September 14, 2016

On Presence in Art

Piero della Francesca, Saint Augustine, 1454-69; oil and tempera on panel, 53 1/3 x 26 1/6 in.
images courtesy of the Frick Collection website 

Three years ago there was a remarkable exhibition at the Frick Collection, Piero della Francesca in America. At the time, I wrote about this painting of Saint Augustine:
Standing in front of this painting of Saint Augustine, in the Oval Room at the Frick Collection, was like being in the presence of a powerful soul, one who looks past the immediacy of dailiness to an inward essence of life and faith.

Seated Luohan, ca. 1000, Yixian, Hebei Province, China. Earthenware with 3 color glaze, 41 inches high.

The quality of character in the Piero––a direct severity and inner calm––was similar to that of the sculpture of a Buddhist holy man.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, 1915, oil on canvas, 
22 1/2 x 26 1/8 in.

How do I describe presence when it doesn't apply solely to figurative art? Malevich's simple abstract paintings go beyond a design with two shapes on a plane; there's a sense of physical weight, and emotional depth. They are two shapes that express a reality beyond the shadows in Plato's cave.

Ellsworth Kelly, Black Relief III, 2010; Oil on canvas, two joined panels; 75 1/4 x 65 3/8 inches.

I feel similarly about Ellsworth Kelly's work. A sweep of black on a white rectangle, beautifully balanced, moves out towards us as though inhabiting the space before it, not satisfied to settle onto the wall. Here also, shapes become essences.

Richard Serra, Every Which Way, 2015; weatherproof steel, 16 slabs, overall 11 ft x 53 ft 6 in x 21 ft. 

Richard Serra's sculptural drama and its huge size can't help but having tremendous presence. This work in particular was very strong, with the slabs standing like personages, and silent witnesses to our tragic events.

Catherine Murphy, Polka Dotted Dress, 2009; oil on canvas, 52 x 52 in.

Of contemporary representational painters, I think that Catherine Murphy's work most clearly embodies an idea of presence, where common objects become much more than themselves, transcending their particularities and becoming dense with meaning.

I am thinking about this quality now because I realize that as I work on my paintings (see recent paintings here), I push them from a fluid, painterly beginning to a solid and clear form, form with a sense of weight that I hope leads to presence. The precision in my paintings and sculpture (see recent relief sculpture here) is not aiming to be photographically "realistic" but to get at the essential, the tangible, to conjure an image that speaks emphatically. This is a quality that I don't believe exists in my textiles (see here and here), which are objects rather than presences. Presence does not define good art; it's just one element that might or might not be a part of the work. So, readers, what do you think about this quality? is it something you think about or believe is important, or maybe not?


  1. I so agree about presence in art. I think of it as an encounter, a communication with a living being without myself, which makes an impression which remains, is remembered after, and pondered. I enjoy those pieces of art whose presence perhaps disturbs a complacency in me; thrusts a spoon, or even a finger into the calm surface of my cup of coffee.
    In my own work that is what I would like to achieve - the presence of ambiguity perhaps. I keep trying, anyway.
    It is so wondrous to have a post from you - even a fleeting presence is uplifting. I miss seeing your work as I am not plugged into Facebook.

  2. Presence indicates a validity for the piece to exist as a soloist rather than as part of the choral environment.
    I see that I shall be thinking about this all day, at least!

  3. Welcome back, Altoon! Presence is important. Embodying "it" can be elusive, but once achieved, vaults the work into another realm and for me acts like a fist to the chest. (perhaps a soft fist). As a painter, I know how hard this is. Like enlightenment, presence is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

  4. Excellent new blog post Altoon! I especially like your inclusion of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra. When I was teaching, it was easy to get young artists to see this in most figurative work, but difficult when discussing Malevich or Albers or many others. It also fits perfectly with your newest painting, the one with the column and the strong shadows, all defining the presence. Congratulations.

  5. Thank you all, for your interesting comments. This is a subject that needed more than a facebook post, so I wrote this blog post. I'm glad it struck a chord.

  6. i think about presence in my work a lot, and usually, like you mention, in terms of weight, density, emotional depth. I think about how it sits on the wall, how it occupies its space. It feels like I usually try to work towards a satisfactory presence, especially with small and easel-sized work.

  7. Hi Altoon, and thanks.
    Each example you present is loaded with spiritual geometry, which topic allowed me to find you in the first place.
    The Malevich is not only present, it is walking toward me!

  8. I like all of these works, but what stands out for me is the way Catherine Murphy's "dress" is exactly what it is in representation, but also is a landscape, a sublime waterfall experience that I, in its presence, am only a dot. Presence is important in my work, painting and photography. The presence is the viewer's presence in the work, a participant with it. Always enjoy your posts.