Most artists have a vision that they need to express. This vision usually can't be explained adequately with words - art has its own language and vocabulary, of visual ideas, form, color, space, art history, emotions, spirit - which need to be learned by artist and viewer, in order for us to know what an artwork is "about." By educating our eye to see relationships of color and form, and art historical references, we can learn the language of art. This may not be crucial to enjoying art - but, as with other creative fields, such as music and literature, the more we know about what we are looking at, the more its meaning will be communicated to us. This can be done by looking at a lot of art - many different kinds - for a long time; as well as learning about the history of art, in books, gallery and museum lectures, etc. It is often thought that art is one of the inessential frills of life, that its purpose is simply to decorate a room, or to be beautiful. But the best art deals with the essentials of life - whether it be love, death, war, human relationships, or affirmation of the human spirit. Contrary to Madison Avenue, the most important things in life are intangible, most of us would agree - love, friendship, personal sacrifice, honor, etc. - things of the spirit. Though, in the beginning of the 21st century, many of us feel that we are technologically and materially invincible, the truth is that we still don't know the answers to the eternal and most important questions: Who are we? How did we get here? How were the universes created? What happens when we die? Life itself, and consciousness, are both awesome mysteries, that fill us with wonder, if we stop to think about them. The job description of an artist is to make us look, think, and feel, by whatever means necessary, and according to the particular artist's training, vision, experience, and point of reference.
Art can be much more than a rectangular painting on a wall, or a piece of sculpture on a pedestal. Since the early 20th century, art has continued to evolve more forms, many of which cross over old or arbitrary barriers of labels and categories. Like today's music, contemporary art wants to mix forms together, and create entirely new ones. If we ask why, can't we also ask, why not? The main objective, and distinguishing characteristic, of good art, is its expression - what it is "saying." To accomplish this communication, artists need to create freely and question assumptions about art, and about themselves and their audience.
Traditional paintings (until the 20th century) tried to be an illusion of reality - as though the viewer was looking through a window into a space or the outside world. Techniques used to create this illusion of reality were perspective, foreshortening, shading to create three dimensions, and other spatial cues to give the illusion of spatial depth. In the late 19th century, artists began to put aside this need for illusion, and with Cubism in the early 20th century, created collages which had no pretensions of three dimensionality. On the contrary, they contained real pieces of fabric, chair caning, cut paper, etc., placed in a flat pattern with no attempt at perspective or other illusion of spatial depth. Paradoxically, they were not "realistic" - yet they were what-you-see-is-what-you-get - no illusion of reality - rather, the concrete reality itself. Which is more real - the illusion of a landscape on a flat surface, or a non-illusory arrangement of colors and forms?
Also, in the 19th century, paintings were about what they were about - a landscape was just that; a historical or religious painting had a clear meaning related to the historical or religious event depicted. Or, they could have symbolic intent - 'vanitas' still lifes, for instance, were meant to contain symbols representing human mortality, and hence the temporal vanity of physical beauty, etc., in the face of eventual death, and presumably, being judged by God. In modern and contemporary art, the work may not have a "subject" in this sense, if it is abstract or non-objective. And often, the work is about art itself - that is, it is related to other art of the past or present; or its "subject" is the nature of art - what is art? what is perception? and other questions related to the nature of art in contemporary society (as in conceptual art). So often, I've heard other artists talk about one of their works by saying, "I was looking at ___________, and/or, I was thinking about __________." The first blank could be filled in with another artist's name (Picasso for instance), or a type of art (for example, Italian primitive painting). The second blank could be filled in with any number of things in the visible or internal world of the artist - from other art, to the physics of visual perception, to natural processes, to societal issues, and much more.
There is also a difference between subject matter and content in modern and contemporary art. Subject matter means what the work of art depicts, that is, what the image is. Content means what the meaning of the work is. This can be illustrated with a literary example: In the novel Moby Dick, the subject matter is a man against a whale. The content would be the extended meaning of this subject - all of Melville's symbolism, metaphor, etc. about man's existence, his relationship with nature, etc. A more contemporary example would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. The subject matter is patients in a mental hospital. The content/meaning is Kesey's view of the individual in society, the freedom of the human spirit, etc. In visual art, the subject matter in the Abstract Expressionistic painter Mark Rothko's work is rectangles of color; its content is related to spiritual concerns.
