Louis Finkelstein: The Late Pastels in the Context of His Artistic Thinking

by Martica Sawin

Consciousness is like a melody, a song which exists only in going on, a melody which never repeats itself but which contains memories and allusions to what has gone before. Just as in a melody whatever is ongoing at the moment attains its meaning by virtue of what has led up to it and in anticipation of what is to come, so our consciousness is founded on the flowing of past experience through the present into the future. As long as we are naïve enough to believe in a world of things—a world where meaning is constant and stable and shared by all in the same way—then this fact is not noticed and only events flow; but when this illusion is shattered it is done with irrevocably, and meaning itself is unstable, and for some people finished with. It is at this point that the service of painting becomes crucial in that of all the arts it is the only perfectly static one, whose problems, means and values are bound up in the transfixing into pure and complete simultaneity that which we were only able to know because it was moving.
—Louis Finkelstein, "Painterly Representation," Ingber Gallery, 1975

"The life of works of art," wrote Louis Finkelstein in the text he drafted for a lecture entitled The Logic of Soutine, "truly consists of how they awaken our questioning." He was, himself, an incessant questioner, even though he believed, despite a distinguished teaching career, that there were no "right answers." He refrained from resorting to classifications to describe a work of art, refusing in both his writing and his speaking on art to fall back on convenient labels or easy generalizations. He looked at each artwork for its unique properties, searching for the precise words to indicate the specifics of those qualities as they could be seized through the perceptual process. In the same way he entertained no easy solutions in his own work. This is nowhere more evident than in his late pastels, a medium for which he developed an increasing affinity during the last decade of his life.

Pastels proved to be a practical portable medium during a mule-pack trip in Yosemite with his second wife, Jane Culp, in 1991 and from then on they accompanied him on his outdoor sketching forays. Since they had the advantage of being used as both line and color he could then work the two in counterpoint to give a fuller registering of his experience of the landscape than a charcoal or pencil drawing alone might allow. Sometimes these pastels became an intermediary stage between drawing and painting and he would tack them up in his studio to serve as notes for work in progress on his easel. Because they are the product of working rapidly and directly from the motif the late pastels transfix in "pure and complete simultaneity" the How of consciousness he describes above. Yet they are disconcerting because while we recognize the components of a landscape experience we find that they don't synthesize into the expected simulacrum. "Where am I in relation to these visual stimuli?" Finkelstein would ask himself as he worked. He was not about to hand his viewers an easy answer, as these pastels testify.

Throughout his career, with the possible exception of his very last years, Finkelstein's art emerged at the juncture of highly informed cerebral activity and a direct response to the world of appearances. He reiterated the importance of sensation or the subjective element as the source of the poetry that gave the work of art its ultimate value, but he rarely strayed far from the notion of art as an intellectual pursuit. "I think painting is itself a kind of teaching, and in the modern situation, its own kind of liberal art, like literature or philosophy," he told Harry Naar in 1998. (Interview published in Louis Finkelstein, Paintings 1971-1999.)

Finkelstein articulated his thoughts in a somewhat hoarse voice that was projected in upward moving cadences, holding the listener in suspenseful anticipation. As his sentences veered into sub-clauses and sidetracks the wait for an outcome to this elliptical process could be excruciating, yet just when he seemed to have lost the way he would wind up with a succinct point that was all the richer for what the circuitous route had encompassed. In the course of his speaking about art there would be references to the physiology of the eye and the structure of the brain, and the latest discoveries in neuroscience, as well as to the numerous works of art that had been subjected to his analytic scrutiny. Yet whatever he said—and wrote—was freshly minted, the direct result of his thinking process as he reached for the precise word, while avoiding labels, hackneyed observations, and over-simplifications. His longtime friend and colleague Rosemarie Beck compared the flow of his thinking to that of Henry James, master of the extended, sometimes convoluted, sentence that emerged from the trajectory of his thought in flawlessly turned and polished form.

One reason that Louis's sentences ran on so long was an aversion to the notion that visual matters could be adequately pinned down with words, despite his passion for attempting to do so. When it came to his own painting, although he was thoroughly (and reverentially) versed in art history, he nonetheless rejected the use of appropriated solutions and insisted on setting himself new problems and working them out freshly on each canvas without resorting to formulas or depending on a scaffolding of preconceptions. Just as Henry James commented regarding John Singer Sargent that it would be better "if some of his talent were invested in unsolved problems" Finkelstein wanted to be certain that the goad of an ongoing problem would always be there and to this end he left both his paintings and his thinking open-ended. This was apparently a conscious gambit for when he wrote about art, which he did with perspicacity but also with characteristic circumlocution, he refused to let his writing be altered when editors found it opaque. He must have wanted to deliberately retain the roadblocks and detours in order to keep the thought process alive and moving, yet despite such evasive tactics his writing was usually on target when it came to putting complex visual matters into words.

