Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

November 18, 2011
Moonset, Tulum, Mexico 11-12-11

I spent last week in the Yucatan, getting up before 4:00 a.m. practicing yoga, meditating and chanting in Sanskrit on the beach facing the rising sun—with the setting full moon behind us.

My return to New York felt like a continuation when, Tuesday evening, I saw Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha, at the Met, a meditative experience sung in Sanskrit. Instead of a story line, the opera consists of series of tableaus representing the movement Gandhi led in South Africa up until 1914—where, as Glass says in his notes, “Almost all the techniques of social and political protest that are now the common currency of contemporary life were invented and perfected.” The opera is an anti-drama: instead of building to a climax, the final act is gentle and quiet. featuring a transcendent solo by Richard Croft as Gandhi (this is the best example of his “Evening Song” I could find on the Web; I don’t know who’s singing it).

The irony was not lost on me that while non-violent protest was being celebrated in as august and mainstream an institution as the Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg was preparing a vicious, military-style crackdown on the sleeping denizens of Occupy Wall Street. Interesting, too, that the opera’s staging made abundant use of projected text throughout, as the Occupy protestors did yesterday, on the Verizon monolith near their mammoth march on the Brooklyn Bridge (interview with the creator of the projections here).

Well the good news is that we can no longer continue to wage war against other countries since, in recent times, our excuse has been that we were liberating the masses from regimes that suppress human rights and free speech. If this were happening anywhere else, the righteous U.S. would be intervening. The question now: who’s going to step in and liberate us? Canada, perhaps?


Another OWS hero: retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Shaw, arrested in uniform. If you missed it, read the story here.
November 11, 2011
Sunrise, Tulum, Mexico, 11-11-11
November 5, 2011
After only skimming the headlines for the last few years—everything was just too depressing—Occupy Wall Street has turned me into a news junkie, combing Facebook for links and breaking news and  posting them to my page. I’m inspired by the people who are willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe, and fascinated by how the news is handled, something that wasn't easy to evaluate before the internet.  So far, England’s Guardian (to which I subscribe online) has had the most timely, complete, and balanced coverage. For instance, last night a Guardian reporter on the scene broke the story that yet another Iraq veteran had been critically injured by Oakland police, this time wielding batons.  As of this afternoon, although it was in the Daily News, there was no mention of the incident in the New York Times, and Fox News quoted only police sources, which, as one can imagine, yielded sparse information. I’m also intrigued by the police actions and their possible motivations. While both Oakland raids (one to shut down the camp, the other to remove a crowd that had taken over an unused building) were clearly calculated in advance, many of the arrests and much of the brutality that’s occurred there and in other cities, including New York, seems to be spontaneous and personal in nature.


With this kind of police action I’ve had my own bizarre experience, in a situation that was neither ideologically nor racially motivated, and certainly never hit the news. The scene was a small art gallery (now it might be called a “pop-up”) on the Lower East Side circa 1988, where my friends, Karen and Julius, had an exhibition in a space their friend (I can’t remember his name, so will call him “Jim”) had rented. Recently Jim had broken up with his girl friend (I’ll call her “Kelly”), because of her drug use, but she kept hanging around. Unbeknownst to Jim, our softhearted friends had allowed her to spend the night in the storefront while they were installing the show.

Kelly was present at the opening, and by the end was out of control, screaming and banging on the floor with a beer bottle. Jim tried to get her to leave, but she didn’t seem to have any place to go on that frigid night when the temperature was below zero. In desperation Jim called the police twice, but no one came. Finally he called and said (in what everyone will agree was a stupid move, and in hindsight a REALLY stupid move) that a robbery was in progress.

Immediately two or three cop cars arrive, everyone is out the street, and Kelly is suddenly composed, quiet-spoken and polite. Jim tries to explain but no one’s listening. Finally Julius, eager to make things clear, gently taps a cop’s arm to get his attention—and all hell breaks loose as the cops grab and handcuff Julius, Jim and anyone else within reach, throw them roughly into their vehicles, and drive off.

[Shoved in with them was a lovely, young visiting artist from Germany who barely spoke English. I never learned what happened to her. Or Kelly.]

Left on the sidewalk, Karen is surprisingly calm but shortly realizes that Julius has their house keys, so my boy friend, Jeff, and I drive her to the police station and wait outside.  When, after a long while, she doesn’t appear, Jeff goes in to investigate. Coming back to the car, he tells me she’s been arrested.

