Monday, March 09, 2009


Cosmic disturbances sometimes engulf our planet in violent magnetic storms, yet you can sit there calmly sipping your jasmine tea and munching cucumber sandwiches, oblivious to the vast drama going on around you because our senses can't detect magnetic storms. You'd have to look at a compass and see the needle going haywire to figure out that something was taking place.

Art works the same way; we remain unaware of layers of meaning when we lack the experience to understand them. As Goethe said, "We only see what we know."

Back when artists had less freedom to be explicit (and audiences were more sophisticated and patient) artists conveyed messages that went undetected by innocent viewers, but were understood by those viewers who had enough experience to recognize what was going on.

Here, some anonymous illustrator had great fun with an orange crate label:

Here, we see another suggestive fruit offering:

Similarly, you could probably fill an entire book with the facial expressions of beautiful damsels rendered thoughtful by the size of their hero's weapon.

Howard Chandler Christy

Robert Fawcett
What can I say? Most illustrators from that era were men, and this is apparently something guys like to contemplate.

Today we can scroll through images at breakneck speed without missing much because artists no longer need to communicate in layers-- they are pretty free to put anything they want on the surface (regardless of how young the audience is, or how ill prepared they might be for extreme content). Some artists believe that unrestrained art is better art. Others believe, in the words of Gorky, "When everything is easy we quickly become stupid."

Censorship and repression aren't the only reasons to resist spelling everything out on the surface; there are purely artistic reasons as well. You can only fit so much on the surface of a drawing. After that, if you need more room you have to start working below the surface. A layered approach to art can add depth and reward reflection. Most importantly, it adds the superior freedom that only ambiguity can provide.

I love this delicious drawing by Theodore Geisl of Terwilliger Frilliger spanking a cat while the other cats skittishly await their turn.

In 1929 (long before he became famous as Dr. Seuss) Geisl mused about the pleasure of cat spankery: "the peculiar sensation of indigenous largesse one feels when he spanks a kitten given to uncontrollable outbursts of hysterical guffaws."

Multiple themes co-exist in perfect harmony in this little drawing. On one level, the drawing could fit harmlessly in any children's book. But there are different flavors here for those with the palate to taste them.

Some of the best art is a layered experience. As with magnetic storms, you only become aware of the existence of additional layers after you've developed the capability to appreciate them.


LOOKA said...

Actually I enjoy both to a certain extent: The boldly blant that you pointed out in, for example, Pettibon or Panther, and the strongly layered and nuanced.

Because they both can lead to challenging works for the viewer. But in my personal opinion, I will not tag them as the geniuses of our time, just because they are, in the best case, the most popular or highest priced of the ones in their genre.

I don't completely embrace them, but I can enjoy them on a basis that doesn't over-heighten them thru their work or the talk around it.
With the blant, I close out the obvious and respectless sexism of mainstream comics, which is not only repetitively boring but also pointless and a meek example of what an artist can do besides being technically able.

In my own, very subjective view, the crux lies more in the perception of the intellectual and social background the artworks move in, that is sadly taken as a closed room by historians and authorities. Saying: "When you come out with your work we will take a look at it and put you into this roster that you please move in for the while."
It's the artists share in that to give and take a view of themselves in their work that is not carved in a stone someone else has set up for them.

For something else that you brought up in earlier posts about how some artists are selected on a superficial basis to be the masters of our time:
That somewhat perverse construct called the artworld is very aware of the things it has brought forth. There is a quasi romantic longing for the old times, for old masters to appear and for a certain celebration of their craft in media and criticism. But by being aware of the centuries that lie in the past and by cataloging them into the modern understanding of art, the art and business world stresses itself into an uneasy handling of the present view of it's own possibilities.

Besides that, the art market is strongly influenced by the collections of investors, collectors and museums who have a very selective approach at seeing the history of art and restoring an artists place in it.
People that you have taken under a more critical eye in the past are called "avant-garde" and new because some part of the established art-marketing sees them as a fresh mark in the context of their own understanding of their business. This leads to a disbalance in recognition of course, as there are more artists that would need time and attention to develop their own language before they are left with only their ego to display in the public, than ripe, fresh work, than there are supporters with a healthy and fair look at what is constantly happening in art.

The few wealthy collectors, who partly have it in their hands to direct the public attention, also see momentary art in a line dependent to the history it is coming from. This justifies the overblown relevance of some artists in that context, but not in the big picture. When younger artists look back at that remodelled recognition, they are confronted with an image and not with inspired work.

