Two Branches of Abstraction + Nozkowski

2123, graphite, 9×12″

Two branches of abstraction emerged early in the 20th century.  The first branch developed from Cezanne’s late oils and watercolors.  He used subtle shifts in viewpoint to create hybrid spaces. Some areas in his paintings follow rules of traditional perspective, while others undermine Renaissance conventions.

Picasso and Braque developed Cubism by pushing Cezanne’s technique to the point where multiple viewpoints disrupted and fragmented space.  Although Cubist paintings became arrangements of mostly flat planes, the artists still used the visual world as a source for their compositions.

Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard

Kandinsky established the second branch of abstraction when he severed connections to the visual world.  He believed that arrangements of shapes, lines, tones, and colors could evoke thoughts and emotions by themselves.  No subject matter was necessary.  He likened his painting to classical music.  Arrangements of notes set in certain keys and time signatures speak directly to intellect and sensitive appreciation.  No explicit narratives or descriptions of the physical world can be found in the music.

Kandinsky, Composition 4

Abstract Expressionists borrowed from Kandinsky but did not use his method of composing with defined shapes and lines.  Their practice involved intuitive application of brushwork.  The artist reacted to one move with a countermove.  The final form of the painting emerged as the colliding impulsive marks gelled into an uneasy resolution.  Feeling and meaning emerged in the process of painting but remained ephemeral and indeterminant.  If Kandinsky drew inspiration from classical music, free form jazz musicians drew inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists.

Philip Guston, Untitled

Thomas Nozkowski’s work juxtaposes several modes of abstract language. He developed his idiosyncratic techniques in the late 1960s when Modernist painting had exhausted its ability to innovate.  Nozkowski absorbed multiple styles of abstraction but did not pledge allegiance to any.  He chose, instead, to use any approach that suited his subject matter.  He knew his theme, be it a memory, a landscape, an idea, or a scene from a movie, ahead of time.  He combined contrasting elements (cribbed from all fields of abstraction) until he found an arrangement that realized his initial source.

Nozkowski, Untitled (9-42)

I met Nozkowski in 1985. He journeyed from New York to serve as a visiting artist to the University of Delaware M.F.A. program. I picked him up from a bus stop outside of town. He carried a small box filled with 16×20″ canvas board paintings. He spoke quietly and humbly during his presentation and answered our questions patiently. He believed in his work to the point where he felt no need to aggressively assert its worth. He treated us fledgling painters with respect.

Nozkowski at work.

Reworking Paintings Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, near the end of his life, began to obsessively rework his canvases. He stopped making new oils and revisited decades-old paintings once considered finished. He had no regard for technical aspects of layering paint, so his edits eventually destroyed his work. Most cracked and developed bulging blisters a decade or so after he died. The painting below originally depicted fishermen sailing on the ocean. In its current condition, the boat has mostly evaporated and the scene might either be set in the morning, at sunset or at moonrise.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, oil on canvas.

His example acted as a cautionary tale for me. Once I finished a painting, I took stock of its successes and failures and moved on. I now have a huge collection of unsold paintings and have begun to reconsider. I’m more willing to rework or even completely paint over obvious failures. I no longer feel concerned about preserving a career record.

2122 started out as a fragment painting in which misaligned sections of the subject overlapped and disrupted each other. I’ve never been completely satisfied with it. So I decided to rework it in a new style using the original lines and color patches as a starting point.. I played with textures, patterns and line accents. I simplified some areas and complicated others.

2122, oil on board, 18×12″

I believe that it came to an end point today. The temperature in the studio read 92 degrees when I quit, however. My desire to exit the space probably influenced my decision to call it finished. But even if I let excessive heat partially melt my judgment, I’m sure that it’s come close. Mr. Ryder’s mania has not taken over…I’ll be able to let it rest before the surface develops irregular blobs and veils of obscuration…Now all I have to do is add an accent to the upper left hand corner…and change the color of the lines on the right…and add some palette knife work in the light areas…and glaze some gray patches that look too dull…and…

Escape

Judy and I took a road trip to North Carolina to visit my son, his wife, and friends we had not seen in years.  We had only ventured to the Florida coast at Christmas, so this first long excursion of the year eased our growing pandemic agoraphobia.

We stayed at an Air B-n-b in Durham.  The house rested on the mid slope of a steep yard in a quiet, semi-wooded neighborhood.  Birdsong woke me in the morning instead of my Orlando neighbor’s muffler-less truck.  I never heard the customary nighttime sounds endemic to home: sirens, booming stereos, revving engines, and squealing tires.  The rental’s wooden floors did make every footstep a chorus of groans and creaks, but the noise sounded like friendly accompaniment.

We dined on a back porch the first night but ate most of our meals at son Alan’s townhouse.  He and Amy made waffles, steak, chili, and gumbo.  I usually cook two or three meals a day, so a break from kitchen duty made me feel somewhat guilty.  It felt wrong to be served, but then again, I enjoyed taking it easy.

We hung out at Alan’s talking, touring their new place, and exchanging news.  We had not seen Alan and Amy since last September, so we enjoyed the simple pleasure of sharing space with them.  Our visit with our old friends, Anne and Jim, seemed like an effortless renewal of an interrupted conversation.  Everywhere we went felt like a pleasant reunion:  no dramas; frank but happy sharing.

We visited Duke Gardens, the UNC Botanical Garden, and a lovely park with shady paths running beside a river.  We noticed, as we drove around town, that city planners had minimized scorched earth strip development.  Trees and greenery took up more space than concrete and asphalt.  Local museums remained Covid-closed, but restaurants and stores did brisk business.  Some establishments required masks and distancing while others did not.  Alan took me to an Only Burger store so that I could taste spicy grease served on a bun.

On the first night, Judy took a walk around the Air B-n-b yard and sat on the front porch.  She came inside and said, “We have to move some place just like this.”  We have been longing to escape from the noise, congestion, and incivility of Orlando for years.  We hope to live in a smaller town with less traffic, paved sidewalks, bookstores, a downtown with restaurants and coffee shops, and parks. A slower pace would be wonderful.  We also would like to live within driving distance of one of our children.

I have a few more birthdays coming before I retire, but we might make our move before my social security kicks in.  We do not want to wait until we are too old to enjoy one last adventure.

Glimmers of Faith: The Beginning of What?

confused chickens - /cartoon/animals/bird/bird_cartoons_2 ...

I saw a news report about a chicken farmer who decided to make his animals’ lives easier. He opened the door to a crowded henhouse to give hens and roosters a chance to roam about a yard. The chickens had grown used to crowded quarters and stagnant air. They were so accustomed that they hesitated to exit. Freedom, at that moment, frightened them. They eventually staggered out and wandered in erratic circles. They didn’t know what to do.

Existentialism taught that human beings have no innate qualities. We are not made in God’s image and come into the world as blank forms. The acquired tendencies and key characteristics that become attached to our identities derive from our environment and individual histories. We have freedom to make choices in response to our conditions, and our freedom to choose means that we are ultimately responsible for our lives. No supernatural beings judge and penalize us here or in the afterlife We can craft our characters and decide our fates without the interference from God.

When doubt tempts me to drift toward Existentialism, I feel like one of those timid chickens. Once I step outside the confines of traditional faith, I’m free to choose. But what is there to choose, and what should I choose? Making decisions in that context seems like an exploration into unknown territory. What dangers lie hidden in this seemingly open landscape? As a caption on an early and largely inaccurate map once stated, “Here there be dragons.”

I’ve had experiences that present evidence against Existentialism. My children arrived with distinct personalities. Although they grew up in the same environment, their budding differences sent them on divergent paths. I got the impression that Annie and Alan came with predetermined potentialities that expressed themselves in unique patterns. ‘I could ascribe these differences to genetic variation but believe that they came into the world with individual souls. They never were blank slates.

I can also say that I’ve had a few unexpected moments that support a belief in God. A loving presence offered comfort during times of sharp need. The sensation felt similar to the relief that comes when an air conditioner suddenly clicks on and blows cool air. Nothing and no one told me to follow one faith or another, however. These moments simply offered the reassurance that I am not alone, that my existence, with its joys and trials, has been acknowledged.

I don’t know if that understanding provides enough guidance to get me through rough patches, but I get the impression that I should care for others even as something cares for me. I still feel like a confused chicken stepping out into bright light and danger, but have a rough idea about how to proceed.

Easter Sunday

Easter eggs rest on green grass plastic in a basket woven in Taipei. Marshmallow chicks hide behind cellophane–their fate is sealed. The malted milk balls crunch between my teeth, but the licorice gets a permanent reprieve.

Daddy smiles his dangerous smile, tells us what we’ll have for Easter dinner. Every year he promises rabbit, a certain special bunny, but the dish always tastes like ham.

The priest clears his throat and glares at the crowd. Shiny parishioners pack together. Floral dresses, beribboned hats and polished shoes decorate the pews. It never rains on a day of Good News.

