Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bill Mauldin

Bill Mauldin, 1945, sweet-
faced kid with a pencil, a pad,
and a Pulitizer Prize
Someone once said, "In the end, you are known by the quality of the friends and the enemies you make in life." Snoopy (of Peanuts fame) used to meet with him every November 11th, in a small French bistro where they'd throw back a few root beers and talk about old times. General George Patton once wrung him out good for depicting in his cartoons such a ratty pair of dogfaced privates as Willie and Joe instead of a couple clean-cut, patriotic, all-American types. Give me Snoopy over General George any day. His name was Bill Mauldin, and you know you're talking about a legend when yet another cartooning legend, the late Charles Schulz idolized your work.

Front-line funny lines
William Henry Mauldin was born in Mountain Park, New Mexico, in 1921, which would have made him something like nineteen years old when he joined the 45th Infantry Division in 1940.  Armed with little more than paper, pencil, and a $500 art course he took from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before the war, his offbeat cartoons soon began appearing in the division's newspaper and from there quickly came to the attention of The Stars and Stripes, which managed to get him out of the trenches, but not necessarily out of the line of fire.  The "grunts" loved Willie and Joe, his two battle weary private slobs, while the "brass" hated them. Fortunately, the brass had a war to fight and they needed Mauldin to help those fighting it let off steam so he pretty much got away with any insubordination he turned his pen to. He, Willie, and Joe saw "duty" all over Europe from Salerno to the South of France.  And when it was over, Sergeant Mauldin went home something of a war hero; a status confirmed when, in 1945, he became the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize (Up Front with Mauldin).  He was 24. 

In 1951 Mauldin went to Hollywood to fight the Civil War
with Audie Murphy (left) in Red Badge of Courage.
After the war, Mauldin briefly tried civilianizing Willie and Joe in a syndicated comic strip, but the sardonic realism of their postwar trials and travails was out of sync with the "feel good" attitude of the American public during the late 1940s. The strip folded. And when he turned his hand to political cartoons, his strident views on racism, McCarthyism, and Republican "feel-good-ism" made his work unpalatable with the majority of small town newspapers of the time. Disillusioned, he gave up cartooning in 1949 to try his hand in the movies. Mauldin made two, the most notable, opposite fellow war hero, Audie Murphy, in Red Badge of Courage. After that he wrote more books, and even saw Willie and Joe through a couple of their own movies. The Korean war found him back on the front but this time as a civilian with sufficient following to be given free rein to draw what he liked any way he liked.

Mauldin's most famous political cartoon came
following the death of President Kennedy,
November, 1963.
In 1959, Mauldin came out of retirement to join the Chicago Sun-Times where his political cartoons won him a second Pulitzer that same year. Thirty-two years later, with the two Pulitzers, a list of 16 books, legions of friends, at least a company or two of enemies, and enough awards to fill the walls of a half-dozen dens, Bill Mauldin again retired to his native New Mexico, still spinning yarns with old-time war buddies even as their number grew thinner with each passing year. He joined their ranks in 2003 at the age of 81. But like his friend Snoopy, Bill Mauldin lives on from the walls of the cartoon hall of fame.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Barnett Newman

Moment, 1946, Barnett Newman
As I write about various artists, I find myself building something like tribute memorials in their names, part biography, part philosophy, part trivia, part technical treatises, and in some part, little pleas for understanding. In a tribute to Barnett Newman, I guess I should most appropriately leave the paper (or screen) blank with perhaps one or two long, vertical stripes ("zips" he called them) from top to bottom. If I were discussing his work from 1958 to 1962, the screen would be white with black, or black with white "zips." After that time, you'd have to tone down your monitor setting to avoid being burned by the brightness of his colors. Of course Newman used words too, though usually not in written form. He was very vocal, very articulate in discussing his work, sometimes to the point it's hard to differentiate between what he says he was doing in his painting and what he actually did.

Horizon Light, 1949, Barnett Newman
Newman was born in 1905, the son of Russian immigrants in New York, where his father owned a men's garment factory. Though Newman studied at the Art Student's League and the City College of New York, and worked at a substitute art teacher, much of his life he was involved directly in the family business. He was an accomplished ornithologist, anthropologist, theologist, philosopher, and poet. He also dabbled in politics. As a painter, his early work was Expressionist in style, often dealing with plant and seed growth, featuring images of fertilization. It must have taken some courage when, in 1940, he not only stopped painting but destroyed all his work. After the war, he once more took up the brush as well as the pen in writing about art as well as creating it. But he was just one of hundreds of struggling Abstract Expressionists populating the New York School, hoping to attract some kind of attention.

