Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Could Things Be More Polarized Than They Are? “Beautiful” Paintings and the Fascist Spirit

I’ve done a curious thing with this blog, which possibly dooms it: I write about images, image-makers, as well as what goes on in the heads of people who perceive them, and yet. . .I provide no images.  Terrible of me, I know.  Perhaps I will correct it someday.

For now, however, I will ask you, dear reader, to follow my words down a lovely primrose lane, where the past of your fondest fantasies is still alive and you can say childish things to your mother.  Don’t restrain yourself; she wants you to say them.  “Care for any milk, my darling?  I’ll get it for you.  Just relax. You’re safe here for the rest of your life.”    

Down this path, we live lives that are in perfect harmony with our vision of what is Good and Right; lives that revolve around funny gossip and adorable grandparents.  Lives that are imbued with The Scripture; enriched by the feats of our fighting men; and made safe by corporate America, which looks after our interests even when we’re sleeping.  We love our neighbors and treat our pets as if they’re family.  We don’t know much about how other people live because they live Over There.  Isn’t that where dad goes to get the car fixed sometimes?  He’ll mention it now and then because “bad things happen Over There” and we need to know because, sometimes, the world is not safe.  But here's the pot roast and, well, why talk about such things at dinner? 

Yes, it is a lovely sort of place which, seen in retrospect, has a sort of glow – not the glow of a lamp-light, but the glow of Memory, which keeps it all warm and fuzzy.  I want my memories to smell good.  I know you do too.   

Am I exaggerating too much?  Well, all right.  Let’s say there’s a little more ambiguity in such lives – in such a fantasy.  People do get hurt, leave their marriages, and lose jobs they thought they’d have for life.  But in such a great country – which takes care of them because we take care of ourselves first – such things are little toe-stubs that heal virtually overnight.  And when they don’t and troubled times descend for a while, we know they’ll be over because morning always comes and all Americans are protected.

That’s better, isn’t it?  A little hardship, a spot of bad times, then we’re right back among good people and desirable outcomes.  And all of our furniture, which we love all the more because our dogs – which help us hunt for the things we shoot and kill – mess it up now and then.  We like to be comfortable that way, like all Americans.  At least all of the Americans we know.

America has become so polarized that women are, on the one hand, bearers of children – which requires sex; and sluts, without which (sex, I mean) sluts are not possible.  Bearers of children – provided their wombs and moral sensibilities are cleared by the state - are Good.  Sluts, however, are not.  They have sex because they like it.  Or they have sex because they’re bored.  Or they have sex because their boyfriends (or rapists) insist upon it.  Whatever the case, they’re sluts because they are not bearing children.  Should they bear a child, as a result of various depraved activities, there will be hell to pay.  Yes, hell.  Where is hell?  Don’t bother to look down; it is in us already.

Yes, small wonder in a country that is so polarized in terms of its intelligence quotient that a whole chunk of it can deny scientific proof of things it doesn’t even believe – or cannot believe – exists.  Yes, there are a great many people who believe that People have absolutely no impact on a breathing organism – even if they might acknowledge that, if you stuck an exhaust pipe down somebody’s throat it is likely to kill him.  In global/environmental/macrocosmic terms, however, they refuse to entertain such a notion.  These people are not merely stupid, and perhaps not stupid at all.  To, however, accept Mr. Gore’s “inconvenient truth” would mean that they’d have to question, and perhaps discard, all of the trappings they’ve come to believe as containing and embodying the Good Life.  In order to conserve energy, they’d have to move closer to town.  In order to attend public schools and therefore keep an eye on them. . .ditto.  In order to participate in a pluralistic democracy. . .yes, ditto again! 

To do these things would make them hippies.  (Are there hippies anymore?  Haven’t they died off or gone to prison?)  It would most certainly make them un-American, as they understand Americans to be.  It would also make them secular, it would make them inclusive, it would make them inquiring.  It would mean that they’d not only have to acknowledge the existence of Other People, they would have to move in with them. 

Why?  Because, according to the best intelligence on the subject, verticality is the most energy-efficient way of organizing large populations.  Verticality – or at least old-fashioned, New York City-style living – would promote Population Density Living – which only people in New York City can presumably stand.  New York City – that Land Of Heretics, that Isle Of Subversive Creativity, that Repository Of Objectionable Alternatives for which the suburbs – as well as the Rest of the Country – is a serene and viable corrective. 

I’m not living with those heretics.  Last I looked, it was a free country, which means I can raise my family anywhere I please.  So don’t go fucking up my law and order, my church, and my belief system, which is already written down, thank you very much.  In fact, I will quote it for you because I memorized back in school!  

I’ve tried to warm you, dear reader, up with a little rhetoric because I want to talk for a little while about the polarity between the Red State, or Republican, vision of America and the one that is taken by the sort of inquiring minds that go into painting because it is a window onto the world and not a tiny chink in the wall that shuts it out.  And since I’ve been writing about images and image-makers, I want to go back to them.

Nor will I be naming names.  In order to examine the perpetrators, use key words like “Impressionism”, “Landscape Painting”, “Western artists”, and possibly “beautiful paintings.”  Somebody like Thomas Kinkade is an easy target, so I will dispense with him.  There are all sorts of more subtle fabulists who roam our Great Plains, our Mountain Majesties, and our Shining Seas, not as our nation’s pilgrims did, but in all sorts of enormous vehicles which have been variously called SUV’s, Off-road Vehicles, and what’s that other one?  Jack Nicholson did it in a very funny movie about useless old age and its despairing attempts to find meaning. 

