James Elkins on painting

“Recently, some art historians have become more interested in what paint can say. They suggest that since art history and criticism are so adept at thinking about what paint represents (that is, the stories and subjects, and the artists and their patrons), then it should also be possible to write something about the paint itself. What kinds of problems, and what kinds of meanings, happen in the paint? Or as one historian puts it, What is thinking in painting, as opposed to thinking about painting? These are important questions, and they are very hard to answer using the language of art history.”

“To a nonpainter, oil paint is uninteresting and faintly unpleasant. To a painter, it is the life’s blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime . . . Any history of painting that does not take that obsession seriously is incomplete.”

“Painting is an unspoken and largely uncognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods.”

“Painters can sense those motions in the paint even before they notice what the paintings are about.”

These excerpts are from What Painting Is, by James Elkins, who was an artist before pursuing art history. I’m fascinated with his takes on art, imagery and seeing, so expect more posts!

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