Thursday, July 31, 2008

Three Policemen

2005, monotypes, 6x8in.

Museum Guard Influences, Part 2 – Three OBPs, 1993, 1995

During the time I was a guard at the Met my regular department was 20th Century Art and Design, and while I was there, that department seemed to have a love affair with Old British Painters, giving retrospective exhibitions to Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj, and Howard Hodgkin.

Of the three, I had the least use for Kitaj, whose exhibition was held in 1995. There were some beautiful drawings in charcoal or pastel in the show, but his paintings seem to me to be self-indulgent and unresolved and illustrative [some other time I’ll talk about the word ‘illustration,’ which was a bugaboo to me in art school and which can cause some folks to get their hackles up]. So-called ‘intellectual’ or ‘literary’ painting, Kitaj simply skimps on the painting, hoping the ‘meaning’ will carry the burden of the aesthetic weight. And painting doesn’t work that way. Too bad, because he had a beautiful hand at drawing, and I wanted to like his painting more, both because of his considerable ambitions and because he was born an Ohio boy, but the work just seems to me to be a weak pastiche of Degas and Chagall.

Lucian Freud’s exhibition in 1993 was a problem for me. At the time, I was committed to working from direct observation, and so I was very excited to spend some time with Freud’s exacting and tireless vision, because I had not seen much of his work in person before. My favorite piece by far was a small self-portrait, cropped to include not much more than the artist’s face and neck. And I remember changing my overall opinion of his work daily. His insistence on framing the works behind glass did not help. But I think what pulled me back and forth about his work was the meticulousness of the observation and commitment to a very specific and structured way of working on the one hand, and sheer ugliness of paint and surface on the other. They posted the famous de Kooning quote prominently in the exhibition: “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” But Freud does not use oil paint in a way that benefits from the properties de Kooning was talking about: oil paint’s fluid transparencies, translucencies, and creaminess. Instead, Freud, with his insistence on using so much Kremnitz white, a lead white that easily turns scabby and coagulated, and his insistent re-painting of surfaces without first scraping down the surface, uses oil paint in a way that takes no advantage of the inherent ‘fleshiness’ of the medium. My final verdict on Freud still holds for me today: a good, not great, painter with severe technical limitations and not great sense of light and color. Overrated, I have to say. I guess it helps to have Grandpa Siggy in your tree.

Which brings us to Sir Howard Hodgkin, whose work I admire most of the three, and probably admire more than any other 20th century British painter [not a distinguished list], probably because in their exuberance of marks and color his paintings are the least British of them all. Like Kitaj, his paintings were also exhibited at the Met in 1995. I remember working one of the first days of the show, on a Saturday morning before the galleries could fill with visitors, and there was one man looking at the art, a kind of short, late middle-aged, decidedly dumpy looking guy. Bilbo Bagginsish. Anyway, while this quiet and nondescript little old guy was carefully examining Hodgkin’s work, the guard on the next post up from me, also a painter, and I started to talk about the work. He asked me what I thought, and being a young painter who was trying to learn and form opinions and talk about painting, I told him what I thought. The first few rooms, the earlier work, I thought was loose and disjointed, didn’t hold together, was tentative in color, etc. But after those first few rooms, I thought they get more confident and the color gets richer and the marks grow in scale and it felt like to me that it really picks up steam and roars all the way to the end of the show. The other guard goes hmm, yeah, I see what you mean, and adds his own two cents.

When I move up a post an hour later I see that the museum has posted a blown-up black and white photo of Hodgkin on a ferry in Venice, and lo and behold [you, dear reader, probably saw this coming], that frumpy little dude who had the galleries all to himself that morning was Sir Howard himself. Oh my god, I thought, poor Sir Howard comes to New York for a triumphal retrospective at the Magnificent Met, and has to listen to some dumb shlub guard who isn’t impressed with his early work. “Damn colonists! Everyone’s a critic!”

Anyway, I still love Hodgkin’s work and I think he’s one of the best working today.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Both 2006, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 14x11in.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Museum Guard Influences – de Kooning, 1994

I was a guard at the Met for two and a half years after graduate school. It was a good gig for a young artist: four day work week, health insurance, decent enough pay that I could afford a studio, and, of course, the chance to look at great stuff all day. The chance to live, forty hours a week, with some of the most beautiful things in the world. It was an education in itself.

