Sunday, November 26, 2006


The illustrator Rockwell Kent (1882 - 1971) loved humanity with great passion. Unfortunately, he was an utter jerk when it came to loving individual human beings.

Kent was famous for his illustrations for Moby Dick, Candide, Shakespeare and Chaucer. He was also the author of several acclaimed books, an explorer, an architect, a dairy farmer, a carpenter, a fisherman, a sailor and an outspoken advocate of socialism who was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union for his work to achieve peace and brotherhood.

Kent had many wild adventures around the world. He hiked through jungles and over mountains. He explored islands and traveled on freighter ships. Once he attempted to sail around Cape Horn (at the southern tip of South America) in a ramshackle life boat that he bought for a few dollars. Wrote one commentator:

This region, boasting probably the world's worst climate, is buffeted incessantly by winds, swiftly alternating with rain, hail and snow. It is the legendary graveyard of ships and sailors, and Kent [had] the half-formed idea of trying his mettle against the hazardous adventure of sailing "round the Horn."
He was shipwrecked in Greenland and Alaska and lived for extended periods of time north of the Arctic Circle in desolate places like Ubekendt Ejland (Unknown Island). But his first love was painting and he painted almost every day.

Kent's artistic mentor was the painter Abbott Thayer. While living as a guest in Thayer's house, Kent married Thayer's 17 year old niece over the objection of her family. Four months after the wedding, he resumed a love affair with an old flame. Kent went on to have torrid affairs with a variety of girlfriends while his devoted wife stayed at home and bore him five children. (When one of his girlfriends became pregnant, Kent and his wife had to sell everything they owned to pay her off.) When his fifth child was born, Kent decided that his wife's clinging ways were unbearable, so the couple divorced. Kent learned from this experience and made sure all of his future children were illegitimate. Kent's second wife, Frances, may have hoped Kent was willing to settle down because he built a dream house with her out in the country and named it "Asgaard" after the Norse home of the gods. But at the housewarming party that Kent and Frances held for their friends, Kent overheard someone planning a dangerous boat expedition to Greenland and immediately abandoned Frances and Asgaard for this new adventure. Kent did marry a third time, to a woman the age of his youngest daughter.

Kent courted these women using artwork and poetry, and he praised their beauty with great eloquence. He always felt bad (and a little surprised) when they took the news of his infidelity so hard. One former showgirl committed suicide, jumping to her death into the sea. Perhaps it would have been difficult for a wife to accompany Kent on his rugged travels. Kent recounted one particularly horrifying shipwreck in his autobiography, It's Me O Lord:

Against the hurricane that woke us, sweeping down off the lofty plateau of the inland ice... we could do nothing but... hang onto our anchor ropes. And once the anchors failed to hold, the game was up.
Kent's tiny boat capsized. He and his two companions dragged themselves to shore and trekked 36 hours over rugged terrain with no shelter before they stumbled across an Inuit fisherman. None of them spoke Inuit, yet Kent managed to negotiate food, shelter and a young Inuit native girl.

Even though Kent had no space for a wife on his journeys, he always managed to find room for his paints, brushes and canvases. Following the shipwreck mentioned above, Kent returned to salvage his art supplies and spent two months painting that "vast wonderland of sea and mountain."

I have long been fascinated by the selfishness of artists. Some artists place the demands of their art above the welfare of their family and friends. Sometimes the resulting art is so beautiful, the trade off seems worth it to those of us who aren't personally affected. But it is always difficult to draw a bright line between artists who make sacrifices to protect their art and those who are merely self centered. Through the generations, a lot of collateral damage has been caused by artists fighting for their artistic lives.

Kent lived to be 89. Despite all his advetures, he seemed to have had a wistful old age. In one of his books, he described a poem-song he had learned from the Eskimoes about an old man who remembers

old times when I had strength to cut and flay great beasts.

Three great beasts could I cut up while the sun slowly went his way across the sky.

A sick old man could no longer hope to hang onto a woman, so he wishes his

woman away in the house of another,

in the house of a man who may be her refuge, firm and sure as the strong winter ice.

Sad at heart, I wish her away in the house of a stronger protector now that I myself lack strength even to rise from where I lie.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Here are the 5 things I love most about the work of the great Ronald Searle (1920 - ).

