The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: artist’s writings

A Walk in the Park (in memory of Sally Bean)

Sally on the boardwalk

Sally on the boardwalk


I walk my dog every morning. Between 25 and 60 minutes a day are spent moving through the small, rural town that I live in, silent, except for occasional commands to “leave it”, or a brief exchange of pleasantries with the few others who are awake and outside before the business of the day is begun. Sometimes I have a point and shoot digital camera with me, that I point and shoot at things that catch my attention. Sometimes I simply make a mental note and move on.

The activity of walking and thinking and looking, both alone and in quiet companionship, has become the raw material for the work I do in my studio. By attempting to remark on the unremarkable, I am trying to make fleeting thoughts and elusive feelings more concrete. By producing first snapshots, then drawings and paintings, I am trying to render my lived experience more tangible and available for reflection. The impulse of the work is aimed at probing the relationship between my subjectivity and the material reality that is its precondition. Autobiography is not the concern, but rather, an attempt to understand the ways that my life is ensnared in wider orbits of meaning.

The work that I have made in the past few years has been overwhelmingly involved with picturing the remnants of processes and actions: digging, cutting, piling, dropping, scraping, falling, building, growing, dying. Debris is saturated with the stubborn thickness of things. The implacable presence of objects and chunks of stuff puts a check on my big ideas. It reorients my attention and makes manifest my utter rootedness in the physical world.

Despite this emphasis on the empirical and the mundane, I don’t consider the works themselves to be transparent representations of reality. Rather than windows or mirrors, I regard them as traces; signs that exist in their own right, but also point outside of themselves and their depicted subject matter. They relate at oblique angles to both my experience of the world and my responses to it.

When I follow my dog along a path, guided by her extraordinary hearing and smell, I am introduced to a world that is largely unavailable to my senses. The perceptions that guide her snuffling search through dead leaves, or that compel her to dig and lick at an apparently banal patch of grass or tree trunk, has led me to understand that what I take for granted as the ‘visible world’ is an astonishingly thin layer of reality. When I follow my work along a path, I am hunting for similarly invisible and compelling tokens of ordinary life.




“In an uncherished field…”

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

Rackstraw Downes, At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers, 1995

“In an uncherished field beyond a subdivision in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, I got interested in four radio towers that collectively formed what is called a ‘directional signal’. I chose a vantage point at the corner of the field on the shoulder of an embanked road; it overlooked the confluence of two rainwater ditches running at right angles to each other along two borders of the field. To look down into the ditches and up at the immense spindly height of the towers, with their barely discernible guy wires, comprised a vertical span of a little more than 90 degrees. The canvas then, once the preliminary drawing was worked out ended up being nearly square, 46 by 48 inches. My notion of the right relationship between interior forms and spaces of a painting and its containing periphery is perfectly expressed by an early (circa 1562) Dutch image of a church painted on an L-shaped panel; the nave occupies the thick base of the L and the tower its slim shaft.  I refer to this as the ‘L-shaped church paradigm’.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Anonymous, The Sint Maartenskerk in Zaltbommel before the fire of 1538, N.D.

Around this time I read that Ruskin had told his followers, ‘When I say go out and paint Nature, I do not mean a ditch.’ I thought, Thank you, John, because these ditches not only form a remarkable rectilinear grid of narrow incisions in the terrain that shoot dramatically off into space, but in this dead-flat, hurricane-prone, barely above sea level coastal country they are a crucial part of the functional system of levees, raised roads, and ‘Archimedes screw’-type pumping stations that, as with the reclaimed polders of Holland, is essential in making this land usable and inhabitable at all. Children play in these ditches, fishermen get bait out of them, and weeds flourish there unmolested. Alongside the embanked roadway in this painting run power and phone lines which (as we know) sag as they stretch from pole to pole; but if you stand close to them, as I did while working, and follow them with your eyes as they pass from left to right of you, they soar up in the air and arch over your head; their appearance contradicts what we know. Uncompromising empiricism may lead to paradoxes.

