Friday, August 31, 2012


Art, being bartender, is never drunk
And magic that believes itself must die
                         -- Peter Viereck
This passionate drawing by Bob Peak shows how he became swept up by the fury and speed of a horse race...

...except it turns out that Peak made several careful studies to achieve that spontaneous look.  He re-copied drafts on tracing paper, preserving the elements he liked.

He even drew faint pencil guidelines so he would know the best way to make his bold, slashing strokes appear free and unconstrained:

Peak employed a conjurer's tricks to create the magic in this art.  (Viereck described art as "a hoax redeemed by awe.")  I'm sure it would've felt personally cathartic for Peak if he reacted to the thrill of the race by making wild, unrehearsed scribbles.  However, his drawing looks more vigorous and potent because of Peak's multiple drafts.

David Seymour took the following photograph of a young Polish girl who, after being freed from a Nazi concentration camp, was asked to draw a picture of "home."

There's no questioning the strength of her emotions, but they were so out-of-control that they capsized any effort to communicate with her picture. 

Nietzsche wrote that "self-conquest" is necessary to make "torrential passion...become still in beauty." 

Shakespeare, who also knew a thing or two about passion, lauded those with the power to move others while remaining in control of their own faces:
[Those] who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense,
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
When art gets too close to the passions and emotions that inspire it, it tends to melt.  In order to move others with art's magic, it seems that at least part of the artist must remain unmoved as stone-- separated from the primacy of experience by proportion, archetype and even skill.

It is fashionable in some circles to value pictures that appear raw, unschooled and spontaneous  (going far beyond the ancient principle that art should appear as effortless as possible in order to prevent technique from becoming a distraction).  I like such pictures too, but I think their "spontaneity" is a romantic delusion for the benefit of the conjurer's audience.  The artists I like best tend to be the ones who struggle self-consciously to achieve this effect, just as Peak did.  The performers who believe their own magic (of which there are many these days) seem consistently less successful.


Saturday, August 18, 2012


America's great poet, Walt Whitman, worked most of his life writing and revising his epic poem, Leaves of Grass.  He would add or subtract new sections and change lines,  refining his masterpiece.

But Whitman fretted that he might not realize when his age and disabilities were beginning to erode the quality of his masterpiece:
 As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy...
May filter in my daily songs. 
To protect his work, Whitman had to recognize when he was no longer capable of doing his very best.  Even more important, he had to have the strength of character to give up what he loved when the time came.   It is tempting to lower your standards just a little bit, and continue to milk your past successes a little longer.   It's hard to love your art more than yourself.

I have previously written of my great admiration for the work of Richard Thompson.  His hilarious comic strip, Cul de Sac has been an oasis of talent and intelligence on the comic page for years.

Yesterday Richard announced with his typical grace, dignity and humor that he is ending his strip because Parkinson's disease prevents him from maintaining his standards in a daily strip.

A funny guinea pig cage on a funny table with funny word balloons encased by funny panel borders.

He will continue to work on other projects. 

These days the comic pages are filled with strips that long ago became franchise operations, handed down from generation to generation or subcontracted out by Baldo Smudges.  But Thompson explained why he could not lighten his own burden by subcontracting the words or the pictures in his strip:
I was having trouble separating the writing and the drawing. I found that one fed off the other more than I'd realized, that it was an organic process, to use pretentious art talk. Most of the time I'd start a strip with no clear idea where it was going, or There'd be an end without a beginning. And I'd figure it all out as I was inking it, which isn't the best way to work....
Thompson's gentle whimsy is so light, it floats on air.  His style, sweet and self-deprecating.  Yet, we see in  yesterday's announcement that you don't stay the best comic strip by having mushy standards.  The same unflinching honesty that made his strip special every day made it impossible for Thompson to continue the strip.  His standards were always as hard as diamonds, and for that reason the legacy of Cul de Sac is assured.

Ave atque vale.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


This lovely drawing was a single panel in a story by Mort Drucker for MAD Magazine in 1972. 

It occupied a mere 3.75 inches x 12.75 inches in the magazine. You could not possibly see or appreciate the variety of faces in this panel.

Until now.

Here are 25 of my favorites, larger than life:


The brilliant Drucker drew for MAD for over 50 years,  producing hundreds of stories containing thousands of such panels overflowing with distinctive faces.  Also hands, figures and complex backgrounds.  He dispensed his talent with an abundance that I still find astonishing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

DOUGLAS DUER (1887-1964)

You don't hear much about Douglas Duer these days but the once popular illustrator painted for books and magazines from 1912 until the Great Depression.

A student of Howard Pyle, Duer worked for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Red Book, and illustrated covers for Zane Grey novels such as Riders of the Purple Sage.  During the Depression Duer's illustration work dried up so he found work painting murals for the WPA.  Later he made a living doing advertising work and greeting cards.

 Duer belonged to that school of artists who painted the world in smooth, rounded forms with no cracks, sharp points or frayed edges.  His figures had skin like a porcelain doll's.

It's difficult to say why a whole flock of artists during this period were attracted to such a clean, artificial look, but artists such as Enoch BollesTamara de Lempicka, Thomas Hart Benton and Dean Cornwell all painted with a similar style.  They took the idealized flesh of Ingres and Bouguereau and converted it into injection molded plastic.

Personally, I suspect this style became popular because these artists worked in an era where  science, industrialization and mass production held out the prospect of designing our own environments. In a man made world, everything became cleaner and more streamlined-- polished steel and aerodynamic engineering eclipsed the unruly knots and warts of organic nature.  This aesthetic seemed to apply to people as well.

This stylistic moment did not last long, nor did Duer's career as an illustrator.  But Duer produced some nice work during this interval, and it continues to appeal.