Friday, December 16, 2011

How Beautiful is the Surface of a Painting?: Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter

I am undergoing one of those struggles, whiting out the awkward, clumsy, thickly-uncertain brushstrokes in one of my paintings in the desire for smooth perfection.  As I paint, I understand, completely I think, how it is that Agnes Martin wanted ruled lines, Gerhard Richter scrapes pure intense color, and Jackson Pollock danced.  There is something perfect about melding geometric forms with "simple" color, as my circle does here:

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to know, "did that painter feel what I am feeling, painting? or was it only later that feeling entered in, looking at the finished work?"

So I decided to ask around. I started with Pollock, and "Number One," 1948:

So was this smoothness, this unity, always there in the making?  In a review of the catalogue that accompanied the 1998 Pollock exhibition at MOMA, Claude Cernuschi discusses the two central essays, by Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel.  Cernuschi says that Varnedoe calls for less theory, more "'close-order looking'" because " 'the whole story here is on the surface [and its] ... concrete, matter-of-fact presence' " (Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, 1998, p. 30).  Cernuschi says that it might not be so easy, just looking, because "perception can never be pure" (34).  I think, as much as I hate to admit it, that he is right: we are always coming to a painting with some pre-formed idea (ideal?) in our minds, some way of linking this work to our own knowledge, prejudices, experience.  We certainly can't capture intention.  Then, in Karmel's essay, Cernuschi tells us, Pollock is seen in a whole different light, not as a man of "surfaces" but as a painter interested in the "obfuscation-of-imagery," that there are outlines of figures under many of his works that he erases with his flowing lines, an argument corroborated by Lee Krasner.  Cernuschi decides to bring the viewpoints together by linking Pollock with nature, abstraction with figuration, movement and resulting line...(37-8).

But when he does quote Pollock, check out what the painter says of his work:  "it doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said" (36).  I think the something here is surface... look back at "Number One."  The surface is undeniable ... even if we decide to bring in a few other observations, in my eyes, the surface trumps.

Then look at Agnes Martin. Her surfaces are utterly "plain" -- there are no hidden bodies here, certainly, and not paintings-over. She has said that she first saw each painting in her mind before she even started: "The struggle of existence is not my struggle .... Being outside that struggle I turn to perfection as I see it in my mind .... Although I do not represent it very well in my work, all seeing the work, being already familiar with the subject, are easily reminded of it" (Writings, p. 16).  We all know perfection. Surface. ("Those Greeks,"  Nietszche says, "always stopping at the perfection of the surface" --rough paraphrase, from memory -- but I digress...).  Here is Martin's "Wood 1" from 1963:

Perfect. Surface.

Then there's Gerhard Richter.  Roberta Smith wrote that Richter's "quasi-Photo Realist images" have "a peculiar abstracting fuzz to their surfaces, while his abstract paintings, seemingly gestural as they are, always hint at the photographic. There's a sharp depictive quality to their dramatic brush strokes ... plus a complex palette ... the combined effect constantly keeps us guessing" (The New York Times, March 13, 1987, "Arts" section).  Here is his "Courbet," from 1986:

I think it is those "combined effects" that makes us keep looking, even with all our baggage, at each of these painters, and, if I had to choose, I'd go for perfection.

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