Saturday, December 27, 2008

THE END OF 2008


George Bellows

2008 was a rough year for the type of assets that are vulnerable to market fluctuations.

40% of the value of the US stock market ($7.3 trillion) has simply evaporated. Major companies collapsed as the global credit system melted down and a wide variety of sophisticated financial instruments became untrustworthy overnight. Unemployment soared.
The world will face some excruciating economic hardships over the next few years.

But there are other assets that don't lose their value regardless of how much markets fluctuate. The strength and insight behind that remarkable Bellows drawing stayed with him, and colored his perception of life, regardless of what was happening in the stock market that day.


In fact, some of the greatest artistic periods in human history arose during periods of great turmoil and strife. The golden age of Greece was forged in a period of bitter feuds between warring city states, when invasion by outside powers threatened to snuff out Greece altogether, and when an impoverished lower class was recovering from subjugation by the wealthy class. Here is Orson Welles' famous cuckoo clock speech from the Third Man:




Laurence Olivier said, "If you are an artist, you have to prove it."

Let's get to work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

WILLIAM APATOFF

He was born and raised in the slums of Boston, the son of Russian immigrants. When he was still a boy, his father died, leaving Apatoff the sole support for his family. He rode a battered bicycle around town after school seeking odd jobs, and he worked nights as a janitor. His childhood was grim and filled with challenges, but through it all he dreamed of becoming an artist.

He put himself through the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, working nights. Here is his portrait of a cleaning woman he admired.





After graduation, he went to Chicago where he set up an easel in his apartment and taught painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He married an Iowa farm girl and had children, who he adored. This is his portrait of me when I was three:


Before long, Apatoff found himself with six children to support and a lot of bills to pay. He put aside his fine art aspirations and became an art director in an advertising agency. Politically radical, he ruefully recounted that now his job was to sell "candy to rot teeth, tobacco to rot lungs, televisions to rot minds, and liquor to rot livers."







Every once in a while his fine art yearnings managed to find an outlet in his commercial work, as in this sketch of a bicentennial bottle for the Miller Brewing Company.



When I was young, I loved to accompany him on Sunday trips to the art museum. He would stride into a huge room filled with grand baroque paintings, size up the room in ten seconds and growl, "they should bring a garbage truck around back and throw out every painting in this room except this one and that one." Then he would stride briskly on to the next room as I raced on my little legs to keep up. But driving home, he might stop the car for 10 minutes to revel in the color of paint on an industrial water tower illuminated in the afternoon sun. I never met a man with more anarchistic taste.



Now my father is gone forever. Today would have been his birthday and I miss him terribly. He sacrificed his own potential as an artist so that his kids could have a better life than he did.
He never expected anyone to see these paintings. I post them here to honor what he gave up for me, and to honor all those caught in the tug of war between art and life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

THE NAKEDNESS OF GOYA

The world has gossiped for 200 years about Goya's twin paintings of the Maja-- one with clothes and one without.





When the secret nude painting was discovered, Spanish society was scandalized: did Goya really have an affair with MarĂ­a del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Alvarez de Toledo, the 13th Duchess of Alba (and wife of the wealthiest man in Spain)?? And gee, is that what she really looks like under all those fancy clothes????

Today the two paintings hang side by side in the Prado where visitors continue to ponder those same eternal questions.


From the flickr account of lapernas 2.0

The Maja certainly bared her secrets in this painting but Goya had a few secrets of his own, and he stripped himself bare in artwork that was far more revealing than his painting of the Maja.

For 40 years, Goya was a royal court painter who painted flattering portraits of aristocrats and nobles. But underneath he was the opposite; he detested the idle and corrupt aristocracy and painted passionate images sympathetic to the oppressed peasants.



Goya also championed the philosophy of the Enlightenment. He treasured its ideals of rationality and logic. But underneath, he was a superstitious man, obsessed with dreams and mysticism. He made eerie paintings of devils and witches and bats.



As another example, the public Goya created art glorifying generals and military victories while the private Goya was creating devastating etchings condemning The Disasters of War.







Goya was considered a bon vivant who lived for a while on a lavish estate while he consorted with royalty. Yet, underneath it all, he was a deaf, embittered hermit who distanced himself from others and painted his private musings in dark paintings about a world gone mad.



One of his private black paintings, a "half-submerged dog," is a bleak and ghostly image that makes no sense at all (and for that reason, is all the more frightening):



Goya stripped off civilization, stripped off pretense and affect, even stripped off linear thought, to paint himself in a profoundly naked way.

Most people would rather focus on the bared Maja than on Goya's bared soul. Art experts and pedants have lots of fun obsessing over whether the nude Maja shows the first pubic hair in the history of western art. Even the Spanish Inquisition preferred to focus on the nude Maja; they never investigated Goya for his subversive political views, but they demanded that he appear before them to account for his nude painting (perhaps foreshadowing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr).

In one sense the nudity of the Maja seems frivolous and shallow compared to Goya's nakedness. But on the other hand, if you spend enough time pondering the bleakness of Goya's black paintings, you start to yearn for rescue from the onslaught of the night. And it's in such dire circumstances that you begin to appreciate that a naked thigh or a pubic curl have a profundity of their own.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 23

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God, I love comics.



