Depiction as an Idea, as an Art; the Death of Depiction and Its Rebirth as a Concept.

The White Irises,watercolor, colored pencil, airbrush, 40″ X 28″ 1995

My Art school days were filled with Ideas about Art. It was the early days of Conceptual Art, an exhibit at the NY MOMA had set the stage. It was called INFORMATION (1970). The exhibit curated by Kynaston McShine, who put the idea of Art as an idea front and center. Here’s from the catalogue introduction by McShine: “If you live in the United States, you may fear that you will be shot at, either in the Universities (Kent State), in your bed (Fred Hampton), or more formally in Indochina. It may seem too, inappropriate, if not absurd, to get up in the morning, walk into a room, and apply dabs of paint from a little tube to a square of canvas. What can you as a young artist, do that seems relevant and meaningful?”—The parentheses are mine.

As a graduating art-major senior at University, 1970, my final class was called New Media. We were not required to actually produce any work, save our projects were to be described on a typed sheet of paper. We were not limited by skill, cost of material, time spent or learning craftsmanship. A good mark, meant we understood the Zeit Geist, referencing the past but definitely not using worn-out modes; like—you couldn’t re-hash all the steps that led to Abstraction. No Pop Art, no Minimalism, no Op Art, not any of the -isms flourishing in those days. We were to challenge the given. New Media meant Art had grown into pure thought, it was anti-media if anything. And, if there was a subject to be represented, it was the idea of Art itself.

My art classes were taken at the Corcoran School in a reciprocal arrangement with George Washington U. The last vestiges of old-school teaching were part of the program at the Corcoran—three years of drawing were in the required curriculum, and I thank my lucky stars this was the case. Looking at something and putting pencil to paper to make it look like what you were looking at, changes your mind. There is no necessity to follow depiction as an Art practice, but I’m of the opinion that to do this as a student, it is essential to grounding your wiring in visual practice. This is the Art Student’s Business. Ask anyone who has taken a life drawing class, at whatever level, whether as a hobby-offering at the local rec. center, or in Drawing 303 as an upper division class at an Art School Academy, and you’ll find a brain that has had its circuits re-wired. The Swiss-born French sculptor and painter Giacometti said, coming back to the model after a twenty-year tour of the modernist territory of Surrealism and Cubism, “I looked at the space between the nostril and cheek, and it became as wide as the Sahara Desert, and it took me twenty years to even begin to understand that space”. I recall feeling similarly walking out of a 3 hour class, drawing the figure, and seeing the faces passing me as I walked up 17th St. in DC, and seeing my relationship to something so familiar, the human face, turn and shape-shift into a thousand Chinese Landscapes of mountains and mists. If you get the brow, cheekbone, nose in order, you’ve got it. Drawing is essential, but depiction is a non-essential part of art.

X bladen
Can you see her back there?

At The Corcoran, in those shattering days of the late 60’s, the curatorial staff put together some ground-breaking exhibits, the above is from Scale as Content, with “X” by Ronald Bladen, 1967. This giant grown too big, like Alice, her feet sticking out of the Rabbit’s house, took up all the atrium of that classically inspired museum built by banker William Corcoran. Corcoran had been a Civil War Southern sympathizer, and even so, he commissioned Hiram Powers to create The Greek Slave which became a rallying totem for abolitionists. Corcoran built his museum to gain the good graces of Congress—who were ready to strip him of his money. To further the complexity, that statue of the slave is peeking between the X’s legs in the above image. Such a rich substrate to be schooled inside of this vitality, the place, the Corcoran School, is just through that door on the left of this picture, it was my city of dreams. You couldn’t ask for more to get the full range of a time when the volcanoes and earthquakes of culture-shock were turning something staid like this classical atrium into a cage-match super-bout. As part of the maintenance staff (I was the clay-maker for the sculpture and ceramics departments), I had the run of the place feeling privileged to see the X being built by the fastidious and excellent carpenters. I should add, my clay-making machine was two floors below in crepuscular cavern made of coffin-sized granite blocks, a dust dungeon with a steam-punk contraption, a riveted revolving steel tub and half-ton mill wheels rumbling, clanking. I felt myself a mighty master of a secret realm, a Frankenstein-Mad-Max post-apocalypse wonder palace. Like I said, my city of dreams.

