Posts Tagged ‘Barnett Newman’

Morning Coffee with Dave & Barnett

August 16, 2018

newman 2

An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read.

Barnett Newman, “The Ides of Art”

Barnett Newman has been an effective vitamin pill along with my morning coffee recently, providing plenty of inspiration for me as I continue work on my painting and ideas. For several decades I have been absorbed with the art and milieu of the Abstract Expressionist painters, also known as The New York School. I have read The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell and parts of  Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art. Ian Watson, a former student of mine and now an artist emerging in the gallery milieu, presented me with this copy of Newman’s writings when I attended the opening of his show in Amarillo last month. And I have found his ideas very engaging.

The present painter can  be said to work with chaos not only in the sense that he is handling the chaos of a blank picture plane but also in that he is handling chaos of form.     . . . it can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist, for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material–for the artist tried to wrest truth from the void.

Barnett Newman “The Plasmic Image”

When I read this quote, I had to close the volume and catch my breath. For a number of years I have mused over a theological approach to creation. I have even used it in talking points during workshops I have conducted recently.

    In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

    The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And          the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

    And God said,“Let there be light,” and there was light. 

    And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.

When reading these opening verses of Genesis, I still tingle at that description of the world without form and void and darkness moving over the face of the abyss. Then God spoke, and as he spoke, the chaotic mass began organizing as he divided light from darkness, day from night, earth from sky, etc. Robert Motherwell said that drawing was a way of organizing space. God did that by dividing, and so also do we, as we look at the white expanse of surface and begin dividing it into a composition.

In verse 26, Genesis records that God made people in his own image. For centuries, thinkers have mused over the Imago Dei, wondering what it means to be made in the image of God. I answer the question with another: what is the very first thing recorded in Genesis about God? He created. And he made people to be like him. What do humans do? They create. Personally, I delight in that mandate. And I love rising to the challenge of confronting chaos and seeking to organize it into something worth seeing.


Thanks for reading.

I make art in order to be like God.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.



Losing Myself (or Finding Myself?) in a Large Watercolor

July 11, 2018

commission tues

Santa Fe Depot in Fort Worth, Texas

It is humanity’s tragedy that today its leaders are either sullen materialists or maniacs who express the psychopathology of the mob mind.

Barnett Newman, 1933

I was stung this morning by these words from Barnett Newman (an artist and thinker), published in 1933 when he was running for mayor of New York City, being dismayed at the slate of candidates. These words could have been printed in this morning’s newspaper. Throughout my six decades-plus of living, I am losing hope that matters can improve in our nation’s leadership, or the rank and file of American voters that judge them worthy at the ballot box.

I’ll try to get this negative stuff out of the way quickly. Also this morning, I read an article from The Atlantic, posted by one of my stellar former students on Facebook: “The Wisdom Deficit in Schools.” The argument was one I held to no avail for nearly three decades in public schools. I am losing hope there too, and am glad to be retired. In three decades, I saw no improvement, only state legislators who dared not enter the premises of public schools while continuing to drain them of their resources, along with “experts” putting out annual talking points to improve education. And I concluded that most experts are to education as bumper stickers are to philosophy. The only thing I could do in three decades was teach the students entrusted to me to the best of my ability, with resources gleaned from my own education, hoping it would be enough–it was all I had to offer. I once read from someone that education was the pouring out of a life. And I did that (still do, but with much more fulfillment in semi-retirement).

Enough of that.

I rose from my reading and went out, hoping to waddle my way out of the cesspool of negativity that was drowning me. I found a public facility conducive to a studio, spread my supplies across a large table, dialed my phone to my favorite YouTube music, and proceeded to swan dive into this 30 x 22″ watercolor. And the longer I drew, painted, wiped, and splattered, the more contented I grew.  It always happens that way.

Years ago, I made art, hoping for attention, sales, and a sense of self-worth. Today, I can honestly say I am blessed to have received satisfying measures of those. Now, I make art because it brings quality to my life. As I paint and listen to music, messages sink into my soul that I have gleaned from my reading earlier in the day (today from Barnett Newman, Edward Hopper, Eugene Delacroix and Ralph Waldo Emerson). And yes, I am currently on vacation, but it is a working vacation as I pursue this promised commission and prepare for three college courses in the fall. And it is all good.

Eugene Delacroix has spoken to my soul repeatedly, and I thank God he kept journals. I’ve posted this one before, but do so now again, because he pours out his sentiments in words more eloquent than mine, and all I can say is that I affirm his testimony 100%–

(from Sunday, July 14, 1850): Today, Sunday, I may say that I am myself again: and so it’s the first day that I find interest in all the things which surround me. This place is really charming. I went this afternoon, and in a good mood, to take a walk on the other side of the water. There, seated on a bench, I started to jot down in my notebook some reflections similar to those I am tracing here. I told myself and I cannot repeat it to myself often enough for my repose and for my happiness (one and the other are but a single thing) that I cannot and must not live in any other way than through the mind; the food that it demands is more necessary to my life than that which my body calls for. 

Why did I live so much, that famous day? (I am writing this two days afterward). It was because I had a great many ideas which, at this moment, are a hundred leagues away. The secret of not having troubles, for me at least, is to have ideas. Therefore no effort is too great if it gives me the means of bringing them into existence. Good books have that effect, and above all certain ones among those books. The first thing to have is health, to be sure; but even in a sickly condition, such books as those can reopen sources through which imagination can issue forth generously.

Thank you for reading.

I make art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.


Painting and Remembering

March 20, 2016


An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read.

Barnett Newman

I laughed out loud this morning when I read some of the wit of Barnett Newman. In response, I spent a good part of this day painting so I could have something to look at, and writing in my journal so I would have something to read.

On a more serious note, it feels great to be painting again, the workshop last week really got my juices flowing, and the bad weather threatening Corpus Christi gave me the space to return home and pick up the brush again. I am currently trying to figure out how to close out these two Missouri scenes, the one above from Winfield, where I photographed a store front back in 2010 or 2009. The one below came from a section of Highway 30 west of High Ridge that I photographed in the rain last Thanksgiving as I was beginning my return to Texas.

High Ridge

Lost in the Labyrinthe

March 19, 2016


Newman chose his terms ever so deliberately: “plasma” (or “plastic”) connotes an organic fluidity; it also suggests the more familiar word “plastic,” which refers to an organic quality in materials. Semantically, “plasmic” and “plastic” are closely related (they derive from the Greek word for molding or forming); but they are also inversions of one another, with the one term oriented to living organisms and the other to inert matter. Simply put, the plasmic is lively and active (like the movement of thought, it gives form to things), whereas the plastic is passive (it is the form that thought and other forces produce). The various drafts of “The Plasmic Image” explore the links between “plasmic” and “plastic,” between creative thought and the material form it can assume. Newman’s guiding metaphor is this: plasma, as the fluid part of the body communicates thought. Thus the plasmic and the plastic bond together whenever “the new painter is concerned with his subject matter, with his thought”.

Richard Shiff, Introduction to Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews

Countless times while posting on my blog, I feel that I am wearing my underwear on the outside. This is one of those moments. I love reading artist’s writings about the task of making art. Robert Motherwell has been a favorite of mine for years, and now, one of his contemporaries, Barnett Newman has crossed my desk. A former student of mine, Ian Watson, now a serious painter pursuing a path that has issued from his serious study of Abstract Expressionism, has passed on to me this book on Newman’s writings. Though my painting style is nowhere near the Abstract Expressionists, the more serious thinkers among them engage my mind in the most satisfying way. I don’t feel that I have a clear-cut aesthetic theory of art, or even a style for that matter. I love the process of making art, and love reading the thoughtful writings of artists who engage in that same enterprise, always hoping one day I will figure out what I am trying to do and express it well.

Finishing my term as Artist-in-Residence day before yesterday has yielded an experience similar to jumping into a warm pond after emerging from a sauna. Yesterday, back home for the first time, I spent the day in galleries and museums, searching for some kind of direction of where to go next in my work. I enjoyed the museum time, but nothing really clicked with my own work. I had trouble going to bed last night, finally succumbing at 2:00 a.m. Waking at 8:00, groggy, I made coffee, built a fire (wow, a delightful 43 degrees outside!), settled into my reading chair before the fireplace, and read extensively from Thoreau’s journals and Barnett Newman’s writings. Coming across the introductory quote posted above, I thought about that conflict between the artist’s mind and the materials s/he is trying to manipulate, and I looked up at this watercolor I started last year and abandoned.

The painting is of a section of bluff carved out by Highway 30 west of High Ridge, Missouri. I drove through that section last Thanksgiving on a dreary rainy morning, en route to my Texas home. I was so taken by the soaked landscape under the dark morning skies that I turned my vehicle around, drove back, got out in the rain and took several photos.Once I got home I began the painting enthusiastically, but nothing seemed to go right. I tossed it aside and forgot about it. Once I found it again this year, and wished to give it another try, I could not find my reference photos among my computer files. I wasted almost an entire Saturday morning looking for them. Disgusted, I put the watercolor next to the fireplace and went on with my life. Then, I came across the photos just before leaving on Spring Break for Corpus Christi. I thought about this painting the entire time I was on the coast.

