Fay Ku on Jules Bastien-Lepage

joan_of_arc-largeJules Bastien-Lepage, Joan of Arc, 1879, Oil on canvas, 100 x 110 inches

It was the intensity of her expression that arrested me: wild wide eyes absorbed by some otherworldly sight or sound.  One arm awkward and outstretched (is she blind? I wondered), feet grasping the earth, she is caught between being propelled forward and fixed to the spot.

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc is my favorite painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the work I return to most often anywhere.  Years after the initial coup de foudre, I find the painting now no less striking. However, as I proceeded from student to professional artist, both my attitude towards and assessment of the work altered.  I have, after twenty years, become intimate with Joan.  We have a relationship.  Each experience of looking carries with it the memory of first discovery, which affects the next viewing, and the next, up to the most recent.  The work is a compendium of memories of seeing, a compilation of my different selves that stood before it.  It has also become a personal record of failure­: what I see now is what I failed to notice the times before.

For years, I saw nothing beyond the figure of Joan.  Only when a friend declared her mutual admiration for the painting, but founded upon the wildness of the natural world matching the wildness of Joan’s expression, did I remember the figure of Joan had a context.  When I next looked, in atonement, I concentrated on the lush wildlife threatening to spill out of the frame. Its fecundity, the slightly blurred rendering and even the disarray hinted at by the loosened bodice: the physical world is erotic.  The tree limb above echoes the curve of her arm extending to fingers, while the sweep of her head follows the curve of the branching trunk. The colors of her clothes align her with teeming nature as though she is some overgrown shoot no different than the other vegetation planted in the garden.

In graduate school I absorbed the necessary vocabulary to negotiate with the final elements of the painting I hitherto ignored.  I learned to understand painting as construction and I returned to Joan of Arc to attack critically. The cottage presents its face flat like a cutout and abstract. The wall’s sharp right edge shines like a blade and demarcates the canvas into two halves. The sharp vertical cuts through the out-of-focus quality of feathery foliage and plants.  Hovering before the brilliant sunlit wall, the transparent figures of Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine materialize, barely perceptible.  St. Michael’s glinting armor is camouflaged against the wall as he raises his sword; Joan’s gleaming bare arm lifts in response to his call to arms and continues the line of his sword. With feet rooted into the earth and torso yearning forward, she meets the line of the tree behind her to form an “X.” She is at a crossroads, historically and psychologically.  Face feverish, Joan hears the call, but her body is reluctant to leave the physical world.

In the past, I ignored the presence of the saints but now I cannot help but be distracted by their appearance. They seem too insubstantial, certainly not the source of her ecstasy though she leans towards their voices; but by decoding the narrative I understand intellectually who they are. As I shift from the immediacy of purely experiencing the work to reading the work, I am taken out of directly sharing Joan’s rapture. The painting functions for me now as a metaphor for vision. Joan tilts her head as though to catch their voices but she cannot see the saints. I see the saints but also all the other elements that now crowd into the painting. The original painting is not lost: I remember my feelings at its first discovery; I remember who I was. Yet I no longer experience the work as I once did. I no longer experience any work the same way. The process that took place over a period of years with Joan of Arc is, for any other work appearing before my eyes, time-lapsed to days, even hours. I cannot help but immediately deconstruct what I am seeing.

I do not regret having become more rigorous in thinking critically about art. However, I find, when I return to the painting (and I do return often still), that I try to conjure the Joan of Arc of my inarticulate, unseeing youth. But then I remember that the voices eventually leave Joan too.

13_ghostbirds2Fay Ku, Ghost Birds II, 2004,  Graphite and ink on gray folio paper, 38 x 50 inches

Judy Glantzman on Dawn Clements

Clements_Peonies_2014_watercolor_69x93in._Susan_Alzner_photocredit-adjusted_croppedDawn Clements, Peonies, 2014, Watercolor on paper, 69 x 93 inches
Photo credit: Susan Alzner, Courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery

Dawn Clements’ giant watercolor on paper, capturing dying peonies, is achingly beautiful. Her touch is light, her eye, and hand in a lock step; the drawing is a placeholder for where the peonies once were. The power is Dawn’s intense scrutiny, the quiet power of an unnamable truth.

She inches her way across the forms, recording each petal and leaf. I love to linger on the top center; the white closed peony with the red ribbon leans toward the redder petal below, a hand reaching out for the next dance.

The peonies stand like two, heroic giants, “Before” and” After”, “Front” and “Back” as if their once beautiful bodies sag with battle wounds. The drawing is quixotic, the melancholic impossibility of containing an ephemeral life force. The paper’s folds make an irregular grid, a trellis for the writhing peonies. Gaps and overlays, paper cut out and replaced, we experience the many facets of time at the same time as we experience the drawing as one instant.

At the bottom right of the watercolor, painted in a faint wash, a hand colored, black and white photo of a woman from the nineteen thirties looks out. She may be a movie star, or someone’s grandmother. She looks above or beyond the viewer, existing in a different space, like the Greek chorus of the drawing, its consciousness, where the past is frozen in a perfection that never existed. She accentuates the artificial construct of the drawing endeavor, in the face of the “realistic” rendering of the flowers.

Behind the peonies, a vermillion triangle and 2-sided rectangle come into focus as a milk carton and other domestic objects described in Morandi-like simplicity. Dawn told me that these are actually a painting hanging at the same level as the woman’s photo, but it can read as breakfast leftovers: from the heroic to the domestic. An ochre table line is the anchor of the work, an equal sign, and a baseline. Small orange brush marks, like koi, at the mid bottom of the drawing triangulate with the woman and the milk carton. The outside edges of the peonies create a giant upside down triangle that continues to converge to a point outside the bottom of the drawing. The drawing is in continual flux.

The passage of time. The flowers bloom and die. The marks attach and unhinge from the paper, like notations on a giant calendar, with space for us, the viewer, to fill in. The drawing encompasses present, past, and, as the tender image of the 1930’s woman looks forward, the future.

In the watercolor, as in the course of a lifetime, discreet incidents accumulate and, in retrospect, become one singular thread.

Twisted_2013_mixed_media_40_X39.75__JG13825

Judy Glantzman, Puppetry, 2013, Mixed media, 40 x 39 3/4inches
Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

 

Deborah Oropallo on Marcel Duchamp

5a90b9b72ce917e689b55d32e511c646Marcel Duchamp, Network of Stoppages, 1914, Oil and pencil on canvas, 58 5/8″ x 78 inches

Growing up in New Jersey with no art in my life, I thought a painting was a sunset or a basic landscape until I was fifteen. Yet I loved etch-a-sketch, spin art and paint by numbers. (First conceptual kid art really.) They each provided a given set of parameters you had to work within as both a conduit and chance.

The first “real” painting that stopped me cold was at MOMA in NYC. It was Network of Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp, 1914, and was the first painting I had ever seen that wasn’t based on representation, abstraction or observation. It was the very first conceptual painting I had ever encountered, and it engaged an entirely different thought process that I had never considered before but felt immediately drawn to. His process involved a more systematic approach to painting yet with an element of chance and irreverence to it. All of those ways of working interest me to this day.

In 1964 Duchamp explained, “This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.” Duchamp said the work had been crucial: “… it opened the way–the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art. …For me the Three Standard Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past.”

What I discovered viewing that piece at 15 is that the experience of standing in front of great art always does the same thing to me: stops me in my tracks, points out my own limitations as to what I thought was possible in Art. These viewing moments make me reconsider emotion, or they make me uncomfortable, inspired, in awe. They change me. The first time I saw Piero Della Francesca, Philip Guston, Josef Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Ross Bleckner, Rebecca Horn, Mathew Barney, Jeff Wall, etc., I remember each experiential encounter– where I was standing, how old I was and in what solo museum show. Powerful work leaves a lasting impression, stored in your memory bank, of every work of art you have ever laid eyes on, and these particular moments almost always made me reconsider and question my own work.

As an artist you want to push yourself beyond what you know. For me it involves the combination of hand and mind, computer and camera, to find or rethink something, to make us see differently, explore materials or new orders and find a new path of imagery making. Using a computer I am able to play with a systematic approach by layering up multiple images and then randomly turning off layers, or asking the computer to numerically remove a percentage of color, then see what is left behind. I always look for ways to make the process itself more random, less destination and more encounter: the chance Duchamp spoke of. The element of surprise, like a magician’s puff of smoke, is a great thing in art and I love it every time I feel it.

