Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The brilliant young Mathematician Evariste Galois was killed in a duel when he was only 20. His biographer, E.T. Bell, described the last night of Galois' life this way:
All night long he had spent the fleeting hours feverishly dashing off his scientific last will and testament, writing against time to glean a few of the great things in his teeming mind before the death he saw could overtake him. Time after time he broke off to scribble in the margin "I have not time; I have not time," and passed on to the next frantically scrawled outline. What he wrote in those last desperate hours before the dawn will keep generations of mathematicians busy for hundreds of years.
Later biographers believe Bell's account to be a little overheated; for example, Galois did not invent his famous theorem that very night, he had been working on it for some time. Still, it is clear that when faced with almost certain death the next morning, Galois' defense was to keep doing what he did best, and to do as much of it as possible before his time ran out. His parting words were:
There are a few things left to be completed in this proof. I have not the time....I hope some men will find it profitable to sort out this mess. I embrace you with effusion.
Which brings us to Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931). As a child growing up in Missouri, all Sterrett wanted to do was draw. There weren't many opportunities for artists in Missouri back then, but as a young teenager Sterrett audaciously entered the Kansas State Fair art competition and won three first prizes. Encouraged, Sterrett went to Chicago at age 15 to attend high school and study art. The Art Institute was so impressed with her that it gave her a full scholarship.

When Sterrett reached 19, two things happened: first, she received a commission to illustrate her very first book (Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Segur). Second, she came down with tuberculosis which soon began to sap her strength. The race was on.

For the rest of her short life, Sterrett worked as hard as her failing strength would allow, illustrating Tanglewood Tales, the Arabian Nights and Myths and Legends.

By the time she turned 22, she had to enter a sanatorium where she could only work for short periods of time before resting. Yet, Sterrett's exhaustion doesn't show up in her pictures. You don't see her taking shortcuts or compromising the quality of her work. She seemed intent on making her pictures as perfect as she could, to isolate them from the limitations and frustrations of her life.

She knew the game was fixed against her; she wouldn't have a lifetime to improve her skills or compile a major body of work, the way other artists did. Working under those restrictions it might have made more sense to give up or resort to drink, but still she persisted. Such time as she had, that time was going to be devoted to making pictures. She was almost done illustrating Myths and Legends when she died.

The local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an obituary that remarked upon the disparity between her life and the exotic world she drew:
Her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood....Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young girl's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

I view each of Sterrett's pictures, like I view Galois' journal, as a little pearl of resistance against the fact that life is unfair and death comes too soon. Not much of a consolation, you say? It seems to be all we've got, which is why it might make sense to pay attention to her achievement.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Compare Saul Steinberg's observation on the obstacles to creation...

...with John Cuneo's treatment of the same theme:

Cuneo's hapless artist suffers from very different constraints. You'll rarely find a theme-- or a line-- in Cuneo's offbeat world as straight as Steinberg's leash.

Cuneo's artist is bedeviled by his diminutive artistic size, by the huge, languid planet of muliebrity between him and his art, by that rump distracting him from his artistic mission, by that wobbly little easel perched on top of his subject... here is a valiant artist clearly outmatched by his subject matter, whose vast limbs drape beyond his field of vision. Like much of Cuneo's work, this picture is laced with subtle visual touches; without the impassive face on the woman, this picture wouldn't be nearly as smart. The woman is utterly indifferent to the artist's presence, both artistically and amatorily.

I find Cuneo to be one of the most psychologically insightful illustrators working today, and his observations about the artistic process and about life in general make me laugh out loud. Check out Cuneo's drawing for the Society of Illustrators:

I've never seen a more hilarious or pointed rendition of what artists secretly hope to achieve by their work, contrasted with the actual response of their audience.

Ever since the days of Robert Blechman, it is not uncommon for illustrators to draw with stray, wispy lines, blobby colors and lopsided, distorted figures. On this blog, I have criticized artists who try to mimic children's drawings in superficial ways, or who are willfully sloppy but fail to achieve the raw, disturbing potential of that kind of art. I find that sometimes artists who adopt a childlike approach are merely milking the contradiction between a naive drawing style and a mature subject matter.

But Cuneo's pictures use this approach to achieve piercing, authentic results. For me, they are achingly genuine and psychologically astute, not to mention rich and funny and weird. But that leaves the question, if Cuneo is able to hit the target better than most of his peers, exactly what target is he hitting? This week I would like to explore what makes such drawing successful (or not).

Picasso put it arrogantly (of course), but accurately:
In the old days, pictures went forward toward completion by stages.... A picture used to be the sum of additions. In my case, a picture is the sum of destructions.
When art was subject to the formal rules of a powerful Academy, artists used agreed-upon techniques to progress toward agreed-upon goals. Viewers were able to ask, "Is that hand drawn correctly? Is that flower accurate? Does the artist know how to mix color? Does that pose seem stiff and awkward?" Later, when Picasso and his successors obliterated such standards, abstraction and conceptual art operated under their own criteria for success.

Today the criteria for a successful picture seem pretty clear at either extreme on the spectrum, but artists working in Cuneo's genre seem to occupy a kind of purgatory in between. Their work is representational, but deliberately "off" or "wrong." If an artist aspires to ungainly and awkward pictures, how do you distinguish between "good" awkward and "bad" awkward? What makes this type of distortion effective in some cases and ineffective in others? In other words, what the hell is the target?

Look at Cuneo's choices in the following drawing. You can tell from his treatment of the man's hands or the swivel of his hips that Cuneo knows how to draw in the traditional sense. Yet, look at the weird way he distorts the girl's arms and legs, or how her head is too small for her own body, let alone in comparison to the man's oversized cranium.

When you know how to draw, you have to unlearn what you know to draw this way. You have to conquer muscle memory and uproot hardened patterns of perception. When you start making wrong lines, your muscles rebel. Alarms in the synapses between your hand and eye start to shriek: "Stop! Too far! Out of proportion! Go back!"

The artist has to resist the urge, described by Picasso, to complete the picture by going back and fixing the apparent flaws. The eye and the hand battle with the brain for control, and it is a contest that must be fought inch by inch.

Despite the deliberate crudeness of Cuneo's lines, they come together for some highly sophisticated results. The expressions on the people in many of Cuneo's pictures-- wan, jaded, dissolute, indulgent-- aren't the basic expressions you'd typically learn in art school.

Note the gleeful expression of the drunk urinating on a street person.

More subtle touches-- the surgeon who throws his hands in the air like a magician proud of his newest miracle. This hilarious picture, which seems to be drawn so casually, was the product of intense labor.
Here is a detail from Cuneo's treatment of Adam and Eve. I find this picture of Eve quite beautiful and erotic.

If you want to see the full drawing you'll have to hunt it down in Cuneo's book, nEuROTIC. If I posted the full version here, some reader would turn me in to the blogger police.
Cuneo's drawings are tiny-- never more than a few inches tall.

I love the way Cuneo uses just a few gentle skritches around the perimeter of a circle to suggest this face

Once we've jettisoned the relatively objective criteria that accompanied representational art, it's difficult to articulate a coherent standard for when "awkward" and "wrong" will turn out to be "honest" and "beautiful." How much distortion is enough? With each picture Cuneo has to decide where to pitch his tent on the road between all and nothing at all. The quality of his pictures are proof that the target, even if invisible, is not an illusion.

Friday, March 05, 2010



 In my opinion, illustration art has a brand of potency unrivaled by any other school or genre in the history of art.



N.C. Wyeth 

 I defy you to find images with greater vigor and assertiveness in any art museum. The difference in visual impact between illustration art and traditional painting is not simply a question of subject matter. Plenty of fine art depicts military battles, murders, rapes and other lurid or violent subjects. Yet, the difference in vitality is apparent:




Nor can the difference between illustration and gallery painting be attributed to vigorous brushwork. Twentieth century action painters such as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline used violent brush strokes to convey raw emotion, yet even their most extreme work lacks the particular force and thrust that can be found in some illustration.


de Kooning 

Abstraction somehow just doesn't seem to produce the same "pop." Perhaps part of the secret lies in the fact that illustrators capture motion as wild as a ballet leap or a spear thrust, yet contain it in a form that is sufficiently controlled to be representational. That tension adds a coiled strength.

Hale (detail) 

Phil Hale-- in my view, one of the most powerful and talented painters in this genre today-- talked about the importance of a contrast between two elements: "I like the (almost stupid) blunt immediacy crushed up against some good painting." Hale says he respects both sides, even the blunt, "stupid" part: "that slightly ridiculous side is actually quite genuine and human and worth including." 

I suspect another reason for the distinctive character of illustration stems from its heritage. For more than a century, illustrators have refined the characteristics that make pictures stand out on a crowded magazine rack or book shelf. Through a long incubation period on the covers of lurid pulp magazines in the 1930s, comic books and women's magazines in the 1950s, illustrators learned what makes an image jump out and grab a casual reader by the lapels, and what aspects of traditional pictures were superfluous. 

This peculiar flavor to illustration does not make it better or worse than gallery painting, but for those who enjoy the virility of art, illustration is the place to start. Some pictures may whisper to you, while other pictures may sing. These are the pictures that gasp through clenched teeth, on the final downstroke.