Category Archives: fame

Re-Drawing the Map of the Art World

In her NY Times review of Saul Steinberg:  A Biography, by Deirdre Bair, Deborah Solomon reminds us that Steinberg was most famous for his “View of the World From 9th Avenue”, a Manhattan-centric remapping of the world.

Steinberg was a prolific cartoonist for The New Yorker.  In addition, his drawings and sculptures were shown in high-brow galleries and museums, and prized by art collectors.

Solomon, who authored a forthcoming biography of Norman Rockwell, has good reason to be well-versed on the topic of “fine art” vs. “illustration”.  About Steinberg, she comments:  “In his heyday, art critics butted heads over whether his drawings should be considered cartooning, illustration or museum-worthy art.  By now such attempts at classification seem beside the point.  Most of us do not believe that an invisible velvet rope separates museum art from magazine art, or that a painting hanging at the Museum of Modern Art is automatically superior in aesthetic terms to a children’s book illustration.  The truth is that any genre can produce works of enduring power” (italics mine.)

Solomon cites an anecdote from the biography that mirrors this pedestal-busting view of art:  “(Steinberg) once described Picasso, after visiting him at his villa outside Cannes, as ‘an old Jewish man in the Florida sun– all torso and shorts.'”

What do you think?  Is there an important distinction between illustration and fine art?  Does it matter?

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Revisiting Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton:  A Life is a new biography of the American Regionalist artist by Justin Wolff (reviewed in the NY Times 7-1-12.)  Reading about Benton reminded me of my scorn for this reactionary, xenophobic, homophobe back when I was in art school in the 1970’s.  His life’s arc is summed up by the fact that this popular and successful Social Realist artist was eclipsed by his former student, Jackson Pollock.  Benton’s stylized realism and nostalgic view of a simpler America was like Andy Griffith at a Lady Gaga concert.

My personal view of Benton evolved as I outgrew the need to square off against ideologies in art, in order to form my own identity.  In other words, I put aside my own prejudices against Benton’s prejudices, and took a fresh look at his work.  In the mid 80’s, I happened upon a trove of Benton lithographs in an exhibit at R. S. Johnson Fine Art in Chicago.  I was struck by the sinuous beauty and powerfully expressive line in Benton’s graphic work.

Reading about Benton today, I thought about ways his influence pervaded American art.  One of my favorite films is Night Of The Hunter, by Charles Laughton.  Looking at film stills, it is clear that Laughton had a painter’s sense of expressionist drama. Perhaps his stylized view was influenced by Benton’s view of silhouettes of the human drama, played out against the gentle swell of Midwestern plains and river valleys.

Grant Wood, despite the iconic status of American Gothic,  also has been marginalized.  Until I saw the fine collection of his work at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa, I thought of him as a one-hit-wonder.  Like Benton, his work has a lyrical, stylized approach to American landscape that is as distinctive as it is beautiful.  It is well worth a second look.

Art Fraud Case Begs Question: What Makes Art Valuable?

Today, two parallel stories of art authentication/fraud enquiry appeared in the news.  “Old Man With Beard”, thought since the 1960’s to be a skilful copy by one of Rembrandt’s students, was examined with the latest x-ray technology, revealing a hidden drawing of a Rembrandt self-portrait beneath the painting, clinching its authenticity as his work.

On the other hand, the New York Times reveals in an explosive story today that millions of dollars of paintings purported to be by Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn may be fakes.  They were brokered by Glafira Rosales, who claimed they were from the personal collection of a “close family friend” who insisted on anonymity, and sold by blue-chip galleries and art dealers, including Knoedler & Co., which abruptly closed its doors this week.

The Times article details the FBI investigation, which is fascinating.  In addition to a lack of provenance (the documented ownership trail of a work of art), the paintings were not subjected to simple pigment tests, which have now revealed that some of the paints used to create them were not yet available at the time, to the artists who supposedly created them.  Curators and dealers with sterling reputations are falling under the juggernaut of this investigation.

It is incredible to me that these fakes, which convinced the experts (who weren’t looking too hard), could have simply been done without anachronistic paints, and might still retain their “value”.  The lack of the most basic due-diligence on the part of the “experts” is stunning, and calls to question their complicity in the fraud.  How many more are out there?

Beyond all the detective work, I wonder:  If a painting looks like a Pollock or a Motherwell, and is loved and respected for its “inspiration”, is it really less of a “masterpiece” than an authentic work?  If we really can’t tell without the help of a lab, is it really that special?  I like Motherwell, Rothko and Pollock, but $17 million??

I daresay that convincingly faking a Rembrandt would be beyond the technical and artistic abilities of anyone alive.  The Rembrandts that have been called into question were produced by his students, under his tutelage, perhaps with help from his own hand.  If a painting is so easily copied, what’s all the fuss?

What do you think?

(For a fascinating investigative journalism piece on the mechanisms of art forgery, see “Three Indicted in Sale of Fake Famous-Name Prints” from the Chicago Tribune, April, 2011.)

It’s Tough To Be A Diva

I had the pleasure of attending Renee Fleming’s concert at the Lyric Opera on Dec. 12.  She sang the first half of the concert in a beautiful, emerald green satin gown with a floor-length stole, which she swooped around with great effect.  Following the intermission (and completing the Christmas palette), she re-emerged in a gorgeous red gown (see photo).  In her friendly, “just us folks” manner, she told her audience that it’s tough to be a diva.  “A week ago,” she told us, “I performed at the White House.  I made a grand entrance in my gown– with a 3″ velcro roller stuck to it!”

Yes, Renee, it must be tough to be a diva, but you do it so well!  It’s refreshing to see a real star who is willing to puncture the balloon of ego a bit, while graciously embodying glamour and class.  Most importantly, she sang beautifully, as always.

Welcome to Chicago, we look forward to your picks as Lyric Opera curator of new operas and creative consultant. 

On the other hand, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro gave an embarassing performance on “Late Night With David Letterman” last night.  De Niro looked sorely affronted to appear, and clearly was acutely suffering under contractual obligations to promote his new movie in the Fokkers series, those gems of cinematic art.  He offered mostly mono-syllabic responses, which heightened the veteran host’s discomfort.  Letterman was thrown off his game, resorting to listing the duo’s film achievements in a sycophantic manner, to audience applause.  Hoffman became De Niro’s interlocutor, answering questions for him in a manner that suggested that he too was too cool for the room.  It got me thinking of peer pressure at an absurd level, because had he appeared alone, Hoffman would probably have been much more engaging, but his buddy De Niro set the bully bar high.

Must be tough to be a divo.  Such a pain to endure so much attention and adulation.  Of course, maybe it was a farce; you be the judge.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=CTOpkW4ZUMI