Tuesday, September 26, 2023


 There's a lot going on in this political cartoon by the great Jeff MacNelly.

Using three point perspective, he fits important information neatly through each of the three windows of the ambulance; he wraps lettering and symbols at orthogonal angles around the different vehicles (even respecting the curvature of the motorcycle gas tank); he foreshortens the figures at the end, while decreasing the size of the text in the word balloon; and he even has energy left over to draw the ambulance's front wheels at a different angle than the rear wheels.

It's hard to draw with that kind of precision and detail while still keeping the drawing lively and spontaneous but MacNelly manages it.  

MacNelly pulls off the same trick with this next cartoon:  recognizable caricatures of eight different senators, sitting in chairs at eight distinctive angles, surrounded by a variety of embellishments.

Even this third cartoon, which appears much simpler, is crafted with a watchmaker's precision.

Note the beautifully constructed face of the threatening bull: with only a reverse 3/4 profile to work with (partially obscured by a drooping ear) MacNelly does wonders with that deadly eye, the curl of the lip showing uneven teeth, the hair on the chin and the ring in the nose.   Who can draw like this today?

The figure of Perot is tiny in the background, yet his ultra-simplified likeness is convincing, and details such as the rodeo gloves and the big hat are remarkably effective for their size.

Many artists who are able to exert this kind of control let the control dominate the picture.  Not MacNelly;  his drawings were always jaunty and friendly and informal.  How did he do it?

For one thing, look at how he darkened that bull.  It's one wild scribble:

Even when he's drawing something like the shade on the side of a flat wall...

... he doesn't use consistent lines. No gray screen, zipatone or even cross-hatching here.  

These disorderly, unsystematic lines infuse his drawing with life. Compare MacNelly's loose approach with the work of other masters of "control," such as Franklin Booth, Virgil Finlay or Reed Crandall.  Compare it with the antiseptic technical drawing of Chris Ware and his legions of followers. 

Here's another drawing with a level of detail that might prove deadly in the hands of a less certain artist:

MacNelly pulls the same trick shading that wall:

But he has other tricks too.  If you're going to draw 16 distinctive people in a line, with their heads cocked at different angles and wearing different hats, you don't want them to serve as an anchor weighing down your drawing, you want them to contribute energy.  I love the way MacNelly smears this crowd together with line, and draws them hugging the curvature of the earth.

It's hard to think of a more dynamic way of drawing a crowd of patient people waiting in a long line.

Today's shrinking newspaper industry offers so few platforms for artistic talent.  Heaven knows what MacNelly would be doing as an editorial cartoonist in today's market.  But looking over our shoulder at his dazzling drawings, we get a renewed sense for what good drawing once contributed to journalism, and might contribute again. 

Monday, September 18, 2023


This drawing by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi is about an inch tall:

It's one in a long line of faces like these...

...which are part of an even larger grid...

... which continues on and on...

...and on and on!

I really like these obsessive, energetic little faces.  I stumbled across them in the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke Virginia.   Each tiny face is more important and less important than you'd suspect.

The individual faces are more important because each is different, and worthy of a look-- no Photoshop or AI here.   Mr. Perjovschi doesn't coast on autopilot-- he paid for each of those faces.  His variety was stunning, and his sustained intensity was a little freaky.    

 But at the same time, each individual face is less important than you'd think.   The tiny faces blur together to create a single design affect. 

After thousands and thousands of these obsessive faces, they tend to disintegrate into more abstract shapes-- lines gone crazy in a way slightly (but not totally) different from the craziness of the faces they echo.

I take my hat off to Mr. Perjovschi for the intensity of his vision, for the level of clean, honest work that he puts into it, and to the art museum in the small town of Roanoke, Virginia, for introducing me to his drawings.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023


 Another in a series about the strange doings at the intersection of art and love.

Jimmy Swinnerton

Jimmy Swinnerton's life was even zanier than the comic strips he created (including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall.)  

Born in 1875, Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14 to join a traveling minstrel show.  He used blackface makeup as a disguise to elude his parents and the sheriff. 

Swinnerton led an adventurous life during the waning days of the wild west.  He rambled from job to job (and from bar fight to bar fight).  He drank heavily, gambled constantly, spent recklessly, and lied shamelessly.  These attributes made him irresistible to women.  

