ART AS A MUSCULAR
by Merril Greene
10 artists and San Francisco 1950-1965
(roots and new directions)
Jay de Feo
28 February - 20 March, 1975
John and Norah Warbeke Gallery, Mount Holyoke College
The ones that choose to start into the other part of life -- the world outside of blackboarded walls -- at an early age, have in their favor the discontent that comes when the bones are not yet comfortably joined and both the mind and the muscles are flexible. Robert LaVigne took to the moving life early and has never given it up.
Born in St. Maries, Idaho on the fifteenth of July 1928, he had been raised in Spokane, Washington, had spent parts of 1948 and '49 working for the Chicago Sun-Times; by 1951 he was back in Seattle attending a summer session at the University of Washington. Here, LaVigne received his initiation to modern aesthetics from Henry Aiken. Before the year ended he had picked up his bags and moved again, this time to San Francisco, where the community of artists and poets there was in the midst of a transitional period. A student at the California School of Fine Arts for a brief time in 1953 and at San Francisco State College in 1954, he lived with Peter Orlovsky at 1403 Gough Street. On his breaks from painting and drawing, LaVigne would wander down the hill and across town to Polk and Sutter for coffee at the all-night Foster's beneath the Hotel Wentley.
Another walking soul took to the fogged-in streets and warmed the pavements looking for a new self, having just discarded the old one. Allen Ginsberg had arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1954 with whispering visions of Blake, thirty borrowed dollars, and a note of introduction to Kenneth Rexroth from his Patterson-mentor, William Carlos Williams. Allen had taken a job, an apartment and become involved with a woman before he made the decision to "stop working forever . . . and do nothing but write poetry . . ." In December 1954, he left the small market research firm for which he had been working, broke up house-keeping, and began his wanderings up and down Grant Avenue, through the Marina, around Russian Hill, then down into town -- to "Polk Gulch" -- to mingle with the committed wanderers of the world. Joining transients in the fluorescent light of twenty-four hour cafeterias, spending long nights at Formica counters among jazz blowers with after-the-last-set nods, (this time at Foster's, in the early morning Benzedrine air among painters and writers who talked and talked in endless coffee-drunk marathons), Allen Ginsberg met Robert LaVigne in October and moved into Gough Street in November.
Through this friendship LaVigne was able to reconfirm his commitment to art, not as a 'profession" but as an automatic but fully conscious movement: a habit of the imagination. In LaVigne's consciousness and in the development of his art, we find that he is no less a man of "painting culture" than was Matisse with his belief in an intelligent and selective use of the objects and attitudes already a part of history. The apprenticeship of the student of painting to the masters of painting history has fundamentally to do with the view of art as a dual endeavor -- as the perfecting of a craft (the act of covering a plane surface with color and form) and as the implosion of the creative spirit (in Bergsonian terms, "a ceaseless upspringing of something new"1).
As Ginsberg had indentured himself to Whitman and to Williams, LaVigne confronted Cezanne, Bonnard, Matisse, in order that he might understand, in painterly terms, two of the revolutionary concepts evolving at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries: the four-dimensional equation of space with time, and the "rediscovery" of the creative intuition. In reacting against the forced voyeurism of McLuhan's America, LaVigne placed himself in the line of European Romantics extending from Goethe and Coleridge through Baudelaire, Mallarme', Bonnard, Henri Bergson, the Symbolists, Gaugin, Moreau, and Matisse.
The quest for an organic form through which to reconcile existence in space and existence in time led LaVigne to a crystallization, in personal, painterly terms, of Bergson's dure": the concept of a "dynamic becoming:'2 The early canvases are most strongly reminiscent of Cezanne; in them, brushstrokes have transcended their immediate purpose and have become the structural essence of the compositions. Figures are placed close to the picture plane pressing their emotional ambiance forward; figure and ground are fused and projected into the viewers' space. The compositions are handled with a spareness of means, superfluous details are eliminated, the meaning of the works arising from within the spaces of the composition (the relative weights and proportions of the shapes, and their "posture") rather than from any narrative or interpretive detail. The paintings and drawings have been carefully conceived of as "all of a piece"; what details there are, and they are few in number, are almost purely indicative or decorative. By 1955, we begin to see in LaVigne's work an awareness of the complicated interlacings in Matisse's work where "the place occupied by figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part."3
In Portrait of Natalie Jackson (January 1955), light is employed much as Bonnard used it -- as a fluid, living presence that floods the canvas or paper and flickers on surfaces, gently prodding them to life and uniting the disparate elements in a cosmically conceived space that names as its source of light and warmth a softly diffused energy generated by an unknown source. The Baudelarian concept of the "music" of painting is adopted by LaVigne; color has become the means through which definitive details of character and atmosphere are revealed. Shades of emotion are not unfolded through the anecdotal use of color. Instead, LaVigne orchestrates his colors, using groups of related pigment in chordal progressions, producing visual and emotional effects through a series of tonal harmonics.
