28 August 2023

Léo and Aix

Here is a small piece I wrote for the Léo Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence which had asked me to participate in their monthly series. Included at the end is a selection of paintings from 1973 - 2023 to compliment the text.  


Léo Marchutz and my arrival in France 
I was unusually fortunate to meet my teacher Léo Marchutz when I arrived at the IAU during my third year of University in 1972. This was an event that changed my life.
Léo was teaching painting to students at the American Institute once or twice a week. I began attending his classes and soon enough it became a kind of personal apprenticeship, more 19th, than 20th century style than what I had been used to at art school. After my first year in Aix I made the decision not to return to finish my art degree in America but to stay and study with Léo. 

After all the contempt I felt for art school, which I eventually fled after two years in order to get to France, here in front of me was an artist who was guiding me into painting through the history of art. I was young with a whole life in front of me and like all great events in one's life, they arrive as improbable surprises. I took a small apartment in the Châteaunoir then France became my home. 

By this time I was seeing Leo every day. I would arrive for tea with Barbara, his wife, then Léo would usher me into his studio where he showed me what he was working on. Sometimes I showed him what I had been doing but mostly I asked questions and he responded, this became the model for our relationship. This amazing chapter of my life lasted until his death in 1976.

Though I cannot imagine that Leo would like some of my work today, I owe him everything. I only speak for myself, but I think one’s teacher, like one’s parent, needs to be left behind, loved and never forgotten, but no longer in the studio. One has learned everything one needs to learn and one must cut one’s own way into the world of painting. Unlike so many teachers, it was never all about him, he simply pointed his students back to the masters. Léo was the beacon, not the statue.

I am still a fan of the Léo Marchutz School in whatever iteration. I went to the first one when Billy, Sam and Leo had decided to make a go of it away from the IAU. Amos Booth and Francois de Asis were also instrumental but they remained behind the scenes. I met John that year (1974) and some time later Alan turned up. Remarkably, through all its forms, the Marchutz experience has survived. This is almost completely due to John and Alan who have ridden out so many storms over the past few decades to keep it going sometimes against great odds. They slowly transformed the early somewhat improvised format which Billy, Sam and Leo had begun, tweaking it a little here and there, to satisfy an upgrade to the University system that demanded a coherent academic curriculum. But they are not the only ones, there is a whole crew who has come and gone over the years and I imagine they are also still as much a part of this family as I have been. 

Australia, and some improvised notes on both my studio work and the series Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads.

Today, I live in Australia where I came about ten years ago to the North Coast of New South Wales. It’s a sleepy town full of surfers, hippies, new agers, and the odd film star. 

For the past six years I have been making studies at the beach at dusk. They represent a visual diary of my evening sessions entitled 'Evening Prayers Brunswick Heads’.

Many years ago I had seen the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto who spent years traveling around the world making large black and white studies of the horizon line almost cutting the image in half. He used an 8 X 10 camera often with long exposures during all kinds of weather and in all seasons. I was deeply moved by these things.

And although prior to seeing his series, I had never been fond of black and white photography, but in his case, I was taken aback by these painterly nuances in black, white, and a multitude of greys. 

Though his images were the inspiration for my own series, I wished only to explore this horizon line in colour using oil paints. Painting at dusk provided me with the colour I desired. While his photos were created using a long exposure, my pictures on the other hand, are made with lightning speed. 

I call it a series now, but when I began, I had no idea that it would become such a project. I simply wanted to get back outdoors again to have some fun and mix colours in the sunlight. I had been working in the studio for many years where the creative process is different. But I needed to change things up so I began going out to the beach towards dusk and making these small studies. Today, I now practice two Painting forms simultaneously, one complementing the other, one in the studio, the other, in front of the motif outdoors. They both bring great satisfaction to me and speak to different corners of my curiosity.

Although in this exploration at the beach I had not initially foreseen it to be a 'site specific’ series, one which generally means that the artist alters the site in question, but in the end however, it turned into one by means of repetition.  And unlike most artistic 'site' projects, in this case, the work proceeded the idea, not the other way around. And though I haven’t altered the site, it is I who has been altered by it. 

Throughout this time my work process has varied considerably. At certain moments I appear to be more concerned with the graphic unity of the surface while at others I am simply seduced by the sensual nature of the oil paint. But always, I am looking at colour’s ability to simultaneously push and pull the drawing of the image both forward and backwards into the surface of the picture plane but never am I interested in this approach solely for its own sake. Because the motif is so inherently abstract, being just the sea and sky (for I never use the beach as a traditional means to illustrate a traditional foreground), I use colour as the principal vehicle with which to push the foreground backwards into the painting while at the same time bringing the background forward up to the surface. This is for me one of the greatest lessons from Cezanne, who in the 19th century, single-handily ushered us into the era of truly Modern Painting by demolishing perspective and breaking down distance, for better and alas, worse. Matisse, whose work I came to love, went even further down this path eventually turning the Painting world upside down.  

During these years I’ve made lots of studies, and after much failure, I’ve learned a great deal too while also growing into the ‘motif’. I’m always looking for the pictorial resolution for them because each picture has its own illusive logic. I’m interested in the unity of the whole surface, the formal integrity of each painting, the drawing and colour being at its essence. But consequently, these studies might appear scruffy, sloppy and unfinished because I'm certainly more Expressionist than Impressionist. But personally, I like all these spontaneous and accidental elements in my own work, and in others too. It’s a matter of taste. 

As each picture can be so different from one day to the next, I too, am quite different. Somedays I'm joyful, sometimes not, maybe tired and a little grumpy, with a mind full of problems, real or imagined, but because I go out there as a habit to work, Nature has always opened up to me regardless of my state of mind, and as a result, I am always changed by the painting process, and it’s for this reason, more than any others, why I still go out there to work. As my friend, Francois de Asis has always assured me, “When one paints, one lives better”. 

I realised that I needed to work on a small scale in order to capture so much change, so quickly at this twilight hour. So thus, I settled on two small convenient board sizes. Working small, as all landscape painters know, keeps the process simple and within reach. There is also a special kind of beauty in a small oil painting.

These studies also opened me up again to exploring the expansive myriad of grey tones that cycle through the colour wheel while lighting up a whole variety of nuances at the dusk hour. And what surprises me when I take a few steps backward to view the oeuvre as a whole, it's that most of the paintings, though they obviously share my fingerprints, they all appear to manifestly look so vastly different from one to the other. But then, weather can dictate so much of this.  

I have enclosed a selection of work that will hopefully reveal who I am as a painter starting with a few early things, up to the beach paintings (in chronological order), then some of the large non-objection paintings done in the studio. These latter things perhaps deserve an explanation but I would need much more space here than has been allotted to me.  

I’ve never been crazy about American Expressionism though for many years I’ve earnestly tried hard to be. But because I'm a romantic, I've always dreamt of a way I could possibly marry Expressionism to Nature. I wish I could re-phrase this by saying that I desired to reunite them back together again, but the truth is that American Expressionism was never attached to Nature to begin with. 

Somehow, the American Expressionists missed the boat when they lost sight of the light. Not all, some of the time, but many of them, all the time. A shame, it’s a shame because in their quixotic crusade to make something completely new in American painting, the essence of Chiaroscuro was lost. (And anyway, their ‘abstraction’ couldn’t hold a candle to Turner’s late watercolours which had already achieved this in Britain more than a century earlier). 

They broke down painting without possessing the means to rebuild it anew. Maybe this is some kind of American 'thing' because we seem to do this all over the place, all of the time. Who knows, but again, it's a shame because by trying to paint quickly and spontaneously, they were really onto something important. And breaking things down can be a good thing too if one knows how to replace them with something better, however different. 

Many of my Evening Prayers have been moving towards a flat and graphic disposition. I like that. When I compress the motif down to just a few horizontal stripes of subtle colour that feel true to Nature, a small bell rings inside me. This is weird, but good. Personally, it's where my compass always wants to point, a place where I feel good inside.

I bring all this back to my own desire to see the motif as if for the very first time, each time, wave after wave, and day after day. This means approaching the motif quickly, seizing it, and subduing it with experience and craft. By working this way I’m able to avoid a sentimental view of Nature, something I deplore in painting. This isn’t a recipe for everyone, it a way I discovered for myself because I am an anxious person, and in this series, I need a colourful frenzy at the end of the day to find peace. 

But again, it was Léo, who found a way into the motif through his own very abstract means of drawing and who subsequently passed it on to us all. In this, Léo was also a sign post.
In summary, I had originally imagined that this project was about colour but to my surprise, I discovered it was really about light, without which, there can be no real colour. And because the drawing is fairly easy, without complications, I could really focus on colour. So now, when I get out there to paint it feels a little like I’m getting into a Google self-driving car because I have so few concerns about anything else except to enjoy the ride. After all, I'm just seeing, and mixing colour. 

1973, The very earliest copy I made after Michelangelo under the watchful gaze of Léo, whose enduring patience allowed me to move through my 'technique’ period somewhat quickly.

