Archive for the 'Art' Category

An Imperfect Perfection

Five years ago, I attended the Metropolitan’s “Vincent Van Gogh, The Drawings.” The continuing pleasure I’ve gotten from the show’s soft cover catalogue has vastly out-weighed the money spent.

On my most recent go-through of the almost four-hundred-page volume (116 plates and 268 figures) I find myself stopped, as I was at the show itself, at Plate 32, “Standing Female Nude Seen from the Side.” There is something obviously wrong with the drawing. The most casual glance will fall immediately upon the oversized left foot and the protruding anatomically incorrect right leg. The distended abdomen and its connection to the angled buttocks just might be a physical impossibility.

The catalogue’s curator, Sjaar van Heugyen writes that the drawing, “…makes no concessions to the expectations of the academy,” and that “realistic expression prevails over anatomical correctness.” It could be that it is that same dominance of “realistic expression,” and even what the same curator describes as “the somewhat ‘unfortunate’ right leg,” that are integral in separating this remarkable and stunning little work from so many lesser, but academically and anatomically correct drawings.

Having spent more time than I wish to admit, relative to the results achieved, in sketching, drawing and rendering, I would offer that this simple graphite study, despite its flaws, is one of the most arresting and beautifully executed drawings I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem that there is a single change or correction that could in any way improve this work as it stands.

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A Credible Creationism

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You Had To Be There; 1951 and “A Place In The Sun”

t12633pzoe21Watching the Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of 1951’s blockbuster hit “A Place in the Sun,” with three other pre-war WW II-vintage friends, my own deconstructions of how the film had not aged all that well over the intervening fifty-eight years, raised some hackles with one of my fellow viewers. She had loved the movie in 1951, and did not appreciate hearing the ironic delight as we pointed out the now campy, corny and embarrassing aspects of the production.

Great art supposedly can transcend time, but a popular movie like “A Place in the Sun,” it picked up six Academy Awards, like almost all commercial art, ends up trapped within its context, within its moment. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie, maybe it’s a great movie, but whatever it is, it’s embedded irrevocably within the conventions, assumptions and the craft of movie-making as they existed in a time and a place. It is difficult to watch “A Place in the Sun” without being reminded constantly that it was made in Hollywood in 1951.

Think of the carpet-chewing performance by Raymond Burr as the prosecuting D.A., or of the sound track that telegraphs every emotional transition, and there’s the pre-feminist, pre-pill “American Tragedy” underlying the screenplay goes back to a 1906 novel. Best of all, try and look into the gorgeous gauzy face of a pre-Nicky Hilton Elizabeth Taylor without thinking of what’s yet to come in her life, or gaze upon the terminal handsomeness of a Montgomery Clift, and forget that he’s as yet still in the closet. It’s impossible to deny knowing all that’s been learned since 1951 and watch a movie like this in innocence. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, but In its presentation, the picture is so heavily laden with its own time and place that it almost necessarily distracts current viewers in a way a well-made contemporary movie can’t; but certainly will, given enough time.

Watching old movies, and I do love to watch them, I am forced by the distance between then and now, to watch on multiple levels, something I don’t or can’t do with contemporary films because the distances are as yet too close. Old movies, movies removed from the zeitgeist of their making, no matter how good, nearly always become artifacts whose incidental details can overwhelm a later viewer from what the creators of the piece were trying to do. I am told that occasionally a movie becomes timeless. I wish I could think of even one, but I keep coming up empty.

A Hopper Moment

images1In the Arts and Leisure Section of today’s New York Times, a case is made for the influence of Edward Hopper upon the course of American photography. Seems like a no-brainer. 

As it was for many Americans, my own “Aha” moment in terms of coming to art in any kind of meaningful way began with Hopper. In the Spring of 1952, I was fourteen years old and had a newspaper route that included delivering a weekend edition early on Sunday mornings. 

One afternoon, daydreaming my way through another high school afternoon, absentmindedly flipping through my English Lit. text, I happened upon a full-color reproduction of  Hopper’s classic urban scene, “Sunday Morning.” In an instant, I knew that I was looking at the real thing. Implicit in my reaction to that angled early morning sunlight on those so familiar, though never before seen storefronts, was an understanding that this, and not cherubs, not crucifixion allegories, not genre painting of noble peasants, was what art was about. For the first time in my life, I saw that the reality of human existence, my own included, could be presented in terms that granted some measure of transcendence.  

Let Us Now Praise Photorealism

images-11On a recent watercolor workshop, we were invited to bring art books to share with the group. I knew that my selection of painters would get at best mixed reviews, but I   wanted to test some nascent theories of my own about painters and painting. I choose two large-format retrospectives, one Robert Bechtle and the other, Richard Estes, both  reigning deans of photorealism. The reactions were predictable. Polite rejections of work by my fellow painters on the bases that the stuff looked just too much like photography. “What’s the point of painting like that?” This came despite the fact that almost one quarter of the plates in the Bechtle book were watercolors.

Bechtle’s watercolors of mundane suburban motifs are a path into one of the essential contradictions in the nature of photorealism painting as fine art. In those watercolors, particularly in the enlarged details, Bechtle’s mastery of traditional watercolor technique leaps from the pages. Despite the photographic effect of the image, there is no mistaking that these are nothing less than extremely accomplished and painterly watercolors. The same is true for the watercolors of another photorealist, Ralph Goings, whose back and forth between media had opened my eyes to the use of abstraction to create an effect otherwise taken for a mechanical process.

Richard Estes shows only oils, and among many figurative purists he is reflexively rejected for the photographic dazzle of his work. Unlike Bechtel and Goings, there are no Estes watercolors or drawings to force the viewer into considering why these are paintings of the highest order. To realize just what Estes accomplishes with pigments and brushes, the paintings have to seen in person. Looking at reproductions of Estes’ photorealism in oil, no matter how perfect the reproductive process, the paintings will always appear to look just like (ready for this), photographs! Duh… 

images8At a recent Estes show in New York, I rediscovered how much I like what he does and finally realized why so many fellow-painters believe they don’t care for photorealism. Estes’ paintings, no matter the subject; urban scenes, store-window reflections, forest interiors or Antarctic glaciers are always on a gigantic scale, six-feet by four-feet as an example. Looked at from five, six or from twenty-five feet back, they can pass for nothing more than gorgeous enlargements of color photographs. Get close, get very close, and you will discover that Estes’ works are the essence of, and in the traditions, of painting in the classical sense of the term. Up close, his work is pure painterly abstraction in the service of an illusion. And I would argue, that the effect of Estes work in its simplest terms is to force the viewer into considering in entirely new ways, the aesthetics of the world he or she inhabits.

If you ever find yourself in front of an Estes oil or a Bechtle watercolor, take the time to move slowly forward and back, forward and back, until the contrast between photographic effect and the technique of pure painting manifests itself, and if you are really lucky, knocks you on your ass.