Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wit, Wisdom, & Charm from Winnie the Pooh

Pooh and Piglet: drawing by E.H. Shepard
Did you ever stop to think, and then forget to start again? Wise words from a very Wise Bear.
More at

Monday, October 22, 2012

Soutine in Paris: Order out of Chaos at L'Orangerie

The more you see of Soutine the more intriguing he becomes. From Paris, a review of a show that provides another chance to see the work of this distinctive early 20th c. artist.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Paris On My Mind: Art of a Gilded Age

It's always 1889 in Paris.... fixed in our minds, in part by the paintings of an overlooked artist worth knowing for his sly but clear-eyed observations of life in the City of Light. Information included about my Arts Trips to Paris

Thursday, September 6, 2012

LIGHT at Longwood Gardens - Magic in the Dark

Magical Longwood Gardens is even more magical with LIGHT by Bruce Munro

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

LA Story - Fun, Art, and a Big Yawn

Report from LA - fun Farmer's Market but a letdown on the Art Side of things

Monday, August 13, 2012

Three Visions of Heaven - Southern California Design

What's your California Dream? Take your pick among these three answers to a perfect climate.

Design and architecture with an eye to history, tradition, and innovation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Long May it Wave - the Language of Flags

The 4th of July - in my historic Philadelphia neighborhood where the 4th of July was invented, just about every house has a flag flying. There will be parades this week all over the country, with lots of flag waving to stir the excitement. Flags send a lot of messages; they're a whole human language system with layers of emotional nuance and significance. They can be symbols of good or evil, partly depending on who is defining the use, and partly what side you're on. The American flag is beautiful - classic in its design of red, blue and white, and its pattern of stars and stripes - and beautiful for associations with all the good things about this country. Even if Americans don't believe all those things (or worry about them), most love their flag and what it stands for. Of course we're not alone - every country has a flag - many are red, white and blue in some combination and many have stars and stripes of some sort - and most people rally to the symbolism of their national flag. That's the point of those bits of cloth and color. Flags, a supremely visual language, can help walk us through history, telling us about attitudes and values at different times and places. Leaving out some of the darker possibilities, here are a few artist comments on life over the last hundred years or so, annotated with flags. Monet's flurry of flags  in his Rue Montorgueil: Festival of June 30, 1878 is pure spirit and celebration, painted the year of the grand Exposition Universelle in Paris. The world was either in or watching Paris, the head of the Statue of Liberty was on display prior to moving (with the body) to the U. S., and it was a great time to strengthen French pride and loyalty,  just years after a humiliating military defeat. It looks like July 14th, Bastille Day, but that holiday wasn't declared until 2 years later. Italy is an old hand at flags - the bright beautiful display of banners at the Palio in Siena each year are the legacy of pre-national Italy, when every city state and even families had their own flag to rally around. The tradition likely dates back even further to Roman times, when there were team colors for chariot racing and other aspects of Roman life. The American artist Maurice Prendergast, on vacation in Italy, painted giant green, white and red flags flying in St. Mark's Piazza, Venice; it makes a pretty composition, but it also makes a statement. In 1898 Italy was still going through the growing pains of  a new country and hadn't settled on a final flag. Those here appear to be a variant of Sardinian design - the modern Italian tricolor was only adopted in the 1940's. James Ensor includes a number of indeterminate flags in his epic Entry of Christ into Brussels from 1888. Contrary to Prendergast's mildly observed scene, Ensor's work is a cry of protest against the modern crush of inhumanity - he turns the shorthand of a flag-waving parade into a mindless mob. By contrast Norman Rockwell - to some the name itself is shorthand for unquestioning patriotism, though Rockwell is far subtler and more interesting - uses the American flag to rally national pride during the difficult WWII year of 1943, cheering the nation up along the way with his good-natured love of detail and fun. Probably no artist, certainly no living artist, is more associated with the flag than Jasper Johns. Post-WWII, freedom safely snatched from the jaws of evil, it was a time when an artist could take license with the sacred national symbol and get away with it - shocking to some, but Johns also made us SEE the flag in a new way, as an object, a design, a work of art. His pencil rendition from the 50's is brave and beautiful, speaking a language all its own.  Happy 4th of July!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rockwell Kent - Art, Nature, and the Common Man

