Delphic Dalliances

Delphic Dalliances

Essay by Dore Ashton, 2006

Wherever I look in Posen's oeuvre, I see him elaborately maneuvering between bounded and unbounded. The challenge of the eternal rectangle, the sheet of paper, incites him to mutiny. But that is only half of the story. He, like so many before him, takes himself in hand (literally) and peoples the blankness with forms.

"A sheet of paper so shocks me," wrote Odilon Redon on August 16, 1898, "that as soon as it is on the easel I am forced to scrawl on it with charcoal or pencil or anything else…" To which he added that all this was in the interest of "putting the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible." More than two decades later, in 1920, Paul Klee delivered his "Creative Credo" declaring: "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible." It seems to me that Posen is a worthy heir of this great modern tradition in which the not seen - the surges of feeling, the flush of motion, the dialogue of opposing impulses - is brought to the surface declaring new situations, new perceptions (if we think of perceptions as summaries of countless sense experiences) and, of course, images.

Everyone who ever took a stick of charcoal to paper knows that a single stroke can activate myriad spaces. Often the great old masters - I think of Rembrandt with his reed pen - would, with a flourish, draw a line that denoted nothing, but galvanized the delimited space of his paper into a panoply of spaces. And he, as Posen points out, often complicated his task by drawing that inner frame to push against, just as Posen invariably does in his recent drawings.

The virtue of the inner frame is to unframe. Paradox, so dear to Posen's heart. It is the restriction against which he can transgress. But there is also a very reasonable thought here. Formal constraint has its uses for the impulsive artist. I have always liked Baudelaire's letter to his friend Fraisse defending the traditional sonnet form:

Have you noticed that a morsel of sky seen through a cellar window, or between two chimneys or two rocks, or through an arcade, etc., gives a more profound idea of the infinite than a grand panorama seen from the height of a mountain?

--letter to Fraisse, 18 Feb. 1860

Would the upward swirl and the sense of different climates of feeling be nearly so moving in Nights of Cabiria without that inward frame? In this drawing, and in so many others of recent vintage, Posen knowingly draws on the rich vocabulary developed by draftsmen over the centuries. One could call it a lexicon of techniques, if the word technique had not been so debased. Techne isn't so bad, after all, in the service of the imagination. Here, then, Posen revives certain lessons, such as the art of stumping when using charcoal. The wise use of a stumping instrument on the edge of a charcoal line can create auxiliary form, or form itself. (And to go back to Baudelaire, he pointed out that form is not made of molecules.) Then, wittily, Posen resurrects the classical technique for suggesting mass: the cross-hatch. In this instance, the lattice is given heightened transparency by means of color, but we can still read it as yet another means in the arsenal of techniques developed over the centuries.

No illuminator working on the Book of Kells could take more delight than Posen in the flourishing overflow of asides on the inner frame. Such pleasures are taken by means that range from the strident to the most subtle, as in Blowing Bubbles. Here Posen works in a relatively restrained tonal range, drawing upon the natural properties of his instruments. Pencil is silvery. Charcoal is dusky. Stumped areas are filmy. Pastel, used sparingly here, always pure and riding above, and, above all, issuing completely out into the atmosphere into which it dissolves at the very top.

Although the old ways of perspective of Alberti or Piero della Francesca are usually flouted by modern artists, they are not completely forgotten by the knowing hand. Posen proposes recessions in Piranesi, steplike, or, recalling his own earlier adventures with the fascination of folded or flowing cloths. The peculiarities of his very personal stitched line - the charcoal that bounces along in a beaded progression, not unlike certain of Max Ernst's frottages - leads the eye deceptively into depth. Above, the bit of rectangular solidity is almost like a key signature, as through the cascading forms below are, after all, illusory right down to the ornamental arabesque below. Posen is a painter. Color is a painter's means. And color, as everyone knows, heightens pleasure. When Posen is drawing it is apparent that the color of his papers, the touches of color in otherwise tonal approaches, enhances his own experience. Gives him pleasure. Nowhere is his love of the excitement of pure pigment more apparent than in Apple Tree. He is thoroughly aware of the properties of chroma. After all, he was a student at Yale during the Albers years. Nothing is more drenched than a brilliant crimson in the arabesquing lines of this drawing. Pastel, of all the draftsman's means, is the purest: Pure pigment with very little corrupting binder. Posen joyously proclaims its splendor here. Of course, he chooses his papers, in this case a deepish green, with great care. Mostly they are tinted rather than fully colored, and serve as neutral elements in the movemented drawings. He has often said that he is interested in opposites. In the language of color they become contrasts. In this drawing he wields his knowledge of contrasts to great effect and, in terms of tradition, knows, as did Delacroix, the vibrational energy of a red against a green. These brilliant color lines become activities of nature, never at rest.

While Posen's curvilinear activities often suggest human presences, they also allude to the animal universe. He is the possessor of a magnificent giant poodle, a great benign presence in his studio quite unlike Faust's. Posen has had a long concourse with animals, going back to his fondness for Mickey Mouse. Animals seem to accent his quite idiosyncratic humor, his penchant for slapstick, for the whinnying laughter of cartoons. I can hear it in the fine drawing, Best in Show, with its dogbone shape amongst pearly teeth, and the pink tongue curling forward. I hear it also in the fine sequence of rhyming shapes in Greyhounds, a kind of metamorphosis of shapes sailing into infinity. But Posen's allusion to the animal kingdom is not always benign. There is no laughter echoing in the dramatic drawing Hawk Mountain. There is, instead, menace in the hawk's heavily scumbled presence hovering over the topographic mountain trails (isolated, as is rare in his work, by the use of two differently tinted papers). The story, which Posen is never reluctant to invent, hovers also. While the eye can follow the paths Posen so often adumbrates, the imagination can only hope to grasp the many elements of Posen's stories. I'm quite sure Posen tells himself stories as he allows his instrument to wander, to inflect, to press hard on or graze over the surface. But I'm never quite sure what these secret chuckles of the artist mean. That is part of the allure of his often enigmatic drawings. Take, for instance, Dalliance II: The two emphatically drawn columns at right and left spring to the eye with alacrity. Only on second glance does the eye discern the artist up to his old tricks-that wobbling central form so reminiscent of the cartoonist's hilarity: above all, the scribbled shape of a Minnie Mouse foot. It clearly gives Posen a kick to use the mixed metaphor in order to confound the viewer (or more likely, himself.)

The kind of galumphing humor in many of the drawings is often, I believe, the by-product of a particular tool, most particularly of charcoal that offers so many freedoms. I've noticed that many artists love the motility of tone available in charcoal and often play to the point of caricature with its properties. Think only of Willem de Kooning's many bagatelles in charcoal, most particularly on the characteristics of women. Posen's dalliances I see in the same spirit.

And just in case the drawing does not induce enough contrariety, Posen often gives titles taken from popular sources, such as cartoons or songs, that, like the events configured in the drawing, work by contrast. What, you may ask, does Steam Boat Willy, or Bo-Peep, or Kong, have to do with this drawing? The answer lies once again in space. The distance between the written allusion and the depicted formal characters in the composition is yet another space.

Posen has spoken of "the ability and imagination to translate marks into symbols." These drawings bespeak Posen's dual gifts - ability and imagination - resoundingly.