Friday, February 3, 2012

For Eduard Manet, for Helen Frankenthaler: on Renewing a Painting Passion

I read an article called "What Paint Does," by Robin Greenwood, in Abstract Critical (16 January 2012).  Greenwood argues for a new awareness of abstract art; we must look at the artists we love with some purpose, or else risk simply "re-inventing" everything that abstraction has already accomplished, both successes and failures. Greenwood writes: "If ... perish the thought ... I were to offer advice to an abstract painter starting out today, I would suggest they copy the artist they most admired until they got somewhere near to competing with them, and then move on to someone better; and so on, till there was no-one left and they themselves were the best of all (I'm an idealist)."

Well, I was looking to start again... the odalisques in abstract landscapes are a complete series on their own, now, and ... what's new?  And I thought about all the artists I most admire. I have consciously worked from the starting point of David Hockney, in a series of landscapes in 2003, and I un-consciously have leaned on Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and Kandinsky.  But I had never tried to look at Helen Frankenthaler's work from the perspective of how it was really feasible, in part because I thought she would be, like Gertrude Stein or e.e. cummings, an act impossible to follow. But I really thought that Greenwood had made a wonderful suggestion, and so I looked at a catalogue of Frankenthaler's work that I have, called East and Beyond. In his essay, John Yau shows us, at one point, that Frankenthaler took an Édouard Manet painting, "Fish (Still Life)," (which is 28 7/8" x 36 1/4") from 1864 as a starting point:

Here is Frankenthaler's, painting, completed in acrylic on canvas, 71" x 115," in 1981:

We can see the spaces and light that both paintings share. John Yau writes the essay for this catalogue and he says "a point-to-point comparison ... would ultimately miss"  Frankenthaler's pursuit here, which he says is "the desire to grasp that which remains elusive," memory, the fact that "the world is constantly appearing and vanishing" (24).  That may be true; but artists, when pressed, are unwilling to say too much about the point of their work.  I looked at these two paintings and thought that this would be a way in to Greenwood's prescription.  So I started, with two 30" x 30" wood panels. I took photographs after each stage of the painting I was making; I won't give you all of them, but here are a few on the way to my "somewhere near to competing with" the Frankenthaler:

This was the first shot over the bow -- it was really fun for me -- burnt umber with burgundy and yellow ochre, acrylic paint thinned down with water and glazing liquid and spread with bits of an old pillowcase. It became an effort of my full body, walking around the painting, with each additional layer, pursuing the Frankenthaler pursuing the Manet, which was a photograph in an open book in a corner of the studio floor:

Black and purple wash over the top to get at some of Frankenthaler's and Manet's fabulous blacks, then, skipping forward a few sessions:

More yellow ochre, then white, permanent green middle and pthalo green and white, then thalo green and glaze.  More blacks to right. Then, two steps later:

Cerulean blue hue, more green, more whites, yellow ochre with raw sienna and burgundy. Now, for the final picture, which I got to stages later, after throwing white paint, adding yellows and oranges and details of red, green, browns, pouring, and scraping and pouring the whites:

Now, this isn't precisely the same as the Frankenthaler. And yet it was so luminous, and so balanced, and so much fun.  Now, I decided, I had to try and make the painting my own. "Seize the glimpse," Robert Motherwell said, and then "the ethic lies in erasing that glimpse." So here I go, erasing, scraping away with sandpaper, and adding some white and lighter hues:

Then, layers of more paints, more scraping:

One of the things that is emerging is three horizontal spaces, which I did not want to encourage. So I went into the painting with brushes and scrapers and splashes. Another idea that emerged from looking was that there were no straight lines or geometric shapes here, as there aren't, generally, in Frankenthalers, but I wanted them, and so I added a triangle in the lower right:

Now I am liking the light here, but there needs to be more surface and we need some pencil and drawing here, too. We had gone for a walk along the Alameda shoreline, and the boats, balconies, rocks and scattered birds gave me the last few images here:

I think this is to Frankenthaler as she was to Manet; I am calling it "E.M. and H.F. Walk on the Beach in Alameda."

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