Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara)

Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.
Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.

Frank O’Hara: Why I am not a painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Frank O’Hara

What makes us what we are?

Why am I a poet and not a painter? — asks Frank O’Hara in this poem. I’d rather be a painter… 

But what kind of answer is possible here? It’s obviously not about some deliberate, conscious decision — free will or not, one doesn’t really get to choose what they are. The only marginally answerable re-wording of this question would be something like “What is it in my inner make-up, in the way my perception and cognition work, that makes me a poet, and not a painter?”

And that’s the question O’Hara seems to have had in mind. At least his answer — if it is an answer — comes in the form of two short stories, one about the process of painting, the other about the process of writing a poem. And there seems to be a clear difference in underlying cognitive processes:

  • The painting starts with a thing (“It needed something there”— says the painter; something = some thing) and transforms into an abstraction, because the thing was “too much”.
  • The poem starts with an abstraction — a thought about colour — and transforms into pages of words (in prose), much more descriptive than the painting. Here is the beginning of these poems, “Oranges”:

Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.”

Quite a lot of things — which are, in some mysterious ways, generated by the thought of “orange”. Perhaps as mysterious a transformation as the transformation of sardines into a flurry of colours in Goldberg’s painting:

The painter starts with the image of a thing and transforms it into colour because the thing “was too much”; the poet starts with the idea of colour and transforms into words, because “there should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life”. Orange is never enough for a poet, sardines are too much for a painter.

Is this the answer to the initial question? In a sense, yes, but not quite. The poem is more complex than that, and the complexity resides in how these two little stories fit together.

Both stories — the one about the painter, and the one about the poet — are written (mostly) in the characteristic, and overly simplistic, “I do this, I do that” style, in a mixture of simple present and continuous present tenses. This makes it seem as though the second story followed the first in the real-life unfolding of the events.  

But this is not really the case: the poem, “Oranges”, was written in 1949, and the painting, “Sardines”, was painted in 1955. But there is a connection —  beyond the mere contrast of cognitive processes; it might be invisible in the poem, but it’s obvious once you see the painting. This painting’s colour harmony is orange-y: mix all its colours together, and you’ll end up with orange. It is this colour that connects the first story to the second, as though it’s Goldberg’s painting that inspired O’Hara’s thinking about orange. Not in the realm of real time-space (where it might well have been the other way round), but in the internal logic of the poem itself: after all, O’Hara could have chosen any of his poems to compare the processes. I believe it’s the colour: orange that led him to recall this particular one (or rather a series of twelve, as it happens).

And this creates a kind of semantic circle, which belies the overt simplicity of this poem’s structure: the painting follows the poem in “real life”, but invokes it within the logic of this poem.

And there is another circular movement which replaces the logical, narrative one. This is not mentioned in the poem, but the second story, the story of “Oranges” has a real-life painting-related sequel: in 1952, another painter friend of O’Hara’s, Grace Hartigan, painted a corresponding series, also entitled “Oranges”, incorporating O’Hara’s words into the paintings. So there was a painting process directly inspired by the poem.


But the poem ends quite differently, with O’Hara seeing Goldberg’s painting in a gallery. It is entitled “Sardines”, even though there are no more sardines in it, just like the poem is called “Oranges”, in spite of having no oranges in it. Both the poet and the painter retained the original “source” of the work in the title, even though it had as well as disappeared in the process. The poem circles back to where it started — to disappearing sardines, and concludes itself with a similarity between two processes, not with the contrast which might explain why the poet is not a painter. Instead, the two processes emerge almost as two sides of the same one, two different views of the same phenomenon.

Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O'Hara). 2016
Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara). 2016

Since my fun in this life is (mostly) in painting poems, how could I resist the temptation of responding to this poem “in kind” — by a painting entitled “Why I am not a poet?”. I honestly believe the answer given by this painting is about as clear as the answer given by the poem. At least to me it is…


After the death of painting (on Malevich’s “Black square”)

It hit me ten days ago, while painting in the studio, that Kazimir Malevich’s “Black square” (1915) represents the death of painting. A huge fat full stop in its evolution.

Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.
Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.

I have always hated this painting. It is, of course, not unique in representing the death of painting, but it seems to do so in the purest, clearest, inevitable form. I remember a friend of mine weeping uncontrollably in front of this painting in George Pompidou Centre in Paris, as though at a funeral of someone she used to love. And my own feeling of detached alienation — in contrast to her, I didn’t want, I couldn’t let it in.

