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Agnes Martin (Photo: Mildred Tolbert)

From the newly released Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal:

Martin’s mature paintings (she destroyed most of her early work) are incontrovertibly right, in the sense that they convince us that not a single preliminary decision or incident of execution could have been changed without damage. Composed of the simplest elements, including ruled, penciled lines and a narrow range of forms—grids, stripes, and, very occasionally, circles, triangles and squares—and painted in a limited palette on canvases that are always square, they reveal an esthetic sense that is, as her friend Ann Wilson said, the visual equivalent of perfect pitch.

What a thing to say about a body of work: pitch perfect. Having just gone through the arduous task of culling through my archives and throwing out a lot of old work, that perfect pitchness looms as a specter. We all want to achieve that with every piece, but it is a rare state.

I am not a perfectionist (which would be a crippling quality for anyone who learns by doing), but my decision to keep a work or to give it a toss came down to which pieces could hold that essential tension, a version of Wilson’s perfect pitch. There has to be something in the intrinsic energetics of the work that holds the parts together in a precarious, “this almost doesn’t work but it does” delicate balancing. In its own way it is a kind of immutability: that a particular painting is just what it must be, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Noguchi said, “For artists there is no such thing as progress. It’s only a deepening.” That’s definitely the direction.

And apropos to that, another passage from Princenthal’s wonderful book:

To be abstracted is to be at some distance from the material world. It is a form of local exaltation but also, sometimes, even disturbance…Agnes Martin, one of the most esteemed abstract painters of the second half of the twentieth century, expressed—and, at times, dwelled in—the most extreme forms of abstraction: pure, silencing, enveloping, and upending.

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A few installation shots from my recent show at the Morris Graves Museum in Eureka California, Behind, Beyond, Beneath: Scaling the Continuum. At the opening event on Saturday night, over 800 people came through the museum. I met some extraordinary people and had a terrific evening.

Special thanks:

A stellar team and museum staff—Jemima Harr, Janine Murphy, Laurey Sullivan, Virginia Wood, Laurie Arupa Richardson, Lisa Polack, Dennis Winstead and the Humboldt Arts Council.

Kevin Simmers, Ed Carrigan and Alison Yerxa for being my road trip buddies.

Dale Boudreau et al who made the long drive from Seattle.

Martine Bisagni, Amani Ansari and Brooklyn Workshop Gallery for joining in with an exquisite arrangement of flowers. The colors were perfect.

A few installation shots before the crowd arrived…

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‘Ghost Dance Dress’; Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, circa 1890
‘Ghost Dance Dress': Southern Arapaho artist, Oklahoma, circa 1890 (Photo: Joshua Ferdinand)

The best way I know of dealing with the scale and scope of the Metropolitan Museum is to walk through and let the objects find you. Art critic Michael Kimmelman did his own version of the “evocation stroll” in the company of numerous artists (experiences he wrote about in Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere), and artist Altoon Sultan often shares her Met connects on her popular blog, Studio and Garden.

I can feel the difference when I shift the construct from “finding” to “being found.” When you turn that around, the unexpected appears.

During my recent visit to the Met, I was “found” by an unexpected array of objects: A Van Gogh landscape, the entire Koran handwritten on a scroll, 15th century Florentine storage chests (cassoni) with painted fronts, and the exhibit, Book for Architects, by Wolfgang Tillmans (written about here.)

But the most haunting evocation happened in the exhibition, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. Hanging in its own dark sepulcher built at the heart of the exhibit, the Ghost Dance dress pulled me in.

From Thomas Powersreview in the New York Review of Books:

The dress is made of hide colored brick red with rubbed-in pigment. The sleeve ends, side seams, and skirt are decorated with abundant fine green fringes. A bottom border is blue with many four-pointed stars. The body of the dress is decorated with drawings front and back including a left hand in yellow, a turtle, thunderbirds, a magpie, a buffalo, a large four-pointed star, and other symbols and images with powerful traditional meanings. Was this dress ever worn by a ghost dancer? Without a solid provenance it is impossible to say, but the images on the dress are eloquent evidence of the whole-souled yearning that was expressed in the ghost dance movement of 1890.

It appears that this object found Powers very much as it found me. “The Southern Arapaho ghost dance dress expresses the impossible dream of a people who have lost everything but memory.” Loaded with evocative power.

Can an object carry collective memory for a culture? I’m not sure how this works. I do know that I have looked at this image of the ghost dance dress every day since I first saw it. It has showed up in my dreams and while I am working in the studio. In the spirit of letting yourself be found, I’m signed up to go where it takes me.

