There is Still Hope

January 7, 2018

In spite of the severe downward turn in our culture — especially evident in our “modern” tastes in art — it is still my privilege to continue meeting artists who refuse to follow the latest trend in ‘isms’ and carry on the struggle with those elusive and inscrutable Muses that guide the hand in producing, not commodities, but genuine “art” that enhances life. (What an idea! Buying and/or collecting ’’art” for enhancement rather than investment!)

I know I use terms that several of my readers deem pompous and I must admit that many of my ideas come from extensive traveling and reading; I’m the product of lower-class, poverty-threatened folks from Brooklyn and my “culture” was largely gleaned from the streets of our neighborhood and, later (at the age of 12) on a dead-end road in the woodlands of the Catskills. Trips to museums, libraries, etc. were never on my parent’s calendar, nor were books a part of our lifestyle. Art was not on the curriculum of any of the schools I attended, so I had a great deal to learn. My first “awakening” occurred when I was drafted into the US Military and discovered that not all people were raised as I was raised or learned what I learned. Stationed a full year in Germany, and all I ever visited were popular beer halls! Later, and still in the Service, I discovered a library on the Canadian base up in the arctic (Fort Churchill) that I was assigned to for one year. As we were “guests” of the Canadian Air Force, we were closely monitored — so no alcohol (or women) — ergo, plenty of time for the well-stocked library available to all of us on “isolated duty.” Never having been much of a library-goer, it took me some time to learn my way around. Previously an occasional “Mickey Spillane” follower (when and if I picked up a book), I had no idea what treasures awaited me once I got used to turning pages. Having 365 “isolated duty” days on the tundra sans alcohol and women looking me in my oft frost-bitten face left me literally little choice — but once started, I voraciously ‘ate’ my way through, first the art history section, quickly followed by ancient history, world literature and philosophy.

Although rather haphazardly read at the time (I thought that Plato and Dostoevsky were contemporaries), all would be organized, expanded and clarified when I finally started college in my early 30s, concentrating on those very fields of study and finally receiving my B.A and M.A. in Liberal Arts. I taught English in Public School and a short stint at College over a period of about 14 years, then co-founded ART TIMES with my partner, Cornelia Seckel, putting my full concentration on art — writing Artist Profiles, and either reviews or critiques of art exhibitions. Although I never ‘took’ an art class, I was drawn to the subject since the only “talent” that survived my Brooklyn upbringing was being able to draw, sketching on the living-room floor long before I started school. So, already familiar with pen and pencil, after absorbing some art history I was drawn to learning about other mediums and the creators behind the work; hence ART TIMES and my profiling of artists. Living near Woodstock, New York, I had a veritable plethora of artists nearby to visit and started writing about artists some years before we founded ART TIMES in 1984, freelancing my work to various local newspapers and eventually, with ART TIMES as a base, broadening my scope to profile over 200 artists from the U.S. as well as from abroad — Germany, Italy, China, and so on. Supplemented by my critiques, reviews, traveling, lecturing and further reading, yes it is probably true that I sometimes come across as “pompous.” And yes, I am “set in my ways” — or passé, to many “modernists” — still quoting Bernard Berenson (as above) and his theory of “life enhancing” art, still inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde and his claim that America went from Primitivism to Barbarism without having passed through “Civilization.”

