By Daniel Siedell
Today’s post concludes our occasional series on “The Poetics of Painting.”
While touring an exhibition of Frank Stella’s paintings in 1970, critic Rosalind Krauss asked the exhibition’s organizer, fellow critic Michael Fried, why Stella, a Minimalist, felt compelled to paint stripes, again and again.
Fried responded with this story: When Stella was a student at Princeton, he would take the train into Manhattan and go to the Met where he would sit for hours in front of the canvases of the Spanish master Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Stella wanted more than anything else to paint like Velázquez. But he knew he couldn’t, so he returned to his studio, and painted stripes.
How does looking at Velázquez lead to stripes?
To answer this question, we need to explore the role of tradition in painting.
Tradition gets a bad rap. Modernity has taught us to be skeptical of it, wary of its ossifying leaven that spoils our individuality and autonomy. It suffocates our freedom, removes us from the realities of contemporary life and throws us into a sepulcher, death by doing things “the way they have always been done.” And so we believe that art, as the apotheosis of individuality and freedom, has nothing to do with tradition.
But history tells us otherwise. Modern artists, from Courbet and Manet in the nineteenth century to Picasso and Pollock in the twentieth, understood the catalytic role that tradition plays in artistic practice.
Tradition makes it possible not only to paint a painting, but also to hear it as well.
When an artist drags her brush across a canvas for the first time she is doing what countless artists have done before her and what countless artists will do after her. And so when she paints she hears voices. Or at least, she should.
Tradition is these voices. It is a conversation. It reminds the painter that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she does not work alone. She is participating in a cultural practice with a tradition. This is important for us, who look at paintings, to remember as well.
Because they emerge from a conversation and participate in a tradition, paintings need to be understood within that conversation. Therefore, knowledge of the history of art—of the artistic conversations that have taken place through the generations—is an important part of looking at paintings. And one of the more interesting ways to experience a painting is to determine the conversations that brought the painting into existence or, those will give it a continued life.
How does this conversation occur?
The artist must visit museums, galleries, and other artists’ studios and look at their work. She must fill her imagination with them. She has to create this conversation. And ironically, it is only through conversation with other artists, with stepping outside her claims to individuality, autonomy, and freedom that her distinctive voice—her artistic individuality—will develop.
The early Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky achieved his own distinctive artistic vision by copying Picasso. And he made no bones about it. Artistic individuality emerges only in and through tradition, through the voices of others.
Modern art emerged in the nineteenth century against the Academy, which, for over three centuries, had created and sustained a particular pictorial tradition. Although they undermined this tradition, modern artists rejected neither tradition nor the art of the past.
They offered new interpretations of the past, creating new conversations among artists, both living and dead. In fact, many modern artists sought to reclaim the integrity of the art of the past, showing their audiences how to look at the work of familiar masters with fresh eyes as well as drawing attention to artists who had fallen out of official favor.
Modernity, as Sartre once wrote, condemns us to freedom. The artist feels this blessing and curse acutely. The artist is free to make anything. But he has to make something. And this means he must create his own tradition in order to participate in a conversation.
What kind of artist does he want to be and not want to be? What kind of art does he want to make and not want to make? Within the tradition of painting, the centuries-long conversation, artists must develop their own intimate conversations—their friends, allies, rivals, and enemies. Against whom do they push, with whom do they labor?
Michael Fried is arguing for the significance of Stella’s paintings through tradition. Fried claims that Stella is drawn to Velázquez’s paintings, hears his voice, and is provoked and challenged it. Yet to paint like the Spanish master is impossible.
Why? To paint like him, according to Fried, is to ignore other voices such as Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock, voices who declared that painting was not merely about content, but form, not merely about what was painted but how it was painted, not just about the artifact but the process.
And so, transfixed by Velázquez’s canvases, seduced by his voice. He sees paint gracefully, confidently, and voluptuously spread across a scrap of canvas like cake frosting. Stella hears something different in the Spanish master. Velázquez lives in Stella.
We may find Fried’s argument ultimately unconvincing or perhaps discern other voices to which Stella is listening and other conversations in which he is participating.
But Fried’s story reveals that originality and innovation in painting come from tradition: conversations with artists, living and dead who form a community, a great cloud of artistic witnesses to the mystery and grace of painting.
For painting is much more than meets the eye.
Daniel A. Siedell (M.A. SUNY-Stony Brook, Ph.D. Iowa) is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale where he is curator of Liberate, the resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. He is the author of God in the Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008) and numerous writings on Christianity and modern art. He blogs weekly at Cultivare.