The style of artworks is a relatively superficial issue, and style labels are often inaccurate and misleading. Most artists do not fit neatly into categories of style; plus, they grow and change as artists, moving among stylistic areas freely, as many musicians do. However, there are some characteristics to certain art movements, even though some of its members may not have these characteristics. For instance, Impressionism can be said to be about color and light, though the style of Degas is very different from Monet or Renoir. Expressionism can be said to be about emotion, and perhaps suffering, though styles varied among expressionistic painters. Cubism was about space and composition, though it had several types - analytical, synthetic, and collage. Surrealism tended to be about the unconscious, fantasy, dreams and other Freudian imagery, though its artists produced wildly divergent styles of art. The Abstract Expressionists tended to deal with abstract imagery and spirit/emotion, though their work varied from Jackson Pollock to Barnett Newman to Clyfford Still.
Much modern and contemporary art has art as its subject, or at least many works comment on past or present art. Edouard Manet, in the mid-19th century, when modern art is said to have begun, used the compositions of Old Masters in his paintings, for instance of Giorgione. His paintings, which shocked the critics and the public because of their boldness and frankness, actually were meant to refer back to these painters of the past. Painters imitate other painters to: 1) pay homage; 2) learn about painting; 3) for compositional or subject ideas; or 4) make a comment or express a visual or intellectual idea. Many modern paintings are about painting - composition, color, paint handling, imagery, art history. Art comments on other art - like a conversation - over time. Like musicians, artists influence one another greatly, in a mutual fashion, answering one another through ages and places.
Music can just be about itself - how "great" it is - whether classical, jazz, rock, blues or world music - its technical and expressive excellence is the subject. When we hear great music, we know this - it is its own justification - it just IS. It doesn't have to be about something - we can enjoy a Beethoven symphony even if we don't understand what it is about - though knowing surely would enhance the music for us. I remember when the Beatles first arrived in America - the reporters kept asking, "What do you call your haircut?" One of the Beatles responded, "George." And I remember when a viewer asked an artist friend what her yellow abstracted sculptural form was; she replied, "It's yellow." Art and music don't have to have names or subjects - they just have to be listened to and looked at. Their meaning may not be expressible in words - that doesn't affect their value. Sometimes, the greater the music or art, the harder it is to express just why it is so great - because it is just beyond our grasp, not easily categorized or understood, like Cezanne. And sometimes it doesn't matter what a work of art is about. It's like a great rock song, where the lyrics are barely distinguishable - we may have a vague idea what the song is about - but it really isn't that important. What interests us most are the "beat," the sound of the instruments together (the arrangement), the melody, the vocals, the harmony, the cool guitar riffs, and the main impact of the song on us - its excellent expression, its power, its ability to move us, etc. Sometimes the subject of a song is very important - for instance, Bruce Springsteen's Philadelphia. But just as many times, the subject matter is not as important as the music or artwork itself. It seems that this is a modern phenomenon - perhaps the self-consciousness that arrived at about the same time - Freud, Darwin, Einstein - all explaining our place and configuration in the universe, making us examine ourselves.
Art is often about the visual elements: color, structure, and the forms themselves - whether organic, curvilinear, gestural, or geometric, and the underlying structure of the composition. (See Illustration below: the leaves and stems of this lily are beautifully curved; in a painting or photograph, it is these curves which are the subject, whether they represent something actual or not; and the visual relationships between the stems and leaves which are expressive.) Mondrian is an example of a modernist who wanted to use the eternally beautiful forms of geometry (rectangles) in his work, and have the beauty of mathematical proportions in the spacing intervals of the forms. There is also much beauty in visual relationships in art - such as Mondrian's mathematical proportions, or color relationships. This is like harmony in music - made up of different voices, instruments and notes - and is as powerfully expressive as subject matter or words - maybe more. For example, close vocal harmony in music - whether Boyz II Men, the Beach Boys, or celtic music - is a thrill for the ear to hear, not easily translated into words, and also has an effect on the heart of the listener. In art, relationships of proportion, color and forms to an educated eye are just as eloquent. And it can be a simple relationship - Beethoven's Evening Sonata is a simple melody, a great guitar riff is often extremely simple - this doesn't alter the quality. In art, Rothko's rectangles of translucent color are pretty simple, but they conjure up the feeling of stained glass windows with light pouring through, a powerful spirituality.
