Tuesday, August 27, 2013


“Christ! What are patterns for?” wails the distraught young heroine of Amy Lowell’s famous poem, Patterns.

Her question is hardly surprising.  Patterns have been with us from the very beginning:

Red dot patterns painted on the cave walls at El Castillo date back 40,000 years.

Star pattern from the ceiling of an ancient Egyptian tomb

Well, the world has waited long enough for the answer.

Lowell’s heroine yearned for passion and spontaneity, but found herself trapped in a formal world of patterns, from the designs on her brocaded gown and corset to the ornate garden paths which she paced, waiting for her lover to return from the war in Flanders. She dreamed of casting off her gown and racing naked through the gardens, pursued by her lover:
And he would stumble after, 
Bewildered by my laughter. 
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles on his shoes. 
I would choose 
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths, 
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover, 
Till he caught me in the shade, 
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me, 
Aching, melting, unafraid. 
Together they could free each other from a life of closed patterns but alas, it was not meant to be:
The softness of my body will be guarded from embrace 
By each button, hook, and lace. 
For the man who should loose me is dead, 
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders, 
In a pattern called a war. 
Pattern is an act of repetition, symmetry, order and uniformity, not passion and spontaneity.  It permits few creative choices once the formula is set.  It is more often the work of anonymous artisans on assembly lines, or patient, long suffering women in huts rather than the work of creative geniuses who invent bold new styles.

Dhiagliev ballet costume

Persian rug, 19th century
So what the heck are patterns for, anyway?  They can be lovely but can they ever qualify as significant Art?

Our era prefers flamboyant celebrity artists to the steady, predictable hum of patterns by artisans.  Great artists are the ones with the courage to break the established patterns and run naked through that garden, right?

International superstars Tracey Emin (Royal Academy of Arts, CBE) and Miley Cyrus (VMA)

Despite this fact, let's consider whether patterns have anything of value left to offer us. Tolstoy, who was a more profound thinker than Lowell, wrote about the "chaste young girls" in Russian villages who labored for years making lace patterns:

As these girls worked over their looms, the rhythm of their patterns transported their thoughts to a faraway land:
lace makers in olden times... used to depict all their lives, all their dreams of happiness in the pattern. They dreamed in designs of all that was dear to them, wove all their pure, uncertain love into their lace.
There's no record of these young women tearing off their gowns and running naked through the garden, but that hardly diminishes the pathos of their situation, or makes the objects in which they invested their lives any less beautiful. Similarly, look at this ancient Egyptian illustration of the frankincense trees that grow in the legendary land of Punt (Ta netjera), a paradise rich with incense and gold:

The artisans detailed each and every leaf, despite the fact that each was identical to the one before. This was not an occasion for artistic economy, it was a time for being true to the pattern.  As the ancient craftsmen worked on long rows of leaves in the hot sun, I'm sure their minds drifted off to the land of Punt.
When I hold my love close, and her arms steal around me, I'm like a man transported to Punt...  the world suddenly bursts into flower. --  Egyptian love song, circa 1500 BCE
For viewers with patience and imagination, patterned objects can be rich with context. Poet Stephen Crane (1871-1900) offered a very different perspective than Amy Lowell on that "running-naked-through-gardens" business:
If I should cast off this tattered coat
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue
Echoless, ignorant --
What then?
A century has almost passed since Amy Lowell asked her burning question, "Christ! What are patterns for?" Today, famed artist Tracey Emin shows us how artists have freed themselves from the constraints of pattern, and also of spelling:

Tracey Emin masterpiece, The Hole Room, 1999

Many in our generation of artists are puffing and panting, intellectually and morally exhausted from racing through the garden for the limits of art, looking for some new article of clothing to cast off. They've put so much distance between themselves and the tyranny of patterns that their work is devoid of structure. Its atoms are so diffuse that they no longer cohere in a way capable of sustaining life or heat. As Clement Greenberg wrote:
The nonrepresentational or abstract, if it is to have aesthetic validity, cannot be arbitrary and accidental, but must stem from obedience to some worthy constraint. 
Discernible pattern can be one of those worthy constraints.  The order created by patterns may seem superficial and restrictive, but it is also one of the brakes on the road to artistic entropy.  Rabindranath Tagore observed,
The freedom of the storm and the bondage of the roots join hands in the dance of swaying branches.
So what are patterns for? Patterns provide the bondage of the roots, and unless you have both the storm and the roots, there just ain't no dancing.

