Moser at Seventy-Five: New, Recent, & Unexpected Works
It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which you may find really marvelous ideas.
—Leonardo da Vinci
I contend that all art is abstract. The essence of art, it seems to me, comes from conflict and resolution, or, put another way, from the tensions that exist between opposites—and subject matter has not a damned thing to do with it. James A. M. Whistler put it this way: If people “could care for pictorial art at all, they would know that the picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest…. As music is the poetry of sound,” Whistler says, “so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with the harmony of sound or of color…. Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.”
Well, who am I to argue with Whistler? Or Leonardo? I came across Leonardo’s sentiment when I was in college during the early nineteen-sixties. Came across Whistler’s in the early nineteen-seventies. It all made sense to me—then and today. I took their postulata to heart and began looking for beauty wherever and whenever I could find it: clouds scudding overhead, oil slicks on water, paint peeling off ceilings, lichen on granite. I worked hard at being open-minded about what constituted beauty, a difficult task for a twenty-year-old who’s just beginning to learn his craft. And in doing so I began to understand that nothing is so common, so trifling or putrid that it could not—indeed, should not—be observed and studied, even the afterbirth of a cow, mountains of dirty snow, a sprig of leaves crushed on a road, or the feathers and bones of a dead, desiccated sparrow.
My work is nothing, has been nothing, if not disciplined. To quote Leonardo again, “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” This is an unpopular notion in this venal era of ours where one’s scat can be extolled as “art” by virtue of compressing it into a can and then asking its weight in gold as a selling price. Constraint and discipline are shocking notions in our mongrel era where, as Ingmar Bergman tells us that “the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy.” And, perhaps too, his feculence.
My lifetime of making images began as a young boy when I made highly detailed drawings of monsters, airplanes, animals, and naked women. The sole purpose of those drawings was to show off my gift for verisimilitude—and, in the case of the naked women, to make a contribution to my nascent salacity.
I began my art education in 1958 at Auburn University in Alabama holding dearly to that gift, a gift that had, up to that point, garnered only praise and attention. My first drawing instructor at Auburn deflated my priggish self-admiration marginally by making me draw with my left hand because my right hand “was too smart for me.” The other instructors there taught me mechanically disciplined systems of perspective and the basic principles of design & composition, but otherwise none did anything to steer me away from the path I had chosen for myself.
Mid-way through my college career I transferred from Auburn to the University of Chattanooga in Tennessee. There I met George Cress. He was a terrific colorist, a painter of abstract images who was unimpressed with my gift for drawing things that looked like, well, what those things looked like. He pushed me to abandon my small croquil pens, my Rapidographs, my very sharp graphite pencils, my tiny brushes, and the subject matter to which I so tenaciously cleaved. I was a hard sell. I was resistant to his ideas and his instructions. They ran counter to everything I thought I knew—which was, at nineteen or twenty years, next to nothing. But George Cress was nothing if not curmudgeonly persistent, and eventually I gave in. And under his guidance I began painting large canvases with two- and three-inch wide bristle brushes—without much, if any, subject matter. He taught me how to build a picture with the pure formal elements of which all graphic art is invented: line, shape, color, rhythm, contrast, value, scale, line, mass, and texture—both real & implied. Along the way I began to sense, if not understand, that all art is a matter of contrast: push & pull, black & white; large & small; tragic & comedic; simple & complex; concave & convex. It is my job, as it is for any serious artist, to bring these disparate elements into balance and harmony. That’s it. To manipulate them and compose them into a coherent whole that looks as though it couldn’t possibly have been done any other way. An image that has a sense of inevitability about it. Whistler tells us that the artist is “born to pick, and choose…these elements, [so] that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”
That said, I ask the question: Do I know what I am doing?
As hard as I may try to make the case that I do know what I am doing, employing deft and clever rationalizations to make it seem so, the truth is, at the end of the day, I don’t. I simply do not. E. L. Doctorow said that every time he starts a new novel he does not know what he thought he knew. Every time, he tells us, it’s like starting from the very beginning, knowing nothing. It’s a dark and redoubtable place to be. It can drive you to drink. But it’s the only place to be if you are doing your work well, if you’re doing it thoughtfully and self-critically—way out there on the edge of the unknown where it’s risky. Out there where you could fall off.