(Note: I wrote this essay for Tim Quigley's aesthetics class at The New School in the fall of 2008. )
Nothing is straightforward. Or rather, nothing is as straightforward as it might initially seem, particularly looking at a painting. Specifically, I took in paintings by Elizabeth Peyton[i] Joan Mitchell[ii], and Cecily Brown[iii] in New York, December 2008.[iv] These artists approach painting in different ways, especially with respect to gesture, representation and the figure. I was particularly interested in how their approaches to painting affected my approach to viewing their work. As a way to parse my experience I drew upon selected writings of the philosophers Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze[v]. Their writings reveal a rich array of different but overlapping concepts and propositions related to art. Significant ideas from these philosophers correlate and give form to my aesthetic undertaking. In scanning the landscape of thought available through these philosophical works, I posit that painting, as a medium and as an endeavor, is especially appropriate for expressing a complete world appealing equally to our imagination and our understanding.[vi]
In his Critique of Judgment, Kant sets out to describe how we make a judgment of beauty about an object, in this case, a works of art. His initial requirement for “deciding whether something is beautiful or not” is that you refer to your own reaction to the actual object.[vii] In other words, the only way to see a painting is in person. Kant describes a judgment of taste, or beauty, as starting initially as a unique, subjective, individual experience and finds a basis to broaden it to a subjective requirement for everyone. As with his prerequisite of seeing an artwork in person, his concept of the subjective nature of an aesthetic judgment underscores the importance of bringing an open mind to the experience. He states, “Hence a judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment and so is not a logical judgment, but an aesthetic one by which we mean a judgment whose determining basis cannot be other than subjective.”[viii] Judging beauty or taking in an artwork happens within the individual and is not based on pre-existing concepts or guidelines.
The impression should be our own impression, not a received impression from an “authority,” and the work should be the actual piece, not a facsimile. We have all had an initial impression of a simple image based on a reproduction give way to a complex and layered reality when confronted with the work in person – provided we are open to viewing the piece for ourselves and to forming our own impressions. We must, quite literally, see the work for ourselves.
Kant breaks down the parts of a judgment of taste: that an individual make it, that it be singular, and that it may not be biased or based on a given criteria or concept. Embedded in his Critique of Judgment is a section, titled “The Principle of Taste Is the Subjective Principle of the Power of Judgment as Such”[ix] in which he summarizes the mechanics of how we make a judgment of taste, emphasizing its universal, subjective qualities. He states that a judgment of taste “resembles” a logical judgment because it asserts a quality of necessary universality, although this universality is subjective. When judging an object, (or the “presentation by which an object is given” to the us) we must be able to feel a harmony between our imagination (“in its freedom”) and understanding (“with its lawfulness”). What criteria do we use to make our judgment of taste? We use this feeling of a harmonizing, free play of the cognitive faculties (imagination and understanding) in relation to a quality of “purposiveness” or “undetermined formal unity”.[x] Finally, in a subsequent section, Kant writes “we must be entitled to assume a priori that a presentation’s harmony with these conditions of the power of judgment is valid for everyone.”[xi]
I want to emphasize Kant’s initial requirement for an aesthetic judgment -- that we see the object in person -- because despite the cerebral nature of his writing about aesthetic judgments overall, we can put this point to practical use and be confident that it is an important place to start. Seeing a painting in person is to see the artwork with your body present. The concept of the body as a key for understanding art resonates indirectly in the writings of Kant and Heidegger and directly in the work of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze. This idea takes us outside of art; or rather, takes art outside of art and connects it to profound ideas of how we are situated as conscious beings in the world.
As I am looking at each of the paintings I am open to the experience of each work. I see my body as present and as part of the experience of looking at the artwork.[xii] I see the work for myself and, in doing so, interact with the piece uniquely. Elizabeth Peyton’s “Blue Liam” is a slightly larger-than-life-size portrait in oil on board. The white ground is slathered on the board and noticeable through the precise yet casually rendered features of a young man with a direct expression: his hair, eyes, lips, neck and dark, mock-turtle neck top. Peyton’s brushwork is minimally worked. Individual features of her backlit subject are efficiently formed. For example, the blue and purple shadows under the eyes are each a dripping pool of color, not actually brushstrokes at all. While, I know I am looking at a young man’s portrait, I find myself dismantling the image and responding only to distinct passages of paint.
In his essay, Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty believes a shift in our point of view from an objective, science-driven vantage, to an organic, body-driven framework as more accurately describing reality. He writes:
“Scientific thinking, a thinking which looks on from above, and thinks of the object-in-general, must return to the “there is” which precedes it; to the site, the soil of the sensible and humanly modified world such as it is in our lives and for our bodies – not that possible body which we may legitimately think of as an information machine, but this actual body I call mine, this sentinel standing quietly at the command of my words and my acts.” [xiii]
He envisions a grounded, balanced existence where we understand our place in the world, not by using instruments or machines, but through our own physical experiences. For Merleau-Ponty, painting is a pursuit that is already based on this concept. “It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.”[xiv] What we can see happening in paintings is the result of the painter’s body having “intertwined vision and movement.”[xv]
An artist assesses her work as it is created; the audience makes its assessment when the work is done. Yet, there is a connection made through the work. Peyton has painted “Blue Liam” with her body present. As I stand in front of her painting I am seeing the work through the artist’s body. A crossover takes place between us. What am I learning about the artist? “Blue Liam” is a portrait of a specific person. All features are intact, as in a photograph or a mirror. Her representational vision, according to Merleau-Ponty, relies on Cartesian principals, where mind is separate from body and based on perspective techniques from the Renaissance.[xvi] Yet, the paint strokes and her clear colors emanate from the world of the body; the paint has meaning that is separate from the image it forms. I am pulled back, though, to a face whose features are preordained, floating on the surface of the painting’s ground. The scale of the subject is almost the same as my own. The paint drapes the outermost layer of the work closest to my face. I recall the experience of holding still while looking at my reflection in a glass mirror. The portrait mirrors my own face. Is my gaze intertwined, in some form, with the artist’s as she sees some aspect of herself? Have I caught her eye, mid-stare?
Joan Mitchell’s painting, “Yves”, towers above me, a large presence. Scrubbed palm-width brushwork fills the large vertical rectangle with vivid colors. The paint strokes describe the reach of the artist’s arm and the speed of her movements. Her presence as the author of the gestures is undeniable. I am reminded of another painter, Louise Fishman (1939), who knew Joan Mitchell, and feels an affinity with her work.[xvii] Painted gestures made with a variety of instruments reflect Fishman’s sense of her own body in relation to the canvas she is working on. Fishman seeks to avoid any representational reference in her work. The resulting work presents itself to the viewer, rather than re-presenting an image using techniques to create an optical illusion.
Heidegger’s essay, The Origin of the Work of Art, uses a spiraling, self-referential language to describe his beliefs about art. For him, language and poetry, determine how we understand reality. “Or could it be that even the structure of the thing as thus envisaged is a projection of the framework of the sentence?”[xviii] Within this poetic framework, the artist, her physical efforts, and her relation to her materials determine what art is and how it is created. There is an echo of Kant’s concept of harmonizing the free play of intuition and understanding – or polar qualities finding balance together -- in Heidegger’s concept of world and earth. Despite their opposing qualities -- world, as self-disclosing, and Earth, as self-secluding -- they support each other in a state of repose within an artwork.[xix]
“But as a world opens itself the earth comes to rise up. It stands forth as that which bears all, as that which is sheltered in its own laws and always wrapped up in itself. World demands its decisiveness and its measure and lets beings attain to the Open of their paths. Earth, bearing and jutting, strives to keep itself closed and to entrust everything to its law. The conflict in not a rift as a mere cleft is ripped open; rather it is the intimacy with which opponents belong to each other. This rift carries the opponents into the source of their unity by virtue of their common ground. It is a basic design, an outline sketch that draws the basic features of the rise of the lightening of beings. This rift does not let the opponents break apart; it brings the opposition of measure and boundary into their common outline.”[xx]
The implied upheaval and resolution in the process Heidegger describes reflects Mitchell’s process of painting. The forms and masses of color are made -- and then are partially or completely covered. Some of those covered are brought forth again to the surface by subsequent, overlaid gestured shapes. Fishman has said that during the process of making a work she is concerned when she paints over an area that she likes, but then she realizes that the gestures and passages that she paints over eventually reappear in the work. She hasn’t lost them at all. The overall composition evolves from the cycle of disclosures and concealments, bringing the work to resolution.