This cover from a 1940 comic book is not so much a drawing as a riot of the themes inside the heart of an adolescent boy.

Anyone who ever learned to draw will recognize their first few faltering steps here: how to hide the feet you don't quite know how to draw; the temptation to squeeze in every cool trick you've learned-- a skull, a punch, a broken wall, an axe-- whether it fits in the drawing or not; and of course, a girl in a slinky dress, perfected during those agonizing years when it was easier to invent your own girl than talk to a real one.

The drawing, just like an adolescent boy, is an awkward jumble of overlapping themes with no perspective or coordination.

There may come a day when these childish impulses are no longer so benign-- the boy grows up, and the sweet patriotism of that Uncle Sam may lead to narrow minded jingoism; the infatuation with a punch may lead to pointless violence; and the tied up girl may lead to who knows what. But for now, it is perfectly innocent.

This is clearly not a well executed drawing, but if you promise not to tell anyone, I think its sweetness and purity still qualify it as a lovely one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

LORADO TAFT'S FOUNTAIN OF TIME



Artists always dream of creating works of permanence. Perhaps they hope that "timeless" art will help them live on past their death.

Lorado Taft (1860-1936) was that kind of artist. A Chicago sculptor of monumental, heroic subjects, Taft worked from 1907 to 1922 on his life's masterpiece, a huge sculpture about mortality called The Fountain of Time. The sculpture was based on a line from Austin Dobson:
Time goes, you say? Alas, time stays; we go!
Taft created a 120 foot long parade of humanity with over 100 different figures symbolizing life's journey from birth to death.



This "march of the doomed" takes place in front of an imposing, 26 foot tall statue of Father Time.





Taft wanted his sculpture to have an eternal look, so he designed it in a classical "beaux-art" style. Unfortunately, by the time he finished, the beaux-art style was already unfashionable. It was replaced by abstract modernism. (Perhaps Time felt that Taft's ambition was impertinent and wanted to teach him a lesson.) In any event, the leading Chicago newspaper soon labeled the outdated sculpture one of the city's "pet atrocities." Resentful at the way styles had passed him by, Taft became a leading spokesperson for conservative sculpture and lectured against the evils of modernism (demonstrating that he had learned absolutely nothing about the inevitability of time).



Taft also tried to construct his sculpture using materials that would last a long time. After consulting with engineers, he decided on steel reinforced, hollow-cast concrete. Unfortunately, this choice was not well suited for Chicago winters. The concrete expanded and contracted, causing cracks in the surface. Details eroded and crumbled away forever. By the 1980s, the interior was crumbling due to moisture buildup, and the surface had become pitted and drab, assaulted by time, elements and pollution.



Even then, time was not done transforming Taft's work. Taft had envisioned his sculpture as the centerpiece of an elegant park in the style of the World's Columbian Exposition, where Taft first worked as a sculptor. However, the neighborhood changed with time. The surrounding city deteriorated even more than the sculpture. The sculpture became overgrown with weeds. There were no funds for sculpture repairs in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.



As a small boy in Chicago, I used to stand in that park and stare up at Taft's crumbling sculpture. Its subject was scary for a kid, but not nearly as scary as the changes wreaked by the passage of time.

I revisited that sculpture years later when I returned to Chicago as a law student. By then, time had transformed both me and the sculpture. I had grown to understand that, no matter how big or permanent we try to make art, it will not enable us to outwit time. No matter how grand or eternal the subject matter that we choose. No matter how wise the artist. No matter how much the artist got paid.

Taft had to learn the hard way that even art can't rescue us from the gaping maw of time; we just have to keep looking for our solace.

This happy happy love
Is sieged with crying sorrows,

Crushed beneath and above

Between todays and morrows;

A little paradise

Held in the world's vice.


....

This love a moment known

For what I do not know

And in a moment gone

Is like the happy doe

That keeps its perfect laws

Between the tiger's paws

And vindicates its cause.


. --Edwin Muir


Friday, November 21, 2008

COBY WHITMORE



The great Coby Whitmore reminds us that a picture can be bigger when it doesn't fill up the whole page.

Friday, November 14, 2008

FRED

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Andrew Wyeth called this painting "Marsh Hawk."



Having trouble finding the marsh hawk? Why, here it is way over at the edge, sitting on a post:



Harold von Schmidt painted this wonderful painting of revolutionary war hero William Dawes. Can't see him? If you are lucky, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of his butt.



This is Brueghel's painting of the fall of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun. But Icarus is not exactly hogging the spotlight.



Here are his legs, way down here:



The literary critic Marvin Mudrick once said,
If you're ever tempted to write a story called "The Secret of the Universe" or "Man's Inhumanity to Man," do yourself a favor and call it "Fred" instead.
For today's post, I was tempted to expound at length on the importance of avoiding obviousness in art.

But I think I won't.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

BALANCING INSPIRATION AND PERSPIRATION

Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg once said that he spent only a small percentage of his working time making creative choices. The vast majority of his time was spent on the manual labor of implementing those choices. He would spend days and days painstakingly drawing individual blades of grass and leaves.



