Nobody’s ever asked me what my favorite painting is, and I’ve never thought of the question before about 1 minute ago. I had several students ask me who my favorite artist is and at the time I answered Cezanne. A few weeks ago my nephew asked me my favorite color, and I said it was blue. My brother and I had a conversation about the color blue that stemmed from an observation that the sky is never really blue but shifts from blue to greey to weird amber colors. David said he listened to an NPR story about how the the color blue is never mentioned in the Greek classics. The theory is that the sky was not though of as a color but as a void, a space. I asked him if that was why children color in the clouds but not the sky until they’re taught to do it the right way. It’s all interesting. And as far as my favorite painting is concerned, I decided, now about 4 minutes ago, that it’s this unfinished work by Cezanne.
In 2007 when I started painting in Cheongdo-gun, a county in South Korea, I would get stuck. Or the weather would be bad. So I would get on the train and ride north about half an hour to Daegu City where there was a large bookstore with a Starbucks. I’d pick up a Cezanne book, one of those Tachen publications and thumb through it. This was how I got back on track. After a few hours in the coffee shop and a look through that book, I knew exactly what I should be doing. Often my best paintings were painted the next day. In that book there was an unfinished painting of a village with a tower in the middle of it. I always admired that work, but I never knew how important it was until one day recently when I discovered the same book and that painting, and suddenly I knew, just as I had often happened that year in Korea, what I should be doing. And the next day I went out to paint, and paintings came about effortlessly, painlessly.
And I know it’s that painting in particular because at various time over the past few years I’ve tried to get help from Cezanne- to get inspired, to find direction, insite, understanding. But never with any luck. I thought maybe I had gone to Cezanne too many times. Maybe I’d gotten all I could from his work. And then I saw this painting again, and I realized where all of that inspiration was really coming from. And I’m not really sure what it is about this image. It could be that it reveals a process that shows me what I should be doing with line and blocky shapes—how I should fill them in. And it’s a drawn line. I assume it’s charcoal though it could be something else. But the grey edges of shapes really look like charcoal that’s been pulled into the color. And then there’s the abstract quality that really dominates in this work that hasn’t had time to become an complete image. The abstract quality is so strong that the painting can be turned upside down and still look perfect. Perfectly balanced, left right, up down, in out. Perfectly still. Perfectly unfinished, letting the viewer finish it, complete what isn’t complete.
I was thinking this morning that subject matter doesn’t get me excited. I’m not enthralled with mountains or trees or small rivers. And when I do occaissionally find myself overwhelmed or in awe of a scene, I find that scene unpaintable. Not because it’s so inspiring but because the scene is so grand that it overwhelms my imagination. It preoccupies, or hijacks, my feelings. I don’t know what to turn it into because my mind becomes void of any thoughts. What I like is subject matter that tells me that I can use it to create something interesting on the canvas. The more quiet, the more still, the more modest a scene is, the better. When lose track of this direction the painting puts me back on the track. It tells me that my job is not to create an image of the subject, that the object is really of little importance. Finally, presents a little blueprint, a demonstration of how simple it all can be.