Monday, July 20, 2015

Van Gogh

A  recent documentary film on Vincent (the way he signed his paintings) has stirred some thoughts about him and the world of art in general.  It was a fine film because it did not depict Van Gogh as a crazed mad man throwing paint at a canvas (Kirk Douglas), but as a thoughtful, well educated man with a problem that has yet to be diagnosed.

He was shy, introverted, and dedicated to bettering the world around him.  He had little art training, but worked very hard at his craft.  Despite his illness, he procuced a large body of work in a short ten year period.  There was and exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of his work at Arles.  I figured that he must have done three paintings a day, and they were all masterpieces, or close to it.

He developed a style of drawing and applying paint that is unique.  Perhaps influenced by the Impressionists, he used small strokes that follow the contours of his subject.  So logical!  There must be hundreds of strokes in each painting.  And yet his output was immense.  On the last day of his painting life, he did several canvases.

I visited his gravesite at Auber and was moved at its simplicity.  The church had refused to grant space because of his apparent suicide.  But thay finally approved a six by six foot plot, covered by ivy, with a simple cross as a marker.   There, he is buried side-by-side with his beloved brother, Theo, who died six months after Vincent.  When I left the graveyard, I turned to the right and there was an open field, and I was moved, thinking it might have been the site of the painting of the field with black crows, one of his last.

His canvases are not the result of his problem.  He worked vigorously when he was well and able.  His style of  painting was the result of hard work and thought  His love of nature and the subjects he painted is obvious.  He wanted ,most of all, to  leave the world a better place, and he certainly did.

At the end it was mentioned that he sold only a few paintings in his lifetime.  Of course, now, each is valued in the millions.  I doubt if Vincent would have appreciated that fact.  He wanted is work to lift the viewers in spirit and love for mankind.  When art becomes a commodity, it loses its moral value.  An investment can't reach the heart.  So much of today's art is machine-made and it is difficult for it to generate the emotion that those thousands of strokes by Vincent create.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Meaning of Paint

A Profile in the recent New Yorker has stimulated a question.  It is a portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist, a curator of a London gallery and a powerful figure in the world of “Art”.  He is skeptical of painting because he thinks it is difficult to do meaningful work in that medium.  One of his favorite artists is Marina Abromavic.  A recent exhibition of hers was an empty room which she occupied.  Participants were invited to join Ms. Abromavic to combine their psychic energy with hers.

The question then is, “What does the world do with the hundreds of artists who like to paint ?”  I say, even must paint.  The “Art” world  is consumed by the manufactured art of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and so called c art, where whatever the physical expression, an explanation is necessary to give it its meaningfulnes.

 The nouveau riche seemed to follow the leadings of intellectuals and powers in the “Art” world such as Mr. Obrist and pay millions for this art that they may or may not like, as a statement that they are part of this cutting edge thrust of “the New.”

 Thus the “Art World” has become a stratospheric arena that has little to do with those who just paint.  An article in the NY Times told of artists who live in Miami, who are not benefitted by “Basel Miami”, where the Lear Jets of the wealthy fly in from around the world to be told what is hot this year, but do not go beyond the haloed booths of that exhibition to look at the art in the local galleries.  Is no-one interested in finding budding artists on their own?

I know I will be called a vender of sour grapes, but I am not yet senile, and I am not stupid.  I find the so called meaningful meanderings of the intellectual, conceptual explanations to be vapid mind games leading nowhere, and much of the art is cold with no craft or sensuality.

What then is the world to do with all of those who must paint?  Perhaps a new catagory can be created.  Let those who inhabit the world of “Art” continue to live and play their intellectual games for even more big money, and create another art world where artists are not competing in the commercialism of the “Art” world, a world where collectors are really looking to find an artist whose work they actually can’t resist.

I don’t know what to call this world.  It isn’t “Art”, and it isn’t just craft.  It‘s a world where painters are mostly ignored and paint because they love to and must.  Maybe we could call it “The Hidden World of Paint.”   

