Tuesday, June 30, 2015

LEONARD STARR (1925-2015)

Toward the end of his life,  John Updike reflected on the nature of bliss:
To copy comic strips, stretched prone upon the musty carpet--
Mickey's ears, the curl in Donald's bill,
The bulbous nose of Barney Google, Captain Easy's squint--
What bliss!
When I was ten years old, my version of bliss was lying on the floor and copying Leonard Starr's drawings for On Stage out of the Chicago Tribune Sunday comics section.  His drawings thrilled me, and I carefully cut them out and preserved them in a little box of treasures.

I learned anatomy and faces from Leonard Starr.  I could tell that he knew how to draw hands real good and I traced them as best I could.

Later I recognized that I wasn't alone; I spotted tracings of his work in many comic books and strips.  He was the cartoonist that many cartoonists swiped from, because he was so rock solid. 

I learned about composition and design from Leonard.  That's a holy bond.

I wrote my second fan letter to him.  (The first was to Zorro).

After I grew up and went on to practice law, I had the great pleasure of meeting my boyhood hero, and last Sunday I sat by his hospital bed and held his hand.  In our last conversation he wanted to discuss William Faulkner's Nobel award speech, the one in which Faulkner said, 
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
I promised that when I came to visit him next, I'd bring the text of Faulkner's speech.   This afternoon, Leonard passed away so I'm posting the text he wanted here, in the hope that he'll see it.

Leonard, thanks for the bliss. 


Thursday, June 25, 2015


David Low,  the greatest political cartoonist of World War II,  gave this advice to young cartoonists about drawing dictators:
To draw a hostile war lord as a horrible monster is to play his game.  What he doesn't like is being shown as a silly ass.
Low was second to none at depicting tyrants as silly asses:


Low was so effective at getting under Hitler's skin that prior to WW II, the Nazi government lodged a formal protest about Low's drawings. 

Despite Low's rule about not dignifying tyrants by drawing them as "horrible monsters," sometimes he couldn't resist giving a tyrant the full "monster" treatment.   When the war became too horrifying, his outrage overcame his resolution:

Yet,  Low never lost artistic control.  He recognized that to make the most powerful statement he could not abandon restraint; a picture overcome by passion and emotion is usually less potent.

Look how thoughtfully Low constructed the wonderful drawing above.  To draw the worst creature imaginable, many artists might get carried away and make Hitler a literal monster with blood and fangs and claws.   But with consummate skill, Low transforms Hitler into a beast primarily by giving him a stooped, ape-like posture.

Keen powers of observation at work: Low didn't need to resort to fur or tentacles to make a monster; all it took was splayed legs, hunched shoulders, dangling arms and effective shadows.

Similarly, look at how simply yet carefully Low evokes those victims in the cattle car.  They are a sea of humanity, yet each sufferer has individual character.

Or consider the staging of the picture-- the cattle cars behind Hitler, as his legacy; the shadows on the ground with the stripe of daylight between train cars reinforce in this tight space that we are looking at a series of such cars; the shadows on the sides of the cars give the drawing graphic power while conveying the dark weight of the cargo; the slight incline of the hill lowering Hitler and leading up to his nemesis; these were all conscious choices by a master.  Nothing in the picture had to be that way.

The more extreme an artist decides to treat a subject,  the more talent is required to keep the drawing from going off the rails.

As Peter Viereck reminded us, "Art, being bartender, is never drunk."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Parasitology is the scientific study of parasites-- creatures that attach themselves to free-living species and suck blood and other nutrients from them.  

1.  HOOKWORM (Ancylostoma duodenale)

Photomicrograph of the hookworm

The hookworm is a parasitic worm that burrows into the intestine of its victim.  It uses those teeth to hook into the intestine wall and drink the host's blood, while causing infection, nausea, indigestion, anemia and protein deficiency.   Hookworms infect nearly 700 million (mostly poor) people around the world.  The Center for Disease Control reports that hookworms "account for a major burden of disease worldwide."
Hookworms are able to move from one host to another when the hookworm is excreted in dung.  After they land on soil, hookworms are able to penetrate the bare foot of another human host and burrow through to the intestine.

2.  RICHARD PRINCE (Lizardus Plagiarista)

Richard Prince has made a lot of money taking the work of other artists and selling it as his own.   Prince cannot paint well himself,  but he'll take another artist's  painting,  re-frame it along with a copy of the published version, and sell it for a hundred times what the original artist was paid.

The prestigious Gagosian gallery in Manhattan which sells Prince's work explains that Prince's appropriation art "redefined the concepts of authorship, ownership, and aura." 

In a hilariously loathsome moment, the Gagosian web site credits Prince as the artist because he conceptually re-framed this painting, and credits Rob McKeever for photographing the work for their web site, but nowhere mentions the name of the actual painter, Rafael DeSoto because, you see, that would be irrelevant.

Predictably, Mr. Prince has been sued for plagiarism but just as hookworms hide in crevasses of the bowels, Mr. Prince and his gallery found shelter in a crevasse in the law.  A court found Prince guilty of copyright infringement but on appeal a divided Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the original ruling.  Two out of three appellate court judges ruled that Prince was making "fair use" of another artist's work because Prince's pictures “have a different character” from the original, giving it a “new expression” and employing “new aesthetics with creative and communicative results distinct” from the original work.  The dissenting judge claimed the court was not qualified to decide which of Mr. Prince's works were "transformative" and which were not.  ("It would be extremely uncomfortable for me to do so in my appellate capacity, let alone my limited art experience.")

Parasitology tells us that as long as posh art galleries can afford better lawyers than the individual  plagiarized illustrator or comic artist, Prince has nothing to fear. 


