What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.” I read it again. It didn’t say “something helpful” or “enriching” or even “extremely valuable.” No, the word was crucial.
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.
A few days before I graduated from Boston University, the head of the department and founder of the painting program, David Aronson, called me into his office for the first time in my four years at the School for the Arts (now the College of Fine Art.)
Among the nuggets of wisdom he offered before I walked out of that plain glass door onto Commonwealth Ave for the last time - headlong into the chilly winds, not of New York City, but of Alaska (I'll tell that story another time) - was one book recommendation.
"Read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word," he said. "It's about the 70's."
Although, he cautioned, I was to be aware that Wolfe "throws out the baby with the bathwater" - the baby being Picasso.
I did read it. I remember it as an incisive, funny and scathing essay, interspersed with Wolfe's roguish caricatures of artists on the streets of New York in the 70's in their bellbottoms and tractor treads, that can read now in its vehemence and dismissal of Pollock, Johns, Stella, et al as something of an artifact of the era.
Yet in its primary message about art needing to stand alone, sans text, it holds up in a way I think is still relevant and important - maybe in some ways more so than ever.
David Aronson retired at the end of my last year. I have gone on, as I think it was hoped I would, to violate some of the principles I learned in art school in order to create something new and meaningful for myself.
Though I have debated sometimes whether my classmates and I were done a disservice or obliquely, a service, in never being taught to write artist's statements, it doesn't surprise me that we weren't. I think it was quite deliberate.