Get to know New England-based, internationally known artist Ben Aronson. In our exclusive interview, Aronson discusses his inspirations, process and the generations of artistry in his family. Read on, then visit his stunning work Closed Ramp (2007) part of the collection at the Currier Museum of Art.
What do you enjoy most about working in the Boston area?
I grew up in the Boston area, and studied painting at Boston University. With so many friends and family here it truly is my home base. I have long appreciated the wonderful concentration of art and culture here in Boston, along with its convenient proximity to New York City. I’ve been tempted to move out to the West coast, but I think I would miss the seasons here. But don’t ask me that in the middle of a New England February. Boston is an absolutely great city with many terrific museums, and a vibrant artist community and gallery scene. The great schools here give Boston a strong emphasis on higher learning and research, and the city’s size is very user-friendly, making it easy to cross paths and meet all sorts of creative, bright people from all over the world. I’m very fond of Boston’s history and how the cityscape retains elements of its colonial beginnings alongside the modern and the contemporary. It’s a great place to call home.
Where does inspiration for your studio practice come from?
I’ve discovered that inspiration can come from anywhere and anything, outside or inside the studio, as long as one remains open and observant. It might be the quality of light and atmosphere in a place on a given day, or perhaps a particular masterwork which somehow suddenly becomes very relevant and moving although it never caught my eye before. Sometimes encountering a figure in some visual circumstance can evoke a strong emotion or feeling of mystery compelling enough to make me want to investigate it further. It can even arise out of the completion of a painting, no matter whether it’s a success or a failure, with its conclusion suggesting some exciting and unexpected new direction to pursue. Really, anything can serve to set things in motion in the studio, generating a sort of momentum to carry me into starting the process of developing an idea in paint.
At that point, even when I have a sense of what I’m after with that original inspiration, I still have to figure out how to achieve it in paint. That’s something that can’t be preconceived, and can only be reached through the act of making the painting. So once I pick up the brushes, my involvement with the image develops naturally into a dialog between me and the image. First I will make a move and then, as in chess for example, observe how that move has changed the conditions of the interrelationships of all the elements present. Then I have to decide the next move, and so on and so forth. It’s a dialog of reaction and response, back and forth, with the aim of discovering what steps will move the painting forward toward a unified whole. If successful, I eventually arrive at a distilled version of that original inspiration.
My father, painter and sculptor David Aronson, who passed away last year, used to tell this story to students who were wondering exactly how and where artists need to look to find their inspiration. Back when he finished art school, like many young painters he traveled to Europe along with several other painter friends to see and study the great museum collections and masterworks. He told of a unique experience he had in the south of France in an area where Picasso was said to be living at the time. Driving through the area, to their amazement and by chance they actually happened to pass Picasso himself walking on the road, which caused an instant ruckus of surprise in the car among the young painters wondering if they should stop or not, what to say or what to do, or maybe just keep going. Anyhow, they did stop the car, a rented and fairly dilapidated Citroën Deux Chevaux with their heap of artist’s plein aire painting equipment tied to the roof, and my father was somehow elected to get out and go talk to him. So, he walked back to speak to Picasso while his friends in the car peered through the rear window. They watched him engage in a brief conversation with some arm waving and pointing and such. Moments later, my father returned to the car where his fellow painters excitedly asked, “Well, what did you say? What did HE say?” Eager to learn what great words of wisdom may have been imparted by this historic giant of an artist, my father started the car and replied, “All I asked him was if there was a good place to swim near here.” They moaned, “You asked Picasso WHAT?” My father said “That’s right. He looked at the car and saw our easels and paint boxes, understood we were artists and then pointed east, west, north, and south, answering “Par la, par la, par la, et par la,” meaning we would find good swimming in any direction we chose. So I thanked him and came back to the car.” Years later, my father would tell this story to young painters as a lesson with deeper meaning from a great master. Picasso was not simply informing where to go swimming but implying that an alert artist can find their subject wherever they happen to find themselves.
Tell me about about the process of creating your work Closed Ramp which is on view at the Currier?
This print, Closed Ramp, was one out of a series based on the underpasses of the now demolished elevated West Side Highway in New York City. Beyond a simple visual record of overpasses and roads and cars, the visual elements I chose were purposely tailored to suggest the feel of the city. By that, I mean I intentionally used angular shapes with fast marks and strong color with sharp contrasts of light and dark in order to evoke the geometry, atmosphere, and feeling of being surrounded by the city and its fast-paced, modern urban environment. The print is a four-plate, color intaglio etching printed on BFK paper. Even though the image contains many colors, it was created using only four. Four different copper plates were used, each carrying a single color. Three were each inked with a different primary color: yellow, blue, red and the last plate was inked with black. All of them were then sequentially hand-printed using a Takach intaglio etching press, one on top of the other, onto the same piece of paper. Because the inks I used were a special translucent type, the red, blue and yellow all show through each other and combine to create the effect of a full spectrum of colors. As I soon discovered, however, it’s a devilishly difficult technique and I hand-worked each copper plate many times before I was satisfied. I was very fortunate to have had the expertise of master printer Liz Chalfin of Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, Mass. who was central in successfully guiding the edition through this difficult process.
How has your work changed over time?
The way you look at the world evolves as you grow, and if you’re an artist your paintings will naturally reflect that. Both of my parents were artists, and when I was young there were lots of art books around the house that I loved to look at. At first, I only saw the paintings at face value. Maybe I’d see a painting of a train in a station by Monet and I’d wonder if it was coming or going or who were the passengers and where were they headed—things like that. Then years passed, I learned more about painting and I’d consider how you can paint a train or buildings and make them look real. After a while, I’d see other paintings with elements which weren’t painted so well or didn’t look convincingly real, and think maybe they could have been painted better. So I studied in art school, learning about and making many paintings and soon I began to realize the goal wasn’t really how perfect or how realistically things were rendered. Looking at master painting of all types I realized, like in Monet’s train painting for example, the true subject of the painting wasn’t the train or how realistically it was painted, the real subject was Monet himself. That realization was a turning point for me, understanding that it wasn’t simply about making still life objects, figures or buildings look real—it was about how I personally saw the world around me and communicated in paint how it made me feel. That’s the difference between fine art and illustration, or the difference between poetry and a dictionary. Looking inward rather than outward, and examining how you respond and interpret the world is a more slippery slope than simply making things look real, but it’s the only authentic route to finding your own genuine voice as an artist and ensuring your work will be original. That point of view can serve as a trustworthy compass for your whole life as an artist, a valuable tool in navigating the kaleidoscopic chaos of the world while filtering your influences selectively without being capsized by them.
When you’re not painting, what are your favorite activities?
My wife, Eileen, and I love to travel together. It’s great after long periods of intense work in the studio to get away and fill up the well again, so to speak. The art, architecture, food, music, people and culture of different great cities are always inspirational, restorative and new. Also, both my sons Jesse and Alex are accomplished artists, a painter and a sculptor respectively. Seeing the satisfaction it brings them of being devoted to their art and watching them develop is one of my greatest joys.
What do you find so fascinating about life in the city?
People often assume I live in the city because I paint a lot of cityscapes but the funny thing is I actually live in the country about an hour outside of Boston, and prefer it. Early in my career, I lived in the heart of Boston in a painter’s loft, so I am familiar with urban life and I did enjoy it. But living in the city for an extended period I remember becoming somewhat desensitized to it through simple daily familiarity. You know, I’d wind up racing from place to place on errands and appointments, looking more at the clock than noticing the light, buildings and atmosphere. Somehow I can better draw on it as a source for painting being at a bit of a distance and periodically visiting the city to experience it with fresh eyes. Then, the city for me becomes a wellspring of visual ideas and input. Everything in the world is there, concentrated, and comes at you like a great rushing visual tsunami. Even the master painters I admire are mixed in there. I can clearly feel the raw energy in New York City, which inspired the action painters like de Kooning and Kline. French cities evoke Degas and Matisse, Diebenkorn in Los Angeles, Thibaud in San Francisco or Morandi in central Italy. Wherever you look there is drama of every sort and everything is there, multi-layered: The light, the human activity, stories, history and culture; the profusion of buildings and traffic into the distances in every direction; angles, contrasts and color all suffused with and powered by a tremendous current of urban energy. I find it exhilarating, exciting, inspiring and endlessly fascinating as a source for my painting. Drop me anywhere, point me in any direction, and there is enough to inspire me for a whole career.
Learn more about Ben Aronson.
Images courtesy of the artist.