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Some background on the Ghost Dance:

The Ghost Dance became a religious movement centered around a visionary Indian named Wovoka, a Northern Paiute living in Nevada. The belief was that dancing in a particular way, singing sacred songs and wearing special clothing would bring back the old way of life on the Plains before the Europeans arrived. Some tribes, particularly the Lakota, believed that the ghost dance clothing was a form of protection, and that wearing it in battle would protect them from gunshot and death.

Through contact with Wovoka, the ghost dance spread from tribe to tribe. Not surprisingly the whites were frightened by this indigenous sense of power and destiny. That overreaction led to devastating consequences at Wounded Knee.

Clothing, especially in battle, was not part of the Plains Indian tradition. Some historians believe the concept of attire that possesses magical powers came from contact with early Mormon settlers. (Mormons wear undergarments, garnered with symbols, that are believed to protect the body.)

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Of all the poets who delve into writing, creativity and the nature of art making, Jane Hirschfield is the closest to my way of seeing things. I go back to her books over and over again. Now another to add to my library: Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry. These three essays were delivered as part of the Newcastle/Bookaxe Poetry Lecture series in 2007.

Those three words—hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise—are fundamental elements in my studio practice. As is usually the case, Hirschfield’s explorations are salient to poetry as well other creative efforts. Her strong interest in Eastern thought and meditation also spills over into the inner life as well.

The first chapter on hiddenness is full of relevance. That which contains the hidden—a poem, a painting, a musical score—is “inexhuastible to the imagination,” Hirschfield writes. “It is their inability to be known completely that infuses aliveness into good poems.” Poet Donald Hall has used the analogy of a house that has a secret room at its center. That’s the place where that which cannot be paraphrased or verbalized is stored. That room can never be used for ordinary habitation but its very presence changes the house. That unopenable room does not exist in the world or in the work of art itself: It resides in each of us. And yet the very existence of that secret room changes everything.

In the course of her contemplation of hiddenness, Hirschfield asks a biologist friend about her views of how it plays out in nature. I loved the answer she received: “For most of life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition…visibility is a luxury. Rarely are earth-colored tones the symbols of opulence and royal blood. We are most comfortable being hidden but we yearn to be seen.” (This is the biological version of the often quoted description of an artist from the writer and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”)

A few more memorable passages from the first essay, “Poetry and Hiddenness:”

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“Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote Keats, “but those unheard are sweeter.” A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of both biological existence and what we experience as beauty; the steepest pitches of the heart and mind make their own shade. Within that cool and dimness, emotions and thoughts small as new mosses and lichens begin the slow, green colonisations of incipient life.

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Hiddenness, then, is a sheltering enclosure—though one we stand some times outside of, at others within. One of its homes is the Ryoan-ji rock garden in Kyoto: wherever in it a person stands, one of the fifteen rocks cannot be seen. The garden reminds that something unknonwable is always present in a life, just beyond what can be perceived or comprehended…it is our subjectivity of stance, not the world, that creates the unknown.

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Hiddenness is the ballast in the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest. The thirteenth-century Zen teacher Eihei Dogen described its weight of presence thus: “…there are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness. This complete understanding.”

More about Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

It’s the Honey

Silky Attention

A Truing of Vision

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

Necessary Wildness

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Spirit and Body

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

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My new exhibit, Behind, Beyond, Beneath: Scaling the Continuum will open April 25 at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka California. The show features paintings from a variety of series that I have worked on over the last five years but held together by an ongoing exploration into the “micro to macro” span of the physical world. As I stated in my introduction to the show, “What I am continuously drawn to is the rich continuum that is materiality, from images of microscopic particles and single cell organisms to NASA’s hyperspectral radiographs of the multiverse.”

Just in the way of background, Morris Graves (1910-2001) was an American artist whose interests in Eastern philosophy and the careful observation of the physical world greatly informed his work. I have long felt alignment with Graves’ sensibilities, captured succinctly in words he wrote to a friend: “In painting, one must convey the feeling of the subject, rather than the imperfect physical truth.” There is a sense of coming full circle to return to California and to have an exhibit of my work in a museum space that bears his name.

I will be at the museum for the opening and hope to see some of you there that night.

DEBORAH BARLOW
Behind, Beyond, Beneath
Scaling the Continuum

Morris Graves Museum of Art
636 F Street
Eureka CA 95501
707 442 0278

April 25 – June 7, 2015
Opening Reception: May 2, 6-9PM

A beautiful catalog has been produced for the exhibit and includes essays by Linda Jones Gibbs and Kathryn Kimball, 26 color plates and a number of detailed close ups. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, you can do so here.

