A New Kind of Alone

paul-cezanne-at-the-water-s-edge-ca-1890

Paul Cezanne – At Water’s Edge

Lately I have found it increasingly difficult to communicate my ideas in the studio verbally. This isn’t just a problem with my friends and family but with other painters as well. This would not be difficult if these ideas did not inspire a need to be voiced with the same intensity that my more juvenile revelations did. The likelihood of miscommunication and alienation seems to be increasing.

This is particularly the case regarding the subject of composition, which I believe is rarely dealt with holistically, that is to say in a fashion that treats perception, abstraction, and conceptualization as a continuum as opposed to separated genres as it is so often taught. This fragmentation of our understanding is rooted in a pervasive mind-body dualism which plagues our culture, painting being of the less dire victims. But that is a conversation for another day.

The desperation to articulate my ideas did not become evident to me until I saw them finally reflected outside of myself. After one of my last shifts at Plant Zero Cafe I stumbled across a book on Cezanne. In it I found a passage that deeply moved me, that so articulated how I have come to understand my craft. Cezanne states:

To look upon nature is to discern the character of one’s model. Painting does not mean slavishly copying the object: it means perceiving harmony amongst numerous relationships and transposing them into a system of one’s own by developing them according to a new, original logic.

If you are a painter and do not understand the above statement, study composition, especially the historical modes of organizing an image, meditate on their relationship to perception, and the ways in which they act as a metaphor, and with practice, it will become clear.

Although historical modes of composing are a major part of the curriculum I teach at Virginia State University the precise ways in which perception, abstraction, and concept overlay and work to create a whole composition is elusive to my students. Their education seems fragmented even when the dots are explicitly connected for them. I realize now that some relationships, some understandings, come with hard earned experience. They have to make the journey, all I can do is provide a map.

So teaching fails to relieve me of my inability to communicate. Fortunately if I can not speak directly to the living, I have access to the letters of the dead.

Christine Lockerby, my brilliant girlfriend, bought me a copy of Cezanne A Life by Alex Danchev for Christmas. After stumbling across the above passage I eagerly dug into this book in search of new insights and reflections. One quote that particularly resonated with me was from Pissaro:

When I start a painting, the first thing I strive to catch is its harmonic form. Between this sky and this ground and this water there is necessarily a link. It can only be a set of harmonies, and that is the ultimate test of painting…. The big problem to solve is to bring everything, even the smallest details of the painting, to an integral whole, this is to say harmony.”

Yes! Harmonic form! Something that realist like myself seldom concern themselves with when striving to make a thing look like the thing! Painting, by its limited nature, is never a copy of nature, but a transposition of relationships, and like a melody being transposed to a new key , our perceptions of the relationships between various wavelengths of light can be subject to multitudes of transpositions on the picture plane. And how often do painters neglect the harmonic possibilities available to them, relying on habitual prescribed palettes and modes with no concern for the vocabulary and metaphors inherent in the visual language. I blame this in part to the hard division drawn between realism and abstraction, leaving many realist who think they are “redeeming” art pathetically incapable of comprehending the very act of painting. They lack a broad scope, a vision, satisfying their egos because “this looks just like the thing I was looking at” as if there is some inherent virtue to mimicry. This is not to diminish the importance of perceptual study, it is paramount, but not an end in itself. When treated as an end, the art of painting is reduced to a parlour trick.

It is not mimicry that ultimately counts but experience. The experience of engaging the world, seeking out relationships for one’s self, and the intrinsic value of a work of art as it is experienced.

This sentiment is well articulated in the following quote from Cezanne:

The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read. However, we should not be content with memorizing the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. We have seen a dictionary, as Delacroix used to say, where we will find all the words. Let us go out. Let us study nature in all its beauty, let us try to grasp its spirit, let us seek to express ourselves according to our individual temperament. Besides, time and reflection modify our vision, little by little, and finally understanding comes.”

Yes! Solitude! More solitude! The absence of which is the thorn in my side when trying to educate young artists who struggle to distinguish the carefully cultivated experience of popular media from the wild wilderness of individual human experience.

“No you can not just copy an image you found on google, go out and seek your own subject matter.”