These extended spaces, then, that I was working with, and the way forms bulk in them, plus the effect of specific vantage point and bodily stance on one’s perception of them, began to present endlessly fascinating problems of depiction …

The question arises as to whether, if space appears to be curved, it is concave or convex. It may be both. The horizon wraps around you as a room contains you: it is concave. But suppose you are sitting in a room opposite the midpoint of a long wall; as your gaze follows the wall from either corner to the midpoint, the wall appears to swell toward you: it is convex. Frankly, though, these diagrams of space never interested me very much. The ‘truth’ of any one of them is contestable (and endlessly contested): they are, precisely diagrammatic, as well as systematic, theoretical, designed for general application. But I don’t find that I see systematically. I – we – have erratic, not to say subjective, reactions to size and scale; we do all kinds of things when looking: we shift our attention, turn and tilt, quickly or slowly, get interested in some things and uninterested in others. The process of looking – especially the process of looking while making a drawing or a painting – is far too alive and spasmodic to be rationalized.

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

Rackstraw Downes, Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main in Spring, 1997

To any diagram I prefer – and trust – the experience-based statement of Cézanne: ‘for progress toward realization there is only nature, and the eye is educated by contact with her. It becomes concentric by force of looking and working.’ Does Cézanne mean concentric to the viewer? Are we inside the sphere that Fouquet’s miniature implies and that Leonardo conceived in his notes? Certainly this is a manifesto in favor of committed empiricism. Eschewing theory and system, protocol and precedent, Cézanne wants to know only what he learns from the practice – his practice – of painting.”
(Rackstraw Downes, “Turning the Head in Empirical Space”, in Rackstraw Downes, Sanford Schwartz, et al. pp.129 – 143)

Video of Rackstraw Downes talking about his work.



“If you are going to spend your life …”

From Felix in Exile, 1994

From Felix in Exile, 1994

“If you are going to spend your life making objects, or drawings, that have come from within you but that are left outside and that continue to exist, there has to be some part of yourself that fundamentally needs this externalization of the self, needs it psychically. Otherwise there’s no reason to be doing this strange activity. So there’s a question about where that comes from, about what the motivating sense of inadequacy is that it has to buttress itself with so many … either walls of paper in one sense or proofs of existence in another. You have to look back and see, not just empty time but also the pieces of paper on which you can trace back and find a root. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. You feel you’ve got to leave those breadcrumbs if you’re ever to find the way back home – home being who you are or knowing who you are. If you’re an artist, more than anyone else, a biography entails a biography of exhibitions, of works, with a date for every work. A retrospective exhibition is like a root march, if it’s done chronologically. At its heart lies some fundamental insufficiency which ensures that it is not enough for someone to look at you as an artist and say, ‘you are who you are and that’s enough’. You say in response, ‘No, you need to look at the work’. That’s why for a lot of artists, certainly for me, although I am getting better at it, criticism of the work is so annihilating. It’s not just a matter of ‘Oh, they don’t like the picture, that’s a pity’. If the work is not acknowledged, then you don’t exist. It’s felt – I’m sure that anybody who is involved with work that is from them but has to have external form, feels this. So when you ask, ‘Who is the target and who is shouting?’ one will always have to go back to ask those deep questions about that primal lack which makes you feel you exist only after you have made work.”
(William Kentridge, That Which is Not Drawn, 75-76)

Watch William Kentridge’s Video Automatic Writing


A Letter to Ross Feld by Philip Guston

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

Philip Guston, Entrance, 1979

I think that because of teaching – having a ‘career’ – being in the ‘real’ world, with dopey minds, who can only ‘argue for more’ or ‘bargain for less’ as you say – that this makes it easier for me to become infected with the linear thinking found in universities – and  elsewhere too. I begin to wobble – wonder if I am reaching for the invisible too much – and in tottering like this, I am prone to settle for ‘less’. And luckily for me, ‘less’ sticks in my stomach like a sour thing until my ‘ideal’, that I’ve always had but lose momentarily (could be that one should – needs – to have it slip away – in order to regain it) the ‘shimmering’ – ‘the dazzling gift’. I think you are writing about the generous law that exists in art. A law which can never be given but only found anew each time in the making of the work. It is a law, too, which allows your forms (characters) to spin away, take off, as if they have their own lives to lead – unexpected too – as if you cannot completely control it all. I wonder why we seek this generous law, as I call it. For we do not know how it governs – and under what special conditions it comes into being. I don’t think we are permitted to know other than temporarily. A disappearance act. The only problem is how to keep away from the minds that close in and itch (God knows why) to define it.
(Philip Guston in a letter to Ross Feld, Nov. 13, 1978, Guston in Time: remembering Philip Guston, p. 149)

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979

Philip Guston, Moon, 1979


Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling subject matter … a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue. (Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter)

This statement by Matisse is one that I misunderstood for a long time. As Jack Flam explains, “[t]his often-quoted sentence tends to give the impression that Matisse desired from painting merely relaxation or entertainment – in short that his ideals were somewhat superficial” (Flam, Matisse on Art, p.35). This supposed superficiality is what has always made me uncomfortable as I didn’t understand what was at stake for Matisse in making his work.

Flam continues:

It is important to realize, however, that this statement is more an explanation, and perhaps defense, of his limited range of subject matter than an expression of simple-minded optimism. (Moreover, it is very likely that when he wrote this he had in mind his new patron, the Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin, whose recent life had been filled with tragedy and who sought consolation by what he called ‘living in’ the pictures he acquired from Matisse.) Matisse is not advocating an art of superficial decoration or entertainment, but stating his belief in art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life.

Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake. I take this to mean not that life is merely enriched by music but that it is the only acceptable recompense for the burdens of living. The consolation that Nietzsche finds in music or Shchukin in Matisse’s paintings is the sense of wonder and unity that is at the core of aesthetic experience.

For me, the sensory overload and drive to consumption in contemporary society dulls the capacity for this sense of wonder – it is literally anaesthetic. The aspect of Matisse’s work that I had overlooked is that it was made in the face of constant struggle, in defiance of a modern world gone mad with two world wars and on a trajectory that was almost wholly independent of avant-garde trends. It was an attempt to make visible and available for experience the dynamic order of the universe.

In the text for his book, Jazz, Matisse writes: “A new picture must be a unique thing, a birth bringing to the human spirit a new figure in the representation of the world. The artist must summon all of his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working, which can suffocate the little flower that does not come, ever, in the way one expects.” (Matisse on Art, p.173)

It is difficult nowadays to talk about an ambition for “art as a medium for the elevation of the spirit above and beyond, yet rooted in the experience of, everyday life”. It is thought of as an outmoded metaphysics, a pretension of so-called high culture to think that work could function this way. It is more legitimate to talk about art as a mode of critique or deconstruction or cultural strategy. I believe it is or can be all of these things, but they are byproducts of an activity that is aimed at something else: a means of coming to terms with the brokenness of life.

One of the reasons for my renewed interest in Matisse is the seriousness of his aspirations and the formal ruthlessness and cunning that he brought to bear on his work. Another is the sense that his work seems to have functioned not as a retreat from the world, but as his way of meeting its implacable enmity with a precarious sort of radiance.

Matisse’s work has resonated with me, particularly in the last two years, because my own aim has shifted towards an attempt to understand the contingency and vulnerability of our existence. My recent work has been made with the realization that everything crumbles, breaks down, dissolves, and that the small times, the brief moments of pleasure and contentment give way, recede, erode. Not all at once in a dramatic, sweeping action, but bit by bit, scraping and grinding down until you realize that you often feel barely alive.

blooms, 2012

blooms, 2012

The rubble and potholes and ditches are sometimes offset by blooms, but they are brief. When I was trying to write an artist statement for the Whale and Star workshop in Miami, I at one point resorted to poetry – an embarrassing turn and luckily I didn’t read it in the group. But even if it is bad poetry, it summed up the feeling behind the images in the work:

when I am broken
my consolation is in new leaves

The words broken, consolation and new were key. The little boy who is experiencing the world for the first time, whose joys and sorrows seem so immediate and full, is my consolation. And maybe making this work is also a sort of consolation, inadequate though it is.

snow hill, 2013

snow hill, 2013

Paintings of these small things, these routine places, and minor moments feel right to me. They aren’t great paintings, and maybe not even good paintings, but they do feel like they are directly related to my life and how I am in the world.


Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 - 2004

Matthew Ritchie, Weights and Measures, 2001 – 2004

One often hears it said, not only of a poem, a novel, or a picture, but even of a musical work, that it is interesting. What does this mean? To speak of an interesting work of art means either that we receive from a work of art information new to us, or that the work is not fully intelligible and that little by little, and with effort, we arrive at its meaning and experience certain pleasure in the process of guessing it. In neither case has the interest anything in common with artistic impression. Art aims at infecting people with feeling experienced by the artist. But the mental effort necessary to enable the spectator, listener, or reader, to assimilate the new information contained in the work, or to guess the puzzles propounded, hinders this infection by distracting him. And therefore the interest of a work not only has nothing to do with its excellence as a work of art, but rather hinders than assists artistic impression … Many conditions must be fulfilled to enable a man to produce a real work of art. It is necessary that he should stand on the level of the highest life-conception of his time, that he should experience feeling, and have desire and capacity to transmit it, and that he should moreover have a talent for some one of the forms of art. It is very seldom that all these conditions necessary for the production of true art are combined. But in order to produce unceasingly – aided by the customary methods of borrowing, imitating, introducing effects and interesting – counterfeits of art which pass for art in our society and are well paid for, it is only necessary to have a talent for some branch of art, and this is very often met with. By talent I mean ability: in literary art the ability to express one’s thoughts and impressions easily and to notice and remember characteristic details; in graphic arts to distinguish and remember lines, forms and colours; in music to distinguish the intervals and to remember and transmit the sequence of sounds.
(Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?, pp. 189 – 190)

A work need only be interesting. (Donald Judd, Specific Objects)

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

Julie Mehretu, Middle Grey, 2007-2009

A View

For an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself. (Osip Mandelstam, Quoted by Ilya Kaminsky, Stolen Air: selected poems of Osip Mandelstam, xxx – xxxi)

What is at stake in a worldview? Meaning. This blog was begun in order to try to honestly assess my practice and my thoughts, a kind of meditation or confession without absolution or exhibitionist thrill.

But, in order to approach this, the motivation of the practice must be brought to light – not what I want to accomplish with my practice, but what drives it. What do I get out of my work that is independent of how it functions outside of the studio?

A worldview implies taking a position from which to view the world. For me, this involves trying to understand both the world at large and my own interior world. These are not separate spheres, but mutually permeable zones of experience.

Although my work has taken many different stylistic forms, at root, I think its most consistent aspect has been the feeling or impulse that feeds it: a kind of grasping towards existence, or a construction of a version of my understanding of existence, that has been approached through various pictorial and material strategies. Is this what Mandelstam is referring to when he speaks of a ‘worldview’?

Whatever “this” is, that is what ought to come out in the work. Why is making my work the best way to occupy myself as a person in this world?

“Letters to a Woman Painter” (1948) by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Journey on the Fish, 1934