Rockwell Kent was both a perfect creature of his time and a complete original. His brawny broad shouldered Art Deco illustrations are firmly planted in early 20th America, when books and print served as potent messengers of cultural meaning, capable of the sharp sting of reproach as well as the fine pleasure of a literate, well-composed page. He is one of a number of American artists, including some of those I wrote about two posts ago, who give us a clear picture of a very particular time. But on the other hand, there is only one Rockwell Kent, the fearless adventurer who stalked the wild places of the earth in sturdy boots, a pen and notebook ever at hand. Perhaps best known for his stellar pen and ink illustrations for the celebrated Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick (1930) Kent needed no paltry second-hand references for his churning waves, high seas, and angry nature - he'd been there. The list is long and impressive - Greenland (where he was shipwrecked and lived for some time) Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, Newfoundland, an island off the Maine coast - and the wilds of the Adirondack Mountains, his stateside home for many years. Kent walked another tightrope of sorts in his career and life, moving from 'society illustrations' for Vanity Fair (he signed them Hogarth Jr., a nod to William Hogarth, the sly 18th c. English artist and satirist) and sleek ads for a luxury boat manufacturer, to high-toned book commissions, and finally to crisply critical social commentary that aligned with his deeply-held belief in the rights of the common man. 'Workers of the World Unite' and 'Wake Up America' both in a show at the Philadelphia Museum, are good examples of how he could temper his message from urgent to subtle. He was a gifted writer too, who put his experiences and his philosophies into words as well as pictures - like his art, his books are a slightly dated but earnest, authentic record of a fascinating period of time from a singular perspective. A passage from his book Voyaging spells out his identity: "it the reality of mountains and plains, the sea and the unfathomable heavens, unchangingly forever dominating man, cradling him in that remote hour of his awakening into consciousness, forever smiling, brooding, thundering upon him, that have imposed their nature upon man and made him what he is." 
Along with many other creative intellectuals, Kent put time into the Communist Party in the hopes that it would provide a better answer, and inevitably his involvement led to clashes with Joe McCarthy and his committee. It also, however, led to remarkable honors and actions. Kent, the first American artist to show his work in the U.S.S.R., was awarded a Lenin Peace Prize; he donated the money to help women and children in both Vietnams during the Vietnam War years. Kent's brand of bold outspoken courage in art and life, put to the service of big ideas and a greater good, is a bit thin on the ground these days - it would be nice to see more of it in our moment. Rockwell Kent would have no trouble recognizing that help is needed right now for the poor, the needy and the hardworking common 'man.'

The Philadelphia Museum is currently showing Rockwell Kent - Voyager: An Artist’s Journey in Prints, Drawings, and Illustrated Books. Through July 29, 2012. The show is organized by Kent's longtime friend Carl Zigrosser, who was the founding curator of the museum's department of prints and drawings. The show includes a range of work, including woodcuts, pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches, lithography (a self-portrait with the stone that made the print is fascinating) and watercolors.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Maurice Sendak - The Work of a Lifetime

Childhood was very good to Maurice Sendak - not his own so much, but the childhood he gave to others. His books opened up new worlds for children. Though it was sad to lose him last month, he left a great deal - great in all senses - not a bad way to go at 83. Many of the children that were his first audience are now grey-haired grandparents, but I’ll bet a little boy named Max, dressed in a wolf suit, still lives in their hearts. Where the Wild Things Are came out in 1963, the same year Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique were published. As much as the others Where the Wild Things Are caused an uproar – it was a time when the future was challenging an outmoded mindset with a dose of hard reality. Librarians and teachers vilified Sendak’s book, calling it dark and too frightening for children, but the kids knew better, recognizing in the simple story of a child struggling to control his own wild impulses the basic truth that childhood is, in fact, darker and more frightening than adults own up to once they’re past it. Sendak had a gift for taking childhood seriously – I’d call it his greatest strength. Too many well-intentioned kid’s book authors think children and their state of being are ‘cute.’ Sendak never made that mistake. His own well-documented childhood in a family of Holocaust survivors (along with ever-present specters of his family’s victims) gave him a front row seat on dark and frightening, but combined with the ebullient humor and spirit ever present in his work, his was a powerful, compelling vision. What isn’t always mentioned with Maurice Sendak is how steeped he was in the traditions of children’s illustrations – he was an original with a beautifully unique voice, but like all great artists, he had a profound knowledge of and respect for his craft and his predecessors. In The Juniper Tree, a collection of Grimm’s Tales (1974) Sendak went directly to the source with a meticulous technique based on European, especially German, engraving techniques. The Juniper Tree is a tour de force of children’s illustration, very different from the bolder linear drawings in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but with Sendak’s signature faces, expressions, and gestures – deeply thought, a bit troubling, and humorous, all at the same moment. The German connection in Sendak’s work has been clearly noted, but there is plenty more from the broad field of fine children’s illustration. Beatrix Potter’s anthropomorphic animals, full of charm but no squishy sentimentality, John Tenniel’s seriously, delightfully kooky world in Alice in Wonderland, Walter Crane’s gorgeous command of line and composition,  Edward Lear’s goofy playful illustrated verses – and plenty more, including Fritz Eichenberg, an older contemporary. As a young illustrator Sendak must have been well aware of Eichenberg, who fled Germany ahead of the Nazi’s in the 30’s and built a significant career as a teacher and illustrator in New York. Eichenberg’s dark brooding illustrations for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are one of my most enduring childhood memories – when I encountered the edition as an adult I felt the shock of recognition of a long-lost friend. Sendak and Eichenberg were, in some senses, kindred souls, each a master with an affinity for craft and fine careful work in illustration, divided and united by a common history. Sendak’s path led him to lighter ground where his sense of play had full rein, not only in books but in theatre and opera design. Spend some time with Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen and you’ll see that Sendak was always a set designer – his books unfold with all the drama of a well-made play. He never shortchanged children – he gave them the best, and his best was magnificent. The work of a lifetime, and lifetimes before him, is in every line he drew. 

