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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The 20th Century Argument

This post is more editorial than tutorial.  Important nonetheless.

In a recent issue of Southwest Art, Richard Schmid was asked, "What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in your career?"  His answer:  "I've seen a widespread turn away from what we call modern art, and a strong turn toward highly skilled and serious content in American painting."
Left:   Pablo Picasso  "Seated Woman with Wrist Watch,"  1932
Right:   Richard Schmid, "Portrait,"  1990's
Schmid's answer got my attention because, being close to his age, that probably would have been my answer as well.  Those of us who were university art students in the sixties know quite well the influence of 20th century dogma on our various directions as artists.  For decades, the mainstream required that we absorb its attitudes if we were to be successful.

What I admire about Schmid is that he was able to transition through those attitudes, taking from them teachings that could strengthen his painting while staying firm to his own identity as artist.  What does that mean?

20th century dogma considered developing drawing and painting skills archaic.  Ideas and expressiveness, uniqueness and invention and manipulating space were paramount.  Visual thinking ruled over skills.  Another way to say it is that the pendulum of visual art swung all the way to one side where either total distortion or extreme order over-rode craftsmanship.

Heroes of the day were artists like de Kooning, Rauschenburg and Mondrian.
Willem de Kooning    Robert Rauschenberg   Piet Mondrian
But pendulums often swing in the opposite direction when a thing wears itself out, when those involved began to demand something different from what they are being given, when preachings of the day become hollow and empty.  And so gradually, artists with university degrees began to enroll in workshops and apprentice themselves in order to develop the skills their colleges did not give them.

Workshops and tiny art schools mushroomed, founded by instructors who had managed to locate and study with rogue artists who had chosen to develop their skills outside of the university setting.  The universities and mainstream were the last to catch on and still today old attitudes prevail, but in spite of that, once again the painters and sculptors of our era are finding out that to be highly skilled is to enable creativity, not the other way around as preached by our 20th century heritage.


Casey Klahn said...

Great to read your opinions, Diane.

We can no more dispose of the Modern art elements than we can dispose of the huge body of knowledge we've learned over the centuries. I want to say skill.

Thankfully, some of the art renewal people of today are cognizant that throwing out the past is not the best path. That's why I respect the Moderns, but can't "get" the rejection of the past, either. We stand on the shoulders of our fore bearers, not their faces!

I have personally tried very hard to differentiate skill and technique from artistic merit. That must be my 20th century heritage, huh? But, as skill comes, slowly, I find more expression, too.

A well stated post! I notice Schmid's painting has more abstract elements than, say, a Whistler. Do you agree?

Dianne Mize said...

Good comment, Casey. It's not a matter of rejecting our 20th century heritage, but recognizing that we don't have to be a slave to it, just as the 20th c. artists didn't want to be slave to 19th ideals, and so on.

All those centuries before us are the shoulders we stand on. Personally, I don't think we need to differentiate skill and technique from artistic merit; rather, incorporate it. Chopin could never have composed a single Mazurka without first having developed his skills and techniques.

I think one reason Schmid has excelled is that he has found this balance. I agree: his paintings are beautifully abstracted. And they are definitive as well. It takes both.

vickiandrandyrossart said...

I really enjoyed this post, Dianne...Coming to fine art as an adult, I didn't have any choice but workshops and local classes. Mostly taught how to 'decorate canvas' rather than the fundamentals of drawing, etc.

I'm going backwards now with things I should have learned in the beginning!

Ehsan Maleki said...

In the heyday of modern art an Iranian artist named Kamal Almolk went to Europe and was disenchanted by its absurdity. He then decided to acquire the classical style, aftyerwards he came back and established the first classical art school in Tehran. The irony is that he is now being criticized for not importing the modern fads into Iran. Unfortunately that school is forsaken and so is the classical style, and this is all happening in opposition to what people deem as art! I cant stop wondering why!!