Monday, April 21, 2014

Two Hands

If there is one thing I fear as an artist, it is facility. I fear becoming good at it. I fear that all of my work at improving my skills will result, not in an enhanced ability to observe and to express - that is, in greater wakefulness - but in the other outcome: the ability to pass-work-off, to suffer the senses and mind to deaden and slumber while the work chugs on, acceptably, with facility.

The problem of facility came to mind the other evening at Spring St., drawing Rachel’s hand. During a twenty-minute pose, she did a marvelous thing with her hand, and I decided to draw it, and I found myself thinking, “Lord, let me not be good at this.” And, happy outcome - I was not good at it. My drawing was aligned with one of the two major alternatives to facility, to the merely good at it, which have long occupied settled places in my intellectual pantheon. These alternatives sprang into clarity for me when I read (very little bits of) Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, in which he expresses something we all sense intuitively.

Introducing Da Vinci, Vasari writes:

In the normal course of events many men and women are born with various remarkable qualities and talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by heaven with beauty, grace, and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired, and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human art. 

And indeed, this is the very thing we sense about Da Vinci - there is a nearly uncanny perfection to his drawing. Most of the time, the uncanniness is muted because the perfection is married to an intense and lyrical compassion.

this is, incidentally, my favorite drawing in human history

And yet, the mask of compassion sometimes slips, and we remember that we are seeing a record of the gaze of an angel; and that angels have their own agendas, not entirely congruent with those of men.

Then the uncanniness returns. We see that he adopts a merciful gaze because he wishes by nature to be merciful, but that mercy is not always available under the strictures of his alien agenda. We see that should the mercy in which he cloaks and dims himself depart, we would be exposed to the awful, all-piercing light in which he sees everything: a glittering, inhuman brilliance, a light so hard that it not only illuminates but destroys. It is the light of the spirit. Matter cannot survive it.

This is what Vasari’s introduction clarified for me, and I carry in one hand this model of desirable drawing - not that one should draw well, but that one should draw perfectly. One’s hand should trace out curves that are like the song of the heavenly host. The drawing should be possessed of a shattering beauty, a categorical rightness which exists on the far side of a chasm. There is no from-here-to-there; there is only error, and Truth. This Da Vincian drawing I am always seeking exists in the realm of the Truth.

So that was the sort of drawing I managed to pull off in response to Rachel’s marvelous action with her hand.

Daniel Maidman, Rachel’s Left Hand, April 14, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

Am I saying I drew that as well as Da Vinci would have? No. You will never, ever catch me saying I drew anything as well as Da Vinci. What I am saying is that I made the categorical leap which is the prerequisite of drawing as well as Da Vinci. I crossed the chasm, I drew better than I can draw. I cannot draw a hand this well. I shook off my limited self, and the shapes that existed in Rachel’s hand drew themselves through my own hand, and that was how that drawing came to be. Many artists report a sense of possession. I think many different demons may possess an artist. Da Vinci was possessed by the demon of right line. I have sought this demon myself, and sometimes it visits with me. For me, there is an unearthly perfection in this drawing of Rachel’s hand which makes me weep in gratitude for having had the opportunity to have it pass through me.

That is the first of the two hands I wanted to discuss with you today.

Now we turn to another passage in Vasari, without which the passage about Da Vinci can be only imperfectly understood. Vasari introduces Michelangelo thus:

Meanwhile, the benign ruler of heaven graciously … decided to send into the world an artist who would be skilled in each and every craft… Moreover, he determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, and behavior and in every endeavor, and he would be acclaimed as divine. … his mind and hands were destined to fashion sublime and magnificent works of art.

This description superficially resembles the encomium to Da Vinci. But a review unfolds a fundamentally different evaluation. While Vasari describes Michelangelo as heaven-sent, he describes Da Vinci as heaven itself. Da Vinci’s work “comes from God” while Michelangelo’s is fashioned by “his mind and hands.” Michelangelo represents the “perfect exemplar” of humanity, “acclaimed” as divine - while Da Vinci “transcends nature,” and is in fact divine. This distinction has consequences. Da Vinci “leaves other men far behind,” but Michelangelo inspires men to “admire and follow.” Why? Because Da Vinci is a minor divinity. His presence suppresses and scorches. Men look at his work and despair in their own. But Michelangelo is human: clearly, achingly, sweatingly human. His work is obviously human. It is the greatest work of a man, not the least work of a god. Thus it inspires those who see it: it tells them that they too could do so well.

This passage clarified something I understood intuitively about Michelangelo. Look at his work.

