Lecture at TAG Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, November 7, 2002.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud proposes a vivid metaphor for the way that memory operates. Imagine that memory is like the city of Rome, in that it holds many concentric rings of successive development. Now, take this a step further and think how it would be if, in a particular location, one could view, simultaneously, the current buildings and all the edifices that have previously stood in the same spot. All the memory is there, but sections are in ruins, or are blocked by new constructions, or by our choices to not recall what stood there before this time.
After some discussion, Freud discards this image of the city as a stand-in for a psychical entity because of the continual tearing down and restructuring that goes on in even the most peaceful city compared to the mild kinds of changes in the brain. Yet, I found this metaphor quite compelling and I thought, why not continue this way of thinking with a device from theatrical stagecraft? Perhaps you have seen during a stage production the effect of shining light on the front of a scrim of cloth so that it gives the appearance of a solid wall. Then, a little later, the light is moved from the front to behind the backdrop, dissolving the solid wall into transparency and revealing another scene behind the wall.
This talk will try to move the light around on the backdrops so that you can have a different view into some of the work on display here. I also will start to discuss the nature of memory -- how it preconditions the creative or viewing experience. I believe that making a drawing itself is a form of remembering because it is my way of paying total attention to the scene that I see in front me, or imagine in my mind, and encoding it in a condensed form which is convincing and has emotional power. When someone looks at my work, this strength of attention is unlocked and it becomes a shared memory. It becomes part of a set of images through which that viewer perceives the world. Perhaps you have noticed that, after spending time in the company of a strong artist's work, the world outside the exhibition seems to look like those paintings?
For many people of today, visual memory is synonymous with photographic images. Where a hundred and fifty years ago young people making the grand tour of Europe wanted to record their impressions in sketches and watercolor studies, Kodak, Fuji, and Agfa now reign. So much so that that the act of photographing can actually become a barrier to the experience of paying true attention. "Why feed scenery into a hungry, one-eyed camera eager to eat the world one monument at a time?" as Billy Collins asks in his poem, Consolation. As an aside, I sometimes think contemporary travel is so rushed and crowded, with lists to check off, that the travel experience itself is blurred rather than savored, and the photograph is the only evidence that the person was ever in front of a particular locale at all.
Now I have taken my share of traveling pictures along the way, but it is not always clear to others why the subject matter was particularly emblematic of a particular location. But, just as a photograph has the advantage of recording fast seeing, I, in a contrary fashion, favor slow seeing. This is what drawing and painting are – looking at things calmly and steadily over time until it is clear to me what it is that I am going to show. Then, there is the second stage of working on the drawing, which has little to do with the original matter, but much more to do with how the image is coming into being on the support in front of me. This part is even slower.
Again, in photography we have the fast gratification of one-hour color prints or, now, the instant fulfillment of digital imaging. Many of us have experienced the everyday magic of making a black-and-white photographic print in an open tray of developing solution. As the chemicals activate the silver salts on the paper, the image appears fragmented at first, then gels into an overall blur and then suddenly snaps into recognition. In making a painting, all of these steps are left up to the imagination of the artist.
In a philosophical context, Aristotle discusses the imagination in Book III, Chapter 3 of De Anima, when he describes the imagination as the necessary mediator between the senses, which he calls Perception, and thinking, which he calls Conception. He also explains, "As sight is the most highly developed sense, the name phantasia (imagination) has been formed of phaos (light) because it is not possible to see without light."(429a, l 1-3) Elsewhere, Aristotle writes, "Memory is, therefore, neither Perception nor Conception, but a state of affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time."
Well, let's get down to concrete cases here. I've kept sketchbooks since my student days as aides-memoires. As I look back through my numerous volumes, I can see two recurring threads: color studies and texture studies.
One of the things that I like to look at is the color of a particular condition of light. Take, for example, the first light of dawn, where the light is just sufficient to elicit a response from the cones in our eyes. These receptors are concentrated in the center of the visual field around the fovea. We have red, green, and blue cones. That's why there are different kinds of color blindness. The rods, which allow us to see contrast, or light and darkness, are scattered around the periphery. So, the best way to see color is to look directly at it. If you want to get the full of effect of, say, my drawing, Italian Summer, you should stand here, directly on center, and at a distance where the image just fills your field of vision. As I said before, steady and fixed observation is required.
Now, in terms of texture, this relies much more on the contrast part of our vision, or the cones in our eyes. We have about 125 million rod cells in our retinas compared to only six million cone cells, so we are more sensitive to texture and contrast, even in low light conditions, than we are to color. But I will leave my observations on texture to another time. Then again, I might mention that it's the simple contrast of black-and-white that allows us read letter forms as text on a page, and that this is another important source of energy for my work.
As those of you who have attended my talks before, and as the members of my reading group, know, I am a constant reader and it's curious to me how the books that I am reading seem to provide titles and context for my artwork in retrospect. In fact, one challenge I had in preparing this talk was jettisoning many of the writers that I wanted to discuss.
Two authors that have been important to me during the past months are Marcel Proust and W.G. Sebald, because their works deal explicitly with the nature of memory. I think that we can all agree that these are writers who respond best to slow reading. Of course, Proust is famous for the madeleine tasting, but I want you to think about the final image that he provides. This is not based on the taste sensation, but a visual one – "the Japanese amuse themselves by… filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it, little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape… so in that moment [of recollection] all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park… and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings… sprang into being."
As Walter Benjamin points out in his essay on Franz Kafka, unfolding can have two meanings. First, it can signify to assume the full mature shape, as when a bud unfolds into a flower. The second meaning of unfolding is to return to the original condition, as when a folded paper hat is smoothed out and returns to its quotidian form as a newspaper. I think that the artist's task of observation draws on both kinds of unfolding. At the start, one studies the knot of tissue and forecasts the blossom's unfolding. Next, one must analyze the shapes in order to comprehend the underlying structure and composition. This part is more like creating a diagram for plumbing. When I look at a scene, such as in my Banana and Palms, I am seeking to understand how the light works and how the leaf is made. I study the way the light breaks into chunks as it forces its way through the translucent leaf and how the leaf's tensile strength is revealed by the places that it has torn in the wind. As I place the colors here, I am trying to understand how the full flower is folded within the bud on the stalk.
So, if we see this task of imagination as the mediation between the sensory perception and intellectual thinking, we find the world of emotional charge being entwined with the imagination. Proust is locked within his own emotional world; his memory of primary love and the vivid sensations of childhood dominate the hero's current perceptions. He is constantly referring back to the anxiety about the primary love. As a child, the narrator is frantic that his mother might not come to kiss him good night and slowly starts to spend his entire dinner and evening, and even the daylight hours, worrying about this unwanted situation. Similarly, there is Swann's love-obsession with Odette where he plans his day to be near her, but not all the time and not soon, and holds himself apart from her as long as possible so as to savor the intensity of his longing. To this reader, it appears that the longing is more pleasurable to him than is the experience of being with her. Swann is a person whose memory of ideal forms is so overpowering that he can't conceive of himself actually falling in love with this real-life woman until he can appropriate a suitable ideal form of beauty. It's only when he can find a resemblance to one of Botticelli's subjects that he decides he is actually in love. In other words, Swann needs to place this woman in an aesthetic pattern and context before he can recognize his own emotions.
What I believe that artists seek is to show the world afresh, unhooked from the previous patterns – the cliches and the obvious. Yet, the subject matter needs to be recognizable to be understood. What is significant in the subject matter, what the underlying message is, may seem to be unclear at first to the artist, but the emotional charge is so strong that it seems worth pursuing. This is certainly the case for the eponymous lead character of W.G. Sebald's novel, Austerlitz. This character is a scholar of architecture who does not understand his own interior life. He is highly intelligent but emotionally distant from most other people, and he reveals his life story, in discontinuous episodes, to a near stranger who is perhaps just another aspect of Austerlitz himself. Austerlitz's particular interest is architectural history, especially the great fortifications and prisons of the past. He describes in great detail the old styles of forts and walls that cities would build to protect themselves against enemy invasions. But as the character himself points out, the tendency is to build greater and larger walls over time that are increasingly ineffective and only attract the enemy to lay larger sieges.
If we take these massive forts to be the symbol of the mind's own defenses, we discern the sign of a man struggling to learn the truth about his own emotional center. For Austerlitz, everyday life is laden with significance and, although he can feel the emotional acceleration at certain sites, he cannot find the human experience that engendered the original emotions. Hence is he is frozen emotionally, and unable to form close relationships with either men or women. The denouement of the novel is Austerlitz's coming to understand that, as part of the Kindertransport at four years of age, he left his native Prague, his parents, and his mother tongue behind him. He is able to make the final reconstruction of this childhood when, at the end of many clues and detective journeys, he finds his nanny. Now an old lady, still living next to his original apartment, she is like an analyst who is able to help Austerlitz make sense of his sense memories, or organize them through his imagination. For Sebald, who was born in Germany during the last months of World War II, and who spent most of his adult life in England, the issue of memory is paramount. It's not only about an individual's search for the unremembered parts of his life, but about the larger cultural issues for his native country, where the willed silence about the wartime years made parts of his life mysterious and had severe consequences for the ensuing generations.
Too much bathing in self-consciousness can lead to ineffectuality, and so can the lack of knowledge about the self. Recognizing these twin perils, I will try to steer between them as I shift the light in the scene and move from telling you about what I recognize in terms of my motivations and sources for these works to my physical construction of them via their surfaces.
With respect to surfaces, two artists come to my mind when I look over these works. They are Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. While still in my student days, I journeyed to see the work and workplaces of both of them. In recent years, I have spent several days traveling in order to view other exhibitions of their works.
Vincent Van Gogh wrote quite expressive letters to his brother, and these give us a great window into his thinking during his short but extremely productive life. His critic, René Hyghe, asserts that each artist's vision has a "secret correlation" with his own life. Van Gogh's early drawing style seems to use a sort of clumsy pushing mark. In his desire to show the strength of the emotion, he chooses gloomy and almost sentimental subjects, such as a family bible, or the potato-eaters series, or religious subjects. Even when he is copying the masters such as Delacroix and Holbein, Van Gogh is more focused on his own way of seeing and making these rather desperate marks. The subjects and landscapes seem to be in a state of agitation. Only during the last three years of his life did Van Gogh find the strong light in the south of France and his true subject matter. The dark side still shows through in some of the night paintings, such as the well-known Starry Night. The fields, the sky, and the stars are united by his way of seeing his color selection, and his brushstroke. We understand Van Gogh's triumphant and almost fearful proclamation, "I am painting infinity."
Now, if you look at how Van Gogh makes this landscape, it's all energetic strokes. Each stroke of the pen or brush shows the speed and force that made it, and we can identify the emotional emphasis with the style of a mark. Cross-hatching can be rough or delicate, dense or open. I happen to like the open hatching because it creates a sense of flickering light. It also leaves room for color mixing by the placement of undiluted lines of color adjacent to one another. This can be seen in my painting, Spring Fig, where I try to make lavender and blue and green areas jostle one another to evoke a sense of the air in spring.
Other mixing is evident in the Sixth Elegy, named for Rilke's “Sixth Duino Elegy” where he sings, "Oh, fig tree, how I've pondered you." This kind of mark relates back to the kind of jagged lines that appeared in my Thaw paintings of three years ago, where some sets of marks spiral outward from a focal point and, in other places, a mass of parallel lines express the spatial tensions between the foreground objects.
