Macky Messer was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1955. He studied at the Boston Museum School with Lux Feininger, Donn Moulton and Barnet Rubenstein, at the Arts Students League of New York and at the Kent Institute of Art & Design
From 1976-1985 Messer was involved with the underground music scene in New York and Boston. Messer taught History and Theory of Art and Studio Art at education providers in London and Southeast England from 1991-2011. Under another name he has exhibited widely in London and Southeast England. He lives in Whitstable, Kent
MackyBlog: whole lotta Macky...
41: When I was a young man (and it is disheartening how all my anecdotes now begin with those words) I found a line in one of the last letters of WB Yeats where he told his correspondent something to the effect that soon he, Yeats, would at last begin to write his most personal thoughts and feelings.
Yeats wrote that in his 70s, an age which then seemed to me to be fantastically decrepit, aged and advanced. So why the long wait? I wondered. What have you been doing all this time? Why not expose those things right now? What’s the hold up?
The hold up, I know now, is that you can’t do anything until you’re mentally and technically able to do it. You can’t say what you haven't got the words to say. You can’t expose what you haven’t discovered. If art is about self-actualization then art is a lifelong project which, with luck, will yield a few morsels of self-awareness that have meaning for you and, with even greater luck, some meaning for other people.
40: Macky's Dream Team: Starting Batters - Milton RESNICK Henri MATISSE Chaim SOUTINE Bram VAN VELDE Georges BRAQUE Vincent VAN GOGH REMBRANDT Van Rijn Camille COROT Clyfford STILL Fra ANGELICO Bench - Alberto GIACOMETTI Alice NEEL Philip GUSTON Robert DE NIRO Sr Lois DODD Larry POONS Milton AVERY Any JAPANESE, CHINESE, EGYPTIAN or ROMANESQUE artist ever, the BARBIZON SCHOOL Willem deKOONING Leland BELL Giorgio MORANDI Joan MIRO Fairfield PORTER BALTHUS
39: A key chapter in my self-mythology began one day in November 1975. I was then a stoner art student who had a part time job selling tropical fish, recently girlfriend-less on grounds of adultery (hers, not mine for once), still lived at home and was, in every way, going nowhere.
That day found the boy who would be Macky staring out the kitchen window at bare trees of cold suburban street. WBCN Boston on radio playing endless boogie (including protracted harmonica freakout) by local heroes the James Montgomery Band about trains and someone's urgent need to get on one and ride that train somewhere and when that boring bucket of watered down blues eventually honked to an end it was followed by something I’d never heard before by someone I’d never heard of.
“The boy looked At Johnny. Johnny wanted to run but the movie kept movin’…” It was Land from the first album by Patti Smith. I stood there all attention, all ears. She was talking to me:
...Then he cries, then he screams, saying
Life is full of pain, I'm cruisin' through my brain
And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud,
Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,
And go Johnny go, and do the Watusi, oh do the Watusi…
What the hell was this? Rough, unfinished sound. Basic, real basic, musicianship. Smart words delivered with swagger.
Must know more! Got shoes. Coat. Got 96 bus to Cambridge. Hustled over to Harvard Coop Record Department. Located album. Beheld amazing Mapplethorpe androgyne portrait of PS and fell instantly in love.
Wherever she was, wherever this music was, I needed to be there. With urgent certainty I absolutely knew this.
Two months later I’d saved a few hundred bucks, dropped out of Art School, quit my job and moved to NYC. Found room on West 31st Street. Found Bowery. Found CBGB.
Can even now recall vague initiation thrill when I pushed that door open for the first of many times. Even for 1970s New York, even for the Bowery, the place was a dump. Looked like they'd been burgled. Nothing was any better than it needed to be. Everything was dirty, brown, old. Long old dirty brown bar on the right. Dirty old brown seats and tables to the left. Inadequate rickety stage with ugly photo blow-ups of 1890s vaudeville people to the side. Pool table (they took that out later). Hardly any people (they added them later).
Got a beer (long neck Budweiser - it was all they had and I didn't know any better then) and looked around and it all looked good to me so there I was and there I’d be night after night, at the start of a social adventure that would last for ten years and still goes on today.
Goes on because I really meant it. Not a phase nor a fashion. I believed in what people were singing and playing about and how they sang and played it. That feeling has stayed with me, though it's so long ago now.
Oh I learned my lesson alright. Spontaneity. First thought best thought, if it's thought at all. Tension between control and its absence. Art requires risk. Release good. Inhibition bad.
