Insight into Art


It is not clear in my mind why I should be writing about art. Here, I am referring to pictorial visual art, although I suspect that perhaps one could extrapolate and generalize to other forms as well. Several factors have been fueling the fires under the cauldron of my concerns, anxieties and worries about why I paint and about my paintings themselves. It would be disingenuous to say that I am not living in continuous doubt wondering if what I paint has any worth, any meaning, any quality or value. Have I contributed to humanity, or have I just added more polluting garbage into the vast landfill of mediocrity?

Some art historians and critics truly believe that art is significant only if it is innovative; that an artist must invent new forms to be consequential. However, by this measure, only the artist that did the first abstract painting would be consequential to the Abstractionist Movement, and only the artist that painted the first minimalist painting would be consequential to the Minimalist Movement, and so on. But by this measure of thinking what could be said about the same artist’s creation of a second abstract or minimalist painting? Is he/she not obsolete and irrelevant after the first creation? One could logically say that after the first minimalist painting all the rest were imitators and copyists. What is there to say after the first stretched canvas painted all over with a light hue of sky blue was shown to the public? Next to it there would be another canvas painted in light brown. And then, another one painted in viridian green, etc. Well, I guess that the next artist to be recognized would be one that introduces a wrinkle in the canvas before painting over it followed by a myriad of artist painting canvases placing wrinkles in different locations with respect to the edges.

For the purpose of writing these thoughts let’s assume that in my relatively long life I have been going in and out of galleries and museums throughout the world looking at art displayed on their walls. I have done so not as a mere tourist, a superficial visitor, but as an observant person, often returning many times to look at the same paintings –often with admiration and not infrequently with envy. What has struck me is the great variety of paintings defined not only by their size but by their style, their subject matter, their composition and coloring, and even by the period or epoch in which their were executed. It became clear when looking at paintings dating from the sixteenth century, for example, that what I perceived as “quality” was not representative of all of them. In other words, museums and collectors hang on their walls many paintings that are indeed great paintings by great masters, but also many paintings by the same artists or their contemporaries that are quite mediocre, some of them one could catalogue as plain bad. So among the categories to be added to whatever one may consider excellent art, one must also add “epoch”. This is not to say that I am denigrating these paintings, but if you were to imagine an example, my point would become clear. It is the year 30,000 before the Common Era. Art is flourishing in many communities. Great artists have achieved amazing techniques and their paintings hang in many cave dwellings throughout the land. Everybody craves visual art painted over mammoth skins. Somewhere, within a cave nursery in what is now Spain, there is a group of children whose taskmaster forces them to paint, but having no skins to paint on, they use the walls of the cave. Since the community failed to make available to them the latest mammoth oil paint supplies, the taskmaster directs the children to paint on the walls using mostly charcoal and some rock powders. Thirty-two thousand years later, after humidity, fungi and fire has destroyed all the masterly mammoth skin paintings, the only art related images remaining are those executed by the cave children. We don’t know this. We only contemplate such “primitive art” in astounded amazement given that such inferior, culturally underdeveloped people created such art so long ago. Please take what I have just said in the spirit it is intended, as a ridiculous illustration, albeit very remotely possible, of what may happen at any given epoch within any given artistic community.

I do want to give another example based on real paintings by two artists that lived during the same period, one the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), the other the Dutch Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). When we confront van Honthorst’s George Villiers (1st Duke of Buckingham) and his Family, at first we may be attracted to it by the depiction of a lovely family in elegant garb and within a peaceful wooded setting. The background is dark and the colors of the vestments and the white of the shirts are bright and alive. I will not comment on the beauty of Katherine, the Duke’s wife. All seems well and yet I am bothered by something about the Duke, yet his face and vestments are nicely accomplished. I keep looking trying to find the source of my discomfort. Suddenly, eureka, I find what is bothering me. If you look at the Duke dressed up all seems fine, but if you take the vestments away leaving the Duke naked, you, or I discover that he must have had a very very long neck, one that could not have had the usual 7 cervical vertebrae, this one would require 8 or 9 of them. In other words, the basic anatomical drawing of the Duke is wrong, and it is hidden by an elegantly painted collar and vestments. My impression is not that van Honthorst was an earlier expressionist, but rather that in placing too much attention to the garments, he disregarded the integrity of the anatomy of the Duke himself. The exercise becomes easier if one studies the garments over the left shoulder of the Duke. Now, by mere coincidence, the painting of Saint Andrew by de Ribera, holds a similar position as to the left shoulder and the robe that covers it. Of course, the colors in this painting are much darker, except for the hands and face of the saint. In fact, I can even realize that the folds of clothing over the left shoulder are similarly arranged to those of van Honthorst’s Duke, but the similarity ends when again, I disrobe the poor saint. I am able to observe that de Ribera respected human anatomical proportions. I am not stressed out when looking at this great painting.

I do want to emphasize that I am not hung up in anatomical proportions; the latter are there to be broken when the artist wills it so, as was the case with both Doménicos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614) and his son Jorge Manuel Theotokópouli (1578-1631). El Greco, as the first one was known, often painted his images of humans completely distorted, and so did his son. But in these cases, the intension of the artists are quite clear. Perhaps a little bit more about El Greco later on.

Yes, without any doubt artistic progress has resulted from the invention of materials or the utilization of materials made possible by the existing science and culture of a particular period. The industrial development of canvas (be it linen, cotton, silk) made it possible for artists to have less expensive surfaces to paint on; they were able to move from painting on woods and stones, making their paintings less heavy and easier to carry around. The development of commercially produced oil paints relieved artists from the tedious labor of producing their own pigments, made it easier to carry them around and might have even propelled the so called impressionists to catch a moment of light and dark next to a river in middle France. The invention and perfecting of acrylic paints made it possible to achieve speed during the completion of a painting given that acrylics dry much faster than oils, and consequently also made it possible to paint one brushstroke over another without smearing, etc. The development of photographic equipment and later on of the electronic imaging made it possible for artists to create their art using these new technologies. It is likely that in the near future, we will be able to stimulate the brain to induce the inner perception of imagery not shared by any other person and difficult to even explain at present.

So, clearly, new techniques have let to great artistic works. Yet, what I remember of a given piece of art is not the substrate on which it was painted but what was painted over it. Now, before the critics raise their voices, let me state that sometimes the artist also intends to incorporate a special background texture within the work. In this case, the texture becomes part of the experience. Good examples of this can be observed in the paintings of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), where the viewer is not only looking at an image on the canvas, but at the carvings of the brush strokes and the vividness of the colors, and in the large paintings of Anselm Kiefer (b.1945) who often, not content with expressing just an image, makes his surfaces almost three-dimensional with the use of unconventional substances and materials, one could say his paintings are wonderfully “übertextured”.

At one point, many decades ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art came up with a series of thin and oversized art books, using paintings from its vast collection. The various art experts wrote about the genius of artists in describing the balance achieved within a painting pointing out how an empty space on the upper left corner was counterbalanced by another in the lower right corner, or a form in one area was counterbalanced in another, for example a rosy angel counterbalanced by a cuddly sheep. But then, writing of a more modern artist oeuvre, these same people talked about how the mass on the lower right corner was counterbalanced by the empty space in the upper left corner. In other words, I realized, during my teens, that there really existed no rules about art, or that if they existed, they were made to be disregarded if those that know art, the connaîsseurs, favored the art or artist in question. In fact, breaking the existing rules was and is one way to become famous and relevant.

Accept the following statement as a truism, that artists paint some kind of image on their canvases. Perhaps some, in the process of achieving a special effect, first covered the canvas with a coat of a single hue, for example yellow ochre. But then this layer was followed by a new layer –or layers– that ended up looking like a landscape. But at one point, one artist decided that covering the canvas with just a layer of yellow ochre was enough. This oversimplification of the image became known as Minimalist Art: a clean flat limited palette of hues. One of those minimalist painters was Agnes Martin (1912-2004), a holy saint, albeit schizophrenic, an untouchable saint of the Minimalist school. And any one familiar with her paintings of precise square-format grids and repeating straight faint lines doubts the infinite creativity of the art critics and experts, needs no further than to know that of Martin’s work it was said it did not embrace the technical precision that obsessed other Minimalists. The Jewish Museum in NYC mounted an important exhibit in 1967 of works by Minimalist artists. Imagine, if you must, entering a gallery where there is a large floor to ceiling canvas in the form of an “X” by Noemi Escandell. Of this construct, Art in America (2014) reported the curator of the show alluding that it could symbolize a cancelling out of the hegemonic narrative we’ve been fed about art history and Minimalism. I don’t want to drive more nails into this particular coffin, but one more won’t hurt my argument. Jo Baer (b.1929) became famous in the 1960’s for her minimalist paintings of a blank space surrounded by a band-like painted perimeter. Her works are considered minimalist not only for their emptiness, but also for the way they draw attention to spatial relationships—positive/negative and absence/presence—above subject matter.

Today we have accepted that Expressionism was born somewhere in the 19th Century. But I would like to go back to El Greco for a moment. Actually, let me start with the discovery of America. Current rewriting of history not withstanding, America was discovered by Cristopher Columbus in 1492, that is to say that the major dislocations that occurred and influenced the world as we know it were the result of his four trips to America. Clearly, America as a land had been discovered at least 14,000 years before by nomad peoples from Asia. However, the zeitgeist was ready for the major exchanges in culture, agriculture, zoology and technology at Columbus’ time, and not before. The Vikings’ arrival to America five centuries before Columbus played no significant roll in the development of the modern world, as did Columbus’ arrival. One thing I have observed during my lifetime is that no one, without exception, can win against the Zeitgeist. Which brings us back to El Greco. Looking at his paintings, one cannot think anything but the fact that they are perfect examples of the expressionistic style. His figures are deformed, his brushstrokes are strong, his colors can be phantasmagoric, and one gets the impression that he was attacking the canvas when he painted. From him to Soutine and from there to Willem de Kooning’s (1904-1997) women there is a direct line of increased freedom expressed over the canvas. And yet, the genius of El Greco not withstanding, no such lineage is apparent. Two and one half centuries where required before Expressionism could take root and develop into a sturdy form of visual art.

