A painting may begin with just an idea or a stroke of the brush, but as Bill Barrell will tell you….
– Paintings often spring out of nowhere. Working on a blank canvas for me is great. I am not a format painter, so I am left free to look at things and feel things in a different way. Here in this work, I started out wanting to just deal with squares, or square-like shapes. The square shapes worked well alone, but I had a nagging feeling something could be added to make it work even better. It’s a bit of a gamble as one can take a perfectly good work and mess it up! At the same time – once the idea of adding to a painting takes hold, there is no going back.
Often this approach backfires and one can end up with an awful mess. However, when it works, it gives a great feeling of confidence. When it doesn’t work it means taking the mess you have made and heading in a totally different direction. I can never give up on a painting. I wrestle with it until it works.
One time in frustration at what was showing up on the canvas, I tore it into one inch bands and then braided the canvas back together. It worked well as it totally destroyed the image I was wrestling with and it resurfaced into a beautiful object that I could hang on the wall like a quilt.
This painting ended up quite well. The circle shapes did what I wanted them to do by bringing the square shapes to life. It’s as if all the shapes have dancing partners – they give each other motion. The surface becomes vibrant without being eye popping. I named this painting, “Dancing Paint.” –
Today Bill Barrell reflects on time spent in Provincetown in the late fifties and his friendships with the artists Myron Stout and Tony Vevers.
– During my early years, from 1957 to 1960, I lived year-round in Provincetown and was very dependent on other artists. Two of those artists were Myron Stout and Tony Vevers. These two artists (and Tony’s family) were very supportive in those long dark winters on the Cape.
I was not only influenced by Tony Vever’s and Myron Stout’s paintings, but I was also influenced by their lifestyles. Tony loved to cook and Myron talked about cooking in an expert way, like a real gourmet. I was young, fresh from London – used to meat and potato type food. We would all eat in Tony’s tiny kitchen in his small apartment/studio with dormer windows. It was a bohemian garret style.
When Tony’s kids were put to bed, we would sit and discuss the pros and cons of quahogs and piss clams and drink Tavola, a cheap California wine, from a gallon jug. I was not used to the kind of discussions that took place. Tony would get out his poetry books – Dylan Thomas, Keats and ee cummings. Both Stout and Vevers were university graduates, so I did a lot more listening than talking. Having finished school at age fourteen, which was as far as the school year went in 1945, I was no match for their university debating abilities. I made up for it with my street smarts and my cockney humor. We would read and drink into the night. On leaving, I would walk with Myron Stout to his studio, bid him good night and stagger on home.
One funny and memorable occasion came about on a picnic trip. It was a beautiful spring day in 1959. Tony, Elspeth and the kids Stephanie and Tabitha, Myron and I all went to a meadow that had a brook meandering through it. Spreading out our picnic, we lounged around sipping wine and enjoying the bucolic surroundings. At one point, I took the kids down to the brook. It was not deep, about three feet wide with meadow flowers growing along the banks. As I looked, I suddenly realized that there were hundreds of trout swimming in it!
Now having lived in Scotland as a child, I had experience with trout and had tried to catch them by tickling them under the belly! I hollered up to Tony, “We have dinner here!” He ran down and we jumped in the water -chasing fish all over the place. We ended up with a dozen and returned to the picnic. Myron, who was laying by the picnic like a figure out of Manet’s Luncheon in the Park, told us that he happened to have a wonderful recipe for trout. That night at Tony’s, we put Myron’s recipe to work. It was a grand meal. The next day, after being told of our grand trout feast, a local said to us, “You silly buggers. You had a herring feast. That was a herring run and it’s illegal to take fish from a herring run!”
Myron once had Tony and I do some carpentry in his studio. It was there in his studio where I was first exposed to Myron Stout’s work. It was a bit odd to me but I was drawn to it. The paintings were not too large, maybe 40×42. He was painting very simple shapes that sat somewhat in the center of the canvas. The color was black and white, the two colorless colors. The shape would be a bit like an Arp sculpture, only flat. A “u” shape would hold a ball shape not touching the sides of the U. It would float in there. I thought of a ball just before being caught in a game of baseball. He was meticulous. Tony and I had once joked about how Myron would use a one-hair paintbrush. He took forever to finish a piece. Those paintings stay with me to this day. When I need to explain plasticity, I use Myron Stout and Mondrian. There is a feeling about the surface of the paint that puts it right up front. The colors touch, but do not interfere with one another. They stay flat.
In this painting ” Painter”, I had Myron Stout in mind. I wanted to combine my exuberance with his calm shapes. The shapes and forms do not resemble Stout’s, but I was thinking of how he put black and white together and made it interesting and alive. I could not resist the figurative image that surfaced, but I was happy with the black and white of a figure pitted against the artist who is not in contrast and in shadows. –
What happens when you take a little ten year old boy out of the big city and send him to the countryside? He just might see things and do things that are so different from his previous experience that they may stay with him forever. Today Bill Barrell remembers his youth and those cows from the English countryside. He tells how they instigated his fascination with cows and why they keep showing up in his paintings.
– Cows. I have always had a fascination with cows. It goes back to the beginning of World War Two.
Early in the war the winter of 1941 , one of the coldest winters in the recorded history of weather in England, my mother became sick with pleurisy and was hospitalized . My brother, two sisters and I were moved from our home in London and placed in the home of Dr. Bernados. While there, Terry, my elder brother, was put in charge of some of the milk supplies. At one point, somebody had begun to water the milk down. Terry reported it. It caused a ruckus and we were transferred to an estate in Norfolk .
In Norfolk, we had to go out and play after tea and it was very cold . We would wander into a field and make cows get up so we could lay in their warm spot . When that spot got cold we would move to the next cow . So began my liking of cows!
Later, when I was evacuated to a farm in the north of England, I would help the farmer milk his cows. One time a cow got into a clover patch a ended up with a bad case of gas. They can die from a gas attack. The vet was sent for and I stood by and watched him cut a hole in its side, insert a tube and release the gas. I often held the cow’s head during this process. Another time in the middle of the night, I helped the farmer birth a calf. That’s when I learned a calf came out feet first. This was quite a lot of learning for a Cockney boy of ten.
Many years later I visited my younger brother Budge in the countryside of Canada. There was a huge dairy farm down in a valley. One afternoon I went for a walk and as I looked across the meadow, there were the cows wending their way to the milking barns. What amazed me was that they were in single file on one little path that went around a hill out of sight . They were so calm and placid, no pushing or shoving and when one would stop – the one behind it would stop. It was a grand sight. You know, not too long ago, there was an outbreak of mad cow disease that disturbed me. There was no reason for it to happen. It had been predicted in 1945 that if cows were fed meat they would go mad. It was all based on greed. It led me to do what I do not normally do, I painted a mad cow series. “Canadian Cows” does not come from that series ( Mad Cows – a blog for another time), but this painting comes from the scene I took in while I was in Canada.
What exactly do we have here? Probably a question asked by many when viewing figurative expressionist art. Bill Barrell talks a little about what he sees in his painting “The Studio Visitation” as well as his thoughts on models and muses.
– Picasso and Matisse seemed to have no end of models, but I suspect that they often used old memories when they painted. Especially Picasso, who would paint late into the night when most of his models or wives would be tucked safely into their beds. I have never been in a financial situation that allows me the privilege to hire models. When a painting begins to lead me into what is starting to look like a figure, I allow it to carry me off in that direction. The female figure divine, as it was called at one time, is an enchanting and mysterious image. Male painters are fortunate to have this vision, their muse as a woman. (I cannot speak for women as I can’t see the male form in the same way as they do.) The female comes in a variety of shapes and forms, old and young, but always intriguing. They are the ones who create us. They are the ones who we bonded with first and they are the ones who have nurtured us. As men, all we can do is help in a small way to make the situation come about.
Well, one of the beauties of painting is that the painting will always retain its true and secret meaning. Not even the artist can know the true meaning as the painting often comes together at a moment when the artist is not aware of what has happened. When looking at paintings it is best to absorb the feeling of the work rather than what it means. Take the Mona Lisa for instance. What is going on in her mind? I can hazard some guesses. Did she and Leonardo make love? Has she just laid a fart and is thinking, no one will ever know? Perhaps a thought has just crossed her mind of how she wished she were nude in front of Leonardo. Perhaps Leonardo has just winked at her. It could be something totally benign like, did I leave the laundry out again. The thing is – we will never know and if we did, where would lie the interest in Mona Lisa?
Now, in my painting, The Studio Visitation, what do we have? He looks somewhat surprised, but is he really? Is she dressing or undressing? It looks like her breasts have arrived ahead of her. She is giving him a penetrating look as if to say, “you know why I am here.” She is looking a little angry. Has he forgotten something? She is also showing a goodly amount of thigh. Could the breasts and the inner thigh be a tempation? Or is it just his imagination undressing her? Whatever is about to happen will have witnesses who are lurking in the background. An eavesdropper and a young woman – his daughter perhaps? It is definitely all taking place in his studio as he does not look too disturbed. Perhaps this is a model from his imagination that he would like to hire. Perhaps he forgot to pick the kid up from school.
We will never know. It is a moment in time – caught in an emotional way and frozen forever. Leaving us with the painting and eternal question to return to – what do we have here? –
– It was back in 1965 when I had moved back to the US from Spain, where my son Joshua was born. I had lived in Spain for close to two years and moving to the Lower East Side of NYC was a cultural shock. In Spain, we had lived in the bucolic countryside in Ibiza. In our first apartment on 11th Street in NYC, we got robbed. So, I looked for a loft and found one on Rivington and Bowery – $100 a month for 2,500 square feet. But then, another came up for $90 a month with the same square footage. It was on Pitt Street, way over by the Williamsburg Bridge between Delancy and Rivington Streets. Ten dollars made a big difference in those days. I took it. The owner of the building ran a soda making business on the ground floor and you had to step over the drunks to get into the building.
We had lived there for a year or so when I had the idea of opening a gallery. I mentioned it to some friends and they all thought I was crazy. Why would anyone go to the lower east side to see art? I went ahead anyway. I called it the Pitt St Salon, printed my own announcements and did a big mailing. Grace Gluck of the New York Times happened to be doing an article at the time called, “Alternate Spaces”. She called me wanting to know what made me open a gallery way downtown. I told her I had a lot of work I had brought back from Spain but could not find a gallery interested in showing them. I think her article helped. We opened and to everyone’s surprise, the show drew a huge crowd.
Hudson Walker, who had bought some of my work in Provincetown came to the show and he bought three pieces. Later, I would take work up to his office on 45th Street. It was always at the end of the workday and he would drag out a bottle of bourbon and place it on the green felt pad that he used to pour diamonds onto. One time, actually the last time I saw him, he told me that I was the best painter since Marsden Hartley. He was a patron of Hartley’s, who had died a year or so before that and I was please to think I could replace his love for Hartley. Unfortunately, Huddy died the following year. The last time I took work to his office, he said, “I am not fond of any of these”, but quickly said, “you probably need money.” I always needed money. He gave me a check for $400. I still owe him a work.
Bob Wiegand had asked me at the opening how I had attracted such a crowd. I told him I thought downtown was ready for some changes. He loved what I had done and told me he was putting together a show called “10 Downtown”. He and the other nine artists put a lot of effort into it and it was a great success. All of these artists were located south of Houston near Broadway. This area was not known at the time as SoHo. I believe that when people saw what beautiful spaces artists lived in it triggered the move downtown.