I guess I never wanted to accept that this painting, and the end it represents, are both logical and inevitable. But now there is no other way for me to go any further.

I think this change must have been brought about by reading and re-reading Gottfried Richter’s “Art and Human Consciousness”. In this book, he presents a grand story of visual art as both a manifestation and a driving force of the transformation of human inner experience of reality, from Ancient Egypt till the first part of the twentieth century.

Painting appears in this story relatively late, when it detaches itself from architecture as an independent art form. This separation itself is part of the history-long movement from huge to small, and from “outer” to “inner” experience of reality. For Richter himself, this represents a movement of the Divine from being “out there”, in the non-human cosmos, inward, into the inner world of human beings — and the crucial point in this movement is, of course, the death and resurrection of Christ. But the “hard facts” of this story are all about the human experience of reality and its visual representation in art: they don’t really depend on religious interpretation.

In painting, this movement from “outer” to “inner” shows up as the path leading from grand historical and biblical motives — through the human, earthly visual reality of portraits, landscapes and still lifes — and then, ultimately, to abstraction, as an attempt to represent feelings in a way completely independent from the outer “world of visible things” (this was Malevich’s conscious intent in his “suprematism” paintings, like “Black square”).

And it is by no means an accident that this powerful urge in visual art to withdraw completely from the visual reality happens simultaneously with Freud’s invention of the “ego”, and its ultimate world-alienation.

But a complete withdrawal from sensory reality of life is death, there is just no way around it, no other name for it. And for painting, the withdrawal from visual reality is the ultimate contradiction: after all, it cannot help but appeal to the viewer’s sense of vision, and it’s hard to do that while simultaneously rejecting one’s own sense of vision as a valid window to reality.

And so we find ourselves in the after-life of painting, which seems to go on, in spite of everything, due to our unquenchable inner need to paint.

Is it a resurrection? I don’t know.



Painting Sonnet 84: On the impossibility of objectivity in Art (Studio notes April 19-April 29, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 84: You are you. 20″×20″. 2016.

Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?

Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.

Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.

   You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 84

April 19

There is a straightforward thematic unity between this poem and the previous one: the eighty third is about the “subject matter” needing no painting, this one is about impossibility of “objectivity” in art: its  inability of simply tell that you are you. This shared angle is slightly different from the “Poet and Muse” one: its about “Poet and Matter” (a modern writer might call it “Content”; in Shakespeare the theme of “matter” will return in the eighty sixth sonnet).

Just like I had to expand the “matter” in painting the previous sonnet — from the addressee of the sonnet to the whole of life, so it is with this one. The sonnet is written as though the ultimately impossible task of telling that you are you uniquely applies to the young man, but it’s just the surface of things. The problem is not that the addressee is fond of praise — this isn’t what precludes “objectivity”: one just literally cannot copy in poetry what is writ in life. Or if one can, this is an astounding achievement — and that’s what the poem is about. This applies to painting no less than to poetry, in spite of their seeming difference and the illusion of “realism” in painting.

Isn’t it the inner goal of any true work of art — just telling that you are you, that mountain is (a) mountain, and apple is (an) apple. Expressing the objective reality of life?

There is a fundamental problem in translating poetry into painting, which this poem brings to clear light — because it highlights — and thus relinquishes — its (poetry’s) advantage. Words aren’t things themselves, they are symbols (invoking “concepts”) and pointers (indicating “things”). And, among other things, they can point back to themselves, and even to the absence of themselves. So it is easier to write a poem about not writing poems than to paint a painting about not painting. Or like in this case, to write about inability to say something is easier than to paint the inability to paint something.

This poem says what it claims to be impossible to tell, just by straightforwardly using these words, you are you. Here, the words are spoken — and this is obviously not what is meant by being able to tell that you are you, to copy what in you is writ. And in so doing, it doesn’t just talk about inability to express, but expresses this inability to express.

April 20

My painting has to be not just about the impotency of painting, it has to express this impotency, to enact it — in painting. How can one do that? The solution I began exploring in the first study is the device of “displaced contour” — a conspicuous discord between colour and contours expressing their inability to “copy” life.

Lena Levin. Study for Sonnet 84. April 2016. 20″×10″.