1.) He is absolutely fearless with ink: the bite and splatter of his drawing remind you how people used to draw before software was invented.

Searle makes a serious commitment with ink, one that requires not only skill but courage. His drawings have the potential to go horribly awry if Searle ends up an inch to the left or right of his goal.

2.) Searle is able to step back from familar shapes and reinvent them: It is very hard to unlearn our basic assumptions about anatomy. Most artists who try end up merely exagggerating. But look at how Searle reinvents the human form. Think it's easy? Try it yourself. Or ask Picasso.

3.) Searle draws with great visual intelligence. You can tell from his artistic solutions that there is a radiant mind at work here.

4.) Even as an old man, Searle's work is playful and humorous (with all the subversiveness that implies).

5.) Finally, I like the path Searle followed. If I drew the way Searle did when he started out as an illustrator, I would have given up and gone in search of honest work.

Yet, Searle persevered and became one of the most influential illustrators of the second half of the 20th century. You can see his strong influence on Mort Drucker, Pat Oliphant and a whole generation of pen and ink artists who followed him. What happened to transform Searle's work? Was he hit by a lightning bolt? Did he have a mystic vision in the night? No one can say for sure, but I suspect part of the answer lies in the following quote:

At the Cambridge art school it was drummed into us that we should not eat, drink or sleep without a sketchbook in the hand. Consequently the habit of looking and drawing became as natural as breathing.
Searle never stopped drawing, and over the years his powerful style gradually emerged, as natural and organic as breathing.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


[No pictures today-- I am writing from Beijing, China, far away from my art collection, my scanner and my sweetheart (hi, Nell!). But I'll be home in a few days, when I can update my blog with fewer words and lots of good pictures.]

My feeble attempts to analyze pictures using words reminds me of Flaubert's lament:
Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.
Don't get me wrong-- I'm a big fan of words. They have a tough job: to tame a wild, omnidimensional universe of feelings, thoughts and sensory impressions into a straight line with punctuation and spelling. All I'm saying is that pictures manage to take me a few inches closer to Flaubert's stars than words do.

Beethoven said, "music is a higher form of revelation than philosophy," and listening to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, we surely believe him. Music is able to achieve that exalted height in part by leaving behind the limitations of words, just as the abstract part of art-- the shapes and colors and design-- leaves words behind. It is as close to music as the visual arts can come.

Call me sentimental, but I prefer illustration to abstract art precisely because illustration combines abstract visual design with those limiting, confining words that provide the content. Some people see the words part as an anchor. I see it as ballast.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


A few days ago I posted a segment on Stanley Meltzoff's paintings of ancient Greece. I always wanted to meet the artist behind those glorious paintings, but now I never will. As I was posting my blog, Mr. Meltzoff was lying ill in a hospital. Today he passed away.

Diver's farewell to Blue Marlin by Stanley Meltzoff

Meltzoff was a gifted author, teacher and artist who painted images from science for Scientific American, historical illustrations for National Geographic and Life, and science fiction covers for a host of publishers.

Like thousands of others, I was enriched by his beautiful work. But I was most inspired by his astonishing intellectual curiosity and his deep artistic purpose. Meltzoff wrote about surviving in the years when the bottom dropped out of the illustration market:
My wife was ill, my children needed college money and I was almost 60 years old. I stood on the corner of 56th and Lexington Avenue in the rain with a soggy portfolio in my hands and improvised a sad little song about defeat, flat feet and flat broke while I tried to think of something to do.
Meltzoff responded to adversity with great artistic potency. He single handedly created a new market for paintings of seascapes and gamefish, which enabled him to combine his expertise in diving with his passion for art. In his spare time he compiled an art reliquarium and wrote a major scholarly treatise, Botticelli, Signorelli and Savanorola, Theologica Poetica from Boccacio to Poliziano. The book is a marvelous work of history, written with great lucidity, insight and humor-- the kind of epic accomplishment that would have capped an entire career for most historians. I recommend it to you.

Please join me in sending thoughts and prayers to Mr. Meltzoff's family. Irene Gallo of the Art Department blog tells me that we can look forward to a book about Meltzoff from publisher Donald Grant books. I will be first in line.

Most people who gamble on earning a living from their creativity have those moments of standing in the rain with a soggy portfolio. William Hazlitt wrote that, "In the end, all that is worth remembering of life is the poetry of it." Whatever else happened in his life, Mr. Meltzoff's gamble paid off royally. One only has to look at his art to know that his life was rich with poetry.

Saturday, November 04, 2006



 In 1963, Life Magazine commissioned artist Stanley Meltzoff to illustrate an article about ancient Greece. The result was a set of glowing masterpieces that brought ancient Greece vividly to life.


 In addition to the beauty of the images, Meltzoff labored long and hard to make his paintings historically accurate. A meticulous craftsman, he even distinguished the uniforms of the Persians from the uniforms of the Scythians and the Medes. His illustrations conveyed everything from the pathos of an a individual dying in the streets from the plague...

detail from the Plague of Athens (below) the grand sweep of the world's largest army storming across the Hellespont to invade Greece.


 These are works of enduring value. They appeared for one brief moment in a 25 cent weekly magazine, then disappeared as Life moved on to a different topic the following week. They aren't displayed in a museum or gallery for the public to admire.

 And yet, having appeared once, they are not gone. I can personally attest that these dramatic images were seared permanently into the memories and imaginations of ten year old boys of that time. I am reproducing them here in the hope that there is another generation out there watching.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Art sits back, licking its chops and waiting for the next fool who believes art can be explained rationally.

I've never been that kind of fool. As far as I'm concerned, the quality of art can't be determined by the accuracy of an image or the chemical composition of the pigment. The poet W. H. Auden identified a far more reliable test:

In times of joy, all of us wish we possessed a tail we could wag.
All of this goes to say that my current diversion into the darkest depths of abstract art is not an attempt to find objective criteria for judging abstract art.

However, my personal view is that abstract art and representational illustration-- despite their obvious differences-- both deal at their core with the creation of form, and can both be judged by what
Peter Behrens called "the fundamental principles of all form creating work." These principles enable us to place all visual art on the same continuum. They give us a standard by which even abstract art can be measured. With representational art, we often achieve aesthetic qualities by starting with subjects from nature that embody these qualities, while with good abstract art the challenge is to distill these principles one additional level, to their essence.

Where do aesthetic principles come from, and how do we apply them?

Aesthetic principles such as beauty, balance, harmony and proportion don't simply spring forth on butterfly wings. They are derived from our daily interaction with the world. Our experience of nature is the fundamental starting point from which we come to understand what colors "go" well together, or how we experience effective compositions or which designs elicit certain reactions.

Not only that, but the vocabulary of value in art is the vocabulary of morality. Terms such as "beauty" and "harmony" are terms by which we order our lives as well as our paintings. These words don't offer mathematical certainty. They are subjective and imprecise, but they are central to the most important aspects of our humanity so we agree to tolerate a little ambiguity.

Some of you will object that illustration is very different from abstract or nonrepresentational art at the philosophical / political / biological / metaphysical / sexual / or religious level. Yes, all of those elements may play a role in art, but they are always embodied in aesthetic form. Only the form is essential to art.

Some of you are very irritated that abstract or nonrepresentational art is overrun with talentless pretenders who rushed to fill the vacuum when objective standards departed. This is certainly true. Only recently the New York Times published a favorable review of conceptual artist Sherrie Lansing who practices "appropriation art." Explains the review:

She re-photographed Walker Evans photographs and presented the copies as her own to question what labels like "original" and "classic"' meant, and why they were always applied to men.
To this I can only respond that an artistic theory can't be held responsible for all the clowns who subscribe to it.

Finally, some of you will object that abstract art "cheats" because there is no external point of reference by which to judge the success of the work. Non-representational artists never have to struggle to get that arm right or to solve that problem with perspective. But this only makes the job easier for bad abstract artists. The lack of an external reference point makes it harder for a good artist (and for the audience) to determine when a picture is right.

I think the abstract art that I offered before is "true" applying the standards above. It confidently applies the same kinds of form creating principles that God applied in designing the world, and it gets the images right. It creates visual images that obviously did not come from nature and yet seem organically at home in the world. It is deceptively hard to apply the aesthetic principles described above. For me, 99 percent of abstract art falls far to the left or right of the mark, but when it works, I find it credible and important and valuable.