|Three Chipping Sparrows at Houston Meadow. 9x12 Acrylic Painting by Ken Januski. Copyright @2020 by Ken Januski.|
I recently stumbled upon the old documentary film Painters Painting, by Emile de Antonio(1972). I would say that of all the films I've ever watched about art this was the most influential. Now I'm sure some readers might say: oh no, those horribly antiquated old male chauvinists and all their heroic paint-splattered gestures. Or perhaps any number of other things. And some will respond: oh yes, what a great film about great artists, including Helen Frankenthaler.
I have loved seeing it again but for a different reason than many might think. It reminded me that most if not all people, especially artists, probably have formative periods where the influences of those times stick with them more than any other later influences. I have no appreciation at all of Pop(actually included in this film), Minimalism, photographic appropriation, and any of the myriad art fads/movements that have occurred over the last 50 years or more whose names I probably don't even know.
I used to always be puzzled when I read that some of my favorite artists didn't go to museums or more particularly to galleries as they got older. They seemed to lose interest in newer art. Now that I'm older I understand this better. Though there may be new art, that does not necessarily make it compelling new art. It may seem to an older artist not all that much different than various types of art he has seen in his lifetime. I recently read Matisse's take on this in the second volume I believe of Hilary Spurling's biography. He didn't criticize newer art, as I'm much more likely to do, but just said that was the nature of the world, that youth always needed to find its own 'new' way. That makes sense to me. He didn't criticize newer art. He just wasn't particularly interested in it.
All of which means I think that many artists still seem anchored by their formative period, just as supposedly James Joyce was by his Christianity. He might reject it but it remained influential even as he got older. That's what I've realized as I have re-watched Painters Painting.
The things I thought about, or maybe just felt, when I was a young artist still are with me in one way or another. So when Frank Stella, probably the fastest talking artist I've ever heard, talks about his desire to remove any sense of space, of depth, of reference to the real world in his paintings of the the time of the film it rings a bell. That's what I wanted to do in the late 70s. There just seemed to be something too quaint, cute, sentimental about including any type of subject matter. Eventually, quite obviously to anyone who knows my work, I changed my mind. But it was a goal that affected me and hundreds if not thousands or hundreds of thousands of artists at one time.
So that is what is so fascinating about this film. It's not spin. And though there are segments with art critics and gallery owners and even some collectors the film is primarily the artists, mainly painters, talking. And you feel that they are absolutely sincere. This is what they thought and felt deeply as they made their art. It's not often you get to see something like this. Even if you hate their art, and I definitely don't, I think many people who see the film will be taken by their passion and perhaps begin to see their art freshly.
On the other hand, even if they're impressed by their sincerity, they might still wonder why in the world anyone would want to remove any reference to the visible world from their work. And I can't explain it myself. But it was something that I definitely felt. And I don't believe it was because I learned this in school or in any other way. I just seem to have absorbed it from somewhere, just like many people just seem incapable of listening to classical music right now. It 'seems' irrelevant, though of course it's not.
I really didn't know much about de Antonio, the director. But I just learned that he was fairly leftist and mainly did political films. Supposedly the FBI had a large file on him. But in my recent viewing I happened to notice a couple of things I hadn't before. Like when one of the artists, I think Kenneth Noland or maybe Morris Louis, says that he realizes his work is only for very rich people with sophisticated taste. Of when de Antonio quizzes Leo Castelli about how much he makes, about the whole monetary aspect of the art business. It's just something I noticed in passing. But it made me wonder if underneath it the director didn't have some questions about who was actually buying and appreciating the work. At one point someone, perhaps Castelli, talks about the competitive aspect of collecting, where one rich person wants to keep up with another rich collector. And thus art stars are born. Though they are talented, perhaps even great artists, they're also part of something that is driven by the egos of certain rich collectors.
So I've thoroughly enjoyed the film. But it also makes me think about how hard it was for me to go into 'wildlife art.' It must represent everything that Stella was trying to get rid of at the time. It's still pretty much not taken seriously by galleries other than those that specialize in it.
But one thing I've realized over the years and that this film inadvertently affirms is that the art world is thoroughly affected by fashion. What is popular, what is new, what is obviously the next step in the development of art, really isn't. Fads and trends come and go. You might have a harder time selling something that isn't currently fashionable, or you might not get it into the most prestigious galleries but it is still art and it might very well be far better art than that that is in the galleries. There is a lot of fiction in the art world, especially the art world of rich collectors.
In revisiting my theoretical past as an artist, so to speak, it's been enlightening. It was a hard decision to go from large abstract paintings to much smaller art based on nature and wildlife. But I've never regretted it. It seems foolish to me now to want to exclude the outside world, especially the natural world, from my art. But I'm still affected by the tastes I had so many years ago. It's still hard for me to allow much if any atmospheric space in my work. I still like it to be somewhat flat, somewhat like the work of Stuart Davis in coming out at the viewer rather than receding into space. I won't go on about this. But it has been interesting to revisit the art that was so important to me at one time.
And I'm sure it still has had some affect on my newest painting, the three chipping sparrows at top.