Karen's story was that she went to the magistrate to ask for the keys, and was ordered to leave. She thought he didn’t understand so went back (obviously we were all operating from an impression of the police derived from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). That’s when she was tackled by cops who dragged her by her feet (she was wearing a short skirt) to a cell. In the scuffle she reached out and grabbed a pay phone receiver, breaking her arm, and also had a hank of hair pulled from her head. At the time Karen was 30-ish, tall and slender; I’d be surprised if she weighed more than 108 pounds.

For the next two days we sat vigil in the court, waiting for our friends’ cases to come up, listening to cops and criminals make their pleas, and becoming marginalized. Before we would have been rooting for the cops, but now our sympathies were with the other side. (Kid knocks over old lady and steals her purse? Woo-hoo!).

Today someone who’s been apprehended must be brought before a judge within 72 hours or released, but back then, apparently, stays could be infinite. Fortunately Jim’s mother finally had the sense (and the means) to hire a lawyer from the many who were hanging around the court, and immediately our friends were brought up, charged, and released. Karen had been kept in a single cell with other women, many of them prostitutes who turned their fur coats inside out and slept on the floor. There was an exposed toilet, but Karen thinks no one had to use it because the baloney sandwiches on white bread they got three times a day stopped them up. While in jail Karen was told that if she were sent to a hospital it would delay everyone else’s chances of release, so her arm didn’t get treatment until afterward. I’m not sure if it ever healed properly, but I do know that for a long time it hampered her work as a seamstress.

Even though they were released, Julius and Karen wanted the charges against them dropped. I somehow was able to find them pro bono legal counsel and after many months, including a visit to our home by the police’s rigorous internal affairs investigator (who told Jeff and me he wrote detective novels on the side), we all met in police court. My testimony at that trial was the hardest bit of public speaking I’ve ever had to do. Ultimately the charges against both Julius and Karen were dropped, the cops were disciplined (the one who'd pulled out her hair was a woman), and Karen was awarded $30,000.

I don’t know about Karen, but for many years after that, whenever I saw a cop, I’d cross to the other side of the street.


For a surprising (or, sadly, not surprising) addendum, I found these recent “reviews” on Google Maps for the Avenue C police station:
SinthiaV ‎- Aug 14, 2011:

According to a judge in a recent arraignment, these cops frequently arrest people on trumped up charges, which are later dropped for lack of evidence! The disposition says it never happened, but try telling that to your boss or family. This precinct treats the people they exist to protect and serve like irritating garbage. Can anyone out there relate a positive experience they have had trying to get help from the ninth? Once I was arrested trying to get them to enforce an order of protection, which the offender violated in front of several witnesses! All I did was ask them to write an incident report!! They also punched me in the face for trying to write down an officer's badge number. Be very careful dealing with this precinct, as they have a long history of mistreating people and abusing their power. To be honest, I am a bit frightened to be writing this, but they seem to dislike me already, so it seems worth the risk to warn a potential unsuspecting newbie who might expect a certain type of behavior from the police. Don't expect the norm. It seems a little like Wonderland sometimes in this precinct. The ninth plays by it's own rules and it's up to you to figure them out. Good luck.

dawn - Dec 11, 2010:

No one ever answers the phone in this precinct. Doesn't anyone work here?

October 29, 2011
A few nights ago, I had a dream where I was floating and diving underwater like a dolphin and—as when swimming in real life—I never wanted to stop.

Yesterday I had an art day like that: long, solitary experiences with four very different kinds of work that invited endless immersion.  Whenever, as happens all too frequently, I start to wonder why I’m in this field, I can look back on this day and remember why.

Photo: courtesy MoMA.
Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981
Oil on canvas
7' 4" x 6' 4 3/4" (223.4 x 194.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund, 1982
© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I got to MoMA early to see the de Kooning exhibition again, this time on my own, and went straight to the back in advance of the hoards with their walkie-talkies. Except for the guard, I was alone in front of de Kooning’s Pirate (Untitled II), and the longer I stood there, the more it revealed to me. The experience was so animated it was like watching TV, only better. After about twenty minutes the guard, an older black man, came up and said, quietly, “Looks as if you like that painting.” I asked him how he felt about it, seeing it day after day—did it hold up?—and he was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I told him how much I love the wispy late work, as opposed to the ones with looping closed lines, which feel static and tight. The guard pointed out that they were the very last ones de Kooning painted, and suggested that perhaps by then the artist’s mind really was gone. He showed me the area he liked best, a wall of somewhat earlier large abstractions that reminded him of Lee Krasner, and told me, proudly, that he’d worked at MoMA for more than twenty years.

Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011
JANET CARDIFF (Canadian, b. 1957)

The Forty Part Motet (2001)

Reworking of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui”(1575), by

Thomas Tallis

40-track sound recording (14:00 minutes), 40 speakers

Dimensions variable

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and

Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Rolf Hoffmann, 2002

I could have stopped there, completely fulfilled, but instead I took the E out to PS 1 (only two stops from MoMA). While I’ll do almost anything to avoid 9/11 nostalgia, Sasha Frere-Jones, in a recent New Yorker article, mentioned the Janet Cardiff sound installation from 2001, The Forty-Part Motet, which is part of PS 1's September 11 exhibition, and I was eager to experience it. Frere-Jones wrote:

Cardiff re-created the performance of a forty-member choir, each singer emerging through a separate speaker, performing the 1573 Thomas Tallis piece “Spem in alium.” In eleven minutes, it uses a stunning variety of overlapping, interlocking parts, as deft in its repetition as anything Steve Reich has done. The interplay of the voices is also moving—I have rarely visited the work and not seen people crying within minutes.

I’ve been a fan of Cardiff's ever since the percussive piece she and George Bures Miller installed in 2006 at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which gets my all-time favorite award for site-specific art (read my review here). Happily The Forty-Part Motet lived up to my expectations—was exalted and exhalting. I could have just as easily been in Canterbury Cathedral during Evensong, but there’s also something about the anonymity of the experience that makes it surprisingly personal. While I was there, two young women were inspired to dance, but attempting to photograph them (with their permission), I was sharply remonstrated by the guard—an action that was jarring and surprisingly upsetting in the way it pierced a euphoric moment. Something like that would never have happened in Europe, I thought, especially in England where museum attendants can be sensitive to the point of being apologetic. So I left the room and came back again later when—with the exception of a different guard who lurked quietly in the corner, absorbed in his cell phone—I was able to listen to the whole thing again, this time completely alone.
Photo: Carol Diehl, 2011.
JAMES TURRELL (American, b. 1943)
Meeting (1986)

Interior fluorescent light and open sky

Room: 259 x 279 ½ inches (657.9 x 709.3 cm);

portal: 157 x 177 inches (398.8 x 449.6 cm)

Long-term installation, MoMA PS1, Long Island City,

New York

Where I went to recuperate was James Turrell’s Meeting (1986), unexpectedly open in the early afternoon where, for more than a half hour, I was alone in one of my favorite places in the world. At one point a man opened the door, stuck his head in, and immediately left, having had his fill—but that was all. The sky “ceiling” was picturesquely blue and wisped with clouds on that sunny day, while soft, cool breezes wafted about the room. Perfect.

Photo: courtesy MoMA, PS 1
BARBARA KRUGER (American, b. 1945)
Untitled (Questions) (1991)

Photographic silkscreen on vinyl

66 3/16 x 92 5/8 x 2 1/2 inches (168.1 x 235.3 x 6.4 cm)

Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for

Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New


On my way out of the September 11 exhibition I passed this piece from 1991 by Barbara Kruger. While I didn’t spend half an hour communing with it, it’s stayed with me, as it seems particularly relevant to the present time. If I haven’t posted lately, it’s because I’ve been caught up in the issues around Occupy Wall Street, without quite knowing how to process them as far as my blog was concerned. With the mainstream press reporting so little in the beginning, Facebook became my news source. Suddenly I was grateful that I’d accepted as “friends” over 1,000 people I don’t know, and their links to video footage, news reports from outside the country, and on-the-spot commentary, was riveting, inspiring, and disturbing.  The actions of the police, in one scary videotaped scene after another—especially in Oakland—are unconscionable. If this were China, we’d be appalled. Why do we accept it as business-as-usual in a country that gives lip service to free speech and human rights? Now that it’s turned on us in a big way, we can see what the black community has known all along, that police forces are often made up of people who are excited by violence, who can’t wait to use their authority against such dire threats as Citibank customers endeavoring to close their accounts, or Naomi Wolf in her evening dress (an event that made the headlines in The Guardian, which I subscribe to online, but was significantly left out of the New York Times). Not to speak of the group that's most armed and dangerous: nurses.

