There is Still Hope

January 7, 2018

In spite of the severe downward turn in our culture — especially evident in our “modern” tastes in art — it is still my privilege to continue meeting artists who refuse to follow the latest trend in ‘isms’ and carry on the struggle with those elusive and inscrutable Muses that guide the hand in producing, not commodities, but genuine “art” that enhances life. (What an idea! Buying and/or collecting ’’art” for enhancement rather than investment!)

I know I use terms that several of my readers deem pompous and I must admit that many of my ideas come from extensive traveling and reading; I’m the product of lower-class, poverty-threatened folks from Brooklyn and my “culture” was largely gleaned from the streets of our neighborhood and, later (at the age of 12) on a dead-end road in the woodlands of the Catskills. Trips to museums, libraries, etc. were never on my parent’s calendar, nor were books a part of our lifestyle. Art was not on the curriculum of any of the schools I attended, so I had a great deal to learn. My first “awakening” occurred when I was drafted into the US Military and discovered that not all people were raised as I was raised or learned what I learned. Stationed a full year in Germany, and all I ever visited were popular beer halls! Later, and still in the Service, I discovered a library on the Canadian base up in the arctic (Fort Churchill) that I was assigned to for one year. As we were “guests” of the Canadian Air Force, we were closely monitored — so no alcohol (or women) — ergo, plenty of time for the well-stocked library available to all of us on “isolated duty.” Never having been much of a library-goer, it took me some time to learn my way around. Previously an occasional “Mickey Spillane” follower (when and if I picked up a book), I had no idea what treasures awaited me once I got used to turning pages. Having 365 “isolated duty” days on the tundra sans alcohol and women looking me in my oft frost-bitten face left me literally little choice — but once started, I voraciously ‘ate’ my way through, first the art history section, quickly followed by ancient history, world literature and philosophy.

Although rather haphazardly read at the time (I thought that Plato and Dostoevsky were contemporaries), all would be organized, expanded and clarified when I finally started college in my early 30s, concentrating on those very fields of study and finally receiving my B.A and M.A. in Liberal Arts. I taught English in Public School and a short stint at College over a period of about 14 years, then co-founded ART TIMES with my partner, Cornelia Seckel, putting my full concentration on art — writing Artist Profiles, and either reviews or critiques of art exhibitions. Although I never ‘took’ an art class, I was drawn to the subject since the only “talent” that survived my Brooklyn upbringing was being able to draw, sketching on the living-room floor long before I started school. So, already familiar with pen and pencil, after absorbing some art history I was drawn to learning about other mediums and the creators behind the work; hence ART TIMES and my profiling of artists. Living near Woodstock, New York, I had a veritable plethora of artists nearby to visit and started writing about artists some years before we founded ART TIMES in 1984, freelancing my work to various local newspapers and eventually, with ART TIMES as a base, broadening my scope to profile over 200 artists from the U.S. as well as from abroad — Germany, Italy, China, and so on. Supplemented by my critiques, reviews, traveling, lecturing and further reading, yes it is probably true that I sometimes come across as “pompous.” And yes, I am “set in my ways” — or passé, to many “modernists” — still quoting Bernard Berenson (as above) and his theory of “life enhancing” art, still inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde and his claim that America went from Primitivism to Barbarism without having passed through “Civilization.”

Yet, the real truth is that in spite of my last 40 years dabbling in “art”, the only inconvertible ‘truth’ I have discovered is that opinion rules and that no one has yet discovered an authoritative definition of “art” — me included since my “knowledge” is only based on endless page-turning and tramping around the world. Some, in fact, have even declared that “art” is dead! Not even my picking up of brush and palette knife some 20 years ago to paint landscapes, all I am “sure” of is that I try to “reproduce” three-dimensional Nature on a two-dimensional flat surface. So the “pomposity” is probably nothing more than a smoke-screen trying to obscure my ignorance. All that said, however, does not nullify my opening remarks, namely that I still have the privilege of meeting “artists” — who, more often than not, are struggling to come up with their own definition of what it is that they are doing — (I try to avoid the glib ones, who sound too much like salesmen and bloviating agents. Art, already a communicative language in and of itself, is largely un-translatable and meant to ‘speak’ for itself (humans were making pictures on walls long before they made words and sentences). In the opinion of Edgar Degas, literature ((i.e. words)) only did “harm” to art, and readily agreed with his friend, the writer Jules Renard, who wrote, “When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.”* So, to all of you still fighting the good fight, I urge you to continue ignoring all the gobbledygook. I wish you warm and pleasant Holidays and a continuing success in your struggle — you have certainly enriched (and enhanced) my life for a long, long time.

 *Cf. Julian Barnes “Humph, He, Ha”, London Review of Times, Vol. 40, No. 1., Jan 4 2018.

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AN OPEN LETTER TO ARTISTS

August 29, 2017

THE PURPOSE OF this letter is to acknowledge and to thank the many, many artists, both deceased and those still ‘fighting the good fight’ who have helped me over the past 40-45 years to understand and appreciate the process as well as the product.

Your influence began early, back in the late‘40s when I used to work as a handy-man in Woodstock, New York, clearing woodlots, mowing lawns, tending gardens for the summer residents, most of them artists who came up from the city to join the ever-growing number of plein-airistes flocking to the burgeoning art colony who wanted to spend their time painting rather than mowing their lawns. Even after the summer ended, teachers and students at the Art Students League of New York’s summer school a little way out of town, would spend week-ends and off-hours in town, most willing, even eager, to ‘talk art’ to interested listeners — even handymen at Deane’s, the popular diner on Mill Hill Road. Although neither a painter nor a student of the craft, I had from a child been able to draw, to replicate in pencil whatever I attempted to copy, and almost always carried a sketchbook with me — so ‘listening in’ to the conversations of ‘real’ artists was always too tempting to pass up.

When I began free-lance writing for local newspapers, I eventually focused on art and artists, profiling many of the “Woodstock artists”, spending hours at their studios or over the counter having coffee at Deane’s, listening to them presenting their views, art, journey, comments and work-habits eventually sharing them with my publishers.

Eventually, I grew more and more dissatisfied with the way my writing was being handled by copy-editors, layout people, and the ever-present errors (including the misspelling of the artists’ names in more than one instance) that were being presented to the public under my name. This led to my wife Cornelia and I co-founding our own arts journal — Art Times — in 1984. Over the years, I have since profiled over 100 artists both here and abroad. Some of my essays grew into introductions of monographs by various publishers and even into my own books on artists. Soon, I was interviewing artists in NYC and even as far as Europe and China. By being commissioned by Rosina Florio, past Director of the Art Students League of New York, to write a history of the League, the undertaking broadened my knowledge even further as many past and present League members added their stories to my growing warehouse of art-knowledge.

Through my experience with the Art Student’s League, I began hearing about other arts groups, some local, some regional, others national — even affiliating with some — for example the National Art Club in NYC after Will Barnet sponsored me, and especially The Salmagundi Club, a club that is nearly 150 years old and devotes its resources to artists and their art instead of sales and celebrity. Never much of a ‘joiner’, I was fortunate to become a member of the Artist’s Fellowship, which exists solely to give aid to artists in distress (probably the only meetings I enjoyed attending since each session ended in a specific and meaningful act — giving a hand up to deserving artists across the country). My associations with such art organizations expanded my knowledge of art well beyond any college courses I’d taken.

In 2005-6, I wrote a novel entitled The Mountain that attempts to trace the development of an artist (in literary terms, a “bildungsroman”). Set in the NYC and Hudson Valley areas it includes some history and background of Woodstock and its environs to ‘flesh out’ the influences on my protagonist, Jacob (Jake) Forscher (‘Jacob’ because he wrestles with the angel as do all serious artists, and ‘Forscher’ because, again like all artists, he is a delver, a seeker). The book came about after a conversation over lunch with the artist Jack Levine in a small restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village. As usual, the subject of art came up, and specifically Zola’s book The Masterpiece, ostensibly a book about his childhood friend, Paul Cezanne. I asked Jack if he knew of any books in English that traced the life and development of an artist. He could think of none that specifically did so, but several about artists in general. Thus the genesis of The Mountain. I chose the title to reflect Melville’s Moby Dick — in essence, the “Mountain” (Overlook, in the Catskills and visible from Woodstock) is Jake’s ever-illusive ‘white whale’, which he tries to ‘capture’ on canvas. His story, your story, is a fictional re-telling of what you taught me over the years — in fact, I felt very much like a mid-wife rather than an author in ‘creating’ my novel. The Mountain is available as a book on demand or kindle http://amzn.to/2pGX659

