Category Archives: learning from others

Man as Subject

Number 10, (1950) by Mark Rothko

Number 10, 1950 by Mark Rothko, 1950.
Oil on canvas, 90-3/8 x 57-1/8 in.
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)

I love drawing from life.  Perhaps my most revelatory art-making experience came in my first figure-drawing course, when we were introduced to gesture drawing, the super-short (like, 20-second) poses that force one to try to capture the essential energy of the stance in a simple, rapid action.  I quickly realized that I loved the bold attack that was required, and that it generated my best work – strong, fluid, fresh, honest.  I also learned that long poses bored me – often I’d said most of what I wanted to say in that first attack, and prolonged development did not usually improve on it.

But the human figure is rarely a subject in my work.  Nor is the drama and urge for story-making that accompanies it.  I experience almost a visceral rejection of narrative and drama as subject.  I view excising unnecessary drama from our lives as a step on the path to transcendence; portraying it in my art only reinforces it.

But is it necessary for the figure to be the subject for our work to be humanistic?  As we are ourselves human, cannot humanity help but be present in our work?

William C. Seitz, in his early classic Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, explores subject matter and content as used in the work of several fellow artists of the New York School, including the subject of “man”:

The subject of man, however, divides between an objective outer conception and inner expression.  God, in the traditional sense in which He was imaged on the Sistine ceiling, is seldom represented today.  Yet the personal quest for a transcendental reality, and for an absolute, has in no sense abated.  Recognition must be give to this all-important distinction between more or less objectively stated, often representational, subject matter and an inner existential, or transcendental, content. “

And further on:

A rationalized attempt to solve the dilemma of subject, means, and technique, if such it is, theoretically splits into two possible solutions:  first, and more conservative, a reciprocal modification of contemporary abstract form and the autonomy of the human body; second, the more daring solution which accepts the challenge of abstraction and seeks to contain and communicate human meaning without representation.  It is characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists to find plastic solutions in which contradiction is sustained.

…Let us direct our attention to the [first] solution.  In regarding the content we call “human” as synonymous with figuration, are we not in tacit agreement with the opponents of modern style?  Are we not committing ourselves to a philosophy of art which is, to say the least, a bit beefy?

The notably cantankerous Mark Rothko was achieving his classic style (as in “Number 10”, at the top of this post) in the early 1950s, the years when Seitz was interviewing him and observing his work.  But a decade and a half before his style was quite different:

Underground Fantasy, c.1940 - Mark Rothko

Subway (Subterranean Fantasy) by Mark Rothko, ca. 1936
Oil on canvas, 33-3/4 x 46 in.
(The Mark Rothko Foundation, New York)

Seitz considers Rothko’s development “especially instructive” in his examination of man as subject:

[Rothko’s] compositions of the thirties represent human figures in rooms and subways and streets.  Some of the reasons for his change in forms may be reflected in later observations:  “But the solitary figure could not raise its limbs in a single gesture that might indicate its concern with the fact of mortality and an insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience in the face of this fact.  Nor could the solitude be overcome.  It could gather on beaches and streets and in parks only through coincidence, and, with its companions, for a tableau vivant of human incommunicability.”  Seen in relation to his verbal statements and conversation, the abandonment of traditional figuration in Rothko’s work appears to have been a breakthrough from the hampering representation of everyday situations to meanings hidden behind compromises which, though they must make up practical living, mask the inner drives, desires, and fears which form the core of experience:  “The presentation of this drama in the familiar world was never possible . . . The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”

This is the challenge that interests me.  Seitz’ second “possible solution”.

Wifredo Lam/200,000

"The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)" - Wifredo Lam

The Warrior (Personnage avec Lezzard)
Wifredo Lam, 1948.  Oil on burlap. 

In a lecture given by abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell in 1949, he refers almost in passing to the American racism suffered by prominent Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam:

The conditions under which an artist exists in America are nearly unbearable; but so they are everywhere in modern times.  Sunday last I had lunch, in a fisherman’s inn in Montauk overlooking Gardiner’s Bay, with Wifredo Lam, the Cuban and Parisian painter, who is half-Chinese, half-Negro; he has difficulty in remaining in this country because of the Oriental quota; I know he is humiliated on occasion in New York, for example, in certain restaurants.  He kept speaking to me of his admiration of America, asking me what American painters thought of this and that, and I answered as best I could; but a refrain that ran through his questions is less easy to answer, whether artists were always so “unwanted.”  I replied that I supposed that artists were more “wanted” in the past when they spoke for a whole community, that they became less “wanted” as their expressions because individual and separate; but since I had never had the sensation of belonging to a community, it was difficult for me to imagine being “wanted.”  This is not wholly true; we modern artists constitute a community of sorts; part of what keeps me going, part of my mystique is to work for this placeless community.  Lam and I parted advising each other to keep working ; it is the only advice one painter ever gives another.  — from a lecture given during symposium “French Art vs. U.S. Art Today”, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1949

I take Motherwell’s point about not feeling part of a community and therefore “wanted”.  But I wonder if he might have more easily imagined being a part of a community if he had been part of one that was “unwanted” by birth, rather than being the White son of a banker who put him through Ivy League universities.   

We have now passed 200,000 dead from covid-19 in the United States.  This persisting catastrophe is welded to another constant in this country:  the systemic racism that continues to shape our national outcomes.  Those who doubt or deny the prevalence or lethality of the pandemic must surely be insulated from communities of color, where the losses are outrageously high. 

Is it possible that at least a portion of these deaths do not constitute a crime against humanity, in the face of careless and, now we find, perhaps purposeful neglect on the part of the Trump Administration?   Will they never be held accountable for those lives lost?  

It is a long, long path, this journey out of our national racism.  Maybe we’ll never get there.  But along the way are the gravestones of now 200,000 Americans dead of covid-19, among them far too many people of color. 

"Plague Faces No. 12" - Carraher 2020

Plague Faces No. 12
2020.  Acrylic on canvas. 12 x 16 in.

I paint this series to recognize those who have died or suffered grave loss in this crisis, and, further, to accuse those who have knowingly, willfully, or carelessly pursued polices, actions, and inactions that allowed these deaths and suffering to happen and who continue to do so at this moment.

From the Infinite Background of Feeling

Madame Curie
2020.  Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in.

Small canvas finished last week.  Brushed black over rolled white and yellow ochre.

The renowned abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, whose work I much admire, was eloquent on the role of feeling in art:

The aesthetic is the sine qua non for art:  if a work is not aesthetic, it is not art by definition.  But in this stage of the creative process, the strictly aesthetic — which is the sensuous aspect of the world — ceases to be the chief end in view.  The function of the aesthetic instead becomes that of a medium, a means for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception.  We feel through the senses, and everyone knows that the content of art is feeling; it is the creation of an object for sensing that is the artist’s task; and it is the qualities of this object that constitute its felt content.  Feelings are just how things feel to us; in the old-fashioned sense of these words, feelings are neither “objective” nor “subjective,” but both, since all “objects” or “things” are the result of an interaction between the body-mind and the external world.  “Body-mind” and “external world” are themselves sharp concepts only for the purposes of critical discourse, and from the standpoint of a stone are perhaps valid but certainly unimportant distinctions.  It is natural to rearrange or invent in order to bring about states of feeling that we like, just as a new tenant refurnishes a house.

…[The artist’s] task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right — veering toward the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended. — Beyond the Aesthetic (1946)