RACKSTRAW DOWNES: NATURE AND ART ARE PHYSICAL / by Caitlin Murray

Welliver's eclogues

published in ArtNews in 1967

NW935LastSunandSnow_small.jpg

[an aside: see in writings, "a particular green"]

The orthodox tendency in recent painting has been, for the most part, to concentrate and eliminate / frequent result has clearly been a sterile form of purity / to be "about painting" and nothing else

Welliver : "to make a 'natural' painting as fluid as a de Kooning." / Perhaps this quality of his training [Albers, watercolor], is responsible for Welliver's skepticism of all prescriptive criticism and dogma, especially of the kind that presents to derive validity from some concept of historical necessity.

a particular humor and fantasy : the realm of a private mythology

the new paintings have become real eclogues: the scene is an idealized nature, the wildwoods with rocks, ferns and unpolluted streams; distinctly arcadian although in a rather special sense / For this is not a simple opposition of Rachel Carson vs. the technological euphoria; nor is it the sensitized touris seeing ready-made art in natural beauty / Welliver's old farm and wildland in Maine and his kind of last-ditch stand to preserve it from the encroachments of power companies and highways and wood-butchering lumberman seem part and parcel of this ethic / it is not what you see from a scenic turnout, not is it the observation of some modern Thoreau

CHARLES BURCHFIELD: NATURE AS SIGN

Burchfield, raised in rural Ohio and spending the remaining 45 years of his life in suburban Buffalo, developed his art in isolation, apparently convinced that close familiarity with tradition, or the art world, could not enrich but only alter the complexion of his art. He took more interest in music and literature than in the great schools of painting. The beauty of his career is that more independent its direction, the better the work.

His art offend virtually all the predilections of modern taste.

Burchfield's vision is that of the naturalist joined with the romantic poet; it is a vision that reads nature, for whom a wildflower is not a spot of color but a sign.

"all-day" pictures

thistles, sunflowers, dandelions, salsify, moths and spider webs

Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches

Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches

(to remember that it was painted in the middle 1960's is to realize the pitiful myopia of standard art history)

JOHN KOCH, RICHARD LINDNER

(ARTnews 1969)

[In most ways that would matter to a modern-art lover, John Koch (1909-78) was not a great artist.] (Ken Johnson, The New York Times, December 21, 2001, review of ''John Koch: Painting a New York Life'' is at the New-York Historical Society, 2 West 77th Street)

WHAT THE SIXTIES MEANT TO ME

The subject of art is life. Works of art are metaphors of life. A statement is the vehicle for thought, discarded as soon as the thought is communicated; a simile is an illustration to such a statement. But metaphor is unique, inexhaustible and untranslatable; there is no other way to say it.

Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning / E.M. Forster The Machine Stops

what can elude critical dialectic?

Porter seemed to be writing an Areopagitica for art, freeing it from its bureaucrats, distinguishing it from ideas and ideals, from words, theories, and justifications: from professionalism, from social service, and from technology's separation of the thinking from the sensuous part of the person.

a private art

In this sense they were moderns; that is to say, artists who do not share or observe an inherited body of knowledge, skills, or critical precepts, or specified aims. (It was Picasso who, I believe rightly, identified working in solitude and sharing no goals, as the common denominator of the Post-Impressionists, the founders of modern art).

I think that the figurative element of this work was not an attempt to oppose abstract painting, but to enlarge and increase the resources of painting / The desire for a more complete and inclusive art also led these painters to take a fresh look at the past masters; they were not, in the words of Coleridge, artists who wished "to destroy the wisdom of ages in order to substitute the fancies of a day."

Today as we approach the last quarter of the twentieth century, we have hardly yet unshackled ourselves from concepts (expressed in code words like "avant-garde," "advanced," and "mainstream") which are in fact the orphaned offspring of mid-nineteenth-century intellectual method. For it is only the lends of chronology that makes art appear to go forward. Respect for chronology would display Manet with Whistler, Monet, Renoir; but respect for visual affinities might display him with Hals, Velazquez, Goya.

I like to look at art in terms of the ever-shifting balance between schema and nature.

I do believe that the upsurge of landscape painting did involve a critique and disavowal of the optimism of the technocrats which was to receive, by 1970, a death sentence from demographers and ecologists. [rackstraw, james benning, a third? dark ecology?]

plainness - stylishness

Breughel has an ethical message for us. His two intellectual friends were Fabius of Bologna and Ortelius of Antwerp, the two great geographers of their day; geography was, at the time, the science that saw man as a part of a world much greater than himself. He never painted a town or urban complex, except this outrageous tower which I cannot help seeing as a symbol of his hubris, of man too big for his boots. A modest sense of out place in relation to the whole is the lesson we, with out power to upset it, have yet to learn. When Breughel paints one of the ambitious adventures of man, like the fall of Icarus, he gives it a place, a very tiny place, in relation to the day-by-day preoccupations of people and the processes of nature.

