September 24, 2007
A PAINTER CROSSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
It’s a day to remember in Cornish, New Hampshire, at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. The sky is the blue of stained glass at Chartres Cathedral, an impossible color too vivid to be entirely without edge. The sun is high, the shadows are deep, the birches silvery white. Mysteriously, though autumn has arrived 150 miles to the south, it feels like high summer here, with a breeze to take away the haze, not a yellow leaf in sight, and everywhere the scent of newly mown grass. Exactly one hundred years and one month ago, on a summer day possibly like this one, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the dean of American sculptors, died at his Cornish home, Aspet, the Federalist house on a hill that was the hub of the artists’ colony he founded in 1885, and a nexus of American artistic and intellectual life for the next quarter of a century.
I am at Aspet to interview the New England-based muralist Holly Alderman about the installation she was commissioned to do at the site – an installation that was both a departure for her and the result of an investigation of digital space that she had begun several years earlier as a Fellow of the National Academy of Design in New York. In a much earlier life, I was a muralist, and have been fascinated by Holly Alderman’s murals, which can be seen in locations from Hollywood to Maine, for as long as I’ve been aware of them. In an age of photo-realist painting, with muralists and their assistants tracing the contours of representational scenes projected onto a wall by an opaque projector, Alderman draws and paints using free-hand perspective, for compositions in which the eye travels far into deep background or architectural space. Trust me on this one – it’s a highly unusual way to work, and you not only see but feel the difference between an original mural painted in perspective and one that is a perspective rendition from a photographic source. I was astonished, then, when Alderman set out to discover what digital space had to offer her as a painter, and what, as a painter, she might bring with her across the digital divide. For an artist who liked to climb up on huge scaffoldings and paint her own murals as well as design them, how was this going to work?
The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site is the natural location to debut the new work, which is suffused with the spirit of classicism, a spirit that has spoken deeply to Alderman for many years, as followers of her perspective murals know. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was the pivotal figure of the “American Renaissance,” which historians of art and architecture place between the late 1870’s and the beginning of the First World War. In a conversation about the Alderman installation, Russell Bastedo, a historian and the official curator of the State of New Hampshire, pointed out to me the tremendous optimism of the post-Civil War era, founded on an exhilarating fact – that the Republic, having come so close to destruction within only 70 years of its founding, was not, after all, sundered, was instead on the verge of becoming a great world power. According to Bastedo, the affinity for the classical style in architecture and all the arts was especially keen in these years, when Americans saw themselves as the heirs to Greek democracy and wanted their public spaces to look the part. “Expansion was an optimistic process,” Bastedo told me. “And the technology making it possible to push back the frontier was deeply thrilling to the public. The style that best expressed this was classicism. Nobody would have put it this way, but the ergonomics were right.”
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose work embodied the classical spirit, rose to fame on his Civil War commemorative sculptures, most notably the monumental bronze bas-relief memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment of black Union soldiers, the labor of nearly 15 years. Unveiled to the Boston public in 1897, the naturalism of the figures and the dignity they achieved without appearing posed were ravishing to those at the new century’s edge. On the strength of this and other great commissions, President Teddy Roosevelt chose Saint-Gaudens to redesign the national currency, producing the high point of American numismatic art – the double eagle $20 gold piece. Towards the end of his rather short life – he died in his 50’s, having been ill with cancer for many years – Saint Gaudens took on Abraham Lincoln, creating for Lincoln Park in Chicago the brooding but kindly image with head inclined and eyes cast down that most Americans think of when they visualize the nation’s greatest hero. Had he lived, the monumental sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, would have been his, for he had the commission. Instead, it was done with his blessings, and very much in his style, by his friend and colleague, Daniel Chester French.
Aspet and, a few hundred yards away, Saint-Gaudens’s studio with its clerestory windows and trellised porticoes, pay homage to a life filled to bursting with work that was acclaimed throughout the land, with distinguished and loving friends. In this, his centenary year, many prestigious conferences are taking place to commemorate and look anew at his life and work. Perhaps, contemplating this era that can seem to belong to a much deeper past, an art lover might not be blamed for pondering: what happened? For a bare century ago, the mission of a great artist was to create beauty that every citizen would recognize as beauty, art that met a standard of excellence universally agreed on, that stirred patriotism and optimism, inspiring men to virtue, bringing them to their knees in recognition of the power wielded by beauty, pathos and heroism. To enter the radiant world of Saint-Gaudens, where even the weather is too beautiful be real, to wander among white fluted columns, fragrant lawns, fountains and birch lanes is -- most curiously -- to think about Modernism, to which the very naturalness people found and responded whole-heartedly to in Saint-Gaudens was a prelude. The classical ideal encompasses a certain large amount of naturalness, although we rarely think of it that way, and though it is a distance, it’s no great distance from there to the immediacy and intimacy found in the figural work of the early European modernists. Anyone in the mood for thinking it all through could hardly do better than to spend a day as I did in Cornish.
