American painter Michael Newberry recently moved back to the U.S. after spending eight years in Rhodes, Greece.
He makes his living as an artist. Michael also recently established the Foundation for the Advancement of Art, whose mission is to recognize and promote innovative, contemporary representational painters and sculptors.
The Foundation's first conference, "Innovation, Substance, Vision: The Future of Art," will be held on October 6, 2003, at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan.
Atlasphere Editor Andrew Schwartz caught up with Michael to talk about his art, the creative process, his inspirations and influences, and his goals with the Foundation.
The Atlasphere: How did you first discover the world of art?
Michael Newberry: Well, I was with my grandmother, walking down one of the main streets in La Jolla, California, and I was eleven years old. And we stopped in front of a bookstore, and in the bookstore window was a book, and on the cover of the book was a painting. It was a portrait of a woman's head. I was fascinated by that, and I remember feeling love.
I remember studying the face and looking at the neck, seeing the glint on the earings, looking at her eyes and the expression of her mouth, and I was mesmerized. And I remember my grandmother standing about ten feet away from me, watching me watching the book!
A few weeks later, it was my twelfth birthday, and my grandmother bought me that book as a birthday present. It turns out it was the complete works of Rembrandt. It was a very thick book, of all of his works. I had remembered the price of the book was sixty-five dollars.
TA: So I imagine you spent a lot of time leafing through that book and taking it all in.
Newberry: Right. So as a little kid, I was studying Rembrandt. (Chuckle.) And for me at the time, looking at these paintings, it was almost like seeing magical effects.
I was so in love with what he was doing, and yet I didn't understand what he was doing — and so my eye just kept moving through these paintings, and I was thinking, "Wow! What's going on here? This is amazing!" And of course, that's when I started drawing a lot myself.
TA: Inspired by Rembrandt?
Newberry: Well, that's not a word I would use. I wouldn't say I was "inspired," or that I was "expressing myself" … it's more like, well, more like making love. You sit in front of the paper and you start drawing, and these feelings take over, and the experience takes over.
You're not trying to do something — rather, you're playing with the paper, you're playing with the pencil. You're in the flow of it. So you're not thinking conscious thoughts like, "Oh, I am expressing myself," or, "I'm inspired by Rembrandt" — that wouldn't even enter into it — you're simply in the moment, doing it.
And that's probably what I felt for the next several years, until I entered college, where I started examining what it was that I was doing. Before that I never examined it. I was just making art, without any other thought.
TA: What kinds of things were you painting at that time?
Newberry: Oh, I did some ink drawings in my teens. In the house where I lived we had floor-to-ceiling windows, and I'd be drawing at night, drawing the lamp and the light, and the window's reflections of the lamp and the table and the backs of the couches — so I was doing very complex things with a lot of reflections and light.
I also did portraits (of my family), and I remember doing a very detailed still-life of some flowers in a vase. So, I'd draw things that I saw around me, and because of my interest in Rembrandt, I also enjoyed drawing people.
TA: Was there a moment when you became aware that you were particularly talented at drawing and painting?
Newberry: Yes, though it wasn't in my teens. In my teens I wasn't aware of anything on the outside — I was just enjoying doing the art. There wasn't any competitive element; I wasn't thinking that I could draw better than someone else. I didn't think about that.
You see, in my teens I was a very good tennis player. I was ranked eighth in the United States in the boys' juniors category, and I got a full scholarship to USC for that. Our coach at USC was great, and he tested our limits.
I mean, we had to train every day for four hours a day, and we won the NCAA championship one year, so I was on that NCAA championship team. And I could tell that if I pursued tennis professionally, I might be able to play somewhere around the top seventy-five in the world.
But I knew I wouldn't be able to play better than that. I had certain weaknesses that I thought were inherent. For example, I had difficulty with the topspin backhand passing shot, or I had trouble with my forehand volley. (Chuckling.)
But at the same time, I was working very, very hard in all my art studies in college, and in art, I felt I had no limitations. If I had trouble drawing an ear, I would simply focus in on it, and within a half hour, I would nail the ear — I would get the shape I was looking for, the proportions would be right, it would feel right to me, and I'd like the style of it.
If I tried to do something with colors, I might have trouble for a few moments, and then all of a sudden something would click and I would see my way through the problem.
And I tested myself artistically. Throughout my three years at USC, while I was on a sports scholarship, I was testing how far I could go as an artist, and I felt I had no limitations. And I contrasted that with sports where I definitely felt I had some limitations. So that's when I became aware that I was very talented in art.
Of course, one problem with that statement is that, for many people, art is all subjective. Yet, it doesn't feel that way to me at all. It has to do with how well you can make forms, how well you can do proportions, how well you can create space, and make the colors come alive.
I felt I could do all those things. And I could also see that other people could not. I could see that other students didn't understand what I was doing, or they couldn't do it — or when they had problems I could see the solutions to their problems but they couldn't see them.
TA: Is there an aspect to the process of creating art that you'd call your favorite, or that gives you the most pleasure?
Newberry: (Pause.) No. (Chuckling.) It doesn't matter whether it's the end or the beginning or the middle. I enjoy working live with models for scenes, I enjoy solving the problems in my studio when the model is long gone. I don't like having problems but I enjoy solving the problems. Eventually a problem is solved and that is always exciting.
Which is easier than when I'm somewhere in the middle of doing the painting, because I'm still trying to pull lots of bits of information together, pulling the forms and the colors together — you have to get the light to click in just right.
Then, toward the end, it's all coming together, and it's obvious I just have to give a highlight here or I have to do a dark shadow there, and that's the end. Like with a jigsaw puzzle, where you've got five pieces left and there are five openings over here, and it's not too difficult where to place them at that point.
But I really enjoy the whole process, and even the process of contemplating the idea before I even draw anything.
TA: Do you always start with an idea before you actually go to paper or canvas?
Newberry: No. Sometimes I start with an idea, but other times not.
You see, to me the creative process deals with three things. It deals with my eye being excited by something I actually see. It deals with the concept or the philosophy behind the subject matter. And it also deals with things that I might have emotional reactions to.
So I could have a conceptual idea in my head, and then I would need to be able to get emotionally excited by the idea, and then I would also need to see it — to have a vision in my head, or in real life, of what it would actually look like.
Or sometimes I see something that's very interesting and then I'll contemplate that — is it okay with the philosophical message that I want to get across? Does it inspire me emotionally?
So, I could start with an emotion, an idea, or something I see. But then I double-check it against the other two elements. And when I get all the green lights, I go for it.
TA: Do you ever get stuck or get into a rut? You've been prolific throughout your career and I'm wondering how you keep your passion alive and how you continue to create new and interesting work. Do you ever have difficulties, and, if so, how do you get out of that?
Newberry: Well, I suppose the most typical situation when I get stuck is when I get depressed about the way the world is. That throws a wrench into my system.
For example, if I turn on the TV and I see really stupid, ugly commercials — there are a lot of them now. I was watching the US Open and there was a commercial for pharmaceutical pills, and the commercial wasn't describing what the pills were for.
And they thought that that was neat, that they were having some mysterious drug that solved problems but you didn't know what the problem was or why this man was taking it or why he needed to take it. I thought those were very sick commercials. Because they weren't straightforward. So it seemed like a waste of money to me.
And that also seems very postmodern to me, where nothing is clear. You don't understand what the endpoint is, you don’t understand why they're showing you these things, and there were several commercials like that, where they didn't have any content. I find that kind of depressing.
How I get out of that is, I focus on enjoying art — I read a lot of fiction, I enjoy music. I like music from the Western Classical tradition, through to the Romanticists. I find that very inspiring. Or I spend time talking with good friends of mine whom I respect and value, and that gets my equilibrium going.
You know, there was a point in my life about ten years ago where I realized how fragile human creation is. When I was younger I thought that I didn't need to be inspired by anyone, I didn't need to have friends, I didn't need to have art, I didn't need to have anything — I could just create, create, create.
But, at some moment you hit a blank wall — I hit a blank wall. And I realized that in sports, in training, you need to make sure you have sustenance, and if you don't have the proper sustenance for very demanding physical activity, you start eating away at your own system, and you start draining energy from parts of your body that aren't intended for that. You start depleting your body's resources.
I believe the same thing can happen psychologically or spiritually to artists. If they have really demanding projects, they also need to have resources to give them sustenance. They need to have great friends, they need to be around wonderful art. They need to be in supportive situations, because their spirits are fragile.
And it's helped me a great deal just to recognize that — that, when I'm tired, it's not that I need another cup of coffee; what I need to is to go out and have a really good conversation with a great friend, or I need to take time and read a book, one with a depth that will please me and that I know I will enjoy.
TA: Speaking of art as spiritual fuel, how did you first come across Rand, and what was that experience like for you?
Newberry: Well, when I was twenty years old, my older sister Janet — who was one of the top twenty female tennis players in the world at the time — gave me Atlas Shrugged to read. She said, "You're going to really like this."
Well, I started reading it, and for the first hundred pages I was thinking, "Oh my god, this is so boring! This is all about businesspeople!" (Laughing.) And then all of a sudden, about a hundred or so pages in, Dagny makes this very powerful retort to her brother, James. And I read that and thought, "Wow! I like that she said that!" (Laughing.)
And then I came away from reading that book, and two things happened. First, I felt as if Rand the writer was giving me a pat on the back for the way I had lived my life up to that point — for the kinds of things I thought about, the kinds of things that I enjoyed as an artist.
And the second thing is that the book answered a lot of unanswered questions that I'd been asking for quite some time, such as, Why are people so nutty? Why am I so rebellious? Why do I want to go my own way? Why am I resisting more pragmatic approaches to life, or resisting getting along better with people?
Because I had felt kind of alienated — and maybe that also comes with being an artist — but I could see I related more to the characters in an Ayn Rand book than I did to the people around me.
I wasn't isolating myself — I was looking at the world, I was watching people, I was aware of them — but I could see that I was editing out that I didn't want to live like those people. And I could see that the path to that better lifestyle was living more like the kind of people in Atlas Shrugged.
TA: Later in life, I'm sure you read Rand's writings on aesthetics — did that have any impact on how you painted or on how you thought about art?
Newberry: Well, yes, though a very qualified yes.
One of the things that her work in aesthetics did for me was bring to my attention the awareness of Kant and his Critique of Judgment. The contrast between Kant's Critique of Judgment and Rand's Romantic Manifesto was an incredibly great overview of the debate going on in the world today in the arts. The two books are very similar, yet they're on opposite spectrums about the nature of art and its purpose in human life.
So, I was about twenty-one years old, reading Romantic Manifesto, and I wasn't an expert on either side of the debate. But that book brought to my awareness that this is where the debate was — this is where the issue was — and for me it was a debate because I had a postmodernist education.
When I got into college, I had postmodern teachers who were starting to teach installation, and they were starting to teach beyond the idea of painting and sculpture. Videos were coming in around then — you know, all the kind of stuff that you see in museums now. I was in a progressive California school.
But Rand's influence is somewhat limited. My discovery of Puccini was very inspiring, and before I read Rand I was interested in heavy literature by Dostoyevsky, Nabokov. Those are the people I was reading when I was about nineteen years old. (Chuckling.)
Plus, I love the paintings of Picasso. And I still do. I don't like the philosophical message in many of his paintings, and I don't like the methodological practice of deconstructing the thing you're painting, even though I think the way Picasso does it as an artist is quite brilliant.
So, there's a place where the influence of Rand definitely ends, and where I kind of draw the line on my influences. As an artist, everything is coming through my perception and my feelings and my emotions, and I take those as the most important fundamentals, rather than the word of a philosopher. I don't take my emotions as a primary, but I do take seriously my role as the primary creator of what I'm painting.
So, there are a lot of influences: Puccini, the light, where I live, the people around me, Rand, Kant — these are all influences in both negative and positive ways.
TA: And in terms of painters, do you count certain painters as more influential on you than others? You mentioned Picasso; has he had any influence on your painting?
Newberry: Oh yes, he's had a huge influence on my painting. One of the influences that people might be able to see is that my paintings have very different color schemes. From one painting to another the colors are quite different. And you see that a lot in Picasso. One piece will be painted pink and gray, another will be green and brown. He has different color combinations that are very prominent, and that's an influence that shows up in my work.
Rembrandt of course is a big influence. Michelangelo is a big influence; his ability to render light, form and anatomy is very strong. You might actually see the influence of Michelangelo in some of the feet in my paintings. Like in my painting Blithe, the woman's toes are curled up, as if they're wiggling.
In Michelangelo's paintings, he has these beautiful lines of the body going through the hips and through the knees, coming around the calves, and then they swirl around the toes — and the whole thing is a very beautiful flow. So that's been a big influence on me.
I always work to make the figure complete down to the toes. You know, if you can get the toes to express the theme of the painting, then you're in business! (Laughing.)
The French Impressionists have also been a big influence on me. Their theories of light and of color are fantastic. They were revolutionary, and very powerful. With the French Impressionists there was a shift toward natural lighting, and a sensitivity to the different times of day.
Look at a Monet painting of a cathedral, and you see the shadows change and the colors change and the highlights change. This is real light — this is the way sunlight really plays with color.
TA: If I were to go to a museum to take in some Picasso paintings, what would you advise me to pay attention to and to appreciate in his work?
Newberry: Well, let me introduce that by telling a little story. I gave a seminar once, and I asked the students to do a drawing of a table with some things on it, like bottles and such — it was a still life — and I asked them to draw it in about ten minutes. Well, it's a very daunting task if you're a beginner to draw what you see in ten minutes. And I told them to draw the entire table, not just a part of it.
Anyhow, about nine out of the ten people in the class drew the entire table really tiny. And they figured, correctly, that if they drew really small they'll be able to get more things in the picture. And so for each student there was a sheet of paper, but the drawing only took up about ten or fifteen percent of the paper.
So I explained to them that they had to fill out the entire sheet of paper — that's called a composition. And I explained one way of looking at it, which is the idea that there should be something interesting going on in the upper right corner, and the upper left corner, and in every corner of the page. You want to balance that composition.
So then I had them do it again, and of course, their drawings didn't look real this time, but they had wonderful compositions. And then I said to them, now, if you look at a Picasso, you'll see wonderful composition. The way he divides up the canvas is really magnificent. So that's one element to look for.
TA: Is there anything of value to be found in abstract art? Sometimes when I see paintings by Kandinsky, I'm impressed by the drama of the color if nothing else. I'm wondering what your perspective is on that — on abstract art in general. Are there any innovations there, any way that you've been influenced? Or do you think it's complete nonsense?
Newberry: Well, it depends on your perspective. One thing you can see, for example, when they're just using black and white, is how well they divide up the space. You see how well they divide up the plane of the canvas. And that's all there is. There's not much else going on. You just see some black shapes and how it's balanced on a white canvas.
Well, what that does at least for me as an artist, drawing things realistically, is it sensitizes me to the power I can wield with my compositions. So, perhaps I go for something bolder, or more shocking, or very powerfully wrought — as opposed to just rendering the realism of jars and cloth and details.
The influence of the abstract expressionists makes me focus on questions like, How big is the distance from the edge of the canvas to the edge of the glass jar? What's the distance from here to there, and how does that distance balance out with a different distance on the other side of the canvas?
And that may not be a particularly interesting inspiration, but it's very strong as far as the compositional element goes. So that's a positive way of looking at abstract painting. These abstract expressionists aren't dealing with realism, they're not dealing so much with color theory, they're not dealing with light — what they're dealing with is compositional balance. So, for that, it's worthwhile to study.
TA: Do you have a favorite painting that you've done, or one that you're most proud of?
Newberry: (Pause.) That's a hard question...
TA: Well, perhaps I can make it easier by simply stating my own favorite painting of yours: Denouement. I first saw your work on the web, which is certainly a less-than-ideal place to look at art, but I was mesmerized by this piece — by the drama of the subject, by the intensity of the light and colors. It makes me curious what it was like to paint the thing.
Newberry: (Laughing.) That particular painting was hard. When I started the project, the concept of it, the technical demands that I needed to overcome, were way beyond my skill level at the time. It was as advanced as anything I'd done — I'd say three times more advanced than anything I'd ever attempted before.
So, in making that painting, I was not in a state of flow. I was challenged at every corner — to make the light successful, to make the colors successful, to make the anatomy successful. It seemed that if I changed one area, that negatively affected other areas. The painting was a three-year project that was extremely demanding.
But I feel I succeeded in everything I tried to accomplish with the painting. In that way, I felt a tremendous exultation about the painting when I finished it. Every time I see the painting I also feel those feelings. So I might say that that painting was my most rewarding as far as being difficult, and accomplishing what I set out to accomplish.
And of course, that painting is also special for me because it has the philosophical message that I hold dear: the idea that the ultimate joy people can experience in life is feeling love. And I wanted the experience of that love to be joyous and colorful and warm. I think that state of being is the most important in the world.
TA: Let's talk a little bit about the Foundation for the Advancement of Art. What motivated you to tackle this project?
Newberry: Well, the Foundation came about indirectly from 9/11, which I saw as being very much related to the postmodern aesthetic, in its destructive aspect. Postmodernism is a very negative movement in the history of art, and yet it's supported by America more than any other country. It's funded, it's taught, it's in the universities, it's in the major institutions.
I was recently talking with an editor from the Washington Post, and he said that postmodernism is status quo! So postmodernism, one of the most negative art movements that has ever existed on the planet in the history of mankind, is being supported and promoted, and praised, as an American phenomenon.
TA: Could you say a bit about how postmodernism manifests in art, for those of us who might not be well-versed in these things?
Newberry: Well, first let me briefly describe the period of modernism in painting and sculpture, which involved a shift toward abstracting away the figures, and which led up to postmodernism. You had Picasso with deconstructivism, you had cubism with the breaking up of the figures, and then you finally get to Pollock or Kandinsky, where you no longer have subject matters at all, just pure abstraction. Then there's Klein where you get to black and white, then you get simply a white canvas.
Newberry: Well, this is modernism. Postmodernism is essentially what occurs in the wake of this death of painting and sculpture. Everyone has trouble defining what postmodern art is, but it's typically characterized by installations, video art, performance art. Pretty much anything that is not a painting and not a sculpture, but which you would find in a museum or in a gallery, that would be postmodernism.
The other element of postmodernism is that many of the pieces have a very negative content — a content that consciously borders on disgusting, or that contains very black humor. In postmodernism you see a lot of very, very grotesque works. I'd give an example but it's probably not a good idea.
TA: Okay. So, say more about the Foundation.
Newberry: The essence is this: Museums have been focused primarily on installation, video, and performance art. And they have not given attention to innovative, living painters and sculptors. There are hundreds of very fine painters and sculptors who are not getting any recognition from the contemporary art museums. And the aim of the Foundation is to give credit and recognition to those artists and to get the museums to recognize them.
TA: Is there any indication that the time is ripe for a movement back toward representationalism in the arts?
Newberry: Well, there are several grass-roots movements — for example, the Art Renewal Center, which gets about five hundred thousand visitors a month. And I talked with a woman just the other day who was telling me that she and a group of representational artists marched on the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art in 1994 to protest the museum's rejection of representational painting and sculpture.
So there are a lot of people out there who have been taking up the arms of their cause, moving toward representational art. And the Foundation is just tackling this on a different level by introducing philosophical criticism.
David Kelley and Stephen Hicks will be speaking at our first conference, and that's a level of depth that a lot of these other organizations don't have, when it comes to confronting postmodernism and to promoting, in a philosophical way, benevolent creativity.
The good news — great news, really — is that there are now several New York Galleries, such as the Forum Gallery, Hirschl and Adler, and the DFN Gallery, which are promoting contemporary representational artists like Tom Moore, Ben Aronson, Dan Witz, Daniel Massad, Craig McPherson, and many others, all of whom I believe are doing very innovative things in painting. And, of course, there are the outstanding sculptors like Martine Vaugel and Stuart Feldman.
TA: That's great. And tell us a bit about the conference itself.
Newberry: Well, the conference is being held on October 6 at the Pierre Hotel, one of the nicest hotels in New York, and it's essentially for curators, critics, and intellectuals who are interested in aesthetic ideas and cultural change. It's not a big audience; it's going to be about forty people.
It's the first conference ever like this. There have been plenty of debates about traditional values in art versus post-modernism. And those are usually arguments based on beauty — that beauty should be the thing to recognize.
What the Foundation is looking to promote with this conference is a broader idea — namely, a benevolent attitude in the arts toward looking at human possibilities.
I think David Kelley's quote is really a brilliant observation about the power of art; I'd love to read it to you. He says, "Human beings have always felt a profound need to envision the human ideal, and to explore the range of human possibility. Art can be perhaps the most powerful means of doing so." In other words, this kind of art is a profound need for us as human beings.
