Imagination

Imagination by Michael Newberry

Gallup, The Glistening Playground, 2009, 30 x 40 inches

Gallup, The Glistening Playground, 2009, 30 x 40 inches

Imagination is one of the cornerstones of art. Its use can be quietly subtle, or flagrantly push beyond the bizarre, or inspire generations of people to dream beyond their immediate circumstances and envision a world of possibilities.

One of the more quiet ways to use imagination is to recreate a real scene from life, yet include additional real objects to complete the idea of the work. Here, David Gallup created an idyllic setting of the Pacific Ocean replete with dolphins, birds, and surfers.

Dali, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946
Dali, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946

Here Dali uses some realistic elements and then distorts aspects of them to create an imagined world in which the unbelievable interacts with the real.

Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1881
Gerome, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1881

A variation on the unbelievable subject with the real comes from Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea. He conveys the legend of the sculpture of Galatea being so perfect that the stone turned into living flesh. Gerome does make the far-fetched scene look as if this is really happening.

Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913
Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913

Kandinsky’s Sea Battle conveys a rather freewheeling imagination – an ambiguous collection of forms and colors. Is that a strawberry or blood? A wing of a bird or a splash of water? A sail? A rock? It’s rather like looking for animals, and things in the shapes of clouds.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Delacroix in Liberty Leading the People uses a great deal of imagination in the subject, a half naked woman leading the masses in a revolt against a regime. Yet, the scene is meant to feel genuinely real–not like a surreal dream or like an impossible physical transformation.

By how an artist expresses their imagination, such as an escape, a playful distraction, as entertainment, or as a beacon, one can get some insights into the artist’s philosophy of life. And see something of your reflection as well.

I hope you enjoyed imagining art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, March 2009

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.

A New Medium for Postmodern Expression

A New Medium for Postmodern Expression by Michael Newberry

One of Postmodern Art’s important contributions to art history is cheek. But, far from being simple, there are several requirements that need to be met for a successful postmodern work.

The recent Marco Evaristti exhibition of canned meatballs cooked in his fat inspired me for a moment to see what idea I would come up with if I were a postmodernist. It would have to be a new medium of artistic expression and, at the same time, solve several PM requirements. The thing would have to be temporal; use the body of the artist in some fashion; reference an aspect of mass production; be an unorthodox medium; and use the natural force of one’s spontaneous genius (Kant).

As you might imagine, solving these demands is no easy feat.

Evaristti, Polpette al grasso di Marco.
Evaristti, Polpette al grasso di Marco. Marco Evaristti recently exhibited canned meatballs cooked in his liposuction fat.

Think about the variety of unorthodox mediums PM artists have used: straw (Kiefer); human excrement (Manzoni); elephant excrement (Ofili); urine (Serrano); blood (Quinn); islands, buildings, trees, etc. (Christo); rocks (Smithson); earth (Turrell); toenail clippings (Jones); sperm (Meste); Vaseline (Barney); mayonnaise, hot dogs, ketchup (McCarthy); and, of course, human fat (Evaristti, above).

My thoughts are going along the lines that it is absolutely imperative that a postmodernist use a medium that is unique to art, yet, is common to the human experience. The result should be temporal. Here today, gone tomorrow kind of stuff. Piffft, piffft. Something that bypasses argument and is distasteful–important PM qualities. That’s it! Flatulence. Canned flatulence. Yes. Flatulence d’ Artista. No, wait, don’t go off dismissing my idea too quickly. I think this has merits.

Newberry, 2007, Flatulence d' Artista, canned flatulence, 8x2 1/2x2 1/2"
Newberry, 2007, Flatulence d’ Artista, canned flatulence, 8×2 1/2×2 1/2″ $ priceless

Think about it:

1) It’s temporal, it instantly dissipates, there is no waiting around for weeks on end for a Christo project to come down or for Merde d’ Artista to decompose.

2) It uses the body as a stool … I mean a tool of artistic expression.

3) It’s a unique medium, and so minimalist that it’s totally transparent. There is no painting white on white. In fact, way beyond that it is almost nothing. Yet it leaves an unmistakable suggestion of our experiencing it, experiencing something subliminal, and, depending on the taste and the good sense of the audience, something sublime.

4) It’s mass produced, or at least it has the reference of being mass produced. And it is something that every human has experienced and produced, yet they have never thought of as art, until now.

5) It’s a natural force of one’s expressive genius. No explanation needed. After all, Kant has said that: “[Genius] cannot indicate scientifically how it brings about its product, but rather gives the rule as nature.” Genius in art is an explosive force with no thought about its coming about.

6) And this artwork is interactive. Say some boorish acquaintance comes along and fills your space with thoughts that smell suspiciously of romanticism. You get out your can of Flatulence d’ Artista, piffft, piffft. This lets him know exactly the position you take on that! Piffft, piffft, pifffffft.

So when it comes to Postmodern Art, be clever and use a little cheek.

Michael Newberry
New York, June 2007

Note: Sometimes it is helpful for an artist to contemplate the absurd. Michelangelo once wrote a viciously satirical reply to the Pope’s request for gigantic marble sculpture in which several massive blocks would be needed. Michelangelo outlined that if the subject were a smoking man, he could hollow out a smoke shop at the base, ground floor, charge rent, and even create a funnel and chimney, in which smoke could escape through the marble pipe. The concept of using marble as building blocks was the antithesis of Michelangelo’s prime concept that the figure is inside the block of marble waiting for the artist to release him/her.

Michelangelo wasn’t simply ranting, he was examining the aesthetic issues of the concept of using blocks to create a sculpture, and the absurd directions that it could lead.

Likewise, with my satire above, I am seriously looking at possible PM pathways, and drawing the conclusion that postmodernism is a crippling aesthetic.

MN

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art by Michael Newberry

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1923, Grey Line with Black, Blue, and Yellow

Representational painting, such as landscapes, people, and furniture, is normally viewed at face value. A flower is just a flower; a chair a chair. But the manner in which an artist uses shapes can convey more than the literal content of the painting.

Once you grasp how an artist plays with shapes to convey another layer of meaning it can open up a universe of deeper insight and, sometimes, powerfully erotic subtexts. You may never see art again in the same way.

When thinking about erotic symbolism in art Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind. The painting to the right is a detail of a flower, but it is also an excellent visual symbol of an open and flushed vulva.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
At first glance you see a flower and, on reflection, you might grasp features of female anatomical details such as the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the labia majora, and the labia minora.

O’Keeffe is making an interesting statement in associating the vagina with a flower. The vagina is to humanity what a flower is to nature: it is life-giving, beautiful, and fragile, yet resilient.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1924, Light Iris
Continuing with another O’Keeffe painting, notice that there are no sharp vertical lines here. Rather, there are organic, fluid shapes and outlines. These shapes are easy metaphors for the soft lips of the labia and the yellow bud serves for the small erectile body of the clitoris.

There is a strong sense that we are entering into the flower, but we also get a sense that inside is a whole new universe open to us.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda

A painting that has intrigued artists, such as Dali, is The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez.

This painting is loaded with phallic shapes: vertical, rigid spears, as well as thrusting weapons meant to penetrate human flesh.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Erotic Symbolism in Art

On a less obvious note, the spears in the upper part of the canvas are balanced below by phallic shapes of the men’s and horse’s legs and the vertical negative spaces between them.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

In a fantastic stroke of scope, Velázquez incorporated feminine, fluid, organic forms into the panoramic landscape. It is as if the organic landscape is imprisoned by the bars of weapons and the soft feminine mounds of earth are pressed underfoot by the rigid men’s legs.

Though this painting is literally about the civil and very polite-looking surrender of Breda, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see, through Velázquez’s use of erotic symbolism, that this painting is really about destructive rape.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Going back to the first O’Keeffe, it’s easy to see that the inner lips are made up of phallic shapes.

I find it amusing that in constructing this painting O’Keeffe used phallic shapes, not as a dominant force as in The Surrender of Breda, but in subservience to the feminine whole.

I hope you enjoyed this escapade in seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 15th, 2006

Creating Denouement

Creating Denouement by Michael Newberry

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.
Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54×78 inches.

Why this painting?

Painting Denouement was a chance to live inside glowing, colorful light and to express through art what love feels like to me.