I have my favorites in the permanent collection – favorite rooms, favorite pieces, favorite elevators and floors, even – culled from standing for hours at a time in the same rooms, looking at the same paintings, or sculpture, or chairs, or jewelry or whatever. And I’m pretty sure that from fall of ’93 to February of ’96, I spent shifts in every gallery in the place. I’ll probably write about some of those favorites in the permanent collection some time, but lately I’ve been thinking about some of the special exhibtions that happened while I was there and how they have affected me as an artist.

The first show that comes to mind is the retrospective of Willem de Kooning paintings that originated at the National Gallery and came to New York in the fall of 1994. It was a knockout show, full of the best examples of each period from his career, beginning with the early biomorphic abstractions, to the classicist, obsessively worked paintings of men, moving on through the brilliant black and whites, to the women and the gritty urban abstractions, to the highway paintings, to the strange and gooey reprise of women after his move to Long Island, to the yellowy pastorals, to the explosive and generous landscapy abstractions of the ‘70’s, and culminating, of course, in the slowly emptying areas and ribbonlike arcings of the very last paintings, when he was succumbing to Alzheimer’s.

De Kooning is a hero of mine, and I think one of the greatest painters ever to work in this country. He is a hero because of his commitment and working methods, as well as because of his straightforward, if often malapropped, unpretentious, and richly insightful statements about painting. Sometimes I think of him as the Yogi Berra of modern art. Yes, I’ve read the Stevens and Swan biography and I know he was a selfish bastard, too, with a monstrously mucked up personal life, but I prefer to admire the art, if not the artist. I’ve been thinking a lot about the black and whites lately, in relation to my own monochrome paintings. Their melting cubist structures, their marvelously slippery and speedy passages of paint.

Many other paintings stand out in my head of course – Pirate, Attic, Doorway to the River, Easter Monday, Whose Name Was Writ in Water, Woman with Bicycle, to name a few. I remember watching Allen Ginsburg losing himself in that last one, which for some reason struck me as pretty funny.

But I also came away with respect for that much maligned period in his career in the 60’s just after he left Manhattan and started working out in his self-designed studio in the Springs, the period of strange oblong paintings of women and highly keyed colors of close-toned yellows and pinks and cadmium light reds. The ‘mayonnaise’ paintings. They are difficult paintings to like, but by show’s end, I liked them. I had looked long and hard enough to see that they did indeed work, gaudily and brazenly and with a healthy dollop of frothy bad taste, really. I learned that some things reveal themselves slowly, but once they begin, they can be as exhaustive and fulsome as some of the richest work of his careeer. And I began to see how they had led the way into the great, orchestral work of the 1970’s, in which the color took on such rich and hearty life.

It was one of the best lessons learned while working at the Met – that sometimes the art that seems weird and ugly and formless beyond help, does actually have something to it that works, and it will reveal itself with a little work from you. The trick is developing the instinct to discover what will reward that kind of patience. Another thing I learned from working at the Met is the importance of good, comfortable shoes.


2003, oil on canvas, 11x14in.

Monday, July 28, 2008

And another thing

Don't wear flip flops to a baseball game.

Second trip to Shea

Lunchbox day at Shea yesterday, and the last game of the Cardinal series after a 14 inning, five hour game Saturday night that completely wiped out the bullpen.

Again, the weather forecast was a little iffy, but we left the house early to make sure we'd get that commemorative tin lunchbox for our son. We packed a bag with snacks and books, and lunch was some extra barbecued chicken legs from the day before.

We had seats about halfway up the upper deck, right behind home plate. Our son was a little low-energy and cranky early on in the game, which was making me nervous because Santana was throwing no-hit ball through four, AND because the Mr. Met Dyna Met Dash promotion was scheduled to take place after the game. We were all excited about the chance to go down on the field. He perked up about the time the Mets did, though, with the help of some ice cream. Everything seemed to go right for the home nine yesterday -- Santana threw a complete game; homers from Wright, Tatis, and Castro; Beltran had a couple hits so maybe he's heating up, but he also made the best catch since Endy's in '06.