Their wells are shallow, but they are young, and too their credit are often in search of their own humanity. The very act of which seems to spit in the face of the status quo. As Cezanne said regarding Pissaro:

“Study modifies our vision to such an extent that the humble and colossal Pissarro find his anarchist theories substantiated”

What I seek, in an age of rigid identity politics and methodological stances, is transgressive. If linear perspective was a means of obliterating the 4th wall between the tangible and the allegorical, and tenebrism the light of God illuminating a dark world, and neo-classicism the contemplation of ideals, and impressionism the fleeting glimpses of a new fast moving industrialized world, and cubism the admission of doubt about the objective self, then please lets take a moment to ask ourselves what is the metaphor of cutting and pasting? Seriously, take a moment to reflect not just on the subject of our images but the content that arises through the means by which they are created. If to be an artist is to simply appropriate previously digested images with prescribed social meanings, where is their room for the inner self?

Where do we meet? Will I find you tending to the media, or in the wilderness of your being?

Do you follow me? If you don’t, then no worries. If I sound a bit mad I promise I am impassioned but my wits are with me. The self is a vast place.

I am comforted by these words by Rilke, words I have quoted before, and I am sure will again:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

For Uncle Rod

I would like to thank my family and friends for their kind words and appreciation for the Eulogy I gave this past Wednesday for Uncle Rod. I had not anticipated the overwhelmingly positive responses from you all and it has deeply moved me. As requested by many of you I am posting it to see and share. I will also make some hard copies as well.

Also a special thank you to Tonnie Vilines and all other participants in the ceremony. You all truly know and honor him as the unique individual he was.

It will be so hard going forward without my Uncle, sometimes when I imagine his room empty I can hardly breathe, I will miss hearing his voice rapidly call out his unique variation on my nick name “Guelly welly welly welly” when I walk through the door, so it is good to know that I am not alone, and have a wonderful family standing with me.

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This is a painting I did of my uncle, took many attempts for months to get it right, in which despite the physical pain that afflicted him, there was still a spark of love, a joyful spirit. I needed to make record of it, I needed to celebrate him, I needed to show the world the best way I know how, that this is what love and dignity looks like.

 

While reflecting upon my Uncle Rod’s life, and the time we shared together, I realized that a linear summary of our history fails to encompass my experience and his character. As children past present and future have their distinct categories of being; as if we are drifting down a stream, we turn looking backwards towards our past and look ahead anticipating the trials that may be waiting around the next bend. Memories, dreams, hopes, they all move along with us like fallen leaves on the water’s surface. It is all so clear. But as we grow the currents shift and swell around us, becoming ever more turbulent. The memories, dreams, hopes, all that we carry inside us, twist and tumble. Our past tangles with our present, our present obscured by our dreams, our dreams mistaken for our past. We become overwhelmed by the maze of our own existence.

So how can one articulate their reflections on another’s life? Especially a life as rich and diverse as my Uncle’s. The task is daunting, even impossible to complete, but futile? No, never futile. Uncle Rod bestowed this honor on me, and if I can share with you all today one drop of the love he has shown me it will be well worth the effort.

It is hard to think of Rod for very long without thinking of music. Music was always playing when I would come into his room after school. When I was a troubled teenager I would go weeks feeling no pleasure in life but for music and as a result a routine began where I would bring my CD’s to Rod to listen to together. We listened to everything from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis to Pink Floyd and Nirvana. Whether he liked it or not, he would listen and discuss the content of the music with me. It never occurred to me how much patience he must have had for me, and how perceptive he was. Looking back it seems so obvious that he knew how badly I needed those afternoons with him.

I would relate the music to my own life, and Rod would tell stories about the music he listened to growing up. He told me how he would choose different songs from different artists and order them in imaginary sequences chronicling epic romances he made up in his head. It was during this discussion that I realized that while Rod was not an artist, he certainly had the soul of one. He was a romantic, and I don’t just mean his love of women (which can not be underestimated), but a romantic in the sense that he saw poetry in everyday life.

His sensitive temperament was a gift and guiding light for a boy dreaming of being an artist. I had people telling me what to do in life. I had people telling me what not to do in life. But Rod told me to love life. I will never forget a quiet afternoon where he told me of a visit to Byrd Park where he looked up from his wheelchair, and was enraptured by the pastoral beauty of the evening sky. “God is one hell of a painter,” he told me, before returning to his reverie in silence.

