Saturday, December 5, 2015


What is the role of the artist in modern society?  What is the real value to and function of a painting in modern culture? These are  questions that the non-representational, abstract expressionist painter, David Teachout, born in 1933, has pondered throughout his life—most eloquently in a short autobiography he titled, UNCERTAINTY: The Solidarity of the Solitary Artist.

David Teachout (The Pilot)

Teachout, who inherited a handsome, athletic body from his super-athlete father, trained as a young man in his twenties to serve as a naval aviator in an all weather jet fighter squadron flying off an aircraft carrier in the Far East during the nightmare years of the Cold War.  He flew single pilot jet fighters at sea.  After serving his stint in the military, he rejected commercial flying as a career path, and began taking courses at North Carolina State University.  Once he discovered painting in college, there was really no turning back from the deep calling he felt for it.  But fame and gallery patronage take years plus a stomach for self promotion that has little to do with what painting is all about for people like David Teachout.  Also he had a family to support and the study of architecture satisfied a certain penchant he had for precision and order, so he took a degree in landscape architecture. But over the years he found himself again and again turning away, ultimately, from potentially lucrative and secure mainstream careers as pilot, architect, and university art teacher to configure his humble living space(s) into  painting studios for large canvasses where he could  devote himself completely to an art that he regarded as a disciplined and contemplative practice.

Titled Cold Mountain 10 , November 1974 Measures 66×84

Titled Cold Mountain number 9 Copyright October 1974 Measures 66×84 inches

Perhaps nothing is more indicative of Teachout’s  feeling toward his calling to his life as an artist than the naming of one of his most important series of paintings, the COLD MOUNTAIN SERIES, after Han-shan, a 9th Century, Chinese Tang Dynasty poet associated with the Taoist and Zen tradition of a mountain recluse who—legend has it—wrote his poetry on rocks:

Words from Cold Mountain
excerpts from the poetry of Han-shan

Where’s the trail to Cold Mountain?
Cold Mountain? There’s no clear way.
Ice, in summer, is still frozen.
Bright sun shines through thick fog.
You won’t get there following me.
Your heart and mine are not the same.
If your heart was like mine,
You’d have made it, and be there!

High, high, the summit peak,
Boundless the world to sight!
No one knows I am here.

I travelled to Cold Mountain:
Stayed here for thirty years.
Slow-burning, life dies like a flame
Never resting, passes like a river.
Today I face my lone shadow.

I’m on the trail to Cold Mountain.
Cold Mountain trail never ends.
Who can leap the world’s net,
Sit here in the white clouds with me?

Are you looking for a place to rest?
Cold Mountain’s good for many a day.
There’s an old man sitting by a tree,
Muttering about the things of Tao.
Ten years now, it’s been so long
This one’s forgotten his way home.

Cold rock, no one takes this road.
The deeper you go, the finer it is.
White clouds hang on high crags.
On Green Peak a lone gibbon’s cry.
What friends do I need?
I do what pleases me, and grow old.
Let face and body alter with the years,
I’ll hold to the bright path of mind.

Teachout says of Han-shan:

“His was a poetry of austerity and, in a way, a commentary on the confused and overburdened minds of the society from which he escaped. He is associated with Zen and Taoism, but it seems to me that he maintained an independence from all organized spiritual practices.  I felt a kinship to his natural austerity in my own approach to painting.” 

Han-shan’s poetry captures not only the sympathetic feeling of the contemplative and solitary renunciate but also something of the aerie view that Teachout experienced as a pilot which he says had a strong influence on his painting. He writes in his autobiography:

 “Flying through vast clear space at supersonic speeds 40,000 feet above the earth effects one’s visual sense. Horizons and ordinary terrestrial visual clues vanish.  One flies in a four dimensional world where one location is a good as another, where there are no boundaries, no frames to fly in and out of.  Space is everywhere the same, an all-overness without focal points or contrast to delineate a figure/ground relationship.  In space, all is space without distinctions.  It is unified, undivided and luminous....Speed also affects perception.  I flew low altitude, high speed missions as low as fifty feet above the ground.  At first, objects on the ground appeared as a blur.  Gradually, with practice, I was able to see those objects as if I was riding in a car at highway speed, even though I was flying at 600mph.  Rather than speeding up, my mind slowed down, became quiet and settled, open: in a meditative state.  It is the same or similar state that describes my painter’s mind.”

“My canvases are wide enough and high enough, that when I approach to paint, the edges disappear into my peripheral vision, and the field, unencumbered with edges, is of primary importance.  The borderless space of the aviator...”

These then are partial descriptions of Teachout’s trail to his own personal Cold Mountain, a trail that led to the color field paintings he refers to as the Aura, Parabolic, and Hyperbolic, painting. (The Hyperbolic painting—a mirage-like vertical cluster of monochromatic hues— was chosen to be part of the 1967 30th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC. And Aura VI, a predecessor to Hyperbolic and now in the Occidental College collection, was featured in the San Francisco Museum’s Annual Art Exhibition.)

Another group of paintings to emerge from Teachout’s realization of the ganzfeld effect of high altitude supersonic flying are paintings that he calls The Falling Series or Poured Abstractions.  The g-force twists and turns, those inertial determinations of space transmitted by the pilot’s control stick are in these paintings expressed by considered pours of selected color as the canvas is re-oriented in earth’s gravity field for each separate pour.

 And what is being poured is pure color, not color being used to represent something other than itself, but color as subject and object.

Teachout says of this process:

“Colors would mix, either physically when wet, or visually with transparent overlays, as streams of paint flowed over one another. ...where the paint was poured and how much was poured mattered.  Should I pour wet onto dry, onto damp, onto wet?  There was a ...convergence of my attention to simultaneously blend a complex of ideas, materials and processes in one brief moment of pouring.  Did I want the paint to transverse the full length of the canvas, or stop upon it.  Gravity had replaced my paint brush as the method by which the paint would touch the canvas. With full attention, all parts that would form the painting, combined in the instant the paint was poured.  Gravity pulled the liquid color down the canvas slope, and it was done.  So began the ‘Falling’ series that preoccupied me for the next three years.”

Further explorations of the pouring technique in the Cold Mountain series involved distorting the canvas into mounds and furrows which would affect the flow of color.  Adopting a pouring technique, compared with his earliest gestural abstractions with a brush, of course,  involved relinquishing a certain amount of control and introducing the element of chance.  Teachout became fascinated with fashioning systems that would allow him to box-in the various parameters controlled by chance and “...getting out of the way as much as I could...”  This involved, among other things, utilizing the Book of Random Numbers to determine the placement of rolls of cloth under the canvas as well as the position, direction of flow, and volume of paint.

Chance and randomness were also invoked in another series that Teachout called THE ORIENTAL CARD GAME.  He describes his system as follows: 

“I mixed a sequence of 13 colors with small intervals.  A 13 x 13 grid of squares was laid out covering the whole area of a large canvas.  The raw canvas was stained.  Then, the colors numbered to correspond to 13 playing cards...were chosen one at a time by selecting a card from the newly shuffled

deck.  This process was repeated for all the 169 squares.  The placement for the chosen colors was from top to bottom, right to  left, as if one were reading Japanese text.  The painted edge of the squares was precise but not [hard edged], maintaining a slight softness and painterly feel... The resultant all over field of color pulsed with a subtle uncertainty.”

This desire to get himself “out of the way” can also be seen in his approach to small works on paper that were part of the Cold Mountain phase. 

“I prepared from one to three acrylic colors that were very liquid, like ordinary watercolors.  I chose from one to three sumi brushes of different sizes.  Then, sitting meditation style on a low cushion, I’d allow my mind to settle, grow still and quiet.  When I felt fully settled, yet alert, I would pick up a brush and carefully load it with paint.  Once again, I’d wait, growing even more silent and still in the mind.  My aim was to paint spontaneously, before thought emerged to take control.  Thought-induced demands to paint [immediately] surfaced, insisting that I paint now.  But, by waiting them out, they vanished, leaving my less corrupted awareness in waiting.
This process might take a short time or go on for over half an hour.  Then, suddenly, without intention, the brush swept across the paper with [the] fierce, quick energy of a Samurai sword and the painting was done.  I called this form of painting ‘Painting With a Beginner’s Mind’...a combination of Zen meditation and action painting.”

A particularly elegant and austere, meditation-inspiring group of paintings is Teachout’s CIRCLE SERIES, each a large canvas displaying usually three concentric rings of color interacting like the notes of a harmonious musical chord. To achieve full effect, these paintings must be properly lit and viewed from the right distance.  And in these paintings the affect of color merges with the powerfully symbolic form of the circle.

David Teachout with circle painting at Medar St. Studio S.C. Calif. The year was 1968.

In 1912, Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, possibly the first painter to create a purely abstract painting in the modern sense, made the bold Romantic claim in his famous essay, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, that the artist is the prophet of the coming New Age, standing alone at the apex of a pyramid making new discoveries and ushering in tomorrow’s reality.  A natural synesthete, Kandinsky believed that the colors and forms of abstract painting could impart spiritual meanings and had the capacity to move the soul, as did the purely abstract art of music. Attempting to roughly codify the meaning of many basic geometric shapes, he said that the circle is the most peaceful shape representing the wholeness of the Self and that color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul.

It is clear from David Teachout’s writing, his wonderful poetry and autobiography as well as video interviews, that he thought of and experienced his painting as at root a spiritual practice in the same way that meditation is a foundation for many spiritual practices.  He says in his autobiography:

“Looking back, I can see that I viewed the painter’s life as a spiritual life.  In some way, a painter could transcend the limits of ordinary reality, gather the potentials that dwelled in the mystery, and return to shape the transcendent harvest into sublime expressions of color and form. This irreducible encounter with essence, with uncorrupted insight and pure intention, was a powerful motivator to draw me into a covenant with something intangible, yet present, which both energized and sustained me as an artist....Beyond the formal structure of the painting, color considerations are primary. And more deeply and much more difficult to articulate, is the feeling of being an organic part of an evolutionary creative movement in which objects we call paintings manifest as resultants of a process that is mostly a mystery.”

And yet there was a certain burden to bear.  Even as by 1966 his work was being included in important competitive shows in San Francisco and galleries were showing interest,

he was caught up in the protest movement against the war in Viet Nam and the dangers of nuclear war which he knew all too well as a former navy pilot. Repeated letters to congressional representatives and participation in the protest movement seemed to have no effect.  He says of this period:

“With all this chaos, warring and brutality, of what importance is art?  The absurd activity of closing oneself in a room with canvas and paint and making marks, what possible meaning could this have in a suffering world on fire? But, isn’t the highest human calling to become self aware, to respond to one’s conscience, to follow one’s heart wherever it might lead?  To reference this awareness and not the social chaos, is to create a world, a small personal world to be sure, that does not have as its basis, the fragmentation that is inevitable in a hostile world of power and greed and domination. When the ever present, relentless and conflicted world occupies the mind, [becomes] the shape of the mind, then the artist is lost.  Then the avaricious, dark wide winds of desire and power sweep away the subtle insights, the quietude, and wins.”

In the 1980s Teachout began studies on paper for what would become his SANTA CRUZ SERIES of paintings. Starting with views out of his studio window for inspiration, as well as drawing from the figure, he progressively moved, as is his wont, toward abstractions that only bore faint resemblance to the scenes that inspired them.  And as always, primary shapes began to manifest: diagonals that crossed into X-shapes, then squares.

Morse Peckham in his essay, “Art and Disorder”, notes that children all over the world start making the same visual signs more or less in the same order: the smear, the line, the cross, the X, the square, the circle, the triangle, and finally the free or biomorphic closed form—the implicit forms of perception.

We have the evidence of phosphenes, those shapes that appear when pressure is applied to the closed eye, revealing geometric displays intrinsic to the physiology of seeing.  And then there is the Indian tradition of the Yantra, geometric diagrams used as visual aids for meditation in addition to aural mantras.  Mystical yantras are believed to reveal the inner basis of the forms and shapes abounding in the universe, a yogic vision concentrating the variegated picture of world-appearances into an ultimate form-equation of a specific energy manifesting in the world. These simple form-equations are held to epitomize the real nature of the cosmos as abstracted from the concrete. 

 All of which is to suggest that David Teachout has been one of those intrepid explorers in the practice of modern art that was envisioned by Kandinsky near the beginning of the last century, someone who has given his all to his practice.  He says:

“In painting, the less emphasis given to predetermination, the more likely something larger than one’s concept or idea will emerge.  And that larger expression is what reaches beyond the painter’s life with the painting.  It is a universal quality, evidence or traces of spirit, so to speak.  This spiritual evidence is the real life of the painting and is what keep the painter at the task of painting.”

David Teachout 1st ave S.C. 11-28-1984 Seabright studio phot by the photographer Ron Starr.

And as David Teachout looks back over the years from his home in the Santa Cruz hills, he says:
“Many years ago I vowed to live a simple life with a minimum of possessions, one where time was wealth and creativity ruled.  How I live each day is my contribution to a saner world.”

A statement that might have been made by the ancient sage of Cold Mountain.

Essay by Will Cloughley (second draft 9/21/15)

1 comment: