Pencil Power

There was a famous book in the 1960’s by Marshall McLuhan called The Medium is the Message. The point of the book was to explore how the medium used shapes the message. The medium discussed was not medium as we use to refer to materials used in painting but rather in a broader sense: radio vs. magazine, TV vs. newspapers, movies vs. TV, et cetera.

Robert Cenedella – Impeachment is Off the Table
Recently, I have realized that the medium that most of us choose to write with tends to dictate the way in which we express ourselves. In my opinion, the creation of the ballpoint pen has limited much of our expressive power. How uninteresting is the ballpoint pen when you consider what can be done with the old fashioned ink pen, quill pen, or fountain pen? We are talking about the expressiveness of the line. It was the invention of line that truly enabled humans to make art from the very beginning. As George Grosz once said to me when correcting a drawing, “Line does not exist in nature, it is an invention of man.” Continue reading “Pencil Power”

Deskilling is Killing Art

Joan Mitchell

Picture this. You treat yourself to dinner at a top-rated restaurant and at $50 a plate, you’re expecting something special. The waiter brings a vile pile of undercooked junk food that you wouldn’t eat on your most drunken night in college. The waiter politely informs you that the chef is deskilled. He has no formal training in the kitchen, but has the creative genius to combine oatmeal with escargot. Or imagine going to the symphony and having to endure two hours of auditory assault by a deskilled orchestra that makes an elementary school ensemble sound accomplished. The program eloquently explains that this cacophony is the result of years of never practicing and makes commentary on the chaos of contemporary culture. Imagine your sheer panic, learning moments before the anesthesia kicks in, that your surgeon is deskilled. The good “doctor” actually has a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology and practices a more “untrained” and “intuitive” approach.

Let’s be honest, no one in their right mind would give a dime of their money to a deskilled chef or orchestra and they certainly wouldn’t trust their life to a deskilled surgeon. Yet, people are willing to pay pricy museum admission ($20!) and millions of dollars in the art market to experience the work of deskilled artists. Only the art world gets away with this madness! Even Chuck Close, the reigning patriarch of the New York contemporary art scene has sounded the sirens: “There are two things that scare the shit out of me. One is today’s post-studio art – since people can’t afford studios, they’re designing 10,000-square-foot exhibitions on the back of a cocktail napkin without the benefit of trial and error. Second, and scariest of all, is the movement towards deskilled art. Nothing ever got made without some kind of skill – you wouldn’t expect a musician to not know how to play the guitar?” Continue reading “Deskilling is Killing Art”

Anything But The Truth

From Issue No. 4

Welcome to the fourth issue of art – The Catalog of The Robert Cenedella Class Show. Bob chose the title to hang on this issue this past winter and, in the typical Cenedella fashion, stepped back to allow the Fellini moments to unfold. Truth- such a big word masquerading as something simple, like so much in Bob world, like so much in the the world of painting and drawing. You can meditate long on the meaning of truth vis a vis visual art and while you may gain some passing insight you will wind up back at the same spot after those thoughts have passed. You could say there is no truth but you know that is not true. Maybe this kind of truth is not something you know, maybe it is another one of those things you just know you know even though you have no idea why.

Truth is painting and drawing have not substantially changed in a millennium nor have methods for teaching art. Teaching art is at once so completely obvious – the line, composition, color, media- and so indirect that it seems the part you are trying to convey doesn’t really fit all that well into the language and calculus. Go ahead, study the human form, study perspective, learn how your mind battles your hand as you learn to draw, copy an upside down drawing and be startled at how much better you are at copying when you’ve tricked yourself into not seeing the content of what you are copying. Spend hours drawing the model on a rainy Friday morning. Maybe you’ll get better at drawing and painting and maybe you’ll just get better. Maybe this whole “truth” thing is a subterfuge – maybe the only true thing is this moment and the hope that it goes on forever. Anything but the truthiness of world outside the league. Quiet please the model is posing.

We have some great stuff in this year’s book. Jeff and Bob found a  emembrance of George Grosz which we have reprinted in its entirety. So Young Hur talked with instructor Knox Martin and Bob over the course of an afternoon and wrote up the sprawling interview. Several of Bob’s students, Philip S. Hill, Frederic A. Mendelsohn and Antoine Dozois, contributed short essays and a poem.

