From the International Painting Annual 6. Cincinnati, OH: Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center
I am not and never have been much of a chess player. This is what people are usually curious about when looking at my paintings, because for several years my work depicted arrangements of chess pieces on a board, not unlike a more aesthetic version of those chess challenges illustrated in the newspaper (“black to checkmate in four moves”). In truth, I rarely even play the game, and I feel a little guilty about this because I think of chess as one of those civilized activities like reading or looking at art for which we should make time.
What I find most attractive about the game—more than the elegant design of the pieces, more than the history—is the logic of the rules, and the way they work so perfectly together. Games possessing such precise internal structure (baseball also comes to mind) are beautiful because the rules neatly define what players can and cannot do in pursuit of some objective, while remaining exquisitely playable and challenging. If you don’t like the rules, you can change the game you’re playing, but you shouldn’t change the rules. If you do, you’re not playing the same game anymore, anyway.
Case in point: When I was a child, I agreed—reluctantly—to participate in a junior high school chess tournament, mostly because I expected to play one match, lose, and be done with the whole thing. My strategy seemed all the more likely to succeed when I learned my first opponent was a boy from England who was the best player in our school. At least we all assumed he was the best player, although the fact that he was British lent a “chess allure” that only made him more formidable. No one who entered the tournament expected they would be more than a slight annoyance if they had to compete against him. It just happened to be my lot that I would get to annoy him, slightly, first.
Somehow, I managed to do just that. In spite of his skillfulness and my ineptitude, coupled with my desire to get things over with quickly, the match progressed into the middle stages of the game. Then, remarkably, I put the boy’s king in check. Actually, I did more than that, leaving him with only one move to escape capture and loss of the game: a castling maneuver, king two squares to the outside, rook one square to the inside of the king, the only maneuver in which a player may move two pieces at the same time. Having no other choice, of course, he castled without hesitation—and did so illegally.
You see, the rules do not allow a player to castle out of check. So in actuality, I had checkmated his king then and there, and had won the match. Unfortunately for me, I was not so well versed in the rules, and we just played on. Ultimately, I lost the match. The boy got away with castling illegally, but I was the one who got rooked.
I never found out if the boy knew that castling out of check is against the rules. A classmate later informed me of this fact when he heard me boasting about almost beating the wünderkind and taught me the rules. But whether through ignorance or deceit, the boy and I had done something very interesting—we had created our own game, a variant of chess, and we agreed completely on how it would be played. According to those rules he deserved to win, and I think even as a child I sensed this, so I never raised a fuss after learning of the error. We might as well have said that pawns could move like queens—the game would have been a bloodbath and perhaps not very fun, but it would have been fair (though it certainly would not have been chess).
Which brings me back to painting. Painters, to take the lot of us, do not like to think of their art as being governed by too many rules. But painters do work within certain practical constraints, whether it is the height of the ceiling in one’s studio or the colors one can afford to buy. Constraints such as these are not much different than a rule that limits how a piece in chess can move; they limit and restrict the paintings we create, at least until we find a way to get around them.
Moreover, most painters also work according to a more nebulous set of rules they have determined for themselves: what kind of imagery they will accept, what kinds of colors they allow, what kinds of marks they may make. To the serious artist, these are not just matters of taste. They are matters of correctness, and they are interwoven in defining for an artist whether a painting “works.” These rules may also be the reason why artists view their work differently than others view it—others don’t understand the rules. In painting, whether a “move” is good or not depends on how it plays within the game the artist has created, and the game can be confining or it can be liberating.
I believe it was Robert Motherwell who spoke of “making moves” when he painted, but the metaphor could be attributed to any number of painters. Then again, it probably wouldn’t work as a description of many artists’ processes. Some artists just don’t paint that way. Even when the metaphor fits, however, it raises the question of whom the artist is playing against, and that, too depends on the nature of the game, the objective of the artist, and what he or she seeks to overcome. For one painter, the opponent might be visual disorder; for another, representational inaccuracy; for yet another, false gestures and expressive contrivance. The painter defeats this intangible opponent when he or she creates a work that provides lasting satisfaction.
Who knows? Maybe pawns can move like queens and kings can fly—it depends on what you’re playing. In the end, it’s not about moving individual pieces, anyway. It’s seeing the whole board that really matters.