Influences

Puccini, Polyclitus, Aristophanes, Beethoven, and Michelangelo rock my world. In their time, they were innovators with a love of beauty, humanity, and passion. Their art was a constant source of inspiration.
There were visual influences for Denouement. But most of the epic works were from “brown” painters, classic technique with a limited pallet in which dark things are brown and black hues. The French Impressionists had a fantastic sense of color harmonies in light and shadow. What I had in mind was to take the best of both and integrate them.

But there was no one work from these artists that I could use as a prototype for what I had envisioned, so I had to create a new path.

Rembrandt Danae
Rembrandt Danae
velazquez-las-meninas
Velazquez Las Meninas
nerdrum001
Nerdrum
dali1
Dali
cafe_terrace001
Van Gogh
vangogh
Van Gogh
monet119
Monet
monet.st-romain-soleil001
Monet

Concept

In 1984, I began studies on a moment of love shared. The first sketches were drawn from my imagination. In the images, you can see the glow from the light between them.

Newberry study Newberry study

Construction

Then I began to develop studies from live models for this composition.

Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

I modeled for the two left drawings, having rigged a couple of mirrors. All the studies for Denouement were from scratch – no photos.

To create glow, it would be important to backlight the guy. In hindsight, backlit objects are a bitch to draw because it is hard to see the dark stuff.

I began color studies in pastel.

Newberry study  Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

I didn’t like the gray colors. So I kept drawing pastel studies, changing the light sources, colored objects, and color of the paper.

With these pastels below, the color harmony clicked.

Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Composition

I began to evaluate my overall composition: should the man be closer in size to the woman? Should they be closer together – more connected?

Changing the guy from standing to reclining solved both the size and connection problems.
Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Newberry study

What turned out to be cool was that his new pose worked great with hers. The two of them now created a diagonal line through the composition, like the flight line of a jet taking off.

Having solved the imaging of the man and woman, the next problem was arranging all the stuff to fit naturally.

Newberry study

I relied on two-point perspective to get the perspective of the carpet right.

Newberry study

Each object had to be adjusted to fit the perspective and be the right size.
Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Spatial Depth and Transparency, Integrating it All

Having drawn all of the information I needed, there was still the small matter of how all of this information was going to fit together. I needed to create spatial depth of about 20′, every object had to fit naturally in its space, and the overall lighting had to feel like it was from one source.

I needed to develop a theory of integrating the color, light, and space. I discuss this theory in my articles : Transparency: A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting, Part 1 and Part 2. To give you a sense of the problem here is a pastel study of the lamp, and final in the painting. They are quite different. Just transferring it exactly from study to painting doesn’t mean it will fit.

Newberry study Newberry study

What do lemon green, green, and cool magenta have in common? Cerulean blue. Her arm rests in a subtle shadow, by using cerulean blue as the common denominator I was able to push the color boundaries and softly place her in the right place. This was the way I saw the colors from life, but understanding the color theory helped bring out those color connections for all the other elements of the painting.

Newberry study

I hope you enjoyed this presentation.

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.

Michael Newberry

Detecting Value Judgements in Painting

Detecting Value Judgements in Painting by Michael Newberry

A few years ago I read the book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Torres and Kamhi. I was disquieted to read their take on Rand’s definition of art, specifically about the meaning of metaphysical value-judgements. Perhaps the thing that was the most surprising to me was that their perspective on this issue is so much not the way that I experience art; either as a creator or as in appreciation, or how I understand Rand’s meaning. In a sense, their book has been the catalyst for this lecture. I hope to answer them by showing how you can detect metaphysical value-judgments in painting. But, more importantly, I hope to show you how to find and, perhaps, share the artist’s incredible passion that lies just beneath the surface of the paint.

Rand defines art as “the selective re-creation of reality based on an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements.” She states that metaphysical value-judgements are the answers to these types of questions: “Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?” The connection between these questions and painting is anything but self-evident as the authors of What Art Is admit “it is difficult to understand how [these] specific questions Rand poses would pertain to any art form but literature…”

Let’s see if I can show you some paintings that answer those very questions.

Parenthetically, Rand claims that in art criticism one should analyze the artwork without outside considerations (1975, 42). This means that the theme of a painting, for instance, should make its message clear without any prior knowledge of what the painting is about. We have to be like detectives and look for clues within the painting itself. I think it is important that I give some guidelines on how to look for these values in an artwork as they underlie the observations that I will make about the paintings.

Here are some of the guidelines for detecting metaphysical value-judgements in painting.

1. Describe what you see.

2. The canvas is the Universe. Approach each and every artwork as if it is a universe in itself. Simply substitute “universe” for “canvas” and a whole new outlook will become apparent.

a. Look for the size of humanity in relationship to the canvas. This is symbolic of humanity’s importance in the universe: is humanity larger than life or tiny and insignificant?

b. How is humanity placed within this universe? At the top, bottom or center?

c. What is the most prominent feature within the canvas/universe and what is the main focus?

d. For non-figurative work, what are the outstanding things and how are they placed in the canvas?

3. What is the relationship of subject or person to their environment? This will tell us how important humanity is in relationship to society or nature.

a. Is there a significant difference of sizes between the setting and the subject?

b. Look for the possible symbolism of the objects and/or their relationships. For example, a barrier to freedom symbolized by a chain-link fence. Or, the state buildings are all-powerful above and humanity is crushed below.

c. Is there more emphasis placed on one thing more than another? For example, is there a disregard for the setting and is all the focus on the main figure?

4. Body language.

a. What are people doing? Are they bent, awkward or upright and elegant?

b. Think about the symbolic implications of their posture: are they approaching life as a servant, a thug, or a hero?

c. What are the most notable facial features?

5. Use adjectives to describe the style, color, and light. This is not a substitute for the facts that are represented in the painting, but using adjectives first to describe a general impression helps you find the facts. We are not analyzing whether the means of the painting are good or not, merely trying to get at the mood of the piece, just as how you might describe the weather outside as cheerful or crystal-clear.

a. Is the painting distorted, smeared, vague or is it orderly, in focus, complex?

b. Are the colors murky, dull or vibrant, bold? Are they in harmony or do they clash?

c. Is the light in the painting subdued or brilliant?

d. The symbolism of light and shadow cannot be missed: are the objects or persons dim and the unenlightened? Or are they enlightened by a radiant universe?

Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60
1.Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60.

“Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable?”

In this Vermeer painting, we can clearly see that it is an interior scene with a woman going about the daily chore of pouring milk into a bowl. This scene is loaded with many refined details: the weave of the wicker baskets, the shine of a metal pot (behind her on the wall), the folds of her clothes, and the decorative images painted on the tiles that line the wall. We can even see the spiral of the flow of the milk. The woman is realistically presented with natural anatomy. She is prominent both in size and location. Notice the natural depth within the painting, she feels quite right in-between the table in the foreground and the wall behind her. The colors of things are clean and there are clear differences between the color of her arms and the colors of her clothes. An interesting element is the prominence of the light on the wall behind her, it takes up a third of the painting and it makes its brilliance felt.

Within the borders of this canvas, Vermeer projects a realistic view of people, of things, and he projects the true to life environment of space and light. This painting projects a markedly intelligible view of humanity and its environment.

Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912
2. Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912.

The universe of this Kandinsky is essentially different from the Vermeer. Here we have abstract objects in fanciful shapes. They may or may not be based on real things, such as mushrooms, birds, bugs, or dolls. But taken literally we cannot know with any certainty what these objects are; we are safer to assume that they aren’t things from reality but are simply abstractions. The colors of green, gold, blue, black, light pink are pure and there are clear distinctions between them. There is very little depth in the painting and though the colors are bright we have no sense that there is any light. The relationship of these abstract objects to one another seems to be arbitrary in the sense that there is a squiggle there, a blob here and we have the idea that they just popped up.

The universe in this painting, though clean and clear and whimsical, is unknowable to us in the normal meaning of the word. Kandinsky projects, quite literally, floating abstractions; abstractions disconnected from an intelligible universe.

Rina, Landscape, c. 2000
3. Rina, Landscape, c. 2000.

“Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?”

In this lecture, I have included two landscapes to show how we can detect value-judgements even in paintings without people.

In Rina’s painting, we have a view of a dirt road receding in perspective to a pinkish gray sky on the horizon. On the left there is a chain link fence which encloses some dark trees. On the right there are empty lots. Behind there are some telegraph and electricity poles. Notice the blurring of the images, we don’t have here the crystal-like clarity of either Vermeer or Kandinsky. Notice the colors, mostly variations on gray-browns that convey a luke-warm atmosphere even though it appears to be winter, the trees on the right don’t have leaves or are they dead? Note the that the fence blocks us off from the relatively vital looking trees on the left. This is symbolic, the beauty of nature is off limits.