Only in a gallery setting, juxtaposed against human proportions, can the immense scale of
Newman's paintings be appreciated.
Barnett Newman became a transitional artist. He swerved away from the expressionistic "action painting" so popular in the immediate postwar era in favor of color fields. His 1946 Moment (top, left) he considered one of his first successful paintings. Perhaps one might call it the "birth of the zip."  His 1949 Horizon Light (above, right) was the star attraction of his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. Not only did the public not like or understand his work, but even his fellow abstractionists complained he had somehow betrayed them in distilling their movement into such minimal terms. He was about ten years ahead of his time. With the growing acceptance of Frankenthaler and the other color field painters in the sixties, Newman could justly claim to have "been there, done that," in effect to have invented the genre. Given that Newman's ego was every bit as enormous as his paintings, that might tend to be something of an overstatement, but nonetheless, his work very effectively serves as a bridge between the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and the Minimal Art of the 1970s.
Barnett Newman

Newman died in 1970, the fledgling Minimalist movement of the time a fitting tribute to his memory.  His epitaph, written by a New York critic read:  "Barnett with emptiness as if it were a substance."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bauhaus Diners

The Nighthawks, 1941, Edward hopper
Yesterday, an online artist friend and I were having virtual coffee when the conversation strayed from painting to the not totally unrelated topic of diner decor. He described his local burger place  as: "White laminated plastic surfaces everywhere, lit by a dreadful combination of cold white fluorescent tubes and unbelievably long neon strips in predominately pale blue with pink accents. The neon makes the place as inviting as an abattoir, (French for slaughterhouse) and as comfortable as a fishmonger's marble slab. The place makes the diner in Hopper's Nighthawks look kinda homey." He concluded by adding contemptuously, "Modern interior design, queen of the arts--Hah!  Bring back the Bauhaus." I didn't want to burst his bubble by mentioning it at the time, but much of what he describe from his burger palace was pure Bauhaus. (The Bauhaus, by the way, was a highly influential German school of architecture, painting, interior, and industrial design operating from 1919 to 1933.)

Bauhaus rectilinear lines and simplicity, replete
with neon signage, are evidenced in this 1950s
era diner in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey
In the early 1950s, diners (not known as fast food back then) adopted and adapted many Bauhaus design principles to denote a "squeaky clean" efficient look. This was totally at odds with the "greasy spoon" look (and taste) which many lunch spots had at the time, having grown out of the neighborhood bar and grill (not unlike the impressionist hangout, Paris's Cafe Guerbois). For example, in the U.S., we have an institution which men tend to love and women often hate called the White Castle (below). The place is designed to look a little like a white porcelain steel castle, with a small tower, crenelated cornice and all. Inside, the ambiance is a cross between a bus station and an operating room. The burgers are tiny, salty, little squares, paper thin, with minced onion on top, served on cute little square buns (ketchup and mustard to taste). They are about three bites each and known to give you gas big time. And, in spite of what I've just described, they are shamefully delicious. People often consume a dozen at a time. I think Burger King use to have something similar called Burger Buddies.

Before there was a MacDonalds, before there
was Burger King, almost before there was
a Bauhaus, there was White Castle. The
5-cent burgers and the architecture date
from the early 1920s.
Though White Castle "architecture" is something of a departure from Bauhaus design, the rationale has something in common: The world is a dark, dirty place, come inside to our pristine, brightness for a quick, healthy (yeah, sure) lunch; and while you're at it, take home a bagful for dinner. The wife and kiddies will love you for it (cold, greasy little hamburgers?...the kids maybe, but the wife?).  Believe it or not, in some neighborhoods, these establishments are treated as something akin to an ethnic culinary shrine. And in many neighborhoods, they are a sanctuary of cleanliness and even safety in the midst of poverty, crime, and despair. In Columbus, Ohio, there was an old White Castle in danger of being torn down. The local populace revolted, had a big protest rally, and started petitions. In the end, restaurant was moved a few hundred yards, restored, and even placed on the register of historic structures, which means this dubious architectural masterpiece will be preserved for something like an eternity or longer.
Photo by Daniel Schwen
The interior of this modern day
 Brooklyn, New York, diner is not
without Bauhaus influences.
However, this New Zealand Burger
King may be pushing the Bauhaus
 50s thing a bit too far.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Anthony Van Dyck

In today's world it would be hard to conceive. It would be the equivalent of closing up the National Gallery of Art in Washington, loading up a couple dozen semi-trucks with its contents, and carting them all off to Sotheby's in New York for the grand art auction to end all grand art auctions. Yet in the year 1650, in London, something like that actually happened. The art collection of England's King Charles I was sold at auction. A few pieces were held back of course, some portraits of the monarch, his Stuart ancestors, his father, James I, and a few other historic pieces, but 90% of it went on the block.

Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, after 1633,
Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Of course to understand this radical turn of events in the art world, it might be helpful to recall that the king's head itself had, just the year before, also gone on the this case the chopping block. In the culmination of a decades old rivalry between the monarchy and his enemies in parliament, the king lost. Regicide was a fact of life in Europe at the time, one of the chances one took in becoming king. The dissolution of his magnificent art collection was, in a sense, a symbolic act representing the dissolution of the monarchy itself. There were economic reasons too, of course. There were war debts to pay off, and if you can imagine it, the British government was broke. Some British generals, noblemen, and other court hangers on grabbed a few pieces for their magnificent country manors, but by and large the pieces mostly left the country. Art collecting had become all the rage in Europe at the time, and the various ruling families were known by the company they kept in terms of art and artists.  And the greatest, most collectible artist of this time in all of Europe was Anthony Van Dyck.

The Villers Brothers, 1635,
Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Sir Anthony (Charles I had knighted the Flemish painter in 1633) spent eight years in London, working full time for the monarchy.  Born in 1599, in Antwerp, Van Dyck was a child prodigy student of Peter Paul Rubens. By the time he was eighteen he had his own studio, turning out portraits, religious, and mythologic pieces with an effortless skill even Rubens found remarkable. He spent seven years studying in Rome where his dignified, insightful, yet warmly informal portraits of aristocracy won him an international following.

Triple Portrait of Charles I, 1635, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
Lured to London by the promise of a knighthood, his own palatial studio, and a stipend generous even by today's standard's, Van Dyck proved not only to be a prodigy but also prodigious. In the eight years spent in London, he produced over 700 portraits, an almost unbelievable one per week. And they're all the more remarkable for their high quality. His portraits of the king are solemn, yet regal only in his depiction of the king's bearing, unlike the flamboyant caricatures of royalty Rigaud employed in painting Louis XIV. Van Dyck's Triple Portrait of Charles I from 1635 is typical, yet amazing in its depiction of the monarch in profile, full faced, and three-quarter view, all on the same canvas. Charles I was a man highly conscious of his own image, his own behavior, and a king given to ruling by example. Van Dyck was, in a sense, his PR man, and a very good one at that. Van Dyck died in 1641.  One has to wonder whether, if his image maker had survived, the king might have also.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Anni Albers

The German Bauhaus of the
1930s was probably the most
influential force in 20th
century art.
Perhaps it's my fault in being a man, but I get the feeling sometimes even women don't totally realize how far female artists have come in the past century. At a time when they may even outnumber their male counterparts, I think we all have a tendency to overlook just how far they've come in leveling the creative playing field even during our lifetimes. Anni Albers is an interesting example. She was born Annelise Fleischmann in Berlin something over 100 years ago, which makes her a convenient barometer for measuring women's role in the arts. At the age of twenty-two, she found her way to the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, one of the few art schools or any stature where women were even admitted at the time. The Bauhaus was notable for having an extremely liberal overview of the fine arts and crafts, and their interrelationship to industrial design and production. It was also probably the closest thing around to our current concept of women as being the equal of men in the arts. Anni completed the grueling foundations course, but despite the institution's egalitarian leanings, was barred from architecture, wall painting, and furniture workshops because the course of study was considered too demanding for their fragile physiques. Instead, she found herself seated behind a loom.

Anni and Joseph Albers
Anni Fleischmann became a Bauhausfrau. She married the painter Josef Albers who was thirteen years her senior. They were an odd match. She was the daughter of a Jewish furniture manufacturer, he the Catholic son of a skilled laborer from the coal-mining Ruhr Valley. They both remained with the Bauhaus, her work with the weavers workshop laying the groundwork for much of what we consider modern textile design fundamentals of this century. Bauhaus concepts tended toward simple rectilinear design, which made them a perfect match for the rectilinear qualities imposed by looms upon woven textiles. She brought the "less is more" Bauhaus mantra to her weaving, while employing subtle elements such as knots, twists, or irregularities, and materials such as raffia, fiberglass, jute, horse hair, harnessmaker's thread, metal thread, foil, Lurex, and plastics in her work. Today, weavers take all these things for granted.

Though she may not have written "the"
book on weaving, Anni Albers certainly
wrote "a" very influential treatise on the
In 1933, as Hitler closed the Bauhaus, Anni and her husband were invited by American architect, Phillip Johnson, to emigrate to the United States where they spent sixteen years teaching at the fabled Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. Later they moved to Connecticut where Josef Albers taught at Yale until his death in 1976. Anni Albers had her first one-woman show in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art, the first textile artist ever to be so honored. She continued to design and weave fabrics of all kind until her death in 1994 at the age of 94. Her life was a living, breathing testament to the changing place of women in the arts all around the world. Today, many of her designs are still commercially available. 
Silk Wall Hanging, 1926,
Anni Albers
Second Movement II, 1978, Anni Albers

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alexei Jawlensky

Alexei Jawlensky Self-Portrait
Sometimes I am amazed at the abysmal lack of depth when it comes to recognizing American artists from the past. Asked to name some American artists, most people don't get far past Rockwell, Wyeth, Gilbert Stuart, Grandma Moses, maybe Jackson Pollock, oh, and Thomas Kinkade. Now there's a mixture. Not much depth but breadth as wide as the whole continent. Actually, I think maybe we Americans are more familiar with artists of world renown than those from our own shores. From that list we might rattle off Picasso, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gogh, Monet--the list is longer but still not much depth. Okay, how about Russian artists? Blank stares. Marc Chagall? Okay, if you say so...

