Friday, November 27, 2009

a sort of survey

as yet untitled, 2009
oil on canvas, 84”w x 78”h

I recently posted about the needless tragedy that occurred in a makeshift sweat lodge at James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior retreat in Arizona. There are several facts we know, among them: the retreat cost each participant almost $10,000, the participants fasted for 36 hours then attended a breakfast buffet before entering the sweat lodge, three people died and their families are suing, and the aforementioned facilitator has put his Los Angeles home on the market to fund the costs of his legal defense. Many other questions will remain unanswered for some time.

What were these people looking for? This is the question that continues to sit with me. Indeed, what is it that any of us is looking for? It may be something idealistic, such as I am looking for equality among all people; it may be necessary, as in I am looking for a job; it may be immediate as in I am looking for my keys. (I look for my keys every morning.)

I recently began a body of work centered on this question and am asking for your help. Tell me what you are looking for. Your pursuit may fall within any and all of the categories - this doesn’t matter. Please tell me in the comment section following this post, and use the anonymous option when responding. If possible, please forward this post to friends and acquaintances so that they too may respond.

Whatever it is you seek, I hope you find it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

a friend you can travel with

Travelling together is one of the true tests of any friendship. Meghan and I met as co-workers and became friends almost immediately. She is pretty, stylish, intelligent and witty. Her tiny size belies her ability to stomp her foot (hands on hips), and cuss most effectively. Together we have travelled to Nashville, Boston, San Francisco, Palm Beach, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Tucson, Phoenix, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beijing and Shanghai. Though we usually enjoyed the best accommodations and wonderful food, we worked long hours for an exacting constituency. When one of us panicked, the other stayed calm. The same was true for our up and down days. It always worked out.

Meghan was in New York last weekend and we met for breakfast. We chatted away and drank lattes from giant bowls. When we parted, the morning felt different than it had upon arrival at the Patisserie. I felt as though I was out of town, which I am and am not.

If you are so fortunate as to have a friend you can travel with – hang on tight. They may travel to you and brighten your day.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


"Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate." W.H. Auden

I like November. It appeals to my senses; the smell of fallen, damp leaves - and when you’re lucky - the smell of burning leaves; the gray and silvery skies; the earth preparing itself for a long winter’s nap.

The primary reason I like November is that it is the month in which I met Mat, twenty-five years ago. I have known him for more than half my life. The funny thing is that the last 14 1/2 months feel infinitely longer than the span of 25. We’re on the home stretch now and waiting patiently to begin our next chapter is difficult. Whatever or wherever it is we’re agreed, it will be together.

We like sparrows. We call them the jesters of the bird world. We give them suet and seeds in the winter and sneak crumbs to them when dining outdoors. Last summer, Mat half-jokingly said, “I think you should paint a giant sparrow”, and because I take him far more seriously than even my painting, I did.

A Marriage, 2009, oil on linen, 30”x 40”

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Last weekend on my trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I had the opportunity to see what may be a perfect painting, Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid. Only thirty-four paintings are “officially” attributed to the artist, so I make it point to see one if I am in a city so fortunate to own one. The Met has five of its own works by Vermeer. Of course it does. They own a possible sixth but its provenance remains in question. The Milkmaid is on brief loan from the Rijksmuseumin, its home in the Netherlands.

What is it about this painting (and others by Vermeer) that demands respect from historians and artists of every discipline? The first aspect perceived in a Vermeer is the quality of light. Many attribute this to his possible use of the camera obscura which caused a halo effect when drawing the projected image onto the support. As a painter, I know how hard it is to effectively translate a drawing into a painting, and although the device may have assisted Vermeer in the composition, it would not have produced the optical effects his paint creates. That comes in the application.

Vermeer’s paint is luminous, and the light is projected from within the layers of pigment, not the surface. Of course, the pigments, particularly the lead-based ones used, assist in producing the layers of paint that independently project their characteristics. Yes, lead-based white, or Flake White, is still the best white and with care can be used safely. Vermeer worked with a very limited palette. Unlike the commercially produced paints available today, the chemical composition and reactivity of his paints varied color to color. Thus, it is believed, each area had to be applied and then allowed to dry before the application of a different color. Thus the blue in the skirt of the milkmaid maintains a mind-boggling brilliance.

It is obvious that every inch of the painting was given equal importance. So much so that even a dent in the white plaster wall behind the subject is as fascinating as the bread on the table. This is a consistent quality found in master paintings executed centuries later; consider the work of Cezanne, Matisse and Pollock. Finally, the milkmaid herself is given the dignity and presence of a person of much higher social standing. This may be the most enduring, and radical, characteristic of the work.

I like to think of this painting as an execution in extravagant simplicity. The Milkmaid's continued relevance lies in the attention given in equal parts, to every aspect of the work; conception, composition, materials, care and execution. Had there not been a crowd, I could have lingered, gazing at it for hours.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeing, The Americans

Bar, Gallup, New Mexico, 1955, printed ca. 1977;
Gelatin silver print 36.9 x 24.2 cm (14 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.)
Purchase, Anonymous Gifts, 1986 (1986.1198.17)
Signed in ink on print, recto LR: "Robert Frank"; inscribed in pencil on print, verso UR: "RF.A. 29"

I was unaware that comparisons had already been drawn between Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Robert Frank’s The Americans, but the relationship was the first thought that came to mind while viewing the powerful suite of 83 photographs currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The photographs document the cross-country road trip the Swiss-born Frank undertook from 1955-1956. At the outset, Frank said, “ What I have in mind, then, is observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of their publication.

When assessed aesthetically, the photographs are riveting. Often shot in situations that precluded the formal considerations of focus and composition, they still mange to hold the viewer captive within their moment. Each is titled only with the site and/or location. They are extremely pure. There is no sense of the clandestine nor suggestion of either the arbitrary or the staged. One understands that Frank’s subjects were clearly aware of his presence. Finally, there are no gimmicks. Frank did not rely on special effects, manipulation or cropping as evidenced by the marked contact sheets included in the exhibition.

As a narrative, the suite captures the purposefulness, diversity, and individuality inherent in the American character. It also speaks volumes about the disparity, prejudice and disenfranchisement existing mid-20th century and still today. This remains our birth defect conceived when slavery was sanctioned coexistent with the demands of liberty made plain in the Declaration of Independence. One cannot help but recall the nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina when viewing Frank’s photographs taken in New Orleans. And here we are fifty years after these photos were published to ample criticism and disparagement.

I would encourage anyone living in or travelling to New York to view this exhibition. If you can’t, buy the book. It is a document that should be present in every American’s visual vernacular until we correct our vision and begin to see differently.