Since the 1990’s, painting has flowered in a way nobody could have anticipated.  It is so various and multi-faceted and all-inclusive that there’s no getting one’s arms around it.  There is, quite literally, Something For Everyone.  And not just at the top, where elegant experiments and interesting variations on classical ideations occur.  Nor at the so-called Cutting Edge, which deals in alternative media and the collisions of a thousand cultures.  There is something for the career military man who remembers an idyllic childhood (idyllic for him) which was spent with a father who loved to go and shoot things.  Or fish for them.  There is something for the lady who loves Old World cultures, where people play dress-up all the time and ply the visitor with exotic foods and recipes.  There is something for the nature lover, who went off by him or herself and looked at Monument Valley.  There is a lot of stuff for nature lovers, as long as that nature is pre-vetted and pristine.  I frankly don’t see a lot of nature-lover stuff that shows a once-unspoiled nature that’s contaminated by what mining does to it.  There’s very little nature-lover stuff that deals with the shearing-off of mountains – or the less spectacular shearing-off of places that eventually become our suburbs.  (I now understand the universal aversion – and I must interpret it as such because there are very few paintings of suburban communities – to rendering the aseptic life of so many Americans.  Just a little “hmmmm” to think about.)  No, there isn’t a lot of nature-lover imagery that deals in the depredations of our species.  Unless it’s just built in.  Some very beautiful lakes are actually dead.  But nobody has to know that.  I once painted a few pictures of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, New York. And why not?  It shimmers in the sunshine as if fish were leaping around inside of it.  As if you could mosey up to the shoreline, stretch the stretch of contentment, and ladle up a handful of clean water.  As if its murky bottom were not coated with a chemical cocktail that would kill anybody who cared to explore it for a while.  The pictures I made of it are delightful.  They are the sort of America the Beautiful pictures I can’t help making now and again because, by crackey, America IS Beautiful – even the parts of it we’ve fucked up very badly.  It’s sometimes hard to take a critical attitude about this America.  But someone has to do it and, because I’m attempting to lambast a kind of sleeping consciousness here, I should take it up again.

Yes, there are so many aesthetic possibilities for people who just want to be in swell places that I’m going to create a sort of subject glossary and try to “paint with words” the kinds of paintings these people like.  (And, yes.  I did say “these people.”  Consider me a polarizing force too.  In this world, everyone is guilty.)  For every subject, you’ll find hundreds of paintings.  (I call – and somebody’s already responded.  Ain’t that somethin’?)

Mountain majesty, with the shore of a spring-fed lake.

Mountain majesty, with the shore of a so-so lake that could dry up in August.

Foothills that bloom with all sorts of intriguing vegetation.

Foothills that are lacking vegetation for no good reason, but are still foothills and therefore “wild and free”.

Purling streams surrounded with cottonwoods.

Sluggish streams that are appealing because somebody’s just reeled in a “big one”.

Oceanfront property that looks like a million dollars because it costs that much.

Oceanfront property that looks like a million dollars because the ocean’s in it.

Oceanfront property that makes the argument for living a little away from the ocean.

Oceanfront property that’s so sexy you can not only smell the ocean, you imagine yourself ripping away at the sheets in the bedroom and feeling slightly embarrassed, but not really.

Nice people feeding a horse, often near the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  It is the one circumstance under which New York City is acceptable – unless firefighters are standing in front of a nearly-destroyed World Trade Center.

A carriage ride (“Fuck the horses!” saith my inner animal, discreetly) anywhere.  I stand corrected.  New York City is acceptable here too.

Horses off by themselves; horses being ridden, preferably by somebody who’s bothered to purchase a riding-habit; horses (or just a horse) being combed by a young girl with blondish ringlets.  Why brown-haired people don’t hack it is a mystery to me.

Dogs in any place, any position.  (When cats appear, they are oddly stationery.  I don’t know why.)

Marketplaces in foreign lands.  And cafes too.  If the flag of that nation is flying somewhere, that’s a plus.

Any picture of Venice, Rome or Paris.  A hand-holding couple helps, but is not necessary.  When the picture’s set in Rome, some people like to see old guys drinking.  I don’t understand that either.

Such is Red State aesthetics, albeit in a few broad swatches.  Hundreds of other possibilities could be created out of whole – or, rather, whole-minus-something – cloth.  Think: it’s gotta be nice, it should have something spectacular in it, and, if the people aren’t white or well-heeled, they have to be “picturesque.”  The white people are often smiling.  Or are about to.  Or have just been.

Now: I have nothing against “beautiful nature” or pretty places – at least in moderation.  But if you believe, as I do, that everything is contextualized, these kinds of things have social meanings.  They mean that those who are creating and consuming them are dying to return to a time and place in which the complexities and difficult choices of our times are absent.  They mean that there is a ready market for such denial and a vast number of people who wish to supply it.  They mean that it’s going to be very hard, if not impossible, to get any God-fearin’, gun-sympathizing, birth control-averse American to do anything but run for the hills.  Or just stay in them.

The passage below was written about an actual painting.  I want to offer it as a personal response to the kind of work I’ve been talking about:

These are just the kinds of bad paintings (I've been talking about.)  The painter knows what she's doing in terms of creating space and enlivening the painted surface, but she dips into the Great and Inexhaustible Vat Of Embarrassing Cliches and fishes for her subjects.  I can't believe how many people do this until I think about the geography and politics of the United States.  The so-called intelligence centers - aside from various universities, which are largely cut off from the communities they are supposed to serve - are in the Northeast.  In spite of the internet, Red State people still think what they thought in the 1930's - except they have nicer cars and live away (by choice and gas mileage) from the poor and colored.  And so they create, with impunity, ridiculous fantasies about an America That Never Was - or an America that consists of mountain majesties and fresh lakes and streams.  To call such egregious lies "art" is to pervert the artistic spirit, which is one of inquiry.  These people's minds were always made up.  And they create and purchase paintings that reflect that implicitly.

When John Sloan was in the Southwest, he almost singlehandedly discovered – for white people, I mean - the arts and crafts of Native Americans.  He was so taken by them that he started a movement that culminated in various exhibitions of such art – as well as an “Indian gallery” that sold them.  He was ashamed of the gewgaws tourists bought and, by supporting the genuine article, he made it possible for Native Americans to rediscover their own heritage.  Here was a man who was always dedicated to staking out what was genuine about our country, no matter where it might take him.  As a younger man, he was considered an “apostle of ugliness” because he dared to do pictures of people walking around New York City.  Or the City itself.  They were considered vulgar, unappetizing, obtuse.  Over time, people came around, but the virus of sentimentality continued to spread.  Now it has infected an enormous segment of our population, which hearkens after the Good Old Days when a smaller proportion of American’s couldn’t vote and a much larger proportion was terrorized if it did.  These Good Old Days presumably brought peace and prosperity to a country that has always wanted to be perceived as synonymous with these things.  The actual story is more complicated, as such stories always are. 

