L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday morning with Freddie and Ginger

G and I went to a party for writers last night. A (slightly delayed) solstice party at the Writer's Dojo. (Sounds terribly literary, doesn't it?) We were totally pooped from work, but we allowed ourselves the option of leaving early if need be. It was a lovely evening, and G connected with a lot of the writers there. We spent the latter part, downstairs, talking with her friend Holly from the Dangerous Writers workshop. I love sitting back and listening to G and her writer colleagues discussing their work; fascinating. It wasn't at all late, when the host came down to put some food in the refrigerator. Then he came down again. And I thought, well things must be slowing down. It turns out we three were the very last ones there - rather embarrassing - and so much for leaving early. The host let us off the hook by explaining that, while the musician functions there usually go into the wee hours, the writers always leave early because they don't serve hard alcohol at the Dojo. Oh, those boozy, hard-core writers!

Is was about eleven-thirty when we left. First thing G said when we got in the car was, "I'm hungry." We'd barely eaten anything there: a piece of cheese, a cracker, and a nut. So, by the time we got home, we'd decided to eat our leftovers from the night before. Some wonderful squash enchiladas from Oba. In the door and on the way to the food, first thing G said was, "what are we watching?" This from the woman who's often in bed by ten. Or so out of it she should be. After the delightfully starchy meal, I dozed through much of the movie, but G was going strong. Until after two in the morning. Crazy world!

G was really running the show last night, so she chose "Roberta"; Astaire and Rogers is always a good choice, I'm thinking. Here is "Lovely To Look At/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" which comes at the end of the fashion sequence, near the very end of the film. So brief. So perfect.

(Rogers' strange accent is explained by the fact that she's playing a phony Polish countess.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beauty is enough

As simply as I can say it, I think beauty is sufficient reason for a work of art. It doesn't need to do anything else. It doesn't need to say anything. It most certainly doesn't need to make commentary on the world in which it was created. Beauty is sufficient.

When a work of art is clearly beautiful, when it is able to coherently communicate that beauty, it does something to us. Earliest man felt the imperative to make art, to create beauty, to communicate through art. When we're confronted with beauty, when it communicates its incomprehensibility to us, I believe it makes us something more than we were before. It feeds something in us; I truly believe that it changes our soul. And I believe it's something we truly need for survival, to be in touch with, to strive toward. To make us more. And we are so in need of that - that striving toward beauty, the communion with beauty - as a country, a planet, as humanity. Because I believe, as Dostoevsky said, that "beauty will save the world."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I'm going to say again - and it won't be for the last time - that I have great respect for my fellow contemporary artists. That I rail against the state of contemporary art should never be seen as a criticism of what you do; and it doesn't even matter whether I happen to like your work or not. Seriously. Most of us have to devote a ridiculous amount of time to make what we make, giving up a lot, striving to realize our vision. And working hard. Long and hard. Being an artist is not for sissies.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Language is the problem

Most artists - and probably anyone else who ponders such things - would say that art is about communication. It may do other things as well, but most people would say that art will always say something. Fine. I can easily agree with that.

The problem - as I see it - is that, preparing to wade into the twentieth century, artists decided that in order to be Modern - the great addictive striving of the technological age - they needed to remake the vocabulary of visual art. They needed to devise a new language. New languages, actually: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism - all the "isms" - down to abstraction, Pop art, conceptual art. Schools of art that attempted to "break the mold" - you always need to break a mold in order to make anything good, you know - to show the world something new. And then another school, another new. Or just individuals following their own path, but always with the goal of making something new.

This has also been the age when artists went from being craftsmen to being something else. To being something special, something different. Visionaries. Celebrities. Artists. When artists were content to record "what is" - or even an imaginary "what could be", based squarely on "what is" - they were craftsmen, striving to be the best at their established craft. Even the revolutionary "art stars" of the past - the Michelangelos, Leonardos, Caravaggios - still worked within a fairly prescribed framework of pictorial representation. When artists decided that it would be better - newer - to imaginatively interpret "what is" - or more, "what isn't" - all bets were off. Anything was possible and, eventually, anything was permissible. Anything came to be accepted as art. At least anything new, anything approved by whatever current art establishment. That very rarefied strata that has eventually changed the definition and understanding and reputation of art.

Collecting fine art, living with it, has always been the privilege of wealth, but the imagery was always comprehensible to anyone; wealth and sophistication weren't prerequisites. But in the last century, art has become less and less accessible to the general public. Artists and the art establishment make art for themselves; they don't really make any effort to communicate beyond their own sphere. They have devised their own language. If you take the time, you may be able to learn that language; I'm sure it's worth the effort. But it is "elitist"; it has earned that criticism. If you demand that people must be instructed, that art must be explained, if you often refuse to give them anything of what many feel is the greatest purpose of art - beauty - then you leave many, perhaps most, of the world out. You have excluded them.

(Which is fine, I suppose. I see nothing wrong with strong-willed individualism. Do what you want. Make what you want. But don't be surprised or indignant when the public has become so disconnected from and/or uninterested in the arts that schools don't see a need to teach them and that our government looks on them with such disdain that they don't really care to support them financially.)

And so here's where I fall off the edge of the world. The edge of the art world, anyway. Because I believe art should be - relatively - accessible. It can be many other things: thought-provoking, beautiful, ugly, tranquilizing, incendiary, things I might not want to see, or something I just can't understand. But I believe at least I should be able - without instruction or explanation - to access the question. That is what I want in art and I really believe that most of the world wants it, too. If they even remember what art can be.

I don't mean this to be dogmatic; I think there should be room for everything, all forms of artistic expression. Chacun à son goût, as the French say. Each to his own taste. But the balance is horribly off. Craftsmanship needs to celebrated at least as much as nouveauté. And it isn't. And comprehensibility and accessibility should be seen as virtues. You can speak the language of the public - of "real people", people who need art, even if they don't know it - and still manage to say something meaningful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In love with a white dress

I just keep thinking about this dress I saw on the Vintage Textile website. I already included an image of it in a previous post, but I wanted to fixate on it a bit longer. In detail. This is a perfect example of the sort of dress to be worn by a young woman just prior to World War I. An absolutely refined, almost innocent elegance; I can picture one of the last Tsar's daughters wearing a dress exactly like this one. The fashions of those few years right before the war were often a strangely satisfying hybrid of delicate, layered fabrication and trimming, and an adaptation of classical Greek form. The asymmetric skirt panel on this dress and the semi-detached panels at the side of the bodice make me swoon.

Here is something of the website's description:

Hand-embroidered tulle tea dress, c.1912 [or later]

This [dress] combines hand-embroidered cotton tulle with a mixture of delicate machine laces. The hand-assembled tape lace around the neckline and on the skirt front is exceptionally pretty. The two outer layers are hand embroidered with a floral pattern of raised padded satin stitch with eyelet accents. The underskirt has a plain tulle top with a wide machine-embroidered hem flounce. The two layers of the bodice and three layers of the skirt close separately with snaps. [The dress was photographed without an underdress so that the various patterns can be seen.]


While I may criticise much of Modern art, contemporary art, for many things - its failure to communicate to the public beyond itself, its preciousness, hauteur, often underlying silliness - I need to make the deeply-felt distinction between my opinions about the work and the respect I feel for the artists who make it. Certainly, there are those I might find as distasteful as I find their "product", but I don't believe I've ever met a fellow artist who didn't believe in the work they do. Who didn't put long hours of thought and toil into the work they make. While I can't always enjoy the products of their vision, while I may wish they would see that communication to the public is more important than the striving for individuality or the pointless/vain struggle to be NEW, I must respect them for how hard they work and their belief in what they do.

Whatever the endeavor, it's a sort of divine, stubborn madness to work and work - to give up time for "otherwise living", to fail again, or come up short of your vision - to make art that half the world (or more) doesn't care about or thinks is useless. There is a sort of dogged, sacrificing foolishness at the core of any artist - or writer, musician, dancer, actor - that means something more than just the thing they make. I believe it puts something out into the universe, an energy that is possibly only produced by artistic expression. An energy that tells us to pause and look. To think. To challenge our sense of reality. The world is in constant need of change, constant need of fixing. I believe that art - all art forms - can be a portal to the sort of listening that must come before change.

So, as much as I rail about the state of the arts and its failures, as I see them - and will continue to do so - and no matter how loathed I may be by the "art world" for my heretical opinions, I want to say, unequivocally, that I have HUGE respect for artists - of any calling - their dedication, their madness, and what they give to the world. Cheers and amen!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Scotto and Domingo in "Manon Lescaut"

[At the Met in the Eighties. Not always in sync, and there is a fair bit of necessary monitoring of the conductor, but what joy to see these two perfectly matched singing actors, surrounded by the gorgeous largess of the Met....]

The re-united passion of Manon and des Grieux:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mimi's Death - speaking with Renata Scotto

This year, at 76, retired from the stage, giving an appreciation of the quiet simplicity of the death of one of opera's greatest heroines. A great singer and artist, Scotto was also a very great actress.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Painter of...ec-c-ch!"

It may screw with my karma, but I have to admit no small satisfaction that it appears Thomas Kinkade has hit the skids. Born the same year I was born, graduated high school that same Bicentennial year I graduated, he made millions and millions from the mass-marketing of his wretched work. Copies of that wretched work. And now all his gold-spinning ventures seem to have devolved into lawsuits and bankruptcy. And a highly publicized DUI arrest. While I'm completely envious of those millions, and the clever marketing that got them, it's mystifying and extremely disheartening that someone with so little skill, with so little actual talent - so little - got so far.

But the fact of his one-time amazing popularity tells us something. The general public, the ones who don't go to museums or art galleries - maybe never in a lifetime - are still clambering for beauty; people want something of beauty in their lives. Accessible, pictorial beauty. Something that they can hang on their walls and live with. (I think this is some basic human need, to take something of beauty into one's home.) And the simple fact is that this avaricious, bible-thumping hack gave the public something it needed. Maybe without even knowing it needed it. Because our country is so totally uneducated in art history and has so little appreciation of any of the arts, and because contemporary artists make little that the uninitiated are capable of responding to, the great unsophisticated public - the numbers are probably inflated, but some say 1 in 20 homes in America has a Kinkade "product" - threw itself wholeheartedly into his grasping, sweaty hands. In some ways, they had nowhere else to go.

On so many levels, the great, puffed-up success of Thomas Kinkade is very, very sad thing. For this country, for artists, for art. And if he falls, nothing gets any better.


[Sorry, but I felt unable to post an example of his work, here; I do hope you'll understand....]

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I just happened upon a terrific website: VINTAGE TEXTILES

They sell vintage clothing from the eighteenth century through to the Forties and Fifties. The presentation of the website itself is quite uninspiring, but the detailed photographs of the clothing are really wonderful. I'm - not surprisingly - most drawn to the items from the Edwardian period and from the Twenties and the Thirties. Along with all the details of each garment, discussion of condition, its history - if known - are often little wisps of fashion-mad wisdom. (Or maybe it's just cleverly high-toned salesmanship.) One I really enjoyed:

[Describing an Orientalist-style coat, ca. 1912, in orange corded wool, thickly embroidered in a Chinese cloud pattern in black, fur-trimmed and with collar and cuffs faced with an amazing Chrysoprase-colored velvet] "...[this] coat again proves what we have always known: style is individual, aristocratic, and reckless."

Well, I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Timothy Michael

My dad was killed three years ago today.

He was riding his bicycle. I miss him.

I love you Dad.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Never gonna happen....

Why I'll never be included in the Whitney Biennial:

- A selection of the work of the fifty-nine artists/artist groups/performers chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

(Click on the image for detail.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The problem with writing a blog where I often take contemporary art to task, is that I'm part of contemporary art. I'm a professional artist. And I show in a gallery that shows all sorts of artists. There is a lot of work they show that I do not like. Some I do not like a lot. But, of the other artists I've met, I "do not like" none of them. (That's rather a sentence.)

So I'll have to just keep saying that I don't think the problem - my problem - with contemporary art is at all the the fault of contemporary artists or even galleries. It's a problem - as I see it - of evolution and taste, education and expectation. The role of art in society and the persona of "artist" have evolved from what they once were. The taste for specific kinds of art, trends in art, is shaped by critics and educators and curators, and by those who can afford to buy it. (It's really just fashion after all.) I didn't go to art school, but most artists I know did. Where, at least to some degree, they were indoctrinated in the religion of Modern art. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe there are many art schools of prestige that encourage young artists to set a Titian or a Boucher as their idol. But Pollock or Picasso? Certainly. There is a Modernist slant; there has to be. And humans are infinitely influenceable. To not be influenced by recent art education and the expectations of the marketplace, one has to be amazingly stubborn or slightly mad.

And I went off, again.... What I mean to say is that I don't want be seen as tearing down my fellow artists. Not at all; I respect them very much. Making art of any kind is hard work. And thoughtful, sincere hard work is always worthy of respect. I just feel that another perspective needs to be voiced. And there needs to be room for that. And that less "fashionable" styles of contemporary art should be seen and valued and encouraged.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pale pink

There are just some things that I think pointless to paint. Futile. Right now, we have a vase of pale pink peonies on the coffee table (if you could call it that) in the living room (if you could call it that). They are amazing objects - almost animals, they're so vigorous and dancing. Shaded rose-pink-white, butter-white, shell-like rose, they look like they've exploded. Quietly, gently exploded. Every irregular little petal - of what looks like hundreds - is an individual. Turning, bending, striving in its own direction. It's as if each one communicates - hisses, shouts, whistles, coos - with all the others. There's a madcap neighborhood in each ridiculously glamorous blossom.

If you have a very exacting technique as a painter - mine is reasonably exacting - if you are able to describe each petal, each transition and mutation of color, if you are able to show the navigation of light through the endless translucent layers, capture the light reflected around and within - if you can do all these things, is it anything like the actual flower? If you have a more impressionistic technique, if you can insinuate yourself into the "moment" of that peony, can capture something of the air about it and, again, the light that attacks and caresses it, is it anything like the actual flower? If you have any sort of technique, any sort of skill, if you are able to create something truly beautiful from your observation of a pale pink peony, is it anything like the actual flower? No. Never.

The miracle of most living things is impossible to really even comprehend. To really look at something - like those peonies - to let in something of that incomprehensibility, is probably the farthest we can reach toward capturing anything of its essence. For that alone I'm so incredibly grateful. And those genuinely precious moments are enough. Blessedly enough.

If you want to paint that flower, that tree, that ocean - because it excites you, challenges you, because you want to better your skills - do it, of course. Why not? But for me, being an artist never crosses over into any real desire to try and "capture" anything, to somehow replicate the essence of something. Certainly not something of nature, something so much smarter and richer and full of creation than I believe humans are capable of understanding. I paint paintings of paintings. I'm grateful and happy within my limitations. To be able to look at a pale pink peony is enough for me.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

An allegorical explanation

Nine years ago I started a painting. An adaptation of the famous painting by Bronzino which is usually titled "Allegory of Venus and Cupid". A beautiful and wonderfully perverse work, painted in the 1540's as a gift for François I, its iconography has confounded scholars ever since it first appeared publicly. Entering the collection of Britain's National Gallery in 1860, whose director judged it "the most improper picture" - which it certainly is - most of the naughtiest parts were painted over; it was only restored in 1958. (Incidentally, the year of my birth.) 

I finished my painting "Allegory of the Artist - After Bronzino" just this year. My "official" explanation for the long gestation is that I was waiting for my technique to catch up with my ambition. Subconsciously, at least, I do believe that I knew I wasn't yet ready to complete it. Beneath the rather flashy imagery, this is really a very personal painting for me; most of the objects depicted directly relate to my tastes and/or my life. Therefore, I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to take it in to the gallery and have it up for sale. I very nearly just kept it. But now that it's been sold, I thought I should try to explain what the details represent. As some sort of record. I kept as much of the original composition as was feasible and useful for my purposes. The blue drapery is as close as I could make it to the original; I only changed it where, because of the physical impossibility of recreating the inhuman pose of Venus, the figure wasn't in precisely the same configuration. This mainly affected the position of the left foot and leg and the aperture between the left hip and arm. There is also more drapery at the bottom which I felt better balanced the composition. (Oddly, reading later, I found that the only alteration to the original was that, at some time in its history, approximately five centimeters were trimmed from the bottom - I wonder if it would have related at all to what I added.) I kept the pink pillow with much the same detail. I only changed some of its drapery as it was so stylized that to copy it made it look like I was mistaken in my drawing. I kept the (nearly) black background and the position of the arm and hands of the figure (now me) holding up/pulling back the blue cloth. I kept two masks positioned in the right corner. Other than that, I tried to add back colors and pattern and some of the textures that are in the original. Reproductions of the original vary wildly in color but it would be safe to say that my overall tone is much warmer, though perhaps not as much so as my reproductions would indicate. The other thing I should mention is that, contrary to nearly all of my other work, the composition of this painting altered over time. It was fully begun and then set aside. After Gigi came into my life, I added several new elements. And then, as I was finishing it, I added several more. 

My friend Shane Sullivan, an artist himself, posed for this painting. I was amazed at how well he got the impossible pose of the Venus in the original. Because this wasn't meant to be a portrait, but something completely idealized, I generalized the face, made the hair more "picturesque", and added a foreskin to his rather American penis - yes, I did - to better accommodate a classical iconography. He still holds Cupid's arrow - as well as Venus' golden apple - though there is no Cupid here. My arm, in the position of the original, holds back the drapery and, looped in my hand is a ribbon which drapes over a large blank panel - the ready place to make art - and has a pencil and paintbrush knotted at its end - the tools with which to make art. There are no putti in the original work, but there are two winged figures. Here, the wings were useful for adding some of the colors from the Bronzino. The putto peeking over the drapery on the right, was added far into the process; actually, I painted over (something I never do) another one that was cropped off at the mouth like the central one. This one is my favorite, seemingly shy, and is the only figure in the painting that gazes out at the viewer.

Me - or the me of nine years ago - with my mustache and "soul patch", wearing a black t-shirt, the "artist uniform". A silver vase of white lilies - why? Because I think they're beautiful. And they work compositionally. They also represent, I suppose, a pristine natural beauty. The top of the vase is ringed with pink roses; in the original, a small child has pink roses clutched in his hands. But they're also useful compositionally and because they're beautiful and fragrant. The small banner that spirals around the lily stems was added later. Aperto Vivere Voto is a quotation from Persius. I've never known the context, but it is usually translated as, to live one's life as an open book. Or, to live with unconcealed passion. Years ago I adopted it as a sort of personal motto; I had a ring made that is inscribed with it, and I have it tattooed on my left arm. Also added later, is Gigi's right hand holding up the edge of the drapery. She's wearing the silver and amethyst ring she always wears. I gave it to her soon after we met and fell in love. A sort of promise ring. The original painting has two hands presented horizontally in about this same location, so that was another reason to place it here. The leafy vine was added at the same time. Coming from beyond the picture plane, through my grasp and down and through hers. Besides the color and compositional concerns, it also symbolizes growth and passage - our journey together - and our connection. And how we work together.

The flat plan on the far left is of the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Built for the future Alexander I of Russia, its last residents, famously, were Nicholas II and his family. At first preserved by the Soviets, trashed by the Nazis, and then given to the Russian navy to use, it is currently undergoing an intense restoration. The two Cyrillic letters visible are the beginning of the word transliterated as dvorets: palace. The rolled plan is that of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. At the bottom is a fragment of Maison de la reine, as it was for Marie Antoinette. The score that spills out of the portfolio at the top of the stack of books is that of Rachmaninov's second symphony. Or what I imagine it might look like; I've never seen the actual score, and the scale of the painting is small enough that trying to reproduce it would be pointless, so I merely made a - fairly - detailed representation of a full orchestral score. I always refer to this piece of music as my favorite, the "great work" that I always return to, the music of my "Russian" soul!

The other books in the stack aren't actual ones, but just a way to celebrate the role of books in my life, and a place to inscribe names that have meant a lot to me. F.X. Winterhalter, the nineteenth-century portrait painter; Les Romanoff, and all the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy that have so fascinated me; Versailles, preposterous to say but, in many ways, my spiritual home. And Marie-, being all the Maries: Marie Antoinette, Marie Pavlovna, Empress Marie, Queen Marie. Even my mother, Mary. The book in the middle, with the spine turned away, is the mystery book. I can think of many things it might represent. The story of a life - mine, mine with G. Or an actual book. Most often, though, it represents for me the book that hasn't been finished yet, the first (full-length, grown-up) book that G gets published. A very important book to me. On the cushion is an emerald and diamond sautoir I designed to represent the fascination I've had with great vintage jewelry - Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron - and the Russian Imperial jewels. My cat's tail curls in from the side and, when G and I got together, I added her little dog José's tail as well; both of them are gone now. The very last thing I added to the painting was the little flowering plant, a sort of (made up) wildflower. There was something missing in that space. I made one of the stems broken, I suppose to symbolize the delicacy of beauty and of life. Which leads to a probably expected ingredient of any classical allegory, the skull. Crowned with laurel; death is always the ultimate victor.

The vine that threaded through my hand and G's, trails down, twining around the hourglass - time, of course - and rests, wrapped in the ribbon end of the pearl necklace. It's the growing end of the vine, and the necklace is another symbol of beauty. And, of course, pearls are symbols of growth and transcendence - the irritation of the oyster that makes the amazing jewel. The silver vase is an example of the neo-classicism that I so love. And the two quill pens signify the importance of writing in our lives. The beautiful white one - with ink on the tip - is G's. The inkless, stubby gray one is mine, untested. The two masks represent the two female idols of my childhood: the Empress Eugénie, in profile, and Marie Antoinette. The sheet of parchment tucked into the corner, beneath the drapery, was drawn in at the beginning. The original has something similar in the same place, but I've never been able to tell precisely what it is. My sheet was left blank; I didn't know what to put on it. But after G and I got together, I thought to add the date of our first contact. The date that changed the direction of my life. The date she sent me an email, praising my work, after seeing a show of mine: 12-12-03.