Reading the comments on Newman’s theory jolted me and I returned to the drafting table. I love the slice of landscape I viewed that morning, and have re-visited countless times in my mind’s eye. And this morning, I decided to push my mind and imagination harder against the resistant colors and shapes to see if I could wrest some kind of pleasing composition from it. I keep working back and forth between the complementary violets and yellows as well as the greens and reds. And, as many times before, I am lost in the network of winter tree limbs that trace out a labyrinthe against the sky. I purchased an atomizer from Asel Art yesterday (I lost mine from 1974!) and sprayed some Hydrus liquid watercolor across certain areas. I feel like a small child in the classroom, but that is O.K. I’m back to the joy of discovering new artistic possibilities and am enjoying this ride in particular.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to learn.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.


Pre-Dawn Meditations

March 16, 2016

cropped fire wheels

Experiment in Watercolor Masquing, Spritzing and Spattering

To create oneself through making (either by writing or painting) is an ethical act of decision and passion: you become formed, differentiated from others; you  feel your place in the world and find your wholeness, integrity.

Richard Schiff, Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Inerviews

The pre-dawn mornings in Portland, Texas have been soothing this week. Temperatures are always lingering around 70 degrees, as a foggy mist hovers over the dawn. I love driving through the darkness toward the local Starbucks, and then watching the grey light emerge. The atmosphere is rich for reading and writing, and I am enjoying immensely this book of Barnett Newman writings on art that an artist friend has lent me. I always manage to settle into this coffee shop before 7:00 and the workshop doesn’t begin until 9:30.

My ideas this morning are driven by the comment posted above from the Introduction to this book. Yesterday’s experience of watching watercolors emerge from the brushes and minds of various individuals renewed for me that joyous “shock of recognition” (Motherwell’s words) as I saw how these artists view the world through their own eyes and filter their interpretations through their own souls. One of many highlights for me was meeting a retired Episcopal priest who expressed much of my own sentiments as we discussed our seminary training and how our lives have unfolded since that training many decades ago. Both of us are grateful for our education, and for the subsequent freedom to explore new vistas, applying our old disciplines to new discoveries.  I could feel his passion for making art, and was astounded as I watched his harbor watercolor come into focus. I could only admire the effects of his solid training and at the same time appreciate his willingness to explore new methods rather than cranking out the same thing he was used to doing from the past.

I also delighted in the work of a retired architect, one who referred to himself as “old school” because he drew his creations with his own hands and tools instead of relying on computer-generated schemes. His adept skill in using a straightedge and watercolor brush showed a disciplined eye, and at the same time he knew how to use the brush in a painterly fashion, instead of being bound by precision alone. I have always enjoyed that Apollo-Dionysus tension, with Apollo representing the rules and structure, and Dionysus representing the flourish and spontaneity.

I am anticipating today’s session with eagerness because these painters, most of them belonging to the same watercolor society, are not carbon copies of one another. And during the closing critique session yesterday, I was touched by their genuine regard and respect for one another. When the artist community is a nurturing one, everybody grows and experiences the very best of the art-making enterprise. So, here’s to new and affirming experiences . . .

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to understand.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.



The Search for Theories behind Activities

July 31, 2015
Sketch of Fiddler Crab and Catfish Skull

Sketch of Fiddler Crab and Catfish Skull

Aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds.

Barnett Newman, Abstract Expressionist painter

. . . all that can be said of Friendship, is like botany to flowers.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

I could not have planned a more gentle morning, sitting in a comfortable chair, reading Thoreau, as the dawn light finally broke through my living room windows. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers has not been a fast read for me; I began this book years ago, and keep it bookmarked. I thought I would complete my reading at last when I was on assignment in the Texas Laguna Madre. But I still lack about seventy pages before finishing it. The reading of Thoreau’s Journal has certainly cut into my progress over the past few months.

I’ve posted the quotes above, because Thoreau’s remark reminded me of something I had gleaned from the painter Barnett Newman years ago, and the sentiments are certainly mine: I have always felt lacking as a theorist, but competent as a practitioner, especially in the realm of the visual arts. I could probably say the same about human relationships–I should be the last one to consult for advice on maintaining successful ones. But that is another story.

