Aesthetic Journal Excerpts 1975 - 1985,
Tom Ferguson, published in Art Papers, Vol 9. No. 5. September/October 1985
(one can readily see from these writings why Eckhart Tolle so appealed
to me, once I discovered his teachings. Kinda fun to review these
entries groping for insight, stumbling on it now and then, veering off
in the wrong direction, not quite getting it consistently)
(The article had visuals to track the evolution of my paintings, more detailed here on the site.)
The Greeks, for all their brilliance,
were not ready to build a just society. Instead they constructed
architectural, artistic and philosophical edifices which have dominated
the West for centuries. So today, for all our technological
achievement, those who beg us to consider a just world as worthy of our
energy are swamped by a stupid insistence on nuclear weapons, more
weapons and now “star wars”. The Greek Gods groan. At least
the temples were majestic. Their beauty was perhaps lost on the poor
slaves expended in construction, just as we are offered as sacrifice to
Of the ideological strains in Abstract Expressionism, I identify with
the existential – painting as series of decisions, record of
action, arena where authenticity is sought and Zen contact –
painting as means to self-in-the-world. The painting as object, as
color organization, as itself – these more minimal factors also
attract, as do conceptual isssues. Subject is one means to incorporate
issues that interest me. Color/impasto is one means to assert the
surface, not indiscriminately but in passages of authentic or
interesting or beautiful acts.
I make pictures. Lately they allude to a real or fictive reality beyond
the painting but they do not masquerade as holographs. They balance
allusion against surface, they embed reference in paint. Not that I
wouldn't push illusion. Nothing is forbidden save the unauthentic.
Authenticity is not a product of subject or style or medium but an
un-selfconscious coming together of interest, skill and insight.
Painting speaks via a shared vocabulary of form, a vocabulary both
learned and inherited. Learning may distort one's aesthetic when it
dogmatically insists upon certain values and arbitrarily excludes
others. Learning is on the mark when it guides to innate response to
form and expands the possibilities of form and subject.
There is a double-entente peculiar to the portrait genre. The painting
is and if of entity. Portraiture emphasizes and balances that
surface/allusion dichotomy, each of which vies for dominance yet
yields, with great pleasure, to the other.
Painting is about ideas and emotion and individual physiognomy. The
face, as subject, is a convenient means to dealing with all three:
Face as Subject has individual physiognomy (character, personality),
implies ideas (identity, being, situation) and emotion (feelings about
identity, being, situation).
Surface has individual physiognomy (rough, smooth etc;), implies ideas
(decision, skin, chaos/order, sensuality, actuality, primal
consciousness) and emotion (feelings about being, time, order/chaos,
sensuality, fear, awe, primal consciousness).
Color has individual physiognomy (hue, saturation, brightness) and
implies ideas (polarity, contrast, harmony, dissonance) and emotion
(feelings about particular color experiences i.e., attraction/
repulsion, exhilaration, nausea).
With surface, and sometimes color, I try to assert a definite presence,
to underline and underlie the various preoccupations of subject.
Flatness is the premise which drawing defies. Impasto short-circuits
the denial and reference transpires.
An arrangement of color is analogous to an arrangement of sound. Each
medium addresses its peculiar sensory organ – speaking of
delight, of death, of the range of emotion and value common to
Subject provides structure, place for color. The end remains unknown.
Piano, with its 88 possibilities, is another medium for unknown ends.
Jack Burnham suggests that art-making is myth, that the artist stands
at the abyss. Leap (into synchronic time) or play end-game variations
of the “elborate and beautiful game.” If synchronic time is
what I think it is, painting is one of the means to pursuing it. Said
another way, end-game is a means to leaping.
Autobio: journal entries as subject/past drng books/letters/events
i.e., Partial List of the Dead/excuse to paint but also to claim
significance for all things and simply as one of the objects my
interest fastens on, which is guide and criterion for subject and
approach, stuff from my life I appropriate for painting and so comment
on this on-going process
beauty/ surface is asserted, is actuality which is being which is what
surface assertion means – art object reality: person being,
Signficant Image: sub-conscious resonance/primal/icon/... stirs primal
consciousness and this is less a reflection on the past than an
experiencing of the present as it genetically embodies that past.
Narrative: words/figuration/portraits/jounals/ also – narration
of self as record of act the tension or cancellation which occurs
between narration and the formal.
Collaborative: duets/trios/three lines each/gatekeeper/jazz influence the grid and/or canvas as net for catching events.
Appropriational: cold code/drng. Books/journals/songs/ asserts
significance of all things in tradition of ready-made, still-life,
assemblage, documentary photography, some conceptual art. Somethings
stand for all things when they “strike” me, reminding me
that everything resonates with being. This can be on a less cosmic
level. The cosmic is one of the deeper layers of “neatness”.
Formal: the basis, the way in which the others manifest themselves – color. The painting as object, as itself.
Many of the sub-sets overlap. I think of significant images as color
arrangements that resonate such that they stir being. Other
characteristics may support the main concern but it is dominant.
