Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christopher Busa's Lecture at Endicott College: The Idea of an Art Colony: Provincetown, Mass.

Christopher Busa, the publisher of the Provincetown Arts Magazine, gave a lecture at Endicott College. Here is the text:

I am here today to talk about the idea of the art colony, an idea that is not just about art but about the milieu in which art is created. Artists and writers are often altered by excursions to a place elsewhere, stirring new desires or concentrating a vague impulse into a determined sense of purpose. Historically, the rural art colony began in France in the late-19th century when the Impressionists fled Paris for open air in the forests of Fontainebleau or the seacoast of Britany. Adapting to the community, the artists socialized freely, mingling with local farmers and fishermen (sometimes choosing them as models), and creating an atmosphere that attracted tourism. In the United States, the same phenomenon reappeared in Cape Ann, Provincetown, East Hampton, and other unique pockets scattered around the country. 

In my remarks, I’ll be drawing on my experience as editor of Provincetown Arts, which a partner and I founded over three decades ago. I will be making comparisons between the artists and writers who were attracted to Cape Cod and Cape Ann, both locales that have fostered two of America’s most notable art colonies. It is significant that the Walter Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott currently has on exhibit Provincetown Artists: A Survey of American Modern to Abstract Art, and that members of Doug Holder’s creative writing class were assigned to write about a work in that exhibition. Happily, this dovetails with my theme of how writing about art is an excellent way for new writers to learn to write. I have brought extra copies of Provincetown Arts to leave with members of the audience.

   Many years ago, Walter Manninen himself began attending the annual auctions of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where he acquired a portion of his collection. He has preserved the illustrated auction catalogues that are marked up with his notes. Occasionally, he thumbs through them, pained to notice his missed opportunities for paintings he could have acquired for much less than they are worth today. He told me that the difference between Cape Ann and Provincetown is that modern and abstract artists failed to find sufficient patrons when William Atwood started his Gallery-on-the-Moors in Cape Ann in 1916, three years after the famous Armory Show in New York, which introduced Cubism to an American public. Provincetown also endured a cultural war in its acceptance of the new art, so much so that for a decade, from 1927 to 1937, the Provincetown Art Association held dual exhibitions, summer after summer, for “traditional” artists and “modern” artists, each selected by separate juries. That cultural skirmish concluded when it became no longer possible to clearly distinguish between the evolving styles, and the acceptance of diversity and pluralism is perhaps the key to the enduring vitality of the art community in Provincetown, which is precisely the focus of the Endicott survey, with its emphasis on more abstract art. 

   Modernism and abstraction are not necessarily the same things. From the point of view of abstract reduction, there may be more consequence in drawing ordinary letterforms that in the study of anatomy or leaf forms. Abstraction is virtually a synonym for the creative process. To abstract is to reduce to essentials, striking the bull’s eye of the target. If artists keep looking up the word “abstract” in the dictionary, it is because they keep forgetting what it means. Some prefer the definition as the structure of pure thinking, like a dynamically balanced mathematical equation. The isolation of the problem as subject matter, distinguished from the subject matter of the object, creates another problem: painting itself becomes recognized as more about painting than writing about painting. The art critic Clement Greenberg assumed that abstraction could be assimilated rather than being left on the margin. He worried that the pursuit of a purely abstract art might result in work that is arid, decorative, and dehumanized. He perceived the genesis, the turning point, through which the abstract became manifest. He wrote, “In turning his attention away from the subject matter of common experience, the poet or artist turns it upon the medium of his own craft. In one of his notebooks, my father, whose work is included in the Endicott exhibition, wrote, “Ever since the ‘40s I have understood abstraction in art as the basis for revealed feeling. All works of art have structures that reduce experience to forces. The only thing of value is what touches you in your own experience. When history is written we’ll look back on Abstract Expressionism as being one of the most naturalistic efforts of our century, not only in terms of the image but also in terms of the invention of forms tied to tradition.” The point is that, rather than rupturing its link to the art of the past, modern art offers an instructive continuity.

   Like the artists who populated Cape Ann, the early artists of Provincetown drew their inspiration from the people who surrounded them: a fisherman’s son embarking on his first sea voyage, a woman sewing a button on a child’s jacket, a down-and-out derelict who knows he must escape Ashcan angst and be strong. These artists awakened to an understanding that they shared a common cause, a desire to transform a personal ambition into something transcendent, utilizing the power of their medium to concentrate the available into something equal to their aspirations. Their wants and wishes, their utopian desires, and their ultimate satisfactions sought realization by overcoming a blank canvas or sheet of paper with mark making displaying rhyme, music, and emotional resonance. 