Yet, the real truth is that in spite of my last 40 years dabbling in “art”, the only inconvertible ‘truth’ I have discovered is that opinion rules and that no one has yet discovered an authoritative definition of “art” — me included since my “knowledge” is only based on endless page-turning and tramping around the world. Some, in fact, have even declared that “art” is dead! Not even my picking up of brush and palette knife some 20 years ago to paint landscapes, all I am “sure” of is that I try to “reproduce” three-dimensional Nature on a two-dimensional flat surface. So the “pomposity” is probably nothing more than a smoke-screen trying to obscure my ignorance. All that said, however, does not nullify my opening remarks, namely that I still have the privilege of meeting “artists” — who, more often than not, are struggling to come up with their own definition of what it is that they are doing — (I try to avoid the glib ones, who sound too much like salesmen and bloviating agents. Art, already a communicative language in and of itself, is largely un-translatable and meant to ‘speak’ for itself (humans were making pictures on walls long before they made words and sentences). In the opinion of Edgar Degas, literature ((i.e. words)) only did “harm” to art, and readily agreed with his friend, the writer Jules Renard, who wrote, “When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.”* So, to all of you still fighting the good fight, I urge you to continue ignoring all the gobbledygook. I wish you warm and pleasant Holidays and a continuing success in your struggle — you have certainly enriched (and enhanced) my life for a long, long time.

 *Cf. Julian Barnes “Humph, He, Ha”, London Review of Times, Vol. 40, No. 1., Jan 4 2018.

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…and Winter will be cold as — usual.

September 9, 2016

Well, Spring has sprung, Fall has fell…and Winter will be cold as — usual. Fall, or Autumn, or Indian Summer — whatever you choose to call it — is my favorite time of year up here in the Catskills. I can breathe freely, imagine I can see forever in the air’s clarity, and generally find it the Season to “get it together” since Old Man Winter has mostly kept me indoors these latter years — to sit, to read, to mull, to assess, to look back, to sink even lower into my much-loved solitude and get myself prepared for the next phase of this thing called “Life.” My “doings”— especially those related to my editor/artwriter duties for ART TIMES — have been severely curtailed for some time now — so many exhibition receptions I have missed, so many worthy artists still to be profiled, so much…ah, well.

Perhaps I may even get out to try to capture just-one-more autumnal scene of magical color on a small piece of canvas before the cold sets in, the snow covers all, and I plump up the pillows on my easy chair…another pipe dream, I guess, since here I am in my 83rd year and haven’t managed to do a painting that really “gets it” yet. My usual excuse is simply, “I’m a writer — not a painter!” True, but then I haven’t managed to capture the mysteries of Nature — or of those artists who do get it — in words either.

The “human condition”* sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. Anyway, the dénouement can’t be that far off — I’ve already put in for a front-row seat. Hope I’ve earned the privilege of that much-vaunted overview promised by our theologians upon our “phexit” (physical exit)…however, I’ll be happy with that 6th-century Chinese (Han Yu) poet’s observation: “Better a long-dark silence, than a life full of lies.”

* The best description of which I found in Gaius Plinias Secundus’ (more commonly referred to as “Pliny the Elder”) Chapter 7 of Natural History.

(High Woods, NY. September 2016)


Why artists and artwriting?

February 1, 2014

MY writing about art and artists began for me about 30 years ago, but had an impetus that had begun many, many years before that. The making of images, ‘art’, had been with me since childhood, reproducing comic strip characters for hours on end while lying on my living room floor. Drawing was not something taught — or   encouraged — by the nuns at the parochial school I attended, and, at times, would even get me in “trouble” when my sketches would appear in the margins of my books (sketches that were, more often than not, caricatures of the nuns themselves). The taboo on wasting my time on “such nonsense” was seconded by my parents who never dreamed such activity by a growing boy was of any use — “learn a trade” was my father’s mantra — consequently, none of my early drawings survived (besides, this was still the time of ice boxes which, being wooden, would not support magnets to hang up photos and kids’ “artwork” and stuff). As I grew older, I would almost always have a sketchbook with me (probably introduced into my life by some uncle or aunt who appreciated my ‘talent’), and, while in the Army, did my own ‘comic strip’ (“The Arctic Trooper”) for our Company newspaper while serving in the Arctic and also used to make a couple of bucks drawing caricatures of my fellow soldiers with a magic marker, using their t-shirts as my ‘canvas’. Eventually I advanced to more “realistic” sketches of people, places or landscapes, but none of this ever came to anything since, when I finally got to college in the early ‘60s, a glance at my ‘portfolio’ of trees that looked like trees, or cows that looked like cows, prompted an art professor to tell me that “this isn’t art!” OK. This was the age of rampant “modern abstraction” so I meekly and quietly opted for Literature (writing, mostly poetry, ‘bubbled up’ during my Army years) as a ‘major’, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Liberal Arts and teaching English for awhile at the junior, senior and college levels.

The writing of my first artist profile, Vladimir Bachinsky (1983), in itself had a kind of serendipitous quality about it, its “production” a somewhat offhand affair that, at the time, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, an assignment from an editor who had been publishing a variety of my essays (Lifestyle Magazine) that neither of us knew at the time would become the only kind of essay I would henceforth contribute, viz., “Artist’s Profiles”. I had been freelancing my essays (to Lifestyle as well as other publications) during my years as an English teacher, but the writing of the Bachinsky profile opened my eyes to the fact that I could henceforth combine my love of art and writing by concentrating on ‘artwriting’. In 1984, Cornelia Seckel and I co-founded ART TIMES and the continuation of my profiles were now augmented by regular art reviews and critiques. Both my early love of art and later love of writing, however, seemed to me to emerge from a much deeper urge than to simply ‘draw’ or to ‘say’ — an inner source of power that, throughout my life, has goaded me on to uncovering the “perfect” image and the “perfect’ word that would reveal a profounder ‘meaning’ to my life which transcended what I had been taught as a child and what I had gleaned from a somewhat erratic and peripatetic way of life as I grew older, on through my 5 years of service in the Army (with an almost 3-year hiatus of ‘bumming’ my way across America between bouts of active duty), and finally on to my ‘settling’ down as a teacher in my early 30s. The ultimate answer to “Who am I?” became (and remains) my constant goal and purpose, my ‘reason for being’. My ‘search’ which included exploring many belief systems and ‘paths’ over the years even brought forth a book in 1978, The Vessel of Splendor: A Return to the One which, although originally intended as a personal “meditation”, I realize now is almost a prescient ‘blueprint’ for my 30 years of profiling artists, since the quasi-autobiographical main character is commanded to “Plumb their souls…search that Sacred Spark in your own kind and to kindle it into a mighty flame…”. Somewhere along the line, I began to believe that it was the image and not the word that “was the beginning”. Words, I discovered, simply obfuscate (as anyone who has heard a politician campaign or an art critic drone on instinctively knows) — words are simply too squirmy, too slippery, too vague to communicate “truth’. Thus, for me, “In the beginning was the image” and this ‘image’ inspired (i.e. ‘breathed into’) the true artist who was delving the unknown rather than catering to the known market. So, the Bachinsky profile not only showed me that I could combine my love of art and writing, but, as I interviewed more and more artists both here and abroad (I’ve lost count) I became convinced that, if I chose the right artists to profile, I could facilitate my search by understanding theirs. Their “inspiration”, if “divine” as was believed during the Renaissance (hence, ‘breathed into by God‘ — or however you choose to identify or characterize our ultimate Source), seemed that they had an ‘inside track’ that could help me clarify and determine mine. Whatever my artwriting has done for others, it has been largely self-serving (except for the times I chose the wrong artists to write about — my bad, of course, since it took some time and experience to learn how to “read” art, and I was certainly off the mark at times). I’ve learned a great deal over the past 30 years, but, at 80, I still have to confess that my own path is still murky. A few more artists like Susan Hope Fogel, profiled in our upcoming Spring issue, might just get me through the mystery.


