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I was held in the airlock for several minutes before being released into the hall with Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. The room was large, but not vastly so, with light coming in from windows on one side. To be honest, I don’t think I am a good witness to the qualities of the room, because almost immediately what I saw was melded with what I knew about it from my reading.
The doorway, enlarged by the Dominican Friars in 1652, cut off the feet of Christ. Later, Napoleon road his horse through that door, into what was once the Friar’s dining hall, but which Napoleon had converted into an armory and stable. Is that why I remember the floor being dirt? I’m sure it’s not. But in my imagination, that floor is dark brown densely packed dirt.
He covered the wall with two layers of dried plaster and added a coat of white lead to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that he applied to that surface. This “experiment” resulted in more brilliant colors and allowed for a level of detail not possible in fresco painting. However, moisture seeping through from the thin wall almost immediately corroded the surface.
That was the least of the assaults that the painting would suffer over the years. Napoleon’s soldiers used the mural for target practice, and in World War II the Allies dropped bombs that took down most of the building. Sandbags and mattresses that were piled up against the wall at the beginning of the war saved the mural. Even after the bombing, the painting remained under the bags for months, with just a tarp protecting it from rain.
I moved close to the fresco and examined what was left after the most recent restoration. Twenty years in the making and much controversy led to its current state. Despite the removal of large swaths of paint, there was a clarity to some of the colors that was reassuring. Details were revealed – a delicately painted glass, a piece of fish or was it an eel? A rhythm danced over the surface of the painting, running along the heads of the Apostles.
The hands told a different story. Christ’s hand reaching toward Judas’ foretold the betrayal. The knife in Peter’s hand was a reminder that he would cut off the ear of a Roman standing in the way of Christ. Thomas’s finger, held in the air, presaged his doubt.
And what do we make of John – – hands entwined and thrust toward Christ. Or is it John? Perhaps it is Mary Magdalene, as has been suggested. I thought that John’s head was based on a drawing that Leonardo had made of Leda, but that drawing came later. The pose is exact: the tilt of the head, the position of the mouth, the downcast eyes. You can practically impose one upon the other. This, I am sure is no accident, a part of the artist’s personal vocabulary, its meaning remaining personal to him.
I stand toward the back of the room. The perspective lines converge at Christ’s head. It was a Renaissance construct that the lines of perspective converged in infinity at the Divine. Even if I didn’t know this, I feel it here.
When I look up at the painting, I don’t see the painting so much as I see the air between the painting and myself. It is as though the dust motes swirling in the sunlit air are imbued with pigment and tiny bits of plaster chipping off the surface.
Suddenly, it is as though the entire painting is just suspended bits of pigment floating through the room, and I too, am splintering into tiny pixels of paint. I am no longer looking at the painting; I am part of this animated space of color and light, where everything exists at once in this constellation – Leonardo painting, Napoleon riding his horse, the bombs dropping, the tourists milling about, and me. And it seems like a divine state, one I’ve been hoping to reach my entire life, but I never knew that this was what I was waiting for, because I could not imagine such a state, one where I could not cohere, but never needed to.
Monet described this phenomenon. He called it “the envelope.” It is what he said he was painting. The envelope was the atmosphere between himself and the object he was gazing at. But maybe he meant something else by that. Maybe he too, was experiencing the divine pixilation of himself becoming what he painted.
There is a feeling that occurs when you are drawing or painting, when you wonder if you are making the painting or the painting is making you. As you drag your brush over the surface of the canvas, is there someone on the other side touching their brush to your brush and painting you into their painting?
I couldn’t stay long with Leonardo, just twenty minutes before being ushered out as the next group in the airlock was let into the space. The sun shown brightly outside, made even brighter by the darkness of the room behind. I walked out of that room, but parts of me stayed and live there still.
I live in a very rural part of New York State surrounded by farms.
The landscape influences my work, but not always in the ways you might imagine. I pass this farm on a back road to the next town.
I have stopped a few times to photograph it. What I really love is how the corn crib looks in front of the silo.
It is a curved grid in front of a curved grid. In this photo it appears quite abstract. I love a subject, that is completely real and seems completely abstract.
Again it would not surprise me if you could not determine the source of the image.
It was the contrast of the flat grid and the curved grid that propelled me.
It challenges one’s perception on several levels. The first being that I painted a perfectly representational painting that is utterly abstract.
The flatness on one side and the barely perceptible curve on the other challenges one’s sense of space. Both of these things create a subtle disruption for the viewer.
I’ve been having conversations with Giotto di Bondone [c. 1267 – 1337, born in Florence, Italy] since I was twelve years old and my class studied the Rennaissance. The conversation became obsessive when in 1987
I created a cycle of paintings recreating the paintings of the Arena Chapel on seven shaped canvases, the largest of which is 18 by 24 feet. [You can see them here.]