Bob took to his trusty Underwood and held forth again about his love for the league. The mysterious R. Root dispatched a trusted courier to deliver to us his meditation on “truth” and “art” from his aerie in the Turks and Caicos Islands. And there’s more. Jeff and Sean once again did an awesome job designing the book and creating graphics. Sincere thanks to all the students that participated with their work from this year’s classes, to Richard and Celeste Baker for hosting the fundraiser at their Harlem townhouse, to JeffTocci who designed the cover, booked the entertainment for the fundraiser and kept this thing going.

This year’s book is dedicated to Kentaro’s memory. I wanted to write something about his life but words fail me. Too young too soon. I guess all I can say is when we meet again in heaven I hope there is a drawing studio and a model. Thanks to Pam Koob and John Baber for contributing their memorials.

The Fly in the Ointment

The name James Harvey probably means as little to the Art World as it does to the world of soap-box-packaging design. Yet if present standards for judging American art have any validity at all, James Harvey should be considered the most important and influential figure in Pop Art Sculpture. It was James Harvey who created one of the most widely publicized works of art in this century, the Brillo Shipping Carton, Brillo Shines Aluminum Fast and still in spite of this, he remains virtually unknown. What is even more curious about him is that he made his living designing shipping cartons from nine to five every day, while with a much greater devotion he continued to pursue a second career as an abstract artist. He never gained recognition for either.

Andy Warhol

It would be too easy to dismiss James Harvey as simply a loser. The real problem with Harvey is that he was just a painter trying to make a go of it without any understanding of the art of publicity, promotion, or possibly, the great merit of his own commercial package design. He died at the age of 36 before he could come to terms with a confusing world that overlooked him in favor of Andy Warhol, who was blithely referring to the Brillo box as his own masterpiece. The name Andy Warhol was already a household word. Harvey had to ask himself that if it had been he and not Warhol who had stormed the galleries and proclaimed the Brillo box to be a work of art, would the response have been the same? The question is purely academic since it was the famous Warhol, after all, who discovered the Brillo box. But it posed another question for Harvey: Does the ultimate success of Art today depend on the way it is promoted? And what is the mysterious process that enables a man who discovers a work of art to simultaneously become its author?

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Oil Painting

Which form of canvas is best ?
Much depends on the quality of canvas itself. Most of the so-called canvas panels have nothing to recommend them – they are unsatisfactory. Canvas by the yard is usually the painter’s first choice. It comes in a variety of weaves, some coarse, some fine.

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The Painter’s Primer

Like a lot of realist painters, I started teaching as a way to stabilize my income. I was amazed to discover that it would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Somehow, everything I have learned in my life found a place in the studio classroom. Teaching also forced me to objectify my thoughts and make them comprehensible to my students. But the greatest reward, by far, was getting to know that special kind of person, the art student. His hunger to learn and commitment to what Robert Henri called the “art spirit” has been a never-ending inspiration to me. I am sure I got the larger share in the exchange. Continue reading “The Painter’s Primer”

The Line Does Not Exist

LINE does not exist in nature. Line is an invention of man: so, in fact, is all drawing. Line, drawing and writing are interrelated. The signature and the other descriptive material that often accompany the drawings of the old masters have no independent existence as writing, apart from the drawing itself: They form part of the whole conception. This idea is well illustrated in certain drawings of the old masters like Durer, Altdorfer and Mantegna. It is illustrated even more strikingly in Oriental drawing, where line and writing blend to form an indissoluble whole.

George Grosz

There must have been a reason for the invention of line. Yes, it is a guide for those who would venture into the formlessness that surrounds us on every side; a guide that leads us to the recognition of form and dimension and inner meaning. It is like the thread Ariadne gave Theseus before he ventured into the mysterious recesses of the labyrinth. Line guides ud when we would enter the Labyrinth of the countless millions of natural objects that surround us. Without the line we would soon be lost; never would we be able to find our way out of the maze. Let us then follow line withersoever it may go. It may lead to something quite definitive and precise-a landscape, or a human face or figure. Or it may lead to the subconscious- the land of fantasy, where fancy roams where it will.

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Water Color Painting

The first colors with which men began to paint were water colors. The early fresco painters also employed a kind of water color-a tempera color-which was made principally of egg and a species of cherry gum. The technique made it necessary to put the shadows in with lines since the idea of gradation had not yet been developed.

I shall not linger over the history of water color, although it would be fascinating in some future article to trace the development and evolution of this interesting kind of painting which has today once more come into being as an independent art and, as in earlier times, has its own place side by side with oil painting.

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Instead of a Biography

The art of today depends on the bourgeoisie and will die with it. The painter, even if unaware of it, is a cash factory, a machine for producing profit, who is used by wealthy exploiters and aesthetic jackasses so they may invest their money more or less profitably and be called, therefore, patrons of the arts. Art is, to many, a kind of flight away from this ‘vulgar’ world into a shining sphere where they may fantasize about a paradise free and clear of civil strife and factionalism.

The Voice of the People
George Grosz

The cult of individuality and personality, which promotes painters and poets only to promote itself, is really a business. The greater the ‘genius’ of the personage, the greater the profit, How can an artist reach such heights among the bourgeoisie? Through swindle. Most artists start out in proletarian circumstances, in shabby studios, yet have an amazing, if unconscious, adaptability when it comes to finding a way out. Before long the artist finds some influential bigwig to ‘sponsor’ him, which means: paving his way to the marketplace. Occasionally a patron comes along and gives him 100 marks a month in exchange for handling his entire artistic production; or he becomes the property of an art dealer whose job is to convince bourgeois collectors that they need these artworks. With an eye to what’s fashionable, the artist does exactly what the market demands – to that end, all the old props of sacred and divine fraud, as well as the cosmic and metaphysical ones, are paraded out, heralded by heavenly trumpets. Behind the scenes, one can spot the cynical manipulation of insiders. This contrasts with the outward show of cultural advancement. This is what’s called ‘the star system.’ It’s what the system demands, and what the business thrives on. The artists themselves, whether super sophisticated or still rough around the edges – artists whose exalted status arose from their discontent with the world – are mostly brainwashed, and fall in line behind the reactionary fraud called art criticism, a criticism that is utterly subjective and eclectic. They think themselves ‘creators’ who, at the very least, tower above the average philistine who laughs at the ‘deeper meanings’ in a painting by Picasso or Derain. Yet their ‘creations’ are entirely in accord with the so-called spirit of art: they are thoughtless, hostile to reality, and removed from struggle. Just go to art exhibits and see what radiates from the walls! The present is so idyllic, dreamlike, so ready to accommodate some sacred Gothic cult, or primitive beauty, or red circles, blue squares, any farcical inspiration: “Reality, argh! it’s ugly. The turmoil disturbs our inner equilibrium, it distracts the soul.”

Or look at those with more contemporary diseases – how tense they are, how afflicted with their own grandiose visions. We really need such a marasmus, don’t we … undigestible chunks of Gothic and ancient Greek, and don’t forget Egyptian! Just look at the great Grünewald, or Cezanne, so proud of his honors – or Henri Rousseau, that dear, old, ignorant customs official intoxicated with his own blessed innocence. Today all that seems so desolate, cold, empty. And the current revolution is so straitlaced, so mute and listless. The only struggle is the struggle for more money, but that’s neither real nor saintly. Men have utterly forgotten that they are ‘descended from God.’

It’s a mistake to think it necessary for a small circle of artists to paint cubes or a profoundly tangled mass, even if such painting is in opposition to Makart. Sure he’s a bourgeois painter. He paints bourgeois passions, values, bourgeois history. But what about you? What are you but a pathetic satellite of the bourgeoisie? Your snobbish ideas, your bizarre thoughts, where did you get them? Are you going to work for the proletariat, the bearer of the coming culture? Are you taking the trouble to experience and understand the ideas of the proletariat – to form, together with the exploited and oppressed, an opposition? Ask yourself if it isn’t time, finally, to be done with your precious awards. You pretend to be timeless, to stand above party and faction, you in your ivory tower. You claim to paint for the people. Where are the people!? What is your cultivated indifference, your abstract nonsense about timelessness, but ridiculous, sense- less speculation about eternity. Your brushes and pens, which should be weapons, are nothing but slips of straw.

George Grosz

Come out of your studios, even if it’s hard on you. Stop being individualistic and defensive. Give yourself over to the ideas of the proletariat. Help them in the struggle against this rotten society. ‘A human being is nothing, a beast.’ Actually, men have created a vicious system, one with a top and a bottom. A few earn millions while thousands upon thousands lack the bare necessities of life. In South America trains are powered by corn distillates while in Russia millions die of hunger. Yet we speak of culture and discuss art. But perhaps the well-set table, the handsome limousine, the stage and the furnished parlor, the library and the gallery, all that the rich screw manufacturer treats himself to at the expense of his slaves, perhaps, just perhaps, this is not really culture at all?

But what does all that have to do with art? Precisely this, that many painters and writers continue to tolerate this state of affairs without taking a clear stand against it. Today, when all this needs to be flushed away, they continue to stand aloof, cynical as ever – today, when there’s a need to lead the way in opposing all this pettiness, this cultural hypocrisy, this damned callousness.

Now the prevailing belief is in self-satisfying private initiative. The purpose of my work is to shake this belief, to show the oppressed the true face of their oppressor.

It is the duty of revolutionary artists to propagandize in two ways. To purge our worldview of the supernatural powers, of superstition: of God and angels. To open men’s eyes that they may see their actual relationship to their environment. The traditional symbols and mystical transports of the stupidest religious frauds still clutter today’s artworks. What should we do about this? The demands of life are too pressing to allow this painted nonsense to go on.

Ich Liebe Dich
George Grosz

Go to meetings of the proletariat. Sit and listen how the people, people like you, discuss how to make the smallest improvements in their lives. Understand, these are the masses working toward a world organization. No, you are not. But you can build this organization with them. You can help, if you have the desire to do so. In your artworks take the time, trouble yourself, to formulate the revolutionary concepts of the workers.

I’m trying to be understood by everyone. I renounce those profound depths which no one can ever get to without a diving-suit pumped full of cabalistic mumbo jumbo and academic metaphysics.

There has got to be an end to expressionistic anarchism. Today, painters indulge in it. Because being out of touch with the workers, they are ignorant. Yet the time is coming when artists will no longer be overblown bohemian anarchists but bright, healthy workers in a collectivist society. As long as the goal of the working masses still lies in the future, the intelligentsia will continue to waver this way and that, riddled with doubt and cynicism.

I write this instead of the expected, more popular biography. To me it seems more important to speak of my perceptions – and what are, I believe, valid judgments based on my experience – than to enumerate the stupid, superficial, accidental events of my life, such as birthday, family background, schooling, first pair of long pants, the artist’s travels from cradle to grave, creative impulses and inspirations, first success, etc. etc.

All that self promotion is utterly beside the point.

Translation copyright 1987 Paul Gorrell

What Makes an Artist

Every artist of established reputation has constant applications made to him to decide whether such and such a young person has talent enough to justify his studying art; and the proof furnished in which a judgment is to be based is usually a few very slight sketches made in a hazy manner with charcoal or daubs of paint.

The Artist Union

On such proof no matter how much multiplied, no thinking man can base any judgment. They are merely evidences of an imitative habit, often strong in young persons who may lose it entirely later in life.

If the object in studying art be the acquirement of an additional means of education, or for the amusement of the student and his friends, we may safely encourage every person to its study. A knowledge of shapes and an appreciation of colors can be got in no way so surely as by drawing and painting, and this knowledge and appreciation helps wonderfully in making us understand and enjoy everything about us. No one who has not tried to paint, can understand the constantly developing sense of the beauty of nature which is produced by the attempt to imitate it upon canvass. Therefore we say, let every young person learn to draw and paint.

But when it comes to studying Art seriously as a life pursuit, the case is different. Great artists are very rare; even good artists are few in number, and when we pause to think of the reason, we find that it must be so. The production of a great statue or picture involves the use of different sets of faculties which are rarely combined. In no other vocation is a man required to be at the same time two things to different as an artist must be. He must be at once a poet and a mechanic. His imagination must set before him an ideal, and his hand must have the cunning to execute the shapes and colors which will express that ideal. Now the imagination of a great artist must not only be lofty but very vivid, for it must enter into every detail. He may pass over no portion as the poet may, and leave it undefined, for the vacancy would be at once discovered. And the hand of the artist must be so trained as to be ready for every emergency. What workman in the world is so dexterous as a good painter?

Francis D’Avignon – Distribution of the American Art-Union Prizes, 1848

To become an artist the student must have these qualifications. First, imagination, an insight; this will point out to him the road he is to take, it will separate the essential and the true from the unimportant and the false. He must have quickness of observation and a good memory; he must have diligence, perseverance and some mechanical dexterity.

“Science is a part of art,” says Goethe, “but the artist must have the whole.” The more a man knows, the better artist he will be; but knowledge alone will not make an artist; something in addition is required which we may call imagination, or delicacy of perception or the Divine Spark. It is all the same thing under different names. Without it all the science in the world will not make an artist, but the also required, and that comes through study, through persevering observation of the phenomena of Nature.

From The Art Union, Vol. 1 No. 10/11 (Oct. – Nov., 1884), p. 167