Friday, August 26, 2011

Dedication Does Not a Genius Make: John Taylor Arms At the National Gallery

"The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms"
At the National Gallery
Through November 27th

I started the following review in an email to the painter/etcher Bill Murphy, with whom I share an enthusiasm for printmakers past and present.  Over the years, he and I have compared notes on artists we like and dislike.  In times past, our dialogues were just that: phone conversations that were cheerily without beginning or end.  Nowadays, we reserve our reflections for the screens at which the vast majority of the population stares for a certain portion of each day.  The subject is a John Taylor Arms exhibit at the National Gallery, which I attended on August 14th, 2011.

Dear Bill:

After I finished with the first, and most comfortable, leg of a run yesterday, I popped into the National Gallery where I saw that a John Taylor Arms exhibit was in progress.  An image I had never seen before was enlarged and served as an emblem of what Arms could do.  It's called "Cobwebs" and shows the Brooklyn Bridge rising over the Lower Manhattan of 1920.  What was most striking about it, to me, was the sweep of the thing; it encompassed a wide-angled view of an uphill street, down which you, the viewer, could walk toward the bridge.  On either side was the vernacular architecture city planners have dedicated themselves to obliterating (and done a pretty good job.)  Its spatial integrity was a thing to behold.  I practically ran the length of the West Building to see it.

As it turned out, no image, in my opinion, surpassed Cobwebs - though I liked most of 'em well enough.  Have you seen many of his etchings - I mean, in the raw, in situ, in plain sight?  I hadn't, and it was an eye-opener.  They're a lot more pedestrian than I would have thought: and they were conceived in the most plodding sort of way - though I understand Arms was an architect before he became an etcher and that would account for the severely linear drawings that became "blueprints" for his etchings.  His subjects are extremely conventional.  He breaks away from them only now and then.  Yet even when he doesn't, he's able to pull off occasionally spectacular results.  But I was, for the most part, disappointed. 

The curator had decided to trot out etchings of friends and contemporaries, including Kerr Eby - whom I've always liked - and Samuel Chamberlain, who's work is congenially accomplished.  Gerald Geerling's work was included the final guest etcher, with a piece that was vaguely reminiscent in its somewhat idealized monumentality to the work of Hugh Ferries.  Geerlings was also an architect and lived for a hundred years. 
All in all, I think Arms' American section was best.  He did a corking view of 42nd Street looking from the northern flank of the Public Library toward the West side.  At the time, an elevated train - encased in one of those magnificent sidings - ran along Sixth Avenue.  I could live with that etching.  (He did the same view at night.  Ditto.)

(After sending these reflections off to Bill, I finished my little review, as I have all the others, with a sort of imaginary (or no) audience in mind.)

Of special interest were the visitor catalogues which Arms' friends and colleagues enriched with drawings and doggerel.  Painter Louis Mora sketched Rembrandt sitting at an easel.  Samuel Chamberlain drew an enticing tableau that expressed the virtues of his adopted homeland while stressing that a vacation there was absolutely essential.  (Chamberlain was a lifelong Francophile and bon vivant.  If you ever want to come back and be somebody other than yourself - assuming you are allowed such a choice - you could do worse than Samuel Chamberlain.)  Other, equally compelling sketches by artists whose names I don't remember grace its many pages - which cannot be seen unless you have the book in hand.  Even Helen Keller signed - with the overlarge script that is possibly common to sightless people. 

I don't know about you, O elusive reader of these pages, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the genteel bohemia between the war years.  At the time, illustration work was plentiful, the choicest assignments were in New York, and all sorts of people clustered around the agencies and art editors who would provide it.  From that fertile ground sprang, not only a collective effort such as we see now in the movies, but a camaraderie based on shared objectives and somewhat outre livelihoods.  It would be naive to say that artists, or artist-types, have a monolopy on bonhomie, but these folk seemed to be as genuinely convivial as one, in a sanguine mood, might want them to be.  Of course, a certain measure of prosperity was partly responsible for this generosity of spirit.  After the boom years of the Twenties, a lot of illustrators fell on hard times.  Those who managed, however, were not going to let an economic depression get them down and partied, with a calculated frenzy, throughout it. 

Such guest-books are artifacts of that period - and of that spirit - which I have no doubt sentimentalized. 

John Taylor Arms believed in craftsmanship, which he replicated in his own work.  At times, he narrowed his focus to a single artifact and produced strikingly elegant imagery.  Gargoyles were made to function, on a cathedral's facade, as water-spouts.  Arms felt they needed a portfolio of their own and made one.  Few architectural elements have been so obsessively rendered.  In Arms' hands, they are starkly beautiful.  If someone ever asks me what a gargoyle looks like, I'll try to find one of these pictures; they show the surface appearance of these ghoulish creatures as definitively as binocular vision can.  However, compare Charles Meryon's darkly sinister interpretation of the same subject and you'll see the difference between poetry and replication.

With the cathedrals themselves, Arms outdid himself - though I can't say that I was moved by any of them.  I think Monet's Chartres is vastly overrated - or at least overexposed - but its detail-dissolving, light-filled volumes say as much about old ragged stone as Arms ever did.  A somewhat less celebrated, but  mercurically gifted, English printmaker, Muirhead Bone, gets at the underlying structure of a cathedral (or railway station) and makes us see the whole thing rather than so many parts squeaking around, as Arms does.  If I may be so harsh, visually illiterate people enjoy the clustering of so-called detail, which impresses them - as everything that involves painstakingly, but often gratuitous, industry does.  But art is about isolating certain ingredients and making them hold up a wall, keep a sullen arch from caving in, give a pediment an absolute authority over subordinate things.  Arms just gives you everything and hopes you can sort it all out yourself.  His is not an artist's point of view; it's an inclusivist's.  Or, rather, archivist's.  Arms is the fanatical zookeeper who knows every tadpole in the pond and has a name for each one.

Ultimately Arms will answer for his plodding industry, which doesn't work nearly as well as Stow Wegenroth's, for example.  Or, more obviously, Andrew Wyeth's.  Arms was an architectural ecstatic whose major contribution was to replicate the pious dedication and enduring craftsmanship of the anyonymous folk who raised the cathedrals that are among the world's most spectacular monuments to the simple faith of a community.  That's nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn't go far enough.  One may be endlessly dedicated without producing much of any value.  Basements and attics are full of such stuff.  Arms and some of his colleagues, including Samuel Chamberlain, remind us of a heritage that must always accompany us through whatever social or political upheavals we temporarily endure.  They reflect and embody our capacity for transcendance - which is no small thing.  Arms was genuinely enthralled by what the human race can do when it reaches beyond itself.   And while his imagery shows what man, when synthesizing matter and spirit, can do, he rarely "gets there" himself.  If nothing else, Arms' dedication demonstrates that dedication, while admirable in and of itself, isn't enough.

Go the National Gallery webiste ( for more information.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Re: "To Make a World: George Ault and 1940's America"

"To Make a World: George Ault and 1940's America"
American Museum
Through September 5th

Part One

In some cases, it isn't necessary to see work that is not likely to look better in the third dimension than it does in the second, so I'm going to commit the hersesy of reviewing a show entirely from photographs and standing by it.  I acknowledge the possible wrongheadedness of such an approach.  At worst, it is hubristic, somewhat lazy, and arrogantly self-assured; it best, it's a very neat little shot in the dark that could very well hit home. 

I allude to the Russell's Corner's paintings of George Ault, a little-known lyricist/precisionist/primitive who moved to the town of Woodstock, New York to be with pretty much everybody else on the New York art scene of that day.  Edward Hopper wasn't there, but he had a sweet little setup on Washington Square and, during the summer months, Truro, Massachusetts.  Apparently one of his paintings is included in the show.  Goody.

Ault's paintings may be, as Washington Post critic-in-residence, Philip Kennicott claimed, more interesting than Norman Rockwell's; if not, they're so conceptually different that they might as well represent opposing sides of the moon.  Or Mercury.  Rockwell's work we know - and I'll get to it in a minute.  Ault's doesn't show rosy realities, indulge in can-do propaganda, or preach about anything.  That most certainly separates it from Rockwell, whose pictorial bromides stroked American's heartstrings as they trafficked, first in commercial satisfaction and, during the war years, in bellicose sentiment.  To say they're more interesting is to be boldly preferential.  I'm not sure they're more interesting at all.  But, yes, Ault's paintings are different and they certainly don't attempt to sell anything.

The conceit of the exhibit, curated by Alexander Nemerov, a passionate art-ideologue who's very big on subtext, is to show war-era and post-World War II America as a sinister place, seething with dark urges no country village can possibly address.  Its communities were metaphorically connected by a single strip of roadway and, for every soldier who went off to war and came back, that roadway wasn't just a place to drive; it was a way to get the hell out.  Given the rather bland look of the work itself - in which Kennicott manages to discover formal qualities that are lost on me - this is a tall order.  If you want to find subtext, Hopper, for example, is your man.  Before the advent of computers, writers wore out quill pens, typewriter ribbons, foolscap, and all sorts of other stationary store accountrements trying to get at Hopper's very plausible alienation.  Hopper painted a city that crushed as often as it enlarged; he was a rather
 impenetrable fellow himself; and he lived long enough to see the world torn apart at the seams not once, but two times.  As a young man, he created a poster called "Smash the Hun," which stands comfortably among WWI's efflorescence of motivational imagery.  We encourage you to kill, young soldier - preferably with something that'll do it quick and easy.

I can understand the moony excesses the Hopper oeuvre has inspired over the years - and will continue to inspire for some time.  He was a willing explorer of the side of the street that, while it caught sun-rays galore, was anything but sunny.

With Ault - whose pasted-on volumes do not speak volumes to me - the case is a bit harder to make, though let's put aside our skepticism and examine a series of paintings of a rural crossroads and see if they stack up.

As Kennicott suggests, Russell's Corners isn't a far cry from Grover's Corners - the mythical village of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which woke the dead and showed everybody's affinity to everybody else.  I'll give him that.  Perhaps the imaginary Grover's Corners had a little bend in the road, with a white-washed building on one side and a low-lying barn on the other.  Why not?  There were thousands of such places during, and after, the war years.  And enough nowadays for Americans who happen to be on a two-lane road to have a viable frame of reference.

I don't particularly care for Ault's minimalist approach.  It sacrifices spatial dimension as well as perceptual reality.  Not all lines - even if they describe a cinderblock house - should be as hard as Ault's.  Or Sheeler's, for that matter.  (A Sheeler picture is included in the show.)  As edges move into the distance, they get softer.  Ault's artificial geometrics make it hard for his atmospheres - which are supposed to be his strong suit - to get going.  When I look down his road, I can't go very far.  His night scenes are somewhat more effective, but they're still pasted-on rather than realized.  Hopper worked the entirety of a scene rather than from little play-toys that happened to be in the glare of a street-lamp.  Ault's reality looks staged, as if he assembled his little village in miniature and painted from that.  There's no air, no illusion: just hard lines and constipated forms.  If I ran across one of Ault's paintings in a garage sale, I would buy it.  It is more or less garage sale material.  A miraculously undiscovered Hopper - unsigned, of course - would give me sweaty palms, an urge to upchuck, and a moist twenty-dollar bill.  Hopper doesn't look any more like garage sale material than a Faberge egg.

This is what Kennicott has to say about Ault's formal approach, which is interesting, but, in my view, mislaid.  More talented artists have tackled similar things (see Part Two of this essay) and done better.  You could agree with what Kennicott is saying about them, but not Ault.  Ault's soul is that of a primitive and - at least in the paintings on view at the American Museum - he was committed to that vision.  Forgive me, but no primitive artist is capable of "powerful chiaroscuro contrasts" that lead to "rhetorical power" of any kind.  It is possible that he was influenced by cinematic lighting, but who wasn't?  Movies came of age during the 1930's, when they provided escapist entertainment, narratives about urban myths and, occasionally, David and Goliath struggles with a capitalist giant.  By the time America entered the war, however, movies became a part of the war machine.  No powerful chiaroscuro in them, unless it helped defeat "our enemies".

Like other painters on view in the show, Ault was clearly interested in how the poetry of the 19th-century landscape was fading fast, halfway into the new century, which may explain the compelling mix of wooden architecture and electric light. The formal order and clarity, especially the strikingly lit telephone wires that break the image into angular planes, may be a nod to the formal tendencies of avant-garde art that were otherwise of little interest to Ault. The powerful chiaroscuro contrasts of light and dark that give the paintings their rhetorical power may also be Ault’s exploration of how cinematic lighting techniques were changing our vision of what night looked and felt like.

I'd like to suggest that Nemerov and Kennicott - both extraordinarily intelligent men whose intellectual resources are somewhat wasted on such work - look around for better artists.  We all should. 

Meanwhile, here's a shortlist (I mean it to be one word) of compelling image-makers who were very much active during the 1940's and were able to salt a picture down with "chiaroscuro" to beat the band.  They possibly lacked rhetorical power, but who needs that when you can make an image that rivets you to the spot and keeps you there for a while?  Please note that I am ommitting that era's "heavy hitters", whose shorter list might include Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, Charles Burchfield, Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, and even John Sloan.  I've already mentioned Edward Hopper.  One might, with good reason, wish to include Raphael Soyer, who was predmoninantly a humanist for whom the landscape was secondary.  I've put him in with these others for that reason.  From what I know of the man, he wouldn't have taken umbrage.  

Francis Speight
Aaron Bohrod
Raphael Soyer
*Harry Leith-Ross
Nicolai Cikovsky
Martin Lewis
Emil Kosa
John Noble
Alexander Brook
Louis Lozowick
Ross Dickinson
Francis Coburn
Joseph Hirsch

*included in the show

Part Two

I just went to see the exhibit, not to get a "second look" at Ault's work - though I was able to do that - but to see, for the first time, a distinguished collection of American imagery that is not widely known.

Among these were the aforementioned Harry Leith-Ross' Flag Station, a tone poem that is far better managed than any of Ault's work - though the show's curator may have been exercised by its narrative element, as exemplified by a solitary figure who is waiting for a lover, boyfriend, or doting father.  It doesn't go out of its way to evoke a wartime mood; that mood is embedded in the moment. 

Anton Grot's production drawings for the movie, Mildred Pierce - a canny inclusion - are operatic gems that anticipate, in feeling, the stormy progress of an American success story.  And while they are tied to a narrative structure, they, like so many drawings of their kind, have a fulsome life of their own and can be considered independent works of art.

Paul Sample's Movies, Center Island, is gently satiric, but effectively contains the bottled-up energies of soldiers who might be under fire the next day.  It is nothing other than what it is - no subtext here, Mr. Nemerov - but what it's more than good enough as it is.

Louis Bouche's Summer of '45, Woodstock, New York is a colorful paean to country leisure and is characteristic of his mature, but good-hearted, vision.  It's a pleasure to follow his spirited brushstrokes around and through an outdoor space, in which a cabin's siding, pulled-up chairs, the patterns of shirts and blouses, as well as a benign-seeming natural world, joyfully collide. 

The exhibit's most striking picture - hung to great advantage among lesser things - is Edward Biberman's Tear Gas and Water Hoses.  It shows the still-upright victim of a gas-attack, which has already laid colleagues low.  He is holding his ground amidst the barn-like shape of a production facility, which is half-dissolved by columns of water, plumes of smoke, and such people as have been caught in between them.  It has a sombre presence that is lacking in the more stridently political (but equally effective) pictorial diatribes of William Gropper and Ben Shahn.  It can also rest on its artistic merits, which are considerable.  The figure Biberman has singled out is reminiscent of Homer's seamen, who are aware of what they're getting into, but keep readying the boat.  Under the circsumstances, what else can they do?

Getting back to the mainstage, as it were, I was brought up short by Nemerov's biographical prose.  He insists on Ault's "radiant light" - such as he appears to see in one of Ault's night scenes.  Having finally seen this light, I cannot credit the radiance at all.  It is schematic light seen in passing and not understood, except in a symbolic, stick-man sort of way.  Nemerov's prose gets loopier still.  "In his paintings, night poises on wires and eaves."  Sorry, old boy.  Night does all sorts of things, but it doesn't poise, even in a picture.  "Posing's" the better word, but I still don't believe night can do, or has ever done, that.  Perhaps we should wait for The Apocalypse and check it out then.  Nemerov also claims that Ault's work is always "tipping and dropping to strangeness and sadness."  Why stop there?  Why not add "lilting and lofting?"  Or "beeping and bumping?"  I'll admit that Ault's work can be "strange" and "sad", but must we alliterate it so much?  I haven't seen the video of Nemerov talking about the exhibit.  Perhaps he comes off as a plausible curator there.  But he sho' don't in his prose-writing.  Some entries are even illiterate, as when one attempts to describe Paul Sample's painting.  Its caption says that the "makeshift screen anticipate (my italics) the frolics" of a Broadway musical.  Somebody should have remembered that subject and tense have to agree.  Otherwise you don't sound like a curator anymore.  You sound like one of them grunts who can't think of nothin' but them coconuts.  And I mean the one's that ain't on the trees.

All in all, I would recommend the exhibit - largely because the chorus carries it pretty well and does it convincingly.  Of Ault's sadness and strangeness, there is scarcely enough to go around.  The modest dimensions of his work reflect the scale of his talent.  He was a moderately interesting chap who found the tenets of minimalism to his taste and, while he didn't live very long, he had time enough to establish an artistic personality.  Which he did.  I just don't think it worthy of such interpretive excess.  Or the real estate of a major American museum.    
For more information, go to the American Museum's website at:

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stealing Is Good If the Goods Can't Be Better

Many years ago, I saw a painting I instantly coveted.  It was hanging in the hallway of a tony Memphis high school and anybody who might wish to grab the thing and run off with it probably could have.  Upon a cursory inspection, I established who the artist was and what the painting was probably worth.  In current values, I'd put it at $150,000.00, though, given the auction prices of similar work, I think I'm being a little coy.  But a hundred and fifty grand is still a nice piece of change and, because of the time and place, I could have snatched the painting for myself and, like anybody who'll see an opportunity and take it, found the appropriate channels and disposed of it.  Or tried to, failed, and ended up with a fast-appreciating objet d'art I could neither sell nor show to anybody.  

I don't regret having left the painting to such colorful and conniving people who might conceive of a similar plan and actually go ahead with it.  I "chickened out" because, while I fully endorse artistic brigandage, whereby one painter will "steal" from another, I can't quite square the practice of taking something that isn't mine with a moral-seeming worldview.  And while I hardly subscribe to the Ten Commandments in its entirety, it isn't a bad place to start.  And lest I sound like a Sunday school teacher here, I should add that, after the high-cholesterol thrill of making off with something, there's really nowhere to go with it.  When an honest person steals, there's a "What now?" feeling that compels the honest person to undo his transgression.  Allow me to acknowledge that I sound like a Sunday school teacher still; indeed, I may have imbibed the mealy-mouthed morality that comes of having too little pleasure in life - or way too much time of a Sunday morning.  I grew up with people who wore Biblical pronouncements on their sleeves.  I occasionally wonder whether they rolled these sleeves up - or just put on a different shirt now and then.  From the look and sound of the people who still occupy the mean-looking little houses I grew up in, I can rest assured that few wardrobe changes have occurred.   

Whatever the case, you ought not steal because of the ensuing complications.  And because what you steal isn't really yours.  And: because the thrill is over much too quickly.  People say that about sex - which is also true - but it's even more so when you get your paintings (or whatever) on the run.  (Unless coerced, sex is enjoyed by mutual agreement, in which case it can be thrilling for a short while.  And everybody seems to think that's quite enough.) 

How do I know stealing isn't good for you?  Well, a long, long time ago, I fell into a watermelon patch that was rife with luscious globes that beckoned to me as if I were family.  So I took a few, dragged them off to a secure location, and had my way with them.  Sure enough, when I was done, I had that "What now?" sensation, which led to feelings of self-persecution, moral degradation, and, as the watermelon ceased to bloat my stomach, a rubyfruit-voiding episode I will leave to your imaginations.  I do believe that crime in general pays excellent dividends, but only to people who can keep that watermelon down.

I knew such a person when I was growing up.  Whereas most of us are endowed with screening devices that prompt us to back away from danger, this person embraced it.  Shakespeare described a reckless man as someone who would gladly look into a cannon's mouth.  This guy would not only have looked there, he would have scrambled to be first in line so that, he could have stuffed something explosive into it.  And then got in.  I used to marvel at this guy's special combination of steely nerves and absentee ethics.  Where I would fear to tread, he would go with all cylinders running.  When I screwed up the courage to follow, he was already onto something more dangerous.  Eventually, I had to step aside and watch.  There's no following such people.  They make their own rules.