So – I would shop at the Essex Street Market. One day, noticing some empty stalls, I thouht what a good idea it would be to rent one and do a show – bring the art right to the people! The idea sat there germinating. Finally, I thought why not mirror what was already there only on a gigantic scale, fruits and vegetables. So, I made huge tomatoes, bananas, eggplant, potoatoes, etc out of styrofoam. Even the scales and weights were foam. We printed up the announcements on shopping bags. Finally – the opening. It was grand. The little old shopping ladies were taken by surprise.
My younger brother Budge was taking a course on filmmaking at the time. He came and made a project out of it and managed to catch the essence of the whole thing, the curious regulars and my friends who had showed up. It shows Mimi Gross and Red Grooms deciding which bag of carrots to buy. Many of our family showed up. My Mum was caught on film buying an enormous eggplant, my sister Janet showing interest in the big string of garlic that Irene had made. Irene is caught on tape articulating about why we did the show. The moviemaker, Ken Jacobs came. We had shown his work at the Sun Gallery back in 1960. He made 3D slides of it catching some great moments. I have to thank Irene for all of her input and both my brother Budge and Ken Jacobs for documenting it. –
It’s sometimes hard to figure with figurative expressionist art. Bill Barrell thought he had created a painting too scary for children, but his daughter and granddaughter must think otherwise.
– For thirty years, I have watched my daughter Liza grow up. She has given me so much pleasure over the years.
I have watched her go from that little ball of childish energy into a mature woman of thirty with two children of her own. I have often documented her and still do from time to time. I think from her being present in the studio quite a bit and helping me in the kitchen from an early age, she has developed a very good eye for art. Now that she has her own home, she often comes and asks if she can borrow such and such piece of artwork. There is never a no. It give me such pleasure that she enjoys the work so much.
She borrowed this painting and it now hangs at the top of the stairs in her house. At first, I was worried about it as it is a painting of someone looking very alarmed and that Ruby, my three year old granddaughter, would have to pass by it every night on her way to bed. I asked my son-in-law if she was bothered by it, he said no, she likes it. So I asked Ruby what she thought of the painting and she said, “I love it, GrandPa. I say good night to it when I go to bed.” Go figure. Nothing scary about it at all.
Now Ruby spends some time with me in the studio. We have a large collaborative work going on. It is a never ending piece. I use OOP! paint from the hardware store because it’s water based. OOP! paint are paints that people have mixed and not liked. It’s a dollar a quart so we have fun sloshing it around. She gets up on my steps and I hand her the paint with no directing. She splatters it on in a free manner.
Ruby’s Nana is a nurse and sometimes Ruby likes to play at being a doctor. (So far she has done a quadruple bypass and replaced one kidney on me!) She has said she might like to be a doctor when she grows up. I said to her, “Perhaps, Ruby, you would like to be an artist”. Ruby answered, “I am an artist.” –
This is a short one by Bill Barrell today. He had another blog all prepared and ready to go, but unfortunately we didn’t have the photo of the painting ready yet! So, Bill was able to gather his thoughts about this oil painting, called “The Argument”, which has been a favorite of many for its color and verve.
– – I had an argument once with my wife. I went to the studio and vented my spleen on a canvas. I could argue on a canvas.
Colours are very expressive and in this work, the reds and blues clash, seeming to release the anger I felt. Meanwhile, the female figure is a calmer yellow. She is doing a Pygmalion and stepping out of the painting. Is she going to calm him or irritate him? Who is that figure floating on the right? I think he is probably my spiritual referee. Of course, we will never really know as they are frozen in time.
If we look at DeKoonings’ “Marilyn”, we see that he freezes her in space and time. She appears to be in motion but is going nowhere. This work is a fine example of what expressionist work is all about – catching that moment and freezing it. – –
Today Bill Barrell reflects on the painting of a self portrait, instead of the observations of the world, an observation of the self….
