A Short Essay on Largesse by Leah Durner



Leah Durner,  goldgreygreenbrownpink pour, 2012
poured latex enamel on canvas
48 x 36 in

Largesse, joy, beauty, color, ornament, flesh and warmth are some of the qualities that crowd into a painting and declare its undiscriminating generosity.

Painting gives itself generously—whether to the connoisseur who has traveled a great distance, driven by desire, to view a fresco (valuable and rare) on the ceiling of a palace in Venice, by Giambattista Tiepolo; or to an exhausted taxi driver, who, stopping at a diner, looks up from his coffee cup to see, taped to a mirror, a work (worthless and common) by the proprietor’s young daughter—giving until it becomes joined with the flesh of the viewer.

A painter gives his body to the world—whether the body of Tiepolo, crammed with resources—his astonishing skill, derived from his native gifts and honed by training in a long tradition of artistic, technical, humanistic, and religious history, informed by the experience of years and funded from the treasuries of nobility and church, and his physical vigor which allowed him to climb the scaffolding to the ceiling and spread out his celestial vision—or the body of the proprietor’s daughter which carries only her native gifts, young  and untrained in technique, informed only by her small schooling and financed by the earnings of her parents’ labor.

The extent of painting’s generosity is in part determined by the lavishness of the resources poured into its manufacture—yet however great or small those resources, it is the body and self of the painter in action that cause the painting to burst forth.

A painting’s largesse is dispersed without foreknowledge of its reception; it is the response of the viewer that determines how much it will yield.  Any person may come to a painting in whatever their current state of understanding.  However, what is dispersed is not necessarily valued.  People will fight for the bread and gold cast into the crowd by princes—but few will fight for the seemingly superfluous offerings of the painter.  Yet this superfluity may buoy us up into the realm of joy beyond counting what we lack.  This joyous superfluity gushes up through the dry, hard crust of sorrow and cannot stop to apologize for itself—and we discover that joy is deeper than sorrow.  Being animated by joy is a more profound experience (and can prove more frightening because less definite) than being frozen by rigor mortis.

Now, shall I lay out for you a theory of color?  Or shall I simply observe that no color can live alone—even that sickly green must have its near neighbor and may perhaps become beautiful in its proximity.  Beautiful colors—the blues, yellows, pale greens, and pinks we associate with a radiant spring day; pigments that require a more advanced technology for development or extraction; pigments that require greater artifice to produce—are considered less serious because they are light.  Blacks and earth colors—the first pigments of the first painters, readily extracted from the ground—signal a wintry seriousness that is not necessarily a register of depth.

The idea that beauty is contained in the form essential to the utility of an object—as expressed by the furniture and useful objects made by the Shakers, and later by the form follows function aesthetic of modernist design—has its roots in iconoclastic Protestantism which rejects both the flesh and ornament and relies on a Calvinistic sense of utility as a measure of value and goodness, reducing the visible to bare necessity.  (The Shakers perfected the art of beautiful utility and prayed to God to shake, shake, shake out of them everything carnal.  It is interesting to note that the surge of Roman Catholic church building in the seventeenth century and the fleshy exuberance of Baroque painting was the response of the Counterreformation to Protestant iconoclasm.)  However, beauty cannot be encompassed by either utility or uselessness; it overflows and overwhelms these boundaries.  Beauty is neither a mere ornament nor a realized form, and it cannot be entirely captured by social instrumentality.  It gives pleasure, perhaps, to some, and attracts attention, but it does not exist for the purpose of giving pleasure or attracting attention.

Painting that appears light and beautiful—an undisciplined list would include the works of Tiepolo, Fragonard, Gainsborough, and Matisse—is not frivolous, nor does it approach meaninglessness.  Light is the primary attribute of the ancient god of light and art, Apollo, and of the ultimate God of light, Christ.  The ultimate promise of the God of light is that we will be raised from the dead and that the flesh never dies.