I notice a related, but different transference of opposing qualities by pairing the paintings by Peyton and Mitchell. As I look at each of their works, I am struck by their mutability: Peyton’s representational portrait dissolves, becoming passages of paint. Mitchell’s “pre-sentational,” abstract strokes of color, form facial features that became the image of a large, free-floating skull. (The painting is titled “Yves.” Is it a portrait?) At the level of the brushwork, the categories of representational and abstract mutate. Kant emphasizes that a judgment of beauty must be disinterested. “In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.”[xxi] By not bringing any preconceptions to the paintings, my reflections are uniquely my own. Thus, one realizes that the act of viewing a painting is a duet, pairing what the artist brings to the painting with what the viewer brings.
The pathway to understanding “Girl Eating Birds”, by Cecily Brown, is not straightforward. You can feel lost and wonder if you are going the right way; but signposts abound. The triptych stretches laterally, beyond my peripheral vision. Just before my glance is whiplashed into analyzing the painted chaos, I do notice painted effects (of every color and stripe) completely fill the three, merged, vertical rectangular canvases. Mouth open, dumbfounded, my curiosity leads me into the work. Painted forms change by the second from inconsistently scaled human body parts (wrapped, clothed, fleshy, gesturing, prone) to tree limbs (trunks, logs, stumps, sticks, branches) then to objects (tents, posts, structures, tableware and rucksacks.) As a catalyst for unfolding the work, color (families of reds, blues and greens, browns and earth tones) leads my eye from one moment of the painting to another, and then circles back to show me that what I saw before is now something different.
As an alternative to beauty in judgments of taste, Kant associates the sublime with disorienting, overwhelming, perhaps even thrilling physical reactions.[xxii] He writes, “For the one liking ([that for] the beautiful) carries with it directly a feeling of life’s being furthered…But the other liking (the feeling of the sublime) is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; it is produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger.”[xxiii] In Deleuze’s Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation , he reconfigures Kant’s aesthetic argument of the sublime.[xxiv]
Taking a contrarian’s view to Kant’s aura of reason and order, Deleuze is drawn to ideas of chaos and catastrophe. He describes a new logic comprised of four elements forming a cycle starting with “aesthetic comprehension,” or measure, leading to “rhythm,” or units of scale, confronting “chaos,” or the sublime, ending with “force,” a means to overcome chaos. “The abandonment of simple figuration is the general fact of modern painting and, still more, of painting altogether, of all time.[xxv] In place of figuration, rhythm becomes the unifying concept of painting based on sensation. With Brown’s painting I feel lost, then find a way into the painting, only to feel lost once again. My experience seems to parallel Deleuze’s cycle where the sense of being overwhelmed, with no footing, alternates with a reorientation determined by recognizing the painting’s internal rhythms.
