Seeing a specific painting or work of art in person, at a certain moment, can change your life. Something in the painting and in you just click. Maybe it’s a color. Maybe it’s the subject matter.
Ask an artist and they can probably tell you the first time it happened to them. Some emotion flew off the canvas and lodged in their heart. A sense of wonder was born. A conversation began. Time goes on and other influences flow into that artist’s life. His work changes, but that first emotional experience is still there.
Below begins a three part series in which Bay Area artists talk about that first love — the initial painting that moved them to paint.
GALE ANTOKAL: When I was an art student in New York, I was assigned to see the show New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, curated by Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the first contemporary survey the Met had ever exhibited. The large galleries of 18th and 19th century paintings were emptied to be filled with the most sensational and the most important work in a particular moment of each artist’s career. There were over 400 paintings, sculptures and drawings of the New York school, which included Abstract Expressionism, Color-Field Painting, Pop Art and Minimal Art. David Smith’s burnished aluminum sculpture exploded on me upon entry. I was overwhelmed by this visual pageant and grateful for a moment to recover from the impact. Then, I walked into a room where there were small works on paper by Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly, a pencil rendition of Device Circle, 0 through 9 in charcoal and pastel, and a study for Painting with a Ball in conte crayon.
But it was Johns’ grid series Gray Alphabets that riveted me. The hand-drawn graphite and graphite washes stunned me. The edge of each letter patch appeared as if it was peeling, and the leaden, little licks therein were all contained within a precise and delicate outline. They were like the grit and soot of the city — like a newspaper page to a young child, before they are able to read. Incomprehensibly tabloid. In the same room were a row of Ellsworth Kelly’s delicate, slightly ungainly botanic line drawings — a tulip, a stalk of grass, a magnolia blossom, an avocado plant. A chrysanthemum with the same vertical iconic grace of Mondrian’s earlier renderings… and also in reverence to Matisse.
I was stunned by the contrast of material substance in Johns’s and Kelly’s drawings. I think I must have sensed that graphite, charcoal, pastel, and conte crayon could be subject matter in themselves. That was the moment that I wanted to devote my life to making drawings.
Gale Antokal is from New York and received her MFA from the California College of the Arts in 1984. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Art & Design at San Jose State University. In May 2008, she has a show of drawings at Patricia Sweetow Gallery. She is also represented by Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles.
LISA SOLOMON: As an educator I hope that something I do, say, or show will make a mark on a student. I often think back to my undergraduate Figure Drawing class with John Zurier and the day he showed me David Park as a shining example of an “ah-ha” moment. A moment where my heart beat faster and all I wanted to do was pick up a brush and paint.
We were always working from a live model — I was shy and afraid of taking risks. John had been slowly encouraging me to just try things. Play. Experiment. I started using oil sticks to make messier and bigger gestures. I started removing parts of faces and trying to use color as an emotional quotient rather than as a descriptive one.
John walked by me and said “Oh, I want to show you someone.”
He went to his office and brought back a book on David Park. I was floored. The immediate sense of gesture butted up against a built up surface. The paintings were both fast and slow, representational and abstract. The colors were pure and mixed to perfection. The shapes simple. The brushstrokes divine. I could almost taste the paint. Dots became eyes, swoops became ears, stripes melted into one another on shirts.
That weekend I went out and found an out of print book of Park’s work. It was the first art book I bought for myself. I still own it. I sought his work out in museums. The first time I saw a Park piece in person I was awed by the depth of paint, the relationship between figure and ground, the subtle mastery of composition and scale. His figures always fit, just so, into their spaces. The colors were more vibrant, and the brushstrokes more pronounced in person. I felt as though Park was in each of his works. That he meant them, felt them, ate and slept them.
I tried to paint like David Park all semester. Of course I failed miserably. But I learned a lot. I learned how to push and pull the paint around. How to mean my brushstrokes. How to manipulate and mix paint on the canvas during the act of painting. My work looks nothing like Park’s now; I can’t imagine even using the figure as imagery in my work. But I still admire the work greatly. And I always smile when I have the occasion to show a student the work of David Park.
