A book that is really fascinating and well worth reading. Passion, friendship, envy, ambition, betrayal, angst and genius: eight artists about whom we all know something but will learn a great deal more in this book.Read More
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
As I watched an episode of Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge on public television, I was constantly reminded of the parallels between his criteria as a photographer and those of an artist, especially an artist working plein air. When you arrive somewhere and you are hoping to create images of beauty, impact and meaning, you almost have to listen to your inner voice to help decide when and where to position yourself to record such possible images. Frequently there is not much time to waste - the scene changes, the mist lifts, the light alters, people or animals move away - and the image has evaporated.
With time and experience, you can learn to analyse time and light situations to help you find the perfect contre-jour lighting for a scene or the ideal position from which to see dawn break over a landscape you want to record, for instance. It is basically a question of being really observant. Of course, photography is considerably faster than painting or drawing. Nonetheless, it is sometimes surprising how much information one can quickly record as an artist if one is excited enough about a scene to want to capture it properly. Many artists use a camera as an aide-memoire too, but personally I find that the two-dimensionality of the recorded image, with its frequent paucity of detail, is not very helpful then to record another two-dimensional painted or drawn image. (There are also those indefinable extra dimensions you experience - of sounds, scents, feel - that somehow all filter into artwork created in situ, and are often absent from art created from photographs.) Nonetheless, however you create art, you still need to be able to choose your vantage point from which to record an image. Often, it needs to be a quick, almost visceral decision.
Composition, light, colour - they can all underpin what you want to say - as a photographer or as a painter or draughtsman. Nonetheless, experience also teaches one that you can start out trying to record a scene, urban, rural or whatever, and within short order, the artwork itself has taken over, and the image starts to dictate its own progress. You are recording the passing of time, in essence, especially if you are working from life. There is another ingredient in image-making: that of the artist's frame of mind that prevails when one is photographing, drawing or painting. How one feels, something one is thinking of, a phrase in one's head at the time, music, rustling leaves or birdsong heard at the time, the weather one is experiencing - they all influence the art being created. Consciously or unconsciously, each of us is a form of barometer, and our art shows our "weather", in the choice of scene, the way it is depicted and its implicit messages.
Each of us also has an innate predilection for certain types of scenes to which we respond and will want to use to create art. Our individualism is important and we all need to believe in our own eye and approach. Nonetheless, it does not hurt to have a knowledge of great master works, paintings, drawings, photographs... They inform our choices too. After all, as Picasso remarked, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." So as an artist or photographer scouts for possible images to record, that background knowledge is part of the sixth sense that each of us needs to start the act of creating art.
Leonardo da Vinci advised art viewers that the perfect distance from which to view a painting was the length of the human face. To me, that is a fascinating dictum, because it tells a lot about how Leonardo planned his paintings. Firstly, despite his living in Italy where the Mediterranean light is frequently sunny and bright, Leonardo must have factored in the darkness of building interiors and flickering illumination when considering how his paintings were to be viewed. He must also have wanted his paintings to be appreciated fully in all their subtle detail and nuance, only possible from a close examination. That short distance between viewer and art also tells of the intimate dialogue Leonard wanted to set in motion when he created art.
When you see Leonardo's drawings, particularly his silverpoints, this intimacy is even more salient. Most of his silverpoints are perhaps two to three inches by four to five inches, at most. They are tiny. But despite their diminutive size, they are incredibly powerful.
His notebooks and drawing books, too, are very small indeed and it amazed me, when I saw some of them at the Louvre in a wonderful exhibition, that he had such control of his hand on such a restricted surface, especially when all the writing was "backwards". Drawings have always been considered intimate media. Silverpoints, chalks, pen and inks, graphites, charcoals, pastels and even watercolours - they all invite close inspection, a whispered dialogue between art and viewer. Historically, drawings were to be displayed (and protected) in muted light, in the inner sanctum of an art lover's home, in the "cabinet de dessins". Usually of a scale that is in function of the human hand and the marks it makes on paper or vellum, a drawing is ideally viewed by a single person at a time, a very human scale in concept and proportionality.
The scale of art is an endlessly interesting consideration, with a huge effect on the viewer. Every artist gets involved in this issue each time a work of art is conceived, as you have to decide what size the work of art is going to be. At present, we seem to live in a world of extremes - there are diminutive, often gem like creations and then there are the colossal works which often have trouble fitting even into large public spaces. These are works conceived for viewing from a long distance, with the art often dominating the space in dramatic and often vividly coloured fashion, with robust content and form. Perhaps an obvious example of a large canvas is Picasso's passionate antiwar Guernica, measuring 11 x 25.6 feet, now at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (http://www.museoreinasofia.es/). Viewing gives a visceral jolt, but I always feel I need to back away quite a distance fully to understand its powerful messages.
Another series of large paintings that come to mind are the 14 Mark Rothko paintings in the Rothko Chapel adjacent to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (http://www.rothkochapel.org/).
Their size, (11 x 15 feet or larger in the triptychs), the chapel built to house them and the general ambiance created by these vast dark canvases are utterly memorable. This is the artist who declared back in 1942, about his and Adolph Gottleib's work, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal..." Interestingly, in the next decade, he replied to critics who were claiming that he was working on a large scale to compensate for a lack of substance in his paintings. He wrote, "I realise that historically, the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however ... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command!"
And yet, Rothko circles back to what Leonardo said, in terms of the viewer's ideal distance from his paintings. The span of centuries does not change this recommendation: Rothko suggested that eighteen inches are an ideal distance from which to view one of his canvases. Like Leonardo, Rothko knows that at those close quarters, a sense of intimacy leads to a dialogue with the art that can take the viewer far beyond self into the realm of the unknown.