Friday, September 26, 2014


Many years ago, Connecticut cities began offering substantial grants for Public Art projects in an attempt to enliven the desolate, inner-city wastelands created by Urban Renewal. I decided to apply for one in New Haven and came up with the idea of creating activity on the street in the form of metal cutouts of people waiting on the corner for a bus. I have a friend, Steve Rosenberg, a well- known  “metalsmith” who lives near me and owns a giant laser that easily cuts through half-inch sheets of steel. I planned to paint a series of life-sized people on the metal plates, have Steve cut them out, mount them on giant industrial springs and install them on downtown New Haven street corners. I thought it would make for a rather interesting amalgam of life and art. 

In order to prepare a maquette to submit to the jury, I made sketches of a dozen or so “real” people in my usual satirical style; people of all races, ages and classes. I then glued them onto cardboard, cut them out and placed them in shoebox-sized dioramas with photocopies of urban street scenes. (This was before the days when one could PhotoShop drawings into actual places). In any event, I never submitted my proposal, having gotten engrossed in creating miniature worlds inside supermarket boxes. I used my large collection of photos of pre-urban renewal Stamford as background and created a cast of urban characters to occupy the scenes.

Before I knew it, I had completed close to one hundred boxes, all sizes and shapes. The settings recreating the lost Stamford downtown in which over 500 buildings were demolished. You can see a dozen of them installed as a unit on the second floor of the Tully Center on Strawberry Hill Avenue in Stamford where they occupy a wall in the main waiting room. The consultant who chose them wanted “something distracting to take people’s minds off their upcoming tests.” She loves coming into the room and seeing the chairs turned around to face the  settings with their whimsical cast of characters. The figures may not have made it to a real bus stop, but you never know; they still might.

Friday, September 19, 2014


60x40 oil on canvas
The appetite for novelty in the art world is insatiable. Everybody thought it was all over when Malevich put a white square on a white canvas and then, along came Marcel Duchamp with his urinal and bottle washing rack and where else was there to go? Apparently, there was lots of room for innovation and artists were quick to get into the search for the new. You didn’t need to be a great, or even a good painter or sculptor, you just needed a novel idea and the more unintelligible your idea, the better it was as “art.” You had to be able to quote from French intellectuals if you wanted to be “in.” A profound statement and a couple of dots on a canvas and you were considered a meaningful artist with “something new to say.”

Lately, the art intelligentsia seems to have run out of juice, but there is still a giant establishment that needs to be fed on novelty. Something new is getting harder and harder to find.  Even if you can’t paint worth a damn, you can always walk the walk and talk the talk and that seems to be the order of the day. On a recent trip to Chelsea, my friends (an artist and an art historian) and I were appalled at how little there was worthy of a second glance. The latest emphasis appeared to be on wall-sized photo enlargements made from digitally altered images. Apparently, new technology has made huge-ness affordable and therefore perfect for filling bare, characterless walls.

Ironically, the best work we saw that day was a retrospective from the seventies: Warhol, Rivers, Rauschenberg, Kienholz and Jasper Johns, some Minimalists and a few leftover Action Painters. I wasn’t crazy about these guys when they were at their peak, forty years ago, but compared to what we saw elsewhere that day, they were innovative giants.

 I always seem to be a couple of decades behind the curve in my art tastes. I still admire people like Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Alex Katz and Romare Beardon and have found few today that I like any better. A lot of current work just seems “clever” for the sake of cleverness, with no soul to it. We have an “avant garde” art gallery in town that features the work of smart young things from Brooklyn (or wherever the current trendy art takes place). Their purpose seems to be to educate the “Booboisie” (you and me) by producing reams of printed material, all of it meaningless, sometimes only consisting of one deeply important word per page. It aspires to be profound (but even “profundity” has to have content) and there’s very little I (a suburb dwelling naïf) could remotely consider “art.” It’s just a waste of paper as far as I’m concerned.

Meanwhile, I’m holed up in my studio in NoWhere (as opposed to NoHo or NoBro), creating happily away and turning out work that is completely out of synch with the current art scene. I work in artistic isolation but complete contentment. I’m doing the best work of my life and I don’t give a damn about the current trend. 

Friday, September 12, 2014


6'x8' Diptych, oil, charcoal on canvas, 2014

I’ve always been terrible at lettering. I’m not neat and careful to begin with plus I have a short interest span (I’d probably be medicated today.) I barely got a “C” in Drafting in college, largely because my lettering was so bad (pre- CADD).  My biggest problem, aside from a lack of “sitz-fleisch” (literally: meat on which to sit) is that I’m left handed and all the “thicks and thins” of normal lettering are reversed. This is not to say I don’t love letters and calligraphy; I’m just not good at it.