   The most painful example of obtuseness, illustrating the lingering resentments of this cultural war, may be the legacy of Hans Hofmann, one of the key figures of postwar American art, both for his own paintings that had absorbed the influence of the Fauvists and Cubists he knew when he lived in Europe and as the legendary teacher of generations of artists in Germany, New York, and Provincetown, many of whom became prominent during the period of Abstract Expressionism. In his teaching, Hofmann often cited stellar passages in the paintings not only of Matisse and Picasso, but in historical masters such as Titian and Tintoretto. However, when Hofmann died, he was thwarted in his desire to leave a portion of his estate to the Provincetown Art Association; there was such resistance that he ended up donating the collection to the University of California at Berkeley, where he had first taught after arriving in the United States. Now, of course, Hofmann is rightfully lionized in Provincetown.

   I understand that Doug Holder took his class of creative writing students to view the exhibition at the Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, and to pick a painting to write about. I learned that one of his students wrote about a powerful painting by Selina Trieff depicting two pale figures, who appear quite androgynous except for the faintest tint of their clothing, one slightly pinkish, and the other sheathed in a whispered hint of blue. The student asked, “Do you think the artist was trying to suggest a gender difference?” This is an excellent observation, which I had not heard noticed before, especially because the title of the painting is Two Women in White. It signals a subtle but perceptible difference in gender. Trieff’s figures do look more like women than men, but they reference a variety of costumed personages such as court jesters with an undertone of cynicism or shrine seekers with personal agendas. Wearing porcelain expressions, unmoving, serenely poised, calmly purposeful, with zones of otherworldly energy registering in their eyes, they huddle together, as if whispering conspiratorially. Their tight-fitting costumes, revealing slender, athletic bodies, suggest performers at ease, however prepared to tumble and leap. Slim at the waist, her figures remind us that boys played women in medieval and Renaissance plays. Much of the meaning of her portraits depends more on the gestures of the body than the mask of the face.

   Let us briefly compare Trieff’s painting with another painting in the exhibition, Charles Hawthorne’s Girl Sewing, painted seventy years earlier in 1923. Hawthorne was the founder of the Cape Cod School of Art, which is credited with stimulating the stream of artists that early on made Provincetown the “biggest art colony in the world,” as the Boston Globe declared in a headline in 1915. Hawthorne was famous for teaching students to build up structure by placing what he called “spots of color” side by side, so that shapes derived not from drawing outlines but from the musical intervals emerging from patterns of deftly daubed color. He often held classes outdoors on the beach, the face of the model shrouded from the blazing sun by a wide parasol, so that the features of the face were obscured. These learning exercises became known as “mud heads.” In Girl Sewing, through the subject is indoors, her face is hidden, tilted so that she may concentrate on the task of sewing. 

The history of artists and writers working in Provincetown has been tied to a long list of mentors with extraordinary gifts who passed on their knowledge and taught by example that the life of an artist was a noble calling. Charles Hawthorne urged hard work and a humble mind, encouraging students to be bold, free of timidity, and go for the expression of big emotions. Today in Provincetown teachers of talent offer classes at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro. Developing artists fail without knowledgeable feedback; they wrestle with doubt as to whether their work is significant or solipsistic, whether they are making a meaningful contribution or adding only redundant rubbish. Authentic art cannot mature without being nurtured. As Stanley Kunitz, the renowned poet and a founder of the Work Center, said, “Art withers without fellowship.” Important art is cultivated by an exchange with its audience, stimulating conversations that define a community’s social identity. The solitary efforts of artists in their studios and writers in their rooms must be shared with an appreciative public, offering the dynamic back-and-forth that pushes achievement into social validation.

Perhaps anything that we call art achieves a condition that is an intensification of the real. Even when children produce what may look like an abstraction by Miro, their work is rooted in the reality of their feelings.

    John Yau, the author of over fifty books of poetry, artist monographs, fiction, and art criticism, writes poetry that explores identity through an examination of language. Exploring nonverbal mediums as well, he has become a leading commentator on contemporary art, seeking ways to give voice to the mute image by articulating his own experience of viewing. Last summer, he appeared on the cover of Provincetown Arts. He told me he began writing art criticism for a very basic and practical reason, believing that the effort would teach him how to write poetry. Often, he collaborates with visual artists because they set parameters that, as a poet working alone, he could not arrive at. With images in front of him, he works to transform elements in the paintings into speakers in his poems. One of his poems is structured around a published statement by the artist Jackson Pollock, who said, “When I’m in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.” Yau offers variations that examine Pollock’s meaning, much like a sculptor attempting to finish a three-dimensional work while being obliged to work on only one perspective at a time. Here is Yau walking around Pollock’s sentence:

When painting, I am in what I am doing, not doing what I am . . .
When painting, I am not doing, I am my doing.

