Published: January 9, 2001
By Carol Sims
The Gist of It
Sometimes you can count on things coming back, like the swallows of San Capistrano. Sometimes things come back fortuitously. The return of John Sloan on Drawing and Painting in the 2000 printing once again makes his teaching book, The Gist of Art (the bulk of the text), readily available. Sloan’s teachings rise to the surface like a stubborn chunk of Styrofoam that refuses to be submerged. Like a chunk of Styrofoam, it can buoy collectors, teachers and artists today who are swirling around in the whirlpool of today’s art world.
Known as a member of ”The Eight,” John Sloan (1871-1951) first came to professional prominence as a Philadelphia newspaper illustrator. He later moved to New York City and painted some of his best-remembered city scenes. Equally talented as a painter, illustrator and a poster artist, Sloan was also a versatile teacher. He could teach abstract art as well as representational art. Interestingly, he had a fondness for the ”ultra-moderns” as he called them, and antipathy for artists who recorded what they saw – a visual representation of reality. A strong advocate of technique and memory painting, Sloan taught his students at the Art Students League to paint a true mental image rather than reproduce ”mere facts.”
The first three chapters ”A Point of View About Life,” ”A Point of View About Teaching,” and ”A Point Of View About Art” make for fabulous reading. When he gets into the teaching chapters, ”Drawing,” ”Figure Drawing,” ”Painting,” one wishes one could see more than the few meager illustrations that are given. The rambling essays are full of maxims and exhortations. It demands to have Sloan in front of a blackboard or expounding on examples during a slide presentation.
Sloan was keen on the predominance of form over color. This theme comes through the many chapters devoted to teaching art students. This doesn’t mean that Sloan wasn’t a colorist. He just wanted color to be subordinate and supportive to form. The complex systems of color described by Sloan demonstrate his profound observation of the masters and his attention to palette preparation. Other chapters relay his expertise in other areas – correct application of varnishes and glazes, how to make a painting endure by using the correct sequence of layering various materials. He imparts specific knowledge that collectors will find interesting and art students will find intimidating.
While the text is a shadow of Sloan’s teaching, it still imparts its essence. ”Gist of Art is composed of notes taken verbatim while Sloan was teaching in the classroom or lecturing to an audience of laypeople who had some serious interest in art,” wrote Helen Farr Sloan in the introduction. Sloan’s brief text demands more thoughtfulness than the casual reader will want to give it. People who are seriously interested in art will study it.
Alla Prima: Everything I Know about Painting, while pricey, has helped establish Richard Schmid as somewhat of a guru among his students. Fifteen years in the writing, it distills the painter’s most important observations about painting realistically. If a student could ingest Schmid’s teachings through this book it would be a relative bargain. It is a book for painters by a painter. Whether or not you ever intend to pick up a brush, Alla Prima is an enlightening book.
Schmid was awarded the John Singer Sargent Award in June 2000 from the American Society of Portrait Artists Foundation. His portraits, landscapes and still lifes currently sell in the $18/132,000 range. He is established as one of the more sought-after representational (living) painters in the country. Hence it is no wonder that Schmid is a role model for many an aspiring painter. Alla Prima has achieved $1.4 million in sales since 1998 according to Kristen Thies, director of West Wind Fine Art, Manchester Center, Vermont.
Schmid’s view on painting is diametrically opposed to that of Sloan. Reading the two books in succession will be very useful for getting a well-rounded view of representational painting. While Sloan advocated the painting of things – a mental image, Schmid is a recorder of the visual aspect of reality. He paints the appearance of things and advocates the use of linear (visual) perspective, which Sloan scorned. In fact, Schmid hails linear perspective and the painting of light rather than things as landmark artistic breakthroughs in the history of art.
Schmid states ”When we do a Direct painting from life, we use the exact shapes of color that light creates on a subject to create a faithful illusion of what we physically see.” He also says ”The object is to capture a subject as it is before any noticeable changes occur in it, to it, or in the artist – like a very slow motion snapshot done by hand.”
Another point of divergence is their attitudes towards modern art. ”I do not include the emergence of abstraction as a milestone because I do not believe it fits in with the continuity of painting development that I am describing here,” writes Schmid. On the other hand, Sloan embraced modern art, if not in his own work, certainly as a proponent at The Art Students League.
It is interesting to note that Schmid counts Robert Henri, a member of The Eight, friend and mentor to Sloan, as one of his most important influences. Schmid came across The Art Spirit by Henri in his student days and it remains a powerful resource for him.
After reading his treatise, collectors and artists will understand Schmid’s painting process – especially his mental approach to the task at hand. A technical virtuoso with a distinct voice of his own, Schmid’s compounded knowledge is impressive.
Modern Artists on Art
When words get heavy with metaphysical density, they tend to get chopped into snippets. Sometimes artists are given small quotes in art history books. One of the advantages of Robert L. Herbert’s tidy little book Modern Artists on Art is that entire essays by such greats as Klee, Léger, Moore, and Mondrian are presented intact.
