Artist talks time and painting

Artist Sam Messer ART ’82 began his talk at the School of Art on Tuesday afternoon by reading the definitions of the words “gaze,” “present,” “space” and “sensation.”

In his artist’s talk entitled “On Time and Painting,” Messer, a Brooklyn-based painter as well as professor and associate dean at the School of Art, challenged his listeners to realize that every painting has multiple meanings. He went on to discuss different periods in his own career, highlighting the way he depicts the passage of time in his work. As each painting has multiple meanings, he said, so can each artist pursue many alternative paths.

Messer argued that people are among the most inspiring subjects for a painting, adding that he has found that painting is a great way to meet new people. He emphasized to the audience the capacity of a human subject to capture life’s poignant moments.

The artist spoke at length about his relationship with American artist John Serl. Serl and Messer met when the former was 96, and Messer eventually painted a series of portraits of Serl. Serl’s art was noted for containing narratives, Messer said, adding that his own portraits of Serl tell a narrative when viewed together — tracing their friendship from its beginning through Serl’s death at age 99.

Messer also described an etching he did of author Jonathan Safran Foer. While his portrayal of Serl occupied many different canvases, Messer said, he worked continuously for several years on one plate of Foer, which he frequently altered by either adding new elements or erasing existing ones. While both series portray the passage of time, he explained, the portraits of Serl allow him to trace the evolution of his style while the etching of Foer does not. The etching, the artist said, “holds cumulative time.”

Hannah Flato ’14, one of Messer’s students who attended the talk, said she found the talk fascinating. She noted that she often does not have the opportunity to hear him speak about his own art during class, which is part of the reason why she enjoyed the lecture.

“As a professor, he’s really mindful about the use of time and process,” Flato said. “That’s why he’s such an amazing professor and painter.”

Every day upon entering class, Flato recalled, Messer had his students paint everything they saw outside of a window onto a single canvas, altering their works on a daily basis. While she found the exercise to be therapeutic and enjoyed seeing the work evolve, she said she could also discern Messer’s own artistic process in the assignment.

William Freedberg ’16, another student who attended the talk, said he found it “bizarre,” as Messer did not explicitly address the notion of time even though he used it as a framework throughout the talk.

“He approached the topic obliquely — he started with a theory-heavy but terse discussion of the gaze, and then addressed time in painting tangentially through a couple of different topics.”

Senior administrative assistant at the School of Art Kris Mandelbaum said that Messer’s talk was part of a new series of presentations created this year by the director of the Painting Department at the School of Art. The presentations aim to provide faculty members at the school with a platform to showcase their own work in a conversational manner.

Messer’s art is displayed in a number of public collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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