Last week I met a painter in New Hampshire who had set up his easel beside a river, though his back faced the water and he was painting the row of maples that paralleled the nearby road. It was mid-morning on a clear autumn day. The yellow leaves, when I looked at them more carefully, were not merely yellow but white and green and almost silver as they shimmered in the breeze. “I’m painting light, really,” he said. His canvas was small, about the size and shape of a license plate, and he worked in oils. The trunk of the closest maple was on the right side of the canvas. The middle was a muted patchwork of yellow, white, green and pale yellow-gray simulating silver but not at all metallic. In isolation this central part of the painting looked like an abstraction or the birth of a galaxy.
I asked him to name some of the painters he most enjoyed, and he mentioned Willard Metcalf, who painted Early October, and John Singer Sargent. I asked if he liked Fairfield Porter, one of my favorite painters, and he said, “Oh, yes. You know him?” He seemed surprised. “Painting light is the most difficult thing,” he said, “but it is also the most beautiful.” He spoke with great seriousness and precision, editing each word before he pronounced it. He never stopped painting but became more talkative. For years he had worked for a marketing firm, until he retired early and started painting fulltime. “I hate ugliness. It exists, but I hate art that celebrates it.” He gave me his business card. On it is a detail from a larger painting showing a branch heavy with red apples against a blue sky, like the one that morning. I thanked him for his time, and he thanked me and said, “There’s really no need to emphasize the ugly, is there?”
Several days later, in a motel room in Boston, I was reading Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side (University of California Press, 1977), a lousy title for a sometimes interesting collection of essays. The author is Robert M. Adams, who has a sense of humor despite having been an academic. In “Ideas of Ugly” he writes:
“. . . ultimate ugly is in some way global and oppressive; it doesn’t simply repeat a single element, but has a quality of infinite variation without change that lays a weight on the heart. The novels of Theodore Dreiser, Marxist political rhetoric, the landscape of northern New Jersey, souvenir shops in airports—these have the special qualities of an ugly which is at once settled into itself, varied in its particulars, yet bound to go on and on interminably.”