Depending on how we count, Swinnerton had somewhere between four and six wives. His biographer claimed that Swinnerton also “had a lady friend hiding behind every sagebrush on the desert," but let's confine ourselves to his wives.  Here's the scorecard:

  • Swinnerton's first wife was Thalia Treadwell, a glamorous San Francisco heiress. They married under mysterious circumstances; when friends asked for details, Swinnerton would only say, “the marriage took place between [San Francisco and New York] but I can’t tell you the place nor date for legal reasons.”  The couple quarreled bitterly, and Thalia abandoned her new husband and went to Japan. 
  • Swinnerton next married Harriet Hacker after a whirlwind courtship. Harriet was beautiful but she “enjoyed the night scene“ a little too much, going out to the clubs and sometimes not returning for days. When Swinnerton contracted tuberculosis he asked Harriet to move to the desert for his health, but she refused, citing the shortage of nightclubs in the desert.
  • Although still legally married to Harriet, Swinnerton moved to the desert alone.  There he quickly found a new girlfriend, Espie Castle.   The 1910 US census reports that Jimmy married Espie (which would've made him a bigamist) but in response to questions, he was evasive about their status. When Espie had a religious conversion and asked Swinnerton to join her in pious living, he quickly left. 
  • In 1917 Swinnerton belatedly divorced Harriet and two days later married his third – or fourth – wife, Louise Scher, a statuesque blonde divorcee.  The two quarreled constantly over Louise's spending habits on lace nightgowns.  Swinnerton borrowed thousands of dollars from her mother to pay for Louise's extravagances, then left without repaying her.
  • By 1933, Swinnerton was living in Las Vegas.  He divorced Louise and quickly married his fourth – – or fifth – – wife, Gretchen Richardson.  On her way to the wedding, Gretchen stopped off at a Vegas casino to play roulette. She placed a silver dollar on number 12 and when the number hit, she decided it was an omen and stayed to gamble rather than go to her wedding. She eventually showed up several hours late. 




The final Mrs. Swinnerton

Swinnerton was quick to marry and just as quick to leave.  He seemed to lack the patience or interest to explore what lay beneath the surface of his wives.  Yet, his attitude toward art was the exact opposite.

Swinnerton had infinite patience for painting the same desert landscapes over and over for decades.  He would loyally return every year to the same sites to paint the same scenes.  One of his exasperated wives complained, “why I do this each year I have never been able to figure out, because it’s the same trip, same road, auto camps, same climate, and has been for the last several years."  

Even Swinnerton's grandfather urged him to stop wasting his time on the same flat, drab "hellholes" such as Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and paint more glamorous landscapes.  Swinnerton responded that beauty lay beneath the surface, and that patience and faithfulness would be rewarded:  "Just you put full confidence in the [beauties of the desert] and she’ll show you all her secrets."  He would spend all day in the hot sun, carefully waiting for the desert to reveal her charms.

One has to wonder how Swinnerton's love life would've
changed if he'd devoted the same level of effort to his wife

Clearly Swinnerton didn't require the same variety in his landscapes that he required from his wives.  He found a sustaining variety in the rocks and sand (“Every minute in the desert is all new and completely different.")

It's also noteworthy that Swinnerton lied incessantly to his wives, yet as a painter he was obsessed with accuracy.  His mission was to make a true, literal representation of reality.

For some reason, Swinnerton's values in art didn't seem to carry over to his love life.  If painting gave him any insights into patience and the nature of beauty, those insights didn't seem to apply to his wives.  It's true that every artist must make tradeoffs, but looking at the meager quality of Swinnerton's paintings, one has to wonder whether he struck the best trades.

Saturday, August 26, 2023


    Critics have studied Norman Rockwell's work from many perspectives, but no one has analyzed Rockwell's role as a vehicle for vengeful gods dispensing karma. 
    Behold the gods at work:

    • In 1994, a wealthy couple bought a painting by Norman Rockwell.  The couple spent a fortune because they admired Rockwell's talent and bonded with the painting which had "all the humor and artistic quality that Rockwell created in... his works.”  Decades later, the couple discovered the painting was not by Rockwell but by illustrator Harold Anderson.  Suddenly the painting's qualities disappeared in their eyes.  The humiliated couple filed a lawsuit blaming the seller for not recognizing that the painting was an “open and obvious” forgery.