If you think that sounds easy, just fucking try it. You'll soon find out how full of shit and how big a coward you really are. You'll be frightened and surprised at by the invisible chains which entangle you. You'll find out how much easier and acceptable it is to tell lies than to tell the truth as you know it.
Easy to state this stuff in words. Much harder to put into practice. But I learned how to try and I tried and I'm still trying.
And I might have never have learned these things, might have missed it all if I'd switched off the radio in the middle of someone's boring harmonica solo one cold day in 1975.
But I didn't and my life was made better. And for that I'm grateful.
38. 'The value of a work of art, what we call its beauty, lies, generally speaking, in its power to bestow happiness' - Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, 1907
37. Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) La Jolie Rousse (translated MM)
Here you see a sensible man
Who knows life and what a living man can know of death
Who has known the miseries and joys of love
Who has known sometimes how to impose his ideas
Knows a few languages
Travelled around a good bit
Who has seen war in the artillery and the infantry
Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform
Who lost so many friends in that awful struggle
I know of the ancient and the new as much as one man can know
And without bothering about this war today
Between us and for us my friends
I stand to judge this long quarrel between tradition and imagination
Between Order and Adventure
You whose mouth is shaped in the image of God’s mouth
Mouth which is order itself
Judge kindly when you compare us
With those who were the perfection of order
We who seek everywhere for adventure
We are not your enemies
We who want to give to ourselves vast and strange domains
Where mystery flowers into any hands that long for it
Where there are new fires colors never seen before
A thousand impossible fantasies which must be made real
We want to explore kindness enormous country where everything is silent
And also there is time which anyone can banish or call home
Pity us who fight always on the frontiers
Of the unlimited and the future
Pity our mistakes pity our sins
Here is summer the violent season
And now my youth is as dead as springtime
Oh Sun it is the time of ardent reason
And I wait
To follow the forms she takes noble and kind
So I may love her only
She comes and draws me as the magnet draws the iron
She has the lovely aspect
Of a pretty redhead
Her hair is golden you would say
A beautiful lightning flash that goes on and on
Or the flames that spread their feathers in wilting tea roses
But laugh at me laugh
Men everywhere especially men from here
For there are so many things that I do not dare to tell you
So many things that you would not let me say
Have pity on me
Half-Polish half-Italian bastard with a fake name. Opium smoker. Pornographer. Journalist. Art critic. Poet. Playwright. Novelist. Accused thief of the Mona Lisa. Disappointed lover. Ardent friend. Brave soldier. Devoted husband.
Dying, he seized with his last strength the doctor’s arm: Save me, doctor. I want to live. I have so much still to say.
And he did and he still does. I translated his beautiful words to honour his memory.
36. Danny LoRusso 1953-2015: Danny, when you died we sat in the garden under the apple trees and talked about you. When you've known someone for more than forty years there's a lot to say. I told Carolyn stories about our ancient misdemeanours and she patiently pretended that she hadn't heard them all before. I talked about how much I'd been looking forward to seeing you again and now that would never happen but how happy and proud I was that you had made such a success of your amazing models.
I said that I wanted to make some pictures for you and Carolyn worried that they would turn out gloomy. Well, I made them and I don't think they're too gloomy. They're quiet, they're autumnal but they're not sad since I've got no sad memories of our friendship. In memory I see us and I hear our voices and we're always laughing and always young.
Your pictures are on Page 1, Dan. Top rows...here's a few. See you soon.
35. In the punk days, before money and heroin ruined everything, kids tried to make the kind of music we wanted to hear because fucking Rod Stewart and fucking Elton John and the fucking Bee Gees and all that giant record company corporate MOR bullshit sure as hell wasn't getting the fucking job done. And that's normal. We thought it was exceptional because it was happening to us but it's not.
Writers write the books they want to read. Composers compose the music they want to hear.
And painters paint the pictures they want to look at. It would be great if someone would take me off the hook and paint the kind of pictures I want to see for me.
Then it would be all about aesthetic contemplation and the livin' would be easy and I could just put my big feet up and take it easy looking at someone else's stuff. But since no one can make the pictures I see in my head I have to try to make them myself.
Slow paintings. Not slow to make- slow to look at. Paintings that can take a lot of looking. Paintings that are very simple and very rich at the same time. Paintings that are direct. Those are the kind of paintings I admire and want to make.
My "work", such as it is, is about choosing/mixing the colours, transferring them from one place to another, manipulating the material, and knowing when to stop and when not to stop. Which makes it all sound really simple and easy...but it ain't. I wish it was.
