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Close up view of one of my recent paintings

A book I have referenced here before is From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, by David Levi Strauss. (Previous posts referencing the book highlight artists Ursula von Rydingsvard and Donald Lipski.)

Strauss writes in a way that his responses to a particular artist’s work often have a universal quality. His best responses to work are ones I seek as well.

For example, in talking about the paintings of Ron Gorchov, he describes a response I seek constantly when looking at work:

Ron Gorchov’s paintings are among the most fully and graciously embodied being made today. They engage our whole bodies from our first encounter with them and sustain this engagement over time. You have to move to see them, and when you move, they come alive. With one’s whole body involved, the mind is also free to move, and does…

On one level, everything is visible in Gorchov’s canvases: the staples fastening the linen to the frames, the backs of the shaped frames themselves, the palimpsests of drawn and redrawn shapes. But when the shapes and colors, and we, begin to move, a new music begins. With drips, washes, and tension-breaking, the conversation between liquidity and quiddity, or luck and mastery, comes into play. “The music of painting comes from manipulating space,” he says, “and from letting the colors sing.”

And the quote Struass places at the beginning of this piece by Paul Valéry is perfect: “The Day and the Body, two great powers.”

How the body participates in the art experience can play out in many different ways. Sometimes it is overt, intense and dramatic. Sometimes it is subtle but burrows into us with fierceness. But connecting deeply and authentically, that is the full body experience. In Roberta Smith‘s memorable line that describes what she looks for—“art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand”—speaks to that as well.

My personal interest is to create work that is experienced in the solar plexus, not just the cranium. How to make that happen using a visual language that does not include representation is its own challenge. From my most recent post, this quote from W. S. Piero has become a kind of mantra for my time in the studio: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation…today’s artist sees only the freshness of the first day of the world—he does not yet see its ‘face.’”

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The Yearling, by Donald Lipski, now installed in Denver

In David Levi Strauss’ book, From Head to Hand, he begins the chapter on sculptor Donald Lipski with three quotes and this paragraph:

The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
–The Blind Man (1917)

Why not look at the constellation of things that surround us every day? That is the combinatory art. Nothing should be left out. Everything has to undergo the test of how it can live in this relatedness.
–Frederick Sommer, The Constellations That Surround Us (1992)

Art supposes that beauty is not an exception—is not in despite of—but is the basis for an order.
–John Berger, “The White Bird” (1985)

From the viewpoint of art for art’s sake, aesthetic decisions are continually being contaminated by the things of this world. In Donald Lipski’s art, this process is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. In fact, this contamination—resulting from the contact and mixture of disparate substances and materials—defines the method and has come to be the principal subject of Lipski’s art.

A great collection of quotes, and a topic that has many more levels to it than just Lipski’s eclectic work. Sommer’s encouragement to look at and work with the “constellation of things” and to take a “combinatory” approach to art making speaks to me as a painter as well. Clearly my approach is a much more subtle implementation, often operating most powerfully at the inchoate level of intent. But the steady accretion of non traditional materials into my work has been my own painterly way of coming into relationship with the constellation of things that exist in my world.

I also found this passage about Lipski and his relationship to minimalism provocative:

Lipski’s art is particularly well suited to contemporary postindustrial society, a society of plethoric overproduction, wealth, and waste. But his art is not plethoric. It is, rather, remarkably light on its feet, transforming glut into spare elegance. The work clearly responds more to minimalism than to pop, but with a twist…David Rubin wrote: “Although minimalism was born of a disdain for metaphor and materials with associative value, Lipski has brought new life to is most cherished principles. In subjectifying minimalism, altering it as he does objects, Lipski has effectively transformed it from an art of the few into an art for the many.

My favorite Lipski is his 1998 installation for Grand Central, Sirshasana. A huge artificial olive tree, it hung upside down. The roots were covered in gold leaf and its branches were draped with 5,000 Swarovski crystals. Named after a head down yoga position, the tree felt ethereal and provocative—its roots reaching heavenward and its branches drawing down to the earth. Much can be drawn from that orientation, and Strauss quotes the 13th century Zohar: “The Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates us all.”

This work feels loaded, lush and full of light.


Sirshasana, in Grand Central


Untitled (Seven Mountains) by Ursula von Rydingsvard (Photo by Ben Aqua)

In the introduction to David Levi Strauss‘ book From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual, he points out that “in an increasingly mediated world, one of the most radical things artists can do is to use their hands.” He goes on to quote Leo Steinberg: “The eye is a part of the mind.”

This point of view is right in line with my operative ethos for art as defined by Robert Smith in her review a few years back of what is missing in too many of the museum shows she was seeing: Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. So the reference in Strauss’ title to the head and the hand is of elemental importance to my view of art making.

This small book has been on my nightstand for nearly a year. The writing has a compact denseness that I love. You only need to read a line or two at the end of the day to be dropped into that meditative state before sleeping. Strauss offers his wisdom and insights on a number of artists and writers who are among my personal favorites: Joseph Beuys, Martin Puryear, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Nancy Spero, Cecilia Vicuña. I’ll share a few passages from the book over the next few posts.

Here is a sampling from his chapter on Ursula von Rydingsvard, “Sculpture and Sanctuary”:

Rydingsvard’s relation to the symbolic is effected by her relation to nature. She has often spoken in interviews of her abhorrence of competing with or imitating nature. She eschews mimesis in favor of reciprocity, aiming to get the objects she makes “to echo things that nature might say but doesn’t.” Her organicism is always a mediated organicism, arising from the religious imagination as defined by W. S. Piero: “The religious imagination is a respondent, form-making act of consciousness, back toward and into that which it believes has shaped it—the force of otherness. It replies to the givenness of existence by reshaping the forms of nature into the forms of work.”

My review of Rydingsvard’s show at the de Cordova Museum last year inter alia can be read here.


Ursula von Rydingsvard, from her recent retrospective at the de Cordova Museum

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