I am interested in the contrapuntal possibilities in my art, writing and social interaction. In counterpoint, each voice is simultaneously an independent melody and a harmony to another melody. I studied classical piano as a teenager and learned music theory, a language I still use to describe my thought processes. I see each shape in the painting as a note in visual melodies built from the “chromatic” scales of hue, temperature, value, intensity, size, and contour.
I developed a series of charcoal drawings in my first studio, in Cambridge, MA in 1973, just after I graduated from Harvard, that presaged everything that was to come. I was drawing from life; both the studio itself and a vase of my mother’s dead roses were my subjects. Despite charcoal’s propensity for infinite shades of gray, I found myself using the charcoal simply to outline discrete empty shapes.
Flora Natapoff, my first painting professor, in the first painting course Harvard college had ever offered, showed us a Matisse black and white ink drawing. She pointed out how the shapes, paper white as they were, appeared to move into and away from the surface.
At that time, too, I was studying a book called Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs by Erle Loran. Erle Loran. He “reduced” a painting to a series of lines of force. I began applying this method to some of my favorite Vermeers. Vermeer too focused my attention on drawing architecture.
My love of building blocks and of finding hidden structures in a painting and in life continued to grow and develop. Still, I pushed against it then and still do. In 1978 I had a show of painting pairs – each pair used the same palette, but one was geometric and one expressionist. I ended up pursuing the geometric direction, thinking that I could always pull the expressionist one off the back burner if I needed a change.
SOME EARLY INFLUENCES
Pictures of Thinking
My GAP project is a contrapuntal conversation between my thoughts and those of a vast array of authors, scientists, and artists. Gaps Are My Starting Point, the book I am currently completing, is a compilation of juxtaposed quotes and images that describe or use the word “gap” interspersed with my own thoughts.
The book began about twenty years ago when I observed that I use gaps, formed by juxtaposed elements, in both my paintings and text drawings, like the one shown on the right.
Crossing the gap is an imaginative act. The twentieth century has made the gaps particularly visible, perhaps to remind us that, although the artist, or another viewer, has linked the pieces in one way, we can go back to the building blocks and put them together in our own way.
Agnes Martin and I Draw the Line
Here is a quote from my article, Contrapuntal Painting, which appeared in the Radcliffe Quarterly, March 1992:
“Many of my paintings are diminutive, intimate, three to five inches in either direction. Rather than physically overpowering (as many men are to women), they suggest a more interactive relationship with the viewer. Smallness in art may be coming under a more favorable star, but in my lifetime size has mostly been a directly proportional measure of importance and, though no one would admit it, quality. The small works are painted on paper. Arthur Danto has aptly pointed out that paper, since it is so expendable, is considered a less “serious” medium than canvas, panels, or walls, and so has become associated with the artist’s “intimate moods.”
My paintings begin with a graphite line drawing, usually on a panel. I use a straight edge at this stage. One line implies another. I think of the process as improvisational, like jazz or dance. I can erase lines or part of a line. I am looking for the shapes to start to push and pull in the shallow illusionary space of my incipient painting.
When I start to see the shapes in my drawing pushing and pulling, starting to read color, I begin painting. Choosing colors is an improvisation, a method that has kept and intensified my interest over forty years of painting. At this stage, I abandon the ruler for my eye. The pleasure is in finding precise intervals of color and hue that move my eye around the work, never letting it rest too long in one place. The key is to find the graphite line I have drawn, but now to make it my own. When I find it, suddenly the shapes on either side of the line become independent and, simultaneously, the harmony to the adjacent shapes, as in a community.
I wrote this brochure in connection with my most recent solo show of fifty recent paintings (Nov 2016-Jan 2017) at Galerie Mourlot in New York City. Drawing the Line has always had several meanings for me. "Enough is enough" is one of them. "Where is the line between art and not art" is another.
Drawing the Line is the title both of my recent show in NYC and of a new book on the early work of Agnes Martin by Christina Bryan Rosenberger.
Obviously, other artists besides myself and Martin draw lines. Line is a common theme in the our work because we both have found geometry, specifically the grid, to be a potent source of inspiration. For Martin and myself, the graphite line in oil paintings is an even closer commonality.
The Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim and my show at Galerie Mourlot were ten blocks apart on the Upper East Side. There are several other correspondences: we have both adhered to the square, and have used short aphoristic statements in connection with our paintings. I, too, was influenced by fabric/collage artist Lenore Tawney.
For these reasons and more, I feel a kinship to Agnes Martin.