This excellence of technique and expression in the arts is its own reason for being - it adds to life and enriches us immeasurably. I believe that this kind of excellence is itself an affirmation of life, and inspires us to aim for the same excellence. This is another reason for Cezanne's greatness - his enormous effort to produce the greatest paintings possible - they are our best hope made visible, the best in us. Another example is the film Schindler's List, which made something meaningful out of perhaps the worst period in history, making something positive come from the worst negativity and destructiveness. Another powerful artwork is Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. A young student at the time, she designed something that managed to do the impossible - create a catharsis for Americans that allowed healing for all of us after the Vietnam war. Many artists over the centuries have continued to create in the most difficult of circumstances - through wars, poverty, illness, even blindness. The German Expressionist Emil Nolde painted secretly during the Nazi era, since his work was declared 'degenerate' by the Nazis. Degas and Monet both continued to paint after they were almost blind; Renoir continued to paint his happy pictures after his hands were so crippled with arthritis that the brush had to be strapped to his wrist to paint. Van Gogh attempted to continue, even though very few were interested in his works - which sell today for many millions of dollars. Cezanne, Rembrandt and many others painted in obscurity and sometimes poverty, and painted with much love and devotion, leaving us works that people wait many hours in line to see. There are many artists now who do the same.
Specific Modern and Contemporary Artists:
Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionist painter - (Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, 1903, came to the U.S. (Oregon) in 1913, changed his name to Mark Rothko, attended Yale University for 2 years, studied with Josef Albers, moved to New York as a young man, became part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, took his own life in 1970)
Rothko first painted images influenced by such things as ancient Greek vases with their horizontal bands. During the 1940's, with the world in tumult, he and some other artists began to feel that a new artistic vision was needed to express this new world, and his work gradually developed into simple abstract areas of soft color. He became part of the group later known as the Abstract Expressionists, or the New York School, who became very prominent in the late 1940's and early 1950's. His work gradually developed into horizontal, floating soft-edged color rectangles, eventually known as color-field painting. Most of his mature paintings are large and vertical, with translucent color areas softly brushed on in layers, creating the effect of luminosity, such as in stained glass windows. His intention was to create a spiritual atmosphere for the viewer, hopefully drawing the viewer's attention away from the humdrum world, and toward a more spiritual orientation to life. His work also contained a sense of the tragedy of the human condition; he wanted to create work that was timeless and spiritual, with the power of primitive art. Although he became successful as an artist, he did not feel comfortable with his fame. Personally, he suffered from depression, physical illness, and alcoholism, all of which contributed to his suicide in 1970. He felt that paintings created with visual ideas alone, without emotional or spiritual meaning, were not truly good paintings, although he did not like talking about his work - he felt that silence was more "accurate." Ultimately, his work could be said to be about the power of color - color relationships and the emotional power of color. As Albers' student, he was exposed to the methodical study of color relationships - but he went on to make color much more than a visual element - it became a very expressive element as well.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Environmental artists - (Both born in 1935, on the same day, he in Bulgaria, she in Morocco; he escaped from Communism in 1956; they met in 1958; they came to the U.S. in 1964. He had formal art training in Sofia and Prague, she completed a degree in Latin and philosophy; they create their works together, though he does the preliminary drawings)
Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon (they both go by their first name only), create large temporary environmental artworks which sometimes span great distances in the landscape, which they pay for themselves, without contributions or grants, partly through the sale of Christo's preliminary drawings, early works from the 1950's and 1960's, and lithographs. They are usually of manmade materials, mostly fabric, created in the form of large curtains, wrapping fabric, large umbrellas, and other forms, in the natural and urban environment. They work with a large army of paid workers to build these works, which often cover a large expanse of populated terrain. They also sometimes wrap things, such as buildings, as when they wrapped the Reichstag building in Germany. Their work is very expressive, of romanticism, whimsy, poetry, etc., and like much contemporary art, attempts to engage the public in a less passive way than viewing a work of art in a museum might be.
Kerry James Marshall, representational painter/installation artist - (Born 1955, Alabama; he received a B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles; he lives and works in Chicago)
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 - during the birth of the Civil Rights movement; in 1963 he moved to Los Angeles, at the time of the strong Black Panther presence and the turbulence of the '60's. As an African-American artist, this background has influenced his work greatly. His work has given homage to Civil Rights and African-American heroes, and also reflected stereotypes of African-Americans, and perceptions of black America by white America.
So - finally - art to me is not a frill. It often deals with the most important issues in life, and can affect us very deeply, especially noticed in music. It inspires us to positivity - brotherhood - survival - understanding. Leonard Cohen, poet and songwriter, in his song Suzanne, says that "there are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning, they are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever." Perhaps this sounded corny to many, prior to September 11th. Cynics can no longer say that it is every man for himself - and we have seen exactly why it shouldn't be. Beauty and truth (art) are not only necessary for survival - the truth is that the alternative reality is not livable. We have always had a choice - we do now too.