The faithful race to their cars after service. The priest blesses flight with disgust. Monday means work–no rest for the wicked. So why waste more time in a church?

Grandpa flicks his spent cigarette. The ember glows red in the yard. Fireflies dance in the dimming light. We chase them around until dark.

  1. Images overlap a word: bunny, chick, shotgun, ham, flower, dress, EASTER.
  2. Fusions create hybrid shapes.
  3. Colors, transitions and patterns. Contrasts between volumetric and flat shapes.
  4. Color accents, finishing touches.

A Lack of Bitterness

A guest turned the tables on Craig Ferguson by asking a pointed question: “What do you find attractive in women?” Ferguson thought for a moment, mentioned a few physical traits, then said, “But over all, the characteristic that I’m looking for in a woman is lack of bitterness.” He explained that his own darkness would disqualify a match with another negative person. The guest smirked then said, “Well, in order to get a woman without the slightest hint of bitterness, you’ll have to go rather low in age.” Ferguson quipped, “I’ll do what I have to do.”

My wife isn’t a Mary Poppins wanna-be but largely has retained a positive attitude. She’s not an overly committed optimist who believes that unicorns hide behind magic rainbows, however. She’s realistic about human behavior but chooses to believe the best about people until proven wrong. In other words, she doesn’t look for trouble, doesn’t suspect bad intentions, and initially finds exculpatory reasons for bad actions.

I find that more and more attractive. Her influence has helped me shed a bit of negativity. Opposites attract.

But I’m still guarded and suspicious. Exposure to unhealthy behavior at an early age rendered me less willing to take chances. If someone waves a battle flag, I raise shield and sharpen sword. I also locate exits for retreat. And if someone approaches oozing oily compliments, I wait for their real intentions to surface.

A grad school professor named Larry once said that I was the most defensive student he’d ever met. He was criticizing my work and character at the time, so I thought that this declaration was another probe for a weak point. Larry didn’t understand that frontal assaults encouraged me to build higher, thicker walls. He didn’t convince me that my work and personality suffered from serious flaws but did undermine my confidence. I wondered if my judgment had serious cracks in its foundation.

But a few years after I graduated, Larry verbally attacked another professor at a faculty art show. The curator gave each professor wall space to show art and post a statement. Instead of writing an explanation about his own work, Larry questioned the morality of another faculty member’s paintings of male nudes. His homophobic diatribe asserted that the paintings would corrupt students. This incident confirmed my first assessment about our confrontations: I had been defensive because Larry had been offensive. My negative judgment had been sound.

It’s better to live with some trust and forbearance, however. Constant suspicion and doubt lead to suffering and bitterness. If all I expect to see is darkness, then darkness becomes reality.

I’ll never develop my wife’s attitude but have been working on an adjustment. I mostly look for decency and good intentions but am not surprised when people display the opposite.

Finding Personal Imagery

The basic premise of early Modernist abstraction was that shapes, tones, colors and lines can be arranged to create emotional and intellectual effects. This form of abstraction is likened to classical music: arrangements of notes in certain keys and time signatures evoke thoughts and feelings without illustrating a story.

1.

I’m developing an on-line class designed to help students find personal abstract imagery. The sketches above use lines and the letters of my name as starting points. In some drawings, patterns are created with flat tonal shapes. In others, tonal transitions, line accents, and textural marks are added to liven up the compositions.

2.

The monochrome drawings in this lesson are designs created by adding tonal transitions to eggs, spheres and ribbons. The imagined light source is from the upper left. The colored pencil drawing used red, blue and yellow to create transitions. The shapes were created by overlapping vertical and diagonal S-curves. The goal of the assignment is to build skill not imagery.

3.

The two drawings above were created by overlapping images I associated my dog, Sammi: dog, bowl, tree, backyard fence, dog house, leash. The drawing on the left uses hatched patches of tone and line accents. The right uses tonal transitions, patterns, texture marks, hatches and line accents.

4.

I overlapped letters and images to set up this last drawing. The letters spelt, “FISH”. The images were a rowboat, a fish, a turtle, a beer can, a pond, a row of trees, clouds, a hook, a bait bucket, and a worm. I’ve been thinking about Dad. He combined two things he loved the most, drinking beer and fishing, whenever he could.

