Saturday, May 21, 2011


Jeffrey Catherine Jones struggled with battles that other painters never had to face.  His fragile nervous system supported his great talent the way-- in the words of Bob Dylan-- a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.

As a boy, I loved the beauty and elegance of Jones' work but I didn't understand the true scope of his achievement. It was only after I made contact with him later in life that I began to appreciate the demands that his personal chemistry placed on his courage.

In what should have been his most productive years, Jones was stalked by the Great Sadness.  His goals became more complex:
The goal was to somehow survive until morning while working my way ever upwards toward the coming morning light and the safety of the surface. I moved steadily, avoiding as much as possible, the swaying, reaching dead and the slabs of torn bologna spinning through the air.

Jones responded to his challenges with great valor.  In his life, he created some glorious work at great personal cost and left a wonderful legacy for the rest of us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I like the combination of power and sensitivity in this lovely drawing by Kent Williams.

His composition is fearless; look at how boldly he plants that figure in the center of the page, perfectly balanced as if by a Zen master.  No need to hedge his bets with wispy lines implying a background.  His primeval "L" shape is a design so basic and timeless it might as well have been etched into a cave wall.

Yet, the strength of his design doesn't undermine the subtlety of his drawing.

Williams' shading starts our eyes at the model's face, but the shading is soon softened by gouache as we travel down her body.  The shading disappears altogether where her sparsely drawn toes form a  peninsula with his signature.

Williams' sensitive line displays the kind of clarity that only comes with genuine knowledge of the human form.

Artists have been drawing the human form since the world was new.  There is certainly nothing shockingly original about this basic pose.  Isn't it marvelous, then, that variations such as this one  continue to delight, inspire and educate us?

Monday, May 16, 2011


Is there such a thing as background?  Or is everything really foreground?

Illustrator Robert Heindel once said about his hero Bernie Fuchs, "Look at the things he does.  Who else would paint a tree with the sun behind it?  I would never attempt it."

But a painting of a tree with the sun behind it is also a painting of the sun with a tree in front of it.  Your eye has no choice but to start with either tree or sun, but truth shimmers back and forth between them.

Winslow Homer understood this well: that the distinction between tree and sun, and between foreground and background, and between me and you, is obliterated in the fullness of time:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


In September 1940 Hitler began his blitz campaign of dropping incendiary bombs on the major population centers of Britain, hoping to burn the civilians into submission. Night after night for months, London was set aflame. After a particularly vicious bombing run on December 29, Winston Churchill ruefully cabled Franklin Roosevelt, "They burned a large part of the city of London last night."        

Citizens risked their lives to form auxiliary fire brigades in an effort to douse the flames and save as many homes, factories and lives as possible.  A number of the firemen caught in the inferno felt compelled to record their trauma in art.

The painting above is by a fireman whose comrades were rushing with sand buckets to put out an incendiary. The painting below is by fireman / artist Leonard Rosoman who witnessed two firemen buried under a collapsing wall of red hot brick.  One of the two firemen had just relieved Rosoman who had been holding that hose moments before.

These painters had little equipment or resources. Firefighter W. Matvyn Wright painted the following image on the only surface available, a ping pong table top:

These artists clung to art through their desperate ordeal.  Threatened with imminent invasion by the Nazis, watching their precious national heritage turn to ash, art helped them to cope.  For them, art was no cultural luxury.  It was serious business.

Another person who is reputed to understand the seriousness of art is private equity fund manager Stephen Schwarzman, one of Wall street's 25 Most "Serious" Art Collectors.  Schwarzman, a multi-bilionaire with five mansions worth a combined $125 million,  recently spent $3 million on his own birthday party.  He had beautiful models parading around dressed as James Bond girls, and paid singer Rod Stewart to serenade him.

A substantial percentage of Schwarzman's immense wealth came from lobbying for favorable laws and special tax treatment. For example, Schwarzman fought the Sarbanes Oxley laws against corporate misconduct and backed special tax benefits for profits from private equity funds.   Recently, when President Obama questioned whether a person worth $8 billion should continue to have a lower tax rate than the chauffer who drives him around, an outraged Schwarzman complained, "It’s a war, like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

So both Schwarzman and the firefighters of the London blitz share a common perspective: they both know the horrors of war with Hitler, and they both seek to find solace through art.   
But what else do these two experiences of art have in common?  
I like the paintings by the London firefighters-- they are powerful and sincere and I think that some of them (such as that first painting) are quite good. However, it is highly likely that Schwarzman, who majored in "Intensive Culture" at Yale, has more refined taste than the humble firefighters.  I'm guessing his pictures by Rembrandt and Picasso qualify as superior to the paintings by firemen in the war. After all, a picture should not be downgraded for the loathsomeness of the creature who owns it.

If the firefighters' paintings are more meaningful and urgent and relevant to daily life than Schwarzman's prestigious collection, those qualities are worth taking into consideration. That still doesn't make the firefighters better artists but it reminds us that there is more than one yardstick for measuring art.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Augustus John on the cover of Time Magazine, by Boris Chaliapin

It's difficult to think of an artist, or a human being, who made a bigger, noisier mess of his love life than Augustus John.

