My Perception of Painting

The paintings in this book cover the whole range of my work these last forty years (to 1999). I have tried to arrange them as I would an exhibition: an exhibition without start or finish. The book does not open with the lesser works of the painter's immaturity and then progress steadily through her maturity to death. There is no grouping by subject matter, materials, or genre. One work faces another across a double-page or sits with others in a sequence only because I felt they go well together, or clash well together.

Nor can I discern in my work any development in the sense of progress: there are early works, I believe, as powerful as later ones.

Between appearance, reality, and thought there is always a tension.

The content or subject of my paintings is usually an object, often a figure: Woman in a Hat, Child in a Flower Garden, Bearded Man.

The subject is also the form the painting takes; for me, the two are utterly inseparable. Form represents the object, real or imagined, in the same way that memory does. It conveys the artist's perception of an external reality, transformed by the act of painting into personal experience. From which it follows that every good painting will have a unique form, even if the object or appearance portrayed is borrowed; for the form is the experience of a new reality.
This new reality differs from appearances we encounter outside the frame of the painting. The Woman in a Hat is essentially distinct from every other woman in a hat, and from all other appearances of women.

Fashioning appearance into a reality is, I believe, the essence of art. Appearance is in incessant turmoil and flux, but a painting and the new reality it has caught stand fixed in an immediate and never-ending present.
Abstract art? Figurative art? I find these terms only obstruct artistic perception and contribute no enrichment. My perception of reality takes figurative form, as the term is commonly used, but that really says very little.

Abstract art is the endpoint of a process of abstraction and in this sense every good painting is abstract. From the infinite chaos of reality and its appearances, the painter's abstracting vision selects and combines elements into a new actuality, reflecting the world but autonomous, set apart from it, reacting to it, offering its own standpoint on it. This "abstraction" is not a process of simplification. It aims to reveal the complexity of reality, not to simplify it.

I began painting and drawing at age ten, at art school, but only knew that these were going to remain an essential part of my life when, at age fourteen, I took lessons with Gertrude Sagerman at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, my home town. Later, I moved to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, began working on my own in my first studio, and also studied at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.

Dr. Albert Barnes taught in his own museum, using his incredible personal collection. Sitting us in front of original works by Cezanne, El Greco, Seurat, many others, he and his staff concentrated on developing our perception and observation of painting and sculpture (seeing, not just looking was the key maxim).
This mixture of independent studio work, the Barnes’ lessons, and the Academy enouraged me to explore and seek beyond the realm of technique and skill.

The Barnes approach to artistic styles or traditions taught that several can be dominant at the same time and can cut across history and geography. This had a strong effect on my way of thinking. It convinced me that I had, to resist any convention, classical or modernist, which, inflated into a fashion or dogma, tries to control artists and dictate the way they work.

I resolved early on to devote myself to working in my own way, to be influenced as little as possible by attempts to dictate the type of art our time requires and to dismiss as irrelevant art of any other kind. The art of "now" and of "postnow":
I find no meaning for my work in such inventions. A concept that artists are expected to somehow subordinate themselves to only repels. Ideas and theories are for me sources of inspiration, not hands guiding the way I must work or perceive.

Henri Bergson said of Puget: There was a wonderful man; he never let an idea come between him and reality. That is my ideal and it is how I have tried to withstand the temptations of artistic fashion. Every decade or so a new mode has come along and kicked out the reigning one. I let them all pass me by.

Style is the opposite of fashion. A fashion is a set of dictatorial conventions on subject, content, and form. Style is something else. Style is the way an individual personality and a particular vision express themselves, bending all means and forms to that vision, even if not attaining uniformity in every respect.

The history of 19th and 20th-century painting is usually described in terms of a transition from a predominantly academic approach, to one that opened itself to nature (Courbet was a pioneer). This was succeeded by Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Abstract art, and so on and so on. Art history in the shorthand of fashion. But grouping and classifying works of art by these labels only hides what was really happening.

