Flora: Selected Paintings
Published on the occasion of exhibition 16
in the room for Painting.
10.5 x 8 in. softcover; 75 pp.,
30 color reproductions
$34.00 + applicable tax and shipping — OUT OF PRINT
Introduction by George Lawson
Essay by Christopher Miles
Download full PDF
Roger Herman, Flora: Selected Paintings
— Introduction by George Lawson, San Francisco, March, 2010
When William Blake said that energy is eternal delight, he could have been anticipating the art of Roger Herman, whose paintings, woodcuts and ceramics, whatever they might happen to depict, have always extolled the particular disciplines of freedom, engagement, and the world as a parade of open, unfettered possibilities. He is indeed a painter’s painter, but he makes anyone who approaches his work feel as if they could easily join that exclusive club.
I first met Herman in the early 1980s in his Oakland studio, where I paid a visit along with the painter Alan Ebnother. That day he was working on a series of large black and yellow industrial exteriors, factories with smoke stacks and the word INDUSTRY scribbled across them. The color and the energy reminded me of a line from the I Ching: “The dragons fight in the meadow; their blood flows black and yellow.” Herman had recently come over from his native Germany and had yet to move to Southern California where he now paints, and teaches at UCLA. He was at that time already fully immersed in his signature expressionistic blend of ‘80s Europe and ‘50s America, on the one hand channeling Berlin’s Neue Wilde school comprised of artists such as Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf and Salomé, and on the other pushing further the Bay Area Figuration of David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. To this buttery mix, Herman has always brought his own sensibility, a generous sense of humor and an adept’s grasp of art’s unfolding chronicle, as well as the many techniques of painting. He tirelessly works variations on a theme, exploring the nooks and crannies of any given path like a puppy off the leash. His poppies and cacti share the studio with mountains, apartment facades, institutional interiors, high school dancers, large portrait heads and working class heroes. For this show, we have simply chosen an arrangement of his flowers.
As I look at these works today spread out in the gallery it strikes me how, for all the German/California matrix of Herman’s painting, his historical roots could as easily be deemed preponderantly Dutch. His paint (again, regardless of what he’s rendering) is fleshy in the way that the lineage of drunken masters—the title of one of his shows—is fleshy. I think of kindred painters from Rubens to DeKooning who loved the pore and follicle of the medium. If we recognize Van Gogh and Picasso in this work, it is because we have them on our collective mind. We could as easily refer farther back to the gossamer scumbling of El Greco, the agitated crosshatch of Franz Hals or the crazy wild brush strokes of Thomas Gainsborough, an unbroken chain letting paint hold sway that leads right up to the Berliners who were Herman’s contemporaries when he developed his mature style and on through to the students Herman teaches today. The point is that painting’s concerns are perennial.
Herman will overpaint old canvases and older versions of new ones, fat over fat and thick over thick. The resulting bumpy terrain lends his method a jazzman’s improv’ aura, but anchored in the middle of the studio an antique opaque projector suggests he may know more clearly than he lets on what he’s composing before he starts. The mix is in his blood, with German and French parents, his love of structure conjugally accommodating his joie de vivre, as his love of the past accommodates a broiling, ever-unfolding understanding of what it means to paint today. His sensibility is Contemporary Baroque, opulent and sexed. His big, goopy canvases seem to be made to be knocked about, and are painted by someone who knows if you are going to throw a good party, you can’t worry about the carpet and the furniture. Herman shipped half his work up to us wet and when we unwrapped them they were all fine. This says as much about his imagery as his choice of motif. They are nothing if not robust. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to show them.
What Roger Herman Paints
— Christopher Miles, Los Angeles, 2005
Mention the name Roger Herman to someone who has come into contact with the artist’s work at any point, but who hasn’t tracked the three decades of Herman’s career, and you likely will get a variety of responses. “Oh yes, the guy who paints the buildings.” “Isn’t he the fellow who does all those interior scenes?” “You mean the figure painter?” “He’s the one who made all those great big portraits of Van Gogh.” And, from someone recently acquainted with Herman’s work, you might get something like, “Right, the guy who did the plants.”
