Sunday, October 09, 2005

Inspired by nature or a tube of paint?

In the post about the swooping crow in L.A., I mentioned the art of Ellsworth Kelly and how he might have been inspired by shapes in nature and the human-built environment. Roy Lichtenstein, however, thinks that Kelly's paintings are only about shape and color. In Michael Kimmelman's Portraits (highly recommended, BTW), Mr. Kimmelman concludes a walk around the Metropolitan Museum with Roy Lichtenstein in front of an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and two paintings. One of the paintings is a single shade of blue (perhaps something like this?). Lichtenstein says
"...It's entirely about the relationship between color and shape. There's no modulation of color. ...there's no illusion, which turns the picture into a thing...It's like a sculpture that just happens to be on the wall....I know Ellsworth says it comes from nature. But I don't know why you'd want to say this, because art relates to perception, not nature. All abstract artists try to tell you that what they do comes from nature, and I'm always trying to tell you that what I do is completely abstract. We're both saying something we want to be true. I don't think artists like myself, or Ellsworth, have the faintest idea what we're doing, but we try to put it in words that sound logical. Actually...I think I do know what I'm doing. But no other artist does." (p. 96)

Was Kelly inspired by nature or by the color of his paint or the shape of the canvas? Does it even matter to a non-artist viewer? If I know the theory or logic behind the work, I might be able to think "OK, I get it, sometimes a painting is only about painting," which provides some intellectual satisfaction, but the viewing experience shouldn't stop there. My goal should be to think about what the painting does to me. I can't reproduce the artist's feelings or thoughts during the creation, I should listen to my own. When I visited LACMA a few weeks ago, there was a large Kelly painting in the 20th century collection, a blue geometric shape, about 6 feet wide, 4 feet high. From a distance, the color and shape were pleasing. Moving close enough so that the painting took up my entire field of vision created a new sensation in my mind, possibly because my visual processing units were a overloaded by the single color. I can't say if that was one of Kelly's motivations, but I found it to be intriguing.

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