Les Vitraux: Artist Statement

Since 1990, I’ve been traveling to France and studying the magnificent stained glass windows. It’s strange these should appeal to me, an American, city-born abstract painter. They tap into a purer self — a child-like self that would be charmed by these beautiful colored “vitraux”.

What is it about these windows? First, their kaleidoscope quality, which is almost hypnotic—cut-glass pieces shimmering in the light. Then there are the images themselves: so charming, sincere, simple. They have the clarity of things remembered from childhood, a first book, or a toy. Winged beings, notions of hell and damnation— which must have appeared very ferocious to believers—that work a spell out of line, color, and light. Power is present too, of objects vividly imagined, infinitely studied and deeply cherished.

I found the windows very theatrical — just the opposite of what I do in my abstract painting. Studying, I discovered they’d been influenced by jongleurs—singing minstrels, a bit like our own Bojangles, wandering the towns singing, talking, miming, anything to keep an audience engaged and themselves fed. These jongleurs hammered storylines into songs—reconciliations and resurrections, beheadings and love—which then reappeared as narratives for the windows.

The first window I loved was at Chartes; the little man warming his feet by the fire, above the Latin for “February.” What I really wanted when I saw a lancet—an individual image—was to tell my friends. So I decided I had to paint some and bring them home to New York. I traveled to Bourges, Chartes, Sainte-Chapelle, Troyes, Sens, Poitier, Le Man, Strasbourg—anyplace with twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass. And I painted the gouaches on paper from 2001 through 2003.

As I worked and looked, they began to seem more modern; there were lessons here that would not be relearned for centuries. These medieval lancets — with their fauve color, their flatness and decorative mosaics — reminded me of early twentieth-century French painters. Matisse, Chagall, Derain: it seemed to me that fauve color had started in the twelfth century at Chartres rather than in the twentieth in Paris. It seemed no accident there was a color painters know as “French Ultramarine Blue”; these windows more or less starred blue. I thought of the gouaches on paper that were painted in studios in Paris as my stainded-glass cathedral for New York.

Pat Lipsky, December 2001