Reflections on Painting and Cultivation

 (above, Warren Rohrer, of Yellow 9, oil on canvas [diptych], 1994).
 Painting and Cultivation
The artist Paul Klee, so it’s told, had three great loves, one of which he became internationally famous for: art, music and cooking. The latter two, most certainly sustained both him and the first great love, in many intermeshed ways. Music and its lyrical, rhythmical, logical, as well as visual qualities, is readily evident in much of Klee’s work: the meters, the brassy lilt and line; the bars and note-like figures; the titles alluding to music of the spheres and the instrument – all feeding off the second love. But what of the cooking? In my readings on Klee, it’s mostly self-referential, this love of cooking – and perhaps it really was “number three” in a hierarchical sense. But my inclination is to think of these three things, these three loves, as being hierarchical only to the outsider, the critic and the clarifier. To Klee himself (speaking as a fellow artist) I’m sure they were more egalitarian, and cross-complementary than even the most attentive of us may know.
I’ve noticed this “layering” of talents in many artists I’ve known personally, or have read about: one talent or love stands out, but there is usually at least one other which is more latent; more personal and perhaps self-indulgent – but no less important. Two disparate examples include E. E. cummings (a passionate illustrator to help pay the bills), and secondly a close friend of mine who, brilliant painter “by day”, has also been an accomplished musician for years, to the point of being recorded. Continuing with this model, my passions are art, writing and gardening (or cultivation, as I will direct it here). Much crafting, so to speak, is carefully and ingeniously re-defining repetition within a particular model, or set of limitations. Cooking, music, writing, art, and gardening – all work within that definition of “craft”, writ large. Taking gardening as the working example, cultivation is a clarifying direction. Cultivation implies not only providing an appropriate condition for growth (as in the sense of weeding and tilling soil), but as every gardener will tell you, much repetition. It must be done over, and over, and over. And here is where love becomes operative. One must have at least a modicum (and ideally, more!) for the chosen repeated love, or otherwise it fails its own definition. Cultivation also implies a continuity of tradition, or form, but more on that later.
 (above, Warren Rohrer, Four Fields)
 This distinction suggested itself to me upon seeing anew a canvas by a painter named Warren Rohrer, entitled Christiana Boogie-Woogie. Appropriately parsed and contextualized, this title alone states much on this subject. Christiana, Pennsylvania, near where Rohrer’s roots lay deep, is a predominantly rural, agricultural area, with repetition of the landscape sort abounding. Rohrer himself was from a devotedly religious, farming family, all tropes including copious amounts of both cultivation and repetition. The Boogie-Woogie portion of the title, the art-savvy, brings to mind the influence of Piet Mondrian’s seminal, visual-dance-step of a painting, Broadway Boogie-Woogie – an obvious (inclusion-wise, if not immediately visually-wise) influence on Rohrer’s practice and thinking – and tradition. By this title alone, again, Rohrer bridges two usually disparate worlds: an agrarian, sectarian world, with that of an urbanized, dynamic and a joyfully-structured high-modernism. That bridge, as I realized recently, could be considered as nearly synonymous with cultivation. And being an inveterate gardener and artist, familiar with cultivation of both the horticultural and artistic varieties, it seems a helpful connector. But where, formalistically, might the connection continue? Rather than starting formally inside the painting (as is normally my wont), let’s begin with gardening (or horticulture). Whether one espouses a Western (linear; spacious) or Eastern (triangular; compact) aesthetic in one’s horticultural practice, order is necessary (as opposed to flower gardening, which is often a different animal altogether). It is necessary because of cultivation: an element of careful balance between control and freedom is essential. One must realize that a complete ordering of a natural environment is impossible, and naively utopian (or dystopian, depending on your viewpoint). This then brings us to the “form” portion of “formal”. Part of traditional gardening, unlike modern industrial farming, is great variety. When cultivating a diverse garden, then, “small” forms (specific cultivars; individualized, custom techniques) lie within the larger forms (soil augmentation; bed preparation, etc.) Both are integral to that cultivated balance. And one picks up from where, so to speak, your tradition left it – sometimes to the point of refreshing it with alternative cultural traditions. Geniuses such as J. I. Rodale, or Jackson Pollock, take those traditions and squeeze them, scour them, and set them on new (or as is often the case, new-old) paths, where they’ve strayed. Not all of us have this panache, but nonetheless, painter and gardener alike, work within, and push the edges of, a tradition of cultivation. Find an image of a late 1970’s Warren Rohrer painting, and observe the brush work. They are nearly of the same mindset as a plowman on his tractor, pulling the monster tool behind; glazing over in the pleasurable mundanity of the task: the familiar place; the newness layered on to the utter sameness. Is the danger also, as well as the redemption, evident in this? Each row is new, yet near to the previous year’s path. This harks to another seriously influential component of modern painting (especially of late Modernists such as Rohrer): the often minute changes between canvases, or works. That subtle change – tweaking – is the revelatory gap between one spark of discovery and subsequent experimentation, and another. And even though I hoe along with a multiple-thousand year tradition, I still teach myself – and the practice teaches me – because neither painting nor horticultural cultivation are static, but rather are continuums, subject to change, however glacial a pace it may be in some eras. Though we may stand and work in the same places, our experience is always glazed with that crucial, titillating layer of discovery. 

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