One of my earliest memories, or perhaps it was his memory and he told me about it, was watching the lights bounce up and down on his stereo from my walker. I sometimes speculate that the correlations I made in Rod’s room between light and sound may be why I could never choose between painting and music. He loved retelling his observations of my childhood behavior to me, the more frustrating and strange the more delight he took in it. For example, I would climb into the nook between him and the wall and put my ninja turtles on his belly. I would demand he quit talking to women on the phone and play with me. He would tell me how it drove him crazy, with the most delighted grin. He loved being bothered, he loved being there for family.

And almost as if reliving the same moments, I witnessed this all again when my sister was born. That same delight, that same affection, and I imagined him as a younger man sharing this same tenderness with my mother. There were so many children in his life, and he saw all of us children as his, because he was our Uncle Rod.

And what of his childhood. It is the lot of being of the younger generation that I unfortunately do not know more about his life. I have fragments of memories and stories he felt were necessary to share with me. He loved his mother. In one of our final conversations he told me how his life could have been forfeited at birth. The doctors thought he wouldn’t make it, would be a burden, wouldn’t be worth saving, and with a tear in his eye he told me, “My mother picked me up, and she carried me home.”

Rod loved his siblings too. He taught me a lot about integrity and compassion through the stories of how as a family they stood up against indignities and prejudice on his behalf. Because of his physical appearance, there were people who assumed he was mentally unfit to make decisions for himself. Once a sales associates asked his brother Brandon, “What does he want?” And Uncle Brandon responded, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask him.” To his very last day, I am sure memories like this filled Rod with appreciation and joy.

Rod also taught me through reflecting on his status as a handicap in our society. I was shocked when he told me that people had come up to him in his wheelchair with accusatory tones and asked, “What did you do?!” as if he was to blame for his condition. These accusations cut him and he told me that he had no time in life for people who would ask such a thing. Good fortune is not an indication of good character, and bad fortunate is not an indication of bad character. Rod inspired me to try to see past the superficial before judging another human being.

Women–we cannot forget his love of women. I am sure all of us have stories about Rod’s romantic endeavors. I have collected a few myself. Women were always a priority in his mind. After I grew out a beard, Rod said to me, “Boy, cut that mess off your face!” I then showed him a photograph of a woman I had been dating and he promptly replied, “Boy, don’t you dare cut that mess off your face!” Of the women I have dated, most I have proudly taken to meet Rod, and all of them came away charmed by him. While visiting Rod at Saint Mary’s with my girlfriend Christine, he looked up at her and said, “You are a beautiful woman… and I love beautiful women!” To this day I can not imagine a more concise introduction to Uncle Rod.

And he loved “the water,” as he put it. I have fond memories of our whole family swimming at Uncle Kermit’s pool and I know that the freedom to move independently with one’s own unassisted body, however limited, must have been a joy for him. During one of our final conversations he recalled the times he went swimming with his brothers as a child. I watched the realization that he would not swim again move across his face and he began weeping. I sat with him and wished I had words to comfort him. But no matter how evident his feelings of pain and loss were, he always ended our conversations by saying, “God has been good to me, go tell your friends your Uncle Rod has done more from his wheelchair than most people ever do. I ain’t miss a thing.”

This was not the only time he left me speechless towards the end. He asked me to press my hand to his side. I hesitated and he said, “Do not be afraid.” I felt every rib, I was astounded by his frailty, and he looked at me as if to say yes this astounds me too. Again I wished I had something to say. I wished a lot towards the end of his life, mostly that I could do something for him in return for all that he had done for me.

If I was hungry, Rod would point me in the direction of someone who could feed me. If I was broke, he would make sure I got some cash. If I was stranded, he would make sure I had a place to sleep. He told me over and over, “I don’t want you to ever want for anything.” He never stopped looking out for me.

As a boy I thought a man didn’t say “I love you” too often, especially to his uncles, and I avoided the phrase with Rod when I could. But when I became a man I said it every chance I got. I could never have said it enough, never enough to even the score, to balance the scales, to pay the debt. His love for me was too unconditional, too patient, too vast. What can I do going forward with such a gift? How can I live my life in a way that respects the fact that I had an amazing, wonderful Uncle Rod?

And then I remembered Rod once saying, “I never worry about your sister, because I know she has her eyes on you.” The statement puzzled me at first but I think I am starting to get what he meant. It was a declaration of purpose, to give to her as he gave to me. To give without concern for fairness, entitlement, or expectation of reward. To treat love not as something which can be bought and sold, but as a means and an end in itself. Love needs to be shared.

