You may have noticed that I tend to use the word “approach” in instances when “style” would be expected. When discussing the making of art, “style” has negative connotations in that it suggests that the artist chooses a way of painting as one would opt for a new hairstyle or select a period in which to decorate a room. The process of creation to be substantive must be very different. I think in imagery so bear with me here. I imagine the artist confronted with an enormous, impenetrable ball of rock, metal and debris, all comingled in concrete. The artist knows that at the core of this ball there is something significant, but he isn’t exactly certain of what that something is. So, he needs to work his way to the center of the ball. Luckily, at his disposal, he has a number of tools: a hammer and chisel, a crowbar, a maul, a vat of acid, etc. I have always referred to these tools as my arsenal or my bag of tricks; they are the skills and techniques of paint handling that I’ve adopted, mastered or invented over years of working. The tools to which one gravitates are not selected arbitrarily but are determined through very personal inclinations and unconscious drives. And so, the artist begins hammering away at the giant ball, only to find that his efforts result in little progress, the shattering of a stone, a shower of dust, a chip of concrete sent flying. But he keeps at it, moving about the ball, changing his tools, positioning his body differently. And occasionally, a new “approach” proves effective, progress is made and the artist toils away for a period of time, believing that he’s conquered the impenetrable ball and with continued effort the core will surely be his. Unfortunately, almost inevitably, the artist tunnels into an enormous, solid chunk of metal or rock that refuses to be penetrated or bypassed and must start the process all over on the shell of the ball in hopes of adopting another “approach” that will ultimately permit access to the core.
Henri Matisse spent the summer of 1904 in St. Tropez, working alongside Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross, two adherents of the theory of pointillism, an approach that adopted many of the tenets of impressionism but, in adopting them, transformed them. For instance, the impressionists utilized broken, impasto brushwork of relatively pure, unmodulated color to accelerate the painting process, thereby permitting the artist to capture the unique lighting effects of an instant, and by using pure tones, often placing complimentary colors side-by-side, were able to heighten the visual impact of their work, replicating the effect of intense, natural lighting.
Seurat - Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1886
The pointillists recognized that placing pure tones next to each other heightened their impact but felt that the impressionists use of the technique was too personal, too arbitrary. The pointillists painted in uniform dots applied following scientific color theory, and it was their hope that the expression of the personality of the artist would be minimized in their work, that a Seurat would be indistinguishable from a Signac. While the impressionists sought to capture the reality of a unique moment, the pointillists attempted to construct a nonexistent universal moment when every aspect of an image, the scenery, the placement and posing of the figures, their dress, their activities, all reflect the quintessential.
Matisse - Luxe, Calme et Volupte - 1904
Matisse was not new to pointillism; he had experimented with the technique since reading Signac’s essay, “D’Eugène Delacroix au Néo-impressionisme”, in 1898. But in the summer of 1904, he painted Luxe, Calme et Volupté, a strange work that stepped away from pointillism and predicted change that would shortly lead to the fauvist revolution. Of course, the pointillist elements are still very apparent in this work, but, even though the image is constructed of individual markings of color, the hues are heightened and often bear no resemblance to natural coloration. The landscape, a scene of the
shoreline, is peopled with a number of nude and seminude female figures who are
depicted unconvincingly in a cartoonishy distorted fashion. The pointillist markings are not uniform and
equispaced but have become thicker, directional and more expressionist in
character. The image does not depict
contemporary life; these women hearken back to representations of goddesses and
nymphs executed by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain three centuries
earlier. The artist’s intention is to
capture a mood of luxury, peace and pleasure as the painting’s title, a quote
from Charles Baudelaire, openly asserts, but, in straddling two stylistic
intents, the image is vaguely disturbing.
The landscape is presented somewhat naturalistically, conforming for the
most part to the rules of perspective, while the figures feel pasted on and
don’t exist convincingly in the space.
