The many masks of modern art
Artists don't sketch outdoors as much as they once did - and I for one think it's a crying shame. I suppose they feel they don't have to, now that working from photographs is considered legitimate - to say the least. And landscape art as a whole is considered of less than prime importance.
There are exceptions, of course, but the sketches and drawings produced by those artists never seem to get out of their sketchbooks and portfolios and onto gallery or museum walls. And when they do, it's obvious that they are being exposed to public view only to indicate the source of a particular painting, or to illustrate the various steps the artist took toward its completion.
What I miss are the landscape sketches and studies that exist as full pictorial statements in their own right. There can be no doubt, for instance, that Van Gogh's ink studies of the landscape through which he tramped every day were final statements and not intended as studies for paintings. And the same is true of the landscape studies of Cezanne, Palmer, Constable, Claude, Leonardo, Bruegel, Rembrandt, and Durer - to mention only those whose contributions to this form of art was particularly noteworthy. There have also been a few such artists in this century, most particularly Nolde, Marin, Burchfield, Sutherland, and Wyeth. By and large, however, landscape drawing as an end in itself has become pretty much of a lost art. It's true that there have been some stunning drawings of the Maine coast by Stow Wengenroth, and of Iowa farms by Grant Wood, but they were really studies for prints. And the sketches of Curry, Benton, Hopper, Nash, Hartley, Dove had too particular a connection to specific paintings to really fit into this category.
What disturbs me most of all about altogether too many of the landscape sketches and drawings attempted by our younger artists today is that they tend to be almost entirely topographical, coldly detached, and mechanical. There seems to be little awareness of the expressive potential of paper, and even less sensitivity to the manner in which such paper can be transformed from a flat surface into the representation of light, space, and air. It seems to be fashionable today to draw strictly upon the paper's surface, to ''lay'' the image on it as though it too were flat and lifeless - rather than seeing the paper's surface as space itself, as something to be ''entered'' and roamed around with pencil, pen, or brush.
Why this should be so lies beyond my comprehension. Have we forgotten so quickly that much of the magic of a great Chinese or Japanese brush drawing, or of a sketch by Rembrandt or Van Gogh, lies in the extraordinary manner in which the paper itself has been ''activated'' and brought to life by a few well-placed lines or splashes of ink?
A true drawing, as opposed to a mechanical rendering, exists within the universe opened up by the artist's sensitive transformation of the paper's flatness into a representation of space. It does not - ever! - lie inertly on top of it.
For anyone who truly loves to draw, the paper, be it pure white or tinted, is a living thing, a universe whose creative potentials are limited only by the artist's talent and imagination. To merely touch it with the point of a pencil is to begin a creative journey, and to move ''into'' it with lines, textures, and tones is to create forms, shapes, movements, things, that have a life of their own.
This won't happen, however, if the paper remains just paper, if it isn't seen as a stage, or as a viable and dynamic participant in the creative act. I simply cannot understand why this elementary and obvious fact isn't the first thing taught at the beginning of the first class of the first year of art school. And why, most particularly, it isn't stressed and stressed again during all student attempts at landscape drawing.
I remember coming across a young man sketching a hillside full of magnificant trees in Central Park a few years ago. His drawing was brilliantly alive with light and form. And yet, as I drew nearer, I noticed that it consisted of nothing but a few dry-brush lines and smudges sketched-in to suggest shadows, and that a good 97 percent of that passionately alive drawing was nothing but pure, untouched white paper.
It was a beautiful demonstration of the fact that in art, less is often more. And of what all great draftsmen have always known: that two or three perfectly placed lines can have a greater impact than a thousand indifferently placed ones.
There is, unfortunately, little public interest in drawing, a fact which has communicated itself to the gallery world, and to the artists themselves. A goodly number of talented draftsmen, as a result, have stopped drawing in order to rush into color and paint. While this has often led to excellent results, it has also led to some disasters for not everyone who can draw can also paint.
One artist who is perfectly capable of both is James Schmidt. His lively, generally semi-abstract and colorful paintings reflect a long-standing involvement with the issues and ideals of 20th century modernism. They are the works he produces from Fall through Spring, and the works he generally chooses to represent himself professionally.
In the summertime, however, and most especially while traveling abroad, Schmidt prefers to draw - something he does with remarkable agility and grace, and with that flair, exactitude, and grasp of place, character, and mood that distinguishes the natural landscape artist.
Most specifically, he has the knack of capturing and evoking the special qualities and personality of a particular place. If he is sketching a low mountain from which a harsh Mother Nature has plucked all but a few huddling woods and trees, we can rest assured that not only will he capture that note of harshness and survival, but that he will also see to it that the mountain itself ''sits'' properly in its appointed space, and that the light which bathes it is perceived and presented in all its peculiar quality and tone.
By evoking all this rather than describing it coldly and clinically, Schmidt allows us to share with him a goodly number of his perceptual experiences. As a result, we are, in a sense, with him in the English countryside or on the Scottish moors while he is sketching away. And this sense of participation, coupled with his sharp eye for both the generalities and the specifics of a place, are what give his landscape sketches and drawings their exceptionally authentic and ''lived in'' air.
They are also remarkable demonstrations of how to use the felt pen and paper most effectively. One senses, in looking at his drawings of grasses and boulders , of exposed roots and tree trunks, of rolling fields and winding roads that his hand moves at pretty much the same speed as his eye. And that his hand creates and invents the hundreds of tiny and large graphic approximations of what he sees with a freedom and verve, with an imaginative liveliness that takes him almost as much by surprise as it does us. And that the pen he holds hops and prances about on and within the paper like a frisky and merry rabbit - with the artist himself in hot pursuit.
This form of creativity, unfortunately, is very much underrated today. For all our declared love and respect for intuitive creative processes, we seem blind to the fact that drawings produced by a hand and an eye moving at top speed to register, with precision, the nature and the range of the perceptual act itself, represent as intuitively creative a process as any we are apt to encounter.
The art of drawing, once it gets beyond the point of mere description or reporting, is a highly intuitive act. And for the simple reason that the artist, looking at the world around him for something simple and direct through which to represent what he sees and feels, at some point lets his eye and hand take over. And they, given their head, then lead the way and intuitively make the countless tiny and major creative ''decisions'' that add up to what drawing is all about.