I’m just enough of a Quaker, an idealist—and an American—to believe, like Marine veteran Sergeant Shamar Thomas in the now-famous video where he successfully talks down a bunch of cops, that the police should be protecting our Constitutional right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  Is that really so far-fetched?
October 19, 2011
I could not agree more with Roberta Smith’s strongly worded review of Gabriel Orozco’s show at Marian Goodman, which ended Saturday (note: the images look better online than they did in person). My thoughts exactly: a case of an artist who can do wonderful things (his drawings on money and tickets being some of my favorite artworks ever), churning out stuff for the marketplace to the point that I wonder if he even knows who he is anymore. But then you have to feel sorry for anyone who shows while de Kooning is on at MoMA, and has to stand up to the inevitable comparisons.

Willem de Kooning. Pink Angels. c. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 x 40" (132.1 x 101.6 cm). Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I didn’t see how the de Kooning retrospective could live up to the hype but it did—it was energizing and inspiring, even though some of the selected pieces (especially from the artist’s late period) weren’t the best examples, not to to speak of the pedestrian installation. Is it really necessary to group all of the “woman” paintings together in a row? At MoMA, chronology wins out over aesthetics, as if we’re all art historians for whom it’s important to compare similar paintings side-by-side. Big square rooms, white walls, everything lined up in order…hey, it’s the 21st century! How about a little originality? And also is it necessary to show SO MUCH work at one time? I know that’s a silly question since the whole idea of a blockbuster is to cram in as much as possible—and to hell with selection. Why show three black –and-white paintings when you can get ten? The result, no matter how great the artist, can be overwhelm and overkill, and it’s to de Kooning’s credit that he survives it here.

I remember approaching the gigantic 2005

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm). MoMA Purchase. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

[Can we imagine Orozco choosing not to work for nine months?  Caring enough not to work for nine months?]

It’s impossible to look at de Kooning and not think of all the other artists (Pollock, Gorky, Kline, etc.) he was bouncing off of, who were working in similar ways, and to recognize how—when a group is working on the same idea, if separately—they push each other to outdo each other and develop it collectively. The downside is that the pressure to adhere to a movement or style can be very confining (I know this from personal experience, having been an abstract artist in Chicago where the Imagists held such sway that the only option was to move to New York)—however it made me think that the complete freedom we have today may be the one of the reasons so little truly great art is being produced.

Leaving the exhibition we walked down the stairs to the first floor where a massive Twombly was hung over the information desk, edge-to-edge scrawls of white crayon on a uniform gray ground. My friend and I had once shared an experience at the Clark Institute with one of Monet’s cathedral paintings, which started out appearing to be almost entirely abstract—but as we looked, the sun seemed to come out and illuminate the façade until we could see its sculptural detail clearly. Similarly here, gazing at the Twombly, the fairly regular, overall pattern of loops began to form themselves into clouds, and the painting took on the unexpected illusion of movement and depth. Gorgeous.

I’ve been back to the Clark since, wanting to see the Monet in the same way again, but it resisted. By now you’d think I would have learned the folly of trying to recreate peak experiences.

Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1970. Oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas. 13' 3 3/8" x 21' 1/8" (405 x 640.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (both by exchange). (C) 2011 Cy Twombly
October 10, 2011

Thomas Struth 2011 - courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

I just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s excellent article (New Yorker, September 26, 2011) on the photographer, Thomas Struth, whose 30-year survey I saw last July at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I often cringe when art world outsiders attempt to write about art; editors can forget that it’s a specialized field like science or sports, with specialized practices and precedents. They might assign a music writer to write about art (as the Chicago Tribune did back in the day) but an art writer to write about football? Hardly. Outsiders tend to idolize and idealize the artist, make too much of technique (which can seem magical to them), and emphasize the wrong things—Anthony Lane’s 2003 article on Howard Hodgkin in the same magazine is a case in point: Lane, normally a perceptive film critic, made much of the fact that Hodgkin would date a piece over the years it took to make it, i.e. “1998-2002,” an utterly common artistic practice, and wrote “If you know Hodgkin’s work, you can spot it across a crowded room.” Uh, that’s called personal style.

