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04 January 2014

Liquid Rubens: Rubens in Las Vegas by David Reed

First published March 20, 2007


Sharkforum is proud to present a post by the talented and influential New York painter, David Reed. He is a friend of mine and a regular email correspondent, as well as a painter about whom I have written and with whom I have discussed issues in art and especially in painting. Reed thoughts are always edifying and stirring, so when I heard that he has given a speech on Rubens for the exhibition in Las Vegas, of all places, of paintings by that miraculous Baroque artist, I asked him if he would write a version of his notes for Sharkforum. Reed was kind enough to do so, although he is busy with his work and with the exhibition titled High Times Hard Times New York Paintings 1967–1975, on which he served as advisor to the curator Katy Siegel, about which I posted earlier.

Liquid Rubens: Rubens in Las Vegas
by David Reed

When I was invited to give this talk about “Rubens and his Age, Masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum” now at the Guggenheim Museum in Las Vegas and my own work, I said “yes” because speaking about Rubens in Las Vegas seemed so perfect - I couldn’t resist. But many times since agreeing, I’ve thought that I was totally crazy. It’s foolish for any artist to compare his or her work to that of Rubens, an artist who many consider to be the greatest painter of all time. Any other painter is sure to come out looking bad in comparison. So my enthusiasm has gotten me into trouble and I hope that I can get out gracefully.

I also had another thought when I was invited to give this talk and it gave me courage. Recently Dave Hickey curated an exhibition at the Otis School of Art in Los Angeles called “Step into Liquid” that included my paintings. And I remembered a wonderful statement that he made about the paintings in the show when we spoke on the phone: he said that liquidity is the new depth.

Here’s a fuller quote from Dave from his essay for the show: “In post-war American abstraction, wet became the new deep. Paintings, of course, are neither wet nor deep. The idea of wetness became a primary metaphor for a whole manner of painting in which the fluidity of the surface provides the narrativity once provided by pictorial depth.”

This is a Rubens painting in the exhibition (Show slide) “The Union of Earth and Water”. It seems a demonstration of that thesis: water pouring out of a central void around which the painting is constructed.


When I say that Peter Paul Rubens might be the greatest painter of all time, I think of this as a consensus view, yet there are many who would object. The classicist Johann Winckelmann thought Rubens’s forms “inharmonious”. John Ruskin thought his work “vulgar”. Peter Schjeldahl, an art writer of my generation and now the critic for the New Yorker, called Rubens “history’s chief painter’s painter” in a review last year of a Rubens drawing show at the Metropolitan Museum. But then Schjeldahl goes on to say that Rembrandt, Rubens’ contemporary living “barely ninety miles but a political world away in Protestant Amsterdam,” moved his work towards “the revelation of a new social reality that was as personal, dramatic, and profound as Rubens’s artificial paradise was unfelt and arbitrary.” In his review he goes on to say that: “Painters of my acquaintance dote on Rubens. They readily look past his subject matter to his form and his technique.” I’m hoping that tonight I can explain how a love of Rubens’ technique and formal invention can lead to an understanding of a certain kind of content in painting.

Out of curiosity, when I was a sophomore pre-med student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I took a class in painting. Looking at slides of old master paintings in the stifling, darkened Buckminster Fuller dome, I was bored and started to dose off. I wondered how I could stay awake as my teacher, the artist Bill Midgette, put up a slide of a painting by Rubens – a rape scene of men on horseback and nearly naked women. I thought to myself: “Oh God, this is terrible. I have nothing in common with this stuff.” Midgette spoke about the painting as an “intellectual conceit”, a phrase that I had never heard, and explained how the painting, along side the narrative story, was also a meditation on the changing of light from day to night. Suddenly I was alert. I had never understood until then how a visual image could, in this way, have intellectual content. Perhaps in that moment I became a painter.

The following summer, 1965, I made the then typical tour by a young American to Europe – by then I knew that I aspired to be a painter. I spent several days looking in the room in the Louvre of the Medici Cycle of paintings by Rubens. (Slides of the Medici Cycle of paintings by Rubens in Louvre.) By then I had read about how Delacroix and Cezanne had learned from those paintings. In his notebooks Delacroix wrote that “Rubens dominates, he overwhelms you with so much liberty and audacity” and he called Rubens “our Homer”. I had also studied Cézanne drawing of the naiads in Rubens’s paintings.



I had a theory in those days that I could see the paintings better if I was hungry and would starve myself before going to the museum. As I looked in a kind of daze, I soaked in the paintings. (Here I showed slides that I took on those visits.) Looking at the paintings, I felt immersed in the flowing color – as if I was swimming through color, immersed in the water portrayed at the bottom of some of the paintings. I was amazed by the drama, the rhetoric of the paintings. The paint seems to want to flow off the canvases into the room, but even more, light flowed throughout the paintings, and out to fill the space in the room. I studied the color. How did Rubens do it? What I remember most are drops of water on the flesh of one of the naiads – the drops were painted in a touches of a spectral sequence of pure hues. These drops, when viewed closely were just splotches of paint, raw materiality, yet when one stepped back they became images - drops of water that projected into the space of the room. The naiads and the paintings in general shared this double nature – narrative and allegorical. The liquidity of the paint somehow added to these shifts of meaning, it seems a condition of change and transformation.

These experiences stayed with me when I tried to understand the huge canvases of the New York School in shows I saw later at the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim – Newman, de Kooning, Kline, Pollock – I saw their paintings through my experience of Rubens. Without understanding why – a naive kid from San Diego, I found that I wanted to be a high style New York painter.

I’d like to quote from a review by Arthur Danto that appeared in 1986 in the Nation:

Visiting the Galleries of Baroque painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one afternoon, some friends and I paused before Rubens’s portrait of himself with his family, and reminded one another what a remarkable man he was. A painter of stupefying energy and force, he ran a workshop, listened to music as he painted, did the classical scholarship for cycles of paintings that required erudite references, conversed easily in six languages and discharged ambassadorial missions of great delicacy – his second wife, Helen Fourment, was delivered of his last child nine months after his death. One of my companions, the painter David Reed, said, meditatively, that most artists he knows strive to emulate Van Gogh: “Maybe we ought to try to be like Rubens instead.

The possibilities of transparency were the first lesson I learned from Rubens. There is a legendary book for painters by Jacques Maroger The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters. He writes about Rubens: “The changes he brought about in the medium … converted it into the most facile and versatile vehicle that any painter has ever had at his disposal. Technically, there seems to have been no limit to its possibilities…” He describes Rubens’s secret formula for a jellied transparent medium. Looking hard at some paintings by Rubens I couldn’t believe how much color he achieved through transparency. The white grounds of the studies were covered with a transparent glaze of brown. Then to make flesh he glazed a pale white/pink over the brown glaze. To my amazement I saw that the white as it thinned out caused a strange green to appear. Warm glaze over warm glaze and Rubens got a cold. That’s what I wanted, an unexpected third color, out of a glaze of one color over another.

The second lesson was a principle of Contrast –– grays that seem like color. Rubens uses grays and makes them to be hues. One has the illusion of perceiving blues, greens, and violets. The gray appears as the complimentary color of whatever warm color is next to it. I love this color that is not there. (Show slide of painting of Samson and Delilah in London)


In an interview, Bridget Riley speaks about the spectral light in a another painting by Rubens in the National Gallery in London. “These flesh colors generate the internal radiance of Rubens.” In an example of this effect, in “The Union of Earth and Water” the pale flesh tones of the goddess of Antwerp are brought out by the same purer hues in the still life of flowers and fruits next to her. (Show slide)

Riley goes on to describe how Rubens invented a way of intertwining color and surface of light across a painting. Before, there was always a problem of local color – one mass for color for an object – Rubens used shadows, transparency, and reflected light to drawn color through forms and relate them to the background and other forms. He learned how to do this from Titian and Tintoretto.

I want even more of this kind of extreme light in my paintings – a screen light, technological light, like the Baroque light from God but not directional, not metaphysical but instead homogeneous and projecting from the surface – technicolor paintings. The one aspect of color that I hold constant in my paintings is intensity to unify the light. I don’t have to worry about depicting figures – using value changes to make the forms go round. For me the elements of color can be even more separated and this gives me more freedom. I am discovering more possibilities than even Rubens could use.

My paintings have an all-over, un-located, endless space, filled with a very peculiar media light. I want to crack this space open so it leaks into the room and connects to a viewer. What is important is an interaction that occurs between the painting and a viewer. There is no easy whole. The participation of viewer is most important. I'm wondering now if the viewer can be persuaded to assume a role.

Painting is the most corrupt, debased form of art and that is its strength and hope. It has possibilities now because it is impure. Painting is very good at absorbing influences. In Western culture it has had a grand symbiotic relationship with Christianity, and today it can have just as rich a relationship with technologies of mechanical and digital reproduction.

