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Monday, August 20, 2012

E.E. Cummings

Self-portrait with Sketch Pad,
1939, E.E. Cummings
Today, we seldom hear much about one of the most important elements in art. The word is "aesthetics". I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps, with regard to representational art, we get so involved in painting "things" we have little interest in talking about that which makes our "things" beautiful. By the same token, non-representational painters, those for whom one would most expect aesthetics to be even more of a major concern, almost never mention the word either. There is often the claim on their part to have internalized all aesthetic principles. And to some extent, this may be valid. But to exclude external aesthetics from their vocabulary makes them as guilty as painting mere "things" (as in framed paintings) as the most tightly bound realist. I think the reason we hear so little today about aesthetics is that they demand a high degree of intellectual involvement on the part of the artist and the viewer in the appreciation of art. "I like this" or "I don't like that," is not intellectual involvement. It may be emotion, or personal taste, or prejudice, or instinct, all of which are important, but it's not aesthetics. Aesthetics is a technical reasoning as to why we like something, both at the creative stages and at the exhibition stage. That requires an overt intellectual input into art which most people are simply too lazy and/or too incompetent to contribute.

Noise Number 1, 1919, E.E. Cummings
Probably all of us have heard of the poet, E.E. Cummings. Critics have often labelled him as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His poetry is often cited for its experimental form, typography, grammar, word coinages, sensitive feelings, and subtle perceptions. It is the work of an idiosyncratic individualist belonging to no school or movement. It's work that has led rather than followed. Yet as popular as the poet was in the first half of the century, probably few today have ever read a word of his poetry. And it would surprise many people to learn that this well-known, highly experimental, highly intelligent writer was also a highly experimental painter as well. In fact, Cummings considered his painting efforts on an equal footing with his writing - what he called his "twin obsessions." And he applied the same curiosity, attention to craft, and aesthetic principles to both.

Self-portrait, and American Cubist,
E.E. Cummings
Cummings began to paint shortly after W.W.I, about the same time he began to write. Writing, of course, paid the bills. And in doing so, it allowed him to devote even more time to his paintings. For the first thirteen years or so, up until about 1928, Cummings considered himself and his work to be abstractionist. The avant-garde loved it. He wrote copiously on nearly everything he painted (sometimes literally). During the same time, his drawings and caricatures were highly visible critical and publishing successes. His paintings were considered American Cubist works. And while utiliszing generally recognizable subjects, his use of color could only be considered wildly exuberant, even fantastical. His detailed writings on the aesthetics of color theory and human form fill thousands of pages.

Flowers and Hat: Patchen Place,
 1950, E.E. Cummings
However much the critics in the art world of the 1920s may have loved his paintings, Cummings gradually began to distance himself from them. He considered them hopelessly anti-intellectual. And it was in 1928 that he abandoned abstract art and the critics who validated it altogether. Despite the fact that they generally liked his work, cummings' contempt for art critics was rooted in the belief that they considered artistic value and intellectual rigor mutually exclusive. Cummings said of his work that it "...pushes abstraction beyond the abstract and returns to nature," adding that, "as soon as you cut yourself off from nature, all you get is decoration." Recasting himself as an artist, Cummings spent the rest of his life refining his aesthetic principles in terms of representational art.

Marion Morehouse,  1933, E.E. Cummings
Cummings was nothing if not versatile. He explored every artistic and aesthetic venue with the same intellectual rigor and painterly vigour that he'd displayed in his abstracts, from nudes and erotic works to landscapes, still-lifes, even the technically demanding art of portraiture. In fact, his portraits are often considered some of his best works. He travelled extensively abroad and for long periods of time, painting and drawing like some people shoot snapshots. His artistic interests also extended to the circus and the burlesque theatre with marvellously dynamic sketches often drawn practically in the dark. With swift, fluid, seemingly instinctive pencil strokes, cummings' drawings of strippers and exotic dancers, capture in rapid, yet succinct drawings a surprising amount of detail, movement, and atmosphere.

Words and images are not just
related, but often incestuous.
In viewing the art of  E.E. Cummings, it's tempting to say he was even more of an artist than a writer, especially inasmuch as his art seems easier to digest than his writings. In fact, indications are, he devoted much more time to his art. Cummings was a purist when it came to his art. He viewed representational painting as more of a challenge than abstraction, calling those who worshipped Picasso as "super submorons" who ignored the fact that their hero himself had once declared that there was no such thing as "abstract" painting, crying out instead for artists to "respect the object." Whether painting in a representational or non-representational manner, Cummings rose above even that. He painted more than "things." He painted art, and always generously imbued it with the power of reasoned aesthetics.

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