The Harvesters, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, ca. 1525–1569), Oil on wood

The Harvesters, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, ca. 1525–1569), Oil on wood

CEzanne's drawings/exhibiting cezanne

comments on the importance of the CR: In the study of art there appears from time to time a work of loving scholarship that takes us significantly closer to the artist and his work; one of its most admirable forms is the catalogue raisonne. This one, of Cezanne's drawings by Adrien Chappuis - scrupulously compiled, rich in pertinent information, modestly asserting no claims to absolute authority - treats a great painter with just the respect, not to say reverence, he so sadly missed in his lifetime. Having it to hand one feels disposed to offer a quiet prayer to the departments of scholarship and criticism for a general moratorium on historicism and polemics until the job is done for every artist whose works posterity has thought fit to preserve.

invented a personal vocabulary of drawing / Cezanne was one of the outstanding empiricists of Western Art

The syntax of painting - from Florentine artists of the 15th century / Brunelleschi over a 400 year period : Renaissance perspective represents the horizon as a straight line extended parallel to the flat surface of the canvas on paper. Cezanne noticed that when the head turns - as it must, be it ever so slightly, in order to scan the view - this horizon curves, changing its angle in two dimensions, and enveloping the viewer in three: it becomes concentric.

I think Cezanne, of all artists, is encumbered by his reputation; so much, from this problematic to the portentous has been tagged onto his pictures. A great Cezanne show to me, would consist of the 40 finest available works, without theme, raison d'etre or fanfare; then we could take a clean look.

four fallacies in modern art criticism

the power of the art critic does not so much lie in his prerogative to make favorable or unfavorable judgments on particular works of art, but rather in the hidden assumptions and demands that he brings to a work of art / In his writing he puts into circulation a terminology which expresses those demands, and if this terminology gains a popular currency among the audience for art it becomes a pair of spectacles which that audience wears when looking at art, and which it uses as a basis to confirm or dispute the particular judgments of critics.

  1. The historicist fallacy : paintings are not stepping stones in a historical sequence
  2. The ahistoricist fallacy : a simultaneous order - criticism should operate somewhere in between historicism and ahistoricism
  3. The political fallacy : consists in locating praiseworthy merits in one kind of art and applying them as touchstones of quality to works of another kind : Stendhal - "That in matters of taste we can only judge for which we have a taste." In a fable of La Fontaine's, one of Ulysses' companions is turned into a bear, and Ulysses exhorts him to convert himself back to a man because men are more beautiful than bears. The bear replies "who are you to say that one form is more beautiful than another? It is not for the likes of you to judge of the likes of us?"
  4. The formalist fallacy

I submit that all these fallacies represent partial and incomplete approaches to a work of art; that, in so far as they enter the consciousness of the practicing artist they tie a noose round his neck when it might be hoped of creative criticism that it should open doors for him: and that it is the simplifying character of all of them that has given them their extensive power, since they introduce a comfortable and convenient degree of tidiness into a world which consists, in Valery's phrase, of "mutually exclusive marvels."

post-modernist painting

Courbet issues the first call-to-arms of Modernism with his remark, "Paint an angel? I've never seen an angel." From Giotto to Delacroix painters had thought of the invisible and imaginary as compatible worlds inhabiting the same space; Courbet, by separating them, made the first move in the process of dividing and narrowing the province of painting that was the distinguishing characteristic of Modernism.

Modernism constituted a rapid succession of specialized styles, each on supplying some deficiency of the rest; what they gained in intensity and concentration they lost in comprehensiveness and range.

what realism means to me

Through the metaphor of travel everything comes alive. Except that the traveler's picture is half a picture: he is euphoric on exotica and the novelty of it all. This may be O.K. for a romantic; but the realist needs to know his subject like a resident too. The traveler sees that farmland is pretty; this doesn't concern the farmer at all, even if he had time to notice it / It's a common rift in experience; what we're outside of we don't really understand, what we're inside of we can't really see.

From the side, a whole range;
from the end, a single peak:
Far, near, high, low, no two parts alike.
Why can't I tell the true shape of Lu-Shan?
Because I myself am in the mountain.
(Su Shih, 1084, written on the wall at West Forest Temple)

Remake Rural Rides by William Cobbett (peter porcupine) / EM Forster A Passage to India

the act of looking at a view: an artist's openness to the rich, endless complexities of that situation, the nuances involved in it and the numerous ways of playing with it, makes it possible for something to become a revelation when it might so easily have been a boring iteration of facts

"It is opinion, not truth that travels the world without a passport." - Gibbon

So realism, in elevating the art of being intensely, thoroughly observant, expresses a set of values.

Where Maupassant picks things out with a spotlight from one acute angle, Chekhov shines floods from all around; he shows events in their context like gold in the matrix. Differentiation between foreground and background disappears, and the real hero turns out to be the texture of life.

