Tag Archives: painting

Acknowledging Influence in Your Art

Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today’s  most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine.  They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August.

In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: “Hemon is … interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.””

I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.

It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don’t live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don’t think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say “I haven’t seen that before.”, then there is no reason to fear your influences.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question:

“What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?”

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso’s “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that “Guernica” was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see “Guernica” for the first time again.

Artists I Like- On Kawara

Perhaps because I am currently working on a project that utilizes photographs that I have made on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, I am intrigued by artists who have taken that approach in their own work, regardless of medium. On Kawara (1932-2014), a conceptual artist born in Japan, certainly fits that mode.  For 48 years, he would spend a part of each day making a painting that had at its center the date on which he was painting it (his “Today” series). Other creative methods he used were mapping the places he’d been, and  keeping daily lists of people he met. Between 1970 and 2000, he sent his friends more than 900 telegrams just to tell them that he was still alive.On Kawara

In the pre-social networked age that we live in today, that kind of thing would perhaps have labeled him as eccentric. Today it makes him seem to have been far ahead of his time. It’s possible that, if he were a young artist today, he would have been posting a daily Instagram of each meal, sending weekly selfies on Snapchat (without showing his face, as he was obsessively private), and tweeting his whereabouts on Twitter. Taken together, his work creates an archive of his life.

In an article on Artnet.com, critic Ben Davis wrote that Kawara not only anticipated our data-obsessed age, “he offers an alternative way of thinking about it, a possible model for how to stay human amid it all.”

That brings up the issue of the culture of sharing (oversharing?) of personal information in today’s world. For me, the most effective kind of personal sharing through one’s artwork is that in which an artist reveals just enough for the viewer to engage with, but which only hints at the deeper currents beyond. I like artists whose work makes me feel like I know them, at the same time that I realize I don’t know them at all.

On Kawara’s work does that for me. He tells us so much about himself and his life, but ultimately preserves his privacy and seems completely unknowable.  For his art wasn’t solely about him per se, it was about the passage of time. By focusing on how that passage is built from incremental steps day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, Kawara make us aware of our own inexorable movement towards the future, as well as of the past we have left behind.947-am