A portrait of Lenin, from the photograph of him lying in state. This is one of those paintings that makes you want to pick up a brush immediately. It reminds me of Michael Borremans, who had a knock-out show at Zwirner a while back, stunningly good, but since then. . . hm.) And this is stronger than his work. With both, less is more. I like Ghenie’s sense of humor. This interpretation of Lenin’s dead face reminds me of Blake’s life mask.
After four decades of painting—actually a little more than that—it might be something of a mystery to a non-painter why I would put in five or six hours painting today, before or after three or four hours of doing work that brings in most of the money I need to pay bills. I sold seven paintings at my last show, so far my most successful show, measured in income, and yet through the sale of artwork I make only a small portion of the modest amount my wife and I need to continue living the way we do. Still, my ideal day is to paint for more than half of my working hours and then do what other work I need to do in order to keep my income at a level that sustains us. Why paint, though? Why not put those hours into something more lucrative? The short answer is, because I love it. It’s a necessity for me. But that’s little more than a tautology: I paint because I need to paint. Why do I love it? Why does any painter make pictures? What does it all mean? (And let’s be honest. I don’t love all of it. As Bill Santelli put it earlier today, there are long hours that feel like mowing the lawn with scissors.)
I’ve been circling around this question for several years here, getting glimpses of an answer from different angles, at least in my case. And, when I have some time, I want to write at length about why painting points to a way of being engaged with the world that seems in greater and greater peril, with the rise of technology. All genuine work is in peril now, but especially craftsmanship rooted in tradition. Matthew Crawford’s new book has much to say about this, as did his first one. What’s become clearer for me are the motivations that don’t drive me to paint. (I might be better off if these other motivations did drive me, but they don’t.) It doesn’t depend on making money, though the income helps considerably and makes it easier to do the work. The metaphor of the pinball game used by the engineers to describe their work in Soul of a New Machine applies here: winning the game is getting to play another free one. It’s self-perpetuating. It doesn’t depend on recognition or exhibitions. Last year, I had work in eight shows—five of them juried. I’ve applied to nine juried shows this year and got into only one. What does that mean? Nothing, in terms of my dedication to painting. I don’t need to hear people talking about me either: my dealer here, Jim Hall, put it succinctly when he said recently that so much art that continues to be made on the assumption that it’s possible to be “cutting edge” often seems to be work created in order to be talked about. Work that offers little purchase for a discursive mind is considered decorative or otherwise beneath consideration. Some of my favorite artists created pictures about which it’s hard to say anything useful other than write a poem to honor them: you see their world and want to live in it by looking at it or singing about it. The foremost example would be Van Gogh, of course, but there are dozens of others. So being talked about doesn’t motivate me—or rather not being talked about has little effect on my eagerness to make a painting.
So, my situation hasn’t changed since the long years when I painted and didn’t show my work. My eagerness hasn’t waned, because the act of making a painting is the point: it’s both the means and the end. When I sit down to paint, I still feel as if there is nothing else I would rather do than make a painting, until maybe, hours later, I get up to make a sandwich, and I’m motivated to start spreading peanut butter instead of paint. Whether I’m recognized or rewarded makes no difference. I painted for decades and rarely showed anything I was doing, partly because I didn’t want to and partly because my sort of representational work seemed to have no place in what was happening in the world of art. It wasn’t until the economy collapsed in 2008 that I got serious about showing and possibly selling work—a pretty funny and Quixotic bit of timing, given the economy since then. But it was a good indication that my motives didn’t grow out of whatever the world was going to give me in return for the work. I guess I’m saying that the motivation to paint is circular. Or is it recursive? I need to paint because I want to keep painting. I need to see what it shows me. Which will get me nowhere, other than where I already am, maybe to see it for the first time. So, for now, I’ll step out of that loop of thinking, and I get back to just doing it.
One of two paintings by Jose Sanchez (Felox) chosen for Manifest’s INPA 4.