Finkelstein's artistic formation began at the age of eight. "I am a child of the Metropolitan Museum," he told a group of students, referring to museum visits that started in third grade. At Cooper Union in the early 1940s he studied with two teachers who left a lasting impression: Leo Katz, in whose class there were intense discussions about art as a "multiplicity of possibilities," and Carolyn Harrison who taught a four year basic design course in which he learned about the essential components of painting from an artist who was well-versed in the School of Paris. The two-pronged experience at Cooper nurtured his intellect along with his practical skills as he developed a probing analytical approach to art that was tempered by the value he placed on spontaneous impulse and by his refusal to settle for a style that would make any part of his work look derivative or easy. Leo Katz's emphasis on a "multiplicity of possibilities" left him at ease with moving on from one painting problem to the next, trying different approaches in the process, right up to the unexpected and drastic changes—shifts in scale, disembodied heads, and compressed, warped space—of his last canvases.

He emerged from his wartime service as a navigator on a Pacific-based bomber enriched by substantial poker winnings and with enough time on the G.I. Bill to continue his studies at the Art Students League and the School of the Brooklyn Museum. It is tempting to link his navigational experience to his on-going concern over the "feeling of not knowing where you are when painting out of doors" and a consequent desire to establish the coordinates of a location. "How do we know where we are?" was a question he asked painting to help resolve and he would set about establishing points of reference for near and far, incorporating the sharp-focused detail and the blurred generality. His preoccupation with space and with hypothetical movement through it might well derive from his earlier involvement in plotting locations over the Pacific in World War II, with the success of a mission, or survival itself, at stake. Pictorial space, of course, was a much discussed subject during his formative years, although from the outset he appears to have rejected the notion of flatness as a virtue put forth by pundits of the 1950s.

The intellectual side of his involvement with art found an outlet in writing. His first published article, on Marin and de Kooning, appeared in The Magazine of Art in 1950, but he really drew serious attention with "New Look: Abstract Impressionism" which appeared in 1956 in Art News (v. 55, March 1956: 36-9) Using the arrival of Monet's “Nympheas” at the Museum of Modern Art as a starting point, he directed attention to the fact that there were a "number of painters who, having grown up in the environment of Abstract Expressionism, have assumed a direction more closely related to the specifically visual character of Impressionism." Some of these artists he described as involved in a basically Impressionist vision, "recasting abstraction into something much more concerned with the qualities of perception of light, space, and air than the surface of the painting." Others had turned from "the austerities of flat-pattern abstraction to the spatiality of landscape." He pointed out the importance of a reliance on the senses, writing: "Subject as such is not the issue; seeing is—a kind of seeing which I feel has grown out of the implications of Abstract Expressionism." Not only was he formulating his own conviction about sensory response as a basis for painting, but also he was pinpointing a phenomenon often given short shrift by chroniclers of the 1950s, i.e. that varying degrees of representation existed in and around the Abstract Expressionist hub.

During these years Finkelstein was building a reputation not only as a painter and a writer on art, but as a teacher, first at the Brooklyn Museum School and Philadelphia College of Art, then at Yale (1962-64) where he served as interim dean of the Art School, turning down the chairmanship to move to Queens College (1964-89) where he served as chair of a highly regarded art department. He readily acknowledged that this role accorded with his predilection for verbalizing about art, saying: "I value the need for articulation of ideas which teaching demands." It also stimulated his analytical reading of philosophy, and his drive to master the latest information about visual perception, the human brain, or the physics of light. He lectured on the philosophy of Kant and on phenomenology according to Husserl and when he spoke on one or another of his favorite artists his penetrating analyses of specific paintings were imbedded in a rich contextual understanding. Teaching forced him to clarify and articulate his observations about painting which he communicated in a way that left no doubt as to the high moral value he attached to art and the seriousness with which he regarded its pursuit. The exacting work ethic he applied to himself is well remembered by his former colleagues who found his expectations of them were equally high, and by students who still shake their heads at the memory of his exhausting and inspiring four hour critiques. As one former student put it: "his seriousness was infectious and you had to be serious yourself to get something out of it. You were motivated to do more because of the possibilities he held out."

With so much energy absorbed by teaching and administrative efforts, sustained time for painting was scarce until a sabbatical in 1970-1 provided the opportunity to live in Cézanne territory, both actually and figuratively, and to work out on canvas some of what had been accumulating in his head during the previous years. He filled dozens of drawing pads and painted on site near the quarry at Bibemus and the Chateau Noir, developing a consistent approach to volumetric rendering through the use of an all-over interaction of small planes, or facets, in ochre, blue, and a variety of greens. These were shown at the Graham Gallery when he returned to New York, an exhibition which was followed by shows every two years from 1974 to 1988 at the Ingber Gallery. In the U.S. he turned to unprepossessing urban subjects such as the Harlem River Drive or the intersecting ramps of the Kew Gardens Interchange, (where he also brought his students to paint), trying to apply what he had discovered about light and color to the highway infrastructure.

In an essay, "Thoughts About Painterly," which appeared in the Art News Annual for 1971, he articulated the ideas stimulated by his period of painting in Provence. This essay contains the core considerations that determined his own artistic process. He identified the most important feature implied by the term painterly as "the projective activity which is involved for both the painter and the viewer." Painterly he regarded as parallel to the process of consciousness itself; it implies an ongoing effort toward a synthesis, which may remain unstable, as opposed to linear, hard-edged forms involving little "projective activity." "Painterly gets involved with the ambiguous and the equivocal, the variously nuanced, because these are problems of the real, problems of the structure of consciousness, problems of the interplay of public and private language and their possibilities" (p. 19). He emphasized that perception is not merely mechanical but has a subjective component from which the poetic nature of an artwork derives. Although well versed in science he ultimately looked beyond it for the significance of a work of art. "Our perception of color does not proceed passively on a mechanistic one to one basis between display and reception, but is projective and complex... It is the little flickers of non-scientific meaning which are convincing and which abide and the scientific meanings which are ephemeral" (p. 24).

Finkelstein's thoughts on painterly were further elaborated and applied to the work of his contemporaries when he curated a traveling exhibition entitled "Painterly Representation" which made its debut at the Ingber Gallery in November 1975. In the accompanying catalogue he used the term "painterly representation" as an umbrella designation for the works of the seventeen artists in the show. This descriptive but scarcely catchy sobriquet has never been widely taken up, probably because the word "painterly," an awkward translation of the German word malerisch, is not widely understood other than by those who are familiar with Heinrich Wolfflin's Principles of Art History. (Unfortunately the lack of a designation with wider currency has meant that a number of artists of the New York School's second generation who were included under that heading, among them Leland Bell, Rosemarie Beck, Nell Blaine, Gretna Campbell (Finkelstein's first wife who died in 1987), Robert De Niro, Sr., and Louisa Matthiasdottir, are not given the significant place in history's role call that their lifetime efforts to expand the parameters of "painterly" deserve.) In his catalogue essay Finkelstein elaborated on the dynamic involved in the comprehension of works that can be designated as painterly:

That kind of representation we call painterly comes into being precisely because of this process sense of things. The time which is transfixed is not the outward time of day or even the process of laying on the paint so as to produce virtuosistic marks of the process, but rather the flowing of consciousness in interaction with first the resistances and challenges which the world of appearances presents to our grasp, and secondly with the ways pictorial language itself generates metaphors of the meanings of things and of states of mind. Rather than a one-to-one correspondence with things which retain their meaning in some normative standard way, for painterly vision everything is always up for grabs: the style, the space, the structure, the attitude, above all affect, the way we are touched by the world. Every element added to the picture changes the meaning of all of its parts. While theory can explain some of this in general and some of it after the fact, what really goes on is highly particular, the product of a complex interaction of many strands of events, and in considerable degree unanticipated and impossible to anticipate. The plasticity of the painting, which is to say how the entirety of its relations conspire to make a world whose meanings are mutually supported—as is not the case in our ongoing lives, most of whose elements are disparate from each other—is only the attempt to have, to possess, what can never be ours. So its successes are only relative, and because of this, poignant and alluring. (Louis Finkelstein, "Painterly Representation." Ingber Gallery, 1975.)

Even before he started working in pastel—which essentially came about after he retired from Queens College in 1989—Finkelstein's written remarks offer clues as to how these works might be read. In referring to the "most sparse and quick of Rembrandt's drawings" he wrote: "In these the discontinuity of clues, gestures, space, characterization is brought together by the a priori continuum of the paper as the containing space in the same way that our perception of visual clues takes place in the continuum of the lived-in world. There is no question but that this reduction creates and fortifies expression. This is because it acts out the way in which we find meaning in our living experiences" ("Thoughts About Painterly," p. 24). He understands the paper then as a continuum, a "containing space" which provides an underlying unity for the apparent discontinuities in the patches of color and linear tangles made by the pastels. It is a stand-in for the visual field as it is scanned for specific nodes through which the eye orders and arranges the stimuli that bombard it.

If we start looking at the pastels with the idea of the paper as a continuum, questions of flatness and space become irrelevant, as do traditional notions of compositional cohesiveness. The reading of visual clues, no matter how instantaneous, happens in time and space through myriad scanning movements of the eye. The marks that Finkelstein makes on the paper with his pastels are an approximation of this process. He doesn't select one vantage point, placing himself at the apex of a pyramid whose lines converge toward the artist's eye, rather he sees within a nanosecond a distant hill, the earth at his feet and a branch overhead and he sets down the corresponding patches of color and directional lines on his paper. Instead of a synthesis of the disparate elements in an artificial construct we are given back something akin to an analysis of our own perceptual process and a "space which is true to the participation of our vision sensing our physical presence in space."

The pastels, although all from a single decade of his life, are distinctive, one from another, in that each represents a fresh start on something freshly seen, independent of solutions already achieved. There are motifs to which he returns—the blue house seen across the garden or the arbor at his home in Stillwater near the Delaware Water Gap or the several versions of the “Bastion de Cézanne” from his last visit to Aix in late 1998. Some, such as “Bridge and Trees, Sharp's Creek” (1992), make use of the blank sections of the paper as a continuum, others, such as “Aix en Provence” (1998), are densely filled in; some, for example “Untitled (Fantasy Arbor)” (1993-97), have a circular flow of movement while others draw the eye toward a distant focal point as is the case with the several versions of the Blue House or Sharp's Creek. According to a former student, there was one fundamental idea that permeated his teaching: i.e. that pictorial movement into deep space carried an emotional charge. This pull into space—or tension between near and far—carries over into the pastels of the 1990s, but in the company of other concerns he had developed, such as a surface deployment of brilliant color that operates spatially in a manner similar to Fauve landscape paintings. In several pastels, including “Hanover Center” (1995), he has actually pasted on cut-out colored papers to test the saturation or size of a color area or its placement in relation to the whole, a practice used also in his easel paintings.

It is clear in the pastels, as it is in his paintings, that he did not stick to any one "handwriting" or what he called "executive language," but preferred to find the way to put down a line or apply color in response to the character of a particular motif. Nonetheless certain characteristic markings reappear often enough so that the hand is recognizable: where there was complexity in the motif such as a thicket or cluster of branches there might be lines looping jaggedly back on themselves to indicate density in that sector; a series of short parallel strokes may be used to create a color area in the manner of Cézanne; branching trees are indicated by drawing a strong linear arabesque, and closed forms are, on the whole, avoided. In some pastels line is absent and it is left to color to lure the eye through space, often pure Fauve color, as in “Yellow Arbor” (1997), which consists of an interplay of touches of yellow, violet, blue, pink and orange swirling around the skeletal wood structure on a rise of ground. Although made up of ragged-edged patches of color dispersed over the white paper, “Yellow Arbor” seems in its way just as solidly organized as the more densely filled in and somber “Trees at Paulinskill” (c. 1990-97), in which the apex of a foreground triangle of light meets the point of a v shaped tree to form a compositional "X." Here the composition is anchored by another massive branching tree in the right foreground which repeats the "V" of the more distant outward-fanning branches. Most often, however, the drawn line and patches of color work in tandem, as in “Landscape with House” where the diagonal lines of the tree branches sweep in from the right and are countered by the broader color areas of the red-orange building, the yellow bush and the purple foliage of a middle ground tree. One's attention seems to be pulled back and forth between the nearby branches which appear as if glimpsed by peripheral vision and a central focus on the middle ground building, with a leap from a patch of blue on its roof to a hint of distant blue hills. Clearly there is no formula that Finkelstein established and followed, like that of the circa 1800 picturesque painters, rather he chose to leave himself open to respond to the motif and to attempt to transcribe those responses in whatever way came instinctively to hand.

A word that appeared increasingly in his vocabulary during his last decade was "thematization." He explained what he meant by the term when speaking on Cézanne in 1996:

Every stroke is a thematic decision, locked into a number of relationships in which it participates. In conscious perception each ingredient of the percept, such as various aspects of the form, color, location and other qualities, associations, memories are all incorporated instantaneously into ongoing patterns and redetermining its meaning... we play an active part in reorchestrating these patterns and consequently their meaning... It [thematization] means that each and every time we see something we do not see what it is pure and simply but always in a certain way. For example, this piece of paper... you can see it as a rectangle of such and such proportion, or you can see its phenomenal shapes as a quadrilateral not a rectangle but the shape made by its perspective, or you can see its whiteness, or its whiteness in relation to some other white, like the white of the wall, or you can see its position in space in relation to other objects, and so on. You can also see an object of perception for its associations or its symbolism or its denotation of some social or psychological situation and so on. At one instant in time you can only see it in one way. Each of these is a particular registration of meaning and the now from one to another is its thematization, just as one follows a sequence of sounds into a musical theme... In a thematic decision, linked into a number of relationships in which it participates... we become the creative reshapers of possibilities instead of passive receptors.

