Saturday, May 13, 2023


 How do you like this painting of an "intense gaze"?

Yeah, I don't see it either.  

The face is a detail from the painting, "Picking Cotton" by Hale Woodruff, which hangs in the prestigious Yale University Art Gallery.

The curators of the Yale Gallery describe the "intense" face this way: 
The intense gaze of the old man at the center of Hale Woodruff's composition-- like a sharecropper or day laborer-- is amplified by the expressive character of the painting's active, thick brushwork, drawing the eye and focusing our attention.

If you think that's a stretch, art critic Sebastian Smee is able to impute emotions to Gerhard Richter's painting, "Betty," through the back of her head: 

“Betty,” he writes, "twisting away, evokes for me an impossible yearning: a desire to turn away from the din, the debacle, of political life and to dissolve instead — to bleed, to blur — into an intimate, apolitical present."

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, similarly transported by the back of Betty's head (or perhaps impaired by a stroke?) wrote that the painting is "the single most beautiful painting made by anyone in the last half century."

On and on the blather goes.  The sequepedalian word mongers at Phaidon offer us a long tiresome exegesis of "Betty," conjecturing that Immanuel Kant would favor Richter's "anti-sensibility."  They prattle:
For [Richter] photorealism has long been a project of rupture, the kind of performative desecration that served to uphold its own site of defacement. His faceless Betty is as much a testament to the “thingness” of painting as it is to interpersonal ephemerality.
It takes a lot of Kool-Aid to make it through this brand of art criticism.

For me, these descriptions embody the most dangerous snare underlying modern conceptual art: the snare of being seduced by fanciful verbal descriptions rather than the actual visual qualities of the picture.  As words and ideas become more important than physical execution, the quality of art increasingly rises or falls on the ability of some observer to find words about it. Unfortunately, eloquent people can come up with words to justify almost any position. The oleaginous Jeff Koons, lacking talent, has built an entire empire on his gift of gab.
In a more serious era, when art was less superfluous, the great Pericles gave a funeral oration to honor the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War.  He urged against valuing the greatness of heroes based on the rhetorical ability of some speaker who comments on them:
The reputation of men [should] not be imperiled on the eloquence or want of eloquence of [a speaker], and their virtues believed or not as he spoke well or ill.
If conceptual art is to be taken seriously, people who believe in the potential of conceptual art (and I am sometimes among them) have a special duty to resist flabby rhetorical excess.
I believe it's crucial to growth in arts, and even to the progress of humanity, that we struggle to keep an open mind.  Our ideas should remain broader than our specialties. But in the words of the Maharani of Jaipur, "Don't keep your mind so open that your brains fall out."


Smurfswacker said...

Tom Wolfe made the same point back in 1975 in The Painted Word. A snarky book that offended critics no end, but (in my opinion) made valid points. One was that the role of the critic in defining an artwork had become equal to, if not greater than, the role of the artist. Wikipedia sums it up:

Wolfe read in Hilton Kramer's 1974 Times review of Seven Realists, that "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial". Wolfe summarized the review saying that it meant "without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting."

Anonymous said...

“Betty” is an untalented artist version of Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth.

chris bennett said...

I agree with everything you say in this post David, except for your conclusion:

If conceptual art is to thrive long term, people who admire conceptual art (and I am among them) have a special duty to resist flabby rhetorical excess.

The reason being that Concept Art needs the web of silk spun from its apologist's backsides to cloak what it really is; that being the curation of propositions. Propositional knowing is the weakest form of understanding (arguably not understanding at all in the fullest sense), whereas participatory knowing, knowing by way of participation with what is being encountered, is the deepest form of understanding. That's why our species brought about poetry, to use language not in its utilitarian mode, for proposition, statement, explication, but for implication - to dance with the mystery that hides in plain sight. That's why we are not required to say 'Poetry Art'.

I believe it's crucial to growth in arts, and even to the progress of humanity, that we struggle to keep our ideas broader than our specialties.