The current show at Oxford Gallery, “The Condition of Music,” grows on you. Walk a few circuits around the gallery and spend time with individual work; it will open up and begin to resonate. Some pieces, though, make their impression immediately: Chris Baker adds a poetic twist to one of his beautifully geometric construction sites by placing a musical quartet of hard-hatted players atop one of his buildings in “Building Suite.” At first you don’t realize they’re there, but then you spot them, letting their concert rain down gently on the work below. It’s a surprisingly poetic touch and reminded me, in a good way, of some of the best New Yorker covers, a meditation on the emotional polarities of city life. Tom Insalaco’s night cityscape opens a colorful new chapter in his work. The heavy traffic on a rainy, twisting highway creates a shining, brilliant-hued study in light and dark, with car lights strung along their lanes like musical notations on a staff. A post-rain rush hour, in what’s probably an early winter dark, never looked so good. Ray Hassard’s “Song” MORE
This is an interesting perspective on the bull market for enormously expensive, high-end art. From the New York Times. The analysis of the fractal patterns of income distribution in the highest percentiles isn’t something I’ve read before:
The astronomical rise in prices for the most-sought-after works of art over the last generation is in large part the story of rising global inequality. At its core, this is the simplest of economic math. The supply of Picasso paintings or Giacometti sculptures (one of which sold for $141 million in the same auction this week) is fixed. But the number of people with the will and the resources to buy top-end art is rising, thanks to the distribution of extreme wealth.
One of the most important findings of the leading economists who study inequality is that wealth and incomes at the very top are “fractal.” What they mean is that when you zoom in on the upper end of wealth distribution, patterns repeat themselves in an ever more finely grained pattern.
Partners at law firms who are in the top 1 percent of all earners have seen their incomes rise faster than successful dentists who are in the top 10 percent. But by a similar margin C.E.O.s of large companies who are in the top 0.1 percent are seeing incomes rise faster than those law firm partners. Hedge fund managers in the top 0.01 percent are similarly outperforming the C.E.Os.
And the kind of people who can comfortably afford to pay a nine-figure sum for a Picasso, the top 0.001 percent, say, are doing still better than that.
The Washington Post commented on the recent $179 million Picasso sale:
This art market boom isn’t as pretty a picture as it seems, however. First, there are worries that it’s all a bubble that could burst at any moment. But then there are bigger concerns about the wider societal costs of such an inflated art scene.
The person who purchased Picasso’s masterpiece may be anonymous. But there are signs that we are all paying the price for such extravagant private auctions. Public museums can’t keep up with soaring prices. Now the magisterial “Women of Algiers” could disappear back into a dark mansion den or, even worse, a climate-controlled, tax-exempt airport warehouse until it has appreciated sufficiently in value.
One of the first place winning paintings from Erin Wozniak, in the Manifest INPA4 competition/publication. The painting is astonishing enough, but even moreso when you see how small it is.
This guy was young and going places–to Russia at one point to meet with Trotsky, believe it or not, though he was disappointed by what he saw there. By the end of his life, in his Yale lecture, he sounds disenchanted with government as a whole.
“Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on . . .” –William Blake
I’ve read several stories recently, in Forbes, the Guardian, and at other sites, that question whether or not art is a good investment right now. The implied question is: are we or are we not in a “bubble.” The discussions are built around the highly-publicized prices of the most expensive work sold at the art fairs and in auctions. From my remote perch here in Western New York, where I pay little attention to how creative work gets monetized—except when I try to figure modest prices for what I do—it’s an issue that seems to have little impact on me and most of the artists I consider friends. We all price our work in a range that’s reasonable enough to be safe for anyone who buys the work. It’s a safe expenditure for a couple reasons. First, there isn’t that much room for the price to drop if the market for art somehow were to collapse (as real estate did in 2008). When the bottom fell out of housing prices in 2008, homes in Rochester hardly dropped in value. They hadn’t skyrocketed up in price during the real estate bubble, therefore they were actually valued close to their worth to most families who actually wanted to live in them, not invest in real estate for a quick profit. Second, and more importantly, the people who buy my work, and the work of others I know personally, don’t buy it as an investment, but simply because they want to own it. They know how much labor and talent goes into the work and they see the price as an accurate reflection of both, not as a fleeting marker of an investment’s worth during a continuous boom in value across the art world.
