Saturday, March 10, 2007


My eye is always drawn to those little places in a picture where the artist takes the liberty to play with abstract design. Sometimes you'll find artists indulging themselves when they depict folds, or water. Often you find them sneaking it in when they portray hair.

In this Joe De Mers picture (which I borrowed from Leif Peng's excellent
Today's Inspiration blog) contrast De Mers' tight, disciplined treatment of the face and hands with his wild treatment of the hair.

The hair in this "realistic" picture is as abstract as any Jackson Pollock painting. It enlivens the whole picture.

Similarly, in the following wonderful illustration, Bob Peak has carefully constructed a picture with many intricate figures, but when it comes to the hair, Peak returns to the freedom of kindergarten fingerpainting.

This must have been fun to do.

Frank Frazetta is another illustrator who created realistic, highly detailed pictures but when it came to hair, he stopped worrying about the rules of anatomy or perspective or shading. He completely unleashed himself and let design have free reign.

Somehow, all of his figures seemed to be standing in small cyclones.

Frazetta's wildly flowing hair not only added important vitality but also served a major compositional purpose.

Robert Frost once wrote: "The moments of freedom, they cannot be given to you. You have to take them." Artists employed to create pictures have to satisfy many masters: art directors, clients, audiences, printers-- even the subject matter imposes its own compromises. The artist is not free to fling paint or blend colors solely to create primal beauty. Yet, working within all these constraints, the artist can usually find little moments of giddiness in the hair, or the folds, or the clouds.


Obligatory art-is-like-life sermon for those younger readers who might not have figured out this part yet: everyone operates every day under lots of constraints, but if you are good at what you do, and you care enough, you can seize back what Frost calls those "moments of freedom" and, like De Mers, Peak and Frazetta, make them meaningful to your overall picture.



Anonymous said...

Since your post on the new breed of "talentless" (not your word but an agreeable one, I think, to both camps) comic artists I've been trying to figure out how you could miss out so completely on such an important development in the medium. It's very difficult to figure out where to even begin. So, for the sake of moving forward, I'll try and relate my protests to the current post.

It's obvious you appreciate instances of minimally restrained indulgences in a looser, more vital mode of expression. But only, it seems, when this is contained in a much tighter, rigidly composed work that roots itself in a classical sensibility. So, as you would have it, a clean representation of life with only a spasm of "kindergarten" behavior is allowed. And for what? For fun? For the spirit of the thing? Why stop there?

Speaking from a younger generation I have to smirk at your idea of an allowed "moment of freedom." The hard job is to prolong that moment. To actually compose a work which is predominantly constructed in primitive gesture (texture!) yet still succeeds in producing and making apparent to the viewer a realistically complicated system of visual organization. Now that sounds pretty dry, but this is at the heart of the matter I think. This is what makes an illustration effective or not.

Basically, it's extremely difficult to make "shit" look good. Those details in the Bob Peak and Joe de Mers illos (let alone Frazetta) are amazing to me in that they showcase a finely honed practice of expressionist abandon. I regard the details themselves with more interest than the original representative context that contains them. To me (and I truly believe a lot of the new wave of comics artists would agree with me on this) the subject of the woman in the Joe de Mers portrait is a dead end. A beautiful dead end sure, but a dead end nonetheless. Now, that flourish of fingerpainted hair in the Peak illo; that can get you somewhere. It gives you a way out of those hard-learned and well followed-through, but tired old representative techniques.

I'd urge you to take a look at some of the comics over at Fort Thunder: ( These guys (look especially at Matt Brinkman and Brian Ralph) hunkered down around the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid to late 90s and cranked out some pretty amazing and captivating comic work (despairingly depleted in the web archive). I think you would probably dismiss this stuff as untrained and juvenile, but I think it can be objectively appreciated as otherworldy and peculiarly vital. That brief "moment of freedom" has been extended to flesh out a much more robust experience. Furthermore the art does not serve as a "stand-in" to carry the drawings' conceptual matter, as you suggested to be an excuse oft-recited by defenders of this (fairly) new artistic phenomenon. The drawings are shitty but absolutely delightful and evocative. They are to be reveled in for the texture of life they emulate, not the quality of life they (supposedly) attempt to represent.

