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Eye Contact

Eye Contact

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Eye Contact

174 pages
1 heure
Oct 1, 2018


This book does what few art books do. It locates the elevated and often esoteric world of art in the personal depths of the author’s life. Acclaimed poet and novelist William Benton lets us see what he sees with both candor and brilliance. As the critic Lilly Wei observed, “He tells us something about the paradoxes of love at the same time that he tells us about . . . art.” From Elizabeth Bishop, whose paintings he first brought to light, to Vermeer (real and fake), from El Greco to Joan Brown to an autobiographical concordance of the drawings of Georges Seurat, Eye Contact is in every sense a dazzling encounter.

Oct 1, 2018

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Eye Contact - William Benton


Kurt Knobelsdorf

Kurt Knobelsdorf, Child on Trampoline, 2010

A part of being an artist – perhaps the hardest part – is to affirm the serious place art has in our lives. This isn’t something one does once and for all at a certain point in regard to society; it is a personal act, first and always, and a constant demand in the process of making anything. William Carlos Williams says: The goal of writing is to keep a beleaguered line of understanding which has movement from breaking down and becoming a hole into which we sink decoratively to rest. Change the subject from writing to painting and you have an idea of what the work of Kurt Knobelsdorf is like.

The pictures are small, the size of a Ryder, and as eccentric. They resemble outsider work, but are too skillfully made to be thought of in that way, too alert to the stresses and poise of their originality. Knobelsdorf’s subjects are everyday scenes from Philadelphia and Florida, or from images he collects. Unlike paintings of Eric Fishl that depict with Sargent inflected elegance a low level denominator of the American imagination, Knobelsdorf’s work asserts an allegiance to a similar strata of life, but with the totality of its facture. The paint is thick with insistence, punctuated sometimes with accretions of detritus, like bits of genre-scene DNA. It’s a surface that is owned, as well as a circumstance that is owned up to, with a conviction that gives dimension and authority to both.

Early works include houses and buildings in South Philadelphia (Knobelsdorf studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 2004.) The Old Wexler Barrel Company, 2005, which balances in shifting grays row houses and the twilit silhouette of a factory against a fading putty-blue sky, owes something to Morandi. Not just that buildings and bottles are interchangeable in a construct of plastic forms, but a feel for the poetic ambiguity of scale. From the same year, in Cambria, Philadelphia, a long two-story building divides the canvas horizontally between a storm-dark sky and a weedy foreground. The building, which catches the light of the low sun, is painted in rich ochre that modulates in hues across a span of windows, with half-drawn shades and dark interiors. At the end of the building, in shadow, a light is switched on in one of the rooms. It’s a moment we almost witness.

The intense scruple to evade false notes contributes to the quality of aloneness that exists in all of Knobelsdorf’s work, along with a restless, generational, on-the-road energy. In Elavil, 2010, a woman in a blue party dress stands on top of a bed, casting a large black shadow on a wall of darker blue beside her. It might be a motel room. A bedside lamp is lit, with a luminous sky-blue shade. The painting brings to mind Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun, 1961, in which a nude woman stands beside a bed in a pale blue room. Hopper’s picture is composed of narrative clues to the woman’s situation; in Knobelsdorf’s there are none. We don’t know what’s happening. Elavil is the name of a prescription drug for depression. If the woman standing on the bed is a visual pun that refers to elevation of mood, it has the value of a hermetic decision, like painting everything blue, and only adds to the poker-faced impact of the whole.

The Florida paintings, done during the two years Knobelsdorf lived in the Miami area, not only take a step away from the darker palette of Philadelphia, but open out into a new inclusiveness. They risk admitting into the picture a more traditional attitude, which broadens but doesn’t dilute the impact of the work. In a backyard, a blond child, limned in radiant light, bounces on a trampoline. Above his head of sun-bright yellow hair, a visual manifestation appears – half trajectory mark, half rayed beam. It becomes a part of the quotidian scene, along with the shadows on the grass. In the background at the far end of a canal the glittering of light on water has a similar pictorial magic, but is anchored, like a counterweight, in physics.