And knowing when to stop is the hardest part. Always five minutes too early or ten minutes too late. Every artist knows that unhappy Naaaarrrr sound you make to yourself when you've just fucked it up. Every artist knows that sad little studio dance of three contemplative steps backward and two ill-judged steps forward cha cha cha.
34. Beat Manifesto: Allusion beats Interpretation. Interpretation beats Description. Description beats Nothing.
33."Before it is a war horse, a nude woman or some kind of anecdote, a painting is first of all a flat surface covered in colours assembled in a certain order" according to Maurice Denis' famous formulation, and no one should argue with a Nabis but even before it's any of those things, a painting is an object which is painted with paint.
Paint! Every painter is in love with painting and the act of painting, but some painters are in love with paint. And why not? Paint, oil paint in particular, is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Oil paint is luscious. It looks like ice cream. You want to eat it.
Top artist Mark Howland
saw a photo of me near-sightedly peering, nose an inch from the canvas, at a Braque in the Metropolitan Museum.
"So did you lick it? he laughed, which is very much a painterly painter's comment. How anyone can take this gorgeous stuff and make the awful, dead, dull things out of it that some people do just beats me.
Acrylic is a problem. The dopey, backward bastard of technology and impatience. Wet, it looks great. Dry, it looks awful. The only time it looks any good is when it's diluted or glazed. It's a tough challenge to find some way to get this bleh material, which is like coloured glue (and made from water and boring polymers instead of interesting oils and minerals) to take life.
Macky made the pictures and Roger Jarrett made this sedicimtych...
32. Something I learned from Barney Rubenstein, because his own work demonstrated it so comprehensively, is that you can do anything you want so long as its an honest investigation. Art's not progressive. There's no Old Art or New Art. There's only Good Art or Bad Art and all good art is always good in the same ways and for the same reasons and all bad art is bad for ditto.
And the way you tell Good from Bad is that Good arouses the sensation of pleasure and Bad arouses nothing but disgust. For me another test is that if it's any Good I want to possess it or I wish that I'd done it myself.
Art journalists, being non-artists, mostly talk about What's New instead of What's Good and about What's Expensive rather than What's Valuable. And Cultural Studies are taught either as a complete mash up of somethings from everywhere, with everything holding equal value, or as advocacy on the professor's part for some specialist thing they think is important and want to impose upon their captive audience or as a Long March toward enlightened freedom and perfect self-actualization (but what if the goal of art isn't self-actualization? What then? It isn't for most of the world and never has been. Oh no! What do we do?)
And each art era has a certain "look" which reflects the collective bad taste of that particular time. That's why if you study a bunch of pictures from, say, the 1930s, they tend to look like they were all made by the same person. They represent the past's standard of what was acceptable as "art" but standards change and that's why some things look so dated and conventional to us. Anything that's lasted didn't even look like art to most people when the paint was still wet.
31.The history of art is the history of what, at a given time, it was technically possible for artists to do along with what it was conceptually possible for them to think. And according to Van Gogh, its also the history of some very poor people, since art is so very fucking expensive to do.
The history of art is not the history of artist's self-definition. Artists make art. Other people make definitions. 'Hi Pablo! Hi Georges! What're you doing? Cubism huh? Sounds edgy!' 'Hi Michelangelo! Is it time for the High Renaissance yet?' That's not how it works. Artists know, or ought to, that to define a thing is to substitute the definition for the thing defined.
30. The See It Loud exhibition of seven postwar American representational painters, which I saw in a near- deserted National Academy gallery on a New York Sunday morning in 2013, was a big event for me.
Not as big as the Soutine exhibition at Marlborough in 1973
or hearing Patti Smith in 1975 but it was very significant. I was stuck and it helped me start to become unstuck.
It made me get, really get, what Paul Resika
and Leland Bell
and Paul Georges
had wanted to do, which was to place representational subjects within a modernist formal framework, and why. And it made me start drawing again, drawing real people and things. Mostly girls with no clothes on, flowers in pots and me and the timeless fascination of my ever-changing moods. Going back to drawing was what got me unstuck.
See It Loud reminded me that art which was made only from art must always be limited but art that comes from nature must be unbounded and limitless, because so is reality. What's in your head is not enough. What's in the paint tube is not enough. What's before your eyes isn't enough. You need them all. So we're back at the eternal triad of Head, Hand and Heart, which was first said either by a Chinese sage or by St Francis, depending on who's misinforming you.
Discipline matters. Shakespeare didn't need to write in blank verse but those ten syllables per line gave him something to measure his work with/against. I had understood all this in an abstract way for a long time but hadn't accepted it, exactly. It's not a hard thought but See It Loud made it real.