This drawing has always looked inspiringly and endearingly imperfect to me. The concept of light fails, as it does in most of Michelangelo’s work - he was interested in form itself, and indifferent to light. And yet the representation of the back muscles is overdone - he fails at form too. The outline shudders forward, searching for the next structure. There is altogether too much of everything. It is a human drawing, riven everywhere with ignorance, doubt, and the possibility of failure.

But it is great.

The next night, I went back to Spring St. and drew Boris, a very charming Russian model with a big head and a small muscular body. During a forty-minute pose, he too did something marvelous with his hand. I recognized it instantly as a hand pose I cannot draw. I know what I can draw and can’t draw. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t draw the drawing I might want to draw, as with Rachel - the problem was that I couldn’t draw the observation I might want to draw. So I went ahead and tried.

Daniel Maidman, Boris’s Left Hand, April 15, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan

I fought for every inch of this drawing. Each bone of the fingers was a struggle, the structure and foreshortening of the body of the hand was a struggle. How to shape his arm was a bitch. The lighting on the fourth and fifth fingers is not different enough from that on the second and third to reflect the difference in their angles. The width of the thumb is subtly incorrect in a way I could never quite pin down. Some drawings convince because they are right; this one convinces because nothing in it is wrong enough to make it fall over.

And yet, when I finished it I recognized that I had one of my better drawings in front of me. This drawing is along the Michelangelo axis of quality. Again, you will never, ever, evereverever catch me saying I can step to Michelangelo. But you will catch me saying that what makes this drawing interesting or worthwhile is one of the things that grabs you about much of his work, that you can tell it didn’t come easy. The sweat is fossilized right into it, alongside everything that worked. The sweat undermines the things that work, or makes them tense. You can see how close the entire thing is to failure. It grunts and heaves and earns its successes. They aren’t handed out by seraphim.

When I bring up this kind of analysis in conversation with reasonably well-educated artists, they feel obliged to generate examples of each principle which are more appropriate. So let me stipulate, in constructing this system, that better examples than Da Vinci and Michelangelo for the two opposed poles could be found. For me, though, it will always be Da Vinci and Michelangelo, because I first sensed these principles in them, and first had these principles eloquently drawn out by Vasari using them as the instances.

Now, where did we start? We started with facility, with being merely good at drawing. It is something I despise and fear. I hope the two alternative means of making good drawings I’ve been discussing help to illustrate the sense in which one can seek to draw well, and yet revile facility. I want to draw with the calm and unfailing perfection of an angel, or with the straining fallibility of the best of mortals. Both kinds of creature are awake. It is the wakefulness that is important, and the mindless automatism that is the enemy.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Breaking the Fast

For personal reasons, which if you know them I’d appreciate your not mentioning, I have been prevented from going to life drawing, or in fact from drawing and painting at all, for the past five weeks.

Throughout this time I have been curating artwork for an issue of Poets/Artists magazine which will come out in June, and for the content of which I am, by generous invitation, entirely responsible. To this end, I have gone through thousands of images of work by hundreds of artists. Many of them do things I don’t do; others do things I can’t; and still others do things that I also do, but I don’t do them as well.

This industrial-scale procedure has given me occasion to reflect on just what exactly I’m up to. This was an interesting and involved process, but the upshot of it was that my well-known ego of steel ensured that my self-esteem as an artist remained at its ordinary high level.

However, I could not help succumbing to a more localized neurosis: the creeping fear that because I wasn’t making art, I couldn’t make art. What if I were finished? What if I were, from here on out, nothing but a secondary participant in art - not a maker, but a writer-about and a compiler-of? What if my hiatus had frozen my hand, withered my vision, and turned me into a hanger-on, a parasite? Art writing is a primary occupation for some people, a core inspiration, but for me it has always been peripheral. So this fear was a grave fear.

Then finally, this past Monday, I managed to break the fast: I got back to Spring Street to draw. Apart from the fear of paralysis, I had a fear of ordinary rustiness. At the level of technical demand I place on myself, drawing is something like playing an instrument or athletic performance. It requires constant attendance, or it begins to decay. My perpetual life-drawing is much like practicing scales in this sense, or whatever ice skaters do to stay good at ice skating.