Also, to a frightening degree, most writers of profiles (art and non-art) tend to be so cowed by their subjects that they rarely question or evaluate their statements. Malcolm, however, isn’t afraid to intelligently correct what she perceives as Struth’s “mischaracterization” of photo-realist painting, and point out how, while not a conscious influence, that work anticipated Struth’s generation of photographers.

The piece begins and ends with the story of Struth’s recently commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The photograph is remarkable for its subtlety, not a quality usually associated with pictures of monarchs. Generally the poses are dry and formal or the opposite, smiling with dogs or small children, as if the photographer is trying to say, “See? Royals are human, too.”  Instead Struth wraps vulnerability, power, and constraint into a single package. Seeing the reproduction (although with no indication of size, which turns out to be 59” x 79”) and learning about the sensitivity with which Struth approached the project gave me insight into his work to the point that I wished I could go back and see the Whitechapel show all over again. If all art writing were like that, I wouldn’t be so vehement on the subject.

The Struth piece reminded me how much I learned in the 23 years I spent working with TIME’s estimable collection of cover art (from Warhol to Alice Neel, Alex Katz, and Christo, with my hands-down favorite being Marisol’s sculpture of Bob Hope) and commissioning pieces from “gallery artists” (the only term I could come up with that would distinguish them from illustrators) for the covers. It seemed that when the subject was a given I could see the artist’s peculiar vision more clearly—the special twist that could turn yet another image of an over-exposed celebrity into a genuine work of art.

And speaking of teaching, as we were in the posts below, it comes as no surprise that Struth studied with Gerhard Richter (described by Struth as “ironic,” with “coded” language and behavior) and photography icons Bernd and Hilla Becher of whom he said:

The big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers…in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you were with Bernd and Hilla they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example a typical thing Bernd would say was “You have to understand the photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.”

Which leads me to the idea I’ve often fantasized about, that until specializing at the college graduate level, we should be teaching not subjects but eras—Warhol in the context of the moon landing, birth control pills, Catch-22, and Marshall McLuhan makes much more sense than as part of some artificial trajectory from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. When I was at Bennington I wanted to put together a multi-disciplinary class entitled “1968” (ideally to be followed by 1954, 1944, 1929, 1917, etc.) that would go into not just the cultural, political, and scientific events but what people were eating, what their houses looked like, their religious and educational practices, important legal disputes of the day, and so on.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching everything like it’s 1890.
October 4, 2011
...prompted by querying an undergrad friend the other night about his first assignments in painting. Last week the class was to paint a still life with subjects of their choice, while including some kind of organic material and a black and white photo, and this week they’re being asked to paint the sky. While I’ll always leave open the possibility that the teacher is inspired and I just don’t get it – it does happen! (see the post below) – I’ll also continue to agitate for students’ prerogative to choose their own subject matter. After all, if I wanted to encourage a kid’s sense of personal style, I wouldn’t start by having his mom pick out his clothes. To continue the analogy, the still life assignment is like saying, “You can wear anything you want as long as it’s from the Gap and has short sleeves.”

What is the most important ingredient in making a successful work of art? INTEREST. Art is hard (and then you die, as they say) and what drives it is DESIRE, a feeling not usually successfully generated by what someone else wants. Art happens through imagining an outcome and wanting so badly to see it realized that you’ll try anything, do anything, to make it happen, including starting over if the first, second, third, or hundredth attempt doesn’t succeed.

The other reason for choice in subject matter is to establish from the beginning that execution and concept are intertwined. Technique is simply the vehicle that allows an idea to reach its fullest potential. How is it we think we can expose students to a bunch of techniques using our ideas and just assume that afterwards they’ll find their own concepts to attach to them? Do ideas generate techniques or do techniques generate ideas? That’s a chicken-and-egg question.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching art like it’s 1890.

So what is a teacher’s role? Unlike some others, I believe we do have a purpose, which is to expose students to new ideas, new methods, and also validate theirs—help them to “detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [their minds] from within,” as Emerson would say, as they develop their creative intuition and artistic idiosyncrasy.

And, yes, art history is useful as long as we’re not using it to impress upon students what the culture has valued in the past, but to stimulate what’s already percolating so they can supersede it.

