Friday, April 14, 2017


I’ve written before about my former life as a suburban satirist. Why “former”? Surely there are plenty of things to poke fun at today.  And isn’t satire one of the best ways to fight tyranny and injustice? Well, yes and no. Villains usually don’t mind if you hate them; they thrive on being hated. But what they really can’t tolerate is being made fun of. I’m sure our present leader puts the Saturday Night Live cast at the top of his list for the Gulag if he gets enough power.

However, when evil goes too far, becomes the norm, there’s no way you can see humor in it. Goya was a marvelous satirist of court life in Spain but after the horrors of the French occupation, satire became irrelevant and his art turned into rage. The Weimar period in Germany prior to the rise of Hitler was a Golden Age of satire: overweight Bourgeoisie, corrupt businessmen, hypocritical clergy and worn-out whores, all the excesses of a failing Capitalist system made for some of the best satire ever seen in the history of art. But when Hitler came to power, suddenly, none of it was funny any more. The artists who could flee, fled, and those who remained carefully stayed away from anything controversial.

 American art has never been big on satire. After all you can’t expect the kind of people who buy art to pay money to be laughed at. About the only time there were some reasonably good satirists in this country was during the 1930s, the Great Depression. Since no one was buying artwork anyhow, artists were freer to speak their mind. Publicly subsidized art like WPA murals, tended to concentrate on the positive aspects of American life, but there were also quite a few unaffiliated artists who “made a living” (and not much more) - Jack Levine or Ben Shahn - out of ‘social satire.’ What little political humor there was quickly vanished when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Committee on Un-American Activities showed up in the 1950s. Abstraction Expressionism soon took over in the art world. There was no social criticism in drips and dabs.

When I started to paint again in the 1970s, after my children went off to school, I poked gentle fun at what I though were the foibles of suburbia. I have an attic full of paintings of clubwomen, American Legionaires and DAR ladies pouring tea. They seem dated given what is going on today. However, the “portraits” I did of local real estate developers and their cronies still seem pretty relevant, especially when you consider our present Head of State. As director of a local preservation organization, I found myself constantly outgunned by the bastards who were easily able to buy off everyone - politicians, government officials - who stood in their way.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of series that would be funny if they weren’t intrinsically tragic. My favorite is one I’ve never dared exhibit (too “x” rated.) It is based on the gross ugliness underneath the expensively coiffed and outfitted Trumps of this world – he’s far from unique. I call it my “Men’s Bathhouse Series,” paper cutouts of local developers and their cronies, men who wear expensive suits but you wouldn’t want to see what lies underneath. Our current President is a perfect example. Unfortunately, the sponsors of this blog censor nakedness of any sort (even when it’s meant to be funny, not prurient) and I don’t know of a single gallery that would be willing to run the risk of showing them, dressed or undressed. So, here are some “safe” examples from my “Bathhouse Series,” men of power fully clothed or in their skivvies. For a peek at what lies beneath their high-priced outer garments, you will have to use your imagination (or come to my studio.)

 P.S. I can’t bring myself to be a satirist any more. There’s nothing remotely funny about what’s going on.

Friday, April 7, 2017


New York Water Towers I, II, III  - Oil on panel, 12"x16" 2016-17

I know you’ve heard this a million times before, about how distractible we all are nowadays. No one seems able to concentrate on anything for very long. However, given the plethora of media in our lives, it’s a miracle that we can concentrate as long as we do. I don’t know anyone who isn’t addicted to his or her media connections. I’ve had friends check iPhones while hiking in the park with me. When I walk on the track at the health club, half the people there are talking into their phones. All the ‘breaking news’ and attention-getting media have captured even the most aware and resistant of us. The net result is that we have difficulty focusing on anything for very long. When was the last time you actually sat still and concentrated for more than a few minutes? “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, “Multi-switching”) is the norm in our lives, not the exception. How many times have you caught the person you’re conversing with slip what he or she thought was an unobtrusive glance down at his media device? This is especially problematic for those of us who consider ourselves “artists”. Creativity of any kind requires total concentration. When was the last time you were not distracted?

I have an experiment for you: Make sure you are alone. Turn off any “media” and just stare out the window Focus on something, a tree for example, for at least five minutes. I’m willing to bet anything you can’t do it.  After sixty seconds, your mind will begin to wander, seek distractions. But if you force yourself to continue, something interesting will begin to happen. You will begin to see as opposed to just look. You will be amazed at how much there is that you never noticed: the texture of the bark, the subtle branching, the slight curve of the trunk.

There’s a concept in psychology called “Breaking Set.” It describes perceiving things around you in new and original ways. Creative artists (notice I differentiate them from “Non-Creative Artists) are good at this kind of mind-altering visualization. A “Set” is defined as the predisposition to perceive things in a certain way, either by habit or desire. One way you can “break set” is by staring at something long enough to override your camera eye and see differently. Ten years ago, when I broke my ankle and had to spend several weeks in an 11th floor New York apartment, I drew the same view over and over again. Eventually I “broke set” and was able to come up with some of the best, most original work I have ever done.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing a slide talk about the early 20th century French artist, Chaim Soutine. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the emotional intensity of his work is often difficult to take. He anticipated the Abstract Expressionists by about forty years and Pollock and deKooning were supposedly influenced by him. It seems that before Soutine started a painting he just stared at the subject (he always worked from life): landscape, figure, whatever, for maybe half an hour. Then, he would begin to paint furiously, finishing the entire work in one sitting, not even stopping to clean his brushes, just throwing them down on the ground and grabbing a new one. By staring so intensely before he began, he was able to “break set,” allow himself to depict his subject in a new, hyper-emotional way.

Try it and let me know what happens.