– It is always a good idea to have a good look at one’s self once in a while. Rembrandt, Picasso and van Gogh were at it constantly. Why do they do it? Well, because artists are always searching for the truth. I believe that by looking into their own eyes they can tell if they are still on the right track. I think Rembrandt never looked unsure in his self-portraits. Even when he hit hard times, he still looked sure of himself.
Picasso, on the other hand, I don’t know. To me, he always looked a bit surprised that he could still come up with something totally original and yet still catch himself not cheating. I had a friend who at one time owned the painting “Yo Picasso”, Picasso’s portrait of himself when he was about twenty-two, which was done in a realist style. My friend and his wife had it hanging in their breakfast nook. I visited often and loved to sit across from that piece and just absorb it. Picasso stood looking out with his coal black eyes as if to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. My friend once showed me where he and his brother had thrown darts at it when they were kids. He told me that they hadn’t made a habit of the dart game and knew what they had done was wrong, so they had found some shoe polish and filled the holes. That same painting was later sold for $47.8 million dollars – holes and all.
Van Gogh looks out of his painting with such intensity – as if to say here is my soul, take a good squint at it, I’m laying it all out for you.
It is not easy to look through that mirror and into your soul. In my portrait, I look a little wonky – as if to say I am seeing what I’m seeing and being a little terrified by it. –
Bill Barrell writes of his painting “Four O’Clock in the Morning” – that time of night when troubles sometimes loom large in the mind.
– This is a painting that depicts the early hours of the morning. It’s that time, usually about four in the morning, when one is unable to sleep and yet too tired to get up. It’s an awful time that I think is experienced by many people at one time or another. All the boogey men and women come out to play and only the depressing thoughts seem to want to come to the fore. Things get blown out of proportion like health concerns, mortgage problems, world problems, sleeping concerns – you name it, it will raise its ugly head.
I do not plan these paintings but while in the process of painting – a shape, a form, color or image will sometimes trigger the painting. Once the process is underway, it will bring to mind deep inner thoughts and fears. Then, images and symbols I have squirreled away in my mind will appear on the canvas. –
Bill Barrell weighs in today on the news of the last couple of days. Receiving both good and bad news in one day leaves much to reflect on. Bill finds the common thread between both events in this painting, “The Broken Knee”.
— It is hardly news to anybody at this point, but Haiti has been devastated by an earthquake. Today is certainly a sad day in history.
It is an odd time for me as I heard good and bad news in one day. I had been planning to write about an “up” painting, but it does not seem the appropriate time now. First the terrible news about Haiti and then the good news – my son JZ Barrell was nominated for Emmy award. So, I have posted a work about my son called “The Broken Knee” which I think relates to both events.
The painting is of my son, JZ. A few years back, he had busted his knee while performing at a concert. In the painting, my son is in the hospital after an operation with his leg in traction. He told me that they had given him such heavy doses of drugs that he was hallucinating. I told the doctors to cut back on the drugs because he had told me that he preferred some pain rather than have the hallucinations. The painting symbolizes the pain my son went through. Yet still – he came out on top of his profession.
I hope this work can convey some of the pain and suffering going on now in Haiti. I’m sure with our help, Haiti also can come out on top. Hopefully, we can all give generously to assist in that effort. I will be donating to the American Red Cross relief fund as soon as I sign off. I hope you will do the same.
figurative expressionist artist …………………………………………………………… This is a blog by the artist expressing thoughts on his own paintings as well as experiences with others relating to his daily life and life of painting since the 1950s. …………………………………………………………………. Paintings are posted with words from Bill that are as varied as extolling on the successes of his children, JZ and Liza, to the milestones of his grandchildren and on to his memories of fellow artists, collectors and shows. His art and words touch on things like politics, religion and the weather. ……………………………………………… For Bill, art and life are interwoven. ……………………………………. …………………………………