Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Reorchestration Assignment

The Assignment:  reproduce to scale a photograph of a master painting
The Tools:  scissors, glue
The Materials:  magazines, paper
The Instructions:  recreate the image of the assigned painting (8 ½" x 11") using only solid colored cut-out pieces of magazine print and glue

Orchestrate tr.v.
1.      To compose or arrange (music) for performance by an orchestra.
2.      To arrange or control the elements of, as to achieve a desired overall effect: orchestrated a successful political campaign.

John Almquist was a fine artist and a gifted teacher, as a consequence of being both genuinely artistic and dedicated to teaching. But that was hardly transparent to his students, because John was neither flamboyant nor noticeably pedagogical in style. He “blended in”, worked hard, and was admired in a quiet but nevertheless profound way by many a teenager, including me.

John was also quite innovative in the classroom; and a truly creative legacy of his was the “Reorchestration” assignment.  Those who had the good fortune to study under “Almy”, as he was affectionately known, and complete this monumental artistic task know what I mean; however, I’d like to take a brief excursion into the reorchestration concept and execution in some detail.  I hope that my memory and analysis are capable of shedding some light on what was a significant rite of passage for many of us at the North Shore Country Day School.

Definition and Background

As a means to define reorchestration, explain how we approached it, and the effect that meeting this challenge had on our intellectual, creative, and moral development at the time, it is important to present some aspects of the context.

First, it’s safe to wager that very few of John’s pupils were adequately prepared for such a complex, profound, and utterly daunting task. That was certainly an intentional part of the problem as well as the solution, i.e. we brought to the effort a naiveté or innocence that in the end bolstered to varying degrees our creative powers.  John set us off with nothing but a classic image and a set of rather sparse “rules of the game”.  Of course, as is well known, there were rather Spartan limits placed on the materials that we could bring to the table; that and a highschoolesque Sisyphusian tenacity was all we had at our disposal – no artistic map or compass was provided to help navigate our way, and to the best of my recollection the majority of us keep the project strictly to ourselves during its execution.

Second, John seemed to have acquired a priori in his mind a clear and distinct image of each and every one of us before making these very personal assignments. To that effect, it came well into the year when he had had sufficient time to get acquainted with our work. This guided him in choosing an art reproduction appropriate to each personality (artistic inclination). Note:  in using the term ‘appropriate’, I speak for myself and my recollection of the images that were chosen for my classmates. John may not have been consistent in this over the years. ‘Appropriate’ may also have meant different things to different folks:  John was comfortable enough with us to be at once playful and serious as an instructor; and, although always respectful, he was certainly capable and likely inclined towards a challenging curve ball or ironic twist.  

More personally, John had a slightly mocking yet perfectly appropriate nickname for me:  “Formal Frank”. ‘Formal’, because -- undeniably -- I invariably crafted artwork that was both highly conceptual and restrained by mathematical forms. Looking back, to say the least, I also displayed at the time and arguably to this day a certain formality in my overall social gestalt. In any event, no one was uncomfortable with the appellation, and moreover it fit perfectly well with my reorchestration painting, namely one created by the German-American master Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956). For anyone who has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that’s the painting called “The Church of the Minorites”, which according to the author Robert M. Pirsig is “a kind of Gothic cathedral, created from semiabstract lines and planes and colors and shades. [that] seemed to reflect his mind's vision of the Church of Reason…”.  The enormously influential Zen was first published in 1974, around the time we were in class with John. No idea but it's possible that Almy chose the Feininger work out of familiarity with the book.

In both definition and execution, the reorchestration was as much our project as it was John’s; the loose guidelines allowed us considerable leeway. As such, individually we all helped define the idea over time. In fact, John’s reorchestration assignment is a genuinely artistic concept, in that it exists mainly in the works that exemplify it, namely through each and every one of our laboriously contrived mosaics composed of small to minute pieces of colored magazine paper fashioned with Elmer’s Glue.

The phenomenology of execution

To fully appreciate the depth and complexity of the problem we confronted, it’s necessary to explore the nitty-gritty of the situation.

For those of you who have never “reorchestrated”, imagine if you will initially regarding an 8 ½" x 11" photographic reproduction of a famous painting with the intent to reproduce it on a same size piece of paper.  The knee-jerk reaction is blithely to assume that it would be a “piece of cake”.  Hold on and consider the specific details of the assignment:  all you have in your toolkit is scissors, glue and all the image-laden trade magazines you can lay your hands on, either hanging around the house, pilfered from friends and relatives, or garnered in desperation at the 11th hour from a local newsstand. Then try to conceive the raw difficulty of reengineering a Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gogh by mapping it with little bits of magazine copy.  Each piece of paper would become for us a single stroke of the painter’s brush. In this way we became one with the mind of the artist as he was creating the original.

