Stages of Artistic Development

(This theory, like all stage theories, ( and like my theory of artistic purposes ought to be considered more for its illustrative purposes than as a complete description of reality.))

Stage one, which most people are pushed out of abruptly is actually the same as the final stage: freedom.

The freedom stage is the stage at which you are absolutely certain about every single artistic choice. There is no hesitation, no fear of what others will think, no need to follow suit of a certain style. Look at children when they are given art supplies. They go to their work without hesitation.

 All artists remember the ecstasy of stage one and are on a mission to return to it.

 Stage two, which most people are in and never leave: development of skills and abilities.

This is just one stage, no matter how detailed and technical the skills and abilities become. Most people choose to disengage with art entirely because of the encumbered nature of this stage. Unlike stage one, stage two is often the complete opposite in terms joy. It is all about ability, all about what others think, and all about conventions. Only those who take naturally to or find a way to find themselves in skills and abilities are able to make it through this stage pleasurably.

 Stage three is really a threshold over which to cross more so than a stage. It is the first time the individual refers to him or herself as an artist.

This is called: initial declaration.

I am an artist you declare. You take whatever skills you have developed and are still developing (stage two never ends really) and you try to do something.

What follows this is a series of clarifications or obfuscations of this stage…

 Stage four [this is actually a period during which many stages, depending on various factors, are gone through]

This stage can either be clarifying or obfuscating. But it is usually clarifying in its initial instance. The artist chooses something and sticks with it for a while. The artist then may obfuscate and change courses entirely. Stage four may continue on and on in many iterations and in various forms.

 Stage five [ is both a stage and a threshold of sorts]

This is the point at which the artist establishes true understanding of artistic purposes. This only happens after (in most cases) several takes through stage four (which actually is a repeatable stage).

In this stage, artists understand their purposes and are able to know precisely how those purpose affect the work. This may mean a very clear understanding of the kind of work that is to be done. Or, it may mean a more open-ended approach, embracing mystery. No matter what the course of action is, the artists in this stage are now truly clear in what motivates and moves them as artists.

 Stage six (which is more like an occasional state of being than a stage that is arrived at) is an enlightened return to freedom. In which the emotional and intuitive freedoms of stage one are reclaimed with all of the knowledge of the journey up until this point.

This is not a permanent state of arrival but rather a an occasional state of being. The artist understands that more frequent and prolonged experiences of this state of being is the bigger goal of the artistic life.

Apparent and Unapparent Artistic Lineage

There are apparent and unapparent influences when it comes to art. The “apparent” I am talking about is from the viewer’s point of view.

You might look at my work and see a resonance with Jackson Pollock (maybe because of the overall rhythm) or Franz Kline (because of the black paint work).

You might notice a connection to colorfield painting (because of the color layer beneath and peering through the black layer) or action painters (because of the apparent action throughout) .

50” x 40” Untitled # 9

50” x 40” Untitled # 9

But, when I make my paintings, I am not trying to think in terms of the visual and apparent resonance. After the fact, I am able to explain those things and I think the ability to situate my abstract work in the larger visual (apparent) narrative of abstract work is important.

I am a lifelong and native New Yorker. I have the geographic connection to many important periods of abstraction in America. But there are also conceptual lineages that alter our understanding of the work even greater once we take them into consideration.

For instance, Francis Bacon, when asked what his paintings meant said that they don't mean anything. Similarly, I don't intentionally imbue my work with meaning. You can find meaning, or not. It's all about the freedom to think and open-ended interpretation. 

You might look at Bacon’s work and see no apparent connections to mine. But, from the point of view of what one wants to accomplish, there are a few shared concepts. Bacon also said he was interested in working out a balance between the planned and the un-planned. He also wanted to allow the immediacy of the first stroke of paint on the canvas to emerge throughout the work. And, like me, he painted on the unprimed canvas. Though, my purposes for this choice are to allow for a textural variance. I also use gesso as paint and with paint. Bacon’s purpose in this latter decision was to provoke more immediacy in the painting.

And then we can take into account our various purposes as artists. So far, I think there are six major purposes that artists can have.