Prometheus, Prince Street 1982, oil on canvas, 45 X 45 cm

San Giorgio 1986 oil on canvas board 30 X 23 cm

Châteaunoir 1992 oil on canvas board, (5 figure)

Evening Prayer 27 June 2017 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

Evening Prayer 30 January 2018 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

 Evening Prayer 30 January 2018 oil on canvas board 25 X 20 cm

   Evening Prayer 20 May 2018 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

 Evening Prayer 23 December 2019 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 21 February 2021 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 11 June 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm


  Evening Prayer 16 April 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 2 April 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 March 2021 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 13 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 26 June 2020 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 25 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 16 June 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 8 July 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 July 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

  Evening Prayer 28 August 2022 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 25 May 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

   Evening Prayer 23 June 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm 

Evening Prayer 12 July 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

    Evening Prayer 21 July 2023 oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

        Pacific, Myocum, 2002 oil on plywood 220 X 120cm

   Nothing Special, Dieulefit, 2010 oil on canvas 150 X 150 cm

        B.O.A.C. Myocum, 2020 oil on canvas 150 X 150 cm

             Pan Am 2022 oil on plywood 220 X 120 cm

27 August 2023

Cunning and baffling!

Having COVID in your life is like living with lover who just wants to take you down at any moment and who never wants the best for you. They will always attack your weak spots when you least expect it. 

It’s cunning and baffling.

But my own experience with it after five weeks has now settled into a routine of abuse because she comes round my door everyday and I expect to feel awful by the close of it. By nightfall, when having yielded to her torments I take Advil. 

Of course there are worst things in life than to be in the throws of this daily enigma of assault, there are lots of things, really, like living with any of my last girlfriends. So I don't complain but it is a pain in the neck, literally. 

Somehow, I had imagined I would escape catching it, one of those lucky souls who are supremely healthy and better than everyone else, mais non! 

I have not been out to work for over a month and that is not good for my mental health. I have missed some extraordinary skies too, which compounds my misery. I mean, it could have rained for three of those five weeks at least. But, hey, you can't screw with nature, or your own body for that matter.

But as I've learned in life after so many misadventures, this is but a TODAY problem, not a TOMORROW problem. Today is today while Tomorrow will be tomorrow, so I'll deal with just today, today. And anyway, looking up at such painterly skies, I'm always reminded that there will always be many more tomorrows to come, so just chill, so says my guardian angel whom I call Grace, and has the voice of Wilma Flintstone. Like waves on the Pacific, these evening skies will always keep coming for years and years. "Where's the problem?", she asks?

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 22 July, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

I have done so little recent work but this one is from a month ago almost exactly. Honestly, it feels so long ago that I hardly recognise it. I think I didn't show it beforehand because I wasn't that crazy about it, but here it is anyway. 

And truthfully, I don't really feel much for it, even though I cannot find anything specifically wrong with it. The drawing works, so so, and though the colour is a little 'damp' I cannot fault it too much. 

I often play a game with myself when facing uncertainty and while trying to assess a new study I've done by imagining that it was not done by me, but someone else. Somehow, I look for that space of neutrality where I can play pretend as if I were six years old again. But more about that another time, more to be revealed, as my friends say about this wild exercise that I can't imagine anyone else (actually sane enough) to still be performing this slight of hand for themselves. How many nuts can there be in a bag of coffee anyway?

But it then occurs to me that in this case, like for so much art everywhere, maybe the picture is just not that interesting? Indeed, as I look at it now, I probably think that.

But this question of what is 'interesting' or not in Art, is an extremely important one. It is one of the most essential elements of an art work, after all, who cares if it's any good if it is not interesting? But there is the rub, the really crucial one; It's because it concerns our personal interest, and that is about all we ever have to invest in anything. So when it comes to something like Painting, it's right up there with how we see and find other human beings too. What makes someone interesting? This is a difficult and deeply personal question too. What I think it comes down to in this regard is whether or not the 'person' in question, possesses for us something truly original, whether we like them or not. As the French will often say about someone special (like when the son in Paris introduces his new girlfriend to the parents, and they are consequently asked by their friends about her). 

"Est-ce-qu'elle brille?" ("Is she extraordinary?") 

What they mean is, is she bright, witty, charming, attractive and clever? And b.t.w, none of these adjectives by themselves would define the verb Briller, but taken together in English, they might come close.

There are many 'great' pictures out there in today's world, ones highly esteemed by many in the Museum world, etc, etc, which quite frankly, just bore me to tears. How else can I put it? Even many of my own paintings, they also bore me to death, and mercilessly so, because I'm the author. And they are not unlike boring dates, or spouses even, yet somehow, it's painfully hard to get rid of them.

My criteria for an image (any sort of image, photo, collage, painting, etc, etc) is that they be visually and pictorially interesting. It's completely personnel, but I believe it's the same for everyone else too. We like what we like for a whole world of reasons. If we didn't, we'd be snails, not the people eating them.

23 August 2023


Montbrison, Drôme, Gouache, 2012, 20 X 13 cm

Montbrison, Drôme, Gouache, 2012, 20 X 13 cm

So, I have been trying to upgrade my poor website these past few weeks because it has been loitering around like a goofy guy at the dance who has never had the courage to approach a gal. This has gone on for several years now, and Squarespace reminds me that to be at the dance hall it costs me about a 100 clams a year as we say in Brooklyn.

So, having upgraded to a new MacBook Air which has changed the speed of actually, everything (including my thinking, including my typing skills) I decided to fix up my web site. Happily, with a new laptop, all this  works like a dream like I've used a magic wand. The downside is that it cost me a bomb (twice the airfare to Europe where I have been dreaming of going since 2018) alors,,, so like all gifts there are often warts lurking around too. Next year, I keep thinking to myself....next year...

Anyway, I came across these gouaches I made after leaving my home in Dieulefit when I promptly went to Japan to shake things up between chapters in my life and where I began making these gouaches while traveling light. 

But then I continued when I returned for the summer when I took a small cottage in Montbrison from friends a stone's throw away There I played around every morning. In the afternoons I went to an old factory that some other friends had offered for a pittance before they began renovating the whole place to sell. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 4 January 2021, oil on canvas board, 40 X 30 cm

To make a long story short, I found myself with these curious images both in gouache and oils in the factory. I was making other kinds of things also but it was this visual idea of a horizon line that was somehow planted in my imagination most certainly from Hiroshi Sugimoto whose amazing photographs I had seen a bit everywhere, over the years. 

So again, it is interesting just how certain forms will always re-appear periodically in a painter's life whether one likes it or not. Like shutting and opening a laptop they go to sleep for a while only to awaken again on their own terms. In my own case, a visual idea has usually been focussed on that midpoint horizon line separating the earth or sea from the sky. Go figure....

And funny enough, here where I have settled on the North Coast of New South Wales on the edge of the Pacific, I began in earnest, to really explore this inchoate form from within me.

Poet Laval, 2013 oil on canvas, 150 X 150 cm

Montbrison, Drôme, Gouache, 2012, 20 X 13 cm

Prince Street, early 1900's oil on canvas, 40 X 40 cm


19 August 2023

On a hawk's wing

I wish I knew where I clipped this from, and from whom, but it certainly makes sense. I noticed that I too, bypass most galleries and almost exclusively go to museums when in cities.   

These three studies are from the same night a few weeks back and they seem to possess more tactile feelings than I've seen for a few months. I do understand that this series does rather cycle through different styles and ways of working over the long haul because either the weather prompts a shift, or because a new feeling comes over me that facilitates a change in my painting habits.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 25 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm 

They are presented in the order of execution. In the first two pictures there are two different feelings which reveal different ideas. The first one at top, has a flatter graphic feel which I always like when I am lucky enough to make it work. It has become my true North of directions, to a place where my inner compass desires to always point. If I thought I could make thick pancake paintings in colour I am sure I would try.

The second picture below is obviously quite different. There is a fuller use of brushwork in the construction of the plastic elements of the picture. What I mean is that contrary to the one above, it invites a more freely spontaneous approach to the problem of volume in an image but I like them both. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 25 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm 

In the following small study there is another feeling altogether. It was the last one of the night and I had almost packed up everything when suddenly I saw this abstract configuration in my mind so I grabbed a small board to see what I could make of it. I didn't like it at the time but to be fair, dusk had fallen quickly so I had  to clean up in the dark and I could barely see it.

But today what I see is a more simple, 'classical' image, perhaps more traditionally inspired maybe as well. I had wanted to do it for the colour because the spot-like clouds floating over the pink area popped out with the  colour of a ripe pear. I have seen this often but have always had a great difficulty in trying capture it with an appropriate amount of wonder. It's so subtle, an ephemeral sensation like the hint of perfume as a woman passes at a cocktail party (as I have too often described it, sorry). But anyway, it is almost always this frail puff, or tiny pop of inspiration that can set off the pictorial sensation that gives a painter his goose bumps and will force him to return to the scene of the crime.

I also like this last one because it was started out with such confusion in my mind, it was just enough of a feeling that it allowed me to jump on a hawk's wing. I was hanging onto a thread of an idea but not with my usual sense of faith and yet like the fisherman, the painter always likes a bountiful outcome.  

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 25 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm 

11 August 2023

A string of pearls, mystery and clarity

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 19 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 19 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 19 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 20 July 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Learning to paint is usually one of those purely enjoyable actions one takes up when someone has time o their hands. Like any creative endeavour it relies solely upon one's own personal understanding of themselves, a deeply individual feeling, sort of like a mapping of one's own creative DNA.

How one learns to paint is another matter. There are many avenues of course. Many people, (especially adults) tend to choose the way of technique, that is to say, learned from technical methods derived from systems largely created by others or institutions. (Think, the laborious copying of plaster casts of the 19th century) It is imposed upon a student later in life as easily as it's imposed upon young children who dutifully copy templates drawn by their teachers back in grade school. 

The opposite of this 'training' is one where students develop a vision of their own, discreetly, and in their own time frame, usually  through a teacher of unusually large artistic experience and sensibility. 

And if the teacher is a good one, it requires patience from both student and teacher. It also means that the end results can never be understood in advance, it will almost always be a surprise to both. 

This is also a process whereby the element of time will invariably be less important than the quality of the learning experience at hand because it can take a while.

Of course, there is technique in every creative act though the best ones are always hidden so thoroughly that only the artist himself could possibly decipher or decode them after the fact. And unlike technique, where there is vision, there is always the paradox of both mystery but clarity too. 

What's my point?

Recently, a thought came to me about my own experience in school as a young child, one so contrary to the understanding I have developed later in life.

And it suddenly piqued my curiosity as to how and why I never understood the idea (as a child) of learning something as an exponential and empirical, ongoing experience. 

From the stress of my own family life I had somehow developed the notion that each and every individual task, every exam, very paper assignment, and every bit of homework I had ever needed to accomplish, appeared to me as an iron door locked in place, as if by GOD himself. There was a password but this was handed out by GOD to only those really smart and diligent students. 

In the event that I couldn't understand absolutely everything along the way, I was forbidden to advance further into the labyrinth and be condemned to a life of circular confusion, unable to finish a task. I was a shadow of Sisyphus.

What interests me today is why I didn't learn that secret that so many smarty pants seem to share about the art of learning as a process not a destination.  

But what I have since learned is that each task or assignment is actually in fact, linked up to one another like a string of pearls. How was this isolated idea of pass/fail so radically imposed  upon a young creative mind? When  education become a vertical ascent instead of a horizontal hike?

I know I wasn't the only one whose learning ability was stunted by this almost Stalinist form of education. There must be whole armies of dysfunctional people out there, dejected, and still acting out in later life because they failed a book report in the second grade. 

But I guess the past is gone and I should really be grateful to have made a switch in my thinking. I have murdered my conditioning. 

But I do see it now that learning anything in life is a process like the endless ebb and flow of tidal waves at a beach and that I must learn to swim by just swimming, and that one little finger-painted picture in grade school was not a jump over the moon but just another dip in the pool.

What I learn so late in life from any and all of the these small pictures done at the beach is that these studies are connected to one another indeed like a pearl necklace. Yes, they may appear as still Polaroids but together, they  that make up an unfinished film. 

The key element of knowledge for me today is that I don’t have to understand 'everything' about 'everything' at this very moment in time. What I learn today has been part of an ongoing experience that may or may not be more resolved today, but regardless, it's a part of my whole life whether or I am complete or not.

If I could go back and say these kinds of things to myself 65 years ago, these are the kinds of things I would say. 

And I suppose that one of the great things, among many, about being fathers and mothers is that they get to revisit themselves as children, through their own children. If they are lucky, they even get to correct, to some degree, their own early faulty perspectives about themselves. For me, I'm childless so I've come to this understanding from studying both Music and Painting as an adult. 

Have I changed my outlook about how I learn these things? Yes of course. If I hadn't I would still be locked into an obsessive compulsive perfectionism, so a Psychologist once told me after a brief therapy. 

So anyway, from a few weeks back are these four studies, three from the night of the 19th July, the last one from the following night on the 20th. I liked them at the time because they are still fresh. Sometimes, that is all one can say about a painting. One hopes it lives and breathes on its on power, and not on some form of life support propped up by a concept or a sentimental tug at the eyelids. 

I have not been out for two weeks because I caught COVID but I seem to be on the mend now and hopefully when the weather clears up I will be able to get out to the beach and for fresh air. 

In the meantime I sat at the piano for the first serious practice session since getting sick. To my greatest surprise everything was still there, somewhere inside me. I ran through six Satie pieces with barely a mistake. It was extremely weird almost as is it was someone else playing my fingers. 

The lessons I take from this is that sometimes it's a good thing to pause both one's avocation and vocation from time to time. And to join the idea I presented earlier is to confirm everything I wrote about learning as a creative act.