"The first man was an artist." Barnett Newman
Before there were fertile grounds growing olives and grapes, before the ages of kings and kingdoms, and long before the shifting of countries and armies when war defined the Valley, the caves were the locus of the wandering tribes who would one day be called "human."
Star-Watcher, whose bright eyes glistened through patches of matted fur, punctuated by scars and untended infections, watched from the cavern’s oculus as a rag-tag hunting party set out under the rising sun. Moon-Watcher, taller than the others, with his massive brow and a determined set to his eyes and mouth, thought only of the day’s hunt. With the receding of the ice, and the end of the giant lizards, the world had come to look more and more like a giant buffet than a fear-filled world of terror, an alternate world to the safety of the cave. Star-Watcher had once gone along on the hunt. Her spear had brought back the reindeer, rancors, and mynocks that the tribe survived on. The scattered piles of bones attested to her prowess.
Star-Watcher allowed her gaze to linger on the diminishing forms of her cave mates scattering and hiding, awaiting the careless gazelle or dozing nocturnal mynock on a low-hanging branch. She turned back to the darkness of the cave and paused. Drawings of running reindeer and stags, a large cat taking down a buck, and dozens of bison, bears, and large cats filled the great entrance to the cave. Star-Watcher paused before a large etched and colored image of a rancor. The beginnings of a memory stirred. It had been a long hunt. The tribe was tired when they came upon the massive rancor, and the hunting party, which had started out as a group of seven when the sun had risen, returned with the beast as a party of two. Moon-Watcher and Star-Watcher had lived to tell the tale over the fire, then Star-Watcher, still holding a delicious hoof, scratched the beast into the wall of her menagerie.
Snapping back from her reveries, Star-Watcher searched around the cave. She had secreted handfuls of colorful pigment, which she had dug from the cave, from under trees, or from small rocks she had crushed. She knew the importance, though she did not yet understand it, of keeping track of the hunts. How else would they remember it was Long-Tooth that by himself took the giant mastodon? Or that Moon-Watcher had once brought back three mynocks from the frozen tundra, ending a month-long famine?
Star-Watcher turned her attention to a wall of hand-prints. At some point she had realized that the comings and goings of the food-beasts could be more accurately predicted by watching the comings and goings of the Second Sun -- the Second Sun that also brought the blood. For her, each print represented the waxing and waning of the Other Sun and by her calculation portended a good hunt today, or guaranteed a hungry night. She chose a sulfurous powder from a mynock skin pouch and poured it into her hand. Pressing her other hand to the wall she blew on the yellow powder and then removed her hand. The outline stood out brightly on the glistening cave wall. Another hunt, another Other Sun. Star-Watcher did not yet fully grasp the concept of time, or the Suns and Other Suns.
But her thoughts had begun to coalesce as her mural grew over the passing years. It was sometimes monotonous work, all this scratching and coloring. She had begun to envision other things, celestial things. As the ices receded, the tribe had found the bones of other creatures, things that no longer walked the Valley. Where did they come from? Where did they go? These questions hung in the back of her mind as she worked. Her handprint firmly fixed and finished, she carefully rewrapped the pouch, dusted off her hands, and stepped back to admire the outline of her hand. It always stopped her, every time, when she had finished her work. Her hand was there on the wall, yet not there. The bison with the running stags were there too, yet they had been eaten long ago. Yes, the beginnings of an idea were forming. But there was always tomorrow, always the bags of stone and color. She was not yet sure what it was that she would paint tomorrow, but that was a long way off, and she would think of something.
It is an exaggeration to say that the urge to paint is a primordial one, yet the evidence is there if we really want to imagine it. Abyssinian Kings realized the power of a carefully placed mural of a beheaded foe to inspire uncertainty in a visiting dignitary. And while the tales of Livy and Thucydides could be both exalting and terrifying, their existence depended on that thin thread of the teller and the tale. Paper, writing, printing, and broadcasting have made the word more tangible, but even in the metric age, political discourse is weak compared to, say, the image of President Obama wearing Heath Ledger’s Joker make-up.
Let us digress a bit from the power of the image on the public and look at the power of the image for the artist. What is it about this most archaic form of language that still holds such sway? First there were cameras; they begat the news photo that begat the newsfeed of Instagram, Facebook, et al. Yet the urge to put pigment to the cave wall of canvas remains.