At The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia "Maurice Sendak: A Legacy" Through May 26, 2013

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grit and Revolution: The Ashcan School

Isn't it funny how so many art movements are named by snarky insults? The 'Impressionists', The 'Fauves', even the Gothic style - these were not terms of endearment but put-downs from critics who clearly thought they knew what was 'art' and what was not. 'The Ashcan School' is another example, this time from early 20th century America. In the context of a time when so much artistic fur was flying in Europe (Cubism, Surrealism, Picasso, Matisse, etc.) the work of the Ashcan School can seem a bit tame and stodgy, but these artists were also revolutionaries, rebelling against conservative American tastes - which were at least, if not more, conservative than traditional tastes in Europe. In 1913 the famous Armory Show was mounted in New York, bringing the first taste of avant-garde art to the U.S. The Armory Show, an earthquake that shook expectations and assumptions to their foundations, was recognized as a colossal event but one that was shocking, even dangerous. The New York Tribune called it “A Remarkable Affair Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.” It is said that notices were posted warning pregnant women away for fear they would miscarry, and when the show moved to Chicago, Matisse was given a mock trial on charges of 'artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line,' found guilty, and sentenced to die. Organized by American painters eager to bring the excitement of Modern Art closer to home, the Armory show included a healthy number of forward-looking Americans, foremost among them the artists who would come to be known as The Ashcan School. A first American volley against the strict traditions of the National Academy was the 1908 show in New York by The Eight, a group of painters circled around the charismatic teacher/painter Robert Henri. It was their only group showing - the circle then expanded, with one result being the group that came to be known as The Ashcan School. As you might guess by the name, these painters, including Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn, concerned themselves not with idealized beauty, but with a realistic perspective on the gritty life of New York's poorer neighborhoods and rich colorful streets. Many of them had backgrounds as newspaper illustrators so there is an element of reportage in the work of the Ashcan School, along with an acceptance, even celebration of human nature in its most banal and ordinary forms. There's more than a bit of Bruegel in the Ashcan School, coupled with the lush expressive brushwork of Frans Hals and Velasquez - no accident. These painters were sophisticated and knowledgeable and most had spent time traveling and studying in Europe. Notable works include Bellow's mighty Stag at Sharkey's (1909) his marvelously detailed Cliff Dwellers (1913), George Luks's Nighttime Buying and Selling on Allen Street (1905), George Bellow's Washington Square South (1910) and John Sloan's McSorley's Bar (1912.) Robert Henri, for being such an inspiration, is better known for portraits - he's a marvelous painter whose brushwork and handling of paint is simply delicious. He did quite a few portraits of children, especially on his travels. This lovely example is from a stay in Holland in 1907.

The National Gallery in Washington has just opened a show of the work of George Bellows - I hear it's wonderful and can't wait to see it!
The newly re-opened Barnes Collection in Philadelphia includes many works of William Glackens and examples from some of the other Ashcan painters.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Brave New Grayson Perry - Hip Hip!

