Dark Day Picks—James Elkins’ “What Painting Is”

By LIZ HAGER

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, art world tidbits, and, as in the case today, books that have recently made an impression on us. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Pollock—No 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) detail

Jackson Pollock, No I., 1950 (Lavender Mist), detail of lower left center
oil on canvas
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

What is painting?

Typically, art historians answer that question with a litany of the who and what for facts of painting—the social, financial, and political forces that conspired to bring a work into being. After all, their job is to securely place a work within the (academically-assigned) progression of human endeavor. An art critic may add nuance to this discussion by dissecting the position of the work on the artist’s evolutionary arc or opine on the painting’s merit by comparing it in compositional terms to works by other artists.

Authors of painting manuals answer by showing us how to paint—they divulge the secrets of achieving different effects with the many painterly substances.

In his 1999 book What Painting Is, James Elkins takes a different approach. He explores the why of painting, every bit as fascinating and important as the what for and how. Elkins points acknowledges that painting is a metamorphic act, simply put, “the name for what happens when paint moves across a blank canvas.”  The book is his thesis on the experiential process of transforming basic material substances—once pulverized stone (pigment) and water (oil). In this regard, painters in their studios are very much like alchemists in their labs—they wrestle, coax, redo, and every so often miraculously succeed in converting their raw materials into something of transcendent beauty.

It may seem far-fetched to compare painting and alchemy, particularly in the post-Enlightenment world of chemistry:

Despite all its bad press, and its association with quackery and nonsense, alchemy is the best and most eloquent way to understand how paint can mean: how it can be so entrancing, so utterly addictive, so replete with expressive force, that it can keep hold of an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Alchemists had immediate, intuitive knowledge of waters and stones, and their obscure books can help give voice to the ongoing fascination of painting.  (p.7)

“The alchemical sisters,” from Johann Daniel Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622), emblem 10.

A Professor of Art History at The School of the Chicago Art Institute who trained as a painter, Elkins does bring substantial authority to his central proposition: that the essence of a painting is in the visible and invisible processes that went into creating it. Using details from range of paintings—from Sasetta, Monet, Debuffet, Pollock, Rembrandt, Nolde, among others—Elkins discusses the similarity in the processes painters (and alchemists) go through to create their magic.

It’s a seductive comparison, which largely holds a reader’s interest, because most of the discussion on alchemy is kept within range of the uninitiated. Further, Elkins always returns to the discipline of painting, which is the more important topic of the two, afterall. That said, I found some of the alchemic discussions a bit obscure and a few of the analogies to painting slavishly concocted. The chapter on  “Moldy material prima” was brilliant, but my interest waned more than a few times in the chapter on “Coagulating, cohobating, macerating, reverberating.”

Still, the observations on painting are more often than not heady and inspirational. I suspect painters will nod vigorously in agreement. A long passage on Jackson Pollock winds up this way:

Thinking of the painting as a layered sequence, it may seem as if Pollock was actually working toward a kind of order, so that the painting would reveal its creation, step-by-step, to a careful investigator. But Pollock was desperately interested in avoiding the normal structure of drawing and painting. It is rarely possible to follow a stream of paint as it winds its way across the canvas (as museum docents often advise visitors to do). Whatever such a layer became too obvious, he obfuscated it, tangling it back into a pattern as if he were stitching a stray thread. Where marks threatened to become too clear, Pollock let a messy beige drip fall just on top of them, or he held the brush still while it spun a thread of paint, piling up like syrup on a pancake. . .

. . . It may be that what Pollock feared, and wanted most to destroy, was the long continuous contour that would imply a human figure. . .  (p.93)

Dubuffet—The Ceremonious One, detail, 1954Jean Dubuffet, The Ceremonious One (detail of left flank)
1954, oil on canvas

Near the end of the book, Elkins hones in exactly why painters are so addicted to paint:

Oil paint can’t be entrancing just because it can create an illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint iteself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography. (though I might argue that watercolor is paint. . .)

It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movement of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint iteself. . .

These are the passages where Elkins nails it for me—a more accurate and eloquent description of the painting process I have yet to find.

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2 Responses to “Dark Day Picks—James Elkins’ “What Painting Is””

  1. Not to stray too far from the subject at hand, I have been reading Janet Gleeson’s “The Arcanum”. This details the European fascination in the 18th century for alchemy. The book gives us an overview of the powers that be as well as players in the run for the gold. The outcome is the most amazing part…as Frederick Bottger, faux alchemist, but gifted chemist, finally breaks the code for the development of soft paste porcelain. The royal coffers become filled after all.
    Happy to send this ex-library copy to you when I finish it!

  2. I don’t think he nailed much of anything.
    That some painters love paint is not exactly an insight. Some- not all certainly.
    Titian loves paint-Magritte clearly does not.
    Contrary to what he writes-there certainly are and have been painters who abandon paint for other materials.
    Much verbiage over not much of anything.

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