Friday, August 31, 2012


Art, being bartender, is never drunk
And magic that believes itself must die
                         -- Peter Viereck
This passionate drawing by Bob Peak shows how he became swept up by the fury and speed of a horse race...

...except it turns out that Peak made several careful studies to achieve that spontaneous look.  He re-copied drafts on tracing paper, preserving the elements he liked.

He even drew faint pencil guidelines so he would know the best way to make his bold, slashing strokes appear free and unconstrained:

Peak employed a conjurer's tricks to create the magic in this art.  (Viereck described art as "a hoax redeemed by awe.")  I'm sure it would've felt personally cathartic for Peak if he reacted to the thrill of the race by making wild, unrehearsed scribbles.  However, his drawing looks more vigorous and potent because of Peak's multiple drafts.

David Seymour took the following photograph of a young Polish girl who, after being freed from a Nazi concentration camp, was asked to draw a picture of "home."

There's no questioning the strength of her emotions, but they were so out-of-control that they capsized any effort to communicate with her picture. 

Nietzsche wrote that "self-conquest" is necessary to make "torrential passion...become still in beauty." 

Shakespeare, who also knew a thing or two about passion, lauded those with the power to move others while remaining in control of their own faces:
[Those] who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense,
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
When art gets too close to the passions and emotions that inspire it, it tends to melt.  In order to move others with art's magic, it seems that at least part of the artist must remain unmoved as stone-- separated from the primacy of experience by proportion, archetype and even skill.

It is fashionable in some circles to value pictures that appear raw, unschooled and spontaneous  (going far beyond the ancient principle that art should appear as effortless as possible in order to prevent technique from becoming a distraction).  I like such pictures too, but I think their "spontaneity" is a romantic delusion for the benefit of the conjurer's audience.  The artists I like best tend to be the ones who struggle self-consciously to achieve this effect, just as Peak did.  The performers who believe their own magic (of which there are many these days) seem consistently less successful.



Abraham Evensen Tena said...

Thank you so much for this and all your great posts. I believe that control is very pertinent to illustrators, since we must deliver ideas often within constrains of time, composition, value, color and technique. Having said that, I believe that it is thanks to the findings made by those artist who were swept by passion, that we have a broader tool set for communication in the subsequent days. I can use paint splatters to sell an idea now, thanks to the passionate paint splatters made by Jackson Pollock before, for a crude example.

Interesting conversation in any case :)

MORAN said...

William Steig and R. Blechman drew the simplest line drawings but they did many, many versions before they ended up with one they liked.. Blechman cut and pasted many little pieces together.

Priya Sebastian said...

And sometimes illustrators torture themselves into believing that others get it more easily than they do. No one does and it is good to be reminded of that yet again. But how well your post describes the complexity of expressing passion effectively. Indeed there must be restraint and control lest the song turn to noise.

Peter said...

"When anything goes, nothing counts."

--Nat Hentoff, Jazz Street

Donald Pittenger said...


I'll add that any sort of illustration or painting that requires more than a trivial amount of time to make, necessarily drains away the initial emotional state of the artist. So calmer, critical, technical factors should creep into the process.

Still, I wish I knew about the state of mind when Picasso was doing Guernica, purported to be his emotional reaction to the bombing of that town.

Ditto regarding my favorite New York Abstract Expressionist, Franz Kline, whose works were simple enough to have been dashed off quickly.

(Sigh. I really need to read more about Modernist painters. Then I might know the answers already.)

David Apatoff said...

Abraham Evensen Tena-- That's a good point, there is a healthy and important balance between the two. Remember that even the most free wheeling action painters-- Franz Kline, Jackson Pollack, etc.-- if they wanted to make art rather than a random mess, had to keep an eye on the principles of composition, design, etc. Much of the abstract expressionist art seems spontaneous but was really the result of long zen contemplation before the master stroke or splash was done.