    • In the 1950s Norman Rockwell's boss, the art director of The Saturday Evening Post, pressured Rockwell to give him several original paintings as a "gift" for the art director's personal collection.  When Rockwell mustered the courage to ask for his paintings back, he received no reply. Other artists working for The Post complained that they were similarly pressured to "donate" their originals in order to stay on the art director's good side when he handed out new assignments. In this way, the art director amassed an art collection worth millions.   He left that collection to his sons, thinking it would put them on easy street.  

    However, the inheritance turned out to be a curse. The sons bitterly squabbled over the paintings for the next 30 years.  One was accused of manipulating his father to screw his brothers out of the art.  Other brothers filed lawsuits claiming the father was mentally incompetent.  The brothers accused each other of theft, misconduct, civil violations, liability for damages, etc. They sued each other again and again.  By the time they had exhausted themselves and settled their feud, their lives were mostly over and their family was in tatters.


    • In 1943, Rockwell created four pictures about people waiting to see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Rockwell admired Roosevelt and gave the pictures to Roosevelt's press secretary.  For many years they hung on the walls of the White House to entertain the public.  Then in 2017, descendants of Roosevelt's press secretary learned of the pictures and claimed they properly belonged to the family.  Family members began fighting amongst themselves over who owned the pictures and who had authority to donate them to the White House.  The newspapers noted that in the years of lawsuits that followed, the family tore itself apart over the art. 

    Rockwell was a thin, soft spoken man who lived for his art.  He wasn't always good at defending his own interests.  A casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that Rockwell was exploited by aggressive profiteers who saw an opportunity to feed on his talent and sacrifices. 

    Rockwell may have missed out on some of the money but ask yourself: which side ended up better off?  Which side offered a more meaningful existence?  

    It seems the wrathful gods occasionally place artistic talent on earth as glittering bait to lure and trap the unworthy-- those who, lacking talent to make art, see only opportunities to exploit or profit from those who can.  

    Wednesday, July 26, 2023


    I just returned from San Diego Comic-Con, the happiest place on earth, with the flash mob of  dancing Cap'n Crunches still ringing in my ears.

    Celebrating a change in the Cap'n's uniform, adding a stripe which promotes him from Commander to Cap'n.

    Every year Comic-Con is a petri dish of emerging technologies, raw capitalism, suppositious art, trinket peddlers, cosplay, and new legal developments.  For those with patience and curiosity, there are nuggets of excellence and strength hiding around every corner.

    For me, one of the real delights was the bunny rabbit at the bottom of this cartoon by Sullivant:

    Opossum to rabbit: "I had a drink and it went to my head."
    Image courtesy of Taraba Illustration Art

    Sullivant drew the bunny the hard way: we are looking down, from behind, with the rabbit's head tilted back.

    Note Sullivant's foreshortening of those ears

    The artist's honest struggle is there for all to witness; look at how he gouged that paper.  Look at those lovely brush marks.

    One of the major topics of conversation at Comic-Con was the impact of AI.  Today the machine can do the struggling for us, quickly and invisibly.  No more chewed up paper.  No human sweat and strain unless the machine is instructed to simulate it.  The next generation of artists will be trained in "prompts" and will be able to generate a hundred images of a bunny from any angle, "in the style of Sullivant." 

    As you can imagine, the artists exhibiting at Comic-Con were uniformly unhappy about what AI portends for traditional art.  They sold T shirts to make the point.

    It's not clear how effective this T shirt campaign will be in stemming the tide of AI.  Artists argue that AI "steals" images but computer scientists and lawyers at Comic-Con say "no," AI does not copy or steal in any sense cognizable under copyright law.  AI learns from pre-existing images as traditional artists do. 

    Lots of changes are underfoot.  Evolutionary transformations are taking place.  But regardless of marketing considerations, the strength of good drawing remains immutable.  I often quote Ralph Waldo Emerson here:  "Excellence is the new forever." 

    Wednesday, July 12, 2023


     Cartoonist Stan Drake had a gift for drawing from photographs.  He easily turned photos into elegant line.

    But a photograph couldn't show him how to draw those invisible motion lines.  Look how awkwardly Drake expressed movement in this next picture.  

    Drake's motion lines are contradicted by the
    hair hanging flat and other body language 

    Similarly, look how badly Al Hirschfeld-- a talented artist in other respects-- draws the path of this punch:

    Contrast Hirschfeld's motion line with the line of Leonard Starr, who understood the arc of an arm:

    Motion lines expose many an artist who doesn't know anatomy.  A photograph can't help you map invisible lines. 