Just as Van Gogh's passionate subjectivity is similar to Proust's childish self, the seemingly dispassionate studies of Austerlitz find their parallel in another of my favorite teachers. Paul Cézanne, born only 14 years before Van Gogh, yet with a quite different sensibility. In geographical terms, his favorite landscape of Aix en Provence is not very distant from the Arles, where Van Gogh spent the last three years of his life. Cézanne once remarked that he had spent his whole painting career "searching for the edge." Of course, the edge is the opposite of infinity, a concept of a time or space without a limit or boundary. If you look at Cézanne's marks you can see they present much broader patches of color. You can understand his method of working when you look at the watercolors, which feel relatively unfinished and sketchy compared to the oils.
In the watercolor studies, Cezanne carefully places one layer of transparent wash overlapping the next, gradually building up an architectural sense of the space. His explanation, that using the fundamental geometric solids such as the cube, the sphere, and the cone could depict all natural forms, led directly to the development of cubism by Braque and Picasso. Again, the unity of vision is achieved when he finds the particular motifs, the mountain of Mont St. Victoire, the old box-like structure of the Chateau Noir, the Lake at Annecy, where the color patches and structure come into dynamic equilibrium. If you look at my works, Iridescence, or Shimmer, you can see this sort of pushing back and forth between the masses of color and the black paper.
Most of the trees shown here are from my neighborhood in the Pan Pacific Park area of Los Angeles, and a few are based on trees I encountered in Italy, in the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace. I'll discuss the Italian works first. The pictures behind me on this wall show trees that are more lithe and flexible than the thick-trunked coral trees. They seem to be feminine presences to me, dancers that are backlit. I took a number of color photographs to use as notes on that June afternoon, but you cannot find these background colors in the notes. Rather, they are created from my memory of that sensual rejoicing as we strolled through the light canopy of the wooded area after the broad sunny pathways that we had climbed to look out over the city of Florence. They bring the energy of dancers, responding to the rhythm of the music. If one can avoid the cliché of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, one might find a musical analogy of theme and variations. Similarly, Chloe has a sort of dryad feel to it. In terms of Baroque sculpture, I remember that I had been impressed, during that trip, with Bernini's amazing, unparalleled Daphnis and Apollo, where Daphnis’ transformation into a tree is so poignant as she sprouts roots from her feet, and her arms reach up to become boughs with leaves.
In contrast to this benign and sunny mood, are the first few paintings in this exhibition: The Approaching Storm, Laocoon, and The Weird Sisters. Of these, The Weird Sisters was made first. Named for the witches in Macbeth, it shows the charged atmosphere of the world being out of joint, where "Fair is foul and foul is fair." Throughout his play, Shakespeare uses images of the tension in nature to parallel the emotional tension of the play. Starting with thunder and lightning in the opening, and continuing with the strange encounters in the confusing fogs, Shakespeare builds on the idea of violent or unusual weather to evoke the sense of unnaturalness in the story. What you can see here in my work are what seem to be shadows of an unnatural color, and what are revealed to be light patches establishing the cylindrical volumes of the tree trunks.
While the models for the tree are the coral trees in the park near my home, the light logic is based on other sources, part observed and part remembered, of a certain day before a thunderstorm. There is a distinctive kind of light at such moments because there are two types of light. First, there is the high overcast, which opens up the contrast in the shadows. At the same time, some of the direct sunlight is blocked by the rapidly approaching storm clouds. This creates patches of direct light over the diffused light so that there is a layer of heavy contrast on top of the even color, providing a sense of hyper-reality to the scene. As the foreground whites get brighter, the background clouds get darker and grayer, and this gives a wider spectrum of colors than we are used to seeing.
While I photograph as much as possible during these moments, the finished picture does not rely on a single photograph, but rather a synthesis of the quality of light. The Approaching Storm shows the distinctive layering one can see at such a time. Looking north from my street to the hills, I can watch the storm approaching in successive rows of heaped up clouds. Again, while the main limbs are modeled on natural trees, the network of small twigs that cut up the sky, and make you realize the tension of this moment, are my own inventions.
