JOHN WALKER

WALKABOUT

 

After circling the Back Bay for at least ten minutes a solitary parking spot at last presented itself not far from the Nielsen Gallery where we planned to see the new John Walker show. It was on a street that had to be cleared by 4p.m. for the commuter rush traffic. We assumed we would be out of Nielsen by then. It is a bargain with the devil, so to speak, when there is nothing else to be had on Newbury St, to be tempted by those empty spots. The price you pay if you overshoot 4pm is to have your car towed by some ex-con who'll extort a hefty sum from you as well as put a dent in your car. Probably best to pay for the garage at the Pru, but in terms of benefit the convenience of being near Nielsen trumps the risk.

 

At the gallery we found both Nina Nielsen and John Baker right around the front desk andit appeared in a jovial mood. They admitted to having just finished a good meal at Louis's accompanied by an excellent wine. John Wronoski, at whose bookstore we had spent the morning perusing and purchasing signed first editions was introduced. Addison and I tried to convey what we had just experienced at his home/business, that left me close to hyperventilating before the signatures of the some of the greatest figures in the history of philosophy and literature. Somewhat similar to the" guess who I saw" syndrome when you encounter on the street someone who only existed for you in the movies-- we were beside ourselves with excitement.

 

Books by Musil, Celine, Hamsun ,Nietzsche, Hegel all signed by the authors and often given to equally important individuals,e.g. a copy of" The Waste Land" signed by T.S. Eliot to Paul Valery. Time for a moment was "not" as all history collapsed into a kind of cosmic cocktail party where characters from different eras were taken off the shelves to rub shoulders. The most impressive find among many was a manuscript of Kazantzakis's poem "The Odyssey" hand written by the author that looked in its perfection as though God had dictated it to him first draft requiring no corrections.

 

Nina was more open today; which is not to say that she is usually not open but typically reserved before the needy artists who frequent her gallery (but thankfully not smug like most gallery owners). To their credit both of them are unique in their ability to get excited about the work they exhibit, talk with visitors about the work meaningfully and see it as something accessible not emblematic of some cultural superiority, an attitude prevalent in NYC, where the dealers and the artist exist in some" lofty" space beyond the viewer and both have pulled the ladder up behind them.

 

Today, they were very open, in fact they appeared vulnerable. This was their temple and they the priests and in such a context one rarely expresses doubt. They were more than just interested in discussing the work; behind the questions about what we thought about Walker's work there was some trepidation which lead to questions about the meaning of life and made me believe that these paintings, which created a kind of twilight world, once entered into, did not allow for an easy return back to our diurnal world. What should have been a cathartic experience which allowed the viewer to find strength in the encounter with the void had put the usually confident gallery owners in a state of fear and trembling. Interestingly enough this darkness is now part of Berthot's work, another gallery artist, though in his case it is more of an exercise in the sublime than in terror.

 

Walker is literallly trying to embrace the very sorrow that afflicts him; expressed through his use of real mud taken from the Maine mud flats near where he paints. Pictorially, all the paintings are similar: recognizable objects have fallen away, a wisp of light lingers on the horizon which is always at the top of the picture plane. Engulfing the viewer in the lower two thirds of the painting are the mud-flats which are indistinguishable from the dark of night..I can't decide which of the following messages he wishes to convey: is it a mud bath and therefore healing or night and quick sand that allows "no exit." Or a biblical lamentation about our mortality with a kind of from mud to mud refrain. As the trajectory that leads from natality wains mortality has the upper hand. This is clearly work about the downward slope of the cycle.