My major purpose is the display of beauty. I have two supporting purposes that help this happen:

the concern for style (in my abstract work, you know it is mine when you see it—it looks nothing like the majority of abstraction—and I want to continue to stylize my voice within this work)

the use of/ mastery of the medium (my work is the result of thousands of hours exploring how this medium works. It is not just about a style and a surface-level set of effects. This is particularly about these materials: acrylic paint, some acrylic mediums, gesso, and canvas. I am paying attention to the physical reality of these materials at all times)

More directly, I use both a concern for style and mastery of the medium in the service of the display of beauty.

It’s also important to consider the other purposes that are not a part of my artistic make-up. I am not concerned with conceptual exploration or with communicating a message.

It is possible that this can be seen as producing shallow and intellectually void art. But I think there is a strong case for art without a message.

If we take an artist’s purposes (the ones that matter most to him as well as the ones he disregards) then we have a profile of the unapparent forces within an artist’s work. Looked at this way, we can then ask, have there been other artists with a similar profile of purposes? Here is another way to find unapparent lineages.

For me, I think one artist with whom I am most in line in this way is Claude Monet. His primary concern (like mine) was with beauty. And (like me) he leveraged style and use of medium in the service of beauty. What’s even more remarkable is that message mattered little to him. During World War One, he was away in his studio, painting his giant water lilies paintings. Again, stylistically there might not be an apparent connection between my work and Monet’s work, but there is a very strong unapparent connection in what matters to us as artists.

But what about being influenced by the actual approach of other artists? Has that never been the case for you?

I, like many painters, have been enamored of the works of Da Vinci, Velasquez, and Sargent. I have done studies of the works of these masters and, in the process have learned a tremendous deal about the construction and composition of imagery. But my need for a distinct style has made me want to incorporate any takeaway into articulations that go into the further development of my own vocabulary.

What about abstract artists with whom you might be in line with conceptually?

Well, I can talk about two important Roberts: Motherwell and Natkin. Again, these are obviously unapparent influences, as there is no stylistic connection not only in their work to one another but to my work as well.

Robert Motherwell said that modern art is really the first true non-tribal art. Every other phase of art history was a narrative of various tribes of art. But modern art, he proposed, was about a pure individual expression, and not about a need to associate with a particular tribe. I agree with him. I believe in the primacy of individuality in artistic expression.

But I do not think it’s all conscious expression. This is where Natkin becomes important. Natkin recognized (as did Peter Fuller) that there are subconscious motives in abstract work. Like Natkin, I am aware of a need to create some kind of environment in my paintings. And, occasionally, I experience a type of nostalgia when I look at them, as if I have seen them before, or been in that environment before.

Conclusion: what might this mean for understanding art in the postmodern age?

I throw in the work postmodern at the end here because I think one of its most prominent features of postmodernity is the dissolution of easy categories.

No longer do we have a distinct narrative development in the larger chronology of art. The twentieth century did away with that. We need new concepts to make connections and explanations. I think the apparent and unapparent influences is just one of many concepts that can facilitate a better interpretation of how artists are working.

Furthermore, I think that recognizing that there are various artistic purposes that make up an individual artist’s way of being will provide a more complex understanding of the role of art in connection with and disconnected from the events of the world.

Six different creative purposes

Every time I have tried to imbue a message in my art, I have felt that something about the resulting work was out of line with what I wanted to do. For a long time, I thought that I was possibly not choosing the right message or way of getting it across. But when I stopped trying to create message-driven art, I felt an incredible sense of freedom. This is when I realized that I was driven by a different kind of creative purpose.

In trying to clarify my own artistic purposes, I have defined six different creative purposes that artists can have. There are definitely more and I am not looking to permanently categorize all creative acts.

Here is an explanation of each of these:

Beauty

Artists (and this can be any kind of creative production: art, music, literature, etc) whose primary purpose is beauty are concerned mainly with the beauty of their work. Beauty could come in many forms. It could be a delicate genre of beauty, or a rugged one. It could be a neat one, or a messy one. The style of the beauty might vary. But the concern here is with whether the art delivers this kind of beauty.

Portrayal

This is the concern with portraying something (people, places, things, stories). Artists who have this as a primary concern might be referential (if they are painters) but they might also be portraying fictional places and characters. Their goal is to get across something they see (either in their mind or imagination) through the art. For instance, a fiction writer who obsesses over getting the description of a minute gesture just so might be primarily concerned with portrayal.

