Posts Tagged ‘painting’


In a world daily ripped apart by violence, hatred, and pain; a world where religious zealotry and irrational dogma routinely takes precedence over love and respect; a world where individual achievement is routinely sacrificed on the altar of conformity; Newberry and his art shine like a spotlight on the all too often ignored values of individual human existence and the power of striving for personal greatness.

Every day, I live in the presence of an array of pastels, prints, and paintings that help me remember how beautiful and noble it is to strive to be one’s best. These are “Our Newberrys”. These are our inspiration.

I remember how touched Patt and I were when, as a show of compassion and concern following Patt’s breast cancer surgeries, Michael called to tell Patt he was naming one of his female nudes in her honor. That was not about money or publicity or the “trader principle” of his Objectivist ethics.  That was simply an expression of love from one individual human soul to another. We remember that to this very day.

I love the non-representational works, the Judaica, the sculpture, and, really, every piece in my collection. I even love my own glasswork and photographs. But, only Newberry reminds me, every day, that my individual human life has intrinsic value. For that I will always cherish his art and his friendship!

An interesting place to begin my personal commentary on Mark Rothko is to connect him to someone else whose work I love. If you read far enough back in this blog you’ll discover (or remember) that I love the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Interestingly, according to Seymour Chatman, in his 1985 book “The Surface of the World”, Antonioni and Rothko have met. When Antonioni visited Rothko in New York he said this about Rothko’s work:

           “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing… with precision”

What I love about this statement is not it’s comment about “nothingness” but, rather, its comment about “precision“. Even if the director himself is the one who said this, to say that Antonioni’s films are about “nothing” is to downplay the true significance of them. In the case of Antonioni, the “nothingness” is for the purpose of letting us experience something far more subtle than plot; the experience of alienation. By way of his own stated philosophy, Antonioni quickly dispenses with “the event” to take on the task of explaining why and what it feels like to deal with the event. In that respect, “L’Avventura”, for example, is “about” a woman who goes missing on a boating trip; but he dispenses with that “event” in the first few minutes of the film. The next 2 hours are about what it feels like to search, and the relationship changes that arise. In a comparable sense, Rothko’s paintings are not about “nothing“. They are “about” touching the depths of our emotions and feelings. They are “about” something  absolutely crucial: transcendence.

To understand what I mean, we need to look at the philosophical foundations of Rothko’s work. You will find that the philosophers from whom he draws are not the ones whose philosophy I follow. That is why, in a later post, I’ll talk about why I love his work even if it’s foundational philosophy is somewhat counter to my philosophy of life. There are feelings of ecstasy that I see in a realist painter like my friend Michael Newberry and there are feelings of ecstasy that I feel from Rothko. Newberry (whose work I adore and who I very deeply respect)  does not feel comparably. Because I want to explore where I differ, I’ll eventually be addressing why I feel as I do. But I can’t discuss that before building a base. To do that we must look at Rothko’s philosophical influences, not mine.

There are 2 philosophical works that Rothko explicitly cites as being influential. They are Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy”. I’ll quickly dispense with the first because I know rather little about it. But it is important to mention. The second is a topic with which I can reasonably competently deal.

In “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard presents a retelling of what in Judaism we call “The Akidah” or “The Binding of Isaac”. It’s the story of Abraham ascending the mountain with Isaac in tow, with the intent of sacrificing Isaac per God’s command. At the last-minute, of course, Isaac is saved and Abraham has proven how much faith he has. Most Christians I know, and many Jews, view this as Abraham’s great statement of faith in God and/or of obedience. I don’t like the story and I dislike it for exactly the reason that Kierkegaard discusses: There can be no rational justification for Abraham’s behavior. Irrespective of “God’s command” we must ask: “Is it ethical to have a willingness to kill your son?” I personally say “no”. Kierkegaard takes this specific story, though, and generalizes it. He makes the story into an existential crisis in which Abraham’s anguish about the decision represents an allegory for the entire human condition. The important point, relative to Rothko, is this notion of generalizing something specific. Kierkegaard contends that once an act has been carried out by an individual, that act becomes universal. My understanding of Rothko’s Kierkegaard connection is that he sees art the same way. For Rothko, neither the act of creating nor the role of the creator are easily understandable or explicable. In the context of Abraham, Kierkegaard calls the ethical problem the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. Rothko’s corollary is the suspension of individual self-expression and autobiography, in favor of performing an abstract “act of faith”. Please remember what I said earlier. I’m not an expert. You now know everything I know about Kierkegaard and Rothko and I certainly am open to corrective comments. So, let’s move on.

