What the Eye Fills In
and What the World Takes Away
In the 1960s the powerful insistence of Clement Greenberg’s ideology seeped into all visual learning. Many of us didn’t realize how brainwashed we were. Trained as I was previously by repeated close viewings of great paintings in the best of New York’s art museums, I revered the old masters. So when I moved to the Bay Area to study art, I had a problem: I loved Vermeer—his illusionistic depth, exquisite atmospheres—when I was supposed to be looking only at flat, hard, impenetrable surfaces.
Any reference in art to life outside the studio was suspect. Mimetic skill of most kinds was seen as retrograde. Fine sable brushes were taboo. One didn’t even speak of emotion. We lived in an aura of “purity,” when the idea of “art for art’s sake” was at its pinnacle. Diebenkorn’s brilliant triangles could cast sunlight into his pictures only if they also offered themselves up as yellow geometry. “Be true to the surface,” they told me, and I was young, so I listened.
Both oppressed and excited by this dogma, I slathered my figures in wild gestural marks, maintaining spatial shallowness and disguising any tendencies toward tenderness. But in private I continued to visit my loves, Rembrandt and van Eyck.
Looking back at that time now, I see there were coexisting models that probed and doubted the prevailing dogma. The first painting I saw stepping onto the San Francisco train platform in 1962 was Nathan Oliveira’s profoundly human portrait of a hunched-up woman bound by walls of heavy paint, at the center of a large canvas. She was both “flat”—no sentimentality here!—and poignant. De Kooning’s abstracts and massive bravura impressed me, but Oliveira showed me a world of emotion while still being “contemporary.”
It was Giotto, though—on my trip to Italy the following year — who changed my life. Not actually Giotto, with his magnificent human figures, but his Italian conservators, who in deference to his great works had restored the damaged sections of his frescoes not by in-painting their own amateur replacements for missing parts, but by jamming up against the remaining sections of Giotto’s most tender figures solid flat slabs of concrete. Eureka!
The first works I did that were truly my own came in the seventies: oils on Masonite, in response to photographs of luxurious rooms from Architectural Digest. I would first painstakingly copy a room with velveteen sofas and golden lamplight, then drag heavy brushes loaded with translucent paint across the surface, submerging most of what I’d painted, allowing only bits of crisp detail to remain unscathed. My fight with Greenberg was not academic: I was giving myself permission to paint whatever pretty and illusionistic things I wanted in whatever “old-fashioned” technique I desired, while still “bringing everything up to the surface.” Only much later did I realize that I was not just engaging in formal battles here—though it was a life-or-death struggle for me to justify my love for illusionism—I was also destroying with paint a really fancy home. How revealing and significant an act that was!
Eventually, many of us came to see the thinness and limitation of Greenberg’s dicta. Not only was emotion in art okay, it’s pretty much the main point. Art tells us about the world, and helps us live in it.
But I never stopped being a formalist, in the sense that when I work I aim to solve formal problems and I leave the meaning of my work for my instincts to express, always hoping the content will be intrinsically embodied in the piece. I think of Fra Angelico, a deeply religious man, who painted exquisite frescoes for the Dominican friars in San Marco according to high standards of color and composition. While working he was surely thinking, “Lighten up this green” and “Move this line just a bit to the left,” rather than ruminating on the life of Christ. Yet he expressed deep reverence and piety in those magnificent murals. Meaning takes care of itself while one is concentrating on form.
In 1983 a fortuitous accident led me to plaster. Hydrocal, a dense form of it, became my default substance for flatness: it is a beautiful and variable material with inherent, unfaltering physicality and opaqueness, but it’s also a substrate that, with proper preparation, can accept painted imagery in detail. I had come to love impermeable surfaces—helped by Tapies’s sand-mixed and straw-embedded reliefs and, later, Anselm Keifer’s porcelain-encrusted canvases. What I began to crave in my own work was seeing a tiny slip of something precisely painted—red fabric, or a clouded sky—bursting through or pressed up against a resolutely physical substance: buried treasure pushing its way through essential flatness, defiantly claiming space.
In the nineties I poured 500 pounds of pigmented Hydrocal into a casting box designed to break apart the nine-inch-thick slab that formed; later I painted shimmering waters of a swimming pool on the smooth top surfaces of this slab. Illusionism died at the fractured cliffs, the edges of disappointment; realism collided with abstraction, painting turned into sculpture, and deep water became flat. I wanted space and depth and the illusion of deep water, but I also needed to stop it, to close down the illusion, to be “true to the surface.” Again I realized only later: I am smashing up someone’s pool!
When I was young, I didn’t know that my search for formal solutions would toss me headfirst into such issues of content. My youthful struggle to find my way within Greenberg’s limits led, ultimately—and unexpectedly—to a means of confronting the societal and environmental breakdowns that have haunted me through the decades. You can’t, after all, destabilize “illusionism” without also destroying the very subject you are painting.
Though I can’t say exactly when I became aware of this, I began more consciously to use my form to express my content. My earliest landscapes may not have been intentionally about climate change, but they surely embodied disappearance, loss, and man-made encroachment in the form of rust. During the years I spent anguishing about escalating political violence and IEDs, nothing seemed more useful to me than the potential of plaster to rupture. As I react now to images I captured in the Arctic in 2013, I find myself once again setting illusion against flatness: laying photographic emulsions into crevasses of abraded plaster, or juxtaposing snow-capped mountains against sheets of rusted steel that, although nothing more than surface, evoke the early industrial detritus I saw near the North Pole, marking the beginning of the end of wilderness.
Featured in AGNI 84, 2016, with an eight page color insert, published by Boston University.