We'll also have Jan Koenderink speaking. He is one of the leading vision scientists in the world and he uses representational art in his studies. He has fears that science and art are heading toward oblivion, unless people get back to the reality of perception and the reality of how vision works.
The speakers' presentations will be documented on video and we'll have photographers there as well.
Also at the conference, the Foundation will be announcing the creation of an Art Advancement Prize, which we will be giving, at some future date within this next year, to an innovative painter or sculptor.
TA: Michael, what do you see as the role of art in our lives?
Newberry: Well, one of the things that strikes me as interesting, being back in the United States, is how important religious services are to people here. You hear it a lot on TV and you hear it on the radio, and you see it around you with the bumper stickers that people have on their cars and so on.
It seems like all these people need some regular time where they think about serious things — the meaning of their life, the meaning of their role in existence. They take time out to worship and to think serious thoughts. Through religious services, they also take time to experience music, or to be in an architectural setting that's special, or to see art perhaps on a more serious level.
And I think that even more so than religion, art plays a spiritual role in human life. It's a way to get in touch with your deeper self. It's a way to get in touch with how you feel in your relationship to existence and to other people, and to yourself.
I think that art has a very profound spiritual significance for humans — and I mean spirituality in the sense of pulling together your thoughts, your emotions, your senses, and your role in the universe. That is the way I look at art, and that is also the way I enjoy art. I want to make contact with other artists' artworks so I can get a sense of my place in the world, so as to feel balanced and to get an equilibrium — and to be inspired.
TA: You seem to be a person who has a lot of love in your life, and I'm wondering if you have any advise for general readers who want to create and sustain a high level of love in life in general. I'm interested in anything you might want to share with readers regarding that.
Newberry: I think there are two things that are really helpful. One is, try to handle outside stress. Try to take care of the financial issues and the things that you have to do, and be wary of taking on so much that you can't do it.
I think it's very unwise to take on things that can cause stress, and to take on things that you don’t need to do. The positive idea is to free up space in your brain, give yourself some freedom to explore the more flourishing aspects of your being.
I think also that art and love are very closely related. They deal with thoughts and they deal with sensory perception — being in the moment, experiencing through your sight and touch and your sensory awareness — and they also deal with your inner emotional life.
I once did an informal survey, and I asked people if they thought there was a connection between art and love, and I asked them questions like, had they ever fallen in love with an artwork, and had they ever fallen in love with a person?
This wasn't scientific, but almost every single person who had fallen in love with an artwork, with only one or two exceptions out of about thirty people, had felt love for a human being. And the opposite was also true: the people who had felt no love for any kind of artwork — and I don't mean just painting; I mean, they hadn't fallen in love with a piece of music, or writing, or anything else — they hadn't felt a loving connection with another human being either.
So I think that one of the areas that can be very helpful if you want to cultivate love is to explore the arts. I don't mean this in a dogmatic way, in the sense of having to educate yourself. I just mean in the sense of exploration. Perhaps you might go into a museum.
Don't stop at every single painting — just walk through the museum until you come across perhaps one very interesting painting, and allow yourself to experience the beauty of it, or the fear of it, or whatever it is you experience. Just allow yourself to do that, and I think that can be a step to experiencing love with another human being.
The advantage of doing it with art is that art doesn't bite back. (Chuckling.) It doesn't argue, it doesn't leave you. It doesn't have unexpected fits. Art is safe that way. It's ready when you are. It's ready to talk when you're ready to listen, and to experience it.
What's great about art is this: If you find a painting or an artwork that you like in a museum, chances are it's going to be by a great artist who's going to have some real insights about humanity. And that kind of thing can show you an emotional path, or a sensual path, or a kind of thought process. It will show you a way of looking at the world that can open up new horizons.
Many people reading this probably enjoyed Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged is an artwork, and it has opened up a new way of looking at many things for many people.
Well, there are also all kinds of other artworks out there — there's Puccini, there's Rembrandt, and many, many others; and all of these artists can open up avenues that we may not have known existed in us before.
And I think that is one of the great paths to discovering love: discovering love in art.
View more of Michael Newberry's artwork on his web site, at MichaelNewberry.com.