That's part of the unclear presentation of those success stories. It's a shame that for every artist inflated, there are too many left to wishing they could at least have that kind of attention.

Diego Fernetti said...

Being a non-english speaker, I can't accurately define where's the joke on spanking cats, even when something tells me it is related to certain solitary practices.

Anonymous said...

Wunnerful post, Dave.

Mucha, in his lecture notes, says, "Hide Your Artistry." Dunn, in An Evening in the Classroom says, "If you are caught being clever in your art, you aren't clever." Superficial cleverness has no resonance beyond the instant it is recognized. Great artists seek more profound resonances.

Well, that's all well and good, but it turns out that if you wave your hands and bandy about your superficial cleverness eyeballs swerve your way. People like the jumble and the crossword. There's no time in modernity for anything more than a quick symbolic fix. If you are truly superficially clever, the cleverness is right there on the surface for all to see. Like an ad.

Anonymous said...

That orange is true. It's just supposed to be a piece of fruit, but psychologically, every man knows what to do with that opening.

Rob Howard said...

Back in the late 60's and early 70's, when Vance Packard was being widely read, we illustrators would be asked to create all sorts of abstract and evocative scenes in ice cubes, beach sand, cigarette smoke, foliage and just about any textured area that would allow it. Did those subliminals work? You betcha.

The orange is a nice variation of the apple in a baby's fist, showing lots of the forearm. In those days, the term for success was to "make it big."

David Apatoff said...

Looka, thanks for the analysis. I can tell you have been thinking about this for a while.

dfernetti, it sounds like your knowledge of US slang is pretty good, but I suspect this drawing came out long before the slang expression. I have no knowledge, but I suspect this drawing resonates because of the ageless connection between feline and female, and the nature of spanking generally. It's really a souffle of sounds, images, power relationships, and magic. Words can't come close.

Kev, I have read similar sentiments from artists ranging from Michelangelo to Robert Fawcett, but I think I like Dunn's version best. I hadn't heard it before, thanks.

Rob, I always wondered about subliminal messaging in advertising. The most overt example I ever saw was a photo in a liquor ad where three ice cubes in a drink had been retouched so that if you focused on them carefully, you could make out the letters S-E-X. I couldn't believe it. Was this a common practice? Did you insert letters or images? How did you know what would be effective to insert?

Chris said...

Wow. Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

You can project whatever you want. Seriously, i dont get it.
Im all for clever art, but you see a half peeled mandarine and think vagina? Is that it?
Hmm okay.

Anonymous said...

I've never been so intellectually, visually and socially stimulated at the same time.(Well maybe having sex on drugs) But this seems different and more sustainable.

Since I seem to be too sensitive to function as a commercial artist I'll take up your cry David Apatoff. I to just love to look at great art.

Anonymous said...

That's no vagina man. The only thing I've ever known to do with that opening is use it for evacuation, not that there's anything wrong in my opinion if you're otherwise inspired. Hey that's a poop hole that orange is no damn good, if you want to eat it you must be God for only God eats poop.

Rob Howard said...

Did you insert letters or images? How did you know what would be effective to insert?

David, it was dictated from above. Some of the big NYC agency would hire psychologists (Robert Downey Sr. had a clear vision of this in his scathingly funny film, Putney Swope in which the psychologist informs the advertising guys that men drink beer because of "pee-pee dicky").

The ad types immediately came up with slogans like "Make it big with Bud." It's a funny (if spotty) film by a former ad man, and well worth seeing.

The truth was that, just like today, no one knew what they were doing so they grasped at any straw. The straws of the day were Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders" and "Clam Plate Orgy" (referring to how a plate of Howard Johnson's fried clams were arranged and retouched to look like an orgy) was subtle but it was there.

We learned that words could be inverted, mirror-imaged and distorted and still register...not be read...register. I actually applied a number of those techniques to paintings. They sold like mad. Being a bachelor in NYC, I decided to paint a large painting with lots of imbedded subliminals and hang it where I entertained young women. It worked well. I make no claims to ever having been in the moral minority.

From what I was made privy to, there are two major emotional touchstones for and death. To the advertisers, it didn't much matter whether you used death reminders to stoke up the emotions, or life reminders (sex is what makes human life). As long as the respondents were shaken from their torpor and made emotional, the sales pitch could attach itself.

The S-E-X ice cubes are a failure because you spotted them consciously. It's the stuff that slips past the morality gate that really works on stirring up your emotions. Once your emotions are stirred, you'll vote for someone with no job experience, buy a car or appliance that's gotten bad revues or be convinced to pay for silcone implants or, at very least, teeth whitening. Why? Because it makes you part of a hip, with-it herd who believe they are all very individual thinkers and make decisions based on rational judgment. They are then convinced to discard that "rational" judgment and move on to the next one they (and a few million others)"decide" on.