The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this search has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract. And today it remains urgently necessary to express even more strongly one’s own individuality. Every form of significant art from Bellini to Henri Rousseau has ultimately been abstract.
Remember that depth in space in a work of art (in sculpture too, although the sculptor must work in a different medium) is always decisive. The essential meaning of space or volume is identical with individuality, or that which mankind calls God. For, in the beginning there was space, that frightening and unthinkable invention of the force of the universe. Time is the invention of mankind; space or volume, the palace of the Gods.
But we must not digress into metaphysics or philosophy. Only do not forget that the appearance of things in space is a gift of God, and if this is disregarded in composing new forms, then there is the danger of your work being damned by weakness or foolishness, or at best it will result in mere ostentation or virtuosity. One must have the deepest respect for what the eye sees and for its representation on the area of the picture in height, width and depth. We must observe what may be called the law of the surface, and this law must never be broken by using the false technique of illusion. Perhaps then we can find ourselves, see ourselves in the work of art. Because ultimately, all seeking and aspiration ends in finding yourself, your real self of which your present self is only a weak reflection. There is no doubt that this is the ultimate, the most difficult exertion we poor men can perform. So, with all this work before you, your beauty, culture and your devotion to the external pleasures of life must suffer. But take consolation in this: you still have ample opportunity to experience agreeable and beautiful things, but these experiences will be more intense and alive if you yourself remain apart from the senseless tumult and bitter laughter of stereotyped mankind …

Max Beckmann, Bird’s Hell, 1938

It is necessary for you, you who now draw near to the motley and tempting realm of art, it is very necessary that you also comprehend how close to danger you are. If you devote yourself to the ascetic life, if you renounce all worldly pleasures, all human things, you may, I suppose attain a certain concentration; but for the same reason you may also dry up. Now on the other hand if you plunge headlong into the arms of passion, you may just as easily burn yourself up! Art, love and passion are very closely related because everything revolves more or less around knowledge and the enjoyment of beauty in one form or another. And intoxication is beautiful, is it not, my friend? …

Max Beckmann, Self Portrait with a Saxaphone, 1930

Nothing is further from my mind than to suggest to you that you thoughtlessly imitate nature. The impression nature makes upon you in its every form must always become an expression of your own joy and grief, and consequently in your formation of it, it must contain that transformation which only then makes art a real abstraction.
But don’t overstep the mark. Just as soon as you fail to be careful and get tired, and though you still want to create, you will slip off  either into thoughtless  imitation of nature, or into sterile abstractions which will hardly reach the level of decent decorative art.
Enough for today, my dear friend. I think much of your work, of from my heart I wish you the power and strength to find and follow a good way. It is very hard with its pitfalls left and right. I know that. We are all tightrope walkers. With them it is the same as with all artists, and so with all mankind. As the Chinese philosopher Laotse says, we have ‘the desire to achieve balance, and to keep it!’ (Max Beckmann, ‘Letters to a Woman Painter’, 1948, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 180-183)

Max Beckmann, The Actors, 1942

From an Interview with Joan Mitchell, 1986

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1961

Feeling, existing, living. I think it’s all the same, except for the quality. Existing is survival; it does not necessarily mean feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling ‘living’ …

Joan Mitchell, Tilleul, 1978

Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture takes time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place. It’s like one world, one image. (interview with Yves Michaud, 1986, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 32 )

For more about Joan Mitchell’s life and work click here

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992

Some Thoughts on Painting (1954) by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, Head of Frank Auerbach, 1976

My object in painting pictures is to try to move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice. Because of this, painting is the only art in which the intuitive qualities of the artist may be more valuable to him than actual knowledge or intelligence …
The painter’s obsession with his subject is all he needs to drive him to work. People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by which this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. Yet the painter needs to put himself at a certain emotional distance from the subject in order to allow it to speak. He may smother it if he lets his passion for it overwhelm him while in the act of painting …

Lucian Freud, Bella, 1981

A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure. The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accuarate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not, depends entirely what it is in itself, what is there to be seen. The model should only serve the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement. The picture is all he feels about it, all he thinks worth preserving of it, all he invests it with. If all the qualities which the painter took from the model were really taken, no person would be painted twice.
The aura given out by a person or object is as much a part of them as their flesh. The effect that they make in space is bound up with them as might might be their colour or smell. The effect in space of two different human individuals can be as different as a candle and an electric light bulb. Therefore the painter must be as concerned with the air surrounding his subject as with the subject itself. It is through observation and perception of atmosphere that he can register the feeling that he wishes his painting to give out.
A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency which drives him on. Thus the process of creation becomes necessary to the painter perhaps more than is the picture. The process in fact is quite habit-forming. (Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 219 – 221)

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995

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