From a talk at the Meridian Gallery on July 11, 2008
Before I talk about why and how I paint with smoke I’d like to talk a little about art and patronage, about what artists bring a community at large. This evening was arranged by Clifford and Pati Fried, dear friends to whom I extend my thanks. They are tonight's patrons.
I don’t think artists necessarily bring a calm or tranquil mood, but rather a certain amount of turmoil and confusion. Why patronize that? Edgar Wind, a wonderful art historian wrote:
“We know from the uneasy lives that were led by Dante, Michelangelo or Spenser (not to speak of Mozart or of Keats), the outward circumstances under which great art is produced are often far from reassuring. And if we look at the great patrons of art, the men [and women] of enterprise who cajoled painters and poets into production, it would seem that they were rarely distinguished by a restful temperament. Whatever the Medici, Sir Walter Raleigh and Ambroise Vollard may have had in common, it was not I believe a quiet existence.”
I think artists and collectors, artists and viewers engage not in a compensatory dance, where an artist is the Wildman and a patron the staid realist; no I think the engaging relation is to reinforce those corollary impulses in each other that encourage entrepreneurship, experimentation and risk. Francis Bacon the painter, was addicted to risk, he gambled to extreme, and had an interesting arrangement whereby his gallery would subsidize his habit in exchange for all of his artistic output. If you check the current auctions, the gallery did well to accept the risk and ante up!
It may surprise some of you to learn that I am a daily ready of the Financial Times, and in fact have had a few letters published there. I read the FT because I believe an artist has to engage with the toughest of realities out there: the marketplace as a whole. Artists should engage with the power structures of the world; I can’t bear the idea of artist as idiot savant.
I want my paintings to be a font of stimulus, not the same kind of stimulus I find in reading the FT however. I hope that my work will encourage a unique kind of imagination, a touch difficult, disturbing as well as beautiful. A painting might reveal itself to you like a new business venture. You don’t know exactly where it’s headed, but there is a belief that a reward is to be found. I believe my paintings do reward the viewer. I think they do provide dividends of a sort. These are playful ideas, but I believe and live them.
Clifford and I had many chats as young guys in college about art, literature, politics, etc. We went on our separate paths, but have remained respectful of each other’s careers. And here’s the moral of all this: we aren’t so different in our ways of thinking. We have insights to offer each other. A lawyer works in the most human of worlds: the sphere of societal and community relation. Artists endeavor to create work that has value in that same realm. We both work to create and maintain a society in which everyone’s imaginings can flourish. He just doesn’t get paint all over his clothes.
However as I look back on the years of effort since my days at Cal, it strikes me that in the pursuit of a style, a technique, a look, or whatever distinguishes an artist’s work from the crowd, there is a separate reality sought after and brought to light.
I got interested in smoke during my study of etching, where it’s used to darken the metal plate so you can see the marks the stylus makes on the clear acid resist. Isn’t that the way ideas come? We discover an unexplored avenue and follow on like a scientist looking into an obscure corner of his discipline. Richard Feynmann, the physicist --by the way I had lunch with him in high school --got his Nobel prize from an insight gained while watching a plate wobble in mid-flight during a dorm food fight at Cornell where he was teaching. I think my pursuit of the chaotic imagery spewing from a flickering flame is similar, but I doubt there’s a Nobel out there waiting for me!
I use smoke precisely because it so uncontrollable. There’s no getting around the vagaries of a torch used as a paintbrush. The slightest breeze, the angle of the canvas overhead as I apply the smoke, a bit of wet paint that lights on fire, it all happens. There’s a style of Japanese pottery called Raku, where the glazing is very random, done as the pot rapidly cools in branches, newspaper, wood scraps, or what have you. Potters use this technique to get unusual and unintended effects. Well I hate randomness like that in my work. I try to control things, but I always fail to in the process to some extent. That what I like: failing to control, but trying anyway. It’s not surprising that my wife says I’m a control freak and there’s probably some terrible psychological issue to be explored, but not tonight. In my paintings I try to do something, don’t really achieve it, but then some magic happens in the attempt. A world, a realm is created, as if by mistake. The paint, the smoke, me waving a torch around, give way to a vista, a presence, a place that I’m not sure I can take credit for, but somehow was created. If I get to that world, then I think I’ve succeeded.
Duchamp has a formula about artists and viewers: A/B. The artist is on the A side, doing his thing, putting his ideas out there. The viewer is on the B side, reading into the work, which is the slash. I can’t control what a viewer makes of a painting, since we are on opposite sides, I can only hope this talk may have opened a peephole in the that divide. Thanks for coming.