My essay is not intended to be a treatise on art history, but rather an attempt to communicate the almost incommunicable. By the sides of this path I have taken I have left unmentioned hundreds of great painters, some of them have successfully chiseled in my core the strength and beauty of their product. But perhaps what I have attempted to say up to this point is that artists do what they do because they do it, and a great many factors enter in the equation that will determine if their work is liked or disliked, if it is kept or destroyed.

In our society, we are now on the third generation of people who grew under the nurturing tent that all children are winners, that there are no losers, that the little hands can only create nice goodies. And I am not sure what is to be expected when these children, now adults, are determining what is good or bad art. In the future, will this period be known as mini-dark age, or as another renaissance? And to be fair, I am only talking of Western civilization; I am ignorant of all other. And even within Western civilization, there is enough variation to make it an iffy proposition to generalize –nonetheless I am.

For me, since my childhood period, art and emotion are linked. If emotion was my cord, art was the miraculous energy that made it vibrate. Perhaps it was in my genes. This is not a confessional of my childhood influences. Rather, I am intent in communicating that regardless of its origins, art has been a part of me since I can remember. I must reveal that I am including here poetry, short stories and music as well for they have had in me that same effect –as if an invisible hand played with feelings deep inside my chest. And of course, I did judge art as bad and as good. This judgment was not based on a single rule, but on many factors, all playing a role that determined if I liked or not what I was experiencing. And yes, I was aware that some art I disliked was not intrinsically bad, rather, it did not touch me. Early on I began painting and soon thereafter writing poetry, and neither puberty, nor the arduousness of schooling, or maturity was able to suppress that need –a need that awoke in me every time I had an idea for a painting or a poem. Work accumulated. At one point, many paintings were destroyed by an infestation of mold, but it did not matter for I had time on my side. This does not mean I was idling; not at all. I was quite busily involved in the world of science that often interfered with my artistic creativity. I was young. From were I stood, life, that magnificent river whose waters we see flowing majestically, appeared to have no end. But as the poet Jorge Manrique (1440-1479) wrote: “Nuestras vidas son los rios que van a dar en la mar, que es el morir”–Our lives are the rivers that go into the sea that is death; now, I find myself riding on that old raft becoming aware that I no longer can see from whence I came but have a clear view, when looking ahead, of the approaching sea. Perhaps it is this realization that has given impetus to writing this essay.

I am now painfully aware that I have produced a relatively sizable number of paintings and writings. And now I wonder if I have succeeded in any way. Often I review them in my mind, comparing them with envy to the works of other artists. It does not incapacitate me, but it gives me a sense of frustration, the feeling of grinding stones in my entrails. I can see the freedom that some show in their brushwork, or the creative choice of colors, or the mastery of their design. I often feel that within any painting I can find an area, a parcel of that canvas that is truly fantastic. Then, I look into my paintings looking for those spots. If I see them, I wonder if others would as well? I have had so little experience with public recognition that it makes it most difficult to find an answer to my question. And frankly, how much time is there? Remember that paintings are easy to throw away, to dispose of, to burn. Will recognition of their value stop their destruction?

For decades painting and writing occurred independently of one another. But some quarter of a century ago, by way of beginning my “Holocaust Series”, I began spontaneously, without forcing it, to create painting/poems. Neither one nor the other occurred first. There was no system. Sometimes only a single sentence, or a tachistoscopic image was all that popped into my mind, staying there, nagging me, festering for weeks or months, sometimes years. Then, an image, or an entire poem would occur, and once that happened there was an unstoppable desire to complete them. Each painting ended up accompanied by its poem: both could be contemplated independently from each other, but together they narrowed the freedom the viewer would have, giving my guidance to the emotional meaning of the piece. Without knowing it, I had become an ekphrastic artist. Ekphrasis also has involved my “Girl Series”, and some other works as well.

Well, I cannot claim I have invented a new medium, a new form of art. Sadly or happily, though, my only claim is that what I do comes from me, it is my creation. I never doodled. When I go to my studio I go to paint what already exists in my mind. It was and is a source of great tension, for what is in my mind needs, at the end, to match what ends up on the canvas or the paper. There is no joy in painting, only a sense of responsibility. Happiness only happens when the finished product matches or surpasses the ghost in my brain. I must confess, that I have felt much happiness after finishing some of my works, but in this confession I must also mention that sometimes I was left with some bitter taste in my mouth. And frankly, sometimes I wonder how is it that I was able to achieve a given result.

So, if you are wondering “is he any good?” All you have to do is come to my studio; it is around the corner, not too far from where you live. Just open the door and walk.

Saúl Balagura, May, 2018