On realism in art > “My real art education was formed and continues to this day through careful observation and learning how to see.” From “preposterous” art methods in the 1980s to glorious days of studying with masters, Garin Baker shares his inspiring path as an artist.
Along the Horizon Home
BY GARIN BAKER
I’m drawn back to memories of my first days in college at Pratt during the early 1980s. Picture a large open studio on the top floor of a nineteenth-century industrial building. Oak floors filthy with years of grime and paint completely infused with the smell of turpentine and oil.
Several evenly spaced six-foot windows on three sides, columns and brick walls throughout, painted white at one time but now yellow and gray. One wall obscured with painting racks bursting with eight-foot stretched canvases in various stages of completion. Ten to fifteen work areas set up in no particular order with art supplies strewn about, each in disarray and as cluttered as a teenager’s bedroom.
A group of college-age students, mostly dressed in black with various piercings, spiked or brightly dyed hair—a badge of courage signifying, “I am an Artist!”
Forgive my characterization, but it was the 80s and punk rock was huge among the throngs of art students coming out of hometown high schools, only to realize they were not alone. The professor would arrive for his three-hour morning critique during this six-hour freshman studio-painting class. Long and tiresome discussions would ensue. Multiple descriptive words were used: profound, haunting, tortured, expressive, cutting edge, and above all, validity.
I remember being completely struck by this preposterous art educational methodology and the wholesale, premature attempts toward the all-important, “signature style.” This weekly exercise was a taught narrative disguised as intellectual gamesmanship. Who would claim the crown for the day’s best pontification, describing brief moments of work that took place between long breaks, cigarettes and small talk, the doodles, splatters and dribbles applied to canvas through emotional or spontaneous combustion.
One day, after a couple of months of this, I realized I couldn’t stand it any longer. During one of these group critiques I spoke up and asked if I could get a model and paint from life. It was as though the air was sucked out of the room and verbal daggers were unsheathed. My outburst was to die the death of a thousand stabs: “Academic,” “Formulaic,” “Boring,” “It’s been done already.” I was stupid and small.
The seeds of my utter dysfunction revealed itself in a world gone mad. I was raised by first-generation Eastern European and Russian immigrants, whose passionate attempts at escaping middle- and working-class anonymity led them to choose lives of creativity and personal meaning.
Both my parents were artists and activists, and this in and of itself would be a layered and loving story, but for the purpose of seeing the forest for the trees, at an early age, I was encouraged to no end. In addition, the streets on the Upper West Side and Harlem, where I grew up during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, were steeped in social and political upheaval. Cultural and racially charged cross-pollination was the norm.
Through a tip from someone in the know, many young teenagers from across the five boroughs would apply to one of the five specialized high schools in NYC. I found myself at the High School of Art and Design in 1975 and would by chance, or serendipitous confluence of circumstances, join the “Old Hat Club” under the tutelage of Max Ginsburg and Irwin Greenburgh. These two high school art teachers were carrying the torch of traditional representational painting, long forgotten by an “art world” busy commodifying the latest ism or movement.
Max and Greeny, as we called them, would begin two-and-a-half hours before the regular school day began. An unsuspecting student would be coaxed into posing, costumed or just as they were: bell-bottomed polyesters, marshmallow shoes, wide collar, awful-patterned shirts. There were simple, honest poses, and subtle reminders to stay awake, while 10-15 students painted from life before the first-period bell sounded. The seeds of my discontent for any other form of art training were well established during my years at A&D.
At Pratt, Paul Casale (an A&D graduate himself) and I commandeered our own studio space, got models from a sympathetic department chairman, and painted from life every day for hours on end. I actually told one instructor, “Give me a D. I’ll be across the hall if you’re interested in what I’m doing.”
Since I commuted back to Manhattan every day I added to my studies at the Art Students League with teachers like Leffel, Dinerstein, Jacobs, and Silverman. It was truly a glorious time in those early 80s. No one cared about this thing we called “Realism,” and we cared about nothing else.
My real art education was formed and continues to this day through careful observation and learning how to see. So many great teachers I stumbled across lighted the way, revealing for me the treasures in museums and books: Rembrandt, Valesquez, Sargent, Sorrolla, Repin, Shishkin, Levitan, Kromskoy, Zorn, Krøyer, Pyle, Brangwyn, Wyeth, Everett, Waugh, Cornwall, Rockwell, and so many more of less-familiar name. All would be my silent teachers.
Many of these works spoke to me on a visceral level and offered clues to my own voice. Why did certain paintings touch me with their obvious skill, well past my eyes, to the depths of my soul?
Problems confounded me on the surface: accurate drawing, proportions, composition, color, atmosphere, edges—so many questions in need of answers. What seemed obvious was the development of a language through constant effort and practice. Thousands of studies from life would be a never-ending journey to this day. Slowly I could improve my skills, enabling a vocabulary and discovery through paint, and hopefully an ability to express a view about life from within and throughout.
This is when shit got complicated.
Sincerely not wanting to bore anyone with the details of an art career gone haywire—the realities of life were now front and center. The few galleries I approached during the mid-80s would say, “Wow, you’re a photorealist.” Although I respected some of that work, I could not in good conscience join the club.
I made my way as a busy illustrator, since at that time there was still a demand for artists with traditional skills. With the need for more studio space than I could afford in New York City, and with a young family in tow, we moved to the Hudson Valley, just north along the Hudson River.
One late afternoon we were shown a 1790 stone house, carriage house and barn that was on the market. The property was basically a ruin, and as an old friend jokingly told me as I showed off the property and my plans, “You’re a man with a vision; I’m a man with a television.” Some 20-plus years later he has since retired from Wall Street with a huge buy-out and I’m still renovating.
Countless pitfalls and amazing moments happened along the way, including divorce, single parenting and several un-friendly but fun episodes with small town politics. In fact, these times, as well as the digital move in the illustration business, helped me find my way into mural painting and the Public Art Realm some 15 years ago.
Interestingly, while attempting to alter the projects of several local developers and their plans for gentrification, I talked my way into several paid mural commissions. This and all else, peppered with epic fails, allowed me to pursue and successfully complete many Public Art Mural projects across the US, and one in Europe.
My renovated Carriage House Art Studio, located in the Hudson River Valley, is a wonderful space that I have made available for workshops and open studio sessions for those interested in painting and drawing from life, as well as inviting and offering artists and students plein air painting trips along this most magnificent river community that I now call home.
Looking across the contemporary art landscape, with all its new energy and amazing talent pursuing their dreams through representational art, I’m completely encouraged. Although still questioning, I’m a bit less dysfunctional, and willing to forgo my belief that “Realism” is as far from “Representational” art as “Minimalism” is from “Pop” art.
Age has weakened my stubborn grip on the flag of what has historically been a Realist’s point of view. All pigeonholes and descriptive anecdotes have become meaningless and futile. Most artists I know toil away every day, carving out their own path. The intellectual art dogma I was so bored with long ago will always remain, since the smartest ones in the room need to hold the floor until the crowd grows weary and bored once again.
As artists in our times, with all the technological advancements and tools available, chosen by our ancestors through luck or by calling, I attempt to unleash all the skills developed so far towards creating beyond an amazingly rendered portrait, a beautifully realized landscape or a pleasingly stylized technique, something that speaks from the soul of this solitary craft and in retrospect what it’s been capable of.
What is it to be human? A story to tell or an aspiration creating that authentically realized transcendence, painted with a compelling voice and attempting to raise the bar with reverence for those fleeting and “marvelous” moments.
Bonus: Four-Hour Head Study Progression
Connect with Garin Baker at: www.garinbaker.com
Related Article > Art Versus Methodology
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