If you look at Rothko’s published writing and some of the Rothko scholarship, you will see that there is a well established connection between Rothko and Nietzsche. Specifically, Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” is a key influence. Now, I view Rothko’s work as stunningly beautiful and I was stunned when I learned, years ago, that he considered it to be in the “tragic” tradition. What I did not know then, but what I have come to learn, is that to understand Rothko’s “tragedy” you have to understand Nietzsche’s explanation of why Greek Tragedy died out. Let’s begin there.

According to Nietzsche, the demise of the Greek Tragedy is the result of the decline of the “Dionysian” and the rise of the “Apollonian”. When I first read this I knew, for certain, that I was not a philosopher (at least not philosophical historian, at any rate). I had to work to understand what he meant. (To be honest, I’m still not good at understanding Nietzsche). What I think he means is that, as the more free-form, exuberant, intoxicating focus on the theater of myth gave way to the greater precision, order, symmetry, and form of a theater depicting the phenomenal world, the genre of Greek tragedy died away. Perhaps equally important, from my limited knowledge, was the disappearance of the “chorus” and the musical aspects of Greek theater. So, to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy died because it became too rigid, formal, and rational. But, Nietzsche did not care all that much about Greek theater. He cared more about formalizing his contention and then generalizing it to represent (again) the “human condition”.

One more thing about Nietzsche before tying it together with Rothko. Nietzsche learned from Schopenhauer’s aesthetics that art had a purpose. For the record this is NOT my definition of the purpose of art and I don’t accept it as the sole rationale for the existence of art: it is Schopenhauer’s via Nietzsche’s. The idea is that the purpose of art is to make life bearable for individuals in an interconnected world who’s inter-relationships we don’t understand. To Schopenhauer, if we could actually look out at the ultimate nature of reality we  could never subsequently go about living our ordinary, mundane lives. This is because we are individuals in only one respect. In another respect, we are just cogs in the grand scheme of human existence. In fact, he tries to explain our tendency toward cruelty by blaming it on our inability to see that we are all part of one big entity. There is much to be said for that last statement.

What about Rothko? Well, Nietzsche had a major impact on him. Of the “Birth of Tragedy” Rothko said that it: “left an indelible impression upon my mind and has forever colored the syntax of my own reflections on the questions of art”. If the purpose of art is to make life bearable, then perhaps his job as an artist is to do something else that Nietzsche expounded:  to allow the viewer a controlled view of the ultimate nature of reality through a return to the Dionysian by means of abstraction.

One more thing to consider. The philosophers I’ve mentioned, living in a time of representational plastic arts, viewed music as distinct from painting or sculpture. While music could be representational in the form of Opera or “programmatic” music, it was the one art (prior to the 20th century) that was not necessarily representational. So music was viewed as the art most able to put the audience in touch with this hidden reality. The visual arts could not do that. But with abstraction, many artists attempted to overcome that “limitation”. In my personal opinion, Rothko came closer than anyone else to achieving that goal. His work approaches that “state” of “musicality”. I almost like to think of his paintings as “tone poems for people with synesthesia”.

