blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  Steven L. Jones

Discerning Voices

It was Karl Marx, I think, who once proposed that evolution be studied in reverse, with an eye firmly fixed on the evolved species while glancing backward for hints.
—Jerome Bruner, In Search of Mind

Two high school teachers changed my life—altered forever the way I saw the world and the way I lived my life. Mr. Walsh taught me, in eleventh grade English class, that art has meaning beyond its surface: that music is more than just tunes, that literature is more than just stories, that painting is more than just pictures. Mr. Worful taught me, in twelfth grade Humanities class, that art has context: that the art of ancient Greece reflects the classical values of its time; that the democratic revolutions of the 18th century helped spawn Romanticism; that the collapse of faith in universal values in the 20th century helped to shape modernism. Mr. Walsh introduced me to interpretation; Mr. Worful, to the zeitgeist. Together they taught me that the best art is dense, multi-layered, part of its time and place, and part of an ongoing story.

Today I too easily forget that I once knew none of this. What my teachers taught me formed the foundation from which my understanding and appreciation of art, music, and literature were built, and that foundation is deeply ingrained in my consciousness.

But it had to be learned.

Victor Kord with Josef Albers at Yale
University in 1959.

Pivot Points is a show about teachers, mentors, and students. Each painting in the exhibit is the unique work of an individual painter, but is also part of an ongoing story of teachers teaching students and students teaching teachers. The exhibit brings together three generations of artists: Victor Kord and Richard Lazzaro, who taught and mentored Sally Bowring and Reni Gower; and Valerie Bogdan and Beth Weisgerber, who were taught and mentored by Bowring and Gower. Each of these artists developed and honed their craft under the watchful, nurturing eyes of teachers and mentors—and then did the same for the generation that followed them. In Pivot Points, their work is seen together, in one place, for the first time.

If teachers introduce students to a field or discipline by imparting knowledge and skills, mentors take this a step further—prized for their wisdom and experience, they become trusted counselors. The word "mentor" originates in the Odyssey, where Mentor is a trusted advisor to Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. When Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War, he places Mentor in charge of his household and instructs him to look after his son, Telemachus. When the war ends and Odysseus doesn’t return with the other men, Telemachus—now a young man—is grief-stricken. Opportunists try to seduce his mother and pillage the family estate, but Telemachus does nothing. At this critical moment, the goddess Athena impersonates Mentor and coaxes Telemachus out of passivity. He leaps into action—taking control of his father’s household, and mounting an expedition to search for the king.

A mentor, then, is a kind of surrogate parent—part guide, part tutor, part role model—tasked with nurturing his or her charge into moral and emotional maturity. That Athena—goddess of war and wisdom—sometimes impersonates this figure implies that mentorship is partly divine, or involves the distribution of something divine. Or perhaps the goal of our mentors is to reveal the divine within us: to cause our daimon—that image of our ideal self that Plato said dwells in each of us—to emerge and guide us towards our calling in life.

If so, the true goal of artistic mentorship is simply for older artists to help younger artists find and develop their own voice. This is a process that is most possible today in universities—where artist-professors can still serve as guides, tutors, and role models, unburdened by the deadline pressure and ego-management of the super-famous.

Hence, Pivot Points.

Student Tamara Lettie with Reni Gower at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1982.

The artists in Pivot Points are abstract painters who use non-representational visual language to explore the elusive and ephemeral nature of moods, intuition, and non-verbal ideas. Their paintings are contemporary, but pedigrees are discernable appropriate to each artist’s era of education. So the work of Kord and Lazzaro—mythic, humorous, and meditative—is rooted in the visionary non-objectivism of post-war abstraction, while the work of Gower and Bowring—intensely colorful, geometrically structured, alluding to textiles—draws on a formal vocabulary from the era of colorfield, decoration, and pattern painting. Finally, the work of Bogdan and Weisgerber— formally loose but emotionally tense, with rich visual associations and a ghost of narrative just below the surface—reflects the dizzying array of styles characteristic of their own Painting Is/Isn’t Dead era of postmodern accumulation.

So, is there a clear kinship between these artists? Yes. The attentive viewer will spot influences, harmonies, and aesthetic alliances that exist two generations apart. But in these subtle and very sophisticated paintings they are difficult to describe in words. Like an encounter between relatives or a comparison of old family photographs the heredity is apparent—one could almost imagine that this exhibit was a retrospective tracing a single artist’s work from post-war maturity to postmodern old age—but it’s easier to read with one’s eyes than to articulate in plain speech. That’s as it should be; these are, after all, abstract paintings. At a general level, their most striking qualities are their vibrant color, their sophisticated design, and their refined use of materials. Delicate and bright, balanced but bold, in the genealogy of modern art these paintings descend less from Picasso than from Matisse. They burst with personality and radiate a sense of joy, or at least peace, found in the pursuit of painting.

Twenty years ago, two high school teachers changed my life. Since then, predictably, various other teachers have challenged everything they taught me. They told me that Mr. Walsh got it all wrong: that art itself has no meaning beyond what we invest in it, that this meaning is relative and mutable, that art isn’t so much a thing as it is a way of looking at things. They told me that Mr. Worful was wrong as well: that context is illusory—just one in an endless series of "frames" we create to view and describe "texts" that are essentially meaningless.

But I’m not in high school anymore. I teach art history myself now, and I remain unconvinced that the building blocks of context and interpretation form a faulty foundation for a critical-historical understanding of art. I also care less and less. What matters most is the work, not the talk, and in Pivot Points—a celebration of pure painting and the interactions of teachers and students—the work, thankfully, does all the talking.  

Steven L. Jones is an artist, teacher, and writer who lives in Richmond, Virginia.

  The Painters:
   Discerning Voices    The Poets:
   Talking with
 Both Hands
 Richard Roth    Steven L. Jones    Mary Flinn    J. Randy Marshall

   Notes and Acknowledgements
   Levis Reading Loop