III. Fugitaboutit

 "Incomplete and dim memories of the past … are a great incentive to the artist, for he is free to fill in the gaps according to the behests of his imagination."
Freud, Moses and Monotheism

When I'm painting I often have the feeling of complete ignorance, as if I've never done this before, like Matthew in Rembrandt's painting, so that every brushstroke is a new discovery. Both Freud and Jung talk about the importance of forgetting. For one thing, it's a matter of neurological logistics. You can only carry so much baggage in your conscious mind. The rest is stored in the unconscious.

The etymology of "forget" is interesting: The Old English was forgytan, from for--"passing by, letting go", as in forbear and forgo--and gietan, "to grasp." So in forgetting you are ungrasping something you had "grasped"--that is, understood--before. It's a letting go.

It's interesting that another usage of get, to grasp, is to conceive, as in Abraham begat Isaac. In Where Three Roads Meet, Freud uses "forget" in this sense. He says that Jocasta, Oedipus' mother and then wife, "had to 'forget', to erase the crime against her womb." So to forget can mean to unconceive an idea. Ideas are creatures of the conscious mind, while images come from the unconscious, and preconceived ideas can block the images. (I'm using "idea" here in the usual intellectual meaning, but it comes from the Greek word "idein" which means "to see," so our modern sense of "idea" is really a metaphor for an image. "'I see!' said the blind man, as he stumbled over a stick." Idea as image lives in the right brain, while the intellectual idea lives in the left brain.)

But Freud and Jung found that forgetting only meant that the object passed from the conscious to the unconscious mind -- through the membrane, if you will. They can come back as psychologically destructive forces, our shadow from the dark side. But they can also come back during the creative act in new and surprising forms. So maybe there's a fine line between the artist and the psychopath.

But Jung parted from Freud in his discovery that there was a lot more behind the membrane than forgotten memories. In addition to relics of one's personal past, Jung wrote that "completely new thoughts and creative ideas can also present themselves from the unconscious--thoughts and ideas that have never been conscious before. They grow up from the dark depths of the mind like a lotus and form a most important part of the subliminal psyche…. Many artists, philosophers, and even scientists owe some of their best ideas to inspirations that appear suddenly from the unconscious."

In an article about Walter Benjamin's "The Image of Proust," Amresh Sinha says, "The close relationship between remembrance and forgetting deepens once we take into consideration that the past that emerges from the vertiginous folds in our memory is not quite identical to the past that was actually experienced at that time." Proust is more about forgetting than remembering -- forgetting in the creative sense. He forgets his present self in order to penetrate the membrane and enter into that dark cave of memory where the past suddenly becomes visible, not as it really happened but as it recreates itself as art. From In a Budding Grove:

"So that every fresh encounter is a sort of rectification, which brings us back to what we really did see. We have no longer any recollection of this, to such an extent does what we call remembering a person consist really in forgetting him. But so long as we can still see at the moment when the forgotten aspect appears, we recognize it, we are obliged to correct the straying line; thus the perpetual and fruitful surprise which made so salutary and invigorating for me these daily outings with the charming damsels of the sea shore, consisted fully as much in recognition as in discovery."

Jung also considered the analysis of dreams to be a creative act. He told his students, "Learn as much as you can about symbolism; then forget it all when you are analyzing a dream." (
Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols.)

Richard Foreman, the New York writer and director, in the introduction to his play "Lava," put it this way: "There are writers who despair that a gap exists between the self and the words that come, but for me that gap is the field of all creativity--it's an ecstatic field rather than a field of despair. It's the unfathomable from with everything pours forth."

What I'm calling the "membrane" is that which usually blocks off the self from "the words that come"--or the brushstrokes, the chisel cuts, the musical notes, equations, whatever. During the creative act this block becomes permeable and the thinking self is temporarily overwhelmed and shoved aside.

With mathematicians, solutions to age-old conundrums sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, as if by magic. The Polish-American mathematician Mark Kac wrote a version of Plato's distinction between art and inspiration: "An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians … the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark." He was talking about people like Euler and Poincare.