Returning to my seat, setting out my paper, picking up my pencils, and then looking up and seeing the model was, it turned out, like being exposed to overwhelming symphonic sound. It was like morning; it brought tears to my eyes. I was carried away on a tide of the rightness of it. The model was Sarah, who is a wonderful, beautiful model. She is small and curvy and a nearly glistening white. She has the kind of 0.85 x human surface area aerodynamic classicism one sees in Prud’hon’s models. She enjoys modeling and is therefore energetic of pose, while being gifted with a vast creativity regarding interesting possible poses. Here is an older drawing of her - a 20-minute pose, and not so great a drawing, because the pose was so delightful I decided to draw as much of it as I could, just to remember it - it is in my very small stack of “never sell this” drawings:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, 20 Minute Pose, January 6, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

This kind of sense of overall composition of the body is what makes some models very popular.

Drawing Sarah again on Monday, the kalotropic side of my mind took over. It is a strong side. I am intensely kalotropic. Kalotropism is a word I made up many years ago - “turning toward kalos” or “kalos follower.” Kalos is the Greek word for beauty, but it is not exactly like our contemporary conception of beauty. We think of beauty now as something like candy: it comes to us and caters to our desire for sweetness. It is just another form of indulgence, starting in the world and ending in our appetites. The kalos, contrariwise, summons you to it: it attracts, and requires discipline, and awakens the virtues. To see it, one must achieve clear sight - and clear sight leads to lucid thought - and lucid thought leads to right action. The kalos yields pleasure as much as does the beautiful, but pleasure is not its utter end as it is for the beautiful. It is an end, but it is also a tool of education. One does not receive the pleasure of the kalos without putting in the effort which the kalos seeks to inspire.

Sarah is, in herself, beautiful; but, as happens for all true models, the elevation and lighting of the model stand, and the tone of the room convened to draw, transform her beauty and replace it with kalos. Sitting and drawing her, I was overwhelmed, as I said. I was shocked into one of the states most becoming and natural to humans, the state of praise. To seek to draw well is to praise, it is to say, “The world is marvelous, and I acknowledge its marvels. I rise to meet creation, and to praise and serve so well as I can. This is why I pursue excellence: from a sense of justice. I wish to do right by the miracles that abound. I have a role to play - to join the chorus of praise - and in order to do good, I must become great.”

This state of mind carries implications for art criticism. The soul is larger than the world; it has many seasons. I have exerted myself constantly to include as many of them as I can in my criticism. I failed before, but I have not failed again. I made myself learn to see the many kinds of work that come from the many seasons of the soul. And I will say this - any criticism that does not make room for the kalos, for the rightness of beauty that is without flaw or deformation, any criticism that says the age of the kalos ended with the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace, and the adoring eye that opened with Vermeer closed for good, and good riddance, with Sargent - any such criticism, is a crippled and deficient criticism. It may have much to offer, but it is incomplete, and must not be trusted for a model of all that can and ought to be.

Thus did I draw, and this was the first thing that I drew - a one-minute pose, Sarah’s back:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah (detail: one-minute pose), March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

I was transported. I was not rusty, really, at all. I was a little different, but it is good to be a little different. One day I may be a lot different. For now, I was after a long wandering returned to myself. I had missed being me. I was suffused with so thoroughgoing a sense of being on the right track that a thing ran through my mind, a kind of unwilled mantra which always drifts across my mind when I’ve got it right -

Deceive me who may, no one will ever be able to bring it about that I am not, so long as I remain conscious that I am; nor cause it one day to be true that I have never been, for it is true now that I am.

This is, of course, Rene Descartes. It is from the third meditation - he is in the midst of deriving what he can from what he is certain that he knows, a strange and wonderful project. Here is the remainder of that first sheet of drawings, 10 one-minute poses and 10 two-minute poses:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Ones and Twos, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

Well, things went really well from there. I don’t know how you draw, but how I draw is, when somebody does something I like enough, I try to learn how to do it too, so that I can use it if the need arises. How do I know I like it enough? Because I can’t resist trying to learn how to do it too. This has happened with regard to three properties of life drawing over the past few years:

1. From Odd Nerdrum and his students, the recurrent interest in light fall-off outside of a narrowly spotted area (look, I have problems with the guy, but I don’t dismiss anything that I can learn from). This is a fascinating manifestation of the phenomenon of light and dark, transferred from Rembrandt’s depiction of spotlit regions of architectural spaces to the more obsessive spotlighting of parts of individual bodies - but once you start looking for it in real life, you see it everywhere, especially under small-diameter artificial lights, like for instance the scoops that light the model at Spring.

2. From Sabin Howard, a renewed interest in the intellectual construction of the body - the body that emerges out of reason and knowledge, so intensely conceived as to supersede the observed body. This is an ideology I cannot subscribe to entirely, and yet its influence has zoomed me back a bit from the purely empirical approach I had been taking, and invited me to think about the total structure I am observing in the course of attempting to depict it.