That second point was why I found it so encouraging to have sold seven paintings at my recent Oxford Gallery show. Some were very small, and some were among the largest in the exhibit, so prices had little to do with whether or not people bought the work. The collectors who bought the work—and one in particular who wanted to buy a painting but didn’t—based their purchases on the desire to look at the paintings. (The one who wanted to buy but refrained simply had no more wall space for new work and she had her eye on one of the larger paintings.) You would think these factors would invariably be the case in sales of art, but I suspect that much of the work that sells for millions of dollars now could just as easily go into a vault somewhere as onto someone’s wall. And that money could have been spent just as readily on shares of Apple. I’ve communicated with several of my collectors, and they have said repeatedly how much they love the work they now own, how much what they get from looking at it is worth what they spent on it. For these people, the vagaries of an inflated art market have no relevance at all. I’m sure they don’t want the value of the work to drop—who would? But it isn’t a concern, because they have no plan to ever sell it. What could be better—for me and for them? It’s how the making, selling and ownership of art ought to work, every time.
Bill Santelli called my attention to this great Times story about Leo Bates, an artist whose career, once he went into seclusion, followed a trajectory somewhat like Vivian Maier’s, into obscurity and then out of it, after death. He dropped out of view after a big show at the Albright-Knox, which was itself a remarkable achievement, so he’d been on a path toward more conventional success, and yet gave up on it in favor of success in making the work itself. His devotion to the work, despite everything, is inspiring:
As SoHo boomed, Mr. Bates became more alienated. His working-class roots were at odds with the culture enveloping the scene he once knew.
“The glitz, glitter and boutiques. It became about fashion, money,” said his wife, a librarian who had lived with Mr. Bates in his Grand Street loft throughout the ’70s. “That wasn’t something that Leo…” her voice broke off. “He was a painter,” she said.
And in practical terms, he could not afford to stay. When he lost the lease on the loft, Mr. Bates decided to withdraw. In November 1978, he sold a batch of paintings. Using the proceeds, he made a down payment on 367 Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, moved into the apartment above the storefront and all but vanished.
“That’s the last time he sold anything,” Mrs. Bates said.
He was 34.
In the following years, with the help of his wife’s family, he bought two more walk-ups on the same block in Park Slope, and he became, at least in the eyes of the world, a landlord.
In Manhattan, he soon faded from people’s minds. He didn’t show up at Fanelli’s anymore, Ms. Fish said, and “if you didn’t see the person there, you just lost touch.”
In 1982, Mr. Bates went to a closing party for a show of Mr. Rappaport’s work on Downing Street in the West Village. As Mr. Rappaport recalled, Mr. Bates was upset with him, because Mr. Rappaport had used a small gift from his father to take out an advertising spread in Artforum magazine to promote the show.
“Fairly early in the evening, Leo got up after having a few drinks and he said: ‘Richard is a fool. He just demonstrated how closed the art world is and what a fool I am to even try,’ ” Mr. Rappaport remembered. “And he picked up a serving plate and hurled it at one of my paintings on the wall.” The two never spoke again.
Mr. Bates had a few paintings in group shows in the early ’80s, but from the time he moved to Brooklyn, virtually all that people saw in his hand were the signs he hung outside his buildings: apartment available, inquire inside.
“We didn’t talk to anyone about the art,” Mrs. Bates said.