Making a statement/ emphasizing a concept

This is a very popular way of impact in art today. Artists who are primarily concerned with making a statement might take up a political message in their work. They might be concerned with repeatedly emphasizing a concept in their work.

Challenging perceptions

These kinds of artists make us double check what we think we saw. Optical illusionist-style artists or writers who make us second guess what really happened are some common examples of artists who are primarily concerned with challenging our perceptions.

Concern for style

Artists with a primary concern for style might have one consistent and distinct style or they might change their style. In a sense, they make style the subject matter of their art.

Use of/ mastery of the medium

Artists concerned with the use of the medium display innovative and possibly virtuoso use of the materials that they are using.

Beauty Always Matters: The Case for Art Without a Message

It is my belief that no artistic purpose is fundamentally superior to any other and that there is no inherent virtue or lack thereof in different artistic purposes. Even though we may be living in turbulent times, in a world smoldering in natural, social, and political catastrophes, it does not mean that art must have a message and address those catastrophes.

Untitled # 7 [50” x 50”] acrylic on stretched canvas - March 2019

Untitled # 7 [50” x 50”] acrylic on stretched canvas - March 2019

We are each driven by a different creative purpose. Some of us care about the use of materials; others care about the development of a unique style or voice. Some focus on turning a concept over and over. Others focus on making viewers second guess perception. There are those who are primarily concerned with how they portray things. Many artists are focused on the messages that they communicate in their art. And there are those who, like me, are primarily concerned with beauty.

We might be concerned with many of these purposes. And throughout our artistic careers, we might shift, sometimes dramatically. But it is my contention that no single artistic purpose is, in and of itself, superior to any other. One artistic purpose is only better than another insofar as the artist is concerned. It is up to artists to look within and determine where their calling is.


Untitled # 10 [50”x40”] April 2019

Untitled # 10 [50”x40”] April 2019

We are living in turbulent times and art with a message might be preferred by some critics and audiences. There are some who argue that art is even supposed to have a message. Such a point of view states that, if art is not making a statement, it is not worthwhile. I think this view of art lacks the true complexity of the varied ways in which art and artistic production can play transformative roles in our lives.

To begin with, this view assumes several things about the effects that art has on viewers: that the messages in art will be received; or that art without a message cannot or will not have crucial and positive impacts.

But to me, the worst implication of such a contention and preferential reverence for art with a message is the insistence on the zeitgeist’s (and not the artist’s) declaration of what artists ought to do. Artists are free spirits who value individualism. The contention that art must be politically concerned in order to be serious art is fundamentally opposed to valuing individualism as a crucial part of artistic sensibility.

The only “must” with which artists are compelled to abide is that imperative that concluded Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes: “This above all: To thine own self be true” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, Shakespeare).

Art may be critical in the advancement of democracy but there is no room for consensus in an artist’s purpose.

Untitled # 8 [40”x40”] April 2019

Untitled # 8 [40”x40”] April 2019

This does not mean that artists ought not care about the various issues and crises facing our world today. Neither does it mean that they cannot utilize their art as a powerful force for change even if their primary concern is with beauty.

It is easy to assume that an artist whose primary purpose is the presentation of beauty is creating shallow, surface-level, and possibly tone-deaf work. But there is a difference between artistic purposes and the ethics of being a conscientious human being. One does not dictate the other. Neither is it the case that artists whose work is politically conscious are automatically virtuous. There is a difference between insisting on individualism in artistic expression and recognizing the imperatives of collective responsibility.

It is limited and possibly narrow-minded to see one’s own prosperity without context and to believe that humanity can ever possibly survive without the more fortunate helping the less fortunate. But insisting on an extreme individualism in creative expression is not the same thing as having an isolationist view of the world’s problems and failing to see our own potential role in both perpetuating and solving them.

Artists who have an extreme individualism in their artistic purposes will produce the best art that the world needs from them, whether or not it contains a message.

Q and A for grand visions for the future

What is one of your biggest visions for your art in the future?

I have a vision for how my art can be crucial in the necessary transformations that are needed on a grand scale to transform humanity.

What kinds of transformations do you mean?