Everything on this site was made in the wake of that show. I'm still an abstract painter ("abstract" in it's original sense of "to take or reduce from something") and probably always will be but my pictures are founded on something seen and real. I don't want to depict or describe -to evoke, rather - but now when I use a green its not a green from a tube, its a green from a leaf. And that makes all the difference.
Tree and Sun from the Souvenirs and Memories series
29. Foresight Saga. Some people can plan a picture beforehand. It just falls out of their brain -splat! onto the canvas. But not me, who has no idea what I'm doing until I've done it. I can only work fast. My best drawings have taken only as long as it took for my hand to move over the paper and I'm left wondering What the hell just happened? How did this get here? "Do the thing and you will have the power" said Emerson (although he was talking about agriculture). Most artists will know that feeling, that power, but not many, I think, will know it as much as they'd like.
Sometimes it's as though the picture makes itself. You stand there, blinking at this good thing that's come out of nowhere, that's somehow occurred. Van Gogh knew his work was getting better when he noticed that drawing was becoming as fluent and natural to him as his handwriting. I've almost finished re-reading Ever Yours, the most recent compilation of Van Gogh's letters. First read them in Irving Stone's Dear Theo when I was 18 or so. I had the WH Auden selection too. Later I got the full four volume Complete Letters from the library in Berkeley, California. Their candour, honesty and depth just floored me. I reread them around 2000 and they floored me again. It is sad that this good and decent man, who is so intelligent and sensitive, who is patient and generous and not without a sense of humour either, should have had to suffer so much and be so alone in his life, but it is an absolute pleasure to share one's time with him.
Vincent is so much with me that I can quote him verbatim from memory:
I do not say my work is good. I say it is the least bad I can do.
I will never put blue on a canvas without putting orange or yellow next to it.
I tell you that the academic representation of a figure with smooth and meticulous brushwork does not adequately meet the imperative requirements of pictorial art in modern times.
Do not imagine that you are the first or the only person who ever thought it their obligation to criticize me to the point that I am crushed out of existence.
I have entered the drawing competition at the academy. The subject was the head of Germanicus, which you know. I am sure I shall come last and I know which one they will think best. I was just behind while it was being done. It is exact, it is correct, it is anything you like but it is DEAD. And so were all the other drawings that I saw.
Thank you for all that you are doing for me...your brother who loves you,
28. Playlist: Jim Hall - Beija Flor, Miles Davis- In a Silent Way, Duke Ellington - Rockin' in Rhythm, Velvet Underground - I Can't Stand It, King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King, Patti Smith - Radio Ethiopia, Chet Baker - Love For Sale, Led Zeppelin - No Quarter, Traffic- The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Dorado Schmitt - Bossa Dorado, Koop - I See a Different You, Beatles - Things We Said Today, November Group - Pictures of the Homeland, Magazine - The Light Pours out of Me, Thelonius Monk - 'Round Midnight, Gun Club - Jack on Fire, Son House - Death Letter, Iggy Pop - Cold Metal, Brian Eno - Third Uncle, Jeff Beck - Definitely Maybe, John Cale - Macbeth
27. Book Report: Flashman - George MacDonald Fraser, Matisse On Art - Jack Flam (ed.),Miles: the Autobigraphy of Miles Davis - Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Hope Abandoned - Nadezhda Mandelstam, The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien, With the Old Breed - Eugene Sledge, Art and Instinct - Roy Oxlade, The Society of the Spectacle - Guy Debord, The Unnameable - Samuel Beckett, Richard II - Shakespeare, Les Miserables - Victor Hugo, Collected Essays - Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Maine Woods - HD Thoreau, Four Quartets - TS Eliot, Indignation - Philip Roth, La Chute - Albert Camus
26. Views, vistas, panoramas, sweeping, majestic, dramatic, ambitious...are words commonly associated with landscape painting. I prefer other words, like glimpses, close ups, details, memories...because I make pictures like this one, which began as a corner of my eye glimpse of foliage at the back of the garden.
Corner Glimpse from Souvenirs + Memories series
The other day I was studying a pile of dead leaves, as one does, and thinking how much they were like my painting and how much I wanted my painting to be like them.
25. Everyone comes from somewhere and so many creative people have discovered themselves while trying, not too well, to be someone else that they admire. Cézanne became Cézanne by trying to first be Pissarro and then Poussin. Picasso and Braque became themselves by trying to be Cézanne and deKooning became himself by trying to be Picasso. Bruckner wanted to be Beethoven. Bob Dylan wanted to be Woody Guthrie. Miles Davis wanted to be Charlie Parker. I wanted to be Jimmy Page but somehow forgot that practice was required.