Mrs. Bates worked in a private library at Bank of America, and they lived on her salary and their income from rentals, which Mr. Bates invested in stocks. But if Mr. Bates had stopped hanging out with painters, he had not stopped painting. In Brooklyn, he painted and drew obsessively. Asked why her husband had stopped selling his work, Mrs. Bates said: “He wanted to keep his body of work together. He wanted to show the progression.”
. . . . Looking at Mr. Bates’s work, it is clear that something happened when he left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn. When he plunged into deep solitude, he found something new.
There were the muted tones of the Bowery years, the simple triangles, and then suddenly, an explosion of color, mesmerizing patterns.
After the initial burst, the paintings grew more austere. There was more negative space and the colors grew a bit fainter with the years, but the palette remained the same. As did his passion for geometry: Mr. Bates’s last paintings were huge X’s and chevrons that when examined closely revealed tiny grids of dabbed paint.
Mrs. Bates said she did not believe that her husband regretted his decision to work in obscurity. His goal had been not to pander to passing tastes, or to scatter his work to the four winds. He had just painted.
More about this excellent book by Matthew Crawford later, a great follow-up to his first, but couldn’t resist putting this out there, while I’m reading it:
“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear disgust in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.”
–Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
I think he means ethical formation in the sense of ethos, but I own’t argue.
Saville is one of my favorite painters, even though I don’t much enjoy looking at her work. I don’t think I could say this about any other painter. I’m always amazed at how she handles paint, though her subject matter and scale strike me as calculated and contrived. Her choice of grotesque imagery reminds me of Freud and Bacon, dutiful in its lurid depictions of human flesh, with an emphasis on paint for paint’s sake. With all of them, the point seems to be: we’re all just meat. OK, got it. Now what?
In this detail of a nude that appears to be a self-portrait, she’s squatting and exposing her crotch to a camera, having enclosed herself in mirrors that reflect various parts of her body. The way she translates the tones in her face is so masterful and abbreviated and soothingly pleasant–she summarizes areas of color so effectively and, it seems, effortlessly, and in this picture she’s breathing, just waiting to go do something less awkward. She’s thinking, How long do I have to subject myself to this? Those who know Adobe software will recognize qualities in the image that inspire admiration rather than dismissal of the technology, assuming it was involved. If not, all the more impressive. The colors are subtle and beautiful, in and of themselves, and they convey the beauty of her face, even while the full image is as arresting and flagrant as porn, which allows her to situate a lovely face in a painting outre enough to maintain critical respect. It’s a head fake. See what I’ve got? Made you flinch by shoving myself at you. Don’t worry, I won’t use it on you. Whew. It would be great to see her apply this same facility to commonplace things and people, rather than rely on the spectacle of unappealing bodies and body parts to get people to stop and not look away. So, I love this painting, despite itself. You can see it here.
My copies of the Manifest INPA 4 arrived today, and when I saw the three boxes containing them I realized I went overboard while ordering and now own three hardbound and four softbound copies of the International Painting Annual. I’m lucky and honored to have had two paintings picked for inclusion in the book, which may be the finest collection of work I’ve seen in any Manifest publication. There’s a special emphasis on the human figure in this one, and it’s quietly rousing to see bodies and faces, as well as the human skull I contributed, rendered in so many different ways, filtered through so many different perspectives and sensibilities. It’s a humbling, but consistently thrilling, experience to leaf through the book slowly and take in so much amazing work. The competition picks three winners–an astonishingly talented Erin Wozniak first and foremost with her comparatively tiny, simple and yet utterly alive figurative painting. The rest of us are presented as finalists–a nice way of singling out the three most remarkable artists and yet still offering ample recognition for the 92 others picked for the book, selected from 1560 entries by 563 artists from 32 different countries. This year, I’ve failed to get into the first four shows I’ve entered, which is how it goes some years, so the book arrived as a nice reminder that recognition is a cyclical phenomenon, coming and going on its own schedule, to its own rhythms. I’m going to post quite a few of my favorite paintings from the book over the next few weeks, with some brief comments. It’s great to read, up front, how Manifest is still gathering momentum, expanding its exhibition space and its programs, offering more and more opportunities for solo and group shows, simultaneously. If you want to see what people are doing with paint right now around the world, order a copy from Manifest. It’s well worth the price.
