Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Having taught art history at the University of Connecticut for over twenty years, I spent a great deal of time explaining “great art.” But what constitutes great art? What makes one painting “great” and another just “good”? I would often show my students two slides of paintings, side by side, and ask which one was better. Both works had been expertly painted by well-known artists, the subjects and compositions were almost identical. However, the class – artistically illiterate as they were - was always almost unanimous in preferring one over the other. There were obviously forces at work here, even if no one could articulate them.

What makes a painting a masterpiece often boils down to its underlying abstract design, not the drawing or the subject matter. Art students are invariably taught something called “ The Principles of Design,” Balance, Unity, Focal Point and Rhythm among them. One favorite art school project is to take a famous painting, let’s say Brueghel’s “Wedding Dance” and break it down to its basic design elements.  When I taught art history I would often project a slide of the painting onto the blackboard and proceed to outline its major shapes in chalk, describing how they worked together using the Principles of Design. When I turned the lights on, the abstract basis of a non-abstract painting would be clearly revealed. The class would sit there mesmerized.

Let’s start by talking about “Balance,” since that is a relatively easy Principle to explain. Think of a seesaw with a child at either end. The seesaw must be “balanced” if it is to work. This usually requires the children to be of equal weight but you can also achieve balance with two light and one heavy child, or by placing one child closer or further towards the middle than the other. Paintings operate the same way, although in a much subtler fashion. If successful, the work simply “feels” balanced, even if you can’t say why. For example, if you took something away or added something on one side of the painting, you might have to do something on the other in order to maintain that sense of balance.  And in the end, it’s the old “You’ll know it when you see it.” It’s purely intuitive; it can’t be plotted or explained mathematically, but it’s there.

I decided to illustrate this post with some small, scrap metal collages I put together a while ago based on the work of the German “Dada-ist” artist, Kurt Schwitters. Around 1920, Schwitters began to experiment with the aesthetic value of “junk:” scraps of paper, wood, metal, whatever  cast-offs he could find. I personally collect most of my detritus at Vulcan Scrap Metal located on Sunnyside Avenue in Stamford, a place that buys and sells scrap metal by the pound. Lots of sculptors go there, including my son from California who makes sure to visit whenever he is on the east coast. To me, Vulcan is a treasure trove of all kinds of scrap metal, often rusted and covered with dirt, but interesting nonetheless. I compose and collage the pieces together, Schwitters style, and glue them on to 5”x7” pieces of black Velcro. The finishing touch, a gaudy black and gold Baroque frame, provides the contrast of garbage framed in gold. The pieces themselves, their origins, are irrelevant; it’s the composition that counts, primarily the way everything “balances.” Lately, I have been picking up crushed cans from the side of the road. Properly “weathered,” they take on a visual life of their own; I call them “Road Kill.”

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I want to see the Road Kill pieces!