Saturday, December 29, 2007


I can't think of a better way to end 2007 than with this lovely drawing by our old friend Rembrandt.

This little drawing makes me wonder why Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell thought it was necessary to invent abstract expressionism.  

What an astonishing drawing and what a wonderful world we live in!

Happy new year to all of you!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


In the comments with readers after my last post I wrote,
if you go online and look at the 2,284 drawings in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you will be stunned by the amount of unmitigated crap in their collection....the ratio of money to talent at the MOMA cathedral is downright asphyxiating.
Some of you scolded me for hyperbole.  After all, would the distinguished Museum of Modern Art really acquire "unmitigated crap"?  Surely I'm just applying outdated standards to pioneering works?

In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I'd post some of the offending artwork to see whether my open hearted readers can point out the mitigating qualities I'm missing.  Here is a selection of masterpieces currently enshrined in the collection of MOMA:

As I browsed through dozens of crummy drawings such as these, I noticed that whenever I was tempted to give a drawing the benefit of a doubt I found I had to deduct points for pretentiousness. For example, MOMA does not appear to own a single drawing by Disney, yet it proudly features many lame drawings of Disney subjects by inferior artists:

Why should MOMA display such drawings while turning up its nose at Disney's original work? Perhaps the answer can be found in a press release issued earlier this year, wherein MOMA touted "a psychological collage made by slicing and reconfiguring the pages of Walt Disney coloring books." The drawings in MOMA's collection ain't lowbrow Disney entertainment, buster, they are psychological collages.

To be clear, MOMA has many exquisite pieces.  But someone at MOMA obviously believes that no matter how badly a picture is drawn, it can be redeemed by an intellectual purpose.  This puts a heavy burden on the picture's intellectual purpose. Regrettably, these drawings and their "intellectual purpose" both strike me as unmitigated crap.

However, I am confident that my network of art lovers out there can explain what I am missing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


We have chatted in the past about artists who delight in drawing subjects such as hair or folds of cloth  or water, that allow the artist to take liberties with abstract design.

The great George Herriman rarely passed up an opportunity to draw smoke coming from a chimney. He seemed to add smoke to a picture the way a hat designer might place a feather in a lady's chapeau.

For art's sake, every fireplace in Coconino County must have been roaring all summer long.

Look how each example is different-- fluid, intuitive and beautiful.

You can treat each of these little abstract designs as a miniature rorschach test:

I suspect Herriman used the same standard for smoke that fine artist Ellsworth Kelly employed for his abstract drawings at the Museum of Modern Art.   It's just a matter of what "feels right":

For me, the smoke from Krazy Kat's chimney is the superior work.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Well, he's not exactly an illustrator, but I simply can't let the great man's birthday go by without tipping my hat in respect.

The illustrator Robert Fawcett studied Beethoven's notebooks and found their thematic notations surprisingly similar to an artist's conceptual sketches: they are both "notations of plastic linear ideas."

Fawcett said that abstract drawing "is probably as close to music as drawing can come." Enjoy these handwritten manuscripts as abstract art.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Artists and spies know there are two ways to convey a message:

The first is to write your message in secret code. This is called cryptography.

The second is to plant your message within a larger, non-secret communication. This is called steganography: hiding a message within an image, right out in the open.

Illustration is essentially a steganographic art. Rather than using the words of a writer, illustrators convey a message by folding it into an image. They use a variety of symbols, brush strokes, colors, facial expressions, body language and other techniques to communicate meaning that writers convey verbally.

Here are some dandy examples by Kyle Baker:

This picture has a text which you can certainly read, but the marvelous frowns on the young "orphans" add a whole non-verbal layer of humor and intelligence to the message.

In the next picture, Baker cleverly distorts the figure to heighten the text he is illustrating:

Try conveying this level of frustration with mere words!

Next is a joke which only works because Baker knows how to draw shadows and weak chins and thinks visually, so he understands that this person's pajama pants should be too short;

Finally, here is a neat example of the illustrator's art of staging and body language. The stooped posture of the interviewer, the wild gesticulations of Cowboy Wally, the arc of beer tracking the movement of his gesture; this all requires thought and planning.

These pictures by Baker are beautifully designed but they are also highly intelligent in a non-verbal way. This is different from the writer's form of intelligence, but it is just as rare and deserves just as much respect.

In recent postings about words and pictures, I have commented on the current rash of artistic geniuses who can't draw (or who, in the words of one commenter, are simply "writers who draw.") These artists don't communicate with steganography, they use cryptography. Their message may be concealed in the metaphor or allegory or symbolism of their written text, but it is rarely found ingrained in their drawings.

Whenever I write on this subject, I receive fatwahs and death threats from fans of Maus, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, Fun Home and other fashionable works. They would like to dismiss skill or talent in art as merely "slick," but the roots of quality in art are too ancient to be so easily dismissed. Perhaps such critics sell pictures short because they can't read the steganography in art.


Thursday, December 06, 2007


Once lines have been hardened into the shapes of letters of the alphabet, their only function is to form words and sentences. They march in straight rows, following the commands of their master, punctuation.

But ah, before that stage, when a line is still free and retains all of its original primordial wildness, it can do a thousand things and communicate in a thousand ways.