At our recent lunch, Rick Harrington reminded me of David Oleski’s work, and I returned to it, at his website, with pleasure. It’s gotten more subtle and complex in execution, and yet in a way even simpler in its effect, than when I looked a few years ago. It’s a remarkable way to start with Impressionism, especially Monet and Seurat, and somehow also evoke work from a century, as well, finding a home that somehow seems to link Mark Tobey with Morandi. I dread most greens, but he appears to have devoted countless hours to finding new ways to see that color. I like how his areas of color seem to sit quietly and stay where they are, without any sense that one area of paint is moving toward another, no hint of gesture, as if a realistic image of a pear has settled into simpler patterns, all the details disappearing like sediment into a map of peach, green, yellow, and ochre. It’s a mystery how he breaks up what he sees into the cross-hatches he’s trying now. His statement, below, suggests that he contends with something I’ve encountered–that many potential collectors see his work as decorative, since it’s beautiful and devoid of metaphoric content. It’s all perceptual, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an attempt to give vision a resonance that evokes something like wisdom and joy. It would look great in a room, but that doesn’t mean it’s decor. I like, in his statement, he talks so much about craft and materials.
I came to the realization that many people don’t really understand what MORE
Can’t wait to see this just an hour’s drive away. From ArtVoice:
A few weeks prior to his exhibit entitled The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke, which opens on Friday (4/10) at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Burke met with Artvoice at the office of L.B. Madison Fine Art near his home in Niagara Falls, NY, where much of the work for the upcoming show was being gathered in preparation for display at the gallery.
Moving quickly around a small, sunny room crowded with canvases stacked several deep against the walls, it’s clear that Burke is enthusiastic about his upcoming exhibit—the largest of his career. He points out some early works of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, commissioned for Vanity Fair magazine when it resumed publishing in 1983. The works are smaller—maybe 2 feet by 3 feet—done on cardboard canvasses. “You can see I was poor,” he laughs, “Not that I’m rich now.”
From Manifest, check out the impressive prize this year for what has to be the most exacting art competition anywhere. Time to get to work:
The 6th Annual MANIFEST PRIZE
$5000 award + solo feature exhibit of the winning work
Open to works of any media, any genre/style, any size…
We are very excited to announce that the annual Manifest Prize (ONE) award is increasing to $5,000. This underscores our non-profit organization’s strong desire to reward, showcase, celebrate, and document the most exceptional artwork being made today, and to do this in a non-commercial public context. Further, it is to incentivize the creation of excellent art. Manifest’s mission is centered on championing the importance of quality in visual art. This project is one aspect of the realization of that mission.
The entry process for the 6th annual Manifest Prize award (ONE 6) is now open.
There are no restrictions on submissions to The Manifest Prize. Artists who have been included in previous Manifest projects are always welcome to submit to any future project, including the Manifest Prize.
MEDIA: Open to any and all traditional and non-traditional visual arts media.
