Saturday, January 28, 2006

DRAWING WITH YOUR BRAINS

On days when I have had cranky flakes for breakfast, faithful readers can find me here grumbling about the bleak state of drawing today.

In the words of Roberta Smith, "drawings are a direct extension of an artist's signature and very nervous system." The humble act of making a line with sensitivity and grace is one of the defining acts of humanity; it's the first thing our ancestors did when they evolved from Neanderthals to modern Cromagnons. So what are we to conclude from the state of drawing today? Artists such as Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware seem to be the current darlings of the illustration community, but largely because of the content of their message. Let's face it-- their drawing is just plain lame.


Chris Ware

Art Spiegelman



In fact, a great many of the artists who helped shape the course of illustration over the past several decades-- Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel, Garry Trudeau and others-- seem to lack fundamental drawing skills. To their credit, they don't try to conceal it. Chwast is among the first to say that he avoids techniques and media "that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability that I do not have." Sorel admits, “I have never had the confidence that I could draw.... To me, a person with drawing skill is a guy who can sit down to a piece of paper and draw upon his familiarity with the body and with gesture, and do whatever he wants to do.”

The message of their art may be brilliant, but most of them could not have found jobs as an apprentice sharpening pencils in the era of Noel Sickles, Robert Fawcett or Austin Briggs. There are thousands of marvelous drawings out there by now-forgotten artists whose work is far superior to the work that currently causes the critics to swoon. To illustrate the point, let's look at some random examples of quality drawing. Compare the contemporary "masterpieces" above with the vigor and complexity of the linework in this sketch by J.C. Coll :
























Some illustrators argue that, as the illustrator's message becomes more important, the need for a "slick," polished image diminishes. Yet, the brilliant Ronald Searle repeatedly proved over the past 50 years that an illustrator does not need to sacrifice artistic quality in order to convey biting content:
























For another example of visual form worthy of its content, look at this fabulous, robust drawing by Jean Dubuffet, appropriately entitled "pisseur a droite." The drawing is just as powerful as the subject matter, and it makes the contemporary drawings above seem anemic by comparison.
























Here is yet another approach: Alex Raymond could always be counted on to wield a pen and brush for a sparkling effect. Each of these four artists artists draws with a strength and a humanity that is often absent in an era where so much art has been processed through the photoshop deflavorizing machine.






















How can we explain our hypogeusia? For one thing, our primary interest in art seems to have shifted from aesthetic quality to intellectual content. Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, observed:


The way things have evolved, art can look like anything, so you can't tell by looking.... [A]rt these days has very little to do with aesthethic responses; it has more to do with intellectual responses.
This is what happens when we draw with our brains. From my perspective, "intellectual responses" are dandy but they can't begin to compensate for the decline in aesthetic quality. I am, however, eager to be instructed by those who understand "concept" illustration better than I do. There are plenty of you out there because I see your worshipful blogs to Ware, Spiegelman etc. all over the place. You're the reason I wrote today's entry. Please comment and explain where I am missing the boat!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

NEW ISSUE OF ILLUSTRATION MAGAZINE



The latest issue of illustration magazine is now out. The entire issue is devoted to the life and art of Bernie Fuchs, and it was written by yours truly.

This is the first real biography of Fuchs, and the first historical treatment of his artwork spanning his entire career. He has truly led a remarkable life. To give you a taste, here is a quote from the introduction:

Starting out in a small coal mining town in the depths of the Great Depression, Fuchs had no art training as a boy and no ambition to become an artist. He graduated from high school without ever painting a picture or even knowing what an illustrator did. After high school, he permanently injured his right hand, losing three fingers in an industrial accident that threatened his ability even to hold a pencil. The following year, he tried to find work on the assembly line at a puppet factory but was fired for incompetence at painting cartoon puppet heads.


Ten years later, Fuchs was one of the top illustrators in America. By the age of 30, he was voted Artist of the Year by the Artists Guild of New York. He became the youngest person ever elected to the Illustrators Hall of Fame, and the most honored illustrator of his generation. In the words of Walt Reed, the world’s foremost authority on illustration art, “his pictures are probably more admired—and more imitated—than those of any other current illustrator." Then the story gets interesting....



You can order a copy of the new issue from the publisher, Dan Zimmer at http://www.illustration-magazine.com/ or look for it at Borders, Barnes & Noble or other stores where art magazines are sold.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

ILLUSTRATION vs. FINE ART, round two

The great French impressionist Monet was famous for painting the same subject (such as hay stacks) in different light at different times of the day. By capturing his subject at morning, noon and night, he demonstrated how light and atmosphere transform an object.