Departures

Departure, Max Beckmann, oil on canvas, 1932-33

The rush of riding “The Beast” rollercoaster begins when the car reaches the top of the first hill. I look down and see an impossibly small tunnel at the bottom of the slope. As the coaster rushes forward, I know that I’ll never survive the dread moment when flesh and metal get crushed into a compacted mass. But the tunnel magically expands as the car approaches the opening, and I safely come out on the other side. The invigorating feeling of survival lasts until the next slope approaches…

As I get older, more and more relatives, friends and acquaintances make departures. Some die. Others leave town or lose interest in maintaining a connection. My wife and I discussed the feeling that we have moved up in the queue. Sooner or a bit later, we’ll take our turn and exit this planet. We hope for further adventures on the other side but fully realize that oblivion may await us.

I’ve watched relatives and friends progress slowly toward death. Their decline into weakness, immobility, and delirium reinforced the adage that everyone loses everything by the end. They shed power, possessions, memories, and dignity as their bodies shuddered to a full stop.

As we begin our descents, we turn toward memories of times when we could climb a hill effortlessly, when others depended on us, when our minds worked clearly and efficiently. Wasted time and lost opportunities take on greater weight. Why did we engage in pointless fights and worry? Why didn’t we reach out to those who needed us? When did we let ambition trump kindness?

The trap lies in looking over our shoulders too much. If we cling to the past, wallow in loss, and indulge in adamant fatalism, then we limit our ability to go onward. We become concentrated versions of our worst, most fearful selves. Like Lot’s wife, we turn into pillars of salt.

Instead of fearing the inevitable and pining for the past, it’s better to look at each moment as a new adventure. Some adventures, of course, bring pain and exhaustion. But any journey into the unknown tops passive surrender to gloom.

If we remain open, we become like hot air balloons that have finally slipped their tethers. We float away on the wind. The final destination may be unknown, but a clear horizon beckons.

Contradictions of Men

I watched an episode of Deep Space Nine last night in which a young man has to come to terms with fear. He realizes that the dividing line between courage and cowardice is thin during scramble times. Too many dangerous and unexpected things happen all at once during a hard scramble, so reactions become unpredictable. And men who cannot handle some situations may behave differently when confronted by another set of conditions. A soldier who withers under artillery fire may fight effectively in hand-to-hand combat.

Courage may also be tested during long periods of stress. I have read that soldiers have a limited supply of fortitude. Prolonged combat wears them down until they become numb and ineffective. Combat fatigue eventually comes knocking at the every man’s door.

Predicting how anyone will react under extreme pressure is a fool’s errand. Nobody knows until a trial by fire has been endured. And one response does not ensure that future actions will follow the same pattern. Stress may not change deep traits but does alter surface character. Personality forms largely by age ten, but we remain somewhat adaptable for most of our lives. We respond to new conditions, or become changed by them. I’ve known bitter, mean-spirited people who summoned compassion during crises. Once trials passed, they reverted. And sweet, well-intentioned folks may turn cruel while suffering trauma…

Men with calm, emotionally flat demeanors have been valued because they show no signs of breaking down in the face of prolonged tension. Emotionally demonstrative men have been ridiculed, told to “man up”, because their reactions resemble those of spent warriors. A “real man” never retreats into vulnerability, never shows weakness.

My father presented himself as a tough guy when I was a kid. He came home one night with his entire thumbnail missing. A grinding mill at work had chewed it off. He matter-of-factly reported the mishap as we sat down to dinner and didn’t wince when using a knife to cut his meat. He went back to work the next day wearing only a Band-Aid.

As I grew up, he questioned whether I would ever become like him. I did not. If I had caught my hand in a mill, I would have let everyone know how I felt in detail. At high decibels. But Dad had a soft side that he tried hard to hide. He cried during Shirley Temple movies. Whenever the curly-haired waif got kidnapped or hauled away by a shrewish social worker, he would huff and shake and exit the room. He did not want us to know that little Miss Temple had gotten to him again.

While Waiting

Edinburgh and Lakemont, colored pencil, 6×4″

I took Judy to a doctor’s appointment a few weeks back. The facility required masks and didn’t allow visitors to wait inside. I brought along a sketchbook and some colored pencils. I looked around the parking lot for a subject and chose a view of a road snaking toward an intersection. I outlined with lightly applied red pencil, fused some shapes together. I returned to the car and began to play with color.

A light breeze blew and kept me cool as I worked. Judy returned more quickly than I had expected, so I didn’t finish the sketch. I worked on it off and on for a week and noticed halfway through that the colors had gotten too bright. I began to mute colors in some areas by adding complementary colors. The drawing remained rather cheery, however, probably reflecting the sense of ease felt while working outdoors.

I haven’t worked directly from a landscape for several months due to allergies. Pollen levels have remained high even after several recent rains. I look forward to getting out again soon.