Category Archives: learning from others

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)