There was a tutor at the Art Students league who really, really wanted to be Rembrandt. He knew more about R and R's technique that R ever knew but, man, did he miss the point. If Rembrandt had lived in 1970s New York he wouldn't have painted like the R we know; he'd have painted like a modern man with R's sensibilities. Even as a 20 year old doofus l could see that painting 1970s New Yorkers in their flowered shirts and wide belts and bell bottoms and Starsky haircuts like they were 1640s Amsterdam burghers was a doomed and silly project.
24. In the days when I still went to places and met people and did stuff I talked with the painter Robert De Niro Sr at the old Graham Gallery on Madison Avenue. He was approachable and friendly. I liked him a lot and admire his work.
De Niro said that although he worked fast his pictures took a long time, years, to make but he was stuck with that because he couldn’t build them up incrementally, like most artists do. He was an improviser; working from instinct; painting fast, fast, fast and then erasing and amending and painting and erasing, coming back to the picture again and again. That is tough schlepping, because every time you pick up the brush you're asking for a miracle.
There are multiple modernist traditions of painterly improvisation. Benedetto Croce articulated a conceptual armature ('intuitive knowledge is expressive knowledge') for it in 1911 - not that artists needed his help. Charles Webster Hawthorne taught generations of American art students to start their paintings with "big spots" of colour. De Niro learned about painterly improvisation from Hans Hofmann, who got it from Matisse, who got it from the Louvre, probably.
The New York School and the CoBrA painters got their improvisation ethos from Surrealism, who mostly got their ideas from kindergarten Activity Time. (Robert Motherwell, who was better as an explainer of art than as a maker of it, said that Ab Ex should have acknowledged the debt and would better have been called "Abstract Surrealism").
Anyway, what they did and what you do is you make a very broad sketch setting out the main forms and colours and work into it, fast. Use pieces of cloth, scrapers and knives, brushes and fingers. You have ten fingers; use them all. Keep everything wet. Go fast. Work from all four sides. Do not stop. Do not hesitate. Do not listen to the little art critic in your head who only gives you bad advice. Listen to the paint. Enjoy what you're doing. Get some life into it. Put some fire under it.
The goal is to be in the picture and not outside of the picture.
Working like this brings oil in the paint up to the surface and it dries (or oxidizes, really. Oil paint doesn’t dry by evaporation) much faster than you might think. But if you try to work into this semi-dry paint it gets sticky, cloggy, ugly when you really need everything to pull together and flow. If its acrylic, drag the picture outside into the sun or in front of a heat source and it'll dry fast enough. Too fast, maybe.
By itself, painting fast guarantees zilch, since painting fast and painting good are not the same things. Sometimes I wish I could take more time with pictures, patiently adding rich new layers, like Jake Berthot or the great Milton Resnick, but I can’t. First thought is best thought.
23. Milton Resnick was stubborn, crabby, mordant and brave. To be in the presence of his work is like being in the heart of painting. I owe him a lot. He spoke and wrote about how most art tries to make a strong, immediate visual impression. That can't last, though, and the next time you see the work that first impression is diluted and diluted more at each viewing until finally all you have is a kind of nostalgia for how good the picture once looked to you for about the first two minutes.
Resnick, though, imagined a different kind of painting, where the surface is almost bland, neutral, but underneath all kinds of rich, complicated things are going on. That's the kind of paintings he made and the kind of paintings I admire and try to make.
And Resnick said one of the most true things I've ever heard about art: Its absolutely irrelevant what galleries and critics and people who buy your paintings think. They just don't have any possible idea of what happens to you and they're really not that interested. As a matter of fact, they hate the idea that anything really happens to you. They want you to be a genius and that's it.
You have to be wonderful - that's all there is to it. Then, anything that you happen to do gets to be part of this big wonderful thing that you are. But what is is of a great deal of importance to you is what you do when you paint. How does it change you? What does it make of you? Because you are certainly not the person who should be painting a painting.
None of you are. None of us are. We cannot live without our place in things and the place in which we live does not make room for painting. We are doing something contrary to our place and time and as long as we remain what we are, all we can do is indicate our opinion. In other words, art becomes our opinion about ourselves, our times and our place; and of course that is not really painting.