There are three stories about Giotto. One is that as a child as he drew a sheep on a rock, Cimabue saw this and was impressed and invited him to become his apprentice.
Another is that one day while Cimabue was out Giotto painted a fly on Cimabue’s self portrait. It was so realistic Cimabue tried to whisk it away several times. Many years later, the fly became a symbol of the artist and was inserted frequently into Dutch still life paintings.
But it is the third story that has occupied me recently.
Vasari [the chonicler of “Lives of the Artists”] relates that when the Pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to demonstrate his skill, Giotto drew a red circle so perfect that it seemed as though it was drawn using a pair of compasses and instructed the messenger to send it to the Pope.
The messenger departed ill pleased, believing that he had been made a fool of. The messenger brought other artists’ drawings back to the Pope in addition to Giotto’s. When the messenger related how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without the aid of compasses the Pope and his courtiers were amazed at how Giotto’s skill greatly surpassed all of his contemporaries. [Wikiwand]
This winter when I started to paint circles, of course I thought of Giotto, but never more so than when I began to draw them on a large canvas.
To do this I sort of dropped into a meditative state. If I thought too much about what I was doing my mind would interfere with my hand.
I used silver graphite so that the line would catch the light. Then I did this version:
I wanted a field that was made from a line.
I thought, had “the string theory” proven to be true, it might look like this. Here is a close up:
April 1 through June 18
“For sixty years Pat Adams has approached painting with an empiricist’s concern for the nature of visual form and the intimist’s sensibility that addresses the layered complexity of being. With abstract paintings characterized by seductive colors and richly encrusted surfaces, Pat seeks to bring from her “gatherum of quiddities” – that stew of unnamed qualities – a visual situation that bestirs contemplation.”
From 1973 through 1976 Pat Adams was my professor at Bennington College. Pat already had 20 years of experience as a serious artist, showing in New York and collected by museums. The “landscape” for women artists was not an open one. The art world was both smaller and fairly closed to women. Things were changing, but most advances were hard won. I’m not really prepared to talk about what Pat was up against. All I can tell you is that until the 1980s, I believe, only two women had had a one person shows at the Guggenheim — Helen Frankenthaler and Helen Frankenthaler.
Seeing Pat’s paintings today I wonder why I didn’t know them better; why I wasn’t more aware of what she was thinking; what her process was; what battles she was waging on canvas. This retrospective at The Bennington Museum gave me a chance to experience her work and also see some of her materials: things she was looking at, tiny drawings she compiled endlessly in her notebooks. It was a revelation.
It was the opening night and not the best opportunity to take in the work, but at the end of the evening, when the rooms emptied, I had a moment to look closely at some of the pieces with the director of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff. I was struck by how my eyes were pulled around the canvas, how I flet moments of speed and slowness, of agitation and rest, of chaos and precision — like I was entering the universe. I wondered at the surfaces. How she achieved tiny irregularly shaped dots in a grid, how she painted a curved line that was at once as precise as a calligrapher’s curve, and yet broken in spots revealing the paint surface beneath. There was something so illogical about this line, so confounding, I couldn’t figure out how it was made.
When I was able to speak briefly with Pat during the show, she told me that some of the marks on the canvas were achieved by a kind of printing or transfer process. Painting on mylar and “stamping” it onto the canvas. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about the lines.
Pat’s paintings are full of texture and unusual materials, mica, sand, pigment, and other minerals. Wolterstorff was most taken by this aspect of the work, which made him think of both Keifer’s straw and Beuys’ lard and felt. I forgot to mention to him that there was a Beuys exhibition at the college in the 1970s.
As we looked at the paintings, the rigor of the composition struck both of us. To me, they felt like mathematical journeys. Jamie Franklin, the curator, had displayed some things that Pat had pulled elements from — postcards of a Gothic Cathedral, the composition of an old Master painting, the shape of a sliced geode. All of these were echoed in the work.
I believe that in the misogynistic days of the 1970s, these elements were at times dismissed as decorative. Seeing them now I know that they were no more decorative than the letters of a formula. What, after all, can be eliminated from E = mc 2 .
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The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I foun in the street.
I have two notions about how to use my time. One, is to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. The other is to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way to distill their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.
When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.
Since Goya is already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. As I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.
All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches by 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.
*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges
Last night I dreamed that I was attacked by bats. Of course it made me think of this etching by Goya.
I looked up its meaning in Wikipedia:
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Spanish: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, it is the 43rd of 80 etchings making up the suite of satires Los Caprichos. Goya imagines himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by slumber and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. The work includes owls that may be symbols of folly and bats symbolizing ignorance.
The full epigraph for capricho No. 43 reads; “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
OK, I’m ready. Time to get to the studio.