DUCHAMP MEDeborah Oropallo, Bullseye, 2014, Pigment print and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 58 inches

Robert Berlind on Sigmar Polke

alice_in_wonderlandSigmar Polke, Alice in Wonderland, 1971, Mixed media on patterned fabric, 118 x 114 inches

It is one of the most cohesive compositions in Alibis, MoMA’s chaotic and often confounding Polke retrospective. What emerges first in Alice in Wonderland (1971, a bit over 10’ by 9’) is a symmetrical arrangement of printed fabrics. A central vertical rectangle with white ovals on black is flanked right and left by green, red, yellow and white repeated vignettes of a soccer game seen from above. These are within a grid leaning rightward, as though in isometric perspective. A horizontal base of white ovals on dark blue runs across the painting’s bottom and also above the central rectangle. The patterned fabrics are oddly paired, with no coordination or harmony of palette or genre. A single visual connection between the soccer ball and the abstract white discs is plausible but may well be incidental. The store-bought fabrics on which Polke painted are generally cheap, domestic decorations designed for popular, perhaps proletarian tastes, nothing that a designer would choose or combine. (Think of the interiors in his near-contemporary, Fassbinder’s films.) The white-oval pattern recalls the hand painted rasters that became a Polke staple beginning with his 1963 drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald. The soccer field fabric, unlike this abstraction, depicts the popular sport. Here it was intended for domestic consumption.

These commercial cloths, one abstract, one descriptive, serve as substrates for the white drawing that floats dreamlike over the patterned ground. It appears only secondarily: a hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting on a mushroom cap, young Alice standing on the ground behind it, looking up. The caterpillar’s body is whitish and the top of his mushroom seat is brushed with red, as are the two Amanitas below him. A few flowers are touched with yellow. Polke has projected and copied the famous illustration by John Tenniel who, with Lewis Carroll, surely intended the scene and much else in the story as psychedelic phenomena, a central theme in much of Polke’s oeuvre. On the right panel a whitish, silhouetted basketball player, also borrowed from somewhere, makes a jump shot. Athletics connects the soccer theme to the basketball player. Whatever can be the connection between the psychedelic subject, crucial to Polke’s work at this time, and popular sports?

Polke’s piling-on of low-end materials, by the way, does not feel like collage. It has nothing to do with the lucid, fugal juxtapositions of Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubism. “Mash-up” may be a better term for his method. Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, all no doubt influential, followed the procedures they devised in a consistent manner; by comparison they are classic modernists (or post-modernists if you prefer). Polke’s refusal of stylistic coherence is, but for his influence on younger artists, sui generis. His juxtaposing, superimposing, and sewing together patterns and images, his plethora of incompatible visual fields, styles, references, materials, and codes amounts to an assault on bourgeois culture. Has anyone pushed the attitude of anti-art so relentlessly? Beyond attacking notions of esthetic unities and good taste, he seems to intentionally abjure coherent communication. The Alibis exhibition’s dense arrangement amplified the spirit of distraction characterizing many of the individual works. Staying focused amid closely hung works of contrasting mediums, along with cacophonous, overlapping tracks of aggressive music, becomes a test of a viewer’s determination. The high noise-to-message ratio made viewing as irritating and engaging as confronting the chaos of urban life, attentions scattered as though in drug-induced confusion.

Polke is the only painter of his stature who, in my opinion, shows so few traditional studio skills but nonetheless makes compelling paintings, sculpture, prints, and other objects by the strength and confidence of his ideas. He simply makes one thing after another without second-guessing. Apart from such considerations, so much of his work eludes interpretation. But there is nothing, to my eye, adolescent in his rejection of traditional or contemporary aesthetic attitudes. Adorno’s thinking is certainly relevant: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter…. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Catalog essays and reviews have understandably focused on Polke’s biography and the devastating social/historical circumstances in which he grew up and worked. It follows that critical discussion of his art is content-based rather than aesthetic.