High fly ball off the bat of number two hitter Ryan Ludwick. Beltran has a nice jump, retreating right away, his eyes rising. All of a sudden, he turns his back to home and kicks it smoothly into a higher gear, running straight back to the track, where he turns, feels for the wall, gathers, leaps, and makes the catch, the ball snapping his glove beyond the wall before he pulls it back, and you see the perfect sno-cone. It was gorgeous.

Each time it replayed on Diamondvision, the crowd exploded. "Whoa!" The same "Whoa!" that Little Steven would make when he was playing Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. [I hate that Beltran gets a bum rap from some Met fans - he is a joy to watch, a cadillac, so smooth and effortless in center field. I can only imagine that DiMaggio covered the outfield in the same way. ]

I have to admit, it is fun to sit near glumfaced and sullen Cardinal fans in their ugly red clothes. Especially since I was there for Endy's catch in '06, and Yadier &*%^$^# Molina is still behind the plate for St. Louis.

Anyway, the weather threatened to cancel the Dyna Dash, but in the middle of the eighth we made our way down to the Gate A and the picnic area to wait on line. We had our radio so we could hear Santana finish the game. It was a long wait in a light drizzle, but well worth it. You enter the field from behind the bleachers, and you pass behind the camera stand, and the huge and rusting light tower in left center, finally stepping onto the warning track just to the left field side of the Home Run Apple. It is cool. Seeing that stuff up close, looking up at the scoreboard, out across the outfield, into the the bullpen and the dugout, and up into the upper deck. Stadium crew does not want you to lollygag -- they are very nice about it, I have to say -- but you don't get the chance to really soak it in. And the kids run once, from first base to home, which our four year old covered a lot faster than I thought he would. Even after being gently steered away from the outfield grass a few times.

Rounding third and heading for home. His face looked like Christmas morning as he approached Mister Met.

Then he was a little glum because he couldn't run again, but a free ice cream cone helped him get over that. And I think we're going to do it again anyway -- we're going to two more Sunday games this month alone, next one in a couple weeks against the Marlins when my brother is in town in with his wife and nine year-old daughter. Goodness knows I want the chance to be down on the field again.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008


2005, monotype with blue wash, 6x8in.


1996, oil on panel, 12x10in. Private collection.

On Stretching Canvas

I recently prepared nine canvases the way I used to, with rabbit skin glue and oil priming. Because the process is rather time consuming, I had gotten away from this kind of preparation after my son was born. But the surface you prepare yourself is the best surface to paint on. And I probably waste time in the long run by painting on prefab materials of one kind or another. Returning to the oil priming process made me think of a chapter from my unfinished novel, in which the main character is preparing his own canvas and the work is described in detail. I stopped working on this novel about ten years ago, but never finished an entire draft, and most likely I never will, even though I still think about it now and again. But I am going to share that passage about the craft of stretching canvas here:

Harry takes the pan he never cooks food in, fills it with a quart of water, and sets it on a burner to heat. He takes the cup he never drinks from--it says world's greatest golfer--and measures into it six tablespoons (with the tablespoon he never measures sugar with) of rabbit-skin glue crystals. The crystals are almost as fine as confectioner's sugar. When the water just reaches boil, he will remove it from the heat and begin to slowly stir in the rabbit-skin glue crystals until they are all dissolved into a dirty yellow solution. With a soft housepainter's brush he will work the warm solution into the weave of a freshly stretched canvas and the glue will size the fibers by saturating them, and when the canvas dries, the glue will stretch it tight as a drumskin across the wooden stretcher bars. He will sand the dry surface lightly with a very fine grain sandpaper, and apply another sizing of warm glue. After that dries, he will not sand it again, but will apply the white oil priming that will be the ground of the painting. In two weeks, he can paint on it.

He has a friend who works as an art mover, driving a truck to deliver and pick up art and furniture from artists' studios to museums, galleries, and private homes. This friend gave Harry a beautiful set of stretcher bars made of poplar wood. They were from the studio of a famous artist who was going to throw them out, so the friend took them for Harry, and all Harry would need to do is assemble them into a stretcher frame. They are like architecture, these stretcher frames, more beautiful and better made than any of Harry's furniture, for god's sake. Only slightly less tall than he is, and with little metal bearings and rods that act as keys in the mitered joints--to buy stretchers like these made to order would cost most of Harry's rent.

While the water for the glue slowly heats, Harry pulls the assembled frame into his bedroom where the floor is clear. He carries the frame by the horizontal crossbar, and he leans the frame against the doorway while he spreads raw cotton duck canvas on the floor. He lays the skeleton of the stretcher frame face down on the canvas and cuts the canvas to fit, leaving a good six, seven inches to tack the canvas around the back. He uses a pair of pliers and a heavy-duty staplegun to tack the canvas back, gripping the material with the widemouth jaws of the pliers, the head of the pliers shaped like the head of a hammerhead shark. He starts from his knees, with a staple in the center of each side, first the longest side then its opposite, third one end, and last its opposite, moving around the stretcher frame slowly, standing and crouching, pulling the canvas taut so that a diamond shape is created by the folds in the canvas. Then moving back to the first staple, he pulls up the slack just right of center and tacks it two inches from the first. He moves to the opposite side and repeats. Moves back to the first side and this time tacks two inches to the left of the first tack, moves to the opposite and repeats. He tacks again the same way, the same order, on the two shorter sides until each side now has three staples and the diamond shape has pulled a little wider.

He continues tacking the canvas in this order, always pulling one edge against the opposite, crawling outward from the center and meeting force with opposing force, moving around the rectangle like a ritual performance, punctuated by the hard, loud punches of the staplegun, as the canvas skin grows tighter and tighter, inch by inch. He likes this careful work that precedes the painting, the rhythm of it, the dance of it, the thoughtlessness of it and the detail. The way the wood bites into the canvas and the wooden structure is slowly revealed as it is covered, as it begins to be something new. As he moves outward to the ends, one line meeting the other in the corner, he gives special attention to the careful folding of material at the corners, folding it under itself and pulling it tight before moving to the opposite corner to repeat. When the four corners are folded and tacked tightly, he flips the canvas so the painting surface faces the ceiling, lightly drums the center to check the tautness, brushes away the dirt from the floor , and inspects the edges for ripples. Satisfied, he goes to the kitchen, opens the pint bottle of beer, removes the pan of water from the heat, and begins to stir in, slowly, not too fast, the rabbit skin glue crystals, a fine, pale powder. The warm glue gives off a strange smell as it dissolves, musty and thick. When the crystals have all dissolved and the new liquid is yellowish and opaque and steaming, he takes a swig of his beer before he takes pan, beer, and soft housepainter's brush back to the canvas on the floor.

He works the hot, fluid glue into the weave of the canvas, stroking it this way and that, starting in the center and moving to the edges. As more and more of the raw canvas is sized with glue, he can already feel the surface shrinking taut against the wooden skeleton. When the entire surface is sized, he puts his brush in a bucket of water to wait for the second coat. It will take about half an hour for the first sizing to dry, and by then this batch of glue will be too cool to use; you can't re-heat it--that damages the binding strength of the glue. He'll have to dump what he didn't use--not quite half a quart--and make a fresh batch. He'll wait for the unused glue to solidify and then he can bag it and throw it out, rinse the pan and start again. So he sits with his beer until there's a knock at the door and then he carries the beer with him to answer it.

Through the spyhole he sees the bonehead chick from 5-E, distorted spherically in the fisheye glass, echoing the bends of the hallway like an expressionist picture. He watches her stand there, watches her knock again with a giant fist, fingers studded with rings. Harry takes a sip of beer, watches her some more. Well okay, he thinks, why not? And flips the deadbolt back and flips the door lock back and pulls his door open and there she is, life size and breathing. Jesus, that smell, she says, you got something dead in here?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Some small panels

Zipper, 2005

Two Dancers, 2007

Light, 2007

Tie, 2007

Untitled, 2007

Run, 2007

Untitled, 2006

Shortstop, 2007

All images oil on panel, 8x8in.