Painters can often recall the first painting that truly inspired them. Below is the third in a three part series (read part one and part two) where Bay Area artists talk about that first love -- the initial painting that moved them to pick up a brush.
NARANGKAR GLOVER: Paul Cezanne's La Femme à la cafetière, the 1890 portrait of a heavyset café owner wearing a simple dress painted in cobalt and ceruleans, hung unassumingly in a corner at the Musée d'Orsay when I visited in 2002.
What kept me circling the gallery to pass over it several times was the portrait's complexity within the understated yet ubiquitous subject matter. What I saw in her was a reflection of Cezanne's disillusionment and disdain for pretty much everything. Her expression echoed him barking orders toward his obliging, yet pedestrian subjects. The heaviness in her face, and the gravity of her form read that she was not in the least bit amused. The frustration is that visceral.
Yet the skewed perspectives, loose brushwork, and strategic placing of the coffee pot and mug to the side are a one hundred percent thing of beauty... forever. That's when I realized it was what I always wanted. I wanted to paint people for real -- with all their baggage, frustrations, impatience, and loneliness.
It was a swift turning point for me in my approach to painting, a shift away from graffiti and Pop Art. I was confronted with the master works of Paul Cezanne in person, and I was no longer afraid to make each and every piece a tug-of-war from start to finish.
MARY SNOWDEN: My influences are almost too many to mention, and they change and evolve constantly. Nevertheless, I'll take a stab at it.
When I was a child, I painted paintings that were embarrassingly like Grandma Moses. I can still remember the excitement I felt looking at her farm scenes and imagining myself in them.
In my late teens I loved Willem de Kooning. But somewhere around 1960, I went to a show in New York and saw this amazing painting with a large bird protruding out of it with a pillow dangling beneath it on a rope. It was Canyon, a Robert Rauschenberg combine. I was blown away and my ideas about painting were forever altered.
I appreciate all forms of art, especially writing and film, but paintings are what always steal my heart.
ALEXIS MACKENZIE: Because I was a classic case of I'm-going-to-be-an-artist-when-I-grow-up, the difficult thing was choosing how, exactly, I was going to express myself. I drew, I wrote; it wasn't so much that I was ever thunderstruck by inspiration, or carried an ideal close to my heart -- it was more that I spent a long time searching for the thing to hold dear, which felt most right as a means of expression.
There is one concrete moment with a collage that I recall, however, which almost certainly is what set me down the eventually obsessive path I've taken with the medium.
In high school, I kept a visual journal for a class, which was mainly comprised of collages; while I loved making them and they were well received, I think the moment I began to feel that they could be more than simply a journal to me was one afternoon at my friend Meredith's house.
She had made a collage incorporating various elements from magazines -- signage, a ballerina, a large rounded mirror, an urban environment -- I can't recall everything about it, sadly. I lost my tattered color copy of it long ago. But what was so captivating about it was how precisely she had cut out all the tiny details, and placed things so that they almost seemed to belong. They fit, they balanced, there were no rough edges. We were admiring it together and she said to me, "There's just something so nice about cutting something out perfectly..." and somehow it resonated; something inside me clicked into place with that statement.
From there it simply became a journey of exploring the imagery available in the world, how it fits together, and how well I can teach myself to manipulate it. I still think of that moment, and how the consideration of it has led me deep into this practice which I love so much -- in a way, the thing that is so nice about cutting something out perfectly, is how the discipline of focusing so tightly on a single task actually allows the mind to roam most freely.
CHRIS ASHLEY: Initially, I was certain that de Kooning's Woman I, 1950-52, most influenced me. He is an enormously important artist for me, and this unusual and controversial painting is a unique milestone in American art.
But I had to think about this. Many early encounters with paintings were important, and I needed to wade through memories and sort out my story to identify that single moment. So I put de Kooning on hold.
One Saturday afternoon in 1969, my grandmother took me to the new Oakland Museum, and while she tried to interest me in landscape painters (Albert Bierstadt and Hill, who I do like) I was drawn to abstract painters (Clyfford Still, Edward Corbett, or Lobdell). I think I remember seeing Nathan Oliveira's large pink and orange Spring Nude, but maybe I've just seen it too many times over the years. I very clearly remember Mel Ramos's Browned Bare, which showed me what kind of artist I did not want to be. On the way home that day my grandmother bought me a set of oils, and as I sat before the still life she set up on the kitchen table I tried to make a Lobdell.
Other important memories: Joan Brown's large yet intimate narrative travel paintings at Hansen Fuller Gallery, San Francisco, 1976; the huge Fauves show at SFMoMA that same year, and my first encounter with Clyfford Still soon after; Hassel Smith at Paule Anglim on Montgomery in 1977; and first seeing Agnes Martin's Falling Blue, around 1978, and literally feeling my life change as I stood there.
But I keep going back to de Kooning. I remember finding Harold Rosenberg's big 1974 book on de Kooning in the public library not far from where I grew up around 1976, my surpise when looking through it, and how I repeatedly checked it out. Woman I grabbed me because of the edge it walked between representation and abstraction, because of de Kooning's assertive drawing with the brush and control of space, and because of that wonderful bar of aluminum paint holding down the right side, later confirmed in person at MoMA. It all made me want to paint, which I began and continue, and I think of de Kooning, and my grandmother, quite often.