The idea of a finished work of art is very transient and illusive. I once heard the famous sculptor Jacque Lipschitz respond to the question of “how do you know when a work is finisted” his response was “when I stop working on it.” Of course Lipschitz worked in a more abstracted genre which made the idea of finish more ephemeral. The laymen most often relates the concept of finish to likeness in a photographic sense. The great divide occurred with the introduction of photography to the French Academy in the mid-19th century. The laity now had a benchmark by which to critique a work of art. A false benchmark but a benchmark non the less. A photograph of a thing is itself a form of abstraction which stills the object being observed. This is not the natural state of things because everything in nature is in constant motion. Everything about a photograph is a lie masquerading as reality. Be it as it may photography to the masses is what the world looks like and represents the degree of finish required to make a successful drawing, painting, or sculpture.
These plastic arts are about power of design and strength of character both of which are weakened by excessive refinement. By requiring a work to be ‘FINISHED’ in a mimetic sense (looks like a photograph) you are not guaranteeing its success you are doming it to fail. You must always ask yourself the whether your next move will make the work better or just different, if the answer it the latter you should step away.
This is a repost from a Anthony Howell Journey post from 2013 with pontifications by the editorial staff of The Society of Figurative Arts and Artists
Nonfinito or the Art of Incompletion
“Infinity, though of another kind, causes much of our pleasure in agreeable, as well as of our delight in sublime images. The spring is the pleasantest of the seasons; and the young of most animals, though far from being compleatly fashioned, afford a more agreeable sensation than the full grown; because the imagination is entertained with the promise of something more, and does not acquiesce in the present object of the sense. In unfinished sketches of drawing, I have often seen something which pleased me beyond the best finishing; from the cause I have just now assigned.”
(Edmund Burke, ‘Infinity in Pleasing Objects’,
A Philosophical Enquiry, p. 70)
“Completion amounts to the ideal of homeostasis: a condition relieved from tension, all its parts being in equilibrium with each other. It is the goal of the pleasure principle. The work of art is perfected, and by being so perfected it is finished. However, in human terms, homeostasis is never more than a transient state. We satisfy our hunger, but very soon we begin to grow hungry again. We take our dirty clothes to the wash. But that night another pair of socks gets tossed into the wash-bag. Homeostasis averts tension, but only death can rid us of stress altogether. Certain religions take a dim view of too much completion, too much closure in art. Oriental carpets always contain a flaw, something that renders them incomplete, unlike the creations of Allah which are perfect. If a rug should happen to be perfect, on judgement day it would have to get up and walk!”
This would explain the practices of many of todays neo-pompier ateliers starting off with laborious mimetic copies of Bargue plates. By having beginning students create facsimiles of these plates they feel that by replicating them the drawing has been perfected, and by being so perfected it has been finished.
“Matter is for the most part inconsistent. As Descartes pointed out, wax is difficult to describe since what is hard and of a distinct shape one moment can become malleable at another moment or even fluid. One of the eternal polarities is that of repetition and inconsistency. Repetition seeks for a perfected object, its reiterations are rehearsals. Freud maintains that we repeat in order to get something right, something we can never get quite right. Inconsistency abandons the task before completion, recognizes the unassailable flaws in any bid for perfection, moves on to another subject, a more likely subject, one which suggests initially that it can be perfected, only to reveal its own limitations as it is engaged, so that eventually this too gets abandoned, as was the previous subject.”
The question then arises about the necessity of perfection and what said perfection, or is this case finish, has to do with art. Mastery, it would seem, is more about process more than finish. Giving beginning students the false feeling that by successfully copying something they have perfected or finished it is really doing a disservice to the whole realm of art education. Endless hours of mindless shading/rendering provides little in the way of actual drawing skill-sets that would have been understood much better by working from the actual casts. To spend three trimesters, or the equivalent, to do three small pencil renderings and three large charcoal renderings of Barge plates is a lot of time that could be put to better use. You do learn how to handle your materials, your hone your observational skills, you learn about edges and line weight. What you don’t learn is constructive thinking,
‘The cave paintings of prehistory were never completed. There was no overall design as there was for the Sistine Chapel. Since there is no evidence of the soot from torches on the roofs of the caves, it is entertaining to hypothesize that the paintings were executed in the dark, perhaps by artists holding drawing implements in both hands, creating the image by feeling the process of making it, just as great dancers have little need to look in the mirror, since they retain an image of themselves through the sensations they experience in their bodies. The drawings in the caves were part of a larger process, the process of hunting and eating, and of making use of every commodity the prey afforded. A new hunt may have meant that a new drawing needed to be added to those already created. The caves were never completed. They were simply abandoned, perhaps when rockfall blocked an entrance, or simply when times changed and humans choose to live in different ways.”
The flawed concept of ‘finish’ or to equate time spent and accuracy of replication with the idea of ‘finished’. This has absolutely nothing to do with classical tradition or the aesthetic value of a work. Since drawing is pure design, the amount of ‘renderingand’verisimilitude’ are mute points. No master artist ever drew, painted, or sculpted what they saw. Judging work by accuracy alone really misses the point.
“Without design, there may be representation, but there can be no art.” Kenyon Cox
“Incompletion admits to being part of a process. In its very failure to perfect the image, it lets us to see how the image has been constructed. The archeology of that image is revealed, how it came about. With the twentieth century’s emphasis on the materiality of the medium, it is clear that for many modern artists engagement with a process is more important that the completion of some pre-ordained blue-print. Jackson Pollock would work on a drip painting until it was time to abandon it. There was nothing to perfect except the process. But artists have been aware of the power of incompletion for many centuries. It is by no means a merely contemporary phenomenon.”
Venus de Milo
“No dominant imperialist society can tolerate any culture other than its own. Thus in periods of triumphalism, and I speak for today as much as for yesterday, the sites lesser nations find sacred get demolished by the prevailing juggernaut. Out of such upheavals comes the detritus of fragments. The generic image for a piece of ancient sculpture might be that of some god bereft of his head or goddess bereft of her arms. Yet our search for the rare and the unobtainable cocoons such fragments in value – for in the fragment we may discover the modalities, the terms by which the masterpiece is made possible. And so the Venus de Milo achieves perfection in our eyes – even in her armless state. In her incompleteness she demonstrates the rules of her composition.”
Perfection is represented by what is not there, or missing, It becomes more valuable because it is allusive.
“Here we should recall the opposition of Dionysus to the harmonious rule of Apollo. Apollo is the sun, the supreme organiser of life: his products are well balanced, homeostatically sound, and reason supports their existence as complete entities. He is master of the mainstream. His creations lie below him like objects that the late Stuart Sherman, an American performance artist, might have manipulated on a small table. He presides over stately tragedies. Dionysus, on the other hand, composes in fits of intoxication. His followers tear the oxen limb from limb. His creations are free-wheeling, often farcical. He presides over satyr plays with their knockabout humour, and over mysteries and demented chanting. Apollo blesses construction. Dionysus inspires process. His followers are abandoned in their revels. In satiety, the wild pipes are simply thrown aside.’
There lies a balance somewhere between construction and process or observation and conception, A reconciling of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, between the conception of the idea and the observation of nature. between the dullness of order and the intoxication of chaos.
“But incompletion has its own emblematic story. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope faithfully awaits her husband’s return. However, she is beset by importunate suitors who are all convinced that Odysseus has perished at sea. Penelope is an astute ruler of the court of the island of Ithaca, and she realises that she needs to be diplomatic, so she tells the suitors that she will marry one of them as soon as she has completed the tapestry she is working on. Every day, she sits working at her loom. But every night she creeps downstairs and unravels the work she has done the day before. Thus the tapestry is never finished. Penelope assuages her loneliness, dulls her longing for her husband’s not-very-likely return, by immersing herself in the process of weaving, abandoning herself to this process not only for its own sake, but also for the sake of fidelity to her “lost cause”.
Ones creativity can only bloom during the ‘process’ it starts to wither and die the more it is refined and the closer if gets to the false prophet of ‘finish’.
The implications of process, both in life and in art, were first understood in philosophical terms by the pre-Socratic thinker Heracleitus (500 AD). The few fragments that survive of his thought are well worth studying, since they are as relevant today as they were in his own distant time. Though fragmented, they often read as aphorisms rather than fragments, providing the reader with the kernel of an idea. Rarely has such a small oeuvre exerted such a vast influence over succeeding generations. Both Hegel and Nietzsche have drawn on Heracleitus. It is difficult to close in on his thought, since enigma saturates his often terse statements. He loved paradox. For instance, he says that “The thunderbolt steers the universe.” On a simple level, this could mean that God, Zeus with his thunderbolt, rules the universe. It can also mean that fire causes everything to come about. Another fragment states that “This ordered universe, which is the same for all, was not created by any one of the gods or of mankind, but it was ever and is and shall be ever living Fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure.”
The metaphysical or unexplainable is
Fire consumes, but it is also the source of heat, which is energy. This notion has implications for the grotesque view of life as epitomised by Mikhail Bakhtin in his book on Rabelais and the Middle Ages (Rabelais and His World): a view of nature – man, animals, plants – as entities continually dying yet springing to life at the same time. Heracleitus perceives of life as a continuum, “No man ever steps twice into the same river,” he says of this state of flux.
He also noted the energy to be derived from opposing forces. “All things are born through strife,” he says, and “From notes at variance comes the finest harmony.” He realised that sometimes concepts and things have more in common with their opposites than with some other pairing. As one fragment simply says: “Joints: whole and not whole, connected-separate, consonant-dissonant.” He seems indeed to be attempting to arrive at some point of balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian positions, for he is not entirely of a Dionysian frame-of-mind. “If it were not in honour of Dionysus that they conducted the procession and sang the hymn to the male organ (the phallic hymn), their activity would be completely shameless,” he says. “But Hades is the same as Dionysus, in whose honour they rave and perform the Bacchic revels.” What he grasps is that the harmony favoured by Apollo requires something inappropriate to set it off and to bring about its greatest felicities. Structurally, the well-balanced bow and the well-tuned lyre are both products of opposing tension. “That which differs with itself is in agreement,” he says. And this is why the joint: whole and not whole is of such relevance to the understanding of nonfinito.
Nonfinitois not merely drunken rambling, or shoddy work someone has given up on, rather it is incompletion raised to the status of a completed thing.
A good case could be made for supposing that some of the greatest artists of the renaissance and their patrons were aware that a certain magic clings to the incomplete work. Sketches and drawings were valued even then: they were not dismissed as mere preparations for some airtight masterpiece. By 1520, collectors were prepared to purchase anything by a ‘name’ artist, as John Shearman points out in his book on Mannerism: “for no other reason than the desire of the patron to have, for example, a Michelangelo: that is to say an example of his unique virtù, or his art; the subject, size or even medium do not matter. This is the birth of the idea of a work of art made, in the first instance, to hold its place in a gallery.”(Mannerism, p. 44)
Referring to Raphael’s Transfiguration, Shearman goes on to say, “…there must also have been an interest in the creative genius that was totally isolated from other considerations such as subject matter. It would have been one thing for an engraving of the Transfigurationto be published; but it is surely startling when one appears, as it did about 1520, of a preparatory stage at which all the figures are drawn nude.” (Ibid, p. 48)
Another proof of the architectonic structural drawing or mass conception that was practiced in the renaissance tradition.
Drawings and sketches enhance an understanding of the artist’s method. In one study of a young girl’s head by Leonardo, we can see how the artist began a drawing with light brush-strokes of well-diluted ink and how he ended with precise lines made with a sharper instrument. Beginning and end are present in the same space. In this respect, incompletion is a process which echoes the figurative aims of the grotesque: “nothing completed, nothing calm or stable,” as Bakhtin puts it.