The Greek Slave Hiram Powers, detail, marble, 1857.

I walked past The Slave and “X” for months as I rambled around the school/museum, seeing that face, seeping, quiet longing. The X was trying to clean the slate of Romanticism, the gushy stuff of subjective reality. We were all trying for a kind of purity in New Media, a purity sullied by the art like The Slave, supplanting the hard rigor of the minimalism of “The X”. What a great time to be trying parse out what was real in a world increasingly unfettered and flapping in the gale-force winds of those times. Marcel Duchamp was touted as the reigning champ of seeing what was coming down the road before anyone else. Art as thought was all you needed, Duchamp exhibiting his urinal “fountain” as the sign-post marking the end of the line for Art. “Retinal” Art as he called it was a dead end as far as Duchamp was concerned (in a poll of 500 Art experts when asked what was the most influential Art of the 20th Century, it was close to unanimous that Fountain was it.). Fountain was as disruptive as any of the 60’s counterculture and fit right in. That urinal stated Art was at a dead-end, especially after the trench warfare of WWI. And, doubling up with the Holocaust horror camps and the A-Bomb cauterizing a whole city, with so many lives whisked away in a wink. The Sun itself had come down to earth for a visit, carrying the message, “you humans want the power of the gods? Now, what are you going to do?”

Fountain, Photo: Alfred Steiglitz

I took it all personally, but do you run around like a headless chicken? Duchamp was cool, lofty aloof from all the fraught attempts at a corrective. It just wasn’t cool to be succumbing to the draft, or to have let in even the thought that I was a trapped soul like Powers’ marble. Artists are free creatures, right? I was prime draft-bait headed to a confrontation with Uncle Sam’s military draft, headed to that wrongest of wars, Vietnam. I felt enslaved and wimpy, just when the blossom of my vocation appeared to have real strength, I was restless and finally devoted to whatever personal disruption I could manage; so for the senior-year seminar, New Media, one of my proposals was “I will not go to Vietnam.” Canada was on the itinerary, though emigration proved unnecessary as I was released from service—at the physical when I was asked, “What do you do Lang?” “I’m an Artist.” “Sorry, Lang, there’s no place for you in the Army.” I was miraculously relieved (and curiously self-assured with so little under my belt), after three years of wrestling with the forces of military/industrial/political coercion. OK, OK, I guess I AM an artist. This shit just got real, as we say. I have to say I felt anointed that May 10 (4 days after the Kent State murders), anointed to pursue my work and keep it personal. No grand gestures, just what I could manage all on my own. No gallery, no museum, no big University would be a gravitational force on me. I would keep my work close to the bone. My bones.

Disruptive was the watch-word of the counter-culture as was the disruption of Duchamp, how could a plumbing fixture stand in for Art? It was a joke, of course. A blague in French, a joke about art. Duchamp was the court jester in a jingle-hat. The history of the holy-clown is well documented, as a much needed aspect of any culture. As such, he made you think, made me think, setting me on a course of action. For New Media, I proposed I would learn watercolor, that most disdained medium, fit for the old lady flower club, to make touristy scenes; the opposite of Bladen’s big bossy “X”. I envisioned my efforts strung on a clothes-line like the post card of a church-yard bazaar I had pinned up in my studio—but, displayed in the MOMA. A kind of disruptive action, testing the value of kitsch against “high” art. I felt strangely like a bad boy doing this, because it went against all the rigor of the modernist project, but, I’d show ’em! Har Dee Har, jingling my own belled chapeau.

With all that Art School drawing under my belt, it wasn’t too hard to realize a painting (I’d never taken a painting class, disdained as unreal in the face of the real PRESENCE of sculpture). I did make that watercolor while actually living on Cape Cod, that bastion of the kitsch watercolor. I’d made exactly one painting living there, a pretty good effort that held its ground and when I moved across the country to California, I brought that solitary painting to a job interview as a watercolor instructor. I got the job and ended up teaching watercolor painting as a conceptual art for 20+ YEARS. My students at the JC just wanted to paint like: you name it, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, classics in the Pantheon of the American Watercolor Society. It turned out I had tricked myself into painting with a jokey-posture of intellectual coolness and then, I developed a series of exercises for my students that would do the same thing. Some of these lessons will follow on subsequent pages. What has stayed present all these years is the magnetic attraction/repulsion of holding the aloof, intellectual stance along with the sheer joy of painting a thing like the White Irises. To watch your own hand at work creating the illusion—that something is there when it wasn’t just a minute ago, is to enter the frame of mind of the first painters on cave walls, I can’t overstate this. Watercolor painting is full of danger, falling off the cliff at any moment, and my studio is full of paintings that did fall off the cliff, rescued, cartoon-like, grabbing that last root on the way down. Many paintings are cut out and refigured for the collages and one painting did make it to the American Watercolor Society Biennial where it got an honorable mention.

Mostly, I like watercolor painting because rendering shapes happen almost by themselves as the pigments float through their damp washes, and sexy to watch. Lessons for that coming up. Tried and true lessons. But, the most important lesson is the concept of making things appear where there weren’t. The concept of a blank cave wall, images appearing out of the human wanting to communicate. So, what’s with a bunch of white irises? They couldn’t be more lady-like, a little musty, old fashioned, a Kleenex box decoration. But as an ekphrasis (art describing art) I think Wallace Stevens takes the musty away—”Of a green evening, clear and warm, She bathed in her still garden,….Here in this room, desiring you, Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk…” The act of painting the irises was athletic in the quick sureness it took to realize the painting. It is also a sensual act mostly, because the body takes over when painting quickly with confidence. The “background” of the picture, the context, was made with airbrush, a mechanical device wholly different in its execution and result. It is the Dancing Ground for those white ladies…strike up the Tom-Toms! Here follows the Stevens’ poem (you might want to look up Suzanna and the Elders, a Biblical story not actually in the Hebrew Bible, but referenced by Stevens.)

Thomas Hart Benton Suzanna
Peter Quince at the Clavier

Just as my fingers on these keys 
Make music, so the selfsame sounds 
On my spirit make a music, too. 

Music is feeling, then, not sound; 
And thus it is that what I feel, 
Here in this room, desiring you, 

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk, 
Is music. It is like the strain 
Waked in the elders by Susanna: 

Of a green evening, clear and warm, 
She bathed in her still garden, while 
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt 

The basses of their beings throb 
In witching chords, and their thin blood 
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna. 

In the green water, clear and warm, 
Susanna lay. 
She searched 
The touch of springs, 
And found 
Concealed imaginings. 
She sighed, 
For so much melody. 

Upon the bank, she stood 
In the cool 
Of spent emotions. 
She felt, among the leaves, 
The dew 
Of old devotions. 

She walked upon the grass, 
Still quavering. 
The winds were like her maids, 
On timid feet, 
Fetching her woven scarves, 
Yet wavering. 

A breath upon her hand 
Muted the night. 
She turned— 
A cymbal crashed, 
And roaring horns. 

Soon, with a noise like tambourines, 
Came her attendant Byzantines. 

They wondered why Susanna cried 
Against the elders by her side; 

And as they whispered, the refrain 
Was like a willow swept by rain. 

Anon, their lamps' uplifted flame 
Revealed Susanna and her shame. 

And then, the simpering Byzantines 
Fled, with a noise like tambourines. 

Beauty is momentary in the mind— 
The fitful tracing of a portal; 
But in the flesh it is immortal. 

The body dies; the body's beauty lives. 
So evenings die, in their green going, 
A wave, interminably flowing. 
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting 
The cowl of winter, done repenting. 
So maidens die, to the auroral 
Celebration of a maiden's choral. 

Susanna's music touched the bawdy strings 
Of those white elders; but, escaping, 
Left only Death's ironic scraping. 
Now, in its immortality, it plays 
On the clear viol of her memory, 
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.

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