The study was an interesting one to paint, but I didn’t really feel that I was closer to knowing how to paint the sonnet. I felt encouraged about this approach to composing this painting in general, but completely unsure about its subject matter. I feel a certain leeway of randomness in this, because whatever the subject, one cannot “copy” what in it is “writ”.

April 21

Another “study” painting session: still experimenting with the discord between contours and colour, for the eighty fourth sonnet, and adding the idea of reflection(s).

Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
April 24
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)

The missing piece of this painting’s puzzle, the missing visual idea came from a strange interplay of light, shadows and reflections of leaves (there is a tree just outside) on my bathroom floor in the morning: their utterly failed, and yet charming, attempt to “represent” the leaves. This was the beginning of this sonnet painting today, even though there was less clarity in mind than I had imagined in advance: some things had to clarify themselves in the process.

The subject matter of this painting — a bunch of flowers — repeats itself three times: the flowers themselves — with some discord between contour and colour; their shadows below, and their vague reflection in the space on the left. Three representations, neither of which captures reality.

April 28
Sonnet 84 (in progress)
Sonnet 84 (in progress)

Today’s painting session: further work on the eighty fourth sonnet, and some adjustments to the eight third one.

Somewhat surprisingly to myself, the theme of these two sonnets — the questioning of art itself, and its relationship to reality — shifted the colour harmony of both paintings: red seeped out of them, which is unusual both for this series, and for my colour harmony in general. What remains is the tension between yellows and blues.    

April 29

A short painting session, but it seems to have brought the eighty forth painting (84) to some stage of completion. The interplay of space and light is beginning to play out, although I am not quite sure it quite expresses the impossibility of objective expression. But I have to leave it at that, and see how it works in the context of the overall “Poet and Muse” composition.

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still: painting sonnet 85

Lena Levin. Sonnet 85. 20″×20″. June 2016.

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise richly compiled,
Reserve thy character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.

I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well-refined pen.

Hearing you praised, I say ”tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.

   Then others, for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 85

… the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.

May 25, 2016: Golden and Blue
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880

The painting began with a glimpse of colour contrast, “golden” versus “blue”, as an expression of the tension between polished, well-refined comments and dumb thoughts. This contrast, yellow versus blue stands for light versus dark, visible versus invisible, material versus spiritual, outer (apparent) versus inner (real). Kandinsky writes about this range of associations in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, but there is also a link to how Paul Cezanne started his paintings, his first grey-blue compositional lines — so blue becomes the colour of unexpressed, under-developed thought.    

May 26, 2016: Colour Charts and Ornaments

2016-05-26 15.10.02The golden versus blue idea was a starting point for the colour chart for this painting. I originally thought of these charts as a way of figuring out the colour harmony of the painting; now, I do this rather as form of more active, visually focused mode of meditation. It’s a way the create a (mental) space for the future painting to show up.

The compositional idea clarified itself in the process: the golden areas of picture plane are more ornamental, more refined, almost like a golden frame, enclosing and constraining the rougher, more sketch-like, less expressed bluish areas.

Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908
Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908

It also brought in two other painterly associations: Picasso’s “Queen Isabel”, with its play on flatter ornamental areas, and Klimt’s golden ornamental backgrounds. But I still don’t see the subject matter of the future painting, nor is there any real inner opening to the sonnet. No emotional connection strong enough to form the seed of a painting. I am still on the surface of the sonnet, not within.

Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
May 27, 2016: Painting from Life and Dutch Flowers

A pause in the study of the sonnet. There was an overwhelming sensation of life’s bleak meaninglessness the night before, hence the urgent need just to paint from life — doesn’t matter what, just about anything, simply to reconnect with life. Yes something from the sonnet process transferred into this painting (“Window”) — the contrast between expressed and under-expressed, refined and rough.

Lena Levin. "Window" (in-progress)
Lena Levin. “Window” (in-progress)

Contrary to all conventional advice, the vantage point here doesn’t allow for the illusion of seeing the whole scene at the same time: I couldn’t see the still life on the windowsill and all areas of the landscape outside with one glance. There is an eye movement within this painting; it is a kind of “quilt” made from different paintings, different areas of the scene seen and painted separately.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 'A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly', 1609-10.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly’, 1609-10.