The boat’s placement appears to be most contingent on acting as a
reflection of the cloud formations in the sky and does not seem believable
within the landscape. The mast and spar
of the boat along with the flailing boughs of the tree serve as compositional
devices, directing the eye about the painting, but appear awkward and
out-of-place. In a year of two, Matisse
will divorce color from naturalistic effect, subjugate all compositional
elements to the logic demanded by the image, dismiss the constraints imposed by
the rules of perspective and permit the brushwork to confidently follow the
dictates of his subject matter. Luxe, Calme et Volupté is a courageous
yet faltering step in that direction. Riviera
Three years after Matisse painted Luxe, Calme et Volupté, Pablo Picasso stunned the art world with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work which depicts five prostitutes gathered in an interior space, a still life displayed in the foreground. In his earlier work, particularly that of the Blue and Rose Periods, Picasso had absorbed and personalized a number of influences. The symbolist movement, probably predominant during his youth, exerted a strong influence on his immature work. Van Gogh and the fledgling expressionists certainly made an impact too, but I would say that the two artists that served to guide the young Picasso most consistently were Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne. The sway of Toulouse-Lautrec is easily detected in Picasso’s moody scenes of circus performers, street people and the Parisian nightlife, both in subject matter and execution. Cézanne’s influence came later and provided a conceptual pathway for the most part. Cézanne had explored the question of whether a painting could maintain a visual integrity convincing to the viewer while violating the rules of perspective. Cézanne accomplished this by minimizing the perspective variations contained in an individual work and by masking or disguising the junctures of planes in contradictory perspectives.
Picasso - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - 1907
Picasso had assimilated Cézanne’s approach rapidly in the months prior to the summer of 1907, and as he began work on Le Demoiselles d’Avignon was ripe for major change. I think that Picasso was compelled to explore what would result if, instead of maintaining a visual integrity within an image as Cézanne had done, he allowed the painting to conform to its own laws that had little basis in visual perception. Les Demoiselles is more about dismantling than construction. The figures are drawn in conflicting styles, some figures being complete and anatomically rational while others disintegrate and become defined as a series of interlocking planes. Two figures wear grotesque distorted masks that cannot be reconciled with other aspects of the painting. Tonalities are subdued, flat and unmodulated. There is no identifiable light source in the work, and the space the figures inhabit is shallow, fragmented and layered. Picasso never resolves the conflicts contained in Les Demoiselles. There was no need to. He had gotten from the experiment what he needed, an approach to addressing form and space that would evolve into a style that has become known as cubism.
Jackson Pollock was a great admirer of Picasso’s work. He’d been known to bemoan the fact that Picasso had done everything, that he hadn’t left anything new to realize. Picasso certainly was an extraordinary innovator, having initiated developments in painting and sculpture which would continue to be explored by future generations of artists for decades. But, no matter how far Picasso pushed his abstractions, his imagery was always rooted in visual reality. Picasso felt that to divorce his work from concrete visual references would leave him rudderless, that the creative process would become pointless. In the early 1940’s, Pollock was testing the boundaries of abstraction. In Male and Female, a masterpiece which now hangs in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pollock disguises his subject matter so successfully that, at first, it is hard to distinguish the male and female figures within an active field of patterns, brushwork and drips. But upon closer inspection, the viewer recognizes the totem-like figures, set in two vertical bands running parallel from the bottom to the top of the painting, by a few key emblematic features: breasts, lush eyelashes and triangular feet. The male figure resembles a chalkboard covered in nonsensical calculations. Though paint itself is becoming the primary subject matter for Pollock, like Picasso, he cannot surrender the link to the visual world. He retains references to the physical attributes of his subject matter; he uses patterns to define planes and establish compositional cohesiveness; he inserts clearly recognizable numbers and mathematical symbols in the painting.
Pollock - Male and Female - 1942
In 1943, a year after painting Male and Female, Pollock was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim to execute a huge painting, about eight feet by twenty, for her NYC apartment. This represented an enormous opportunity for Pollock, and, according to legend, he was slow to get started, hesitating to consider his approach. In Mural, Pollock has jettisoned recognizable imagery. Movement in the piece is established by repetitions of gestures, in particular a series of strong, mostly vertical strokes that run the length of the painting. Activity is contained in three major zones: the top section that is more open and less crowded, the middle section that is defined by large sweeping vertical strokes and the bottom which is packed with busy, intricate detail work that creates a horizontal frieze along the base of the painting. These zones enhance visual interest and move the eye about the painting.
Pollock - Mural - 1943
Pollock’s step toward pure abstraction was influenced to a great part by ideas being addressed by Jung. Many surrealists, fleeing
WWII, had settled in NYC and brought with them Jungian theories of how the
subconscious mind asserted itself in the seemingly accidental gestures of the
artist which contained the germ of not only the individual’s repressed
emotions, thoughts and memories but those of all humanity. Through Guggenheim who represented many of
the surrealists, Pollock had been introduced to these theories, and, at that
time, he was coerced into undergoing Jungian analysis to treat his
alcoholism. Although Mural reflects Pollock’s recognition of
the importance of the subconscious in the creation of art, it retained some
traditional elements. Pollock is still
purposefully applying paint with a brush, and, though indecipherable,
polymorphic imagery and three-dimensional form are suggested. It would take four years before Pollock was
prepared to move to pure abstract expressionism, creating imagery through
dripping, splattering and pouring paint.
