Monday Morning Art School: is that painting finished?

Our hectoring superegos are not always the best judges of painterly quality.

Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair, 1628-29, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Rijksmuseum

In my studio, there are more than a hundred unfinished paintings in drying racks. I’d feel bad about that, except that most plein air artists I know store up unfinished pictures like squirrels store nuts. We say we’re going to work on them during the winter, and sometimes we do. Other times, we just go out and start more paintings.

There is another stack on the other side of my studio. These are paintings I’ve either decided aren’t first rate or that I won’t ever bother to finish. I periodically go through them with the intention of winnowing them down. Often, I’m surprised that they’re actually not bad at all.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery, London

“Ah, a procrastinator,” you might say, but you’d be wrong. I’m actually disciplined in my work habits. I’ve just learned to trust my subconscious more than I did as a younger person. Twenty years ago, I thought a painting was finished when it achieved the effect I was striving for. Today a painting is finished when I’m sick of working on it. I’ve learned to be less critical of myself. My hectoring superego is not always the best judge of painterly quality.

The division between brilliantly-raw and plain-unfinished is highly subjective. That line often changes over the course of an artist’s career. Paul Cezanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire done in the 1880s are significantly more refined than those done from 1904-6. Rembrandt’s youthful Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair is an amazing exercise in chiaroscuro, but the brushwork is much tighter than his Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (the year of his death). The changes in Claude Monet’s final paintings are usually blamed on his failing eyesight, but they are also the culmination of a career-long path toward looser, more audacious painting.

Women in the Garden, 1866–1867, Claude Monet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

That is not to say that every artist becomes looser as they age. Grant Wood painted in the same precise style until his death of pancreatic cancer at age 51. Of course, we have no idea how he might have painted had he lived longer. The same is true of Caravaggio, who only made it to 39. On the other hand, Titian, who lived until his late eighties, spent his last years as an impossible perfectionist. He returned to older works and repainted them, fixed up copies made by his students, and kept some paintings in his studio for more than a decade of tweaking—all of which must give art historians the vapors.

The difference lies in what drove these artists in the first place. Cezanne, Rembrandt and Monet were never interested in a high degree of finish, but rather in the effects of paint. The culmination of their efforts was looseness. In contrast, Caravaggio, Titian, and Wood were what we call linear painters, interested in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space through careful modeling. For them to suddenly become interested in dynamic brushwork would have been a complete repudiation of their life’s work.

Weeping Willow, 1918–19, Claude Monet, courtesy Kimball Art Museum

One of the cliches of art instruction I particularly hate is, “Not another brushstroke! Don’t overwork it.” Nobody else can tell you positively that your painting is finished, because nobody else knows your intentions. We can engage you in dialog and help you clarify your thinking. But the only legitimate judge of whether you’re done is you, the artist. 

I have found that when I can’t finish a painting, the best thing I can do is to set it aside. Sometimes, my skills aren’t up to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I need to practice. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it, and I need to think. Sometimes it’s a lousy painting, and it belongs in the reject pile. And sometimes a period of reflection reveals that the painting was, in fact, finished all along.

The survival of realism

In the 1930s, a quiet battle was going on between the forces of realism and abstraction. Abstract painting won—for a while.

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935, Grant Wood

American Regionalism arose during the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. It had a short life as art movements go, ending in the 1940s. Focusing on small-town America, it rose in opposition to Abstract Expressionism. While it seemed dead by mid-century, it paved the way for the later resurgence of realism in American art.

