Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Shape of Content

I really like this lovely Red Anjou Pear!  I've been painting and drawing pears for a long time,  mostly because of the interesting shapes and color varieties, but also because somehow a simple pear may stand in for me. There is, in this particular pear a quality of real strength, - perhaps it's that marvelous red.  If this piece of fruit were a person, he (Yes, He!) would be a person of integrity, good health, self-assured  and even, perhaps, muscular! (For me, it's peaches that are feminine, but don't ask)  OK, I know I'm pushing it a bit but there is a solid "pear-ness" here in this straight forward depiction. I don't know if you can see it but this painting was not done from a photograph. The original was set up on a solid support, a pile of books if I remember correctly, carefully balanced and lit from one side by my easel lamp and worked on only at night so that the light and color would be consistent. As I advocate looking hard and spending serious time actually seeing,  it's important to love what you do as something important to you.

At the other end of the spectrum are these expressionistic, less reliable fruit, reflections of my emotional state just months after the accident which put me permanently on wheels. No, that is not my uncontrolled hand shaking as I worked, it's my shaken life view spontaneously reflected in my representation of what had been a solid presence. What I'd always relied on in my strong body in all situations is now at best questionable.  Losing so much of ones self is like losing that loving side-kick, the dog who cared for you more than you cared for yourself, the one who sat listening for the familiar sound of your car as it rounded the far corner. Or more pointedly, the loss of a life partner who now gone can never be resurrected. Yes, the world shook and blurred the image that once stood on solid support  - and I reacted in my art because it was totally real, totally there, - a total loss.  After twenty years I can still reach in to touch that moment.

I love the actual act of drawing but in the end the best, most memorable art in this world does more,  revealing something of the artist. The most effective, like the editorial cartoonists Edward Sorrel and David Levine, have viewpoints in which talent, style, craft and character come together in truly unique expression. They really do say something, whether about our world or their's, something that truly touches us.  BTW, I'm not putting myself in that great group, just pointing out the importance of intent and  content in the service of meaning.  You can draw and draw,  love the work itself as I do and produce tons of wonderfully crafted pieces but.... are you saying something worth saying? If Goya were working today how would he view those middle east Drone Strikes?  With Sendak gone who will be the next great children's book illustrator?  Will your next doodle lead to a painting of awesome singularity, - a simple statement that says it all!  An appropriate read here might be Ben Shahn's MIT lecture,  "The Shape of Content"...  if its still in print.  If not it should be!

"Paint what you are, paint what you believe, paint what you feel."
"Forms in art arise from the impact of idea on material..."
"Form is the shape of content..."     Ben Shahn

I think it appropriate to include in this  particular blog-post a portrait done on the occasion of my retirement a few years ago by the wonderful New York Capitol District photographer Leif Zurmuhlen.  Thanks Leif!


  1. Ah your wonderful Pear! This is how I got to know your work at the Center Galleries with Les Urbach. Great memories

  2. Phil:
    what a lovely post. I always associated pears,,,and peaches with you as strong and symbolic images but I didn't have an appreciation of the full story. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your story as an artist with the rest of us.
    Be well.