Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Whenever I travel to New York City, I make a point of visiting the Society of Illustrator's Museum of American Illustration.  The current show is comprised of classic masterpieces from the Society's permanent collection, most of which are rarely seen. I heartily recommend it to anyone in the NY vicinity.

The star of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is this muscular tour de force by Harold von Schmidt:

Von Schmidt was a genuine cowboy and came by his knowledge of horses honestly.  He understood their anatomy, their movement and their spirit and it showed in his paintings.

This large oil painting (over four feet wide) was greatly reduced for publication in a 1933 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.  It must be seen in person to be appreciated.

The Society's exhibition showcases a cross section of other strong artistic personalities.  William A. Smith is represented by one of his gritty noir paintings.

There's a striking Bob Peak employing his trademark psychedelic colors

And illustrators such as Orson Lowell and Henry Raleigh show off their draftsmanship.

The illustrators in the show included many bold, opinionated artists who helped shape the popular taste of their generation.

When I left the Society I walked down the street to the Museum of Modern Art where I viewed the work of conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer.  His exhibition consisted of 195 pages from the 2009 Montevideo phone book with the names of victims of political repression in Uruguay.  


The pages were framed and displayed in rows:

 I had to fight my way through the crowd of art lovers in order to admire Camnitzer's photocopies  close up.

It is not hard to come up with a definition of art broad enough to encompass both Harold von Schmidt's horse race painting and Camnitzer's phone book pages.   We've already defined a perimeter for art sufficiently far flung and porous to include almost anything.  Our real challenge now is to articulate standards-- any type of standards--  sufficient to make such diverse "art" cohere as a category.  For the term to have meaning, it must stand for something more than random jumbles of unrelated molecules.  Even Clement Greenberg, the leading advocate for abstract expressionism, wrote that the aesthetic validity of nonrepresentational art can only come from "obedience to some worthy constraint."

Judging from my mail, we haven't done nearly as well with "standards" that impose such constraint.  Readers frequently complain that I'm wrong to to pass judgement on certain artworks.  They say, "You're not allowed to criticize a lack of skill or crummy drawing or poor design, because this picture is above such cosmetic concerns-- it's more about the concept, or about irony or cultural observations.  Its visual execution is secondary."  Or they say,  "You can't claim one picture is better than the other because all standards are inherently subjective.  You should accept a picture for what it is.  If you don't like it simply pass it by."
I agree that each artwork is entitled to be judged by its success or failure in achieving its own ambitions. (I go one step further and believe the quality of its ambitions are also fair game, but then I'm old fashioned.)  In my view, none of this means that two works of art with very different ambitions can't be fruitfully contrasted.  I believe apples and oranges can be weighed on the same scale, just as I believe the art at the Society of Illustrators and MOMA can be meaningfully compared.  An excellent image is still superior to a mediocre concept most days of the week.  Many of the anemic intellectual puzzles found at MOMA melt away in the face of some of the bold artistic choices  at the Society exhibition.

For better or worse, we seem to be living through a period when it is popular to focus on concept over visual execution.  But anyone who believes conceptual art is categorically superior should visit the Society of Illustrators to refresh their memory of what creative design, composition, harmony balance and other traditional aesthetic experiences have to offer.

Monday, September 21, 2015



Piet van der Hem (1885-1961) started out as a gallery painter and ended up as a society portrait painter.  But in between, the maelstrom of World War I transformed him into a savage editorial cartoonist.


Van der Hem began his formal art training in Amsterdam and Paris.  Early in his career, he participated in a Stedelijk Museum fine art exhibition, working with Piet Mondrian, Leo Gestelother and other young painters in the Amsterdam luminism school, the Dutch modern art movement. 

He seemed launched on a career as a modernist.  However, as World War I approached, he gradually dropped out of the avant garde and instead began drawing political cartoons with biting social commentary.   

As the war ramped up, van der Hem caught his stride.  This cartoon appeared shortly after German U boats sank the Lusitania:  

 Van der Hem was fond of portraying military men as monkeys.  


His work appeared in The New Amsterdammer from 1914-1920 and the Haagsche Post from 1920-1935.