A bit off-topic: you should also be particularly careful in criticizing some of the content-themes favored by the new comic artist set. When you call Chris Ware's work "adolescent nihilism" and "whiny" I almost get the impression that you think he should "man up." You certainly favor a kind of man's club of old illustration artists from the fold of MAD magazine and the pulp comic heyday. This was certainly a very "mannish" age. Do you mean to suggest that the stakes were higher back then for an artist, in an existentialist sense, and this infused their work with an "end-of-the-day" seriousness? Do you really buy into that cliche notion of the male stoic, either biting his lip or slugging back liquor in order to muster on through the next economic or psychological depression that inevitably comes his way? The only female artist I've seen on this blog you were applauding for creating a beautiful illustration of her own breasts. I know that's not being fair, there was a wonderful story to support the relevance of those breasts, but the main focus there was on the social repercussions of the artist's actions (strikingly another example of a fleeting use of bold expression in an otherwise buttoned up body of work) and had very little to do with her own artistic techniques.

It's funny to imagine Chris Ware trying to take on the role of the "working man" illustrator. Where the hell would he get the material? He doesn't live like that. Comics artists nowadays don't live like that and there isn't even a model like that for them to mold themselves to. Chris Ware mines his adolescence as inspiration for an artful indulgence of a kind that's other than what you've described as being the impulse behind the hair drawings. His memories coalesce into a beautifully and meticulously designed system of visual/linguistic expression. His composition is a staggeringly precise balancing act. I guess I'm just beside myself with surprise that you don't appreciate it. I kind of thought it would be right up your alley.

I wish this didn't come off as an outright attack. I'm very grateful for the work you do on this blog! I've got a lot of respect for your opinion and your choice of topics and that's probably why I've spent so damn long preparing this comment. But somebody's gotta defend the new generation.

Jesse Eisenhower

David Apatoff said...

Jesse, thank you for one of the best, wisest responses I have ever received. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. If you are ever in my neck of the woods, I hope you will allow me to buy you a drink.

I think you have put your finger on exactly the right issues. I once shared many of the views that you hold. Now I only share some of them.

I came of age in the 1970s when artists had already jettisoned the "beautiful dead end" (I love your phrase) of a classical sensibility. Having shed the excess baggage of salon dogma, artists were sprinting (in a process my teacher Harold Rosenberg called "the de-definition of art") to reach the outer boundaries of art. But art turned out to be like peripheral vision-- the more you strained to see its limit, the further away that limit moved. There is nothing-- not an object, not a thought, not a belch or a hiccup-- that can't be "art" in the right conceptual framework. So we ended up with a generation of artists bent over puffing and panting, intellectually and morally exhausted from their race for the limits of art, and no closer than when they began. As for the art they left in their wake, it exemplified the principle in physics that if the universe continues to expand outward from the big bang, it will end up as a vast, cold nothingness where even individual atoms are so diffuse that they lack the structure to sustain life or heat.

That's what I think about when you say, "that flourish of fingerpainted hair in the Peak illo; that can get you somewhere." Without the tension between that flourish of fingerpainted hair and the surrounding structure in Peak's illo, you have no brakes on the road to entropy.

Speaking from an older generation, I know better than to smirk when you write: "Speaking from a younger generation I have to smirk at your idea of an allowed 'moment of freedom.' The hard job is to prolong that moment." My young friend, that's all there is: an allowed moment of freedom. Since the world began, every generation (well, at least every generation of guys) has searched relentlessly for a state of permanent orgasm. ("If we could just chop out those boring parts in between...") I'm here to tell you, it's just not there. In fact, it's even the wrong goal. Everything is context; the interaction of that flourish of fingerpainted hair with the surrounding rules and structure.

That's what I meant when I ended an earlier posting on Water by quoting Tagore: "The freedom of the storm and the bondage of the roots join hands in the dance of swaying branches." Unless you have both the storm and the roots, there just ain't no dancing.

