The Supremacy of the Moment

Detail of ‘Bridghid at One’

As a painter, I spend a considerable amount of time experimenting in order to build my experience in paint. I also believe that all great work comes from living in the “moment.” But I find that spontaneity arises from a combination of experience and thorough preparation. Preparation at first appears to be antithetical to spontaneity. But being prepared for that moment when your subject is before you allows the mind and spirit to be freed up. One is not overly preoccupied with materials. One is liberated to be sensitive to the subject- seeking to capture something more elusive, something more than mere objective reality.

Design seeks harmony and resonance between the many elements in an image. Robert Henri, known for his Hals like spontaneity, spent a lifetime reflecting on design in color and composition. His archive at the Yale Beinecke Library reflects the intensity with which he pursued it.  He states in The Art Spirit, “It is a question of seeing significances and apprehending the special forms and colors which will serve as building materials. A good picture is a well built structure.”(p.50) In regards to composition, Henri used several methods throughout his life- mainly rebatement but also the golden section and something called the whirling square developed by Jay Hambridge.

Good design is the framework on which a forceful image can be built. But Henri never allowed it to be evident. Design was always subservient to the moment of engagement. Design was there to support experience. The two should flow together like a river, moving in the same direction and having the same source and final destination. George Bellows, Henri’s star pupil, allowed design to take control of his late work and because of this many of his late images of figures appear rigid, forcing them to conform to a preconceived design. The interplay between design and experience is thwarted. ” It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs…”(ibid, p.16)

I can only categorize Henri’s color theory as surprising. Looking at the colors in the archive objectively, they are beautiful. And the surprise is that these beautiful color combinations are observable in reality- which I have found through my own experimentation. There is a heightened “intensity” in them. By intensity, I do not necessarily mean the colors are intense in chroma but that there is a wonderful balance between pure color and moody and mysterious darks. But even in regard to color, Henri allows the ” living moment” to guide the work. The “living moment”is not necessarily bound within the time frame when the subject is in the presence of the artist. “The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look…The special order has to be retained in memory- that special look and order which was its expression. Memory must hold it.” (ibid, p.27) Although design is of critical importance to all great images, the “essential” moment of your personal engagement with the world takes priority.

Art and the waking dream

3118237886_b4b870aabe_mI often reflect on the power of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents”. With such simple observation of clouds, he was able to achieve a feeling of transcendence. One moves easily between cloud and deep emotion, between form and ascension.  The image guides the viewer from natural phenomena to reverie or a dream state. In this state what seemed like pure observation transforms into an elan. One feels simultaneously an intimacy and an intensity. One feels “alive”. Baudelaire states in his journal, that at such moments “the sense of existence is immensely increased”. (Baudelaire, Journaux Intimes, p.28) The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard describes Baudelaire’s theory of “correspondence”, a unity of the senses, as such: “It is the principle of “correspondences” to receive the immensity of the world, which they transform into an intensity of being. They institute transactions between two kinds of grandeur.” (Bachelard,The Poetics of Space, p.19)

This intensity of being is recognizable in the portraits of Robert Henri, an American painter.  Henri often referred to his subjects as “my people”. He became intimate with them in the process of painting, seeing them for who they were – their hopes, dreams and disappointments – their desire to live and to be “alive”. His portraits are at once intimate but unexpectedly take on a feeling of immensity. They become greater than the subject , reaching beyond his mere existence, to something more universal. Through their eyes we see more clearly. Our reverie upon the image transports us to an unexpected place. In this waking dream, a dwelling place for subject, viewer and artist, we are transformed. What was once an intimate meeting between artist and subject becomes a renewing force.

Every image an artist creates remains a part of him and becomes the fabric or map of his being. It is not to be taken lightly what one chooses to create.  It makes sense that Henri referred to his subjects as “my people”, the image no longer a memory of a moment but a blaze marking a trail on a map. The map created by all those intimate moments strung together, a  personal geography of the artist, on which all of us may travel.