James Gahagan quotes

On the development after World War II
of Hofmann's form criticism.

from Tina Dickey interview

Normally, prior to the war, he didn’t give crits to paintings where he hadn’t seen or couldn’t see what you were painting from. There had to be a model or a still life, or maybe in the summer, you were painting outside and he knew what you were looking at.

[After the war] his students’ work was getting more and more abstract, and they were working from their imagination a lot of the time. There wasn’t anything to look at outside of the painting, so he had to develop a more formal crit. The whole concept of painting had changed, not just with Hofmann students. The whole concept of making, creating paintings almost purely from your imagination—and they could be quite representational, or surreal, or abstract—this was a working habit, and people needed some way of evaluating what they were doing.

The marvelous thing about Hofmann was that [he] had a formal way of evaluating and analyzing whether that painting was working or not. Just like when you bring a painting in and show it to me, I [criticize] the painting whether you were painting from your imagination or not.

That’s very, very controversial, because it seems too systematic and shocks people. But in plane-to-plane rhythms, the expansion and contraction of space and volumes in the painting, all these formal things, if you accept that they’re true, that they have something to do with any kind of painting, those are the actions and principles that you’re evaluating the painting with.

It’s arbitrary to separate the formal from the informal; that’s just a way of making it less complicated to talk about. The fact is, in a really good evaluation, you evaluate it formally, but intuitively; you’re trying to find a way to the content of the painting. What’s the relationship of the particular architecture and rhythm of the painting to the subjective content? Sometimes, as even in a conversation, certainly in a painting, you’re following a train of thought and you lose your train of thought. A good teacher will suddenly spot where the train of thought got lost. [The criticism] can’t just be sheerly intuitive, because to point out where it started to go wrong, you have to be able to say, "See, you started this rhythm, this movement, this idea of scale, you started the conversation going, and then you interrupted it somehow, you got lost and you got concerned with something else. This movement takes us somewhere and then just leaves us there. You let go of our hand and you’re not guiding us anywhere."

from Tina Dickey interview, June 1991

The element that concerns most of us--the significant meaning of content in the painting-- has traditionally come in through the subject matter. Once you remove the narrative, once you remove the physical object, its particular meaning and the meaning of its activity – two nude figures climb a tree, bull moose chasing them—now where does the meaning come in?

On one level of discussion, we’ll say, where the meaning always has been in painting. It has not been primarily in the narrative element anyway. The aesthetic feeling, meaning, is also in the composition and the formal elements. That remains even in abstract or non-objective painting.

We know and will not dispute that the literary narrative element in representational painting has significance and meaning in and of itself. So the dispute is whether the painting can function, whether it has meaningful content without that element, right?

Now we can get even closer to what we’re really talking about, to see the forces in between what we see physically. To see deeper than the mere physical reality. To see the axes, to see the tensions, to see the velocity of things. That is a narrative element, also. But that still leaves the issue hanging, because one of the most important ingredients in representational descriptive painting that lifts itself from mere description, is when you start using the words "meaningful" and "significant." Meaningful and significant to us, not to another object. In other words, there is some moral, there is some comment being made upon life in the story telling. "This is good, this is bad, this was a negative experience, this was a positive experience, this is the true, this is false." Which is the same in all art, if you’re writing a novel, a poem, and so on.

We remove that from the paining, if we work non-objectively. That’s an important ingredient. Should it get back into the painting? Can it get back into the painting, and how?

Call it story telling, in a more general sense of meaning, Yes, the painting still has to have meaning and significance as an experience. It has to be making value decisions, it has to be commenting on the experience of reality, or presenting the experience and sharing it with us. Mondrian was avoiding that. But let’s give Mondrian credit and say that Mondrian was almost platonic in the sense that he felt there was that kind of meaning and significance in the pure cosmic aesthetics of how the universe, in the painting, finds itself in equilibrium with all these dynamic forces, the marvel of the galaxies, the starts, just the relationship of things, the awe-inspiring perfection, if you will, and one doesn’t need any more than that.

And I can empathize with that point of view, because my mind would jump from that meaning or significance in the painting to looking at a flower. A flower doesn’t have to mean anything, it just is. A garden just is, and it’s a delight and beauty to the eye. It gives us pleasure. You don’t have to understand the flower. What’s to understand? So can a painting be as pure as that?

There may still be story telling [in abstraction], not story-telling in the literal sense. The kind of story telling of looking through a telescope and looking for the stars and planets and galaxies. Looking at it as if you were looking at a garden.

But Hofmann would say, No, there is more. Most artists would avoid talking about the particularity of any content in painting. Most of them generalize about aesthetic theory, formal things; what do we mean by a painting that works, what do we mean by composition, balance and tension and so on? There are times we avoid what those balances and equilibriums might mean expressively. But when we do talk to each other, and what we do demand of the work when we look at other people’s work, and what the audience does expect, is that it means something to them in their lives, some experience shared that they can translate, something purely emotional. Hofmann says, That’s the point where the emotional nature of your commentary has to come into the painting, and there is much room there for it in abstract painting, without it being representational. That was the original argument and it’s still the basic argument that’s going on today.

You get a little weak-willed in representational painting, you put the total emphasis on the narrative or literary story-telling element to bring meaning into the paining. And if you’re working abstractly or non-objectively, you can just make an interesting, pleasant design, and go purely for the pleasure of the decorative effect. Maybe the pure pleasure of the decorative effect of the painting corresponds to the eye looking at a garden and just seeing the flowers and not attaching any particular meaning or significance, not building symbolically or metaphorically on it. But Hofmann implied that the next step, the necessary ingredient above the formalism, through the emotion or spirit of the painting, was that you made some comment on or through the garden, on or through the color shapes and forms. The painting could be sad, the painting could be happy, it could be joyful, it could be tragic; in fact one is commenting on one’s life experience.

I’d gone through passages in my own development where I said, "The aesthetic content and significance is what [I’m] aiming for; that’s enough, in fact everything else is superfluous." And then that changed because I realized for myself--and I’m going to underline it, for myself, because I was trying to broaden my view, not narrow it--I had to find some way in the work to make other comments on my life experience, small as they might be, some arena, some room in the painting for that.

Someone commenting on Monet said, "He was all eye." It was a back-handed compliment: "He was all eye, but what an eye." One of the accusations about Monet was that he was a purely decorative painter. It’s the pleasure of viewing the garden. But is that all there is to Monet’s paintings when you look at them? Do they just appeal to the eye? Or do they somehow also appeal to your spirit? Do they do something to you emotionally? Does he take you through the eye, with the eye, someplace else? I think he does. To me, he does.

On the one hand is [the purely aesthetic] enough? And on the other hand, whether it is enough or not, is there more? Well, the "more" is what I’ve been exploring for, let’s say, the last twenty years. I’ve been trying to have both.

A good painting, I guess, says something of importance by expressing something that other people find significant. What does significant mean, anyway? I think for most people it begins in at least two areas. Once where someone looks at the painting or listens to the piece of music or whatever and finds a parallel in their own life experience, and their simple reaction is they find that parallel and they say, "That’s true, I felt that, I remember that." Or quite the opposite, where they say, "Oh, now I see. I feel something I didn’t. And I add that to my experience." See, I think it can be either/or, or both probably. And it's that expressive quality in the painting that makes people value it in the end.

Copyright 1999 Estate of James Gahagan
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