THE RIGHT YELLOW: A Personal Story
I walked into my studio this morning to find that a three by three foot abstract painting which looked fine yesterday now seems all wrong. Though the edges—red, purple, green-- are subtle and sweet, the muddy orange center is dead. This is frustrating because the large blue work I finished a few days ago painted itself. Why was that painting so easy? And what am I going to do now with this one?
Of course, the real question is what am I trying to do here anyway or, put differently, what do I think makes a successful painting? And further, at least for me, can one start painting seriously late in life and expect any significant success?
Actually I am not sure that age is the issue. There is always Grandma Moses. And Hans Hoffman did most of his painting after he retired from teaching. And there are writers who have published well received books late in their lives. Penelope Fitzgerald started writing at sixty five, and is now one of the most respected fiction writers in England. Undoubtedly she had spent her life reading. Yet, probably exceptions prove the rule: creative work starts early and takes a life time.
But if this were only a hobby, I wouldn’t be here.Recently a friend asked me, “Why isn’t the pleasure of just doing it enough?”I replied, “Being serious is the pleasure.”
Now it seems to me that this painting in front of me here occurs mainly in the stripes around the edges and in the suggestion of a diagonal line across the large center. There is also a happy green triangle in the lower right corner. I spent at least four hours yesterday painting this, and though the design is simple, I like it-- except for the center.And yet nothing is intrinsically wrong with mud or orange, for I have learned that muddy can be rich next to some bit of cool lavender, for instance, each more alive because of the other. And while once orange was my least favorite color, I have been emptying the orange jar all summer, mixing it often with red, putting it next to that green or this purple. And I love some of these color combinations.
I have already adjusted the shade in the center six times, maybe more. Late yesterday I liked it. This morning I despair. Maybe I need more than an adjustment.
All my life I have done some art. If as a child I could not spell or learn all my times tables, I could draw. I remember that once when my father won the San Jose City Bowling Tournament and I sat with my mother watching the final matches, I drew the whole place, each long alley, the sets of pins, the balls lined up above the return lanes which run between the alleys, the score boards hanging above each alley, the men sitting and standing. I just looked and drew, and drew and looked.
And always lying on my bed listening to my children’s programs on my little silver radio, I drew and colored, often clothes for paper dolls. Later seeing something I had drawn or made, putting a red dress on a paper doll, I would remembered exactly what I had been listening to as I worked, perhaps that near death of some hero or the happy ending to a fairy story on Let’s Pretend.
Later in high school I made the dance bids, posters, and program covers, often for events I did not attend. I was the class artist. Then I went off to college to major in English and philosophy, relegating art to handmade cards and an occasional sketch. Later I took some summer watercolor courses and made a few pretty pictures.
Then about ten years ago I started suddenly to paint seriously. Perhaps I always wanted to. I realize now that if I had my life to live over, I would want to be a painter. But if I do not know what I am doing here now, I knew even less when I was young. Or maybe I wanted security, rewards, and control that a creative life would not have offered, even if I had seen how to lead that life, which I didn’t, and even if I had been sufficiently brave, which I wasn’t.
You do things when you are ready, when you can. And all that matters is that I am doing this now, here.
Back to my problem painting. Of course, I could just put this painting aside. Maybe in a month or two the solution will be obvious. That is always the temptation, just to start something new, something that for whatever reason will turn out better.
I paint in acrylic on canvas, and I can rework paintings almost endlessly, though a friend told me that once he had the multiple layers of paint drop right off the canvas in front of him. It was a sunny day and he was painting outside. All of a sudden the paint just slid to the ground. So there is a limit.
Often with an unresolved painting like this, I play a little game, pretending someone has offered me a thousand dollars (it could be a hundred or a million) to complete it successfully. And sometimes that makes me look again and keep going.
My own decision to paint seriously surprised me.
I was in my early fifties. I had been to a show of Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings at the Contemporary Museum in Los Angeles. At the time I was working at a large California community college helping with grants. Walking into the Diebenkorn show I ran into a friend who invited me to go to Washington D.C. the next month for a national development meeting, just the sort of thing I should do for work and the last thing I wanted to do.
I found the Diebenkorn paintings mesmerizing.