Imagine that you are really in this place do you think that this road leads to happiness on earth? I think not. Everything in this painting leads to a murky despair.

Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868
4. Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868.

This landscape by Bierstadt is very different from the previous one. Notice the glowing golden light right-center and how it is flowing along the valley towards us. In contrast to the oppressive warmth of the Rina painting, here we can almost feel the last of the night chill and we can anticipate the heat of the sun’s rays just about to land on our faces. Notice the height of the purple-shadowed mountains, the reflections on the clean water, and the dewy waves of grasses in the meadow.

This is a spectacular view of the start of a new day, obviously a place that holds the promise of happiness.

Munch, The Scream, 1893
5. Munch, The Scream, 1893.

We are keeping to the same question “can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?” The Scream by Munch is one of my favorite paintings because of its emotive power and how once you see this image it never leaves your memory. But uplifting it is not. Notice how the main figure is at the bottom of the painting/universe and how the bridge is tilting downwards–these both convey the unmistakable feeling of sinking. The background swirls in such a way as to give us the feeling that we are hallucinating, it gives me the sense of vertigo. Again we have these oppressive warm gray colors throughout most of the painting and a toxic looking orange that dominates the sky. Notice that the main character is sexless and has a non-real structure as if its bones were made of rubber. This aspect adds to our unease. This figure seems to be not evil itself, but a witness to some unspeakable horror and it, unfortunately, is being drawn downward towards this vision. It is curious to note that the two figures on the bridge appear fairly normal, it is clear that one is a man the other a woman, and they are walking away from the scene.

This person is not doomed to frustration and despair but, worse, it is simply doomed.

M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751
6. M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751.

This pastel is a self-portrait and it shows a “man about town” with his powered wig, velvet coat, and his breezy air. Notice the clarity of the eyes and the genuinely good-natured expression of his smile. Incidentally, in the history of art it is really hard to find good smiling portraits; most feel as if the person is grimacing.

This man looks like he is at the height of his powers, he looks at ease, and I think happily content.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

“Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control?”

In Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix notice the woman charging forward with her out thrust arm raising the French flag aloft. Notice her location at the top of the canvas. She is inspiring a rabble of soldiers, dandies, and regular people to carry on even over the obstacles of death, which lie literally at her feet. Though we don’t know whether she and they will achieve their goals, it is startlingly clear that they are not the playthings of destiny, they are acting to fulfill their aims.

Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, 1814
8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808, 1814.

On the other side of this volitional issue, we have Goya’s painting of an execution, in which these poor men have been lead like sheep to their slaughter. Notice that in the background that the State buildings are above the scene, the implication is that the state dictates to the humans below. There is a line of faceless universal soldiers, heads bowed, carrying out their orders. The main victim thrusts his arms out in the gesture of “why”. Notice how the light box is turned towards the victims, they are bathed in its sympathetic glow while the soldiers are in the shadow. Also, notice that the color of the lightbox and the main character is identical gold and white, the implication being that he is the light.

Goya paints an empathic portrait of these victims plight but victims they are; hopeless playthings of the mysterious State lurking in the background.

T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860
9. T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860.

Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?”

Because of the complexity of and controversy over metaphysical value-judgements in painting I have used the most obvious examples I could find that would illustrate clearly how Rand’s questions relate to paintings. This example of Rosseau’s landscape, though, is not obvious. The most prominent feature here is the road, it is placed front and center and it leads into a picturesque old-world village, which is a cluster of very neat cottages with thatched roofs that extend across the width of the canvas. Notice the elaborate detail that is showered on the vegetation and the trees and how light plays upon them. The blue sky is aglow. In the center of the road is a curious figure, very small, which I think is a young girl. Notice that she appears to be waiting and she is in the shadow of the tree.

The symbolism here is very interesting. Humanity is significant in the sense that it is in the center of the universe, but humanity is very small. And that small humanity is not bathed in light but finds itself passively standing in the shadow while nature and community are bathed in light. This painting does not convey that man is to be valued as good or bad but merely small and unenlightened.

Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953
10. Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953.

