marcel duchamp, mile of string, 1942
The night before an opening of a modern art show in New York, 1942, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton went in and strung the place with a mile of string. Duchamp was more an artist of the mind than one to make things. His activity was playing chess. At the time of the end of WW1, he put aside what he called "easel paintings," using brush or pen to make a likeness. He started finding what he called "ready mades" like a bottle drying rack, a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel. A porcelain urinal was one of his most famous ready-mades. He entered it into a show of modernists knowing if he put his name on it, it would be accepted into the show automatically. He wrote a name R Mutt on it and it was rejected. Now the urinal with the name R Mutt and the story is the work of art. Mornings, he would stand on a short stool, hold a meter length of rope, drop it, and the shape it made on the floor was his work of art for the day.
I have forced myself to contradict myself in order
to avoid conforming to my own tastes.
For artists that follow, Duchamp opened the door to seeing art more for the essence of what art is than for making things. At the same time he freed the artists of the world he also presented an advanced challenge to see art in a whole new way. He seems to me like a soul sent to earth to give the artists a new way of seeing, non-retinal, as Duchamp called his way of making art. It's tempting to say his art is an idea more than an object, but when he presents an object, the object itself is the idea. He came to New York to get away from the German invasion of France, where he stayed the rest of his life. The generation of American artists following the abstract expressionists, like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and others, found him and spent time with him, learned from his presence what they could. Anyone who played chess was welcome.
let's play chess
In my own art form, I make art the "easel" way. I've been maligned for it by artist friends all the way along. "That's not mainstream." My answer to that is once a thing is mainstream it's over. What we call modern art has changed fairly rapidly as it has progressed from Impressionism to Conceptualism and the Post-Modern. I've been told by a guy who painted colors that idiots paint realism. Other friends tell me abstraction is where it's at. I like abstraction a lot. It really is my favorite form of painting. I like realism too. I like everything in between and beyond. I happen to like painting realism. The part of the world I live in, the mountains, realism is what they appreciate. That's ok by me. If I lived in an urban pit I'd probably paint abstraction. I think of abstraction as urban painting. I live in the country and I want to paint by a country aesthetic. I'm not interested in having shows in California or anyplace. That part of art making doesn't enchant me. I don't like being the artist at the opening, sucking up to the rich, talking about myself like I'm something besides a Joe living in semi-poverty in the mountains.
I don't want to climb the ladder of gallery shows, sales, and all that. I want my painting to matter where I live. Beyond where I live, I don't care. I have a natural talent for portraits, so I'm painting portraits of musicians of this part of the mountains. It's my way of pointing the finger at them, saying they're worth hearing. They are artists who make their art relevant to home, to where they live. I want my art relevant to home. Like a mountain musician, I figured out my art form instead of learning it from teachers. I reckon I'm what's called an "untrained" artist, a folk artist. Maybe so. That's as good a thing to be called as any. Until the time I started painting mountain musicians I felt like I was practicing, teaching myself by doing. Now I want to make my paintings a community service somehow. Not for the money. I want them to stay in the county as much as possible. I feel like I'm honoring the musicians and the tradition, saying these people rate notice. At least that.
I just now went off into a reverie of explaining how I arrived at painting the lower part of the background of the Ralph Stanley picture a soft yellow. I remembered talking with Elizabeth Davis, an artist I knew would understand a visual subtlety. The white between the white hats was a darker shade of white than the white between the black suits. She knew exactly what I meant. It was refreshing to be able to talk about something like that with somebody who gets it. I try explaining the same thing to somebody else and their eyes glaze over and they're sawing Zs within. Remembering how refreshing it was to be talking with Elizabeth I'd been wondering if we'd ever meet. I've been waiting for years to tell her I love her abstractions. Finally got it said. She is quite a respectable artist. I look forward to seeing her again at Selma's. It's a curious thing about Selma's, the people drawn to the place, it's like something in a European city. In Sparta. It flows perfectly with Sparta. Enough people are here now who like to sit and talk with others about whatever comes up and sip good coffee in a happy place.