Nor did this guy ever get caught, even as the daring of his escapades increased.  He just didn't seem to care.  Or, rather, as he accomplished the impossible, the impossible became commonplace to him.  When you tread such waters, there's nothing to do but find increasingly more perilous rapids and shoot 'em for all they're worth.  Then what?  Eventually, you're going to go under.

He didn't.  As the water got faster, he slowed himself down and was able to glide on through.  Or something.  Whatever the case, he did what he did and got away with all of it.

Such people should stand as cautionary tales, waving us away - rather than inviting us - to the edge of the abyss.  They are the exceptions that prove the rule whereby there are certain rules we shouldn't violate because, when we do, we're going to have heap of trouble.  And if the thrill of doing something "bad" is quickly gone, the aftermath has a way of sticking to you. 

As to bigger heists, however, I'm in favor of them.  I think twenty-million dollar paintings should be stolen.  Again and again and again!  For one thing, there shouldn't be twenty-million dollar paintings.  They're just sticks and a canvas, with a little - or big - smear on top.  Amidst the second wave of Impressionist fever, the now-unsung Thomas Craven said anybody who wanted a little box of light on his wall shouldn't have to pay more than twenty-five dollars.  And he was right.  In a slightly more perfect world, paintings would be cheap.  Or bartered.  Or tossed in a community chest, then released. . .to the community.  People should not starve when grainaries are full - or words to that effect.

In any case, I would consider stealing a twenty-million dollar painting, in part because the dynamics of stealing would not apply.  What a potential thief must do in this case is challenge an inflated value by removing its physical embodiment from man (and woman's) sight.  Then the thief, having worked his chops a bit, should move up to a 50-million dollar painting and take it.  After an indecent waiting-period, he - or his agent - should re-sell it for a hundred thousand on the open market.  That would have the effect of re-setting values.  Those fair-minded souls who subscribe to the stick-and-smear philosophy, as I do, would come away with a more ecumenical sense of "How much?"  Then they might abandon trophy-hunting and, as it were, buy local.  There are so many inexpensive paintings that the field is limitless.  Just get something good and wait around.  Or stop waiting and just enjoy it.

The people who stole the Leger were probably hardened criminals whose philosophical orientation to their job might be described as developmental.  They knew they could get a lot of money and went with that.  And why not?  Wouldn't we all go for the money if we thought we could have it?  Furthermore, with a greater mission (re-setting values and whatnot) fueling us, how easily we might overcome such paltry obstacles as guards, security systems, and a moral sense that is tripped by a fear of exposure?  Besides, no Leger has much intrinsic value, so if we happened to damage or lose it, the world as the ordinary person knows it would keep to its petty pace around the sun and make room for more ordinary people who would very likely never give Leger a thought.  When truly great paintings are stolen, we don't think about the money.  We just want them back.  If the Mona Lisa went missing, for example, a few of us would think of the bottom line, but it would re-consider it.  They're unintentionally mirroring the fact that their beachfront properties have lost value. (Their stock portfolios might be withering too.)  In a quandary of "What to do?", these folk might even send checks to the Louvre.  Generally speaking, however, emotional connections amount to a whole lot more than abstract monetary values.  Therefore, we should devote our idle hours to stealing Legers and leaving the good stuff alone.  There will always be a market for Leger's because we can't stop ourselves from creating top-heavy value systems.  That's another good reason to steal Leger's.  When such things go missing, people who are otherwise invulnerable feel like crap.  For my money, that's the best possible reason for the removal of any precious object.  It does my heart good to think that the over-endowed among us might be looking over their shoulders.  It gives me an acute sense of satisfaction to think of them sitting in front of their next-favorite painting and wondering whether they should put it in the vault for a while.  And it tickles me no end to believe that an insuperable confidence has gone by the board and been replaced by the enduring discomfort most of us can't help feeling every day of our lives.

May daring people always slip past guards, break a few windows, and laugh as they find the low road and stay on it.  It gives us little folk something to cheer about.  And, as I said, it takes us back to what we really value - which has nothing to do with cash.