So much of his work runs counter to my personal taste and my own penchant as an artist for self-judgment that I am struck by its grip on me. Having been back several times for extended viewings, it was this discomfort that displaced my earlier intention to write on one of those much loved paintings that for years has been encoded in my aesthetic DNA.

And Alice in Wonderland is far from being the only terrific painting in the show, which in its disconcerting entirety is sure to challenge many.

Ginkaku-ji Coins #1_56318Robert Berlind, Ginkaku-ji Coins #1, 2012, Oil on linen, 54 x 60 inches
One of a series of paintings resulting from a five month stay in Kyoto in 2011.

Fred Valentine on Joan Mitchell

Plowed_FieldJoan Mitchell, Plowed Field, 1971, Oil on canvas (triptych), 112 x 213 inches
© Estate of Joan Mitchell, Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me- and remembered feelings of them, which of course becomes transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”      - Joan Mitchell

There was a reproduction of El Greco’s View of Toledo hanging in the lobby of my Catholic elementary school in Columbus Ohio. I looked at and drifted off into its sweet green hills and stormy sky for years. It was something to go to, a mind trip while standing in line and a short respite from the crushing, frustrated tyranny of the Sisters of Notre Dame. It was the only image in a sea of images that surrounded me at St. Agnes church and school that was not a constant reminder that art was there to feed our need for suffering and sacrifice. That was pretty much my impression of what the fine arts were. They were well painted and sculpted images of oppression, pain, suffering, sacrifice and plenty of spilt blood.

Years later I traveled to Toledo Ohio in 1972 (I hitchhiked back a second time) as a 21 year old art student to see an exhibit of three painters. I was excited to finally visit the place that I’d romanticized for so long. I would walk its hills and drink from its waters so to speak. Upon arriving in Toledo I was confused and confounded. I had a sinking feeling that “View of Toledo” was quite possibly not a painting of Toledo Ohio at all. And probably not painted by a painter from the Buckeye State. I share this embarrassing little anecdote only to illustrate my working class cluelessness of art and its possibilities. This was only the second museum that I had ever visited. I don’t think I knew what an art gallery was at this point. I had some catching up to do and things were about to change.

The title of the exhibit was “Fresh Air School”; Sam Francis, Walasse Ting and Joan Mitchell at the Toledo Museum. I remember the Sam Francis paintings as being stingy and washy, and the Walasse Ting paintings as being nothing but straight-from-the-bottle dyes of uninspired drips and splashes. And then there was Joan.

I am a painter because of Joan, and there are no two ways about it. It was these paintings and Plowed Field in particular that did it. I was an Illustration and Advertising major, but soon found myself teetering and peeking over the edge for something much larger and expressive. I was used to making art sitting down at a table using my knuckles and wrists. Here was an artist painting from her elbows, shoulders and knees and with a poetry that I felt deep inside my gut, heart and thumpin’ bumpin’ brain.

Each and every painting in the exhibit of hers knocked my socks off. But Plowed Field plowed into me like a steamroller flattening Wile E Coyote. And when I popped back into shape I saw the light. And that is the flat out truth. Hallelujah!

It was a triptych but unlike the ones I’d known while on my knees at mass. Those were oppressive, preachy, bloody and cruel. This was freedom and liberation and it was huge–over 9 ft. high and 17 ft. wide. What in hell or heaven was this? Its left and right panels were like arms wide open, pulling me in. It was a stage, an arena, a platform for expression and creativity. I had never seen anything like it before. There was control and a kind of loose grid and paint that at times looked as if it just landed there. It was physical. It was a workout. I knew that it couldn’t be a literal depiction of a plowed field. If it was, it was a lousy, sloppy painting of a bird’s eye view soaring over an autumn landscape. It was also not a painting that drew me in to its distant horizon like View of Toledo. How can a painting that spends its time so blatantly on the surface take me deep inside of its mojo with its dizzying slop of yellows, blues and magentas?

It was poetry and possibility weeding through all of the mea culpas and clutter of this viewer’s past. It was hope and it was beauty and it was a game changer. Any good painting or poem asks to be revisited. Whatever harvest was there was soon to be replaced with a new crop and another harvest and another crop and so on. It was generous in its scope of interpretation, invention and humanity. Some paintings are a confrontation; others are an invitation. This was both. I will say it again. I am a painter because of Joan Mitchell. Cheers Joan!

DSCN5329 (2)Fred Valentine, Mr Easter, 2000, Oil on canvas, Center panel of a triptych, 42 x 50 inches

 

Joseph Santore on Vincent van Gogh

Van_Gogh_The_Night_CafeVincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888, Oil on canvas, 28.5 × 36.3 inches

I must have been eight or nine years old when my older brother brought home a small Skira book on Van Gogh. I was fascinated by the book and remembered flipping through it over and over. Someone had given me an oil painting set for Christmas and for some reason I decided to copy the portrait of Eugene Bok. I canʼt remember why I chose that painting over all the other paintings in the book, but if I were to guess it would probably be because of the starry night sky behind the head. It certainly isnʼt my favorite Van Gogh and I canʼt say that Iʼve thought about it much over the years except to remember finishing it and that it was my first oil painting. A year or two later I saw the Movie Lust for Life staring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. The movie was directed by Vincent Minnelli and the story adapted from the book by Irving Stone. This was my introduction into the life of Van Gogh. The movie was filmed in vivid color and Kirk Douglas resembled Van Gogh and did a convincing job of portraying a tortured artist. I remember him sticking his bandaged head out the second floor window of the yellow house and screaming hysterically at the people below who were tormenting him.

Van_Gogh_Portrait_Eugene_BochVincent van Gogh, Eugène Boch, 1888, Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

It must have been in an art history class where I saw the poolroom painting by Van Gogh, The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine, for the first time. Everything about it grabbed me–the color; blocks of yellow, red and green, the swirling lights, the billiard table with a stick and three balls laying on the cloth, the clock over the doorway to the back room set at just passed midnight, the large mirror on the wall and the customers at the tables, some passed out in folded arms. But most of all it was the man in the white suit standing by the billiard table under the phosphorescent lights, staring straight ahead and seeming totally at ease in his world, a saint or sinner with his thumbs casually hooked in his front pockets. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the cafe in a letter dated August 6th 1888:

“Today I am probably going to start on the interior of the cafe where I stay, by gas- lighting, in the evening. It is what they call here a ʻcafe de nuitʼ (they are fairly common here), staying open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging or are too tight to be taken in”.

A month later he wrote to Theo reporting that he had stayed up for three nights running, sleeping only during the day to paint the night cafe.

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a pink nosegay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in the corner of that furnace, turns citron yellow, or pale luminous green. I am making a drawing of it with tones in watercolor to send to you tomorrow to give you some idea of it.”

I spent a lot of time in corner hangouts and poolrooms when I was a kid in South Philadelphia, so the painting really hit home. I later graduated to the larger and older poolrooms, the classy and cavernous places where the great shooters gathered to
hustle their game. I knew all the nighttime hangouts, the “after hours” clubs and “bust out” joints, the all-night diners, all-night movie houses, the storefront speakeasies, and the institutions like “Horn and Hardartʼs” and “Lintonʼs”. These places were filled with lonely people, drunks and dreamers, junkies, perverts, insomniacs, somnambulists’, hustlers, hookers, and lunatics. Van Gogh also said:

“I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”

The biggest surprise at Yale was discovering that Van Goghʼs The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine was part of the permanent collection in the Yale Museum right across the street from the Art and Architecture building. I visited often but somehow could not get used to how small it was compared to the size of a projected slide in a lecture hall. I was also kind of shocked by how roughly it was painted, as if he was carving into space with color. I remember Al Held saying that Van Goghʼs paintings never quite settled in on the walls of museums and that there was a strange awkwardness about the way they related to the other works around them. He said that Gauguinʼs work, as great as it was, looked much more comfortable in a museum setting.

In 1984 I saw the large retrospective at the Met of Van Goghʼs work at Arles. The Night Cafe was hanging right next to a doorway so I could see it from several rooms away. At that time I began getting tickets for these blockbuster shows for late in the afternoon. I would speed through the show then backtrack to the first room and wait for the guards to begin clearing the room. I would linger as long as possible and in this way was able to see all the paintings pretty much alone. I did the same thing in every room.
 I remember that afternoon mostly because of The Night Cafe. I had
spent over two years in New Haven and probably looked at that painting a hundred
times or more, but I never really saw it the way I saw it that afternoon when I stood on my toes a few rooms away to look over the heads of the crowd. The painting lit up like a hallucination with the light swirling so intensely that I thought I would begin to levitate from the excitement running through my whole body. I donʼt think any other painting ever affected me the same way.