This painting by Bacon is a free interpretation of a famous Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. Central to the painting is the Pope screaming in blind terror as he sits in a neon yellow colored chair. Notice his claw-like hands; in both in size and shape they resemble the paws of a monkey. The paint looks like it as been stripped in acid. He looks like he is being executed in an electric chair. Notice how his screaming mouth has bared teeth.

This figure does not inspire our sympathy as do the victims in the Goya painting, the empty eye sockets and the teeth bared in a howl are the clues that tell us that this man is filled with hatred. The painting conveys that humanity is central to the universe, but it is evil.

Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992
11. Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992.

When shown this image on a ten-foot screen at my lecture, the whole audience groaned. The next day, four people told me that they had nightmares about this painting. Saville’s painting, Branded, is a self-portrait. The oversized woman overwhelms the space of the painting. Her flesh has the rotten coloring of chicken meat that has been left out too long. Incised on her flesh are the words “decorative” and “delicate”. Her head is thrown back in a defensive gesture and her hand thrusts out a fistful of flesh in an angry statement. Notice how small her head is compared to the rest of her.

Humanity, here, is glutinous, stupid, self-mutilating and is deserving of being despised as evil.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1510
12. Raphael, School of Athens, 1510.

The School of Athens is one of the landmark works of the Italian high Renaissance. Raphael played off the idea of portraying some of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, scientists, and artists by his own contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. It is a masterpiece of visual perspective both in how the buildings are shaped and how the figures get bigger as they are closer to us. Some of the people are loners while others are in small groups. Everyone is either communicating, reading, drawing, or learning. It is an ode to the nature of creativity. Notice the light atmosphere and the harmony of the colors. In the center of the work are two men, one is Plato with his finger pointing upwards towards the heavens and the other is Aristotle gesturing towards earth. The main figure in the forefront leaning on a block of marble is reported to be Michelangelo, he is in a pose of deep concentration.

This painting is an epic depiction of humanity as creators, thinkers, doers, and students. It gives the optimistic view that our horizons are unlimited and that wonderful things await us in the future–that, in essence, the nature of humanity is glorious.

Michael Newberry

Note: This article was an online transcription of my lecture, Detecting Value Judgements in Art, given at the Ojectivist Center’s Summer Seminar in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on July 2nd, 2001.

List of paintings:

1.Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60.

2. Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912.

3. Rina, Landscape, c. 2000.

4. Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868.

5. Munch, The Scream, 1893.

6. M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751.

7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808, 1814.

9. T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860.

10. Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953.

11. Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992.

12. Raphael, School of Athens, 1510.

Images 1,2,4,5,7,8,9,10, and 12 have been downloaded from http://www.artchive.com. The others were scanned by M. Newberry.

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive by Michael Newberry

Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet
Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet

Representational art students are taught to be critical. During critiques, the stress is on the work’s problems. It is not uncommon to see students turning red with embarrassment or anger. Sometimes one will cry. Aside from a bully or two, most of them will accept the critiques as a necessary evil. “Grow a tough skin” is said to oneself and others. In the art world, only the tough survive, at least that is the idea.

Alone and long after college artists agonize over their work by aggressively focusing on their mistakes. This activity does at least demonstrate that the artist knows what is wrong, but it also serves to crush their spirit. The process doesn’t address the one question that matters most: what makes an artwork alive?

Artists could forget the primitive formal critique, let it go and change their perspective towards an inspiring way. Though this is demanding because one has to focus on solutions, understand what works, keep their eye on the big picture, and remind themselves that they are creating.

Some years ago, when I was teaching life drawing, I changed the format of the critiquing process. The artist introducing his/her work would explain what they did, and what they would add given more time. The critiquing students were required to comment on the successful parts of the drawing. A strange thing happened, the group became more confident, enjoyed the process more, and were much more supportive of one another.

Looking for blemishes in an artwork is the default response, but by focusing on what is alive, we will vitalize the critique process, open doors, and fortify artists’ creativity.

Michael Newberry
Revised, Idyllwild, April ’16

Jacob Collins, Sensuous Nature of Light

Jacob Collins, Sensuous Nature of Light by Michael Newberry

To talk about the art of Jacob Collins is to talk about his inquisitiveness.

Jacob Collins is a contemporary realist artist. He paints and draws portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, and nudes. Across the board, he imbues them all with sensuous light and an aptitude for finely wrought detail. He reminds me of a scientist who shines a light on an object to see it to full advantage. And like a scientist, he sees beauty in realizing his understanding of things. He told me “I find beauty in observing and in furthering my knowledge about light, the identity of plants and trees, and even such things as the nature of the formation of rocks and land masses.”

Currently, he is working on completing a landscape project of 50 oil paintings and graphite studies, with the centerpiece being a large landscape 50 x 100″. An exhibition of this landscape project will be on view May 8 – June 13, 2008, at Hirschl Alder Modern in New York City.

Jacob Collins

Jacob Collins

In this graphite on paper, Collins concerns himself only with the silhouette and shape of the land and tree masses, leaving the sky and water blank. This frees him to fully concentrate on details of the trees and land masses, as well as their relationships. In other studies, he has concentrated on only the water or some other section of the total image.

In his student days in the 80’s, aside from copying masterworks in Museums in New York and Italy, he studied anatomy to fully comprehend the curves and landmarks on the body’s surfaces. Integral to his figure studies is his need to see what the light is doing on the surfaces.

Jacob Collins

This drawing, a study for the painting Redhead, shows the light and dark on her body. In addition, Collins has made notations, commenting on how to further enhance the lights and darks. A painter that is working with light has one enormous obstacle to overcome: light in real life is about a hundred times brighter than the re-creation of light with paint and canvas. An artist, through paint, can’t very well shine a 500-watt halogen light in your face! One way an artist simulates light is to show the reflection of light on objects. Think of the Moon in relationship to the Sun. Another thing that an artist can do, and which Jacob has done, is to fine tune the nuances of light to the nth degree. Compare the different tones of highlights of her forehead, breast, and thigh. Once viewers have adjusted their eyes to a painting that has a great range of nuance between light and dark, their eyes will feel the brightness of the light.

Jacob Collins

I found it easy to talk with Jacob. Perhaps, because he is also an educator and a man who goes his own way. He is the founder of the Hudson River School for Landscape in Hunter, NY, the Founder of Grand Central Academy of Art in NYC, and the Founder of Water Street Atelier also in NYC. He has also taught at National Academy of Design, the Portrait Society of America, and the New York Academy of Art.

Jacob Collins

Drawing is my favorite Collin’s painting. Spreading out in foreshortened perspective are the paper and tools for drawing. Even if you are not an artist, you might have experienced the joy in going into an art store and seeing and feeling the textures of the papers, looking at the pastels and charcoals, and wondering how much fun it would be to make art. Notice the different textures and subtle colors of the papers in Drawing. You might notice the highlighted, ruffled, and delicately torn edges of several of the papers. I have fond memories of learning about different papers as an art student. One lesson we learned was to tear a really good acid-free 100% cotton rag paper to size using a straight edge–it’s a very sensual experience. Collins gets that tactile beauty of the paper down exactly.

Jacob Collins

In the painting, Candace, Jacob is doing several impressive things. One is that the composition is powerfully divided between the light and dark of the fabrics, which is echoed by the high contrast of light and dark on her body. The modeling of her body is superb. Notice the form of her left thigh, how the form rotates up to the highlight on the iliac crest, and then gently descends onto the plain of her taught belly. Her flesh-tone color is natural, rich, and subtle. Notice the pinkish fingertips, the crisp pearl-color of her breasts, the cool blue mid-tone of her ribs, and the ochre highlights of her thighs.

Jacob Collins

In Candace, and in Collins’ art in general, I cannot help but see hints of da Vinci’s attention to molding forms, Rembrandt’s hierarchy of light, and Bouguereau’s delicate skin colorization.

A funny experience I have had with musicians has been their use of the word “stagnant” to describe the form of painting. But Jacob describes light as it “bounces in soft and hard ways.” A good place to see this “bounce” is by comparing the highlight on her forehead, to the shoulder’s highlight silhouetting her chin, and to the highlight on her throat. Collins is “bouncing” the highlights through space.

The last aspect of this painting I will comment on is the exquisite detailing of the fabric. Collins painted her body first, then he set up the fabric with a mannequin so that he could paint the folds of the cloth undisturbed. By doing this, he could arrange the folds of the cloth to bring out their beauty, even down to the smallest details, and he gave himself all the time he needed do to them justice.