 

I remember once seeing a show by one of his protégées which is very similar in style and content though ultimately Johnny Walker light to Johnny Walker Black. I thought of titling the show "Low Tide Languor;" that meditative space on the beach at slack tide where you dwell on your place in the natural cycle of birth and death. The mood is often one of sweet acquiescence which lends itself to lyricism and is the favorite of poets who intone in that elegiac manner that can turn any words no matter how banal into "poetry." In the case of Walker you have the low tide, the retreat of life but you sensed that this is not passive acquiescence. He's in crisis; the tide is coming and it will not bring him back to the shore. Is the best strategy at this stage to embrace the twilight, to exult in the forces that limit man as part of our human condition. I guess I left with more questions than answers. But whatever the ultimate meaning of the work there was no doubt in my mind that Nina and John were now engulfed in the painting's crepuscular light.

 

The conversation took an interesting turn when Nina, who had already mentioned Camus as relevant to Walker, tried to see her artists as deconstructionists, implying that there ultimately was no difference between existentialism and the more recent deconstructionist movement out of France. At the time I couldn't respond in a meaningful way but it appeared misguided. If we see both existentialists (e.g.Sartre) and deconstructionists (e.g.Derrida) as undercutting the primacy of thought and reason (the cogito ergo sum of Descartes)as a basis for man's identity, then they are similar. And Nina is right. However, the deconstructionists doubt the whole nexus of being and nothingness which in a general sense is the subject of Walker's painting, and see it as just another attempt to resurrect and dramatize the over-inflated Western ego, which they are trying to rout out wherever they find it. Abandon the whole project all together, they seem to say. Walkler wont abandon that project;he stays close to it-quaking before his inevitable extinction. A strong poet to borrow Harold Bloom's term, he faces and drinks deeply of that" dark night" with courage.

 

The artist at Nielsen that intrigues me most is Profirio DiDonna...He was neither an existentialist, a deconstruction, nor a rationalist but god forbid he believed there is a kind of logos, just the way which things line up and connect.It has a tentative quality to it , that the dots create a kind of order but not a hardwired one like Mondrian. It were as though he was listening to the order, letting it waft over him or better yet trying to touch it dot by dot. Or just expressing a kind of belief that it is there, which is Addison's take on him. Of course I feel closest to him as an artist. In his earlier work of vases there is an energy hovering around the object, something shaping it caressing it. It is a mystical insight . I remember once my daughter at the age of five when we encountered a dead bird in a park in Italy said not to worry because God was holding it in the palm of his hand. It also akin to certain theosophical ideas about forces both etheric and astral that support our physical being.

 

Joan Snyder interests me as well. In her work she has created a self that is prickly and difficult; sort of like the selves of Beckett's "Endgame" who devoid of hope still have a snarly desire to survive(though I just noticed in the recent "Art in America" that her new work is dealing with tears and sorrow). It was as though she was telling the deconstructionists that there is a solid core to the self and it is indestructible, especially when pushed into a corner-- it strikes back and bites. I remember first meeting her at Yale where she came as a visiting artist. She came to my studio as she was making the rounds of all the MFA candidates studios. On the floor I had tossed a drawing of a dead blue jay I had found on my doorstep. She proclaimed that it was the first authentic work she had seen at Yale. Something that dealt with feelings and not some over-weening ambition to make Al Held clones. She was supposed to stay a semester and quit the next week. A woman of her convictions.

 

The conversation which had broken off into groups and was already past those first emotion-filled moments suddenly came to an end for me when I realized it was four o'clock and our car full of signed first editions was about to be towed. I did an about face and hurdled down Newbury S, putting my out of shape body to the test to witness the car in front of me being towed off. My car had to yet been ticketed. Sometimes one has to pay tribute to the trolls for intellectual musings beyond the ordinary. Today would not be one of those times. We stayed above the fray.

 

MARTIN MUGAR

Durham,NH(2005)


CLOSE

 

Part of the urban legend surrounding Chuck Close is the rationale he gave for his stylistic move to figuration upon his arrival in NYC from Yale: he  stated that since everyone in New York was doing abstraction he thought it would be a good career move to paint realistically. Whether he said this or not the fact remains that he became identified with the resurgence of figuration in the late sixties with his oversized, in your face portraits and benefited from a good deal of the interest focused by critics on “Realism” at that time. In sum a good career move. The writing about figuration was as strong as that about the avant-garde and it was successful in establishing figuration as a viable movement in the eyes of the public. It was seen as an art that could address all the issues that abstraction didn’t: the particular, the moment, and empathy for the human presence. Writers and advocates like Linda Nochlin cast the roles of abstraction and realism in a kind of Platonic/Aristotelian split with abstraction being the art of concepts and realism the art of the unmanageable particular that can't be fit into the concept.