What is an artist? What is painting? What does it do to us? Who is it for? What are the sufficiencies and insufficiencies of painting? Questions without answers, only efforts at answers. But an artist who asks no questions is an interior decorator and an artist who asks questions is never going to be satisfied.
22. I met the painter Aristodimos Kaldis at his show at Kornblee Gallery around 1978ish. A few days later I met him again on Broadway. 'Ah, young painter; hello!' he said and he let me walk with him and he let me buy him a coffee and he talked the whole time. He invited me to meet him and more painter friends but although I liked him and admired his imaginary landscapes I was pretty much socially retarded
in those days and I never saw him again. Until the other night. When I found a video on YouTube of him being painted by Elaine deKooning.
Forty years of time dropped instantly away and there he was and there I was too and everything was changed. Can you paint that experience? Can you call back time and send it away at will? Apollinaire thought so.
21. Game Plan: no expressionism. No realism. No cynicism. No cool. No irony. No sentimentality. No knowingness. No second chances. No technological bullshit. No new ideas. No anything that started out as pixels. No punchlines. No itty bitty brushes.
20. Style is just a word to describe the leftovers from all the problems you meet when you try to make a picture and all the mistakes you make trying to solve them. Style is Outcome.
16. The mythology of modernism may tell you different but art that matters has always been art that rejects the contemporary, not the historical. Manet didn't reject Velasquez, he rejected Bouguereau and Gerome, who were his peers. Today one should be breaking with those artists (no names, but you know who I mean. Yeah, them) who are to our time what Bouguereau was to his.
15. Painting from nature is the most complicated way to have a bad time ever invented. You trudge up and down the shaggy unheeding wilderness laden with all your stuff and you always forget to bring something important. Like the turpentine or the Titanium White. Or the folding stool. The wind always blows. The palette always falls face down on the grass. Every dog walker within ten miles finds you and wants to share their helpful thoughts about your work. The sun keeps moving around the sky. Its too hot. Its too cold. Clouds come and go. Bugs stick to the paint. Nothing holds still. Nothing stays the same. Finally, you have to schlep back from the motif with all the junk you originally took out there, plus wet canvases under your arm, in the dark. And then it rains.
Nowadays the back of the garden is about as far as I ever want or need to go. There's plenty there to keep me busy.
14. This drawing is of me holding the catalogue of the 'See It Loud' show.
The inspiration was the those Renaissance portraits where the subject is holding a scroll or tablet with some admonitory motto or piece of advice. The checked shirt, and communicating that there was a body within that shirt, were tough to do. The face is blurred because otherwise it would be a portrait and not a figure. Drew and undrew that face about six times before it was okay.
13. I love this little drypoint self-portrait by Avigdor Arikha. It's unlike many self-portraits, which are exhibitionistic self- advertisements saying 'Look at me! Look at me!' But Arikha isn't looking at us, he's looking past us and past himself. You can hear his thoughts:
" Look, I'm 74 years old" he thinks. "How did that ever happen? Why am I not dead? The Nazis killed my father but they didn't kill me. The Arabs shot me and I should have died but I didn't. I had a stroke but I lived. Why? Why was I spared? And spared for what? It must be for this, for making this art, and here is a picture of me, doing it".
12. Painting, like people, should just cut the crap.
11. I like being for art and artists. I like being a fan. Contemporary art is mostly a dull theme park of joyless kitsch but you won't hear me going on about it. Not in public, anyway. In private, as so many can testify, I am not exactly without opinions but its a waste of energy to talk out loud about art you find bad. What's the point? Most art is bad anyway. Every artist needs to maintain morale by imagining that their work will one day all go to the Louvre. Hard truth is that one day it will all go to the skip. Even Rembrandt went to the skip.
10. Technique. If you have too much of it you are encumbered and inhibited and inverted but if you have too little, you are like a cowboy without his horse. You need to know enough and you need to be able to forget what you know when you need to. Darby Bannard says Art-making is just a lot of tricks and devices. So is any skill—cooking, baseball, politics, robbing banks. If you don’t learn the methods, you are not making art, you are making claims. http://aphorismsforartists.com/ch65.html
Technique's not really the problem, anyway. The problem is about energy, self-confidence, stubbornness, assiduity, the ability to bear pain and not quit.
9. Perfection is a trap. We can conceptualize what constitutes perfection but, being human, we can't achieve it and if perfection is your bottom line, you'll make yourself crazy. I made myself crazy for years because nothing was ever good enough for me. To have high standards is good but to have impossible standards, not so much. "Perfectionists finish last", according to Artie Shaw, who was so famously, painfully self-demanding that he gave up music rather than ever play below his own standard.
