Tuesday, June 02, 2020

THE ENERGY OF THE 1960s, part 2

Prior to the 1960s, most illustrations would dutifully focus on the subject matter being illustrated.  The content would normally be placed front and center.  But as illustrators acquired more freedom, the aesthetics of the picture increasingly dominated the subject matter.

For example, believe it or not this is an illustration of an airplane:

Verne Bowen

And here is an illustration of an aircraft carrier: 

Austin Briggs

And this is an illustration of a commuter train:

Robert Weaver

Even fairly conventional depictions of subjects such as technical machinery could be jazzed up with bold brushwork and bright colors in the background:

Neil Boyle

Sometimes the efforts to make machinery look "arty" were more successful than others:

Ed Broussard
As an example of the changes brought by the 60s, this picture of a refinery was painted by Al Dorne around 1950:

Al Dorne


But by the 1960s even refineries were looking for a bolder, more artistic image:


Dave Passalacqua

It can be fun fun to trace the development of individual artists during this era.   Robert Handville started the 60s working like this:

Robert Handville

By the end of the decade, his illustrations were far more radical:

Robert Handville
Some of the artistic freedoms that opened up in the 1960s remain available to illustrators today.  Some died a well deserved death.  But the 60s were remarkable as a period of strong experimentation where illustrators were eager to try new things, and after a while art directors and even clients encouraged them to do so.

32 comments:

kev ferrara said...

Even though a lot of these are impulsive and full of 'tricks,' the energy can't be denied. Ultimately, such visual clickbait is more tactical than artistic. There is no 'get out of contemplation free' card in Art. But it certain does its job to grab the eyeballs.

That last Robert Handville is a very strong abstract work. The trees recall Mondrian's 1909 experimental tree abstractions.

chris bennett said...

Yes indeed Kev. Interesting to see that in the art gallery market, shops selling hand made paintings that is, we are generally still living with the legacy of this, and for the very reason you describe.

BTW, I very much enjoyed the exchange between you and Tom debating the primacy of the silhouette as a tool in aesthetic language. I'm trying to work out exactly what my position is on this.

Laurence John said...

I see this period as a calculated attempt to make advertising art look more like abstract expressionism / pop art because that's what was required to look up to date. An insincere move, in other words.

I can imagine a studio manager dropping an exhibition catalogue of Robert Rauschenberg onto an artist's drawing board and saying "we need to make it look more like this..."

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm not clear whether you intend "impulsive" as a negative or a positive here? Some artist's impulses are better than others, but when they're good they can contribute a lot to a picture (I think we've discussed here the incident where Andrew Wyeth felt a painting was too constricted so he picked up a pot of paint and hurled it onto the painting, then left the room because he didn't have the courage to watch it dry.). And as James Gurney noted n his comment on the last post, some artists worked awfully hard to achieve that "impulsive" look.

I think your comment about "tricks" applies more properly to the second, third and fourth generation artists who borrowed these innovations and used them in a calculated way. When Bob Peak first broke out of the ranks I'm guessing he was sincerely looking for new and exciting approaches. The he was followed by armies of clones who said, "Gee, that gimmick worked well for Peak, I'll use it myself and see if I can get assignments from art directors who can't afford Peak's rates." You can usually tell from the quality of the resulting picture whether some trick has been superficially transplanted onto it for insincere reasons.

Glad you liked the Handville. That's the first time I can recall you saying anything nice about abstract work. I'm going to print that out and glue it in my memory book.

chris bennett-- If the art gallery market is living with the legacy of high energy art, it may just be because that is the style most appropriate for our high energy times. We are no longer monks with a lifetime of isolation to study the fine details of illuminated manuscripts. We aren't even rural families in the 1930s with a week to study the details of Norman Rockwell's cover to the Saturday Evening Post before the next one arrives. We can access a million competing pictures through our touchpad, and that's only if movies and video games, with their explosions and action scenes, leave us any time or interest in paintings at all. I think a lot of gallery art today could not withstand sustained scrutiny but when would they ever get sustained scrutiny?

Laurence John-- that may be part of it, but I think a lot of these illustrators were generally interested in what was happening at the cutting edge of art. Robert Fawcett was close friends with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Austin Briggs became a member of the Museum of Modern Art the year that it first opened and remained one for life. William Steig loved the drawings of Picasso and they heavily influenced his style. Many of the artists of the 1960s reached back far earlier for artistic inspiration (Bob Peak to Egon Schiele, Bernie Fuchs to Degas, etc.) I suspect Fuchs did get his composite pictures from Rauschenberg.

chris bennett said...

David,

I think what you say is largely true, but whenever I'm standing in a gallery with some money to spend (and I do buy art when I can) the question I always ask myself is 'would I want to live with this painting for the rest of my life?' Now, I don't assume everybody asks themselves this question, particularly if they are a millionaire wanting to brighten up their new Tokyo stopover apartment, but I think it is a question unique to the gallery situation as opposed to the online browser situation. But perhaps you think the latter has overly infected our participation in the former?

Laurence John said...

David: "that may be part of it, but I think a lot of these illustrators were generally interested in what was happening at the cutting edge of art"

The question is whether 'cutting edge' / avant-garde / modernist art had anything useful that commercial illustration could borrow other than high-brow association ?

Did all of this flat gestural mark-making / semi-abstraction / decorative energetic slashiness add anything to the point of the illustration other than surface excitement ?

Wes said...

Laurence asked:

"Did all of this flat gestural mark-making / semi-abstraction / decorative energetic slashiness add anything to the point of the illustration other than surface excitement?"

I would say they did -- in spades -- for the rue of commercial artists that they were not "respected" as real artists is a deep philosophical fallacy held by the artists themselves, resulting in the weirdness of good artists seeking the "look" of free expression of bad artists. Anyone with a semblance of artistic insight can see that the 20th century illustrators were often much keener artists, more skilled and insightful and just plain old more playful and creative than the "real" modern artists, who gave up skill for who knows what -- the what being the well-paid intellectual nonsense of fancy galleries and their articulate leeches.

Here, where the Bowen and Briggs examples seem a total capitulation to modern sensibilities i.e., drawing skills being sacrificed to sensibility of splotches of paint, the Weaver example is clever and creative, and the Broussard borders on genius in mixing disparate sensibilities. Of course, the Broussard will never never never be considered a great painting, though “Why not?” is a lot harder to explain.

It’s not necessarily a “sacrifice” when a skill is abandoned to skillful and smart free expression – that is what happen in good jazz, after all, via improvisation. But it can be a disaster too. The Gundelfinder drawings in the first set seem to me an example of good jazz, the Handeville seems like it didn’t really work -- he needed to work a little harder at his “improvisation.”

kev ferrara said...

I'm not clear whether you intend "impulsive" as a negative or a positive here?

I wasn't characterizing 'impulsive' either negatively or positively. For a very deep artist like Andrew Wyeth, with instincts trained for visual meaning since just about birth by NC, his impulses were surely of great artistic value, honed by decades of artistic effort - at least when compared to the average art student.

Much impulse however, is simple aimed at being startling; juxtpositions without harmony, variety without unity. Such (to repeat) is visual clickbait. It arrests attention because - as the evil engineers behind Twitter's algorithms know - contradiction causes a dopamine hit. It takes attention and holds it, regardless of content. Sensation playing against the Mundane is exactly why the art of the headline is a low art indeed; it is the same dopamine-hijacking contradiction thing at work in a different way.

When Bob Peak first broke out of the ranks I'm guessing he was sincerely looking for new and exciting approaches.

I agree that Bob Peak was a genius. He also got seduced by cheap tricks. Only goes to show that expressionism is a rather precarious tight rope walk over vacuity, even for the best guys.

That's the first time I can recall you saying anything nice about abstract work.

See our previous discussions about the meaning of 'Abstract.' I'm willing to accept a great deal of mimetic distortion so long as there's a foundation in both composition and real visual experience. All my favorite artist are steeped in real abstraction, (rather than the 'non-referential finger-painting' bowdlerization of the term.) There's no way to be evocative and suggestive without abstraction. And there's nothing I love so much in art as evocation and suggestion.

kev ferrara said...