Decisions about pictorial composition rely on LaVigne's intuitive sense of design. Color does not sit on an object's surface, it radiates from within, is part of its emotional make-up. LaVigne allows no element of the painting to be considered in artificial isolation; each shape is fused to an adjacent shape, each color to its complement, each form to an under-lying network of related forms that exist in the Ouspenskyan fourth dimension where the limitations of our sensory system fall away to reveal the mystical mathematics of the supernal world.
The collages that LaVigne produced in the late fifties and early sixties deal in the poetic juxtaposition of the actual object and that object's image. In working towards an interchangeable set of attributes that function within the work as a system-in-flux, a complex crop of iconological implications appears to have grown from a minimal field of icons. In Black: In Memory of My Dead Bamboo Tree (1958-59), the spectral visage of a woman emerges from the warp and woof of dark and musty linen.
Diagonally across the irregular rectangle, a cutout gorilla sits woefully gazing at the remnants of his jungle the brittle yellowing leaves of bamboo pressed behind a smokey fragment of glass. An air of romantic longing pervades the work. Both extremes of the evolutionary continuum (the sophisticated countenance of the woman-wraith and the passive figure of the ape) are engaged in the same emotional dialogue.' the instinctively wishful recollection of things lost. The content, as it is in the paintings, is sublimated in a dominating atmospheric quality, here achieved by the uniting surface of hazy varnish and hardened black fluid that has clouded the glass and attracted the dust that inevitably clings to objets perdus.
By 1964, LaVigne had decided to leave San Francisco for New York City. The canvases (oils) done that year were evidence of the purifying process through which LaVigne was beginning to pass his creative intuition. Still following the precedents set by Matisse, LaVigne sought that "state of condensation of sensation" in which emotions, feelings and the reactions of the sensibilities are translated into color and design.4 The subject matter has become visionary and fantastic, a materialized imagining of life in the dimension of pure time-space. Shapes are "tracked" through space and fixed as a runner is captured in the elongated form of a time-exposure photograph. The idea of Simultaneity is expressed through the relatively equal size of forms very differently allocated in space. Shapes interlock in the manner of an elaborate, biomorphic puzzle male and female coalesce; plants and animal-humans are grafted one upon another in an alternately frightening and fascinating fusion.
The works have been painted in planes that hardly recede, the shapes whirling on the surface and absorbing the viewer in a dance of arabesques in which the rhythms of the universe propel the disparate elements of chaos towards an ultimate unity "in the womb of nature" (Klee) on the primal grounds of creation. Colors in these canvases arise from the same elemental concepts at work in the formulation of Bergson's "dynamic becoming." White light (represented by white pigment) is almost never used; black is used sparingly. LaVigne prefers to break down white into the color components of the spectrum. The interplay of shape and color exists as it does on the assumption that the organic forms cultivated by LaVigne participate in a continuous process of re-integration, the cycle through which substance that in one "incarnation" may belong to a human being, may become in another phase of existence the sustaining substance in a grove of redwood seedlings.
The properties of the world are shared, metaphors are rendered literally, the viewer is challenged with the equivocal use of colors and the completely interchangeable quality of positive and negative space. LaVigne's combinations of rich, vibrant pigment and highly ambiguous shape form the basis of an art that simultaneously delights the senses and engages in the confounding search for a new means to measuring the dimensions of the imagination.
1 Herri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Modern Library, 1944), p 53.
2 Dore Ashton, A Reading of Modern Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p.31.
3 Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse', His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p.119.
4 Matisse, "Notes of a Painter," 1908.