Just as I enjoyed re-reading Macbeth with my high school son, I had fun when he shared his early translation of Latin poetry, specifically selections from the Aeneid. In the epic, there is a gory account of Laocoon and his children being attacked. A priest of Neptune, Laocoon, tells his fellow Trojans that he does not trust Greeks, even when they bring gifts. In this instance, the gift is the Trojan horse, dedicated to the goddess Minerva. In anger at Laocoon's audacity, Minerva sends "two enormous serpents… to the shores. Their breasts cut through the water, with their bloody crests riding atop the waves, the rest of them came after, curving in massive arcs above the water's surface." The serpents attack Laocoon's two young sons and when he tries to rescue them; the serpents fasten themselves twice around his waist and neck. His struggle to pull the coils apart and rescue his family is the subject of a famous classical marble sculpture group.
Since this is such a vivid scene, it came to mind when I was trying to decide what to name this work where the twisting tree limbs seemed serpentine to me in their power and menace. I thought that they resembled the Laocoon's struggle with the serpents. The blue sky takes on a secondary reading to me as the ocean that brings forth these terrible creatures.
And I think that you can see that there is a sort of physical struggle for me in finding the way to portray these trees. They are limb-like and it's a sort of wrestling match to get them to hold force evenly through the frame. Many people have remarked to me that they like this picture, titled Memory. In a literal sense, it is a picture of a memory because it is based on a Hibiscus hedge that edged the north side of my neighbor's house. One day I returned home to find that she had cut it all down without any warning. So, the drawing is all that remains. But its autumnal feeling evokes the recall of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, that begins,
That time of year you may in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bared ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Now, that neighbor has died, so what I have left is a picture of Rita's hedge when neither she nor the hedge remain.
This has been a year of loss for me in other ways and my intermittent studies in Judaism have helped in various respects. There are two works here that have specific ties to the Hebrew Bible. Fourth Morning refers to the days of creation in Genesis. As I've explained elsewhere, I try to imagine how things might have looked immediately after creation. In this case, the first light of dawn is revealing the first trees. As the sky lightens, our cones start to activate and we see the hint of color of the bark. This kind of fantasizing can lead to wild speculation. How fast did the trees grow? Did Adam and Eve wander among waist-high saplings or under a heavy canopy of a primeval rainforest? You can see how this kind of rumination can get quite elaborate when you actually sit down to draw a picture.
Burning Bush depicts the scene that made Moses, Moshe Rabbenu, stop and wonder how it could be that a bush would burn and not be consumed. According to one interpretation, this sight was not limited to him alone. Others had passed by, looked at the bush on fire, and gone on. Moses was the one who stopped and watched the bush for a long time. As a result of his observation, he was found worthy to be the transmitter of the Torah and a leader of his people. Again, slow looking is required to find the essence in things.
There are numerous references to trees in Jewish commentary. We are commanded to plant trees as soon as we enter the land of Israel. We are forbidden to destroy trees during a time of war. We are instructed to plant trees for the next generation to enjoy, as our forefathers planted trees whose fruit they would never taste. Planting a tree is an act of faith in the future. Unlike the flowers, the tree may well live longer than any one of us and so serve as a living memory of caring for the following generations, whose faces we may never see. When I was a child, I asked my father if he believed in God. He told me that the closest he had ever come to that feeling was when he was out in the middle of the woods. I suspect there may be a memorial aspect to my subject matter here as well.
So, I think that after this wandering discussion, you can agree with Freud that the subject matter I have drawn is multiply determined. The drawings have sources in literature, music, the works of other artists, and most importantly, in daily observation. Ideally, my talk has served as a kind of spotlight, illuminating first one area of the darkened stage, and then another in turn. I hope that tomorrow morning, when you walk outside, you will enjoy looking at the world around you, particularly trees... and very slowly.