From his early exposure to Cubism and Fauvism, Hans Hoffman evolved through a lifetime of experimenting in painting to an extraordinarily inventive approach to creating art that is often as relevant today as it was when it was created in the 1960s. Seeing his evolution in the large exhibition, ”Hans Hoffman - The Nature of Abstraction” at BAMPFA, Berkeley, reinforces my own belief in each artist’s need, and capacity, to remain open and flexible to growth and change.Read More
The tang of mint, the fragility of a lily - botanical drawing teaches about so many aspects of plants. Yet it is interesting to measure that as I have evolved as an artist, those earlier drawings have led me on to learning so much more about trees, rocks, environments, places. Seeing two exhibitions of my botanical metalpoint drawings up now in Berkeley and Oakland at the same time is both a celebration and a realisation of how the world can teach us artists so much more, all the time.Read More
As the years pass and an artist continues to work and create art, it is often interesting to follow the evolution of what the artist creates. Sometimes an artist is "cursed with success" at an early age and is tempted to continue producing art in the winning formula, without much incentive to try new things and push for growth.
Every great artist shows change and development during his or her career - one only has to remember Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso, to name some artists rather at random. It should be axiomatic that artists evolve in their art for as human beings, we all change and develop as the years pass. Nonetheless, some artists are more dramatic in their evolution than others.
I was reminded about these potential huge leaps and changes that artists can make when I was reading about an exhibition running until 20th March at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Entitled Bridget Riley: From Life, it is a selection of the drawings that Riley did as a student at Goldsmiths College, London, in 1949-52. Most people think of Bridget Riley's work as the vibrant, brilliantly coloured, rhythmic compositions that dance and swoop in patterns in almost strobe-like fashion. An exhibition of such paintings, energetic and elegant, is also on view until May 22nd at the National Gallery, London.
Nonetheless, the drawings shown at the Portrait Gallery remind us that she started out very much involved and passionate about drawing from life, as well as closely studying the works of great artists - Raphael, Rembrandt, Ingres, Seurat, etc. - in the print room at the British Museum. Her drawings, such as Older Woman looking down, 1950, underscore the value she places on keen observation. She catches the sense of the body in space, how the head feels as the woman tilts her head reflectively, the resigned expression in the eyes. Riley's drawing practice helped her refine her immaculate sense of structure and taught her that there is a continuity in art's concerns down the ages. Her own drawing and her study of the Old Masters, she explains, "gave me the means to embark on my own work with confidence, and to this day this particular knowledge forms the basis of everything I do in the studio." As Andrew Lambirth also remarks in an article in the 5th February edition of The Spectator, "drawing gave her the necessary exercise in looking and organising information, and the means of bringing eye, hand and mind into fruitful relationship."
It is inspiring to measure the trajectory of such an artist: the serious art student carefully observing her portrait model at Goldsmiths evolves into a richly inventive, energetically wonderful painter, creating memorable abstract art, yet still closely linked to the great painters of the past.
Every time I return to Spain and see the wonderful light, the dazzlingly blue sea and sky and the brilliance of flowers, I am jolted into excitement - I can't wait to try and work as an artist. It is not always easy to carve out the time and space to do any art, but each time, I wonder if I have evolved in my approach, learned a little more and perhaps, oh perhaps, even become a little better as an artist.
It was thus doubly interesting today to read in El Pais ( "Matisse, un radical en Nueva York" by Barbara Celis) about the Matisse exhibition opening at MOMA in New York, Matisse, Radical Invention 1913-1917. The show had apparently been exhibited first at the Art Institute of Chicago, and was the result of a five-year careful study of Matisse's work of that period. Undertaken as a result of the restoration work of the 1917 "Bathers by the River" which had shown up a series of substantial changes under the finished work, this exhibit then delved into Matisse's concurrent work of similar aspects. By dint of cleaning off layers of varnish and previous restorations, using X Rays and other advanced technologies, the team of restorers, led by curators John Elderfield and Stephanie D'Alessandro, found many surprises.
The bottom line, apparently, of all these discoveries, is that Matisse was constantly evolving in his approach to making art. Yes, that seems obvious now, when one looks at his opus, but I am sure that he found it difficult, at times, to detect this evolution. As John Elderfield is quoted in the article as saying, "The changes did not occur overnight." There were stops and starts, repetitions, deviations and halts. Nonetheless, Matisse pressed on. In some cases of the sculpture, The Back, for instance, he made different versions over a period of twenty years, but each time, he used the previous mould as the starting place from which to take off and evolve.
