Friday, May 25, 2007


Most pin-ups don't need to be good art, and therefore they are not. This is what economists call the efficiency of the marketplace. If customers don't buy pin-ups for artistic merit, it would be inefficient to waste time creating it.

For example, the famed pin-up artist Alberto Vargas is (in my opinion) an uninspired technician with no visible artistic ability. The same might be said for many of the other popular pin-up artists, such as Earl MacPherson, Zoe Mozert, Al Buell or Art Frahn (despite the fact that their "art" is now published in fancy art books and sells for astronomical sums).

Of course, there are non-artistic reasons to enjoy pin-up art. It is a wonderful celebration of the huge clanging dumbnicity of men:

Gene Weingarten once wrote,
Many, many years ago, when God was still an adolescent, he decided that for the survival of the species, it was necessary that men be loathesome, prurient pigs.
Yup. And darned proud of it.

But there is at least one real talent in the field of pin-up art, the great George Petty. His well designed pictures and beautifully idealized forms stood out from all his competitors.

Unlike many of his peers, Petty was a genuine artist. You can see his special gift in this assortment of graceful hands from his pin-ups. They look like a flock of birds taking flight.

I like Petty's work, especially his early years for Esquire Magazine. You can flip through pin-ups by a hundred different artists, but Petty's quality stands out.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural drawings are beautiful abstract designs that compare well with any fine art. At the same time, Wright's work had to comply with the laws of engineering and plumbing. The result is a marvelous blend of art and science.

One reason I often prefer illustration to today's "fine" art is that illustration is more engaged in the world. It is robust and vulgar and dynamic in an era when so much of gallery art is self-indulgent, narcissistic and pallid.

Architecture may be the ultimate example of art that is "engaged in the world." Wright's art required him to wrestle with gravity and structural engineering the way Jacob wrestled with the angel. That struggle grounded his work in the world, giving his drawings an inherent strength, relevance, and ultimately-- legitimacy.

Some of Wright's fine art counterparts who created "art for art's sake" did not need permission to take liberties with form-- they simply took it. They were left with nothing to wrestle with but their press agents and gallery owners, and it shows.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part nine

Cowboy illustrator Charlie Russell (1864-1926) apparently melted down a gold nugget to make this ring for his 18 year old bride-to-be, the lovely Nancy Cooper of Cascade, Montana.

History does not record whether Nancy had qualms about putting on a saddle as a symbol of their marriage. Coming from a cowboy in the old west, perhaps such a ring even qualified as romantic.

Wedding picture of Charlie and Nancy, 1896

Before Charlie got married, his art studio was a back room in Jim Shelton's Saloon in Utica. After they were married, Nancy moved Charlie's studio into a respectable log cabin where she cleaned him up and sold his work. By most accounts she made him a success. It's not clear who really wore the saddle in their marriage. I suspect that, as with most long term relationships, the difference between who rides and who is ridden depends only on the time of day.

I kinda like this ring, both as a sculpture and as a symbol. Some might view it as a symbol of oppression, and perhaps it is, but there is a lot to be said for Robert Frost's insight into the true nature of freedom: "You have freedom when you're easy in your harness."

Charlie and Nancy seem to have been happy together. They lived through 30 interesting years of great change, until Charlie died of a heart attack. Then Nancy and their son packed up and left Montana forever. Years later, the US government established the
Charles M Russell National Wildlife Refuge near the beautiful place where for 30 years Charlie and Nancy spent their nights under the big Montana stars.

When I look at Nancy's ring, I can't help hearing the faint strains of an old calypso song that Harry Belafonte sang in the 1950s:

My girl's name is Senora.
I tell you friends, I adore her...
Senora's dance has no title.
Just jump in the saddle, hold on to the bridle.


Saturday, May 05, 2007


I love this apocalyptic drawing by John Hendrix, one of the more distinctive voices in the field of illustration today.

In the tradition of Brueghel and Heironymous Bosch, this drawing is dense with symbols and weird iconography. Hendrix implies a larger universe of prophecy and mysticism but he knows enough to stop with mere implication. As Carl Sandburg said, poetry is "the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during that moment."

This is a smart, literate drawing, but Hendrix's graphic images are as strong as his content. He conjures up great symbols such as the train careening downhill and exploding on the bridge as the "pride of man" ( Isaiah 2:17: "The pride of man will be humbled And the loftiness of men will be abased.")

Equally striking is Hendrix's vision of the "axe of God" (from Matthew 3:10)

This drawing has a hundred little clevernesses but like all good art it is more than the sum of its parts. Look at how the components come together for a vertiginous effect: the perspective is all askew, as the earth opens up and the tidal wave with a face rushes over the horizon and the train speeds at an odd angle into the pit. Nice job-- a drawing that makes you think. And laugh.