Richard Serra, Minimalist sculptor - (Born 1939, in San Francisco, California; he studied English Literature at the University of California, then received his MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree at Yale University; he has received Fulbright and Guggenheim grants; was originally a painter and filmmaker; continues to make prints and drawings, as well as sculpture)
Richard Serra makes large minimalist sculptures in steel and concrete, of simple abstracted forms. As a young man, he worked in steel mills and bridge construction, where he learned a great deal about how to work with steel. This also formed his later approach to making steel sculptures - an 'industrial' approach to creating artworks in this material. He uses sheets of corten steel, as it will not rust or decay, and also works in concrete and other materials. He wanted to create sculptures in this 'construction' manner of construction - as did David Smith, a noted Abstract Expressionist sculptor - though Serra's works are usually massive in scale. The sculptures he makes involve the assistance of computer programmers and steel riggers to actually build them. He has also made many works which were not welded, but rather depended on gravity and other physical forces to hold them together. Many of his works involve viewers actually walking through, as well as around them, and are site-specific, meaning that they were designed with a lot of thought for a particular site, often an urban site, and planned for many years before construction.
Maya Lin, Sculptor/Architect - (Born 1959, in Ohio; attended Yale University, where as an architecture student she submitted a design entry for the Vietnam Memorial in 1980, which was chosen and the famous monument executed; she attended graduate school at Harvard briefly; designed several more monuments; then focused on her own sculpture and architectural projects; she lives and works in New York City and Vermont)
The film A Strong, Clear Vision, by Freida Lee Mock, documents the events surrounding Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The story of the 21-year-old college student's controversial Vietnam memorial design in 1980, its selection, the protests of Vietnam veterans against the design, and the process of listening to complaints, explaining her concept, and the final construction of the sculpture, this film shows clearly Lin's quiet strength of conviction through this arduous process, which at times included personal attacks on her race, age and gender. Many were not pleased that a young student's design was chosen over many professional designs submitted; the fact that she was female and Chinese-American also contributed to the displeasure, particularly since Vietnam is an Oriental country. At the time, America had not yet healed its deep wounds from Vietnam, and Vietnam veterans perhaps felt this wound most deeply. Once the famous monument was constructed, however, people (including vets) visited the granite wall and were greatly moved by it, allowing for an eventual healing and catharsis that was nothing short of incredible, especially after the sturm and drang of its birth. Her feeling about the monument was that to heal, one must first accept death, and grieve. Prior to creating her design, she studied memorials of past times and cultures, and also read some journals of World War I soldiers.
Some of the ideas involved in their work:
- Christo escaped from Communism in 1961; the notion of freedom is extremely important to him, thus
in their art.
- They want feelings of love, joy, beauty, tenderness and sharing surrounding their work.
- Their work is related to painting, sculpture, architecture, and urban planning.
- They like the idea that their work is 'irrational' - that it has absolutely no practical function - just
poetical creativity, that makes people feel free and smile.
- They see their work as 'sublime and unique', as opposed to the abundance of triviality and
repetition in the world.
- They like to create 'gentle disturbances' in spaces owned by human beings - to make people
become more aware of themselves and their surroundings.
- They like the fact that their art is not just part of the hermetic world of art museums - it is in the
street, the world - in populated spaces. (NASA asked them to create a work in space - Jeanne-
Claude answered that NASA should call them back when there are lots of people up there.)
- The fabric used is dynamic, sensual and tactile, and moves with the wind, as opposed to the
static, heavy quality of bronze or steel sculpture.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are sometimes called conceptual artists - which they say isn't so, that they are environmental artists. A website created by two of their friends is interesting to visit, to see photos of their works, and information about them. They are interesting people, and want to share their work with the world, openly. A webpage of Stanford University is also informative, containing a link to an interesting interview with them. Also, see the Artist Profile of Christo and Jeanne-Claude for more information.
Minimalism began in the 1960's, partly as a reaction to the emotion of Abstract Expressionism. It deals with simplicity of form, usually geometric, and an objective, as opposed to expressive, approach. Serra's work is also concerned with art as the process and materials of art-making, rather than as a finished product. As sculpture, his work deals with space - 'articulating' the space - the space of the work itself, and its interaction with the natural or urban landscape surrounding it. Powerful in their size and aspect, his steel sculptures also stretch and bend in a way not usual in this heavy material. In an interview with Mark Simmons, Serra spoke of his art by saying that although art cannot change the world, it can potentially change the way people think, and therefore may indirectly change the world, and that maybe all art does is point out possibilities, and broaden the viewer's experience. He said art is about possibilities - the "potential for change in all of us." He took pride in the fact that often, people who don't know anything about sculpture or art, can seem to "get" his work. You can also see links to see Serra's work at www.artcyclopedia.com.