Next, take into consideration that the original medium was oil and canvas.  As an experiment, the next time you’re in the Art Institute or the Metropolitan or any other well-established art museum, take a look at a great oil painting from the usual browsing distance; then move as close to the it as you can (without arousing suspicion) and examine the work one square inch or less at a time.  Immediately, you should discover a whole new microcosm of colors and textures and shapes, the multitude of places where the artist labored from moment to moment, bringing section after section into being. This view will look nothing like the full grand picture, it will not inspire or fill you with aesthetic awe; but it will offer you genuine insight into the manner in which the artist actually created the painting, the quality and quantity of the brush strokes, the use and transition of colors, the movements among parts great and small, as well as broad transitions between the various sections of the work. In short, you may achieve an understanding of the artist’s style, i.e. his or her way of doing little things in a repetitive way, which at the end of the day situates the painting in a phase of the artist’s career and perhaps even in a period of art history.  And at this point, you may also be in a position to adequately appreciate the painstaking thought and ultra-delicate handiwork required to imitate with any alternative medium that entire organic composition.  Ours was no careless jaunt through the wing of a museum.

The logistics

Finding the bulk of colored paper was not very hard; however, there were invariably a few sections that were next to impossible to locate, and so we became overnight a class of fanatical magazine pilferers. Some parts of the Feininger painting over which I slaved were highly intricate and convoluted. Add to that the many shades and hues of a small number of core colors involved, in my case primarily brown.  No small number of magazines were going to yield that kind of chromatic diversity.  In that sense, this was also an extreme exercise in patience and resourcefulness, ingenuity and imagination.  We would not be daunted.

If you take a cursory look through the average trade magazine with an eye to this sort of endeavor, you will likely find a great number of images to work with; however, a more discriminating examination will uncover that on average there is merely a one-to-one ratio between a very small piece of your putative collage and what can be extracted from a given page. Compound that problem by the fact that you’re dealing with, give or take, several hundred to a thousand pieces per reorchestration. 

I discovered many of the rare and exotic colors that I needed in a selection of fashion monthlies on sale at a Wilmette drug store and other assorted purveyors of periodicals. Still other printed bands in the rainbow I was able to bag at a busy newsstand in south Evanston, to which I cycled a considerable distance and in which I spent hours perusing rack after rack of various and sundry printed matter. In the end, there was one bloody minuscule section of the painting I could not reproduce (or so it seemed), and it held me up a long time because I wanted to get the thing just right.  It was probably not a very unique color, and if we were using paints it would have been a trivial thing to recreate. But that was the problem – we didn’t have an easy way to put things together, to exactly imitate parts of the original.  Instead, to the best of our ability, we had to forge from a clumsy and disparate source something that merely approximated the original.  As a result, the reorchestrations were not only fairly decent reflections of masterpieces; they were also pretty good artworks of our own design and in which we could take some pride.

My guess is that we all cursed John at some point during this struggle, and if I did it was at that low point. But when I finally chanced upon that enigmatic pigmentation buried in the far reaches of my mom’s subscription to Harper’s Bazaar, I was saved and truly ecstatic.

The Outcome

What did we learn from all of this hunting and gathering followed by tedious cutting and pasting?  On the surface, it might seem that all we gained was the art of conspicuous appropriation coupled with egregious forgery. Well, that’s arguable.  But we also achieved some pretty profound knowledge, in varying doses.  What I learned can be categorized on a number of levels.

1)     A humble appreciation for the brilliance and technique of an artist. No way on earth I’ll ever be able to create something as subtle and beautiful as that cubist rendition of a cathedral.  Through emulation (not thievery or plagiarism), one inevitably earns an appreciation for that which is emulated.  And, with that much concentration and labor spent reorchestrating a single painting, the resulting sympathy was profound.

2)     A special and long-lasting familiarity with a particular masterpiece and the ability to instantly recognize and acknowledge another work by the artist Feininger.  (So much so that I briefly and vainly imaged that I could create another painting in the same style.) This included, among other things, intimacy with his use of colors and textures; the flow and transitions within the subject matter; admiration for the work as a coherent whole, being the synthesis of the various microcosmic parts; and finally several late-night epiphanies from seeing subtleties of meaning that I would otherwise have overlooked.

3)     A sharp view to a school of artistic practice (Cubism) under which the work fell.  I have been a loyal fan of that period ever since.

4)     The simple satisfaction of having completed such a complex, gargantuan task requiring so much time, thought, and resilience.

5)     Marvel at the fact that one could create something so worthy from such humble materials.

6)     The pure relief and then joy of putting the final pieces of the reorchestration in place, and then being able to regard the two images side by side -- the staid original next to my just out of the oven, not so shabby imitation with all its unique imperfections.

In short, few would dispute that this was a transcendent assignment, one inspired by the gods. John Almquist instructed us to study a painting, one that was somehow appropriate to our personality, in a way that under ordinary circumstances we would likely never have. In effect, we obtained an extraordinary glimpse into the essence of a masterpiece, the artist and a genre, however momentary and varied and fleeting that may have been for each of us.  And in the end, despite the trials and tribulations, we were all improved and broadened by the experience.

For that fine gift we are forever grateful to you, Almy.