 

Much of the figurative movement drew its inspiration and source material from photography, which would provide the kind of detail of either light or texture that the artist could used to create specificity. Close followed in that mode referred to as Photo-realism and applied a grid  to transfer without distortion the photographic image to the canvas. But the affect of photo- generated work was ultimately cool and the use of the grid distanciating and although one might try to attribute empathy to Close’s decision to depict the human face it seemed that there was nothing there to be empathetic about no matter how close one looked. So close but so far.

 

What took Close beyond the figurative movement was his interest in pixilation. Probably generated by the realization that as you look closer beyond the detail of the texture of each hair follicle you enter into the world of visual cognition beyond detail where the image of the face is in fact a myriad of impulses created out of the rods and cones of the eye. It is a strange reversal that as we try to pin the “real” down by moving into the more particular details the less real the image becomes. Take a photograph that seems seamless and increase the magnification on a copier and then take each subsequent image and magnify it again and again. You end up with dots that no longer ad up to the image in which they have their origin.  Instead of getting closer to the subject you are thrown solipsistically back into the creators head.

 

The ability to recognize faces is considered by  cognitive scientists to be a higher cognitive event; the recognition of patterns of dots is lower on the cognitive scale. The lower order impulses allow us to see color and contrast, the higher ones shape the color and pattern into a recognizable whole. In fact there is a part of the brain that is dedicated to facial recognition. Obviously a necessary ability from an evolutionary point of view in order to allow us to distinguish friend and family from enemy or stranger.

 

The inquiry of the impressionists into the raw material of perception was disconcerting to the average art viewers of the nineteenth century since it dissolved the higher cognitive faculties of recognition. It  didn’t add up and took a detour away from the traditional painting technique of the baroque, which started from the general and ended in the particular. The impressionist marks freed from any goal lend themselves to new configurations and in the case of Cezanne begin to express a world shaped by gravity as a visual field, and with the expressionists a world shaped by the emotions. Historically it is easy to trace the evolution of this liberated mark from impressionism to post impressionist, fauvism, cubism expressionism and its apotheosis or possible dead- end in the pure abstraction of Ellsworth Kelley.

 

In comparison to this dynamic deconstructive process Close is very reactionary. The pre-impressionist goal of realism remains dominant.  Moreover, he has us look at the image head- on which has been the mode of portraiture from time immemorial. But this does not stop certain critics from seeing him as avant-garde. His  dispassionate use of the grid and the mechanical precision and the removal of the hand in the act of painting put him in the camp of those who claim the death of the author. The serial repetition of head after head puts him in league with Warhol: the preplanning in the camp of Sol Lewitt. The more recent work sets him up to be a proponent of chaos theory. Mark C Taylor in his “Moment of complexity, Emerging network culture” sees the pixels as “fore grounded” in respect to the face and compares their interactive dynamic, as moving toward a tipping point between order and chaos. He sees his work as akin to the architectural drawings of Gehry with their “dynamic interactive processes” .So Close categorized in every avant garde movement of the last 30 years is now the avatar of network culture. I see more of a connection between Gehry and the strange space of Cézanne's late landscapes than with Close. There exists of course an ambiguity in Close’s work since each pixel has taken on a new identity filled with swirling images of varying color but the tyranny of the face survives easily this attempt to give weight to each pixel Moreover, the grid keeps his work from being dynmanic as Taylor claims, ultimately stultifying  Close’s work, even when he places it diagonally; the individual pixels could ideally fight more aggressively the cognitive event of the face as in cubism. IN the light of  those earlier radical attempts of Cezanne and the cubists to move art beyond figuration,  makes Close’s claim to fame suspect. The only answer is that there is no one else out there in the contemporary scene who reflects back on perception as the base of the world we see. This aspect has not gone unnoticed .He picks up fans in the scientific community such as Mary Livingstone, a neurobiologist at Harvard who sees Close’s work embodying the visual process itself, which starts in local processes and moves on to global processes (read from local value and color contrast to face recognition), cutting out a space where the viewer can move back and forth between the two.

 

Close along with Warhol are according to certain polling data considered the artists the most easily recognizable by the mass public. Is it in part because they use the photographic image, the lingua franca of the masses? Despite all the manipulations Close applies to the photograph, he remains a photo realist. I think the general public found  in him what they need: raw data that can be observed as unprocessed to challenge their naivete, but the photorealism lurking not far behind to pick them up lest they suffer vertigo.The more cerebral of the critics force his images to support their own agenda but they cant be totally faulted for this since the potential for a truly subversive disruption of the visual field is there in the work of Close albeit weighted down by the grid and the dominance of facial recognition.More than anyone else painting today  Close understood the dead end of abstraction as it was being done by the minimalists and sought to reground himself in its origins in the impressionist breakthrough..Maybe we should leave his work there as a kind of hermeneutic movement back that doesn’t quite come full circle to define the future.

 

Martin Mugar, 12/05

 

Copyright:Martin Mugar, 2005

Courtesy of Artdeal Magazine


AL HELD

 

At Yale 1972-1974

 

 

Our relationship was fraught with conflict, a conflict he enjoyed, I am sure, as his notion of teaching was more based on pugilism than on dialogue. The few punches that got through both early and late pushed my art in surprising directions. Our relationship got off to a great start at the first party for faculty and students when he seemed intrigued by my year in Paris between undergrad and grad school on a fellowship from Yale College (we both had studied at La Grande Chaumiere) and my notion that the Yale School of Art should invite poets such as Robert Penn Warren to speak to the students, as there seemed to be little dialogue between the Yale’s artists and its creative writers. As I think back on our relationship at this point in my life, his comments on painting all pointed toward his interest in creating “flatness”. In 1972 flatness was something taken for granted by most students. It was not something to be created or achieved. I marveled at how easily my fellow students pushed paint around on the surface of the canvas. I subsequently learned the inertia of flatness had become a worry for Stella as well which he spelled out eloquently in “Working Space.” When I first started studying with Held, I was completing a six-year devotion to figuration. The word “devotion” may seem overstated in regards to a painting style but there was a religious component that could be heard in the language of Bill Bailey or Al Leslie. In the case of Bailey it was a sense of cultural decline that he hoped to reverse by tapping into the spiritual bases of Renaissance painting. (A course “Art and Magic in the Renaissance” spelled this out for me explicitly) and for Leslie a kind of messianic Marxism that did battle with the forces of capitalism. Both attitudes I espoused at different times during those six years. By 1972 I had studied with Leslie (at the BU School at Tanglewood), Laderman (critiqued my Scholar of the House Project at Yale), and Bailey (as an undergraduate advisor of my Scholar of the House project at Yale). I spent a year on a scholarship traveling through Europe at one point seeking out the work of Piero in Italy whose work I discovered in a lecture by Phillip Guston at Yale /Norfolk. Flatness for me was a sort of blasphemy, since in my mind humanism was related to deep space and the way it enveloped people in a shared environment. I had just started to consider color my last year as an undergraduate, but I would have been content to paint in the style of the Macchiaoli and in fact my first fall as a grad student was spent working on a large 6 foot by 10 foot historical painting of a murder in a New Haven parking garage in a pointillist style.

