“Less is More”

July 25, 2010

SO, LET’S SEE — if “less is more” then does this mean that “nothing” is the most? Hmmmmm. Doesn’t sound right, does it? Yet — we have seen that a one-color canvas can bring in more bucks that a meticulously detailed streetscene, haven’t we? So how come we are willing to spend more on a constantly diminishing return? And, we need not even talk about politicians with “empty” promises reaping the poshest positions, do we? At times, I get the notion that the “less is more” mantra really means that we get “less” and simply pay “more”. Now this might not mean a great deal to a whole lot of people — I mean, after all, how many people really care about art, artists, and the artworld. Oh sure, we do — that’s why I’m writing this and why you’re reading it. We’re interested, involved; some of us even have an investment in it (I used that word purposely, since, for many, that’s what “art” is all about anyway — an “investment” — I don’t gotta understand it — or even like it — all I have to do is sit on it until what’s-his-name’s signature goes up even higher and then unload it at some auction. Art’s a commodity man — forget about all that aesthetics nonsense — we all know where “beauty” resides). But — and today this is a hard sell — some of us do care about the aesthetics, about beauty, about civilized taste, about an enhancement of the spirit. We do care about the “dumbing down” of America, about our publicly blatant lack of — well — culture. Yeah, yeah — I also know that other countries are imitating us, swallowing our “artful” exports wholesale…but in my travels, at least, in my nosing around and asking questions when I visit Europe, for example, I have found that not everybody is exactly pleased about the stuff we are exporting. I’m old enough to remember when “made in China — or Japan” meant that it was junk, pure and simple (although it seems that China is once again back to its old tricks of foisting inferior products on unwary “foreign devils” — “foreign devils” — that’s us for any younger readers that might have blundered onto this blog). But folks, here’s the thing — you might not give a hoot about art, artists, and the artworld, but when you begin “dumbing down” in one area, the blight tends to spread. When Harold Bloom accused the educational facilities of “dumbing down America” by applying the “less is more” policy to educating college students, he was talking about the gradual decline of general intelligence — but it doesn’t stop there, does it? Been shopping lately? Picked up any over-the-counter medicines that have just hit the FDA taboo list? Or, for that matter, prescription drugs? How about work around the house? Had any contractors over that appear to know less than you do about repairs? And how about the work — substantial? Or did you wish that you went to Lowe’s or Home Depot and ­had done it yourself…only to find out that some products were sub-standard — or “less means more”? I could go on with this ad nauseam but you get the point. You gotta hand it to those art promoters, though — what a slogan! “Less is more” — bet they didn’t have much trouble rounding up a whole lot of artists willing to go for the ride. Do less and get more? Only in America…you gotta love it!

Raymond J. Steiner


Two Books You Ought to Take a Look At.

July 1, 2010

TWO BOOKS CAME recently across my desk — a novel, The American Painter Emma Dial written by Samantha Peale and Seven Days in the Art World, an insider’s look into the high doings of the art world by sociologist Sarah Thornton — and I highly recommend both to my readers. First, the novel — The plot revolves around a woman who works as an “assistant” to a famous painter, her job to actually execute the works for which he is both lauded and handsomely paid. She does the work; he gets the acclaim. She gets a salary; he earns a fortune and fame. Although its main character is a woman artist, its appeal and relevance goes far beyond the age-old plight of being a female in a male-dominated world. I believe it ought not only be read by women or by artists, but by anyone interested in the inner workings of what is commonly called the “artworld”. In fact, I would not even limit it to those interested in art, its making, its selling, or in the underlying machinations of the myriad people and groups that serve as middlemen between creator and buyer. Peale goes far deeper than the vagaries of a world that depends on hyped advertising, celebrity, gullibility, ego-building, elitism, and money. Rather, she delves into the mysteries of creativity, human folly, unfulfilled dreams, self-betrayal, naiveté — even submission to a cause one cannot believe in. This might be fiction, but it has a wealth of truth to ponder. Peale is a graduate of The New School and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has an insider’s handle on how the system works. Like her main character, Emma Dial (who works for the likewise fictional character of “Michael Freiburg”), Samantha Peale is an artist who once worked for the real-life Jeff Koons. Thornton’s book, Seven Days in the Art World is a work of non-fiction that can sometimes sound like a world that must be make-believe. A sociologist that has weighty credentials in the artwriting business, Thornton takes the reader on a seven-day tour of sites — an auction house, an artist’s studio, an art fair, an art class, etc. — where art is made, touted, sold, discussed, taught, interpreted and analyzed by those supposedly “in the know”. Incisive, sometimes almost tongue-in-cheek, always informative, Thornton serves up as objective an insider’s view that one can come away with from a world that literally deals with illusion — i.e. art. In her chapter in which she visits the studio of an artist (in Japan), we see Samantha Peale’s fictional plot come to vivid life — a world-renowned artist relying on assistants to do the actual work of making a work of art. This practice, incidentally — made popular since Warhol and his “factory” — is justified by reference to the historical use of apprentices in the studio/workshops of past masters where, often, the presence of the “master’s hand” is conjectural at best. Taken together, both books are eye-openers for both the general public, a public often at the mercy of pundits who almost always have an axe to grind, and the average struggling artist outside the “mainstream” trying to find his/her way. You wont regret the time taken to read these books.

