Beckmann makes other painters look like scrubs

20120407-054736.jpg A detail from the glorious "Self-portrait in a Tuxedo" (1927) on view at the Harvard Museums weird ass "greatest hits" installation at the Sackler. Everyone is usually kvelling over his use of black but the joy is the chromatic shadows in the face. You can see this painting and then go look at the Poussin's upstairs and wonder how people could ever think that making a shadow was a matter of adding black.

Lessons from a Music Lesson

I was walking through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston the other day.  I was having a particularly nasty studio day.  Nothing was going well and every color I tried to mix ended up as mud.  I figured I should go look at the work of people who knew what they were doing before I did anything else.

I ran into Elliot Bostwick Davis in the gift shop and we chatted briefly about the coming hurricane.  Elliot is the John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas and as such she is responsible for the new Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA.  Personally, I love her for getting all of those Gilbert Stuart paintings back on the walls.  I hadn't seen her since she did a panel discussion with Fred Wilson at Northeastern University so it was good to see her and catch up a little.  We were both super worried about the effects of the storm on our neighborhoods (she's in Dedham, I'm in Hyde Park).

I didn't have a destination on this trip.  Sometimes I go to the museum to look at something specific, but when I have a bad studio day, I prefer wandering. I find that my blocks in the studio mean that I need to see something in a new way.  When this happens I know that I am looking for something and I am certain that I will recognize it when I see it.  It may not even be something in the museum, but I know that I have to get out of my studio and look at some stuff - stuff that has nothing to do with me.

There's a Manet in the MFA collection called The Music Lesson.  I hadn't seen it in a long time and it was up in the French room on the second floor. It's a double portrait of Zacharie Astruc and a woman holding sheet music.  I'm certain this woman has a name and for a long time I thought it was Madame Manet but I have since learned that it isn't her.  Because I hadn't seen it in a while, it was fresh to me.

It was like seeing someone you think is really attractive and then you realize it is someone you know and were in love with at some point.

What struck me this time in seeing it was how dark the painting is.  It's very dark, but it doesn't feel flat.  That was at odds with how I was experiencing the color.  The restricted palette (save for the edge of the oriental carpet) still indicated a tremendous sense of weight and volume in the dress and in the full face of the woman.  It was not a Cezanne solution where color next to color built up the weight of the image and it wasn't a picture that relied solely on drafting to create that illusion of weight (like Matisse).  I looked at it for a long time and I was sort of stupefied as to how a picture so devoid of color interval and concessions to raking light could have such a dramatic physicality.

Anne Coffin Hanson has an essay called "Manet's Pictorial Language" that I never really understood until now.  In it she talks about Manet as a painter who is thinking deeply about how we see and the way the facture of the painting contributes to the understanding of the image.  She talks of Manet's brush "caressing" the contours of the figures.  I can see it in this picture so clearly.  Manet changes directions, applications, touch, and weight in this picture so often that a close investigation reveals the way that he is using mark and directionality to not only guide the eye, but to describe form.  This I think is what allows him to create this mass of volume and in the fabric and the feeling of movement in the portraits.  He is using the brush not just to depict the things in the painting, but he is moving the material of the paint into eddys and pockets that maintain their force as physical marks that convey a sense of volume. And it seems to me that he did it at the expense of a broad palette to focus the viewer's eye on the intervals of marks rather than those of color.

There is very little difference in color in the faces.  Even the rosiness of the cheeks of the woman seem to be glazed rather than directly painted (which probably explains why they feel more like make-up).  It is Manet's invention in the making of the marks that is creating the exceptional ease of the portraits and the immediacy of the painting.

Until now, I never really thought of Manet as someone who was developing a new language through mark making.  I think I was so overcome by his compositions and directness, I never gave much thought to how he got to the wonderful economy of his pictures.  I think a lot of painting focuses on obvious mark making as evidence of emotion or labor.  In the Music Lesson, Manet equates touch and volume by invention of a system of marks that reveals itself on close inspection. It makes me want to reinvestigate the color sensations of other double portraits like In the Conservatory, or  Boating  to see how much of what I am reading as space is due to color and how much is related to directionality and mark making.  The subtlety of Manet's inventions and the broad effect of them are clearer to me now.

And so back to work.

