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Detail view of David’s Death of Marat. Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts. The background was intentionally unfinished.

In the preface to a book of poetry by Dylan Thomas, the poet said he was going to publish this group of poems so he would have to quit futzing with them. Once in print, he would be forced to treat them as finished.

Paul Valery had another take on completion: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

James Elkins‘ series of art posts for the Huffington Post last year included one article that explored the question, How can you know when a painting is finished?

This used to be a simple problem: when the artist had filled in the blanks, she was done. Over the past two hundred years it has become a very difficult question. Artists, critics, and scholars debate it endlessly. It’s one of the mainstays of conversation in artists’ studios. There is a lot of talk about intuition: artists say, “I just work until it feels right,” or “I’m not sure if it’s finished, but I am slowly getting the sense that it might be.” But feelings can be elusive. Many painters mull over this problem for years on end. It’s an unending source of fascination.

Elkins looks through the history of art to identify three kinds of unfinished paintings: the simply abandoned, non finito (where the artist deliberately stopped working before the painting was finished in order to create an effect), and the perpetually unfinished painting that “cannot be finished because it is infinite, because the artist is in the grip of a compulsion.” Elkins uses the famous painting by David of the death of Marat as an example of non finito. The unfinished background speaks to Marat’s untimely death and his unfinished life.

Thomas Nozkowski‘s take on that question (from an interview with Francine Prose) is a simple one:

To put it as simply as possible—and this is a simple answer, not a total answer—I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.

“When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.” I know exactly what he means. It’s a subtle thing, and it is intuitive. But I know that moment. I think most artists do.


Agnes Martin at Dia:Beacon

The etymology of the term “jaded” surprised me. It has been traced back to a 14th century Middle English word for a worn-out horse, one that can no longer pull a cart or work the fields. It is about being wearied, exhausted, spent, bored, out of juice.

While the roots of the term are utilitarian and agricultural, it has now morphed into a condition that is all too human. It is used to describe someone dissipated through sybaritic overindulgence as well as a person who has worked with the public too long and just has no patience left for collective human idiocy. Sheer repetition of the mundane, like the barrage of noninformation that is Fox News and talk radio, can also result in a dulling and deadening of our response.

But it is overexposure of a loftier kind that troubles me most. In many ways it is the dark side of devotion: Our passions drive us to excess, but answering that appetitive call for more, more! can also come at a price.

James Elkins offers a cautionary warning in his book, Pictures and Tears. As part of his research on emotional responses to art, Elkins polled his art history and critic colleagues to find out if they had ever cried in front of a painting. He was amazed by the responses. Some said they remembering tearing up in front of a work of art when they were younger, but that had not happened since they became trained experts. Some of Elkins’ colleagues said they thought it would be viewed as extremely unprofessional for them to exhibit that degree of emotionalism toward a work of art.

Of course saving face (even though we could have a whole other discussion about what that means) is not the only reason a distancing takes place over time. Can you look at and contemplate art every day for a lifetime and still keep the fresh openmindedness that drove you to art and art making in the first place?

I fight this flagging in myself. I have to watch my thoughts with vigilance when I find myself glazing over. It can be a slow drift into disconnection, but the symptoms are obvious: Walking too fast past paintings I have seen hundreds of times; listening to the conversations in my head rather than letting my body feel and lead; feeling uninspired and well, jaded.

And sometimes you need to relearn enchantment from those who are new to an experience and fully present to the joy that comes from discovering art, music, writing for the first time. Yesterday was a good example. I brought two friends to Dia:Beacon, their first visit to a place I have been to many, many times. Yes I am still moved by Robert Irwin‘s vision for that former Nabisco box printing plant, and many of the artists on exhibit continue to speak to me. But watching my two companions discover room after room of extraordinary work—from Robert Ryman‘s rarefied explorations of white to John Chamberlain‘s phalanx of twisted metal stanchions to Agnes Martin‘s exquisite invitations into a silent stillness to Sol LeWitt‘s enchanted graphite tooling of walls—made me stop and consider how I have allowed distance and overexposure to detach me from the joy that is there, ambient and freely available. When I read what my partner Dave wrote about his visit, “Being in 3 rooms full of Agnes Martins definitely leads one to believe in a female deity,” I was reminded that receptivity does have an aspect of conscious will. Magic is happening whether we are tuning in or not. I don’t want to miss any of it.