When we study art or science, the focus on what's known gives us the impression that almost everything has been discovered. With art you can make a good case that "there is nothing new under the sun." But the physicist Richard Feynman wrote that science creates an "expanding frontier of ignorance," where most discoveries lead to more questions. And I think it's the same with art.


 This is what intrigued me about Husserl's phenomenology. Edmund Husserl wanted to set aside, or bracket--which is another way of saying forget--everything you know about an object or a process, and concentrate on the immediate phenomenon itself. Reading Husserl and Heidegger led me into still life painting for the first time. I abandoned all thoughts of a narrative or any associations the objects might have for me and tried to look in complete ignorance at the visual phenomena in front of me. I could never plan or set up a still life, I had to be ambushed by it. This is still the case in all my paintings. As Ursula La Quinn said about her characters, I don't find my images, they find me.

Stravinsky said creating "always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation." He said the artist doesn't have go in search of exotic landscapes and precious

Still Life with Keys (II) 

 objects. "He does not have to put forth in search of discoveries: they are always within his reach. He will have only to cast a glance about him. Familiar things, things that are everywhere, attract his attention. The least accident holds his interest and guides his operations. If his finger slips, he will notice it; on occasion he may draw profit from something unforeseen that a momentary lapse reveals to him." (Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, 1942, p. 55)

In this way, things I had seen all my life came to me as fresh and mysterious discoveries that led to more questions, as Feynman said. Like, How the hell do I paint this?... And believe me, there were (and are) many slips and lapses.


Still Life with Clock I

Still Life with Clock II

Olive Oil 

Passionate Minds



Books & Mug

Still Life with Keys (I)


Cut to Black


Cut to Black (left) is an exception to my other still lifes: I didn't exactly set it up, but I did throw these things down on the table in my studio for the purpose of painting them. I needed them for the foreground of another painting, The Punishment (see below).

The ambush came one night when I approached it from the other side of the table.

 But paintings don't always have such uncomplicated births. The Punishment had a difficult evolution. It was originally inspired by Michelangelo's drawing of the punishment of Tityus and ended up with the death of John Keats. I can't go into it in detail, but it was a long process of discovery and chance. After I had begun this painting I had to change studios, several months passed, and the original plan for it seemed to have gone dead.

The first version began like this:


And ended up like this: 

The Punishment of Tityus, pastel on gray paper, 24 x 18 inches 
I liked the drawing but had given up on the painting until I read an article that suggested that Keats may have been poisoned by his girlfriend. It was like Mahler hearing that hymn: it all came together for me. And looking at Victorian portraits, which usually have a view of a landscape through a window, gave me the view on the right, a romanticized version of the pond in my backyard. Somehow Keats and Tityus seemed to go together, both victims of their passion, and I was finally satisfied with the composition.

The Punishment, 2007, oil on canvas,
48 x 36 inches


But it wasn't until I was preparing this presentation that I saw something I had somehow never noticed before. The composition is a spiral--and not just any spiral but a golden spiral!--the one used by snails, galaxies and the Greeks. I'm a student of the Golden Ratio, phi, and I've tried to build compositions on it before but could never make it work. And there it is! So you might say I was ambushed by the Golden Spiral. Creativity is mostly an unconscious activity. Things slip through the membrane when you're not looking and you only notice them later--if you notice them at all.
   The golden ratio is (1 + sqrt 5) / 2 = 1.618…..
The spiral can also be constructed using the Fibonacci series, 1,2,3,5,8,13, etc.
½ = 0.5
2/3= 0.666
…. =0.618…. = (1 + sq rt 5) / 2
In an article about the correlations between math and art, Joel E. Cohen says: "The same continuum runs in the visual arts from journalistic photography at the extreme of pointing to purely abstract art at the extreme of patterning. Between those extremes lies most of the world of art, mixing apples and oranges, mixing meanings and patterns, along with poetry and applied mathematics."

Warren Criswell, Calculus, 2006, watercolor, 30 x 22 inches


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