It is not a book to read from cover to cover in one sitting. An essay or two a day will keep the thought well occupied without fusing together wisps of ideas that float among the pages. Then they can be savored. The thought processes of the great modern artist-writers deserve this. These are not just inkhorn critics. These are the creators. Let’s listen to what they have to say.
Herbert has chosen the authors with care. Each of the 17 essays brandishes a torch of modernism and is presented in chronological order. The first essay is by Gleizes and Metzinger, who wrote on Cubism in 1912. Henry Moore’s three succinct essays conclude the book; his ”Primitive Art” essay was written in 1941. Some of the essays are long; some are short. Some make sense; some don’t. Of course they don’t all agree or even synchronize. The editor also notes that some of the great modern artists, namely Picasso and Braque, ”remained silent” and let their work stand without words.
While a few of the essays were written in English, many of them were translated. Originals were published in French, German, Russian and Italian. Herbert gives a brief introduction to each author and notes which translation was chosen. In the case of Kandinsky’s ”Reminiscences,” Herbert’s wife retranslated the influential German Der Sturm version to make it more readable. Herbert cites the other translations, just in case we want to compare them.
Herbert got his Ph.D. from Yale University, and taught art history there from 1956 to 1990. After Yale, he taught at Mount Holyoke College where he is Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Humanities. The first edition of Modern Artists on Art came out in 1964, while he was at Yale. One can only imagine the countless art history students who have benefited by studying the artists’ texts of the 1964 edition. Before it was published scholars would have had to dig for the essays in far-flung and foreign publications.
The expanded 2000 edition includes writings of Schwitters, Lissitzky, Léger and Ernst to include ”salient statements of the ‘machine esthetic’ and of Dada and Surrealism,” states Herbert. Modern Artists on Art will give everyone a better understanding of modern art, whether they are proponents or not.
A Feast of Color
Published just after the September 2000 exhibition of his work at the Beadleston Gallery in New York City, Wolf Kahn Pastels is a feast of color that would do nicely on the table even if you never read a word. That would be a shame however, because the text gives us Wolf Kahn from Wolf Kahn, as well as a perceptive and glowing introduction by art historian Barbara Novak.
Kahn writes ”I believe that every artist has one medium that determines the way he uses every other one. In Turner’s case, for example, the artist’s oil paintings aspire to the quality of watercolor. Daumier’s use of line and tone into every medium recalls the marks that a lithographic crayon makes on a stone. Van Gogh’s brush marks and palette-knife slashes are the colored equivalents of the lines a quill pen makes on paper. In my work, the determining medium is pastel.”
While there are few how-to tips in Wolf Kahn Pastels, there is a feeling of a demonstration/workshop in progress with many of the essays that make the reader feel like a privileged participant. The color plates are complemented by short lucid descriptions of the inspiration for the adjacent images. The artist unravels the frame of mind and/or circumstances that led to the success of each picture. The reader can see exactly what he is talking about because of the proximity of the relevant image and the specific nature of the text.
Kahn makes freeing observations on the formal artistic concerns underlying his pastels. He is more concerned with attitudes and an open-minded freshness, than he is with the conventional and restrictive ”let me show you how it’s done.” In fact, Kahn doesn’t insist on good drawing in order to create good art although he is an excellent draftsman. ”The role of drawing is, for the contemporary artist, a question each artist must solve anew. ‘Knowing how to draw’ is no longer an absolute necessity.”
Born in 1927 in Germany, Kahn was sent to Cambridge, England two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He finally rejoined his family in the US at age 13. Just six years later, he entered Hans Hofmann’s School in New York City. While inspired by Abstract Expressionism, he never abandoned the pictorial elements of landscape. Well-known as and artist and a teacher, Kahn is a member of The National Academy of Design in New York and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. There is an excellent chronology in the book detailing his many life-long achievements.
This book will appeal to those who love Kahn’s luscious pastels because it is saturated with his beautiful images. It will also help develop an informed eye.
John Sloan On Drawing and Painting, by John Sloan; 1939 American Artists Group; 1944 General Publishing Company, Ltd., Toronto, Canada; reprinted by Dover Publications Inc., Mineola, New York, 1977 and 2000, paperback, $7.95. Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, Richard Schmid, 1998 Stove Prairie Press, LLC, Fourth printing, April 2000; distributed by West Wind Fine Art, Manchester, Vermont, 800/939-9932; 204pages, 118 color plates, hardcover, $95. Modern Artists On Art, Second Enlarged Edition Edited by Robert L. Herbert; 2000 Dover Publications, Mineola, New York; 185 pages, paperback, $9.95. Wolf Kahn Pastels by Wolf Kahn, 2000, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York City, ISBN 0-8109-6707-3; 156 pages, 100 plates in full color, hardcover, $45: (also available as ISBN 0-9109-6729-4, a full-cloth slipcase edition limited to 750 signed copies, $95).
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