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LOST MEMORIES


The first chapter of Ken Follett’s “Fall of Giants” tells of the horrendous introduction of a Welsh teenager to his first job working in a coal mine. The terrible conditions reminded me that my grandfather, for whom I was named, worked in the mines in western Pennsylvania. He died when I was four or five, and I only have a faint memory of him. He, and his brothers immigrated from Scotland via Ireland in the late 19th century. I remember being told that he had been a mine superintendent. But Follett’s book made me think that he must have begun working in a mine as had the fictional Billy Williams. ! !
The miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia were virtual slaves when I was young. I would see the gray barracks-like housing on the bleak hillsides. They were paid just less than they needed for company housing, rent, food, and other needs, all purchased at the company store. The result was that they were in constant debt to their employer, and unable to get free of financial imprisonment. Not many people today remember John L. Lewis, whose union fought the mine owners for better conditions for the workers.!
The book made me wonder how my grandfather made his way to this country. How he must have worked his way up from the depths of the mine to become superintendent. And how he and my German grandmother successfully raised four sons and four daughters. I was told that this self-educated immigrant was a voracious reader. He read books that would help him keep up with his college-educated children. Wherever the family moved, he would start the local band and the local soccer team.!
I have his cheap violin hanging on my living-room wall. My aunts and uncles were bright and successful for the time. One became an electrical engineer, two were educators, another a nurse. and my father became a professional musician.!
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So much family history has disappeared. There is no way, now, to find what happened. I don’t think my grandfather was a saint. My father talked of physical punishment. This trait would have been passed on to my father if my mother had not stopped it. My grandmother lived much longer, but she never talked with me about her life. She was a small woman and it is hard to imagine that she had borne eight children. She was always alert and aware of the happenings in her family. My aunts and uncles lives are material for another blog.!
I have just finished a fictionalized history of New York City by Edward Rutherford, and now am launching into Follett’s similar version of the 20th Century. Perhaps I should recreate my grandfather’s life.!
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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Steubenville



The article in a recent New York Times concerning an alleged rape of a high-school girl by two star football players on the Steubenville, Ohio high-school football team resurrected memories of my time living in Steubenville.

During World War ll my parents and I lived in Steubenville when I attended junior high-school  and half of my freshman year in high-school.  Steubenville and Weirton West Virginia across the Ohio River were a center for steel mills spewing out war materials for the military.  My father was an electrician for the Pennsylvania Railroad helping to keep the trains running smoothly, also valuable to the war effort.

The local newspaper, the Herald Star, was my first employer.  I had a paper route of more than a hundred customers.  This was before TV and everyone took the paper.  My route was contained in a few city blocks.  A group of us who had routes would wait each afternoon at the neighborhood grocery store for our bundled papers.  Often to pass the time, we would play touch football in the street, dodging the busses as they went by.  After the paper truck dropped our papers off, we would untie them and put our papers in a bag with a shoulder strap and walk our route folding as we went and throwing the papers onto the waiting porches.  There was an art to this.  A missed porch meant  regaining the paper and making sure it reached its chosen target.  Saturday morning was collection day, and we went door to door to each customer for payment, taking the collection down the hill to the paper office to pay for the papers we had received,   keeping a small portion for our daily efforts.

But about the NY Times article.  It’s point was that two local star athletes were likely to go unpunished for their heinous acts against a drunk and almost comatose young girl because the high-school football team was the main prideful organization in a now declining rust-belt community.  This team had won state championships in a competitive group of high-schools up an down the Ohio River.  Schools such as Martins Ferry, Akron, and Massilon, the home of Paul Brown who started a career in that high-school that ended as the coach of one of the greatest professional football teams, which is still named for him.  The local pride in the Steubenville team was more important than the wellbeing of that young woman to some, including the school officials and the coach.

What happened to me is minor compared to the experience of that poor girl, but it is indicative of the same attitude, and I have never forgotten it.

The high-school, when I attended it, was large and intimidating to me.  The event I remember took place in the gym.  It was the first gym class of my freshman year.  The gym was dark.  After the instructor took attendance he disappeared.  I later realized that he was giving the upper-class men a chance to haze the new freshmen.  I did my best to be as unobtrusive as possible.  I saw some of my fellow freshmen being worked over pretty well.  After a bit there was a very large person standing in front of me and I was certainly apprehensive.  He looked at me for a few seconds, took his right foot and swiped my feet from under me.  I crashed to the floor and lay there hoping nothing else was going to happen to me. 

I found out later that the large person was Don Joyce, the star quarterback of the football team.  When attending a game, I noticed that he was also was the punter.  It was a cold winter game, and he was punting with a bare foot.  He went on to be a lineman for the Minnesota Vikings.