This quality reminded me of the “Dutch flowers” exhibition we saw a couple of weeks back in London. It was perhaps the first time I paid real attention to this genre; I used to perceive it as very alien, way too decorative, too well-refined, too polished. There is a conspicuous association with this want to distance oneself from others’ words in Shakespeare: polished, over-expressed, overly refined and richly decorative. But there is also another connections: these floral scenes, presented like bouquets to the unknowing eye, were often composed of flowers from different seasons — flowers which couldn’t be possibly present within a single bouquet. They couldn’t be seen at the same time, in juxtaposition to one another, except in a painting. So there is a hidden “patchy” quality to these paintings. They are also quilt-like, albeit in a completely different way from mine.

May 31 — June 1: My tongue-tied Muse

Over the weekend, the subject matter of the future sonnet painting emerged, almost without me noticing it: yellow, golden-coloured roses. I bought a bunch of them on Sunday, to paint the sonnet from life.

Painting in-progress
Painting in-progress

This choice of subject matter seems random: what does it have to do with the young gentleman to whom the sonnet is addressed? The idea of flowers is probably connected to the Dutch flowers. This association has still a more important part to play in the emergence of this painting. But more generally, flowers — and roses in particular — seem to be one the running theme of the series; this motive is evidently anchored in the sonnets sequence as a whole.

More importantly, though, this sonnet, like many others, calls for re-interpreting its addressee as something more like Universe as a whole — everything in reality, not just one particular person. There is no way for me to find an inner opening to the sonnet without this expansion of its “you”, to align my experience of the world — the narrow keyhole (using Kafka’s expression) through which I see it — with the keyhole offered by the sonnet. Come to think about it, expanding the “you” of the sonnet to the universe as a whole might be closer to its inner meaning than imagining any one individual person as its “you”.   

This opening — the inner connection to the sonnet — finally emerged only during the first day of painting. I had to start painting with only a vague idea of what I am doing, but in the process, I suddenly realised that the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.

 My  tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still. I am constrained into “manners” (and, quite often, into silence) by everything that has already been painted and written, by the knowledge that there are already enough words and enough paintings in the world — much, much more than any human being can read and see in a lifetime. It does indeed feel exactly like this: all one can do to express one’s own thoughts is cry “Amen” to others, like an unlettered clerk. After all, what is this whole “Sonnets in colour” series if not such an “Amen” (sort of)?

This clarified meaning brought into the painting a “quote” from one of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s decorative florals: two pinkish buds in the left bottom corner, and the glass vase. They stand for — or point to — the well-polished, golden, richly compiled refinement of “other”. The constraining “frame”, within which my rough, under-expressed painting from life (one’s own dumb thoughts) is enclosed, turned into a circle — another, more abstract compositional quote from de Heem.

This quote — combining as it does flowers separated by centuries as though within a single bouquet — was needed in the painting, but it modified and largely obscured the original contrast between “golden” refinement and “blue” sketchy outline; the painting became more complex, and the contrast between “words” and “thoughts”, more multi-dimensional and, for the time being at least, less clear.

June 2: Contrasts and unity

The next painting session was about clarifying and strengthening these contrasts: clarifying colours and the ornamental quality of the right-most rectangular area of picture plane, tightening and refining the flowers quoted from de Heem, and changing the yellow roses in the upper left corner into something more abstract, non-representational, un-expressed.

As always the case with paintings focusing on “internal” stylistic contrasts, the challenge is to make these contrasts clear while keeping the whole composition stylistically unified nonetheless. On another level, this is the challenge of trying to combine pointers to reality and reality itself within the same artwork.

June 3: Final Notes

The last, very slow, painting session; further clarification and tightening of contrasts and details. The last touches, the last steps are always the hardest and the slowest.

I posted an in-progress photo on Google+, and Terrill Welch’s comment about unusually “circular” and softer brushwork gave me the idea of strengthening this additional contrast, the contrast between smoothness and “roundness” of refined expression and rectangular roughness of “dumb thoughts”.

I am almost sure there will be a return to some areas later on (especially in the context of the overall nine-sonnets composition), but for now, I am leaving the painting be.

Just like there is an arc, a curve in the process of painting each individual sonnet, there is probably a similar (albeit much longer) U-like curve to the whole “Sonnets in colour” series. If so, this painting — or may be this whole composition (“Poet and Muse”) — feels like the deepest, the lowest segment of this “U”. The months spent painting these sonnets were filled with all kinds “negotiating” my own place in the world, and the place of my work — with myself and with my Muse. At some level, this sonnet feels like a culmination of these negotiations.