Why am I so “down” on our country?  I want it to acknowledge the sins of its past, I want it to see what the future might become when it attempts to solve its problems without the military, and I want it to embrace, rather than persecute, the diversity it claims to be its strength.  We are now officially in decline.  We will go ever so much farther down that road if we march in lockstep with the denial into which so many of our countrymen immerse themselves, as if it were the warm bath their mother used to draw.  It may be warm, but there’s all kinds of shit in it.    

Monday, November 21, 2011

They Don't Like Me, They Don't Like Me: Some Thoughts On Cognitive Dissing

Warring perceptions are both bane and “booty.”  They enliven discourse, keep potentially sclerotic channels open, and add to the sum total of human intelligence.  If they’re intractable, both can do great harm.

I will admit to having a deeply ulterior motive in mentioning these factions of the mind because I recently encountered them and would enjoy – if only for catharthis’ sake – talking about them.

I was recently “hired” to write an article about an artist of whom I had never heard.  In some circles, ignorance is shunned – or at least ignored.  I welcome it because it allows for initial perceptions – first loves of the mind that can lead to some very interesting relationships.  I went to this artist’s website and had a look.  I was relieved to find that, after a succession of images, I was not only engaged, but eager to formulate opinions and, in this case, share them.  The artist’s name is not important – at least not for my purposes; nor is that of our matchmaker, tempted as I am to “out” her.

She had suggested a number of formats, but did not insist that I follow any of them.  Her favorite voice is mankind’s most fundamental: the “I” voice that shows very well in a courtroom.  I agree that it has the charm of spontaneous expression, as well as the unimpeachable sincerity of a person talking to another person directly.  But it isn’t the only voice; nor is it the best possible voice if the “I” is reluctant to express itself.

My first order of business was to talk to the artist, whom I found good-hearted and forthright.  He had come from a long line of artists and was not only comfortable with the mantle dropping on his shoulders - he wore it with the dashing confidence of a seasoned warrior.  Not to say he was arrogant.  In fact, he was as close to the opposite of that as egotistical man and woman are allowed to be.  He spoke of himself in the collegial “we”, as if to say “I am one of many.”  He provided all sorts of instances that showed his solidarity with fellow artists who had done much to create the tradition to which he himself subscribed.  I was impressed with such an absence of ego – though it seemed so shrinking that there wasn’t a lot to grab onto in the first person.  In such a man, the first person is largely absent – except in the work he does.  Even that, however, was complicated by a tribal loyalty that was as unique as it was disconcerting.  To have him speak for himself seemed immodest.  As a result, I decided to speak for him.

The article I wrote was as laudatory a thing as I have ever written.  My nature is critical and cares a little bit less for what one does well – which it takes for granted – preferring the frayed wires and pulley-systems that stagger underneath a man or woman’s work.  In fiction writing, flaws are what make for character.  I believe that about artists as well.  Let me emphasize that the flaws wouldn’t be interesting if they were not surrounded by an essential excellence.  It is rare to encounter an artist or person who isn’t a blend of these two things – which is to say that something absolutely bad is so rare that it should be singled out as of a peculiar, but satisfying badness that appeals to one’s sense of the anomalous.  Why are upside-down airplanes so popular among stamp collectors?  Because most of the planes fly right-side up and get where they’re suppose to go.  To see an upside-down plane tickles an ordinarily sleeping sense of the absurd.  And makes the viewer want to discover it and show it to somebody.  “Is this crazy or what?” 

In any case, I thought this fellow so good, both in his character and in his work, that I wanted to emphasize that and went right to it.

I must admit to being pleased with the result.  I had not only refrained from criticism, I had written this artist the kind of mash note fictional characters so love to play hide-and-seek with.  Reading it is such an ecstatic experience that the character fears that he or she will get too much of it and makes it hard to find.  Or pretends to do that.  But he or she eventually finds it, devours it, and, if a cigarette is available, smokes it down to the nub. 

I thought the artist would be pleased.

But, no, he wasn’t – or wasn’t willing to admit it.  Rather, he felt that his friends and colleagues would think that he’d put me up to saying the things I did and would think him a smarmy egomaniac.  Or just a regular egomaniac who is adjectivally bereft.  I sent him a rebuttal that urged him to think of about private impressions versus worldly assumptions; that nobody can ever control how such a thing is processed and shouldn’t want to; that he might re-consider wanting me to suppress the article because no publicity is bad, a certain percentage of people are going to dislike him anyway, and it’s a safe bet that those who like him already are going to like him even more.  Or just keep liking him the way they’ve always done.  But he would not be persuaded.  He seemed to think that such a salvo would scuttle his ship rather than gild it.  Like so many people who are invested in a community, he feared “goin’ above his raisin’” and catching a break that may have been denied equally deserving friends and colleagues.  I suspect that he is a genuinely modest fellow who doesn’t want to be fussed over.  Can’t argue with that.  Yet I don’t think my article would have caused previously sequestered groupies to pour out of the woodwork and start assaulting him.  There are only a handful of artists who are sexily infamous enough to draw more than the educated enthusiasm of fellow travelers.  The really sexy ones can’t get over themselves and don’t want anybody else to either.  And, if we all don’t know who they are, they’re in the process of fixing that.

I must admit that such sensitivity is admirable.  But it’s also morbid.  Ultimately, an artist’s work prevails.  Those who write about it slide away faster than sober fireman down a steel pole.  Do you remember who reviled the Impressionists?  I do because my trivia-oriented mind catches such details while absolving itself of other, more important information that might save its life or allow it to purchase better automobile insurance.  But you probably do not.  Which is all to the good.  You don’t need it.  The Impressionists prevailed as dissenting voices lost volume, tracking, and legitimacy.  Picasso and other real egomaniacs crushed their critics.  When they couldn’t, the critics faded away all by themselves.  I don’t like Picasso and would have said as much if I were alive in 1919.  What would he have said to me?  Nothing.  He wouldn’t have known or cared.

There’s also the matter of my own small excellences being denied.  Art criticism of any kind is an ephemeral thing.  Those of us who attempt it know in their heart of hearts that, when death swaddles them, it will have its way completely.  If there are second acts for artists, critics flounder in the first few scenes.  It’s not that nobody likes them – which is mostly true; they just don’t matter.  Except to themselves.  Which – for them and me – has to be good enough.

With all of these nuances in mind, it has occurred to me to ask: “Why have they occurred to me only?”  Before I start to grumble, I want to finish my story.

One down and one to go, the second being my editor.

I will also admit that I was pleased with myself for having written the article in one evening.  That’s all the time I had, but still.  Doing it so breathlesssly had a vaguely heroic tinge which satisfied my vainglorious soul for a moment – after which it felt, as usual, starved.  When you think you’re being heroic, you generally want other people to agree with you.  Which didn’t happen.  Oh, well.  Perhaps all of this editor’s minions were as efficient as worker-bee’s.  If so, I was in good company.

To postpone ego-recession for a moment, I couldn’t imagine how my easy familiarity with the subject, my creditable sense of this artist’s place among his colleagues, my grasping his link to a far-famed tradition. . .no, I couldn’t imagine how these things could be so easily repudiated.  And yet they were.  The editor’s only criterion was that the piece was not written in the “I” voice I talked about earlier on and that was that.  Her editing colleague agreed with her – a double condemnation from which I’m likely never to be redeemed. 

As a writer who has immersed himself in his vaunted tradition, I can never understand, if the writing serves the purpose for which it is intended, why it is ever rejected, dismissed, or ridden out of town on a third rail.  But that’s just me.  Editors have loftier goals that are obscure to writers, who are thinking of abstract values – or of themselves.  Their valuable insights and helpful illuminations are just one of many things an editor must consider. 

On the other hand, if the writing’s no good, why would an editor bother?  Rather say: if the editor gets the format he or she wants, but the writing itself is lackluster, what purpose is being served except a literal one?

Before I decided to write for this publication, I skimmed its pages and was struck by its sophomoric quality – as if the subject could be digested without any of the agreeable complexities that might make its interpretation provocative and interesting.  Most of the articles were of the sing-songy type E. B. White warns us about.  Break up your sentences, says he.  Establish rhythms that are common to vigorous conversation and not da-di-da storytelling.  He says all sorts of other things, but these will do.  Almost every article was marred by this gangly approach to composition. 

One might say, in defense of such articles, that, if the information can be easily distilled, what’s the harm?  Plenty, in my opinion.  How you get something is just as important as where and why.  If one can present information with vigor and precision; if one can break it up with anecdotal asides; and if one can develop a theme or point of view that undergirds this presentation, the reader will come away refreshed and possibly eager to start a conversation so that certain premises and side-issues can be bandied about.  In other words, good writing keeps the ball rolling; bad writing drops it on the pitcher’s mound and runs away.

But, again, I could be concentrating a bit too much on my own concerns and not enough on the editor’s.

But what are they?

I know: an editor gathers things, arranges them, and “puts them out there.”  These things should address a common area of interest; they should stick to the facts, as these facts are known and understood; and they should raise the profile of the subject under discussion.  They should also – as I’ve already said – promote discussion of this subject because it would be counterproductive for them not to.

That is why I’ve bothered to harangue all seventeen of you.  My essential point of view, while it might be seen as parochial, should not be treated cavalierly.  Writers who are remembered are remembered for having a particular point of view, a grave appreciation of the subjects they presume to write about, and a style that sticks in the head like a piece of music.  Huck Finn might talk like a little boy you’d come across in any river town of the 1840’s, but he was also the creation of a man who knew how to use him.  In somebody else’s hands, Huck Finn would be sentimental.  Or a sly little fellow who hates wearing brogans.  Or a comic express train that hits all the stops except for the big ones.  Mark Twain created Huck Finn because Huck was the best vehicle to address the very serious subject matter other writers wished to avoid.  The writer chooses the format.  If it works, people pay attention if the thing is considered “good enough” to publish.

Let me assure you that I’m not setting myself up for Twainish distinction, but it is a very, very bad thing for something that has life-force in it – even if it’s a paltry profile – to be choked out of existence because of a silly format preference.  Or because its subject couldn’t bear to be ballyhooed. 

Ultimately, such a thing doesn’t matter.  Everybody will go about their business and the world will wag on.  I just want to bitch a little.  In the absence of real satisfaction, it’s an infinitely luminous occupation. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dealers I Have Known, Part One Of an Occasional Series

Because I was so unstinting in my condemnation of art dealers, I have decided to trot out a few stories that exemplify the breed's most salient characteristics.  For my first account, I've chosen an experience that might stand in for many another.  On the surface, it is quite ordinary: I saw an opportunity to be connected with a reputable dealer, took a fairly long trip in a rented automobile and met with this dealer, who agreed to represent me.  The devil is, however, in the nuances.  Things seemed to go all right, but they would have repercussions, which I'll get to in the second part of the story. 

I do not claim to remember what happened word for word.  Mine is a prejudicial reconstruction - "prejudicial" because it reflects the nature of the experience rather than its particulars.  The dialogue is accurate insofar as it suggests a personal point of view; the exact words cannot, over such a glacial period, be recalled.  Aside from myself, I've chosen not to divulge the names of the other people.  One has since passed on.  The other has become moderately successful as a Hollywood bit-player.  As far as I know, he doesn't do caricatures anymore. 

Let me point out that I'm fully aware that the dealer in my story doesn't resemble the dealer-archetypes in my jeremiad.  He is, for one, a man.  For another, he is a fairly cordial person.  In the interest of fairness, I wanted to start out with him.  Over time, there will be others.  