While in grad school, I developed an approach to painting based on a process of abstracting the figure through distortion and disguise. My goal was to suggest multiple, often contradictory, activities that the viewer would be unable to resolve. I found the process rewarding. I enjoyed painting loosely and intuitively, working in thick impasto built up in heavy layers or thinning my paints to facilitate broad gestural strokes that dripped and splattered across the surface of the canvas. I became intensely aware of materials and experimented with new mediums, adding sand and grit to my gesso, using tape to create occasional hard edges, embracing the accidental effects that resulted from unrestrained painting. I became a fairly competent abstract painter, and the work I produced during this period pleased me, leading me to believe that I would continue to explore abstraction throughout my life.
Wickham - Modern Love - 1984
But by the late 1980’s, I was beginning to lose interest in abstraction. The process of masking imagery was becoming mechanical, artificial and arbitrary. The themes I addressed in my work were limited, and repetition inevitably resulted. I knew that I needed to reestablish reasonable boundaries that working with more concrete imagery would impose but was resistant to returning to figurative work. For a couple of years, I struggled with imagery, working on isolated parts of the figure, including words and symbols in my work, deliberately creating paintings that were awkward and unpleasing. These works were, without exception, failures, and most of them were, thankfully, destroyed.
At the end of that period, I was finally ready to consider the possibility of painting figuratively once more. It didn’t feel good to be moving in this direction. I sort of felt like I was throwing in the towel, but I sought the confines that working with the figure established. I had no idea how far this process would take me, but I certainly had no interest in becoming a “realist” painter. I needed to relearn how to approach the figure, and I painted a small series of figurative works that were very painterly and still anchored in abstraction. I wasn’t satisfied with the results and turned to Picasso’s Cézannesque work to serve as my guide, in that it addressed form cohesively without slavishly recording external reality. In Two Women, painted in1986, I constructed my subject matter from a number of sources: anatomy books, fashion magazines, advertisements and sketches from the live model. In “building” these two women, I was not concerned with perspective or desirous of creating a convincing illusion of visual reality; I was interested in erecting two structurally sound edifices. I placed my figures in a shallow, ambiguous landscape of my imagination.
Wickham - Two Women - 1986
I was happy with the results and began painting a series of similar works. These works were formal explorations into which I eventually inserted the hint of a narrative element.
Many times with me, development comes as a result of accidental occurrences. In 1989, I was approached by a friend who wanted to commission me to paint her portrait. I recognized that she would make a perfect model, being in great physical shape and very attractive, but knew that, as a struggling college student, she could not afford to purchase a serious work of art. I proposed that I’d paint her portrait for free if she would pose for three additional works, an offer she readily accepted. We tackled the portrait first, and I understood that my model wanted a traditional image that captured her features accurately and established form in a rational space, lit by a definable light source and constructed following the rules of perspective. I worked hard on this painting, but it was challenging for me to make the leap into realist representation. For so long I had resisted the draw of realist painting that I struggled to create a consistent, cohesive image, and, unfortunately for my friend, the finished work was flawed and problematic.
For me, it was an important step just to entertain painting in a realist mode again. This may seem strange since this move is in a less radical direction, but, at that time, moving toward realism meant reconsidering how I had come to understand art functions. I still had three works to “collect” from my model. I had always thought that my friend embodied a duality, two conflicting personalities that would eventually have to come to blows to determine a victor, and I decided to use this idea as the germ for my next painting, a double portrait. In First Light, I retained many realist elements that I had explored in my last painting but couldn’t completely walk away from approaches that I had developed in recent years. So, the image contains an impossible space that permits me to display each element from the optimal perspective for viewing, almost like ancient Egyptian art. The figure lying on the sofa and the carpet exist in a plane that is flipped upward toward the viewer, while the standing figure inhabits a space parallel to the picture plane. The striped curtain is situated both behind and in front of the standing figure. All the same, the picture preserves a convincing visual cohesiveness. I maintained a painterly approach in the work, brushwork being evident and a bright golden underpainting surfacing in multiple areas. Just as significant, the work addresses themes that continue to interest me to this day. It presents a moment in an ongoing narrative that suggests the possibility of extreme activities while simultaneously asserting that nothing remarkable is happening here. First Light is a seminal work for me, a painting that straddles multiple approaches to addressing form and points the way to future work that will more successfully explore themes introduced within this image.
Wickham - First Light - 1990