How artists improve

SOME artists are greedy -- not so much for themselves as for their art. They want to pack it with as much as they can to make it more interesting or impressive -- or to have it reflect the richness and complexity of reality as they know it. The results, not surprisingly, are often disastrous. Some talents, after all, are delicate and slight and cannot sustain heavy burdens. Others are essentially lighthearted and are better off shedding rather than assuming responsibilities. And others still are so finely honed that the introduction of even one new element can throw them out of kilter entirely.

The solution, of course, is growth from within, not addition from without. Art history presents us with many examples, from Rembrandt to C'ezanne, of artists whose greatness came into focus only after they had taken stock of their inner resources and adjusted their talents and skills accordingly.

Quality in art, we must remember, doesn't depend on size or complexity, but on much more subtle and elusive qualities that cannot simply be tacked onto what an artist learns in art school or does ``naturally.'' Paul Klee is a very important 20th-century artist, not because he was a genius (he wasn't), but because he had the insight and imagination to nourish and develop his quite modest technical resources into something both aesthetically and culturally significant.

Conversely, there are many brilliantly talented painters and sculptors who have the skills to create excellent art -- but who have nothing of real interest or value to say.

Creative resources can be consolidated and redirected in several ways. These include dropping whatever complicates or violates the formal unity or expressive impact of one's art; finding or inventing a more appropriate or effective style or technique; probing deeper into the process of translating idea, intuition, and emotion into paint or stone and then into art; and attempting to perceive creativity in the largest possible cultural context rather than in merely personal terms.

One of the best ways, but probably also the most difficult, is bringing all aspects of one's work to optimum strength within a carefully integrated compositional system. Thus, if one draws beautifully but has only a fair to good sense of color and composes erratically, special attention must be paid to becoming more sensitive to both color and structuring, and to harmonizing what results in strictly formal terms.

Striking proof of the effectiveness of this approach can be found in the recent paintings of Robert Jessup. When I first saw his highly stylized figurative canvases roughly four years ago, I was only mildly impressed. His color was good and his organizational skills were reasonably sophisticated, but his draftsmanship struck me as indifferent and mannered, and his ideas seemed rather simplistic. Moreover, he had brought everything together in a fashion that was a bit too neat and calculated, too close, I thought, to mere compositional problem-solving for his work to be taken altogether seriously.

What he has accomplished since then, however, is little short of miraculous. He has grown remarkably as a painter, and without sacrificing anything along the way. Rather than advancing, as most artists do, by concentrating primarily or even exclusively on his strong points, he obviously made a special effort to strengthen and improve every aspect of his work until it matched every other in its formal and expressive potentials.

His development, in short, has been organic, from the center out, much as a tree grows or a flower blooms. He is, as a result, not only a better artist today than he was four years ago, but also a considerably ``bigger'' and deeper one.

He has grown the most, however, in his ability to tie everything together into a whole that communicates itself as greater than the sum of its parts. That he has managed to do so in such a short period of time tells us more about his creative resources and potentials than anything else we might discover about him. Any reasonably talented artist, after all, can improve his or her draftsmanship or learn how to use color more effectively, but the ability to perceive and compose holistically, to integrate disparate elements into a seamless whole with a distinctive character all its own, is a rare gift, and one that cannot be easily acquired.

In addition, his ideas have become more intriguing and thought-provoking, and provide a subtle metaphorical or allegorial framework for the other aspects of his work. There is a sense of dignity, of timelessness about his compositions that is distinctly classical in character, but which he plays off quite brilliantly against the more romantic and sensuous side of his creative personality.

In ``Appropriating the Past,'' for instance, the theme of the artist utilizing a bit of art history as a source of imagination is given extraordinary life by means of vibrant color and surfaces so richly textured that they demand to be touched -- a contrapuntual device that effectively lifts this painting above the level of the merely interesting into the category of the very special.

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