At one time, appropriation art consisted of artists taking functional industrial objects that were never intended to be art-- a urinal or a bicycle seat-- and pointing out the artistic qualities in them.  In those days, appropriation artists were clueless about how to exploit concepts to become millionaires.  They thought they were having fun. But like all god's creatures, parasites continue to evolve.  Enabled by new digital technologies, appropriation art grew and and tightened its grip, becoming increasingly shameless.  Artists were soon appropriating the conscious designs of commercial artists and they now appropriate entire works of art, intact.  Sometimes they delete the signature of the original "low" artist and replace it with the signature of the "high" artist.  

An unhealthy percentage of creativity in today's art world is devoted to coming up with imaginative euphemisms for plagiarism, such as "re-contextualizing" or "sampling" or "augmentation."

What can the science of parasitology teach us about the new breed of appropriation artist?  Just as hookworms are able to travel from host to host by being excreted in dung, appropriation artists spread via opinions excreted by art dealers, auction houses and Manhattan galleries.  Nancy Spector, Chief Curator at the Guggenheim, trills: “Prince’s work has been among the most innovative art produced in the United States during the past 30 years."  Better keep your shoes on around the Guggenheim.

Just as with hookworms, people who traffic in dung prove to be the most fruitful hosts for appropriation artists.   Well known aesthetes such as Wall Street financiers -- always noted for their artistic sensitivity-- have become the leading investors in Mr. Prince's art.  Hedge fund billionaire and Guggenheim donor David Ganek collects Prince's art when he isn't too distracted by his death struggle with the FBI and federal prosecutors over his alleged criminal stock trading schemes.


The appropriation artist who adds a concept to a pre-existing work of art often gets paid hundreds or thousands of times as much as the creator of the initial artwork.  Whether that is too much or too little depends on the relative value of the contributions, so let's examine both candidly.  Many appropriation artists claim they are contributing "irony" or "social awareness" to the original work of art.  Prince's contribution, his gallery informs us, is that he "urges the viewer to see shopworn images in a new context." This would seem to be the kind of insight you might expect from a high school literary magazine, but hardly the kind of insight for which someone might spend 1,000 times the price of the original "shopworn image." Is it possible that Mr. Ganek is buying something else with his millions?

Economists distinguish between two types of property: property that is valuable because of its inherent quality, and property that is valued simply because other people can't have it.  This second type of property is called "positional goods," and it seems to be one of the healthiest sectors of the fine art market today.   The "concepts" being peddled by Mr. Prince and others are for the most part hackneyed platitudes that would not impress a credulous school girl.  They couldn't possibly account for the astronomical prices such work commands.  No, the thing that accounts for the price is not the concept, it's the exclusivity.

The popular arts being appropriated by artists such as Mr. Prince were the exact opposite of positional goods.  Far from being exclusive, they were mass produced and distributed to the largest possible audience for the lowest possible price-- for example, the price of a comic book or cheap magazine.  This business model may be the source of their wonderful strength and vulgarity, which are viewed with envy by the anemic fine art community.  Fine artists return again and again to commercial illustration, trying to siphon off its potency for use as bait to attract buyers of positional goods.  Judging from Mr. Prince's financial success for such slender work, the formula continues to work.

Monday, June 08, 2015



The great Mort Drucker is famous for drawing funny, not sexy.   Yet, if you look back at his stories for MAD Magazine, you'll see they were often packed with beautiful women:



At the recent annual conference of the National cartoonist Society, Drucker was awarded the first NCS Medal of Honor for his lifetime achievement.  I had the good fortune to interview him before the ceremony and he remarked that beautiful women were the most difficult subject for him to draw.   Classically beautiful women lack distinctive features for caricaturists to exploit.  Their faces are smoother and softer than men's, which makes them more difficult to capture with a hard ink line.  Their features are more delicate, their shapes rounder and subtler.  This requires restraint-- the enemy of a caricaturist.

Still, I was surprised by Drucker's comment because he managed to bedeck his stories with gorgeous females and made it look effortless.  Note the array of facial expressions, hair styles, body language and attitudes in his crowd scenes above. 

And even though Drucker drew in a humorous style, it was plain to everyone that he was able to draw serious "sultry" any time he wanted:


Nobody would ever think of Drucker as a pin-up artist; he was so damn good at drawing other things, few people ever got far enough down his list of accomplishments to pay attention to  his beautiful women.  So I've isolated a few high rez examples for your attention:  





Think about the "serious" illustrators who've become famous specializing in nothing but beautiful women.  Typically you'll see wooden postures and vapid faces (or even worse, faces wearing an adolescent notion of "desire.")  I find pictures such as these inferior to Drucker's casual drawings of women that you find sprinkled around his panels as background jokes. 

In addition, there are some highly skilled pen and ink artists today who specialize in drawing hot babes, yet their careful linework often strikes me as flat and uninspired when contrasted with Drucker's energetic, descriptive line.

One of Drucker's advantages is that his complete mastery of facial expressions enables him to give his women characters personality and depth that was largely absent from traditional good girl art. Unlike a traditional pin up standing alone in a suggestive  pose, his women are integrated into a story.

How often do you see a thoughtful expression on a drawing of a gorgeous woman?

A scene from the film Cool Hand Luke, where a young woman decides to torment a prison work gang by washing her car in front of them.  Drucker was able to put extreme facial expressions on lovely women-- a delicate balance.
The face of ennui in an 18th century English bath tub

Of course, this entire discussion ignores obvious questions about idealized beauty.  I'm happy to say that, unlike most artists (from Vargas and Petty to Elvgren and Olivia) who built their skills around conventional looks, Drucker had a far broader, more humanistic notion of beauty. Over the years he drew thousands of cute girls with freckles or eye glasses or pot bellies, who could never be seen in Playboy.  You could tell he recognized-- and conveyed-- the beauty in them as well.  But that discussion is for another day.