Last but by no means least: One of the paintings from the show, Nigralle, is featured on the cover of poet Todd Hearon’s most recent volume of poems, No Other Gods, published by Salmon Poetry. I love Todd’s work and am so excited to be part of his wonderful new collection.

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Claerwen James
Claerwen James (Photo: London Evening Standard)

Every artist has a personal story of how she ended up spending a lifetime doing this thing that is all-consuming. It’s a strange decision really, that willingness to give yourself over to a passion that takes hold as soon as you awake and stays resident, in background or foreground, all day long. Sometimes its ambient and seamless dominance feels comforting, like a familiar chair that has formed perfectly to the body. At other times its demand for bandwidth devours access to the practical concerns of life, like keeping track of when the chimney was last cleaned (we used ours so often this winter, maybe too much?) or where the title to the car is filed.

Claerwen James, daughter of the inimitable Clive James, answered the following two questions in a recent interview. I resonated with her answers to both of these questions, and I found her point of view very much in line with the sense of art making and life I have explored in Slow Muse: A longing and respect for the very act of making, an aversion to art-speak, learning from what doesn’t work, and painting with your guts rather than your head.

You trained as a zoologist and molecular biologist – why did you switch to art?

I had always drawn and painted, but felt I had no subject matter. I liked making things, but I didn’t know what to make. Then over the course of a couple of years I began to have ideas about things I wanted to make, and I stopped having ideas about biology – it just happened, it wasn’t a conscious decision and it became clear. I stopped being a scientist when I was 28, when I finished my PhD. I haven’t kept up with it—it’s not something you can do part-time. It has to be an all-consuming passion. But I think I retain the mind-set: I don’t like waffle and I’m allergic to art-speak, which is a bit of a handicap.

What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

I got two good pieces of advice when I was training at the Slade. One was from Bernard Cohen who was director of the Slade at the time. During a lecture he said, ‘Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out.’ That resonated with me – or rather, it felt like permission to work the way I wanted to work. The other piece of advice was actually given to someone in the studio space next to me during a tutorial on which I was unavoidably eavesdropping. It was to ‘paint more, a lot more, much faster, because you’ve got a lot of bad paintings in you and you’ve got to get them all out.’ It was by far the most useful practical advice I ever heard, because there is a tendency to agonize about the meaning or validity of what you are doing before you’ve even started that is not helpful… You need to paint to some extent with your guts rather than your head.

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Richard Tuttle (Photo: PBS)

The most reliable speaker about art and art making from where I sit: Richard Tuttle. In this interview with Ross Simonini in Art in America, he touches on many of the themes that are all over my writings on Slow Muse. Here are a few that are particularly important to me right now.

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The object is important for looking. The eye, seeing the totality, is physical and spiritual—a lifelong development. I have a collection of glass objects. The eye is invited to go through, if it wants, or to stop. These are superb training devices. Objects can be made with embodied hands or disembodied hands. I like making things with disembodied hands.

Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental.

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Jacob Boehme, an early-Renaissance German mystic, wrote The Signature of All Things. It’s nice to pass that book on; it’s always been a kind of secret, generation after generation. His chief idea is that mystical presence exists as a signature. Every time you see something, part of what you see is the signature, which is the beauty of man.

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One can distinguish between scale and size. Usually, we are happy with the issue of size—if it’s small, it’s small; if it’s big, it’s big. But scale is a question of the individual. Each person, everyone ever born, has a unique scale. They have it like a unique fingerprint. You can decide to find your scale. The day you find it is a day you remember. It changes your life. Your parents may determine your size, but you determine your scale. Your creative dimension allows you to create yourself in a more significant way than how you are created by your parents. Life offers each of us that possibility. It’s sad how few take it up.

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Human experience is a constant struggle between the real and the unreal. Every moment you are faced with trying to work out an acceptable relationship between the two. Art is almost by definition a working out of real and unreal; that is its value. The world is a place where size issues need to be worked out, and this involves all kinds of quantitative issues, which can be expressed emotionally or physically, in relationships with other people, etc. But the relations between the real and the unreal are negotiated internally, where issues of scale come in.

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Art is unreal; color is real. That’s why painting is so fascinating. Color is real when you paint, but paint is not real. Paint is one of the great inventions. It can transport you from this world to the next. It’s a major thing.

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The first day of kindergarten, my drawing was rejected by the teacher. Now I’ve studied a bit of child development, and I see that my drawing was at genius level, which the teacher wasn’t able to grasp. Not only did I not receive praise for a drawing that was important to me, but I was marginalized, punished. I have never trusted a teacher the rest of my life. That’s good. One of my lines is, “If Aristotle can’t be your teacher, you have to teach yourself.” When I speak at art schools, I say, “I’m not here to teach how to be an artist but to say, as best I can, what it’s like to be an artist.” They are eager to hear.