There’s debate about whether Piero della Francesca’s Nativityin the National Gallery is incomplete or not – perhaps it has simply been subject to the ravages of restoration. What it does do, certainly, is utilise the notion of incompletion. The Virgin kneels on a yellow ground which does not partake of the grey stone of the surrounding landscape. This allows her silhouette to become more distinct. Under the pointing shepherd there are traces of a nude roughly sketched in as an indication of structure. Piero seems to have enjoyed a look of incompletion in the completed work. This is true for an earlier work, The Baptism of Christ, also in the National Gallery. A fragment of sky is reflected in the water behind Christ’s feet – similar fragments of sky are to be found in the puddles on the ground in Piero’s frescoes at Arrezzo. The composition of The Baptismis punctuated by pale figures and a pale tree – it is as if the merely-drawn rubbed shoulders with the painted, or as if some of the figures were turning into sculpture.
A similar strategy informs The Flagellation of Christin Urbino, where only three of the eight figures seem complete. These stand to the right, in the foreground, in front of a building so lightly sketched in it remains a drawing, a drawing inhabited by the figures central to the story – Christ and his tormentors – but since these figures are sketched in lightly as well, the incident remains a myth – with none of the tangible reality of the three figures to the left. Now the fall of Constantinople occurred in 1453 – just a year or so before Piero began work on this painting. One figure may represent a Byzantine emperor, one looks very like any of the angels we find everywhere else in the artist’s work (Piero loved to repeat themes and visages), and the third figure is richly dressed and may represent a powerful Italian prince. Is the angel attempting to mediate some termination of the rivalry between eastern and western branches of the church in the light of the disaster which has overtaken Byzantium? These are the key players, informed by Christ’s flagellation as a symbol for the tribulations of the church, but the incompleteness of that more distant scene relegates it to the dimness of history, and gives it some value as an emblem but none as a reality.
I like to think of Leonardo as the Andy Warhol of the Renaissance – restless, innovative, as keen on his image and on his social milieu as on his work – indeed, like Warhol, he seems to have seen his cosmopolitan image as his work. Eager to be considered an inventor as well an artist, he experimented with an oil-based method of painting on walls. All the results were failures. Much of what has not failed in his oeuvre is nevertheless far from completion. A massive horse he made in clay no longer exists. He took so long trying to hit on the perfect method for casting the thing that in the end the bronze allocated to the task was used to make cannon for the defence of Milan. Yet we prize his cartoons and his unfinished pictures. The cartoons show a deepening of psychological power achieved by the process of drawing. His notebooks are as satisfying as those pictures which he did complete. On any page in these notebooks, we can follow the artist’s thought, from a complete view of a baby’s body to the detail of a baby’s foot, from a cat to a chimera. His was a technique of nonfinito– and his Adoration of the Magi, in the Uffizi, is intended to look incomplete. As Jean-Claude Frère puts it in his book on Leonardo:
“The figures and architectural elements boldly delineated and filled out in earth colours on the five boards that make up this panel anticipate the type of sketchwork that will characterise modern art. The picture is remarkable for its extreme concentration and power. Leonardo’s contemporaries erroneously assumed that it was unfinished.”
(Jean-Claude Frère, Leonardo – Painter, Inventor…p. 61)
This is the beginning, then, of subjectivity – the elements completed are those which the artist wished to focus upon. In this case, the most tangible elements are the leaves on the trees. Trees remain where they are. They are rooted. Humans may recline beneath a tree for a while and then move on. Their image fades from the grass and from the earth. In their rootlessness they are insubstantial. Nature prevails where our posturings and even our adorations prove ephemeral.
Michelangelo’s Entombmentin the National Gallery is another work which demonstrates incompletion; and when put together with Leonardo’s Adorationand the earlier works of Piero, one begins to wonder whether or not there was a fad for nonfinitoin the Florence of the Medicis. We should never suppose that earlier generations have been less mature in their appreciation of artistic processes. The painter of the Lascaux cave is not some toddler compared to the stripling of Greece and the mature figure of the Renaissance. Such an argument for progress renders us geriatric!
In the Entombment, Michelangelo has only painted objects which fulfil some function in the overall schema. Christ’s head is the distinct focus, distinguished by being viewed in outline only because the mantle of the figure supporting him has not been painted. A figure in the foreground has been left completely blank – thus it merely expresses the notion of a foreground. At the same time, art historians can deduce that this was intended for an image of his mother. If so much can be deduced, what need is there to fill her in? Elsewhere the non-painting creates diagonal and horizontal stripes which provide a counterpoint to the painting’s essentially vertical composition. Colour leaps out of context in the most modernist way: thus the red garment worn by Saint Peter is an element second in importance only to the bloodless figure of Christ. Saint Peter is the image of sanguinity; muscular, supporting Christ: the scarlet gown he wears emphasises the fact that he will become the life-blood of the Church.
Nonfinitois defined as a quality of suggestion implied in an unfinished work of art. According to my Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, “it is usually applied to sculpture, and the two leading exponents are Michelangelo and Rodin: the difference being that Michelangelo leaves the forms implicit in the stone, so far unrevealed by the sculptor’s awakening chisel, whereas Rodin (who was essentially a modeller, in spite of his training as a mason) imagines an ‘unfinished’ form which is then patiently carved by a mason or else he employs the torso as an emotive fragment, not wishing to realise the figure as a whole.”
Michelangelo’s Slavesdraw attention to a “transitional” area. D.W. Winnicott speaks of transitional objects. These are objects which are neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective. In that period when the child is learning to differentiate itself from the mother (symbol of all ensuing differentiations), the breast of the mother may become such an object, both internalised and at the same time external. Similarly, the sculpted slave seeks to escape from the material out of which he is composed. Where does the stone end and the slave begin? Like the slave, in infancy, we attempt to emancipate ourselves from the very material which has engendered us. The slave is in the process of liberating himself from the material demands of ‘the other’. The matter of the stone is his master. Here the incompletion cannot be resolved, or not without a fundamental alteration of meaning – for a fully carved slave would effectively be free of the rock. As a finished work then, it would fail.
The modernism of the late nineteenth century was innovative and inclined to obscurantism. Early modernists liked to modify or extend existing forms – as George Meredith extended the sonnet form from fourteen to sixteen lines in his excellent sequence Modern Love,published in 1862 – or at least Swinburne referred to these lyrics as sonnets. The modernism that came after the first world war was more savage. By then it had become a movement determined to overthrow old values and to seek for some Utopian alternative. The “closure” of completion indicated a world locked into its old ways, immutable, resistant to change. Thus, the varnished finish of pre-Raphaelite painting was anathema. Such perfected surfaces only served to convince viewers of the plausibility of windows which looked out onto illusions – dangerous illusions such as, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Prompted by the sketchy impressionism of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s, incompleteness kept gaining adherents.
An impression cannot be completed. Many of the best works by minor painters of this period, such as the Norfolk painter Arnesby-Brown, are oil sketches executed al frescoin preparation for some finished canvas later. Such sketches, whether done in water-based media or in oils, go back far further than the epoch we associate with the impressionists. Chinese masters prided themselves on the spasm of energy that did no more than suggest a landscape of mist, willows and mountains in a swiftly-realised ink painting. Claude Lorraine made vibrant impressionist sketches in the seventeenth century. Fragonard dashed off a marvelous series of Portraites de Fantaisie: in these he would dress up his friends in theatrical costume and do the picture in one sitting, never taking longer than an hour. Was it a completed thing when the hour was up? In these works there are no deliberately uncompleted areas, but they do without the worked-over smoothness and the cold glazing of a “finished” subject. Each canvas epitomises painting con brio, executed with éclatin a fit of inspiration. Each is an impression – and each has a freshness of brush-stroke and a speed we might associate with Frans Hals, painter of The Laughing Cavalier.
Even so, I doubt whether one can insist that a “dashed-off” portraite de fantaisieis incomplete. Among figurative modernists, Alex Katz is said to complete his canvases in a single day – and sometimes these canvases are pretty large: so here is a method which echoes that of Fragonard. But however thin it may be, a uniform layer usually ends up covering the surface. I think artists learn to cater to their own needs in the time allotted.