The same sense of expansive fluency is true of Homestead, 2010, where the statue of an upright alligator stands on a kitchen table in a lagoon, with a backdrop of black foliage and a fireworks sunset. Or Miami Ave, which is more interesting by being less exotic. A garage apartment in an ordinary Florida neighborhood – a pale stucco building with a rickety wooden stairway running up one side – is framed in a thick leafy mass of green. The sky is blue with a few small clouds. A tall palm tree faces forward like a windmill. In uneven lines, a white fence runs along the edge of the property. It’s a simple bright Floridian moment, made up of all the small things that compose it. The activity in the paint evokes an indolence that belongs to the same moment – the gray on gray of the stairs, shapes outlined with the back of the brush, the thin wash of fuchsia on the fence, with faint smears here and there.

Knobelsdorf’s work is rigorous in what it resists as much as in what it includes. This happens at a level of touch, of shifts in value, of a personal syntax that measures itself against clichés of recidivist glamour. In all his paintings this quality of impasse is a determinant force, and permission, a grace.


El Greco, The Adoration of theShepherds, c. 1610

To see is something perfect and complete; the world stands before us. Signatures of all things I am here to read, Stephen Dedalus muses as he walks on the beach, in Ulysses. More than any other sense, we live in and depend on sight; we have an innate understanding of the miracle it is and believe in its invincibility. Yet in our everyday lives we experience the condition of seeing for the most part as a utility – That which governs me to go about, as Shakespeare says. When we glance at a tree, an instant of cognition takes place – an instant of recognition – in which our orientation and safe passage are primary issues. This way of seeing occurs almost completely at a conceptual level as an act of identifying things. Our view of the tree is often exhausted at the exact moment the concept tree is registered in the brain. The process continues, mechanical and unceasing, dividing the world into separate and nameable entities, and verifying our changing relation to them. Pigeon, bus, cloud. It’s a finely evolved reflex and, at the same time, a habit that depends upon, and constantly reinforces, its own limits.

Great art, yellow leaves against the black trunks of autumn, light on water, faces that we cannot live without become absorbing, visual experiences. They’re not sights of habitual perception, but aesthetic. We luxuriate in their duration. The demand they make on our attention is a rich diversion, led by a wandering eye away from its ordinary orientation. As viewers we look with fine discernment, with exaltation, at the things we perceive as remarkable. It is in part a kind of seeing that engenders the patinas of the world’s meanings. The moon – like the blackbird – has its history in our gaze. But the relation between object and observer remains essentially the same. Aesthetic vision contains conceptual formulation, but at a sublime level.

Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in Pied Beauty, For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim. And upon trout that don’t swim? But Hopkins isn’t sloppy, his precision and concentration are impeccable. The movement, the trout’s flashing side glimpsed in a limpid sun-glittering stream, is the image he wants, because it further isolates for us the abstraction. What would otherwise be registered conceptually as fish, is separated almost miraculously into light. The result is that we are moved beyond fixed categories of mind into a more immediate relation to seeing as a value in itself.

It goes without saying that the artist is at the top of this hierarchy of vision. In El Greco’s 1610 version of The Adoration of the Shepherds, which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the shepherds and attendant animals, along with the Virgin and St. Joseph, surround the infant Christ, whose radiant light extends outward into the shadows. On one side of the group the figure of a woman with her arms upraised – an image El Greco uses in other paintings – appears to rise in exaltation above the earth. On the other side, a grisaille scene set in the distance depicts the shepherds receiving the sign of the birth of Christ. Looking at the picture one sees not only a glorious vision of the Nativity, but also the visual glories of the artist’s eye.

El Greco’s canvas, with its broad and lively brushstrokes and strong demarcation of lights and darks, invites us to look – as all paintings do to one extent or another – purely at a surface of paint. Flattened onto the picture plane, independent of illusion or narrative content, shapes of brilliant yellow, green, pink are distributed over the canvas in a way that resembles a de Kooning. Within these masses of color, areas of light are painted with a densely loaded brush. A dramatic

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