In fact, works were being created in every decade that did not fit under one of these tags and whose creators are consigned to being exceptions-to-the-rule. Bacon, Freud, Morandi, Giacometti, the list could go on and on. These mavericks are no less representative of 20th-century art than those who slip neatly into a cliché category; sometimes more so in that their unique art, totally uncharacteristic of its time, is of surpassing value and importance. For some of these exceptions, the categorizers found a niche by inventing a sub-school to the main school, a sort of historical hiccup.

The notion that the history of art can be represented as a forward-moving, single-minded sequence stems from the fallacy that human creativity progresses, when in fact it does no such thing. It only changes never-endingly. Rembrandt and Dürer are no less "progressive" than Frank Stella, Mondrian, or Rauschenberg. The concept of progress is totally irrelevant to the history of art. Since there is no ideal painting towards which art can develop, there is no point in talking about progress towards any sort of goal. The sculpture of ancient Greece does not "herald" the more mature achievements of contemporary sculpture. The belief that art can progress, that after a certain amount of time works of art become obsolete or anachronistic, is a very dangerous idea since it must distort our ability to see a work of art for itself, for the creative power in it, a power which has nothing to do with any chronological or historical pigeon-hole.
Luckily, art historians and theoreticians are troubled by inconsistency. They are capable of admiring marvelous paintings made thirty-thousand years ago on the walls of a French cave and of saying that they have a wonderful, almost modern quality.

What makes us value certain paintings or pieces of sculpture as works of art? Anything I say would be presumption or plain stupidity, a generalization about things that by their very nature are unique. And yet when we stand in front of something we feel to be great art, a Rembrandt self-portrait in his old age, or Donatello's Mary Magdalene, we have no doubt: we recognize the honesty of the emotion expressed, that it radiates the profound meanings we associate with original creativity.

No one has yet found a convincing definition for what we call a work of art, neither in painting nor poetry nor any other fields. Yet when we encounter such a work doubt falls away. ...A poem is the only answer to the question: What is a poem? From its opening lines we feel lifted into its world, a world composed on the surface of everyday words, but in truth creating another world, quite undefinable but unmistakably generating the experience we call poetry. It takes just a few lines.

Here is Blake:

God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
And here is Graves:
You, love, and I,
(he whispered) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I?

Like a poem, each true painting has a unique form. The elements from which that total form is composed are, of course, line, color, space, surface area, and light.

Line in painting is as abstract as the word in written text. There are no lines in nature to compose or outline real figures, but it is line that, in a painting, distinguishes one segment of substance from another, creates the space around them, and determines the relationship between them. A thoughtful, sensitively drawn line can be border or meeting, end or outline, indicate texture or create space.

In all great civilizations line has been used to define, and in similar ways. Prehistory and the present-day, east and west, have accorded it the same deep respect. The artist drawing a line is a tightrope-walker: the end is total success or total failure. And that is the fascination of line, and the risk. Line's never-failing power stems from the infinitude of things that can be done with it, just as the number of points on it are infinite.
Color is the least definable of all a painter's means and devices. It is the least susceptible to perception or test by the senses other than sight. It has no palpable borders that touch can feel, as line can be felt; nor can it be felt, like light, as heat. It is not like surface area which, in everyday life, we move around in or fill with things. Line defines but color has no definition.

Color can be used as material for the other elements of painting: for light, for surface area or space. But if it is used only in service of these other elements, its effect on the spectator becomes no more than functional. It loses its creative quality, its poetic power, its power to thrill. Of all the devices of painting, color is the most unpredictable.
For me, painting is at its most dangerous when i paint a portrait. The danger is that we turn a living subject, a throbbing personality, into dead materials, color on canvas, a pictorial object we than intend to re-endow with life. Imagined portraits are no less of a responsibility. After all, the viewer will be no less insistent that the image live and breathe. One of my portrait models told me a story that Moslems tell about the angel who guards the gateway to Paradise. When portrait painters reach the entrance, they are asked to display their portfolios for inspection. If indeed the portraits breathe the breath of life, the gates of Paradise are flung wide open. But should the portraits disappoint - down, down he or she goes, banished to the deepest circle of the Inferno...