The exquisite human handedness of a stuttering graphite line: Looking closely at an Agnes Martin painting

Sloycha, from a recent series

As you unfold as an artist, just keep on, quietly and earnestly, growing through all that happens to you. You cannot disrupt this process more violently than by looking outside yourself for answers that may only be found by attending to your innermost feeling.

–Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

Rilke is a well known advocate for keeping the external world at bay. At one point he wrote that he never reading his critics so that he would not disturb his unconscious process. The above quote reinforces that strong position.

When you do try to straddle the inside and the outside, it is easy to lose your balance. I’m deep into the internal landscape right now, getting ready for a show in two months. So right now my painting energy feels under wraps, hidden. A bit alchemical.

Comparing painting to alchemy isn’t just my idea. James Elkins made the same analogy in his book, What Painting Is. An excerpt:

Despite all its bad press, and its association with quackery and nonsense, alchemy is the best and most eloquent way to understand how paint can mean: how it can be so entrancing, so utterly addictive, so replete with expressive force, that it can keep hold of an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Alchemists had immediate, intuitive knowledge of waters and stones, and their obscure books can help give voice to the ongoing fascination of painting.

And Elkins goes on to offer this loving homage to painting (which rings true for me):

Oil paint can’t be entrancing just because it can create an illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint itself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography…It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movement of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint itself.

Frank Auerbach, Reclining Head of Gerda Boehm, private collection

Over the fall months James Elkins, the prodigiously prolific writer about art, art history, criticism and art appreciation, wrote a series of pieces for the Huffington Post. (I wrote about his series here.) One of those articles as a title—Are Artists Bored By Their Work?—that is so provocative you can’t not read it.

Elkins starts by addressing a theme kindred to the founding principle of this blog—slow looking:

The philosopher Arthur Danto asked that I not fetishize slow looking. He pointed out that some works of modern art, like Duchamp’s urinal or Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, do not ask to be looked at for hours and hours. A quick look, or even a glance, is right and appropriate. But I’d like to pursue slow looking, and think about it as carefully as I think it deserves. One way to pursue this subject is to ask how long it took the artist to make the work in the first place…It is interesting to be writing about slow looking and slow thinking in a setting like the Huffington Post, where news moves at such a breakneck pace, where you can jump from one post to another as quickly as a click of the mouse. We are all afflicted with a mild attention deficit disorder, and when comes to images, our flightiness is especially intense. We consume more images per lifetime, per day, and even per minute than any culture before us. Modern paintings often seem to have been made quickly, by comparison with the paintings of earlier centuries, and that seems to give us the license to look at them quickly–to consume them and move on.

Elkins draws a comparison between how much time it takes to make a work of art now and before the modernist era. He postulates that paintings took more time during the Renaissance because of the desire to represent the real world. Capturing a “highly ornamented world” takes more time to draw than the minimalism and single brush stroke styles so common in the postmodern era.

But were the representational artists of the Renaissance just a little bored with the tediousness of their task? Elkins points out that many Renaissance artists only painted heads and hands. The rest, painted by their tribe of apprentices. Which raises a reasonable question: Were they bored by the task of capturing the rest of nature? “How interested could Titian have been in all those trees?”

Contemporary art making practices are very different. Elkins again:

Modern painting, on the other hand, is said to be potentially interesting throughout, in every mark, at every inch. Frank Auerbach could not possibly have been bored when each brushstroke mattered so much. His best work is exemplary because he risked everything at every moment. Not a single mark is rote, habitual, or routine. Everything is contingent, as the art historian T. J. Clark says, and nothing is settled. Boredom is out of the question. A good work could not possibly be made by a bored artist.

It never occurred to me that it could be otherwise.