Work in that field long enough, David, and one grows mighty cynical.

kenmeyerjr said...

Damn, come up with good stuff every friggin week! How do you do it? Do I need a brain transplant?

Must. Grow. My. Brain.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, there's always a danger of reading too much into art. (Frederic Wertham, a classic nut job, was a prime example of this). But for most of the history of art, people with no TVs or laptops would approach pictures slowly and more deliberately than we do, and part of that process was to try to understand if the artist was saying anything symbolically. In many genres, such as Christian art, symbolist art and pre-Raphaelite art, you could read a picture like a book: a dove meant something quite specific, a lamb meant something quite specific, a crack in a pot told a specific story, etc.

People who were visually literate understood these things. They would be surprised at our own inability to see such obvious allegories (right after they finished burning the artist at the stake for purveying such filth).

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Chris. I appreciate it.

Josspaddock, I got a kick out of your response. We could study the history and sociology and iconography of art endlessly, but you seem to be responding on the surest level. I'm glad you find this stuff stimulating, as I do. I won't get into which orifice is being offered by the woman with the orange (and I note that it is a woman's hand offering it-- the kind of woman who wears a gold bracelet-- rather than the grizzled hand of a male farm worker). I will just say that if you've read enough mythology to know that gods "eat poop," then you know that gods don't discriminate on your "evacuation" point either.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, thanks for a fascinating response. I did not figure out the S-E-X ice cubes myself, I saw the letters circled in an article about subliminal advertising many years after the fact. Once they were singled out, they were really quite unmistakeable.

Are we talking about the 1960s / 1970s here? I find it quite amusing that at a time when Madison Avenue was being castigated as the embodiment of the crass, commercial status quo, they were really quite progressive and avant garde, embracing every radical new theory of pop psychology in pursuit of more sales. Their politically "radical" accusers, on the other hand, were really reverting to some fairly tired old dogma.

I would be very, very interested in seeing your subliminal painting. Did you keep images?

Rob Howard said...

>>I would be very, very interested in seeing your subliminal painting. Did you keep images?<<

I may have a few pictures of what came to be known as my "early to bed, early to rise" picture. It was ostensibly a copy of Raphael's painting of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, that's in the Pope's apartments. To most eyes it appears to be a nice, competent copy...albeit with somewhat different coloration.

The key was in the coloration because the values (the darkness and lightness) were tightly controlled and the hues (the actual colors) were varied within the value plan. If you saw a black and white photo of it, you'd see something very different than what the color would lead you to see.

For those of us with a technical bent, that sort of three dimensional chess game was fascinating. The fact that it paid well was a bonus.
I'll try to locate some pictures but i have no idea of what condition they'd be in after all these years...has it been that long? Phew!

kenmeyerjr said...

I just noticed that swordsman painting looks like a zombie Robin Hood!

Matthew Adams said...

I still love the end of North by Northwest when the hero and heroine are kissing in the train, then the camera zooms out to show the train entering the tunnel.

Whoot! Whoot!

Anonymous said...

A little cat spanking always improves one's outlook on life.
Done reasonably, of course...

Richmond Illustrators Club said...

Mr Apatoff,

My name is Holly Camp and I came across your blog after the entry you did on Sterling Hundley, one of my former teachers. I was impressed by your blog and realized it is watched by a lot of talented illustrators that I've been lucky enough to come in contact with in the past.

I am one of the organizers of the Richmond Illustrators Club, and we are in the process of planning our 3rd Annual Juried Show. The juror this year is Marshall Arisman, and the call for entries is open until April 24. You can go to for the entry form and info on the organization. Any questions can be directed to

We would love if you would like to help us by posting some information on your blog. Please contact us at if interested, and we can email you a more detailed outline.


Holly Camp, Vice President
Richmond Illustrators Club

Rob Howard said...

This might be of interest to some of the illustrators. Now that I am with Random House, Watson-Guptill has seen fit to release my book, The Illustrators Bible with Google as one of their preview book. Just go to,M1 to see it (or some of it) online.

jaleen said...

Hi David
Great to meet you today... drop me a line.

Karla said...

Ah, you bring back memories of reading Vance Packard and then spending hours with my college friends looking through magazines for all the subliminal messages in the ads. We did indeed find a lot of S-E-X. I suppose it made up for not really having any in our personal lives. (Well, not really, but let's pretend it did.)