Thursday, August 31, 2006

Two Nudes

People ask me from time to time how long it takes me to complete one of these pointillist pieces, so I've started noting when I start and when I finish them. "Nude on Chair With Muybridge Figures" took close to four weeks; "Nude on Blanket With Sand," amazingly, only one week, but I was working pretty intently. Because of the way I do these -- working in Microsoft Paint, and building in the color deterioration that happens in Paint -- I always do two paintings at a time, because in order to get the full effect of the color breakdown, I have to constantly save and reopen an image. That's why the pointillism -- I work in dots of color which will break down as long as there's empty space around them, then build in more and more dots until they finally come together in an area of color. I've been working on a large and complex one, and I finished the Muybridge nude in the middle of it, so I had to start another, and the nude in the sand got the call. She's now finished too, and I still have a little more to do on the other picture. So, yes, I've started a new one.


I had no idea this was online -- it's last year's Newsweek article on the Hudson Valley, and if anyone is interested, you can check out my photo credit in Newsweek.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Naming things

An article by Kandy Harris in the Saugerties Times quotes me -- correctly -- as using Microsoft Paint 'to create something he calls - with tongue firmly planted in cheek - '21st century pointillism.'" (She also slightly misreprents me in saying "Richards claims he is the only artist working in the genre," a claim I would never make. I think I said I was the only artist that I knew of working with Microsoft Paint in just this way. There are many artists doing interesting work "painting" with graphics programs, and you can see some of them at Don Archer's Museum of Computer Art. But this is a quibble with a very good article.)

Anyway, I digress. My point was the firmly-in-cheek tongue placing for "21st century pointillism," a term offered to me by James Cox of the James Cox Gallery -- thanks, Jim. I present the label with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but not the art. I take what I do seriously, even though I'm a little shy about labeling it seriously.

My stepfather, Harvey Fite, had the same problem, of course. His line in the sand came even earlier -- he didn't just resist categorizing his great masterwork, even resisted naming it. For years he called it "High Woods," after his beloved community where he had chosen to settle and create. As it started growing in reputation, people started looking for a name. The brilliant photographer
Maria Layacona, did an article on Harvey in the early Fifties, and called it "Fite's Acropolis in the Catskills" (photos by Maria included here).

Harvey was honored, but a little embarrassed, and eventually he realized he was going to have to give his work a name.

"Composers have it easy," he would joke. "They don't have to name things, they just number them -- Opus 1, Opus 2, and so forth." From the joking came a name -- Opus 40. Not Harvey's fortieth work, but forty years of work.

As for "environmental sculpture," "earthwork," or similar genre-defining names, Harvey never considered them. In subsequent years, it's occurred to me that Harvey was working within two artistic concepts that didn't have names while he was doing the work, but have acquired names since. One, of course, is "environmentalism." Harvey was very much aware of nature as Opus 40 developed under his hands": the lines of the mountain that became its backdrop, natural pools, trees. He was aware that the quarrymen who were his High Woods forefathers had carved a life and a living out of the native bluestone, but they had not left nature the way they found it. And with respect for them, but also respect for nature, he set out to make amends to nature for what human beings had inflicted on her.

The second name that Harvey never heard or used was "multiculturalism." But Opus 40, the first glimmerings of which stirred in Harvey during his residency in Copan, contains within it Harvey's sweeping love for, and awareness of, so many sculptural traditions.

How much are we limited by naming what we do? In many ways not much, and all too often artists who say "my work resists category" mean, whether they know it or not, "my work is too formless and uninteresting to have a category." Certainly "landscape," or "sonnet," or "concerto" don't limit an artist in any important way, and they do give him or the boundary and structure that art needs. Even Opus 40, which really is sui generis, can be categorized as "dry key stone masonry" or probably even "environmental sculpture," though it wasn't a current phrase during Harvey's lifetime.

Other labels are more problematic. The Beats mostly chafed against being called Beats. Pound founded Imagism and then disavowed it. The Impressionists exhibited together because no one else would have them, but I don't think they thought of themselves as having a clubhouse and a secret handshake.

So what's wrong with "21st Century Pointillism"? Maybe the same thing that's wrong with "claims he is the only artist working in the genre." Too self-aggrandizing? A lot of poets, myself included, are nervous about calling themselves "poets." "Poet" is something we aspire to be, something that Keats and Dante were.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Poetry's Rat Pack

I was thinking, for no traceable reason, of the Rat Pack, and particularly of Sammy Davis, Jr's version of "Mr Bojangles," which is not the most satisfying version of that song, because Sammy puts that hard shell on everything he sings--he marches Mr. Bojangles out to the exercise yard and orders him to dance, which is not really what the song calls for. Jerry Jeff Walker sits quietly in that drunk tank with the old dancer, lets him wake up and get his bearings, and then asks, Please...

Sammy sings with that authority that's imposed on a song. Frank, on the other hand, has an authority that's just there...he never has to show it. I'm not sure I'm saying one way is better than the other, but since Frank was the greatest pop singer of all, I suppose I am. Dean doesn't concern himself with authority at all; he's an egalitarian sort of guy, as he approaches a song.

Wondering how much further I could stretch this, I considered the some of the other ballad singers of the era. Elvis, who at his best approached a song more as a supplicant than an authority. Johnny Mathis, who pretends to supplicate, but actually holds the whip hand -- the Uriah Heep of singers, without the whininess.

We look to find and establish a voice in whatever art form we practice, and this issue of relationship to the material is part of that establishment of voice. I wonder if one could look at poets the same way? Frost our Frank, Stevens our Sammy, Williams our Dean?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Some heartfelt thanks

To those Opus 40 members who have responded to our recent membership renewal request by upgrading their memberships, sending us more than they have in the past. I can't tell you how much we appreciate this.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Who's That Nude?

This weekend, the Saugerties Artists’ Studio Tour, in which I have been a participant fpr the last three years.
A comment from one studio tourist: “I don’t like nudes as a rule, but I do like these.”
It’s always nice to have someone like your work, and you probably shouldn’t question why, but it’s hard not to theorize a little, so I started wondering what sets my nudes apart from others.
I know that when I work in graphic arts, I feel it as a total break from writing. I don’t think with words; I don’t think about theme or symbol; I give myself up completely to eye and hand.

But I wonder if that’s as true as I’ve always assumed it was. Maybe my nudes are, to some extent, a writer’s nudes, in that I’m always, to some degree, creating character. I suspect the same is true with my animals.

I work mostly from photographs. I don’t necessarily follow the photographs literally, and sometimes I’ll grab images from more than one source. But I don’t have much in the way of a visual memory. I can’t remember exactly how a head fits on a neck if I’m not looking right at it, or how an arm hangs at someone’s side. I don’t remember what color people’s eyes are, or how someone’s hairline looks. And because, at least with the pointillist works, I spend a lot of time on each image, it would be wildly costly to work from a model.
Besides, while there are things you can get from a live model that you could never get from a photograph – depth, real color, and, well, life – there are things you can get from a photograph that you won’t necessarily get from a live model. A photograph is a moment in time, and sometimes that moment will reveal something unexpected.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I get a lot of my models by surfing those Internet sites where people post nude pictures of their wives and girlfriends. They work for me because they’re bad photographs, so I don’t have to work through someone else’s aesthetic vision, and because sometimes they’ll reveal something unexpected. You might have to look through a hundred pictures, which is a lot less fun than it sounds like, to find that unexpected revelation. But they’re there, and you know them when you see them.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Art and Perception

A story that’s always interested me comes from early Woodstock history, and the effect that growing success and reputation had on the band of brothers and sisters who came to the Maverick to follow their dreams. Some of that success came during the 1930s, the WPA Artists Project years, and with success came friction, most notably in the nationwide competition for commission to paint a mural at the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco. As fate would have it, the finalists for the competition were two Woodstock artists, Anton Refregier and Wendell Jones. And Refregier was ultimately chosen to paint the mural.

Ironically, I can’t find a link to Ref’s mural online, but Wendy Jones’s studies can be found here,

The competition caused some serious rents in the Woodstock community, and the destruction of friendships. Many thought that Wendy Jones should have won, and that Ref’s work was more facile, less profound.

I don’t want to comment on that. I held both men in the deepest regard, personally and professionally. Wendy died when I was still a teenager, but his sons were my best friends, and his surviving son, Peter, remains my oldest and closest friend. Ref was a mentor and role model to me; he influenced me profoundly.

But I’ve been thinking recently about the assignation of roles to them: Wendy the depth and nuance, Ref the flash and commercialism. Was this real? Did Ref win the competition because his work was flashier and more commercial?

Or is his work seen as flashier and more commercial because he won?

Did winning competitions and commissions turn Ref into an artist who began to play it safe? And if Wendy had won this hugely prestigious commission, and Ref had lost it, would Wendy have been the one to start to play it safe?

I don’t believe any of this. But I believe the perception exists, and not just in this long-forgotten example. I don’t believe Ref’s burning artistic integrity was compromised by success, and I don’t believe Wendy’s would have been (he did enjoy success and prestige during his career). But I suspect that although the work would not have changed, the perception would have—that Wendy would have been categorized as the facile one, Ref the unjustly overlooked soulful one. And none of this perception would have had anything to do with art.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Harvey at St. Stephens

Helene Teiger, an archivist at Bard College, informs me that she has located a St. Stephens yearbook -- "amazing," she says, "since we only have a few
(Bard/St. Stephen's never seems to have produced many of these)." She passes on information about Harvey that I never knew: "Apparently, he was in a fraternity, and played la crosse."