Rothko has said that “The poignancy of art in my life lay in it’s Dionysian content”. During a panel discussion at the opening of the Tate Modern Retrospective a few years back:  Nigel Warburton (to whom I owe much of my understanding of Rothko and philosophy) asked us to consider the Dionysian aspects of Rothko’s work. Some of his examples included:

(1) Indistinct and ever-changing forms

(2) Work accentuated by the low light in which Rothko preferred many of his paintings to be viewed.

(3) Lack of clarity

(4) Lack of stability

(5) The ease with which a viewed can get “lost” in a painting, even to the extent of a loss of the sense of individuation.

Nigel is a Rothko expert and I certainly am not. Still, in the case of every one of his examples, I see something I recognize and something I love in the work of Mark Rothko. I’m a rationalist at heart, and I’m not supposed to fall into the abyss of Platonic, Dionysian irrationality. But I do. Every single time I’m in a room with Rothko paintings, I do. At the Philips collection in DC, I do. At the National Gallery, I do. At the Rothko Chapel in Houston, I do. I’m sorry my dear co-rationalists, but I have to admit it, I fall in love with this work everywhere I see it and I fall in love with it more each time. You’ll have to wait a while longer for a blog post that attempts to explain why this is. But for now, I’ll just admit it. Rothko’s work is not “rational” but it is powerfully affecting and; whether or not I like Nietzsche, or Schopenhauer, or Kierkegaard, or their predecessors and successors; it is the fact that Rothko adopted them as his philosophers that has provided the groundwork.

I’m not a professional philosopher. I’m not even a particularly well qualified amateur. But I am interested in aesthetics, the drivers behind why I find some contemporary art so unappealing, and how we got to where we are. I have a broader view of the value of contemporary art than some. For example, I think that even work that doesn’t inspire us to our highest values can be profoundly moving if it helps us understand the world. For example, Bill Viola’s video art helps us to develop an almost Zen-like sensitivity to our surroundings even if, for example, the animal carcasses in “I do not know what it is I am like” are ugly and grotesque.  But, I do have limits and I do think that a lot of art from the 1960’s on is dysfunctional and of limited value.  My contention is that much of what I don’t like stems from philosophy and sociology systems that promote subjectivism and relativism. And, I think that, no surprise, the postmodern intellectuals are part of the problem with postmodern art.

Let’s begin with Lyotard.  He does not seem like a bad guy. Lyotard even agrees with some of us that there is such a thing as “objective truth”. In my book, that’s good! It does not seem like it would lead too far astray from the path of inspiration and beauty. Unfortunately, Lyotard quickly undoes any notion of objective value when he states that, because of the limited amount of knowledge which can be processed by our human brains, we can never know objective truth. What that amounts to is Lyotard’s contention that there is no such thing as “certainty”; just relatively more or less effective interpretations of reality. In many ways I understand that. After all, to take my Bill Viola example again, just because I view a carcass as “ugly” doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t view that as part of the “beauty of natural processes”. And here is an odd one. I love Mark Rothko’s work and I can sit in Rothko Chapel in Houston for hours. Something about his use of color profoundly affects me. I guarantee that I know people who are far more well-educated about philosophy, intellectual history, and art theory than I who are not moved, in the least, by Rothko. So, I really do get Lyotard in relation to art. But I feel like he leads us down a dangerous path because to deny certainty leads to intellectual uncertainty, then moral relativism, then the “free for all” that is conceptual art. Is that bad? Well…. to me, yes. It implies that you don’t need to inspire, you don’t need to create and promote beauty, you don’t need fundamental skills, and you don’t need to even know what you are trying to accomplish. Lyotard is correct that the amount of available information is beyond our mental neurological processing capacity; but I don’t think it follows that nothing is objectively knowable. I prefer to view the problem from Nozick’s perspective – you can’t have certainty unless an objective fact is invariant under all possible transformations. About some things we indeed have no capacity for certainty. But about other we DO. From that perspective, I don’t see why we can’t put intellectual boundaries around art and say it should have objective values.

What about the good monsieur Derrida? Well, back in the 1960’s he was one of philosophy’s rock stars. For that reason, he had an enormous effect on the intellectual world. His notion of “deconstruction” set the foundation for a lot of the 60’s. In a very tiny nutshell, deconstruction is essentially repetitive linguistic analysis. To me, that sounds pretty cool. What does not seems as cool is the idea that the language to which this analysis is applied is a closed self-referential system that is independent of anything else. Big deal, you say – but it IS a big deal. That’s because Derrida takes his notion of language independence to the extreme. Ultimately, it leads to his critique of ideas as independent of language. If language refers only to language. then how do you objectively express thoughts and feelings and knowledge. In Derrida’s worldview, you can’t. Language is our way of communicating and it can’t objectively represent anything. So, to Derrida, everything is subjective until it is nestled into a particular interpretation. This leads to something even scarier than Lyotard’s uncertainty. It leads to absolute relativism. Apply that idea to something like, say, morality. When you look at Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Bashir, and other genocidal rulers, it seems to me that moral relativism is the key to most of the biggest disasters in history. So, I can’t see relativism as a way to live in a manner appropriate to human existence. We can argue about what we think art should communicate – motivation, inspiration, connectedness to our environment, awareness of tragedies, whatever – but surely there is a case to be made that it should, in one way or another, help us to better understand how best to be human. Derrida leads us far astray.

Foucault scares me even more than the others.  This is because Foucault simply denies that rational knowledge produces objective accounts of reality or that it even represents human progress. He comes to this conclusion by way of the idea that even though we may presume that our own personal classification schema represent objective reality, there are actually many alternative classification schema. To Foucault, a classification scheme is a culture-specific interpretation embedded in language. This was a commonly taught philosophy when I was in art history classes; remember that I said I had a textbook called “The Social Construction of Reality”. What scares me about this philosophy is that it makes the entire world one or relativity and subjectivity.  It says that ethics, morality, how we deal with others, and what our creative efforts should teach are dependent on how our culture describes and interprets. In such a system, Nazi culture could make 10 million murders morally acceptable; Chinese communist culture could make man-made famine morally acceptable; Radical Muslim culture could make blowing up the World Trade Center morally acceptable; and all because of cultural interpretive conventions. I simply refuse to accept a philosophy that denies objective moral standards. Where art is concerned, if morality is subjective then using the creative process to communicate to morally cognizant animals is subjective. This means that a painting that motivates one to kill Jews, a painting that motivates one to aspire to compassion for all living beings, a painting that increases the viewer’s perceptual sensitivity, a painting that teaches the viewer that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, and a painting that motivates one to achieve the best within themselves are morally equivalent;  they depend on relative cultural subjectivity. In my humble opinion as one who is not a philosopher, this is nothing short of horse shit. Interestingly though, there are people who I really respect, like Bernard-Henri Levy, who would be as disgusted with moral relativism as I, yet still call Foucault one of their “Masters”. It may be that I am not educated enough to understand all of Foucault’s arguments. But, I think I have a viable interpretation and I don’t like it.

I hope you can see why my interpretations of the work of Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault make their notions of deconstruction, subjectivity, and cultural relativism seem like a nightmare. And I hope you can see why my “nightmare of aesthetics” comes from the way that these philosophers deny the objective moral drive to create art. In my humble opinion what makes so much of this art boring, uninspiring, ugly, violent, and sometimes genuinely disgusting is the prevalence of this type of thinking within the intellectual theory that drove the second half of the 20th century. I’m not really one of those guys who thinks that everything must be rational, objective, beautiful, and inspiring. But when the opposite of those characteristics is the foundation of aesthetic theory, then the value of art is significantly diminished.

Just my opinion 🙂

Since 1980 I’ve had the desire to experience a whole array of emotionally charged installation and video art. Since 1988 I’ve had a continuously growing collection of pastel and pencil drawn nudes hanging on my walls. Since 1989 I’ve had a personalized Oregon vehicle license plate that says “R MUSIC”. Interestingly (at least to me) is the thread that binds together those 3 seemingly disparate aspects of my life. To understand the thread, you need to know why each is important to me.