Does art with the sheer eye appeal of classicism have meaning not only within the culture that produces it but across cultures? That might depend on whether beauty and order are able to reach us through the “felt axis” posited by Gestalt psychologists, on whether certain proportions and geometries create in us a sense of harmony that is physiologically based. Proponents of the classical style would say that was exactly the case, that shorn of its European “high culture” associations, classicism pleases on a simpler basis – even in an irony-besotted era not so interested in being pleased by its art, compelled more by consumer culture than by high culture. Preparing to go to Saint-Gaudens for the Alderman installation, I spoke with the art historian and Egyptologist Diana Wolfe Larkin about the tension in mid-19th century Europe between classicism and romanticism that prompted so much side taking. From this distance, Larkin remarked, many seemingly contradictory tendencies – represented, for instance, by the painters Ingres and Delacroix – appear reconciled, like two sides of the same coin, so that it is possible to discern a classicizing spirit in a romantic painter, and vice versa. “There will always be a place for classicism,” Dr. Annette Blaugrund, director of the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York told me -- classicism running as a current through other movements in art, its keynotes a dynamic symmetry and a balance reflecting order, not stasis.
Holly Alderman is inspired not only by the spirit of classicism but also by a long-time interest in synergetics to pursue an ideal of beauty with origins, like all such ideals, in an earlier era. This is no retreat from our own time, however, for she is passionate and knowledgeable about the modern and post-modern in art, committed to conceptualizing new forms that can arise only from the present. Although she is far from exalting technique over the interiority of a work of art, in her life as a muralist, she has been a ceaseless technical innovator, experimenting with materials to increase the durability of her murals, and, as a printmaker, printing on unconventional substrates from silk to acetate. In the 1980’s, she chaired the Design Science Group, bringing together MIT and Harvard scientists, mathematicians, architects, writers, artists, film makers, dancers and students for a symposium on the materials, media and creative methods used to explore and teach the science of design. Entering digital space to compose there, and developing a way to print on sheer satin for a transparent output are in character for this artist both highly comfortable with new technologies and profoundly reluctant to harness them either as a shortcut to an appearance of old-fashioned skill or a substitute for originality. In a wide-ranging conversation, she and I talked about crossing the digital divide, about site-specific environmental art, about unique materials that express an artistic vision, and about the inspirations for it all.
EH: What did it feel like to put away your paints for a summer, head to New York and explore cyberspace as a painter?
HA: Wild and free! I had a fellowship at the National Academy Museum to work on very large-scale murals in a program about revitalizing mural painting in the U.S. Cyberspace was a revelation, not an intention. The work I started out to do felt a lot like preparing for painting because I was thinking like a painter, trolling the city – especially Central Park -- with my new digital camera for images that might be digitally manipulated by me, but which I believed would take their final form in paint. I actually spent lots of time sketching with a pencil, and Xeroxing historic picture research. I redesigned three locations including the neo-classical dining room of the National Academy townhouse on Fifth Avenue, with panel murals composed in digital space. I’d kind of begun wondering what it would be like to paint something that came from the process of image capture, not from drawing… Then I had a moment of hyper-clarity – about not painting it because it really didn’t need to be painted.
EH: What was this “it” that didn’t need to be painted?
HA: Nine composite images built of smaller ones from around Central Park, which I had created with the idea of scaling up to paint on 11-foot panels. Like you see in the maquette. The most familiar figures in it are the traffic signal – the silhouette dotted in light that blinks on to tell pedestrians to cross the street – juxtaposed with the falconer statue from Central Park. These became iconic to me. They arose from digital space and they lived there – I was extremely surprised and intrigued with how they looked on the monitor, and wondered how I would paint them. Then I wondered -- why would I paint them? It would have been almost like killing and stuffing them.
EH: Quite a moment for a painter…
HA: It was. On a personal discovery scale, it was like Columbus making landfall or Fermi engineering the first atomic chain reaction.
EH: Were the other Fellows experiencing something similar? What about the teacher?