MORAN-- Steig and Blechman are both excellent examples. The charm of their work is that it comes across like the effortless play of light hearted children. But it took Steig 30 years to develop his mature style, and that style involved many quick preliminary sketches to achieve that looseness. Blechman would go back with white paint and make miniscule adjustments such as reducing the length of a nose by 1/8 of an inch to get just the right "casual" look.

pRiyA-- Well put. The people who delude themselves into thinking it should be easy miss the hidden strengths of this kind of work. They are out there today producing large quantities of mediocre art that I suspect will not stand the test of time.

David Apatoff said...

Black Pete-- Agreed.

Donald Pittenger-- There is a lot of very interesting documentation on the development and creation of Guernica, including photographs of Picasso's numerous studies. Well worth reviewing. And as alluded to above, I think Kline's slashing brush strokes were the result of a lot of zen contemplation. (Canvases that large, requiring that level of preparation and brushes that big and unwieldy, could hardly be spontaneous.)

kev ferrara said...

The reason Abstract Expressionism had a very short heyday is because it was just a shtick. Within a very short time from Pollock landing in the pages of Life Magazine, NYC was over run with shortcut artists who could fling paint so it looked fresh.

My mother was at Pratt in the late 50s and she still has a collection of abstract works she did while in school, and she wasn't even in the fine arts dept. (illustration instead.) Everybody in a five block radius of Pratt was "zen contemplating" how to fling pigment at a blank surface. (Deep philosophical thing going on? Really? Are you going to credit primal scream therapy as equal to Brando's acting next?)

Mom's first show after getting out of college was all abstract expressionist works, all of which sold. Many of her friends had similar experiences. The used mops, squirt pistols, tubing, coffee cups and a anything else that could hold pigment, to get some effect on canvas. Then the boom ended.

None of her fellow students had been taught anything about composition. (That was Norman Rockwell stuff. ) They had been taught design principles, however. (Confusing design and composition seems to be a culture wide blind spot.) And they learned to put fresh splatters on a canvas to impress potential buyers.

What Peak is doing is composing, and it is a far, far more difficult thing to compose to get some effect to marry with some event, in order to produce meaning and understanding. Rather than for some effect to be the event, which exists just to produce sensation. (outrage, violence, vomit, excrement, fireworks shows, and amusement park rides.)

The topper?: All those students at Pratt wanted to be Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline. But the artist they talked about and collected was Bernie Fuchs.

Laurence John said...

"Blechman would go back with white paint and make miniscule adjustments such as reducing the length of a nose by 1/8 of an inch to get just the right "casual" look."

...and Sargent would scrub out whole passages if they were overworked, and didn't have the look of effortlessness, and re-do them until they did.

or as someone (can't remember who) once remarked:

"the appearance of effortlessness is only possible after much hard work"

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- An interesting perspective from someone who lived through that era. A few reactions:

First of all, before you write off the "very short heyday" of abstract expressionism, remember there were easily twenty significant schools in the overheated art market of the 20th century:

Abstract Expressionism
Magic Realism
Color field
Post modernism

That averages out to about 5 years per school. By 20th century standards, abstract expressionism stands out like a giant redwood.

It may be that abstract expressionism quickly went as far as it could go, but I think it left many marvelous pictures before it exhausted itself, and that (like the child-like pictures of Steig or the "fast scribbles" of Peak, it is easy to tell the ones that work from the ones that are just "flinging pigment at a blank surface."

Also, wouldn't you agree with Abraham Evensen Tena that abstract expressionism and similar fine art movements gave permission to Robert Weaver and Peak and Fuchs and other illustrators to cast off the old restraints of Pyle and Cornwell and Rockwell?

Laurence John-- Ah, yes. Whether an artist wants to make a picture look "effortless" or make it look "passionate," or make it look like a happy accident, it takes sleight-of-hand to induce the response from viewers that the artist wants. The artist doesn't get to share in that satisfying emotional response.

Tom said...

I think the saying is “the art of learning is too conceal learning”, or “art lies in the concealing of art.” Or as they said in China “To master simplicity one must first understand complexity.” Old sayings.