So, my artist readers, if it were not for sharing those early encounters, the prolonged studio chats, the stories, the exhibitions, the struggles, the insights, the life-sharings for my profiles and books — if it were not for you, dear artist (whether we met face-to-face or only through your art), the artwriter Raymond J. Steiner would never have come into being.

Therefore this letter and my deepest thanks for all of your contributions to my education and for helping make ART TIMES such a valuable resource for artists around the world for over 30 years.

Raymond J. Steiner


Global Warming

February 14, 2017

OK­­­, THEY’VE BEEN back ‘n forthing for some time now about this “global warming” stuff with no indication that they’ll ever reach agreement. Does this cause it? Or this? That? Wait a minute! Does it really even exist? Some claim that it’s simple science. Others, that it’s ‘junk’ science—or no science at all. Well what is it? Who ought we listen to? What ought we believe? Since it’s still “up in the air” (pun definitely intended) ought we care at all? And, if we should care who or what do we point our finger at. An industry? A person? T he truth is, folks, that the case for global warming has long been settled at least as far back as Nineteenth Century France—to be exact, during the heyday of the plein airistes. Any dedicated studio-encased painter could tell you way back then that it was those nutty outdoors ‘painters’ opening their toxic tubes of alizarin crimson, cadmium yellows, Prussian (i.e. ‘fascist’) blue and sap green being brazenly opened in the ‘pure’ light of day, contemptuously contaminating the atmosphere. Those committed indoor artistes were not taken in by the fancy label of plein airistes—they were unabashed polluters of our air and the real culprits of causing the global warming of our endangered planet. They even exported their evil abroad, the so-called “Hudson River School” in America, for example, avid followers of this misguided practice. Surely, we all are doomed to the inevitable curse of being made ‘toast’! So there! Hereby resolved! Fini!

colors

LET’S SAVE OUR PLANET AND BAN OUTDOOR PAINTING!


LET’S MAKE “GREAT” GREAT AGAIN!

February 7, 2017

WELL, HERE WE go again…some “visionary” wants to put his/her name on the world stage, engraving his/her name “in stone” for prosperity. We’ve been digging up such graven stones for some years now— even publicizing them in more modern ways such as “histories” written in print, for example — but the “posterity” business seems to constantly elude both givers and receivers of the message. In other words, the invariability of our having to re-live “history” because we ‘forget’ it. Would that our present-day pundits would read a book or two before declaiming their stupidities to the world at large. Such ‘mouthers’ — at times called “wise men”, or “prophets”, or “soothsayers” – even “oracles” — have plagued mankind for, lo, these many centuries, with their silly utterances. Oh, would that they pick up a book and read. Let alone our present “leader” and his proclamation of ‘greatening’ again (Oy! Another prophet! — Is that the sound of knickers twisting that I hear across the land?). Meanwhile we have to listen to another sooth-saying pundit announce to us that such proclamation sounds “Hitlerian”! Really! Read a book for gawd’s (or, better yet, our) sake! If anything, it simply sounds redundantly and embarrassingly human! Centuries before that dim-witted Austrian yelled “Deutschland uber Alles”ˆ, ancient egoists had been chanting similar absurdities thousands of years ago…and their predictions (“proclamations”, “warnings”, “fantasies” “greatness” claims, even “Divinity” at times ((really bad times))…whatever)…were as valid then as they still prove to be—namely, nothing but bulls—t.

Dreams of former “greatness” will undoubtedly not only plague Putin, but scores of new blowhards as well. You don’t think that Iran ever hearkens back to the Persian worldwide empire? Or Italy to its Roman Empire days? Or Greece (now one of the weakest/poorest members of the E.U.) to “back in the day”? How about France and the hey-day of Napoleon? Spain — when its tentacles reached across the Atlantic? Brits and their colonial “Empire”? And how about Native Americans and their attempts to hold sway over our blasphemous ‘immigrant’ pipelines? Let’s not even talk about the “religions” and their claims of coming “on from High.” Oh yeah! Let’s make America “great” again! As one former would-be ‘leader’ once said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘great’ means” — or something like that.