Perhaps the time-limited painting constitutes an answer to the problem of completion, but somehow I doubt it. With practice the artist learns to cover the whole surface at least, and develops some method with a beginning, a middle and an end. But a specific time-limit (an hour, a day) rather militates against the open-endedness which is a pre-requisite of sublime nonfinito.
Willem de Kooning’s work seems less complete, although he might have spent far longer than Katz on getting the painting the way he wanted it. Take Woman on the Dune,painted in 1967. Is it the way he wanted it? The work abounds in ambiguity. It is abstract expression with strong figurative suggestions in it, but which way are we to read the two humps which could be steep dunes, could be knees, could be a raised knee and a raised torso, the figure seen in profile now? Then the red smear above these humps could be the smear of lipstick, lipstick adorning a loud grin below a fuzz of ginger hair, but another shape veers off from this, sucks down demonically at the upturned face of the woman supposedly in profile. The two readings are in conflict, and meanwhile the painting is all about the vigorous action of actually painting it. Blue stain, red gash, pink slippage, yellow ground. How many times have things been rubbed out, scraped off, re-applied? Could the artist resolve these readings in conflict, or is the work about conflicts, conflicts in ourselves when we look, dazed by intense sunlight on the dune? Ultimately, the painting seems abandoned in this condition of conflict. And that seems precisely the right time to “let it go”.
In the twentieth century, incompletion moved rapidly through impressionism and then entered abstract impressionism via the intense, compacted fields of late cubism. When we are moved by things other than matters at hand then we are said to be abstracted, under the spell. There is a trance-like aspect to action-painting. But then, a more conservative artist, Francis Bacon would have said that a painting was only as good as its last mark. One mark too many and it may be ruined. Could Jackson Pollock have said the same? Quite possibly, but in his case, it would still be a matter not of deliberation, but rather that the fit of actions should last no longer than seems right. Time seems a more urgent factor to wrestle with than some notion of perfection – the sense of how long can I let this work go through a process of becoming, how long can I afford to, how soon am I going to meet with some accident, not be here any longer to carry on?
Pollock’s negative desire, his wish never to see the curve and flurry of a drip take on a shape, might be contrasted with Richard Hamilton’s knowing nonfinito, which is a sort of nonfinitoeffect, and the comparison is similar to that already made between Michelangelo and Rodin. For Rodin to model a broken stump of arm in bronze is a form of finished unfinishedness. It’s arch, a species of mannerism, almost. Hamilton epitomizes the use of nonfinitoin this ironic way. This makes him no less significant. For in this respect he seems closer to the notion the masters had of leaving a work in a knowing state of incompletion – as demonstrated by della Francesca, da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Perhaps there is a species of completion obtaining to the work of Pollock and other abstract expressionists. Their works are fields, after all. Field painting demands an all-overishness – it harks back to Cezanne. Unlike the designed compositions of a Poussin or, later, a Courbet, in the fields of modernism there are no subsidiary sections, no central incidents. Every part of the canvas is as important as every other part and has the same urgency and strength of texture. All-overishness informs the very notion of matière. In fact we find a preoccupation with matièrelong before modernism – in Chardin, for instance – and it persists; for we find it also in Morandi. As a modernist factor, it chimes with the non-hierarchical manifesto of Communism. There are no privileged areas, no merely servile backgrounds. So when the drips are everywhere on the canvas at an equal intensity, the canvas could be said to be complete. Thus a sense of there being some resolution can be confirmed in the field paintings of Pollock.
With nonfinitowe are pitched into the problem of resolving the work, but the problem is left open, our wrestling with it becomes the subject. This is most apparent in the work of Larry Rivers, who is a master of the incomplete. On a canvas of his we may see his many “stabs at the subject”, his erasures.
Mistakes make for energetic incidents. As opposed to the all-overishness of field-painting, here we find stretches of raw canvas, words drawing our attention to specific locations, splotches which become incidents, fragments of material, faintly drawn workings, scribbles. Another American, Cy Twombly, seemed, in his earlier work, to be inspired by blackboards, and the vestiges of previous exercises, rubbed away for the most part but with the fragment of a word still clinging to the chalk scuffed surface. The mind’s internal screen is often thought of as a sort of tabula rasa.
Since moving on from this series of works using thin, very much ‘hand-drawn’ white lines in a wide variety of configurations on black and grey smudged grounds, Twombly has developed a conditional style. It seems that he teeters in his drawings between articulation and depiction: letters fail to realise themselves and become shapes that are never quite resolved, as if the artist started out to spell a word and ended with the faint suggestion of a pine-forest. This seems a meditation on how things are in the mind; played out in sketch-books and on large spacey canvases, and tackled in a way that could not be more different to the way David Salle might deal with a similar issue. For Twombly, things seem to enter the mind as “wimages” – to coin a term by using Lewis Carroll’s method of creating one word out of two. Twombly’s letter-ish near-shapes are word/images; neither fully realised, and liable to float away before their sense or significance is grasped. This evokes a sort of visual day-dream. And then sometimes, the ghost of a phrase will threaten to emerge, like a line of poetry or a phrase out of a song that keeps coming back to one. The viewer gets a strong sense of process from the work, of tensions the artist struggles to resolve, of jottings on vast telephone pads, of tentative thought and abandoned journeys.
Though dead of an overdose by 1988, Jean Michel Basquiat, who progressed from graffiti scrawled on the “D” train in 1976 to international art stardom, was influenced by Twombly; and by Jack Kerouac, the master of a sort of free-wheeling writing that drifts like the drifter he was. There is a “left-handedness” about Basquiat’s paintings, a maladroit forcefulness that chucks things together, sprays over them, adds words, loses them, adds more, crosses them out. He said in 1984, “I cross out words so that you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Basquiat understood defacement. In their violence, energy and crudity his pictures capture a sort street-life in two dimensions. Sometimes the work is grotesque, exuding intestines, teeth-bared, rising out of darkness, but I include it in nonfinitobecause the activity on any one canvas goes on only for as long as it feels like it should. One senses that the work has been created in a spasm of creativity – energetic scrawl sufficient to read as figure: add paint here and here. Enough! Basquiat had Haiti in his ancestry, and the sanguine ‘vodou’ art of that island informs his work, I feel. A last brooding photograph of Basquiat’s black face is as haunting as any image of the young Rimbaud. He’s holding Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneanswhich was written in a “three day and three night Benzedrine-fuelled burst,” according to Kerouac’s biographer, Ann Charters.
Even today the spirits of Apollo and Dionysus preside over a fundamental division in the arts. We might call this the division between classicism and romanticism but this could prove misleading. The romantics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were often perfectly classical when it came to finishing symphonies, novels and paintings. From an Apollonian height, they imposed their will on their material, and insisted that the material should reflect the human spirit. Art was pressed into the service of the emotions, and all the world’s surface served as a mirror for humanity. Thus the grand romantics rendered nature as matter imbued with pathos: pathetique, as in Beethoven, or bathetic, as in Landseer.
For the modernists who came after them, material is nature: and in the twentieth century people thought a lot about the nature of sound, the nature of colour, of paint even, or the nature of language. This led to abstraction, but, actually, abstraction is a misleading term. It fails to point to the underlying reality, for there is a concrete reality about painting a white picture in white paint, as does Robert Ryman. Abstraction is material. And that material is the latent imagination of the artist in that particular medium. Language is the logos, the imagination of the poet; stone, or clay or bronze is the imagination of the sculptor. Action is the imagination of the performance artist. It’s what we believe we can get the material to do. A painter day-dreams in paint-tubes and linen: a video artist in key-edits and projectors. In other words, the imagination is the real, the as-yet-unformed and unexpressed that exists within the action, within the stone, within the language.
Prior to the twentieth century, big-time successes among the late romantics, had, while preaching spontaneity, set out to harness the imagination to human interest, while equating the human moods to the “moods” of nature and eliciting much popular applause. Some license was accorded to Dionysus, but Apollo’s regular metres shaped each sentiment-laden project. And Apollo dictates that the will shall preside over the imagination, even when he sings about his feelings.