Monday, April 20, 2015


I love Saul Steinberg's drawing of "Frozen Music Found Near Radio City Music Hall, Winter 1939"

For thousands of years,  philosophers have struggled for an aesthetic theory of music.  Platonic theorists argue that musical works are abstract objects, while Nominalist thinkers  claim music is a collection of  concrete particulars.   Scholars  fiercely debate the "ontology of music"--  are drawings "physical objects"  while music is an abstraction  allowing for "multiple instantations"?    How do "harmony" and "composition" in music relate to harmony and composition in the visual arts? 

Steinberg sidesteps these kinds of semantic debates by showing us the day when music froze in mid-air:


Bill Watterson, in his excellent new book,  Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, said:
I love the unpretentiousness of cartoons.  If you sat down and wrote a two hundred page book called My Big Thoughts on Life, no one would read it. But if you stick those same thoughts in a comic strip and wrap them in a little joke that takes five seconds to read, now you're talking to millions.

Steinberg looked at layer upon layer of dense philosophical analysis, as impenetrable as coal under pressure, and picked out this little diamond-- clear, light and funny.

Friday, April 10, 2015


On a recent trip to Disney World I was impressed by the way Disney has adapted state of the art digital technologies for a new generation of rides and events.  Everywhere I turned there were flashing video screens and interactive robotics and music and bustling activity.

Then I unexpectedly stumbled across a quiet and nearly empty building where I had the most interesting experience of my visit: a beautiful exhibition of original background drawings and paintings from Disney's classic films.  This art exhibit, entitled "Setting the Scene," will be on display until approximately 2019. 

From Fantasia's pastoral sequenceAll images copyright Walt Disney

The show contains a rich array of paintings from movies such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Snow White and many others.  Here you can see the fertile imaginations of the founding fathers (and mothers) at the dawn of animation.

From Sleeping Beauty

The exhibition was assembled by the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in conjunction with Walt Disney Imagineering/Florida.  It provides a good sense for the massive treasure trove of talent that made Disney what it is today.


I strongly recommend this exhibition to anyone who makes it down to Disney World.  It won't be crowded and it's worth careful study.

Disney reports it has begun curating additional exhibitions that will get its art our of the vaults and in front of appreciative audiences.  "We are currently curating two original exhibitions, one that will open this year in China entitled, Drawn from Life and a second one that will open in Europe."  Disney also plans to release several books in 2015 and 2016 making use of art from the archives.

A few of the masterpieces in the exhibition are attributed to specific artists such as Gustaf Tenggren but as Disney reports,
In the early days of the Studio, artists did not sign their names as the films were seen as a highly collaborative experience, so we can only identify those pieces as having been created by a "Disney Studio Artist....In recent years, all the artwork has been signed (or digitally catalogued with the artists' names) so we can cite the artist attribution in books and exhibitions and properly recognize the very talented individuals who contribute to the films in his or her own style. 

As I left the gallery and returned to the main park, I couldn't help thinking of the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak.

Karnak was one of the most monumental religious sites ever built.  The majestic temple grounds took more than 2,000 years to construct and included 200 acres of buildings, sacred lakes and grand courtyards.  Its "Sacred Enclosure of Amon" alone is 61 acres, big enough to hold ten European cathedrals.  Robed priests conducted torchlight processions along a 2.5 kilometer avenue lined with a thousand ram-headed sphinxes.

But in the beginning Karnak was only a small spot in the desert where a few people with vision saw something holy.  The first structure on that site was apparently a tiny reed hut but it was enough to provide a spiritual foundation for the mighty Egyptian empire that followed.  As the centuries passed, engineers, builders and armies arrived at the site and built outward from that first sacred spot, the "Holy of Holies,"

The handful of visionaries who put pencil to paper back in the days of Snow White and Pinocchio, they provided the spiritual foundation for the Disney empire.  These small, imaginative paintings can be found in Disney's Hollywood Studio Theme Park.  They didn't attract long lines of visitors like the tumultuous Toy Story Midway Mania 4D ride, but they deserve your close attention, for they are the Holy of Holies. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


This is how Jeff Koons (really and truly) explains his work of art, above:

This painting has a sexualized sense of nature.  There's reference to nineteenth-century French painting, and Courbet, and to Louis Elishemius, a twentieth-century American who has absolutely influenced me over the last couple of years.  There's also a reflective silver line drawing that's what I think would be Cy Twombley's take on Courbet's Origin of the World-- but a little more primal.  The image itself comes from a close-up of a couple in the act of making love.  It's a penetration.  Laid on top of that, with the exact same cropping, is an image of a waterfall.  So you have the greens and the nature colors and then in the center of the waterfall, you have white and the flesh of the couple.  It makes reference to Marcel Duchamp's Etant Donnes.  Sexuality is something that overtakes you.  The gesture that you end up making in the world happens through instinct and all these desires for procreation.  The most beautiful aesthetics, the greatest beauty, is the acceptance of nature and of how things function.  When I say beauty,  I mean just true reality and openness to everything.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Even the harshest caricature requires balance.  Artists with strong opinions may try extreme exaggerations, only to discover that their caricatures lose strength rather than gaining it.  Illustrator Ralph Steadman offered one reason why caricaturists can't afford to get too carried away:
Distortion ultimately loses its potency as it departs too dramatically from authentic human or bestial form
Artists with the talent to maintain control at the extremes-- who can approach the limits, but retain the hair-line judgment to know when to stop-- those are the masters who are able to devise some truly devastating images.   (I'm not talking here about mere likenesses.  The drawings I'm describing are in a different category from anything Al Hirschfeld or David Levine or Mort Drucker ever dreamed up.)

The following are examples of such caricature from artists I admire.  First is Steve Brodner's depiction of Ted Cruz:

Fairly conventional caricatures surround Brodner's vicious treatment of Cruz
Brodner's unerring eye located the reptilian elements in Cruz's DNA and brought them to the fore

Tom Fluharty's devastating treatment of Hilary Clinton won attention-- and laughs-- from both sides of the aisle.


Here, Fluharty-- who is really a very nice person in real life-- contorts Obama's face to the limits of recognizability.

Fluharty's expertise as a portrait painter enables him to take great liberties with the bones and muscles of the face, without losing control
In the following picture, John Cuneo literally strips bare a rogue's gallery of saggy old (mostly white) guys:


No limits: Dick Cheney's shriveled penis draped on the coffin of the war dead

Steadman believed that "The very dark primeval spur of all drawing [is] the deep desire to wield a supernatural power over a victim, the subject of the portrayal." 

As you try to erase these horrifying images from your mind, you can feel that power at work. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015


My good friend Walt Reed passed away this morning at age 97.

Illustrator Tom Lovell once said: "It was Walt Reed that single-handedly preserved illustration as art." Walt was the founding father of the study of American illustration.  Also its chief archivist and its patron saint.  There was never anyone who loved illustration more, or with greater purity.

Through his many excellent books and articles, and his founding of the Illustration House gallery, Walt built a platform for everyone who followed.  

 As illustration art-- once scorned in "legitimate" art circles-- became more accepted it attracted a different breed of dealer-- sharpsters and profiteers who lacked Walt's expertise, ethics or taste but who smelled an opportunity for profit.  They produced glossy books with inferior scholarship.  They scooped up Walt's inventory and resold it at inflated prices to unwary Hollywood celebrities. One opened a glittering palace of illustration in Rhode Island, modeled after Versailles.  Another ran an illustration empire from Miami.

Walt remained unfazed as the art market heated up around him.  Humble, plodding, steadfast and scrupulously honest, he focused on the art he loved, rather than aggressive marketing.  In 97 years, he never did learn to squeeze the maximum profit from selling originals, but he always found time to talk to students like me who didn't have two nickels to rub together.

I thought about this recently when I visited Walt in his small, sparse home.  All of the big oil paintings by Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth that Walt once sold for a pittance had long ago passed on to other hands, and on his wall remained one lone ink drawing by Edwin Austin Abbey.  It seemed unjust that aggressive marketers had monetized Walt's early vision and were now living in luxury, while Walt remained behind in a threadbare sweater.  But it turned out that Walt had one more lesson to teach me, perhaps the most important lesson of all

He insisted on showing me something in the drawing on his wall.  He scared the hell out of me as he struggled to his feet and teetered on wobbly legs.  I stood ready to catch him at any second, but he made it to the wall, took the drawing down and (with much effort) carried it to the window so we could admire the penwork together.  Once there, he pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed on my own.  He talked with such excitement and enthusiasm about the drawing, it was clear he was still thrilled by the beauty of the art.  I never heard his prosperous competitors talk with such excitement about anything except a commercial transaction.

And I realized Walt's threadbare sweater didn't matter a damn.  He had triumphed over all of them. He understood and appreciated the beauty of this slender drawing in a way that his carnivorous competition  never would.  And in doing so, he gained the best of what art has to offer.  As I think and write about this kind of art, I do my best to remember the nature of Walt's great victory and to follow that path myself.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Over the last two weeks we've discussed the "unschooled" style of drawing, where artists abandon technical skill in favor of a naive, primitive look.   We debated the continuing relevance of "skill" in art, and the challenge of distinguishing admirable "loose and spontaneous" art from inferior "sloppy and lazy" art.

