Sunday, May 26, 2013

Artist? Says who?

I see more and more photographers self-identifying themselves as “fine art” photographers.  I doubt that it is intended as a comparison: fine art, good art, mediocre art, awful art.  Nor does it seem likely that it indicates a grade like sandpaper: fine art, medium art, coarse art.  I seem to recall the terms “fine art” and “applied art” – the latter being illustrations, magazine covers, etc.

So perhaps fine art photographs are those photographs made with no other purpose than to be regarded as art.  Would that disqualify the Karsh portrait of Pablo Casals,  Carier-Bresson’s “Little Parisian”, Garry Winogrand’s “Man in the Crowd”?  Odd, I’d swear I had seen each of these in a major art museum.

So I guess I haven’t a clue what “fine art photographer” means.  I’m not even sure what “art” means.  Art is what artists make.  Artists are people who make art.  No help.

Some years ago I was snooping through a gallery operated by the local (Chico, California) arts organization.  The blue-haired lady behind the counter asked if I was an artist to which I replied “I am a photographer.”  Her response was that they didn’t regard photography as art.  I usually think of something good to say about 15 minutes after it is needed but this time I got it out straight away.  “Oh I agree – but neither is painting or drawing or sculpture. However, some photographers and some painters and some sculptors are artists.”

In the circus jargon, a performer who is among the best – clown, aerialist, animal trainer – is noted by their peers as “great”, as in the Great Emmett Kelly.   It recognizes not only skill and talent but long-term achievement.  Moreover, it is a serious breach of etiquette to misappropriate or self-appropriate the term “great”. 

I believe that it was Robert Frost who said that “poet” is a gift that must be given to you – that you cannot claim it for yourself.  Like the Great Robert Frost, I regard “artist” or “poet” or “novelist” as sort of informal honorifics to be given not taken. 

So I am uncomfortable to self-identify myself as an artist.  If somebody else wants to identify me as an artist that’s just fine.  However, nobody can disagree that I am a photographer.  I make photographs.  Most of the time the result of doing so is rubbish.  Sometimes it is a product. Once in a while it may be art.  Nobody, not even a Great, always get it right.  I suspect that even the Great Picasso had a full trash can.  The Great Mark Twain burned a lot of his drafts so that nobody could pick through his rubbish after his death. 

How often to you need to get it right to deserve the honorific?  John Nichols wrote one terrific novel, The Milagro Beanfield Wars.  That’s all folks.  The second and third books of his hastily devised trilogy after its success were just awful.  Is that enough to earn “novelist”?

It’s easy enough to understand why a photographer would like to self-identify as an artist.  Photographers do have an especially ambiguous medium.  If you say you are photographer then the next question is too often “Do you do [weddings, bar mitzvahs, kid birthday parties ….]?”  Painters probably have the same problem.  “Interior or exterior?”  Sculptors not so much – that is a much less ambiguous word.  But I digress.

Who gets to decide?  There are no board exams to qualify artists.  The opinions about what constitutes “art” or the quality thereof are hardly consistent.  As I reported in an earlier entry, one reviewer dismissed my portfolio as (insert sneer here) “documentary”.  We don’t have (thank St. Ansel and St. Henri) the French or British academy to pontificate.  Well, we do have the Photographic Society of America with its point ratings and so on but who cares.

I had a very hard time getting this entry started and now I’m having a hard time getting it finished, too.  I’m not even sure if it went anywhere between start and finish.  Anybody want to argue?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Girl With a Pearl Earring (and friends)

Some years ago, I saw Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance and Lady Writing at the National Gallery in Washington DC and was dazzled by them. I read a couple of books on Vermeer and his work but concluded that getting to Vienna for The Art of Painting or to The Hague for Girl With a Pearl Earring weren't likely to happen. When I read that the De Young museum in Golden Gate Park was going to have a show of Dutch Masters from the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, I was determined to get there to see it.

Barbara and I have been trying to get to San Francisco for several years. We've half planned a trip several times and each time some damn thing or another came up and we abandoned the idea. This time we were not taking no for an answer. We did, in fact, have a quite pleasant road trip with detours to Santa Cruz to see friends and to Carmel for some gallery crawling but the first day in San Francisco - it was to the De Young. We intended to spend some time with their permanent collection but got no farther than the Dutch Masters show and its companion splendid show of etchings and engravings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries. These were all drawn from their own collection and those of other museums in the Bay area. (but I digress)

The Dutch masters show was a treasure trove -- Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a studio copy made either by Rembrandt himself or one of his students) a pair of portraits, husband and wife, by Frans Hals, a Cuyp harborscape .... Nearly every painting in the show was one that you see in the art history books. That said, by far the hit of the show was Girl With a Pearl Earring.

It is even more beautiful than I expected it to be. I was stunned. I was dazzled. I was mesmerized. I stood there and stared at it for about twenty minutes then had to come back later for a second helping. It was restored fairly recently so it probably looks today much like it did the day Vermeer finished it. (By the way, I cannot imagine the state of mind of the restorerers who working on it. How could you summon up the courage to begin removing the old, yellowed varnish from the surface of one of the greatest paintings of western art?) In the process of restoration, they found that when Vermeer painted the blue cloth wrapped around her head he laid the medium down on the canvas and then worked the pigment into the surface of the wet medium. That not only allowed him to use a bare minimum of the precious pigment but it lent a bit of surface texture to the cloth.

The painting was protected by a low barrier that kept the viewers a couple of feet from the surface. I looked at it from every practical angle from far left to far right. When I moved far enough to the right that I was looking straight into her eyes -- my knees literally went weak and I had cold chills. From that angle the lines of her nose and her right cheek are perfect! I expected her to blink. I am absolutely convinced that Vermeer painted it from that viewpoint. I excitedly hustled several other viewers (and one mildly puzzled museum guard) into that sight line. They all agreed with me -- perhaps fearing that I was dangerous.

David Hockney and an optical physicist, Charles Falco, recently proposed that Vermeer and many of the other painting masters used optical devices to help them with their works. I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Charles Falco a couple of years ago and he makes a very good case. The notion that Vermeer and many others back to Van Eyck "cheated" (not Hockney or Falco's term) by using lenses or concave mirrors did not go over well -- in fact it generated a flood of invective from the purists. Hockney hotly denies that his theories represent any criticism of the heroes of western art; instead only an exploration of their methods. Personally, I don't care if Vermeer used a camera obscura, witchcraft, or black magic. The fact that he could paint like that is all that matters to me.

That said, going back to standing to the right of Girl With a Pearl Earring -- her left (near) eye and the earring are Leica-sharp, her right (far) eye is painted ever-so-slightly less sharp, and her left shoulder (much nearer the viewer) is painted less sharp. In fact, the information posted next to the painting notes that the shoulder is done with "looser" brush work. Looks like depth of field to me. Presume for a moment that Vermeer was using a camera obscura and noticed how pleasing that effect was. He was painting -- he could have chosen to paint every inch of the canvas Leica-sharp. (but I digress again)

There are only a handful of artworks that effect me as strongly as Girl With a Pearl Earring -- offhand: Gustave Caillibotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, Marc Chagall's The Praying Jew, Lawrence Fink's Moses Soyer's Studio, Eugene Smith's Waiting for Survivors of the Andrea Doria, Willy Ronis' Rue Rambeteau and Nu Provence, Robert Doisneau's Lillies of the Valley -- but this may be the queen. For several days after seeing it this painting popped into my head every time my brain went into idle. I literally dreamed about it. I love it when this happens.

I would go a very long way to see something like that again.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I want to be like him when I grow up.

Yesterday we went to the Tacoma Art Museum to see "Beyond Books: the Independent Art of Eric Carle". Never heard of him? I'll bet you have. If you have children I know you have. So far he has authored or illustrated (usually both) over 70 children's picture books including the perennial favorite "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". TAM hosted a show of his book illustrations a few years ago and this companion exhibit shows the much wider scope of his work.

Mr. Carle was born in the U.S.A. in 1929 but his family moved back to Stuttgart, Germany when Eric was about six (bad timing). He endured ten years of "dismal" German schools, food shortages, and Allied bombing. As an aside, Stuttgart was the center of ball-bearing manufacture and the Nazis had buried the ball bearing factories deep under downtown Stuttgart. The allies correctly surmised that if they stopped production of ball bearings then the rest of the German arms manufacturing would literally grind to a stop so they went after the buried factories ruthlessly. When I visited Stuttgart in 1957 it was still mostly rubble.

After the war was over, Carle, whose talent had long been recognized, was appointed to the Stuttgart Academy of Art where he spent four years. His mentor there was so well regarded that clients came to him seeking his students for art projects. Carle's first commissions were for posters for theater productions and artwork for book covers. By age 23 he had "a pretty good portfolio and 40 dollars in my pocket" and decided to return to the U.S.A. In New York he quickly gained a reputation for book cover art and magazine illustration. His work for a children's book turned into a commission to do a picture book of his own -- and 70+ books later, he is still doing so.

Apart from his book illustrations, he does what he calls "Art-Art" -- work he does just because he wants to. Like his book illustrations, most Art-Art is paper collage using vibrantly colored, textured paper that he paints himself. His collages, even his seemingly simple, childlike book illustrations are carefully thought out and built using meticulously drawn acetate cells. He also does two- and three-color linocuts, huge brightly colored abstract paintings on Tyvek, and recently has taken up digital photography. He did a stage design and costumes for a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. (The costumes were made from Tyvek also.)

At age 84, Carle looks a lot like somebody's kindly, hearty, vigorous grandfather. He has never made a distinction between his Art-Art and his commercial work. Both are important to him; both are genuine fun to him. Even painting the sheets of colored paper is fun to him. One of the videos accompanying the TAM exhibit shows him working with a group of children in the studio of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (which he founded and partly financed) in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is very clear that working with children is fun for him, too. When he came to TAM for the show opening and book signing (Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle, ISBN 978-1-59288-029-4, 2012) he asked that children coming to the signing bring art work of their own so he could talk to them about it.

When somebody asked Duke Ellington if he was going to retire, the response was: "Retire from what?" I suspect that would be Eric Carle's answer also. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Repainting the Word

I recently re-read “The Painted Word” – I do so every couple of years just to keep my perspectacles on straight.  (“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1975, Bantam Books, 1976)

“Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory.  And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial – the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”
This excerpt from a review in the Sunday New York Times of April 28, 1974 sparked the “aha!” that led Wolfe to write The Painted Word.  The very short time elapsed between the “aha!” and the publication by a major house (in fact, it was published in Harpers’ magazine a couple of months earlier) testifies both to the excitement that Wolfe felt about the subject and the chord that it must have struck with his publisher.
Wolfe states the major point of the book in the introduction.  In his not-at-all-humble opinion, art theory and criticism no longer play the role of “… establishing readable texts, in explaining obscurities and clearing up confusions in any art, in supplying background and context for the creations and creators that are difficult because of remoteness in time or place. ...of giving a jewel the setting it deserves.”  (Jacques Barzun writing in Atlantic, November 1984).  Wolfe states that art scholarship has raced ahead of the making of art to a degree that makes it necessary to establish theory (persuasive or otherwise) before the art will be taken seriously by the museums, collectors, and (especially) the critics – that the art exists to illustrate the text (thus the title of the book).
Wolfe spends the rest of the book explaining how this change has affected the art community.  He holds that it has moved the cutting edge of the art world from the studio into the hands of a relatively small number of critics and curators who play the role of kingmakers in today’s museum and gallery world.  Kingmakers who are constantly on the lookout for new movements, new faces with radical work and, especially, with passionately written artist’s statements about ways of seeing that are incomprehensible to the untutored eye.  The private collectors of art, he holds, have largely become followers of the kingmakers and the artists themselves forced, if they seek recognition, to strive for the unusual, the bizarre, the incomprehensible.
[Parenthetically, there is another artist’s approach to this situation.  The painter Od Nudrum has had at least two double page spreads in Art News in which he presents his manifesto.  He paints in the style of the Dutch/Flemish masters but uses the style to paint strangely anachronistic, not exactly surreal subjects.  In his manifesto, he appropriates the term “kitsch” and redefines it to mean what he does.  He then presents his case as to why this is the pure and vital form of painting.  He, in my opinion, is attempting to provide a persuasive theory to support what he is doing.  Perhaps he read Wolfe’s book, too.]
Wolfe then examines the course of modern art from the 20’s through minimalism to show how his ‘aha!’ explains at least some of the lurching about in the art world.  He ends with a cackle of glee that photo realistic paintings (a new wave at the time the book was published) was selling very well in spite of its lack of a persuasive theory and in spite of lofty disdain from the New York critics and curators.
I find this book compelling and much of his argument very convincing.  It also makes me feel a bit better about not being able to understand a great deal of what is written about art today.  Even if you do not agree with his sweeping generalizations (and they are sweeping, indeed) I believe that you will find food for thought.