Silence is Golden

(Have you noticed my penchant for using 60’s song titles?)

An introduction from the New York Times’ Ken Johnson to Agnes MartinMay 19, 2000. “Whether Agnes Martin’s new stripe paintings are works of transcendentalist beauty or of sensory deprivation depends on what beliefs viewers bring to them. Each canvas is a pale five-foot square bearing horizontal bands of watery color separated by penciled lines. Ms. Martin’s iconic persona, her reputation for mystic spirituality and titles like ”Happiness-Glee,” ”Lovely Life” and ”I Love the Whole World” encourage discovery of a kind of pantheistically charged aesthetic resonance. Taken on their own, however, these paintings do not generate much visual excitement.” (For more on Martin: http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=3787 )

When watching a video of Agnes Martin I was impressed not only by her presence and what she had to say, but by her commitment to her process. As she was being interviewed, describing how she prepared and approached one of her 5’ by 5’ canvases (this, by the way, was when she was in her mid- ‘80’s) she was applying a thin layer of watered, acrylic wash in a 2 inch stripe with a 2 inch brush. It was not much different than watching my friend Sally paint around the woodwork in her living room.

But then something happened that illustrated the power of the practice of art-making. With brush to canvas, as she was coming to the end of one of the identical, vertical stripes, resembling those that already occupied the surface, she seemed to physically “disappear”.  Not like David Copperfield, but it was as if her physical presence became suspended in an aura of energy.  She stopped talking mid-sentence as the brush continued to hug the line it was following.  She seemed to need every bit of concentration to complete this one, simple line, the kind of line she had made a thousand times before. The line was the visual symbol of her esoteric thought, the thing that makes her a world-class, museum-worthy artist. And it was clear to the interviewer at that moment that “silence was golden”.

The latest Robert Genn newsletter mentions the value of silence: Silence focuses your eyes on your process. When you do not surround or precede your effort with your own verbiage, meaning and purpose are more likely to come out of the end of your brush.”

Aspiring to be world-class, museum-worthy artists probably does not define many in our group.  We are about something different that has its own rewards and set of values.  We are also about community and support and the mere fact that we are a “group” implies interaction.  However, after an initial greeting and catch-up many people in our group do aspire to that feeling of “disappearance”.  And it’s almost impossible to achieve when there is endless chatter.

I’m not suggesting that we become a cluster of monks while working.  But I know how continual chit-chat degrades not only the process but the outcome. And if that doesn’t matter to you personally, please be aware that it may matter to others.

Talk about the work and seeking advice from others, etc. is about what we are largely about. So please do not hesitate to engage in that kind of communication.  But try to avoid discussing the weekend activities, etc. after everyone gets to work.  And if anyone is disturbing your concentration, even if it’s me, please do not hesitate to say something. Knowing the feeling of getting lost in a line in order to find something more is worth more than the satisfaction idle chatter may bring.  And I am happy to hold my tongue in order to facilitate it.

PS. It’s wonderful when people help each other with a fresh eye or a good idea.  But please wait to be asked.  If you have an idea, lead with a compliment. It will open a dialogue.

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