Excerpt from a drawing by Saul Steinberg

The designer Milton Glaser emphasized the potential of a simple pencil line:
There is no instrument more direct than a pencil and paper for the expression of ideas. Everything else that interferes with that direct relationship with the eyes, the mind, the arm and the hand causes a loss of fidelity.... I like the idea that this ultimate reductive simplicity is the way to elicit the most extraordinary functions of the brain.
The domain of the created line began with the first bubbling urschleim, before your words had consonants...

Prehistoric cave art from Queensland, Australia

... and extends to the most exalted and sublime heights where the air is too rareified for mere words.

Detail from the great astronomical ceiling of the ancient Egyptian tomb of Senenmut, c. 1500 BC. Note the parade of gods at the bottom, with sun disks on their heads beneath the four lunar cycles.

The domain of the line still extends just as far today-- unregulated by civilization, unfettered by geographic borders or language limitations, and potentially infinitesimal in its granularity.

Rembrandt, Three Women Looking Out a Door

Lines that have been civilized into letters and words can never return to the pagan state. Language is rule defined, so it becomes unintelligible as it approaches chaos. But the lovely, wild line of art is still at home in chaos. And as Nietzsche said, "One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."


Saturday, December 01, 2007


David Lance Goines started out as a student of classical languages, reading ancient texts in the original Greek and Latin. After being arrested and expelled from his university for participating in student protests in the 1960s, Goines found work as an apprentice with a nearby printer. Soon, Goines was combining his classical background with his own good taste to design posters that were both beautiful and interesting.

Goines also drew upon his classical studies in a series of witty essays (on subjects ranging from miniature golf to the Italian Renaissance artist, architect and philosopher Filippo di Ser Brunellesco).

Despite Goines' brilliance and erudition (or perhaps because of it) he had a completely unpretentious view of art, which I love. He described his work as follows:

I find it useful, when asked what I do for a living, to say that I am a printer and graphic designer, and leave it up to the questioner to decide whether or not I qualify as an artist.

* * * *

A plumber would not dare to call himself a plumber unless he were qualified in the opinion of others to do plumbing, and had experience and credentials to prove it, and actually got paid good money for his work. The same is true of an automobile mechanic, elementary school teacher or newspaper reporter. You can't just call yourself a college professor or medical doctor and expect anyone to take you seriously. You need to have something to back it up. The term "artist," unlike "electrician," or "dog trainer," neither conveys qualification, nor is it specific enough to shed much light on what a person may actually do.

* * * *

I am a competent technician. I give value for value. I am an honest workman, and I do not want people to think that I am a con-man.... therefore I do not call myself an artist. I create flat, representational objects---books, illustrations, posters, stained glass windows, greeting cards, wedding invitations, wine labels--in return for money. I'm glad that people like what I do, because that means that I can go on doing it. I like what I do, and consider it a privilege to be able to make my living doing it. But, I am not, at least in twenty-first century terms, an artist. I'll leave that to those who have no idea at all of what they do, or who they are, or where they are going, and must, for want of any other word, call themselves artists.

Goines did have his own views about the merit of different kinds of art. Here is his funny take on the "seven deadly arts:"

Just as there are Virtues and Sins; just as the Letter killeth and the Spirit giveth life, so are there Arts that prosper humanity and arts that are a pain in the neck. The Seven Deadly Arts are:

Science Fiction Poetry
Performance Art
Bell Ringing
Liturgical Dance
Experimental Film and

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Feliks Topolski (1907-1989) traveled the world, illustrating the great places and events of his day.

Born in Poland, Topolski set out for adventure at an early age. He made his way to Britain, the US, the Middle East, Canada, Ireland, France, India, Australia, Italy, Argentina, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Brazil and Portugal. Wherever he went, he kept a visual diary of the things he witnessed. His drawings of exotic street bazaars, ancient temples and crowded cities were collected in highly popular books.

During World War II, Topolski became famous as one of the great war illustrators, working on the front lines in Russia, China, Burma, India, Palestine, Africa, Egypt, Syria and Italy. He was in London to record the Battle of Britain, and in Germany to record the collapse of the Nazi regime. He witnessed first hand the freeing of the concentration camps. Here is a wonderful detail of looters making off with plunder in the streets of Bergen:

Here is an excellent drawing of Jordanian soldiers standing guard:

He drew portraits of world leaders such as Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell

One thing I particularly like about Topolski is the care he devoted to drawing people who were standing around waiting aimlessly.

Traveling under primitive wartime conditions, Topolski saw a lot of people sitting around waiting; waiting for food, waiting because transportation broke down, waiting for visas, waiting in prison camp yards... progress had come to a halt, and it seemed like most of the world spent most of its time waiting in lines.

Rather than succumb to mind numbing boredom, Topolski found the inspiration to take out his pencil and draw the people sitting around. He made thousands of drawings of such groups all around the world, but you can tell from the following examples that Topolski remained alert and observant, shrewdly capturing in line the identity and characteristics of each group.

The posture and clothing of the Russian soldiers in their thick coats look entirely different from the displaced persons, who look entirely different from the German POWs.

Those who see with the eyes of an artist, whose hand itches to draw, find opportunities for excellence even when surrounded by tedium.