Structure is what allows us to experience or freedom. Limitation is the first order of art. Those who understand form the best are the least hindered by the how. You earn effortless.

I don’t understand the false contrast that is presented by modern art to illustration. Advertising has gone through as much change as modern art has in the last century.
It is a cultural thing, everything now has a short heyday it is not an art thing it is a mind thing. I am sure there where a ton of students who worked like Bridgeman at the time, just like there where a lot people painting like abstract expressionism in the fifties or in Paris in the 1860’s, it’s a people thing. But like David says there is always some good genuine work that comes from a certain time.

Even illustrators saw the weakness in the younger generations work.

The particular problem that is seen in art school by many on this blog is not just true for art schools, it runs through most of education now, as far as I can tell, expect for the sciences.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff-- Thanks David for a fine post and that Shakespeare quote.

Black Pete -- Great to hear (me talkin to ya’) some Nat Hentoff being quoted!

chris bennett said...

Donald Pittenger wrote -- “Still, I wish I knew about the state of mind when Picasso was doing Guernica, purported to be his emotional reaction to the bombing of that town.”

When he was painting the 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Picasso said he was drinking gasoline to fuel his impulse. This romantic, self-promoting rubbish is as nothing compared to the self-deluded bullshit nonsense Helen Parmelin wrote about him in the 50s an 60s. As my friend Kev Ferrara rightly said of this artist’s statements, you can’t trust him.

My view regarding Guernica is that it was executed in a state of controlled calm. Almost uniquely among Picasso’s oeuvre this painting has literally hundreds of studies ranging from thumbnails to full blown paintings. His girlfriend at the time, Dora Maar, photographed the work in progress and unlike his other paintings; it underwent very little revision in its actual execution. He knew it was to be a public work, and my guess is that his main concern, once he had decided to undertake it, was to not fuck up.

David Apatoff said...

Tom, I do think there tends to be a difference between modern art and illustration as a result of their different functions. Illustration must be grounded in reality and accessible enough to achieve its core economic purpose. This is a strength when it keeps pictures from becoming self-indulgent and irrelevant. It is is a weakness when it keeps pictures from exploring complex and oblique solutions.

Chris Bennett-- Of course Picasso lied his head off. So did Frazetta when he claimed he never used reference, or Fawcett when he claimed he didn't use photographs. That's just part of a conjurer throwing his audience off the track and keeping the magic alive. I also agree that Guernica was executed in a state of controlled calm (paid for by a client for the world's fair).

kev ferrara said...

That averages out to about 5 years per school.

What’s the old line: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I think it left many marvelous pictures before it exhausted itself...

Some of the resulting designs ended up being nice, sure, and I wouldn't wish them away. But I do sometimes feel that people are afraid to call bs on any of these works because they are cowed by cultural pressures they can't even quite identify. So otherwise critical, hair-splitting minds feel, in order to justify their bona fides as citizens of high culture and learning, they must toe the line and find some way to verbalize something vaguely like an appreciation for works they only barely appreciate.

I hear any number of illustrators pay lip service to the cultural man. But do they really pore over a book of Jackson Pollock's or Franz Kline's work filled with a sense of love?

On telling the abstracts that work from those that don't... I am reminded of that old line, "Acting is mainly about honesty. Once you can fake that, you've got it made." (The application of pigment is performance.)

Also, wouldn't you agree with Abraham Evensen Tena that abstract expressionism and similar fine art movements gave permission to Robert Weaver and Peak and Fuchs and other illustrators to cast off the old restraints of Pyle and Cornwell and Rockwell?


Does the presence of a net makes Tennis a worse game?

The constraint that matters in most communication is meaningfulness. The dadaists barked at that idea 50 years before Weaver started barking.

It seems to me we're just talking about expressionism.... permission to be expressionistic over and above being realistic. Leaving aside all the 40s expressionists in illustration, the idea goes back a long way. It may get new looks along the way, but the basic concept remains the same.