Merleau-Ponty echoes Kant’s thinking about how we bring outside sensations into our mind and what happens to them once there. Stepping further into Merleau-Ponty’s body-derived vision of the world, he highlights the significance of our ability to see ourselves seeing: “…the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed.”[xxvi]. We see our own body as it sees. Not surprisingly, the concept of self-apprehension links to ideas in painting concerning representation,
“The painter’s vision is not a view upon the outside, a mere “physical optical” (Klee) relation with the world. The world no longer stands before him through representation; rather, it is the painter to whom the things of the world give birth by a sort of concentration or coming-to-itself of the visible. Ultimately the painting relates to nothing at all among experienced things unless it is first of all “autofigurative.”[xxvii]
The idea of an objective, disembodied point of view is artificial and doesn’t reflect the actual practice of painting. Brown’s vision moves with her body as she sees, and this movement is inseparable from the process of seeing. The movement is a record or evidence of her self-perception as part of the act of both seeing and painting. Deleuze also focuses on the sensations of the body as central to an understanding of art and a rethinking of representation and the figure. “Whereas “figuration” refers to a form that is related to an object it is supposed to represent, the “Figure” is the form that is connected to a sensation, and that conveys the violence of this sensation directly to the nervous system.”[xxviii] According to Deleuze, Bacon and Paul Cézanne solved the problem of how to extract the Figure from its figurative, narrative, and illustrational link; they thought about how to “paint the sensation” and “record the fact.”[xxix] When experiencing Brown’s work, it feels like her brushwork is creating a complete experience, a record of sensation and movement, a painted world integrating the overwhelmed sensations of imagination and understanding.
These philosophers could be seen as part of the audience viewing the art. Their writings address the importance of the artist’s body in the conception and production of art. “Nature is on the inside,” says Cézanne. Merleau-Ponty elaborates, “Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.”[xxx] How do these ideas come to bear on my experience with paintings by Peyton, Mitchell and Brown? Any a priori concepts I may bring to these works with respect to representation, gesture and the figure, are a false measure. The sensations produced by the marks of the artist as they become line, shape, color, discernable form, and space are understood through the artist’s body first, incorporating the artist’s vision of herself, and later through the viewer’s body. Using the body as the source and the destination of sensation recorded and perceived opens the possibility of genuine experience. The appetite of the body for meaning is genuine and inescapable.
Anne Sherwood Pundyk is a painter living and working in New York City, January 2009.
While standing in front of each painting, I took notes on what I saw. My reactions to the work in “real time” are recorded below. Descriptive comments in [italics] are added later for clarification.
Elizabeth Peyton (1996) “Blue Liam,” Oil on masonite, 17 x 14 inches
December 10, 2008, New Museum, New York.
Slightly larger than life size (not really staring at me.) White/grey face and background all one – blue drippy shadows for eye. Then the red (too red) lips. Single line of eyebrow, feathery hair (strokes) outline of chin. (I have my doubts about choosing Peyton – the work seems too simple and flat – plus the Orient irony anger/frustration.)
Shirt is purple/shadows are purple blue (artificial – cobalt) like the lips are artificial red
Dark shirt anchors the head. Angled lips.
Three horizontal lines [formed by] hair, brow, and lips. Each at a slightly different angle, but leading to a point on the horizon.
Vague engagement with the viewer. “In your face”
Skull like, death-like, despite the youthful features, sickly.
[Standing now] At 3’ range the face pulls into 3-D – eyes looking in different directions (one at me, one away) sinister smile.
Engagement with viewer at the right distance.
Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) ”Yves,” 1991, Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches
December 10, 2008, Cheim & Read Gallery, New York.
Much taller than me – somewhat wider than me. Blue/black core comes to my attention first. (Distracted by DL asking me a question.) Then a second “eye” just to the left, next to the first blue/black disk appears. Now the large [overall] mass in the white is a skull. Simultaneously a “grainy” mass at the top with the orange that “burns through”. A patch of green at the top is hopeful (a garden). My attention is drawn down to green “teeth”. Back up to the “brain event leading to a “third eye” of sky color in blue. The Cerulean blue at upper left and on the “nose”.
Lavender in “ground” leading [mixed with the white] to “Ochre” in top.
