Friday, October 30, 2020

Painter Watching 'Painters Painting', with Birds

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.


No comments: