Thursday, February 29, 2024


I like Tomi Ungerer's drawing about the nature of men and women:

The lines may appear light and slapdash, but the ideas have genuine weight.  It's an excellent example of conceptual or “idea” art, which transformed the field of illustration in the latter part of the 20th century.  This type of art abandoned the traditional, literal approach to picture making in favor of visualizing ideas using metaphors, symbols, visual puns and word play.  

Perhaps the greatest conceptual illustrator of all, Saul Steinberg, said: "drawing is a way of reasoning on paper."  

Steinberg explains, "The vulnerable part of the man in danger is the cry for help, which is the part 
by which the crocodile holds him and which has the function of an appetizer.  
What do I want to say? That he who cries in terror becomes the victim of his statement."

Here, Melinda Beck creates a devastating image with the simple line of a twisted coat hanger:

Conceptual illustration began to gain momentum in the 1960s, led by artists such as Steinberg and the gang from Push Pin Studios.

 illustration of "Impotence" by Push Pin's Seymour Chwast

Some argue that conceptual art was a life raft for artists in a diminished market for illustration beleaguered by photography, digital art and video.  There was no longer a demand for beautifully crafted oil paintings by master painters.  Another explanation is that today's dumbed down audience simply lacks the taste or patience to appreciate the kind of art that made the golden age of illustration great. 

But even if conceptual art was pushed by those negative forces, it was also pulled by the brilliance of artists such as Steinberg and Milton Glaser.  Fans such as Steven Heller argue that "idea illustrations made the art more relevant and thought-provoking."

I like a great deal of conceptual illustration but I have two problems with conceptual illustration as it reigns today.

The first is that the great conceptual artists tended to simplify images in order to highlight an idea-- complex, substantial, playful, clever-- without undue distractions of style, skill and technique.  This was an intentional prioritization of elements.  But today mediocre concepts are used on a mass scale as a justification for low skill in drawing and painting.  For example, the talentless flimflam man and self-professed conceptual artist Richard Prince “redefines the concepts of authorship, ownership and aura.”  Not everyone can be an intellectual like Steinberg, but hollow and pedestrian ideas fall short of the original justification of idea art.

My second (and greater) gripe with much of today's conceptual illustration is that as the idea became increasingly important, the visual form began to wither unnecessarily.  We’ve lost a lot by devaluing traditional elements such as design, color or a sensitive line.  My bias is that artists who elect to work in a visual medium should respect the challenges of form-creating work.  Otherwise, why not work with ideas as a writer?

Rather than show a selection of illustrations that embody my two gripes, I thought it would be nicer to end on an upbeat note with a sampling of conceptual artists today who still know how to deal with both form and content.

John Cuneo-- one of the smartest and funniest illustrators today-- established himself as a talented draftsman before evolving into in a looser and more expressive style.

A nicely designed Istvan Banyai

You have to look twice to get Antje Herzog's drawing

Friday, February 23, 2024


"To live is to war with trolls." -- Ibsen

The United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space strictly forbids "harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies." It explicitly prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space.

Despite this prohibition, sculptures by marketing con artist Jeff Koons landed on the moon yesterday in the NASA-funded moon lander Odysseus.  Koons now crows that he created "the first authorized artwork on the moon." 

As if this act of extraterrestrial vandalism wasn't enough, each of the sculptures on the moon has two counterparts on earth: a larger statue and a digital NFT (nonfungible token), thereby dispelling any ambiguity about the mercenary core of this art.

Just as the planets may align on rare occasions, this project represents a rare alignment of corporate greed, bad politics, self-aggrandizement and execrable taste. 

Carolyn Russo, the credulous Museum Specialist at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, gushed: “Why wouldn’t artists look to the moon as a new place to offer a new cultural understanding of who we are as a civilization?”

Let us hope that space aliens never stumble across Koons' "understanding of who we are as a civilization," or they may feel compelled to retaliate for our littering their front lawn.

Monday, February 19, 2024


When I first saw the ceilings of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I was gobsmacked by their ornamentation -- nearly a hundred galleries dense with weird figures, mysterious symbols, grotesque creatures, bizarre landscapes and mythological tableaus, stretching as far as the eye could see.  (Virtual tour courtesy of Google Maps available here ).   

The ceilings on the Uffizi corridors were painted by teams of artists starting in 1579 and took hundreds of years to complete. But the ornate style originated in the ancient palace of the Roman emperor Nero, the inspiration of fresco painter Famulus.  With the passage of time, Nero's palace was buried under rubble and forgotten but it was accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 15th century when a boy fell through a hole in the ground and landed in a strange grotto surrounded by eerie painted figures. 

The rediscovered paintings became a sensation.  The greatest Renaissance artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo, were lowered down shafts to study them.   Around this time, the Medici family began constructing the Uffizi and decided to decorate the ceilings of the corridors in this latest fashion.  

During my first visit to the Uffizi it was impossible to linger over details or even take take a decent photo because other visitors, similarly gawking at the ceilings, kept bumping into me. But now I'm pleased to report that the nearly 100 ceiling galleries have been carefully photographed and catalogued in a book, Le Grottesche degli Uffizi by Valentina Conticelli.

The book enables us to see the details of these frescoes for the first time, and they confirm what we always knew: that you can't put that many artists together for that long without generating all kinds of mischief.

In the next detail, some long ago scamp subtly beheaded the figure on the left:

We also get a better look at the thousands of tiny, imaginative creations invented by hundreds of artists lying on their backs.

More than one artist turned their portion of the ceiling into an open air trellis.

Just as the frescoes on the ceiling of Nero's palace were buried out of sight for centuries, the frescoes on the ceiling of the Uffizi were hidden in plain sight for centuries, obscured by their height and by their overwhelming volume.  Valentina Conticelli's book corrects that, and puts these images at your disposal.