An Evening of Art, Music and Dinner at the Salmagundi Cub, NYC

May 24, 2010

SERENDIPITY, FOR SURE — I had stopped in at the Salmagundi Club in New York City to take a quick peek at two of my paintings hanging in their exhibition, “Noble Nocturne”, and was richly rewarded by an evening of delightful surprises. I was fortunate in having Kathleen Arffmann, the Club’s Executive Director, share an early dinner with me in their dining room, during which she urged me to take a look at the exhibition up in the main gallery and to stay for a musical program before I left. But first, before we went down to the dining room, she took me on a short detour to an upstairs room to share with me a mini-exhibition of the drawings of Richard Schmid. A long-time admirer of Schmid’s paintings, this was my first opportunity to study his drawings and was captivated by his precise and skillful draftsmanship — a bit of a surprise for me, since what had always drawn me to his paintings was the apparent looseness of style that gave his paintings a deceptive sense of spontaneity, far divorced from these careful studies (just one more confirmation that all good art begins with careful preparation!). So…my first pleasant surprise for the evening as it unfolded before me… then, on to dinner. I’d always enjoyed my meals at the Salmagundi, finding both the food and the ambience of the surrounding artwork to be what the German people call “gemütlich” — that is, comfortable and “homey”, reflecting an old-world tastefulness that befits one of New York’s venerable old art clubs — and being able to spend any time with Kathleen always an enjoyable and mind-expanding experience. So, although my intention was to just make a quick stop before I was on my way, I was happy to take my dinner there — though somewhat less enthused to take the time to look at another exhibition or sit through a performance. It is my habit to “take in” art in small doses, and whether it is literature, music or pictorial art, tend to partake of it discretely, preferring to allow each discipline to have its own space in my head. I had already taken an overview of the exhibition downstairs and was not prepared to “muddle” it with new images and certainly not prepared to combine it with music — a discipline I find even more demanding of concentrated and exclusive attention. However, since it was not my intention to write about “Noble Nocturne” I gave in to Kathleen’s urgings, subsequently pleased that I did and found myself, as noted above, delightfully surprised. The Salmagundi, as I said, is a venerated institution, the elegant old brownstone that houses it (the last standing on New York’s Fifth Avenue), a building that exudes culture and history, each of its rooms tastefully retaining its past glory — not the least the main gallery, which is a wonderful place to exhibit artwork. On the evening of my visit (May 21), the gallery held the John C. Traynor exhibition, nearly 100 paintings that had a fairly uniform distribution of city- and landscapes, florals, and genre scenes depicting figures in various situations and activities — most of which highlighted Traynor’s considerable skill in depicting the play of light on form. A formidable talent, Traynor displays a constant expertise, an unerring eye for perceptual illusions and a keen sense of the vagaries of form, space and color. Using a mosaic-like “patching” of brush-strokes, he manages to meld what up close appears disjointed to be, in fact, a unified whole — in other words, creating images in much the same fashion as our eyes make “sense” of the world around us. He is especially adept at making “real” the properties and influence of light as it affects the visual process — a particularly difficult problem for painters since, unlike form, it has no actual “substance”. Though varied in subject and motif, Traynor manages to impose a coherent aesthetic vision on his viewers, offering a body of work that is “of a piece” — confident, believable, compellingly “true”. This is work that deserves wide recognition and the pity is that the show only had a six-day venue, coming down on May 23rd — so I was indeed fortunate to get a chance to view it. The “icing on the cake” for the evening of my visit was to sit in this gallery — surrounded by these light-filled canvases — to listen to the talents of soprano Gretchen Farrar, accompanied by guitarist Francisco Roldán and pianist Alexander Wu, the group offering up a potpourri of songs and music that ranged from Spain, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico to our own U.S.A. Far from clashing with Traynor’s paintings (my usual fear of lumping disciplines together notwithstanding) the experience of Gretchen Farrar, the soprano, singing “Madrugada” (“Dawn”) with Traynor’s Sunrise Through the Tuscan Hills as a backdrop — a 48” x 72” oil that featured a blazing sun on the horizon — was almost overwhelming in its impact and certainly an image that will linger in my mind for some time. The rest of the performance was equally harmonious with its elaborate “stage set” — I could not have asked for a more pleasing evening and came away with absolutely no regrets. My evening of Art, Music and Dinner at the Salmagundi Club was wonderful!

Sunrise Through the Tuscan Hills by John C. Traynor

(For more information: http://www.Salmagundi.org; http://www.JohnCTraynor.com; http://www.gretchenfarrar.com; http://www.franciscoroldan.com; http://www.alexanderwu.com)