Regrets

January 13, 2013

OF ALL MY regrets — and I have my share — the one that still nags at me in the wee, wee hours of the morning concerns the late master watercolorist, Chen Chi. Since I wrote a Memoriam on Chi in September 2005, I keep running through my mind an offer he once made to me that I unfortunately had to refuse. Ever since I first met Chi in 1989 when I interviewed him for a Profile for our pages, that initial meeting had quickly blossomed into a friendship that lasted until his death in China at the age of 93. We often took walks in New York City — both in the vicinities of his home (Washington Square) and study (Gramercy Park, at The National Arts Club) as well as to one of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown — during which Chi would ruminate on art and philosophize on life. One time, during one of our “dim sum” luncheons (at which I always left all the ordering up to him), I tasted something that was exceptionally good and asked Chi what it was. He looked up at me and asked, “You like it?” When I emphatically nodded my head, he said, “Eat it!” and went back to his meal. That was Chi! —I could only smile at his usual pragmatism. I grew to look forward to our lunches and jaunts and Chi’s thoughts and it was on one of these meanderings that I floated the idea of writing his biography. In addition to the Profile (and the Memoriam), I had also written a review of his work in 1991 at the (now defunct) Connoisseur Gallery in Rhinebeck, NY, and about attending the opening of his museum in 1999 (The Chen Chi Art Museum) at the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai for ART TIMES, as well as several additional essays on Chi’s works as introductions to various books and pamphlets that were published over the years — thus a full biography came to my mind. We did not pursue the idea for some time and when the Chinese government wooed Chi back to China by building a Museum not only dedicated to his work and person (they wanted him to be a showpiece as “Master Artist in Residence”), but also with built-in apartments to serve as a home for him and his wife and with a guest room to accommodate visitors — this was an offer Chi could not refuse — so off he went, back to his native country (Chi, incidentally, came from Wuxi, a small town not far from Shanghai and which I visited while attending the Museum’s Grand Opening). While he was in the process of moving, Chi proposed that I come to live with him for a year in China (“all expenses paid”) where, in his words, we could “paint the clouds and hills all over the country” during which time, he added, I could discuss and write his biography. Stunned by the generosity of his offer I was immediately tempted, but there was no way I was able to spend a whole year away from my obligations to ART TIMES — and so, to my nagging regret, I had to turn him down. I can only imagine the sights, adventures, and excitement that I had to turn my back on. My decision to pass-up that opportunity still haunts me. It was not long after his proposal that Chi passed away, a hero to his country, and a very great loss to me — with no way of ever getting over my regret of not spending that year in his company.


LANDSCAPE PAINTING

October 21, 2010

I PAINT LANDSCAPES —not as a professional, but as an avocation, as a way to relieve the stress of occasional writing blocks, since, as most know, writing is my profession. And yet — though only a kind of relief, an outlet for frustration — there is a deeper intent in my painting of landscapes. Obviously, if it were only a diversion, then why not still lifes? Or portraits? Or street scenes? The answer is that the painting of landscapes — though I’ve only been making them with any regularity for the past dozen years — holds a greater claim on me, reflecting an ongoing love-affair with nature that has gripped me since my move from Brooklyn to the Catskill Mountain/Hudson River Valley when still a boy of 12 (in the summer of 1945, in fact). I’ve written elsewhere of that 40-acre, wooded plot in West Hurley, New York and how it affected my evolution from boy- to manhood, of how I’d learn to love, respect and fear the mysteries it held that persist to this day. My landscape painting — my personal replications of nature — attest — even, one might say, pay homage to — that life-long love affair.

I’d recently been interviewed by a high-school student who, armed with 20 questions prepared by her teacher, questioned me on my painting — and especially of my painting of landscapes. Although I’d been interviewed many times about my writing, this was the first time that I was asked about my painting — and the process was interesting in that it made me seriously “see” myself as a painter — something I’d rarely done in the past. And, though I explained that I was not a painter — a professional painter — being surrounded by my landscapes in my study sort of made my protestations moot (at least to the young lady interviewing me). She persisted with her 20 questions — and I tried my best to answer them — and whatever the process did for her, it certainly opened my eyes to acknowledging some truths about both myself and about my “hobby”. I knew that I painted from nature because I loved nature — but had never really delved into it as I did that day as she pointed to this painting or that, and “why’d” and “how’d” and “when’d” me on those that attracted her eye. Generally, (I told her) I paint when moved, usually outside and alla prima, and, once done, set aside whatever I manage to produce until the next time I’m “inspired”.

In trying to explain these steps to another person, I found that, in fact, I was often clarifying (or obfuscating) as much for me as I was for my interviewer. What “moved” me? Why that scene? Was it in the morning or afternoon? And, so on. I tried my best to explain that, since my primary occupation was writing, that I needed both opportunity as well as “inspiration” and, that mostly, it was the way light played with form, showing me both color and shadows — etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Gradually, however, glibly answering her questions in the same manner that so many artists I’ve profiled over the past 30 or so years did for me, it dawned on me (mostly after she’d gone and I could mull it all over) that (I am sure, like those artists I’d interviewed) none of these answers really answered anything.

Still, the question remains: What is it about nature that has captivated me for all these years? And why has the painting of landscapes become such an all-engrossing activity since I resumed painting after a forty-year hiatus?

What draws me to nature is not merely its beauty — it is its mystery, its underlying enigma. There is not only form and color — there is geometry and equations, forces and balances, tension and accommodation, conflict and resolution, constraining laws that say, “You can grow that high, that densely; reflect that color and absorb this one; spread that far and no farther; shine forth here and shrink in darkness there; flourish here and struggle there; shimmer now and stand stock still then.” I know that if I can understand Nature’s laws, then I can understand me — my laws, limitations, potentials. If I am made in His image, then it is that image and that image alone (are we not all unique souls? Does the oak strive to be a maple? The rose, a lily?) that I must uncover, discover, live up to. I can no more follow your path than the sycamore can aspire to become a hemlock since I — like all natural beings — have been allotted my own. We do not all go to a store and buy the same size hat. So, why ought I follow someone else’s path? Accept their answers? Ape their images?

I am told, that it is written in the Koran that if one wants to speak to God, then one must go to the mosque; but, if one wants to hear God’s answer, then one must go to the desert. Having no desert nearby, I have substituted my woods — and, I have indeed received some answers — at least to my questions about my path.

Thus, in the process of my interview and discussing individual paintings with that student, I could glance around my study and evaluate some of the answers I have received — not to share with that student (since we can not given that it is between the Creator and the created), but to my own inner understanding and enlightenment. Some of my landscapes I had actually seen for the first time as answers — at the time of painting, I was simply too involved in the process to “stop and smell the flowers” — I had missed the fact that each of my paintings revealed just a bit more of the mystery, that each held a kind of ‘magic’ for me if not for others, if only in that one small portion of the canvas, e.g. a tiny spot of light glancing off a stone wall, a leaf, a blossom or that murky shadow alongside a tree-trunk. In many cases, the rest of the painting existed only for that one infinitesimal touch of paint, acting as a ‘foil’ for the answer — if only I took the time to see it as I was doing during the interview. In fact, it suddenly became clear that I was not painting “trees”, or “fields” or “mountains” or “woodland streams” — in short, that I was not painting mere landscapes. I never had any doubt of the mystery — of the presence of the hidden “answers” — only that I would be able to discover them! But then why should God try to trick me?

In his Art and Artist, Otto Rank wrote that early artists were the first priests, the first to penetrate “God’s” answers. It was the cave-wall scribblers that were pointing the way to his fellows on how to discover “purpose”. History, however, tells us that early shamans, diviners, seers, priests and prophets had discovered this fact about nature but, instead of sharing it with their followers, chose to keep it hidden, to hoard it as ‘privileged’ knowledge that only they could interpret. They built elaborate rituals and systems to divert attention, made laws and taboos, dangled ‘salvation’ and threatened ‘damnation’ to any who would question their authority or break their taboos.

Today’s true landscape painters — the ones not painting only what their eyes can see on a certain day and in a certain place — carry on that ancient tradition of listening to God’s answers. And, if you listen and look, you might start carving out your own path…

Raymond J. Steiner

High Woods October 2010