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April 2014

Technique..or Artistry?

There is an intellectual richness to be found in the creative life.  As well as a lot of paint. I had an opportunity to see the one man show of an artist I have long admired.  Lovely paintings when viewed in the magazines, or online.  They were landscapes, a subject I enjoy painting, so I was one of those patrons who stand back, then close up, then back again - the artist "tire kicker."

In another section of the gallery I found some Russian Impressionists.  Also landscapes.  Painted perhaps in the early 20th century.  Visually I was impressed.  Far more impressed than I felt when viewing the other work.  It wasn't any difference between subject matter or color or size.  It was something about the physical surface of the canvas, the energy in the paint.  The difference between technique, and artistry.

If you think of it in terms of art history, this could be described as the difference between the craftsman and the artist.  That is, an artist who becomes too dependent upon the technique produces work that begins to look automated.  Was this the case with the artist I so admired? Painting after painting was finished with the same brush marks, but the result of this repetition across several walls was the sense of automation, as if the artist had decided to go with what worked.  What was easy.  What the people liked. Look how well I can do this - a modern day version of a Cennini student.

In the 15th century, Florence master Cennino d'Andrea Cennini wrote The Craftsman's Handbook. It was the way they passed along information, from master to student.  A recipe book for things like a violet color in fresco, or how to paint the flesh of a corpse by adding a tint of green.  As a result we were blessed with Renaissance art.  We might say that the idea of art began to change, as it certainly had changed by the time of the Russian paintings I viewed.  Each canvas offered unique energies - same artist, same subject. But to my eye, the problem solving relied on artistic interpretation, and not a repetitious finish. 

What was I seeing?  With the first artist, was it a case of manipulating the paint to achieve an end? With the second artist, was it artistry without letting the technique dominate? I began to ask myself - at what point does technique get in the way?  Was I only noticing the technique because I was looking at painting after painting, seeing the sameness? And I became curious as to the opinions and experiences of other artists, whether they have ever considered such a question. 

So I decided to write about it, wondering if I am too critical.  I think not.  But I am voicing my questions, right or wrong.  Are there artists who achieve success by repeating something that patrons love - but other artists see with disdain?  Because it speaks of laziness,  or worse?  Is there a real difference between technique and artistry?  And if so, how is it defined? We may paint in isolation, but we are not isolationists by design.  Artists have always formed groups where they felt safe discussing controversial ideas. Competition is necessary.  I am one who sees it as a path to growth.  And without having someone to challenge your assumptions then you create within a bubble - and of course, we know how bubbles end.  Not kindly. 

At least if we share ideas, we have a chance.




Can We Create Art That Matters?

Agnes Martin is quoted as saying “painters can’t give anything to the observer.  People get what they need from a painting…when you have inspiration and represent inspiration, the observer makes the painting…”*

Think about this.  It removes a tremendous amount of responsibility from the painter’s shoulders.  Your work, what you choose to paint and how you respond to color and composition – it only needs to have meaning to you.  No point in trying to please the observer – how many people will see what you create and “not get it?” How could you possibly anticipate and paint to that expectation? 

And don’t say that you’ve never stood in front of a blank canvas and asked, “What will I paint today?” And then immediately followed with, “What will they want today?”  Because so much of the artist’s life becomes focused on that responsibility we want to have – that we can create something profound, something beautiful, a work of ART.  Don’t say that you’ve never, in that quiet part of the night, hoped for that, hoped for recognition, hoped to have mattered.

Most of us have, because most of us want our work to matter even in a small way.  But the painter’s job – according to Agnes Martin – isn’t to take on the responsibility of being significant.  “Art,” she says, “restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities.  That’s the function of art.” 

Yes, it is true that Agnes Martin suffered from schizophrenia throughout her adult life, and her state of mind is reflected in much of her writing.  But if you are trying to understand – as I am - how to make art that matters, that influences, then consider this:

Agnes Martin found her own inspiration in how she interpreted straight lines as representing planes.  How those planes – driven by memory - provided stability, quiet, a resting place, happiness.  She painted her inspiration.

So the question becomes how to create?  Do we create in ways that we hope will matter to other people?  Or do we consider this idea that it matters more to have found a personal inspiration and to allow the observer to find in that what he will?


   IMG_0675 sm copy

Opal Springs, 16 x 20, oil

sfsmith 2014


* Quotes from Agnes Martin come from the book Agnes Martin Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, by Arne Glimcher