Culture/cultivation: Thoughts on Painting the Landscape

Article excerpt

Occasionally here in Vermont there are glorious early fall days-clear and mild, the air as moist as in summer. I abandon the studio to walk in the woods with my dog. I gather fallen apples from the orchard and pick tomatoes. The harvesting chores are demanding at this time of the year-canning, freezing, filling the root cellar. On the easel in my studio is a large painting of bright yellow plastic tubing coiled up on a rusty red cart. This is farming equipment used for draining wet fields. (As I was driving through the Midwest on a painting trip a couple of years ago, that yellow plastic screamed at me across the flat terrain of Ohio, the site of a prehistoric sea.) Finished paintings on the studio walls limn fertilizer tanks, tractors, silage bunkers. While living a pastoral idyll, I paint images that confront the industrial present of agriculture.

My painting life began the other way round. I'm a Brooklyn kid, born and bred; I earned both my college and graduate school degrees at Brooklyn College. During my graduate painting studies, I moved to the Lower East Side, from which my family had escaped during the twenties, where I lived for twenty years. Throughout this time, come summer, I'd rent a house in the "country"-Long Island, upstate New York-and paint en plein air. At the beginning of my career, my focus was on Victorian architecture. That focus gradually enlarged to include landscape. I would paint outdoors day after day-bundled up against the cold, smeared with bug repellent, wearing a huge hat for protection from glare. Since light was an important element in my work, and light changed over the course of the day, each summer I would begin several paintings and complete them over a period of three or four months: a painting for sunny mornings and one for cloudy mornings, the same for afternoons. Hazy light, because of the softness of its shadows, also required a different painting.

There is an intensity of vision only possible when looking at the same scene over a long period of time. The painting process is akin to a meditative practice. I felt an expansiveness of spirit while working concentratedly on the motif. For me the landscape was a place of refuge, as it is for so many city dwellers who are looking for air, space, and light to expand their spirits, seeing this place as less manipulated by human agency.

An articulation of this feeling (though somewhat extravagant for my taste) comes from the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." Nineteenth-century painters also embraced this spiritual attitude. Luminism, a mode that includes some of my favorite landscape paintings, embodies a selfless spirituality. The all-enveloping light, calm horizontal structure, and lack of touch in the paintings of Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane, and John Frederick Kensett give their work a transcendent quality. Nature is seen as an aspect of God. I find the ordinary subject matter and reticence of this work more appealing than the similarly spiritually seeking but more grandiose paintings that invoke the awe-inspiring sublime.

My pragmatic, down-to-earth nature-the sensibility that causes me to prefer Lane over Albert Bierstadt-makes me uncomfortable with talk of spirituality and has forced me to see the wrongheadedness of pastoral romance. The views I so admired, spreading out alongside vernacular architecture, were formed by the hard labor of husbandmen over many years. Even wilderness has not escaped human intervention: forests have been cut and roads built through them, the frozen wastes of Antarctica have been probed, and Mt. Everest is littered with old oxygen canisters. As Simon Schama states, "it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have."' The dictionary definition of landscape, "a stretch of country as seen from a single point," implies a viewer, someone who organizes the infinite detail seen. …