Saturday, December 31, 2022


It's the end of another year.

The great Mort Drucker

During the year, we've been visited by the specters of many "ends."   

We've discussed whether AI art will be the end of art as we've known it.  We've taken satisfaction from the end of some of the more foolish dreams about NFTs.  We've witnessed misguided protesters destroying art for religious, political or pathological reasons.  

We've mourned the end of great artists this year, artists such as Neal Adams, Paul Coker and Ralph Eggleston.  We've mourned the end of artistic standards in New Yorker covers and other prestigious art venues.

But it seems clear that there are also many new beginnings and developments that should make 2023 a year of fruitful discussion.

Many thanks for your interesting comments and suggestions throughout the year. You've broadened my experience and sharpened my vocabulary, and I appreciate it.

Monday, December 26, 2022


There's no disputing the visual power of Sunday comics.  Their bold flat shapes, bright colors and high contrast graphics have an ur quality that makes them irresistible.

John Gannam

Mike Ludlow

Harry Anderson

As a result, artists of all stripes, with different objectives and varying levels of authenticity, have tried to piggyback on the visual strength of comics.  They take the aesthetic of comics and plug it into their own paintings like a lithium ion battery, to add power to their own objectives.

Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns incorporated comics in pop art paintings.  These artists may have been striving for non-comic goals: social commentary, parody, irony, kitsch... but the visual strength of these images came from the original comics.  Without this borrowed backbone,  the images would be visually limp. 

Contemporary "fine art" painter Sharon Moody specializes in oil paintings of comics in a trompe l'oeil style:

For me, the Moody paintings are an impressive technical gimmick with none of the visual potency of comics.  She leaves the best part behind. 

By contrast, the far superior artists Gannam and Anderson know how to use the eye-popping colors and strong shapes of comics:

Jasper Johns comes a little closer with this painting from the comic strip Alley Oop:

Note that Johns did not just paint random cartoon-like shapes.  He tracked the original compositions in all twelve panels fairly closely,  abstracting their shapes and colors.:  

Other "fine" artists such as Jim Nutt, John Wesley and Vernon Fisher continued the practice of borrowing the strength of comic art imagery, albeit in the service of different artistic goals. Keith Haring is another example: 

Again and again, it seems to me that the ur of comics is the strongest single ingredient of these pictures.  The social commentary, the irony, the conceptual overlays-- all are interesting elements but without the comics the final result would be artistically negligible.

Thursday, December 15, 2022


On my recent visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum I lucked into their exhibition of Norman Rockwell Drawings.  

There, I was particularly struck by this lovely drawing, Norman Rockwell's interpretation of the classic theme of artist and model:

Rockwell portrays this artist as a circus contortionist-- the opposite of his ramrod straight, expressionless model.  We see the artist struggling to infuse his model with a glamorous flourish where none exists.

Look at what's taking place in this tiny space: the artist holds the magic charcoal with a highly affected grasp,  inventing a sweep of the hair and alluring eyes that aren't on the model.

This is what a hand looks like when it's trying to change reality with sheer force of will

Note how the artist cocks his head way back to give him the perspective necessary to find glamour in his bland and boring model.  The artist's pretentious beret tells us much about his self-image...

But his saggy pants, frayed cuffs and worn shoes tell us more about the reality of the situation:

The artist's unused arm doesn't hang limp at his side; it pulls way back, keeping pencils and all other distractions well out of the line of fire:

With his left knee raised and his right knee lowered, his left arm cocked back and his head pulled aside, the artist looks very much like the pistons in a human combustion engine: 

The important point here is that the portraitist is not simply a master class in body language, he's a master class in human psychology.   

What's going on here?  Is the portraitist merely idealizing his homely client, hoping for a bigger tip?  Are his pretensions just theatrical props, designed to attract and impress paying customers?  Or is there more? 
This scene takes place in a cheap, cramped portrait booth, of the type you'd find at a carnival or on a boardwalk.   The artist's affectations suggest he imagines himself to be something he's not.  In short, there seems to be fantasy taking place on both sides of the drawing on that easel.  

Perhaps art is a two-way con. 

Picasso is celebrated for his hundreds of drawings on the theme of the artist and his model.

We are told that his drawings are rich with visual and psychological subtleties, and I believe that to be true but I also believe that pretentious art critics, clinging to their own affectations, tend to overlook the rich field of visual and psychological subtleties in more representational art.  

As I said, perhaps art is a two-way con.  

Tuesday, December 06, 2022


The Transversal Law of Pictures says: a log can serve the same function as a dog. 

Andrew Wyeth began this painting featuring a dog....

... but changed his mind and started over, substituting a log.  Wyeth explained that the log performed the same function: "the dog disappeared, though the animal is in the ragged, chopped, sharp sliver part of the log."  

Whether a dog or a log, Wyeth introduces a contrasting element which opens a dialogue in both form and content.  

The big change in the final version is not that the dog turned into a log.  The big change is that the dog / log has been moved outside.  That really alters the dialogue.

The sharp, gray, contrasting element now sits outside the window, jagged and ominous, with other asperous symbols: barbed wire, a rusty chain, dead grass.  

Compare the world outside with the civilized tableau indoors.  One critic wrote that the final version of Wyeth's painting is "richly symbolic: outside there is violence and death: inside a sacramental order and the light of an austere divinity."  The window glass is invisible yet it transforms the meaning of an object to be painted inside or out. 

Gary Kelley put his own version of the wildness outside the window...

... but this time the window doesn't appear to offer much protection.  The howl of the feral beast seems to have penetrated the window and undermined the civilization inside.

Look at all the ways Tomer Hanuka's window separates winter's wild chill from a steamy interior: cool colors vs. warm, hard geometric building materials vs. tender human flesh, tone vs. line, foreground vs. background:

What role does a window play in these dialogues?  A window offers less protection than a solid wall, but more protection than a blue sky-- a compromise somewhere between nothing and everything.  This range of possibilities makes a window a marvelous artistic device.  For example, an open window leaves a person vulnerable to their "love awakening." 

Sometimes your love awakening arrives wearing a top hat but packing a pistol.  How much wildness can you handle?

Other times a window thrills by merely implying what's outside.  A shadow can be more effective than the dangers we actually see.

Of course, not all the savagery takes place outside the window.  Sometimes it's more savage inside:

Gustave Dore illustrates the age old custom of defenestration
As we've all heard, if you leave an open window in your heart, everything you wanted may enter.

However, what you wanted may not be in your best interest. 

Windows can free you from the tyranny of perspective or anatomy:

Windows also thwart our appetite for too much information, forcing us to infer situations.  

Subtle clues

Creativity comes from constrained circumstances.  If you find yourself in a closed space, there are three ways to enlarge your vision. You can look at a picture.  You can look in a mirror.  Or you can look out a window.  The artist's choices about the size of the window, how to crop it, what features from the world to see through it,  determines where the rest of the world ends and the art begins.

Monday, November 21, 2022


Last week I had the pleasure of watching an advance screening of the newest animated film from Disney, Strange WorldIf Maxfield Parrish or Kay Nielsen were alive today, this is the kind of work they'd be doing.  

Computer animation-- the marriage of digital technology and human creativity-- has lived through rocky periods of adjustment.  

Richard Feynman wrote that “The inside of a computer is as dumb as hell but it goes like mad.”  This power often led to imbalances and mismatches in early computer animation.  For example, it created distracting levels of detail and insanely sharp focus.  

Computer animation in 2015 wrecked the charm of Charles Schulz's Peanuts

Even worse, the intoxicating new tool often became a substitute for imagination.  Computers have been put to use simulating the natural world, often to questionable effect.  They capsized the proportion, balance, harmony that are crucial to good art.  Plots have warped and distorted around the digital contribution.

But animators have become better and better at understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the digital medium, using it to invent new worlds, give new faces to fantasy, stretch the use of color, combine images with movement, all in integrated ways.  

I was dazzled by the way these elements joined together in Strange World.  Imaginative creatures, plants, and other life forms continued to cascade forward throughout the movie, as did geologic formations and meteorological conditions.  There is no shortage of creativity in Strange World.

Some things don't change: every Disney movie needs a cute sidekick that can be sold in toy stores.

This is an artistic accomplishment that could never have been achieved with live action or hand drawn animation or any other previously known medium.   It was a joy to see a movie where human creativity was able to keep up with, make excellent use of, and blend seamlessly with, digital technology.

Monday, November 14, 2022


This painting is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts:

Look at how lovingly Rockwell paints three different kinds of gold surfaces.  The gilded wooden torch:

The letters on the boy's banner:

The metal wreath on the boy's head:

Rockwell didn't just dip his brush in gold paint three times.  He went back to the beginning and re-learned the nature of gold three times.

Rockwell was one of history's great materialists.  He examined and described material objects, their surfaces, their volumes, their textures and qualities with fanatical devotion.  

Growing up, Norman Rockwell had an uneasy relationship with the physical world.  Scrawny, pale, nearsighted and pigeon toed, Rockwell was embarrassed by his frail physique.  When he was ten, he tried exercising but gave up after a month.  His insecurities continued to haunt his early work.

But like an unrequited lover, he worshiped the physical world from afar.  It's hard to name another 20th century artist with a greater appreciation for physical matter.  

It's not always easy to tell from the way Rockwell's work has been reproduced in cheap magazines.  But compare this printed cover for the Saturday Evening Post:

with the big, glowing original painting hanging on the wall at the Rockwell museum: 

His description of the girl's plastic raincoat is a tour de force:

Notice the attention he paid to the rim on the lid of the paint can, or the bottle of medium, or the scuffed shoe:

Similarly, there is nothing formulaic about Rockwell's treatment of the wooden box.  Those lines are not straight because Rockwell understood and cared about how the box had been treated on its voyage through the material world. Here is intense, honest observation: 

For another example, in the corner of Rockwell's painting of a pharmacist...

... you can see that he didn't neglect the bottles, the test tube, the spoon.  Importantly, these obsessive details are not described with photographic realism, as Rockwell's thousands of clueless imitators would surely have painted them.  They are expressed through the loving eyes of someone with rapturous appreciation for their physical qualities... 

... right down to the nuances of the cork and the character of the string around the bottle.

There have been other great materialists in art before Rockwell.  Vermeer and the golden age Dutch painters delighted in the properties of fine material objects: the textures and patterns of lovely fabrics and tapestries, the sheen of  metals, the soft feel of furs.  

Note Gabriel Metsu's attention to the gold frame and oriental rug

Renaissance art was also a period of great materialists.  Freed from the medieval focus on the supernatural (and spurred on by the invention of soap) Renaissance painters obsessed over the surfaces of the secular world-- the nuances of human flesh and the reflections of armor.

Norman Rockwell was a true materialist in that tradition and, in my view, can walk proudly in that company.