This essay, reproduced here with kind permission, has been published by the National Arts Club in conjunction by Kent Fine Art on the occasion of the exhibition, A Tribute to Irving Petlin, October 30, 2017 to January 4, 2018. National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, open to the public Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm
To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano. James McNeill Whistler
Painters often speak fondly of their medium, so why not recall for a moment what we mean by the word “paint?” It should be understood as a chromatic pigment immersed in its vehicle, usually oil, acrylic, or water. An artist handles it by means of a brush, sometimes a knife, rag or sponge and occasionally a finger that smears. On a surface, this pliant material can be loaded or thinned down, as wished. Misapplied paint frequently generates shapes or images that were unforeseen. I have visited an artist’s studio where left over dabs on his palette had jelled up impishly to figurine size. The artist in question is a seasoned painter, Irving Petlin, wise to the fanciful potentials of oil, though his real sweetheart is pastel.
So, what is pastel? A dried paste made of pigment, ground with chalk and compounded with gum water, finished in sticks. One rubs or presses down these sticks upon rough textured paper—an action that visualizes gritty strokes and smudged zones of contact. Or, as the artist says vividly of his own process:
Sometimes there is no form under the hovering hand, no contour, no shape, but a crying out for a color to land and spread like a cloud. …It is here that pastel is unique, softly spreading, bleeding to a nothingness undefined by boundary. The opposite happens when a sharp line of color is called for. The… stick must then draw an insistent, confident color line…one shot only, no second chances!
Pastel was once a convivial sketching tool for the Impressionists. Manet and Degas did well with it. Now, a contemporary artist uses pastel—challenged by what he regards as the medium’s will of its own– to visualize a state in which substance and space are bonded with each other. A wrong stroke and that possibility slips away or is instantly lost.
A number of the pastels he’s recently created are diptychs, presented as if they’re opened pages of ancient manuscripts, upon which some coherent depictions have survived. Their red brown tonality seems to have emerged as a result of the artist’s palm bearing down, while their linearity speaks of intrusive, sharp contours that silhouette a narrative subject. Considering the granulated character and abrasive, unsettled meeting of touch and ground, the work might suggest an arid setting, perhaps a desert. That is why I was taken aback when viewing a Petlin pastel called Towed to Sea (1912).
Beneath the orange haze of twilight, an ocean liner is tugged out from port across a surface that looks—suspiciously—like water. Puffy black lines and dark smudges describe smoke issuing from the ship’s four stacks, while beyond them the heavens are lit by rapturous flares. Abruptly, the date of this pastel implies its subject: 2012, the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage during which it struck an iceberg and sank, at great cost of human life. Here, the white texture of the vessel anticipates the calamity to come.
Since it alludes to an historical event, and is based on a photograph, the image of this ghost ship has a certain credibility. But not if you look at the sky. While its multiple suns (one of them very bloody) are definitely cosmological, they leave us open the idea that the scene itself is extra terrestrial. Judging by the solar positions, over to the rear, the near side of the boat should have been in deep shadow, whereas here it fades into a pale, buoyant void.
In other pastels, the same thing happens to structures as familiar as the Brooklyn Bridge or the vernacular Parisian roof tops seen from Petlin’s left bank studio window. Their outlines are firmly declared without any further acknowledgement that they’re solid structures. Lacking density and volume, they act as contained areas of light itself. If you ask where this light comes from, or what is the source of its energy, the pastels do not answer. One reckons only with the blur they leave, as a kind of bioluminescence, visible even in daylight hours, dimmed though it might be. Petlin’s tableaux are visited by translucent superimpositions, in a manner that brings to mind double exposures or even 19th-century spirit photography.
Over about fifty-five years, he has levered his practice with implications of dialogue—two terms, events, metaphors or states, that either sing together or are answerable to each other.
He teases viewers, for instance, with the sense that some of his latest works on paper date back in time, weathered by millennia of their prior existence. When cemeteries appear elsewhere, they, too, seem to have a long history, of which there remains little but the touching, abstracted evidence of headstones. He infers that the arrivals of people cannot happen unless preceded by their–sometimes urgent—departures, as in pictures of beached lifeboats and refugees on the move, their sad whereabouts undetermined. Yet this art is absorbed by the urban mode as much as it is with pastoral scenography. They complement each other in nearby or distant vantages, though either way they’re poignantly stranded by the retrospective cast of his mood.
As mists drift over an action or in close proximity to it, events seem etherealized by the texture of the pastel grain. The presumptions of first-hand witness give way to an aura of memories, infiltrated by biblical references or hints of more up to date occasions, such as the Holocaust. Time itself is dilated as a restless, substratum of consciousness, tinged with alarms. As if it was harmonized like music on base and treble staffs, his art uses low toned atmospherics to contrast with spritely exposition.
Petlin’s melding of disparate forms and timbres is further enriched by his living interface between two cultures, native and adopted. He made his longstanding, professional name in France; he vacations in Martha’s Vineyard. This artist, resident in Paris, comes originally from Chicago. Born there in 1934, and trained at the school of the city’s Art Institute, he became a younger member of the group later known for monster imagery.
The trauma of the Second World War had left more than a trace in the grotesquerie of their images. Dubuffet’s art brut they received most hospitably. Francis Bacon’s contemporary paintings of a pope with butchered animal carcasses, they regarded as red meat. For Irving Petlin, as well as his friends Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, it was not Cézanne’s formal innovations but James Ensor’s bitter satire that opened the portal to modern art. Edvard Munch’s art also impacted upon the man who was to draw the Titanic. Some residue of Munch’s spirit can be detected in visceral currents that twist through the gauze of Petlin’s later pastels. In the matter of agitated background space, there was something for him to learn from Giacometti’s barbed draftsmanship and Matta’s velvet infinities. Finally, I should mention a much earlier artist who fits into this list of exemplary, model figures, for good reason.
Odilon Redon was an 1890s French Symbolist whose visionary work blossomed in rapport with his feeling for pastel. Like Petlin, he was sensitized by his medium, to the point of imagining it in live reaction to his desire. When dark passages needed to be relieved, Redon rubbed light into them, as if it were a celestial glow. His auto-luminous faces and bodies have an apparitional presence, with an air about them of sacramental meditation. This is true even when the theme was of Greek legends, or a choice of motif like a flowery bouquet. In the end, he limned such subjects with the assurance that they were as enchanting as fairy tales.
Earlier than our 21st Century, fairy tales went out of fashion. Nevertheless, the magic of special effects and the fantasies they engender hold sway in popular imagination. In on example, aliens of reptilian or robotic form enter our world with the unfriendly thought of obliterating us. The success of their apocalyptic genre depends on its entertainment value, manufactured with bravura technique. If they are to be truly entertaining, however, the aliens must look as real and solid, and “there”–as an earthling. For enjoyment’s sake, we have to discount the fact that they were contrived behind the scenes.
Art rarely arouses such disingenuous commitment because it is understood to be symbolic or hypothetical or metaphoric by its very nature. Hand–made images are taken to be “special effects”, fictive in their own right and by common consent. That permission certainly allows a work to act as a door to another world, dreamy in its space, as Petlin’s is.
He stands out as an artist who confides his reveries rather than announces them. To a viewer, this confidentiality can work as seductive, privileged entrance to scenes that advance from, as well as recede into the depth of a poetic region. But there is nothing underhanded about this veiling motion. If you are not allowed to touch any of the represented figures, you can still see how they are palpably constructed, what his facture does to evince them, and what, in fact, the hand does with remarkable craftsmanship to create them. The work tells of invented possibilities and lost histories, but it also shows itself.