Friday, May 8, 2009

REVIEW: Andy Potok Lecture - When Is it Art?

By Theodore Hoppe

The Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpelier recently hosted a well attended lecture by artist and writer Andy Potok entitled, "When Is It Art?" While the presentation touched on the subject of 'What is art?' by looking at such works as "Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp, Potok's real intent was to explore the struggles and ordeals of the artist, and the various mental and physical deficiencies that can affect artists and therefore their art. Instead of providing answers to his question, Potok was content to refine the question to understand its implications: Do paintings produced by an artist afflicted with a drinking problem, drug addiction, mental and health issues and even blindness deserve to have an "asterisk" beside it? (like athletes on steriods) Potok focuses on the work of Willem De Kooning, who suffered from alcoholism for many years, and later, dementia. Because of the dementia, De Kooning needed increasing assistance to help him start each work. The assistants decided a painting was done when De Kooning ceased working on it for a time judged long enough.

When the issue of loss of vision came up the discussion became personal. Trained as an architect, then an artist, Potok painted and exhibited the U S and Europe until, in his early forties, a hereditary condition called retinitis pigmentosa began to steal his vision. He stopped working in the visual arts for many years, turning to writing about art and his disability.

Many great artists have experienced vision loss. Degas and Monet were in the midst of their careers as well when they became visually impaired. Monet became legally blind after developing cataracts. An increasing fuzziness and muddy colors are evident in his paintings. Degas began to lose his vision in his thirties. His visual impairments included amblyopia, corneal scarring, and ultimately, blindness in one eye.

Potok seemed to bristle at stories that credit divine intervention for what is actually determined adaptation. David Tineo, a Tunson, AZ muralist, struggled to paint after losing most of his central vision to macular degeneration. He had never tested the limits of his artistic abilities. He thought that his diminishing eyesight would be the catalyst, saying "I'm letting myself go, not being afraid that I may not one day see at all." Painting large 10x6 canvases using innovative ideas to overcome his "bad eye days", his work became freer and more expressive.

In 1993 Lisa Fittipaldi (see her painting, Inclination, at left) experienced the loss of her vision. She was depressed by having to relearn the basic tasks of life her, so her husband bought her a watercolor set and encouraged her to paint, even though she had no prior experience or training. To everyone’s amazement Fittipaldi began to paint beautiful paintings using what she refers to as her "mind's eye." How she paints is a mystery, even to Fittipaldi herself. The sales of her paintings now fund a foundation she has started to educate the public about blindness.

"What (they have) done that's really great is to learn and be innovative and to do what (they) need to do. It's not heroic. It is smart and it’s human and it's touching and its great," says Potak.

After a long hiatus from his painting, Potok again returned to his brushes and paints using the small bits of residual vision that remained. (Potok showed slides of the paintings he produced when his vision deteriorated.) Unsatisfied by the results and his experience, he stopped painting again, raising the question why? "It was not what I intended," was Potok's answer. What was gone was what he calls the "controlled-surprise" of creating. He is beginning to work in wire to create three dimensional "drawings in space."

Andy Potok's books include a memoir of the loss of his sight, Ordinary Daylight, as well as a novel about a boy growing up to be an artist in New York during the 1950's, My Life With Goya. For more information about blindness and the arts you can visit: