Sigmar Polke to Richard Estes and Between

This spring I have had the opportunity to see two very diverse approaches to art.

Although I feel good art is a unique attempt at expression, I feel particularly insecure in my understanding of Polke and Estes.

I went to the Polke retrospective at MOMA in April. (Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010) My wife, Sandra and I kind of walked into the exhibition without know anything about Polke. It is difficult for me to understand how I have missed knowing anything about him, but it is true. The entrance to the exhibit featured a line drawing of a face. It looked less than naive and slightly better than reductive. My first thought was it was a joke. Surely, this drawing had no place at MOMA.

Arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City

Arriving at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City

I somewhat reluctantly and naively walked into the exhibit and found more works that didn’t fit my ideas of art. I immediately realized I was being challenged and in a big way. Polke stole my attention. This show was transformative for me. It was massive and each gallery full of new approaches to questions.

Seeing the dates on the paintings I couldn’t get over how this aspect of art has breezed by me. He grabbed my attention and then my imagination. I had never felt more liberated in regards to my own art. And then, happily, mused at how easy it would be to apply his questioning and throw convention in your face skills to my own efforts at self expression.

Returning to my studio I cut shapes and glued things and didn’t ask too much. My approach to my new inspiration was simple and without clutter in my brain. But I kept returning to the work I had left before seeing the Polke show. My drawings are dear to me and I love making marks. I love painting on canvas with bright vibrant hues. I questioned my own legacy and why do I care. What is really important, I wondered.

I had also reunited with a fellow student from my painting class of ’83 at Portland School of Art (now MECA). Brooke Nixon and I exchanged works we have been working on via Facebook. Her images are vibrant and colorful. Her working methods seem very similar to mine and our results are what you might expect from two classmates who shared many of the same instructors, not worlds apart.

Our third year professor is having a show at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, Maine. I went to the show a few days ago. I went with some trepidation as my two most intimate art buddies, who were also in the class of ’83, don’t care and don’t care much, respectively for our once mentor. As I drove up the Maine Turnpike their disdain was resonating in my brain. I knew I had to clear their influence if I wanted to have a worthy experience.

I often wonder how or why I respond to some art and not all art. Often I am disappointed that I do not like a work more than I do. Especially that of a friend or acquaintance. For example, one of my above mentioned buddies and I recently went to a John Laurent retrospective at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. I knew John. He was the first person who encouraged me to pursue a life in art. Later, as an art student, I had seen a show of his a Baridoff Galleries which I enjoyed very much.

When we came into the main gallery at OMAA I was not rattled, stirred, impassioned, head over heels or even inspired. I really wanted to be. I kept looking for reasons. And there were some but they seemed far between. The next gallery offered a few glimpses into how his works could ascend to the next level of greatness but didn’t seem to get there. I felt sad and kept searching but nothing reached out and really grabbed me the way a really great painter might.

I became retrospective and thought of my own work. Was it mighty? Why did I value great art over mediocrity? Why would I think something is great? How influenced was I by the building in which it was hung? And what about Polke? Did John Laurant know about Polke?

John Laurant told me the last time he saw Marsden Hartley was on Congress Street in Portland. John was with his father, Robert and Marsden was a few steps ahead of them. His father yelled, “Hey Marsden.”

John then told me Marsden was nearly deaf from syphilis and couldn’t hear his father. Finally Robert got Hartley’s attention and they had a brief conversation. John could not recall the conversation but he was the only person I have know to know Marsden Hartley, who in my world is a true giant.


I came into Greenhut Gallery, up the granite steps and through the door, left. This was my first visit to the gallery. Ed Douglas, New Works was in the back gallery. I perused the featured artists in the front gallery but was mostly interested in the work of my teacher. I had previewed the work on the Greenhut Gallery website and was familiar with many of the images before I arrived.

Entering Ed’s show, I slowly looked, as memories of Ed critiquing my work mingled with images he created. The gallery was small, the paintings were small. The gallery felt cramped and awkward. I wished the space was twice as large but the paintings didn’t demand distance. Rather I had to move in close to make sense of the subjects. His compositions didn’t challenge the art world. They embraced formalities and coalesced Cezzane and Matisse. One of the paintings incorporated a Richard Diebenkorn background.

I absorbed the paintings, looking for reasons to like them. I noticed Ed used techniques he discouraged us from using. He outlined figures with gestural blacks and grays. He glazed colors here and there. I commended him in my mind for breaking his own rules. I felt stuffy in the small room as I stood before each painting, etching them into my mind. I was satisfied that each painting worked in the way he taught us to understand painting.

Every aspect of the surface being critical to the entire painting. I concede in most of the paintings this was true. I didn’t understand how I didn’t feel this when he cut a head off from a figure in mid forehead.

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Ed Douglas, New Works, Greenhut Galleries, 2014

One of the gallery assistants was friendly. He talked about how Ed references Mattise and pointed to one painting that was a take on Egon Schiele and asked if I noticed. It was one of the paintings afore mentioned with the head cut off at the top of the canvas. It was painted in large flat shapes of solid color reminding me nothing of Schiele.

The assistant, Roy Germon, who I think was also a framer, offered to show me his own paintings. They were vibrant and gestural, the compositions offered a sort of tug of war. I liked them right away. He then offered to show me some of Glenn Rennel’s painting in storage. Glenn was another instructor at PSA, I enthusiastically accepted. We went into a back room where he pulled from shelves many of Glenn’s paintings. There was a calm beauty about them with a sort of tint that one may find through colored glasses.

I made my way back to Ed’s paintings for a final view. I then left the gallery, down the granite steps and walked a half block up Middle Street to a parking ticket on my car. My meter had only just ran out. The first two quarters I put in did not register. The next three provided me with 45 minutes of ticket free parking. Looking at the time on my phone, I had been in the gallery for 50 minutes.

I drove up to the Portland Museum of Art from Greenhut. I was interested to see anything at this point and art was compelling me. I paid the $17 admission fee to see the Richard Estes show at PMA. I knew nothing about Estes before the show. I walked into a display of realism. I am not a fan of realism and really had no expectations, except I might not like the work.

I quickly became visually engaged. The selection of details in the paintings was intriguing. The colors were vibrant. Some of the paintings were very large and well composed. They didn’t reach out and grab my soul but they did reach out. I couldn’t deny they drew me to them and a dialogue began. Many of the paintings were a maze of layers that made visual sense amid what seemed could have been mass kayos. The skill required to paint these paintings was obviously exceptional. There was also a void, it was perhaps everything else that had been left out, the sounds and smell of the air, the wind at night in NYC and forests of Maine.

I was excited to see these paintings. They were testimony to the commitment of ones personal direction. There is a deeply cultivated display of organization which seems sensical. I respected the show and the painter. I thought my $17 was well spent.

Reflecting back to Polke I thought how bizarre. Both painters have such a prominence in the world of art yet as different as can be. I cannot resolve in my mind how they are similar. How they both can be artists in a conventional sense. They are extremes. And someplace in between is Ed Douglas and John Laurant.

Click here for a Boston Globe review of the Polke show at MOMA

 

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