So let your memories of Uncle Rod drift with you on life’s ever-changing currents. Let them twist turn and tumble throughout your being. And keep giving the gift of yourself to the world as he did, until like Uncle Rod you can look back and say, “I ain’t miss a thing.” Never stop giving.

A Seemingly Unpopular Position

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900

Looking back on my education, the majority of my critiques were nothing more than pointless distraction. This is not to say I didn’t have many fruitful conversations guided by my teachers and classmates. I am speaking more about the formal obligatory critiques. I know the idea of collective feedback and teaching one to feel obligated to a crowd is socially prescribed in our current consumer culture, but the best bits of feedback I ever had were the ones that emphasized claiming one’s identity as an individual.

The decisions we make as artist are, and should be, our own. This is not to say we shouldn’t learn from others, but what student has ever learned from a teacher or friend who did not do so of their own will? You can not simply insert insight and ability into a student’s mind. They must do the work themselves! And as an instructor you must meet them where they are, however frustrating that may be.

How many hours were wasted on half-assed pieces by students who were more interested in protecting their egos than developing their work? How many hours wasted coddling the disinterested who will give up art making as soon as the education no longer requires them to do so? So much emphasis on learning to talk about one’s art. Talk talk talk talk talk!, ceaseless talk as if one could talk their way into a good painting. What about looking? What about experiencing?

All of it cultivates a juvenile dependency on group approval which is absent once one steps into one’s career. The most liberating moment I have experienced making art is when I stopped asking myself is it good? will it be liked? and started asking, is this what I need to express?

Perhaps that’s why this passage by Rainer Maria Rilke resonates so deep with me:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What moved me about Rilke is that instead of offering false consolation, invalidating my feelings of isolation, or prescribing some theory of success which lies outside of the self, he said yes you are often alone, you need to be alone, and it is okay to be alone.

I do not think total isolation is the ultimate goal of the artist, but acceptance cannot be either. Like an explorer, one must dig deep and travel far. There is hope that others will be moved by your discoveries, but it is the process itself that must be cherished and loved, not the rewards that may come from it.

I think many people paint because they love the smell of perfume, wine, and cheese in the evening. But the real painters do it because they love the smell of linseed oil in the morning.

It is truly an act of faith to fully invest one’s self in one’s art, through the good times, and the bad. To quote my father, “This is not a job, this is a priesthood.”

This Departing Landscape: Mourning and Morton Feldman

feldmanMy grandmother, Regina Fisher, passed away and perhaps I can best describe this grief in musical terms. Every pang of realization hits with the same disorientation but recesses with its own unique combination of memories and emotions. A note, muted and percussive in its strike, ceaselessly repeating itself in endless re-harmonization. Sometimes it is accompanied by nostalgia, sometimes anxiety, sometimes anger, sometimes relief, sometimes fear, and sometimes gratitude. It is never accompanied by a resolution, because the music never ends.

In desperate need of some external expression of what I was going through I turned to Morton Feldman. His music had once helped me grieve after the suicide of a good friend. Now I am grieving again and the piece that is aiding me is “Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety.”

I was so deeply moved when I heard this piece. “Yes!” I thought,”this is what it is to remember a loved one.” The passing feelings associated with individual instances seem to overlay and blend. Joy and sadness, fear and relief, they are all there, finally on one palette, painting a true likeness that is nothing short of sublime.

This elegy was written for his childhood piano teacher, who he describes in the following passage:

At the age of twelve, I was fortunate enough to come under the tutelage of Mme. Maurina-Press, a Russian aristocrat who earned her living after the revolution by teaching piano and by playing in a trio with her husband and brother-in-law. In fact, they were quite well known in those days. It was because of her—only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian—that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.

She connected him with the past:

“Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”

This piece marked the beginning of Feldman’s later career. Full of negative space accented by emotionally ambiguous textures and harmonies. I often consider his music to be an auditory parallel to the paintings of Mark Rothko.

NGL_27Rothko2

The emptiness is never empty, but filled with the slow decay, and then recollection in the listener of what came before. This essential quality to his work is best summed up in his own words:

“In my music I am … involved with the decay of each sound, and try to make its attack sourceless. The attack of a sound is not its character. Actually, what we hear is the attack and not the sound. Decay, however, this departing landscape, this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing – leaving us rather than coming towards us.”