On Standing Where He Must Have Stood

The permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of the Arts has an enormous influence on me. Like most kids in Detroit, I first went there on a school trip. (This was back when education included things like art and culture.) I was spellbound by the building itself. I stood on the stairs with my mouth hanging open, reading the text carved into the facade. I was completely shocked when I found out that we were going to go inside such a place. I didn't know you could go inside such places. After that trip I was hooked on the place. I was 10 years old. Every chance I could, I would take the three busses (including the Cross-town) to go and wander through the enormous beaux-arts building. I never tired of it.

When I would go back to Detroit to visit my mother, one of the first questions she would ask me was “When do you want to go to the museum?”

So much of that collection is etched into my memory but two things really formed and continue to shape the way I make paintings today. One is the Main Courtyard, which contains the Industry frescoes of Diego Rivera. The other is van Gogh’s 1887 Self-Portrait. The former is important to be because it is such a total statement about a people and a place, right down to the cells that make up the rock strata of Michigan. The latter is important to me for much more.

The first time I saw the van Gogh I think I was about 12 years old. I lied and told my mother I was going to the library, which was about 4 blocks from our house. I took the busses (waiting almost 35 minutes for the Cross-town) and got to the Museum about shortly after it opened. It felt like I had the entire building to myself.

I should say that my favorite painting at the time was William-Adolphe Bouguereau's The Nut Gatherers (Les Noisettes), (1882).

It looked so real to me back then. The silky carpet of grass on which the little girls lay while they fed their pet squirrel was almost seamlessly photographic. There was a delicate haze over all the forms. It really looked as if the girls would move if I turned my back and I thought that was the mark of quality in a painting. Moreover, the subject and setting was so removed from my life and my situation at the time that it was like a window into some better, safer world. I had received a monograph on Norman Rockwell a few months before and I though Bougereau made Rockwell look like a scrub.

On my way to the section where the Bougereau was, I got side tracked into the “Impressionist/Post impressionist” room. In the center of the installation was the van Gogh. It was on a thin pedestal and in a Plexiglas vitrine, like jewelry. I heard myself gasp when I saw it and in a fundamental way, I felt like it saw me. Not just in the way “the eyes follow you around the room,” I felt like the painting was inhabited. Not that there was paint on canvas, but there was a man’s head in a Plexiglas box in the museum, and that it had acknowledged me when I came into the room. When I walked over to it, I realized it was a painting. I could not believe for quite a few minutes that it was but the little label said “van Gogh, Vincent, Dutch, active in France, Self Portrait with Straw Hat, oil on canvas, 1887.” It felt then, as it does to this day, that there is so much more than oil on that canvas. I began to cry.

Over time, I have tried to assign the effect of the picture to van Gogh’s mastery of complementary color as a device to create the illusion of plastic space. The yellow in that straw hat, for example, is modulated from white to yellow to orange to blue to purple and back to white. The color is applied in strokes, which separate as color only to merge as form. I also attributed it to the way it is installed and being very young when I saw it. This is all well and good and perhaps true, but it doesn’t really explain my tears and why they still well up in the presence of the painting.

The only conclusion I can come to that the picture carries the trace of him. It is a self-portrait so it contains van Gogh’s likeness, but it also contains a record of his touch. The surface is covered with those touches and there must be hundreds of thousands of them. There is a devotional quality to touching anything that many times and to me that touching is a record of tenacity of the maker. So when I stand in front of the painting and look at those marks, I have the record of the experience of standing where he must have stood when he was painting it. And I can feel myself making that picture, making those marks one after the other after the other. With that self-portrait, I feel van Gogh brought me into the world of painting and showed me how it was done. No tricks, no gimmicks, just the power of color next to color. And that facial expression, which was so arresting when I was a child, seems to say to me still, “I see. I know.”

Across time and territory, a Dutchman living in France at the dawn of the machine age reached out to a little black boy in 70's Detroit and delivered a message. Not the hopeful, bucolic escape of a Bougereau, but the ability to make sense of the insanity of the world, and the safety that can come from the courage of the gaze.

I left the museum that day and never saw the Bougereau. My mom put me on punishment me for 2 weeks for lying about going to the library.

Troy...the book is a LOT better

Anything would be a let down after Epheseus, but man, Troy is really hard to take.  First off, there is a huge wooden horse inside of the entry gate to Troy.  It is filled with laughing school children running around it and climbing inside it.  Parents surround the thing to get a photo of their moppet inside the Trojan Horse.  If you were expecting something regal and solemn (like Epheseus) here you would be sorely disappointed.  It is a theme park grafted onto a major archeological site.  It does not sit will with the visitor at all.  The entry is like Homericland at Turkey Disney.  It is a strange thing.

