This article was originally published on the Tilted Arc blog as part of the Backstory series.

Renoir, physicality and abstract painting

Although there are other painters I feel closer to—Braque, de Staël, and Soutine are crucial to me—I offer a note on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81) because it represents, for me, the ultimate of what a painter might achieve: a vision as large as Nature itself. This painting is on my mind every day, and in many ways I chart my slow progress as a painter against the fullness of the world it presents.

An invisible breeze animates and orders Renoir’s picture. The airflow cannot be seen, but it can be felt moving through and around the figures, establishing their positions and gestures. The awning flaps and the trees sway helplessly. Even the light follows, flickering back and forth across surfaces as shadows shift with the wind. The luncheon barely holds the tablecloth in place. The air pushes, pulls, and lifts. A living, breathing, self-supporting structure, it raises the entire scene in three-dimensions, floating it in front of us as a tangible, experiential vision.

It was in front of Renoir’s picture that I recognized a truth: as an abstract painter, I need a model whose painterly world is vivid and, most importantly, expansive.

To aim for a more complete expression of reality is not at odds with abstraction. Reality in abstract painting exists where what is seen impacts the body physically, where space visually navigated can be felt. By this definition, Renoir’s painting is as abstract as any work ever painted. We understand the relationships of the painting through an invisible, natural force.

Renoir’s vision for painting was as complex as the scene before him. In reaching towards an equally convincing expression, I am increasingly turning to the scene before me. My most recent works incorporate moments of perceptual painting to push repeating marks of uninflected color to their expressive limits.

As the painting develops the possible combinations of marks echo the myriad relations contained within a cone of vision. Each mark carries within its color and position a specific spatial location, pressure, and temperature, and each of these properties is multivalent—localized to itself and immediate neighbors while essential to the experiential whole of the painting.

As an artist I don’t try to move forward in my work so much as expand outward the realm of what I can see. My ambition as a painter is to address an ever widening circle of experience with the goal of creating an art that, to paraphrase Clement Greenberg, is less like art and more like life.

painting: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 inches (courtesy of the Phillips Collection)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-1881
oil on canvas
51 1/4 x 69 1/8 inches
(courtesy of the Phillips Collection)