But this has never stopped me from incorporating lettering in my paintings. I’m enamored with the jazzy, jagged shapes of letters, the fragments you see as if you were just glancing at a sign. I like ambiguous meanings: “fire sale” “stop here,” the way glass store windows are both transparent and reflective. Buildings are interesting and the people in the street great to look at, but it’s the signs that give everything pizzazz.

6'x8' Diptych, oil, charcoal on canvas, 2014

When did artists first start to use lettering in their work? Signage has been with us for centuries: posters, broadsides, shop and tavern signs. Braque and Picasso seem to be the first artists to see the potential in letters both as shapes and symbols of modern life. Around 1911 they, and other early Cubists, took to incorporating words, especially newspaper print into their work. Right on their heels came the Italian Futurists who used lettering to express the whirling motion that characterized 20th century life. Chagall also liked to toss in bits of Hebrew letters into his Cubist images of Paris and Vitebsk, jumbling past and present. 

6'x4' oil and charcoal on canvas, 2014
But lettering as a subject by itself didn’t really get going until the end of World War I when the German dadaists, primarily Kurt Schwitters, used printed words as the basis for their innovative collages. Schwitters called his work “merz,” reportedly from a scrap of paper he found in the street advertising the local “Commerz” bank.”

I like to use words and letters in my work. Everything I’ve done lately seems to contain signage, whether it makes sense or not. My lettering (as lettering) is still dreadful, but as long as the shapes work in the composition, it doesn’t matter;
I’m never going to be known for my calligraphy.

Friday, September 5, 2014


A couple of friends and I drove up to a museum last week to catch the latest art breeze from New York. The museum, which I shall not name, is notoriously designed to educate boobs from the boonies (you and me), give them a taste of the current (Brooklyn) art scene and show them what real art (not the pretty pictures they paint or have on their walls) is about. Each exhibit contains a free-to-take home illustrated booklet explaining the artists’ work along with a wall panel of explanatory notes.

The three of us stood for some time in front of one large panel, trying to figure out its meaning. My companions, no intellectual lightweights, one, a noted university scholar, the other a prominent lawyer were totally baffled. I explained my theory about this kind of writing about art. I believe it is deliberately designed to be unintelligible because if you REALLY knew what they were saying you would never waste your $10 admission fee (to say nothing of your time.) “It’s a required course,” I explained.  In order to get an MFA at Yale, you must be able to write an inherently meaningless, but seemingly profound essay like this before they’ll give you a degree”.

The problem with reconciling art and words is that art is a visual experience, not a literary or an auditory one and aside from a few helpful cues, the experiences are so different by their very nature that to use one to explain the other is confusing and usually futile. However, that doesn’t seem to keep an entire industry of art historians, writers and curators from trying. Yes, you can enhance a visual experience somewhat by knowing something theoretical or historical about it, but often, you just end up confusing the poor viewer. I know many people will disagree with me, but I often discover that they are self serving; they make their living pretending (to themselves and others) that they can actually teach you how to “see”. The artwork at the museum that day was pretty mediocre as art; but, if you read the handout or the complex “explanatory” material placed on the gallery walls, you would have thought you were in the Sistine Chapel.

Here’s a quote from one of the pamphlets I picked up:

The early works in this exhibition point to the grounding of XXXX’s art in the formal, abstract aspects of Modernism, while the later works are categorized by the use of the highly flexible and articulate language of Modernism for deliberate and meditative social ends. Usually, art that is based on either the social or the political is ineffectual as the finger pointing is directed towards the morally obvious.  XXXX, through his recent work, has held a mirror up to himself and the community he inhabits and the results are complex, nuanced, and often uncomfortably self-conscious – just like the truth.

There has to be an easier way to describe this poor guy’s art, or, maybe his work really is “indescribable.” Too bad its quality doesn’t live up to its press. I taught art history for over twenty years at a university and the lesson I learned was, the greater the art, the easier it is to explain. It’s the bad stuff that requires babble.

Today’s post is a cautionary tale: don’t believe what you read about art. Most of it is curatorial nonsense, designed to impress rather than explain. I hope the message you get is to stay dubious and keep your s---- detector on at all times.

Re last week’s Post #54: I meant to have stronger images to go with my text but my all-knowing techie, Rosie, said they would be considered “pornographic” and pulled out.  Moi?