Monday, January 26, 2015

THERE BE DRAGONS HERE, STILL



Once upon a time, maps were more beautiful than accurate.  Before the invention of the mechanical clock or the compass, the world was a more fluid place.  Maps were made from subjective impressions of distance combined with myths, philosophy and theology. 

 

Not the most direct route to your destination, but at least it gave you something to ponder along the way.


Our ancestors imagined that dragons and gods lurked in uncharted corners of the world.

Here be dragons--  Hic sunt dracones


But as they invented tools for measuring, their world came into sharper focus.   Early astrolabes enabled navigators to track their location by the stars.  Then came the quadrant and the sextant.  Maps became more precise.  Geometric grids rationalized our experience of space.



Today anyone can find their precise location, along with details about every surrounding restaurant, gas station or pot hole, by consulting their GPS. 


What they won't find is the beauty, personality or ambition of older maps.  The information element has crowded out aesthetics.  As our stockpiles of data expand, we have traded imagination and design for the benefits of information.

Going by your GPS, you might conclude that there are no more dragons left in the world.

Sometimes it seems that a similar trade off is taking place in the world of fine art.   Beauty, design and composition of form are often subordinated to content.  The talent and skill for the creation of fine objects seems to have become less important while wordy explanations of artistic purpose have taken center stage.  Information technology is the artist's new tool, from Photoshop to video cameras where we simply point and record hours of random happenings.
   
Perhaps one of the  most significant results is that artists can now effortlessly replicate and manipulate billions of historical images with ease.  The temptation to scoop up data files to make pictures out of pictures seems almost irresistible.  Information technology has made possible several new art schools such as "sampling," "repurposing," "recontextualizing" and "transformative use."

Rauschenberg

Warhol

Koons: stupid scribbles superimposed on photos of a waterfall and a couple

Hockney

We are assured this is OK because today "curation is creation."   Why should an artist have to start back at  the very beginning with a pencil when it is so easy to get a head start by combining pre-existing building blocks into new art?

At the dawn of the information revolution, Bernard Wolfe warned that in an era of computers and space programs, avant garde art could not mutate fast enough to stay ahead of everyday life.   His advice to modern artists: "Forget it.  The job of the decimated avant garde is to catch up with the ordinary, which means learning to live with the speed of light."  The successes of information technology are undeniable, and their images are a worthy challenge to the arts when it comes to inspiring awe in the human heart.

The "pillars of creation" seen through the Hubble space telescope.

There are important reasons, in maps and in art, why our priorities might shift away from creation and toward discovery But despite the obvious successes of the sextant and the GPS, there are still plenty of uncharted territories where dragons still lurk.  They haunt the bytes themselves, creating suitable challenges for artists who aspire to something better than "curation." 

Lucien Freud
Saul Steinberg

Phil Hale
John Cuneo

Monday, December 29, 2014

NEW BOOK ABOUT AL PARKER




Auad Publishing, which produced books about noted illustrators Robert Fawcett and Al Dorne, has done it again with an important new book about illustrator Al Parker (1906-1985).  The 9' x 12" book contains 208 color pages with a rich cross section of Parker's work, along with family photos, reference materials and supporting essays.  The text was written primarily by Stephanie Plunkett, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum but I was pleased to contribute as a co-author, along with Leif Peng.

Parker was famous for his diverse visual solutions.  While other illustrators worked hard to create a single recognizable brand, Parker's hallmark was ceaseless experimentation.  I can't think of another illustrator who could pick up and put down artistic styles with such ease:

 





 

 



 

 

 


Here's a sneak preview of the book: My essay says that Parker was the illustrator for the "interregnum"-- the power vacuum when the old gods of illustration (Norman Rockwell, Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, etc. ) were departing but the new gods (Pushpin Studios, Robert Weaver, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, etc.) had not yet arrived.   Everything was up for grabs; the styles of illustration which dominated the first half of the 20th century were becoming obsolete, but the new styles had not yet found their footing. 

In that window of time, Parker became the leading illustrator who explored dozens of new paths and planted dozens of new seeds.  He never stayed in one place long enough to harvest those seeds himself, but they made profitable careers for a number of illustrators who followed in Parker's footsteps.

Good friends:  Al Parker surrounded by Bernie Fuchs and Bob Peak

Despite his diverse approaches to picture making, young art students and beginning illustrators had no trouble spotting Parker's work, and would rush to the magazine stands each month to see what Parker was up to.  As illustrator / comic artist Leonard Starr reported, "Parker was the man, and all the guys knew it."

 


A book like this about Parker is long overdue, and I recommend it strongly to fans of illustration.


 P.S.-- For those of you living in the Los Angeles area, the Nucleus Gallery is having an exhibition of original Al Parker work.  The show will only remain up for another week, and it provides a rare opportunity to see his great talents in the flesh.









Monday, December 22, 2014

ONE LOVELY DRAWING. part 46


I like this sketch by illustrator and character designer Peter de Seve.


While lesser artists strive to get symmetrical features correct, you can tell de Seve views "symmetry" as the waste of an opportunity to squeeze more character into a drawing.

For example, there is nothing uniform about these two wings:


 Or the two sides of this hat:



Or these two feet:

Note how one foot is large and defined while the other is small and feeble and dribbles away, just ike the man's life.

And certainly there's no symmetry in those marvelous teeth:


Essentially de Seve has drawn each side anew; there are no mirror images here. That means twice the drawing work, but also twice the opportunity.

Or, note the tail on the creature.  Where de Seve doesn't require a tail, he doesn't even bother to complete the outline, but where he really wants one (that curl at the end) he comes back to emphasize it with some of the thickest, darkest marks in the entire drawing.


As another example of good drawing priorities, look at how the fingers below are just a clenched jumble of lines (how many fingers can you count?) yet the knife which commands our attention contains descriptive details such as a that blood groove or the shading along the underside. 


De Seve doesn't waste these sketches; there's a lot of thinking going on here about what the picture really requires and what it can do without.  And once he forms conclusions, de Seve is one artist with the technical ability to implement them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

WHEN HE WAS GOOD, HE WAS VERY VERY GOOD

It's possible that Jack Davis turned down an assignment once, but I never met an eyewitness who saw it happen.  During his prolific career, Davis probably accounted for 47% of all the spot illustrations in America.  Not all of those illustrations were done with care, and that helped shape the public's impression of his stature.

But now that Davis has announced his retirement at age 90, it's a good moment to focus on his genuine strengths by looking at some of his originals close up. 

Davis did excellent fine line work.  He didn't fall into the common trap of letting excessive lines turn his subjects rigid and heavy.  Despite all that cross hatching, his pictures remained flexible and sprightly:  

Illustration from Humbug

Even in his fine line work, Davis maintained enough variety in his line to preserve priorities (for example, the banker's chin and belly).

A master of the pen, he was also a fearless inker with a brush.  Look at the way Davis transforms a man into a splatter beneath that sledge hammer.  That effect could never have been achieved with his fine line cross hatching style:

From MAD no. 5
Davis could also simplify his style effectively with markers or washes:

Note the simplicity of the shading on the father's face

At age 26, Davis began working at EC comics.  From the beginning, his draftsmanship enabled him to squeeze complex scenes into small panels that were already crowded with text:


Even at that early stage, Davis was able to combine thin line and thick brush stroke to bring drama to his pictures in a way that only Neal Adams and perhaps a few others have been able to match.


Finally, Davis had a wonderful sensitivity for color.  You didn't always see it in his numerous low budget spot illustrations, but when Davis got serious, there were few better.

 


Jack Davis has been a brilliant artist and an important voice in American popular culture for decades. As he steps down at age 90, he has a great deal to be proud of.  



Thursday, December 11, 2014

REMEMBERING OUR DEBTS



In the 1960s, illustrators suddenly became much better at painting action.  Contrast this illustration from 1956...


...with this illustration from 1961:

 Bernie Fuchs for Sports Illustrated

It's hard to believe two such different approaches were popular just a few years apart.  They seem to come from different worlds.

Prior to the 1960s, illustrators often tried to capture action the way a camera did, simply freezing the scene:



 
 
Occasionally illustrators might try to get adventuresome with a hotter color or a rougher line, but the results remained pretty tame:


Then at the beginning of the 1960s a radical young group of illustrators came blazing in with new approaches to conveying action:

Fuchs 1961

Detail


Bob Peak 1964
Fuchs 1964
Handville

These artists found new ways to capture speed by combining fresh ingredients:  the action painting and abstract expressionism that were revolutionizing the fine arts world; blurred and multiple images learned from movies rather than still cameras; an increased culture of speed from the new space age; new liberties emerging with the great thaw of the 60s.  Illustrators abandoned more static, realistic painting for impressionistic sensations of speed.  (As an analogy, recall how the great English painter J.M.W. Turner uprooted traditional realistic English landscapes with his own revolutionary expressionist painting, Rain, Steam and Speed.)

These 1960s innovations were so successful they were quickly adopted as artistic conventions by the profession.  The slashing lines and rapid brush strokes that at first seemed so exciting and new became standard tools for illustrators-- so much that later generations sometimes forgot whose shoulders they were standing on.  More recent illustrators, particularly those invested in textual or conceptual innovations rather than visual innovations, tend to be more dismissive of this period.  

This comes to mind today because in a recent interview a prominent illustrator recalled living in Westport Connecticut among the artists responsible for those 60s innovations:
 Westport was ‘the place’,  but it became not ‘the place’.... illustration started moving in a very, very different direction. Pretty soon the Westport illustrators looked really old fashioned....[T]here was this big tension between the New York City artists that were trying to be really original and really innovative, and the Westport people that were staying in traditions
I hear this version of illustration history mostly from students or friends of another radical illustrator of the day, Robert Weaver, who seemed to be in a pitched battle with the Westport illustrators when he wasn't in a pitched battle with himself.   For me, the notion that "New York City artists" were more "original" or "innovative" falls flat when we compare the impact of the the two schools of illustration.  Few illustrators shaped the personality of their era like those bold illustrators of the 60s.  And few generations advanced the ball so far from the work of their predecessors.

But the story doesn't end there.  Many Westport artists did not "stay in the traditions" that they founded.   Many (such as Fuchs, English and Heindel) continued to experiment visually.  For example, decades after his 1960s action paintings above, we see artist Bernie Fuchs employing a very  different approach:  there are no slashing lines in the following pictures because Fuchs later conveyed speed with a more mature combination of distorted forms, color and perspective.

Morning workout at the track



 The fact that a New York constituency shifted its gaze from visual innovation to conceptual innovation doesn't mean that the visual innovations stopped happening, or that the gaze won't shift back as audiences hunger for change.