Yau also teaches two days a week at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He shows paintings and ask students question about what is modern painting. He shows films and introduces them to various things they may not know about. He gets them to write about art and how they see it. The next semester, they go to New York and write reviews of shows they’ve seen.

   In his interpretative biography of Pablo Picasso as a young man, Norman Mailer writes that Picasso’s early work hints at his future progress, through psychological description to rough, primitive, carved expressions of form. Mailer says, “It could be argued that there will be a direct line of development from the Blue Period, soon to appear, into the vast aesthetic range of Cubism. Picasso had entered the world of visual equivalents.”

   Mailer continues, “One can ponder the concept. An artist’s line in a drawing can be the equivalent of a spoken word or two. The bend of the fingers can prove equal to a ‘dejected hand,’ or the outline of the upper leg muscles speak of an ‘assertive thigh.’ Form is also a language, and so it is legitimate to cite visual puns—that is, visual equivalents and visual exchanges. No matter how one choses to phrase it, artists, for centuries, have been painting specific objects, only to discover that they look like something else.”

   In an interview in 1999 for Provincetown Arts, I asked Mailer about discussions he had had with artists he knew. Robert Motherwell was a next-door neighbor. Mailer replied, “Motherwell was an immensely intelligent and cultured man. But we never had a serious discussion. There seemed a kind of tradition among painters never to talk about art. There were forums at the Art Association, but I don’t remember anything remarkable being said. What mattered was the presence of artists. Maybe one reason I never got into a discussion about modern art with artists is that I always felt such discussions never led anywhere. How far can words carry an artist? To this day, I find most writing about art to be poetic explorations that depart very quickly from the experience of looking at the painting. The writer goes off on some inner collaboration with her or his own experience. The painting becomes like a distant object from which one is receding at a great rate in one’s vehicle of metaphor. I do think that to write about painting, you must involve yourself with the life of the painter. Painting does not lend itself to critical language. Rather, it’s a springboard to all sorts of sensations, emotions, metaphors, indulgences, new concepts, but it is as if each of these people is exploded out from the work. That is the excitement of the painting. You go to see a painting to be shifted, startled, moved into new awareness. Whereas very often with a work of literature what you are looking for is more resonance than one’s own thought. To a degree that we learn about the life of someone else, which you can get out of a good book, we understand the life we would otherwise never have come near to. So we are larger, more resonant within.”

   As a banker who had the resources to acquire the collection on view here at Endicott, Walter Manninen is also aware of the monetary value of art. When I grew up in New York, I would go to the dentist and see my father’s paintings hanging on the walls in the waiting room, learning later that my father bartered art for dental services. I came to understand that the art world survives in part by trading in what I call the “gift” economy, where art works can be substituted for assets and investment. In the poetry world, prizes and recognitions have value especially for belated benefits, such as making one qualified for a prestigious teaching position. 

   Ironically, teaching can also become a pitfall for the artist. Sometimes my father would make more money from teaching at a university than he would from sale of his paintings. Not infrequently, he was audited by the IRS, who, noting this discrepancy, might suggest that his painting was more of a hobby that a career or profession, and that the money he deducted for materials and painting expenses might not be allowable. “No, no, no!” my father replied. “We am going to have to change how I file and call my painting a disease, so I can take a medical deduction!” A true artist, psychologically, is compelled to create out of necessity. No choice exists in the matter. Mr. Manninen said that if people like him get up in the morning and reach for their toothbrush, the artist first reaches for his paintbrush. Therefore, money may be akin to abstraction in art.  The government makes money and says this is money because they made it. Likewise, an artist says the art that he made has value. He may offer to trade his drawing for a television being sold in a store; I know artists who arranged for this sort of barter. The artist may buy $50 worth of oil paint and sell the painting for $500. This is how symbolism works, and the power of its magical transformation is the source of its delight. Picasso said that when he ran out of blue, he used red. 

One of the essays in the exhibition catalogue, written by Robert Anderson, who teaches at Endicott, emphasized the importance of cross-disciplinary education in the arts. I could not agree more. All the arts possess a restriction that leaves out what is essential to other mediums. If the narratives in fiction require the passage of time, visual art substitutes the immediacy of space for sequential pacing of time. If painting concentrates on the flatness of the two-dimensional surface, sculpture accentuates the third dimension. If art and writing are solitary studio activities, theater and performance are shared communal experiences. 

***** This lecture was given as part of the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visiting Author Series.

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