 

In the fall of ‘72 I saw a show of Matisse’s early still lifes that came from the Pushkin in Moscow to New York at Pierre Matisse. It was quite an event to get the work here considering where we were in the Cold War. For me it was my Armory show. Seeing the liberation of energy through the color and the dynamism that it set up brought an end to my ambitions to create the large historical machines I had painted my first semester. Al was a good person to have as a teacher at that point because he knew what Matisse was about. He talked once to me about a portrait of Matisse’s wife from 1913 and we marveled at its flatness but I think the word he used was the compression of space. There was always the act of flattening, not flatness, hence it was a dynamic act not a play of patterns. One other bit of advice he gave me came back to me ten years later when I was working on a large still life in North Carolina, where I was teaching at UNC-Greensboro. I was painting an indoor/outdoor space from observation, where the outdoor was a large expanse of playing field, the indoor a table of objects. Al had told me once how to revive a stagnating painting by placing a piece of paper on the canvass and reworking the painting so that the paper instead of being just stuck on the canvas would be an integral part of it. At the time he made the suggestion, it made absolutely no sense but it worked its way up from my memory bank to suggest a solution to a painting that was bogged down in disparate detail. I slashed large black and red lines from the top of the painting to the bottom and diagonally through the nicely sculpted still life objects. I then started to rework the painting and noticed that I was giving attention to the negative spaces as well as the positive, which resulted in a great liberation of energy. It flattened the space out, connected inside and outside, but in a dynamic way and brought all parts of the painting into a whole.

 

The” Big N” is all about the compression of space. At UNC-Greensboro where I taught for several years there was a small Held in the museum called “Black Square marries yellow circle”. It showed a square that had squeezed a yellow circle into the corner of the painting. I realized that the goal of his color was not to seek harmony but was based on a Nietzschean use of color as “will to power”. I had to laugh that he used the word marriage to describe this relationship. Harmony is the word most often used to describe marriage and in this painting the marriage allowed for no merger but rather domination of one element over another. An honest portrayal of marriage to say the least.

 

I had heard from Joe Nicoletti who graduated from Yale in the early 70’s and saw Al occasionally in Todi during Al’s later years that he had mellowed and had come to show some remorse about the aggressive teaching style of his early years. In a show of the later work at BU I seem to recall some reference in the accompanying literature to metaphysics, Platonic higher realms etc., the very sort of thing that he avoided talking about in the 70’s.If that is in fact the case and it allowed him to create the deep space of the later work that he so vehemently suppressed in his early work, it was unfortunate. It didn’t seem to be built up out of the dynamism of the early work. Then again the black and white geometric paintings may have already been a movement toward Pythagorean imagery of essential forms. It appears in the last work he wanted to understand the whole of the universe, how all parts add up to one large cosmos. In his early work he was like a scientist who liberates subatomic particles in an atom smasher. His legacy, if any young painter is willing to receive it, is this tight compression of space and the subsequent explosion of energy generated by that compression. He had learned it from Matisse so there is continuity historically. But that language of painting has not been picked up by subsequent generations. They don’t study its antecedents in Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. They didn’t bother to contradict standard visual expectations that all three were capable of. It is unfortunate that Deconstruction focused on social constructs and political issues, all imbedded in language and didn’t realize that Cezanne, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse were ardently deconstructing the visual language of 2000 years of painting. Held pushed that deconstruction one step further. Held understood that there is always conflict and tension between any two things. No two things sit passively side by side without turning on each other; that conflict creates real relationship. This also introduces the notion of time, which has not often been considered as a vital component of painting. In Al’s figure/ ground play the picture does not permit a uniform scan but rather pulsates between being taken in as a whole ,where for example the “Big N” is seen as flat space with triangles in the corners and then as an N that is suppressing another color shape behind it. Thus a passage of time is marked by two distinct events.

 

He once showed a glimmer of sympathy towards me. I was painting still lifes in my studio where I was beginning to introduce color in a more potent manner but the work was not on the scale required by the Yale Faculty and I knew they preferred the over –sized over ambitious attempts at story telling from my first semester. Al sensed the difficulties I was having transitioning from history painting to color studies and told me that I was probably torn apart by too many influences. The advice was aimed at directing me toward what was typically said in critiques, simplify and master one thing well. e.g. do black and white before color. At the time I bristled at that sort of criticism and said to Al,”You are right and you are one influence too many. Get out of my studio”. In previous critiques he had always gone for the jugular and I guess my response was a delayed reaction to his numerous humiliations  in the “Pit”.