JOHN ZURIER: My parents were collectors and I grew up with art in our house. So I was exposed to paintings at an early age and lived with them daily. Most of the paintings were modern and contemporary Â?Â? really marvelous things Â?Â? and I knew right away that abstract art was intimately connected to the real world.
As a small child I was in love with a painting of a dancing girl by the German Expressionist Ludwig Kirchner. But the one I loved most was a large watercolor of a standing woman holding something in her hands by Oskar Kokoschka. It was a perfect balance of a sudden watery color with a moment of fragility.
What made me want to paint were sensations I had no words for: the silence of houses, the colors of things, light from an open window, the scent of the ocean mingled with Eucalyptus and dry Sycamore leaves. I had already decided to be a painter when I saw the painting that would change my life.
In 1979, during my last semester as an undergraduate, the art department at Berkeley screened Emile de Antonio’s film Painter’s Painting. I remember watching it in the middle of the afternoon with the 16mm reels purring away and seeing Barnett Newman sitting and talking in his studio in front of his paintings. I can recall my excitement thinking, “Now this is it! This is the real deal!” As soon as it was over I went to a bookstore and bought the Newman catalog by Thomas Hess.
Soon after I graduated and took off for Europe to see paintings in the great picture galleries and museums. Barnett Newman was the farthest thing from my mind when I rode the escalator up to the galleries at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. My head was filled with the old masters and I was seeking Matisse. When I walked into a small room that was filled floor to ceiling with Newman’s Shining Forth (to George), the experience was shattering.
Shining Forth (to George) is 9 1⁄2 feet high and 14 1⁄2 feet long. It has 3 vertical stripes of black oil paint running top to bottom on unprimed raw cotton canvas. He painted it in one afternoon in 1961 for his brother George, who had died earlier that year.
Nothing could have prepared me for the intense light coming off of it. With its utter simplicity, expanse and scale I had no coordinates for it. Every landmark was gone. It couldn’t have taken him more than an hour to do. And although I could see exactly what he had done, that didn’t explain anything. Here he was leaving open and uncovered everything I had been taught to cover up. I felt as if the ground was giving way beneath my feet and I had to leave the museum and sit down outside.
I was 22. It was the most radical painting I had ever seen. And it would take years to accept the implications of this experience, where for a moment I felt so exposed, so happy and so free.
John Zurier is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim, Larry Becker Contemporary Art, and Peter Blum.
DEAN SMITH: The year was 1978. I was 17, a nerdy, awkward kid from the ‘burbs with little exposure to fine art. Okay, I did have this glossy table book of the history of art that my parents, in some unarticulated desire of exposing me to “culture,” had given as a Christmas present many years before. But really no exposure whatsoever; certainly not live and not in person. And so I found myself one Sunday afternoon with my dad and my friend David at the Oakland Museum of California. What initially had brought us there has now faded from memory.
We entered the museum’s Great Hall — back then you reached the cavernous gallery from the elevated anteroom above, descending a staircase to the space below taking in the whole of the room as you did so (now they have sealed off that splendid, dramatic entry with offices — what a shame!) — and facing the staircase was this enormous canvas suffused entirely in orange. The glorious tonality of orange juice, so tangy yet sweet you could taste it, except for one corner of the painting (the bottom right, I believe) was raw fabric, defined with paint drips and ragged brush stroked edges.
I wanted to jump into the painting. Be in that space. Feel the color flood into my pores. In its unapologetic monochrome-ness the light it radiated gave me the profound impression of a happiness so utterly childlike that it could forever banish all the world’s dour gray-mindedness.
Dad and David just laughed and snorted. You know, the usual comments: “That’s not painting! I could do that!” that sort of thing. Not having the self-esteem let alone knowledge to defend such a work, I kept my mouth shut. But I thrilled to that painting — Yes!! Orange! How perfect in its simplicity, that a single color could so move me. Dad and David moved off into the other parts of the gallery dismissing all before them. I walked up to the label and read it: Sam Tchakalian, Orange Juice.