Artist Bernie Wrightson seemed to work the same way. He spent a great deal of time mechanically implementing his initial artistic decisions:



(In my view, this often resulted in a mountain of effort for a molehill of a result.)

Illustrator Robert Vickrey had a similar laborious style. Once he designed a picture, he would spend weeks filling in backgrounds such as concrete surfaces and brick walls.



I was thinking about this trade off as I was marveling at the paintings of Dreamworks artist
Nathan Fowkes. Fowkes works at the opposite end of the spectrum.



Note the simplicity and economy with which he created that notch in the nearest line of mountains, or the way he conveyed important gradations of color within a single brush stroke.



These are small paintings (most are less than 3x5") that were painted very quickly (usually in 20 to 40 minutes) yet each one contains the entire genetic code for a larger, finished painting.







These sketches demonstrate all of the hard artistic decisions (commitments to a composition and a design, selections of color and technique) by which a finished work of art might be judged. They are pure artistic choice in its most concentrated form, without all the numbing labor and secondary refinements found in the finished pieces above.

Don't make the mistake of thinking there is anything crude about these paintings just because they are sketches. The subtlety of color in this next little beauty is absolutely breathtaking:



While they are smaller in size and took a fraction of the time, Fowkes's sketches convey far more information, with far more insight, than the larger finished works of Van Allsburg, Wrightson and Vickrey above. Each stroke or color choice by Fowkes has real significance.

I particularly enjoy the rich variety that Fowkes finds in the view from his window. These tiny pictures are so dense with knowledge, they must have the atomic weight of weapons grade plutonium:




I find his curiosity about this view quite contagious.

Van Allsburg, Wrightson and Vickrey are all talented fellows and I admire their work, but there is a separate beauty to Fowkes's economy, and I commend his work to you.

Friday, October 31, 2008

TALENT WHICH IS DEATH TO HIDE

In 1655, the great English poet John Milton wrote in despair how, halfway through life, his blindness prevented him from fulfilling his god given talent:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
If he couldn't make maximum use of his gift, Milton felt he would not be able to present a "true acount" of himself to his maker. 

Beethoven, too, was tormented because the gods who gifted him with genius perversely thwarted him from achieving his full potential.  Robbed of his hearing midway through life, Beethoven despaired over his inability to use his gifts. 

The artist Noel Sickles was not able to use his own talent when he worked as a ghost artist for the comic strip Scorchy Smith. He had to conceal his ability in order to earn a steady living imitating the awful drawings of cartoonist John Terry.

Sickles recalled the pain of deliberately doing bad work in order to make money:

Have you ever seen John Terry's work?.... I had to forget everything I learned about drawing -- absolutely everything -- because it was the worst drawing I had ever seen by anybody. Your children do better drawings than John Terry.... But it took time to copy that horrible style, you know.
After Sickles escaped from the shadow of John Terry, he was able to flex his own muscles, develop his own talent and begin doing great work like this:


Artist Frank Frazetta had a similar experience. He earned a steady living as the ghost artist for Al Capp's comic strip, Li'l Abner:



Frazetta later recalled the the soul-numbing effect of drawing under the weight of Capp's mediocre formula:

"I shouldn't have done it, " Frank confesses, "but I was lazy.... Al Capp came along and made me an offer I couldn't refuse. The pay was wonderful and it took me only a day to pencil his Sunday page and I had the rest of the week off! What more could I ask for? On a couple of occasions I went up to his Boston studio and he paid me $100 a day, which was really big money back then." Frazetta worked for Capp for the better part of eight years, burying his own style under that of his employer.... Frank devoted his full attention to Li 'l Abner.... "Because of Capp's strong style of drawing, I had all but lost all the things I had learned and developed on my own," states Frank. " I had to get away." (Even after a year away from Capp, his own work looked awkward).
After he cast off the straightjacket of Li'l Abner, Frazetta developed astonishing artistic gifts that dwarfed those of Capp:


Time and again, gifted artists have subordinated their true talent in exchange for a regular paycheck.

Illustrator Bernie Fuchs was commercially successful working on car brochures in Detroit, where he painted happy couples standing next to fancy cars. Fuchs worked in a large studio for a boss who promised, " if you stay with me, I guarantee I will make you the richest illustrator in all of Detroit." The work was safe and lucrative, but Fuchs knew he was capable of more. A friend recalls,

All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
He gambled everything and broke away to work independently in New York. There, he encountered a wider range of challenges and was able to make use of his talents to their fullest.
 

His gamble paid off. Within just a few years, Fuchs was at the White House meeting with President Kennedy to paint his portrait. He had a long, exciting career filled with experiences he would never have encountered in Detroit.

Not every story had such a happy ending. Artist Don Trachte worked for years behind the scenes on Carl Anderson's mediocre comic strip, Henry. When Anderson died in 1948, Trachte stepped into Anderson's shoes and continued to make identical drawings following the same mindless formula for another 40 years.


 

As Shakespeare wrote,
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and miseries

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