Monday, May 18, 2015


Second only to humming, drawing may be our most intimate art form.  Drawings can be personal and delicate and spontaneous.  They don't require corporate funding, batteries, committee approval or a fancy uniform. Works of genius can be scratched on a prison wall with a rusty bed spring.  As Roberta Smith wrote, drawings are "a direct extension of an artist's signature and very nervous system."

In my view, one of today's most interesting signatures belongs to Lynda Barry.  I find her work brilliant and hilarious, but most of all she is a true original.  Her distinctive voice has been untouched by the corporate deflavorizing machine.


The thing about drawing is that it works both ways; it's a direct way for an artist to project their ideas, but it's also a way for a viewer to look directly into an artist's nerve center, to see whether the artist really has anything to offer.  There is no faster way to reveal you are a fraud than through the medium of drawing. 

I've said many unkind things about punk drawing and the art in alternative comics; I find so much of the work in graphic novels to be lame, simplistic or prematurely weary.  But Barry strikes me as one who does it right.  She proves that a crude line can be beautiful, and perfectly suited to its content.  If you follow her line into her nerve center you find she is rich, complex, inventive, authentic and unfailingly smart.

 And unlike so many alternative comic artists, Barry understands the importance of design.

How often do you find work these days that is both true and a joy to read?

Sunday, May 10, 2015


"To live is to war with trolls"  -- Ibsen

 Illustrator Steve Brodner started drawing political cartoons for local Brooklyn newspapers at the young age of 17. Back then he was paid a whopping $10 per cartoon.

In the hopes of improving his lot, Brodner enrolled in New York's famed Cooper Union art school. Unfortunately, Cooper Union frowned upon his illustrative style of drawing. The school wanted students with the potential to amount to something someday, and they viewed Brodner's work as unsophisticated and uninteresting. His drawing teacher scolded him for exaggerating the models in life class, and gave him an F grade. The Dean summoned Brodner to his office and urged him to transfer to Brooklyn College, which might be more tolerant of Brodner's style.

Brodner refused to leave (in part because Cooper Union tuition was free and Brodner could not afford Brooklyn College).  At the end of his first semester, Brodner's grade average was a paltry 2.1.  If his average sank just .1 lower, Brodner could be thrown out of school. The Dean walked around to Brodner's teachers trying to persuade one of them to lower Brodner's grade so the Dean could expel him.  Not one of them was willing to comply so Brodner received a temporary stay of execution.

In his second semester, Brodner struggled to raise his grades.  At the same time, he learned about a nationwide cartooning competition on the theme of overpopulation. The judges in the contest included Al Hirschfeld, Al Jaffee and Roger Wilkins. Brodner entered the contest with a cartoon showing the earth evolving over the span of five sequential drawings, as humans multiplied, into a skull:

Brodner's cartoon won first prize, miraculously beating out established professionals such as Garry Trudeau and Charles Addams.  The NewYork Times and the New York Post both wrote about Brodner's award.  People magazine profiled him in its Guide to the Up and Coming. His drawing was featured on TV, on the Today Show and on the famous quiz show, To Tell the Truth.

The night of the award ceremony, the audience was filled with celebrities from television, the press and the arts. The Master of Ceremonies was famed cartoonist Milton Caniff.  Hirschfeld and Jaffee participated, and even the loser Charles Addams showed up to see the young winner.  Recalls Brodner, "It was a grand introduction to the world of published art."

The young Brodner receives his award, flanked by Al Hirschfeld
But perhaps the biggest surprise in the audience was the President of Cooper Union who came up to the front so the school could share in the credit for the award. He wrapped his arm around Brodner's shoulder, shook his hand and congratulated him, declaring how proud Cooper Union was of its famous student.

After the award, Cooper Union arranged for Brodner to take a six-credit course of independent study, drawing political cartoons.

Over the next 40 years, Brodner earned fame as a leading caricaturist, author, film maker, professor, and political observer.  In prominent publications such as Newsweek, Esquire, the New Yorker and Harpers, he made "pictures that tell the important story." No one has heard from Brodner's drawing teacher.

Thirty five years after he graduated, Cooper Union awarded Brodner its St. Gaudens Lifetime Achievement award, the school's highest honor bestowed upon an alumnus.


Saturday, May 02, 2015


Long time readers will recall that I'm a big fan of the work of Tom Fluharty.  I'm particularly impressed by the way he applies his great talent to one medium after another.

He draws with a sharp, crisp line, taking full advantage of the fact that line can provide a snap that no other medium can.


These preliminary studies, filled with honest, observant drawing, could easily stand alone as finished work.

Fluharty is especially good at capturing the character in his subjects so that they jump off the page.
In contrast to his brisk drawings, he is also a classically trained oil painter who works patiently in glazes in the Dutch and Flemish tradition,  inspired by Bouguereau,  Ingres, and Rembrandt. 

He is equally at home working digitally:

Illustration for the New York Times

He illustrates children's books in a flatter, more colorful style:

But is probably better known for his adult, political illustrations

On his new web site, Fluharty announces that he has recently begun a series of large oil paintings of pop culture icons:

Fluharty worked to understand the distinctive attributes of each medium and I admire the way he brings his special talents to bear in each.

Monday, April 20, 2015


I love Saul Steinberg's drawing of "Frozen Music Found Near Radio City Music Hall, Winter 1939"

For thousands of years,  philosophers have struggled for an aesthetic theory of music.  Platonic theorists argue that musical works are abstract objects, while Nominalist thinkers  claim music is a collection of  concrete particulars.   Scholars  fiercely debate the "ontology of music"--  are drawings "physical objects"  while music is an abstraction  allowing for "multiple instantations"?    How do "harmony" and "composition" in music relate to harmony and composition in the visual arts? 

Steinberg sidesteps these kinds of semantic debates by showing us the day when music froze in mid-air:


Bill Watterson, in his excellent new book,  Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, said:
I love the unpretentiousness of cartoons.  If you sat down and wrote a two hundred page book called My Big Thoughts on Life, no one would read it. But if you stick those same thoughts in a comic strip and wrap them in a little joke that takes five seconds to read, now you're talking to millions.

Steinberg looked at layer upon layer of dense philosophical analysis, as impenetrable as coal under pressure, and picked out this little diamond-- clear, light and funny.

Friday, April 10, 2015


On a recent trip to Disney World I was impressed by the way Disney has adapted state of the art digital technologies for a new generation of rides and events.  Everywhere I turned there were flashing video screens and interactive robotics and music and bustling activity.

Then I unexpectedly stumbled across a quiet and nearly empty building where I had the most interesting experience of my visit: a beautiful exhibition of original background drawings and paintings from Disney's classic films.  This art exhibit, entitled "Setting the Scene," will be on display until approximately 2019. 

From Fantasia's pastoral sequenceAll images copyright Walt Disney

The show contains a rich array of paintings from movies such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Snow White and many others.  Here you can see the fertile imaginations of the founding fathers (and mothers) at the dawn of animation.

From Sleeping Beauty

The exhibition was assembled by the Walt Disney Animation Research Library in conjunction with Walt Disney Imagineering/Florida.  It provides a good sense for the massive treasure trove of talent that made Disney what it is today.


I strongly recommend this exhibition to anyone who makes it down to Disney World.  It won't be crowded and it's worth careful study.

Disney reports it has begun curating additional exhibitions that will get its art our of the vaults and in front of appreciative audiences.  "We are currently curating two original exhibitions, one that will open this year in China entitled, Drawn from Life and a second one that will open in Europe."  Disney also plans to release several books in 2015 and 2016 making use of art from the archives.

A few of the masterpieces in the exhibition are attributed to specific artists such as Gustaf Tenggren but as Disney reports,
In the early days of the Studio, artists did not sign their names as the films were seen as a highly collaborative experience, so we can only identify those pieces as having been created by a "Disney Studio Artist....In recent years, all the artwork has been signed (or digitally catalogued with the artists' names) so we can cite the artist attribution in books and exhibitions and properly recognize the very talented individuals who contribute to the films in his or her own style. 

As I left the gallery and returned to the main park, I couldn't help thinking of the ancient Egyptian temple of Karnak.

Karnak was one of the most monumental religious sites ever built.  The majestic temple grounds took more than 2,000 years to construct and included 200 acres of buildings, sacred lakes and grand courtyards.  Its "Sacred Enclosure of Amon" alone is 61 acres, big enough to hold ten European cathedrals.  Robed priests conducted torchlight processions along a 2.5 kilometer avenue lined with a thousand ram-headed sphinxes.

But in the beginning Karnak was only a small spot in the desert where a few people with vision saw something holy.  The first structure on that site was apparently a tiny reed hut but it was enough to provide a spiritual foundation for the mighty Egyptian empire that followed.  As the centuries passed, engineers, builders and armies arrived at the site and built outward from that first sacred spot, the "Holy of Holies,"

The handful of visionaries who put pencil to paper back in the days of Snow White and Pinocchio, they provided the spiritual foundation for the Disney empire.  These small, imaginative paintings can be found in Disney's Hollywood Studio Theme Park.  They didn't attract long lines of visitors like the tumultuous Toy Story Midway Mania 4D ride, but they deserve your close attention, for they are the Holy of Holies. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015


This is how Jeff Koons (really and truly) explains his work of art, above:

This painting has a sexualized sense of nature.  There's reference to nineteenth-century French painting, and Courbet, and to Louis Elishemius, a twentieth-century American who has absolutely influenced me over the last couple of years.  There's also a reflective silver line drawing that's what I think would be Cy Twombley's take on Courbet's Origin of the World-- but a little more primal.  The image itself comes from a close-up of a couple in the act of making love.  It's a penetration.  Laid on top of that, with the exact same cropping, is an image of a waterfall.  So you have the greens and the nature colors and then in the center of the waterfall, you have white and the flesh of the couple.  It makes reference to Marcel Duchamp's Etant Donnes.  Sexuality is something that overtakes you.  The gesture that you end up making in the world happens through instinct and all these desires for procreation.  The most beautiful aesthetics, the greatest beauty, is the acceptance of nature and of how things function.  When I say beauty,  I mean just true reality and openness to everything.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Even the harshest caricature requires balance.  Artists with strong opinions may try extreme exaggerations, only to discover that their caricatures lose strength rather than gaining it.  Illustrator Ralph Steadman offered one reason why caricaturists can't afford to get too carried away:
Distortion ultimately loses its potency as it departs too dramatically from authentic human or bestial form
Artists with the talent to maintain control at the extremes-- who can approach the limits, but retain the hair-line judgment to know when to stop-- those are the masters who are able to devise some truly devastating images.   (I'm not talking here about mere likenesses.  The drawings I'm describing are in a different category from anything Al Hirschfeld or David Levine or Mort Drucker ever dreamed up.)

The following are examples of such caricature from artists I admire.  First is Steve Brodner's depiction of Ted Cruz:

Fairly conventional caricatures surround Brodner's vicious treatment of Cruz
Brodner's unerring eye located the reptilian elements in Cruz's DNA and brought them to the fore

Tom Fluharty's devastating treatment of Hilary Clinton won attention-- and laughs-- from both sides of the aisle.


Here, Fluharty-- who is really a very nice person in real life-- contorts Obama's face to the limits of recognizability.

Fluharty's expertise as a portrait painter enables him to take great liberties with the bones and muscles of the face, without losing control
In the following picture, John Cuneo literally strips bare a rogue's gallery of saggy old (mostly white) guys:


No limits: Dick Cheney's shriveled penis draped on the coffin of the war dead

Steadman believed that "The very dark primeval spur of all drawing [is] the deep desire to wield a supernatural power over a victim, the subject of the portrayal." 

As you try to erase these horrifying images from your mind, you can feel that power at work.