Friday, August 16, 2013


"What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?"
                                                            -- Bertolt Brecht

This morning's newspapers bring the fun story of a massive art fraud, in which 63 "newly discovered" masterpieces by the greatest abstract expressionist painters (Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Motherwell) turned out to be forgeries, painted by a local artist in his garage.

fake Jackson Pollock

The paintings were sold over a 15 year period by prestigious art galleries for more than $80 million. 

The New York Times reports, "How imitations of the most heralded Abstract Expressionists by a complete unknown could have fooled connoisseurs and clients remains a mystery."  No it doesn't.  Not in the least.

See if you can spot the worst fraudsters in this food chain:  The painter who created the fakes first attempted to earn a living selling his own work on the streets of New York, but ultimately turned to painting masterpieces instead.  He was paid $5,000 to $7,000 for each painting.  His fakes were then sold as originals by Glafira Rosales, an obscure art dealer, who reaped millions of dollars in profits, peddling them to venerable Manhattan art galleries with distinguished reputations, such as Knoedler's.  The venerable art galleries then reaped even greater profits, reselling the paintings to Wall Street executives and investment bankers. (For example, Knoedler's sold $63 million worth of the paintings, keeping its "fee" of $43 million and paying only $20 million to Rosales.)  The Wall Street executives could afford the paintings because the executives had become fabulously wealthy using slippery tactics to manipulate the financial system at huge social cost to pension funds, home owners with mortgages, and individual investors.  Because the Wall Street executives had no personal taste for art, they paid huge fees to consultants and advisors who claimed to have impeccable judgment and great expertise.  These advisors would never stoop so low as to purchase art from a painter selling his work on the streets of New York. 

Ah, but the nest of parasites does not end there.  There is now a blizzard of law suits from the purchasers of the fakes, who are indignant at being defrauded.  My initial reaction to these lawsuits was, "If you were inspired by the beauty of the picture when you first bought it (as you claimed in your press releases) it looks exactly the same now, so sit down and shut the fuck up."

However, one must keep in mind that these lawsuits are likely to generate millions of dollars in fees for large corporate law firms, and as a lawyer I don't want to write anything that might discourage this worthy outcome.  How else could law firms afford to do pro bono work for impoverished artists who sell their work on the streets of New York?


Thursday, August 08, 2013


Here is another spot illustration by illustrator Robert Fawcett, this time a small ink drawing of his friend Austin Briggs who was giving a slide show presentation:

Despite the sedentary subject matter, close ups of the original reveal a vigorous knife fight:  

Pausing over details, we begin to appreciate the extraordinary variety of Fawcett's marks on paper :

Over the last few days we have focused on Fawcett's ink work, but before we move on to different topics, here is one of Fawcett's pencil drawings for a different perspective:

This life drawing was included in Fawcett's book, The Art of Drawing but by looking at the original we can see that Fawcett (who was color blind) supplemented his drawing with shading from a red pencil.  Fawcett's eyes can't help but impose lines on a form:

 but he understood tone and value as well:

Sunday, August 04, 2013


In the 1950s, Robert Fawcett visited the instructors working at the Famous Artists School in Connecticut and talked with them about his method of constructing pictures.  He sketched three examples of how one might depict "a knock at the door":

Original size: 4" x 6"


He told the instructors that when designing a picture, it is important to focus on the pattern created by lights and darks.   He suggested that students use a tissue paper overlay to block out the geometric shapes which form the abstract pattern: 

He told the instructors that students should not try to redraw the underlying drawing on their overlays, but rather "outline mechanically" to separate the form from the content. 

He made handwritten notes for the instructors to use:
 Among his advice: to keep the pattern lively, use a "quick, nervous, spotty method" when outlining the key shapes:
He also urged, "wherever possible, use angular forms and emphasize differences of direction":
The materials from this long ago lesson were taped together on an illustration board (along with his separate lesson on creating "interior atmosphere"-- apparently they couldn't spare a separate board.) 

Worthwhile advice from a smart artist.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


I feel this blog performs a public service on days when I can share close ups from an original Robert Fawcett drawing.

 This drawing had everything going against it:

  1. It's a tiny, low budget spot illustration for an industrial brochure...
  2. drawn from a photo...
  3. of a deadly dull topic: a middle aged, anonymous instructor at a correspondence school, working at his drawing board.
Yet, for Fawcett even a boring subject could be like working in a firecracker factory.  

He starts out working fairly tightly on the head, even using a little white paint to sharpen his focus...

... but from there, he quickly gets wilder:


With energy and integrity, it's possible to overcome even the most uninspiring subject matter.  

In the next few days, I will be  posting more unpublished original work and some of Fawcett's handwritten notes about his approach to drawing.