Hip hip and cheerio to the Queen and all that - you may think that England is the last bastion of conservative tradition, but not when it comes to the Arts. The US caved long ago to conservative interests in terms of major public funding and awards, but the Turner Prize, awarded each year to a British artist under 50, reminds us that energy, spirit and imagination should be celebrated, even if you don't like it or agree with it. In 2003 the Turner Prize was awarded to Grayson Perry, described by Wikipedia as 'an English artist, known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross-dressing.' I recently heard Grayson Perry on a BBC podcast about traditions and was so struck by his interesting remarks that I had to find out more about him - and discovered a whole new world. I can't believe I've missed him until now - he's no shrinking violet. He's flamboyant and outspoken, he's a new member of the Royal Academy, and he just had a big show at the British Museum called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Part of his contribution to the Traditions discussion was a comment about liking to work with mediums that require skill and relate to age-old processes, not only ceramics but lately also tapestry. In his ceramics he sticks with traditional forms such as standing vases reminiscent of Greek amphora; he claims to like lulling people into a feeling of security with forms they think they recognize and with expectations of reassuring patterns - flowers or a simple landscape - and then hitting them over the head with his intricately drawn decorations full of wit, puns, historical references and social comment. He says he has little use for the post-Duchamp conceptual idea of art - it's art if I say it's art - so goes out of his way to make his life as well as his art an exercise in complicated, elaborate craftsmanship. And he's having a great deal of fun doing it - he seems a bit like Cindy Sherman with a sense of humor. I've always on the lookout for great use of drawing and here's a wonderful example of a good hand, plus mind and heart working together to create a sum much greater than the parts. An instant favorite for me is his Punters in the Snow - a witty homage to Bruegel's elegiac 16th century painting Hunters in the Snow. Seeing his work I was reminded of Shakespeare's line from The Tempest: O brave new world That has such people in't!
I found visuals and interesting information and about Grayson Perry on several blogs including these:

and a longer article on the Royal Academy website

Friday, May 25, 2012

Trending towards the Warm - Surtex and Letterpress Printing

In anything to do with design for commercial purposes TRENDS is the big word - what's not just new, but what will be new and important in the upcoming year or season. I spent a couple of days at the big Art and Design trade shows in New York this week - Surtex for licensing design and The National Stationery Show for - yes - stationery, etc. I was there because my art was there - at Surtex with my agent Montage Licensing. It was a great opportunity to meet people and get ideas - and of course, to hear about what's trending for 2013. Some of it seemed obvious - concern with green products, soothing colors and textures to combat the anxiety of this troubled world - but it was also interesting to have the perceptions coming from professional trend readers. More creativity, more home craftiness, warmer, more personal environments - one predicted a backing away from sterile, cold minimalism with a consequent move to home spaces where we can cuddle, grow plants even in urban settings, and make things with our hands. It may sound like the 60's, but it looks really new and fresh - the standards for quality are a lot higher now. Roaming the vast Javits Center where the shows took place, I found a lot of evidence to back up this trend - in the licensing show a nice shift towards more drawing, breaking the recent monopoly of flat Photoshop patterning (especially nice for me, as my work is all about drawing - though I use Photoshop and love it!) and a lot of quirky, personal fun in the work of many artists. A big trend, right in line with the prediction, was all over the stationery show - letterpress printing! It's hard to get much more hands on than printing cards and notes one at a time with hand-cut plates and hand-set type on a simple platen press. I once had one of these when I was a small-time limited edition publisher - my partner and I set our own type, I cut wood engravings for illustrations, and we turned out - slowly - some very beautiful things. It was a treat to see so much letterpress printing at the show and really exciting to meet the crop of printers, many of them young, enterprising women with a love of the tactile, graphic possibilities and of the messy process itself! Allison Baer of The Lettuce Press, from Portland, Oregon, had a charming booth with tiny plants sprinkled around to accent her clean clever designs - we laughed about the 'clean' nature of the graphics, as she is covered in printer's ink when her work is in process. She draws the art and has it cut into plastic plates, then prints each card one at a time. She also pointed out the deep print of her impressions on the rich thick paper she uses, citing it as a signature of 'new' letterpress that stands in contrast to flat featureless mechanical printing or digital text. Next door to her booth, Emily Harris of The Victory Special Press creates designs using antique wood type, another variation on the new/historical approach. A number of the letterpress printers were showing together under the umbrella of Ladies of Letterpress, an international group that cites 'non-competitive community' as one of their principles. Their corner was a model of that principle, and it was buzzing with activity. There were 10 different distinctive styles on display - Rondi Vasquez of SixPenny Press does strong abstract designs, Val of Bowerbox Press frames her iconic owls in simple effective arrangements, Donatella Madrigal of Tella Press uses a mix of type and graphics - but the medium gave the booth a unified aesthetic that was very pleasing. Each printer was on hand to explain her particular methods and ideas and each was an articulate and charming spokesperson. In the midst of this gigantic trade fair the warmth and personal nature of these women and their work could be a compelling argument for a trend towards a more helpful, cooperative world at large.
Thanks to the artists for images from their website. Photos from Surtex and The National Stationery Show by Marilyn MacGregor
(video clip with working press)