What I Know about Art (continued)
We need skill ; there are technical aspects, but the important part, as I know now, is honesty, sincerity, purity, true feeling, those kinds of qualities. When you know art history from the Venus of Willendorf to the work of Cy Twombly, or Horace Pippin, or Pierre Bonnard, or Joan Mitchell, you will know this is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t know much about art at all and real artists suffer from that, being compared unfavourably to the slick practitioners who fill the commercial galleries all over the world. That’s why most artists give up, fall by the wayside or sell out, even the most talented ones.
At about the time I made my journey to see Ansel and find out about photography as Art, I met Herman Cherry, a first generation New-York School abstract painter and friend of David Smith, the sculptor, Ruben Kadish, the sculptor, Charles Pollock, Jackson’s brother, also a painter, and many more. He was part of the scene from the beginning and knew them all. I was twenty four when I met Cherry and he was fifty nine. We met through a mutual friend, Zena Voynow, a film editor who was the sister in law of Sergei Eisenstein, the legendary Russian film director, someone you study if you study film. We met in East Hampton, the most important place outside of New-York City for artists. Jackson Pollock had a studio there and Willem de Kooning whom I got to know.
My first wife, Melynda, and I were sitting on the veranda of Zena and Andrew’s house and some small crab apples came rolling off the roof and onto the veranda. « That’s Cherry » said Zena, and so it was. We hit it off immediately despite the fact that when he took us over to his house and showed us his new paintings, I said, innocently, « They look like what Frank Stella is doing ». Of course that is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, since artists, as I have mentioned, try like hell to let their own individuality come out, not someone else’s. Zena told me very quickly, pulling me aside, « Don’t ever tell an artist his work looks like someone else’s ». I remembered that.
I think Cherry appreciated my innocent honesty even if it hurt. At that time he was stuck as a painter, and not long after that he stopped painting for a number of years and wrote poetry, quite good poetry. He published a few volumes and was respected as a poet. From that point on I saw all of his life since we became good friends. I did some abstract acrylic paintings, small ones, which he liked and he was very appreciative of my photography. I became friends with his friends, Edie and Ed Dugmore were favourites and I still admire « Doug’s » abstract paintings very much.
Cherry was respected by everyone as a colorist but also as being super knowledgeable about painting, art history and many other things related to Art. He was exceptionally smart without making a big deal about it but it was recognizable to those who paid attention.
Over the next twenty four years, until his death, we were in touch and visited as frequently as possible. He started painting again and the work he did the last fifteen years of his life was truly great and appreciated by galleries and buyers. I was with him when I met my French partner, Francine, and I was at his wedding when he married a German woman my age.
He knew Aaron Siskind who became a photography teacher of mine at Rhode Island School of Design, (RISD). He had known Siskind’s great friend Frans Kline, whose work Siskind had followed in photography, a clear path and a successful one. And this mention of Aaron Siskind, a very good guy and a great teacher, ties into the fundamental value I am trying to reveal. I pondered this deeply at the time ; how much of what Siskind accomplished was due to basically imitating in photography what Kline did with paint on canvas ? Aaron did what he did very well and I won’t try to take that away from him. But what I was looking for was something more personal, deeper, and connected to the core identity of the person. If one believes in the idea of a soul, then that is what I was hoping to express. I want art to be, above all, soulful.
In photography Harry Callahan had that gift and so did Henri Cartier Bresson and some others but not many. For me expression in the way I sought was very difficult with a camera because of the machine itself, the mechanical thing between you and what you were hoping to express. And that’s why, as soon as I got to RISD at age thirty and was encouraged by classmate Jenny Holzer (« If you want to paint, paint »), I jumped ship and spent the next three years drawing and painting with the support of very astute and kind teachers.
My first drawings in ink drew immediate attention. Out of my lack of experience came a direct, unfiltered, strong expression. Most of my classmates were impressed and encouraging but a few were upset because their more technically skilled works were not so appreciated. Technique is respected by everyone but not loved and technique alone is not Art, far from it.
I was thrilled to see what I could do with a reed pen and India ink and I still am. I believe strongly in what I do that way. Painting has been a lot harder although I think, after all this time, there is a sense of me, my own style and personality in my painting. It can take years to work through influences, other peoples’ ideas, before you become you as an artist.
What I might hope for is that my painting be as personal and individual as my drawing. I think that is everything I know about art. It is a special calling. Art is a rejection of materialism and comfort in order to find a deeper meaning and it comes from the belief that the individual has something special to say, to contribute. It is beyond the glitz and noise of this grinding world. It is an oasis of purity in the middle of all that. In its essence, Art is spiritual.
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