The archeology of Troia is amazing.  There are at least nine cities on top of each other and each one is built on the remnants of the one before.  It is not easy to believe what you are seeing is important since most of it is dun colored stone.  But they do a good job of explaining what you are looking at and there are a lot of artist renderings of what the site looked like through the centuries.
Our tour ends tomorrow.  We were supposed to go to Gallipoli, but our time here coincides with Anzac Day, which is becoming a larger and larger show of Australian nationalism each year.  The hotel we were supposed to stay at is overbooked so we have ended up in a hotel 50 kilometers from the town of  Çanakkale.  We are supposed to leave here at 6 am to go back to Istanbul.
I have grown quite fond of my companions.  The children actually behaved themselves quite well overall.  It is hard because they are the only kids on the trip and their mother (who is strikingly beautiful, I forgot to mention) has her hands full with wrangling them.  She does a good job with them.  I forget sometimes how an education can be a hard thing for the teacher and the student.  As much as it hurts to be asked some questions, I know that it is better that they ask me than someone else.  They have a fierce intelligence these two kids.  They are fortunate to have the parents they have and the brains they have.  I hope they look after each other.
As much as I will miss them, I am looking forward to Istanbul alone.  I want to know about the city as much as I can.  I just want to look and look and look.  I find myself getting caught up in figuring out tours and all that stuff.  Tomorrow I am just going to get lost and see what I see.

My city of ruins....

Nothing prepares you for Epheseus.  

It really is a place that seethes with life.  Not just the thousands of camera-toting, sunblock-applying, child-chasing, photo-opping, cell phone-chatting humans around you.  You are really catapulted into the past.  You walk the same marble sidewalks as people thousands of years ago.  You are under the same hard cerulean sky.  Your eyes hurt from looking at so many beautiful things.  Every time you turn a corner something more incredible awaits you.  You think, "Well nothing can be better than this!" and then you turn the corner and see Trajan's Gate, or the Celsus Library, or the Agora Gate.  It is hard to believe that one can see so much and still remain standing.
Turkey is essentially an open air museum of culture from major periods.  It's truly astounding to be here and to see these things.  The thing of it is that there is a strong presence of the Republic here.  You go into Epheseus and the two things that greet you are the Turkish flag and a picture of Ataturk.  You realize that you are in an Islamic country (secular, true, but you do hear that call to prayer, don't you?), that is the custodian of places sacred to the Christian, Pagan and Antique.  The Turks are clear on this: every sign says that this place is being maintained by the Republic.  It is a really interesting way to diminish the power of what you are seeing.  Even our tour guide sort of made fun of us for coming all this way to see stones.  I said to him, "Omer of course you must think it is beautiful."  He smiled and said that they are just stones but "these stones, unlike the ones we will leave, tell of the history, the personality and the mythology of a people."  I wonder what people will think of the ruins of the Trump Taj Mahal?
We saw the House of the Virgin Mary today.  Strange being there.  I went through quickly and was going to make my way back to the bus.  Then I started to think about my Mother and how she would have loved to see the house and how happy it would have made her.  So I went back and got in line to see it again.  I was going to light a candle for her, but I felt very awkward and stupid buying one, as if I was trying to look like a pilgrim.  There was a Christian Turkish woman and her children and she was explaining things.  I sat in a chair in back on one side of the door.  On the other side was a friar (a Franciscan I think from the robe).  He looked at me and nodded and I sat on the straw seat of the chair.
I miss my mother desperately.  I wish I could have brought her with me on this trip instead of bringing her memory and half of her DNA.  I tried to say a prayer, but it all felt rote and stupid, like I was trying to prove that I could.  So I just sat there and thought about my Mother in the house of Jesus's mother and started to cry a little.  It never really leaves you, you know.  It just gets smaller and more intense, like a mushroom cloud inside of that tiny silver ball.  She would have really loved being there so it was the least I could do to sit there and be a little uncomfortable and miss her with my whole heart. 

I thought Aphrodite was a goddess of love....

Well, things came to a head between the Indians and the Italians today.