You have to work hard, do your best and then live with it.
8. Can you build a car from scratch? Or a computer? Or a guitar? In his excellent What Painting Is book James Elkins compares painters to alchemists; isolated obsessives guided by guess and instinct, using materials they can barely understand to achieve an outcome they can't foresee. Its a great analogy and book is brilliant but I don't feel like an alchemist. When painting I feel more like a guy trying to build a jalopy from random chunks of metal and scraps of wood and rubber but I don't have any diagrams or a hammer or a saw or any nails, let alone an arc welder, but somehow the thing has to be recognisably a car and it has to start and to run but I have no idea how I'm supposed to make that happen and I've never done this before and I don't know what it should look like and I don't even have a licence and the whole effort is totally illegitimate and I'm just a big incompetent phony yet I still have to try for no other reason than because I have to try.
Which is okay, sort of, since in painting I care more about process than result; I like the paint and the painting more than I like painting pictures.
7. Good artists only paint one good picture. Lesser artists paint other people's bad pictures. Every artist, if they work hard enough, finds the central, dominant, core thought which drives them on. If you're Gauguin it's 'I am a savage child'. If you're van Gogh it's 'The world is alive'. If you're Munch its' 'I'm scared of everything'.
My idea, such as it is and such as I am, is that "The most interesting thing about painting is that paintings are made out of paint". What can you make from that? We'll see.
6. Don't break a string. I told the Famous Rock Musician about the time I'd seen him in concert and the performance had to stop while he replaced a broken guitar string. "I seldom break strings, you know" he said. "Yes, sometimes the string is defective but that is rare. What it usually means is that I've made an error and hit the string too hard". And he looked at me in that Significant Way.
"Um, we aren't only talking about music here, are we?" I said.
"No" he said.
Joe Satriani and Famous Rock Musician!
5. I want to like everything. I want to do anything.
4. I pretend that I'm indifferent to criticism or praise but I'm lying. I like it when people enjoy what I do, especially if they enjoy it enough to want to own it. And it bugs me when people don't. But since I don't care for the sort of things that the sort of people who don't care for what I do usually care for, that brings the universe back into balance.
3. There are so many people working overtime to bring their ugly things, ugly thoughts and ugly doings into this world. All one can do is to push back, try to bring a few beautiful things and a little pleasure into the world. That's what we really want from art, isn't it? We want pleasure, we want to be dazzled, we want our eyeballs licked by the beautiful Muses. At least I do.
2. A picture starts in the artist's head - and stays there. Everything is imperfectly communicated. Everything is imperfectly perceived and misunderstood. You encode meaning as you understand it in the expectation that people are clued in enough to break the code but not everyone is, um, Bletchley Park material, exactly. I've had enough people misinterpret my pictures back to me to have any doubt that in art anything except he most general and subjective communication is possible. For example, I know what Rothko said his art was about but that meaning has never been communicated to me because I can't decode his signs. Could never figure out what Auerbach was up to either. That's not wrong or bad or anyone's fault, its just that one's experience of another person's creative expression will always return to subjectivity because that is the nature of the experience.
1. REMEMBERING BARNEY RUBENSTEIN
Before talking about Barney I should first say that (a) memory is fallible, (b) it was a long time ago, and (c) plenty of other people knew Barney better and for longer than I did. Maybe some of them, reading this, will come forward with their own memories and reflections. I hope so.
The Boston Museum School in the mid- 70s was a pretty rough and ready, free and easy kind of place. Once they got the then-exorbitant $2000 or so a year that it cost to go you were pretty much on your own. Students came and went, no one kept a register of attendance, staff brought booze into tutorials and basically you did as much or as little as you felt like doing.
I wasn’t very happy at the Museum School but I stayed for two years and the main reason was so I could hang around Barney Rubenstein.
Barney (nobody ever called him “Barnet”) was the benign presence around which the noise and life of the Museum School swirled. You might not know who the Principal or the Dean or whatever he was called was, but everyone knew Barney. With his moustache drooping over his mouth, to which a cigarette was permanently attached, his glasses hanging from a chain around his neck, with his Staff ID worn upside down and his, um, deeply relaxed dress sense, you couldn’t miss him. He spoke in a low, slow, drawling voice and you listened because he had been everywhere, had met everyone and had seen everything, apparently. He’d been to France! He lived at the Chelsea Hotel! He had actually met famous artists! This guy is the real deal, we thought, and we were right.
As a teacher Barney had no particular agenda; he showed up, he talked, you listened and you learned. He dropped hints, he made suggestions, he negotiated with you.