If, by 'growth in the arts', you mean a broadening of language then yes, that would be nice, but not 'crucial', since a sense of the sacred is one of quality not quantity.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'the progress of humanity' in this context.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I'm not sure why you think conceptual art is "propositional," where other kinds of art is "participatory." Lots of conceptual art is oblique and mysterious, or draws in the viewer to participate in a process for which there is more than one outcome. Sometimes more so than traditional art which might as well be expository prose ("The white lily represents this, the cracked vase represents that, blah blah blah...") For me, the hero of conceptual art is Saul Steinberg who sometimes laid out intellectual puzzles to follow (really smart ones, by the way) but who, at his best, created profound "fine art" images of the "mystery that hides in plain sight" and in not-so-plain sight.

When I talk about "the progress of humanity," I mean that many of the great leaps forward in civilization and science come not from burrowing down deeper in our area of specialization, refining and polishing old traditions but in new combinations and juxtapositions of very different cultures and schools of thought outside our comfort zone. If the medieval church had been able to perpetuate its straightjacket on European society, we'd still be painting those flinty little altarpieces of the blessed virgin mother today. Instead, the plague came and caused the masses to second guess the structure of reality preached by the church (it helped that the plague wiped out most of the clergy, who were in high-exposure positions) while enhanced trade brought in foreign ideas, along with spices and fine fabrics-- all created a warming breeze to thaw out a frozen culture and create the Renaissance. It's amazing how many of the "great leaps forward" come from a cross-fertilization of ideas, causing people to look outside their specialties. But you have to be receptive ("to keep our ideas broader than our specialties").

Anonymous-- It's interesting, Richter's special trademark was to smear or blur the images from old photographs, while Wyeth had the opposite style: eyerything was very focused and sharp edged. Yet, in my view Wyeth's pictures contained far more mystery and ambiguity.

Smurfswacker-- Interesting. I know that Wolfe believed illustration would ultimately be viewed as the best art produced in America during the mid-20th century. Certainly the situation with fine art has worsened since 1975 (I like Wolfe's description-- that guy sure could write) but an equally valid question is: what has happened to the quality of illustration during that same period?

Chris Jouan said...

In art school in the 90s everyone learned pretty fast to play up descriptions. The students who were able to most eloquently BS a description of their painting usually got the better grades. Especially when the execution was rushed. Sad but true.

chris bennett said...

I'm not sure why you think conceptual art is "propositional," where other kinds of art is "participatory." Lots of conceptual art is oblique and mysterious, or draws in the viewer to participate in a process for which there is more than one outcome.

Well, let's first look at your claim that lots of conceptual art draws on the viewer to participate in a process for which there is more than one outcome. Such a work would be something like 'For The Love of God' by Damien Hirst - the skull with diamonds encrusted all over its surface. If I found it lying in a field I'd run off home with it, take out a kitchen knife and start prizing off my good fortune. However, for the sake of this argument I will come across it inside an art gallery and so, as you point out, am compelled by this context to begin the process you describe: "Oh, I see, 'diamonds are forever' or 'aren't forever'!... or, maybe, 'You can't take it with you'... Yes, that's it!... Hang on, I know! 'Beauty is only skin deep'... 'cosmetics can't hide the truth'... 'Folly of da Pharaohs'..."

These are all propositions prompted by what is before me, and, because propositions can only address the intellect, I remain unmoved except for pleasure at how smart and 'sensitive' and in tune with the famous artist I must be. Granted, it's made me 'think about these things' but only in a dissociated speculative manner. I look in vein at the work for any insight it embodies about value or non value... mortality and materiality... the nature of physical beauty... lies and truth... belief...

'Concept Art', by way of its context, is just a means of prompting the intellect and is only deemed "oblique and mysterious" in the degree to which it confounds it. This is not, in my view, the same thing as insights about the mysteriousness of existence engendered through sensual participation with an authored poetic choreography, specific in its implication. That said, I would be interested if you could give me an example of a concept piece that was of this nature.

kev ferrara said...

Cultural education is in complete collapse. Word-based intellectuals and all their theories need to be shunned and driven out from the visual arts entirely. They've sired nothing but ugly trash, divisive politics, and tax-haven bullshit with all their self-regarding chatter and status seeking.

Al McLuckie said...

What an ugly lazy painting .

Wes said...

Al McLuckie said:

"What an ugly lazy painting."

I agree, 'nuff said.


Sean Farrell said...

Cross cultural influences have brought great leaps in progress, but they also sweep away counter intuitive understandings, things that are not visible or self evident such as a life free from endless accusations as we’re witnessing today. On every subject accusations fly as nothing or no one it seems could ever be satisfied. It’s enough to make one want to stop thinking altogether, or at least to stop the pleasures of the assaulting tone.

The argument against words is challenged by the experience that movies based on books are often very good, but to have read the book with one’s interior and sensually imaginative interpretation of reality usually surpasses how a movie portrays the same story. There’s an editing process in the imagination that’s hard to put one’s finger on. It’s a linear and spatial adventure intertwined at the same time in the same mind.

The spatial reality for an artist is as important as the story because they’re intertwined. What makes the Fluharty drawing in the previous post so interesting is the way space is addressed with his facility born from the fast drawing he developed doing storyboards mixed with the chiaroscuro he mastered as a painter and how they combined with the humorous exaggerations. A combination of the three things contributed to the success of the drawing to hold one’s interest. The attack of the marker and chiaroscuro tensions were interesting in their own right, but the humor embedded in the shapes, expression and subject added an additional type of dimension.

Taking a drawing of a less humorous subject like an eagle for example, similar drawing dynamics can be used to capture the intensity of an eagle’s pose, flight, etc. Taking it a bit further, the removal of certain details to emphasize the nature of a thing’s shape can still be dynamic, interesting and sometimes difficult to capture as some expressions are not native to one’s habits of drawing. Still more, the same dynamics can be used without a particular subject. To argue against such would be to argue against architecture for example. I think objectively an artist understands there’s a reality to visual dynamics and some people are going to like art based on dynamics alone and others aren’t. To claim dynamics used in bringing a representational piece of work to life can’t be valid in their own right, undermines the longstanding argument here that it’s the orchestration of dynamics that holds the emotional content of the art and not our linear text-like recognitions or preconceived ideas.

I agree with your statement that what’s offensive is the art critic as story teller getting carried away in their own tale replacing the art. In response, other art critics began describing art by its dimensions and materials which made for impossible reading. The whole thing became a cottage industry of insanity.

Anonymous said...

Mr, Apatoff Since there is no way to post comment# to your site unless we are responding to one of your posts. I post a current news update on a topic dear to your heart.

The Supreme Court has sided with a photographer who claimed the late Andy Warhol had violated her copyright on a photograph of the singer Prince.

Anonymous said...

Your dislike of Koons seems better suited for the essay than this painting by Hale Woodward, who from what is gathered, didn't actually say himself that the man was intensely looking - the curator and card writer did that! There is actually some good evidence that he is intensely looking. He's an old man with a grey beard and hunched over in a field. His head and arm are pointed at the same piece of cotton. Just being an old man in a field gives him some credit for being intense for what kind of old man would want to do that otherwise. More importantly though, is the question of who the hell is Hale Woodward. I've never heard of him and I've quite a few art history books and painting monographs and so on. It seems to be here for a not so subtle comparison to Millet and even Van Gogh with the thick brushwork and for the fact that he is mostly an unknown artist. Artists get to initially say what their work is about, but then everybody else gets to put in their 2 cents. If we're fortunate enough to have some text from the artist, then maybe we can see if they accomplished what they intended. Sometimes they may have not, but accomplished something even better. That would depend, in this case, in starting to know who is Hale Woodward?

Paul Sullivan said...

Anonymous—It is interesting that the Andy Warhol case ever made it to the Supreme Court. It was a slam dunk. Under U.S. copyright law it was a derivative of copyrighted material.

It was common practice for most illustrators—including myself—to maintain a picture file of published images to be used as quick reference. Al Parker kept an extensive file of published material for reference. Today’s copyright law has changed and is much more specific—more protective of the originator.

Paul Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell and Anonymous-- It's true that the artist here, Hale Woodward, never claimed he was painting an "intense gaze." That was the ridiculous extrapolation from the Yale Museum curatorial staff, just as Sebastian Smee's nonsensical extrapolations from Richter's painting are not to be blamed on Richter. I would be interested in hearing what Woodward and Richter think about these interpretations of their work. But having said that, I think Woodward and Richter remain guilty of making lame pictures that don't compare well to great art of the past, but which may be an accurate reflection of the state of contemporary painting.