3. From so many people - Dorian Vallejo, Elana Hagler, Christopher Pugliese, John Currin - a different renewed interest, in the line, that wonderful, living, vibrant line, which can on its own define a form and which spreads joy wherever it wends. I’ve fallen back in love with the line.

So, like a magpie, I have adapted elements of these, and all of them come into play in my sheet of tens and twenties from the workshop:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah, Two Tens and a Twenty, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

From there, a bit of really good fortune - Sarah happened to take a pose functionally almost identical with one of my favorite Balthus’s at the recent show at the Met. Here’s the Balthus:

Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas

The reasons this made such an impression on me cannot be clear in this image of the painting, but it opened a broad new avenue for my work which I am excited to explore in the year or two ahead. I will explain about all that as it proceeds. But in the meantime, it was very pleasing to run across so similar a pose, because it refreshed my memory of the Balthus and was, in itself, good to draw:

Daniel Maidman, Sarah Reclining, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

And, finally, the other nice thing about this pose was that generally speaking, if a model does a reclining pose for the first of the two final forty-minute poses, they will, through some sense of “doing a good job,” do a sitting or standing pose for the other. As often as not, I will then get a good angle from which to draw a face.

Daniel Maidman, Portrait of Sarah, March 31, 2014, pencil on Rives BFK Tan, 15”x11”

For all the flaws of my work here, I think you can see from it that one would really want to do a drawing of Sarah’s face.

I was so excited to tell you right away about this entire chain of ideas and drawings. But at the end of the evening, in the bathroom, I checked Facebook on my phone, and found out that while I was drawing, and thinking all these happy thoughts, Melissa Carroll died.

I could not collect myself enough to leave the bathroom for a while, and I spent the next day writing the previous post and getting it up on Huffington. I often do not trust my own writing. It has become too easy for me to write vividly and persuasively. Usually this facility is a joy, but sometimes it makes me suspect I am full of shit. It would be so easy to lie to you! But I did not want any trace of the possible lie - even the unthinking, unnoticed lie - to infect what I had to say about Melissa, so I made the writing very hard on myself.

That delayed this post.

Friday, April 4, 2014

As Light Is Said To Do

A light has gone away. The painter Melissa Carroll died March 31, 2014. She had Ewing's sarcoma, a vicious cancer that jumped to new parts of her body even as her doctors got its existing sites under control. Melissa was 31.

I wrote about her show "Recurrence" at Andrea Rosen Gallery 2 last year, and I'd like to share some more thoughts about her work and life with you today. I did not know her well. I only met her five times. This is a photograph of the first -- a show we were both in at Gitana Rosa Gallery, in Brooklyn, in 2010. She stands in profile foreground left. Her painting is on the back wall, and mine is on the left. The cancer was already in her foot, I think, but nobody knew.

I followed her work from then on, and when she got sick, I followed that too. We corresponded a bit. I was blown away by "Recurrence," her body of work depicting herself and her friends at various stages in their struggle with cancer. I wrote at the time, and I'll repeat now, that she made the kind of breakthrough in "Recurrence" that artists ordinarily take another 10 or 15 years of practice, experiments, and creative leaps to achieve: she went from flexing her talent and following the work of others, to creating her own unique and mature art. She didn't have any time to waste. The second time I met her was at the opening of the show, in 2013.

You can see me sweating; the room was packed and horribly hot. There were many beautiful people I didn't know, and many who knew Melissa and had more claim on her attention than I did. Salman Rushdie was there; the remarkable Ricardo Kugelmas, her friend and guardian angel in the art world, was there. I met her mother, Cecelia, who was as simultaneously proud and frightened as you would imagine. I didn't know what to say to Melissa, and she didn't know what to say to me. I think we were mutually happy to see one another. I didn't appreciate how tremendous a special effect her attendance at that opening was. They let her out of chemo for the week, and she was wired to half a dozen hidden devices and drips the entire evening, enabling her to stand, and talk, and withstand the pain.

The third time I met her I ran into her on the street in Williamsburg. She was back from her hospital universe, walking around and enjoying a pleasant Brooklyn afternoon. The fourth time I met her was at a craft fair. These two chance meetings are small demonstrations of a characteristic of hers -- to the extent she could go on living life, she did. She went to India. She fired a rifle. She had adventures.

The last time I met her I went by her apartment in Greenpoint to take some pictures of her for a portrait. I like to paint my creative friends, and I wanted to paint her. I was glad to see her. As usual, we struggled to make conversation. We were all right in writing but did not know one another well in person. She showed me what she was working on, and some of the keepsakes of her travels. I took a few pictures and made my goodbyes. I never saw her again.

