Thursday, September 26, 2013



I share Roberta Smith's views about the special quality of drawing:
Drawings are the most overtly delectable of all art forms...Drawings in general are like love letters. Personal in touch and feeling, physically delicate, they reflect the artist's gifts, goals and influences in the most intimate terms... [They are] a direct extension of an artist's signature and very nervous system. 
Some drawings turn out to be more intimate than others.  Take for example the secret drawings of Malcolm McKesson (1909 - 1999).

McKesson was not a professional artist.  Heir to a pharmaceutical company fortune, he grew up with privileges and attended the best private schools.   But he was a fragile soul and had a hard time surviving in the business world.   At a debutante party he met Madelaine Mason, a strong willed poet.  He married her and gradually withdrew from society to devote himself to a life as her full time servant.

"I am Chastened."

McKesson said he was in awe of the "the strength and wisdom of the female" and wished he could be a woman, if "only for a day." 

McKesson and Madelaine were married for 48 years before she passed away.  During that time, nobody knew much about their private life together.  We would still know nothing today if McKesson had not drawn thousands of pictures about their relationship.


McKesson wrote and illustrated a little manuscript entitled Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage.  Wiki summarizes the plot as follows:
Matriarchy follows the sexual transformation of Harvard undergraduate Gerald Graham, who willingly subjects himself to the authority of the stern Lady Gladys. She teaches him to "curb his manly nature" by forcing him to take on the role and costume of a lady's maid named Rose. The house is a matriarchy because, as Lady Gladys explains, "in this house all things feminine are blessed, all things masculine are bound in slavery."
. . . . 

Gerald's first transformation into Rose is described thus: "From a closet she removed some padded silken forms. These were strapped tightly to his shoulders and waist, adding a more feminine shape to his thighs, breasts and buttocks. In this upholstery Rose was indeed a proper woman prepared to assume the black dress, the slip and the elegant apron of a serving maid."

Measured by traditional standards, McKesson's amateurish pictures may not appear to be great drawing.  We don't see sensitive lines or decisive, telling strokes; there is no real economy or vigor here.  Instead, these pictures are comprised of thousands of worried little circles, overlapping and repetitive, turning around and around on themselves.

In this sense, they are the "direct extension of an artist's... very nervous system" that Roberta Smith described.  To the extent that McKesson was cringing and dithering, those characteristics are embodied in his line.  To the extent he was obsessive, that too shows up in these densely inked pictures where McKesson went back over his images again and again in little circles.  We are witnessing drawing as an extension of the sex act.

Drawings need not be skillful to have merit.  I think these drawings do a marvelous job of portraying McKesson's personality.  You can almost smell the rooms where these scenes took place, with heavy curtains drawn. 

For me, the following drawing is easily as compelling as anything R. Crumb ever did.  It gains power from an ambiguity that R. Crumb lacks.

I love that immense leg coming in from the right

These drawings may appear weak and indecisive at the micro level, drawn as they were by an apparently weak and indecisive person, but the I find the cumulative effect of these works to be quite potent. 

Monday, September 16, 2013


Everyone knows that the formless, abstract backgrounds in Frank Frazetta's paintings...

 ...are superior to the formless, abstract backgrounds in paintings by Boris:

The question is: how do we know?

We can't say that one is better because it is more accurate or realistic. There are no objective laws, similar to perspective or anatomy, for judging soft fields of color.  We have no external reference points, like the ones we employ to evaluate facial expressions or poses or  outfits, to help us understand which looks more "right."

If anything, in the following comparison,  Frazetta's undersea background is less accurate:

Boris                                                                                            Frazetta
Yet, it's clearly better.

Whatever the reason--  intuitive or biological or organic-- we somehow know that the random brush strokes and shapeless colors of one artist are consistently better than the random brush strokes and shapeless colors of the other.



I am offering this comparison for my friends out there who complain that modern abstract painting, such as color field painting, has no viable standards of quality. They grumble, "How are we supposed to distinguish between a good abstract expressionist painting and a bad one, or even a random paint spill?" 

Jules Olitski
Helen Frankenthaler
My answer is: if you know a Frazetta background is better than a Boris background, you have all the tools you need to distinguish a good abstract painting from a bad one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I like the choices in this tiny drawing by R.O. Blechman:

Blechman's figures are so small, his word balloons have to be larger than his drawing to make words legible.

The size and simplicity of Blechman's drawing don't shield him from the kinds of decisions and trade offs we associate with larger, more complex works.  In fact, Blechman's slender tools can make each choice even more significant.

For example, an artist who uses 25 lines to draw hair has a margin for error; a few lines more or less, or an occasional mistaken line, are hardly noticeable.   Blechman's patented two line haircut makes each line important:

 One line would not be enough, three would be too many. 

 Similarly, note what a difference it makes that the man's eyes are horizontal slits while the woman's eyes are vertical slits.  These are the simplest, most basic marks a human being can make, yet the proportional impact of his choice on the content of the drawing is substantial.

When we look at Blechman's original drawing close up we see him making some unothodox choices.

Since the world began, no art teacher ever said it was OK to leave the top half of a head unfinished in order to focus on the individual hairs of a beard stubble:

Similarly, who would leave an arm disconnected at the elbow, its line flowing away into space,  while focusing all that attention on the polka dot pattern of a bow tie?
Did the artist lose interest halfway down the arm?

Here he draws the leg all the way down to the ground, then chooses to leave off one foot:

And look at the way he chooses to draw hands: just enough information to suggest the possible existence of a thumb.

Today's comic strips are filled with tiny, simplified pictures that are mostly awful-- wooden and formulaic.  Their size is dictated by a number of practical constraints :  newspaper space restrictions, time limits, current fashions, etc..  But Blechman's work reminds us that art on the nano scale can still be sensitive and interesting.

A show of Blechman's art was recently exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, and a  retrospective exhibition will be on display at the School of Visual Arts in NY beginning in October.