In 1988, a painter-friend who had been slugging it out in the art world since the early 60's and had made as enviable a name for himself as any figure-painter at the time could, recommended me to a successful dealer who was based in theWashington area - Bethesda, Maryland to be exact.  He said that this dealer had a good reputation and had been successful in placing work of whose saleability he, the painter, had despaired.  He added that this dealer was not entirely conscientious in the way of mathematics; some of his sales were recorded and passed on; others were not.  He sent me on my way with the observation that this dealer should be watched.  I assured him that I'd be up to the task and made an appointment.  My timing was perfect.  This dealer just happened to be in New York City, where I was living at the time, and could, as it turned out, see me.  I gussied up my apartment a little bit and waited.   I was foolishly sanguine, but couldn't help myself.  One always is at such times.  When bitter urges start, whatever is prompting them has already happened.  We are always at our best in the before, though we tend to live more in the after. 

The usual pleasantries occurred.  Did you get here all right?   If you'll remember, I grew up in Brooklyn.  Brooklyn's just a little knottier than Manhattan.  I guess it's like riding a bike.  How's that?  You never forget.  No, I guess you don't.  Care for anything to drink?  No, I stopped doing that some time ago.  Very wise.  As I'm not.  And so on.
My apartment was small, though if you were in the bedroom, you could look straight across the river to New Jersey - a view I had painted fairly often.  It was a the sort of majestic view for which apartment-dwellers always yearn.  It compensates them somewhat for having to live in a claustrophobic bedroom which is always too generously named.  And have a kitchen which has room enough for one cook and an idler - provided that idler stand outside the door. It was almost as far Uptown as I had ever lived.  People often wondered if Manhattan existed there at all.  I was fond of telling such people that the island broke off into two sections outside of my apartment building.  In spite of the abundance of maps and geography courses, some of them believed me. 
This dealer didn't care for my most recent work, which was dismaying.  Most artists are forward-looking people for whom past accomplishments recede fairly quickly.  They concentrate - and rightfully so - on the present.  I was no exception.  I thought my most recent work my best.  Being something of a pragmatist, however, I switched allegiances.  I told this dealer that I had slides of older work that might appeal to him. 

"None of it is here?" he asked.

"No, it's not."

"Well, then, show me these slides."

I complied with the eagerness of the reprieved and congratulated myself as a card-sharp would after a particularly dazzling sleight-of-hand.  I was the seducer who had managed to breach age-old defenses - a seducer who had progressed from dinner-table to trundle-bed.  I denied myself the smug feeling a good guesser always has and listened.

"These are so much better than the others!"

I refrained from acknowlegding the compliment, though I did not repudiate it by action or word.

He chose a bunch of  these paintings and directed me to get them at my earliest convenience. 

"I know I can sell these things.  Sure you don't have more?"

I admitted that I had a few, but no slides.  (Slides were the best image production technology available at the time.)

"Bring those too!" he said, and left in a happy mood.

Unfortunately, the work he considered vastly inferior to my most recent efforts was 1,400 miles away, in a city that was better known for its musicians than its artists.  I checked in with the man who had initiated this process and he said, amidst all of my reservations: "Go."

Some of you might know of this artist, but in the interest of minimum disclosure, I'm not going to mention his name.  I admire him to this day.  He is a good fellow and a great painter.  Few living people are mensches.  To become a mensch, most people's rough edges have to be forgotten, allowed to fade in the sun, given all of the perquisites death allows.  He was a mensch then and is a mensch today.  He doesn't need the slack periods and dreamy intervals that allow us to re-think the transgressions of otherwise good people.  He never committed any.  This painter/fellow never let the mensch in him deteriorate.  If anything, he is a greater mensch now than ever.  Let us celebrate such people; they are sui generis.  They show us the way.

This dealer was considered shrewd.  He had survived the vagaries of a market that had enshrined pictures "that looked like something" to pictures that looked like somebody had come in, pissed all over the floor, and managed to hit the canvas enough for a vaguely yellowish cast to be discerned. He was considered a champion of realism at a time when realism was not de rigueur.  He even put hard-pressed painters on stipends - or said he did.  He wasn't in New York - an unorthodox choice for a man who had grown up in Brooklyn.  Whatever the case, he thrived and had square footage to back that up.  Unfortunately, that square footage was chock-full - as I discovered when I and an actor-caricatcurist friend pulled into the place on the evening of my appointment.  We were late by just a few minutes.  Not bad for people who knew nothing about Bethesda, Maryland and were surprised, when we approached the city limits, that it was there at all. 

"I see you've made it," the dealer said after we caught our collective breath.

"Yes, I think we have," I replied.  My friend the caricatcurist - who would eventually steal the evening from me - said he'd never been to Maryland, but forgave himself. 

"Haven't been to Vegas either," he said, possibly as a way to encompass the entire United States as being off-limits.  He was bi-coastal.  He flew over, drove around, or pointedly ignored anyplace that lacked the aesthetics of congestion or cocaine.

"Want anything?  I've got some weak coffee," said the dealer.

"No, thanks," said my friend, who rarely passed up any stimulant, whether it was illegal or not.

"Wait a minute," he said.  "I saw a coffee shop around the corner.  Wanna go there?  I gotta get my daily fix.  If I go without caffeine, I forget my mother's name." 
"I don't need coffee to do that," said the dealer.

"We all have our blind spots," said my friend.

"Age, in my case," said the dealer.

"An astrologer tells me every year that I'm going to die on, or near, July 4th.  She's my only source of longevity.  When she goes, I'm right behind her."

"Wish I could be you," said the dealer without any attempt at meaning.

"No, you don't," said I, with surprising emphasis.

"We could go there," said the dealer, ignoring me.  And off we went.