It is heartening to read again and again of artists trying out new things, trying to forge a new way forward, to grow and evolve. Matisse is certainly one to inspire us all to keep working away at our version of evolution.
I have read a couple of enthusiastic reviews of an exhibition currently showing at New York's Onassis Cultural Center entitled The Origins of El Greco, the last of which was in February's edition of ARTnews. With a subtitle of Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, the show examined El Greco's early work when he, along with a flourishing school of artists, was a Master of religious icon painting in his native Crete in the 1560s. Young Domenikos Theotokopoulos was most skilled in creating shimmering gilt surrounds and stiffly gesturing figures that were part of the Byzantine heritage of Crete.
It is hard to credit that these early paintings are done by the same artist whom we know as El Greco, the artist whose elongated figures, clothed in strangely coloured garments, twist in religious fervour beneath dramatic skies. Ascetic-looking men with long faces gaze skyward with clasped hands of piety, while impossibly long-limbed men writhe and contort through the paintings. This later El Greco was, as a review of this exhibition by The New York Times' Holland Cotter observed, the result of "an ambitious career on the move" with Venice and later Spain his sources of patronage and success. By the time El Greco died in 1614, his style of painting had evolved radically from a strict medieval icon tradition to an expressionistic approach that embraced light, movement, colour, passion.
This account of the El Greco exhibition made me reflect on the problem-cum-challenge we all face as artists: how to evolve and grow, and yet remain true to ourselves? The examples of artists who have changed their styles over time are innumerable - Picasso is a salient example, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, and so many others. But in our times of emphasis on marketing and branding, when presenting ourselves to the world as artists, how important is it to have consistency?
There is always the temptation for a successful artist, selling well in one type of art or with one approach and subject, to stay in that idiom, and if a gallery is involved, often there is more pressure to stay in the successful lane. Yet we should all be striving to grow as artists, and by definition, that means change and, hopefully, improvement. Sometimes, repetition of one type of art, one subject or medium, allows for a more profound and rewarding exploration. Yet repetition can become boring and a dead end.
There is also another message, I think, in the El Greco or Picasso examples of evolution as artists. That is that we must believe in ourselves as artists and dare to grow and change, even if it means abandoning a successful style and pathway in one's artistic career. Radical change takes courage. Artist Sharon Knettell, writing in the March 2010 issue of The Artist's Magazine, explained that she gets much of her inspiration for paintings while meditating and remarked, "I think meditation makes you fearless. You have to go to the point where your ideas scare and challenge you" (my emphasis).
I believe that point is when you dare to change your style because that inner voice tells you to take the next step in changing and evolving as an artist. What does anyone else think?
In a wonderful PBS American Masters piece on Philip Glass, the composer talks of music being an underground river always flowing, into which one needs to tap by listening carefully and attentively. (http://www.philipglass.com/)
In the same way, I think that visual art is part and parcel of many people, another underground stream flowing through their life. The more you learn to see, the more you can tap into the underground stream - whether that seeing leads to the creation of art or the active enjoyment and collection of art. The stream usually starts flowing early on in life, even if one is unconscious of it at the time. Many artists draw on early visual memories in the creation of later work, even if the memories are transformed. One of my fellow Visiting Artists at Spring Island, SC, is the perfect example of this transposition - Brian Rutenberg, from the Charleston area, uses his "underground stream" of visual experiences to paint wonderfully abstract evocations of those remembered places. Even though he does not live in Charleston now, those childhood memories flow on for him into his art.
In the same way, I find that my memories of East Africa will periodically become part of my art.
This alchemy of the subterranean presence of art being transformed, often almost in spite of oneself, into art is so important that one needs to learn to trust that inner voice, that inner eye. It is part of the experience that is built up over time in the creation of art. Educating one's eye to see potential drawings and paintings, honing one's skills, studying and appreciating other people's art, from all periods, particularly in museums, are all part of tending that underground stream flowing inside each of us.
In a strange way, it makes me think of a description of a French winegrower about the way wines are created. He talked of the slow and noble evolution of the wines, "carrying with them hopes for a prolonged life." With vineyards that have existed for generations, surviving all manner of calamities from disease to war to revolution, there is always the promise of a fresh harvest, a continuing wine making cycle. Indeed, these cycles of wine cultivation and creation represent "a taste of eternity". (War and Wine, a wonderful book by Don and Petie Kladstrup, published in 2002 by Broadway Books). The winegrower was perhaps, in his own way, talking of the same sense of a continuum, an underground stream into which to tap as he created his wines.