 In 1952, Norman Rockwell did the exact same thing with his cover painting for the Saturday Evening Post, "A Day In The Life Of A Girl."



In a single painting, Rockwell divides the day into 22 separate vignettes, from dawn until nightfall. Each vignette is a brilliant study of the light at that particular time of the day. In the morning sun, in the reflected light of a swimming pool, in the neon light outside a theatre, in the warm glow of a bedside lamp or illuminated by moonlight, Rockwell's girl undergoes color changes that, while not as flashy and lurid as Monet's haystacks, are just as sensitive to the nuances of light at any given time of the day.

A less observant artist might use the same skin tones and hair color throughout the painting, if only for continuity in a complex composition. Not Rockwell. His power of observation was exceeded only by his work ethic.

The only way to appreciate Rockwell's accomplishment is to view the original painting at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Unfortunately, I have only a scan of a dull print to reproduce here. Perhaps it will give you enough of a taste so that you will find it worth your while to check out the original. If you like Monet, it will be well worth your time.

The opening vignette is gilded with a brilliant yellow white color (that unfortunately does not show up well on the printed cover).

 

Below, Rockwell depicts the children in the glow from the light of a theatre marquee:

Next he shows the children illuminated by the light of the silver screen:

The children's skin takes on a completely different color at dusk, just like Monet's haystacks.

Contrast the cool light of the moon above with the warm glow of the bedside lamp as the girl fills out her diary:

Back in bed: compare the colors at night with the colors of the girl waking up:

Comparing Rockwell and Monet solely for their studies of light (without all the distracting smoke and mirrors from overfed publicity agents and Manhattan auction houses) I think Rockwell's painting accomplishes more than Monet's. Rockwell portrays more variations in natural and artificial light, working in a smaller, humbler space, with more sensitivity and technical skill than Monet. Rockwell's handicap was of course the sappy story line, which was designed to please the 1950s readers of the Saturday Evening Post. But if you put aside the content and pay attention to the things that matter to an artist, you will see that Rockwell's artistic challenge was the same as Monet's. The real subject of Rockwell's painting, like Monet's haystacks, is the effect of changing light. If you're looking for a safe commodity to invest in, pick the Monet. If you're ready to learn something about light, pick the Rockwell.

Friday, January 06, 2006

FINE ART vs. ART THAT'S MIGHTY FINE

In the 1950s and '60s, fine artists Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline dazzled art critics and museums around the world with their brilliant avant garde paintings.

At the same time, another painter-- Bernie Fuchs-- dealt with the exact same aesthetic problems in a different forum. Like Motherwell, Rauschenberg and Kline, Fuchs rejected the realistic painting of his predecessors (such as Norman Rockwell) and focused on broader qualities of abstract design and composition.

If we compare Fuchs' art with the work of the other three painters, applying the same standards, it is difficult to tell which painter is superior. Fuchs' compositions were equally bold and lovely. The colors and shapes were comparable. In fact, the only consistent difference between Fuchs and the three "fine" artists was the purpose for which the art was created. Motherwell, Rauschenberg and Kline created art for art's sake. Fuchs' art had a commercial function. He created art for a client's sake, for he is an illustrator.

Fuchs and Franz Kline:





These two paintings by Fuchs (above) and Kline (below)share vigorous, caligraphic brush strokes, strong compositions against a painterly white background, and stark use of negative space. Both were highly innovative for their day. Can you tell which one belongs in a museum?

Fuchs and Robert Motherwell:

Measured as abstract art, the following Fuchs painting...



... accomplishes everything the Motherwell painting below it does.



The big difference: the Fuchs painting also serves a function.

Fuchs and Robert Rauschenberg:

Beginning in the early 1960s, Fuchs began assembling "montage" pictures with multiple images, sometimes including photographs or "found" objects. In doing so, he rejected the orthodox notion that an illustration had to be a single image.



At exactly the same time, Rauschenberg wowed the art critics with his groundbreaking approach using montage images such as the one below.



The Fuchs painting appeared on the cover of TV Guide. The Rauschenberg piece appeared in a museum. While Rauschenberg lacked some fundamental drawing skills, I think he was nevertheless able to make a very nice montage out of photographic images.

Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Dead Horses:

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if the "fine art" market had a higher ratio of intellectual integrity to bloviation and avarice, museums would display fewer pictures on the basis of pedigree and more pictures on the basis of the object itself.