THE PAINTINGS OF ATHANASIUS SCHNEE
Imagine an esoteric movement in 19th c. painting, contemporary with musical
Romanticism, in which a small group of bold innovators abandoned themselves to
their intuitions, creating an abstract art, optimistic and serene, Modernism come
early, minus the angst.
Now imagine a pioneer of this movement, totally blind but deeply spiritual, and,
thanks to his inability to know his work, completely uninhibited - a primitive, as
unencumbered by technique, as immune to the temptation of mindless virtuosity, as
he is incapable of accomplishing what he intends.
Let's call him Athanasius Schnee, and let's situate him in the sleepy little town of
Ofterdingen. In such a place no records would exist on the subject of his tragic loss
of vision (Perhaps as a child his eyes were poked out by twin twinkies, so that the
last thing he saw was the snowy white of those delicious cream fillings), while in
such a parochial setting, his type of art, far from instigating a trend, would have been
dismissed as madness or incompetence (which explains why history makes no
mention of his existence).
But how did he manage to paint (you will ask)? The answer is: badly, though, given
the ongoing crisis of values in our culture, that kind of judgement is fraught with
dangers, and this kind of work is not so easily dispatched.
Of course he's me, that is, I'm Schnee, still noodling in the coda of history, resisting
teleology, floating vertiginously over time, still concocting metaphysical justifications
for my childish insistence on doing exactly what I want to do, still disguising
inadequacies as virtues, failures as innovations, still employing obfuscating masks
from which I cannot resist peeking out and waving, while glibly abandoning what I'm
competent to do for a field in which I've no experience and little talent.
In the name of what?
Well, to employ the rhetoric of the Abstract Expressionists (so unfashionable in
these cynical times), I guess I'm driven by unconscious impulses, drawn
unreasoningly to pigment and brush, compelled to paint without even a clear notion
of subject matter - to paint feverishly, anxiously, compulsively, elatedly. And, despite
perpetual disappointment, I am encouraged to persist, so that now life without this
loving labor would seem bereft of happiness and hope.
Who am I to question this? Our task is to explore the mystery within and without, to
move with honesty and energy toward the light: the rest is vanity and illusion.
From the diary of Athanasius Schnee
October 14 (midnight)
For some months now I've been groping in the dark, stymied by lack of technique
though resistant to systematic training, repulsed by my results but buoyed by hope - a
hope continually kindled by something exciting in each of these frustrating efforts.
Tonight I can identify that something: it's the moment, after mixing a color, I first slap it
down from brush to canvas, that moment when bright orange accosts pure white, a
ritual enactment of the primordial conflict of matter and spirit. And the form is simply
the mark of the brush guided by the hand, the hand moving across the canvas
expressing the mind searching through the world, finding its way, leaving its mark.
This is the proper beginning point for painting, the mode of the primitive, not
chromatic harmony but the discovery and cultivation of one color, not representation
or design but automatic calligraphy - a personal signature, the stamp of the individual
with his brush through which the startled soul proclaims its birth.
As one good brush stroke deserves another, it becomes clear immediately that the
emergence of pattern is inevitable. This is the origin of the idea of form: we make
something (somehow, where before there was nothing), we observe what we've
made, we attempt either to imitate it - and it turns out looking different, or to create a
contrast - and it winds up bearing a resemblance. Either way a balance is
established between structural coherence and fantasy. Maybe our failure is our
salvation, seeing as we understand but imperfectly what we need: we exist in a state
of perpetual discontent, immersed in beauty, poised between tyranny and chaos.
I have decided to teach myself a little about mixing colors and forming textures. For
the present, each little painting will feature only one color, and will exploit one
gesture. My aims are to explore the emotional values of the spectrum, while, at the
same time, developing a repertoire of strokes. Eventually I will attempt to create
pictures that display, in the variety of colors and textures, a certain technique - though
there may come a day when I will desire to eliminate all signs of the brush. In any
case all possible future forms are implicit in these actions I take today.
These primal shapes I've made, expressions of the arm and of the brush, do they
come from the genes, do we repeat the gestures of our fathers? Or is "intuition" but
the veiled recollection of things we've done in prior lives?
In that electric moment when a pattern emerges from the chaotic canvas, or alights
thereon, descending from the mind, we experience, fleetingly, a fall from grace, as the
idea dissolves into its imperfect copy, and then the thrill of the palpable, as this
epigone asserts itself, usurps the throne of dreams, until we can no longer imagine
the world in its absence.
Art offers us escape! Because I come to painting in all innocence, if offers me an
escape from civilization's patterns of thought, while all true art provides an escape
from the trivial.
Musical improvisation provides a meeting place for mind and fingers and ears.
Automatic painting can be like that: You make something up, you look at it, you like it
and try to repeat it, you fail, and the failure, being more interesting than the original,
inspires something else.
Sometimes, in a state of dejection, as I gather my scraps of failure and clean my
table, I glance accidentally at my palette... and find it beautiful and amazing in a way
my conscious attempts cannot approach!
I've been reading a lot lately about the zeitgeist that spawned Abstract Expressionism
in America half a century ago, characterized by calamitous events with traumatic
psychological repercussions. What's the spirit of my age, and how do my efforts
I live in an era of cynicism given over to mindless materialistic pursuits, and I reflect it
by espousing, in my every word and deed, its antithesis.
As I survey my efforts to date, it seems it seems to me that, despite all attempts at
achieving freedom from preconception, certain typical gestures recur (naturally, as
the wrist and the arm move) and immediately, associations attach themselves to
1. The broad, free, usually vertical strokes yielding a wiggly square: call it
Fire-Log-Self (my image, I suspect, or my signature).
2. Mostly horizontal waves and squiggles: call it Calligriodicy.
3. Intertwining, overlapping threads of brushwork through which the white canvas
sometimes peeps through: Braidzilla.
In the near future (now that I've developed this little repertoire of shapes, and now
that I've learned a bit about colors, one at a time) I will try integrating, in one
composition, two or three such textures, and mixing colors, in order to attain a form,
which is to say a synthesis of these little units into a larger, more complex whole.
Of all my motifs the "green sword" is the one I neglected to cultivate, and it has
persisted, as it were, on its own, thanks to which I find myself in the position of God
the Father who, according to an ancient heresy, pitied the merely human Jesus
hanging on the cross, and made of him in that moment an adopted son.
...Or has this sword ever been mine, but hidden until now, submerged in my psyche
deeper and longer than the other symbols, so that, rising to the surface, it assumes
the character of a magical apparition?
Spontaneity and inspiration or calculation and refinement? Can we effect a
compromise? How about automatic beginnings and conscious reworkings?
When, at the end of a Sunday dinner, as I begin to clear the plates, scraping into the
waste bin the splendid ruins of some culinary delight, I sometimes forget, for a
moment, that the golden swirl floating in the midst of a wine red sea is the remains of
my linguine in tomato sauce. I guess the problems of meaning and intention exist as
much in painting as in music.
The life of the artist, microcosm of the world's life, can be seen to describe a fourfold
1. Chaos - from birth, seeking a form from infinity.
2. Canon - triumph of reason, formulation of laws, control, moment when definitions
3. Mystery - recognition and acceptance of a residue of the inscrutable at the heart of
self and world - the place of true art, and religion too.
4. Clarity - a growing intuition of some pelucid state where present paradoxes
resolve, not by reduction but through our growth. (Then what? Do we start all over
Therefore art is not the ultimate activity and we ourselves are not the final product of
evolution. Art is the means by which humanity traverses this path, and traversing the
path is more important than either the art or us.
This helps explain my obsession with painting: so long as I live I must find a way - any
way - to continue to be part of that movement of the universe toward clarity. We have
more than a right, we have an obligation to seek meaning.
Evolution of my symbols:
The lightning bolt, once bent by water, having become a dagger, is now become a
cross - a cross at which the jelly-bean madonna prays.
Each fresh picture seems dimly to suggest some other picture it wishes to be. In fact
this is also true for those Hofmann pictures I've been admiring - I find his work
exhilarating, but as I turn back over the prints in search of the source of my
satisfaction, with each new page I think, not this one, no, not this one either...
Here's what I despise about Kandinsky:
1. Like Wagner he's not a pure artist: he wishes to manipulate art to serve his
2. He's messianic, and this skews him to reality. (I detest this because it reminds me
of myself, though less and less these days.)
3. He's compulsive about systematizing things such as colors and codifying their
values and meanings: this is less interesting than the richness and multivalence
already present in nature.
Better to be Bach and have a glorious God to humble yourself to in the making of
great art. Better still to be free of all constraints and still be good!
Possibility: charcoal sketching for the symbolic shapes and motivic forms that are
emerging; paint for the messy, palette-slathering, brush-wielding color work.
1932-1958, Greenwich Village, NYC: All through my father's childhood, as he played
stickball in the streets, Hans Hofmann was painting around the corner, down the
block, upstairs through the window. The confluence of these two realities reveals to
me a long-sought secret: we each live in a legendary time in which there is room for
magic to be made - it's our lack of faith in ourselves that makes the fallen present, and
conjures in proxy of the quotidian past a world of wonders. The truth is that the
1930s were defined by the Great Depression, which was followed by the Second
World War. For a German emigre this was far from the ideal time and
place...Perhaps if we picture ourselves through the eyes of an art historian from the
distant future, veiled in a romantic penumbra...
Maybe each painting should have two names. Maybe Athanasius Schnee should
also be Pierre Sauvage.
Last night I dreamed I had a job painting NYC sidewalks orange.
The problem with revising, planning and improving: when you take, from each of five
or six failed efforts, the single successful moment, and attempt to construct from them
a new composition, the end product lacks precisely that precious quality found in the
individual parts: fortuitous spontaneity.
Disheveled thoughts...Painting is music, it's rhythm, dancing...No, more than that:
emotion. I need to get charged up, inspired, in touch with the dreamworld. I want to
paint in a heightened state. Maybe even blind, in the dark...Or clear-eyed and
thoughtful, curious like a child encountering the world on the first day...Let the color
guide the feeling...In any case, when painting becomes tedious, like painting a house,
it's time to stop. Painting has become by then the very opposite of inspired,
spontaneous: it has become perfunctory, obligatory (and worthless).
Music at its best approaches plasticity, transcends its naturally transitory state, while
painting, frozen in time, aspires to evoke fluidity and motion.
So we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw a bunch of huge Stills,and
some Rothko and Newman, but only one Hofmann (made of squares).
And whereas I was afraid, beforehand, of being overwhelmed with possibilities and
lapsing into lethargy, the opposite proved true: I find my aims have been clarified:
I have no wish to tell a story in paint, to depict anything, to suggest three dimensions,
even to utilize a network of private symbols. Neither can I really claim a wish to
express myself in paint.
I want to get some big canvases and accost them with color, ritually reenacting the
primal conflict/marriage of matter and spirit. One color, at most two or three, with
maybe lots of canvas showing. Spatter, splash, dab, zag: who knows how it will turn
out looking? Child-innocent art. Primitive wonder-art. As I said long ago about
composing electronic music (where, like here, the results cannot be anticipated) : not
Impressionism (reflecting nature) nor Expressionism (revealing the soul) but traces of
the mind as it searches, plays, finding its way in the world.
(Of course the distinctions we draw are not absolute: there can be no nature -
painting without subjective input, and when we find the source of inspiration within,
we should remember that the unconscious is nourished by our experiences from
Painting - endless futility, failure, undying attraction - has become a metaphor for our
relationship. (Can marriage save our painting?)
New painting: Diptych: "Orange You Glad (it's not a triptich)." Two ways of being
formless, of truly making color the object:
1. Just use one color.
2. Slap - dash the paint in a haphazard manner.
I think perhaps I'm fortunate to have come to painting late, and wise to be so patient
with my (glacial) progress: there may not be that much to find. I suspect Rothko had
this intuition, and maybe de Stael as well.
Nov. 25 (Thanksgiving morning)
The pessimist, confronted with the fact of death, concludes that life is meaningless.
The optimist, confronted with the fact of life, wonders if death might be meaningful.
The women of the world spend their days adrift in an endless sea of beautiful
commodities, pre-fabricated and useless, until they become the image of what they
seek. I, on the other hand, waste my life in vain attempts to create one impossible
thing - a unique (hence truly beautiful, and perhaps even useful) object, which, could I
but fashion it, would make of me what I wish to become: its very image.
The world's intractable: for how many years did I sweat and fret to bend it, to mend it,
through my music, to my will, in vain? So it's no surprise that paint resists all efforts to
force it into the servitude of representation. Let the world be, but be yourself. Follow
the bends and the twists while delicately impressing your integrity on the world. Let
paint be paint: random shapes and delicious colors. Discover paint, proclaim it, set it
Just as, in music, the melody is given to instruments with clear pitch while the richer
timbres are reserved for accompanying effects, so, in painting, the primary colors,
being simple, need to play, to dance or to take shape, to form motifs, while the
secondary colors, already being complex, can simply float, become a field.
What's emerging here is the possibility of a theory of color and form that could result
in a style:
Backgrounds: dramatic palette knife blurs of grey and slate and mocha.
Middle grounds: streaks of orange, purple, green, indistinct in form, floating feelings.
Foreground: vivid spatters of yellow, red and blue - but how?
Fistful on a bigger canvas?
Or maybe simple forms such as rectangles.
We'll see, but in any case I it's time like this when I understand the reason for my
patience all these months, through all these failures. My groping in the dark, my
reliance on intuition, at such moments, seems validated. Why have I been obsessed
with shades of orange covering the whole canvas, while never would I try do that in
blue or yellow? The answer I find today is that I've been working toward the
realization that orange, is a harmony, a color-complex, rich enough not to need a
form, appropriate as background, while yellow being simple needs to dance in the
foreground. Those canvases devoted entirely to orange are the intuitive precursors
of floating shapes that will now take their place in a composition, organized according
to an organic hierarchy.
Who am I? Listening to the Transcendental Railroad lately is disconcerting. Why?
Maybe I don't hear much of myself in it: despite the sophisticated technology and the
exquisite control, it's primitive, just like these paintings - forays in a virgin world.
I said somewhere that Ofterdingen's pieces are my best music. Why? Because
there's more me in them? It would seem so. But not quite. What there's more of is
the cultural achievements I stand on top of.
And this motivates me to ask: who am I? The self-image I cherish is also largely built
from inherited ideas. Is there a primordial someone, unnerving and raw, seething like
one of these orange splatters, composed of a jumble of fears and drives, and have I
waked him with these brushstrokes?
Or at bottom is there utter chaos, or nothing, and are they the same, and is this un-me
the un-image of the world, and is that the real reason I will never succeed in making a
painting - not my impossible image nor a representation of a world that isn't real?
Without space nothing is possible, and so the primordial impulse that brought
everything into existence, or that allowed for that eventuality, was like a generous
expansion of the human heart. In these cynical times, one can't simply paint or
compose: the writing and philosophizing that accompany these activities are an effort
to create the necessary subjective space in which magic can occur. These hazy
"backgrounds" I make, populated with floating images or left as pure fields of color -
these are the visual symbols of that space, which means that orange is not simply
orange but something like love, and the swirling white and gray is not literally sky or
sea or an indication of physical depth but the visual equivalent (call it depth or sea or
sky) of the subjective space needed for love to bloom.
If ever I procured a really large canvas, say 6 or 7 feet tall, I'd be unable to choose
what to do. Being so large, the painting might become too deeply associated with
me, so that people might say, "You're the guy who painted the orange blobs!" or,
"When I think of orange blobs you come to mind." And this would make me feel
ridiculous, like a man known to posterity by the ruffled shirt he wears in his portrait.
Things always work best when art comes before theory. This is especially true when
the maker and the thinker are one.
Perhaps, then, I'd decline to actually compose a painting on this super-sized canvas,
choosing instead, in a kind of act of disavowal, a distancing gesture, blindly to
spatter the canvas, expressing more than anything my anxiety and confusion, which,
as I think about it, might result in my true self-image after all.
The most unlikely set of circumstances has conspired to yield something unexpected.
It began with my feeling that the canvas paper I was using needed trimming, This
resulted in a proliferation of small rectangles. Next I noticed these were appropriate
as bookmarks, so I smeared colors across them with palette knife or brush. Storing a
number of these items inside my notebook led me to notice how they sat together on
a page, like a series of similar cutouts. So I turned to a batch of hopelessly botched
paintings and sliced them all into bookmarks. These I arranged on painted
backgrounds of contrasting color. The result, which pleases me for the first time (!) is:
1. A series of clearly etched shapes, motivically related but unique, arranged on a
background to create an overall formal design.
2. A flowing chaos of color and shape within the discrete rectangles. (This is my
response to the beach pebbles who retain, in their accidental fragmentation, the
suggestion of infinity.)
3. The triumph of the philosophy of chance, the beauty of the unintended. Those
failed paintings I discarded are redeemed in a context my conscious mind never could
have imagined. It's me and yet not me.
Why do I paint? Does it have to do with death? Is my music too serene, too much a
shelter from the monstrous dark ahead. Is the unconscious a gate to that primitive
state I came from and whence I'm headed, and does my deeper self know this, and
need this exploration. Or has innocent experimentation opened a door to beckoning
madness - a door I cannot close?
As I was cleaning the bathroom the other day a wet hunk of peach-white soap slipped
and spatted on the floor, forming a shape,a texture so enchanting that I was
momentarily transported to some seventh heaven...until I remembered it was soap,
and this changed everything.
Why? If I were to fashion the same design, would it be any different?
Startled last night by the apparition of my granddaughter in the womb, three months
tiny but complete, sucking her thumb and dreaming her world into being. Is her
existence like that of the before-world? Does she live contented, or anxious to
appear? Is where she comes from where death will return me? Somehow her
imminent arrival pacifies with symmetry my eventual departure, and I feel, suddenly,
empty of painting, but ready again, after years, to write a poem.
A snowy day, off from school, so I make two big, ambitious paintings, working in a
highy emotional state. The extra space lets me dare to experiment, to try something,
anything, unpremeditated, to see what its appearance suggests might come after it, to
change my mind and scrape away, to proceed, as never before, improvisationally,
trusting my intuition, trusting my instinctive sense of form, the vagaries of chance.
Very exciting, not serene.
The results: bad and worse, though there is, in the "lesser evil," just enough good to
show me how to improve. My greatest weakness is that I make everything too much
alike, in shape,in texture and in color, so that it all seems too much foreground, and
this is so because I lack a repertoire of techniques on which to call. I need
wishy-washy backgrounds ( brushed or scraped or blurred with a cloth), relatively
light and amorphous, "in front" of which various shapes, textures and colors can
crowd in a jumble, seeming to vie for the foreground, both big and small, both
sharp-edged and blurry, both solid and mixed in color. In addition, for the next
picture to be better, the elements will need to b e balanced in a meaningful form - and
this is hard to predict correctly.
On top of all this, the choice of colors is crucial to the feeling of the picture, but again I
find this difficult to anticipate. So in spite of all planning, every new work involves
Instead of looking at a completed abstraction, and finding within it a provocative
name, I could try beginning with a name to help guide the working out...
Music aspires to the plasticity of art; art aspires to the lyricism of musical movement.
Each, in wishing to transcend its limits, reveals its symbolic nature.
There are really only two choices: either you imagine something first and try to realize
it or you just start painting and see where it leads. The first method will always
disappoint, either because the vision's unattainable or imperfectly imagined; the
second (after much anxiety and drama) will probably yield a pleasant surprise, though
it will never satisfy the imagination since it never tried.