I mean, Kimon Niccolaides was teaching expressive gestural "scribble" drawing at the Art Students League by 1918. Walter Biggs had already brought Impressionism into illustration by 1920. LaGatta had already brought Degas into illustration by 1925 along with expressionistic linework. So many others of the same era were into the abstract quality of their mark making. Scores of poster artists had brought bright patches of color to their pictures. Boardman Robinson, another teacher at ASL, had already done illustration work like this in 1916!

At some point, we can argue, mainstream illustration got locked down again, with the rise of women-centric advertising after the near collapse of the publishing industry in the depression. And maybe abstract expressionism getting some good press and popularity opened up the door again for expressionism’s return. But that only confuses the reality that expressionism laid the foundation for abstract expressionism in the first place.

Eric Wieringa said...

Even spontaneity is planned... excellent post, thankyou


Anonymous said...

Kev, every time you talk about abstract art (or 20th century "high" art in general) you tend to use the worse and most trival examples to slander it, but when it comes to illustration, you get all protective and start describing how many layers of goodness it possess and how deep the best of them can touch you.

kev ferrara said...

you tend to use the worse and most trival examples to slander it


Are you saying that Pollock and Kline were trivial artists?

The fact is, that a good narrative artwork contains a good abstraction, but the reverse cannot be said. In fact, a great narrative artwork will have several layers of abstraction beneath its reality, as subtext. Meanwhile the very intent of abstractionism was to have no text or subtext whatsoever.Which is why it led inexorably to minimalism and then, equally inexorably, to collapse.

If you can explain how a lack of subtext makes a communication deeper, I'd be very interested to listen in.

When viewers treat a Rothko like a Rorschach test, they are, first of all, projecting their own thoughts into a vacuum of thought, and secondly, experiencing the picture contrary to the all-important theory behind it.

I do get all protective™ of great illustration because it is very worth protecting. But, it is absolutely so that most illustration is junk. I don't think I've ever said anything to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Well, I like Rothko, I like the fact that tere's no story, no characters, no prior knowledge to be familiar with. Just standing there and letting the painting wash over me and suck me into the masses of colors brings out an experience that no representational illustrations can. At least for me (I appreciate illustrations and I enjoy them alot, but when I feel I need Rotko, no representational image can satisfy me). The large blurry fields of color vibrate, I feel like flying through the space, It is a deep emotional experience (and Im not smoking stuff at that point). I don't know how you explain that, but I appreciate the intensity of experience and anyone who can achieve that is a great artist in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Also, have you read his The Artist's Reality book? I seems to me that he understood the characteristics of great narrative art well, so why would he decide to choose an abstract visual style of presenting his feelings if he would be able to send through something equal to the necessary intensity of accumulated knowledge?

(I know that this is not a legitimate argument, but I can't provide you with an analytical explanation of why abstract art works for some people)

Anonymous said...


kev ferrara said...

Just standing there and letting the painting wash over me and suck me into the masses of colors brings out an experience that no representational illustrations can.

Yes, but you can get a similar experience from looking at the shapes of wondrous billowing clouds, or a phantasmagoric rainbow in a puddle that has oil running into it, or at sunlight dappling the curtains while you doze off in a twi-lit room. That you experience a reverie while gazing at anything is no mark of its nature as art.

There is nothing special about a Rothko painting except to people who are susceptible to daydreaming and hypnosis and think that daydreaming is necessarily the experience of art.

Rothko's book has nothing in it that is new. He just pastiches the previous 100 years of aesthetic thought leading back through the origin of Romanticism... just like most of the moderns who felt the urge to get into theory but who weren't all that smart (Hyper verbal, yes. Insightful, not so much. How wonderful the world would be if all intellectuals could generate insights.)

The major distinction of Rothko is just how bad, how goddamn bloody awful he was at drawing. If anybody in the world was meant to become a graphic designer, it was him. And that's what he had to become

This is what makes me laugh: What rationales he made up for getting rid of drawing in his work are most easily understood as a way out of his wretched drawing problem. This is simply Occam's Razor applied to Human Nature. Obvious, obvious, obvious. Its what all adolescents with ego problems do; I'm no good at sports, ergo sports are stupid. I can't draw a damn thing, ergo drawing is shallow.

