Last Sunday I was out with my camera taking photos of plastic bags caught in trees and bushes. I’d noticed a little while ago these torn plastic bags and sheets stuck at the side of the road and thought they looked pretty interesting – almost like a form of transient, windblown sculpture.
Eventually I got my camera out and took some photos and the most successful of them I’ve uploaded to flickr. Can they really be sculpture or have I just taken a lot of photographs of litter? I like to think they shade towards art but I realise I probably need to come up with a convincing theory for that…
Prompted I suppose by the all the recent reviews of Picasso and Modern British Art (at the Tate until 15 July before opening in Edinburgh on 4 August) I’ve began re-reading Roland Penrose’s biography of Picasso.
My first attempt at reading Penrose (whilst I was at art college in the 1980’s, my copy cost £2.95) floundered on the rocks of his relentless sycophancy. At times it seemed as if Penrose had no self-respect never mind critical distance. Picasso couldn’t be that good all the time, but according to Penrose he was! Ultimately I think such uncritical adulation does the work (and the artist) a disservice.
Particularly if your making your own work, I think you look at other painters work to learn from it and you want to know how other artists made their work – at least I do. What doesn’t help is to be told that whatever he painted or drew, whether its Guernica, or the three dancers or a portrait of Marie-Therese Walter or the somewhat sentimental blue period paintings or the smokers or the late explicit nudes Picasso was unchallengeably great. Even Picasso must have days when he was bored or distracted and painted because that’s what he did, everyday. Just as someone working in an office or shop or factory will do; I agree with Francis Bacon that artistic inspiration is a fable and what you need to do is work, regularly.
Watching BBC2’s recent tribute to Lucian Freud I thought some of that same determination to convince us that Freud was great all of the time in everything he did was creeping in to what many his family, friends and models had to say- Hockney and one of Freud’s models being honourable exceptions. Now I like Freud as much as anyone but I think as an artist he had his flaws. For example in some pictures, I think he was unable to decide what was important in the composition and so that everything was treated the same, head, body, furniture, walls, floor; his etchings are especially vulnerable to this tendency. He had other problems too as a painter but paradoxically its that contrast between his best and his (too me) worst work is what makes Freud interesting as a painter.
And it’s the same with Picasso but fawning of the sort Penrose indulges in drives you away. So far I’m coping better than I did on my first attempt at reading him 30 years ago (I’m up to 1907 and the painting of les Demoiselles d’Avignon) and I might reach the end of the book this time. Actually the problem now is not so much Penrose’s lack of critical facility but that he’s not telling Picasso’s story in a particularly interesting way. Maybe that will change when Penrose himself enters the book – fingers crossed!
I remember the first time I saw one of Cy Twombly’s paintings. It was in Edward Lucie Smith’s door step sized study, Art Today. The painting was no more than as line of scribbles across the canvas and appeared to be the work of a matter of minutes. Exhibiting work of such minimal (physical) effort would seem to be an act of great self confidence and assuredness in your work or alternatively Twombly was just taking the piss. I’m sure Twombly wasn’t taking the piss (and if he was it was clearly lucrative for him; I read a report this week that his estate was over a billion dollars). The decision that a painting was finished at stage when the majority of painters would probably consider it barely started must have been for Twombly a purely aesthetic one.
A painter at the other end of this particular ‘is it finished/isn’t it’ spectrum is Frank Auerbach. Like his fellow School of Londoner Leon Kossoff, Auerbach’s technique involves applying paint to the canvas, scraping off and starting all over again until he finally reaches a point when the painting is finished. A painting by Auerbach takes ages. In Robert Hughes monograph of Auerbach, a set of photographs follow the progress of charcoal portrait. The photos cover two pages and at almost any stage in the drawing Auerbach could have stopped with the result a perfectly fine and recognisable Auerbach. But instead he soldiered on until a hole is rubbed into the paper requiring a new piece to be stuck over the worn out spot before Auerbach continues drawing.
The point at which you can say a painting or drawing (or probably any other piece of art) is finished is a very personal one. You have to judge the point at which your about to ruin everything and therefore stop whilst being sure you’ve pushed the work (and yourself) far enough to make the wholething worth it. I’ve been working on a series of large abstract monochrome paintings that have developed out of the sketchbook studies I posted an example of recently. I’m reasonably pleased with them so far but when to stop applying paint? The second painting in particular I felt early on I had done enough to leave it. But worried it would look merely unfinished I kept working on. The end result is fine I think but did I loose something better by not stopping when I first thought to?
Because its non-representational the decision of when to stop is I think even more difficult or elusive. How did Twombly do it? This is relatively new territory for me and as the paintings develop I might become more confident about leaving the painting at that ‘taking the piss’ stage.
Something to watch out for at the end of the year. One of Scotland’s major 20th century painters.
National Galleries of Scotland − What’s On − John Bellany: A Passion for Life.
A couple of abstract studies, although I don’t consider them abstract in the sense they are about no more paint on a flat support. As ever the rhythm and gestural sweep of the human figure (in this case two) provide the starting point.