Schokko with Red Hat, 1909,
Alexei Jawlensky

Well, if you'd like a similar list of breadth rather than depth, you might add to Chagall, Kandinsky, Gorky, Malevich, and Jawlensky (above). This is about the one you never heard of, the last one, Alexei Jawlensky (pronounced yaw-LEN-skee, not nearly as hard to say as it looks). He was from roughly the same time period as the others. He was born in 1864, died in 1941, and it's a fair bet they all knew one another. Jawlensky was the son of a Russian army officer. He first exhibited an interest in art in 1880 when he visited an international art exhibition in Moscow and saw for the first time the work of the French Impressionists. He was sixteen.  Kandinsky and others recall seeing the same show and the profound effect it had upon them. This breath of French fresh air (and color) really shook up Russian art. 

Abstract Head, 1928, Alexei Jawlensky
At the age of twenty-five, Jawlensky began studying at the St. Petersburg Academy under the realist painter, Ilja Rjepin (now there's a name you can forget about pronouncing). One of Rjepin's students was the wealthy Marianne von Werefkin (below, left) whom Jawlensky fell in love with. Rather than Realism though, his painting style veered toward French Symbolism and German Romanticism. In 1896 Jawlensky and Werefkin, along with her housemaid, Helene Nesnakomoff, moved to a suburb of Munich where Jawlensky flirted with German Expressionism, French Fauvism, and behind Werefkin's back, her housemaid, Helene. And while Werefkin gave up her own considerable painting career to promote Jawlensky's, he repaid her dedication by fathering a son, with Helene. And though this Menage-a-trois must have been a strain after the birth of Andreas, the four of them continued living together for another nineteen years before he finally married the boy's mother.

Marianne von Werefkin, Self-portrait, 1910
Portrait of Lisa Kummel,
1929, Alexi Jawlensky
Jawlensky was associated with any number of Expressionist movements of the time, including Der Blaue Reiter, and the Berlin Secession, but he never actually joined any of them, preferring, some might say, to be a movement unto himself. He must have had quite a way with women, for by 1916, even before marrying Helene, another mistress, Emmy Scheyer, also gave up a career in art to support his. In fact, by 1927, he had a whole association of female artists who formed a foundation called "The Association of Friends of the Art of Alexei von Jawlensky" led by Lisa Kummel (above, right) and the painter/art patroness, Hanna Becker von Rath. Despite his obvious popularity with a harem painters of the opposite sex, it didn't keep the Nazi's from banning the display of his increasingly abstract work in 1933, nor from including three of his paintings in the infamous traveling exhibition of "Degenerate Art" which they organized. Eventually seventy-two of his paintings were confiscated and destroyed by the German government before the war.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Alex Katz

Alex Katz
In the latter half of the twentieth century, since the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the tendency in the art world and among the general public has been to divide all artists into two camps--Realists and Abstractionists. Even people who ought to know better fall back on this dichotomy of oversimplification. And the art world especially hates those artists who straddle the fence, sometimes painting realistically, sometimes painting abstractly, as if they were somehow schizophrenic in doing so. Some artists even manage to "straddle the fence" in the same painting. Of course the labeling critics will look at the work and cast it one direction or the other, either Realism or Abstraction, based sometimes, I think, on pure whim. One of the artists whom they love to do this to is Alex Katz.

                                                         Varick, 1988, Alex Katz
Katz was born in 1927, in Brooklyn, later moving to Queens--New York born and bred--still lives there, in fact. His parents were Russian-Polish immigrants, steeped in the arts. He studied at the legendary Cooper Union, practically in his backyard, coming of age in the art world almost precisely at the dawn of the Abstract Expressionist era. By all rights he should have become an abstractionist. He was a contemporary of Pollock, Rothko, Hoffman, Johns, Motherwell, and all the others, but amazingly, any abstract tendencies in his work are strictly formalistic. Perhaps it was because he won a scholarship to study at the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture, taking him away from the boiling pot of the New York School right when it was bubbling at its hottest. Not surprisingly, given the environment, he picked up a love of landscape painting, very nearly the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism at the time. 

