exclusive. In some ways it is an exercise of thinking out loud with all its vulnerabilities. The reader should be forewarned that much of what I intend to say will be an intellectual speculation, prone to meandering, and subject to change as I continue my research.

Fra Angelico, 1440, "Saint Francis Receives the Stigmata"
Tempera on wood panel. 11 x 13 in., 27.5 x 33 cm. The Vatican Picture Gallery.

To begin, I want to briefly make some personal observations on what I consider are some of paintings attributes.

Painting is a way of visually presenting information as a form of communication. For the moment, I would like to counsel the reader to accept a broad definition for my use of the two words, ‘information’ and ‘communication’. As we progress, I will take the time to examine their meaning in more specific ways which I believe they pertain to painting.

Painting is about thinking.
Painting is about feeling.
Painting is about seeing.

Painting is dependant on the visual for its power of communication, this makes the visual component a primary point of interface. A painting which fails visually becomes problematic even though it may embody ‘interesting ideas’ or an attempt to ‘express emotions’. Never the less, the thinking and feeling aspects of a painting, when expressed successfully visually, can create a richer and more complex and empathetic experience for the viewer.

Painting makes things stand still. We live in a cultural environment overflowing with images, moving images, and images seen as we are moving. Painting stops the movement to afford the observer a moment for contemplation or meditation. This may seem obvious, but in a visually hyperactive world, paintings long unbroken history affords it a special place among the symbolic objects of our culture.

A painting is just a painting.