I think this is a portrait with the “orange” intelligence glowing from inside the medium small green island at top. Red Ruby in center top of read.
Then back to the beginning: The blue-black left eye at the center.
Raining down of drips small slices, gentle light rain as well.
Then it turns into a landscape a pond with mountains/hills behind and a Buddha by the water.
Over all gesture: rising up to green island floats away at the very top.
Cecily Brown (1969) “Girl Eating Birds,” 2004, Oil on linen, Triptych: 77 x 165 inches overall
December 11, 2008, Gagosian Gallery, New York.
White, bandaged figure to the upper left (a mummy) turning away. Small figure in the center (sticking out tongue) raising his fist (thumb). Red gloved hand pointing down as a counterpoint to the [little man’s] (rendered, flesh) arm pointing up. The green, sad pin-wheel flower in the center. Blue, broken [man made] post between these three elements.
Now I see the greenery (the forest floor) and some large [human] limbs and maybe on the left an upturned buttocks. On the left, as mass/blob of flesh (oh no! what is it?) The red/orange begins to look like blood, and then I notice the blood [red color] throughout, but mostly concentrated on the lower right, and a little bit on the top.
Next the brown sticks (sticks in the front and logs – [or] larger sticks in the background – so the sense of the landscape opens up -- and the scale of the man in the center seems too small. What is visible next is the blue – (L.N. interrupts to introduce herself). Different blues and turquoise – it doesn’t feel like sky or water, but is feels of the living world.
Now the shape on the right [the mummy] (worried slightly that the jig is up, but no. Calm yourself). Could be a bag or a canvas sack slung over a tree. A cup and saucer below the bag or maybe it’s a birch tree– are these little white rabbit ears (signature?) on the lower right?
Flicks of green grass amidst the flesh/earth.
At the upper left there is a view beyond the forest with sticks that are both pointing the way out and blocking the way, but there is a place beyond. And now there is a possibility that the blues and greens are beyond the woods – especially with the medium-pale forest-green at the top right.
There is a “bloody” [as in British slang adjective] nervous quality to the work. Help! Where do I look? Where can I rest? Look here! Look here!
(I notice office girls in the gallery talking.)
Ok. There is a red star flower (was it blood before?) on the lower right. A Columbine [flower]. Here and there amidst the flesh – faces/orifices. A married couple. An old-fashioned George Washington wig on the upper right. Then the cup looks like a sawed off tree and the mummy/bag are both holes (like Alice’s [in Wonderland] hole) – ways to leave (especially) the bag/mummy. Are the large fleshy limbs bound?
Now, in terms of paint application, I see the long blue drips in the center panel. (P. calls my cell phone.) The little “doodle” of dark grey at the top has caught my eye a couple of times: penis and testicles shapes? – (I’m running out of patience and my mind is wandering to E., whose mind wanders – get him to learn meditation. David Lynch, etc., etc.) (Coincidently E. calls my cell phone.) (M. walks through – C.B.’s “person”.)
Back to the lovely recognizable flora on the forest floor and I “remember through all these interruptions” that I’m finally noticing all the smatters of drips of all colors sort of “spitting” like London rain (Yikes! “Larry’s” on the phone.)
As I conclude, I notice that the triptych format could be three separate paintings – in fact they aren’t really “linked up” – now I wonder if they are like three views of the same scene – like “unstitched” photos. Cool idea. Were they painted together? Does it matter” Voodoo doll/bird at the top in the left panel.
Another possibility is that the left panel is a “close up” still life. There is, back on the left a blue “block” man-made – and maybe the edge of a root or tent. A snaky red stick snake with a shadow at the very lower left. Bright yellow green in the foreground (cheerful?) – more splatters come into focus there.
Now I’ drawn into all the detail like looking at the stitchery in a tapestry. I notice that is really painted from edge to edge. (No air space.) Scratchy dry brush, unfinished forms on the left.
