patient consideration, one will see most areas of long-standing
dispute separate out into two poles of opinion, two categories
of viewpoint. Despite the throng of details in the spectrum of
positions that develop about any question of general concern,
there will be in most instances two, and precisely two, families
of attitude for alternatives are set in pairs and
they will be exactly opposed, almost tailored opposites.
of disagreement that cannot be easily and readily resolved generally
result from differences not of intellectual stance nor even of
foundational beliefs, but of disposition. People come in types,
in differing types of personalities, and persons of similar type
will tend to congregate about like opinions. People simply see
differently, and when they do and vie, their oppositions will withstand
all argument. Preferences are beyond analysis, for they are rooted
in personal nature.
criticism comes in two types. In spite of the multitude of philosophies,
principles of analysis, and logics of taste, there is in the end
one basic choice and two alternatives to choose between. The two
essential positions do not disagree over the significances of styles
and traditions, for those are matters of unending conjecture, and
originality of interpretation is felt to be an unalloyed good.
These opinions don't group. Nor do they engage each other over
the legitimacy of new forms of expression, for the necessity for
the continual revitalization of art is generally accepted. The
dispute is over expectation, over what one wants from art, over
what art should do and what art is for. The arena of dispute is
desire, and there is no arguing desire. The two alternatives in
art criticism may be identified as the rationalist and the irrationalist.
The rationalist positions, regardless of their variety of specific
theories about the development of artistic conventions and the
role art plays in society, all want one thing: clarity of statement.
The purpose of art is construed to be the making of a statement
on some issue or another of interest to more than just the artist.
The conventions of art are taken to be conventions of human behavior
which follow practices and norms that develop through the ages.
Within those conventions, a clear statement is expected, a statement
that can be interpreted and explained with precision.
irrationalist positions, throughout the array of their various
species, expects from art not a statement but a revelation. The
purpose of art is to be the disclosure, in a manner that is more
incantory than explanatory, of something that is both true and
beyond rational conception. Art exists because reason is insufficient.
The art historian Herbert Read put with some clarity this matter
that is inherently less than clear. He once observed that the function
of art is "To create an icon, a plastic symbol of the artist's
inner sense of numinosity or mystery, or perhaps merely of the
unknown dimensions of feeling and sensation." Art is to reveal
the unknown, the unknown depths of the psyche, or of something
greater than the psyche. One of the difficulties with the rationalist
posture is that it cannot account for art per se. By expecting
and, in its expressed preferences, requiring art to make clear
statements in essence, to communicate (which is pointless
if the communication cannot be understood) it leaves art
with nothing to do that cannot be done, and done better, by direct
expression, by expository writing, by composing an essay. (Which
is what critics do.) And the conventions of art must of needs go
unexplained, for in terms of clarity of meaning, they are arbitrary.
If the issue is precision of decipherable communication, what can
be the purpose behind the development of such forms as the monument,
the triumphal arch, the religious icon? They become givens, and
the history of their changes of style receives the explanation,
is granted decipherable causes. Nor can the rationalist disposition
easily deal with abstraction. Without a cogent, unambiguous, and
stable meaning which pure abstraction obviously lacks, and
to which any sizable degree of stylization is superfluous the
work of art must be seen as pointless. For abstraction to have
a meaning, it must have a meaning such as Read desired, it must
function according to what Read called "correspondences."
artist is nearly always a man who is acutely aware of what Baudelaire
called 'correspondences' that is to say, real but irrational
associations between disparate objects. To the poet, these correspondences
may be of colour, sound or rhythm, but to the sculptor they are always
the artist is not "nearly always a man," but the point holds, and
for the painter also, the correspondences are of color and rhythm.
Or rather, the correspondence is between color and rhythm, on the
one hand, and complex thoughts, on the other.
the rationalist disposition, visual art works by resemblances the
works signify what they look like. For the irrationalist, visual
art works by correspondences, and optical resemblance is beside the
point. One has to feel the significance. This difference between
resemblance and correspondence amounts to the difference between
the pictorial and the formal. The pictorial is what the visual experience
looks like; the formal is what such attributes as shape and hue suggest
in other ways. Pure form and color denote subtle and, ultimately,
otherwise unspecifiable realizations that they in no sense resemble
or rationally define. Form and color are a language of their own,
a language different from the verbal, a language we are all implicitly
capable of understanding. It is this language that permits abstraction
to be significant.
considerations are particularly pertinent in the case of Ronnie Landfield,
whose work has, since the late 1960's, been a model of the abstract
aesthetic ambition. Landfield was initially one of a number of artists
known, in some versions of recent art history, as Lyrical Abstractionists.
The list of these painters included such well-known figures as Brice
Marden and Larry Poons, as well as, among others, Dan Christensen,
Ronald Davis, Ralph Humphrey, William Pettet, and Peter Young. Inspired
by Abstract Expressionism, they continued that aesthetic impulse.
Yet, their influence and much of their work was eclipsed by the prominence
of several competing movements, most obviously Pop Art. By the 1970's,
a number of them were exhibiting primarily in Europe.
not all, and Landfield was among the lucky. He has been exhibiting
in New York throughout the majority of his public career. And his
luck has been ours. There is and has been no dearth of abstract
painters, but Landfield's paintings are distinctive for displaying
and instructing us in one of the authentic purposes of pure abstraction.
know Landfield reasonably well, have had the opportunity and privilege
to visit his studio and see a large quantity of his works. His
capabilities as a colorist are impressive. He has an intimate and
intricate sense of harmonies and rhythms, and an extensive knowledge
of how to establish and direct vibratory contrasts. In his hands,
arrays of colors are not simply instances of spontaneous expression,
though they may often be generated in that way rather, they
offer a significance more penetrating and more than personal, they
instigate an awareness of an area of existence that is intangible
but as immediate and perceptible as a landscape. His organizations
of color become registers of purified disposition. They resonate
with qualities of mood that are impersonal and essentially human,
that are aspects of a shared interior landscape. Taken together,
his works offer a catalogue of the atmospheres of our inner lives.
current exhibition at Claudia Carr presents 20 works done in acrylic
on paper, all from this year and last. They are roughly evenly
split between those that derive from observation and those that
do not at least, not from visual observation. They differ
in a number of ways from Landfield's typical oil paintings. The
oil paintings are, of course, far larger Landfield works
normally on a monumental scale. The largest of the works on paper
is just over four feet high; most of them are far smaller. Landfield
has generally practiced stain painting. As works on paper, naturally
the paintings here are done in a different manner, with bold and
blocky strokes of crystalline color set in apposition on the surface
of the support. Although the inspiration for Landfield and his
contemporaries was Abstract Expressionism, these works bear a stronger
relationship to Tachism and Art Informel, and particularly to the
art of Nicolas de Stael, to whom Landfield dedicates one of these
paintings. Both art movements, to the degree they were distinct
movements, aimed at applying color to denote the half-world of
the unconscious life that escapes detection by rationality and
direct observation, and Landfield is a direct inheritor.
paintings that derive from observation are stylizations of landscapes,
but they employ the observation of nature merely as a point of
departure. They are landscape motifs in little more than the sense
in which any painting divided horizontally is a landscape motif.
The suggestions of horizon, sky, and earth or sea are merely the
scaffolding on which Landfield hangs his orchestration of colors,
which distill and separate out the moods we all derive from atmosphere ã time
of day, quality of light, weather. In essence, he strips away the
outer facts from the inner, making the inner world all the more
distinct. His Sun In My Eyes, 1998 is purely the sheer blinding
dazzle of a dawning recognition that bleaches out every other thought
and detail it is the overwhelming tone of realization. In
Rocks Against The Sea (For Nicolas De Stael), 1998, an overlapping
brickwork of jewel-like colors replaces the white glistening of
brilliant water on the stones of the shore, every spark of light
a different inspiration rendered in its own distinct hue.
it is the works of pure abstraction, with their colors positioned
in patterns that come from no visual observation, that are the
most impressive. Each is a record of perception purified of the
facts being perceived, the inner life isolated from the outer world,
a revealing of something we never perceive in isolation, unless
an artist shows it to us. Each is like a verb without a noun, an
action perceived for itself because we are no longer oriented on
the actor, the response of perception itself perceived because
we are not focusing on the object of the perception.
For Japan, 1998 is a formal arrangement of motion, colored
with the tone of a flash of insight. A horizontal strip of white,
edged in brown, streaks across a field of dark grey ã no "thing" is
depicted, no object is being seen. There is no thought to the
experience; it is the mood of insight we feel. Landfield's three-part
suite Violin, 1998; Viola, 1998; and Violette,
1998 is color received as pure harmonics. The three paintings
are similar compositions that differ only by palette, and their
palettes differ tonally, much as do the instruments that give
them their titles. If one were to propose that all perception,
when divorced from what is being perceived, is a matter of vibratory
patterns, these works would stand as evidence.
my eyes, and to the rest of me, the highlight of the exhibition
is a small work that one might easily walk right past: Voice,
1998. The title is exactly correct. The painting is a disposition
of dark green, blues, reds, and orange, and the colors come across
like a base note with overtones. Something like a Tibetan chant,
or like a speaking voice, the hues harmonize into a single, complex
tone, yet remain distinct. One could almost hear this painting,
and I would be willing to testify that its compass is baritone.
is the compass of perception and the moods that come of perception
that constitutes Landfield's real subject matter. When he is at
his best, as he is here, he possesses a practiced and piercing
ability to render the inner life in distributions of simple color,
and he requires that his works not be thought over and speculated
about, but sensed intuitively. His talent is for disclosing the
purified inward tone, the inflected atmosphere of consciousness,
which evades all rational analysis, or rationalist interpretation.
And he does it with an ease and a finesse of touch and judgment
that make such hidden aspects of experience seem obvious and precise as
precise as a rock, as observable as the sun, as evident as a landscape.