I was reading John Elderfield’s excellent book, The Drawings of Henri Matisse, and came across a Matisse quotation that attracted my attention. Matisse said that In his earliest works he “found something that was always the same which at first glance I thought to be monotonous repetition. It was the mark of my personality which appeared the same no matter what different states of mind I happened to have passed through.”
Finding and then defining this “monotonous quality” is not an easy task. It is, quite literally, the eye looking at itself, probing for that which is intrinsic, existing below the conscious surface of the artwork. In the process, one must disregard the subject, color, even composition. Perhaps the quality that one is searching for is motive: what is the artist searching for? What excites the artist’s mind to spend a lifetime struggling making art? How does this quality manifest itself?
Using my own work, I will try to tackle this thorny question.
The first painting, Still Life with Recorder is an oil painting I completed in the early 1970s. I had been painting and drawing, sporadically, for just a few years.
At first glance, what impresses me about this “student quality” still life is the concentrated effort I made to position everything in perspective. Working alone without a teacher, I was trying to master traditional drawing and painting skills. It is clear that I didn’t succeed in this case (or others later). Instead of existing in a unified three-dimensional space, the elements are flying off in different directions, and the scene is presented from multiple points of view. The picture is, nevertheless, strictly composed, and the colors relate well to one another. The pattern of the leaves and the spaces between them contrast with the solidity of the fruits and recorder. The grid pattern of the blanket contrasts with the roundness of the fruits and the irregular pattern of the leaves. The painting, as a whole, is united in mood.
If I were to describe the “mark of my personality,” I would draw attention to the concentration that accompanied the work. Each object is clearly individualized and unique, and has a distinct structure that differentiates it from another. Each exists in its own universe. Perhaps that was due to my enchantment with color, with the need to make visible the physical manifestation of a particular light. There is, also, an effort to describe and differentiate the variety of physical structures, and there is an immediacy that offers the viewer, at once, an opportunity to experience the picture at first glance belying the more difficult challenge of discovering the structures and relationships that are the foundations of the composition.
Now let’s proceed to Maine Moon an oil painting I completed sometime in the early 1980s.
Here I have abandoned the quest for three dimensionality, preferring instead a solidly two-dimensional composition. The structure is determined by heavy black lines, and distance is determined by the overlapping of forms. Forms are now unified and simplified, and there is the element of humor implied by the tipsy moon suspended from the mountaintop. As in the earlier work, there is a presentness. The viewer sees the landscape alongside the artist. In this painting, one senses again the stress on structure, albeit a simpler one. One also gets a feeling that the search for luminosity is now an essential quality, and that there is an apocalyptic implication as the imbalance of moon, seen through the barren tree, as it falls backwards into the empty sky.
Fast forward thirty years to Luna Park at Night, a drawing in wax crayon, I completed in May 2016.
The relationships with Maine Moon, are obvious: The moon crescent is repeated and reversed; the black sky creates a black outline defining the space thereby creating a clearly defined composition: the shapes are clear, unambiguous; the color is luminous; humor or whimsy is intrinsic; there is an intensity of concentration and a feeling of presentness; the whole has an underlying apocalyptic quality as the two skies are held in place (prevented from colliding) by a flailed moon that is flying away in the shape of the two wings of a mysterious bird.
Over the course of time, an artist strengthens those aspects of his work that are defining characteristics of his personality. These are the qualities that define him as a person, that will come across in private talks with friends, at a dinner party among strangers, in the privacy of a diary, and in the intimacy of a bedroom. What distinguishes a particular person, artist, from another person or artist? That is what is meant when one refers to “style.” It is that person’s unique signature, the artist’s way of expressing his/her innermost self. And, it is the artist’s unique impact on the world.