Friday, October 31, 2008


"The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer." --Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1953, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.

An abstract painting is an archive of decisions. Painting is a process of learning what to keep and what to let go of. A lot of painting happens by sitting around and looking, looking at the painting from all angles, feeling what's missing, what needs tweaking, where the color is unbalanced or too heavy. A lot of painting also happens by looking at and studying other painters' paintings.

Rothko. He seemed to instinctively know how to achieve fullness through emptiness -- his work communes with me on a level that is very close to my own visual ideals: repetition, color, luminosity, containment, infinity.

Briony Fer, in her wonderful book, The Infinite Line, observes that "there is something very distinctive and indeed extreme about Rothko's insistence that repetition should serve rather than subvert the redemptive function of the picture." She continues:
Rothko's repetition, of course, rarely gets talked about as repetition. Instead it is called his 'classic' or 'signature style'....Rothko's template of an upright rectangular canvas, with a stack of rectangular forms, endlessly differentiated, endlessly nuanced, is both stringent and flexible. It invites a subtle discernment of the differences that occur, even as it repeats. Likewise, there are colour repetitions and colour differences mobilised within the basic schema....Rothko himself once told a friend why it was worth repeating: 'If a thing is worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again -- exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it.' There is something voracious about the demand, the demand to look, commanding attention through repetition, a concentration of mind.
There is something in my own appetite for looking, for probing, for exploring every nuance available through repetition, that resonates with Rothko's words. Rothko, unlike the minimalists, continually reworked a basic format in order to reach the transcendent potential of painting. Sublime yet intimate, his work summons a meditative or contemplative gaze while concomitantly invoking ecstasy and tragedy.

(The above quotes are taken from The Infinite Line, by Briony Fer, pages 6-8.)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Painting Truth

I found this quote by painter Philip Guston which I believe sums up the truth of painting:
In my experience a painting is not made with colours and paint at all. I don't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which have nothing to do directly with painting itself. They can come from anything and anywhere, a trifle, some detail observed, wondered about and, naturally from the previous painting. The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see.... There is Leonardo da Vinci's famous statement that painting is a thing of the mind. I think that's right. I think that the idea of the pleasure of the eye is not merely limited, it isn't even possible. Everything means something. Anything in life or in art, any mark you make has meaning and the only question is, 'what kind of meaning?'
-- Philip Guston, from "Philip Guston Talking" (lecture given at the University of Minnestoa, March 1978)
Guston here is talking about the idea of painting, rather than the existence of some physical materials on a canvas that make a beautiful image. That is the true nature of painting -- it is formed in the mind. The witness to beauty and the sublime connection we may feel with a certain painting is about the mind's connection to that idea -- it's not a visual connection but an emotional connection that makes a painting visually compelling. The meaning behind the painting is what makes the painting, especially when we are talking about abstract painting. A painter's philosophy made manifest is what abstract painting is all about. A painting is a living thing, it "moves in a mind."

Monday, October 6, 2008


"The mood
Traced in shadow
An indecipherable cause."
-- Wallace Stevens, from "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

Shadow Trace, 2008, oil on canvas, 18x18 inches
© 2008 Diane McGregor

I love poetry. Reading poetry gives me the same thrill as looking at abstract paintings -- all at once, a feeling, "an indecipherable cause," enters one's imagination and takes flight. I often use poetry to find evocative titles for my work. Since my abstractions come from within and are created slowly over time through accretion, chance, and intuition, often the right title can create a poetic interpretation of the mysterious reality of a painting. Sometimes, the titles come to me as I'm working. Other times, a word or phrase from a poem can trigger an image in my mind that then becomes a painting. Finally, as is the case here with Shadow Trace, I discover the title by looking through favorite poems. Very often, the right title transforms the painting into something profound, beyond just paint on canvas. The painting rightly assumes its place in the world, having never before existed in quite this combination of color and form, light and dark, poetry and silence. My involvement with each painting is like a birthing experience, and only I and the painting know what labor pains I have suffered in creating it. Sometimes, the title is an invitation for the viewer to witness this very private struggle and triumph.