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