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What Painting Is

I’ve just read a fascinating, eccentric, sometimes frustrating, and very passionate book called What Painting Is by James Elkins. Mr. Elkins is an art critic and historian based at the Art Institute of Chicago. The sub-title of What Painting Is is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy. It was published in 1999.

I don’t read a great deal of art criticism these days. I think sometimes of Dennis Oppenheim’s fireworks sign, proclaiming Go further with fiction. However, when my friend Jacob, also a painter, recommended the Elkins book to me it caught my attention. After all, who thinks about alchemy these days? I was not sure I even understood what alchemy is – or was – much less its history.

What is Elkins going on about? Let’s start at the end: “Above all,” he writes, “alchemy is the record of serious, sustained attempts to understand what substances are and how they carry meaning. And for that reason it is the best voice for artists who wrestle every day with materials they do not comprehend and methods they can never entirely master. Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.” I’ll buy that.

And now skipping back to the beginning: “So painting and other visual arts are one example of negotiations between water and stone, and the other is alchemy. In alchemy, the Stone (with a capital S) is the ultimate goal, and one of the purposes of alchemy is to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as stone. As in painting, the means are liquid and the ends are solid. And as in painting, most of alchemy does not have to do with either pure water or hard stones, but with mixtures of the two. Alchemists worked with viscid stews, with tacky drying films, with brittle skins of slag: in short they are concerned with the same range of half-fluids as painters and other artists.

Sometimes art criticism and art history writing seems foreign to me, as if it were about something besides the activity I’ve immersed myself in for many years. Elkins begins with a recognition of the studio and what happens there. He even writes about painting studios in terms of filth, reminding me of photos of the famous squalor of Francis Bacon’s studio.

Here is the thing, the secret. We start with nothing, “a head full of ideas, driving me insane” as Bob Dylan wrote. Blank canvases, boxes of paint, images all over the walls and the floor. Books. Music blasting. Somewhere, somehow, in the stew of it all, all this stuff becomes painting. Creating stuff is some kind of magic. There is a moment, a split second in time when all this coloured goo becomes something else. I know. I’m a painting junkie. Like a fiend with his dope, I need that magic again and again. I’ve tried to pack in painting I don’t know how many times. Then I think, hey I’m just going to work on this one painting. That’s all. I’m not really going to start painting again. It’ll be OK. I can stop anytime. Philip Guston wrote, “Sometimes I scrape off a lot. You have on the floor, like cow dung in the field, this big glob of paint… and it’s just a lot of inert matter, inert paint. Then I look back at the canvas, and it’s not inert – it’s active, moving and living.” There is the rub.

I was quite taken with the chapter on “Steplessness”. He writes about old master paintings made in a sequence of steps, but without becoming systematic. Some of these techniques are permanently lost to us today. Elkins writes,”Like alchemy, painting has always been insecure about its most basic store in information.” And…”In painting, it may be that the scattered painting manuals and the old letters and anecdotes are mostly right, and that classical painting was an elaborate body of knowledge, something that had to be learned slowly, from the ground up, in a four-year curriculum or a long apprenticeship. But it may also be that painting is intuitive, and that studio instruction only provides hints and strategies. Perhaps a great painting can happen suddenly with no planning or working by stages.”

But what of paintings made from the Impressionists on, when paintings have been made without separate steps at all? Elkins: “The unease that many parents feel when their children set out to study art is partly because they sense that there is no systematic technical instruction in contemporary art schools. In a large sense, that is correct because there is no longer a succession of definite kinds of information that must be learned in a certain order. Painting might take years of preparation and experience, but a truly great painting might also happen in a few minutes of intense work.

The comparison between painting and alchemy is apt. Elkins runs mighty far with this though, and writes much more about alchemy than I can digest. In fact, I put down the book several times. OK I get it, that’s what I thought. Still, it is a fascinating if eccentric way in, a way to begin to talk about painting with a recognition of the struggle in the studio, a recognition of how meaning can emerge from the substance of paint.

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