But let us not forget that boredom is actually a rather recent invention. It would be easy to treat it as a human trait that has always been with us, but that turns out to not be the case. According to Walter Benjamin, boredom was an invention of the middle classes that started around 1840. Up until then, no one was writing about it, complaining about it, suffering from it. “I don’t doubt that in the Renaissance people often found themselves at a loss about how to spend an afternoon, but no one was vexed by boredom, or in need of continuous distractions. Not a single Renaissance artist left a diary, or a letter, describing the appalling boredom of the long hours spent in the studio,” Elkins writes.

Boredom is now part of what we don’t like about our lives. It also speaks to the easily distracted, ADD-ish culture in which we live. And so many contemporary trends—social, technological, personal, behavioral—are feeding that proclivity. Committed slow looking—that deliberate and disciplined slowing down to really look at something—is just what many of us need to countermand all those distractions that constantly pull us away from center, away from the deeper connection. It may now need to be taught, like learning musical scales and fundamental ball handling skills. Any artist, contemporary or historical, needs and wants that kind of engagement.

Winter light in Amory Park, Brookline MA

James Elkins is a tireless advocate for seeing—not just looking, but seeing. A professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins writes books about art that anyone, artist or otherwise, will find compelling. His books (there are nearly 20) range from How to Use Your Eyes, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, to Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook For Art Students.

This fall Elkins has done four posts on Huffington Post addressing a variety of art related topics like How to Look at Mondrian, How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?, Are Artists Bored by Their Work? and Looking at the Sky. Ice Halos: Divine Signals Or The Ultimate Art Installation?

There is much to be said in response to each of these postings. But given the recent snow storm that passed through Boston, this last topic is of particularly interest. After reading his article I feel as if I have been given a whole new set of tools with which to look at the winter light and sky.


Why choose ice halos? Why not start with landscapes, faces, or bodies–things that are more common in art? Because ice halos are a spectacular example of our blindness…ice halos are the exotic winter cousins of rainbows: both are caused by water suspended in clouds, but ice halos appear when the water has frozen into tiny crystals.

The halo [pictured] is called the twenty-two degree halo. (It should have a more spectacular name, but that’s science for you.) It appears mostly in the wintertime, when it is very cold and the air is dry…The twenty-two degree ice halo is very large; it is a different creature from the aureoles and brownish-blue coronas that sometimes form just around the sun or moon. Twenty-two degrees is double the spread of your hand at arm’s length, so the halo is a little overwhelming, as if it were somehow very close to you.

Twenty-two degree halo (Photo: James Elkins)

Elkins goes on to elucidate a variety of light phenomena that we have to train our eyes to see such as twenty-two degree parhelia, or “sun dogs,” and sun pillars. In researching this phenomenon Elkins read up on the scientific explanations. But his conclusions are similar to ones I have come to as well:

A number of physicists have worked on understanding ice halos, and in 1980 Robert Greenler wrote a book that explains virtually all of them…But in the end, it is a little sad to see nature explained so efficiently, so ruthlessly. My favorite parts of Greenler’s book are the moments when he admits defeat. I don’t mind the science: it’s interesting, but it has very little to do with the experience of looking. Sometimes I read about the latest observations and research, and other times I am more interested in what Keats called negative capability: I suspend my desire to understand all these things in terms of hexagons, reflection, and refraction. I no longer believe that my fascination is answered by diagrams of ice crystals.

Types of ice halos–a sky full! (Image: James Elkins)

No, diagrams don’t do it. Not in the least.

View of my studio, looking north

Friend and artist Pam Farrell has invited artists to do a show and tell on her blog. Calling her project Interactive Studio Blog Post–ISBP–Pam now has nearly 10 artists who have participated. Their postings typically feature a work or body of work and an image of their studio.

Pam included some salient quotes from James Elkins about studios and workspaces:

In “What Painting Is”, James Elkins includes a chapter entitled “The Studio as a Kind of Psychosis”.

Working in a studio means leaving the clean world of normal life and moving into a shadowy domain where everything bears the marks of the singular obsession.

Elkins talks about the artists’ studio in terms of the alchemy of art making:

Alchemy is the best model for this plague of paint, for the self-imprisonment of the studio and for the allure of insanity.

For those of you interested in behind-the-scenes art making, it is definitely worth a visit. And for anyone who is a maker who would like to open their own kimono a bit, you can contact Pam directly.

P Farrell Artblog