art / people

a Conversation with David Summers

A Greater Net of Indra (for LM), 2009

A Greater Net of Indra (for LM), 2009

David Summers’ scholarly contributions are well known in the history of art and ideas. The titles of some of his books reveal his wide-ranging and ambitious concerns: Michelangelo and the Language of Art, The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics; Real Spaces. World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism; and Vision, Reflection and Desire in Western Painting, and his forthcoming Pathos, Sympathy and Empathy. But not only is he a scholar, and teacher (the William R. Kenan Professor of Art Theory and Italian Renaissance Art at the University of Virginia), he is also a great painter. And just like his writings, his paintings reference world art and ideas, and his great concern, Light. He sat down with Director of Les Yeux du Monde Gallery, Lyn Bolen Warren, and a room full of eager listeners recently to talk about his paintings in the exhibition Light on view through Sunday June 8 at the gallery. There will be an opportunity to meet the artist at the Closing Celebration for the exhibition at Les Yeux du Monde in Charlottesville on Sunday, June 9 from 3 – 5 p.m.

Interview with Artist, David Summers | by Lyn Bolen Warren

{Lyn Bolen Warren is the director and curator of Les Yeux du Monde Gallery in Charlottesville}

2 Mylar Self-Portrait ant the Folies Bergeres, 16 x 12Q: Most know of your scholarly attributes, having received more honors than can be mentioned here, from graduating magna cum laude with high honors in art from Brown, your Ph.D. from Yale, your fellowships at the Getty, the Center for Advanced Studies at Princeton and the Guggenheim—but fewer know of these magnificent paintings. Have you always painted? How do you manage to balance your art making with teaching and writing so prodigiously?

DS: I come from a distant part of the world, and, although I had little notion of what it meant, I wanted to be an artist.  I have loved to draw, and to draw people, as long as I can remember.  I started painting when I was an undergraduate at Brown.  As my predilections became clear (“everything you paint looks like a figure”), my ambitions were discouraged.  It was the gloaming of abstract expressionism in those days, and the educational project of de-skilling was only beginning.  I think it is now much more thoroughly institutionalized.  In any case, I also loved philosophy and intellectual history, and, having decided not to go to art school, I decided to study art history, which I imagined would combine my interests.  It did, but I think it is fair to say that I had to make my own eccentric intellectual path to make it do so.  I stopped painting while I was in graduate school, but I started again when I began to teach at Bryn Mawr.  My new wife, Nancy, encouraged me.  We lived for ten years in Pittsburgh, where I continued to paint.  My friend and colleague David Wilkins asked me to have an exhibit in the University Art Gallery, which I did two or three times.  During those years, I wrote Michelangelo and the Language of Art, which came out just as we moved to Virginia.  I told Fred Hartt that I wanted to revise the theory of the history of art in such a way as to make an intercultural art history possible, and that I spent a lot of time painting.  Fred had a way with words, and he said, “We love your theory, we love your practice”, and the then-Provost told me how glad they were to have a double-threat person on board.  Of course it didn’t work out that way at all.  Painters and art historians have an antipathy, or a range of antipathies that would take a book to explain. I think of myself as doing art history at an ambitious and important level—what needs to be done.  I also paint as ambitiously as I can, and you either make good paintings or you don’t.  I haven’t stopped making good paintings, and I do everything I do by working all the time.

Q: The title of the show is “Light”.  Can you tell us why?  

DS: Oil painting was invented to paint light. There is nothing more mysterious than light, except maybe for painting, and they are mysterious in different ways.

3 Homage to Al-Kindi (Self Portrait in Gazing Ball with Four Gifts from Tim and Two Short Candles, 2013, oil on board, 18 x 24

Q: Several of the paintings’ titles reference Al-Kindi. Who was he?

DS: Al-Kindi was the first Islamic philosopher. He was a Neoplatonist, and believed that everything was connected to everything else by light. Modern cosmologists say things like that. In any case, his notion yielded Alhazen’s optics, the basis of modern geometric optics.

Q: Can you tell us about the wonderful characters or “commodity ghosts” that populate your paintings. They have such incredible and varying character and expression, sometimes dignified and mourning as in the elegiac Gothic Still Life with Golden Swan, or ethereal as in Orthogonal Commodity Ghosts, other times funny and quirky as in the Still Lifes with Strange Flavors.

31 Pink Flamingo Nesting Among Commodity Ghoses, 2013, oil on board, 14 x 18DS: “Commodities” are things people buy and use, after which their containers become objects of a certain character in their own right, “ghosts”. Sometimes they remind me of Al Capp’s shmoo (which would willingly be anything you wanted it to be) but sometimes they are grand, and they are never the same. They may be nondescript (seltzer bottles) but they can be beautiful in light, like the rest of us. And still life is about the passing of things. Vanitas is the great theme of still life, coming to be and passing away, passing through the light.

Q: I love all of the cryptic references to other artists, philosophers and poets in your titles and imagery.  Tell us about the “sprouting onions (always for CW)”.

