Friday, February 27, 2015


A sculptor friend of mine was fond of saying that “every artist has ten good years.” I would argue with her, protest that this wasn’t so but her words scared me. What if she was right and my “best years” were over (or, worse yet, never going to happen.) Since I was teaching art history at the time, I set out to prove her mistaken. Instead, the more I looked into her theory, the more she appeared to be correct. Why are there only ten good years?

Untitled Street Scene I
Charcoal and oil stain on canvas. 67"x45"
Let’s examine the pattern:
First, few artists emerge from art school fully-formed. Most take at least ten years to find their own personal language and develop the technique and skills they need to build their reputation. Then there is the peak period, the time (the next ten years) in which they do their best work, the art for which they become known. After that there’s usually a period when they concentrate on buying property, marrying, having children, paying psychiatrists, cultivating dealers and collectors, living the “successful” artists’ life. This is the time in which artists tend to repeat themselves, lose their creative edge: divorce, drink, fritter away the talent that made them famous. And then, if they are lucky, there is a late period, when all is calm, the storms of life have past and the artist is free once more to concentrate on his or her work –  if he’s lucky.

Untitled Street Scene II
Charcoal and oil stain on canvas, 72"x67" 
I got to thinking about this subject because I am in the process of preparing a talk on Chagall. I wanted to concentrate on the work he produced from 1911 to 1915, the period he spent in Paris prior to World War I, but because I am part of a Judaic Studies lecture series, the sponsors asked me to focus on his years at the Yiddish Theater in Moscow, right after the Russian Revolution. By the time he fled Russia in 1922, he was famous and in my opinion, his best period was mostly over. The irony is that much of the work he did in Paris was lost, so we’ll never know the full story.

And so, I’ve been looking at the artwork I have stored in my attic. Are my ten best years ahead of me, behind me, or am I now in the middle of them? Or worse yet, am I never going to get there? I tend to think my “best” years were spread out: a year here, two years there. Then a crisis would occur in my life and I’d have to stop working. That’s why I’ll probably never “fulfill my potential” (assuming I have one.) In order to be a great artist (or even a consistently good one) you need to be able to set everything aside, ignore the needs of those around you and just create. If you try to be a well-rounded human being with a “life” you’re never going to get the unbroken time you need to fulfill your potential.

By the way, (in keeping with my theory) when Chagall did his best work in Paris c.1912, he was free of any personal obligations and distractions. He had a modest stipend, cheap housing (at La Ruche), no emotional entanglements, no wife or children, only a fiancĂ©e a thousand miles away. He stayed away from the other artists at his rooming house (whom he claimed copied him), socialized with poets and potential patrons, but mostly, holed up in his pie-shaped atelier and worked. 

Friday, February 20, 2015


"New Popular Restaurant" 
photocopied drawings mounted on cardboard, 6'x4'
I recently ran into an old friend at an art opening who told me how much he enjoyed reading my blog but how he “didn’t always agree.” “That’s great,” I told him. “I want you to disagree, only please let me know why.” I like it when I get a dialogue going; just remember that if I fail to make my case, it is often in the interest of brevity. I don’t think anyone wants an essay by Meyer Shapiro when they read my blog.

For example, in the post I wrote about artists who base their work on photographs, I neglected to discuss Degas and his reliance on photos; several of my readers picked up on that. Well, the truth it, I did write something about him, but cut it out of the final text which I thought was too long. In a way, he is a perfect case in point: Degas used photos as reference but he didn’t copy them and it’s the copying that deadens artwork. After all, how many geniuses like Turner are there? He was famous for his visual memory (pre photography) and could recall something he saw years later down to the last detail, including the weather.
Note: There’s an interesting movie about Turner currently making the rounds that you might want to see, mainly for the way it shows his technique.

"Gluttony: a Deadly Sin" 
black gesso drawing on cardboard, 6' x 2'6"
Another anonymous “critic” wrote in scolding me for selling art made out of “impermanent materials” such as cardboard. Who says I try to sell anything? Those of you who know me know that you have to literally tear work away from me. If I like something, I want to keep it and if I don’t like it, I wont even give it away. Marketing is not my thing. And besides, so what if the work isn’t permanent, “archivally stable”? Won’t last forever. Will you? Will I? Did Picasso worry about the buyer when he created his cardboard guitars more than a hundred years ago? Does Damien Hirst feel guilty collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars for a shark disintegrating in formaldehyde? Or Banksy for a wall that might be demolished? This is the modern world; nobody is painting  (or building or doing anything) for eternity. There are no Piero della Francesca’s any more and even his work didn’t last forever. Diamonds might last, but not artwork.

black gesso and oil crayon on wrapping paper, 30"x22"
By the way, I love when my readers weigh in, even if it’s to say they disagree, or they don’t like what I am doing. Many years ago, I had an exhibit of my paintings at the old Bruce Museum in Greenwich in the days when it was a musty, dusty Victorian mausoleum. When the exhibit (very German Expressionist stuff) was over and I took the work down, I noticed that someone had placed a note behind one of the stretchers. “I hate your work,” it said. I can’t tell you how pleased I was that someone felt strongly enough to tell me what he thought.

Friday, February 13, 2015


Lower East Side, c.1955
Since the invention of photography in the mid eighteen hundreds, artists have always had an uneasy relationship with the camera. Is it a crutch or a competitor?
Is it an honest aid or a dishonest bag of tricks? When I was in art school, nobody admitted to using photography for anything other than occasional reference. Of course, I now know that lots of artists I admired such as Ben Shahn and Reginald Marsh were avid photographers and that might (though I’m sure they’d never admit it) explain their incredible “drawing” ability. If we go back into the 19th century when photography first developed, painters like Ingres tried to beat photography at its own game, painting hyper-realistic portraits that were sharper than any photograph, more flattering and in color! If you could afford the price, a painted portrait was the preferred way to go.

Lower East Side, c.1955
In the 1960s, a group of Photo-Realist painters rose to popularity, along with innovators like Rauschenberg and Warhol who made extensive use of photographs in their work. Rumors abounded about the Photo-Realists; were they really so technically facile that they could make a painting look like a color photograph? Viewers were impressed; artists had finally beaten photography at its own game. But, maybe there was “trickery” involved? Could these paintings really be painted prints? Or made from slides projected on canvas coated with a photosensitive gel. Who knew? Their secrets were guarded more carefully than members of a medieval guild. I remember once going to a talk by a well-known artist who painted trompe l’oeil architecture on the side of buildings. I asked him how he did it. A projector? What kind? He skillfully avoided answering me. Did he think I was about to get up on a fifty-foot scaffold and put him out of business? However, he wasn’t taking any chances.

Lower East Side, c.1955
Ultimately, my problem with photorealism is that it sees too much; doesn’t “select” the way the eye does and ends up neither a good painting nor a successful photograph. Over the years, I have occasionally tried working from photographs and while they provide me with details I might not otherwise remember, they tend to look flat and forced, not capturing the totality they eye sees. If I am going to use a photograph as the basis for a painting, I am better off trying to use it for reference, rather than actually copying it. In fact, I don’t even like painting from a model or directly from a scene; my memory provides a kind of transcendent reality that I personally prefer.

When I first went back to painting, many years ago, I drew my subjects from the local newspaper’s Society Page photographs of clubwomen, bankers, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kiwani, etc. My favorite work from that period is entitled “Retired Airline Hostesses Arranging a Benefit” which showed two smiling ex airline “hostesses” posing for the camera. In those days, they were forced to quit when they got married, so they retired young. Also, stewardesses were taught  something called the “American Smile:” pleasant, soothing and totally vapid. My painting might have been done from a newspaper photograph; I don’t remember, but it certainly wasn’t “photo realistic.”   

Friday, February 6, 2015

POST #75: A.D.D. A Desirable Disorder?

A few months ago, one of my adult children announced that he had been diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). “How could that be?” I protested, “you’re one of the smartest and highest functioning human beings I know.” And what’s more, he added, I (his mother) also suffer from ADD (is it inherited?) And so do most of my friends (is it contagious?) What is this world coming to? Are the Martians sending down Gamma rays to damage our brains?

So, of course, I Googled “Attention Deficit Disorder” and came up with a gazillion hits. It’s apparently a very popular disorder, with lots of people, mostly children, suffering from it. I use the term “suffering” in quotes because not everyone suffers and, for some people, it’s the gateway to an extremely productive and creative life. If you go by what I read on line, some of the brightest and most creative people around are “ADD” and actually profit from it. Here’s a rundown of what I learned. I don’t have all the “symptoms,” but I do have many (and so, for that matter, does practically everyone else I know.)

1) We often suffer from mood fluctuations, going from periods of intense productivity to periods of inertia and apathy
2) We feel like we haven’t achieved our potential, even though by society’s standards, we may have done quite well
3) We procrastinate, especially when it’s something we’re not eager to do
(that sounds normal to me) and have a hard time getting started
4) We tend not to follow through; we start projects and don’t finish them
5) We work best under pressure although when we have to concentrate, no one does it better than someone with ADD
6) We’re often late (our distractibility)
7) We’re good at finding inventive shortcuts
8) We prefer creative work and are often in the arts (or law, someone told me)
9) We like diverse forms of stimulation and may earn our income from several      different sources
10) We are “adrenaline junkies” who like high risk and danger
11) We work best under pressure, when time is running out
12) We have intense, often painful romances
13) We like to learn visually rather than by listening

Now here’s the best news: According to what I learned, ADD’ers as a group tend to be exceptionally bright, creative and high functioning. They are capable of “hyper-focusing” when they have to, producing work of especially high quality. They also can ‘multi task’ extremely well.

Of course, I could treat my ADD with medication; anti depressants supposedly work quite well and would help me focus. But why be normal when being ADDled is so much more fun?