How about we try this time to make our species “great”? That’s never been tried yet. Instead of trying to make our tribe “great”, how about we begin to make mankind great by learning something about our entire history? How about we take a long, hard look at that word “great” – or maybe even the word “human”?

READ A BOOK!

 


Glimpses #1: Germany, Italy

October 2, 2016

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011”, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs.

Ranging across some distance around the globe including Europe, Asia —and closer to “home”—Canada and Barbados, in addition to these ‘hosting’ countries, I’d like to acknowledge the following friends and hosts (as well as countless clerks, guides, porters, fellow travelers—in brief, all those unnamed but not forgotten people in Japan, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Austria whose helpful presence often eased the hassles of travel): Heinrich J., Konstanze and Christian Jarczyk, Jacky Sparkowsky and Jorg Iwan, Gaby and Norman Wittmer (Germany); Piero Augustus Breccia (Italy); Chen Chi and Zu Min, Jason and Crystal ((college students)), Xue Jianhua and Shao Li Ke (China); Ann Mamok, Rick and Jo Canning (England); Isabel and Bertrand Azema (France); Laslo Fesus (Hungary); Barbara and Ronnie Gill (Barbados).

A note to the reader: I have not included dates in separate entries since most of these recollections have been gleaned months — if not years — after their occurrence, not a few popping into my mind during sleepless nights long after I had returned home from my travels.

Included will be some of my paintings & sketches as well as some photographs taken by Cornelia Seckel.

Gardens as seen from the trains in Germany

Gardens as seen from the trains in Germany

Germany: On a train from Cologne to Berlin: small, enclosed garden plots, many with tiny buildings (for the storage of tools?), most with a sitting area containing a bench, followed by open fields and larger farms. Such plots also flashed by my window in China and Japan, each time before and after the environs of large towns or cities. Do city/town dwellers come out here to these tiny, well-tended gardens on evenings and weekends? Does man ever fully divorce himself from the land? Stop putting his hands into the soil? What happens when he does?

Italy: Rome: Waiting at a bus-stop. Having just missed a bus on our way to Piero’s studio (where we were staying), we put down our packages to await the next. How long? We notice a church across the street. Why not? We enter and are astounded to discover that it contains Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St.Theresa”. No signs to give a clue! How many other hidden treasures have I blithely passed by on my way elsewhere? (Note: Pier ((Piero)) Augusto Breccia is an artist I met in NYC and whom I wrote about in ART TIMES).


Lev Shalem Opening

May 24, 2016

IMG_3841AS A MEMBER of the “Hudson Valley School of Sunday Afternoon Painters” I was pleased to see one of my plein air landscapes accepted and hung alongside so many professional artists when I attended the Opening Reception of “The Art of Summer” this Sunday (May 22) at the Gallery Lev Shalem, Woodstock Jewish Congregation, Woodstock, NY wjc.shul.org. Curated by Kim Borelli Butwell, former owner of The Connoisseur Gallery in Rhinebeck, NY, “The Art of Summer”, featuring a wide array of 40+ paintings, photographs, prints, paper and fiber art, mosaic, ceramic and mixed media, presented an eye-catching panorama of color and shape.

IMG_3842Tastefully spaced and hung by the WJC Art Committee, the potpourri of artwork was more than well-served in their bright, well-lit gallery…inviting to both the art and to the steady stream of viewers that kept the large hall buzzing with gazing, commentary and frequent visits to two large nosh-filled tables that were conveniently placed in the center of the room for easy reach. This was not the first exhibition that I visited at the Lev Shalom Gallery (and, in fact, was represented in a few of these earlier shows), but this was my first Opening Reception (as many know, I tend to avoid crowds) and, as I noted above, I was more than a bit puffed-up by rubbing space and elbows with so many ‘professionals’ — and honored that this old autodidact was so warmly accepted. You might want to stop in at the gallery on 1682 Glasco Tpk. In Woodstock, NY and take a look for yourself — the exhibition will be up until August 22. Gallery Lev Shalem Facebook Page


HUH?

December 20, 2015

MANY YEARS AGO, sometime back in the mid-eighties, Ted Denyer (a Woodstock artist) and I were walking and talking, wandering in the environs of his Mount Tremper studio/home, finally coming to a small bridge where we stopped and hung over the rail to watch the light play on the rippling stream that flowed beneath us. Eventually (of course), our conversation turned to art in general, pursuing the never-ending question of just what the word ‘art’ means. How to decide if it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’? How do we assess it? Who are the ‘genuine’ artists? Who are the ‘fakers’, the ‘charlatans’, the ‘wanna-be’s’? What does it mean, at bottom, to be an artist? Who’s to judge? Why must, or ought, we judge? And if we do so, by what criterion? By who’s principles or standards? The artist’s? The viewer’s? The critic’s? Won’t the artist be ‘biased’? We rambled on for some time and, at one point, Ted commented, “When a viewer goes to a museum or gallery and is ‘stopped’ by a certain painting, he or she usually pauses for a second-look. But when they step closer and note that ‘Oh, that’s a dock with some people walking on it…and there, a little off shore, are small sailing boats’ — when this happens,” Ted continued. “the viewer has stopped looking at the painting and is now looking at the picture.” “So what ‘stopped’ them in the first place,” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he replied. Then suggested, somewhat Jungian, that “Perhaps shapes, colors? Something that attracted some inner, instinctual predilection or past memory?” Hmmmmm. Well, reader, what’s your answer? Is it something deeply buried within our memories or genes that attracts? Something that ‘hits our gut’ or moves our ‘spirit’? Is it, as the artist may suggest, the technique? The play of lights and darks, the brushstrokes, the overall ‘composition’? The price tag? Around the same time that I was rambling with Ted, I visited another Woodstocker, Karl Fortess, a cantankerous curmudgeon whom I grew to like very much (kindred souls, I guess) and who was friends with the Soyer Brothers Raphael and Moses (who once did a portrait of Karl that I own and cherish*), Jack Levine, Philip Reisman and other ‘Social Realists’, and while visiting Karl I rather off-handedly asked him how long he had been an artist. Karl exploded. “Don’t call me an artist goddam it! I’m a painter! Nowadays, anybody can call himself an ‘artist’ and go out in the woods, pee on three trees, and call it his ‘thing!’ Today canning peaches is considered an artform for chrissake. Won’t be long,” he predicted, “that we’ll see macramé on the Woodstock Artist’s Association’s gallery walls!” Oh, he’s probably been spinning in his grave for some time now, since his prediction has proven oh, so right! So, if Karl wasn’t an ‘artist’ what or who is? Hard to tell nowadays since “artists” have learned that if you can’t make the grade you simply change the rules. You concoct a ‘manifesto’ or new ‘-ism’ so that your work can compete and then get some hypster to drum it up. Must we, in the end, depend on the critic to tell us what we ‘see’, what we ‘like’, whether or not what is displayed is really ‘art’ created by a bona fide ‘artist’? I was once at an exhibition of the Italian Impressionist Giovanni Boldini at the Clark Museum in Connecticut, when I overheard one woman tell another, “I know I shouldn’t like this stuff, but I love his work!” Shouldn’t? Huh? What many ought to realize is that all ‘criticism’ or ‘judgment’ — or whatever you want to call it — is nothing more than opinion (I’ve harped on this before, too). Granted that there is opinion and then there is opinion — when we feel that sharp twinge in our chest we probably head for a doctor rather than a plumber or our gardener for an ‘opinion.’ Some opinions are simply more valid, trustworthy, more grounded in study, education and reliability. Some people do know what they are talking about. The trick is to choose the right ‘expert’ to lead you, to inform you, to give you confidence in making up your own mind. All I’m suggesting – ‘opining’ if you will — is that fame, hype, and price are not always trustworthy defining factors when it comes to judging ‘art’ and ‘artists’.

*BTW: I also have a bronze head of Raphael sculpted by Rhoda Sherbell, which I also dearly love and cherish!