Thursday, January 31, 2008


It seems that no one can talk about the illustrations of Sanford Kossin for more than sixty seconds before bringing up his illustrations of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

This powerful collection of pictures is mentioned in the very first sentence of Kossin's biography in The Illustrator in America. It is mentioned in the second sentence of his biography on the Graphic Collectibles web site. And this week, it turned up on Leif Peng's excellent blog, Today's Inspiration. Leif posted Kossin's illustrations for a textbook:

and immediately somebody wrote in, recalling Kossin's powerful illustrations in May 1963 of the Bay of Pigs.

Kossin's work appeared in many venues over a long career, from science fiction magazines and text books to MAD magazine and paperbacks. Yet, his stunning pictures for Life Magazine of the tragic Bay of Pigs invasion stood out from all the rest:

Very different from Kossin's typical style, these pictures take their place in a great tradition of powerful war art. Their strength and abstract quality left a deep impression on every artist I know who saw them.

I thought I would post a selection of these illustrations, so you will know what they are talking about when somebody asks, "Did you ever see Kossin's illustrations from that issue of Life....

If you want to see the full set of pictures, you will have to wrestle some old timer for his copy of Life. It will be worth it.

[Note: now you no longer have to wrestle some old timer to see all these images. As a public service Leif Peng is posting them all on his great blog. Check them out!]

Friday, January 25, 2008


Paul Gauguin is one of my favorite illustrators.

He was also the ultimate outsider. He fought with authority figures such as police and clergy. He cursed the hypocrisy and commercialism of western civilization. He abandoned his home in France, his religion, his job, even his wife and five children.

Gauguin lived his final years on the tiny South Pacific island of Hua Oa, an island of steamy tropical jungles and volcanoes, of black sand and pink skies, of tiki gods and exotic fruit. Clouds of mist hovered around the cliff from which natives sacrificed virgins to the sea.

It would be hard to imagine a more committed rebel than Gauguin.

And yet...

when he died all alone in his hut under an alien sun, wracked with morphine addiction and the ravages of his lifestyle, they found an unfinished painting on his easel: a conventional winter landscape of a charming French country village.

Illustration is commonly criticized as "lower" art for using obvious, sentimental subject matter to appeal to popular audiences. Norman Rockwell might have been a great artist, we are told, if it weren't for his middle class values. Great art has to rise above such cheap sentimentalism.

No artist ever ran further or faster from middle class values than Gauguin. None ever paid a higher price for his "outsider" status. But as he faced a lonely death, stripped of all pretense and bravado, somewhere close to Gauguin's core was a sentimental image from his youth.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

ROBERT G. HARRIS (1911-2007)

The illustrator Robert G. Harris died a few weeks ago at the age of 96. His career spanned many of the glory years of illustration.

Harris learned art at the feet of early masters such as Harvey Dunn and George Bridgman. He illustrated everything from crude pulps to refined magazines for women. (This WW II illustration of a war bride learning the fate of her soldier husband appeared in the latter).

As a successful illustrator in an era when illustrations helped to shape the national imagination, Harris could afford to build a large home and studio in fabled Westport, Connecticut with three cars in his garage and his own private sea-plane at the beach. As the illustration field grew, the top talent from around the country flocked to Westport to try their luck.  Soon, Harris found Westport was becoming too crowded. Harris' friend, the great illustrator Al Parker, explained that early illustrators such as Harris sought out Westport for its "cornfields and crickets."   When the open fields filled with houses, Parker followed Harris to Arizona.

Harris continued to work and paint in Scottsdale Arizona. With his death, another chapter in the long and colorful history of illustration comes to a close.

We extend our sincere regrets to his family.


I continue to receive comments scolding me for being too judgmental about certain art. I've always tried to follow the ancient advice of Seneca: "If you judge, investigate." So rather than repeating my own biased conclusions, perhaps it makes sense to share examples of "performance art" that helped to shape my views.
I report, you decide.

The following are direct quotes from favorable reviews that appeared in
High Performance Magazine (one of the leading journals of performance art for 20 years).