As I read from Thoreau, my eye drifted to the antique table beside me, strewn with shells and carcasses gathered from my stay on the island last month. And I realized that I had yet to try and sketch that nickel-sized fiddler crab, though everything else on the table–blue crab, assorted sea shells and Mermaid’s Wine Cup–had been attempted repeatedly over the past month. I enjoyed the quiet interlude of sketching, though the creature emerged on the paper, looking like a giant dog tick. The catfish skull proved to be rather challenging as well. Still, the drawing was enjoyable, and as I drew, I continually thought on this notion of aesthetics–what is it exactly that makes visual art attractive? What is it that holds the viewer’s attention, giving rise to some kind of emotional response? I still flounder in the midst of those questions, like a child treading water in the deep end of the pool, on the edge of panic. I feel comfortable with the elements and principles of design, and many of those are intuitive with me, emerging naturally as I draw and paint. Composition just seems to happen organically as I work (feeling that I am actually at play). But aesthetics still cripples me, when it comes to articulating what is pleasing about art. I’m just glad it doesn’t hinder me from making art, and certainly does not diminish my joy in the process. Still, I wish I could sit in some kind of Parisian Cafe setting and hear other artistic spirits talking over these matters. I love solitude, but crave conversation in areas such as this.

My Play Area this Morning

My Play Area this Morning

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Striving After an Andrew-Wyeth Kind of Drybrush Watercolor

April 25, 2013
Working on a Wyeth-style Still Life in the Man Cave

Working on a Wyeth-style Still Life in the Man Cave

Trying to Emulate Andrew Wyeth wtih a Watercolor Still Life

Trying to Emulate Andrew Wyeth with a Watercolor Still Life

I paint so I’ll have something to look at.

Barnett Newman

Since high school, I have loved looking at Andrew Wyeth’s drybrush watercolor sketches and pencil drawings of a World War I German helmet inverted and filled with pine cones.  Some years back, I purchased this pail from a friend who deals in antiques, filled it with pine cones, and tried two small watercolors of it at the foot of a tree.  Neither painting satisfied me (apparently not the buyers either–I still have both of them).  But since I’ve set up the studio in garage and started spending more time in it, I have gazed at this pail of cones sitting in front of this dark door, and often wondered why I was not trying to paint it more seriously.

Last night I sketched it out and laid down a few basic washes, but was too sleepy to go any further.  Coming home from school this afternoon, I had more energy and went after it with more focus  I did much more drawing, and tried to put some detail into the pine cones as well as deepen and layer the washes on the door behind.  I still have a long way to go, but at least I feel that I have this one underway now.

Thanks for reading.

I paint to remember.

I journal because I am alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Afternoon Drybrush Study of Screen Door and Companion

April 23, 2013
Drybrush Watercolor Study of Pair of Doors

Drybrush Watercolor Study of Pair of Doors

I was confronted for the first time, I suppose, really with the thing that I did, whereas up until that moment I was able to remove myself from the act of painting, or from the painting itself.  The painting was something that I was making, whereas somehow for the first time with this painting, the painting itself had a life of its own in a way that I don’t think the others did, as much.

Barnett Newman, April 1965 Interview

Wow.  I am breathless right now.  This 8 x 10″ drybrush I began several days ago, having only about 45 minutes to begin it before I lost the light.  Today after school, being tired of the cafe piece I had been working on, I decided to set up the easel in front of my pair of doors and resume this, though the light was rather poor.  Didn’t matter–I decided to focus on the wood textures of the door on the right, and see if I could find a way to solve the screen door on the left.

I don’t know how to say this, except to say that I felt that this composition painted itself.  I felt that I put out very little effort, puzzled very little, hesitated almost not at all.  Next thing I knew, I was stopping.  I believe I worked on it only about an hour, certainly not any longer.  And suddenly, it looked “finished.”  Maybe tomorrow I’ll change my mind and push it further.  But I’m stopping for now and just looking at it.

I posted the Barnett Newman quote, because that is what I experienced this afternoon in the Man Cave.  It doesn’t come along very often.  I felt as though the picture was painting itself before my very eyes, and all I had to do was watch it happen.  Amazing.

I have so many Proustian memories of the screen door growing up–my grandparents’ houses, the country store I frequented when visiting grandparents.  How I loved the slap of the door slamming shut (it always angered my Dad when I let it “thwap” loudly like that). Perhaps later I’ll write more about those memories.

But for now, I’m pretty wiped out–the state-mandated testing at school today (with no relief break during the four hours, thank you very much), followed by regular classes in the afternoon, pretty much sucked the best out of me, and I’m surprised I had anything left to come home and paint today.  Glad I did.

And thank you for reading.