That Rothko was alive during a time when he could be embraced for being so unbelievably unskilled is a wonderful gift of fortune. That and the fact that the ignorance and tribal insularity of modernist critics, in their milieu, completely conflated design and compositon , sensation and expression, decorative surface and the aesthetic. And then their milieu took over the culture and began the hardcore brainwashing that continues to this day.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but you can get a similar experience from looking at the shapes of wondrous billowing clouds, or a phantasmagoric rainbow in a puddle that has oil running into it, or at sunlight dappling the curtains while you doze off in a twi-lit room. That you experience a reverie while gazing at anything is no mark of its nature as art.

You could get a similar experience of every illustration in real natural habitats that they portray. But it wouldnt be the same, reality lacks the poetic quality of artists emotional interpretation. Oil puddles and clouds can look similar as far as shapes and colors go, but they do not make me feel the same way as Rothkos art does. I feel affected, I respond somehow, but I don't know how to elucidate it in a meaningful way.

The blurry patches of chosen colors have some amorphous characteristic, without defined borders they seem suspended, purposely ambiguous, floating in their shallow space, interacting, they give off a kind of otherworldly air that can put you in a meditative mood or brings up specific emotions, without narrative contexts. I dont know if you could trivialize that as daydreaming, because I don't feel like that Rothko's painting is simply providing a space for daydreaming, I feel like he also adds a bit of something (sensual flavour?) that makes it a worthy experience.

Maybe thats also a part of daydreaming, maybe thats a part of me, but I can assure you that I do not stand in front of puddles experiencing the same thing. (and I'm probably not just manipulated into thinking, that I should enjoy Rothko instead of puddles just because it's classified as high art)

How do you feel about Francis Bacon?

Rothko couldnt draw, neither could Newman, Still, Kline, worst of all was probably Pollock. That doesn't mean that they considered drawing shallow? Did you read Rothko's book, where exactly does he say that? He liked and appreciated representational art, he writes about his experience with Michelangelos David and how it changed him. I mean, you know you can teach anyone to draw well (in terms of exactness), no matter how dumb the person is. If Rothko wanted to learn, he could, but his abstract visual style did not need the craftsmans experience of mimetic drawing.

kev ferrara said...


Rothko's book is pastiche and bull, self-aggrandizement and snark. It is, however, articulate. Which counts for nothing in my book.

His broad brush dismissals of illustration are, or should be, enough to paint him as a crank, except we live in a world where the critical establishment hasn't the slightest clue about aesthetics, (only caring for sassy fashion, and insouciant philosophical chit chat), and people like you are impressed enough by your ability to fall into a daydream while staring at nebulous forms, to grant status to nebulous-form-makers. Methinks you really haven't made a solid effort at being hypnotized by an oily puddle.

I suppose you will have to wait for an artist to put a signed oily puddle in a gallery in order to be put in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the sensual nature of oleaginous found art. (Maybe we can call it a reverie, so as to avoid using daydream. That way the whole matter sounds sufficiently poetic and artsy.)

Can you show me one picture by Rothko that demonstrates that he had a latent, untapped ability to draw? (I certainly do not agree, given my experience in the arts, that all people can learn mimetic drawing. Let alone great expressive drawing that fools the mind into thinking it is appreciating mimesis.)

I am entertained by a few of Bacon's organic-cubist faces. I don't think much of him as an artist.

Any reason why you are hiding behind a pseudonym?

Anonymous said...

I'm not really intentionally hiding, I just never created a blogger account.

Methinks you really haven't made a solid effort at being hypnotized by an oily puddle. I suppose you will have to wait for an artist to put a signed oily puddle in a gallery in order to be put in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the sensual nature of oleaginous found art.

Yeah, that's probably it. It's not that you should maybe widen your frame of mind, you'll rather imagine a fictitious scenario where I react and behave exactly the way it suits you. You're intelligent, don't degrade yourself by acting like a dumbass just because you consider me one.

