Patron on a postal salary

I finally finished reading Mako Fujimura’s latest essay. On the last page he mentions the Vogels, art collectors of very modest means. I Googled “Vogel collection” to find a little more biographical information on these renowned patrons and learned quickly that a documentary about the couple is due out in June.


Mako points out that “The Vogels were not Guggenheims [or, if I might add for my Northwest Arkansas readers, Waltons] with inherited endowments, nor were they hedge fund managers with millions of dollars to spend: remarkably, they were civil servants who worked at postal offices . . . ” From the website for Herb and Dorothy, the aforementioned documentary:

    He was a postal clerk. She was a librarian. With their modest means, the couple managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history.

    Meet Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, whose shared passion and commitment defied stereotypes and redefined what it means to be an art collector.”

The Vogels have pledged 2,500 works — stacked away in boxes and tucked under their bed — to 50 museums in 50 states. Most of their contemporary collection possess a minimalist aesthetic. They bought pieces decades ago from virtual unknowns that are now important modern artists: Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt and Richard Tuttle are among 170 different artists in their personal gallery.

Your own aesthetic may not be drawn to such minimalist and non-representational art, but trust me when I say there are other artists out there you will like. There are more stories like Herb and Dorothy’s waiting to be told, and waiting to be created. Visit your local gallery today. Find something you like and can afford and buy it. You’ll be making an investment not just in a financial sense, but in a cultural sense.

    A friend mused recently to me: “We may not see a Wall Street boom again for a long time, certainly not in our life time.” Because of the banking crisis and possible nationalization of them, we may end up with a long protracted recession at best (which would make the U.S. more like Japan, by the way). Possibly so, but what if in lieu of a Wall Street boom, we “invested” in different capitals, capitals of the gift economy . . . we learned from artists and nature what it means to have sustainable growth that re-humanizes, rather than a expedited, de-humaized growth . . . Had we known that our 401(k)s will be “201(k)”s as one commentator recently put it, would we have reconsidered our investment in something more generous, more life giving than protecting our wallets?

Read more about the couple and the documentary in this Washington Post article.

Abstract art in a church, meditative?

I’m back from a bit of a whirlwind trip to California. The first three days were a bit on the crazy side especially. Lucky me I’m sick too, which isn’t all that unusual after I come back from busy travel. Unfortunately.

Makoto Fujimura posted some photos to his blog (he posts very rarely) yesterdayish of a new installation of his own in a New Haven church.

The church looks pretty plain other than Mako’s glorious installation. I’m curious to know if readers find this very abstract painting meditative or not. One of my first thoughts in looking at the above photo was how much more spiritually engaging the space is with that large gold and blue nihonga work than without, and even how much more engaging it is than most other common altar items.


My Kid Could Paint That, and so could I

Last week I watched a 2007 documentary titled My Kid Could Paint That. It chronicles the rise and fall of four year old painter Marla Olmstead.

Watching the film was an academic exercise for me. However, it was also enjoyable. I took notes on a number of things as I watched. The most interesting part of the film, though, is easy to recall, and that is how the adults and the art world reacted to the four year old’s paintings. Even the documentary notes that this story isn’t about the little girl; it’s about the adults.

The artist with her work titled
“Marla and Darlene’s Buterfly [sic] Bikini II”

I’ll start with a little background. Dad was painting one day and daughter, Marla, wanted to join in (she wasn’t even two years old at this point). She took to painting like a fish to water. After a while, a friend of the family sees the girl’s paintings and wants to put them in his coffee shop — just for kicks as much as anything. Customers began to want the paintings. Marla sold her first work for $250. A local reporter wrote a story about Marla and her family after being encouraged by a local artist who saw the toddler’s canvases. From there it steamrolled. The New York Times picked up the story, and the family began traveling around the world for shows. At one point, the waiting list for Marla’s works was more than 70 people.

Mom didn’t know what to make of the situation early on, rightly concerned for the well-being of her child. “If this never happened again I think that’d be OK,” she said at one point, referring to one of Marla’s first exhibits. Mom is a dental hygienist and admitted that she wouldn’t know if the paintings were extraordinary or not. She photocopied the first check from the first sale for Marla’s scrapbook, thinking the whole ordeal would be short-lived. The reporter who did the first story, Elizabeth Cohen, also worried about the girl after the hype became so much.

Just as fast as the fun began it ended. A 60 Minutes story speculated that the paintings were actually done by the girl’s father. Sales tanked (by this point the family had already made $300,000 on the paintings) and vicious hate mail poured in. Eventually the family was able to film Marla painting a piece titled Ocean from start to finish, which seemed to vindicate the family and the young artist.

Now to some of the artistic implications of the whole scenario. First off, the artist who encouraged Cohen to write the first newspaper story has it in for modern art. He said so on camera. Anthony Brunelli is a hyper-realist who’s paintings can take 9 months to finish. The most Brunelli ever sold a painting for was $100,000, which he admitted was a lot of money, but he’s right in questioning why a four year old can make $15,000 for something she might have spent five distracted hours on.

Something is wrong with this picture, and it’s no fault of the girl, her family, the reporter or the hyper-realist. Read more of this post

Explanations betray art???

Explanations are the traitor of art according to Jonathan Jones of the Guardian’s art&architecture blog. Jones actually has one or two good things to say in this post, but you wouldn’t know it by the first two sentences. “Serious art defies easy interpretation, and artists should resist the call to explain themselves,” he starts with. “It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached.”

The term “serious art” always throws up red flags for me. I know there are hobbyists who dabble in painting, retirees who pick up a brush and paint from their back porch because they don’t know what to do with themselves after retiring. Bella Vista, Arkansas — a retirement village in my own county — seems to have plenty of these.

Yes, I know that was a bit of a harsh example, but the point is that there’s a difference between people who paint for relaxation and people who paint because they have to. It’s in the latter’s blood to be visually creative. They are restless and incomplete if they don’t have the time or opportunity to regularly be in their studio. However, Jonathan Jones doesn’t seem to be segregating hobbyists from those born with artistic passion. From what I can tell he’s referring specifically to the passionate types.

Further, he implies in no subtle terms that serious art is a certain kind of art by using Jackson Pollock as an example. Pollock is largely representative of 20th century art — however myopic this point of view may be — which is a very small slice of the millennial pie. I happen to like Pollock’s drip series, but using him and other expressionists as an example leads one to believe that the only kind of serious art is cutting edge (to a fault, in my opinion), always looking for the newest thing. Also implied is that serious art is only non-representational art. This is bogus as well.

Being modern, cutting edge or novel does not necessarily make for serious art. That said, it is good and important for artists to eagerly explore new ideas, new media, but they need to constantly remember that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Is art second-rate just because it comes with an eloquent explanation? Of course not. Judge the work on its own merits, please. If the artist wants to attach a few paragraphs of his or her inspiration and intent, let them. This has no bearing on the formal qualifications of the canvas, even if it might give viewers a different way to look at a painting.

So what does Jones get right in his post? Particularly this: “As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry.” I’m not exactly certain what he means by “common sense political” speech, but I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of subtlety and poetry in art.

Abstract Answer: Decorative details

After my last clarifying post, I hesitate to use the phrase “Abstract Answer” in my title. But since this is continuing the same series I’m going to roll with it for now. I may change all of the titles, if I decide how, for this series in the future.

From the discourse between Tim Jones and myself this week, “I think the problem is not that the abstractionists think too highly of decorative art, but that they think of it not near highly enough.” Interestingly enough, I was having very similar thoughts in relationship to our banter.

What is decorative art?
In one of the later comments from this week, the Old World Swine author gives the basis for his understanding of decoration:

    “decor… 1897, from Fr. décor, from L. decor “beauty, elegance,” from decere (see decorate).”

    Above from the Online Etymology Dictionary,

In my post in this series titled Baseline banter I charted out how some different tactile arts fall along the lines of the art vs. craft debate. Wikipedia — and yes, I still respect this resource even though they didn’t get it right with the abstract vs. non-representational understanding — describes decorative art almost exactly like my graph defines the crafts. This was a bit of a surprise to me at first glance, but after a few seconds it seemed reasonable.

Jones now firmly believes that all non-representational artwork should be classified as decorative art. The following points examine this idea.

There is a problem, off-hand, with labeling non-representational artists’ work as decorative. It implies, whether intended or not, that they are not as serious as other artists. This is a complex issue I probably don’t have the time or room to get into fully, but it’s there. It harkens back to the eternally elusive definition of art itself. For instance, where does one, along the above graph, begin referring to something as a craft instead of as an art? Do the arts/crafts in the middle of the chart get called both? Are all of them both to a certain degree so that it doesn’t matter what we call them?

In truth each of the above contains both art and craft, and the more I think about these things the less I care about what things are called, despite my keen and continuing interest in this conversation. Some people create beautiful and meaningful paintings, some create beautiful and functional furniture. My hope is that each of these craftsman thoroughly enjoy what they are presently involved with.

I may be a bit of an oddball anyway. I enjoy designing and building furniture or sketching floor plans as much as I enjoy attempting to be a part of the gallery art world. Hence, this blog aims to examine this same range of tactility.

This may be a trickier point still, and one that hits a little closer to home for me. Jones says the following in a comment on Aesthetic Escalator: Read more of this post

Abstract Answer: Further semantic obfuscation

Er, clarification, let’s hope.

Let me clarify something I previously mentioned in this series. There has been some semantic confusion between Jones and I in the midst of our banter. This may be largely my fault, as I often use the terms abstract and non-representational interchangeably. Such goes against my own intention to communicate as clearly as possible. It’s little surprise that I do this, however; even Wikipedia and are confused on this point, equating “abstract” and “non-representational.” Connotatively, abstract in the context of art means the same thing as non-representational.

With this in mind, a better definition for the clearest possible conversation among artists is the following from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary:

    The act or process of leaving out of consideration one or more properties of a complex object so as to attend to others . . .

To further complicate matters, Jones refers to non-representational artwork as “non-objective.” They are essentially synonyms, but the latter isn’t a word I knew of until we began (more than a year ago now) this discourse. He explained his use of the phrase non-objective to me at some point in the past, but I was not remembering the explanation when I needed to this week.

I will now provide an example of an abstract work of art:

Jeff Koons’ “Tulips” in Bilbao, Spain.

And an example of a non-representational, or non-objective, work of art:

Makoto Fujimura’s “Golden Summer.”

Koons’ sculpture still looks like tulips, even though they are highly stylized, and sans stems. It is abstracted. Fujimura’s painting does not contain any recognizable objects and is therefore non-representational or non-objective.

Abstract and non-representational are different. They need to be kept different if we, as a culture, are going to be able to speak intelligently and clearly about the arts.


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