I later moved to a smaller city near Pittsburgh and played on an inept football team. But even there several hundred fans would turn out on Saturday afternoon to see our attempts at the game.  As in Steubenville football mania existed because nothing else much happened in the town.  This kind of hero worship corrupts sports and results in the events written about Steubenville and Penn State and many other schools around the country and I am afraid it cannot be reversed. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Life in Art: The Army

The summer after college graduation I applied to Yale Drama School to study set design.  And was accepted. 

That summer I was invited to do sets at a summer theater on Long Island, the Gateway Theater.  It was a theater in a barn and a theater-in-the-round.  Not too many sets needed for that type of staging.  I did do some props when needed and also played a few bit parts. I was a clown in the “Little Prince”, and played a dual role in the “Mad Woman of  Chaillot.”  I was a rag picker and a baron, roles that required costume changes between the acts.  As a baron I needed to be serious while Robert Duvall, a fledging actor playing the part of a poor man, offered me all his money.  He was hilarious.  I don’t understand why he has never played a humorous role during his illustrious career.

When I got home at the end of the summer I received a notice that I had been drafted.  The Korean War still needed recruits.  Of course Yale had to be put off.  I don’t imagine they ever missed me.

I passed the physical and was put on a train to Fort Belvedere in Maryland, and then another to Fort Knox Kentucky, the home of the Third Armored Division, General Patton’s group.  But it was my misfortune to be placed in infantry basic training.  I was placed in an eight week training program.  They asked if anyone wanted to attend Officer’s Candidate School and if course I applied.  Thus, after three weeks of training I was transferred to a sixteen week training program.  This meant, of course, that it would take nineteen weeks to complete basic training.  That included two weeks on the rifle range with our M1A1’s, bivouacking in January, many hikes with our equipment on our backs, and other treats. 

At the end of basic, I was assigned to an eight week leadership school, in a holding pattern, until a decision was made on whether I was officer material. It turned out, I wasn’t.  But somehow the fact that I had had art training was known to those who ran the school and there was an opening in the Training Aids Unit. Thus, after completing the program, I was kept there, as permanent party, instead of being sent off to the front lines in Korea. 

For this I must thank Sgt. Jerry Allison, who was in charge of the unit. He would have a great influence on me.  He had studied with Frank Riley at the Art Students League and was an accomplished illustrator. Seeing his work, I began to think I would rather do that than make a career of  the theater.  I had taken a leave in New York City to see my friend Jon Jostyn and had visited a Mrs. Kelley, who produced shows at the Roxie and convinced me that to become a set designer was not an easy road.  My goal was changing.

 I was to remain in training aids  for the next year doing training aids charts, names on helmet liners, fancy desk plates for officers, and signs that said “Keep off the Grass”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Life in Art, Part2

My mother suggested that I attend a small religious college in southern Illinois.  My high school was in a rust-belt suburb of Pittsburgh.  The building had been condemned and the curriculum should have been.  I had taken four years of Latin because Miss Nessbit was the best teacher in the school and made that dry topic fascinating.  There were no art classes.  I never took a book home and got good grades.  I really hadn’t given college a thought and easily acquiesced to her proposal.

I spent the summer after high school loading baggage into Greyhound busses at the Pittsburgh terminal on the graveyard shift, three to eleven PM.  It is called that because one loses touch with the rest of the world.  You are out of sync with everything.  So I was ready, in September, for a new experience.  And I was more than ready to leave Carnegie.

I took the train to Alton, Illinois and disembarked with my meager wardrobe and no idea of what I was headed toward.  I was greeted by a small bus nick-named the Blue Goose.  A few students and their luggage were loaded on the well-used vehicle and we headed into rural Illinois. As we rumbled the twenty country miles to the campus, I, a city boy, became nervous about what I had committed myself to.   Alton was on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis and the college was also on the river situated on three hundred foot bluffs.  The view across the river into the farmlands of Missouri was spectacular.

Since my topic is art, I will briefly say that the small campus was inhabited by dedicated professors, and small classes, and an embracing experience enabled me to mature at a gradual rate, and prepared me for life after college.  I did find that my meager high school education had not equipped me for the intellectual atmosphere of college, and I bumbled through most classes.  I still have dreams about not being prepared for some mysterious class.  But I became dedicated to making art.

The art department was a small wooden building that was so fragile that the the floor shook when walked on.  The main instructor was a small dapper man named James Green who was a New England trained watercolorist.  He was facile with the medium and easily turned out paintings of boats and fanciful scenes the were reminiscent of Maine and Massachusetts.  He sold these pleasing paintings to alumni and parents, and was the only professor who drove a Cadillac convertible.  He created an atmosphere that let one create in their own way.  He had a collection of books and magazines that led me to admire artists like Lionel Feininger, John Marin, Graham Southerland,  and John Piper.