For me, dramaturgy of Rothkos paintings rises from combinations of chosen colours, size of canvas, proportions and realtionships of colour patches, and their relation to image borders. Colors are painted very softly, airy with permeability and with blurry borders so that colors seem to be extending outside of their forms, interacting, vibrating. Since some colors are a bit transparent, they are radiating through the layers and the transitional ability of colour structures creates an option for colour to have a volumetric effect. The duality of Rothkos flat and volumetric colours gives a feeling of dynamic wave motions. His use of colours gives a certain atmosphere. I sometimes feel as if he wanted to express some kind of urge to regulate the unrest of emotional tension. When I look at his paintings I don't have a feeling that I can control it (like I do representational art), I can just drown in it, let the enormity of an event dismantle me, I can feel it, think it in a kind of Kantian's concept of sublime.

Rothko's canvases are obviously man made, he intentionally created a specific structure of a painting so It can contain certain effects and expressions. Oily puddle cannot have that and you know that. I can agree that it wouldn't be hard to come up with intellectual ejaculations infront of oily puddle canvases, since it was done many times. Most of abstract art is shit. But I dont think your oily puddle would make me feel the same way as Rothko's art does.
Well, create an oily puddle canvas and put it in a gallery, Kevin, you can probably get General Motors or Chevron to sponsor it. You're probably reluctant to degrade yourself by doing that, but think of it as a parody, a joke towards big bad art establishment and you'll probably make loads of money (to buy a few Frazettas).

kev ferrara said...

Anon, there's no reason whatsoever that you can't put your name at the end of your posts. What is this, hide the pea?

And take your ribbing like a man.. Let the enormity of the ribbing dismantle you.

I've seen Rothkos close up and close in. I've stood in front of them, I've gazed into them. I've been in a roomful of them.

Yes, glazing one color over another is a pretty technical effect. Yes, color vibration is a pretty technical effect. Colors are pretty. Soft, vague forms are intriguing. Depth is an interesting effect. The duality of surface and depth is an interesting effect. It is all curiously beautiful.

For a moment.

Since the dawn of man, we have been monkeys that find great fascination in the curiously beautiful effect.

I've done an immense amount of research on just why we are so fascinated with the curiously beautiful effect. And the various kinds of curiously beautiful effects we are drawn to. The complexity and breadth of the matter is far too much to get into, but the bottom line is that we seek within the curiously beautiful effect for meaning. The search for meaning is the prime directive of the senses.

I see the pretty effects, but it immediately registers with me that all I am looking at is a collection of pretty effects, not actual meaning. I get bored. This is an instinct at work, which I have only identified long after it first pronounced itself.

I think the distinction between those who experience a Rothko as a curiously pretty decoration and those who experience a Rothko as a quasi-mystical event is the difference between the ability of the observer's instinct to distinguish between curiously beautiful information that has no meaning beyond the sensual experience of it, and curiously beautiful information that will eventually yield insight. Rothko's work shares no insight. It is simply sensual. An original design upon the senses.

If that new sensation triggers some internal experience in an audience member, an experience which has content which is symbolic (more than sensual) what we have is a psychological event, not an aesthetic one. Because the original designed sensation didn't contain the content that eventually arose.

I think the pleasure some people get out of Rothko's work is due to the free space all that ambiguity allows the imagination. It is a prompt to release the hold the viewer's critical intellect keeps upon the body's experience. The lack of specificity allows no entry point for the obsessively critical mind to latch onto. So the consciousness is free to float. A moment's respite is had and a pleasurable feeling is associated with the work. The work becomes a meaningful addition to the life of the viewer, even if the work itself contains nothing strictly meaningful.

If this observation holds, then it will always be only a particular kind of person who finds enjoyment in Rothko's work. And that is the person seeking respite from their own retentive hyper-focus.

Sadly, Rothko's aesthetic purpose was usurped with the advent of Methaqualone. ;)