Arts Magazine - January 1984

Max Coyer’s Painted Life of the Mind

by Judith K. Collischan Van Wagner

Max Coyer’s new work is involved with a synthesis of spatial and temporal experiences rendered with unique and original manes. Just as his paintings are literally achieved through repeated layers of pigment and forms, so too the aura and meaning of his work consist of multi-faceted aesthetic and cultural factors. Coyer’s subject matter concerns his past and present as a painter searching to express the ambience of our age. To do so, he has plumbed the influences of particular Old Master paintings and his encounters with them. Technically, he has incorporated traditional materials such as oil paint with contemporary devices, namely spray cans. He has dealt not only with art historical sources but with the more broadly influential stimuli of television and his experience as a person accustomed to living with TV. As he puts it, “I have never known a time without television.” The factor, then, that permeate Coyer’s work are his sense of art history, his emphasis upon the influence of television on modern life, and the media and tools appropriate to an expression of his basically conceptual interests. Also pervasive in his work is the omnipresent feeling of a metaphysical or supernatural existence.

In 1982, Coyer executed approximately thirty “cone paintings that attracted critical attention because of their inherent mystical feeling, their unusual but satisfying color range, and their richly painted and textured surfaces. The cone paintings possessed a transcendental quality or a sense of presence beyond the literal imagery of the work. A relatively common form such as the cone was endowed with an extraordinary life via its isolation in the center of the canvas. The monumental size of the cones in relation to the paintings perimeters, their precarious placement on point, and Coyer’s expressionistic application of paint created a suggestion of a parapsychic force. This work was unusual and provocative to viewers; however, the artist, becoming comfortable with this format, began to search for new meanings and mode of expression.

More often than not the titles of the cone pieces referred to art historical masters such as Lucas Cranach, Victor Horta or Andrea Mantegna, artists who had attracted him over the years. Moving in other directions, Coyer’s transitional piece was Black Madonna, where we find an art historical reference to a painting by an anonymous Sienese master. Coyer remembered his own astonishment in seeing this Early Renaissance work several years prior to his decision to use it as a point of departure for his own work. Black Madonna, then, marks the beginning of his deliberate and direct use of art history as subjects of particular paintings. In this piece, there are still ties with earlier imagery. The predominant configuration consists of two diagonal lines meeting to suggest a cone shape; however, the sense of volume has shifted from positive to void out of which looms a dark, faceless figure brandishing a sword that seems to literally slice the picture plane. In a manner which would almost seem symbolic, this blade seems to cut away an substantial remainder of the cone. Nevertheless, the textural qualities of the cone paintings and their impression of recorded motion are still present here in the form of seemingly rapid scraping s of the paint surface. Other and lesser remnants are the small cones making the figure’s headdress. In addition to the figure which is startling considering Coyer’s previous work and in term of its stark sense of presence, the other new element is a date that is stenciled but seems branded into the upper right corner. One is reminded of Umberto Boccioni’s States of Mind, the Farewells in which the number on the front of the locomotive emerges from swirling forms representing the activity of a train station. In fact, the Futurist and the Coyer paintings are a feeling of movement; however, there is a basic difference between these pictures that illuminates an important aspect of Coyer’s work. In Boccioni’s painting there is relationship of imagery to reality, while Coyer’s number is associated with the more abstract concept of time. Likewise, the movement in the Italian artist’s work is illusionistic and referential while this factor in Coyer’s work exists literally as a part of the painted surface.

In actuality the number in Coyer’ Black Madonna is a date – not that of his painting but of the year in which the Sienese painting attracted his attention. Thus, the artist initiates and explicit personal footnote in this painting to his particular experience with the history of art. the date is not that of Coyer’s piece or that of the Sienese painter; it is in between the two but closer to Coyer’s own period, signifying his incorporation of art history into his own contemporary terms. His approach to art history does not partake of a linear view of “progress.” Instead it is a quite peculiar or self-referential view of art as it affected him at a particular time and place. Coyer’s incorporation of influences into his work is at once uniquely literal and distinctive as well as symbolic of a viewer’s particularized discovery of a given work. combined with the specific Renaissance subject is Coyer’s heightened art historical reference to the relative importance of certain paintings to certain periods and individuals.

In and extension of his interests in art history as experience and imagery, Coyer continued to explore the earlier Metaphysical content present in his cone paintings via individual work by Giorgio de Chirico that had moved him twenty years earlier. One of these, 1963, seems the most literal rendition of de Chirico’s faceless mannequin figure set in an ambiguous and contradictory stage-like space. A less literal translation of de Chirico appears in 1964-B which includes two figurative forms, one derived form the Greek artist and the other from a recent series of his own photographs of the human body. At the top of the painting is a “quotation” from Cranach in the form of an apple tree portrayed as a quite delicate pattern. The “de Chirico area” at lower right appears as a “painting within a painting.” Incorporated into the picture is a diagram of the fourth dimension signifying Coyer’s own fascination with the linkage of spatio-temporal circumstances In the later Cornell, referring to Coyer’s interest in the assemblagist Joseph Cornell, a smaller de Chirico-like figure intrudes from the bottom of a box-like space in from t of a version of Cornell’s Soap Bubble Set piece. The de Chirico imagery in these three pieces functions as an indicator of the underlying mystical and spiritual tone of Coyer’s work.

A key piece to Coyer’s individual use of art history is Avery Court. The subject matter here is the courtyard of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It was in this museum that he first encountered work he later employed in his own paintings, the “Wadsworth Atheneum Series.” In the titles of the cones, he acknowledged his sources; afterward he more literally utilized work by de Chirico and Cornell among others as subjects of his paintings. However, Coyer’ real homage is paid as much to this institution and his experiences as to the individual paintings he found there. The museum itself possesses a rich history dating back to 1844 and the philanthropical ambitions of founder Daniel Wadsworth, a later (1917) benefactor, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr., and a still later director, A. Everett Austin, Jr. It was Morgan who donated Italian Renaissance works to the museum and Austin who purchased Baroque and modernist works, including de Chirico and Cornell, for the permanent collection. The interaction of past with present in the Atheneum itself is perhaps best exemplified by Avery Court, a dramatic international Style interior space set with a sixteenth-century Mannerist sculpture by Pietro Francavilla. In his painting, in spired by direct encounter but based upon a photograph of court, Coyer emphasizes the grayness of the marble structure, the large, airy spatial architectural sweep, and the trapezoidal photographic configurations of ceiling planes. In the center are the busier shapes of the sculpture set on a de Chirico-like plane that effectively balances the thrust of ceiling forms. To the right of the figurative motif, “1966” is emblazoned, indicating the date of the artist’s realization of this impressive space.

For this painting, Coyer abandoned his ability to achieve an attractive painterly quality and taught himself to paint an illusionistic marble texture. Using a gray underpaint, he “floated” the veining on the base color using a piece of cardboard and a stick. In keeping with the artist’s synthesis of time, the result of of this quite casual technique resembles both marbelized stone and the dripped paint skeins found in the work of Jackson Pollock. As in Pollick’s work, the irregular paint surfaces tend to emphasize the flat picture pane and convey a dense sense of atmosphere. Thus, this “marbleizing” simultaneously suggests institutions associated with our classical heritage and more recent, modernist art history. Scraped areas at both sides of the “marble” add another tactile quality and directional motif. Coyer’s use of diagonal lines at once determines surface and suggests depth.

In general, there i a series of opposing forces constituting this piece. A dualistic sense of time, past and present, is represented in several ways: the date of Coyer’s experience with the court, the subject of modernist building and Mannerist sculpture, and the association of technique with tradition and more current aesthetical concerns. In terms of color, there i an over-all monochrome suggestion of picture galleries. the conical shape of the marbleized area seems to compare with the solidarity of a stone pedestal while approximating an area of ephemeral light. Finally, there are a number of spatial contrasts between flat planes and texture s that exist on the canvas surface but also suggest deep space. Resultant back and forward thrusts in space create a sensation of drama and excitement in what would otherwise be a lonely and isolated courtyard. Adding to the complexity and levels of meaning in this piece is the literal layering of materials or paint into and on top of paint and the final addition of spray-painted black lines defining structural feature, particularly floor and ceiling areas and amorphic form of the centralized sculpture. Forceful geometric line move the viewer’s eye swiftly past the centerpiece and express the sensation of a vast, uncluttered space.

Coyer’s introduction to the Atheneum came when he was a youth growing up in Hartford. He remembered his first trip to the museum to see an Egyptian mummy which turned out to be a disappointment. Nevertheless, he made repeated trips to the galleries and recalled the attraction various art works had for him during the Sixties. In many ways, Coyer’s new work and the previous cone painting are about memory or remembering things. As he explains it: “The work deals with the life of the mind. For the most part the emotion is hidden, except for sense of melancholy. there is a feeling of turning away from the present, a kind of withdrawal and a looking back. It presents a sense of active thoughtfulness.” The meditative quality of his pictures attests to this artist’s complex integration of our time and theories with those of history.

n the “Atheneum” series of paintings, one of the early issues Coyer must decide upon is a particular subject form art history that moved him at an earlier point in his life. After Avery Court, he chose to utilize a drawing by Peter Paul Rubens called La Lupa. The painting is an important one among those in the series because it incorporates past effects with new achievements. The most obvious carryover is the marbleized pattern at left that again suggests an institutional and classical atmosphere and acts as an opaque surface texture. Its density contrasts effectively with the less substantial figures of the work and Romulus and Remus at the right of the painting. The wolf triggered Coyer’s association with the ancient tory of orphaned brothers and a trip he made to Greece in 1969. Linking the figurative and abstract sides of this piece are the date, one of the worf’s paws, a spray-painted black plane, and a very subtle patch of warm gray paint. In contrast to the illusionist of the marble veining, this small gray area of pigment exists purely as rich, juicy paint texture. The red and green areas have been scraped to add tonal variations and to create a contrasting tactile appeal. Over the areas of thin paint, Coyer has”drawn” figures with spray paint utilizing an unusual technique developed from his search for means that are of his own time.

Coyer’s drawing technique, like his imagery and content, was a product of several sources. During the late 1970’s, he did a number of precise drawings of common objects in still-life compositions. These were made to “hone down my drawing skills.” The general feeling of these drawings was cool, precise, and mechanical. With the advent of the cone paintings, Coyer became concerned with texture and an abstract paint quality that had little to do with drawing. Eventually, he came to feel that these paintings were too heavy or leaden and looked for a more spontaneous technique. Also, he had become bored and felt somewhat disillusioned with pencil drawing and brush painting. Toward the end of the cone pieces, Coyer had almost abandoned the customary use of brushes.

In the course of his pursuit of new means, he became aware of the techniques of so-called street artists. “The graffiti artists had a magnificent new tool in spray paint.” the spray can offered Coyer a tool that he couldn’t control as easily as pencil or brushes. After laying in background areas, he quite rapidly and impulsively “draws” in figurative imagery using the spray and flexible piece of cardboard a a kind of stencil-shield. He uses the cardboard to guide paint particles on to the canvas in a manner that result in a combination of line and tone. The drawn figures are basically two-dimesional silhouette, but attain a degree of density via the shadow effects created by the spray. As Coyer uses the spray can, he moves the cardboard, achieving a kind of segmented effect that distorts and relates the form to other, more geometric parts of the work. This is a risky operation that must be done quickly with complete attention and a focused concentration. For Coyer, it presents psychological difficulties because of his own tendency toward greater finish or working of the surface. “The work makes me uncomfortable, and I think that’s a positive sign that I’m heading in the right direction for me.” His technique forces a situation that demands spontaneity and results in a sense of transience and imediatecy. The feeling of unpremeditation is an effective foil to the deliberation and thought processes that precede and form the foundation for the final act of painting.

At the time Coyer developed spray paint as a drawing tool, he was impressed with the effect of television upon our way of looking at things. As he searched for new means, he also came across a new material, moire fabric for drawings that imply a television screen. shortly thereafter, he declared, “There won’t be any more paper drawings for me.” In several recent drawings he has applied spray paint with cardboard to this fabric with stunning results. The feeling of a television screen i present, but more important i the surprisingly effective combination of unusual media. The relationship of moire with video pattern might seem conceptually shallow, but Coyer’s figure studies done in this manner are his most effective drawings to date.

“How would you present modern life?” is a question that Coyer has asked and answered not only in terms of technical means but with regard to his use and manipulation of art history and his fascination with the visual impact of television. In Video Madonna, a pattern of curving lines envelops the saints like some heavenly aureole. Apparently the artist applied these white rings of paint and then scrape them to enhance surface texture and the sensation of three dimensional movement. In addition, the Christ Child and Madonna were wiped horizontally causing them to appear as though through a screen. the vibrations of circular line and shadowy visages convey an effect not unlike that of a video monitor. This sensation allowed Coyer to update an historical subject and to express his ideas about the omniscient influence of television:

“St. Augustine’s definition of God was a presence that was equally felt in many places at the same time – like the five o’clock news. People discredit TV, but it could be the expression of a highly spiritual phenomenon that man has created through technology.”

Coyer’s preoccupation with the importance of television to our visual knowledge continued to be a dominant factor in his work.

His exploration of the iconography of television also emerges in Endless Voyage. In this case, the ubiquitous TV set in the right corner is balanced on the other side by a pawn as Coyer traslates the background floor tile into a giant chessboard, confounding the viewer’s sense e of distant and approximate space. this distorted recognition of space parallels that offered the television viewer. As Coyer states, “Spatial perceptions and ideas of duration have been altered for artists making art now, artists of my generation.” In Cornell, he examines TV as a kind of metaphorical icon or object of devoted admiration. The precious object quality of Cornell’s work is literally related to a television set. Shafts of white light emphasize both the surface of the painting and the illusion of a television screen. Attached to the top of this piece are “antennae” emphasizing the relationship between painting surface, the glass front of a Cornell box, and the screen of a television set. In the piece, Coyer explores several concepts of the term ‘surface’ as it is used aesthetically and as it may be employed to create illusions Coyer feels that in today’s world a previous opposition of art and nature has been transformed into a “visual competition between art and TV”:

“Television has had an effect o us in terms of flattened imagery and a sense of quickness of immediacy TV conveys an effect of distance or coolness. The enemy or the conflict is contained, one step removed. We see art and create it differently because of television. In my work, I want to state the case or remind the viewed that television is behind all this work whether it is literally there or not.”

Also, Coyer points to the equalizing effect of TV, that “McDonald is presented in the same format as Philip Johnson.” In this connection, Coyer considers the video medium and art history as subject matter available on a par with nature or religion.

Cranach – 1961, a work based upon an earlier Feast of Herod by Northern Renaissance master, is a striking piece and one that can be characterized by the cumulative effect of Coyer’s conceptual and physical means. Once again, the painting has been executed in a series of layers, one of the last being the drawing of Salome and Herod. The slightly serrated edges of these silhouettes create an attractive textural appeal and contribute to the general ephemerality of the figures. Indistinct, ghost-like forms resembling those of television afterimage convey a sense of a momentary of fleeting existence. The figure of Herod seems empty and vacuous yet the face, consisting of parallel diagonals, appears struck, literally shattered with horror. The only solid form is the red trapezoid, a shape common to Coyer’s work which both establishes space and contributes a sense of literal physical substance to the picture plane. The blood red color is appropriate to the ghoulish story and readily lends itself as a link between foreground and background space. The date, 1961, stenciled in at upper left, is indicative of Coyer’s early and continuing interest in the work of Cranach.

There is a sobriety or somberness about Coyer’s work that is in keeping with an overall impression of distance or coolness. Although the ultimate meaning is not specifically stated, there is a feeling for the presence of Idea. The paintings are not about art-for-art’s sake although Coyer is a knowledgable and sophisticated artist Instead, he is concerned with an intellectual approach involving the preconception of a given painting before its actual execution. This entails a thought process that moves through space and time. The paintings themselves may be produced within relatively short time span, but the conceptual basis is a broad and involved one that addresses several complex issues of our age, including that of a spatio-temporal concept of our physical world, the effect of a mass-media instrument as a visual stimulant, and the active presence of his own mind. This is work informed by the artist’s cultivated knowledge and understanding of modernist theory, but it is also work that goes beyond purely aesthetical concerns to the more complex and intuitive realms of human intelligence.


pictured: Black Madonna and 1964-B