Edward Knippers: A Profile
I met Ed Knippers's
work before I met Ed Knippers
I had seen another work of Knippers
, too, where the paint surface crawled from the canvas onto the frame as if motivated by an obsessive need to animate everything.
Because of these encounters, and the fact that I knew that Knippers
was a Southerner with strong Christian convictions, it was easy to develop expectations about the artist.The expectations,fueled by art mythology,were that Knippers would be something of a cross between one of Flannery O'Connor's preachers and the painter Nick Nolte played in New York Stories.
...Courteous, articulate, coated, tied, and blow-dried, Knippers resembled a professor at a small Kentucky college,which in fact he was.
There were no visible twists of personality to account for the high-voltage quality of his
paintings.In fact, Knippers
looked like a mild-mannered evangelical whose taste in art would run toward pleasantness.How then to understand the relationship of the artist to the art? Ed Knippers's
life unfolded between two immutable conditions.He
is Southern and he
was raised in Lakeland, Florida, where his
father taught business math and administration at Florida Southern College
.Both parents were devout members of the Church of the Nazarene
, a Protestant denomination in the holiness tradition.
There is no dearth of literature about the problems of being Southern, being Christian, and being an artist.Both Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, two writers that Ed
has read carefully, addressed the subject several times.
has followed suit, although he
is quick to point out that he
doesn't approach art intellectually.
Initially, the experience of being Southern and being Christian did not lead to strategy, but to a sense of distance.The Protestant holiness tradition emphasizes a purity of lifestyle that takes a "don't look, don't touch, don't do" approach to the pleasures and temptations of culture.So while Ed
took painting lessons, he
didn't go to movies or dances.When Ed's cousin from Philadelphia visited in the summers, she
brought along the sense of superiority and condescension that the North has regularly visited on the South since Reconstruction.This was also the period of the growing struggle over civil rights, which in its early stages was thought to be a Southern problem.During Ed's youth, a white Southerner was seen as part of a problem whose solution would be imported from somewhere else.
Distance can be experienced as either crippling isolation or liberation from collective practices.For Ed
, growing up Southern and Christian did not so much lead to a sense of being outside of the acknowledged centers of real artistic and social vitality as it gave him room to find his
own direction as an artist.One of the dilemmas of modernism is that the developing artist must confront a noisome and contradictory multitude of ideas, subjects, schools, methods, techniques, and allegiances.This is the downside of the much-vaunted artistic freedom found in modernity.The effect on many aspiring artists is uncertainty, or a long incoherent stammer as the artist tries to find an authentic voice.
The distance that Knippers
felt was coupled with his
approach to art, which is much more intuitive and emotional than it is calculated and premeditated.The result was an artistic growth marked by an organic quality that is absent from the work of many of his
peers.By the time he left Asbury College, he already knew that Christianity was his subject.He also knew that he was a painter whose interests were fairly conventional given the art world's penchant for innovation.
In graduate school, all of the critical debates about the merits of minimalism, pop, or conceptualism were of only peripheral interest to him.There is no body of minimalist Knippers in a closet somewhere.So today, when people say to him as they sometimes do,
But that's not what people are doing in New York," with all of its implied cultural authority, Ed
seriously asks, "So what?"
knew the direction he
work to go in, he
was not at all certain about the best way to flesh out a Christian vision.There were several problems to overcome before Knippers
could begin to approach the large Biblical narratives that are his
hallmark, and that indicate the start of his
mature work.While Ed had been a precocious painter as an undergraduate, it was a mixed blessing.
The faculty at Asbury College
tended to leave him alone, which he
liked.But no one insisted on a solid foundation in drawing.Of course he
would not have been able to draw from an unclothed model anyway, given the conservative Protestant conviction that such an activity is at least immodest, if not an outright invitation to lust and sin.
began to teach after graduate school, but was frustrated because he
still had so much to learn, and now had less time to do it in.He
knew more than the students, but said "I felt like we were all in the same boat together."
Another problem faced by young artists is where to look for examples and inspiration.While modernist mythology has promoted the ideal of the artist creating in Promethean freedom without regard for roots, history, and tradition, the reality lies elsewhere.Knippers
wasn't drawn to the artists being discussed in the 1960s and 1970s.In fact, most of the art since World War II didn't quicken his
pulse, though he
admires DeKooning as "a fine painter."
Later on Ed
realized that the art of the post-war period was propelled by ideas that he
was at odds with.Some movements, like abstract expressionism, were predicated on a cult of personality, while others, like minimalism or color-field painting, were largely dedicated to the manipulation of art's formal properties.The former tended to degenerate into celebrity, while the latter, despite the most elaborate critical panegyrics, never rose much above the level of inflated decoration.So Ed
looked further, to the early part of the twentieth century.
"I was drawn to the German Expressionists because they believed art could have some transforming influence on society," he
relates.At first he
didn't like the individual artists that much, but found their boldness and simplicity attractive, as well as the emotional and confrontational quality of their work.Also, the German Expressionists were quite willing to use religious and Christian imagery.For this reason, Knippers
also admired that misplaced expressionist, Georges Rouault, who never took pains to mask his Christian beliefs.
There was one place Ed
never looked, though,the Baroque period.
About half way through his
graduate study, Ed
was feeling this problem acutely.He
was trying to make figurative paintings, but things weren't working, and his
teachers were telling him he
was trying too hard.He
had recently married, and his
wife Diane asked him, "What is it that you'd really enjoy painting?"The question made him realize that what he
really wanted to do was paint still lives. Ed
used to spend a lot of time with an aunt combing the countryside for antiques, and he
found the clutter of old implements, dishware, furniture, and the bric-a-brac of country stores visually arresting.He was also struck by how each object had a history, and that the character of the object in some mysterious way represented the previous owner.
liked the painting and decided to enter it in a juried show at the Tennessee Fine Arts Center
at Cheekwood in Nashville. the show was open to all artists in Tennessee, and many of Ed's professors also entered it.
This didn't deter Ed
, who felt more than a little vindicated in his
independence when the juror picked him to have a one-man exhibition at the Center the following year.Ed
spent the next year preparing for the show.He was also in his first year of teaching at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.
was using things, both concrete objects and formal elements like the white areas, in loosely symbolic ways.Ed's
intentions were clear enough to people who knew him well, or understood something about the artistic lineage he
was absorbing.But the content of the work didn't have the clarity, impact, and conviction that he
was after.Like much of the visual art made in the twentieth century, his
paintings were locked within a framework of personal meaning.
It was at this point that Ed
began to understand that the Incarnation had implications for art.White areas deployed in a painting might be spiritually evocative, or suggest an ethereal presence of God.But they didn't really say very much about who God is, or what his
presence with us means.Ed
wanted something that spoke in more concrete and provocative terms,just a