The 1913 Armory Show introduced New York audiences to the experimental styles of the European avant garde. New York might have been dazzled, but the rest of America was not. Regionalism gave American artists the confidence and voice to look to their own culture for inspiration, rather than endlessly parroting Paris and New York.
Achelous and Hercules, 1947 mural, Thomas Hart Benton, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Regionalism was the first completely indigenous American art movement. It was reactionary, but it was more than that. It was closely tied to Social Realism and its impulse to depict the real conditions of working class America. Its regional pride originates partly in its overlap with the New Deal artwork we discussed yesterday. Regionalist artists were, like the rest of small-town America, looking for something to celebrate in all the bad news of the Great Depression. That made them tied to their audience in a way the abstract painters were not.
There were three stars in Regionalism: Grant WoodThomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. All three started their education at the Art Institute of Chicago, all three started their careers looking east for inspiration. In the end, each turned back to a distinctly middle-American viewpoint.
Plaid Sweater, Grant Wood
Grant Wood is famous for his American Gothic, but that shortchanges his contributions to American art. Born in rural Iowa, Wood was raised in Cedar Rapids by his widowed mother. After attending The Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis and the Art Institute of Chicago, he returned to Iowa to teach in a one-room school house. In the 1920s, he traveled repeatedly to Europe. “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa,” he told critics of American Gothic.
The painting was wildly misinterpreted. East Coast elites lauded it as a criticism of the narrowmindedness of middle America. Iowans were furious at this. In fact, Wood meant it as homage.
Thomas Hart Benton was born into a family with advantages. His father was a four-term Congressman. Benton was raised between Washington, DC and the Ozarks. Intended for a career in politics, he rebelled and attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian in Paris. After a stint as a military artist during WWI, he settled in New York. It was not until his late 40s that he abandoned New York and return to the Midwest.
Ajax, 1936-37, John Steuart Curry, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
Like Benton, John Steuart Curry was known for his murals. Although his parents were Kansas farmers, they were college-educated and well-traveled. After a brief stint at the Kansas City Art Institute, he transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, ultimately transferring again to Geneva College. Curry worked for several years as an illustrator. In 1926, he too made the obligatory trip to Paris. On his return, he settled in the New York City area.  
In 1936, Curry was appointed as the first artist-in-residence at the Agricultural College of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His job was to promote art in rural communities by providing personal instruction to students. This same year he was commissioned to paint New Deal murals in Washington, DC and Kansas.
We modern artists owe these three painters a great debt for keeping the tradition of realism alive in the US. And that’s all I can write. In a moment they’ll be calling my flight and I’ll be off to Santa Fe for Plein Air Fiesta. Have a great weekend!
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

How to make art that stands the test of time

Occasionally, someone wonders whether an emerging painter will end up being a superstar. Can we ever tell?
Iowa Cornfield, 1941, Grant Wood, courtesy Wikipedia.
This week I contemplated a piece of contemporary art with a gallerist. “I don’t see thinking,” she said. “I only see beautiful contours. It’s content-free. There is no struggle.”
I can’t imagine anything more stultifying than striving to be in the Pantheon of Great Artists. However, the question of what makes great art is an important one. Great art must satisfy long after the flash of novelty dissipates. How does it do that?

The Ghent Altarpiece, early 15th century, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, courtesy Wikipedia.
Technique
It ought to go without saying that mastery of one’s craft is the primary job of the artist. Sadly, that’s not always true in contemporary western art, where ephemeral ideas sometimes mean more than specialized competence. However, if one looks back at art which has staying power, it’s always technically superb. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, sister? Practice, practice, practice.
Courage
Art is a process of exploration, a constant revolution. An artist must travel beyond his abilities every time he picks up a brush, or he begins to parody himself. The end of our training is, conversely, the beginning of our real education.
People sometimes tell me that they want to be ‘more consistent’ in their painting. I think that’s a trap, antithetical to the idea of development. A consistent body of work just comes with time.

Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820–23, Francisco Goya, courtesy Wikipedia.

Emotional content
One reason I hate writing artist’s statements is that I believe my real content is inexplicable. You, the outsider, might understand it, but the word-spewing part of my brain never will. Still, I hope my simple trees, boats and rocks convey something greater than their nominal subject.
There’s lots of art that’s didactic, and I’ve produced much of it myself. But didacticism is not necessary. Nor is it the hallmark of real artistic maturity, which somehow moves beyond issues.
The Railway, 1873, Édouard Manet, courtesy Wikipedia.
Within the vision of our times
Johann Sebastian Bach is recognized as one of the greatest composers of history. His period and his style were the Baroque. He was one of its last practitioners. He grew up within its aesthetic and it reached a climax in his writing. He was both within the vision of his time and the full flowering of that vision.
Knowing whether we’re painting within our period is difficult. In my first class with Cornelia Foss, she had me paint an orange on a tray. “If it was 1950, I’d say ‘Brava’,” she said. “But it’s not.” It was the best criticism I’ve ever received—she was telling me my technique was fine, but my style was dated.
We’re not Hudson River painters, we’re not Dutch Golden Age painters. This is the 21st century, and we need to paint what speaks to our peers. That’s often uncomfortable, and frequently a mystery.
You can’t count on your audience for advice with this. They’re as mystified as we are.
Bach was forgotten soon after his death. His works were rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1823 Mendelssohn’s grandmother gave him a copy of the score for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Five years later, Mendelssohn mounted a performance of this long-forgotten masterpiece. His selfless promotion of a dead artist gave Bach his rightful place in music history.

American history through British eyes

Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art

Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.

That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, in America after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.
Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.
Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.
It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.
Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.
I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today. 
Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.