One of the things that happens on these tours is that you go to a site (in this case, today it was Pamukkale, Hieropolis and Aphrodisias) and then you get driven to a "special presentation" where you are offered high quality goods at a reduced price.  I am not certain if this is true or not, but the stuff they are selling sure looks good.  I am also sure that the tour company probably has some sort of financial relationship with the places we are stopping.  You can see busloads of tourists going in and out of these places, led from their busses like some sort or poorly dressed multilingual marching band.
Keep in mind that we are near the Aegean Sea.  It is hot and close here.
After the ruins of Roman cities and the AMAZING travertine landscape (click the slideshow to see the pictures of the landscape) we were on the bus to a leather shop.  Turkey is known for its leather goods from lambskin and they really were lovely. They had a fashion show (music:  Remixes of "What a Feeling" and a few heavy bass Turkish pop songs) and the models were very professional stunningly beautiful.  Tall and olive skinned and very chiseled.  They really were lovely to watch.  I did notice that we were locked in the room for the fashion show and the only way out was to go through the store.
Also, keep in mind that I am traveling with people who have an advanced sense of entitlement.
In the shop and plied with the apple tea that is ubiquitous here, we got down to shopping.  I tried on some jackets and became convinced that I really need to do something about my weight starting now.  Nothing worse than a chubby guy in lambskin, Mother used to warn.  The Indian contingent was not buying the prices convinced that they could do better in Dehli.  The Italians were shopping like mad and having a lovely time.  The minute the Italians began buying the music in the store changed to Andrea Boccelli.  They really know how to please an audience.
In addition, keep in mind that these are people who will complain about a $2 bottle of water but will drop hundreds of Euros on a leather jacket.
We ended up waiting over a half an hour for the Italians to finish and that is when the two Indian men went mad.  They really got in Omer's face (the tour guide, not the driver) about it and started yelling at the Italians to get in the bus.  The Italians did there best "no speakeh anglaise" but everyone knows that they do so it was not playing in Bangalore at all.  Once a few of the Italian women sat down for coffee it was ON.  The older Indian gentlemen started yelling and saying "Why do they get to sit when me and my family are rushed back to a hot bus?"
The Canadian behind me on the bus took odds on the Italians.  I took the Indians because they looked scrappy.  I think they wanted it more.
I had a ball really.
One thing I was not ready for here was the staring.  It is not very common to see American Black people in parts of the country and people have no qualms about staring.  It is really discomforting.  I was sort of ready to disappear here, to fade into the scenery as it were but that is so not happening.  The Turks are kinds and lovely people, don't get me wrong.  The minute I tell them I  am from Boston their eyes light up and they get very excited.  The staring though, it really freaks me out.
Today at lunch I had to tell the little boy that there are a whole bunch of things that are happening in the world of the adults that do not involve or concern him and that when he was a little older, he would see that the world does not revolve around him.  I think this was news to him.  It was certainly a revelation to his family.
No one asked me why I am single today.

The Architect of Dreams

Peter Doig. Peter Doig.  OH MY GOD! Peter Doig. 

The show at Tate Britain was amazing.  I really have a hard time believing that one person has the abilities that Doig has with a brush.  He does things in painting that serve the image and frustrate it at the same time, allowing you the pure joy of looking at a painted surface.  The paintings are beautiful, tactile, haptic, and strange.  At the same time, they have the quality of dreams; that specificity that an image has when you are between being awake and being asleep.  Something concrete collides with something inchoate.  The connection between the two opens up a space of possibility and excitement.  This is beyond some of the silly notions that people have about abstraction and realism.  ALL PAINTING IS ABSTRACT.  What Doig does is work with illusion and substance and surface.  He is really making paintings on the edge of what painting can be.  All of this without compromising a sense of connection to a place, be it Canada or Trinidad.
The other thing I love is his complete irresponsibility in the use of photographs.  Sure he gets ideas from them, but he is perfectly free to invent and redeploy the images as he sees fit.  Too many artists get so caught up in what a photo is that they just end up reproducing a reproduction of reality, as if that is enough of a new conceptual trope to sustain the work (Ever hear of Warhol, Richter?).  Rudolf Stengel's paintings as awesome as they are fall into this trap.  "WOW!  It looks just like a photograph!"  In 2008 is that enough?  Is that even a compliment?
Doig uses photography as drawing material.  He translates the photograph through his hand.  This is part of what makes his work so amazing - his alteration of the source material and commitment to drawing through an idea. The photo is a schema or a plan, not a goal. 
I have to add to all of this that he is quite simply one of the most beautiful men I have ever laid eyes on.  The video they showed at the exhibition reminded me of his soft spoken confidence and seriousness about his practice.  It also showed the sparkle of a jester in his eyes.  It brought back the generosity and openness of his Skowhegan lecture last year.
I hope he keeps painting for a long long time.  As long as this guy is working no one needs to worry about the state of the art.