Several recent exhibitions, though unrelated in terms of style, content, and intent, show the tenacious grip that this art form still holds for painters. Cy Twombly, the Homer of Modern Art, whose cycle on Sesostris is a personalized revision of Herodotus’s account of the Egyptian King, exerts a primal pull on the viewer through its arcane pictorial language of scrawls and smears. It is rare to see the work of a septuagenarian, let alone one who is working at the height of his painterly powers (one thinks of Louise Bourgeois or Picasso in this same company). The aging Twombly replicated some of the idea of Herodotus’s epic travel adventure by painting these works in several locations, beginning in Gaeta, Italy, and finishing the series in Lexington, Virginia, his hometown. Sally Mann, the American photographer and a friend of Twombly, documented the artist for many years -- a sort of Boswell to his Dr. Johnson. We are moved by the power of the images in some small part by seeing the frail artist wrestling with his painterly problems on such an epic physical scale. It is a commonly accepted myth, the artist as hero, struggling with the monumental; it is quite another to see the frail human struggling for real to capture the heroic on canvas. The struggle is often overlooked, however, and possibly unmentioned because many seem to have lost the compassion to look at those human frailties that artists overcome in their desire to create.
Per Kirkeby’s work bears re-evaluation after a fall in 2013 left the artist with severe head trauma and memory loss, which affected his ability to paint. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in cinema is in the opening scenes of Man Falling (2015), a film by Anne Wivel, which documents the artist post-accident. We see him looking blankly at his past work, unable to recall having painted it.
Michael Werner presents an exquisitely curated show of the artist’s work from the 1980s, with massive slabs of color, skittering brushwork-filled paintings, and pounded and torqued bronzes cast from clay. One finds the work monumental, elemental even, and gives little thought to who made it, who brought these things into the world. Indeed, given his interest in geology, nature, and biology (talks with the artist largely revolved around trees), it is not carelessness that causes us to take the works as another part of nature; it was the artist’s intent that we take these works as nature. What Wivel’s documentary shows us is the artist learning to reinvent his work, and reinvent himself as a painter. While a gulf of nothingness separates the artist from his past, he continues to work, re-learning a vocabulary of forms and narratives. Wivel gives us an intimate portrait of an artist’s struggles made manifest through determination; the urge to continue to paint dominates, and though the accident’s tragic pause in the artist’s life pressed “pause,” it is painting itself that pushed “play.” Kirkeby’s running talk of painting through the film is a rare view of the mind recovering things that he still knows.
There are other fine examples of making art in the face of adversity. The trials of Chuck Close are fairly well documented. Close’s career is an almost Job-like tale of overcoming physical travail. The dyslexia of childhood pushed him toward image making, though because of the medical condition prosopagnosia, commonly known as “face-blindness,” which makes facial recognition difficult, the artist chose to focus exclusively on portraits, in an attempt to “fix” through art what cannot be cured through medical treatment.
We can also look at the work of Mary DeVincentis. Her paintings at David&Schweitzer Contemporary create a magical realm in her show Dwellers on the Threshold. DeVincentis has a condition called aphantasia, a psychological phenomenon where the subject cannot visualize imagery without external reference. Commonly referred to as lacking “the mind’s eye,” the subject can verbalize memories and descriptions of people and things but can’t “picture” them. In DeVincentis’s work we see manifest the process of a painter creating an external universe of internal thinking. Of particular note are the pictures "Dweller on the Threshold" (2017) (image above), a Rorschach-like cave or butterfly flanked by Casper-like ghosts; and "Under the Strawberry Moon" (2016), with a couple kissing, dwarfed by a yellow moon. Her works possess some of the uncanniness of the best of Francesco Clemente’s imaginary self-portraits, worlds where the internal and external are not so separate.
What these artists have in common, perhaps, is not so special or unique. Medical conditions aside, when viewing the work we are struck by the power of the work, not the strength it took to create it. This, ultimately, brings us back to the fact that this urge to paint is the primordial urge Barnett Newman believed it to be, as he wrote in the essay "The First Man Was an Artist" in 1947. In part it reads, “What was the first man, was he a hunter, a toolmaker, a farmer, a worker, a priest, or a politician? Undoubtedly the first man was an artist.”
Newman begins the essay: "A science of paleontology that sets forth this proposition can be written if it builds on the postulate that the aesthetic act always precedes the social one. The totemic act of wonder in front of the tiger-ancestor came before the act of murder. It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before the desire to discover the unknown."
Newman was describing a being which, for lack of a better term, was “homo aestheticus,” the next step along the evolutionary line of those bipedal creatures scrabbling over the planet. If these recent shows have anything to tell us 70 years after Newman’s thesis, it is that this form of anthropoid is alive and thriving. - Bradley Rubenstein
Mr. Rubenstein is NYC-based painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.