    Capturing movement with a static drawing requires an artist to imply beyond what is visible.  To show what has taken place before or after the recorded instant,  it helps to understand the distribution of body weight and support, balance and counterbalance, the function of muscle and bone, the flow of clothing and hair.
    Notice how there's no weight behind this punch.

    Photo reference is a great tool for artists who have already paid their dues but if you haven't, it leaves you exposed when it comes to the invisible parts of drawing. 

    Monday, July 03, 2023


    More than any other profession, art criticism creates temptations to say stupid things.  It's the duty of every critic to resist those temptations.

    That was my thought after reading Blake Gopnik's silly review in the New York Times of the current J.C. Leyendecker exhibition in New York.  

    People have long understood that Leyendecker was gay, and that his sentiments emerged in his paintings of dashing and muscular men. But in recent years, there has been an effort to abscond with Leyendecker's legacy, injecting gay connotations into every brush stroke, and transforming the artist into a clandestine warrior for gay rights, while neglecting his broader array of artistic talents that produced 322 brilliant covers on a wide variety of subjects for The Saturday Evening Post.  

    As far as I can tell, this unfortunate trend began in 2008 in the poorly researched book, J.C. Leyendecker by Judy Goffman Cutler and Laurence Cutler.  It was certainly appropriate for those authors to note that Charles Beach, Leyendecker's model for the famed Arrow man, "was not only a homosexual but a kept man, the live-in lover of the famed artist who thrust himself into such an exalted status," but 200 pages later the book's fixation on "thrusting" continued unabated. We were still reading that "Charles Beach and Joe Leyendecker are held up as examples of monogamy among the gay community, so often criticized for promiscuity," or that "Charles' Dorian Gray image never [ages] in Joe's eyes nor in ours either" or that "members of the gay community [remember Leyendecker] for icons of masculinity and sensitivity." The authors inform us (without support) that Leyendecker was sending out "subliminal" homoerotic messages. 

    That book seems to have been the springboard for the new narrow focus in the show, “Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity,” at the New York Historical Society, and also in Gopnik's review of the show. 

    In 2010 Gopnik penned a puerile attack on Norman Rockwell's art because Rockwell's work "offended" Gopnik.  He wrote, "I can't stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks."  If Rockwell was insufficiently gay for Gopnik's taste, Leyendecker passes the test because Gopnik fantasizes Leyendecker to be "a gay fifth column into American culture, undermining the majority’s straight erotics" with "a defiant message hidden beneath" and "reveling in [his art's] secret subversion."  Gopnik even sees Leyendecker as "preparation for the uprising that came in 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn."

    Turning back for another gratuitous swipe at Rockwell, Gopnik falsely implies that Rockwell was hostile to Leyendecker's sexual orientation: 
    Norman Rockwell, 20 years younger than Leyendecker and eventually his neighbor, writes quite brutally in his memoir about how Beach had “insinuated” himself into Leyendecker’s life and especially about the duo’s social withdrawal once he had.
    If Gopnik had bothered to read Rockwell's autobiography, he would've learned that Rockwell deeply admired Leyendecker and wrote about him with great affection and concern.

    Yes, Leyendecker painted beautiful men who reflected a gay aesthetic.  He also painted beautiful women, beautiful children, beautiful fabric, beautiful metal surfaces and even beautiful elephants. You'd never know it from Gopnik's review.  And that brings me to my primary gripe:  Leyendecker painted major pictures of romantic heterosexual scenes, domestic scenes, parenting scenes and other types of images demonstrating diverse skills. 

    But what image does Gopnik select for his review?  The following mediocre, unrepresentative painting, because Gopnik is able to spin it into a masturbatory fantasy:

    Gopnik writes:
    There’s one case where the subversion was barely hidden at all: In an ad for Ivory Soap, the shadow Leyendecker placed on his model’s crotch seems clearly to hint at an erection, according to an exhibition wall text. You can’t unsee it once it gets pointed out.
    Leyendecker exhibitions are too few and far between to be wasted on such nonsense.  Leyendecker was a remarkable talent and the New York Times owes him better coverage than Gopnik monopolizing the conversation with his personal fetishes.  Are there no copy editors left?