Did all of this flat gestural mark-making / semi-abstraction / decorative energetic slashiness add anything to the point of the illustration other than surface excitement?

It was a signal of solidarity with the tenor of the times.

James Gurney said...

There's a lot of cross-fertilization with the abstract expressionists—you can see Richard Diebenkorn and Franz Kline behind the curtain on some of these. American Artist magazine, which still covered illustration as well as the easel painters in the 1950s and 1960s, made the connection explicit. Have you heard the audio recording of the lecture that Norman Rockwell gave at Art Center way back in 1949? He talked about the "Fine Art Men" among his illustrator peers, and especially Al Parker, as being leaders. "They weren't following anyone else's funeral," he said, and he added "The were following their own funeral."

Richard said...

If the art gallery market is living with the legacy of high energy art, it may just be because that is the style most appropriate for our high energy times. We are no longer monks with a lifetime of isolation to study the fine details of illuminated manuscripts. [...] I think a lot of gallery art today could not withstand sustained scrutiny but when would they ever get sustained scrutiny?

I think you're understated how frenetic were prior centuries.

When Sir John Everett Millais displayed Ophelia, super futuristic steam engines were trailblazing across the land. People were dreaming about distant worlds. The Victorian period was aflutter with action. The worlds fairs was bringing wild artifacts from around the world. Tribesmen were being discovered on distant islands. New sports were being invented. Politics was happening in the streets, and every man could be involved. The largest wars then yet fought were plastered in the newspapers. Massive parties and dances were conquering over puritan life, and people were having sex... a lot of sex.

Rock and Roll may not have existed, but Wagner did, and that shit was hardcore. Way more hardcore than The Monkees.

There's always been plenty of distractions from quietly contemplating Art. If Ophelia and her 19th century sister paintings were drawing massive crowds despite the lack of lights and sounds and surface scribbles, it must have been something else.

I think you should keep looking for an answer, I wouldn't stop at blinking lights.

Richard said...

(And, for what it's worth, if I was going to take a guess at where to start looking, I'd suggest to try Brutal Perfection, beyond all reason, beyond what should even be humanly possible. A quality of art wholly unlike anything produced today, by even the best artists. But if a genius today was to produce a contemporary Ophelia, I should think it would get all the attention in the world.)

Richard said...

(Just like would a contemporary Moonlight Sonata)

chris bennett said...

Richard,

I agree with what you say in that the 19th century had a lot of stuff kicking off. But the difference between then and now is in the degree of information accessibility, in other words the effect on human behavior of a communications technology that took root in our cultural soil at the opening of the 20th century and whose fruits began to ripen by the 1960s. (It's worth mentioning, if you'll excuse an excruciating analogy, that flower power was a short lived reaction to knowledge falling from what was to become the apple tree)

Laurence John said...

Richard: "But if a genius today was to produce a contemporary Ophelia, I should think it would get all the attention in the world"

There are people today producing a modern version of academic realism and it gets zero 'attention in the world'. Art is a product of its time. You can't revive the art of a specific time and place and watch it play out all over again. You have to imagine in what new form the contemporary version of 'Ophelia' would be. I submit it's already happened in the form of photography and cinema (THE realistic art form of the moment whether you like it or not).

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I am heartened by the attitude of people who spend their sparse funds to buy originals from artists or from small galleries or local art fairs, but I fear to explore the psychology of people who spend millions buying art from Gagosian or Sotheby's or Miami Basel. I don't think they're expecting to live with the painting, or even see it, for "the rest of their lives." I know that some buy art through investment consortiums as a money making enterprise, and store it in a secure location. Others buy art for status so they can look at their wall and see prestige for the rest of their lives (but I question whether they really see the painting).

As for me, I do think that having a great big Adolph Gottlieb or Robert Motherwell on my wall would not just decorate my environment but color my my attitude toward the day-- which is an important role for art. Admittedly such a picture would not be great for prolonged and quiet study of layered subtleties, but I think they would act as a great big exclamation mark of inventive beauty. Furthermore, I think they can be conceptually interesting because, by reducing the elements of art to the subatomic particle level and then magnifying those to wall size, they invite rumination on the ontogeny of Titian, Sargent and all the rest.


