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David Summers taught at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pittsburgh before accepting an appointment to the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia in 1981. In 1984 he was appointed William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Art. He is the author of Michelangelo and the Language of Art (1981), The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics (1987); Real Spaces. World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (2003); and Vision, Reflection and Imagination in Western Painting (forthcoming). He is also completing a manuscript on the High Renaissance program of the Sistine Chapel, with a manuscript on empathy on a back burner. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996, and paints whenever he can.
Essay on David Summers
Marks and virtual space on a surface are reciprocal, and infinite apparent things may arise from a first mark, just as infinite virtual spaces must arise to accommodate them. If marks are “things” in space, they also show us surfaces of those things, virtual color and light, which again may be articulated in infinite ways.
Brushstrokes make their own kind of endlessly unique spaces, which, rather than letting run their course, I make describe what I have chosen to paint. For me, painting is trying to make the marks of painting like the things, space and light I see, weaving pictorial space and light into an acknowledgment of whoever or whatever I am facing. Once I have decided what to paint, I try to feel the rightness of every touch of the brush, at the same time that what I see can’t be anything but the endless occasion for invention. A painting is done when a particular subject assumes something like its own presence and distance in the equally particular space of the painting.
I usually don’t let the painted surface touch the edge, so that the marks will float, not borrow architecture from the edges. The paintings compose themselves from the inside out. While I paint, I feel I am trying my best to draw with light; this is impossible, of course, because paint is paint and because light continually changes. But the simple and impossible disrelation of painting and light to me is itself endlessly fascinating, always promises meaning, and any persuasive analogy I find to the play of light, even how a few shadows lie together, is a gain. Light touches our retinas a first time, leaves our eyes just as suddenly and silently, and in an instant knits up the place we were. In the meantime, it is the great place and time in which we share our lives.
The paintings are mostly arranged according to the thoughtless habit and permutationality of a life. They are paintings of familiar people and things, things I see out of the corner of my eye, gifts I have been given, things that strike my fancy (as we say), objects no longer meaningful once used. I try to make them as beautiful with light as they are, or were, or seem to try to persist to be. Painting light is a kind of homage to what is and was for me, much as it is and was for you, and it is inescapably both lyric and elegiac.
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