Or maybe I am just fooling myself — entertaining the hope that the curve will go upwards from here, that it will be easier from now on.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse?

Lena Levin. "Window". 30"x20". In progress.
Lena Levin. “Window”. 30″x20″. In progress.

This week, I started the preliminary study of Sonnet 86 (“Was it the proud full sail of his great verse…”). “Study” is probably not the right word for this process of letting the sonnet sink fully into my mind-body system and create the seed of a future painting. This description makes the process seem awfully like sexual intercourse, and maybe it is, indeed, a more appropriate simile than “study”.

I am trying to get (back) into biweekly rhythm for this series — a week of preliminary deep engagement with the sonnet, and then a week of painting the sonnet. Like slow (very slow) breathing in and out. This gives me every other week to paint other things — just to keep me alive through the “breathing in” week. This week, I returned to the view from my studio window, which I started two weeks earlier, while studying Sonnet 85.   

Unexpectedly, I realised on Monday that 86 is the last sonnet of the composition I am working on, which I call, for now, “Poem and Muse”.

There is a certain randomness in how the sequence gets broken into these nine-sonnets and sixteen-sonnets sequences; the only mathematical “given” in this is that there will be ten nine-sonnets composition and four sixteen-sonnets composition — this “solution” is determined uniquely by the total number of sonnets. For some reason, I imagined this one will contain sixteen sonnets, but there is a very logical thematic break between eight six and eighty seven – I have no idea how I missed it before. It means that a lot of compositional adjustments I did to individual paintings to create the sense of overall unity were misguided, but somewhat miraculously, the unexpected shift to the nine-sonnets idea works, even though it changes the relative positioning of the individual paintings radically.

On the other hand, the shift gives me an opening into this sonnet, the last sonnet of the composition. It contains, in a sense, a summary, a collage of the whole subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (“then lacked I matter“). In the future painting, I imagine, it will be a cubist-like breakdown of form. And the colour harmony is also largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it ought to lean towards reds, for the sake of the overall harmony. This is a very abstract vision so far, but it’s a beginning.

I love how this sonnet suggests familiarity with ghosts/spirits/muses that visit the “rival” poet, as though they are the same ghosts. This rhymes with my thoughts over these last days, about our basic (in)ability to share experiences. Even if we think we recognise an experience from someone else’s description, it may still be a delusion.

On many levels, it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet’s themes; the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you need to share is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. It’s only the gap between inner experience and its outer expression, their incomplete alignment, that opens the path for the next artist, the hope to add something new, even if it’s only saying the same old thing in a new way.   

The return of the prodigal son, or how to face one’s fears

2016-03-08 14.51.37

The temporary exile from my studio didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t paint: after all, there is all my plein air gear out there in the garage — I could just go out and paint landscapes every day. But I didn’t. It seemed too cumbersome to store oil paintings in this tiny hotel room; and I felt tired and a bit ill, so I decided to just take time to reflect, and to read, and just give myself some breathing space.

And so it came to happen that I didn’t paint for two weeks or so — an unusually long interruption in the painting process.

Back in the studio, I decided to start with my huge Rembrandt study. This kind of communion with Rembrandt felt just like the right way to break the painting fast. As it turned out, there was even more to this feeling that I had anticipated: this return to painting felt exactly like the return of the prodigal son in the parable, and in Rembrandt’s painting.   

It may seem ridiculous — after all, a fortnight away doesn’t seem to qualify for such a grand interpretation. But the truth, there was a time in my life when I abandoned painting for years — for decades even — prodigally spending whatever gifts and talents I was given in other pursuits. This, I believe, is why even short pauses in my studio work tend to trigger fears and doubts: each of them feels, at some level, like that decades-long time away from myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to return, that Painting won’t take me back, that the door will be closed forever.

Hence the core experience of my first painting session — sensing that Painting does accept me back, with the same unconditional, raspberry-coloured tenderness as the father accepts his prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting.

And in the course of this painting session, I suddenly remembered that I did see myself in the parable of the prodigal son back then. A couple of years after I had abandoned painting, a poem came to me — a poem where I promised to return, just like the prodigal son did; or to be more precise, a poem predicting this return. It now seems very strange that I had forgotten that poem, and didn’t even recall it when I started this Rembrandt study a couple of months ago. Could it be that this whole hiatus was actually needed to continue this study, to feel my way into it at a deeper level?