Rubens vs. Constable
 

Rubens, Le Chateau de Steen, c. 1636.

Rubens, Le Chateau de Steen, c. 1636.

Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

...in the way Rubens shows you around his newly-acquired country place the Chateau de Steen with exhilarated rapidity and an eye for the typical, rushing you off into the distance like the pilot of a tiny plane skimming the hedges in an eager take-off; while Constable, who borrowed a lot from Rubens's compositions, wanders through the landscape of The Hay Wain at a more ruminative pace, allowing himself to be diverted by a gentle, affectionate attention to the individual things around him.

There is one thing I think realism is definitely not, though it is often confused with it, and that is a technique.

henri rousseau and the idea of the naive

Homer and Thoreau : Thoreau, trying to put his finger on nature itself, finds himself accounting for it as a clandestine form on culture. This suggests that nature subjected to analysis is impenetrable, or it evaporates.

Is nature an it?

Henri Rousseau, Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

Henri Rousseau, Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1890)

HIs landscape as Tristan Tzara pointed out are "souvenir landscapes"; they record some local landmark, some neighborhood spot. 

[LANDSCAPES FOR MEMORY]

reality is a matter of pre-selected, accepted signs

[incomplete - to be returned to]

ENSOR, MORANDI AS PRINTMAKERS

Masks and music: James Ensor Playing the Harmonium in His Music Studio, July 28, 1933

Masks and music: James Ensor Playing the Harmonium in His Music Studio, July 28, 1933

FOUR MARINS

Here Marin in New York almost out-Turners Turner in Venice.

He was equally as inventive with the intense drama of rocks, tides, and weather that he found on the remote parts of coastal Maine, where he spent more and more of his time. 

He has thrown compasses and everything overboard - "stop where your interest stops"

John Marin, Brooklyn Bridge, 1912

John Marin, Brooklyn Bridge, 1912

THE Meaning of the landscape

Some of the meanings in a landscape are natural and some are cultural, but in either case they are local. 

Constable: "We see nothing truly until we understand it." / Constable's love of landscape passes beyond the euphoria aroused by the unexpected or the unfamiliar; beyond the dulling effects of habituation and methodical study, to that more sure-footed sense of poetry which sees magic where there is no mystification and feels the mystery in the known and explicable."

claude's subjects

Claude Lorrain's Sermon on the Mount at the Frick Collection is one of a few paintings in New York museums that I return to look at again and again, almost as though they were oracles. 

[absurdly exaggerating the heights of the trees] [some indefinite past tense]

I went for a walk along the old Appian Way and suddenly there it all was - Claude's ingredients - the golden glow of the afternoon sky with foliage blackening against it (was this what the English connoisseurs meant by "the light that never was"?); bits and pieces of the old tombs and villas, columns, bases and pediments surrounded by weeds and shaded by trees; far off in a sea of tall grass some arches of an aqueduct leading from nowhere to nowhere, scabs of antiquity, clinging on. In the distance were hazy blue hills; when one got close to them, as at Tivoli or Nemi, they rose almost sheer, tufted with trees, punctured by post-and-lintel entrances to caves, maybe even topped by some columns of a temple. 

Rome: the distinction  between a landscape with ruins in it and a ruined city overrun by the landscape again is slight. 

[Here dynasties have passed]

"so difficult it is to be natural"

vuole andare su guadare giù” - you have to go up to look down

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Pan and Syrinx, 1656

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Pan and Syrinx, 1656

The landscape elements in this later phase of Claude's work have been detached from observed nature and constitute a virtual fixed set of symbolic forms that Claude used to construct wholly imagined world: massive rock formations topped with foliage; small temples or buildings; overarching trees, often placed "in the wings," with vertical or leaning trunks played off against one another, and whose roots define the surface of the foreground plane; middle distance clumps of trees with trunks often positioned in a fanlike arrangement; deeply distant horizons of water or land; tall Roman buildings, ruins, or towns with towers that are often round; long, low bridges, cattle proceeding down over a bank. 

english landscapes

palpability

Constable - "is pictures hold together by sustained sympathy of feeling."

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, 1814

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, 1814

Turner ' [the energy] / the essence rather than the evidence

constable country

[completeness, not detail] - Constable's 3 x 4 inch sketchbooks that he took with him on walks

The familiarity of the sites repeatedly portrayed, all within a couple of miles of home, reminds us that Contable walked, and that this slowness helped make these quiet truths available to him. 

WHat have we made of the landscape?

We are not the measure of all things, but part of them When Turner painted Rain, Steam, and Speed he portrayed the Industrial Revolution with profundity, as force taking its place among the forces of nature. By now it's a runaway force, and out efforts to contain it seem feeble and not honest: in an expanding consumerist economy there cannot be a wholehearted conservation movement. 

When I was growing up, I learned to look at nature more or less through the medium of English romantic poetry, as something inspirational but apart...