Raised in a strict religious home, he rebelled with a life of free love and anarchy.  He proudly crowed, "Without much thought I act on the impulse of the moment."

John impetuously eloped with a fellow art student, Ida Nettleship, but shortly after they were married he began courting a second art student, Dorelia McNeill.  While Ida sat home tending to their new baby, John was pleading with Dorelia to pose for him in the nude ("Why not sit for me in your soft skin, and no other clothes-- Are you ashamed?  Nonsense!  It's not as if you were very fat.").

Sketch of Dorelia by Augustus John
Ida gradually accepted that in order to hang onto her husband, she would have to consent to living in a menage a trois with Dorelia.  When Dorelia remained unconvinced, John enlisted his sister, Gwen (who was also Dorelia's art teacher) to write a remarkable letter urging Dorelia to join with John and Ida.

Gwen John by her brother Augustus

Soon they were sleeping three in a bed, with their small children sleeping in boxes scattered around their home.  Having a wife and mistress did not deter Augustus from dozens of affairs with bar maids, art students and an occasional countess.  He courted them with portraits, bad poetry and wildly indiscreet letters (to a secretary, Alick Schepler, he wrote, "O pray, retain the bloom till I come.  Do not wash till I see you").

Alick Schepler by Augustus John

John impulsively offered to marry Schepler. His biographer, Michael Holroyd, recounts how he explained his decision to his existing wife and his mistress:
domestic life, even of the unorthodox variety with which they had experimented,  smothered him; he told them of his feelings for Alick, that his painting could not advance without her, that he needed her.  There was nothing too personal in all this-- but he could not be restricted....  
Unfortunately, John's confession was wasted because Alick turned him down after discovering that his plan was to set up a second menage a trois with Alick and her friend, artist Frieda Bloch. All of these women gave up on a traditional fairy tale romance for a small piece of the great artist's attention.
What does the example of Augustus John teach us about "Artists in Love"? It certainly demonstrates the manipulative power of art. Alick claimed she never noticed that she was beautiful until John drew her. When he tried to lure Frieda Bloch into joining his second menage, he offered as bait his mystical artistic secrets ("I will find her a studio-- and I will show her things I'm pretty sure she never suspected.") To justify his philandering to Ida and Dorelia, he explained that freedom was essential to the greatness of his art. Everyone was willing to make exceptions for "the King of Bohemia." But for those who, like me, have trouble accepting love as a heedless thing, John offers little.

Naw, the "artists in love" I'm referring to in this post are the women John mistreated, the ones who might have gone on to become substantial artists and independent voices in a more fair era.  An interesting thing happened amongst these women as they sacrificed their artistic careers, supported each other, and raised their many children communally.  Some fell in love with each other, apparently with greater profundity and fidelity than John was able to offer.  Ida, Dorelia and Gwen became particularly close.

Gwen's self portrait: clothed and confident
Gwen's self portrait: nude and vulnerable

Ida and Dorelia "eloped" together to Paris for a long break from John and his "nervous abberrations." John came to visit them between flings, but the two built a meaningful daily life together.

Gwen's portrait of Dorelia
 Gwen and Dorelia had their own adventures.  Reports Holroyd:
The source of Gwen's upsurge in happiness was Dorelia.  On an impulse she proposed that the two of them should leave London and walk to Rome-- and Dorelia, once she was certain that Gwen was not joking, calmly agreed.... The two girls were as excited as if it were an elopement....Gwen brushed aside [August's] objections, would not even listen to his arguments...and they set off  'carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment....' At each village they would try to earn some money by going to the inn and either singing or drawing portraits of those men who would pose.... At night they slept in the fields, under haystacks or, when they were lucky, in stables, lying on each other to feel a little warmer, covering themselves with their portfolios and waking up encircled by curious little congregations of farmers, gendarmes and stray animals.  Between the villages...they would practice their singing.  They lived mostly on grapes and bread, a little beer, some lemonade.  There were many adventures; losing their tempers with the women, outwitting the men, dying of fright, crying with laughter.  
During John's long absences, these women responded to their raw deal by developing strong, supportive passionate relationships.  When Dorelia left Ida for just a few days to visit her mother, Ida wrote her: "Darling D.... Love from [Ida] to the prettiest little bitch in the world....I was bitter cold last night in bed without your burning hot, not to say, scalding body next to me."

The great naturalist author Loren Eisley wrote about one wintry evening when a street light was casting an odd shadow in his front yard.  Fetching a ladder,  he discovered that a spider had saved herself from her frosty environment by spinning her web next to the warmth of the streetlight:
"Good Lord" I thought, "she has found herself a kind of minor sun and is going to upset the course of nature."....There she was... a great black and yellow embodiment of the life force, not giving up to either frost or step ladders.  She ignored me and went on tightening and improving her web.  I stood over her on the ladder, a faint snow touching my cheeks and surveyed her universe.... a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if a rope can still be spun on to a star.... Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void.  I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.