What a visceral metaphor for life itself. How like these notes the ones we love come and go in our lives. Their source is a mystery, perhaps the closest most of us come to experiencing a miracle, and their departing like the decaying notes, sublimely resonating beyond the physical circumstances which produced them.

 

For more on Morton Feldman please check out these wonderful articles:

Alex Ross – American Sublime: Morton Feldman’s Mysterious Musical Landscapes

James M. Keller – Feldman: Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety

Tom Service – A Guide To Morton Feldman’s Music

 

 

“My People”: Robert Henri and The Self

Gertrude Käsebier, Robert Henri, 1907

Gertrude Käsebier, Robert Henri, 1907

I was first introduced to The Art Spirit, a collection of notes, lectures, and letters by the influential painter and instructor Robert Henri (1865-1929) by my high school drawing teacher David Bartlett. After being impressed by some of the passages he shared with us in class I purchased my own copy. Every time I opened the book I would find nuggets of great insight and guidance regarding the practice of painting, but this passage entitled “My People” struck me the deepest:

I find as I go out, from one land to another seeking “my people,” that I have none of that cruel, fearful possession known as patriotism; no blind, intense devotion for an institution that has stiffened in chains of its own making. My love of mankind is individual, not national, and always I find the race expressed in the individual. And so I am “patriotic” only about what I admire, and my devotion to humanity burns up as brightly for Europe as for America; it flares up as swiftly for Mexico if I am painting the peon there; it warms toward the bullfighter in Spain, if, in spite of its cruelty, there is that element in his art which I find beautiful; it intensifies before the Irish peasant, whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country and my own hearthstone. Everywhere I see at times this beautiful expression of the dignity of life, to which I respond with a wish to preserve this beauty of humanity for my friends to enjoy.
– Robert Henri

I was moved by the radical optimism of Henri’s words which resonated deeply with my own experience as an Irish, German, African American. It was the first time the notion of a self that could transcend ethnic, national, and cultural boundaries was ever explicitly articulated to me. In a sense he was pointing out that the emperor or in this case emperors, had no clothes. It occurred to me that while our identities are largely dependent on these categories, these categories are not the sum of our being. Every culture is abstracted from our nature as a social human animal, and as such can never be greater than that from which it is derived.

Soon after in Dr. Cunningham’s American literature class I found this sentiment again in the early passages of Emerson’s essay History:

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

and again in Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman

In Henri’s work one can see his attitude towards individuals and nationality in his numerous portraits of Native Americans, Dutch, Blacks, Irishmen, Spaniards, and Mexicans. While looking at his subjects in the clothing of their respective culture I never lose the sense that these are individuals with their own thoughts and lives, never archetypes. As both artists and subjects minorities are too often robbed of individual agency. As a minority the circumstances of one’s race can trump all other concerns in a work of art swiftly eliminating the exploration of more universal themes. How often are white artists expected to explain how their work represents the white experience? I made a point of refusing to indulge my professors in any dialogue about how my mixed race influenced my work because I felt the need to assert myself as an individual. To me Henri sets a bar in capturing human dignity that few artists have reached.

Although Robert Henri’s career as a painter and instructor began over a century ago his disposition couldn’t be any more relevant to painting and culture today. I have speculated that the rise in figurative painting is, after years artwork being appreciated only for its sociopolitical circumstances, a timely reinvestment in themes we share as a common species. This is not to disregard diversity, but to embrace and internalize it. After all in the age of mass information and fast travel who can preserve the old borders of culture without diminishing the self.

Meeting Lennart Anderson

Still Life with Popcorn Popper

Lennart Anderson – Still Life with Popcorn Popper

Immediately after meeting Lennart Anderson I knew I wanted to write about the experience. This post was intended to have been finished and published some time ago, but unfortunately life got in the way. For months I continued to put it off until news of his death reached me. I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to finish, not out of any new sense of timeliness or gravity, but gratitude for his contribution as a painter.

Lennart Anderson - Taken from Montecastello

Lennart Anderson – Taken from Montecastello

I never studied with Lennart Anderson but none the less he hovered like an umbrella over my education.

My first painting class was with Mark Pehanich who I studied with at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, Virginia. One could not ask for a better teacher. Mark never failed to be engaged and hard working with us students. For two years I painted still lives under his instruction which he largely credited to his teacher Lennart Anderson.

