“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” – Edgar Degas
The crucial words here may be “no longer.” This implies that Degas knew at one point, or thought he knew, a way of working that he subsequently came to question. This differentiates him from those artists who either never knew what they were doing, or never transcended an accepted or conventional way of working. The first brings to mind the contemporary fashion of the “de-skilled,” involving an actual hostility or distrust of competence, which usually translates less as a renunciation of skill than as a rationale for never having had any. The second can be seen in many current products of the atelier system, where artists who understandably reject “de-skilling” look for solid ground in the practices of the 19th century academies. Degas received an education not unlike theirs, but came to feel its confines and to profoundly question its assumptions and, only then, he implies, did he begin doing good things.
My purpose here isn’t to untangle either fashionable contemporary art or the reaction being seen in new academies across the globe, but rather to apply Degas’ quote to some recent paintings and sculptures of human heads:
First: Lisa Yuskavage, 1995, Oh 2, Oil on linen, 10x 8 inches
Second: Daniel Graves, The Spanish Sculptor, 2014, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 23 2/3 inches
First: Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (detail), 1988, Porcelain, 42 × 70.5 × 32.5 inches
Second: Thor Larsen, Portrait of Niamh Butler, 2102, Finished Clay, Life size
The two on the left are served up to a relatively exclusive club of cognoscenti. Yuskavage parodies the reduction of beautiful blondes to labial orifices, blinded receptacles for male pleasure, and Koons sends up our obsessions with celebrity. Those who get the joke can join in, simultaneously critiquing and celebrating banality. Skill is either rejected or mocked, even if the Italian porcelain workers making Bubbles are fine craftsmen. On the right, is a portrait by Daniel Graves, Founder and Director of the Florence Academy of Art, one of the ateliers around the world currently teaching this approach. Discontented with the mind-set of Yuskavage and Koons, many look for solid ground in past art, not to appropriate or mock it, but to find common cause, and in this I’m entirely on board. But half of Degas’ equation may be missing, where, after a good academic education, one steps off into the deep end and starts to swim.
I can’t help wondering if these two approaches might have more in common than meets the eye. All four artists have produced something of a visual fait accompli, statements not noticeably questioning accepted assumptions within their support group. Yuskavage and Koons understand their rules of engagement, having done their post Duchampian homework, and can’t be said to care much about the mysteries of perception. They’re in the business of memes, self-replicating cultural signs that function more as illustrations of an ideated world-view than as observations from life. Artists like Graves and Larsen work from models, though may be seeing through pre-conceived filters as well. In duplicating every skin tone, in rendering every muscle, by getting it “right,” they can become somewhat insulated, reassured by accepted practice or skill. But while I, too, want to learn from our betters, I’d guess the old masters tended toward a more feisty and subversive antipathy to convention than some of the faculty at the Florence Academy; look them up on the web and see if you agree. You’ll find admirably competent work, where craft is taken seriously, and the assumption may be that students will go on to manifest their own sensibilities over time. Some have done this, particularly in sculpture, though others believe they can avoid uniformity by painting or sculpting purposely weird subjects, crowning, for example, an almost photographically rendered male model with antlers, or fastening wings on a naturalistic nude woman. There can be a dispiriting homogeneity in the sensibility and appearance of much of this work, and it risks being as smugly conventional as what I see in most galleries around the world. (I hesitate to label it academic, for that word applies to whatever is being taught in the Academy, which these days gravitates to Koons rather than Graves.)
Back to Degas, who both benefited from, and subsequently questioned, his education. Just look at his work to see this had nothing to do with becoming “de-skilled.” His was, instead, a plea for openness, even uncertainty. Years ago, the fine sculptor Natalie Charkow was asked, as an outsider, to judge the life-sized figurative sculptures produced over the course of a semester at Boston University. The students wanted to kill her when she chose the one the rest considered the most clunky, the least resolved and graceful. She saw avenues of potential exploration in the winning piece, paths that transcended getting it right, an experimental curiosity about form. She objected to the mentality that makes art into a product, a commodity designed to reassure the buyer. I’d argue that the anxiety the phenomenologist Merleau Ponty describes in his essay, Cézanne’s Doubt, was operative even for such notoriously and justifiably secure artists as Michelangelo. Study his last work, the Rondanini Pieta, and consider whether the B.U. sculpture students would have chosen it as the winning entry.
Frank Auerbach, Portrait of JYM, 1984, Charcoal on paper
Frank Auerbach has had a long career and, while less drawn to some of his landscape oils, I’ve always loved his portraits, represented here by a drawing, Portrait of JYM from 1984. If you’re starting to identify with the B.U. students who might have preferred Graves to Auerbach, bear with me. Yes, it may look a mess at first, even a bit arty with its seemingly slap-dash bravura. But this isn’t pizzazz for its own seductive sake, but a very long and drawn out investigation into how we see and, even more, feel the existence of others. Over a period of weeks, even months, Auerbach would whack away with compressed charcoal, looking for ways to convey the solidity of the phenomenally patient JYM’s form, often erasing until the paper disintegrated, even adding more to the sheet if need be. And what was that need? Not just a craving to learn as he went along, but a deep aversion to easy answers or reassuring likenesses at the expense of a discovered spatial actuality. I could respond to and learn from this one drawing for hours, drawn, say, by that line shooting like a stroke of black lighting from one eye, down around the mouth and continuing in a charged electric squiggle to the pit of the neck. In photographic records of a given drawing’s various stages, I prefer some of the iterations half way through to later versions, so perhaps like Willem de Kooning, Auerbach doesn’t so much finish a drawing as abandon it. When it comes to uncertainty, both these men belong in the camp that doesn’t just tolerate openness but demands it, preferring seeking over finding, becoming over being, process over product. It’s as if Auerbach is still working on this drawing of JYM, connecting us to him and then to his model in real time.
