Wednesday, April 30, 2014


 The following design was created by renowned international artist Jean Arp, a pioneer of abstract art and one of the founders of Dada:

The next design was created by illustrator Dean Cornwell:

So was this one:

And this one:

 Unlike Arp,  Cornwell put his designs to use in order to achieve something addiitonal:

Original from the Kelly collection of American illustration.  
Note the first design in the crook of the man's elbow

In my view,  Cornwell's abstract designs are at least equal to Arp's, yet Arp is celebrated in museums around the world, while Cornwell is not.  The reason for Arp's fame is not so much the appearance of his designs but the concepts behind them.  As the Museum of Modern Art explains, Arp's designs were  part of "a search both for the absolute and also for a new order, following the disorder and chaos of war."  Cornwell's designs, on the other hand,  were mere illustrations of some potboiler about a sobbing dame.

How should we compare the two artists?

Cornwell's art was able to communicate with multiple audiences at multiple levels, both high and low.  Many of today's critics turn up their noses at art that is accessible to "low" audiences; they tend to rate such work at the lowest of those levels.  Yet, Shakespeare kept the uneducated crowds titillated with violent melodramas and overheated romances, while simultaneously employing some of the most lovely and elegant prose the world has ever seen.

As for Arp, his claim to "search both for the absolute and also for a new order" may gain him access to certain social venues, but does anyone over the age of 21 seriously believe his designs contribute useful insight to these philosophical problems?

Illustrator Bernie Fuchs referred to this painting as "the picture of the guy with the newspaper."  It apparently escaped his attention that the subject of the picture was a young woman breaking down in tears in an office before two officials.  But then, it really doesn't matter. What interested Fuchs was the way Cornwell flattened the shape of the newspaper to create an important abstract compositional element with rich colors unrelated to the form, then highlighted it with a graceful white swoosh.  That swoosh serves two purposes:  an insightful representational feature that restores three dimensionally and  a compelling abstract shape.

I've been to a lot of museums, but I've never seen anything by Arp that I like as much as Dean Cornwell's newspaper.

Monday, April 07, 2014


Last month's remarkable discoveries about the big bang have all right-thinking people pondering the impact of this news on illustration art.

from Scientific American

At the moment of the big bang, the universe exploded into two kinds of particles: matter and anti-matter.  For each particle of matter there was a corresponding particle of anti-matter.  As soon as the two particles touched, they annihilated each other.

Thus, in one huge cosmic conflagration matter nearly crackled out of existence.  Anti-electrons canceled out electrons.  Anti-neutrons cancelled out neutrons.

If the number of matter and anti-matter particles had been equal, there would be no matter left anywhere in the universe.   However, scientists calculate that for every billion pairs of matter and antimatter particles, there was one extra particle of matter left over.  That tiny imbalance is why any matter remains today (Scientists at the Stanford linear accelerator note, "to that particle we and the stars owe our existence).

Art owes its existence to that particle too.  All the art that we have ever known is merely leftovers. A billion times more potential art vaporized at the moment of creation.  This raises many profound questions.  For example: why was the comic strip Nancy spared?

And did the particles that would later become Jeff Koons re-emerge from the inferno unintentionally, like some sort of cosmic acid reflux?

Jeff Koons, "Waterfall Couple"

And performance art-- are we sure that isn't really anti-matter in disguise?

But most of all, this presents an opportunity to reflect on the potential worlds of art that vanished as the universe came into being.  Alien arts of epic greatness,  evanescent shapes with evolving meanings,  images sculpted of pure light...  a billion times more  art than we have ever experienced, and a billion times different.

Of course, some things could never ever happen, even in a billion alternative art worlds, such as rapidograph pens that don't clog.  But  here are a few suggestions for what might have been lost in the instant that followed creation:

1.  Access to the absolute:  Our one billionth particle of matter left us with a physical universe which severely limits the characteristics of our art, such as its size or color or permanence.  If an artist wants to convey something absolute or universal, such as making a mark that is totally dark or infinitely long, the artist's only recourse is to imply those characteristics using symbols or suggestions.  (For example, artists create the illusion of an infinite mark by making a short mark on a relatively small piece of paper.)  We are similarly limited to the colors on the light spectrum that our eyes can see, or the sounds our ears can hear.  Like a composer confined to the notes of the scale,  we can only work our way up so high before we must circle back down again.

I don't know about you, but I am pretty convinced that one of the alternative realities that died at the birth of the universe would have enabled us to slip these limitations. So much of the effort of art involves developing persuasive ways to lie about the things that are physically unattainable.  If matter had formed differently, in a way to make them attainable, it would certainly have put our conceptual side to the test.

 2. Healing the rift: Our world evolved with a gap between human consciousness and the surrounding physical world.  As a result, our art has always been split: we live with vexing dichotomies we cannot resolve, such as the fissure between perception and reality, between form and content, between mind and body, even between faith and reason.  This schism runs right through the middle of our culture, and perhaps it is part of the reason we struggle to make art.  But I'll bet we wouldn't have to struggle so damn hard if a different set of particles had survived the big bang.

3. Coming home: Last of all (and this could be the biggie) art might be more enriching and meaningful if it was integrated into our lives the way the bower bird decorates its nest with artistic ingredients.  Instead, art for us is mostly something we perceive separately.  It is framed on a wall or presented on a stage.  We don't appreciate the design and colors of a Brillo box in the store until Andy Warhol places it on a pedestal at an art gallery.   Then we see it with new eyes, at least for a short time.  Art about love or sex or joy or hate always suffers if it is attempted during the lived experience.  Our art requires us to step back from the primacy of experience and apply various filters.  The particles that would have enabled us to bring art home into the moment of experience probably burned up at the beginning of the universe.

If you have any thoughts on what else we lost or how we might get it back, I'd be interested in hearing them.