During his artistic development, he studied the work of Renaissance painters, and also the work of artists such as Gericault, a Romantic painter in early 19th century France who painted what were called at the time 'history' paintings, scenes from history, often of a passionate or idealistic nature. He was interested in the underlying (geometric) structure (composition) of these works, which he came to see as something he could use in his own work, to give the same sense of monumentality to his ideas about African-American history.
Because of this study and mastery of classical composition, and other formal explorations, Marshall's work has visual rigor and sophistication, and formally inventive compositions, concepts, and methods of constructing the image. For instance, an installation work called Rythm Mastr is based on the idea of the newspaper comic strip - a commonplace item also associated with inner-city windows - which is blended with the serious art image; his "comic"-like images were placed behind glass display cases, and lights from inside the glass illuminated and abstracted the images into a geometric pattern.
Ideas involved in Marshall's work include the 'invisibility' of African-Americans, particularly until the 1960's (as described by Ralph Ellison in his book, Invisible Man). Marshall realized that, in his painting, he could represent this state of invisibility by using the color black to paint the African-American faces and bodies, while also painting the surrounding area a near-black color, thus having the figures and ground partially merge into each other. As his work progressed, he tried to further indicate that, though these figures seemingly were alike, each had very unique qualities - the opposite of the apparent stereotype. Marshall's paintings are very well painted, and also very interesting to look at - the design and color - and also the images themselves, which are crammed full of figures and objects in a carefully planned environment. They are also painted to make people notice the image details, and perhaps think about the meaning of the work and its relationship to themselves. Check out Kerry James Marshall and his work at the following links:
Raised in Ohio by her Chinese immigrant parents, who were both college faculty professors, her father a ceramic artist, and her mother a poet, Maya grew up surrounded by art and the quiet landscape, which included nearby Native American burial mounds formed in the shape of a serpent. This earth sculpture influenced some of her later works, such as The Wave Field, made entirely of shaped earth. Many of her later sculptures have been made of water, earth, and recycled materials, such as glass, and are related to a concern with nature (the land, the environment and geology). She cites influences from Japanese and Shaker design. She also designed a Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, of water flowing over granite engraved with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., that the Civil Rights movement would not rest until "justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
She once got an idea for a sculpture while eating, and hastily made a model for it with her mashed potatoes. She is a focused, gentle person who is able to translate her ideas into strong forms.
Janine Antoni, Conceptual artist - (Born 1964, Bahamas; attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Rhode Island School of Design; her work takes many forms - sculpture, installation, video, painting, performance and photography)
Antoni creates many of her works with her own body. One painting, called Butterfly Kisses, was painted by using her mascara-covered eyelashes, blinking thousands of times to create the image. This is part of her interest in works that portray everyday things and events, in an attempt to minimize the distance between "art" and "viewer." Another area of interest is stereotypical activities of women, such as cleaning and applying makeup, which contribute to their self-representation and identity; these ideas often inform her performance art pieces. Another piece, Slumber, was composed of a weaving loom, yarn, a bed, a nightgown, an EEG machine, and the artist's REM reading, which was set up to determine by its movement the actual weaving done on the loom. Other works deal with the nature of art, defining what is the meaning of a work of art; and emotions such as desire and fear, or the internal versus the external world.
Antoni's work might be an example of how some contemporary art seems more difficult to understand, based on cerebral concepts more than on visual concepts. Work such as this certainly demands more of the viewer, often needing some background information or explanation to entirely appreciate it. Perhaps this can be compared with difficult works in other creative areas, such as Shakespeare or the composer Wagner, where such study can help decipher the meaning of the work. The context in which this kind of work is seen is also important - the contemporary ideas and attitudes surrounding its creation and viewing. If we had been asleep for 500 years, hip-hop music would seem bizarre to us, having last heard Renaissance madrigals. Read more and see Antoni's work.
Illustration - In this photo, the curving stems and leaves are beautiful. In art, as well as nature, what is beautiful are the forms themselves (in this case stems and leaves), the visual structure they form together, and the visual relationships between the forms - their coming closer or touching, or curving away from one another. In distilling the essence of the form in an image, therefore, an artist can simply present the forms abstracted (curves, cubes, spheres, lines, circles, etc.), their structure, and their visual inter-relationships as the subject and the beauty represented.