There is an aspect of self which reaches roots deep, into pre-history,
our inherited genetic reality, as it survives in us; that aspect of
being which connects us with the evolutionary process through our
concrete relatedness to it.
Surrealism evoked the novelty of being by citing the strange. Genre
painting was political asserting the dignity of the common people. By
transposing subject from the mythical to the common-place, neither
importance nor myth were discarded. Instead it was declared that what
myth attempts to address is present everywhere, that
“creation” is astounding in every of its manifestations.
Eventually the painting itself came to embody the myth, to be
manifestation. This may always have been the case but abstraction took
to emphasizing it.
Painting parallels arguments in philosophy. Materialism insisted that
the artist decides and that is subject. Transcendentalism saw the
artist as go-between, medium, shaman. Abstract Expressionism was
existential. Minimalism was confrontation – phenomenological
reduction. Pop, another manifestation of the genre, lightened things
up. Process and performance art reacted against commodification, so the
object refers not to itself but to the recent history of its
production. Since performance is process, and nothing remains after, it
seems most appropriate to de-commodification. Deconstruction calls for
a vigorous analysis of intent.
There is a strain in 20th Century art that coincides with “bad
art”. Cezanne's Bathers, Matisse's sculpture, Leger's images,
Shapiro's block figures, Stephan's conical paintings... early Cubism...
Marc, Schwitters... there is an awkwardness, a non-classical kind of
proportioning and coloring. Something in this approach draws artists.
Somehow articulation of the inarticulate is articulate, of some one of
the multi-layers of meaning.
I pursue in painting, what seems significant to me. What makes for
“success” is the confluence of interest 'twixt artist and
the art world powers. A trend catches on because it excites some
significant portion of this population. Some artists and critics
disparage the trend. Some “bandwagon” as popularity and
profits increase. So the movement becomes diluted, reaction sets in,
other issues come to the fore. But an artist can at any time make
significant art in any of the approaches. The rewards will however be
limited - unless the timing is such as to begin a movement or revival.
Picture-making strategies involve subject selection, what I fasten on
as alluring, given the present way of painting. It is a reciprocal
evolving. Certain subjects mesh favorably with my present approach,
others interest me enough to change my approach to mesh with them.
David Smith says that the art object is spark to fire the viewer's
imagination. For me color is the itself of painting, not only spark but
instance of imagination. The art-act is an intuitive act of conviction,
according to Smith. Specifically it is unpredictable yet, since he
claims it as an evolved language, it is recognizable as convincing or
no. When it is genuine it expresses the uniqueness of its maker.
Croce: expression is the first form of consciousness.
There is the art object and its meaning. On one level these are not
different. The object induces self-consciousness, as Kuspit says
(Artforum, Jan. 81) “through its lack of meaning – but it
does convey its physiognomy which consists in qualities which do or do
not align with our own affinities.”
John Cage seeks significant form in random processes. Given a series of
random tonal events one's attention shifts alternately from hearing
them to self-consciousness. Traditionally the personality (the source
of affinity) was evident in the composition. Cage's is in the system
and parameters – apparently removed – that produce the
experience. What is the value of this experience? Perhaps replenishment
of “spirit” that in everyday consciousness a component is
lacking, of intensity. There may be a need here akin to sleep. What
were (are) the mystics, poets, painters, composers seeking? Then as
now, being – the most curious and essential fact of existence.
God is thought to be elsewhere, or within, or both, or none. I exist.
My being gives me access to the other, the infinite, to which I am
connected. My awareness is of self. Where self ends and other begins is
indeterminate. The God word functions to “sacredize” being,
to emphasize the connection to and wonder of the unbroken expansive
continuity. As anthropomorphism it is simply superstition.
Interesting Art in America article – Dec. 81 by Robt. Morris,
cites Duchamp, Pollock, Hopper and Cornell as four seminal figures
whose concerns represent four strains in art history: the difficult;
formalist; alienated and the decorative. Morris dismisses the latter
contemptuously. I share his nuclear and environmental concerns but I
cultivate the decorative not as escape from but release into the world.
We must work for nuclear disarmament but as our lives pass we must not
forget to experience in essence.
The Surrealists cite the strange for it is strange, being, when
suppressed daily for the sake of other delights. It is magic when
contrasted with everyday consciousness. I cite the ordinary to claim
for it, via the context of art, its place in the continuum of wonder.
Religious experience transposes the experience of being into something
like – I saw God! It is all words, all valid – as myth.
Being for me, refers directly to the experience without implying any
Kuspit uses words like transcendental, iconic, magical, transnatural
sense of immediacy. His succinctness relies on dictionary members,
pointers at the ineffable. “The sensuous and concentrated
dynamism create an intensity which is read as a sign of
Part of what both subject and object address is emotion. They stir
emotion. Minimalism reduced the art experience in complexity, reducing
not eliminating allusion. For there remains some emotive response to
the sparsest work. And it is this sparse emotion that Shapiro and
Stephan built upon.
Ritual – immediate enhancement of the experience of living.
Science, religion, art... answer to the aesthetic need for satisfaction
(exercise?) of the imagination. The close of an experience is the
institution of a felt harmony (gestalt).
In a museum we bounce off art. We bring our intelligence and emotion to
the work and, depending on the intensity of our attention, we
experience. Our values determine for us what is cliché and what
is profound. The variety of values make for similarity and overlap,
dis-similarity and polarity.
Dewey: metaphor... an act of emotional identification, not intellectual comparison.
Alan Sondheim: autograph of reality, signature.
Awareness: pre-verbal pre-cognitive is of physiology and since we
inherit genes from ancestors, recent to ancient, to deep history and
pre-history, we experience that connection – call it primal or
archetypal. The further back the more primal. Our inheritance does
reach back into the muck and so portraying the muck (impasto –
fecal?) is a way of referring to it. Just any muck won't do. It must
work. There is a difference between a sleeping can and a dead cat.
In writing my object is to fill the page with words. In painting my
object is to fill the canvas with paint. In either case I may have an
object or preconception but it is the passages in the end which bring
me to that object and which ultimately are the work.
I am what, 90% water? Do “I” reside somewhere between the
water molecules? Am “I” the friction of water molecules
rubbing against each other? Art is the rubbing together of molecules in
the “I” and in the object.
Surface refers to itself, is otherwise meaningless. But that it is itself, experiencing it consists in a meeting.
With the portraits I had to consciously intervene to include
minorities. It is not difficult to discern their place, - a gauge of
the progress in the fight against racism and sexism. To comment on this
I titled many paintings non-stereotypically i.e., Physicist in the
Breezeway and First Violin. And the black man titled Jesus Christ goes
against the current even, I think, of black christians.
Carter Ratcliff, Art in America, March '85 calligraph, hieroglyph...
poetic cry... epic list – all the devices the self employs in
imaging itself forth to itself... one reenacts one's birth endlessly in
ritual that in turn gives birth to images so plenteous they evoke the
universe, which is one's infinite, imaginary self.
The way to subvert intellectual and ethical dishonesty is not to mimic
but to shun. I don't accept that the values of formalism, of making
authentic passages in paint, is of a kind with tricking people into
Perhaps the role of subversive art is not to convert the rich but to divert money which would otherwise go to the right.
Duchamp asserts that there is no essential difference between the
choices made in art and selection from the racks of a new shirt.
A drawing of a wrench a la Dine is interesting in its novelty, in the
initial surprise of encountering the commonplace in art's exalted
context. The wrench serves as a continuing reminder of the profundity
of any intersection of events, of electron-photon serendipity. I
venture that there is no inherent superiority of painting to shirt
design, that these are simply means to action, recipients of interest.
Art by tradition has this philosophical aspect which Kuspit suggests is
what remains when the art is stripped of reference and meaning –
an encounter with meaninglessness and a subsequent scramble to make
sense of it, which is to say one encounters consciousness without an
object and one attributes that self-consciousness to the art.
And it is the art, which isn't to say that the infinite is only
encounterable in art. The context of shirts is such that they do not
stir consciousness. Their meaning is so insistent that heraclean
efforts are required to get beyond. This gives context and tradition
great responsibility for meaning in art. Context and tradition prep.
Those who take an interest in painting have a philosophical bent
perhaps, or a sensitivity to color or story-telling. They are
encouraged and rewarded, more or less, by the greater and lesser
instances of genius in painting's history.
Subject “occurs” to me, another way of saying that a
particular subject interests me at one time and not at another. I could
select subject randomly but I rather pay attention to the image
emerging out of my consciousness.
One of the ways a work is powerful is when artist transcends teacher.
We do not say, oh, a disciple of... we directly encounter the work.
Kuspit (again) suggests that self consciousness is arrived at by
default, that minimal art has no meaning and thus leaves the patron on
their own. But it seems to me that the art is about its own physiognomy
and the artists's sensibility. The greater meaning consists in simply
asserting that we are our own meaning, that there is no and need be no
prior intent or intender, purpose or prime cause, beyond that of being
ourselves, creating our selves. What characterizes all is individual
A painting is about what happens everywhere on the support.
Kuspit seems right, that any reflection is already memory. An art
object can set up a “dialectic” where reflection occurs, on
being. But I think there is immediacy, to experiencing sensation.
Intensity is the primary factor. It isn't that consciousness is
invalidated by the fact that reflection on it is memory. Great
intensity of consciousness causes us to notice the fact of novelty. We
are more or less continuously evaluating what we are experiencing. It
is the increase in consciousness-intensity that reveals the world as
infinite mystery. The confrontation with reality-instance provided by
art is one way to raise this issue, to face one with being.
Tom Ferguson is an Atlanta painter who has recently exhibited at the
High Museum, Nexus Contemporary Art Center and Fay Gold Gallery.
Reviewing this writing 30 years later, and having encountered the
clarifying work of Eckhart Tolle, I can see that in that last paragraph
I am groppingly using intensity to explain what I now see as cessation
of mind-chatter or presence.