A Little Happier: Keep the Paint as Good as It Is in the Can.

I love koans, paradoxes, teaching stories, aphorisms, maxims, anything of that sort.

I discovered this personal “koan” from artist Frank Stella in Color Chart: Reinventing Color: 1950 to Today, by Ann Temkin. The book was published to accompany a big exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York City. My color obsession continues!

Stella says, “I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it is in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.”

The painting is Frank Stella’s Lac Laronge III. What do you think — is the paint as good as it is in the can? (Whatever that means.)

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  • So neat! I had never heard of the term “koan” before (though I’ve heard of the example you used of one hand clapping). The quote and accompanying illustration intrigue thought.

    I feel like in some ways, the illustration represents “paint in a can.” The colors are bright and solid without much variation. I looked up other artwork by Frank Stella, and it brings out much of the same concept. It’s amazing how much life and creativity he can show using what most of us would consider a fairly sterile set of colors.

    That style of art reminds me of Piet Mondrian, whose quote sheds light here: “Just as pure abstract art is not dogmatic, neither is it decorative.”

  • Kris Davis

    I love the simplicity of the concept of the art! Definitely as good as in the can! Great Job!

  • MadMadam

    Beautiful painting. I think the phrase, “to keep the paint as good as it was in the can” means to use the paint to its highest potential, to use it for its highest, greatest good. In my opinion, he succeeded.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great reading of that phrase.

  • MaggieRose59

    That’s funny. A rather subtle insult. I believe he meant that he found the paint in the can preferable to that which had been applied to the canvas. Like the flour in the bag being preferable to a badly made cookie. Both the can of paint and the bag of flour at least have the advantage of potential. Which disappears when poorly used.
    I’m not commenting on the painting here. Only the quote.