However, as the Nazis ascended to power, they gradually crushed the Dutch free press.  Van der Hem lost his forum and his artwork lost its bite.  He went back to being a respectable artist.  He spent the rest of his career doing society portraits which, while competent, in my view were undistinguished and not nearly as fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015


It takes no talent to destroy great art.  Any halfwit can wield the knife or light the dynamite.  The gift to create art, on the other hand, is rare and fleeting.  This imbalance makes lousy odds for anyone rooting for beauty over destruction.

ISIS thug striking art with a sledge hammer
In our era, militant Islam has spawned a generation of monsters.  Determined to make bad odds even worse, they've kept busy this summer pointlessly destroying beautiful ancient objects.
Earlier this year, militants bulldozed Nimrud, the former capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, in order to destroy its 3,000 year old  archaeological treasures.
Last month when ISIS destroyed the monuments and temples in the city of Palmyra, uneducated  trainees required only a few hours to undo loveliness that had been honed over a thousand years by gifted craftsmen and artists.  No talent or experience required.

Yet, brutes with bulldozers are not the main reason the deck is stacked against art.  Nor are government censors, misguided Art Directors, or even collapsing buildings.

When you think about it, lousy odds have always been at the heart of art-making.  2,500 years ago Zhuang Zhou said:
Your life has a limit but knowledge has none.  If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, your effort is doomed.
Art is the use of what is limited to pursue what has no limit.  As a result, our efforts are always doomed to some measure of imperfection and inadequacy.

I spoke with the illustrator Robert Heindel shortly before his death.  Despite a long and successful career,  he was haunted by the questions that many artists ask themselves as they run out of time:
You realize when you get to be my age that you aren't really as good as you wanted to be.  You have to confront the question, "How good am I really?  Why can't I be better?"
Art's strengths are rare, but its vulnerabilities are widespread and permanent.  Perhaps that's why accountants never make good artists: art's odds are so bad, they make no sense to anyone who understands math.  A person who can read actuarial tables wouldn't even take the first step down this path.

So given these lousy odds, is art worth it?  Does it really contribute enough to our lives to make it worth the fight?  For proof, look no further than Khaled al-As'ad.

Khaled al-Asaad in front of a rare sarcophagus dating from the first century.

Khaled al-As'ad was a university professor and for decades the Director of Antiquities in Palmyra. He loved the city's art treasures and devoted his life to unearthing, studying and preserving them.  When ISIS invaded Palmyra, he hid the antiquities and sacred relics to protect them from being destroyed or sold on the black market.  ISIS arrested the 81 year old scholar and tortured him, demanding that he reveal where he'd hidden the treasures.  When he refused to tell, he was publicly beheaded.  Reports said that he never wavered.  They also said that after crucifying him, the militants hung his body from the same ancient columns he had once restored.

There are very few genuine heroes in the field of art.  You won't find them at Sotheby's or teaching graduate classes or managing big museums.  But every once in a great while, someone who has been truly touched by art demonstrates the strength and resolve and yes, the grace that beauty can inspire.  Al-As'ad must have looked around that awful barren desert on the last day of his life and recognized that civilization was not going to rescue him.  Yet, he'd found something worth protecting with his life.  That's enough to change the math on even the worst odds.

Dr. al-As'ad, I stand up at my desk in recognition of your heroism and in honor of your memory.

Saturday, September 05, 2015


I am a big fan of the artist Jorge Gonzalez.   I think his graphic novels are beautifully drawn, in a rich and inventive style.



Gonzalez lives in Spain and works in traditional black pencil.  He colors and enhances his drawings digitally to give them those sepia tones.  His works include FueyeDear Patagonia and The Great SurubĂ­.

I particularly like his strong compositions:



I admire his linework and his imaginative forms.  For example, look at his variety of treatments of an obese character in his graphic novel, Fueye:


Here, playing the accordion:

As I have repeatedly (and loudly) said on this forum, I think many of today's most prestigious graphic novels are poorly drawn.  They may win a Pulitzer prize or a National Book Critics Circle finalist award; they may be Time Magazine's #1 book of the year or win a MacArthur foundation "genius" award, but these honors are bestowed by literary types and cultural gatekeepers who apparently have very little understanding of visual art.  In my view, the drawings in these books often fail to hold up their half of the bargain.

To be clear, when I say that many graphic novels today are "poorly drawn" I'm not talking about technical facility or realism or mastery of traditional media.  I'm  more concerned with a lack of profundity, spirit, ability, sensitivity and visual imagination. 