None of this really is surprising, as we tend naturally to remember artists by what we know of them. Moreover, Herman often has dwelled on the same imagery for extended periods, producing entire bodies of work and exhibiting entire shows dealing with the same basic visual information, and frequently painting the same basic image/composition multiple times at varying scales and in shifting color combinations. One show that stands out in my memory consisted almost completely of variations on the exact same view of a table and chairs. And in fact, the paintings of any given image that Herman exhibits usually are only a sampling of many more the artist produces in his studio, many of them painted over—not reworked, but actually painted out then started over-again and again. Thus, it would be easy enough, at any point in Herman’s career, to have dubbed Herman “the building guy” or “the interior guy,” as at any point in his career, Herman has seemed preoccupied, even obsessed with a particular thing.
Truth be known, however, Herman has never regarded himself as a painter of anything, but more as a maker of paintings that happen to picture this or that. In fact, when pressed on the matter, he says he feels silly, whenever asked what he’s been painting lately, saying that he’s been painting buildings or painting plants because, while saying so identifies the images with which he is working, saying so does not identify what people usually really want to know when they ask a painter what he or she has been painting. When people ask painters what they’ve been painting, often they’re really asking what the artist has been focused upon lately, which in many cases, especially with painting that functions representationally, is roughly the same as, or overlaps with that the artists pictures. With Herman, the appropriate response to the question of what he has been painting lately is probably something more like “canvases,” which is by no means offered here as a glib statement, but rather as a clarifying one. And to clarify further, the answer, at any given moment, to the question of what Herman is focusing upon in his studio, is not buildings or plants or figures. Rather, the answer to this question, regardless of what images one might find in Herman’s paintings from time to time, is the same thing that Herman has been focusing upon for three decades.
In many ways Roger Herman’s interests and intentions going into making a painting are related to how we often look at works of art after they were made, and regardless of their makers’ intentions. It has been proposed by many, for example, that regardless of whether he was painting an arrangement of apples, a skull, the house of a man who committed suicide, or his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cezanne principally was inclined toward the resolution of compositional concerns and the exploration of the formal and material issues involved in making paintings. And even if Cezanne was in fact concerned with embedding in his paintings narratives and commentaries for us to interpret, as many also have argued he was, it is not uncommon to find individuals who will argue that the ultimate grounds for appreciating Cezanne, regardless of intentions, are still those formal grounds. Thus, whether in painting an arrangement of peaches, Cezanne had it in his mind to present some sort of metaphor; to depict a certain scene for us to read the way we often read still lives for clues about place, culture, class, etc.; to faithfully represent the visual nuances of the peaches themselves, or to explore the formal aspects of an arrangement, rendered in a specific media and at a specific scale, of shapes in warm colors within a field of cool colors, we might choose to base our appreciation of the painting principally along the lines of this latter reasoning. Such would be what the British philosopher and art critic Clive Bell would have called the search for “significant” form, a quality, resulting from the overall combination of formal elements, that is found in all great works of art, regardless of the place, time, culture or circumstances in which they were made, and regardless of their intended or attributed uses or meanings.
And though I should be clear that I have never heard Roger Herman invoke the name of Clive Bell or utter the words, “significant form,” I do believe that this is roughly where Herman begins in his studio. Rarely ever working from life in his entire career, and equally fabricating a scene from his imagination, Herman works almost exclusively from found compositions. An avid collector of images with stacks of photocopies, torn-out pages and bookmarked volumes in his studio, Herman borrows from the highest (the canon of Western Art) to the lowest (junk mail). The high/low split means nothing to him, nor do geographical, cultural or historical boundaries. Pouring through these images, Herman looks for these with potential to raise, and allow him to work through, certain problems of representation, composition and material application as he works. Thus, for example, a series of paintings based upon photos of highly repetitive, grid-based, modular, modern architecture simultaneously provided a basis for Herman to explore issues of field painting, all-over balance, the grid, the use of pattern, and the boundary between abstraction and representation. It also presented him with parameters in which he was limited to paintings involving almost exclusively angular shapes and straight lines, and the marks that would contribute to producing them. A series of paintings based upon photographs of Gothic cathedrals or the architecture of Antonio Gaudi would have raised a different set of problems and yielded very different paintings qualitatively. Thus the choice of image is essential to the painting produced and therefore is of great concern to Herman, and while inevitably preferences based upon other criteria affect the choices involved (Herman also has painted his mother, and he’s a fan of Van Gogh) in the end the choice of image is essential not to the readings of Herman’s paintings, but to their qualities.