Applying the thematization process to one of the pastels, for example, “Untitled (Shapey Garden with Blue House),” one might first see an all-over curvilinear movement, then a sequence of light to dark greens, surmounted by a pale blue triangle at the top right center. The rectilinear shape of the latter immediately defines itself as fixed or solid in contrast to the fluidity of its surroundings. The blue also recedes, creating depth, especially in relation to the staccato touches of red at the lower left corner. The dense foliage with its agitated movement prevents access to the static distant structure while the white of the paper visible at much of the periphery lends an illusory or fugitive quality to the image. All this is absorbed by the eye instantaneously and its perceived layers are coordinated by the mind into a graspable unit, but its inner tensions and kinetic activity keep drawing attention back to the erratic rhythms and dissonances that oppose the tantalizing calm of the blue house, as we re-orchestrate the visual stimuli according to our own experience. This experience can include the recollections of other works of art and this particular pastel has a certain resonance with the upward sweeping congested spaces of Soutine's views of Ceret.

As it happens Soutine was a subject that preoccupied Finkelstein in the late 1990s. In a lecture given at the New York Studio School in 1998, he returned to the theme of the perceptual process as he spoke of Soutine's "all-over kineticism which creates a streaming or flowing effect throughout the whole picture, [which] reiterates the way the eye explores in space... The distinctive painting language of Soutine is an attempt to confront the very moving acts of seeing as they actually are." It was Soutine who impacted most strongly on Finkelstein's late paintings as he shook off inhibitions and gave vent to a turbulent expressionism manifest in dramatic shifts in scale, spatial disorientation, contorted figures and disembodied heads. Some of the transitions toward this unexpected development appear first in the pastels, hinted at in the various views of the blue house, and becoming obvious in “Figures in the Woods” (1998). In the latter fragmentary figures compressed in a shallow space fill most of the picture plane and suggest the outbursts of a suppressed emotionality which found a full, if enigmatic, expression in the figurative paintings of his last two years. Although he was not explicit about the sources of this newfound imagery, he did say that his oil painting “A Frightful Time” was done during the recent troubles in Yugoslavia and the intent had been to invoke a feeling of despair, something of the coarseness of the world. There is an ominous note in this turn toward the darker side of humanity on the part of an artist long dedicated to illuminating through art the performance of the mind. As he approached his final reach for the grand and large, the turbulent and expressionistic, it is very likely that the work in pastel played a key role, in that the small scale and flexible medium freed him from inhibition in testing new possibilities and provided a way of trying out solutions for problems he was encountering as he worked on large canvases.

Louis Finkelstein stood fast over the past half century in his dedication to painting as a means of understanding the human mind. He took cognizance of trends as they came and went, took an interest in work far different from his own, and never let up on his delving into new scientific knowledge and the vast storehouse of past art. In precise terms he explored the relationship between idea and practice and between intellect and sensory response, both on canvas and in elegantly worded essays. Through his exploration of painting language he was, in a sense, a participant in the structuralist concerns of his time, but he never let go of the idea that painting was above all sensuous, even if it was a philosophical inquiry made palpable through sensuous form. Reacting against the extreme subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism, but nonetheless inspired by the way it had opened up the possibilities of paint in and of itself, he sought to give meaning to this new paint freedom by grounding it in sensory perception. In so doing he moved painting beyond the formalist confines of mid-20th century criticism, freed it from traditional compositional straitjackets, and renewed its direct contact with a tangible world capable of touching the emotions through visual sensation. Through his teaching and writing as well as his painting he demonstrated that one could go back to nature, apply to it the lens of one's own time, and come up with results that would stretch the known limits of painting, paralleling the way expanding knowledge stretches contemporary consciousness. Instead of deconstruction's clinical neutrality he insisted on feeling as the ultimate experience to be conveyed in a work of art. "The life of works of art," he wrote, "is constituted by the understandings that are brought to them." His own art was a way of probing for understanding.

Louis Finkelstein: The Late Patels, 1990-1999

June 17, 2003 - July 25, 2003