Let’s begin at the end – with the license plate. I moved to Oregon in 1989. I had California plates that said 3DGRFX because working with 3D Graphics is what I did for a living. When I moved to Oregon I wanted to make a change to, not only my state, but also my identity. So, I changed what the plates said. For a long time I did not know what to put on those new plates. Then, one day I was going to lunch with a friend and the car stereo had been turned up quite loud on my drive in to work. As soon as we got into the car, the Opera “Tosca” went blasting through the parking lot. My friend turned to me and said: “turn it off! Turn it off! I hate that kind of music!” I apologized for the volume and then said: “hey, lots of people don’t like opera; but Patt and I LOVE opera so Opera is what plays in MY car. This is our car and this is our music!” That was the very instant that I decided on my new plates: R MUSIC.

The nudes represent a less silly story. I used to hang out in Los Angeles at a place on Traction Avenue, called “Al’s Bar”. One day, one of my downtown friends brought a postcard into the bar and showed it to me. It was a painting called “Denouement”  by an artist who lived across the street. I was stunned by the uplifting beauty of the painting and I had to meet the artist. While I could never afford to own Denouement or any of his other major works, we did become friends and I did start buying his pastels.

As for the video and installation art, all I can say is “read my last blog post”. Several times in my college career I saw video work by an artist who’s work I could neither afford, nor take my eyes off. The artist came to teach in several video art classes that I took from Professor Gene Youngblood at CalArts. He is my favorite artist and I still can’t take my eyes off his work.

So… who are these 3 guys and why do I consider their work to be contributing factors in my own personal philosophical, emotional, and psychological development? The first question is easily answered. These 3 guys are Giacomo Puccini, Michael Newberry, and Bill Viola. The second question is relatively straightforward but is not as easily answered. The simplest answer is just that each of these artists focuses like a laser beam on the thing that I personally find most powerful in art and in life: EMOTION. But that’s a rather banal explanation unless coupled with the rationale. So, here goes.

The word “emotion” can mean many things. In my context, it really refers to something more broadly called “The Passions”. Honestly, I know very little about intellectual history prior to the 17th century so I won’t pretend that I know where the categorization of the passions began. What I do know is that in 1668 Charles Le Brun cataloged 22 of them based on facial movements. Three and a half centuries later, today’s master of emotional communication, Paul Ekman, is still working on understanding them. What I also know are two things that are entirely personal and subjective. I know that I respond very strongly to highly emotional art. And, I know that the art I personally find most powerful is that which helps us to develop our ability to see or hear deeply and with sensitivity. So, if I was writing a manifesto (right… in my dreams!) I would say that the purpose of art is to provide audiences or viewers with tools that cultivate their mindfulness, and sensitivity to the subtle beauty of all that surrounds us. Each of these artists provide me with exactly that.

Puccini often took everyday experiences, rather than heroic Wagnerian characters and subjects, as the basis for his operas. This neither implies that Madame Butterfly is “everyday” nor does it imply that I like Wagner. Both are untrue. What is does imply is that Puccini understood the subtleties of ordinary life and was able to portray them sensitively. More important was Puccini’s ability to write extraordinary melody in a way that evokes enormous emotion. The man clearly understood the power of melody to express every subtle aspect of every possible emotion.

