Modern Painters, Autumn 2004, p. 71-72                                            Back to Bibliography

gets a little love

Lance Esplund

I FELL IN LOVE WITH PAINTING during a college road trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. There, I saw my first Paul Klee in the flesh. The painting, Howling Dog (1928), is a swirling mixture of colour into which the artist has drawn a dog, baying at the moon, and its howl, an amorphous grouping of overlapping shapes that—larger than the dog out of which it ripples and unfurls—has taken on a life of its own.
      Though I had seen other paintings, Howling Dog was the first painting I experienced. It (pardon the pun) sank its teeth into me. Friends attempted to drag me to other works in the museum, but I stayed with Howling Dog until closing. I was immersed in its cool oranges, whites, greens and bruised violets. And as I swam in the painting it got me thinking about its strange trilogy of dog, howl and moon. Was the painting, I wondered, stirred by the dog and its howl? Or did the full, round moon move the colours to whirl and the animal to wail? And was the howl—which dances in supplication to the glowing moon—tethered to the dog? Or was the dog being walked by its own wail? I laughed out loud when I realised that the moon was both cause and spectator of this show—in which the howl bayed back at the dog. It was then that I knew what all the fuss was about. And it was then that I knew I wanted to become a painter.
      It was Klee who opened me up to painting and who, for me at least, set the standard for what a painting can be. When I see a painting, I am comparing the levels of experience I have with it to the levels I have had with other paintings. I do not ask that a painting be like other paintings or that the experience be like past experiences. On the contrary, I want surprises and variety. I ask only that the experience be full, rich and deep.
      The deep experience I am talking about is one in which, as the painting opens itself to me, and I, in turn, open to the painting, I feel a dialogue. And that dialogue is between the painting, myself and the larger tradition of painting—a tradition that is not bound by time or culture. I am talking about an experience that does not close down or isolate itself in a narrow set of contemporary beliefs but that touches on universals. This is the yardstick I carry with me when I engage with painting. It is not a tool that comes with being a critic. It is a tool that comes with looking at painting and with wanting to be open, engaged and curious before works of art.
      Klee gave me a love of painting—painting as a tradition, not a style. Yet, as much as I favour Klee, when I visit the Louvre and I enter the Corot galleries it is Corot who steals my heart. And I love Corot most until I happen into the rooms of Poussin. And it is Poussin until I see Rubens or Titian or Bellini; or until I happen upon Cimabue, Van Eyck, Chardin or Fra Angelico; Claude, Rembrandt, Leonardo or Ingres. When I am with Mondrian, it is Mondrian I love. With Giacometti, it is Giacometti. Or it is Matisse, Braque or Vermeer. While in Egypt, it was Egyptian wall painting.
      Having been asked to write about my 'three favourite living painters' I find that I am greedy and fickle. Every painter I love offers me something different—something 'other' than what I get from other painters. And usually if I am drawn into the work, taking in fully the artist's voice and what he or she has to say, I feel as if I am getting exactly what I need at that moment.
      Part of the pleasure of looking at a painter's work over time is seeing the progression and expansion of a particular vocabulary. Seeing new paintings by an artist whose work has already engaged me adds to my understanding not only of the new work but also of the paintings that have come before. I begin to understand and appreciate an artist's sources and subjects and hand, all of which become more familiar. I get closer to knowing and appreciating not only what compels him or her as a painter but also what compels me as a viewer. . . .
      This ability to transform materials and to convey multiple metaphors at once is in part what captivates me in Deborah Rosenthal's new abstract landscapes of buried lovers. And it is what excited me in the exquisite show of Anne Truitt's painted wood columns and cubes at Danese last year. Truitt is a sculptor, but her solid beams of colour can vibrate throughout a room like musical chords or individual stokes on a canvas. Truitt is a painter's sculptor who knows how to
Deborah Rosenthal, Landscape with Two Lovers, 2004, oil on linen, 66.04 x 91.44 cm. May be seen at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York.
Photo D. James Dee, 2004
orchestrate a room. She understands that colour is weight and light; and that in just the right amounts and spaced just so, colour moves, breathes and makes music. A lot of painters could learn from Truitt's sculptures, just as they could from Jeremy Blake's videos. Blake has a painter's eye for film, and he knows how to keep a polyphonic rhythm moving within the frame. He moves colour rather than merely relying on the inherent movement of the medium to carry the viewer onward. Rosenthal's twisting, recumbent lovers beautifully activate her canvases in her latest work. The figures resemble leaves, veins, organs and butterfly wings. Rosenthal buckles the surface of the autumnal Landscape with Lovers (2003) like a crystal, rocky wall or scaled animal. In Landscape with Two Lovers (2004) two submerged figures, shaped like puzzle pieces that do not quite fit together, continue to flutter, to twist like roots or to swim in the buoyant darkness.
      Transformation is what draws me to the work of all the painters I love. Rosenthal's figures remain figures as they evoke decomposing bodies in the earth, embryos in the womb, flame, fruit and goddess. The metaphors of growth, regeneration and of seasonal change permeate the paintings of both Rosenthal and Snyder . . .

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