“Why do you put that black line around everything?” he asked me once. Because it makes the picture look modern, like a Léger, I said. “Well, it doesn’t do that, really. It’s kind of… boring. Maybe, um, you shouldn’t, uh, do that anymore”; which from Barney meant that you should absolutely, definitely, positively cease and desist at once from what you were doing and never, ever, return to it. I dropped that black line like the bad habit Barney knew it was.
Barney wasn’t one to take the brush out of your hands and show you “how” to do it. We understood that Barney knew all about how to do it and the various ways one might do it and he wanted us to learn for ourselves how it might be done, not to just obey orders from some authority figure. As a serious artist, he treated his students as colleagues to be consulted, not as inferiors awaiting his instruction.
He was the least egoistic of teachers; he wanted to hear about your ideas and intentions a lot more than he wanted you to hear about his. We were mostly young kids, fresh out of high school. Barney was probably the first grown up who ever took us seriously and was interested in what we were saying and that means a lot to a young person.
In art, Barney had very broad taste. He was interested in anything, any style, as long as he felt it was an honest investigation. Barney liked Peto and Harnett and Balthus but he also liked Rauschenberg and Guston and Alice Neel and Richard Estes and Robert Smithson. He told me about how good Sylvia Mangold, who was just starting out then, was but he told me about Robert Mangold too.
Barney knew better than you what you needed. He made me go to the Jack Beal show at BU because he knew I'd get something from it. I didn't think I got anything from it then because in those days I was busy being the Kirchner of Suburbia but now I know why Barney sent me up there.
He made us laugh. “What were you doing, living for so long in Aix-en-Provence, like Cézanne?” someone asked. “Looking for his paint rags” Barney said. One night Gabriel Laderman arrived for some Boston Museum event in this flaming red shirt. “So, you're a follower of Garibaldi now?” asked Barney. I didn’t quite get the reference but I knew it was funny.
For his students Barney became a model for what a real artist should be. Real artists should work hard, should be open to ideas and experience, should ask questions and look for answers. Real artists didn’t take anything too seriously except for their work, which was absolutely serious and real artists didn’t pay any attention to fashion or fame. Real artists looked at everything and knew the whole history of art and kept on learning, always. Art was slow and real artists took their time.
In those days the Museum School and the Boston MFA were steaming hotbeds of Greenbergian formalism. According to the Contemporary Art Department of the MFA the only people who mattered were Tony Caro and Ken Noland and Jules Olitski and any painting that wasn’t Color Field didn’t matter, especially if it was representational. Barney paid no attention to any of that stuff. He built an 8 foot square wooden frame and divided it with a grid of string and fixed it to the studio floor between his still life set up and his painting table and got to work like it was 1500 and he was Albrecht Durer.
Once Barney painted ocean liners and race horses but latterly he did still lives and interiors. Simple subjects; jars full of biscuits, pieces of fruit, the view from his window, a pile of cardboard oyster pails and he painted them really, really slowly. Fruit would rot and plants would wither before Barney had even got close to finishing his paintings of them.
There’s no painterly rhetoric in Barney’s work. No slapped on paint or busy brushwork or compositionally convenient drips. Everything is restrained and steady, everything has been thought about. He may have studied with Kokoschka but there’s no angst or hot emotion in what Barney does, it’s all subtle, considered and cumulative. Everything is there for a reason. His pictures took a long time to make and they can take a lot of looking. That the longer you look, the more you see is a cliché but in Barney’s case it’s absolutely the truth.
This is a representative Barney painting; carefully designed, painted with restraint, doesn't look like anyone else. He tends to flatten space, which is to be expected from an artist of his time, and to avoid strong contrasts, unlike Peto and Harnett, who he often held up as examples of good practice. Good 19th century practice, though. Barney's own work is a personal investigation into the possibilities open to realism in the late 20th century.
Barney could make pictures of nothing, or almost nothing. Look at this. Grapes in a bowl. No subject to speak of (literally). No painterliness. No anything happening.
But its as solid as a wall and it's a feast for the eye and its all Barney and not anyone else.
Barney drove dealers and collectors nuts because he didn’t work to make them happy and that, along with his more or less total indifference to furthering his “career”, is probably why he wasn’t better known in his lifetime. He could have been but he didn’t care about that stuff, not really. He cared about painting and smoking and talking, especially about painting. Always painting.
An earlier draft of this essay can be found at http://paintingperceptions.com/contemporary-realism/barnet-rubenstein-1923-2002#respond