That night I had one of the back or leg attacks I sometimes got and which I associated with stress. A muscle went into spasm and sudden, dramatic pains shot down the sciatic nerve at the top of my leg. These attacks could be excruciating, like sticking your finger in an electric plug, and I would go almost into shock. The only help was to lie unmoving and unspeaking, often for several days. I thought of these episodes as my version of migraines and while I was certain that they came from repressed feelings, I could not identify their source or stop them.
This attack was manageable, as long as I stayed still flat on my back in bed, which I did all the next day. But that next night, I could not sleep. I always lie on my side or stomach, but I didn’t dare because that would start the pains. Unable to fall asleep, I thought, I give up, my body will just have to decide for itself.
At that moment, I had a message, out of nowhere, unrelated to anything I had been thinking: you are going to paint seriously.
I felt I needed to respond. So I said, yes, I will be a real painter. In fact, I promise the first day I go back to work I will request a half time contract and I will paint. “I promise,” I said. “I mean it.” To whom I was promising, I had no idea.
Immediately the tension in my body released. I went limp, curled on my side and fell asleep. I did not have another pain.
Two days later I cut back at work to part time and set about learning to paint seriously. I did not think that I would necessarily succeed at painting. But, I also knew that I did not ever have to show anything to anyone.
A month ago a painter from southern California stopped by my studio here in New Mexico, bought the painting I still had on the easel, and observed that we all paint A, B, and C paintings and that we should not show the C paintings. These judgments are subjective, but I knew what he meant. One of my best friends was at one time close to Georgia O’Keefe and they would sort through her paintings together, culling out the less successful, though in a few weeks all the paintings were returned to the stable. Maybe she thought they were all A’s or maybe she didn’t think in those terms.
I don’t think this is a C painting. It’s just not done.
I have assumed that the design works and the color is the problem. Yet it is unusual for a painting in this series I am doing now to have a simple square at the center. In fact, I start these paintings by making a large off center x in charcoal across the canvas and then draw into and around the X until I have some curious shapes into which I can begin to paint. From there the painting takes on its own intention or that is how it seems. I am just looking for direction. And while the X is not always or often the focus of the painting’s structure, it is rare that I paint it almost out as I have here. I do hope when the color is finally right, these design still works because I am losing patience.
This X is a recent design devise. When I began painting seriously, I wanted to paint abstract, perhaps to be sure that I wasn’t merely making calendar art, which was how I had seen the watercolor landscapes I had once done. At any rate I drew overlapping rectangles and circles, looking for a design within the shapes these created. I wanted the viewer to be pulled into the surface and pushed out at the same time. I used water color and gouache, pencils and crayons, anything handy to mark the surface of the heavy illustration board. I used a limited palette of yellow ochre, cobalt blue, and alizarin crimson, later adding black and white. I hoped to create a tension between the simple geometry and the messy water based medium, between order and chaos, between reason and emotion.
Almost immediately I learned how difficult it was to make a pattern that read in an interesting, complex way and also achieved unity. When the painting was too busy or even chaotic I thought I needed to “slow it down.” And when it was too simple, I wanted to “speed it up.” This was all about design.
The great majority of these did not succeed. Most were finally overworked, the interest and beauty lost. I threw almost all of them away.
After I had been making my rectangle and circle paintings for two years, I visited the modern wing of the National Gallery where just inside the door there are several rooms of small post impressionist paintings, including several interiors by Vuillard. Though I think I had seen these before, looking at them now I experienced something new and dramatic. Instead of seeing a woman reading a book, sitting by a French window, I was looking at shapes and design. I found myself “reading” the paintings, finding my way into and through them, decoding the design in a way that had nothing to do with the objects depicted. This, I knew, is what Paul Klee meant when he said, “the eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work.”
This way of seeing, this struggle for the paths through the work, for the balance and unity and variety was exactly what I had been experiencing as I did my circles and rectangles. This was the process which had engaged me working with my own emerging geometric abstractions, except, of course, that these painting in the museum are all eminently successful.
Of these works I like best “Woman in Black.” It uses wall and ceiling and floor and door way to create a geometric design, and the colors-- black, cream, ochre, gray-- as well as the almost awkward drawing, the texture, and the oddity of the whole make it compelling. And for me this painting marks the miracle of my ability to see.
Now however I began a painting, I am looking for shapes and patterns of shapes, and with these for tonality (dark and light), for color relationships, and for dramatic lines. My dealer, Bill Franke, quotes Susan Rothenberg that the work must provide a place for the eye to rest. But that seems less important to me than the balance and tension of a total unity with enough interesting chaos.
Though the design of my painting here on the easel is almost too simple, I like what is here enough to hope I can save it. However I also realize that often I paint round some lovely area, saving that piece, as I have these edges, only to realize finally that those precious parts are exactly what have to go. That doesn’t seem the case here, not yet.
After two years of painting the rectangles and circles, I chose a few I liked and showed them to art teachers at my college. These were themselves serious artists, as far from producers of “pretty pictures” as I could imagine. The latest show at the college gallery, which they ran, involved rusted farm implements defined by lines of neon moving through them. These artists looked carefully at what I was doing—their attention and curiosity delighted and surprised me--and they suggested I work toward a show at the gallery.
Painting did not get easier. That first show was uneven, as most are, I imagine. But many of the paintings, and I continued painting.
Like everyone, I suppose, who does creative work, I find that I am in a dialogue with the artists I admire. In the beginning one copies one’s heroes. Now I find myself trying to hide influence or work against it. And all the while I hope for a break through, a unique “voice,” an original and authentic look.
Two years after that first show my husband and I moved to a little rural Hispanic village in northern New Mexico, on the high road to Taos. We had made friends with artists and writers in the neighborhood, and we had fallen in love with an old adobe farmhouse. The move to such an out of the way place was a bizarre decision, but this seemed a way for me to learn to paint. My husband thought he would buy a red truck and pick up useful things along the road.
A month after we had moved into the house, while it was still in the process of being refurbished, I found him dead on the living room floor of a heart attack. He was only sixty two. I had no warning. There was not yet a doorknob on the door in the room where he died. In the previous three years, I had lost both of my parents, people with whom I was deeply involved. I had also retired, moved, and had serious surgery. No wonder I crashed emotionally. I felt I had come to the end of myself at the end of the world.
In the next year a painting of mine was juried into a show in Santa Fe and I was invited into a reputable, abstract gallery. The year after that I got cancer in both breasts. But though I was depressed and sorry for myself, I painted. Painting did not cure anything, but the painting itself improved. I had my first show in New Mexico, a joint show with a sculptor, and this second show had better work. Agnes Martin, the renowned painter who lived in Taos, came to my opening and walked through the gallery with me. She was already old and said little except “You are on your way,” whatever that meant. With the next show I had moved to canvas and was struggling, so again the work was uneven. Perhaps it will always be, but paintings sold.
At this point I began working on canvas with acrylic, and I began to focus more on color. And even while I struggled with my grief in the old unfinished house, my paintings became increasingly brighter. But it wasn’t the individual colors that enchanted me as much as the way the colors interacted with each other. I found that I could shift a shade, change a color, or add some touch of something and the whole painting turned on like a light. In the same way other colors and shades took the life out of a canvas. I could not predict what the colors would do, but I could guess, experiment, and learn.
People often ask me how I know when a work is done, and I have no easy answer. I learned that the work I liked, that what I have come to call serious art, has an authority and a presence. And I know this miracle when I see it. It is there in the room of Rothko’s paintings at the Tate Gallery, in Monet’s haystacks, in Klee’s geometrics, and in all real art. And while critics try to explain it, it is not their explanation that proves anything; it is the art.
In her book Poetry and Politics, Sarah Rykelsdorf defines a poem as a transfer of energy, and that seems to me the best definition of a painting as well. Agnes Martin said art was all about emotion, and maybe that is another way of saying the same thing. In the end the quality or success of a work is in the experience of the viewer.
So I find a way in, follow the clues, solve the problems, get out alive, and enjoy the adventure. Only a few paintings work as well as I wish. Most are works in progress. And I may look again tomorrow at something I liked today only to see how far off the mark it is.
Looking now at the muddy orange center, I think enough is enough. And I reach arbitrarily for a bold yellow I hardly ever use because I think it overwhelms other colors. It is a Van Gough yellow, too intense, too emotional.
But why not?
I paint the square this yellow, solid, flat, in your face yellow. The color takes over, but I like it. It is interesting. It is special. No, it is exciting. It works. That is what I think now.
This painting is, I think, done, and if I am lucky, I may see it on a gallery wall or in some other space and find with surprise and pleasure that it has its own life, quite apart from me. And I will wonder how I did it and that I did it. In fact, it will seem like one’s grown child, a miracle and pleasure.