Marino Marini, Portrait of Emilio Jesi, 1947, Bronze, 24 x 25 x 20cm
I saw Marino Marini’s Portrait of Emilio Jesi in Milan’s Brera Museum, though the word “saw” doesn’t do justice to my reaction. It was more like a bowling ball hitting my chest, an entity radiating a take-it-or-leave-it solidity. This wasn’t a decapitated head, but a self-sufficient object, as autonomous as a meteor. Not reading the label to discover who Signor Jesi was, or when it was done, or having any interest in categorizing this work as modernist or otherwise, it was as if I’d encountered it on a rock-strewn path in Bryce Canyon, Utah. It didn’t appear, like Auerbach’s JYM, as a work in process, but seemed to have always existed, timeless and indifferent to the studio. Its asymmetry, the subtle distortions not communicated in photographs, encouraged doubt about what constitutes a human head, including my own. Not just the discrepancies of eye or nostril, but the anamorphic oblate spheroid of the skull itself, subjected to some pressure we sense as much as see. It did, of course, read not only as a glorious object but as a human being, one subject to the same existential or psychological pressures as we all experience. Far from a gilt-edged porcelain head as cultural sign, and far from reassuring (or depressing) me with its “rightness,” it was a mystery in bronze. Emilio Jesi seemed to spatially expand, both volumetrically and emotionally, while over time Koons’ Jackson and Bubbles and Larsen’s Niamh Butler come, for me, to feel static, perhaps even to shrink. Consider just the eyes in all three works. Marini circumvents convention and invents squinting slits as a correlation for vision. We’re not asked to get the joke or respect the skill, but to engage as participants, moved by an elusive poetry both other and internalized.
The ability to transcend one’s education, one’s historical moment, or the limitations of one’s talent, is rare in any age. This has always been the case, as is our need to be reassured that our behavior fits in with the proclivities and at times prejudices of our comrades. Whether we are products of the hippest art schools or the new ateliers, we want acceptance and approval, which can result in a certain homogenization. I don’t have the answers. Educated by artists who endorsed “post abstract figuration,” meaning work that was cognizant and appreciative of early 20th century modernism, my professors encouraged us to integrate rather than reject such experimentation. Teachers are aware that upon graduating, many will spend their lives regurgitating without evolving, and the more watertight the assumptions of the department, the less likely it is that students will question their program. When I taught at the University of Virginia, the contemporary art history class required for studio students made no mention whatsoever of the modernists I admire and emulate most. It was as if Vuillard, Bonnard, Balthus, Giacometti, not to mention Marini or Auerbach, were somewhere between irrelevant and non-existent. Students were explicitly warned not to go to an exhibition of Bellini, Giorgione, Titian in Washington D.C. for fear of being “seduced.” While the Florence Academy must avoid such nonsense, (the city itself is a huge museum), subtle steering is hard to avoid.
Art hints at how the artist approaches life. Koons might see everything as immensely absurd, quite literally a rich joke. Graves might feel that in getting his painted head right he’s helping to repair a broken world. Auerbach may want to feel as alive in the moment as possible. Perhaps Marini, tired of himself, craved something larger and independent of the quotidian. Who knows, Degas may have found his own skill untrustworthy or even boring. Art isn’t biography, but I’d prefer life as an Auerbach drawing, open to possibility, even at the risk of Cezanne’s nagging doubt. In medicine, researchers in vaccines deal with uncertainty by diligently doing repeatable experiments, until the results confirm a hypothesis. The artist will never have this confirmation, and has to accommodate doubt, so if this makes someone uncomfortable, they might consider another line of work. Doubt has its dangers, and can take the form of a profound insecurity and loneliness, as debilitating or hazardous as the heady feeling of certitude. Despite my ostensible attraction to doubt, certainty is tantalizing, hovering forever, frustratingly, out of reach.
With all of the problems on our horizon, from the pandemic to climate change and social upheaval (revolution?), art may be small beer. Imagined tussles, such as Koons versus the Florence Academy, may be an argument about deckchair placement on the Titanic, and art itself may come to resemble the orchestra playing until we slip beneath the waves. Also, I should insert a disclaimer, for having worked all of my life trying to make sense of my life through visual means, I sympathize with anyone doing their damnedest in such a project and questioning whether it has any influence on the larger world. We all have our biases and beliefs, and the truth is that a significant percentage of what we intend as art never really takes off to transcend its means or interrogate its premises. Much of what seems bright fades over time. We can do our best, conscious of our choices about how we live and, eventually, the work will, or won’t, speak for itself.
Lincoln Perry, Diana’s Baths, 2015, Oil on canvas, 68 x 96 inches
Lincoln Perry has worked as a figurative painter and sculptor for decades, blowing off steam by writing essays on art, some of which will appear as a book with Godine Publishers in the near future. His murals can be seen at UVa in Charlottesville, in Tallahassee’s Federal Courthouse and at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.