I’ll Paint It First and Then I’ll Tell You What It Is

Prospect and Refuge
copyright 2023, Molly Larson Cook
24″ x 20″ acrylic

In architecture, the prospect-refuge theory is based on a simple idea — that people like to be able to see without being seen. This comes in part through the work of ethologist Konrad Lorenz who studied animals, including humans, and their behavior.

I think it applies as well to certain other aspects of life, including art and most especially visiting art galleries, museums and even neighborhood art shows. Patrons want to see but don’t want to be seen (beyond the cocktail table). By that, I mean we want to see the work, but we don’t always want to be recognized in the work, not even by ourselves.

Perhaps this is one of the strongest cases on behalf of Abstract Expressionism. And one of the biggest challenges for both artist and viewer.

As an Abstract Expressionist, I always invite viewers to find their own stories in my work. I don’t write the narrative. I just paint the picture. Whatever of myself goes into that picture is my story, my tale of Molly and the paint, Molly and the shapes, Molly and whatever happy accidents have happened along the way. But that is not your story.

Your story is what you see in the work out of your experience. And since it is an internal story, you are safe. You are not revealing yourself to me or to anyone else unless you choose to do that. Nobody is standing next to you describing the same experience. Viewing Abstract Expressionist art is the epitome of prospect and refuge, although the viewer may have to work a little harder.

A description of Abstract Expressionist work on the Sotheby’s website says the early artists who went for it “were united by a dedication to bold formal invention and a conviction in art as a profoundly personal emotional expression.” And further, “Abstract Expressionist painting evokes the distinctly American spirit of rugged individualism. Valuing freedom, spontaneity and personal expression, the movement naturally produced a variety of technical and aesthetic innovations.” 

In other words, the work may seem unusual or unfamiliar, but in truth we Abstract Expressionists are as American as apple pie. Independent as hell. Sworn enemies of the stuffed shirts. Risktakers to the max.

At the same time, we are right in the mainstream today where things happen fast and disrupt whatever is normal or went before. What we are not is rich like tech company billionaires. Not by any means. Okay, maybe a couple of exceptions, but most of us have different reasons for what we do.

It’s no accident or coincidence that Abstract Expressionism grew right along with the Beat poets, with mid-century improvisational jazz, with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane among so many others. I am not that age now, but back in the day, I was another rebel with or without a cause. So, now that I’m an artist, I don’t paint landscapes or ballerinas or flowers or still lifes or portraits. For me, color is still, and will continue to be, the animal that wags its own tail.

Here are a few lines from a poem I wrote a few years ago after hearing an artist/architect talk about Prospect and Refuge theory:

The architect spoke of
prospect and refuge.

To hide away. To see long views.
Each makes a claim on human hearts.

Consoling refuge – “Come sit by my side.”
Seductive prospect – “Come join in the dance!”

Refuge calls “Don’t dance near the edge,”
while prospect winks and twirls to the song.

Getting back to jazz as I always seem to do whether it’s art, music or poetry, I’ll close with this thought from Miles Davis, a thought that seems to me to apply to Abstract Expressionism, to my own work and to a lot of the music, poetry and art that I love. It’s also a great answer to viewers who ask me what any particular painting is about. And it’s most certainly about the way I paint:

I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”

4 thoughts on “I’ll Paint It First and Then I’ll Tell You What It Is

  1. Marcia, I am so touched by your note. I think this is the best painting I’ve done, but I had no idea it would reach anyone as it has you. You have captured exactly the emotional experience of art. I send very late condolences for the situation that prompted this for you. Watch for a separate note in your email.

    Much love and many blessings,

  2. Molly—For me, this is one of your most powerful paintings, for in it I see…I FEEL…..the Cedar Fire, which will consume my daughter, bearing down on the last flowers in her yard. I hear the roar, feel the unbearable heat. I’m almost brought to tears by my emotions. I’m fascinated by the love/hate it arouses. Excellent work, girl!

  3. Yes, you’re so right…1, get the paint down. 2, fix it! Works every time…
    Be well…and busy writing!

  4. Right on Molly. One of the best lessons you taught me about writing: There are two rules:
    1. Write it
    2. Fix it
    Seems to work with your art as well. Art and Tulips is always so stimulating and refreshing.

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