For and Against Method
Pedersen may overemphasize Degas the draftsman, but no viewer can walk away from the exhibition without having been amazed by his radical use of color. If his approach to drawing tends to scramble its ability to function as a code, his use of color does the opposite: because he restricts his palette to a few colors—and ones that are hardly the “natural” hues of the things he’s painting—color ends up having an independent impact of its own. It was undoubtedly his palette that gave rise to the mutual admiration between Degas and his younger colleague, Paul Gauguin, whose strange and disquieting clouds of color might well have floated out of a Degas painting like The Milliners (1882–1905). Likewise, I am almost reconciled to the mawkishness of Picasso’s Blue Period now that I can see its cooler, drier precedents in a Degas pastel like Portrait of a Woman in a Green Blouse (ca. 1884). Degas is normally cast as a realist, but his incessant transformations of the real lead his art in the direction of Symbolism. When he supposedly told the Irish writer George Moore that “la danseuse n’est qu’un prétexte pour le dessin” (the dancer is only a pretext for the drawing), he wasn’t emphasizing the centrality of drawing once more; rather, he was intimating that the dancer is transformed into something else. As his friend Stéphane Mallarmé put it, “the dancer is not a woman who dances, for these juxtaposed reasons that she is not a woman, but a metaphor resuming one of the elementary aspects of our form, sword, cup, flower, etc….and that she does not dance, suggesting, by miraculous short-cuts or élans, with a bodily writing what it would take paragraphs of prose with dialogues as well as descriptions to express: a poem freed from any scribe's instrument.”
And yet Degas’s art is too complex and multifarious to be tagged as Symbolism. “Degas’ Method” reminds us that, after Ingres and Delacroix, Degas took on a third great influence, an artist only a little older than himself, namely Honoré Daumier—another great draftsman, but one who worked for the popular press and showed that great art could be bent to the service of journalism without losing its integrity or aesthetic force. In his own way, Degas was no less intent than Daumier on being an observer of his time. He once told Sickert that he hated taking cabs because “you don’t see anyone.” He preferred taking the bus: “On est fait pour se regarder les uns les autres, quoi?” (We’re made for looking at each other, you know?) His search for what Mallarmé called the elementary aspects of form was intense, but it was inextricable from the endless pleasure he took in looking at people. And Degas saw things that no artist had committed to canvas before, little gestures that are insignificant but touching in a strangely anonymous way because they are simply human: a woman’s arm stretched out as she towels her hair dry, a dancer’s leg lifted up to the barre as she practices.
Degas painted dancers more than any other subject because he identified with them—not as performers but as workers, and above all because they are not only artists but also, in themselves, art. Their training endows them with bodies already imbued with artifice. Similarly, if Degas had to repeat the same motif “ten times, a hundred times,” this was not only in order to revise and remake it, but also to revise and remake himself in his developing capacity to reveal the motif. He explained it this way, with an extraordinary metaphor: “Art does not expand, it repeats itself. And, if you want comparisons at all costs, I may tell you that in order to produce good fruit one must line up on an espalier. One remains thus all one’s life, arms extended, mouth open, so as to assimilate what is happening, what is around one and alive.” The horizontal beam on which the espaliered fruit tree is trained resembles, more than anything else, the dancer’s barre.
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Degas’s art was inimitable, and it survived him in its reinterpretation by Gauguin and, at times, Picasso, as well as in the work of Matisse and Bonnard and, later, de Kooning. But it was Degas’s rival Claude Monet who succeeded in imposing his idea of Impressionism on history: an analysis of natural perception, an art at home in the outdoors, rather than Degas’s distillation of memory into symbol through repetition, an art more at home in the studio. More important in the long run is that Monet’s commitment to serial production (which was very different, as Pedersen points out, from Degas’s own practice of making independent variants without sequence) leads to the systemic abstraction of the 1960s, not to mention Andy Warhol’s reiterations of mass-produced imagery and Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptualism as an art where “the idea is the machine that makes the work.” It’s Monet and not Degas whose work points toward the origins of most of what today is called contemporary art. Is Degas now a relic, or does he still have living artistic progeny?
Degas’s children may be a distinct minority among contemporary artists, but they’re out there if you look hard enough. If you happen to be in London this summer, one of the most engaging of them has a substantial show on view at Parasol unit, a nonprofit exhibition space, through August 10. Merlin James is a painter of Welsh origin, currently living in Glasgow, who has been exhibiting to increasing critical interest since the early 1990s. Like Degas, he emphasizes his attachment to tradition, and not only in his paintings; James is a critic, too. But instead of publishing in a slick contemporary art journal, he’s found a home at the dowdy old Burlington Magazine, where Moore and Sickert published their memoirs of Degas back in the day. And yet for all his supposed traditionalism, James takes no aspect of painting for granted. He has made some of his works by stretching sheer polyester over an elaborate frame and touching the translucent surface with ghostly splotches of color. Others, painted on canvas, have holes gouged in them or objects of various sorts collaged on top. The paint itself sometimes seems to be mixed up with some nameless schmutz—it could be hair or who knows what studio muck. This approach reminds me of Degas’s remark that “with a bowl of soup and three old brushes you can make the finest landscape ever painted!” James is not a showman aiming at sheer novelty; he seems to want to avoid following any formula and, per Feyerabend, to “adopt whatever procedure seems to fit the occasion.” This means, above all, that James uses representation or abstraction as he sees fit, and always methodically.
Also like Degas, he tinkers for years with works in the studio. The nocturnal landscape Dark (Trees), for instance, bears the dates 1989–2012; it is one of the simplest-seeming paintings in the show, so we have to assume that what happened to it over twenty-three years was a gradual editing out or paring down. Another lengthy effort, Black (1984–2008), is a more elaborately composed abstraction whose surface suggests that what is visible was painted on top of another sort of work entirely; it’s not so much that a painting has been revised over time as that one painting has been entirely replaced by another.
When James discusses painting he often speaks of “plasticity,” and when in his work he uses paint to form a determinate image, what seems to interest him most is manipulating it as a malleable material, something to be pushed and pulled, pressed and dragged to create endlessly different sorts of marks. He tries to handle the surface he paints on and the structure that keeps the surface taut and on the wall with the same freedom. He likes to quote old paintings—Sower (2001) derives from Millet, while Large Sea (2005) conjures up Courbet—but less to commemorate the past than to see how much a familiar image can be transformed. James often paints buildings, but as the critic John Yau has pointed out, the construction of a building seems to stand, in his art, for the construction of a painting. I’d extend the thought: you can make a building or a painting out of the remains of existing ones and achieve something habitable.
Like all good painters, James suffuses his work with a very personal intuition of the qualities and capacities of light. It is through the medium of light that the emotional quality of his art materializes. Yet light is also the favored medium of his quest for plasticity: he wants it to be something he can grasp, mold, make an impression on, rather than something ethereal, immaterial, that enters the eyes from some great distance. It is hard to tell whether or not he fulfills this desire, but the results are equally poignant either way.