Of the metaphors we live by, those that are emblematic of death—darkness, sinking down (the grave), coldness, sickness, heaviness, and putrefaction—are not necessarily intelligent, insightful or meaningful; they merely possess the qualities of death.  Death itself can seem deep because it is the only ultimate we can see.  Fascination with death is characteristic of the sophomoric philosophe who confuses death with depth of inquiry only because the sophomore has not yet passed through all the grades.  Similarly, those metaphors that are emblematic of life—light, rising up, warmth, health, levity, and exuberance—are not necessarily stupid, banal, or frivolous.  (Life is not a grave business.  We are always passing back and forth from the air to the ground, from dirt to filth.)  In what substance do our own flesh and the flesh of painting meet?  In the dirt.  Pigment at its most elemental is colored dirt (as Philip Guston called it) and our own flesh was first formed by the hand of God from a handful of dirt.  We can neither escape our own flesh, nor the flesh of paining.  We are necessarily carnal and can never by completely etherealized.

The process of conversion—of passing through suffering, death, and rising again to life—is a true model of the creative journey.  Even the lightness of Tiepolo, Fragonard, Gainsborough and Matisse is weighted and colored by suffering and sadness—for having suffered one can never not have suffered, just as the resurrected Christ still eternally bears his wounds.  It is misdirected to use digging down as a metaphor for seeking truth— death is not the ultimate truth lurking beneath joy, health and fleshy exuberance. What lies deeper, or shall we say, higher than the grave?  For we are not digging down into the grave—we are digging up from underground; in fact we are digging out of the grave.  Let us reorient ourselves:  What lies beyond the ultimate stratum is joy.  Painting plows up the visible and exposes this invisible joy.


Leah Durner‘s work occupies the critical space between modernism and postmodernism—between postwar abstraction and post-Duchampian conceptualism and post-Warholian pop.  Durner’s practice includes paintings in oil, acrylic, and gouache on canvas and on paper, as well as works in poured enamel.  Her work in poured enamel references psychedelia and process art with deeper roots in the exuberance of the Baroque and Rococo as well as in the modernist tradition of abstraction.  Durner’s current theoretical interests include beauty, joy, largesse, and incarnated consciousness. A wide-ranging  conversation between a London-based scholar and Durner on the subject of her oeuvre as it relates to largesse, phenomenology, and modern and contemporary painting practice is included in a soon to be announced book. 

Durner  has had solo exhibitions of her work a Loretta Howard Gallery (2012), 571 Projects (2011), Nye Basham Studio (2009), Wooster Arts Space (2006, New York solo debut), Berry College (2005), and Limbo (1999). Durner’s work has been included in group exhibitions at Winston Wächter Fine Art (2011), The Convent (2009), Art Gotham (2005), Cazenovia College (2005) with Julie Evans and others, Barbara Ann Levy Gallery (2000), Markham Murray Gallery (1999), Steinbaum Kraus Gallery (1997), CBs 313 Gallery (1992), Coup de Grace Gallery (1991 and 1989) with Karen Finley, Barbara Kruger, Nancy Spero, Jenny Holzer, Kay Rosen and others, SoHo Center for Visual Arts with Glenn Ligon and others (1991), Wake Forest University (1994 and 1990), and City Without Walls (1986, 1987, and 1988).  In 2013 Durner expanded her practice into the design world, creating a line of products for the US-based retailer West Elm. Durner was an artist-in-residence at the Leighton Studios, Banff Centre for the Arts. Durner’s interest in design and architecture has led to several exhibitions in which she addresses space and design, such as in her modernist reading room at Loretta Howard Gallery.Durner has also curated exhibitions, published art theory, and lectured on a number of topics, including the American landscape; gestural abstraction and phenomenology; conceptualism and its sources; Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and art, money, and gender; the work of the artist Dan Graham; and the work of composers Maryanne Amacher and John Cage. Critics and scholars who have written on Durner’s work include: David Cohen (critic and artcritical publisher);John Yau (poet and critic); Jorella Andrews (Head of the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London); and Michael Sanders (philosopher). Durner earned her B.A. from Wake Forest University and her M.F.A. fromMason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University where she studied art theory with Martha Rosler, performance with Geoff Hendricks, and painting with Leon Golub. Durner lives and works in New York City.