Wednesday, August 26, 2015


After seeing the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum, I've been reconsidering my own stylistic direction.

Sargent's portraits of his friends (including Monet, Rodin, and Henry James) have the nobility of line and psychological insight that recall Velazquez and Bronzino. Sargent's subjects seem so alive, almost engaged in conversation with the viewer, in part because the artist required at least eight sittings from his clients. Contemporary portraits based on photographs rarely have the same vitality. Sargent's paintings are striking and memorable even without the use of expressionist techniques.

A few days after seeing the exhibit, I found "Ilya," buried in my closet, which I painted five years ago during a workshop with Kate Lehman at Janus Collaborative School of Art in East Harlem (which has since closed but is rumored to be re-opening again soon).

At the time all I wanted was to paint like an old master - with Rembrandt lighting, dark backgrounds, and so forth. Indeed the Janus studio had a wonderful north light and a model who could have stepped out of a portrait by Zurbaran or El Greco, though in reality he was a graduate student in statistics at Columbia University.

I worked on the 18 x 24 in. painting for five days, six hours a day, but didn't quite finish it. I would have liked to work on the ear and neck a bit more but was generally pleased with Ilya's likeness and expression.

I practiced classical realism for a while but in time, the strict rules of the atelier method - the preparatory drawings, limited color range, uniformity of expression  - began to feel like a suppression of creativity. Indeed, the idealized aesthetic of classical realism felt escapist and somehow out of touch with how we perceive each other in modern life, with its fast pace, urban chaos, and profusion of electronic media.

I have since changed my style, appropriating the sensibilities of abstract expressionism and other 20th century movements, while exploring the limits of facial recognition and anatomical integrity.

But it was good to get in touch with Sargent, and Ilya, once again. I came to understand that figurative expressionism doesn't exist in a vacuum, and can't work without a solid, realist foundation.