Laurence John wrote: "Did all of this flat gestural mark-making / semi-abstraction / decorative energetic slashiness add anything to the point of the illustration other than surface excitement ?"

Well, I confess to kind of liking surface excitement-- when was it ever a fault for art to get the blood racing?-- so you may want to dismiss my reaction. But keep in mind, much of the reason for illustration is to serve as what Kev calls "clickbait" for the written word. The altarpiece in the Renaisssance church helps bring people in, just as the illustration in Cosmopolitan causes people to pause and start to read the story.

As explained in my response to chris bennett above, I do believe that abstract expressionism and other forms of "gestural mark-making / semi-abstraction / decorative energetic slashiness" have something to offer. But I am as hard and prickly evaluating the success and failure of such efforts as I am evaluating more traditional and representational work.

Wes wrote: " Anyone with a semblance of artistic insight can see that the 20th century illustrators were often much keener artists, more skilled and insightful and just plain old more playful and creative than the "real" modern artists...."

I agree-- that's one of the main reasons for this blog-- but I would qualify my agreement. There are many contemporary artists who I would label as frauds (Koons, Prince, etc.) and there are many more I would categorize as well intentioned, untalented dopes (Tracey Emin, Holzer, etc. ) but there are also many that I like (Basquiat, Goldsworthy, etc.) because I think they do interesting, well designed work.

Richard said...

> There are people today producing a modern version of academic realism and it gets zero 'attention in the world'.

I think that’s just because those artists stink, but if you have an example that rivals the 19th century masters I would love to see it.

kev ferrara said...

I agree with Richard on this one. The compositional understanding of masters like Bouguereau, Waterhouse, Gerome, Kotarbinsky, Repin, and Alma-Tadema, just to name a few, is completely gone.

So we have all these expert atelier renderers flailing around hoping to somehow re-invent 500 years of aesthetic progress in two decades of life studies without doing any research into what those guys knew (leaving aside just how imaginative they were, and how well paid and feted.) Ain't gonna happen.

chris bennett said...

David, you wrote: Furthermore, I think they can be conceptually interesting because, by reducing the elements of art to the subatomic particle level and then magnifying those to wall size, they invite rumination on the ontogeny of Titian, Sargent and all the rest.

You would be putting the chicken before the egg my friend. Titian, Sargent and all the rest did not originate out of abstraction but out of their feelings of truth about the world. Their artistic development was by way of then abstracting out of the world, through the plastic language, to communicate poetry about it.


To clarify my terms used above:
In painting the graphic language evokes a confined world (a stage if you will) of recognizable things in plastic relation to other recognizable things which is intuited to embody meaningfulness about the flux of the visible world. ‘Abstract painting’ does not embody anything other than itself, and therefore has no meaning outside of pure design. Any figurative associations gleaned from an abstract work are personal daydreams predicated on the subjective concerns of the onlooker of the work and not its author.

Laurence John said...

Kev, I don't believe it can happen either. I thought Richard was the one claiming that art will be saved by a return to academic painting of late Victorian standard ?

When i said "There are people today producing a modern version of academic realism and it gets zero 'attention in the world' " the implication was that it was a weaker 'modern version', not that i thought it was great art.

I maintain though, that even a modern day hypothetical artist 'as good as Bouguereau' would still get zero attention... assuming they're using paint on canvas.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

I think the only true test would be if the standards of 1880 were first met, yet in some way updated. Such a show might well cause a sensation for all we know.

Chris James said...

The modern academic training is too rigid, obsessed with minutia, and flat-out wrong headed to produce anything like the 19th century academics (who were still tethered to the Greek forms), which was already on the downslope of European representational art in my opinion, lacking, outside of the Romantics and some of the Pre-Raphs, the vigor and fluidity of Italian drawing or the glowing paint technique of the Flemish and Dutch. The peak was 16th-17th century AFAIC.

That's not to say that some of that academic work is not amazing in its own right. Some of Gerome's scenes are mind boggling in person.