In a very different way, Bill Viola understands emotions on a very subtle level. He wants his viewers to experience these emotions but he also wants to heighten out awareness of them. Bill’s work serves to make us aware of how life is lived and experienced and how we emotionally respond to that. Not every emotion that Bill wants us to experience is positive. As much as he want’s us to know what love and ecstasy are like, he also wants us to understand things like sadness, fear, death, loss, grief, confusion, emotional conflict, anger, and everything in between. That’s why Bill can create a piece like “The Passing” which eloquently examines the spiritual, emotional, existential extremes of human birth and death; concurrently juxtaposing them.It’s why he can create something like “I do not know what it is I am like” that does the exact same thing with the natural world. It’s why a viewer can sit transfixed in an installation of “Five Angels for the Millennium” and feel uplifted. And, it’s why “The Passions” can effectively juxtapose everything from “Man of Sorrow” to  “Emergence” in a way that maintains philosophical integrity. Bill doesn’t only want us to be uplifted. He wants us to know what every emotion feels like and, through experiencing his work, to become sensitized to those emotions and to be better able to recognize and wrestle with them. All of Bill’s work reaches it’s pinnacle in “The Passions” because all of those pieces deal with what John Walsh calls “Emotions in Extreme Time”. The pieces were not shot on video. They were shot on 35mm film at an extremely high frame rate. The result is that we viewers need to spend time with the pieces (you can’t just walk by them). But, when you do, you experience the most intricate subtlety imaginable. You learn everything about the emotion expressed in the work. For I guy like me, who values emotion as the most affecting component of art, nothing is more powerful than Bills most recent work!

Like Viola and Puccini, Michael Newberry’s work is about emotion. Somewhat different from Puccini and drastically different from Viola, Newberry’s work focuses on a only a subset of the passions. That subset, however, is the core of both his aesthetic and his beliefs about the purpose of art. Michael DOES have a manifesto and it’s not the same as what I said mine would be. I have a broader range of art that I would call “good” than Michael does but that is because Michael has very solid, rational, consistent beliefs about why he does what he does. So, much of the art I like, Michael does not like because it does not meet his standards for what he believes art should do. I had a conversation with Michael recently, about Picasso’s composition. Michael sad this: “Picasso is one of my favorite painters but he is not one of my favorite artists“. I’ve never discussed Viola’s work with him but I have the feeling he’d feel similarly.  Michael has an aesthetic that is strongly rooted in Romantic aesthetics. To him, the most important thing that art should do is to help the viewer or listener understand his potential for greatness; to make the audience see their human potential; and to make them have a desire to be the best, most productive, most glorious humans that they can be. Michael does not try to work with the whole gamut of emotions. Many of Le Brun’s 22 passions are exactly the opposite of what Michael wants his work to express. What he wants is for his viewers to see intense love; pure, unfiltered, unimpeded ecstasy; and the feeling of joy brought to its ultimate heights. Unlike Viola, or even Puccini, Michael does not want his work to have anything to do with fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, or death. Where Viola wants us to see everything and to be forced to deal with our own responses, Michael wants only one thing: to show you your highest, greatest, most amazing potential and to make you strive to achieve your own.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to all three of these artists. To Puccini I owe my love for some of the most passionate aural experiences one can ever have. To Viola I own my love for visual experiences that forever change ones perceptions. To Newberry I own a house full of some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, the daily renewal of my desire to strive to be my best, a constant reminder to take the personal responsibility for achieving (or not) my goals, and the acknowledgement that it’s okay (dare I say mandatory) for one to nurture one’s own joy, happiness, and love.

What my favorite artists would think of each other, I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that Puccini would love Newberry’s painting and, at least, the most recent of Viola’s work. I’m certain that if Viola saw Newberry’s painting he’d feel he’d found a kindred spirit. I know that Newberry loves Puccini because we’ve spoken about it and listened together; about Viola’s later work I guess that Michael would respect it and love (or come to love) “The Passions”. Each of these guys would have a different view of how the others meet the aesthetic objectives of their own artistic conceptions. But, that’s why they are all great artists. Their artistic conceptions each differ but, unlike so much of the terrible art that has been produced in the last 100 years, what make each of these aesthetics unique is their unadulterated nobility.

As for me, I am just a lover of emotionally charged art with a bunch of pastel and pencil drawn nudes and a silly “R MUSIC” license plate. But the thread that binds together those really important parts of my life is passion. Today I live more passionately, more compassionately, and with greater mindfulness of our world and our human potential because of them.

Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!