For much more than a year, uninterrupted by current circumstances, I have devoted my attention to at least one drawing a day, sometimes more, inspired by plants and the spaces they create—now especially negative spaces—through their stems, branches, leaves, and flowers. In green seasons, I work from plants in the garden, planters or pots; for winter, I save cut flowers and leaves, placing them in vases. In all cases, I filter out surface data, minimize it, remove it. I like to see through it to where intersections are visible, stem to branch, branch or stem to leaf, leaf to leaf to flower, to overlapping complexities and shadow, to background foliage, ground lines, stones, etc.
Particularly in light of current events, I have found the notion of “negative space” to be a curious one. It could be argued that, right now, we are living in negative space. These are hardly positive times, and we now occupy the quarantined emptiness between what was and what will one day be again. But having explored the intricacies of “negative space,” I think we need to reclaim it, rediscover it.
Yes, in the midst of a pandemic, art activity is seriously curtailed. In line with the general lockdown, museums, galleries, and exhibitions are closed. No need to elaborate here; stemming viral contact is a matter of life and death.
And yes, for artists, this is not a welcome vacation. They are stymied—a subway, bus or car ride removed from their workplaces. Apartments or small homes are not studios. It is very frustrating. Large objects need soaring spaces. Some artists, blocked from their studios, have had to alter their objectives and work smaller, which hasn’t been easy for them.
I regularly paint and draw from nature, so I am fortunate. I am working smaller now too, but mostly because of age, not the negative space into which my brush and pen guide me, deeply. There is always much to see, studio or no studio. Nature is the same and different from day to day, and I have observed its in-between space for many seasons.
Like our times, it is variable, not ordered, neither systematic nor prescribed. After all, it is nature. There is no rule of procedure. Each juncture offers direction variables, like two roads diverging in Robert Frost’s poem. The road less traveled, less familiar, is probably more fertile and can lead to new experiences and information. That was Frost’s choice.
Although I am sheltering in place, this is a daily adventure, a walk in strange woods, a different locale every day, new patterns of travel, variable, fresh and related shapes, different options, complicated geometrics. Choices and decisions are constant, from the simple to the complex. The moment a mark or brush stroke is made, a new decision is required, part of an unending race to the finish.
I also paint regularly, daily, generally starting with one or several of my drawings as a reference. The drawings are only guides to painting, not grid transfers. On canvas, the negative spaces emerge because they are bare and unpainted. Free shapes, they cavort and tumble about the surface, unpremeditated, without specific purpose or direction, a response to what the observer discovers. The paintings are free-brushed, arbitrary compositions in combination with memories of art history as I have come to know it. Images, like moving clouds, occur in the recombination of lines. Some are animated, none are preconceived. They can be removed. I prefer not to do so.
I am always in a direct two-way conversation with the painting and drawing. I wonder; it directs. I am the victim; it just carries on, crossroad following crossroad, brooking no hesitation or speculation on the continuing paths that wander, this way and that, across the page and canvas. Order and disorder compete for attention, rearrange, sometimes switch positions. It is a competitive struggle with a strict but friendly adversary. Attached, we are a permanent pair of magnets.
Importantly, I never try to recall directions not taken, combinations noted but left to languish in the quickened pace. Going back is not possible. The eye takes note, the brain interprets, the hand and instrument record. At some point in my distant past, I clutched an eraser or paint rag, permanently, in my left hand. No more. Every mark is correct, otherwise it would not have been drawn. My recollection is that every time I removed a line or color, the same reappeared because my orientation had not altered. Eye-brain collaboration, unchanged, produces the same result. Being technically correct is not the only answer, just one of them.
Life is in flux; painting too. They go where we go. Like positive and negative, equally rich and forever joined.
Image at top: Samuel Gelber, Still-Life with Red Pentagon, oil in linen, 30 x 40 in., 2020.