Some of the others...Alma Tadema is the dregs of academic art, and we need not his like again. And this is where I think we are selling contemporary (meaning post first half of 20th century) work short. I would place even the best comic art and book cover illustration over such drab, staid, lifeless nothing. Would we choose him over Frazetta if we had to? Are Bouguereau's (another dreg, but his color sense is as tasteful as they come)compositions any better than a good Moebius or Toth page?

The problem is indeed not many people care. And don't appreciate the more recent brilliance, or we think it not because it's in the wrong field or genre*. The people who do care, there is still stuff to knock their eyes out. I've seen the great paintings of history, many in person...Giger still blows me away**

*Or it doesn't benefit from the intrinsic, impressive visual qualities of well layered oil paint. In the hands of someone like Jan Van Eyck and his oil technique, what would otherwise be merely a superb piece of art transcends into the realm of earthly treasure.

**Which should bewilder no one who knows whey they are looking at. Not only is the technique top notch, there is a through-line to Giger from artists like Bosch, Bruegel, Da Vinci, Goya.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

I enjoy and appreciate every artist you just named. And I don't see any reason to exclude any of them.

Although, in terms of your hierarchy of quality, I strongly disagree with the idea that Giger is somehow superior to Alma-Tadema or Bouguereau. I see Giger as akin to Robert Crumb and the 'lowbrow' artists with a touch of mechanistic OCD. Or some combination of Futurism (Boccioni), Jean Delville (see: Parsifal), Lebbeus Woods, and Pornography.

Chris James said...

Kev,

I didn't really mean superior. It's more like giving Giger at least equal credit in terms of technical merit, which may not align with the conventional thinking. I think he was more the visionary, and therefore the more interesting image maker than either one of them, but he's not alone in that distinction.

I don't know what I think of the term lowbrow thoough, as it applies to Giger. He gets slammed by the high minded crowd for working on films, but that's only a tiny bit of his overall oeuvre. His images stem from his own troubled psychology, which I think is fairly lofty subject matter for painting.

Chris James said...

And I use "dregs" is not in the conventional sense. We're not talking about artistic Skid Row here At the time it was what I could come up with to describe my feelings towards such work, without going into a long-winded comparisons between it and what I think to be higher examples of European painting. To me, they were the ground floor. I don't think they had much of a vision, or had no opportunity to realize it. The imagery is what I would call nice or pretty, pleasant, quaint. Soundly painted, but not exemplary or fascinating in technique. Workmanlike, albeit the work of experts.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on critical reactions towards AT in particular, and wow, some people really had some negative things to say.

kev ferrara said...

I'd say that Alma Tadema's workmanlike art was able to achieve some quite spectacular results, even if his basic idea about art did not have a lot of aesthetic punch to it. Nevertheless, a great deal is going on under the formidable surface of AT's work. His pictures don't look as lovely as they do - with all those figures and buildings and complexity - simply because he painted things "very realistically." The whole "paint it realistically and you'll be like AT or Bouge" is the exact chimera chased by the clueless atelier crowd. AT's imagination is titanic, but so is his tempermental control... and so the whole matter is disguised. As Mucha said in his lectures, "Hide your artistry!" (The exact opposite is the approach of the expressionists - which led to them having only one level to their work.)

Equally I don't think you give Bouguereau's best work enough credit - it is actually quite imaginative. There is a much deeper reason why everything in his work "looks just right" than simple academicism. These guys understood aesthetics, real aesthetics.

Anyway, I don't look at their work much anymore, so they must not be my favorites.

Regarding Giger - first of all, it's hard for me to get Superego's H.R. Giger sketches out of my head (Videos have been made of them, on youtube) - but having gotten interested in Stanislav Szukalski's better work, it is hard for me to think of Giger as anything more than a sexually demented horror designer and a footnote to Szukalski.

Chris James said...

Believe me, I think far less of modern academic atelier realism. It's vulgar literalism, flatly painted. AT and Boug were still influenced by the Greek forms, a saving grace. And their materials were better. And they produced actual compositions, while the moderns produce perpetual studies of mundane subjects.

Giger was literally a designer, but many of his best works are personal, not commercial, in origin. But yeah, Szukalski was on higher tier. What a vision.

kev ferrara said...

We are in agreement then. (These words have never been said in the history of the internet.)

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