Watercolor was my first medium and is still an important part of my work. 

My first art class at the college was a basic one, and I tried to paint a man on a raft poling his way on an unnamed body of water.  A student assistant was conducting the class that day.  When I asked him what I needed to do with the painting, he said calmly, “Burn it.”  He wasn’t wrong. 

Being a small liberal arts college, I was able to take the usual courses in English, the sciences, history, and even logic.  Other activities included taking part in sports and singing in a quartet and the college choir.  Since school and the army did not permit me to start a professional career until I was twenty-seven, I have wondered if it would not have been better to have gone to a professional art school directly.  But since all of these  varied activities are still part of my life, I think it has enriched my life profusely.

If you remember, cartooning was my early goal.  Now I was introduced to painting.  I can’t remember any direct instruction I received, but found my own way mostly by looking at reproductions of other artists’ work.  In my senior year, I entered a juried exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum.  It was a large semi-abstract watercolor done on matt board.  It was accepted.  I think I surprised the art department.

One of the projects I was asked to do that year was a set design for “The Seagull”, the theater production that Spring.  When the curtain opened, the set received applause.  I thought, “I must become a set designer.”

I graduated with a BA degree prepared for nothing professionally.  When young, that doesn’t seem a problem.



 



 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

MY LIFE IN ART Part i

My Life in Art
Part 1

My mother claimed that I drew pictures on the carpet with my baby shoe. Many years later I have switched to pens and brushes. The recent DeKooning exhibit at MOMA showed his later years consumed by large paintings with simple sweeping brush strokes. Older artists often turn to abstraction or simpler approaches. My later years have taken a different direction. For reasons unbeknown to me each painting seems to get more intricate and my number 2 brush needs to often be replaced. It has not always been that way.

The first drawing lesson I can remember happened in a back pew of the First Presbyterian Church in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. I was young, pre-school, and the sermon was boring. To keep me occupied my father took a pencil and paper and showed me how to draw the profile of an automobile. I then proceeded to copy it. This was the last interest my father ever showed in my art career that I can remember. My parents never asked at any time what I was doing with my art that I can think of. I was pretty much a self-starter.

My next interest in art came with the inception of the comic book. When Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Submariner first appeared, I was in junior high-school and just the right age to latch on to them. They were a dime apiece, and I had a paper route that supplied me with the income I needed to purchase a few each month. Once again I would copy them with little pencil drawings. By doing this I got to know the different styles of drawing. My favorite was a character named Black Hawk. He led a band of heroes who each had a weird little airplane styled to the personality of the pilot. Of course month by month one of the heroes was killed by our Axis enemies.

At this time we lived in Steubenville Ohio. We seemed to live in communities that fostered singers. Canonsburg was the home of Perry Como, and Steubenville of Dean Martin. I never met either of them but I believe Perry’s father cut my hair, being one of the local barbers. If I had had the insight to save those early comic books I would be a multi-millionaire today.

The first serious interest in art came when I was in high-school, if you can consider cartooning a serious art. I read all the weekly magazines; Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Life. They were filled with wonderful story illustrations and cartoons. I became a student of the different cartoonists and decided I would like to be one of them. I began to submit ideas by mail to these unknown cartoon editors and acquired a large pile of rejection slips. Of course my style of drawing was primitive since I had no training. It is interesting to me that the present cartoon editor of the New Yorker seems to have reincarnated my style of the time. This, I fear, is a comment on the quality of drawing of the cartoons in that magazine now.

Which brings me to my discovery of that publication. I heard somehow that there was a magazine that had the best cartoons called the New Yorker and I became the only student in my ghetto high-school who read The New Yorker from cover to cover each week. And the cartoons were glorious. Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Mary Petty, Whitney Darrow Jr., and many many others inspired me. The ideas were sophisticated and the drawings were exquisite. I still remember Mr. Darrow’s cartoon of a nanny reading to her young wards, “Coked to the gills, Rodney lunged toward the supine figure on the red plush couch.”

I also submitted to the New Yorker my ideas with the same results. I never sold one, but became more educated by that magazine than by my feeble high-school curriculum.

I just became aware that Woody Allen was supporting his family by selling jokes when a sophomore in high-school. I’m afraid I didn’t have that same success, but art was now part of me and I had begun.