For a while it was thought that photography and other media of mechanical reproduction would kill painting. But now we know that the opposite has happened – instead photography gave painting new life, new possibilities. Painting is like the beloved, the enthralled, who has been bitten by the vampire of mechanical reproduction. Rather than killing painting, the vampire’s kiss has instead made painting immortal.

Complicating these relationships even further, there has been a change in the meaning of photography because of the new ease of digital manipulation. Not long ago, photography was an index of reality – no more. A photographic reference might now even be an index of fantasy. The marks in my new paintings are not as much doubled as transformed – not one thing or the other, but instead caught changing from one thing to another.

Walking along the Strip at dusk last night, I could not separate man-made and natural colors. The pinks, mauves, and off-blues of the sunset often seemed more garish, more exotic, than the neon signs and artificial lights. When I painted such sunsets in the desert many years ago, I located myself on the revolving Earth on the edge between the light of day and the shadow of night. I tried to capture the last light; the colors that crossed over the distant horizon and had come the greatest distance possible from the sun before reaching me. Overexcited, my hands were often covered with paint and colored light. Walking on the strip last night my hands were covered with similar hues and I felt that I was not walking but swimming through changing color. At times I thought I had lost the boundaries of my body and I no longer knew who I was.

I would love to walk along the Strip with Rubens. He would probably be reminded of his time in Rome. He went to Rome in 1600 when he was 23 and returned 8 years later. I imagine him walking with me in Las Vegas as an older man – perhaps with his young wife and children. In his paintings of her, she seems just out of the bath, once dressed in a bearskin. We could talk about the influence of his imagery. Rubens would love the variety of the lights and I know that he’d like the work of the abstract painters now working in Las Vegas: Tim Bavington, Yek Wong, and Jack Hallberg.


(Hallberg, Born Rockford, IL; lives in Las Vegas, NV)

Cézanne turned Rubens’s three naiads in the Medici painting in the Louvre into his bathers – beings whose boundaries are indeterminate. They merge with nature. This is one way into abstraction.

I’d like to end by trying to talk about the most important aspect of Rubens. It’s the most difficult aspect for me to articulate: the sexuality of his images. Looking at the paintings while I’ve been here I’m convinced that this sexuality is much more complex than the cliché version that we all know. First of all, sensuality is often used for political purposes. The beautiful women and their union with a male is an image of peace, prosperity, and happiness. The feasts of dancing and love show a world that can be achieved through good politics.

Rubens designed and supervised the painting of nine huge gates to be set up in Antwerp to welcome the new ruler. One of these gates, The Temple of Janus (1634), warns of the dangers of war. It should be set up in Washington now, right across from the White House. In the painting, the personification of the Fury of war is about to escape from the Temple of Janus, whose doors in Rome were traditionally shut during times of peace. The door has two wings, and the allegorical female figure on the left is opening the door, while the figure on the right is trying to keep it closed - to prevent the Fury of war from wreaking havoc. The painting is about political decision-making.


Too often the erotics of Rubens’s paintings are oversimplified as a male lust to possess a woman. I think Rubens loved and admired women so much that the paintings are more about a desire to merge with another mode of experience – a desire to be possessed. In the arguments in France between the advocates of Poussin and those of Rubens, the paintings of Rubens were always connected with feminine qualities and were placed in opposition to the more masculine rational virtues of the Poussin’s paintings. Rubens paintings offer a complex view of masculinity. They are omni-sexual, even subversive and transgressive – very aware of the dangers of love. Rubens identified with and often portrayed himself as a surprising character: Silenus, a minor god and follower of Bacchus. This most accomplished of painters, successful and wealthy, the painter diplomat, portrayed himself as fat, old, drunk, and unpleasantly self-destructive. This is not at all what one would expect. Why did he choose to portray himself in this way? Because he thought of himself as a man who was at his best when he lost control. The drinking and helpless stupor of Silenus is a way to portray this loss of control. In his life, Rubens didn’t lose control, but he did lose himself while he was painting. And he lost himself when he was in love.


This article, and similar ones by practicing artists, should be published in major art publications. Indeed, especially if criticism is in a crisis, reading the writings of those “at the front,” the actual creators, could be a great stimulus for evolving new, appreciative yet critical, intellectual yet sensual forms of writing about art. Reed is open to rewriting and expanding this speech for print publication. I call on all the editors I know, and any others who read this, to approach him about it. And other practicing artists as well. Meanwhile, the blogosphere will have to take up the slack. Moreover, it appears that if we want to read articulate yet corporal, passionately invigorating views on painting, it will have to be done by painters.

The show took place at the Guggenheim hermitage Museum in Las Vegas
Website here.
Page about the Rubens show here.

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