Impressions of France: Money, Renoir, Pisarro and Their Rivals

Fall 1995,The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

“Impressions of France”, a somewhat unwieldy exhibition of French landscape painting from the mid to late 19th century documents parallels and differences between mainstream landscapes painted principally for purchase by the French State and those of the Impressionists which although contemporaneous were not initially considered worthy of acquisition by the French Government. The work of Cezanne, Pisarro, Monet and Sisley on view represent a way of seeing that is now considered to be the foundation of modernism; on the other hand in the Salon landscapes we witness the winding down of a universally accepted style that had had its origin in the Baroque and which in the hands of the French Salon painters becomes decidedly decadent . This simultaneous winding down of one style and the burgeoning growth of another raises questions of how historically styles succeed one another. The notion of what is decadent and what authentic looms large in this show and most importantly the role that individual vision and imagination play in establishing a new style.

 

According to Michael Baxandall’s book ”Shadows and Enlightenment” scientists and artists of the 18th century were interested in the nature of perception and in particular the way the retina translates patterns of light and dark into form. According to Baxandall the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is the invention of the seer. #1. The paintings center of gravity is always within the observer. The acceptance of a unique light source and the fluency and immediacy of the brush strokes contribute as well to the sensation that we are inside the artist’s consciousness. Although the narrative and the social implications are important, the studied expression of the perceptual experience as visual event is primary. In the case of the salon painters the center of gravity seems to lie outside the viewer in the landscape and with the story the landscape would convey to the socially dominant class that might purchase the painting. All socially relevant detail is explicitly represented: The geographical location, recognizable monuments such as Chartres Cathedral, the social class of the people in the landscape (usually peasants). The brush strokes vary within each painting depending on what they are conveying .The formulas and motifs are repeated enough to be identified as such: over and over we are served up the road narrowing in perspective and several individuals strolling along this road which reaches its vanishing point midpoint in the horizon.

 

The overwhelming mood of the Salon paintings is one of melancholy . The oversized canvasses with their large expanses of sky, sea or field induce a feeling of disorientation . The preferred time of day is dusk. The self that is manifest is not the strong self that eventually dominates 20th century art from Picasso to deKooning and Serra. In the salon painting man is clearly not the measure by which the expanse of space is parceled out. These artists believe naively in the illusion that chiaroscuro creates.  Once that illusion is established, the references to social narrative abandon both the facticity of the objects represented and the object making ability of the eye. The artists space is neither universal nor personal but one of shared social assumptions and prejudices, especially those assumptions based on institutions such as the Church and the bourgeoisie which represent the conservatism of the dominant social order. To convey the dominant role of the former, Churches figure prominently in many of the paintings and to reassure the bourgeoisie of its control over the working class comforting images of peasants quietly accepting their burden of labor in the fields fill numerous landscapes.

 

How were the Impressionists capable of becoming the “forerunners of modernism” affecting ultimately a sea change in art, which relegates their competitors of the academy to the dustbin of history. Merleau-Ponty in an insightful essay on Cezanne, entitled “Cezanne’s Doubt” provides a possible explanation in his description of the psyche of the most important artist of the pre-modernist revolution. #2 In Merleau-Ponty’s view Cezanne is clinically schizophrenic. Felicitous human interaction is beyond him. Most of his personal relationships are fraught with suspicion. Over the course of this life he appears according to the observations of townsfolk to become more and more embittered and alienated. Although lacking in the social skills of the world and according to his childhood friend Emile Zola insensitive to the social and political issues of the late 19th century France, he was exquisitely attuned to the shape that the impressions of the observed world took within him. These are impressions not shared with his fellow citizens. There are no labels on his paintings either figuratively or literally like the name on the stern of a boat on Elodie La VIllette’s painting that situates the landscape for the viewer in Dieppe. A church or anything recognizable except primordial rocks, trees and sky, does not dominate Cezanne’s landscape. The impressions are configured into an architecture where each stroke is part of a whole. There is no sloppy variation of style from part to part as we see in the Salon painters.

