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!

Gillian Ayres

Today, a fellow artist told me about Gillian Ayres. I had never heard of her, so I looked her up. In the 4 seconds it took me to conduct a Google image search, I knew I had discovered a new source of inspiration.

Dance of the Ludi Magni, Oil on canvas, 1984.

I mean, just look at this painting. It’s a riot of color. It’s wonderfully lawless. It gives off tremendous energy.

Ayres died in 2018 and here are some great clips from her obituary in the NYT.

The physicality of making art, in this case the wet, goopy nature of paint and how it interacts with brushes, palette knives and canvas – is something that gets little to no press from art critics. Yet, for Ayres (and me!) it is very appealing aspect of painting.

I also love that Ayres wasn’t precious about her work. Sue Hubbard, a friend of the artist, tells this story from when she visited Ayres in Italy:

“She was always enormously generous, and I left Rome carrying a painting fresh from the studio which, in those days before security checks, I carried onto the plane still wet. When I got it home, I realised I’d pressed my thumb into a layer of thick turquoise paint. I rang Gillian appalled. Oh, don’t worry, she said, in that unpretentious way of hers, just squash it over. I did, and in so doing, went down to the next layer of pink paint. Of course, these many years later it has dried. My thumbprint now a part of its history.”