Seeing Music in the Art of Abstract Expressionist Paul Chidlaw
I love the work of American abstract expressionist painter, Paul Chidlaw. His paintings a very visceral emotional response when I see them for the first time. As a musician, I am always trying to understand why a particular musical decision creates a profound response in listeners (or fails to do so). Throughout my life I grew up going to museums and looking at great art. However, it’s only been since starting a business buying and selling art that I’ve started trying to understand what makes looking at a piece of art a powerful experience.
I've been thinking about the fact that Paul Chidlaw found inspiration in music for much of his work and how that should impact the way I look at his art. Chidlaw suffered from macular degeneration later in his life, and as his vision declined he increasingly tried to express what he heard in music visually. From Wikipedia: As part of the sensory process involved in creating his art, Chidlaw used a music motif as a form. Pigments vibrated in dulcet violin tones, or reverberated as percussion, and the notes of color blended in an exultant symphony of emotion. Chidlaw felt that his use of color was one of his greatest strengths, and he gave close consideration to how colors "sounded" and mingled optically on the canvas.
We’ve recently had the opportunity to buy a group of Paul Chidlaw paintings and drawings from the estate of his wife, Madge Chidlaw. We sold a couple of his paintings last summer, so I had previously done a bit of research on his work. For such a well-listed artist, there is surprisingly little information available online. Most galleries that sell his work just have summaries of the biographical information that is available on Wikipedia.
Throughout history, movements in music and visual art have paralleled each other. In music history classes, students frequently look at works of visual artists to help better understand what was happening in musical movements, whether in broad style periods, or particular movements (impressionism, expressionism, neoclassicism, chance music, etc.). However, I’ve always found the idea of trying to express the experience of listening to music through visual art to be ridiculous. There is a profound difference in the fact the that music necessarily unfolds in time. All music has a narrative quality with a beginning, middle, and end. Even chance music, like that of John Cage, or extremely minimalist music still takes the listener on a dramatic journey through time.
Visual art, on the other hand, distills the experience of a particular moment in time. What came before or what comes after are left to the imagination of the person experiencing the work. Certainly, the experience of seeing a work of art is a different experience each time depending on a wide variety of factors, and that same image can mean different things through time, but that’s not the same thing as the working being the narrative.
I recently watched the MOMA’s fantastic videos on the process that Willem de Koonig used in creating his paintings. I was fascinated at the process with which his paintings evolved over time. Many of his works took over 6 months as he painted over his paintings creating many layers of paint…often well over a half an inch of paint on a canvas over months of working on a painting. If somehow it were possible to see his work as it progressed day after day, it would take on a narrative quality in the same way that music does. However, in looking at his finished work, we can only imagine what the dozens of paintings underneath the final image looked like. We can only imagine the evolution of one image leading to the next and on and on that brings us to the one distilled moment that is the finished work.
Looking at several of Paul Chidlaw’s abstract expressionist works, I’m struck that we can actually see some of the narrative he used in creating the work. We can see how one layer overlaps the previous layer, and so on. At first glance his work often looks like an explosion of creative activity. But unlike de Koonig, Chidlaw uses lines of color that overlap in layers, but without completely covering the layer below.
Knowing that he drew inspiration from music and made an effort to express his listening experience through his paintings and drawings, the way I see his work takes on an entirely different meaning. Thinking about how that each color choice, the power and shape of each brush stroke, each image, etc. was inspired by the sounds he was hearing what he felt as he listened to music gives his work a narrative quality looking through one layer of paint or ink to the next that I don’t experience with most other artists work. It’s not the same experience as hearing a symphony, or if we could some see each layer of a de Koonig painting in order, but it’s possible to get a hint of the range of emotions Chidlaw was experiencing as he listened to a piece of music and created a visual narrative of those experiences.
On a personal note, as a musician who is no longer making my primary living making music, I empathize with Chidlaw's need to continue creating daily despite his declining vision late in his life. The fact that the need to continue making work was so strong in him that he created daily makes his late work even more moving and inspiring.
Disclaimer: As an orchestra conductor, I often had to schmooze with patrons who would talk to me about music in ways that made me cringe. As someone relatively new to the art world, I recognize that my thoughts above may illicit a similar reaction from someone far more knowledgeable that me. Whether you agree with my way of seeing Chidlaw’s work or think I’m totally off base, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m fascinated by the way people choose to express themselves, and anything I can learn about art that I love is appreciated.