Mark Pehanich

Mark Pehanich – Waive

At the end of high school Mark introduced me to the work of his classmate Stephen Brown which inspired me to apply and attend Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Stephen, who was in what would be the final years of his life was very ill and taught with an unparalleled compassion and intensity. He became a mentor and some of my fondest memories of undergrad took place in his office discussing various artist living and past. One artist who came up repeatedly, who Stephen like Mark credited for influencing his teaching method was Lennart Anderson.

Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown – Onion in Bowl

While studying at the New York Academy I spent a semester working on a Vermeer master copy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the guidance of Edward Schmidt. He was the first instructor at the New York Academy when it was founded in 1982. Unfortunately I did not get to know Ted as much as I would have liked but admire his work and on the few occasions in which we have crossed paths he has always greeted me with a knowing and mutual respect. He too studied under Lennart Anderson who he spoke of with honor and affection, referring to him as his beloved teacher.

Edward Schmidt

Edward Schmidt – Diana and Women

So after a decade you could imagine I had grown quite curious about who Lennart Anderson was. Without ever meeting him I felt indebted to him. It wasn’t until two years after graduate school that we finally met.

This happened at Soho Art Materials. I was pricing out an order behind the register when I looked across to see an old man in a coat holding up tubes of oil paint close to the corner of his eye. Stephen once told us that his teacher suffered muscular degeneration in his eyes and a jolt went through me as I realized who I was looking at. I anxiously asked him if he was Lennart Anderson as he approached the register. He looked puzzled at first and I explained how I had become familiar with his work through his former students. It was a pleasant exchange but I failed to express my love for his paintings. Fortunately my good friend Kyle Phillips brought the sincerity as he joined the conversation, “It is an honor to meet you sir, we are huge fans of your work!”

Lennart replied with a big smile:

“I always wanted to walk into an art store and be recognized by the employees!”

Over a year later, now living in Virginia, Mark suggested that I bum a ride to New York on his next visit with his wife artist Dolly Holmes, and that while up there he would take me to visit Lennart’s Studio in Park Slope.

Standing Figure

Lennart Anderson – Standing Figure

A few weeks later I found myself in the dim living room of a Brownstone on Union Street listening to Mark and Lennart discuss old friends and Brooklyn College. My gaze wandered around the room to beautiful portraits and landscapes I had looked at a hundred times online but had never seen in person. I wonder if my appreciation of Lennart’s hospitality was evident. I was speechless and hope my quiet admiration did not come across as boredom.

After a while Lennart suggested we head up to the studio. We made our way up the first flight of stairs and I found myself peering through a doorway at a mural on a bedroom wall. It was a pastoral scene with figures, reminiscent of the Venetian Renaissance, particularly Veronese. After patiently letting us take it in for a few moments Lennart said “I painted this for my wife” and then informed us that he needed to rest for a few minutes but that we could continue up the next flight to his studio.

Lennart Anderson - Still life with green apples and roll

Lennart Anderson – Still life with green apples and roll

In the hall of the final set of stairs was one of his Idylls depicting two reclined figures, one female and one male (which I later learned were Jupiter and Antiope), in a darkened wooded space. I was struck by its smokey labored impressionistic beauty. There was a poetic quality that could only be achieved through humility. Lacking in pretension the painting was developed to a point of articulate expression and left in a state juvenile artists may mistake as unfinished. As Stephen Brown had so often told my senior painting class, “No Bells and Whistles!” I wonder if this was something Lennart had imparted on him.

Lennart Anderson - Jupiter and Antiope

Lennart Anderson – Jupiter and Antiope

As Mark and I entered the studio the dim brownstone gave way to a luminous white space. Under a skylight what I remember sounding like Baroque music gently played from a CD player that he had left on, and paintings in various stages were set around including another beautiful large Idyll of three women in a landscape. On a table top near by were xeroxes of old figure drawings. I wanted to take pictures but photographing his studio felt like an invasion of privacy and i was unwilling to even ask.

After a short while Lennart joined us and began explaining how he paints given the degeneration of his vision. Relying on his peripheral vision he described himself a a bird soaring around a mountain darting at the subject here and there but never looking directly.

Portrait of Rita Natarova

Lennart Anderson – Portrait of Rita Natarova

After that he explained his process of building paintings out of years of accumulated figure studies. I was shocked by how little source material he used. It was a leap of faith which I would honestly be terrified to make.

And as the conversation turned to drawing I realized that in this perilous inductive free for all he maintained his path through simple principles of deduction. One principle, which Mark had taught me in high school, was to begin with similarities and then move towards the subtle differences. The other principle was to find the highest, lowest, and center point of a form and from there to triangulate the rest, being careful to respect the three initial points. Both of these principles can be described as moving “from the general to the specific” (a discipline which I struggle to articulate the importance of to my current students with all their impatience and anxiety).

Lennart Anderson - Nymphs on the Bluff

Lennart Anderson – Nymphs on the Bluff

He pointed at an anatomical anomaly in the squared shoulder of one of the figures he was painting and spoke of the things you see in nature when you truly look that you could not have conceived of independently. Then standing intimidatingly close to me he said:

“It is a shame you must carry the burden of having studied at that school. It teaches you to tell the subject what it is, but when you paint you do not tell nature, you ask. You don’t tell! You ask!”

The words were cutting and although not a fair assessment of the New York Academy, which at its best synthesizes a multitude of methodologies, were an honest critique of academic thinking in art. Now etched deeply in my mind these words are a guiding reminder of the humility needed to make great art. As of lately my own methods are evolving and although the causes are many I know this discussion with Lennart is of great significance.

After speaking a short while longer under his skylight Lennart had plans with his family to prepare for and walked us down the long corridor of stairs to the front door. And then we left with a warm departure.

Lennart Anderson - Self Portrait with Apple Pie

Lennart Anderson – Self Portrait with Apple Pie

In a review of an exhibition of Lennart’s Idylls in 2001 the art critic Hilton Kramer wrote:

“In a saner art world than ours, museums would be vying for the honor of mounting a major retrospective of Mr. Anderson’s work, but that is not something likely to happen anytime soon.”

Unfortunately he is right. Lennart himself mentioned to Mark and I that his work no longer sold. But now a few months after our meeting, and ten days after his death, I think back on all the brilliant artist I studied with during those 10 years of instruction and how they too were so influenced by him. I think of how after years of teaching at Brooklyn College there must be people all over like us, under his umbrella of influence. And I think about how these lessons will be passed on to a new generation of artists by us someday. What a wonderful legacy.

For more on Lennart Anderson, I highly recommend the following links:

Lennart Anderson, a website full of images of his work in chronological order

Painting Perceptions: Seeing along the Periphery, Getting at the Essence, an interview with Lennart Anderson

Lennart Anderson: Seeing with Light, a beautiful short film about the artist and his work

Thelonious Monk, and How I learned to Appreciate Jazz

Every once and a while I will hear something for the first time that rings so true that I feel as if I somehow already knew it, and had been waiting to find it my entire life.

When I was probably 15 or 16 my father was listening to Thelonious Monk​ in his studio, and the first 10 seconds of this solo recording of I Should Care shook me to my core. My synesthetic mind imagined a dim space suddenly illuminated with textured light of warm golds and pale violets and teal. Some of you might find the description of a chord as textured light strange but it is how I often see music in my mind.

As the piece progressed I was moved by the tempo that seemed to stall and race, the beat almost falling in the wrong place. And the chords always had a bit of dissonant grit in them. Every moment of anxiety had hope, every moment of bliss had insecurity. It was challenging. It felt like life. Like a great acrobat the music hung so precariously. So how could I return to the regiment of pop radio in which nothing was risked, and nothing gained? My father commented “all great art has an irritant.” At this moment I learned to appreciate Jazz.

Perhaps somewhere in those clustered chords was an interval that harmonized with the gospel radio that played in my Papa’s house, I am not sure, but my mind wandered back to a memory. It is mid-day in July, blindingly bright and hot out, and my ill Granny is having a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup watching Soap Operas. The blinds are down to keep the house cool but a bit of summer creeps in and reflects off the surface of the oily broth with warm golds and pale violets and teal.

When I awoke this morning my first thought was of this piece of music, and what I like to call the quiet sublime. I have wrestled with how as an artist to reconcile my deep fascination with incomprehensible grandness of creation, with the interpersonal love and intimacy I feel towards the individuals I paint. The answer seems to be in the quiet moments that have always lingered with me. The depth of reconciliation I am speaking of is hard to capture in words, and although one may find the full weight of being in a Turner Seascape, or a Wagner Symphony, one may also find it in a fragmented memory of a loved one long past, or a solo piece by Thelonious Monk.