I ran into William Bailey recently and we were talking about the Yale Museum and inevitably the subject of The Night Cafe  came up. He told me about his battle with the museum over the way they had reframed the painting and how the modern black frame made it look like a slide. Eventually, after enough people complained, they gave in and reframed it with the original frame.

“How did he do it?” Bill asked, “How did he paint all those great paintings in such a short time? He seemed genuinely perplexed.

“It was really just a few years,” I added. “The first seven or so were warm ups.”

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Bill said. I had nothing to add because people have been asking that same question for more than a century.

SONY DSCJoseph Santore, Titorelli’s Studio, 1990-93, Oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 22 feet

James Siena on Albrecht Dürer

Durer_1497Albrecht Dürer , Self-Portrait, 1498, Oil on wood panel, 20 1/2 x 16 inches

Known primarily for his nearly unparalleled work in engraving and woodcut (and I say unparalleled because it is equal in every way to any painting or drawing), Albrecht Dürer managed to establish a mastery making paintings that, in spite of their relative scarcity, put him at the highest rank of painters, full stop.  It’s no coincidence that this particular self-portrait (the middle one of three he painted in his younger years) sits in the Prado.  We tend to identify the Prado as the repository of the great Spanish painters such as Goya, Velasquez, Zurbaran, El Greco.  But surely the royals who put this collection together were equally zealous about Cranach and Bosch, who are represented by masterworks of the highest quality, and indeed by Dürer, whose small scale portrait practically warps the space around it with its psychedelic, synapse-enhancing power.

Psychedelic means, literally, “mind evident”, and surely this work is as revealing about the psyche of the artist as any other.  What is so significant about this particular painting is that it may be the first true self-portrait, one that examines the mind and the ambition of the young artist.   Painted after his first trip to Italy in 1494-5, the influence of Italian Portraiture is obvious, yet the work is utterly Northern European.  The inclusion of the hands (the hands dressed in the finest deerskin gloves, but more on that later), the architectural setting with a brilliant landscape, which includes farmland, a waterway, and snowy mountains, and the bold stripes of the sleeves and neckline of the jacket, repeated in the soft leather hat with tassels (and repeated again in the braided cord that holds the cape over his left shoulder), are all visual devices of Italian invention. But Dürer, in his execution of the textures and weights of the materials of the clothing, in the finishes on the window frame and walls, in the nearly perfectly rendered and teased out cascading hair, wants to say, yeah, I went to Italy, and I can do this–but I can do it better.  He is saying this not out of arrogance, but out of ambition, and a very healthy ambition at that.  He wants those who see this painting to know how he feels about himself as an artist, and as a person who is to be respected for his vision and his skills.

This goldsmith’s son wants to show his father (among many others) that his life’s work is worthy of respect, and he does this in the most audacious way:  he commissions his own portrait as a gentleman.  Here are his own words, written in 1506 in a letter from Venice:  “How I shall freeze after this Sun!  Here I am a Gentleman, at home only a parasite.”  Look at the finery he clothes himself in, the tunic crested by golden lacework.  The deerskin gloves, a typical sign of status in Nuremberg at the time.  But look, most of all, at the seriousness of his gaze, both haughty and humble, and note the irregularity of his rendering of his own eyes, one leveled at the viewer, just behind the nose, and the other, open a bit wider, and looking just over our own left shoulder.  He’s telling us something; I’m not entirely sure what, probably something about things having two meanings.  This remarkable painting is about a mind manifesting, supremely confident, but it’s also about a mind scrutinizing itself.  This is, after all, what all artists do, to this day.  Dürer was one of the first, and still, one of the best.

The inscription reads:  Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt/Ich war sex und zwanzig jor alt.  (I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old).

Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminus, 29 x 22 3:4 inchesJames Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 29 x 22 3/4 inches, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, Courtesy Pace Gallery