Many people wonder why artists go through all this work when they can simply copy a photograph. Collins volunteered that “photos are not as rich an experience as working from life.” Let’s take a cue from Collins, and enrich our lives by looking more closely at his universe of inquiry and light.

Michael Newberry
New York, April 2008
Originally published in The New Individual

Blarney at the Guggenheim

Blarney at the Guggenheim by Michael Newberry

CREMASTER 3, by Matthew Barney

A review of a one-day visit to the Guggenheim’s Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, June 2003.

The Cremaster Cycle exhibition is a project of five films with some of the sets and props that have doubled as installations. A few unique mediums he works with are tapioca and Vaseline. The cremaster is the involuntary muscle that creates the rising and falling of the scrotum.

A Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice, comments that he has loved everything Barney has done since a 1990 group show: “Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape, climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline and applying dollops of it to his body.”

He continues: “Since then, Barney has been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate.”

Nancy Spector, the curator of the Guggenheim, wrote the synopses of the five films of the Cremaster Cycle. Here is an excerpt:

Cremaster 2 embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative, moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore’s execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore’s grandfather, performed at the World’s Colombian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as  witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney,) and the life of bees—that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny. Both Gilmore’s kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are established in the séance/conception scene in the beginning of the film, during which Houdini’s spirit is summoned and Gilmore’s father expires after fertilizing his wife.

She steers clear of evaluating the work in print, merely cataloging the content.

A scene from the Cremaster 3 film was set inside the Guggenheim. It is loaded with references to Las Vegas showgirls, game shows, mythology, blood, and ambition. Barney, dressed in Scottish garb, climbs artificial mountain panels on the outer ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, reminiscent of televised athletic contests. Could be symbolic of competing for and scaling the heights of the art world? Along the way, he solves a spatial puzzle, showing aesthetic savvy. He overcomes a challenge by a half-woman half-tigress that bites him on the mouth, drawing a substantial amount of blood. Implied might be the double symbolism of Barney being Christ and the half-woman representing the predatory nature of dealers and agents? The wound to the mouth might also be suggestive that it is better to remain silent if you are to pursue your ambitions no matter how much of your life force it drains? The climax is when he reaches the uppermost heights of the Guggenheim to find a zombie-like Richard Serra, monumental minimalist sculptor, decked out in industrial garb shoveling boiled Vaseline onto the top of a mini-ramp. Then there is a close-up shot of the oozing lubricant’s downward path. Either due to the spectacle of Serra at the top of the Guggenheim or to this artist shoveling slime on the inner ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, Barney falls over the ramp to splash into a bubble bath filled with showgirls. Falling to success then leads to the denouement in which he takes revenge on the woman/tigress and kills her.

Barney is following in the wake of the anti-art aesthetic of the Dadaists, but he is dangerously close to taking his expression seriously. Barney is more like a filmmaker, but being just incoherent enough to qualify as a postmodernist. In other rooms of the Guggenheim, Barney displays props from the film’s sets, such as the scores of plastic 6-foot pillars.

Also on exhibit are some of the quite brilliant still photographs taken from the films. A great deal of credit must go to the cameraman, Peter Strietmann. He has a great eye for composition and essential details.

After viewing this superficial spectacle, I think it is a good time for us to step back, way back, and question the viability of postmodern art. There is a shift of attitude by the contemporary postmodernists such as McCarthy, Huyghe, and Barney, a nuance of difference between them and the Dadaists. Duchamp had an overpowering sense of cynicism, but he also had his wits about him. He knew and played with the fact that he was an anti-artist, note his use of a Rembrandt image as a cover for an ironing board. These post-postmodernists don’t have this type of awareness. They sincerely express, as if it were a value, chaos, morbid states, unintelligibility, temporal mediums, and an overall negative view of humanity without any sense of irony.

David Rockefeller speaking of MoMA, though he could be speaking of museums in general, says: “As for the polemics over whether MoMA should choose a period and just not collect beyond it—maybe Abstract Expressionism; Modern but not post-Modern—I feel the museum has an obligation to continue to collect into the present, to identify the best, most creative artists of today.”

Might curators and critics reevaluate the meaning of postmodern aesthetics in light of human values? Perhaps then, we would see more than “blarney” at the Guggenheim.

CREMASTER 5, 1997 by Matthew Barney

Michael Newberry
2003, revised in Santa Monica, 2011