The painting below is The Artist at His Easel by Rembrandt. The first time I saw it was in a program narrated by Simon Schama. Art historians and commentators and critics say a lot of stuff about paintings, but what Schama said about this stayed with me. All the energy in the world is coming from that canvas. Of course logically and in the world of physics, there is a window in front of the canvas and it is reflecting the day, but even that is pretty beautiful. 

I have two paintings going now — both cranes. One is the big painting and the other is on a piece of exterior plywood; a garden sign. The person who ordered it ordered a sunflower sign in August and now wants a sign for winter. 

Last evening, I watched the second installment of Waldemar Januzsczak’s three programs on American art. It ended with Mark Rothko whose work I don’t get and will probably never get. Januzsczak centered the episode on the twentieth century phenomenon of New York City — which I don’t get and will probably never get. It’s strange that Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Milan, Zürich and Venice were welcoming and wonderful places, but New York City? I’ve been there three times and every time I could’t wait to get out. I’ve even driven in that city, but, no. It’s not for me. Still, it is an amazing place.

Some of what I saw and heard was familiar — I, like many people, went through an Edward Hopper phase and pondered, in my twenties, the problem of alienation in the midst of people Hopper depicts so well. Now I recognize that alienation is the human condition, but at 24? I’d hoped for something beyond a terrible marriage and crowds of people I didn’t know, to whom I had nothing to say. 

Edward Hopper Night Windows

Januzsczak’s favorite New York artist is a man who painted New York in the 1930s, a guy named Reginald Marsh. His work is very alive, filled with people, and the kind of crowded, purpose-driven I have felt when I’ve been in New York City. I liked Marsh’ pictures, too. (Featured photo: Twenty Cent Movies)

I saw many beautiful paintings in this episode, but the biggest thing I got was the source of much abstract art was the religion of Theosophy. The essence (according to Waldy) is that under everything there is an order, a structure, a divine reason. This philosophy/religion had a tremendous influence, apparently, on modern art and was the motive behind abstract painting. Since, honestly, abstract painting never seemed to have a “reason” behind it (for me) though I often like it, it was interesting to learn this. For a long time, this has been the most important words about art I’ve read:

“The artist must have something to say, for mastery over form is not his goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning.” Wassily Kandinsky

When a person looks at one religious painting after another in a museum that person might think, “Good God!” (no pun) Goethe was sorry all these artists had been “forced” to paint only one story. I shrugged reading Goethe’s words. How could he know how they felt or what else they may have wanted to paint? Painters paint for money and the church was where the money was and, what’s more, that was not just the “same painting” for a lot of those artists. Painting virgins, babies, etc. was more than that, possibly a spiritual thing. 

For me, there’s something more to painting than slapping paint on a surface. Way more. I’m not going to put words on it, not any more than that. 

Sadly, Mark Rothko and another Theosophist abstract artist of the era both hung themselves. The other’s life had turned into a sad country song. He’d gotten bowel cancer and was tied to a colostomy bag forever and his wife left him. It took him three tries before he found the old barn with a beam that held the rope and suspended his weight. As for Mark Rothko? Perhaps there is no why. I took all this focus in Januzsczak’s discussion as more of the same: artist’s are tortured souls who are difficult for us normal people to understand, a thread that has run through many of Januzsczak’s discussions of art. 

Maybe it just isn’t that interesting to people to think that an artist might be, as the little painting by Rembrandt, above, seems to say, happy, humbled and filled with wonder at the prospect of painting. Still, I think Frank Stella was wonder-filled and happy when he painted these. 

2 thoughts on “Joy or Pain?

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