Within a few minutes, my friend had done a fine little drawing of the older man - which managed to both lampoon and flatter.
"This is very good," said the dealer, smiling at himself.
"Please," said my friend, "take it."
"Yes, please."
"You know, I could use somebody like you," said the dealer, drinking himself in.
"I'm not a fine artist the way he is.  I just draw funny pictures.  Or try to."
He gave me a polite little shrug.  I shrugged back, not as politely.
Then the dealer asked me what I thought of the drawing.
"It catches your likeness very well."
The dealer took his drawing and held it up to the light as if it were a small section of a cathedral window and would become translucent.  When it didn't, he wasn't disappointed in the least.  He just kept trying to look through it. 
"Would you have enough work for a show?" he asked, addressing my friend.
"Maybe.  But. . .you don't want my stuff.  You're an emporium of fine art.  You represent the best and brightest.  Your loyalty is to paint and canvas."
"Yes, it is," acknowledged the dealer, who was well-satisfied with the characterization, "but a person has to branch out.  We should talk about this.  We really should."
When we got back to the gallery, I said I would go get my paintings.
"Yes, you do that," said the dealer as if anticipating something mildly distasteful, but putting a good face on it.
When I finished unloading, it was time for the dealer to assess my work.  He'd remembered much of it from the slides I'd shown him, but there were newish paintings he'd not seen.  He was approving, but not ecstatic. 
"Is this all you've got?"
"It was all I was able to bring."
His face clouded over, but he decided to be good-hearted and said: "Well, let's do a price-list.  It's getting late and you gentlemen aren't home yet."
Said my friend: "Is one ever?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the dealer a few beats afterward.  "That's very good.  Is one ever!"
"No, one never is," I said, and rummaged around a back room for a sheet of paper.
I was somewhat shocked by the monetary value the dealer had put on my work.  It seemed inappropriately small, even for a painter who hadn't popped up in that part of the country and couldn't make money on his reputation.  I felt, however, that I should be making a little more on my work.  Something - perhaps the inflection of my painter-friend's voice when he said this dealer must be watched - told me that I should make a list of paintings and prices, so I asked whether I could use the typewriter in the back-room where I had found pen and paper and proceeded to do so.  I was fully confident that my friend would entertain the dealer in my absence.
By the time I was done, they were having a rollicking little time of it.  I ahemmed as only pissed-off people can and they lifted their heads.  It took the dealer some seconds to remember the crowning ritual at hand.  After a small psychic battle, he did and motioned me to come over. 
"Looks like that's everything," he said, about to put the list aside.
"Could I make a copy for myself?"
"What's that?"
"A copy.  I'd like to have a copy for myself."
"Oh," said the dealer, the image of a British officer who is about to say "This is highly irregular", but decided to oblige me.  He had a small copier back in that same office.
I had left the cream of my earlier work with a man who didn't much impress me in a space that couldn't do anything but. 
I should talk about that for a moment.
This dealer had told me, during our conversation in my apartment, that he wasn't a "stand-around" sort of guy.  If he wanted an artist, he came after him.  I mentioned some people he, the dealer, might have pursued in the past and he had a story about each and every one of them.  Some relationships began well, but ended disastrously.  Some, because of the curmudgeonly distance certain artists apparently liked putting between their studios and the outside world, never began at all.  Others led to lasting and profitable relationships - whether to him alone or to the both of them he didn't say. 
The detritus of such single-minded pursuit lined the walls, was formed into wobbly units, and fanned out into miniature golf-course patterns that allowed art-lovers to zigzag between them.  No drunken man or woman would have been able to execute all the hairpin turns and sudden shifts of weight that, I learned, were necessary to hold one's position amidst such a wealth of effort.  Had not this man built shelves?  Or were all of these painitings left over?  I flipped through them and was excited, then appalled, to run into familiar names and signature images.  Some of the paintings, having been pressed against other paintings for so long, were slightly scratched.  Others were protected by jostle-proof frames.  Still others occupied a kind of intermediate stage; danger hovered over them, but had not yet struck. 
Studying this domino-style arrangement, I knew what was going to happen to my work.  Some days hence, an assistant would be given the task of slotting it into these painting-villages.  Most of it was framed, but I feared for the pieces that weren't.  Coward that I was, I said nothing as my friend and I left the gallery - one of the few lighted storefronts left in Downtown Bethesda, Maryland.
"How 'bout that?" he said.  "I may have a show here."
I did not succumb to the urge to say "Whooppee!"  I already knew it was a mixed blessing. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ghouls Among Us: Why Dealers and Other Power-Brokers Can Be So Bloody Mean

(Note: the following analysis might be called a screed, a diatribe, a swift kick-in-the pants.  It's only perfunctorily fair-minded and isn't at all friendly.  Yet it is based on personal experience.  Given the strengths and limitations of the form I have chosen, it is also truthful.  Yet like any two-dimensional representation, it cannot contain every aspect of the person, or persons, it reflects.  Nor does it claim to.  Nor does it want to.)

Ever since I was snubbed by my first dealer - a rite of passage the halt and lame among us must endure - I've wondered why so many behind-the-scenes folk in the art world are so absurdly objectionable.  Of course, any dealer would resent the imputation of being anywhere but out front, so perhaps I should attribute my sense of direction to a naive egotism that puts the man or woman who makes all these other people lamentably necessary in a more out-front position.  Mine is not an uncommon perception; many artists would say that they occupy The Out-Front Position.   

And some really do.  I doubt if Odd Nerdrum - at least nowadays - is subject to arbitrary temper-fits or instructions to use the backstairs.  They let him in, fawn over him for a bit, and allow him to circulate.  Or, if he doesn't show up, the shrine of his work will speak for him.

It would be interesting to know what happened to Odd and any given gallerist the first time he decided to enter the marketplace.  Was he allowed the front door?  Did he wait, with proverbial hat in hand, as a screaming meemie in an adjacent room reamed out the cleaning personnel?  Was he tempted, at this point, to storm out?  Slink away?  Or was he even more frightened then than he was when he sat down?  As I said, it would be interesting to know.  Wonder if, given the opportunity, he would tell?