I think we are far more in touch because of the digital social landscape but we need to reinvent the public spaces to be more conducive to that same interconnectivity in real time, in real life, and in person. What I have in mind is something in the spirit of the public library system, but with a goal far more comprehensive and far more audacious. The goal is not only access to information and literature. The goal is access to the means to transform the world positively. But it’s not just access for individuals. It’s about access for humanity itself. Right now, humanity cannot access the best within itself. It’s the actual space to connect that’s missing. The goal would be to build public spaces that become the literal forums for the necessary discussions and debates that will move us to real transformation of the world. These would be places of true public discourse where all citizens would be able to arrive locally in order to have an impact globally.

What exactly would such a space look like?

I tentatively call these spaces comprehensive public free-use spaces. This would be like a large public park, but it would have indoor use as well. So, like a university, but without formalized courses, or degrees. Like a park, but geared also towards the indoor activities of the social world, political discourse, social equity, humanitarian causes, activities of the arts, the humanities, and the intellect. And, most importantly, it would be free. There would be both indoor and outdoor spaces intended for limitless and improvisational use. If someone wanted to put on a performance, have an art installation, or host a public forum about a pressing issue, it could be done in the public free-use space.

How does your art play a role in this vision?

Well, it’s really about improvisation. What I am saying is missing in the world is a large, comprehensive way to include improvisation in the social landscape (in terms of discourse, in terms of local interaction, in terms of dialogue about innovations and problem solving). And my work (though I do not ascribe or imbue specific meaning to it) is improvisational and fundamentally exalts improvisation. It is done as an improvisational act and is a visual illustration of the beauty of improvisation. It calls on the viewer to improvise in a visual journey.

I see the conceptual connection. What specific role could your work play?

I think the current abstract work I am doing is a powerful expression of improvisation. I can’t wait to see what this work looks like on a grand scale. A space like the one I just described is an audacious exaltation of the human potential through improvisation. It would need art that presents a similar sentiment. It would need large and ambitious work that visually resembles the kinds of use envisioned for the space. So, specifically, enormous indoor paintings. And designs on the outside space that play off of and with (as in an improvisational performance) the works inside. Thus, representing the idea of bringing the world inside, improvising through debate, dialogue, and creation, and then re-emerging into the world.

You compared this vision to a university. Why can’t current universities be this transformative space that you describe?

The main reason is that they are intended as temporary communities (students leave when they graduate in four years) and because access is not entirely open. The communities within universities are often limited to the students and academics within. In many ways, universities can be transformative spaces but not as a sole purpose in the way I am describing. Finally, universities are charged with the education of their students in various academic disciplines. They require far more structure to achieve their purpose.

But is education a key part of these public free-use spaces?

As an educator who began his career in the new millennium, I have thought a lot about other roles for educators as discourse guides and knowledge development coaches. These kinds of approaches are already happening in schools but I do think the role of educator as facilitator could be crucial in a vision like this one. Just as there are caretakers in a park to tend to the physical integrity of the space, there can be caretakers in social spaces to attend to the social integrity of the spaces.

How I Improvise in Abstraction

What I’m trying to do is showcase little areas of beauty. The thousands of hours painting have taught me that, whether intentionally created or created through randomness, certain effects are irreproducible and are beautiful. They are rare, like diamonds.

Untitled [50”x40”] # 9 April 2019 Acrylic on Canvas

Untitled [50”x40”] # 9 April 2019 Acrylic on Canvas

And yet, they’re happening all the time. But you need a constant surface-level attention to paint (which I primarily picked up through years of intense practice with representational painting) in order to notice them stacked up against all of the other ordinariness. So, what I am doing is I am highlighting these little beautiful areas. I’m saying, here’s a gem, and here’s another one. But then what happens is that the area that I thought was beautiful by itself suddenly alters when new nearby elements are added. In my mind, not only does every area need to be beautiful, but it needs to be relationally beautiful. And so I will often change the way in which I spotlight an area once the field around it emerges further. So no mark is un-revisable. And I’m looking back and forth at the very local beauty, the immediate surrounding relational beauty, and, at various points, at the compositional beauty of the entire piece. Although on that level of beauty, I also employ a sense of faith. While I enact gestures and alterations to balance the coordination of the composition, I also believe that the incremental attentiveness to the local and surrounding beauty will somehow result in the total beauty of the piece. This has never been entirely true but is somewhat true. In other words, the entire composition does not need to be planned or checked constantly. I check it throughout but there is no plan as to how often. There is no procedural order to these areas of beauty. I might start off very locally or I might start off with a broad consideration of the whole. And the focus is shifting from moment to moment.