I think that I learned to rely on concept from a very early age. As a child, I was never very good at coloring inside the lines. I remember coloring with my second grade friend David Jackson. David always got a lot of credit for his really cool Crayola work. Somehow he could color with a totally even half tone AND get the edges slightly darker so that the forms looked vaguely rounded. He never ever went outside the lines. As much as I tried to emulate his technique, I invariably deposited gross blobs of color well beyond the printed boundaries. This disturbing realization of my technical incompetence occurred some time in the mid 1950s. My mother, Dorothy Browdy Kushner, a devout Abstract Expressionist painter, reassured me that my friend displayed no meaningful creativity to his seemingly enormous skill (and by implication, I obviously did, as manifest by the expressionistic handling of my crayons). The real trick of art, she asserted, was having a creative approach. Dare we say, a conceptual one?
Duly inspired, I asked my second grade teacher, Miss Lamb, whether I could have a “one man show.” This was what I observed my mother and her friends hoping for from the local gallerists. Being kind, but evidently unaware of art world conventions, she asked me what that meant? I said that it meant that she had to take down everyone else’s artwork and put up only mine. To my surprise, Miss Lamb agreed to my request; however, my solo show could remain hanging only one day. I was thrilled but I remember the feeling, one I still often have, that I just did not have enough work for my show! I even remember dashing off one more Crayola version of irises in our garden. Interestingly, a subject that still inspires me today. I have no idea what the response of my classmates might have been. David Jackson probably found it hopelessly messy. In retrospect, was this a case of unabashed egotism at a shockingly early onset? Probably. But it seems to have created an interesting momentum.
My mother’s dictum about originality has served me well. At this point, I often look at art that is technically perfect and I genuinely (sometimes enviously) respect the skill involved in its execution. But without underlying ideas and concepts the finest execution can become shallow and empty. Art is a little odd that way. Often the idea is so closely linked to the visual expression, that there is no real way to put this interaction into words. We can try, but ultimately, it is the work of the hand and the reaction of the eye that becomes the content of such work. Today’s armies of neo conceptualists rely on the successful translatability of their ideas into critical discourse. But isn’t it more satisfying to encounter art where the idea only reveals itself through close scrutiny? This visual decoding does not leave out the mind. Once the eye has perceived the concept, the mind can return to it repeatedly and expand on its implications to the viewer’s continuing satisfaction.
To me, the most interesting art is that where there is a clear, usually idiosyncratic conceptualization which then leads the artist to more acute observation of the chosen subject matter. Once I decided to concentrate on the outlines of the flower and an acceptance of the decorative (rather than trying to depict volume through shading for instance), I began to observe edges much more carefully, my drawing improved and I was led to further, more complex considerations.
Nature can be depicted as marvelous, inspirational, captivating, scintillating. As artists, we experience our world as full of wonder and meaning. It is then up to each of us to find a paradigm that showcases our innate skills and minimizes our weaknesses. Often this requires some fancy footwork. But ultimately most of us find a way to a successful result, a conceptualization. Then the question becomes even more interesting. How can we take that initial formulation and keep reinventing it to yield ever new and interesting returns? Success in this part of the venture seems to me the sign of a true artist.