You have written so much that I would like to engage on, but I don't want to end without reacting to your specific closing points. I looked at the work of Matt Brinkman and Brian Ralph, and I like them okay. Brinkman's line has some character and I like his textured backgrounds. Both have substance. In my view, theirs is the kind of work that, when approached with a little good will, can be very interesting. I would hang some of it on my wall. In the end, I'm not sure they reward sustained attention or revisiting the way that major artwork does.

Finally, as for my "mannish" tastes, you could be right. You obviously started reading my blog after my paean to Kaethe Kollwitz, but still I have referred to a number of women artists besides Sarah Goodridge. I confess I do not take the gender of the artist into account when I think about why I happen to like a piece of art. It is worth thinking about. As for Chris Ware, I confess that I am a little prejudiced against his art because he is so whiny. Everyone is entitled to spend some time reacting to that terrible jolt you receive when you truly comprehend that existential void yawning beneath you. But after a while, it becomes a question of what you do about it. I'm not saying Chris Ware should "man up," but an artist claiming our attention should should at least be able to convey the magnitude of the tragedy in a way that does it justice. Mainly I am prejudiced against his art because he is surrounded by fawning idolators who keep shouting that he is a genius. These people are just plain uneducated. They are my real target, not Ware.

Jesse, I am deeply grateful for your comment. I hope you will keep reading, and above all, keep writing. And hey -- as long as you're defending "the new generation," perhaps you can explain rap music to me.

Best regards.

theory_of_me said...

I no longer see any substantial difference beween men like Chris Ware and Bob Peak. Both were jolted by that "existential void" which caused them to furiously dig little holes to stick their heads into, all in order to sustain an illusion of freedom.

So there's really no point in fussing over the superficial differences in their work. All is vanity. You are all in the same sinking boat holding hands and singing praises to each other, bracing yourselves for that last blow.

This message is for the younger readers. Older people are too set in their ways to really think about this stuff anymore. Young people:art-is-not-like-life! Don't limit yourselves that way. Jump out of that boat and brave those icy waters.

David Apatoff said...

Welcome back, theory of me. We missed your scowl. Let me know if you succeed in persuading anybody that jumping overboard is a good way to avoid getting wet when the ship goes down.

theory_of_me said...

Our "human" civilization is built on the backs of great men who weren't afraid to get their pinky toes wet. Thanks to these truly wise men we can all afford to sit in our chairs and congratulate ourselves on our great taste.

leifpeng said...

Another fascinating post, David... made all the more thought-provoking by the exchange of intelligent comments at its conclusion.

A wise man once quoted me a most extraordinary passage by Erica Jong:

"In a society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Though I doubt Chris Ware gives it away I am almost positive he began his career by doing so. And I have no doubt at all that the legion of ... what? "unschooled"? "primitivist"? artists that Jesse speaks about stand naked in a world of tuxedoed illustrators like Peak and De Mers.

I do appreciate that, as you have said, its their cheering squad you take issue with - not the artists themselves. Still, could it be that Jesse and at least some of those others who have challenged your position do so because they see the naked man you don't?

David Apatoff said...

Leif, I admire artists who put their work on display for the pure love of it, but that doesn't mean I also waive all standards for their art. Some art is overpriced even when it's free.

You are exactly right, I would be much more tolerant of the art were it not for the fatuous hyperbole of its swooning fans. I still believe in the Erica Jong quote, but perhaps I should have added this coda from Margot Fonteyn: "The difference between taking one's work serioously and taking one's self seriously: the first is imperative and the second is disastrous."

Finally, thank you once again for introducing me to the Joe De Mers painting that kicked off this very interesting discussion. (You can never tell what's gong to start one of these things.) I love that painting.

leifpeng said...

Umm... no, I don't think you need the addendum - though its clever. I'm not speaking as a huge fan of the work being discussed but I do advocate for tolerance of the work, and perhaps even *most* of the fans.

While I'm annoyed and disgusted by the hypesters who would profit from the commodification of any sort of art, I don't think its neccessarily the artists who are taking themselves overly seriously.

