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.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Here's a high rez gallery of drawings by the late great Leonard Starr.   Sparkling draftsmanship, witty dialogue and plots by a master storyteller. No eulogy or speech could be a better tribute. 

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P.S.-- If you'd like a glimpse into the glittering world of successful cartoonists in the 1960s, a close friend of Leonard's Tom Sawyer, has posted on youtube his home movies of a party that Leonard gave for fellow cartoonists in December 1965: 

 LEONARD STARR - PARTY - Dec. 11, 1965 8 mm. footage of a party given by Leonard & Betty Starr at their Central Park West apartment. The guests include many celebrated artists, writers & other personalities (w/spouses) of that era, including Mell Lazarus, Bill & Gloria Overgard. Alfred Andriola, Otto Soglow, Warren & Nadine King, Holly & Tom Sawyer, Jerry Robinson, Len Steckler, Howard Post, Frank Bolle, Irwin Hasen, John Prentice, Tex Blaisdell, Bobbie Shaw, Don Philips. Frank & Barbara Jacobs, Lee Falk, & others. (to request a set of head-shots identifying most of the attendees, email from the Contact page at

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

LEONARD STARR (1925-2015)

Toward the end of his life,  John Updike reflected on the nature of bliss:
To copy comic strips, stretched prone upon the musty carpet--
Mickey's ears, the curl in Donald's bill,
The bulbous nose of Barney Google, Captain Easy's squint--
What bliss!
When I was ten years old, my version of bliss was lying on the floor and copying Leonard Starr's drawings for On Stage out of the Chicago Tribune Sunday comics section.  His drawings thrilled me, and I carefully cut them out and preserved them in a little box of treasures.

I learned anatomy and faces from Leonard Starr.  I could tell that he knew how to draw hands real good and I traced them as best I could.

Later I recognized that I wasn't alone; I spotted tracings of his work in many comic books and strips.  He was the cartoonist that many cartoonists swiped from, because he was so rock solid. 

I learned about composition and design from Leonard.  That's a holy bond.

I wrote my second fan letter to him.  (The first was to Zorro).

After I grew up and went on to practice law, I had the great pleasure of meeting my boyhood hero, and last Sunday I sat by his hospital bed and held his hand.  In our last conversation he wanted to discuss William Faulkner's Nobel award speech, the one in which Faulkner said, 
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
I promised that when I came to visit him next, I'd bring the text of Faulkner's speech.   This afternoon, Leonard passed away so I'm posting the text he wanted here, in the hope that he'll see it.

Leonard, thanks for the bliss. 


Thursday, June 25, 2015


David Low,  the greatest political cartoonist of World War II,  gave this advice to young cartoonists about drawing dictators:
To draw a hostile war lord as a horrible monster is to play his game.  What he doesn't like is being shown as a silly ass.
Low was second to none at depicting tyrants as silly asses:


Low was so effective at getting under Hitler's skin that prior to WW II, the Nazi government lodged a formal protest about Low's drawings. 

Despite Low's rule about not dignifying tyrants by drawing them as "horrible monsters," sometimes the war became so horrifying that he couldn't resist giving tyrants the full "monster" treatment.   His outrage overcame his resolution.

Yet,  Low's outrage never caused him to lose artistic control.  He recognized that to make the most powerful statement he could not abandon restraint; a picture overcome by passion and emotion is usually less potent.

Look how thoughtfully Low constructed the wonderful drawing above.  To draw the worst creature imaginable, many artists might make Hitler a literal monster-- perhaps a vampire with blood and fangs and claws.   But with consummate skill, Low transforms Hitler into a beast primarily by changing his posture.

Keen powers of observation at work: Low didn't need to resort to fur or tentacles to make a monster; all it took was splayed legs, hunched shoulders, dangling arms and effective shadows.

Similarly, look at how simply yet carefully Low evokes those victims in the cattle car.  They are a sea of humanity, yet each sufferer has character.

Or consider the staging of the picture-- the cattle cars behind Hitler, as his legacy; the shadows on the ground with the stripe of daylight between train cars reinforce in this tight space that we are looking at a series of such cars; the shadows on the sides of the cars give the drawing graphic power while conveying the dark weight of the cargo; the slight incline of the hill lowering Hitler and leading up to his nemesis; these were all conscious choices by a master.  Nothing in the picture had to be that way.

The more extreme an artist decides to treat a subject,  the more talent is required to keep the drawing from going off the rails.

As Peter Viereck reminded us, "Art, being bartender, is never drunk."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Parasitology is the scientific study of parasites-- creatures that attach themselves to free-living species and suck blood and other nutrients from them.  

1.  HOOKWORM (Ancylostoma duodenale)

Photomicrograph of the hookworm

The hookworm is a parasitic worm that burrows into the intestine of its victim.  It uses those teeth to hook into the intestine wall and drink the host's blood, while causing infection, nausea, indigestion, anemia and protein deficiency.   Hookworms infect nearly 700 million (mostly poor) people around the world.  The Center for Disease Control reports that hookworms "account for a major burden of disease worldwide."
Hookworms are able to move from one host to another when the hookworm is excreted in dung.  After they land on soil, hookworms are able to penetrate the bare foot of another human host and burrow through to the intestine.

2.  RICHARD PRINCE (Lizardus Plagiarista)

Richard Prince has made a lot of money taking the work of other artists and selling it as his own.   Prince cannot paint well himself,  but he'll take an illustrator's painting,  re-frame it along with a copy of the published version, and sell it for a hundred times what the original artist was paid.

The prestigious Gagosian gallery in Manhattan which sells Prince's work explains that Prince's appropriation art "redefined the concepts of authorship, ownership, and aura." 

In a hilariously loathsome moment, the Gagosian web site credits Prince as the artist because he conceptually re-framed this painting, and credits Rob McKeever for photographing the work for their web site, but nowhere mentions the name of the actual painter, Rafael DeSoto because, you see, that would be irrelevant.

Predictably, Mr. Prince has been sued for plagiarism but just as hookworms hide in crevasses of the bowels, Mr. Prince and his gallery found shelter in a crevasse in the law.  A court found Prince guilty of copyright infringement but on appeal a divided Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the original ruling.  Two out of three appellate court judges ruled that Prince was making "fair use" of another artist's work because Prince's pictures “have a different character” from the original, giving it a “new expression” and employing “new aesthetics with creative and communicative results distinct” from the original work.  The dissenting judge claimed the court was not qualified to decide which of Mr. Prince's works were "transformative" and which were not.  ("It would be extremely uncomfortable for me to do so in my appellate capacity, let alone my limited art experience.")

Parasitology tells us that as long as posh art galleries can afford better lawyers than the individual  plagiarized illustrator or comic artist, Prince has nothing to fear. 

At one time, appropriation art consisted of artists taking functional industrial objects that were never intended to be art-- a urinal or a bicycle seat-- and pointing out the artistic qualities in them.  In those days, appropriation artists were clueless about how to exploit concepts to become millionaires.  They thought they were having fun. But like all god's creatures, parasites continue to evolve.  Appropriation art grew and and tightened its grip, becoming increasingly shameless.  Artists were soon appropriating the conscious designs of commercial artists and they now appropriate entire works of art, intact.  Sometimes they delete the signature of the original "low" artist and replace it with the signature of the "high" artist.

What can the science of parasitology teach us about the new breed of appropriation artist?  Just as hookworms are able to travel from host to host by being excreted in dung, appropriation artists spread via opinions excreted by art dealers, auction houses and Manhattan galleries.  Nancy Spector, Chief Curator at the Guggenheim, trills: “Prince’s work has been among the most innovative art produced in the United States during the past 30 years."  Better keep your shoes on around the Guggenheim.

Just as with hookworms, people who traffic in dung prove to be the most fruitful hosts for appropriation artists.   Well known aesthetes such as Wall Street financiers -- always noted for their artistic sensitivity-- have become the leading investors in Mr. Prince's art.  Hedge fund billionaire and Guggenheim donor David Ganek collects Prince's art when he isn't too distracted by his death struggle with the FBI and federal prosecutors over his alleged criminal stock trading schemes.


The appropriation artist who adds a concept to a pre-existing work of art often gets paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as the creator of the initial artwork.  Whether that is too much or too little depends on the relative value of the contributions, so let's examine both candidly.  Many appropriation artists claim they are contributing "irony" or "social awareness" to the original work of art.  Prince's contribution, his gallery informs us, is that he "urges the viewer to see shopworn images in a new context." This would seem to be the kind of insight you might expect from a high school literary magazine, but hardly the kind of insight for which someone might spend 1,000 times the price of the original "shopworn image." Is it possible that Mr. Ganek is buying something else with his millions?

Economists distinguish between two types of property: property that is valuable because of its inherent quality, and property that is valued simply because other people can't have it.  This second type of property is called "positional goods," and it seems to be one of the healthiest sectors of the fine art market today.   The "concepts" being peddled by Mr. Prince and others are for the most part hackneyed platitudes that would not impress a credulous school girl.  They couldn't possibly account for the astronomical prices such work commands.  No, the thing that accounts for the price is not the concept, it's the exclusivity.

The popular arts being appropriated by artists such as Mr. Prince were the exact opposite of positional goods.  Far from being exclusive, they were mass produced and distributed to the largest possible audience for the lowest possible price-- for example, the price of a comic book or cheap magazine.  This business model may be the source of their wonderful strength and vulgarity, which are viewed with envy by the anemic fine art community.  Fine artists return again and again to commercial illustration, trying to siphon off its potency for use as bait to attract buyers of positional goods.  Judging from Mr. Prince's financial success for such slender work, the formula continues to work.