Of course, as we might choose to appreciate works in formal terms despite the fact or possibility that their makers might have been motivated by other intentions or desires, such as the intent to provide narratives or comments for us to interpret, so too, in the case of Herman, whose concerns are largely formal and material, we might nonetheless prefer to bring you into our understanding of his work our own knowledge, baggage and interpretations. After all, Whistler might have preferred for his now famed 1871 painting to have been known as Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist’s Mother, but we all know it as “Whistler’s Mother,” a popular title attribution that reflects a primary urge to read the painting a certain way as opposed to the artist’s placing of this information as secondary to the formal aspects of the painting he first asserts in the title. Looking at the many paintings Herman has made of his own mother, it is no less tempting to focus less on the formal aspects of these woks and dwell upon the “subject matter.” And frequently, viewers of Herman’s works have given themselves over to such temptation, offering an incredibly broad range of interpretations depending on the images: that they comment on the blight of institutional modern architecture, that they offer homage to great artists and other figures of history; that they critique the heroism of modern art; that they chronicle twentieth-century culture and taste, etc. I would argue that is quite possible that Herman’s paintings variously have done all of these things regardless of whether their maker intended so, and that it is quite reasonable and fair to understand these paintings in such ways. I believe this is part of the deal in making and experiencing art. Artist’s sometimes make works with qualities and aspects and implications very different from what their makers intended, and viewers routinely bring what they want to the experience of looking at art, and coax out of, or find within works of art, interpretations or grounds of appreciation the maker might never have considered.
I am convinced, however, that Herman’s paintings reveal their priorities, and that they ask us, even if we might have priorities of our own, or reshuffle the priorities in the course of looking at them, and to take their priorities into account as we do. Herman’s recent paintings included in this exhibition, offer such a revelation (and make a declaration) as much as, if not more so than much of his work ever has. Herman has very rarely painted what I might call supercharged imagery. He claims only to have once flirted with explicitly sexual scenes; and to my knowledge, though he has quoted historical works of art in his own works, he generally has avoided the overtly religious; and with the exception of some paintings made while he still was a student, he never has delved into the overtly political. Still, it seems often he has painted images that somewhat charged with meaning. His paintings are far from, say those of Giorgio Morandi, whose still lives are composed of small objects so bland and mute that they beg you to forget about them and focus on how they are painted. On the contrary, more like Alice Neel, who could give you a portrait of a celebrity and leave you forgetting about who it was because you were too caught up in admiring the color and line, Herman seems to paint his imagery not in order to show you the subject matter, if anything to work past it. Modern architecture, muscle cars, family portraits, nudes, designer furniture, clocks, broad landscapes, and now lush, exotic plants. None of it is stuff that’s torn from the headlines, but all of it is stuff in which it’s pretty easy to get lost, and yet what you really get lost in, when you find yourself in a room full of Herman’s paintings, the way they’re painted.
Herman gained notoriety in the field of contemporary art at a time when most art audiences, after a long banishment of painterly painting, had lost much sense of the nuance of marking, and virtually anything that had a bold stroke to it, as Herman’s paintings do, got tossed into the category of Neo Expressionism. But Herman’s marks have none of the harshness, whether born of raw angst or cultivated posturing, that define much of Neo Expressionism. Herman has less in common with figures like Julian Schnabel or Anselm Kiefer than the likes of Matisse, and more recently David Park or Richard Diebenkorn. His paintings have never had the feeling of those by an artist looking to plug images that demand ever new and nuanced approaches. Look at Herman’s paintings of plants carefully, and compare them to his paintings of furniture, of figures, of buildings, of faces. Certain habits, preferences and stylistic bents will recur, but you also will find difference from one group to the next, each the result of the demands presented by the imagery and responded to by the artist.
What Roger Herman has been painting pictures of lately are plants, but what Roger Herman has been painting about for an entire career are the demands of painting.