HA: People were inspired to all kinds of insights – it was a heady time. We had a fantastic leader, the painter Grace Graupe-Pillard. Most of the time in design, using a computer is a way to save yourself some wear and tear by making it very simple to try out something new without destroying what you’ve already done. My father and grandfather were architects who drafted with pencil on paper and before that with crow quill pen on starched linen, on the same drafting board I used until about two years ago, when I left it behind for digital space. My father the modernist actually made perfect drawings with a pencil every time, and found CAD absurd. When you're doing mural design, you appreciate the efficiency of composing with whole images, and not having to sketch every detail from scratch to do that. But in making art, you're much more sensitive to the process itself and what its potential is, so you stop and look at what is in the moment, and set aside preconceived ideas. At least, that’s what I do. My biggest preconceived notion was that I was at the Academy for a summer of enlightenment that would result in new visions for painted murals. That's just not what happened there. I think I bring with me wherever I go the processes of an artist – one who lives to invent, not to streamline. I always feel the pull of terra incognita very strongly, and the first thing I want to do is explore it, not bend it to my will.
EH: That comes later…
HA: Oh, yes. It certainly does.
EH: When you realized you were entering a world that might not lead you back to painting on walls – that sounds very difficult. Was it?
HA: It was very exciting. I knew I was starting on a period of form-finding, and that’s always a great feeling. One day, crossing Columbus Avenue and heading towards the Academy, I realized I was ecstatic about art – as happy as I had been in college. I was inventing. What especially struck me about digital space were the layers and scale and transparency. I’ve been working with illusions of depth for a long time – nearly all muralists do – and there’s a way to simulate depth in architectural space with a computer program. But that wouldn’t work for me, since it’s the sort of thing I greatly prefer to finesse by hand for blends and effects. What is really fascinating is how you achieve a feeling of fluidity and depth by layering transparent images that you’ve captured. This isn’t about speed or efficiency, and it’s very freeing. I think it’s one of the great gifts of technology to artists because it’s a new metaphor for layers of memory, in a way not comparable with composite images that are not transparent. For example, I find one image showing with tremendous clarity in the shadow of another – something that has obsessed painters since Pontormo, nearly 500 years ago.
EH: Yet none of this you wanted to take, as a painter, and run with. What were you thinking about outputting it?
HA: I’ve always thought of myself as an environmental artist who creates many different kinds of environments, and for most of the hours we spend, walls do form our environment. It’s true, I didn’t want to paint onto walls what I created in digital space, yet I badly wanted to see it out in our environment. Inventing how to do that was my new big and daunting challenge. What I was looking for was a fluid support for a fluid medium – a flexible, transparent substrate that would be an analog for the luminosity of the monitor. This needed to be a fabric – one that could suggest either an enclosure or a window.
EH: This sounds like a big departure in working methods.
HA: Totally! It meant a deeper inquiry into materials and techniques than is normal even for me, and I like to experiment. But it was a conceptual shift, too. I moved my digital studio out of doors to help push that along. There’s a convention in Roman fresco painting that fascinates me. They would paint the walls of a room that gave onto a garden with a view of the very same garden. Or, was the painting on the walls the prototype for the garden? There was an intimate back and forth with gardens and landscape that I was interested in. So when I moved my digital studio outside, right into my garden and in sight of Mt. Monadnock, I started thinking of digital output as both window and wall, and I also started thinking of environmental art as imagery that could be transparently integrated into landscape.
EH: You mounted your first output as big silk banners. What about printing them? I can’t imagine…
HA: It’s like printing on air. That is, that’s the idea. But for a long time there were technical difficulties -- to say the least – in creating that effect. Then my sister Mary Lord, a digital photographer, told me about a genius of a printmaker, Dan Saccardo, and together we started to print my transparent, layered images onto a transparent substrate. It was very important to me that the banners have a surface that would hold color and bounce light back, yet allow light to filter through from behind, too. The luminosity of the monitor held such an attraction for me – I wanted to hold onto it. So finding the right fabric was a thrilling adventure! As well as looking right, the fabric had to stand up to the weather. And so did the ink. Finally we had a banner that you could hang outside in a rainstorm and let dry in the sun. Environmental art really has to perform that way. My banners survive giant hailstones and hurricane conditions.
EH: Your palette is so remarkable and intense to find on something so sheer. What was it like changing over to a digital palette?
HA: Like painting with veils of color. I use entire photographs as glazes. Since there are colors you can blend in digital space that you’ll never see in nature or in output, getting the intensity I desire for the images to fuse yet remain clearly recognizable is a patient and delicate process. I love color, and I want to use the palette of nature for works that integrate with nature. And to have presence when backlit by the sun, the banners need highly saturated colors. Color is key to emotional intensity, too. Discovering the right materials and techniques is an adventure in the service of a vision, not a goal in itself. You’re going for an emotional effect, after all. And an environmental art installation that had only a cerebral appeal would be…oh, empty, for me.
EH: Is that a romantic idea?
HA: Well, maybe it’s romantic by way of classicism. The ravishing, ecstatic relation to nature is a romantic idea – I so relate to that. You sense it in the works of Caspar David Friedrich, who had an amazing way of combining the colors of glaciers and snow with bright colors. But classicism isn’t all about restraint and white and gray marble. It’s also about a feeling of vibrancy and optimism – qualities that are well within the ability of line and form and color to communicate, and that have a re-invigorating effect on people. The archetypes from classical mythology are still very much with us, so much that it’s quite normal for us to recognize them instantly. So these are powerful images to conjure with, and they have a 2000-year long association with gardens. Classicism is found in a certain touch of civilization on nature -- the very light restraining hand that makes the difference between nature and a garden. Although sometimes you do have to detach from a lot of bank architecture to see it that way.
EH: Was it this feeling for the classical style what attracted you to Saint-Gaudens?
HA: Well, my art studio is in southern New Hampshire, where Saint-Gaudens is not just the pre-eminent America sculptor of all time, but a familiar and beloved hero. Saint-Gaudens home in Cornish is the only national historic site in the state. Cornish was an artists’ colony from the time Saint-Gaudens made it his summer home in the mid-1880’s, and it was on the cultural map for visits from many distinguished Americans in the New York, Boston and Washington, DC world of arts and letters. There were receptions and studio concerts in the summer. Saint-Gaudens created a huge amount of work while being very social and hospitable – he was an awesome genius! As his health worsened, he came to live here fulltime, and remained productive as an artist until the very last few weeks of his life. He was the son of a shoemaker, born in Ireland, and he had no great education to start with. Yet he lived in and died in this miraculous place, where as you see, there really is something special about the atmosphere, and created a body of work that is profoundly revealing of the American experience. For all my love of modern art, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be inspired by this. I started making photographs here last summer and fall, more than a year before I was invited by the Saint-Gaudens Memorial to produce a special exhibition. I was appropriating Saint-Gaudens and the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site as my subject, you could say.
EH: It’s a huge installation, isn’t it? The banners are all over the site. I like the way they move in the breeze.
HA: There are 40 banners here, the biggest ones about 4 by 6 feet. That they have motion from unseen forces is very important to me because it simulates the fluidity of images in digital space. And it adds to their memory dimension, because memory is fleeting – not the same if you look twice. Also, the banners are soft, not static like a painted wall, and they should respond to changes in light and atmospheric pressure.
EH: I was talking with Diana Wolfe Larkin [art historian at Mt. Holyoke College] about this work, just to get an art historical perspective on an installation that is site-specific in an historic site. She called the banners a study in how to bring memory into art, and said that looking at each one was like looking through time and accumulated memory.
HA: Oh! Yes, I’ll take that -- thanks, Diana!
EH: She also said you were in unashamed, unabashed pursuit of beauty – although she told me it was possible to get into trouble using words like “lyrical” and “beautiful.”
HA: Yes, beauty is crucial – even magical or mystical -- to me. The banners are murals of cyberspace, and cyberspace is very beautiful even just to think about, as the place where so many impossible connections are possible. Here, outdoors in natural light, we see complex images only possible in cyberspace.
EH: Does beauty create its own mood? Is it about a certain mood?
HA: Well, it’s uplifting. It almost can’t help but be. And we all know there’s a lot of wonderful art that isn’t uplifting. I read that Brice Marden, whose abstract paintings are so very beautiful, shied away from the word beauty in favor of the term enhancement. But I love the eternal depth of meaning, the aspiration, discipline and courage involved in trying to reach the perception of an aesthetic deliverance – call it beauty. It’s beyond self-expression, but it’s self-expression too. And the very search for it creates a certain vibrant mood that is artistically sustaining to me. For this body of work, the search came from the classical spirit – it’s pervasive here, as anyone can see, as well as a good fit for me. But this is a site-specific installation, and it brought out in me a highly specific response. Any image I create, whatever it may look like, will be created purely for aesthetic adventure, to invent and discover new ways of seeing unique in our time.
EH: Is that the way it is when you’re painting, too?
HA: Totally the way it is. But, you know, cyberspace has changed everything, and presented us all with the imperative to forge a new aesthetic.
See Holly Alderman's installation through October 31st, 2007, at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. Visit www.sgnhs.org for hours and directions.
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