Every once in a while an artist comes up with an idea so original and so innovative that it defines a genre or a subject for generations. One can hardly look at a color field painting without invoking the name of Mark Rothko. Nor can one paint a street scene with a high vantage point without someone mentioning Richard Diebenkorn’s name. Why do I choose these two particular artists as examples? In the past year I have experimented with both directions — color field painting and street scenes from a high vantage point. Sure enough, when some viewers saw these pieces, they mentioned the names of those artists. (Additional works from the Azure and Asphalt series are featured at the end of this post.)
Being compared to Rothko and Diebenkorn can be taken as a compliment … or it may suggest that my works are derivative. Either way, it raises interesting questions about the creative ownership of ideas and the meaning of originality.
The question is not whether it is acceptable to explore a certain style or subject that has been trail-blazed by another. It’s what those who create have done for thousands of years. It’s what painters, musicians, and writers naturally do — and must do — as part of their growth process. The scientist who develops a new vaccine is able to do so because his research is partly based upon the discoveries of those who preceded him. In the same way, artists learn from the accumulated innovations and methods of the generations of artists who came before them.
Of course, this is not to say that an innovation like Rothko’s didn’t require hard work and risky leaps into the unknown. It did. And that is why his name is so often associated with the genre. But his work did not spontaneously spring forth in a vacuum, either. It couldn’t have. It also relied on the groundwork laid by the abstract painters of the 20s, 30s and 40s. When a scientist wins the Nobel Prize, or an artist receives accolades for “original” work, her achievements also rest on the many breakthroughs taken by her predecessors.
Impressionism spread to many countries after its birth in France, yet those artists are hardly considered derivative. They were inspired by something new, seized it, and made it something that was uniquely their own.
The real question then is whether the artist is merely imitating or extrapolating. Of course, the latter is more desirable — borrowing from what has been done, mixing it with one’s own artistic personality, and building upon it. Rothko does not hold the creative patent on color field painting, any more than Diebenkorn holds the patent on urban landscapes. Impressionism spread to many countries after its birth in France, yet those artists are hardly considered derivative. They were inspired by something new, seized it, and made it something that was uniquely their own.
A case in point are the works from my Azure and Asphalt series—the “street scenes from a high vantage point” I referred to at the outset. I think that any association the viewer makes to Deibenkorn’s urban paintings (from the 50s and 60s) is cursory, at best. Our works share common ground only in subject, which is the least significant dimension of a work. Painters don’t find innovation or originality through what they paint, but how they paint it. As artist and author Patrick Howe notes, “If the viewer categorizes someone’s painting as ‘like a Rothko’, they have avoided the wonderful challenge of really looking at the artwork on its own terms.” Diebenkorn and I may have been inspired by a similar subject, but we use very different aesthetics to express our unique visions.
Azure and Asphalt
The works featured here are presented in the order in which I did them. As the series progressed, the paintings became simpler, more abstract, and more atmospheric. I’ve also indicated whether the painting was done in plein air or in the studio. The plein air works, naturally, tend to be more spontaneous, but the studio works allow me to achieve finer color control and work out the nuances of the abstract design.Additional Resources