DS: I dedicate paintings to people because things remind me of them. Once I painted an onion that had sprouted in a tuna fish can, an unpromising beginning, but I called it an allegory of hope and dedicated it to a poet friend. Ever since, when I am painting an onion and it sprouts, the painting has the same dedication. Sprouting in a still life is not much better than a tuna fish can. I have a student who was working on monochrome paintings (white-on-white, etc.), and I thought What can I do that is like that? I decided that painting transparent things on a white background would be like that, and I did such paintings for some years, the most elaborate version being the Greater Net of Indra. I read about the “Net of Indra” in a history of mirrors while writing a book on Renaissance optics, and it stuck in my imagination. To me, thinking is always imagining, and sometimes it turns into a painting.

21 East and West at Conil, 12 x 24

15 Black Still-life, 1977, 20 x 16Q: You call Cezanne “one of your great heroes”.  I definitely can see that even as early as your 1977 painting, Black Still Life, and of course in your versions of Cezanne’s beloved Mont Sainte Victoire and in the overall palette of the gorgeous paintings you did in Provence last summer.  But you also mentioned in reference to Fresh Coffee for JBS Chardin what Cezanne said about Chardin. Can you remind me?

DS: Cezanne was a continually searching painter, slow, deliberate and obsessed, always about the thing and the painting. And he admired Chardin, as I do, as I recall because he made a self-portrait wearing an eyeshade. This showed him to be, Cezanne said, “a wily old fox who knew every trick of the trade”. He thought the eyeshade made it easier to see halftones. I don’t know if that is so.

Q: I love the way you treat the edges of your paintings, so the subjects seem to float, and also the way you use layers of color that sometimes surround or buttress a scene.  It brings to mind Rothko and the modernist abstract tradition, but you also mentioned Ukiyo-e (Japanese for floating world)?  

32 A Narcissistic Tangerine, 2013, oil on board, 12 x 12

DS: I didn’t realize my paintings stopped short of the edge until a painter friend in Pittsburgh pointed it out. Then I began to think about it. I have to admit that I have always liked Jules Olitski, and edges are beautiful in themselves. Leaving them of course floats what is actually painting. Vision floats, at least as long as we ourselves continue to float through the world. People sometimes say that the paintings look like little Rothkos, and I suppose some of them might, but there are not so many ways to float a bar of color, and you can’t let the search for originality stop you in your tracks. The Japanese at a certain point referred to ukiyo-e, floating world painting, and what I paint is another world, but it floats and passes out of sight in all its loveliness. I try to make paintings in which what we see so brightly has the presence of the colored surface on which it is painted.

30 The Ghost of Paolo Uccello (floor version), Oil on Canvas, 16 x 12Q: The Ghost of Paolo Uccello is an important one for your later development as an artist you have told us.  Can you explain?

DS: I can’t really explain the Ghost of Paolo Uccello. Some of the artists I have spent so much of my life thinking about seem somehow real to me, like absent friends. I saw a Mexican glass bowl, set a wine glass in it, and thought That is the ghost of Paolo Uccello. It reminded me of the perspective drawing of a chalice he did, and it had a hovering, ethereal quality about it. I made several paintings of it. In the one in the show, on the floor, the shadows are as substantial as the bowl, glass, and water.

Q: Your wit and associations provided in titles and imagery are endless.   Witness Pink Flamingo Nesting among Commodity Ghosts, A Narcissistic Tangerine, Moneyaise Jars (the 1%) an Allegory to name just a few.

I can only say that I am glad you enjoy looking at the paintings with their titles.

Q: Tell us about the Suspended Apples (Meditations on the Weight of Shadows) painted in three different lights, fluorescent, natural and mixed.

DS: The suspended apples are a kind of joke about formalism. In aesthetic grid paintings, like Mondrian’s, we talk about weights and balance, and as the light was changed on the still life, the shadows changed, the composition “wanted” to change, and shadows are very hard to paint.

37 The Poet’s House, 2013, oil on board, 14 x 18”Q: Finally I love what you said about having to paint out of “gratitude for seeing” or about the “gifts” in many paintings.  Can you share that idea once more with this audience.  It was very powerful to me and generous too, as I see your art as a gift on so many levels.

DS: I realized while making the painting called The Poet’s House,that I painted out of gratitude for seeing what I see. Years ago, in Pittsburgh, I happened to read something Degas is supposed to have said. He might not have said it, and my impulse was not to authenticate it. Degas lost his eyesight, and he said that you always imagine that one bright day you will paint this or that, and then there are no more bright days. So I made a painting of the back yard, as sunny as I could make it, called A Bright Day for Degas. It’s all a gift, for which I am absolutely grateful. Painting is about seeing, and about what comes to hand, and what you make of it. Sometimes I make paintings of gifts from friends and family, and I am very glad to have thought of Al-Kindi’s pots and pans, and to have made the acquaintance of the ghost of Paolo Uccello.


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