This was in December. Sometime after that, she made her final breakthrough as an artist, and that's what I really want to talk with you about today. We're here to consider her last three paintings (that I know of), and to mull them over in light of two categories of art: final bodies of work, and late bodies of work. All sufficiently late work is final, but not all final work is late -- Egon Schiele, for instance, had no idea he was going to drop dead from the flu at 28. He was just starting to get the body he craved into his dessicated oil paint surfaces. Whether this would have been better or worse than his early work, we can't say. It was promising, but it was cut short. It was final work, but not late work.

Egon Schiele, The Family, 1918, 60"x64", oil on canvas

Contrarily, consider Titian, 1490-1576. He began as a master of clarity, color, movement, and the dramas of men and gods. Here is a late self-portrait, painted between 1565 and 1570.

Titian, Self Portrait, c. 1565-70, 34"x26", oil on canvas

It partakes of one of the great privileges of age: cutting through the bullshit. The hand grows weak, eyesight fails. He paints simply, painting only what is needed, but that part that is needed, he paints with force and confidence. Considerations of being in and out of the zone are far behind him. He has fused entirely with his identity as a painter. He is always in the zone. He brings to mind the famous quotation from Hokusai, which I have had occasion to repeat on this blog before:
From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I'll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create - a dot, a line - will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.'
Or let us turn to Picasso, who drew this less than a year before the end of his very long life:

Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait Facing Death, 1972, 26"x20", pencil and crayon on paper

Picasso draws here his own unweaving. His face grows gaunt and stubbled, his eyes frightened and unfocused. A triangular wound opens his cheek on the left, and his blood pours out unchecked, the last blood he will ever have, leaving his skin cadaverous and greenish-grey. He is at the end of the long corridor, staring at the black wall at last. There is no way through it, it is the end. He addresses death and fear of death here, and not just any death, but his own. This is what we mean by late work.

Carroll painted this in 2013 for "Recurrence," depicting her own illness:

Melissa Carroll, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired, 2013,15"x11", watercolor on paper
It is one of the pieces that struck me so strongly at the time. It still does. In this same pictorial paradigm, she groped toward a model of hopefulness in What Would I Do Without You:

Melissa Carroll, What Would I Do Without You, 2013,15"x11", watercolor on paper

This is middle-period work.

Here is something Carroll painted in March. As I said, to my knowledge it is one of her last three paintings. I don't know its size or title, or if it even has one. It is watercolor on paper, the only paint nontoxic enough for her to use:

Melissa Carroll, 2014

The figure is submerged here in a vaginal sequence of arcs of bloody energy, nearly vanishing, as the image nearly vanishes. As in the case of the aged Titian, the hand and eye weaken, and the interest in effects evaporates. There are only resources to paint what is needed, and the wisdom and insight to use the resources correctly. As with Picasso, there is almost no image, and death is the subject.

Melissa Carroll, 2014

Carroll draws close here to the very heart of things. Her vision of human being dissolves into a vivid and vital universe which precedes and follows and surrounds it. In the hand of this awakened reality, what is important about a life, any life, persists, because it is only borrowed a little while from an eternal and active wonder. She reaches here, in her own way, the same conclusion Harold Brodkey reached when he too neared the end of his illness: "It is death that goes down to the center of the earth, the great burial church the earth is, and then to the curved ends of the universe, as light is said to do."

Melissa Carroll, 2014

This is not only final work, it is late work. It is late work because she knew she was dying. Schiele was around her age, but he thought he had all the time in the world. Carroll knew her time was almost up, and this turned her thoughts not only to the subject of death, but her hand and eye and vision to the mastery needed to complete her work. Her life was short, but her work is not incomplete. She made the complete cycle of work of an organism designed to persist only 31 years. We are not missing the rest of her work, because that would have been the work of a fundamentally different Carroll. This is all of the work of the Carroll that was.

I knew her. Not as much as I would have liked, but more than most, and I count myself lucky for it. She looked like just another talented Brooklyn hipster when I met her. It would have taken her much longer to mature if her body hadn't betrayed her. Her disease gave her a binary choice: go over it or go under. She chose to go over it. The cancer kept getting taller, and she got taller to match it.

She was loved by her family and friends, and inspired in words and deeds many people who were suffering as she suffered. She lived fully. She became unbending of will and great of heart. She made the life she had make sense, but that speaks for her, not for me. For my part, I am so sad that she's gone.


All Melissa Carroll paintings courtesy of the artist and her family
Schiele and Titian via wikimedia commons, Picasso via