Monday, May 19, 2014

THEY'RE CLOSING MAX'S ART SUPPLY STORE


What causes artists to gather in one location or another?

How did Athens in the 4th century BCE become a center of cultural activity?  What made Florence so appealing to artists in 15th century Italy?  What brought artists to Paris or St. Petersburg in the 19th century, and why did so many artists gravitate to fin de siecle Vienna to sip from the "Sacred Spring"?  Was it because of the quality of the light in these locations?  The economic opportunity?  Pixie dust in the tapwater?

Whatever the secret ingredient, it similarly lured hundreds of artists-- mostly cartoonists and illustrators-- to Westport, Connecticut.

Westport was an artist's community for much of the 20th century but it became the supernova of American illustration in the "Madmen" era of the 1950s and 60s. Lights blazed all night long in art studios around Westport where some of the hottest and most talented illustrators and cartoonists in the world worked long hours to satisfy the great demand for their art.  It was not uncommon for an artist to climb into his (yes, almost always "his") fancy sports car at two in the morning to visit another artist's studio where they drank, compared notes and worked until dawn.

Westport became the home of the Famous Artists School where illustrators such as Norman Rockwell,  Albert Dorne, Stevan Dohanos, Robert Fawcett, Ben Stahl, Harold Von Schmidt, Al Parker, Austin Briggs, Jon Whitcomb, Peter Helck, Fred Ludekens, and later Bernie Fuchs and Bob Peak performed a consulting role. 

Art director Howard Munce, another resident of Westport, proudly wrote about his town:
Records show that at least 160 illustrators have lived and worked here. In the 1940s an influx of cartoonists from the Disney Studios migrated here, as did other illustrators from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Later, the Famous Artists School brought a group of young artists to act as instructors.
Westport was also the home of Walt Reed, founder of the modern discipline of illustration art history.  Unlike other public libraries, the Westport Public Library offered massive filing cabinets of reference pictures for illustrators and cartoonists to use in their assignments.

And of course Westport also had Max's Art Supplies, the local art shop that sold the raw materials for those fabulous pictures, beginning in 1956.

Some of Max's famous clientele, 1981

Some of Max's famous clientele, 2006


Some of the talented artists who lived or worked in the Westport area included:

John Held, Jr.
Rose O'neill
Arthur Dove
Everett Shinn
William Glackens
Paul Cadmus
Henry Raleigh
Leonard Starr
Albert Dorne
Harold von Schmidt
Kerr Eby
Guy Pene du Bois
Leland Gustavson
Ben Stahl
Steven Dohanos
Tom Lovell
Al Parker
Austin Briggs
Robert Fawcett
Bernie Fuchs
Stan Drake
Fred Otnes
Mark English
Whitney Darrow
Robert G. Harris
Mel Casson
Alex Raymond
Randall Enos
Jim Sharpe
Ward Brackett

The creative energy and talent that these artists and their peers poured into thousands of pictures for all the top accounts was truly astounding-- the challenges, the craftsmanship, the fierce competitions, the innovations.  This was a remarkable site.  And now the moving finger, having writ, moves on.

When Bernie Fuchs died in 2009 I was contacted by a young reporter working for the Westport newspaper, looking for background information for an obituary.  As I described Bernie's era the  reporter said, "Oh, yeah... I remember now.  Somebody once said that some artists lived around here."

In the salad days: Fuchs with Porsche, beautiful wife and large home with studio.


And today we received the word that Max's Art Supplies is closing for good.





Monday, May 05, 2014

STYLE



Where does style come from?

Frederick Taubes (who was a real smart guy) wrote that an artist's personal style "seems to stem from geography, climate, diet and other factors."  Some people speculate that "other factors" might include eye disease.

Others suggest that that stylistic distortions might be an artist's way of covering up for technical weaknesses.  For example, illustrator Seymour Chwast, who draws with a flat, simplified style,  stated that he avoids pictures "that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability that I do not have."  Illustrator Edward  Sorel, famous for drawing with loose swirls, said “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...”

But ahhh, when an artist possesses the skill to "do whatever he wants to do,” and  uses that skill to develop a personal style out of strength rather than weakness, the result can be a joy to behold.  It becomes a full throated expression of the artist's personal reaction to the world's forms and colors. 

Which brings me to Carter Goodrich.

Goodrich is one of those artists with the formidable drawing skill to do whatever he wants. The following Forbes cover from 1989, an illustration of Europeans courting the Russian bear...


...shows that Goodrich not only understands anatomy, facial expressions and body language (what Sorel called "gesture") but also that he has that rare and wonderful ability to spin his knowledge into all kinds of imaginative scenarios.  Does he need to take a revealing human facial expression and posture, put them on a huge shaggy bear and dress her up in a fancy gown (complete with ursine cleavage)?  Not a problem.

Note the marvelous spread of her haunches-- a masterful touch, one that would escape a less imaginative artist.

Unlike many artists with great technical skill, Goodrich never seems to have been tempted to waste his abilities on hard realism.  Instead, he knew to follow his imagination and his powers of observation into a distinctive personal style.    His wide faces, exaggerated bodies and distinctive palette have made his work instantly recognizable to readers of the New Yorker:

 


More of Goodrich's delicious style is displayed in this illustration from The Emperor's New Clothes:

Weird hairdos and faces, extravagant gestures and bizarre fabrics all given credibility by excellent drawing.



Goodrich is such a master of visual story telling, he is free to take liberties with accuracy: 

 

In the following detail, note how Goodrich conveys speed with just the direction of those pencil strokes in the shadow of the hockey player, or how the white trail of that one skate dramatizes the ominous, searching approach,  or how Goodrich directs our attention to that puck by engineering the highest contrast spot in the picture (a dense black shape framed in a white window) or how effectively he uses that foreshortened purple hockey stick to establish the spatial relationship with the goalie.  Brilliant.


Contrast how the lines under the player show directional speed while the lines surrounding the puck-- both horizontal and vertical-- do not.  You wouldn't notice such tiny touches in the printed version, yet their effect would be unmistakeable.

With such a rich assortment of tools at his disposal, Goodrich doesn't need to worry about drawing that front skate accurately in order to be understood.  He has the freedom to play games with the foot (exaggerate it or draw it like a tiny stump) with no risk of confusing anyone.  Similarly, he can disconnect that pelvis and make the skater look like a sack of bowling balls hurtling down the ice.  The audience still gets it because Goodrich maintains such exquisite control over the image in other respects.

You can't just take such liberties; if your style is genuine you have to earn them.

Goodrich has not only earned his freedom, he knows how to put it to good use.