Did I miss a story about Art Speigelman demanding a better table at Spago or something? ("Don't you know who I am? Have you not seen my Pulitzer?!?)

Its those art "industrializers"; those profiteers who are truly loathesome to me. They churn up a lot of buzz and hype to sell anything - worthy or unworthy - to the rich and ignorant. Here I really see your point - so much stunning creativity going unnoticed while the hypsters and their minions worship at the alter of (what you see as) lesser talents.

I think sometimes some of your readers might be taking too personally your criticisms of certain artists' works because they see it as an attack on their personal taste. That's what I get from reading Jesse's comment (tho' I don't mean to speak for him).

I wish I knew how else to demonstrate a point without being comparative, though. When you write about Wally Wood or Mort Drucker in comparison to modern so-called masters I always feel like cheering you on (Yeah, what about those guys? Let's hear it for them!) and this is where I think a lot of well meaning folks get hung up on a relatively unimportant aspect of commercial art: that its purpose is "commercial" - what jesse (and I suspect many others) qualify as "shit".

I wonder, if Chris Ware was doing brilliant comic strips for Exxon or Marlboro, would his fans still praise his "beautifully and meticulously designed system of visual/linguistic expression". I sure hope so.

Because (and I admit a bias 'cause I am one) I think its tougher and requires more creativity to be a commercial artist than a modern day 'fine' artist. Look at Michaelangelo. Mozart? Frank Lloyd Wright? (I'm not very well educated on this stuff, David -- you could probably list dozens of other well known names)

All seem to have managed the Herculean task of creating masterpieces while shackled to the demands of a client with an agenda other than celebrating the artist's desire for self-expression.

Somewhere along the line the merit of producing utilitarian art went from being celebrated to being vilified - and its that divisive mindset that I think is at the root of much of the debate in many of your comment sections.

Thanks as always for providing this truly thought provoking forum, David!

Joss Paddock said...

Dude said "utilitarian art went from being celebrated to being vilified"
Maybe it's just that a person in this world must come to grips with so much self-compromise that a truly great artist who also finds themselves in a position and with a desire to share a personal vision is a reason for all of us idolaters to be grateful. Whether we find those moments in a Rembrandt or a Ware a Drucker, Hohlwein, or a Wyeth. Please excuse my frankness, but the(my) "problem" with illustration is that it's prostitution, so while you could have great sex even a profoundly mind-blowing emotionally compassionate experience with a prostitute, in the end I think we would all have to agree that prostitution is a barrier to the purity self expression which we all love. Now the technical facility acheived by a prostitute/illustrator is an ecosystem of it's own to which this blog as well as myself seem to be devoted, because when this facility crosses wires with the simple joy of visual creativity the fireworks are amazing to us. Humanity is made line, tone, shape, etc. and it would seem without the marketplace there is scant support for the rigorous devotion required of alchemically translating something 3d into 2d poetry

David Apatoff said...

Joss Paddock-- "Please excuse my frankness, but the(my) "problem" with illustration is that it's prostitution."

Joss, I don't question your knowledge of illustration, but I do question your knowledge of art. Please explain how illustration qualifies as prostitution in a way that "fine" art does not. If you have read anything about how painters of the high Renaissance competed for sponsors, how they curried favor with wealthy patrons, styled their work to please powerful audiences, and scrambled to undermine their rivals and to increase their own fees, it was every bit as "commercial" as the art you now label "prostitution." Similarly, if you understand the way that contemporary "fine" artists, their galleries and their press agents market their work, it makes the "prostitute" Norman Rockwell look like a nun. And finally, you have that whole definitional problem; if Durer or Rembrandt are paid to illustrate scenes from the Bible (just as Michelangelo was paid to illustrate the Bible on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) do they count as prostitutes as well? Their work was, after all, illustration by all definitions.

Anonymous said...

Too joss and to piggyback off of David is all illustration prositution? Michaelangelo was very much a faithful man and I don't think he was prostituting himself. It aligned with his beliefs. I think your view is narrow since it is assumes that every illustrator is not creating something out of love but only for money.

David what would you like to be explained about rap music?