August 12, 2009

The Secret Abstract Expressionist

The Abstract Expressionist Within
As creative human beings we have two inheritances: our genetic nature and our learned traditions. My featured painting today is a combination of a pedigree of pedagogy and ties to family. The detail above is a section from a large commissioned portrait of my mother as a young woman. The painting is sentimental for its peachy coloring and somewhat whimsical mood of the sitter. It reflects my mother’s tastes and attitudes which suit the predilections of the owner of the painting, my brother.
But there is something beneath the surface - hidden in the corners and backgrounds. It can only be seen if one looks past the subject. The section in the lower right corner of the painting is a window to a different world - a world that is not the rural New Jersey of the subject, but a New York sensibility that began more or less in the late thirties. In order for viewers to see it, I’ve extracted this window and reproduced it separately at the top of the page.
This is the world of my painting ancestors. I am what you would call a third generation abstract expressionist. The color and composition theories that I learned from my educational forebears comes in a direct line from my teacher’s teacher, Hans Hofmann. Hans Hofmann could be considered the father of Abstract Expressionism, and, in a sense, my pedagogical grandfather. His painting schools in both Munich and New York, as well as his writing, influenced a myriad of artists. In preparation for a lecture and painting class I will be teaching at the Columbia Museum of Art on August 29, I have been studying the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1930's, 40's, 50's and 60's. This has meant reviewing the writings of Hans Hofmann, Clement Greenberg, as well as some more recent scholarship. As I reviewed the paintings and read the art once more, it suddenly struck me just how good my fortune was to have studied with these modern masters in New York. It added meaning and reality to words. . It made art history part of personal history. Paul Resika’s visage on the internet, for instance, as one of Hans Hofmann’s more successful protege’s, was not just text and information. I could hear the booming voice, see the eagle eyes, and recall a commanding presence in the New York studio. Abstract Expressionism and its legacy was a powerful developmental force like that upon the development of visual art in the United States. Even if you didn’t agree with the way they evaluated art or all of their precepts and theories, the Abstract Expressionists and their spiritual progeny set some valuable standards for looking at paintings.
Their paintings resisted a narrative interpretation but the artists opened up the canvas to sacred journeys. It is from them that I attempted, and still exhort my own students, to fill every inch of the painted surface with nuance and interest. The freedom from directly copying a model, allowed for greater experimentation with paint as an means to express mood, insight, and perceptions through gestures in paint. It was a dance with the media that was often nature based and more often than not expressed an inner nature as well.
According to Hofmann, a painting should never be flat. The "push and pull" of color against color and shape against shape should create an atmospheric depth on the canvas, allowing the viewer to imagine floating or flying through it to another world. This world could look like mountains, forests, the depths of water. Or it could look like the crystal structure of rocks, the interior of a cave, or perhaps the paint on a weathered door. The painted surface provokes imagination. It is the joy of looking at these richly painted surfaces that still makes me impatient with paintings that look like a mustard stain on someone’s shirt.
In the painting of my mother, there are two hearbeats; the sentimental beat of literal maternal ties and the beat of grandfather Hofmann. Although Hofmann resisted a narrative reading of paintings, there is a way to read this particular painting - an easy reading because it is figurative. The hand of the figure points down to the ground. But what should be ground is atmosphere. It is about the past and about the future that one escapes to -amorphous but real nontheless. The challenge this month is to see if I can make a future for fourth generation Hofmann students.

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