More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

Richard Tuttle in Maine

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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Robert Irwin

The one and only Robert Irwin, saying it in his inimitable plain speak:

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Some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

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It’s about presence, phenomenal presence. And it’s hard: if you don’t see it, you just don’t see it; it just ain’t there. You can talk yourself blue in the face to somebody, and if they don’t see it, they just don’t see it. But once you start seeing it, it has a level of reality exactly the same as the imagery—no more, no less. And basically, that’s what I’m still after today. All my work since then has been an exploration of phenomenal presence.

I come back to these favorite quotes constantly, holding them as a talismanic reminder of what really matters in a creative practice. Those of us who are about that work make assessments every day, repeatedly. Is this coming together? Is this moving? Is it taking on a life of its own? Maybe you get some feedback, a review or a useful critique. But in the end the process is personal, private and subjective.

The same thing happens out in the world. Some work “jumps off the goddamn wall” at me, and some does not. Walking through a museum with a friend, we each assemble our list of those that speak to us. Sometimes we overlap, but I am often surprised by the variety. What’s more, my list changes a lot over time, depending on where my attention has been pulling me.

I know this proclivity to the subjective puts me on a slippery slope. The canonical approach—works that are chosen and blessed by those in power—serves as a steadying force in the world, providing standards and guidance in all the flux and chaos. Sometimes I am in alignment with that authoritative vetting process, and sometimes I am not.

Always in the back of my mind are the artists who slipped between the cracks completely but had, in the end, undeniable wall jumping genius: Van Gogh. Henry Darger. Francesca Woodman. Vivian Maier. Ken Price. Each of us could easily add a few more names to that “Overlooked but Great” list since there are so many.

Market forces come and go. So do fads and trends. What remains steady for me through it all is the commitment to just stay curious. It is the mindset I need in my studio and in the world. That one concept is the most powerful antidote I know to tendencies we all struggle with: narrowing categories, drifting into discouragement, thinking we have it all figured out. Staying curious keeps me looking, asking, learning and considering. Better at navigating than the straight up canonical, curiosity is my most valuable tool.

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Staying curious with my own work: My latest painting, “Satha,” 66 x 72,” mixed media on linen

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—“Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

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If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

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There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

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And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

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“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

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If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

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For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

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“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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Jack Whitten (Photo: Rose Art Museum)

Yesterday I attended a symposium on the “status and stakes” of painting today. Most of the speakers were academics—art historians and curators whose business it is to categorize, systemize and prognosticate on where the world of art has been and where it is trending before it actually does.

These are concepts that hold a kind of intellectual interest for me. But I am also aware that they exist quite distinct from the day-to-day business of my life and work in the studio.

The most heartening takeaway for me was a ubiquitous agreement by all that painting is very much alive, thriving, and once again at the center of contemporary art discourse. For those of us old enough to have lived through the “painting is dead” pronouncements that started in the early 1960s and suffered through years of being asked why we did something so anachronistic as painting, there is bit of a self-congratulatory, “told you so” moment. But as one of the speakers put it, painting never stopped during those years, it just got elbowed out of the art hot seat as new forms like conceptual, performance, installation, new media and anti-art art took center stage. Katy Siegel, Curator-at-Large at Brandeis University, made the point that the popularity of painting today cannot be explained simply by market demand. There’s more to this resurgence than just commercialism and consumer demand. For someone who got the call at age 17 and has spent her life working in this form (that would be me), the answer is obvious.

When theorists gather, a lot of time gets spent on words, meaning, signifiers, subtexts, referents. Discussion about what the term “painting” means today is robust as that category keeps expanding beyond something that exists on canvas over stretcher bars. The usefulness of old standby words like “abstraction”, “artist”, “painter” have changed considerably and may not be serviceable in the current circumstances. ( Siegel said her students today eschew all the existing definitions and simply say, “I make stuff.”) Suzanne Hudson, USC professor and author of Painting Now (available in March 2015), reminded us of Leo Steinberg‘s open definition of painting as “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered.” She also finished her thoughtful remarks with a well known quote by Robert Ryman about how art progresses not through organized movements but because “everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that.”

Energy flooded back in the room for me when artist Jack Whitten claimed his wise elder status and stepped into a whole lot of theorizing to keep the very act of art making central to the discussion. “Painting is hard work. When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there…We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”

Thank you Jack for bringing the essence back into this never ending, multi-faceted conversation. His timely interjection reminded me of another wise elder, John Cage, when he addressed the inchoateness of creation and making:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

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John Cage (Photo: Tucson Sentinel)

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