 

The thrust of Merleau-Ponty’s essay is that Cezanne’s illness defined his attitude toward painting. Merleau-Ponty goes to great lengths to distinguish this emotional background from Cezanne’s project, which starting from the hand that nature dealt him builds out of it a noble oeuvre. What I find helpful in this analysis is the notion that that Cezanne’s illness made him incapable at both the personal and the societal level of reading the social signs that bind us to society; so that at heart he remained unsocialized and therefore eminently qualified to focus on the inner experience of apprehending the landscape as landscape rather than the role is plays in French Culture. Everything is turned inside out. The roads that meander off into the horizon from the bottom of the painting in a large number of the Salon landscapes are present in Cezanne’s paintings but he subverts the expected reality so that the road ends up closer to the viewer at its vanishing point than where it began. What serves as an entry point into the painting for the salon artists actually functions as an obstacle to entering into Cezanne’s painting.

 

Seeing the work of Cezanne side by side with his once well-established contemporaries accentuates the common notion of Cezanne as “farouche” and renders the Salon artist more insipid than they would appear beyond the context of this show. Cezanne’s choice of what to paint reflects the thought processes of someone who “just doesn’t get it”. In one small landscape (most of the impressionist works are noticeably smaller than those of their salon counterparts) he paints a landscape with branches obscuring the road. One can almost imagine that he was dropped blindfolded before the scene and asked to paint unflinchingly the scene before him when the blindfold was removed. He would be forced to abandon all conventions and go beyond the narrative constructs that lock us into daily life. Whereas La Villette, Bavoux and the countless unknown artist of the late 19th century continue to paint in the now fatigued manner of the of the once radical concepts of chiaroscuro and perspective, Cezanne drops down from the retina which is the locus of value perception to the striate cortex of the brain where the values are analyzed according to verticality, horizontality and diagonality. #3 Just as Caravaggio’s rigorous and powerful use of chiaroscuro spread rapidly throughout Europe to define the styles of Velasquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer, Cezanne’s understanding of the role of line direction and its relations to seeing space becomes the raw material for cubism, minimalism and various optically based art forms of the 20th century.

 

The implication of my interpretation of Cezanne’s personality on a general notion of the evolution of the language of painting is that stylistic change can be achieved not only by deconstructing the current visual language but by going beyond it to the underpinnings of that language which are not yet culturally appropriated. Those thinkers and artists who promote modern paradigms of cultural revolution that aim to deconstruct accepted ways of seeing at a cultural level in order to go beyond them would do well to study Cezanne. Oblivious to the social signs and symbols, the accretion of his inherited culture he could more fully discover the inner visual structure of the eye/mind. The battle of transformation is not won only by questioning the notions of the current visual order but by digging deeper into the structure of the eye/mind itself. That the possibilities of the language of chiaroscuro had run their course could only be understood by a few people who were not easily seduced by its current incarnation as a vehicle for describing the social order of the late 19th century. The creation of these artists was a new language, more vigorous and inclusive of varieties of the visual experience, which grew out of how the landscape was internally apprehended, not what is was supposed to represent externally to the class of collectors and cognoscenti of the time.



 

#1 Baxandall, Michael.” Shadows and Enlightenment”, (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

 

#2Merleau-Ponty,Maurice “Cezanne’s Doubt” in “Sense and Non-Sense”, Translated by Hubert L. Derives and Patricia Allen Derives, 6th edition (Evanston Illinois: Northwestern U. Press, 1991) pages 9-25

 

#3Hoffman,Howard S, “Vision and the Art of Drawing”, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989) pages 48-67.