1. La Fura dels Baus

The Spanish industrial performance art group, La Fura dels Baus is so good it makes "all other industrial performance art groups stink like a Nazi pissing on the festering ashes of the Reichstag." Here is how La Fura uses performance art to provide insight into "the shit of politics:"
Two raving maniacs burst through a cinder block wall with sledge hammers....The performers come closer and I smell the unwashed suits they wear. With disgusting relish, these Hammer characters set upon three apparently harmless Slime men who have been rolling around in metal barrels chasing the audience mindlessly....Then they pour on buckets of liquid which must boil and burn for the Slime Men writhe in paroxysmal pain, horrible to behold.... I interpret the Slime men as Everyman, emerging from the dark and trying with limited faculties to organize something, anything which can be called their lives. The hammer men are oppressors.

2. "No Art" Performance

High Performance has been getting queries from other magazines wanting to know the status of Teching Hsieh's work in progress. But since July when Hsieh announced that for a year he would not do art, look at it, speak about art or think about art, we have been unable to find out any more first hand information than anyone else. Friends speculate that the piece grew out of the frustration he experienced trying to organize a one year torch-carrying piece that required a minimum of 400 recipients. Even after running full page ads in the East Village Eye and other publications, Hsieh was only able to come up with around 200 interested people, whereupon he dropped the idea and announced his "no art" piece. Fallout from the piece has been that he refuses to visit old friends because they have too much art on their walls and avoids Linda Montano, his friend and collaborator for his last year long piece in which they were tied together, because Montano is doing a seven year art/life piece in which everything she does is declared art. (italics added).

3. "I'm an Ass Man" Performance

Karen Finley's performance, "I'm an Ass Man," zeroes in on sexual tyranny, substance abuse and frustrations of marginal existence. Finley attacks New York's Eurotrash, recently moneyed and titled immigrants who flaunt their wealth and recreational drugs. At the same time she pours milk, honey and instant tea into an open purse, shakes it up, and sloppily drinks a portion...Sexual assault abounds in Finley's psychotic world....A slob at a subway station sees a fat lady and fantasizes about raping her, only to discover she is menstruating. Here, Finley opens a bottle of beets and a can of red kidney beans and pours them together, rubbing her hands in the red mess. After describing attempted child sexual abuse by an adult male on a young girl, Finley squishes several bars of melted ice cream sandwiches, smearing it all over her black dress. In graphic detail she disdainfully tells how a real "macho" man will have anal intercourse with a woman.... My main complaint is that Finley did not go far enough. This version was too short and tame....Art audiences need to be shocked because many come from sheltered middle class environments with no first hand experience in the seamier side of life.

All reviews copyright High Performance Magazine. Photo credit for Karen Finley performing her "I'm an Ass Man" art: Ira Sandler


Friday, January 18, 2008


This drawing by Orson Lowell appeared as a double page spread in Life Magazine on January 28, 1909. Lowell depicts the characters waiting outside a stage door for some chanteuse to emerge after her show. The original is over 100 cm wide. In an era before television, people had fun "reading" the clues in these pictures. For example, you can tell a lot about the high class nature of the show from the posters on the wall:

Lowell gives us a psychological profile for each person in line; each has a different history and a different reason for being there.

Not everyone in line is a suitor or a chaperone. One gentleman is concealing a court summons, undoubtedly involving some lawsuit for alienation of affections.

The story is cute, but of course it takes more than cute to qualify for the famous "one lovely drawing" status. If you look closely, I think you will find some truly excellent linework here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


We had fun looking at the way Frederic Remington saw vivid colors in the dark of night.

Here, on the other hand, is a different illustrator who looked at a bright mid-day scene and painted a study in gray:

An artist who feels the call to explore color will not be deterred by a dark night or a lack of electricity, just as an artist with access to all sorts of light may choose to disregard its potential for color and narrow his or her focus to black and white. Great artists often work from wherever fate placed them, without waiting for the perfect lighting or the right conditions:
Look under foot....The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.
--John Burroughs
By the way-- those elegant studies in gray are details from the often ignored center of one of the most famous Norman Rockwell paintings.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Cowboy illustrator Frederic Remington seemed to find a whole rainbow of luminous colors in the night.

When other painters might reach for a dark blue, Remington reaches for greens and purples and violets.

Did Remington actually see these colors in nature? Even Cezanne, the grandaddy of abstract art, recognized that "painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one's sensations."

To understand more about Remington's "sensations," look at his pictures contrasting the light from the immense night sky with the tiny, fragile light of humans.