Gonzalez' work reminds me that for the right artist, there is still a big role for creativity on the visual side of graphic novels.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


 [N.B. -- I'm not through messing around with the html to fix this blog, but I'm too impatient to hold off with new posts any longer.  My mama didn't raise me to be no software engineer.  The end is in sight, but in the meantime, here's a new post.]

This is a loose preliminary sketch by Bernie Fuchs for a coffee ad in the 1960s.


 Some people will be quick to note Fuchs employed photo reference in this picture:

But that's not the part that interests me.  I like the way his sketch reveals Fuchs probing for the design elements in his subjects.  His handling of the elbow (below) displays knowledge of both the anatomy beneath the cloth and the design above the cloth.  The mere facts of the cloth itself-- the part captured by a camera-- is the thinnest layer in the process.

Again and again, this sketch shows Fuchs testing and probing for designs, and assessing how far he can stray from a realistic representation:

And while the people on the sofa are tightly rendered, look at how unbelievably loose Fuchs was with other elements such as the sofa arm, or the cups and saucers.  Even in this preliminary sketch, his priorities were firmly established.  

It's obvious from this drawing that Fuchs valued uncontrolled, loose line and white space.  He wisely gave them prime real estate, and they do much to shape the character of the total drawing.

Today the use of photo reference, enhanced with Photoshop and other imaging tools, has run amok.  And on the other side of the spectrum, there remain purists who look down on any type of photo reference.  I think both sides focus too much on that thin layer of facts captured by the camera.  One reason I admire Fuchs is that he understood the structure beneath and the designs above a photograph.  You can see them in the rawest form in this sketch.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I began this blog back in the days when Fred Flintstone was still blogging for the Slate Rock and Gravel Company.  It began impetuously (I named and designed it in about 20 minutes) with the expectation that it would take only a few months to make some much-needed points about artists I liked (and a few I didn't).  After that I planned to shut the blog down and turn my attention elsewhere.
But I ran into some interesting and opinionated readers along the way, and started learning new things from them.  Before I knew it ten years had slipped by.  All the while, my backlog of topics kept growing.

Some readers have long criticized my format ("Your white letters on a black background give me headaches...") or my lack of an RSS feed ("You're a goddamn dinosaur...") Some helpfully sent me urls for blogs that repeatedly copy my posts, remove my name, and post my work under their own name to sell ads.  In each case, I told myself, "Well, I won't be doing this too much longer anyway...."

But that excuse has become increasingly indefensible so I finally decided to fix a few broken things and apply a new coat of paint.  I didn't intend to experiment with these changes publicly, or for it to take this long, but I'm learning about formatting too.  Hopefully the process will be done in a couple of days and I can return to posting.  Thanks for your patience. 

Monday, July 20, 2015


It was another exciting year at San Diego Comic-Con. There's no place quite like it.  As part this year's offerings, a group of scholars offered academic seminars about comics.  The classes included:
  • insights into the enthymematic nature of comic strip argumentation

  • how the application of metadata reveals previously undiscovered patterns in Batman comic books 

  • an analysis of key Uncle Scrooge comics, characters and stories to support [the] argument that Scrooge McDuck is emblematic of the economic patters of comic book franchises and prefigures the transmedia development of comic book characters.

My favorite was the class that introduced us to the "ethnosurrealism" of comics: 

Comics are inherently surreal, juxtaposing images, text and word and thought balloons to create layered stories consisting of a multiplicity of perspectives and states of being.  Ethnosurrealism focuses on culture (cultural notions, cultural practices, and cultural theories) to explore those moments where culturally bound interpretations of story converge at the crossroads of everyday life.  It seeks to make these images, stories and their making, co-present.

You can learn something from every event at Comic-Con, although the lesson may not be the one intended.  

Some art forms wilt under a sustained spotlight-- not because they are inferior art, but because it's in their nature to wilt.  You would not, for example, inspect ice cream under klieg lights. 

The great philosopher John Stuart Mill warned us about over-analyzing what makes us happy, and "putting it to flight by fatal questioning."  He wrote:

The enjoyments of life... will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and... you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe.

One thing I like about Comic-Con is that for four days, it seems like the happiest place on earth.