Am I done? – Would I keep going? I see the humor in staying all night. I’m conscious of the chair I’m sitting in – that I’m sitting (that they have given me a chair.) And I realize that the work is longer than it is high – in fact it feels like the height of modern office windows. But, certainly meant to be stepped into. The width is noticeable – you can’t really see the whole painting from 5’ away – and it doesn’t really feel that tall when you get up close.
Close up – the flesh mass on the left is clasped red and white hands. Up close under painting – 2 inches to ¼ inch side little curves and straight marks (L. gave me some water.) Pulled away.
Flesh mass on the left side is “Baconesque” – the faces and eyes are contortions.
Stick as the letter “E”.
Go and go – each passage close up –
Strokes, drips, suites of color.
The little man in the middle has a bandage on his thumb and is holding a spear/ski pole. Is he a king? – is he stabbed? – is there part of a house in front of him? What is he wearing?
Large leg with bent knee center left.
Right side – tents upper left of right panel.
On bag/mummy – below are dry brush strokes in cream – and I notice brown pods growing that could be spots without the leopard at the bottom.
Up close – surprise purple dot. I thought that was the end, but I spot some more purple by the tent. At the top.
Am I done now?
The purple-blues are now calling me from the top.
[ii] Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992) ”Yves,” 1991, Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches.
[iii] Cecily Brown (1969) “Girl Eating Birds,” 2004, Oil on linen, Triptych: 77 x 165 inches overall.
[iv] Notes on my “real time” response to each painting are at the end of this essay, above the Endnotes.
[v] Selections made by Timothy R. Quigley, PhD, Associate Professor at the New School for General Studies, New York, NY. The selected writings are: Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company, 1987) 43-230; Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) 17-87; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays…, ed. James M. Edie, trans. Carleton Dallery (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.); Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, trans. and intro. Daniel W. Smith, author’s intro. trans. Lisa Liebman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2003)
[vi] Kant, 62. I want to refer here to the components of Kant’s basic building blocks of perception, that nonetheless form a complete experience. “Now if a presentation by which an object is given is, in general, to become cognition, we need imagination to combine the manifold of intuition, and understanding to provide the unity of the concept uniting the [component] presentations.”
[vii] Kant, 44. Kant describes our reaction to an object under consideration as our use of imagination to refer the presentation (or object of our direct awareness) to us and our resulting feeling of pleasure or displeasure. Later, on page 59, Kant’s statement that “all judgments of taste are singular judgments,” reinforces the requirement that the object or artwork be seen in person. Before seeing something, we cannot have the idea that it is beautiful, otherwise we will be using logic in our judgment. We must judge on a case-by-case basis.
[viii] Kant, 44.
[ix] Kant, 150-152.
[x] Timothy R. Quigley, “Kant: Notes on the Critique of Judgment,” October 12, 2008, 4.
[xi] Kant, 155.
[xii] The experiences I had looking at the paintings in person were later impossible to replicate by looking at smaller reproductions of the works. The colors were different, the texture of the paint wasn’t visible and the size had no reference to the actual work. More importantly the reproduction had no reference to my body or my perspective.
[xiii] Merleau-Ponty, 2.
[xiv] Merleau-Ponty, 2.
[xv] Merleau-Ponty, 2.
[xvi] Merleau-Ponty, 10.
[xvii] I visited Louise Fishman in her studio on November 2, 2008 where she discussed her work.
[xviii] Heidegger, 24.
[xix] Heidegger, 48.
[xx] Heidegger, 63.
[xxi] Kant, 46.
[xxii] Kant, 98.
[xxiii] Kant, 98.
[xxiv] Deleuze, xix.
[xxv] Deleuze, xxxii.
[xxvi] Merleau-Ponty, 3.
[xxvii] Merleau-Ponty, 14.
[xxviii] Deleuze, xiii.
[xxix] Deleuze, xiv.
[xxx] Merleau-Ponty, 4.