Facing the Postmodern Art World
Romanticist in a Postmodern Art World
In 1998, the year of the above self-portrait, I was living in my rented two-story Turkish house/studio in the Old Town of Rhodes, Greece, which overlooked the Mediterranean and the town's minarets and domes. Two decades before, as a 20-year-old American, I had started my focused art journey in The Hague, Holland. Between Holland and Greece I moved every few years seeking inspiration from a different culture, a beautiful place, or from a big city's energy. Everywhere I lived I produced my own pop-up shows, selling enough to keep painting. I tried both New York and Los Angeles a few times, knocking on their art scene doors, but my aesthetic was incompatible with contemporary art institutions. I was a romanticist aiming for my definitive works to have the feeling of a Puccini opera. Meanwhile postmodernists were rejecting art's evolutionary developments and seriously trying to create from a preoperational cognitive state of mind like Louise Bourgeois. Others like Duchamp, Creed, and Christo sought to be radically original by using shocking, unlikely, and unrepeatable mediums for visual art.
Louise Bourgeois represents mid- and late-20th-century art well, with its call to regress to a time before we knew anything of the Renaissance or Ancient Greece, and even before Chauvet Cave painters. One theory is not to corrupt our inner free spirits with learned techniques or imitation of reality, but to create as little children do. To simply be free. But freedom in this sense means freedom from aging, wisdom, experience, sensory refinement, and from any skill set. Ultimately the theory turns back on itself. Instead of discovering freedom, every meaningful avenue of being an artist is cut off except the need to express oneself. It is like watching a blind, deaf, dumb mute without sign language trying to communicate. The original goal of pursuing freedom accomplishes the opposite: a suffocating dark world closing in. Notice the above sculpture and the image to the left–a last choking gasp?
Most artists, including me, love quiet time creating in the studio Think of that unseen person in a lone building with its studio windows blazing at 3 o'clock in the morning. After months or years of creating, a body of work emerges, and it seems to push for a public show. The opening night of one's exhibition is a mixture of pride, excitement, and an uncomfortable sense of sharing too much with too many people. Odd that such a private thing is thrust into the public, I am surprised paintings don’t die of heart attacks. After working six years on a theme of bliss through four paintings, it was time to show them along with their preparatory sketches.
This drawing was drawn live with a model, about 60 hours of posing. At the time I was teaching life drawing at Otis College of Art and Design, and I was using the same approach that I taught the students: Line up and measure the landmarks of the bones using triangulation (which helps significantly with foreshortening, as in what is the proportion of her foot to the rest of her body), layer some key anatomy features, then cross-hatch the light and shadow following her forms. There are a few paintings with feet in the immediate foreground, one is Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman. I saw it many times in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, Holland. Technique and uniqueness aside, it was a blast drawing this physical embodiment of bursting with joy, one of my favorite emotions.
After hundreds of visits to contemporary art museums, I’d seen enough to know that my work would not be welcomed. Have you ever noticed in pop music that a new song can rise in the charts when it is similar to current hits, with little difference except for a tweak or two? And how often do artworks that are fundamentally different rise in the mainstream? I don't think they do–at least not right away–but if you think of artistic evolution, like I do, then owning your vision is necessary whether or not it will be recognized.
A few months before my traveling show, this was one of MoMA's shows. The prominent feature in the photo is the white floor sculpture. Using my best postmodern hat, I’ll speculate that the horizontal bars recall a ladder, but instead of it ascending, it is laid horizontality to symbolize that no matter how many steps you climb you will never ascend. Another take is that the bars give the illusion of receding to a vanishing point, a famed Renaissance drawing device to create the illusion of depth. But as we walk around the bars we discover the vanishing point doesn't exist. It is a lie. There is another alternative theory that would include this work: if you get people to believe that this work, which hundreds of millions of people could easily do, is work of genius, then who is to know who is really an artist or a genius? Actually all three concepts apply in the sense that postmodern art is an anti-art medium made by anti-artists, and when it is displayed in an art museum, where artists should be shown, then it has scored a homerun for anti-art.
From early on I had a secret psychological weapon to withstand the postmodern assault on art. In the early 1970s my sister Janet Newberry, on her 18th birthday, signed a contract with the year-old Virginia Slims Circuit, joining a handful of the first women professional tennis players. This group's achievement was historical for sports and women's liberation. Janny's early advice to me was always, "Just do it," which I always heeded. So it was natural to put together Visions: The Bliss Series, made up of four paintings, one of them unfinished, and 60 preparatory studies in pastel and pencil on paper. I set about arranging for the show to travel internationally. It would start in Rhodes, go to Boulder, Colorado, then end in Athens, Greece.
A very interesting problem in art is that shitty ends deserve shitty means, and noble ends deserve noble means. Polar opposites. Often an artist might want to paint something beautiful or uplifting but not have the technical means to do so. Ultimately the piece doesn't work. The requirements for exalted emotions are insanely demanding. On a personal note, I love the feeling of joy and exaltation. As a kid, I used to hide my joy. It was too personal. I actually sometimes felt guilty about it. But as an adult, I would spend years on a painting getting every brush mark to have a sense of the painting's theme, such as the burst idea in Slipper. Everywhere you look in this painting, there is something of powerful radiance.
Bliss Series, International Traveling Show
The Old Town of Rhodes is a medieval 2 1/2-mile walled city with a population of about 6,000. Once some American tourists who knew of me but didn't remember my name asked a random local merchant "Do you know where the American painter lives?" He knew, and then sent them to my house. The Rhodians were very kind and hospitable to me, and the Ministry of Greek Culture in conjunction with the Dodecanese Archaeological Service offered me a spacious, beautifully restored 15th-century structure for the exhibition. A special thanks to the late Thodoris Archontopoulos, Byzantine archaeologist and art historian, for facilitating it. Though I was an outsider living in a foreign country and a contemporary art outsider as well, Thodoris could see past the noise and recognize the art.
This was the fourth in The Bliss Series. It is bittersweet, because I loved all the studies for this painting, but I couldn't find the key to pull it all together.
The theme of this study is a flow of warmth. I was thinking in terms of a secondary melody of a Puccini opera. I wanted to have this support the subject of the man and the scene, and interweave all the elements.
A weakness and my greatest strength is that I learned the figure without instruction, but from thousands of hours of life drawing and studying anatomy books. This means I solved form, light, and proportion problems in my way. Classical students tend not to find their own voice because the taught technique is embedded in them. Notice the tape adding a partial sheet of paper. I originally had his left armed curved, but straightened it to pull the viewer into the curve of the the whole body.
The next exhibition after Rhodes was hosted by the Institute for Objectivist Studies, under the direction of epistemologist David Kelley, who invited me to exhibit and lecture at their summer seminar at University of Colorado Boulder. The final exhibition was at the American College in Athens; they offered me their modern hall in exchange for teaching an art course. This is when I painted the Facing the World self-portrait.
As a diptych, Give and Receive, 82” x134", studio collection. Part of the 1998 The Bliss Series. Light is infused with color and it bends and moves through spaces, filling them with nuances of vibrations, seeking out spots to land on like bees pollinating flowers and creating new life. An amazing thing about light is that under certain conditions it also makes solid objects partially transparent. There are two fundamental elements to art, ends and means, and ideally they match each other. A profound thing about the best in visual art is that it is an end in itself, creating a human state of a unique moment forever held in time. Bliss to me is an individual thing, a feeling of love in the moment so encompassing that the feeling has to be released while also allowing for acceptance. Armed with knowledge of Rembrandt's light, Impressionists' color theory, Picasso's transparencies, and my transliteration of Puccini's woven layers of sound color I embarked on a transcendent journey in creating these.
Two of the paintings were 82” x 68” and to travel with them I rolled them up and placed them inside indestructible PVC tubes. I recall in Boulder getting volunteers to help me set up the show. One woman, when she saw one of the paintings being unrolled, began to cry tears of unbearable emotion. A result from the Boulder exhibition was meeting a future lifelong collector and one of my dearest friends, philosopher Stephen Hicks. I am not sure why, but there seems to be a synergistic connection between philosophers and artists, perhaps because fine art and philosophy are brothers.
After the traveling exhibition and back home in Rhodes, I was still concerned about the one unfinished painting from the series. It never matured to what I desired. It had become thick with thousands of layers of paint, and no matter how much I tried, everything led to a dead end. One day a new problem arose, it was one too many, and I got out a box cutter and shredded the painting.
It is hard to know exactly what the reward of being an artist is: is it the alone time painting late into the evening accompanied by cicadas? Or seeing someone moved to tears seeing the art? Recognition? A family of friends?
One evening I had a mixed dinner party with a Greek archaeologist, a Shakespearean scholar, an epistemologist, a British world-traveler female hippy, a British businesswoman, and 3 locals that modeled for me and spoke 4 or 5 languages. As the esteemed and dearly loved epistemologist was getting up from the table to have a cigarette, the British hippy, sitting on a low stool, asked him about his organization. Absentmindedly he continued to stand upright as if at a podium and launched into the goals, means, and modes of his organization. During the 10-minute presentation she purposefully sank as low as she possibly could while simultaneously craning her neck as high as it would go, showing due reverence. The professor didn't noticed but we all had a good-hearted laugh afterwards. Everyone there at one time or another has commanded an audience's attention. And everyone there owned at least one Newberry.
Postmodern art history is rife with short-lived movements–someone tries to reduce art to scratches, to emptiness, or to Vaseline. It is like a species that doesn't have enough code to evolve and consequently dies. By contrast, figurative art started at the dawn of humanity, and with its ongoing inexhaustible ability to integrate new discoveries in science, psychology, and philosophy, figurative art will be there to light the way as long as humans continue to strive to flourish.
Michael Newberry lives in Idyllwild, California. He is a figurative painter, writes art criticism, and shows at the White Cloud Gallery in Washington, D.C. He volunteers teaching art at the local Middle School and lives under the shelter of Tahquitz Peak with his dog Frida.