The only revenge artist-types can get is in retrospect.  Everybody enjoys a little dish now and then.  Once they're in the pantheon, Hollywood actors like to call their employers onto the carpet and, to mix furnishings, turn tables on them.  Success allows that safe remove from which one can glance, with a certain amount of affection, at otherwise humiliating episodes.  One might even say that success is the Great Anaesthetic that binds all wounds, mends all fences, and soothes the obscurely striving ego that, if scratched, is still raw enough to have its say.  Laurence Olivier talked about a producer who singled him out as the "ugliest" actor on the lot.  Must've hurt at the time, but The Great Man into whom Laurence Olivier evolved could look back on another man's delusions without rancor.  Good for him, we all say.  But who in his right mind would have thought Olivier an ugly fellow, let alone the very ugliest?  Such a person clearly couldn't see straight - a decided handicap in the motion-picture business.

One might say that that is what makes the incident so "funny."  I would say that's open to question.
Art people share with moguls and producers the felicitous habit of denigrating, as well as raising up, their charges.

I can't say, in context of some labor/management relationships, that art world leaders are any worse than anybody else.  But that is indictment enough.  Some are obliged to deal with the help in person, but many don't.  The internet has allowed a cushioning effect assistants and other buffers used to provide.  And still do.  No art dealer need even see his or her acolytes until an opening, say, or some other social event which requires the presence of both.  The dealer sells; the artist waits.  That is the essense of the relationship.  But it should be more complicated than that.  And, possibly, more human.  The fact that it isn't - at least in my experience - says something about who needs to be on top.  In the art world, power-sharing doesn't exist unless the artist insists upon it.  Amd that has rarely happened.  As the percentages are increased to favor the seller; as manners get increasingly obtuse; and as bargaining rights disappear, the artist has - or is perceived to have - fewer options.  As a rule, he meekly acquiesces to whatever his overlords decide they can do to him.  What they do for him happens in an indefinite future on which neither can rely.  (Let me apologize to all women artists for the male pronoun.  I just have an aversion to saying "they" where an individual subject is concerned.  Use of the female pronoun also suggests a bending-over-backwards effort to right past wrongs.  These past wrongs cannot be righted fast enough, but not with a "her" as opposed to a "him".)  Few dealers are likely to forge a mutually beneficial relationship.  If the subject is broached, he or she tells the artist that the door that has just opened can also shut.  Few artists have enough character, courage, or wherewithal to say "Fuck you!" - or even a simple goodbye - on the way out.  Most stay inside and take what's coming to them.  In a short while, they can tell everybody they're in a gallery and all will be well.   

Yet. . .are dealers and curators really so nasty as I most emphatically pronounce most of them to be?  What about those nice folk on Antiques Roadshow?  Wouldn't you just love to have dinner with 'em?  Be thrilled with tales of loss and discovery; astonished with the "ones that got away"; captivated by the glamor and mystery of provenence?  Some of them are very charming indeed.  Some even work hard after their own sense of that. I've known a dealer who was dedicated to rooting out the very best people she could find.  And she was honest about the money too.  But her autocratic assumptions - as well as my collaborative instincts - ultimately drove us apart.  I knew another guy who was perfectly decent - and absolutely ineffectual.  When he wouldn't take up for himself, I knew he wouldn't take up for anybody else either.  He complained that his clients had no taste, but did not attempt to find new ones.  I knew yet another dealer who was moderately friendly and periodically useful - though he didn't bother to work any harder than was absolutely necessary.  These people, as Iago said, had "some soul."  Yet the soul that is present in them is conspicuously absent from their colleagues.

Why is that?  One who isn't privy to the soul - or lack of it - can only speculate.  I don't mind doing that in the least.  It is the only means I have to confront the burning question which may ultimately elude me.  Why are these people, having been, for the most part, raised by loving parents, been sent to the best schools, and had enough nurturance for two of three of their peers. . .why are these folk, when let out into the world to realize their dreams, so bloody nasty?

A sense of entitlement, which often overlaps with the search for power, comes to mind.  If you feel you ought to rule, chances are you'll start ruling.  People who have doubt make the coffee and help the deliverymen.  I have never in my life seen a high-ranking arts professional move anything beyond a purse or a checkbook.  Some have been known to lug coffee-table books around, but I've never seen it. 

Where do these assumptions and practices come from?  Were such people denied access to power in their formative years - or did they have "too much too soon" and found that, as adults, they could keep it going?  I've often wondered about the snootier kids in my elementary school classes.  Some had the makings of art dealers.  They were smug, unapproachable, and absolutely sure that they more to offer than anybody else.  Given the rude democracy of children, some were mercilessly ridiculed and given - in a social sense - the heave-so.  How did these young'uns react?  Some with tears, others with silence, still others with a supernatural sense of outrage they possibly took into their adult lives and. . .used it.  I've sometimes thought that nasty peoples' rage against life revolved around sex - or the suppression of that instinct.  People who deal with the unruly folk who are in the business of making art objects - or things a vocal minority
 claim to be art objects - can be attractive to people who are used to controlling things.  Yet no meshing of gears is really possible.  This state of affairs can inspire a certain hauteur on the part of the un-creative person who manages things and an acute sense of discomfort among his or her minions.  There's also the heady thrill of determining what sort of career these creative types will have.  Such a relationship does not promote equality and merely widens whatever rifts occur in the course of doing business.  What can artists know about that?  Possibly nothing, possibly a great deal.  It is a question that is never asked.  People who gravitate toward the management of people who can't contain themselves for a living are, on the surface, control-oriented.  But I suspect that all sorts of unrequited passions wage war with the controlling person whose face might twitch now and then, but seems largely inscrutable.  One might almost admire such self-mastery, but I think it leads to fundamentally destructive behaviors.  Those who have power and don't want it tend to exercise it with restraint.  Those who've wanted it all their lives get caught inside of it and won't let it go.  And it is these sort of people who generally run things.

