New Hampshire Manifesto
An artist statement in the form of a series of twelve tiny essays, to introduce a new body of work.
Modernism. Modernism is the understanding that visual quality is real, desirable, elusive, undefinable, and unattainable by formulas. I am a modernist, as is everyone who accepts that understanding, explicitly or not. One sometimes hears people expressing broad irritation about modernism, Clement Greenberg, postwar abstraction, and so on. I suspect that they’re afraid of what modernism implies: that they could fail to see art well or make it well.
Facture. Walter Darby Bannard introduced me to the pleasures of high paint volumes, but I’m painting flatter and flatter. Tension exists between the operation of a painting as a picture and its operation as an object, although it can’t help but be both. More paint favors the object, less paint favors the picture. More paint favors the hectic side of modernism, as Greenberg described it; less paint favors its artisanal side. Under Darby I learned what is called abstract expressionism, but thin paint applied with feeling to a design ought to be as expressive as anything. If it was good enough for the Mughals, it’s good enough for me.
Pictures. Modernism does not require you to paint abstractly. It doesn’t require purity. It requires you to obey your eye. I’m drawn to scenes, particularly of people, but I’m not inclined to reproduce the look of the natural world in my art. I’d rather put it through the sieve of abstract composition and play with the components. I’m interested in highly systematic ways of depiction: Lawren Harris landscapes, the Rinpa school, Medieval mosaics from Europe and the Levant. I am pro-decoration. There is nothing in art like a system employed with savvy affection.
Comics. Comics imply a possibility that a convention of signs can serve as a vehicle of feeling and expression. Few artists have explored that explicitly, though just about all of them have explored it implicitly. Philip Guston hated the sign, for standing in the way of essence. I disagree. The sign is a kind of essence, and other essences are available through it. The convention of signs in my work enables viewers to repeat their expectations about how any given work is supposed to operate. I have chosen signs that will enable me to make pictures at the intersection of abstraction and figuration that I enjoy. That said, comics should be easy to read. Paintings, not necessarily. And maybe not comics either.
Pleasure. “Art rides in on pleasure,” says one of Darby’s Aphorisms for Artists. Art has been put to many uses, and made for many reasons. But you have to have a taste for pleasure to make art of any lasting value. That invariably accompanies a problematic temperament. The problems run the gamut of vice and are inseparable from the talents. Nowadays too much is made of the artist’s person, for better or worse. If only better people reliably made better art.
Color. The main moral choices in my work concern color. I’m as reluctant to put down an intense color straight out of a tube as a musician would be to try to get the loudest possible sound out of a violin. That’s not where the art is. I work with a palette of oxides of yellow, red, and black, the last which is my blue. Other colors come after, as subordinates.
Masters. I tried to paint like Balthus, but Leger kicked in the studio door and yelled, “Not today, sonny boy!” I looked longingly at William Bailey but Milton Avery backhanded the brush out of my grip.
Cubism. Braque: “I couldn't portray a woman in all her natural loveliness. I haven't the skill. No one has. I must, therefore, create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears to me in terms of volume of line, of mass, of weight, and through that beauty interpret my subjective impression.” I too am not a traditional draughtsman of enormous ability, and I marvel at those who are. But what one can draw and what one can turn into art are for some artists quite different things.
Freedom. Freedom in art is something greater than legal freedom, or even the cultural freedom that allows for freedom of speech and expression. Artistic freedom is the capacity to give a hard shake to your existential mustard bottle, so that it dispenses mustard and not that disappointing watery fluid that settles to the top from sitting around. Matisse: “Rules have no existence outside of individuals.”
Craft. Up here in rural New Hampshire you can buy a $3 end table at a garage sale that is, in its way, more expressive than much contemporary art and made with more care. I have long been interested in the craft aspect of art. I now have the opportunity to put that interest to use. I construct stretchers from the supply at the local lumber yard, on the way to which I traverse two dirt roads. I refine my own linseed oil from flax oil as part of a solvent-free oil painting practice, adopted to keep harsh materials out of my body and out of the soil of my adopted county. I have boxes of dry pigments and sometimes mull them into topcoats. You’ll look in vain for them in tubes at the store. I appreciate why alchemists once thought that they might find God through chemistry.
Judaism. Obliged to pick a side in the racial reckoning of recent memory, I picked mine. I then discovered (God revealed them in my time of need) the Diasporist Manifestos of R.B. Kitaj. He recognized visual art as a house that would welcome Jews as guests but not as family. I, like Kitaj, am “impatient with host-art.” These days the hosts are really something else. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which neglected Hyman Bloom for six decades and dragooned Philip Guston’s work into a grotesque ritual of racial penance, has displayed a portrait by Kehinde Wiley in the Sargent room. If you think the two comparable, or pretend to, you too can join the hosts as family. It will only cost you your soul. You weren’t using it anyway.
Zen. Zen regards reality as graspable, but not with the thinking mind, and describable, but not with thinking words. This so resembles how modernism regards quality that they must be talking about the same thing. Braque: “Whatever is valuable in painting is precisely what one is incapable of talking about.” Yuan-Wu: “The thousand sages have not transmitted the single word before sound.” Greenberg: “You ‘get it,’ you ‘intuit’ quality. But you can’t analyze it.” The Wu-Men Kuan on the Original Face: “You can’t picture it in words.” Reality is therefore quality? Yes. Genesis: “And God saw all that had been made, and found it very good.”