When it ceases from changing is it dead?
My last semester at Ohio University I immersed myself in a painting project at Siegfried Hall. Throughout the spring I committed myself, among other things, to an immensely large eight- by twelve-foot canvas that was intended to demonstrate a philosophy I had concocted, that a painting or work of art is “alive” only when it continues to evolve or change or be invested with new energy by the artist/creator. My conviction, youthful and idealistic as it now appears in retrospect, was that the ever evolving process of change is an evidence of life. To cease changing was the equivalent of death.
So I painted three to five hours a day for many months. Perhaps it was a form of entertainment for others who used the room for drawing classes. My aims were ambitious because each iteration was so completely different. On occasion I turned the painting sideways so that it stood vertically, twelve foot high. Most often it lay on its side. I wrapped it in garden hoses. I punctured it and wove twine through it. I covered it with newsprint like wallpaper and painted over that. And throughout the process I took pictures along the way.
As graduation neared I planned to set it afire and ride through it on a bicycle. But the graduation ceremonies and eagerness of friends and classmates to move on with their lives made this imaginary spectacle seem like a waste of energy and like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock I disappeared with a whimper and not a bang. The painting itself was left for the janitors to discard.
In 2012 while cleaning my office I discovered that I still had in my possession many of the Ektachrome slides that I had taken of this evolving work of art. In translating these images to digital form a new insight about my premise or theory emerged. The work of art does not die when it ceases to change. After the last brushstroke, there is always the possibility of resurrection. And there are also the offspring.
Examples of offspring would include the countless works by countless artists inspired by Picasso. A couple years ago the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art displayed a traveling exhibition of works inspired Picasso. On the wall would be the original, and alongside might be pieces by Jasper Johns or some other modern era painter.
There may be only one Mona Lisa but her offspring are many, including Mona Lisas by Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein and ever the Simpsons’ Matt Groenig. The famed woman with an enigmatic smile continues to inspire and bear children.
But what about the work itself? When it ceases from changing is it dead? No, it never stops changing. Time and the elements leave their fingerprinits. Colors fade, materials deteriorate. The arm of Michelangelo’s David was broken off when hit by a bench thrown from an upper story. (It used to be in a public space, not a museum.)
And then there are the unexpected twists that no one could foresee. For example, in converting my slides to digital I can begin to manipulate the images with Photoshop and other software programs, re-defining them, re-creating entirely new images, altering them to such an extent that they no longer resemble themselves… or simply enhancing them subtly, again impermanently.
At the end of it all I’ve concluded my college thesis about painting doesn’t hold water. But it did hold my attention, and a few of the pictures you see here were birthed in that studio space on the fourth floor of Siegfried Hall.
What “big ideas” about art or life did you have when you were young that have not stood the test of time? Something to think about.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
All artwork and photos by the author, 1974, with exception of Mona.