Given such psychological susceptibilities, is the nastiness of which I so bitterly complain a natural outgrowth of who "they" are?  Probably not.  The truly secretive person doesn't want you to glimpse his or her darker impulses and tries to conceal them.  Art people do too - with their peers.  I've always thought inherently nasty people reveal themselves by how they treat economic and social inferiors.  How do they tip?  Do they exchange pleasantries with stranges?  When they park, do they close in on the back bumper of the vehicle in front of them or leave a car-straddling gap?  The powerful folk - particularly among their kind - rate very poorly in these regards.  An artist friend of mine has waited tables at a restaurant that serves local power-brokers.  I'll point to an unsually despicable specimen and ask how he tips.  Her face will cloud over and she'll merely shake her head.  If she's really exercised, she'll release an audible steam of warm air that suggests a full-blown raspberry, but must, as it were, keep its head.

To facilitate the understanding process, I'm going to create a real person.  Don't bother to look for this person.  I'm making her up.  Yes, let's make her a she!  It is my own caprice - though it is based on genuine experience.  The mid-sized city where I used to scramble about for the odd dime has spawned three women who, for reasons they may never actually reveal, went into the art business.  They thrive at least somewhat to this day.  They are archeypes of a sort and would be familiar to anyone who has ever waited with slides/portfolio/CD in hand.  Or got these things back in a scrambled condition.  Or were told by an assistant that they'd been lost or thrown away.

She is middle-aged, often married to money, but just as often independently well-to-do.  Rudely energetic scions took care of the money-making process - which has kept subsequent family members comfortable.  She went to a good school, did reasonably well, and married.  Sometimes she is divorced.

She is, if of the svelte body-type, elegantly contained.  Her public persona is steeped in the mystery of understatment.  She is aloof and intimidating to inferiors; coldly cordial to the people she knows.  She may desire the warmth ordinary human relations provide, but it does not show in her public persona.  She has good cheekbones and an excellently coiffed head of hair.  She is not ostentatious and doesn't need to be.  She exudes the infuriating primacy of class and confirms what detractors say about it - which is to say: it's high-falutin'. 

If of the rounder persuasion, she dresses all right, but can't fit into the clothes for which her social condition has prepared her.  But because she has lots of money, she can buy her way into elegance.  During perverse moments, she'll want to dress "like everybody else", but can't really pull it off.  She subscribes to the notion that "One can neither be too rich nor too thin", but lacks the discipline to ride it out in her person.

Whereas her leaner counterpart is never exactly rude, she can be.  An indeterminate rage swoops down on her from time to time and must out.  Her victims are service-people, employees, and sales-types who happen to pick the wrong day to approach her.  Even when people from her set are watching her, she is unable to control herself.  They do their best to ignore or rationalize it.  She doesn't seem to like losing control, but doesn't apologize for it.

She is also married, but likes to think that she's financially independent.  Often as not, she was launched by a husband who wanted to get her out of the house - or just happens to be a nice guy.  There are those.

There is no crucial difference, in personal motivation, between the svelte lady and her scale-topping counterpart.  They both have an almost insatiable urge, not only to establish reputations that are not dependent upon a husband, but to take a number of presumably helpless people, package them, and make them acceptable to people in her milieu.  She may also have nation-spanning designs - which can make her, among other things, extremely ruthless.  Though she's never overtly excited, the prospect of "branding" an artist makes her heart beat a little faster.  But the possibility of making that artist forever-desirable gets her where she really lives, which is a little farther up from her aorta. 

Such women compete with one another and are not above a little poaching.  The properties they create can, once they are moderately successful, jump ship, with the result that the Mother Ship is left high and dry.  She, the MS, will squawk about it, but knows that her cries are bootless.  What is, is.  And it isn't as if she didn't have a pretty damned good ride. 

Such women are respected and feared - a very desirable position to be in.  It means that they can become the region's tastemakers without having to prove that their taste is superior to anyone's.  They can make curators vacate their opinions.  They can press art historians into writing catalogue-essays.  And they can twist the arms of CEO's enough to induce them to collect the work they represent.  Which means theirs and nobody else's.  Exclusive contracts are anathema to the saturaction effect you want in a medium-sized community.  But almost every collection bears the mark or imprint of a single person.  Is anybody else asked to submit material?  Not bloody likely.  A strict, if not officially sanctioned, monopoly is considered eminently desirable.  It forges "valuable relationships" and is "good for business."

Arts-writers treat these ladies with kid-gloves.  A salivation effect begins with an initial review and extends ad infinitum.  Where such ladies are found, there is no art criticism.  There is merely puffery.  They rule, not only with advertising, but with a sort of aura which starts in the head and increases in size and penetration the closer one gets to the gallery itself.  Because they are there, they cannot be wrong.  They bring High Culture to a community that had been languishing in the sticks and was running, in terms of High Culture, out of air.  Gratitude for their contribution is inexhaustible.  They provide the uneducated consumer with immediate eclat.  They make the otherwise-mundane personality glitter with the after-effects of a major purchase.  They confer immediate gravitas on some poor schlub who never saw a puppy picture he didn't like.  After a cultural makeover, he is roiling in prestige.  Who but he - in concert with an intelligent go-between - would have had the moxie to put the city's most controversial sculpture in his own front yard?  And string lights around it so that everybody who passes by can see its suggestive contours and biomorphic body-parts?

With the artists in their stables, these woman are quietly demanding and not susceptible to compromise.  To work with them is, at best, demeaning.  When it's really bad, the artist falls a little ill before "going in there."  He or she knows that whatever dignity is possible will be stripped away on sight - and on-site as well, since dealers rarely tweak artists in their own den.  They don't have to; they can dispense their particular brand of feel-bad in the comfort of their home-away-from-home.

Have I said enough?  Probably not.  But it is possibly tedious to read about one-dimensional characters who are so totally predictable that stepping out of character isn't likely.  Yet art dealers are people too.  One of the three women I mentioned has children to whose care and feeding she has been indefatigably devoted.  Yet I learned from a fellow artist that she, the artist, was charged by this devoted mother a commission she was not obliged to fork over.  Yet because those expensive colleges had to be paid for, this doughty mother put her scruples aside and charged the commission anyway.  "That's stealing," I said, to which my artist friend shrugged.  She didn't have to say: "What else is new?"  We were both wearily familiar.

What else is new?

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing at all.

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: