The Poetics of Painting: Part One

The Poetics of Painting: Part One August 30, 2012

Part One: Pigments on a Canvas
Guest Post
By Daniel Siedell

With this post we are launching an occasional series by Daniel Siedell titled “The Poetics of Painting.”

After twenty years of teaching art history, curating exhibitions, and writing about contemporary art, painting still baffles me. The more I study it and the more I talk to artists about it, the more impenetrably wonderful painting becomes.

What I have learned over the years is how much faith is necessary to make a painting. For most of us, a painting is just smelly and messy pigments smeared across a canvas. But for the artist and a handful of others, it is much more.

It seems to me that the very existence of painting in the world is an act of faith, leaning into the scorn and skepticism, the accusations that it is a waste of time and energy. This series will explore the mystery and mechanics of painting.

Unfortunately, we as curators, critics, and theologians of art often work hard to de-emphasize the radical faith that is required to make (and to look at) a painting. In our verbose and iconoclastic hands, it becomes an image, an expression of the artist’s emotions or intentions, or, for the more theoretically touched, it is a discourse that starts a conversation, initiates community, and the like.

All of these fail to take into full account the aggressive, take-you-by-the-throat-and-throw-you-to-the-ground that is painting.

It seems to me that painting does something more than express an artist’s feelings, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. It seems wildly counterintuitive, but I would like to suggest that it doesn’t communicate—at least not in the way we typically assume communication to occur.

This dawned on me one morning ten years ago during an undergraduate studio critique when I watched a young student stand in front of his work and begin talking. He talked about how he felt, what he was trying to communicate, veering into psychology and philosophy, his upbringing, even his political ideas.

While he talked, the committee and I never talked about the paintings themselves. The committee discussion focused on his comments, discussing the ideas he was trying to communicate in the paintings.

No one on the committee bothered to look at one of the paintings and ask that young man to justify himself as a painter of those particular paintings: What are they doing in the world, here, in front of us? Why that line in the foreground? Why did the space created in this part of the painting disappear in that part?

I was horrified. For that earnest and intelligent young man, the paintings served only as an excuse to talk, to initiate a dialogue about a myriad of interesting topics, but nothing that we could accuse any painting of initiating.

We were helping him talk about his paintings but offering virtually no guidance, no critique of the mechanical concerns of painting itself. This disregard for the mechanics of painting is derived from the assumption that the artist is sending a message with her painting.

It goes something like this: The artist has a message for us. She puts it in a fancy gift box, wraps it, puts a bow on it and then gives it to us. Our job, as receivers, is to tear open the paper, fancy wrapping, and pull the message out of the box.

The paint smeared on the canvas, the imagery that emerges from this smearing of paint, is often treated as an obstacle to sending and receiving the message. The form paint takes is only a device to get to us that meaning, emotion, message, occasion for community, or an aesthetic or theological point we can debate.

The trouble is I don’t think painting works that way. The artist’s intentions must decrease while the work of art itself increases. The gift-wrapping is the message. A painting is all surface. Its depth, its mysterious, disruptive depth, is all there on the surface. It is not something to unwrap, walk over, or move to the side.

What are we to make of this? I’ve discovered that a painting is more than the sum total of the artist’s intentions, desires, beliefs, biography. An artist brings all her life experience, intentions, fears, and desires to a painting, yet the end result is an artifact that exists beyond her scope.

Abstract expressionist painter Willem De Kooning said that he knew a painting was finished when he had painted himself out of it.

We too often assume that painting is a form of diary writing, visual journaling, painted confession. And our role as viewer is simply to peer over the artist’s shoulder as he or she expresses, emotes.

But I think that a good painting releases itself from the grip of the artist who brought it into being. It exists in the world because of the artist’s emotions, experiences, and desires, yet it transcends them in order to confront us.

Artists do not paint to express something they already know or feel, but to discover something about the world or themselves, that they do not already know and cannot know by any other means than painting.

But we professional theologians of art often do all we can to prevent that encounter. We write extensive wall labels to explain the work, and museum docents use the paintings as visual cues to talk about the artist’s biography or feelings. Painting then becomes about the artist or about abstract concepts like beauty, the figure, or exile.

And perhaps we do so in order to avoid the confrontation that a painting can provoke.

Freed from its maker, what does a painting do to us?

That will be the subject of my next post.

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. 

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  • I am a painter. My work is hard for me to explain, I am not a verbal person, I am visual. I often wish that people could just look at my work and “get it”. But these days and in this time artists are expected to talk, to explain. If only words could explain this, why would I get a canvas and paint?
    This article resonates with me and my current frustration.

  • Deon Bahr

    Dan I will look forward to your series. My 6′ 8″ cubes are now finished. Over the last ten years of painting I have obtained great joy out of promoting God as the great mathematician… inspired me to continue. My growth as an artist is obvious to me if no one else. I am Happy Onward Deon

  • Many good points here stated frankly.

    I just visited the Barnes in Philadelphia this past weekend. Barnes’s collection is astonishing, and his display decisions, still maintained long after his death, ensure no wall text at all (though brochures identifying painters and paintings are available), forcing the viewer to look, and then look some more. . . a lesson in “reading” painting through seeing, which I think we tend to trust too little.

    Earlier, I saw a tiny conceptual exhibit at the American Philosophical Society in Philly, a pairing of science and art. One of the staff sheepishly said to me, “I still don’t get it.” Too many people fail to understand the source of meaning discovered in the act of seeing.

  • Fr. Daniel Trout

    Great thoughts, Mr. Siedell, thank you. I sense that your thoughts here echo the relationship between art and artist that often prevailed in the Western world before Romanticism and Kantian aesthetics pushed creativity and judgment into a more egoistic direction. Before that, a paining was almost a window into an alternative or even ideal universe for all to engage in contemplation and interior transformation. Artists weren’t valued for their independent “genius” or message, but for their participation in almost a Platonic “divine madness” to be priests for God’s use of human imagination. I sometimes wonder if that’s why art from this earlier period tends to be more “timeless,” while more contemporary art frequently gets discarded when the trend or its overriding “point” loses relevance. I think you are right on target that both producing and looking at a painting must be more about discovery and even self-examination. How often do we view recent work and feel more like we’re being lectured at or victimized?

    Anyway, good insight, and I look forward to more of your ruminations. God bless.

  • Kevin Krausnick

    Dan, delighted to find you on the blogosphere again. Great insights…even in my own amateur experience producing art, the joy for me has come from discovering the image as I’m creating it. It has often been the case that many dimensions of ‘meaning’ have come to light for me only after the object itself exists and I, the artist interact with it. I’ve found the same is often true with creative writing. My best writing has always been the writing that surprises me; it feels much more like discovering or unearthing something that’s already there rather than ‘creating’ it. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that Truth is something larger than us, so when we are blessed to be used as conduits of communicating, or incarnating, some truth, of course it would be more or different than we expect or could predict. Look forward to the series.

  • Jim Hale

    I was thinking of de Kooning already when I got to your quotation of his line about painting himself out of the painting. De Kooning is my favorite example of an artist struggling to get beyond himself to discover some kind of representation that frees the artist from his own pysche. In my view of his paintings, De Kooning had to get beyond the psychology of his relationships with women to see and paint the beauty and mystery of the body and the flesh.