Wednesday, September 25, 2019


Kathe Kollwitz, The Peasants' Revolt

In these divisive political times, words can't seem to keep pace with our anger.  Insults on social media are so prevalent that words have lost their sting.  Hyperbole is so overused that it no longer impresses, so people have resorted to lies instead. (As Nietzsche observed, "no one lies as much as an indignant man.")   Many people have given up searching for words that persuade, and settled for words to offend.

But when words become ineffectual as a means of expression, we can always rely on good ol' drawing to raise the decibel level.

Unlike words, drawing is not a polite game ruled by grammar and punctuation.  Drawing is a more primal mode of communication with a broader range of expressive tools.  In this sketch from Kollwitz's shattering series about the peasants' revolt of 1524, her charcoal strokes on paper are the equivalent of those arms flailing in rage and despair.

Kathe Kollwitz, study for The Peasants' Revolt
Goya's series on the disasters of war vents his feelings of anger and impotence using graphic forms that are more compelling than words.

Goya, a gang rape by soldiers

Amsterdam artist L.J. Jordaan penned this blood curdling image of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands:

Oceans of words about the Vietnam war were written by armies of talented writers, yet Tomi Ungerer's stark drawings remain vivid in people's minds.

The talented Tom Fluharty could've made a career out of his blistering portrayals of Hillary Clinton:

It is not sufficient that an artist feels anger.  Quite the contrary, anger usually causes art to go astray; it creates a stress test for the connective tissue of art, and artists who aren't up to the task find that anger has left them with an ineffectual mess.  But artists with the ability to hold it together can channel their outrage into truly scalding works of art.

Today's polarized environment has revved up talented, indignant artists, such as Michael Ramirez on the right or Ann Telnaes on the left.  But I can think of none more unsettling and brilliant than John Cuneo.  His pen seems the sharpest, his ink the most acidic, his imagination the most outrageous.

A response to Donald Trump's statement that his opponents should "go back to where you came from."
An artist friend told me about this drawing,  "Cuneo can always make me gasp before I laugh. The cartoon’s idea is just a crude taunt, but his willingness to really GO there and SELL it is, ...well, frankly, a bit scary. "

This next Cuneo drawing-- simultaneously brutal and brilliant-- is an excellent example of what I mean by artistic powers strong enough to contain rage:

It's extremely difficult to balance art and anger, but when properly fused, the two make a powerful alloy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


The artist Bernie Fuchs passed away ten years ago today.  I was fortunate to get to know him; I interviewed him for weeks and listened to his reflections on life and art before he passed away. 

I never met anyone with a greater gift for color and design.  He was a truly humble man, but he understood the nature of his gift-- how could he not?-- and always tried his best to respect and protect it.   A generous spirit, he never resented the legions of artists who imitated-- or copied-- his work.  He simply hunkered down and moved on to something new.  He died with his astonishing strengths undiminished.

Surveying the art scene ten years after his death, Bernie's artistic strengths are no longer as fashionable.  The oversized, glossy magazines which showcased his art died long before he did. "Concept art" and "idea illustration" arose in an effort to make content more relevant and thought-provoking than the corny romantic fiction sometimes illustrated by Bernie's generation.  But as content took center stage, visual skill, and even talent itself, became suspect. Polished images were viewed as a distraction from the message. The stature of visual form shrank as simpler images and deliberately careless drawings served as vehicles for thought.  Meanwhile, "photo illustration" proliferated in response to economic demand, and computer gaming art arose in a symbiotic relationship with viewers with short attention spans.

Audiences eager to avoid being accused of narrow mindedness concluded that the safest path was to abandon all standards. 

No one can be certain where art will be in a hundred years, or how visual quality will be valued in the rectifying mirror of time.  But as I take stock after the first ten years, Bernie's radiant images still stand out for me across a carnival yard cluttered with weak, shoddy and sensational quasi-art.  On the tenth anniversary of his death, his status as a giant in his field remains secure.

Thursday, September 12, 2019


When Daniel Schwartz was commissioned to "paint an orange" for an advertisement, he didn't reach for the orange paint.  The labels on the paint tubes were irrelevant; Schwartz wanted a full range of colors to paint orange:

Similarly, Schwartz didn't feel his oranges had to be round.  Instead, he used his vivid imagination to come up with creative, interesting shapes.

When you paint at this level, the normal assumptions about shape and color go out the window.