"Enormous size certainly intends to call attention to itself, but modest paintings are not necessarily small and small paintings are not necessarily modest."
One of my favorite things about Mira Schor's writing style is her ability to get right to the point and end the essay when her point has been proven many times over. There is a no muss no fuss sense about her style, even when you believe she is just telling a story, her personal anecdotes becomes weighty supportive facts.
Schor begins by putting forth the notion of modest painting, because the truly modest painting will never put itself forward. She most clearly illustrates this definition,
"The category 'modest' also has an emotional quotient: a character of expressive reserve even if the expressiveness is lyrical rather than stentorian. However, it must be understood that modesty is not synonymous with lack of rigor or ambition for painting. In fact, modesty may emerge from an artist's emphasis on rigor and ambition for painting itself rather than for his or her career. The modest painter may submit the painting to a ruthless criticality that precludes virtuosity for its own sake and, in so doing, risks getting less attention than the painter with fewer scruples about the meaning and integrity of each stroke."
Schor emphasizes that modesty in painting can be born of effort and desire to create a good painting. It's the attitude of the artist that is different, prioritizing effort towards the work itself and the artist taking less or no interest in self promotion. I have always been a fan of prioritizing the work ahead of unnecessary self congratulating, so I love Schor's sentiment here.
Schor continues on, references the small history of modest painting, how a small painting can sometimes require more attention, and mostly how looking for modest painting can be a frustrating act of just missing the work entirely. Comparing it to slowing down to see unlit driveways when you're speeding down a busy highway. She then enters into a personal example, talking about her father's very modest style of painting in relation to various popular styles of the time. She talks about Jim Forsberg's relaxed deployment of abstract expressionism's rules, describing his painting and others,
"they are often found outside of the primary art market, in the transfer of artworks among artist friends in the form of gifts, trades, and benefit auctions. They are the chips of artistic communication of shared aesthetics and, often, shared fun."
Never failing to make important points, Schor discusses how these modest paintings live a different life than those that fall into the major art market. These modest paintings reflect an artistic community of shared aesthetics and low and behold, fun. Then she uses two primary examples to emphasize her point,
"Myron Stout and Jack Tworkov, who, with equally rigorous ambition for painting, produced very different types of work that nevertheless share characteristics of the modest."
"...both were deeply and similarly committed to a disciplined private studio practice of abstract painting as both a visually intuitive and a rigorously intellectual domain."
"Their choices suggest that producers of modest painting have a troubled relation to hubris. They know what it is, they may even wish they had it, but they don't, because it wouldn't be right. Or, perhaps it is precisely their sense of justness and their search for truth in painting that is their form of hubris."
Schor utilizes abstract expressionism, a period of painting in which ego seemed to set the bar for how self aggrandizing artists were allowed to be and become, to highlight the honesty of two truly modest painters. Before discussing the mechanics, structure, and over all academic rigor of these two painters, she makes an apt comparison,
"Although Tworkov and Stout were modernists who in no way participated in the developing culture of the simulacrum, their work touches on the post modern ideal of the death of the author, because in some sense they both placed the text--the painting--above the ego of the author. Tworkov writes: 'The most creative moments in the painting of a picture occur when the 'I' that's painting and the 'I' that's watching merge into mutual obliteration--when you can say no 'I' whatever exists. It's a toss-up whether one can call that the purest consciousness or the most complete absence of consciousness. Certainly what disappears is 'self' consciousness. Whatever then happens can perhaps be described as the picture taking over as if the painter had no will.'"
This moment pretty much summed it up for me. I can't really emphasize enough how great of a moment this could be, for a work to really abandon it's creator in a way that makes the work even stronger. This is one of my favorite notions about art, one that crosses over to all genre's really. One that demands the work communicate without agenda of creating popularity for the artist. Modesty is so attractive, there isn't much more to say than that.