Submission deadline: October 1, 2015
For complete info visit: http://www.manifestgallery.org/one
A show of Rick Harrington’s paintings opened a few days ago at the Vilona Gallery in Boulder, Colorado. Rick, and his son Todd, met me at the Gatehouse for lunch last week, followed by an hour-long tour of the Memorial Art Gallery. As a road warrior, Rick is my hero. He has logged many thousands and thousands of miles, tens of thousands probably, driving his work to juried fairs around the country. He works hard and then plays hard, too, fly fishing or whitewater kayaking somewhere within a drive of his shows out West and elsewhere. His painting and his immersion in these recreational ventures into the wild are two sides of one activity for him. Someone clever might be able to make the case that they may simply be one activity viewed from two different points in time. He says the process of exploring and interacting with nature, as a prelude to the painting, immerses him in the world, while en plein air painting makes him more of a static observer. His most ambitious work so far has been a series of large, quasi-abstract landscape paintings attached to windowed boxes full of natural artifacts he has collected from the particular place depicted in the painting. (It reminds me of Burchfield’s quirky, obsessive attempt to depict sounds and other non-visual sensations in his paintings, all in the hope of triggering a deeper identification with nature in the viewer). For the past sixteen years, Rick has relied exclusively on his painting for income. His wife, Darby, is a college administrator and a writer, and her steadier income has balanced the ups and downs of Rick’s. Since 2008, the battle has been tougher, but he’s still making it work.
We talked about the shows I’d seen in New York City, and Todd agreed that Donatello was not only one of the greatest sculptors in history, but also one of our favorite Ninja Turtles. Rick can be hard to hear MORE
Others say I’m no good
But I’m just a natural born travellin’ man
Doin’ what I think I should, oh yeah
Doin’ what I think I should
Spend it fast as I can
For a wailing song and a good guitar . . .
The only things that I understand, poor boy
The only things that I understand.
My momma said, “Hey son
Travel where you will and grow to be a man
And sing what must be sung, poor boy
Sing what must be sung.”
This piece from Hyperallergic is a great, accurate overview of Arthur Danto’s singular contribution to art philosophy. Reading After The End of Art was a liberating and crucial experience for me, though his conclusions at the end of the book were dispiriting. Essentially he asserted that, in the Sixties, art arrived at the end of the long history of its struggle toward greater and greater creative freedom. In that decade, and ever since, it was established that anything could be designated as a work of art, and therefore an artist could literally do anything as a means of expression. Everything was, and is, permitted, to echo Dostoevsky’s phrase, in a different context.
The question then becomes, why create art at all? If the need to push art “forward” toward something historically new is no longer possible, then why make art? Danto’s answer was that each individual has to answer that question, one person at a time, and that the answer to the question is baked into the artwork just as a philosophy of life is embedded in a person’s daily actions. Each individual has to explore and understand why he is creating something, in utter freedom–there is no obligation to do anything in any particular way. The work must justify itself, without relying on an historical context: no more schools of art to advocate one way of doing things over many others. (Danto’s point was that whatever virtues one way of doing things has over another, it isn’t because it’s fresher or more “contemporary” or new in the traditional sense or somehow an historical advance over what has come before.) His key insight was that Pop Art was the art movement to end all art movements, liberating all individual artists to do whatever they wished, and think for themselves, as individuals.
Whether Pop Art holds up now as something that’s still interesting, MORE
On my last, too-short visit to New York City, I was lucky enough to see the astonishing Sculpture in the Age of Donatello at a museum I didn’t know existed until a couple days before my trip: the Museum of Biblical Art, near Columbus Circle. Two works in the show were so powerful that for me they fused together two qualities Edmund Burke tried hard to keep apart: the beautiful and the sublime. For him, beauty was evoked by an art of balance and order, subtlety and color. He called sublime whatever inspired awe or dread or even terror. In his own time, he would have considered Turner an artist of the sublime, with Constable working the field of beauty. Now a couple weeks after finding myself gazing speechless while looking at Donatello’s rendering of Abraham and Isaac, and his almost modernist Prophet, it struck me that the quattrocento sculptor found a way to make beauty indistinguishable from anguish, dread and spiritual abandonment. These two sculptures are humbling visions of two individuals struggling with a sense of complete alienation and loss: not simply loss in the sense of being bereft of everything others enjoy, but a spiritual losing of one’s way. These are two figures who have cut themselves adrift from every mooring, trusting only an inner imperative, even if it leads toward what nearly anyone else would consider madness.
One can think of how this works in the world’s wisdom traditions, MORE