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The Way I Paint a Picture

Here I sit, alone in my studio. My thoughts travel to Paris. There three teachers, all Fauve artists, taught me: Despiau, Friesz and Dufresne.

Despiau’s method of teaching sculpture made me look simultaneously at my work in progress and its relation to the model. He would guide my eyes by sweeping his sculptor’s tool across the model’s body, relating it to my sculpture. His gesture made me realize that what I had seen as an average, common looking Montparnasse girl could be perceived as an enchanting and a most perfect Greek statue. Despiau, by the mere twist of his hand, vitalized my dull response. I began to see in her form something of the rich and the simple that underlie the most chaotic appearances in nature. Despiau, by that penetrating gesture of his little hand, made me aware that my own sculpture had been put together by thousands of details which were unimportant in their meaning.

Friesz taught me the significance of what the Impressionists had attempted to create. He taught me the what, the how and the way Fauve expression as a movement in art had come about. He taught me about Cézanne. Since Friesz had known Pissarro and Renoir personally, I was made cognizant of the language of the French art tradition by my contact with this spokesman and active member.

Dufresne stressed the human aspect of an artist’s nature. He encouraged me with his most friendly concern, and appeased the confusion that I suffered in having to face a French tradition of 400 years of painting. As an outsider I needed human warmth, encouragement and clarification, and Dufresne satisfied that need in me by adopting me as his painter-disciple-son. He gave me the most helpful support.

Each time I paint a picture today, my former teachers’criticisms filter cohesively through my imagery. Each image flows into the other, criticism upon criticism, painting lesson upon painting lesson, creating the living image. Each image in sequence must filter through the interstices of my memory before I can paint a picture.

Before Europe, in San Diego, there was my teacher Mr. Schneider’s flowing brush stroke. He is way back in my memory. He was a technical master of the Impressionist and French way of applying crude color marks, which be taught to me. He painted on my sketch in front of the most intense green pepper trees that loomed above us. He painted the feathery foliage which fluttered its delicate and light-filled leaves against the California blue sky. That foliage was supported by massive and snake-like tree trunks, which were covered with loose-textured and warm, orange-tinted, peeling bark which absorbed the sunlight. He also made me paint the deep, dark-hued blue and purple shadows, shadows that Mr. Schneider insisted must be part of my picture. I painted these brush strokes once long ago, and therefore today, before I can begin to conceive a painting, those impressionistic and crudely-conceived color spots fleetingly reappear.

Then, in their place, the image of the Sahara desert’s yellow-ochred sands imposes itself on my memory. That memory of those wind-swept clouds flying above the oasis of Tozeur in Tunisia brings forth images that glitter in the burning desert air. There stand the tall broken-stemmed, climbing, mast-erect, broad-crowned, dark-green-leaved palms swaying gently, making a noise in the quiet. Way above the earth, hanging down in large, heavy paunches, the ripening fruit is turning from yellow to brown, warning their owners that date-harvest time is near. Precious water is flowing from a spring into a stream which flows into that Sahara oasis where its water mirrors the Arab houses and walls, reflecting their earthen brick facades which are constructed in geometric patterns. I find all these images remirrored in my fluid paint, which is developing into my as-yet unrealized work.

My work suggests memories of Madrid, Spain, where I copied Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, and I imagine her in the traces of my paint. She was dressed in a white robe that blended into the light, shining out of the picture’s depth. Her golden locks surrounded her stubby, fleshy face. She sat in a chair, her generously warm and giving arms resting solidly upon the material wealth spread out on the table in front of her. Titian, Rubens, Velasquez, Tintoretto and Goya —I also copied these masters’ works. Two winters long I copied the Prado Museum’s collection and today every time I paint a picture, I posit layer upon layer of all those memories, and I posit those copy-conversations that I so long ago enjoyed with these great masters’, who even though their works were mute, spoke to me with advice. Because their pictures gave me counsel by trial and error, each time I did not do what their intentions had been, their pictures would mutely admonish me for my inability to do what the masters had done and even today those copy lessons help me to establish my form.

Yes, each time I paint a picture, the superimpositions of the many years of nude studies goes through each of my paintings’ development. While I remain passive, those memories push me, and hem me in, and again move away from me.

In Paris I remember the atelier models, with their bloated bellies standing on the platform. They were nude, full of bread and wine-stuffed intestines, showing off their rosy-blond or olive-yellow or coarse, ochre skins. The somber, skylighted darkness brought out their opaque and lustered flesh, their tones luminously contrasted against the variously colored draped backgrounds. The sweet flesh of the Montparnasse girls filled me with desire and, teasingly, they boldly exhibited their most intimate parts. That kind of sensation even today interferes with the progress of my work.

The buck beer poured into the steins from large-barreled casks standing around in that Munich kellar. Here, the jugendstil pictures hung on the walls of the hall and the American Students of Hans Hofmann sat at several tables to argue art theory way into the night. I felt them to be fanatics because my own leanings were toward French art. That made me flee the German conceptions of art which still persist in my memory. Traces of Hofmann’s repetitive and monotonous style of teaching still blocks me in my attempt to start a painting.

Here I am desperately trying to destroy these accumulated concepts to get to something that I look for but instead I see those explosive color splotches on my canvas. They remind me of an almost forgotten period of my art studies, when I, along with many others, imitated Soutine’s stylizations. As I paint today, I find signs of tilted houses, rolling hills, bleary eyed portraits and those tormented corpses of chickens, characteristic of Soutine’s expression with which I once long ago identified as my assumed painter’s temperament. Those kinds of references from my past assert their power in my work, hindering me from what I experience now.

As these influences are erased they are immediately replaced by relational factors, the kind that I had learned to work with after my conversations with my friend Mr. Kahnweiler. He interpreted the way Juan Gris chose his emblems. For example, specifying a circle on a white ground, the white became a fruit bowl; or, specifying a square with an outline on the same white, it became a book; or, specifying the ace of diamonds on the same white, it became a playing card; or, specifying by the use of many parallel lines drawn on the same white, it became a musical composition; or, specifying a printed famous name on the same white, it became a newspaper. That kind of relational concept in painting obsessed me for many years, and in that time I painted thousands of planes until I arrived at their abstract resolutions.

Later on I became a friend of Andre Masson whose paintings stressed literary syntax which amounted to bringing all the images together in their suggestibilities to represent the dreams, the passions and the struggles of existence. After my encounter with Masson’s art, I also began to let color and plane specify the bizarre, the myth, the dream and the dislocations of time and place.

Today, those Surrealist images visit my work in their guise of ghostly apparitions. Those shades of yesteryear enter my work insistently and since I regard the magic presence as a hindrance to my work’s growth, I always see to it that I expel the unwanted images from my picture and its four edges, and with that cleared and freed surface I go ahead and paint, as I am still intent upon finding an image of my own.

However, before I am free to start, I have to remove Constructivist associations. I spent half a year fighting metal, letting metal transform itself by forging it into a poetic image that came to a birth suggested by the substance of its own matter. Out of that metal, so hard and unyielding, I forged five cast-iron sculptures now placed in the Baltimore Museum garden. I worked under Naum Gabo’s friendly advice, and he found my work good. Today, those metal bands inevitably affirm their presence in my memory and I must expel them in the development of my painting concept. That concept consists of my picture’s total identity, composed of its materiality and of the self that I am. When those opposing forces meet and become one will, one action and one thought, the involvement between painting and artist produces the future spectator’s experience. When the artist steps aside from his canvas, the spectator steps into that vacant place and with his appreciative response he repeats the sensation that the artist had, becoming one with the picture. An enjoyment that has merit.

Alfred Jensen
New York, c. 1957

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