It must have been easy to feel insignificant and defenseless camping out all alone under the huge western sky.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


David Levine, whose caricatures adorned the New York Review of Books for more than 40 years, recently stepped down due to failing eyesight. “If I look at somebody’s face.... I can’t tell until the person gets within five feet of me who it is.”

After nearly 4,000 caricatures-- a solid body of work to make any artist proud-- Levine has not contributed a new drawing since he was diagnosed with macular degeneration.

But the 80 year old artist will not give up making pictures. He is trying to reinvent his style so he can carry on with poor eyesight. “It didn’t stop Degas [who had the same disease].... He went on to change his way of seeing. He just moved into a rhythm of color and bigger generalities in the way he saw things like hands or faces. … I’m open to that. I’m searching.”

Now that is an artist talking.

The ironic thing is, I was always less impressed with Levine's trademark caricatures than I was with the paintings he did on the side. I think these paintings from the 1970s are marvelous:

This work shows an entirely different set of strengths than Levine's drawing-- an excellent sense of color and composition, an understanding of value, an appreciation for subtle shading. This is not an artist who is limited to petite pen and ink sketches.

Finally, I admire Levine's response to misfortune.
Tennyson's famous poem, Ulysses, describes the ancient Greek hero's decision, at the end of a long life of epic battles with gods and men, to leave home and set out once more for adventure. He rousts his aging comrades to accompany him to see if
Some work of noble note may yet be done
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods
Ulysses admits that old age has robbed them of much, yet he glories in what still "abides":
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I salute David Levine for his resolution not to yield.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

" NEW "

The artist Marcel Duchamp claimed it is easier to be original in the US because Americans are so ignorant about history:

In Europe, the young men of any generation always act as the grandsons of some great man. Of Victor Hugo in France, and I suppose of Shakespeare in England. They can't help it. Even if they don't believe it, it goes into their system and so, when they come to produce something of their own, there is a sort of traditionalism that is indestructible. This does not exist [in the US]. You don't give a damn about Shakespeare, do you? You're not his grandsons at all. So it is perfect terrain for new developments.

Of course, Duchamp's insight wasn't original either. Previous generations had already complained loudly about the paralyzing effect of history. Nietzsche wrote, "the large and ever-increasing burden of the past" makes us envy the beasts grazing in the field, who are able to live for the moment.

It ain't easy to create meaningful art after a thousand generations of artists have already taken their turn. How can you justify picking up a pencil to draw after Rembrandt or Degas or Ingres or Carracci?

Similarly, anyone who wants to draw a slick, soap opera comic strip today must find elbow room between Alex Raymond and Leonard Starr.

And what would be the point of starting out to paint a nude more realistically than Bouguereau?

This may explain why so many modern artists are obsessed with finding a new direction. Rather than compete with history they simply move on, redefining art and establishing new rules and standards.  Originality seems to have eclipsed many traditional criteria for artistic merit. This can lead to wonderful results, but often artists whose goal is "originality" end up settling for "novelty" or "strangeness."

And sometimes we learn that a new approach hasn't been tried because earlier generations of artists figured out that it wasn't worth trying...

So as we begin a shiny new year, it might be appropriate to pause for a moment on what it means to be "new."

The author Alan Gurganus recalled returning to his hometown and visiting the house "where I experienced what I believed to be the first French kiss ever invented by humankind." Nietzsche might argue Gurganus was ignorant about the historical facts of kissing, but I'd guess nothing he learned-- from that kiss forward-- could diminish his shiver of new wisdom. His kiss was not the first but it was undeniably new.  

As usual, many of the principles that apply to art apply to kisses as well.  Ask yourself what kind of person would abandon kissing in search of something "original" because previous generations have already kissed.  Originality means more than mere novelty.

The poet Peter Viereck, who was older and more experienced than Gurganus, understood there is a long line of kissers who preceded us stretching back to the dawn of time:
That sofa where reclining comes so easy
Is far more haunted than you'll ever guess.
This lifetime is our turn on the sofa.  Generations of artistic geniuses are dead and gone, but as Emerson said, the gift of our instant life is "the omnipotency with which nature decomposes her harvest for recomposition."  Great artists tend to be the ones who don't waste energy fleeing ghosts and instead embrace history to enrich the present.