But there is more to it… The thing is, I’ve been painting “full time” for many years now. These two weeks for the renovation project have, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the long years of my “prodigal” youth. So why is it that the fears I seem to have overcome when I came back to painting back in the beginning of this century — why do they re-surface so easily, with a minimal “trigger”? Why am I so terrified of even brief disturbances to my studio “routine”, as though each of them is just waiting to transform into a lifetime of exile from painting?   

In an instance of serendipity, or synchronicity (or whatever is the right word for this kind of happenings), I followed someone’s link to Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s book, “Living enlightenment” (at Lifeblissprogams.org), and read my way towards the chapter on fear. His take on fears is somewhat different from what I have encountered so far — because here, fear presents itself not as something to be conquered, not as a sign of weakness, but almost something to be celebrated. He writes:

<…> fear is a part of the nature of life. You can be fearless if you are already in your grave! Then there is no need to be afraid of anything because you have nothing to lose. If you have something to lose, you will have fear. This is the nature of life itself.

His advice, then, is neither to fight the fear you are facing (because this empowers it), nor to distract yourself from the fear (because then it stays with you, just hidden from your conscious attention), but just to “look at it”, live it, accept it. I guess my favourite strategy all these years used to be not to pay attention to fears. It has the obvious advantage of doing what you’ve got to do in spite of any fears, but it keeps the fears well and alive in your inner space, always ready to resurface.

And when I decided to follow his advice and look directly at my fear of “painting not taking me back”, I saw another, deeper and darker fear lurking behind it: the fear of being completely and utterly delusional about my whole relationship with painting; the fear of being delusional about being an artist. It scares the hell out of me — even now, as I write the words, I feel as though I am making this potentiality more “real” than it would have been had it remained in the darkness, outside the realm of conscious “naming”. But this makes my next challenge clear: to live and accept that fear. Paramahamsa Nithyananda writes:    

<…> fearlessness doesn’t mean non-existence of fear. It means the fear is there, but you have tremendous energy or courage to live with it and face it. Fearlessness means the energy or the courage to live even with the maximum fear — going beyond that fear and being neither attached not detached from the fear.

The next question to live is, then, whether I happen to have this energy or this courage… We’ll see, I guess.

Painting sonnet 82: dissolving dualities (January 20 – February 10, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 82 (I grant thou weren’t married to my Muse). 20″x20″. 2016

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise;
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days.
And do so, love; yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathised
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

The beginning of this sonnet painting was rooted in two initial impressions:

First, the way this sonnet contrasts with the previous one, 81: the markedly increased distance between “I” and “thou/you” of the sonnet. If the eight first sonnet suggested that “I” and “thou” are, in a sense, two “selves” of the poet, here they are definitely different “persons”. And the other person is not even the poet’s Muse anymore — this idea is replaced by (not) being married to her.

Secondly, the repetitive juxtaposition of fair and true — and their interaction within the sonnet — reminded me of what Hamlet tells Ophelia about incompatibility of honesty and beauty. And “true” repeated four times within the space of two lines: a conspicuously pervasive insistence on one’s own honesty.

This insistence on truth highlights the major challenge of “translating” this sonnet: its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you write a letter to someone you are really angry with, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they are, but try to be polite and politic, even to flatter them — but only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier, because all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this forced falsehood that finally breaks the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of true in lines eleven and twelve.

But how on earth can this kind of falsehood express itself in a painting? A falsehood that sees itself for what it is ? How do you make a painting false, but simultaneously true at a higher level — at the level of faithfully recreating the experience of pretending? This particular experience of pretending because you are hurt, and don’t want to be hurt even more?

These questions connected themselves with the contrast between two “selves”: the more expansive “self” of Sonnet 81, capable of bestowing immortality, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82, overcome with absurd jealousy to “rival poets” – the “smaller” self, which takes charge when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afraid.

The stronger one’s connection to the higher self, the more painful this collapse must be; one can almost hear the scratching sound of the whole infinite space crushing into a narrow “hole” of limited perception. This is the experience enacted in this sonnet, and this is the experience that had to be expressed in the painting.

2015-09-09 14.27.59This understanding brought with it the initial vision for the painting: an open space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right corner. From the very beginning, this painting connected itself to the motive of the sonnet 78 painting — located right above it the future sixteen-sonnets composition: the god-like Muse, who was raising the human up to the heaven, has finally thrown the him to the earth.

Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.
Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.

And then the open space of this concept filled itself with a rainbow. It happened when I caught a tiny glimpse of rainbow on my shower floor. The rainbow presented itself as a way to introduce two — apparently contradictory — sensations emanating from the sonnet: its background tone of a higher, “god-like”, self, and its pretence, its superficial falsity. There had been “signs” of the part a rainbow has to play in this painting before: the couple of rainbows we saw on Saturday, and a later moment when my attention was drawn to the twentieth sonnet painting with its — not quite successful — rainbow (interestingly that sonnet contains the word “hue”, like this one; it may well be that this word naturally brings the rainbow into the imagery of a sonnet). But this tiny funny rainbow in the small pool of water on the floor of my shower was the “last straw” that clarified this idea.

Another aspect of the painting clarified itself on the same morning— not quite directly, but the painting would “refer” to Picasso’s old blind guitarist. That was enough to start the painting process, but this process turned out to be both harder and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

2016-01-26 15.49.33By the end of two painting days, the rainbow looked way more garish than I felt comfortable with. In a sense, that was the intended reflection of the “false sound” of the sonnet, but it didn’t quite work nonetheless. I felt an aversion to the look and feel of the painting, but wasn’t sure whether it’s essentially the same aversion I feel towards the pretence of the poem. All in all, I didn’t like the paintings’ “present”,  and I couldn’t see its future.

2016-01-27 12.54.51The next night brought some clarity: a still vague way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its rainbow-y feel. The rainbow was now just an underpainting; if there is a rainbow out there in this space, then the sonnet hides it, rather than revealing it. As I began to implement this new vision, the initial contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet in this sonnet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the heaven he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new composition was barely there, but I finally saw, even if not quite clearly, the future of the painting; and there was a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”. I love these moments of clarification happening inside the process, when the painting is not just an implementation of a pre-conceived vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

And another source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician) has revealed itself: Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity. All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

What I initially perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self, has revealed itself to be — not wrong exactly, but too limited, insufficient. Understood too straightforwardly, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (to use the sonnet’s own words): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

2016-01-29 14.44.49What was needed was to acknowledge that both layers of self are there; perhaps they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing the opposition — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper-level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) involved changes in colour, in the overall geometry of the painting, and, on the purely representational level, in the change of the hand gesture (it now links this painting to the sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

I left the painting to sit there for a while, uncertain about whether it was complete. And the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it, so I returned to it on February 10, 2016. This day strengthened and clarified the unification of the two contrasting parts of the painting, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And the rainbow itself has gradually transformed itself from a garish flat curve into a more topologically complex, multidimensional, and mysterious space.

Rembrandt post-Cezanne (February 8-9, 2016)

2016-02-09 14.53.14My little detour from the highway of the sonnet series continued over these two days.

The beginning, last Friday, was so magically easy that I somehow got this crazy idea that I might complete this painting in a week if I put everything else on hold. And the connection was so strong that it pulled me in: I decided to pause the sonnet series for a week to work on this study.

One thing I understood during these two days is that this “complete within a week” idea is — to put it mildly — slightly absurd, and — what’s more important — it would strip the whole process of half its meaning. There is more to learn here than can be learned within a week’s time (even taking into account all the preliminary studies I did following my own program).

There are two “balancing acts” in this process (I am not sure that’s a good name for them, but I cannot find any better one at the moment). One is the balance between working (and seeing) the whole canvas and the development of focal areas. I guess it’s one of the challenges that come with such a large canvas; just one among many things to learn from Rembrandt.

The other balancing act is between trusting Rembrandt and trusting my own hand; the vision comes from Rembrandt, but my hand (my brush) has to have its freedom, its “organic” movement. This means there will be a lot of “technical” differences between my study and Rembrandt’s original — but something tells me that, for me at least, this is the only way to get to the essence of what Rembrandt has done here.

