Book Review: What Painting Is, By James Elkins

What serendipity is, that is what happened to me when by chance noticing the cover of the book titled, What Painting Is, on the desk of a fellow Rhode Island School of Design colleague, Marc Torick. Thanks to him for lending it to me.

It is a very special book indeed, as it gives voice to the painter’s inexact work process, lifework, and physical relationship with paint. Anyone who paints (or used to paint), especially with oil paint, and anyone who looks at paintings with serious intent and attention, would enjoy the comparisons James Elkins makes, that of painting and alchemy.

Below are two of my favorite excerpts from the book.

“It (painting) is a kind of immersion in substances, a wonder and a delight in their unexpected shapes and feels. When nothing much is know about the world, everything is possible, and painters watch their paints very closely to see exactly what they will do. Even though there is no contemporary language for that kind of experience, the alchemists already had names for it centuries ago. They knew several dozen varieties of the material prima, the place where the work starts, and their terms can help us understand there are different ways of beginning the work. They had names for their transmutations, and those can help give voice to the many metamorphoses painters try to make in paint.”

“Science has closed off almost every unsystematic encounter with the world. Alchemy and painting are two of the last remaining paths into the deliriously beautiful world of unnamed substances.”

James Elkins, a former painter, is a Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Additional titles by the same author:
The Object Stares Back
Why Are Our Picture’s Puzzles?
Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts
Why Art Can’t Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students
What Happened to Art Criticism
Stories of Art

Look at the book:
What Painting Is

Below is a link that includes a beautiful mindmap drawing by Elkins.
Ideas for Dozens