Why hats are popular in Trafalgar Square

You know, I like animals as much as anybody, probably more.  But I cannot stand pigeons.  It has a lot to do with living through the first part of the AIDS epidemic.  There is this parasite that causes an infection called toxoplasmosis that killed a lot of PWAs in the 80's and 90's.  There is a moment in the AIDS chronicle AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, where a young doctor finds a sheep farmer who has some experience with toxoplasmosis.  You see, this was an illness, carried by pigeons and cats in their excrement, so the young doctor was thrilled to find someone who dealt with it on a regular basis.  He asked the sheep farmer what one does with the sheep who are infected with the parasite.  "We shoot them," he said.  

That is why I don't like pigeons.
But, in Trafalgar Square, in almost every language spoken on the planet (I think they missed Latin and Esperantu), it asks you not to feed the pigeons.  It's pretty clear and posted everywhere. And yet all over the Square there are morons giving food to these carrion animals. I don't really understand it.  Are these people thinking it is all right for me to feed them and no one else?  Do they think they are invisible and no one sees them doing it?  Do they not see the CURTAINS OF PIGEON SHIT COATING THE SQUARE?  Honestly, I don't know what to say about this.  I am glad they found a treatment for toxoplasmosis.
I went to the National Gallery and saw so many things that I had only seen in books.  I came very close to  succumbing to Stendhal Syndrome from looking at too many incredible moments of art.  Carravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, Piero della Francesca's Nativity, Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, Rembrandt's Final Self portrait and Balthazar's Feast, and Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks.  All of that in one day.  Plus the Vermeers, the Rokeby Venus, Titians, Raphaels, RUBENS!  It was an incredible day.  I started getting back spasms from looking.  There was nothing to prepare me for what it was like to be in the room with these paintings that I had seen only in reproduction.  The copies are NOTHING compared to the real things, man.  It was an exhausting day, but I saw some amazing things.  Seeing some of the Degas made me reconsider him.  To see Rembrandt's change in paint handling over THIRTY YEARS!  I can see why so many people come to London to study.  There are so many masterpieces in the National Gallery.  Painters I love like Parmigianino and Bronzino are in the collection.  I could live in that museum and still not see enough.
Michael took me to his place in Brixton (I know what you've heard and it is a very nice neighborhood) and I watched a bad BBC quiz show and fell asleep for a bit.  We went to Brick Lane for dinner and hanging out.  Part of the toxoplasmosis rant had to do with Michael telling about his partner who died.  So many people are gone and it is hard to get your brain around it at times.  

There's no place like LONDON....

Well, now I know why Sweeney Todd cut so many throats....

I'm kidding.  Really, I am loving London.  First off, I have never been here.  There are over 300 million people in England and I think I rode on the Underground with all of them today.  I was not prepared for the sheer press of people that you can get caught in here.  Everyone is on their way some where and I have heard so many different languages spoken it boggled my mind.  I had a great moment when a couple of people wanted to interview me about my feelings on the National Health Service.  I had to tell them I was not British, so my opinion didn't really count.  I guess I look British.
I know this blog is about Istanbul and believe me I am very nervous and excited to go.  But since it is a long trip and I have the time, I thought I would spend a few days in London coming and going.  First because some of the greatest art in the world is here and also because my greatest friend is here, Michael Mullen.
I want to say something about the way the English speak and what it does to you.  First off, they are convinced that they speak the right way (it is called "English") so when you are over here and you are speaking it, you are saying everything wrong.  Think of the way you say "Worcester," or "Holyoke."  Now the way you feel about people outside of Massachusetts pronouncing those words incorrectly is they way the English feel about you and the entire language.  You can't compete with it, so you have to start pronouncing things the way they do.  This accounts for what people think is Madonna being affected with a fake British accent.  If she doesn't talk that way, no one here will understand her.  They look at you like you are a freak if you don't talk like them.  It really forces you to assimilate.
(Note: The above does not allow ANYONE in the Americas to say things like "Happy Christmas."  Now THAT is an affectation.  It is positively sick making and should be stopped. )
We went to Tate Modern today and saw the permanent collection and an amazing Juan Muñoz retrospective.  I can only imagine the work he still had in him when he died.  It was a haunting and beautiful show.  We just missed the Doris Salcedo installation in the Turbine Hall.  Tate Modern really is an incredible building.  It was an old powerstation that got repurposed into the most incredible museum.  We also went to the National Portrait Gallery (Sir Thomas Lawrence... so GOOD!  Who knew?) and tomorrow we are going to Tate Britain to see the amazing Peter Doig's exhibition.