And I am not even so sure about the vision: it crossed my mind while painting today that our senses of vision just cannot be the same, since the environments in which they have been “trained” are so incredibly different. We rarely think about how the environment shapes our sense of vision — maybe not the physiology of the eye, exactly, but all the neural machinery that takes the eyes’ raw data and creates our visual reality for us. But it does — that’s why it’s so much easier for us to distinguish between faces of familiar anthropological types. I’ve read somewhere that infants distinguish apes’ faces as well as they do human faces; but after several months, their ability to distinguish human faces gets refined, while apes’ faces begin to seem very much alike.

And this is only the beginning. Rembrandt spent his whole life within a smallish area between Amsterdam and Leiden, and this means a very narrow range of natural lighting conditions. No Southern sun, no electrical light, no exposure to photos, let alone videos. No artificial pigments. No plastic. A modern human being like myself would generally spend a lot of time in a variety of artificial light, travel far and wide, and yet see even more places in photos and videos only. And then, of course, the whole history of art: the last three and a half centuries, and all the archeological stuff found and shown to public in the meanwhile. There is just no way my eyes could see “the same” Rembrandt’s eyes did, even if (or especially if) we are looking at the same painting, at the same old man and his family members. This fact is just something to be accepted, and worked into this study the best I can.

Sadness of irises (February 1-3, 2016)

2016-02-02 14.16.55A brief pause in both of my “core” studio pursuits, the sonnets and the Rembrandt study.

I woke up this Monday uncertain whether I will return to the study of Rembrandt’s old man, or to the eighty second sonnet painting, and the first though that crossed my mind was that I need to paint something from life. The first idea was a still life with fruit, but then I remembered I had irises, a friend’s gift. Hence, irises — not an easy subject to deal with even in the best of times, with the memories of Van Gogh to add to their intrinsically challenging form. I didn’t want to make it small — so a 20”x24” canvas, and a bouquet of irises. This first decision has changed all the plans I had in mind for this day. But that’s, after all, is how I’ve decided to live my life now — to listen to emerging impulses, rather than to plan and control.

And then another thing happened, in the midst of the morning meditation: a wave of deep, incredibly bright-blue sadness; a wave of insatiable longing for parental love. It was as though some inner dam gave wave, and let in an ocean of sadness and longing. In retrospect, I believe this was another wave of emotions unblocked by studying “The return of the prodigal son”. Had I realised it right away, I would have probably returned to this study with this sadness inside. But I didn’t — so this sadness was poured into painting irises instead.

January 19, 2016: is it complete?

2016-01-19 13.27.50

I had time for three hours in the studio, and these were intended for the first sonnets composition (1-9), continuing the work started yesterday: (finally) bringing this composition to its (hopefully) completed and unified version.

But I stopped earlier — about twenty minutes earlier, in fact. I couldn’t go on because the painting overwhelmed me when I stepped back to look at it and decide what’s yet to be done. The feeling emanating from it was so strong that I couldn’t really “judge” it, couldn’t even begin to decide whether I need to do anything else. And it’s not often that this sensation of a painting’s power is so strong; one has to cherish it — and trust it, to some extent. Maybe the painting is, indeed, finally complete — or maybe not. But in any event, by the end of this studio day, I was in no position to decide.

The changes I’ve made today have mainly to do with “propagation” of the blues throughout the painting, and with its overall tonal structure. Both are attempts to achieve a more unified impression.

One problem, of course, is that the very idea to have these multi-sonnets compositions emerged after these nine have been built into a collage. This idea came to me “out of the blue” and seemed to be purely “pragmatic” at the time — it was easier to hang them this way. It was the explicit “golden ratio”-based structure in the composition of each individual painting that created the first hint of unification, which I hadn’t quite foreseen. Later on, I began to think about this unity “in advance” — although I still work on individual paintings one by one, I try to keep the whole composition in mind.

Here, though, this compositional unity was just at the point of emergence. Now, it seems to be complete.

The sonnets came back to me as I was working all over the composition — each still has its own voice. But now, I believe, the unified “meaning” of this composition — including the repetitive “conflicts” between dark and light — seems to be there, and rhyming with the paradoxical meaning I read in the sonnets.

It crossed my mind today, during the walk, that I have to let go of the idea that time spent doing something matters at all. It seems that the same connection to nature I used to experience only when painting from life, I now achieve just by walking; and why not? It is certainly a more ecologically responsible way of life. But the time might come when I am ready for the next level of unity — and this might “require” more painting. For now, though, I am content with how the life happens to me — and if it means less studio time, so be it.