On Painting

Toward Freedom

I wish I could remember for what I was searching when I stumbled across David Owen's blog post, "Wolf Kahn: Artistic Freedom". The essay is based on the book Wolf Kahn: Pastels, written by Wolf Kahn. After reading the few passages below quoted on Mr. Owen's blog, I decided this is another book I must have within reach at all times. 

sketchbook, charcoal, 6 x 6" 9-20-17

sketchbook, charcoal, 6 x 6" 9-20-17

From Wolf Kahn: Pastels, by Wolf Kahn:

"Every inhabitant of a developed country lives in a world of too many things and, unless he is very poor, or ascetic to the point of saintliness, he is encumbered by this surplus of objects. We know that these things, rather than simplifying existence, often tend to complicate our lives.  They need space, repair, storage, and eventual transfer to others.  Anyone engaged in the manufacture, sale, and maintenance of things shares the guilt.   Nearly all of us are part of the problem: only the purveyors of ideas are exempt.  As artists we inhabit both the world of ideas and the world of things.    A picture can be regarded as just another object, another piece of junk."

"Pictures are justifiable because they are steps in their maker’s artistic development.  Each picture is valuable only insofar as it contributes to this development, because it enables the artist to go on to a freer, larger way to his next picture."

sketchbook, oil pastel 3 x 5" 2017

sketchbook, oil pastel 3 x 5" 2017

"We give special value to those artists who, as they aged, deepened their artistic language and gave it greater freedom.  We trace Michelangelo’s career from the early and somewhat overly dramatic David, to the late pietas and those amazing drawings of the crucifixion made in the artist’s old age.  We study Cezanne’s development in the later years with awe.  Here was a man, who instead of finding ways to make painting easier, was able to find more and more complex relationships, making his solutions ever more profound and moving.  Similarly, Rembrandt, Titian, Renoir, and Bonnard painted their finest, most direct, and most daring pictures in old age.  In these cases the artist’s development becomes the prototype for a life that deepens over time, in which no shortcuts have been taken and greater understanding has been gained through assiduous work."

"The artist must beware of trading places, even momentarily, with his public. The intimacy of his personal relationship to the work at hand has to remain inviolate.  That is difficult for a beginner, and anyone not practicing art, to apprehend: to them the making of art is like the making of any product where considerations of “taste” have a part.  One first studies what is considered good; one learns a set of instructions and goes about following these external criteria.  Yes, of course, it is good to know the tradition of any kind of work one is about to begin, but it is only useful to gain a sense of what in general has been seen to be worth doing over time, and how it has been done by one’s betters.  Knowing this, in the actual practice of one’s work it is necessary to develop a sense of privacy and intimacy.  Outside considerations need to be kept at a minimum."

"The moment you know how to do certain things, you should by rights stop doing them.  You would be ceasing to search and starting to perform.  You would become your own expert, and your art will become an exercise in self-congratulation.  Once a particular procedure has become general, there is trouble in the making.  Our practice must remain open-ended.  It can’t become habitual.  There needs to be a moment of surprise in every work, something that grabs the viewer (first of all, the maker) by the collar and won’t let him go."

"As artists we have the ever-present obligation to violate habit and to undo conventional thinking."

sketchbook oil pastel 3 x 5" 2017

sketchbook oil pastel 3 x 5" 2017

I'm reminded again of what Agnes Martin said in an interview published in ArtNews in 1976:

"Toward freedom is the direction that the artist takes... Art work comes straight through a free mind - an open mind. Absolute freedom is possible. We gradually give up things that disturb us and cover our mind. And with each relinquishment, we feel better. You think it would be easy to discover what is blinding you, but it isn't so easy. It's pride and fear that cover the mind... Of course most people don't really have to come to grips with pride and fear. But artists do because, as soon as they're alone and solitary, they feel fear... To recognize and overcome fear and pride, in order to have freedom of mind, is a long process."

"I think that in order to be an artist, you have to move. When you stop moving, you're no longer an artist... I think that everyone is on his own line. I think that after you've made one step, the next step reveals itself. I believe that you were born on this line. I don't say that the actual footsteps were marked before you get to them, and I don't say that change isn't possible in your course. But I *do* believe we unfold out of ourselves, and we do what we were born to do sooner or later."

The artist's deeply intimate and persistent struggle toward freedom is so moving and vital in this world because he bears witness to a deeper way of living and seeing. Artists give us hope that freedom is possible. The artist's true, uninhibited mark is breath-taking evidence of the mysterious, the invisible, the unspeakable.  

Stacy CaldwellComment