Sunday, January 25, 2009


I like the kind of art where you can tell that the artist has a pulse. This passionate image by Sterling Hundley for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City is a prime example:

Hundley's theatrical posters are not only impassioned, they are smart, too.

Marat Sade

Death of a Salesman

He has created posters for theatrical productions around the country. These projects give Hundley creative freedom which he uses to maximum advantage, developing his own themes and putting his human imprint on his subject. His illustrations also appear in publications such as the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, and accompany his own stories in Virginia Living magazine.

Like his theatrical posters, his illustrations tend to be emotionally complex and beautifully designed:

Hundley's pictures don't move, blink, or explode. They have no digital soundtrack or 3D glasses. Instead, they come from the tradition where the picture holds still and your brain moves. Such art is in short supply these days.

Friday, January 16, 2009


This week we lost Andrew Wyeth (1917 - 2009), noted abstract expressionist painter. A formidable artistic source, his work was comparable to some of the most avant garde work of the last century. For example, contrast this painting by Wyeth... 


 ...with this image by famed abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell:


 Or, compare the shimmering effect of this painting by Wyeth...


 ...with this very similar painting by radical artist Jean Dubuffet:


 Here, a painting by Wyeth...


 ...might be compared with this work by famed minimalist sculptor and video artist Richard Serra:


 Some people even insist they can find realistic images hidden in Wyeth's lovely designs, like this abstract panting: 

 As for me, I'm not sure I see it.  But I guess abstract art is kind of like a Rorschach test. Everybody sees something different.

Monday, January 12, 2009


The illustrations of William A. Smith capture the mood of his era. I especially like the gritty, urban paintings he did in the 1940s and 1950s which have a tough, noir feeling. Here, one of his preliminary studies transports you back to a 1940s barbershop at Christmas time:

The seeds of this picture might be traced to Smith's sketchbook which he carried everywhere, noting subjects that caught his artist's eye:

His painting is rich with those little details which are so evocative of his time and place. Note the the hue of the street light on shoppers rushing by outside:

The bored little boy waiting his turn in the barber's chair:

The cluttered array of tables lined up against the wall:

Smith's daughter Kim watched her father work and was inspired to follow in his footsteps. She learned traditional art skills from him. "He gave me LOTS of advice," she recalled. "He talked about composition quite a bit. Also, that the whites of eyes aren't white at all. He taught me to make a good green from yellow and black." Kim learned to draw beautifully at a young age and went on to learn painting, printmaking and sculpting.

But when Kim began to work professionally she discovered that the art world had changed. The work that had sustained her father's generation of artists had disappeared. She moved to the west coast, where she eventually found work in movies building models.

Near the end of his life, Smith visited his daughter in California at the model/creature shop and was amazed by the new applications for her artistic talent. Shortly after he died, Kim returned to painting in a way that her father could never have imagined:

My supervisor in the Modelshop at ILM asked me whether I could paint (I'd been sculpting and making molds up until that point). Lacking anyone else to do it, he put me on repainting submarine models we had inherited from another production company. I had never painted a vehicle before, but found myself enjoying making these 12-foot and 22-foot models look panelized and aged. I started using Art Masking Fluid, something I knew about from Dad, to paint on the models. I then rolled the membrane up in areas to get a web-like frisket for making marks on the surface, which was extremely realistic. I started "hearing" Dad behind my shoulder, instructing me how to proceed color-wise and aesthetically to get the right look. This ghost of my father was obviously very interested and excited about this project. In fact, he got so noisy I eventually had to give a swat over my shoulder to shut him down a bit. However, it was all very successful on camera. As a result, I was often chosen to paint vehicles and dirty, rusty machinery, as well as the "clean" stuff, and eventually started leading small crews and passing on what I had learned.
Kim was off and running. She learned to paint digitally and apply her talents in all kinds of new ways. Compare her father's paintings at the beginning of this post with the following video of Kim's painting and model work today, and consider how remarkably the role of an artist has changed in our lifetime:

Kim says that her traditional art training from her father gave her the broad foundation she needed for the challenges of the new media: "All my experience helped me in what I've done in the movies, including printmaking, working in clay, metal, paint and wood. It all gave me qualifications that make me useful."

Old artistic truths have been surrendering to new artistic truths since the world began. No one can stop it. But in stories like Kim's, you see that no matter how much things change, there is a core set of strengths that remain at the center, undiminished.

Ghosts of previous generations of artists will continue to whisper in our ear. We just have to know when to tell them to hush.

Friday, January 02, 2009


I consider Adrian Gottlieb one of the finest young figurative painters working in the classical tradition today.

His timeless work speaks with a quiet authority.

On the other hand, the most financially successful figurative painter working in the classical style today is John Currin:

Currin lacks Gottlieb's talent, but this painting recently sold for $5,458,500-- a thousand times more than a painting by Gottlieb.

How do we explain this huge disparity? I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with the visual qualities of the images.

Mia Fineman, art critic for Slate, offers the following explanation for why the art market adores Currin:
This year, the name on everybody's lips is John Currin, whose midcareer retrospective recently arrived at the Whitney Museum. By now, the major critics have weighed in on Currin's slyly satirical, figurative paintings, and the reviews have been unusually enthusiastic. There are some wildly different ideas about exactly what Currin is up to—New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman sees him as "a latter-day Jeff Koons" trafficking in postmodern irony while Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker finds him a blissfully sincere artist tapping into the timeless values of "mystery, sublimity, transcendence." But everyone is unanimous about one thing: John Currin can paint. In almost every review, Currin's technical skill is acknowledged with a kind of breathless wonder.
Currin's "technical skill" can't possibly account for his prices. Currin doesn't even have the technical skill of Gil Evgren, let alone of Adrian Gottlieb. Currin's "technical skill" that Fineman claims excites "breathless wonder" in the fine art market is almost commonplace in the underpaid field of illustration. But the contemporary fine art market turned its back on "technical skill" so long ago that it can no longer remember what skill looks like.

What else might account for the high price of a Currin painting? I suspect that Currin's "post modern irony," his "mystery, sublimity, transcendence" and the rest of the flumadiddle used by oleaginous art dealers accounts for at least $5 million of Currin's price. The fine art world values derivative paintings for the very same qualities that it fails to admire in the original; Currin draws upon "low culture" sources such as 1950s advertisements, pin up art, internet pornography and high school yearbooks. Patrons of the arts would save a lot of money if they had the vision to recognize the attributes in the originals. However these qualities remain invisible to them until some dealer with a continental accent and an expensive suit points out the "post modern irony" in a "low culture" image.

It does not bother me that art dealers prey on the credulity of wealthy simpletons and the venality of art speculators. To the contrary, it serves an important social function by taxing stupidity. The faster that these buyers can be stripped of their excess money, the less damage they will be able to do to society in other areas.