23 January, 2011

24 January - Ruscha and Truitt on art

LAUNCHPROJECTS - In her journal
Turn, Anne Truitt travels to Europe to experience first-hand the masterpieces that she had for 62 years seen only in reproduction. Her descriptions reveal a perception that extends far beyond what most people experience when looking at art of any type, let alone masterpieces that have been reproduced to the point of cliched posters used to decorate college dorm rooms. Truitt experiences a profound synesthesia of sorts, and through her descriptions I felt as though I was experiencing each picture anew through her acuity and perception. Truitt's description of simply entering the Louvre for the first time is astounding, "screams of terror overlaid by screams for blood echoed through corridors dimensionless as those in nightmares, ironically lined with art of such authority that I stood as much aghast as dazzled."
Truitt goes on to describe Van Gogh, Monet, and Manet: "Van Gogh's insight is relentless. No matter what the literal subject matter of his paintings, their content, implicit in brushstroke and color, is the interpretation of good and evil rendered transcendent by way of his art... Monet's utter mastery of atmosphere is akin to my own preoccupation with color as a form of an imminent truth otherwise inaccessible. He achieves it stroke by stroke; I attempt to catch it by way of superimposed films of inflected color. Manet's Le Dejuner sur l'Herbe and Olympia are shocking paintings. I felt my bones shake."
I could transcribe half her book to include her descriptions of Delacroix, Cezanne, Gericault, Gauguin, Giotto, Piero, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rubins, and more. My mind was engrossed in her descriptions, wondering if she were unique in her ability to see and perceive artwork in a wholly original and heart-wrenching way when I came across Ed Ruscha's recent description of his ongoing experience with John Everett Millais' Ophelia:
"I first saw Millais' Ophelia (1851-1852) when I came to the UK in 1961, and was struck by its originality. It's hard to explain what I first saw in it, but it was a moving picture to me and so realistically painted. I guess I had a fondness for all sorts of Pre-Raphaelite images back then, a feeling which subsequently passed, but the nature of this painting stayed with me. It holds true today as one of the most profound paintings of that period.
At first I didn't delve too much into the story and the symbolism behind it. I viewed it strictly as a picture - how it was composed and so on - but later I learned that it had been studied and analysed by so many people, which made it even more interesting. Every little blade of grass and plant has been botanically identified. Someone has discovered almost exactly where Millais set up his easel by the river. Some believe there is a skull hidden in the painting (just to the left of the forget-me-nots on the righthand side). The painting itself is like an embellishment of the Ophelia story in Shakespeare's Hamlet. The fact that she was portrayed as a mad woman during Millais' time was, I guess, considered unsuitable subject matter. You did not paint mad people. However, when I look at the woman in the water there, I don't see a mad woman. I see a tragic woman.
I would never realise that this painting would affect me the way it did. Ophelia became a trigger in my art; an inspiration for what I'm doing. You notice here you are looking at the woman from an oblique angle - in a sense, it's an aerial view. The diagonal of Ophelia in the water is an aspect that was made for my work. My study of art and much that came out of it is ordered on that thinking that you look at something almost as if it were a table-top arrangement, as you can find in Ophelia. I regard a lot of my paintings and even photographs (such as Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967) as off-springs of this painting. For example, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, painted from 1965 to 1968, has a similar angle to that of Ophelia - looking down on it from above. Also, the tragic circumstances of a situation in my painting are told, I think, in a very bucolic and pastoral way, just as they are in Millais' picture.
The composition of Ophelia is very simple, and yet so complex for what it is saying. And it evolves right into my thinking. When I make a picture that might resemble it, I'm not doing it on purpose. It's just happened from years ago seeing Millais' image. I don't get this response from any other of his paintings that I've seen, but with this one he hit the nail on the head.
Of course, my pictures and Ophelia are very different in intent and content. They are worlds apart in so many ways: Ophelia is in the grand tradition of English painting, and the story goes back to Shakespeare, whereas Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire goes back to 1968 and, you could say, is the culmination of commercial America. But pictorially they are connected. They are like brother and sister. I feel as if there is a little silver thread between that painting and mine. So maybe the years between the works are not that distant.
In some ways I think that I am looking at myself when I am looking at Ophelia. So each time I come to London I feel an obligation to see it, but it is an obligation I feel good about."
I am inspired by the way Ruscha and Truitt look at and describe art, by the way pictures affect them profoundly - to the core of their art making practices. This perception is extraordinary and changes the way art history functions within the contemporary dialog. Masterpieces come back to life through their contemporary progeny, contemporary works disclose predecessors that no curator or art historian might detect. What a different course students of art history might take if it were taught through the lens of those who incorporate the lessons and works of the past into their innovations of the future.

Pictured: John Everett Millais Ophelia, 1851-1852; Ed Ruscha Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1968

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