Joy or Pain?

The painting below is The Artist at His Easel by Rembrandt. The first time I saw it was in a program narrated by Simon Schama. Art historians and commentators and critics say a lot of stuff about paintings, but what Schama said about this stayed with me. All the energy in the world is coming from that canvas. Of course logically and in the world of physics, there is a window in front of the canvas and it is reflecting the day, but even that is pretty beautiful.

I have two paintings going now — both cranes. One is the big painting and the other is on a piece of exterior plywood; a garden sign. The person who ordered it ordered a sunflower sign in August and now wants a sign for winter.

Last evening, I watched the second installment of Waldemar Januzsczak’s three programs on American art. It ended with Mark Rothko whose work I don’t get and will probably never get. Januzsczak centered the episode on the twentieth century phenomenon of New York City — which I don’t get and will probably never get. It’s strange that Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Milan, Zürich and Venice were welcoming and wonderful places, but New York City? I’ve been there three times and every time I could’t wait to get out. I’ve even driven in that city, but, no. It’s not for me. Still, it is an amazing place.

Some of what I saw and heard was familiar — I, like many people, went through an Edward Hopper phase and pondered, in my twenties, the problem of alienation in the midst of people Hopper depicts so well. Now I recognize that alienation is the human condition, but at 24? I’d hoped for something beyond a terrible marriage and crowds of people I didn’t know, to whom I had nothing to say.

Edward Hopper Night Windows

Januzsczak’s favorite New York artist is a man who painted New York in the 1930s, a guy named Reginald Marsh. His work is very alive, filled with people, and the kind of crowded, purpose-driven I have felt when I’ve been in New York City. I liked Marsh’ pictures, too. (Featured photo: Twenty Cent Movies)

I saw many beautiful paintings in this episode, but the biggest thing I got was the source of much abstract art was the religion of Theosophy. The essence (according to Waldy) is that under everything there is an order, a structure, a divine reason. This philosophy/religion had a tremendous influence, apparently, on modern art and was the motive behind abstract painting. Since, honestly, abstract painting never seemed to have a “reason” behind it (for me) though I often like it, it was interesting to learn this. For a long time, this has been the most important words about art I’ve read:

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

When a person looks at one religious painting after another in a museum that person might think, “Good God!” (no pun) Goethe was sorry all these artists had been “forced” to paint only one story. I shrugged reading Goethe’s words. How could he know how they felt or what else they may have wanted to paint? Painters paint for money and the church was where the money was and, what’s more, that was not just the “same painting” for a lot of those artists. Painting virgins, babies, etc. was more than that, possibly a spiritual thing.

For me, there’s something more to painting than slapping paint on a surface. Way more. I’m not going to put words on it, not any more than that.

Sadly, Mark Rothko and another Theosophist abstract artist of the era both hung themselves. The other’s life had turned into a sad country song. He’d gotten bowel cancer and was tied to a colostomy bag forever and his wife left him. It took him three tries before he found the old barn with a beam that held the rope and suspended his weight. As for Mark Rothko? Perhaps there is no why. I took all this focus in Januzsczak’s discussion as more of the same: artist’s are tortured souls who are difficult for us normal people to understand, a thread that has run through many of Januzsczak’s discussions of art.

Maybe it just isn’t that interesting to people to think that an artist might be, as the little painting by Rembrandt, above, seems to say, happy, humbled and filled with wonder at the prospect of painting. Still, I think Frank Stella was wonder-filled and happy when he painted these.

6 thoughts on “Joy or Pain?

  1. I prefer happy art to that of tortured. Art with a touch of awe and perhaps a little whimsy is better than the stuff of Rothko and Pollock (which is a little too chaotic and obtuse for my brain to enjoy)… I hope you will post the crane paintings as I’m now curious to see the winter garden sign.

    • I don’t understand why art critics and others romanticize the tortured artist, but my theory is that it’s a way to tell people who AREN’T artists that they should be glad. I don’t know but it annoys me. I seriously reject the whole idea that art should be ‘deep’ and fraught with hidden meaning. It’s a language. It’s the luminous “voice” of humanity. But that’s just me, maybe.

      I will post the crane sign when I remember to take my phone into the studio :p

  2. I’ve always had an affinity for Rothco’s colored rectangles. (Not enough that I’d rush out and buy one if I had lots of money.) They are interesting to look at.

    I think the “tortured artist” is a side effect of the “neurodiverse” nature of many artists. When you are genuinely “different,” it can be a very painful existence. It isn’t causal but it could be a correlation. Not all artists feel alien to the world tbey live in but the ones who do get all the publicity.

    • I get your point, and I think you are probably right. I guess I dislike the idea that being an artist is a pathology. I also think that some art speaks to some people and not others which is really the whole point. My paintings, those in my house, that I have painted, are very different from those I have usually posted on my blog or show in an exhibit. I think painting can be an act of self-discovery in the internal world as well as a process of uncovering and understanding the external world. There is always a relationship between that artist’s mind and the world. When I look at Rothko’s work I read, “You didn’t like it out here much, did you. It just wasn’t for you.”

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