Tuesday, January 31, 2023


 I love Cy Twombly's drawing, Orpheus.  

Let's see if you can too.


In times of uncertainty for painting, artists often revert to their primal roots in drawing to help find their way.  As curator Katharine Stout noted, drawing has long been the mechanism for strengthening the gene pool of fine art, contaminating it with strong graphic properties, bold notions from advertising and comics, structural strength from geometric and mathematical systems, and other impertinent strains.

As we've previously discussed, the 1950s witnessed a renaissance in expressive drawing using basic tools, such as vine charcoal or a lithography crayon. Artists who had long painted polished, realistic images using oil paint or gouache began returning to the simplest, most primal ways to make marks.

For example, Austin Briggs painted sophisticated oil paintings like this as they slowly went out of fashion...

... before finding new vitality in drawings such as this:

Artists such as Briggs, Eric, Sickles, Fuchs and Bouche led the revival of rough drawing tools. They persuaded the leading high end magazines to devote entire pages of prime space to charcoal drawings.

This 1964 illustration by Bernie Fuchs is a snapshot of what was gained from the reintroduction of line.  We can see the old world and the new world co-existing briefly side by side:

Fuchs painted the face of this athlete sensitively enough to achieve an excellent likeness...

Yet in the same picture, the rough black line has taken the stage. Look at what a contribution it makes to the painting! It is crude and brutish but transforms the image with explosive energy not found in academy painting. 

Notice how uneven the line is.  It might have been scratched into the painting with a lupine claw.

Fuchs' cover is an excellent example of that turning point in the evolution of illustration, with drawing and painting juxtaposed against each other in the same image, like a piano and a symphony orchestra juxtaposed against each other with the invention of the piano concerto.  People sat up and took notice of the new style.  Everyone wanted more.

The most important point to make about these accomplished artists is that, while they were trying to unlearn layers of technical facility and shed hard-earned muscle memory, their artistic taste and sensitivity remained undiminished and were in many cases heightened.

Look at a detail from this drawing by Briggs:

Briggs combines the directness, simplicity and immediacy of the crayon with an underlying sensitivity that persuades us he could perform brain surgery wearing mittens.

Fuchs was a master at marrying sensitive descriptive line with lines that appeared to result from a spasmodic twitch

Why? Because this is part of the physical delight of the drawing, just as impasto is part of the physical delight of painting.


This has been a long prologue to the reasons I love Cy Twombly's Orpheus but if any of you have accompanied me this far, I hope you'll be willing to come with me a little further.

Orpheus  195.7 x 334.5 cm. (1979)

Like the great illustrators, fine artists such as Picasso, de Kooning and Twombly spent a lot of time mid-century trying to unlearn stubborn conventions.  De Kooning experimented drawing with his eyes closed, trying to understand better the intuitive sources of art.  Twombly practiced drawing in the dark, recognizing that such drawings would lose many obvious qualities but interested in what he might gain. 

I approach the raw scrapings in Orpheus the way I approach the  rough crayon drawings of Briggs and Fuchs.  Walking away from realism (or perhaps chased away by photography) they have located lush qualities and brute design in the atomistic levels of  mark making.  They have focused our attention on the sensuousness of line through extreme simplification-- something academy painting could never do.

But "Ah," I hear you ask, "Do these childish scribbles really contribute anything?  I know the story of Orpheus, who descends into hell to rescue his wife, the beautiful Eurydice, but in what way does scrawling his name illustrate that story?  Where is the picture of Orpheus heroically fighting the demons of hell?"

I think this painting can stand alone as a lovely abstract design but if you're prepared to go beyond form and look for content, it's there in spades.  You won't be able to read it like a story in The Saturday Evening Post; it must be approached more like a fragment of an ancient, time-worn text.

The hero partially obscured by the sifting sands of time

It helps-- but is not essential-- to know that Twombly was obsessed with the ancient poets Virgil and Ovid and loved Greek and Roman culture.  He lived in Italy, in an apartment filled with ancient artifacts.  So he well understood the story of Orpheus and its implications for hope, tragedy and mortality.  
Even without that background, we don't need a separate written explanation to understand meaning inherent in the visual forms.  I couldn't do better than to quote the description by art critic Sebastian Smee:
...a giant O takes up the left part of the canvas. The remaining letters, smudged, and mostly erased, spread to the right and downward, like descending notes on a musical stave. There is a sense of resignation or fade-out in the script's formation, as if the word were not worth completing, the gods having long since departed. But the letters' placement also conjures Orpheus himself descending to the underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice.
This is a level of symbolism and beauty that is different from traditional illustrations of stories, but is a fitting experiment for a new generation.