Ada and Alex, 1980, Alex Katz
Katz's first one-man show was in 1954 at the Roko Gallery in New York. The headlines might have read: "Hometown boy returns and makes good."  Except it wasn't at all like that. His landscapes and poster-like, flattened portraits were quite out of step with the mainstream. It took the passing of the Abstract era and the 1950s before the advent of figural painting and Pop allowed Katz's work hit its stride. It fell neatly into both categories, even though it displayed a number of quite abstract elements.  In the 70's and 80's, he capitalized on this blending. His Varick (above) from 1988 is a prime example, or his Ada and Alex from 1980 (left, a double portrait of himself and his wife). Both are excellent examples of his mature work. In the portrait, an exquisite, design realism dominates. In Varick the five by twelve-foot black canvas seems the ultimate minimal statement, until one begins to inspect the bank of twelve small rectangles in the upper left corner--lighted windows of what appears to be a second story office or lab. Suddenly, the mind flip-flops, making a futile effort to discern the rest of the structure amid the impossibly inky night.

Piers 6, 1998, Alex Katz
The poster-like quality of many of Katz's paintings has led him into the printing field, creating, in collaboration with master print makers, same-size screen prints of his favorite works, all intended to dominate walls just as his enormous paintings do. Unlike many painters who find themselves at the mercy of publishing houses, Katz takes an active, hands-on role in the printing of his works, usually is editions of less than fifty. He has even found occasions when he likes the print better than the original painting. And recently, just to confound the damnable critics, he sometimes goes so far as to veer off into purely abstractionist images such as his Piers 6 from 1998.  Excuse me for playing favorites, but I love an artists who can (and will) do that.  In my own work, I consider the most successful, those paintings that straddle the proverbial fence--Realism which, in its sometimes highly abstract qualities, appeals to those who can appreciate such things, and in its illusional, subjective content, those who can't.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Aelbert Cuyp

One of many Chicago Cows having escaped
the slaughter house.
Artists in the city of Chicago a few years ago discovered the cow. Actually, rediscovered might be a better term. With the city's history as the meatpacking center of the Midwest, it's a natural affiliation. Their sculptural versions were the talk of the town. Even some of my friends were involved in this project. Although I've never sculpted one, I've painted a few over the years. I, myself, prefer close-up portraits. There seems to be a certain earnest quality (for lack of a better term) in those warm, almost loving faces. I suppose they'll never make household pets, but I'm sure quite a number of 4-H members have fallen in love with their barnyard pet projects in the past. And where would we be without cows. The milkshake and hamburger, not to mention dozens of fast food chains would not exist without them. In the mid-1600s, a Dutch artists seems to have had a love affair with those of the bovine set; and I dare say no one ever painted more of them or painted them better than an artist by the name of  Aelbert Cuyp (pronounced KIPE.)

River Landscape with Cattle, 1645-50, Aelbert Cuyp
Cuyp never started out to paint cows. He did come from a long line of Dutch painters in and around Dordrecht, Holland, though. His grandfather was a glass painter. His father, Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, was a portrait painter, especially talented with children, though his landscapes seemed to have been highly prized as well. He taught his son to paint, often allowing the boy to fill in landscape backgrounds as part of his portraits. In addition, Aelbert's uncle (his father's half-brother), Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp, was quite adept at biblical and genre scenes imitating Rembrandt's use of light and shadow. But Aelbert himself took after several Utrecht painters, including Salomon van Ruisdael, Jan Both, van Goyen, and Saftleven. Jan Both in particular studied in Italy and brought back to Holland the influence of Claude Lorrain. And as much as he might have been the chief public relations force behind the Dutch dairy industry, Cuyp was just as interested in the watery landscapes and clouded, morning or evening light which illuminated them as he was his barnyard friends. He instilled much of the romantic quality of Lorrain's Italian landscapes into their Dutch counterparts, then added cows.
Herdsmen Tending Cattle, 1655-60, Aelbert Cuyp
The cows are always quite dignified, often more so than their human tenders, who often seem to be mere decorations or afterthoughts in his compositions. They are fascinating foregrounds for Cuyp's deep, luminous, airy studies of light, weather, water, and dimly perceived Dutch towns on distant horizons. Some have called Cuyp the rural counterpart to Jan Vermeer. For a man who never traveled more than a hundred miles from his birthplace, there is a very cosmopolitan quality to his painting style that made his work highly prized, not in the Netherlands, but in England where he was an influence upon English painters such as John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.

Portrait of a Girl with Peaches, 1650-60,
Aelbert Cuyp
After the death of his father and brother, Cuyp's work took on a grander scale and began to include portraits as well as landscapes. But in 1659, in a strange twist not unlike what often happened with female artists, he married Cornelia Bosman, a wealthy widow, and from that time on, lacking the financial need to paint, appears to have devoted himself exclusively to the work of the Dutch Reform church. He had a small group of followers who continued his style after his death in 1691, but unfortunately, none of them ever painted any more cows.

Quite apart from cows, when in a "fowl" mood,
Cuyp was not above painting
A Rooster and Chickens, 1651

Monday, January 23, 2012

Adolphe-William Bouguereau

Charity, 1878,
Adolphe-William Bouguereau
All of us who have learned to become fans of the Impressionists delight in reading about their heroic underdog status in French art; and their slow but persistent rise to acceptance during the late-19th century. We take special pride in their eventual triumph over their enemies in the French Academy des Beaux-arts; and point contemptuously at the neoclassical potboilers their work came up against (and usually lost to) at the art cattle-calls known as the Salon. However, I think to appreciate Impressionism we have to also come to some appreciation of Academicism too. To simply say it was 180-degrees opposite is to give it very short shrift. It was, of course, much more than that. We're familiar with the big names, Poussin, Ingres, Cabanel, and a couple more, but one artist of their ilk which we know little about is Adolphe-William Bouguereau. This is not surprising. In the work of Poussin, Ingres, even Cabanel, we can find something to admire, maybe even love. Bouguereau and his work so perfectly fits the mold all the Impressionist (and thus their admirers) came to hate that he's been relegated to obscurity as a sort of malicious, artistic retribution for past wrongs.

Return of Spring, 1886,
 Adolphe-William Bouguereau,
cupids sprinkled like salt.
As I often do, once I "discover" a somewhat obscure artist somewhere, I go to the Web, often only to find, to my dismay, that he or she was even more obscure than I thought. Not so with Bouguereau. I was not prepared for the sheer quantity of his images nor the apparent devotion of his webmaster friends. The man painted something on the order of 700 major works. Frankly, I tackled Bouguereau prepared not to like him. And, indeed, there is a lot not to like. He can be sickeningly sweet, sexist, pretentious, sentimental, and slick. His 1878 painting, Charity (above, left) epitomizes the worst of all these traits. On the other hand, long after I had basically "absorbed" Bouguereau, I found I could not stop looking at his work. He's amazingly fascinating. The man had a deep respect for the nude figure but seldom succumbed to what we might term "gratuitous" nudity, except perhaps in his cupids which often seemed sprinkled like salt over his canvases. His work often displays the sort of sanitized eroticism the Academy was famous for, but like the dominant male audience for whom he painted, I found myself looking at these first. Did I like them all? No, but they led me deeper into his work. And unlike some of his counterparts, the depth was there to plumb.

The Bohemian, 1890,
Adolphe-William Bouguereau,
one of his more admirable pieces.
Bouguereau was born in 1825, spent seven years studying at the Ecole, and graduated winning the Prix de Rome in 1850--three more years studying in Rome. The man new his stuff. Technically, during the last half of the nineteenth century, he may have been the best of his kind in French art. He was certainly the most popular. His portraits, what few there are (left), bear the mark of Ingres but given his time and place, that's to be expected. His classical subjects are heavily weighted with female figures but that too is not surprising. Perhaps weakest, are his religious subjects. The best that could be said of them is that they make for a rich repository of Sunday School images. Unlike Cabanel who actively, even belligerently, battled the upstart Impressionists, Bouguereau seems not to have understood them and was more given to ignoring them. But in the end, he could not. With the ascendancy of Impressionism, especially in the 20th century, his work quickly fell out of favor, prices plummeted, and as a result, in the U.S., just about any museum worthy of the name could afford one. As a result, they're everywhere, they're everywhere! And now, during the past 25 years, they are again appreciated by collectors, not as juxtaposed against Impressionism, but as fascinating art reflecting its era--no better, no worse.

The Flagellation, 1880, Adolphe-William Bouguereau,
a bloodless, Sunday School depiction.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wolf Kahn

Self-Portrait, 1954, Wolf Kahn
Although it's not so critical in art, one of the problems of studying computer sciences is that the education you get has a shelf-life of...ohh...say...fifteen minutes? No, it's not quite that bad, but things change so fast that in as little as fifteen months, unless the individual keeps up on things, he or she becomes a technological Neanderthal. Other practitioners from doctors and to auto mechanics have the same problem except not on quite such an accelerated timeline. For artists, the situation is a somewhat less critical, though not without it's similarities. Tools change; so do materials, techniques, styles, tastes, and marketing practices. Fifteen years ago, computers, for instance, were an anathema to most artists, the very antithesis of what it meant to employ the human touch to the creative act. Today, many artists would sooner give up their brushes than part with their beloved bucket of bugs.

Green Tangle Pastel, 2004,
Wolf Kahn, styles change, so
do artists.
Imagine the plight of an artist during the 1950s, studying in Europe, soaking up the great Abstract Expressionist theories and techniques, immersing himself in color, Italian Futurism, and the centuries of artistic beauty associated with the city of Venice. Now multiply that times two as that artist marries another artist. When they return to New York about 1960, they discover, to their dismay, that their cutting edge Abstract Expressionism is suddenly so dated that critics wouldn't even look at it, much less write about it. It would be enough to make one start to think about painting canned goods or fast food. That was the plight of Wolf Kahn and his wife, Emily as they faced the desperate realization that Pop was popular and their giant, abstracted, color, nature studies were dead in the water.

Mineral Spirits, 1993, Emily Mason Kahn
However, as any truly dedicated artists would, they persisted. Working well outside the mainstream, Wolf's work became more about nature, less abstract perhaps, but nonetheless eternally about color harmonies, and disharmonies. Eventually, some degree of success came along, gradually outstripping that of his brother, Peter, who was also a noted painter, but whose interests were more broadly focused on several other of the arts. Wolf's nature paintings were not landscapes in the traditional sense. They were not so much depictions of nature, but more accurately distillations. Emily's work remained quite abstract and gestural, her colors slipping and sliding across the canvas like oil on water, glistening and glowing ephemerally. Emily's creative efforts also include work that previous generations of female artists seldom experienced--raising a family. She notes that in the past, "...women painters did not have children, or if they did, they were not taken seriously." Emily and Wolf have two daughters. Cecily is a painter (the most avant-garde in the whole family) while Melany is a filmmaker. In that Wolf's mother was also a painter, the girls make up three generations of creative efforts in the arts.

The work of Cecily Kahn can be seen at:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why Sculptors Envy Painters

How sculptors must envy painters! As painters, we pull together our works through many different processes. But the two most critical points are the beginning and the end. It could be a photo, a drawing from life, a scene painted on location, or just simple "inspiration" but we all have our sources. And just as important as the process in getting ready to paint is that leading up to the last stroke, when we are in the process of exhausting our last drops of genius and making the ultimate decision regarding the work--it's finished. In between, from preparing the canvas to drawing, and through the whole painting process, there is room for lots of trial and error, and seldom is there much of a possibility for a single mistaken stroke bringing the whole thing crashing down around our ears. It's little wonder then that an artist such as Michelangelo, the sculptor, would consider mere painting such a trivial pursuit and find the need to work on paintings of such enormous scale in order to challenge his genius.

David (preliminary drawing),
1501, Michelangelo
As a sculptor, Michelangelo began planning his work much as he would if he were painting it. He started with drawings, often several, depicting various parts of the work, evolving it into the completed design. As the idea grew in his mind, so too did the scale of his drawing until it was the actual size of the final sculpture. (Michelangelo planned most of his works from a single viewpoint.) As he made the arduous journey into the Apuan Alps to Carrara to select his stone, he must have envied the ease at which a wooden panel or bare wall could be plastered, ready to paint. He would spend days and weeks choosing the stones for a large commission, looking for faults, discoloration, and other defects. Then the stones had to be carefully cut free and moved down the mountain on skids, managed by huge ropes and lots of human muscle, whereupon each was loaded onto a sturdy wagon to be pulled by a train of up to ten teams of stout oxen, each team with a driver mounted on their yoke to "encourage" the animals to move the great weight. And if the ground was wet, forget it! Fortunately, Michelangelo didn't have to go through all that for his David. He "inherited" the David block from the Florentine city fathers, who commissioned the work. The chunk of marble was a misbegotten leftover from an earlier sculptor's incomplete effort. However, moving the finished piece to its original setting in the Piazza della Signoria, must have been a nerve wracking endeavor for all concerned.

David, 1504., Michelangelo
The  uncarved marble had lain derelict in a weed-choked field near Florence's Duomo for  several years. The trip to Michelangelo's workshop amounted to only a few city blocks. Quite massive and heavy, yet fragile, any mishap could result in it being broken and made largely worthless. Once in place, ready to be carved, Michelangelo transferred a full-size drawing to the front of the stone, then began work, hacking away at it. Unlike many sculptors before and since, studies of his unfinished pieces tend to indicate Michelangelo liked to work primarily from the "front" of his work toward the back. It's believed he may have used a visual aid in working on the sculpture--a wax model, lying on its back, submerged in a container of water scaled to the outside dimensions of the stone. As water was dipped from the container, it exposed the front of the model allowing him to see that part of the stone which should be cut away to "free" the figure trapped within. Michelangelo was one of the fastest "marble cutters" of his time, yet, even with this little "trick," a smartly trained eye, years of experience, and a workaholic lifestyle, it took him three years to carve his David. Now, aren't you glad you're a painter?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wayne Thiebaud

Thiebaud cartooning during his army days, 1944
One of the great things about studying Pop Art is that many of its painters are still alive. Whether you're talking Lichtenstein (no longer living) or Indiana or Claes Oldenburg (yes, he painted too), they have all taken their five years of Pop Art fame, built on it, and moved on. One of the more interesting of these, and perhaps more under-appreciated than most, is Wayne Thiebaud. It's hard to say why, but just maybe it's because, while the others were are New York artists, Thiebaud is west coast born and bred. Actually he was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920, but close enough. And though he flirted with the New York art scene for a time in the 1950s, everything about him and his art almost literally screams California! This former art teacher, former Disney animator, former Universal Studios illustrator, and former Rexall Drug chain artist is more Californian than prunes or palm trees.

Wayne Thiebaud with his favorite food and
favorite art, Marthacakes, 1963, one of the
tempting confections (though inedible)
which made him famous.
Just looking at Thiebaud's 60's Pop creations will make you gain ten pounds. His work is like Edward Hopper gone mad in a deli bakery. Indeed, Thiebaud claims a great deal of affinity with Hopper. His paint, his style, his cold, dismal calculation, yet hot color environment is Thiebaud's most noticeable influence. But there is also the spirit of Chardin inhabiting his luscious cupcakes and bundt confections. There is David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, the rich, expressionistic colors of Rockwell Kent, and even Balthus haunting his work as well. Thiebaud considers himself a cartoonist who learned to paint. Indeed, in his early years, he lived in a YMCA where he drew cartoons six days a week then took off every Wednesday to make the rounds of New York magazines hawking his work.  Even now he considers his work caricature--not in the usual sense of drawing recognizable faces of celebrities, but caricatures of things. And still today, just as with his Pop Art, he's especially fond of food. Yeah, ain't we all.

River Cloud, 2002, Wayne Thiebaud
Thiebaud was raised a Mormon, on a farm that raised food. He milked cows, rode horses, fed the chickens, plowed the fields, planted the corn, potatoes, and beans; and in his "spare time" played with art--little projects his mother made up for him. He was sixteen before he began to seriously study art, but it was his work in restaurants as a teenager that may have had more to do with his art than what he learned in school; especially since he had no formal art instruction after high school. He learned on the job, drawing John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, and presumably Mickey Mouse. Today, mixed among the hot dogs and hors d'oeuvres, are cockeyed views of the city, often seen from above, where thoroughfares tangle like spaghetti, incline like roller coasters, and swirl downward like children's slides. At first glance, they seem nonrepresentational, except perhaps to Californians, use to peering down through TV lenses from helicopters watching traffic or high-speed freeway chases. Still dapper, even preppy, at 91 years of age, Thiebaud enjoys tennis as much as painting, and still the art teacher, he likes talking about art, more than either one.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vincent's Love Life

If someone were to make a list of the most written-about artists who ever lived, the exact order of importance might be in debatable, but without a doubt, at the top would be Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. There have been other, equally great and influential artists living and working along side these titans, so why have these four seemingly gotten the bulk of the ink? The answer is simple. Merely writing about the art of great artists is boring. To generate any real interest, artists have to have been colorful, troubled, and tragic, as well as tremendously talented and influential. All of the above were all of the above.  Leonardo was a mysterious genius, Michelangelo a lonely workaholic, Picasso a flamboyant, creative dynamo, and Vincent...well, we might say he was something of all these rolled into one.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1888,
Vincent van Gogh
Perhaps because of this, Vincent van Gogh may well top the list. I'm not going to add significantly to the overwhelming volume of words depicting this troubled soul. Writing about his work would be redundant and, as I said before, boring (yes, even van Gogh). I could write about his chronic mental illness, but that would quickly become quite clinical and boring too. And, we all know already quite a lot about two of the men in his life, his crucial, touching relationship with his brother, Theo, and his stormy friendship with Paul Gauguin. Very well, what about the women in his life?  Mmm...that sounds juicy and also far less familiar. Moreover, there were five of them.

Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker

Eugenie Loyer,
Vincent's first love
First, of course, was Vincent's mother, Anna Cornelia (above). She appears to have been a very normal, Dutch, Protestant mother whose most notable trait would seem to be her surprising longevity. She outlived both her sons by some seventeen years! She died in 1907 at the age 88.

At the tender age of twenty, Vincent found his first love, a sweet, young English girl named Eugenie Loyer (above, left), the daughter of the woman who ran the boarding house where he stayed. She rejected him for another man. He became very depressed, began his Bible studies, and moved to Paris. Eight years later, in 1881, his fling with religion behind him, Vincent fell in love with Cornelia Adriana Vos-Stricker (above, right, called Kee), who incidentally happened to be his cousin. She rejected him too, this time triggering his first bout with the mental illness that would eventually end his life.

Woman Sewing with Girl,
1883, Vincent van Gogh
A year later, Vincent met Clasina Maria Hoomik (called Sien), a pregnant prostitute with a five-year-old daughter (both depicted by Vincent in the drawing at left). After living with her more than a year, he ended up in a hospital with gonorrhea. As the health of his father deteriorated, Vincent moved back to Holland where he set up a small studio and fell in love with the daughter of his neighbor, Margot Begemann (below). They planned to marry, but both families opposed the union, and in despair, Margot attempted to poison herself. With the death of his father in 1885, a tormented Vincent returned to France, his love life  as tortured as his state of mind.  There he finally found love, if not contentment, in his painting. During the next five years, he was to conceive and bring forth a remarkable 864 vibrant painted masterpieces--the timeless fruit of his one true love.
Margot Begemann, the only
woman to ever love Vincent.