It was the first time that I’d been so captivated I had to buy the painting! I was a sophomore in college. The painting was called “Sailboats.” It was an interpretation (i.e. a copy…or, shall we say, “appropriation”?) by a senior art major of a work by Lyonel Feiniger.
Retrospectively, I can’t be sure which came first: did I see this painting in the Senior Art Majors Show before I chose Feiniger for my term paper in Art Appreciation? Or had I chosen Feiniger to research before I made the connection with this painting in the Senior Show? Whatever the order, there was a meeting, a convergence of the eye/the mind/the heart. For a kid from a small town whose only exposure to painting was working for a General Contractor, that meeting was less a signal of the growing maturity and sophistication of a 19 year old than it was awaking to another dimension in life. Honestly…it felt like what I imagine painters must have experienced when they discovered (or, more accurately, invented) what we now take for granted in a painting: the 3rd dimension. Oh, sure, it was “there” all along…but where was it in visual renderings, before it began to show up on paper or canvas? (I wonder…can an artist paint something s/he doesn’t see?)
I can’t say any longer what it was about Feiniger that so captured my attention back in the day. It clearly wasn’t a prior exposure to art; nor was it a body of knowledge telling me what I was seeing. The best I know how to say: it was a meeting, a face off with my nascent perceptive, aesthetic and critical skills. And why was it Feiniger I was facing? Well… maybe a “second tier” artist was about as far as I could reach…who knows? But in that moment I felt like a curtain was lifted or some protective film was peeled away to reveal an inside that was now out there, right before my eyes. You don’t forget moments like that…even, and maybe especially, when they go unarticulated. They are felt deeply and personally and profoundly even after they are gone.
So… as I was reading a review of the current show at The Whitney Museum, Lyonel Feiniger: At the Edge of the World, I began to hear echoes…echoes about how Feiniger’s “glassy perfectionism” was void of “the spiritual,” or that in his quest for “harmonic balance” and “cosmic structure” he gives us an art of excessively sharp-edged, intersecting planes with titles like “Broken Glass” that can stand as an emblem of the tenor of his characteristic work. And what is most characteristic about the creator of these pictures at the Whitney? …That he is a master of technique, but one whose feeling for an art of order and balance is not emotionally engaging however much it may have gripped him profoundly. In other words, his mastery of the technical skills of artistry has succeeded in
delivering to us only works that are cool and un-engaging? Competent but not compelling? Distinguished but detached? Yeah, that seems to be it. They may express something that was profound for him, “but, frankly, it leaves us cold.” (Ouch!)
At this point as I’m reading, it’s like some old nostalgic urge wants to enlist me in Feiniger’s defense. But then a comment pops into mind from one of my own blogs… I wrote: There’s nothing wrong with the elegance of technical brilliance. It can be stunning in its execution. But if that’s all it is—stunningly executed—it’s just empty…of life. With Feiniger, as with Mondrian, technical mastery is not all there is. Sharp, defining forms illumined by planes of colored light open an inner eye to forces, mysteries, shaping and directing each life in a profoundly impersonal, universally spiritual way. (Were Feiniger Chinese, we might accuse him of trying to portray the Tao!) Warm and fuzzy or firey and furious is fine, occasionally even necessary. But the passion of the private and personal need not disqualify being engaged by the poignant and piquant presence behind the curtain of appearances. That a feeling for harmonic order and balance fails to be emotionally engaging may say more about our numbness to feeling than it does about anything true.
What’s troubling about my own comment is that I link it to the comments about Feiniger, how he’s just not connecting however profoundly he poured feeling into his art. (“Nice try…I’m just not moved, Mr. Feiniger.”) And then, I cannot help but wonder whether these observations aptly characterize my own work as well? I mean, maybe what first captured my imagination so many years ago was actually a recognition…seeing not an unfeeling, detached, stranger but a friend I had yet to meet…someone whose lines and planes of light I could recognize as familiar?
When I employ hard line, color planes, asymmetrical (harmonic) balance and esoteric forms…pouring feeling into them (just as
Feiniger did)…there is no guarantee that they will engage anyone else. And, in fact, hard lines, sharp edges, precision, pure color free of the brush’s mark on the picture plane…these all are associated with impersonal, technical distance. I use them like film.
It remains a fact, a stubbornly infuriating truth, that no matter how cleverly articulate you are, how passionately or eloquently you affirm its presence: feeling cannot be engendered from second-hand experiences. The form feeling takes in any work of art is not and cannot be engaged declaratively any more than one can laugh genuinely on demand. It may be there in the process of creation; it may find its way into the form creation takes. But if there is no look of recognition, there is no feeling. When nothing puts the heart in motion, the head hasn’t got a chance. Experience begins with recognizing what’s going on. It takes a measure of cultivated sensitivity to respond—not with apprehension or indifference, but interest—to something we neither recognize as familiar nor understand. And it takes courage…the courage to care about anything other than ourselves, to realize that sometimes a stranger can be the friend we did not know we had. What an amazing experience when that happens!
“So, Lyonel…a big shout out to you for that experience way back when! It’s made all the difference in the world.”