Twombly, a lover of antiquity, was adamant that he wasn't trying to cast off tradition with his innovations.  He said, “what I am trying to establish is that modern art isn’t dislocated, but something with roots, tradition, and continuity.”

Saturday, January 21, 2023


Capes on super heroes make no sense.  They're useless, unwieldy and nonfunctional.  They'd interfere with a mission, causing the wearer to trip or get tangled up.

So why are they so popular?  Because they're a plaything for artists, shaped only by movement and the wind.  A gift of glorious freedom.  Compare how different artists make use of that freedom:

Jack Kirby invented big, muscular capes which accentuated his trademark big shoulders on his figures:

Compare Kirby's approach with Kent Williams' notion of a cape: less dynamic with a more erratic, artsy line:

Steve Ditko reveled in long, flowing capes with heavy shadows, consistent with his mystical focus.  

Unlike Kirby's brawny figures, Ditko's willowy figures were part of his DNA.

Neal Adams applied a lighter touch, drawing sleek, stylish capes that showed off his fine lines:

With all the rigors and disciplines of sequential comic art, capes are one of the few instances where the artist can kick back and invent whatever abstract shapes they want.  As a result, they often exaggerate wildly, making capes bigger and longer than they could ever be in reality:

Joe Kubert takes liberties with capes (here and below)

Ditko too can't resist drawing a cape out of all proportion

If capes are a good test of the imagination and style of an artist, they also reveal the weakness of artists who have no opinions, or who are chained to photo reference.  The cape below may be the most realistic cape of all the examples on this post, but also the most disappointing.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023


 The 1960 Annual published by the Society of Illustrators was crackling with talent and energy. 

The Annual collected illustrations by "fine" artists such as Ben Shahn, Henry Moore, Leonard Baskin and Andy Warhol, all of whom were employed as illustrators that year.  Other distinguished illustrators that year included Norman Rockwell,  Milton Glaser, Saul Steinberg, Coby Whitmore,  Al Parker,  Austin Briggs, Bob Peak, Albert Dorne, Bernie Fuchs, Noel Sickles, Robert Weaver, Joe Bowler, Robert Fawcett  and Stanley Meltzoff.  Legendary cartoonists Ronald Searle,  Andre Francois and Tomi Ungerer also appeared in this collection.

With such a rich field of talent, the judges who chose the pictures for the Annual must've crowed about the art, right?


Here is what the judges wrote in the 1960 annual: 

"The general level of merit was low.  More work should have been rejected."

"I was disappointed in the overall quality, too much that was not bad but ordinary."  

"The work submitted fell, more or less, into three categories: a.) technically skillful execution of banal ideas; b.) banal execution of banal ideas; c.) some quite lively and fresh work in juveniles and paperbacks."

"The jury generally was disappointed in the overall quality of the work submitted... New trends, while interesting, do not necessarily mean good trends and their derivative 'inspirational' sources are usually rather thinly disguised."

Can you imagine reading such a withering assessment today?   These judges were tough guys (yes, the judges were all guys back then) and they pulled no punches.  Despite their harsh indictment, they remained pretty open minded about different forms of excellence.  Here are examples of the variety of work they selected for that 1960 Annual:

Bernie Fuchs

Milton Glaser

Alfred Ingegno

Austin Briggs

Harvey Schmidt

In 1960 young Andy Virgil was developing in the style of Coby Whitmore, Joe Bowler and Joe de Mers...

...but Whitmore and the others were already moving on to other creative touches

Felix Topolski

Robert Weaver

The Provensens

Jack Potter

Daniel Schwartz 

The Annual was published before the era of false praise, so the Society was not afraid to ask each judge, "What lack or fault do you feel contemporary illustration suffers from the most?" and the judges were not afraid to answer.

Albert Dorne answered: "Imitation-- and lack of drawing-- 'creative' gimmicks for the gimmick's sake.

Robert Weaver's criticism was even more fundamental: "Lack of serious artists in the medium."

Hugh White complained: "too many follow-the-leader illustrators and too many still trying to do what photography can do better."

Walter Murch criticized: "the cliche."

Note that the judges didn't hesitate to sign their names to their opinions.  They would've viewed it as an act of cowardice to do otherwise.  

They didn't view their role as validating the feelings of artists or puffing up their work.  Instead, they seemed to believe that the best way to inspire young talent and reflect honor upon their profession was to articulate the highest standards they knew, and apply those standards ruthlessly.  That attitude may account, at least in part, for the quality of the artists of that era.