A Walk Through Modern Painting
I walked to the post office today to mail out some complimentary copies of our new book, THE PERFECTION OF BABAJI ( bit.ly/PerfectionRay ) to some friends. After that I just sauntered over to the East Wing of the National Gallery. It’s literally in my own back yard, and I needed to get out from behind a solid three weeks of writing behind my MacBook Pro. The whole Art Ambulation (including the Post Office) was about three miles.
Sondra usually does not like “modern art,” so I was happy to be alone on this Art Look. For those who may not know, the East Wing of the National Gallery is devoted solely to contemporary art of the Modern Era—from late 19th Century through Today.
Please enjoy this video: A WALK THROUGH MODERN PAINTING. I also pay homage to Christopher Young. I used his Soundtrack called “The Gift” from the 2000 Movie with Cate Blanchett called “The Gift.” THANK YOU, Christopher. Beautiful.
Wayne Thiebaud, Jasper Johns, Andy Wharhol, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Joan Mitchel — all struck a chord in me.
I love paint. And, pantings in the modern era are as much about paint—the pure matter of paint—as they are about some depiction of a “thing” they are representing. Wayne Thiebaud painted in an unctuous style of application. He is still painting at 99, born in 1920, and will be 100 years old 4 days after my next birthday in November. He painted cakes, with thick icing. He could have been a cake decorator, for all I know. But it feels like you could actually “eat his works.” They are delicious in all kinds of ways, and he is a master colorist as well.
Jasper Johns painted a target. It draws you in, like a target would—with concentric circles and high contrast colors. It is vivid and unforgettable. He also paints in an unctuous way, with thick, buttery paint, which is actually encaustic. This paint has a high amount of beeswax in it. Pigments mixed in this encaustic style are purported not to fade or alter over time. There are some early Roman encaustic paintings of figures that are over 2000 years old—but look like they were painted yesterday.
No Modern American collection would be complete without an Andy Wharhol in it. This is a screen printed image, but still very painterly. A well known ICON already, Wharhol took the “fame factor” of Marilyn to plummet his own fame to the forefront as well. At the time, a fine arts painter would not have considered the commercial screen printing technique a form of “fine art.” Wharhol pushed the boundary here and mastered the medium. And WOW, DID he master it. This work rivals a Titian or a Leonardo. He mixes photography and paint in a perfect balance, and captures your attention with a few swift strokes of screen-printed paint.
Helen Frankenthaler, more of a lyricist, was one of the generation of Abstract Expressionists who came to the forefront in the 1950’s. Rothko and Joan Mitchell would be in this group of painters as well, who gave up completely any reference to depiction of worldly figures and objects. The Landscape could be a root, but the poetic license is broad to interpret the subject. It’s more about paint and pure calligraphic facility than anything else. One could interpret it however he wants. A sail boat and a piece of the sea on the far right side. A basket filled with fruit, perhaps. But one is taken by the power of its human strokes.
One of the precursors of all of the Abstract Expressionists was the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. He was one of my heroes when I was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art. But he and Rothko had already committed suicide by the time I was coming of age in the mid Seventies. One can see the influence he had on younger painters like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler. In fact, without Gorky’s genius, we may not have had the flow so clearly made in the lineage: Kandinsky to Gorky; Gorky to Pollock, Frankenthaler, Mitchel, and the like. And then the imagery of pop art came back in the 1960s—Targets and Marilyn from the greatest masters of the Sixties: Johns and Wharhol.
Joan Mitchel, another Abstract Expressionist from the 1950’s, was definitely influenced by Monet’s Water Lilies. Her huge scale painting panels form about a 30 feet long environ that engulfs you as the viewer. One has no where to go but into the thing. And the paint is the subject. I was lifted up. I almost cried at its Beauty. That yellow cascade; that bit of green and turquoise staccato smattering; grounded in the lower left and the upper right with swatches of deep charcoal verde. And the whole thing is larger than Life. I was transported to a sunny spring day in the middle of a Washington winter.
Reduced down to the bare minimums, Mark Rothko even eliminated much use of drawing in his famous field paintings. His works of this era have a kind of inner glow, and a presence that rivals sound, or a symphonic motif—albeit a vibration in color. Where have you seen such a powerful Blue Band? One can almost hear it humming.
All in all, it was a great day of taking in the amazing resources here in Washington at my fingertips. The temperature was in the high 40’s. It was cloudy, but not windy. And I managed to pick up some wonderful note cards from the Gallery Shop’s “after Christmas sale” for less than half price. Some of you guys may be the recipients of these by snail mail. (Almost a thing of the past by now, do people still know how to write handwritten cards? Or are we all too attention deprived or computer addicted?)
What is Painting but that action of life that lifts us into the Pure Joy of Color and Light, by the hands of humans, and God. One of my friends, Toni Toney, is writing a children’s book whose main character is named Mearth. I told her, “Yes, Mirth is formed out of the Joy of the Stars.” And she mentions in his day humans could feed themselves solely on Color and Light. I think I am moving in that direction. The Light Beings of eons ago mentioned in ancient Indian Texts were in the bliss of Color and Light. I will stay on this path of Art Ambulation toward this amazing grace of Color and Light, put forth in the painted Spiritual Mastery of these Great Painters of the East Wing—right in my own back yard.
I hope you have enjoyed this “Art Ambulation,” and my “walk through some modern painting” in the East Wing of the National Gallery. Happy 2020.
LOVE, MARKUS RAY