A number of commenters reminded us that "skill" has its own pitfalls-- art can be technically skillful yet hollow and insubstantial.

That's probably a good opening to talk about Nelson Shanks, who has been in the news lately. 

Shanks is one of the most sought after portrait painters in the world, as he will readily tell you.  (His web site describes him as a "world-renowned painter, art historian, art teacher, connoisseur and collector [with a] lifelong... devotion to fine arts." )  He is the darling of the Art Renewal Center which, in the overheated rhetoric of its Chairman, blames the success of unskilled art on a "conspiracy... to malign and degrade the reputations" of traditional artists using "pathetic lies and distortions."  

I don't think anyone would question Shanks' technical virtuosity, but I confess I find much of his work uninspiring.   

Shanks is one of the most literal painters around today.  There doesn't seem to be a square inch of ambiguity in his work.  Any mystery comes from his arrangement of odd objects and symbols, which  all seem to be painted realistically in the same fanatical detail.

Even a camera seems to do more prioritizing than Shanks.  A photograph's depth of field at least puts some elements in sharper focus than others.  But in these paintings by Shanks, every element has the same high definition sharpness, right down to the complex patterns on fabric.  Shanks is undiscriminating; the elements which might play a supporting role receive the same explicit treatment as elements which should be given priority.  And don't look for economy in these paintings.  Don't look for suggestion or openness or playfulness or vitality either.   

Personally, I find more art (and more humanity) in the work of other traditional realists such as Burt SilvermanJeremy Lipking or Adrian Gottlieb.
Shanks fans tout the symbolism in his paintings.  For example, in this portrait of Princess Diana, the composition is supposed to symbolize her isolation and loneliness. 

To me, this level of symbolism places Shanks in the same category as romance cover painter Elaine Duillo, who shares Shanks' technical skill but got paid a lot less due to class and gender biases.

Last week Shanks created a stir by revealing to the press that in his 2006 portrait of President Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery he hid the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal:

Shanks said, "It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him." Shanks called Clinton "the most famous liar of all time."

If Shanks had turned down a prestigious presidential assignment because Shanks disapproved of the President, he would've been a profile in courage.  Or if Shanks had warned the National Portrait Gallery that he was not painting the statesman-like image they wanted, he would have been an artist of principle.  Even if he had kept his hidden symbols secret, he would've just been a rascal like other artists before him.  But he did none of these things. 

When Shanks auditioned for the job, he lied: "I need to be fairly straightforward. I'll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right."  He won the commission by traveling to Washington and presenting his portfolio of respectful portraits to Clinton.  After winning the first phase, he was required to present a preliminary sketch for approval.  (His sketch obviously did not include the now infamous shadow).  He did not reveal what he was up to until the painting had been unveiled to the public and was hanging prominently in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, Shanks went to the press to brag about how he had duped his client.  Later, he had the temerity to complain that his painting was not getting enough exhibition time, probably  due to pressure from the Clintons.
As far as I'm concerned, the example of Nelson Shanks offers us not one but two lessons about technical skill: 
  1.  Dazzling skill is no guarantee of artistic quality
  2. Dazzling skill is no guarantee that an artist is not a jackass

Saturday, February 28, 2015


Following up on last week, here are some loose drawings I enjoy:

George Booth: "This meeting was called in order to discuss the meat. It has been pointed out that there is no more meat.  A motion has been made to fight over the bones."

R.O. Blechman


Robert Weber

Observe how each drawing appears light and spontaneous... but look closer and you'll see that each artist  carefully fine tuned their drawing to achieve that "spontaneous" look:

Booth re-drew the faces on two of the cave men

Blechman shaved 1/16 of an inch off the nose to make it funnier

Lichty made those slapdash brush strokes funnier by going back and tapering them with white paint

Weber's simplified yet insightful line (look at the great profile on the woman!) came at a price.  He came back with white paint to simplify and clarify his picture. 

I'm not pointing out these refinements to reveal a magician's tricks or to find fault with these excellent artists.  Rather, I'm trying to demonstrate that many of the best "spontaneous" drawings you see are carefully drawn to an artist's exacting standard. Variations as small as 1/16 of an inch were considered important.

I fear that some young artists see the free looking result and develop unrealistic expectations.  They believe casual drawing can be taken casually.  Their eyes no longer see the difference.  

The great political cartoonist David Low once said, "making a cartoon occupied usually about three days: two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."