Needless to say, I did not share my opinions with my student friend. And while I found the sky painting assignment BEYOND BORING, I will admit to having done one:

 Carol Diehl, Gloria, 2007, oil on panel, 12" x 12".
September 27, 2011
I love it when comments or questions spark ideas for new posts.
This comment from Kenney was in response to the post below:

In grad school there was a beautiful young woman who was looking through slides in the slide library. She was a teaching assistant for studio, I was one for art history. I started my rap, "That's pretty cool that you're using art historical examples for your drawing class."

She replied, "Yeah, but I don't like to show them too much stuff too often. If they know to much about the past, I feel like that other painters imagery will influence them too much and they'll repeat it."

I decided not to ask her out.

Well I agree with both of them, and think there was a missed opportunity for fruitful conversation over coffee, if not more.

My point in the last post was that it’s important that museums, and the artists who show in them, have a deep understanding of their place in the art history continuum.  When teaching studio art, however, the issue becomes much more complex, because students are so easily influenced. They want to make art that “looks like” art, and are often encouraged in this by their instructors, who have their own expectations about what art should look like.

Most of the art I see falls flat because it lacks inspired idiosyncrasy—something artists develop not by looking at other art, but by learning to trust their singular intuition.

In his lecture at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) last week, Rob Storr talked about a piece by Robert Ryman, shown at MoMA, which incorporated four small strips of masking tape. The museum installers were fastidious in measuring and matching the strips with those in the photographs, but it was flat, had no energy. Then Ryman came into the gallery and Storr watched fascinated as the artist placed the strips himself, seemingly in the same places, and the piece came alive—became a Ryman.

I had a big lesson in the value, or lack of it, of exposure to outside influences during a period when I was simultaneously teaching undergraduates at Bennington College in isolated Vermont, and graduate students at the School of Visual Arts, with its proximity to the galleries. My younger, unexposed Bennington students produced more original work because they were working primarily from their own resources—unlike the SVA students who were into cloning Chelsea, they hadn’t (yet) acquired superficial assumptions about what art should look like (and here I must give credit here to those few SVA students who were able to overcome their environment).  

Like Ryman, I didn’t study painting, and am glad for it. Music was my first love, my most evident natural talent, and in a perfect world I’d be Radiohead or Sigur Rós.  However after 20 years of rigorous classical piano training, I no longer had a clue who I was musically, and eventually gave up trying. While it’s easy to point out musicians who have evolved their classical training into something more contemporary (like, perhaps, Sigur Rós), history doesn’t count those like me who tried and failed.

As a teacher, I’m cautious about how and when I introduce the work of others, because I’m aware that to be faced with work of accomplishment when you do not yet have skills can be extremely intimidating.

At Bennington I had the luxury of creating my own beginning painting class the way I’d always wanted to teach it, and enjoying the results. [I was also abetted by the most excellent TA, Catherine Hamilton who, with her thorough RISD training in techniques, proved to be the perfect resource.]

I started with abstraction because an understanding of abstraction is important to every successful painting, regardless of content, and often with figurative work it’s easy to get so wrapped up in representing the image that other necessary painting decisions go by the wayside.

So the first assignment was to paint, with acrylics, 3 to 5 squares or rectangles using only primary colors on a 2’ x 2’ canvas stretched on a professional support (none of those crappy pre-stretched canvases for my students—you have to be a really great painter to make those things look good, and then, why bother?). My secret agenda here was that I wanted the students to have a positive first painting experience, build confidence for what would come later, and that formula is hard to screw up.

First painting by unidentified Bennington student, acrylic on canvas, 2' x 2', circa 1998.

The second assignment was to do the same, now adding curves and mixing primary colors to make secondaries, as desired.

The following assignments were to paint a landscape, then a portrait, then a still life without any preparation—somewhat like the way my grandfather was taught to swim by being thrown off the end of a dock—always on the same 2’ x 2’ format, as it’s important to accustom oneself to a particular scale, and I had laid in a supply of inexpensive strainers from Richard Britell, who tells the story of a class he was teaching where he set up a still life with the instruction to “paint it like Vermeer.”  That nudge was all one student needed. After that class, Richard said, “She no longer needed me”—and indeed, Janet Rickus has been successfully painting in the manner of an updated Vermeer ever since.

Diff’rent strokes, as they say.

Janet Rickus, Turnips on Table, oil on panel, 14" x 27", 1996