Second to Last Class

Four out of ten stand at their easels at the beginning of class. A fifth, who had set up earlier and left, wanders in as I finish my remarks.

I conclude: “Tonight we’re starting the final project. We’re copying an old master portrait but changing it five ways.”

Late comers arrive in dribbles to make a full complement of ten. Four have not brought the 22×30″ sheet of Rives BFK required for the final. One asks me where to find it. “Have you tried Sam Flax or Art Systems?” I ask. Art stores are where one finds art supplies. The student looks at me blankly even though I’ve mentioned these establishments many times before. She mutters, “My parents have to take me, and we haven’t gotten there yet. What can I do?” I answer, “You could try the bookstore. They might have something like it there…Or you can tape two sheets of drawing pad paper together.” She nods.

Redirection minutes later: “You need to tape the two sheets together,” I say. She’s got the two sheets stacked one behind the other on her easel. She asks, “Do you have any tape?” “Look on the counter. To the right of the bag. To the right of the bag. Look down. There it is.”


Re-redirection minutes later: “Okay, you really have to tape the two sheets together now. You can’t do the drawing on one sheet of paper.

Re-re-redirection minutes later: “You have to tape your two sheets of drawing paper together.” Blank look. “Come look at Anthony’s. He’s taped his two sheets together to make a larger sheet. See?”

Same student approaches me and asks, “Should I tape my sheets together to make a vertical rectangle or a horizontal?” I respond: “Is the old master portrait vertical or horizontal?” “Vertical,” she says. “Stack your sheets vertical,” I answer.

Another student points to her bag of supplies and asks if we’re drawing on drawing pad or newsprint paper. I say, “A whole sheet of Rives BFK.” I spread my hands apart and add, “22 by 30 inches.” Her eyes squinch tight to express suffering. She whispers tragically, “I didn’t know that I had to bring that.” I answer, “You shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve talked about this and written it on the board.” And she could have read about it in the reminder I posted the week before on the class website. And she could have learned to get the right paper after failing to do so two previous times in the last three weeks.

A guy is working roughly, quickly, and something doesn’t look right about the portrait’s face. “Who’s your artist?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he mutters and begins to page through images on his phone. He pulls up a Rembrandt, probably a portrait of the artist’s father painted in the 1630s, but the colors and texture of the face look odd. I squint at it and say, “Someone photo-shopped a face into the painting. Tom says, “No, it’s a painting.” “Look closely. See the difference between the painted areas on the hat and cloak and the photo of the face.” Tom grunts to concede. “Go ahead and use it,” I say. There’s no point in forcing him to start over.

The student who had difficulty taping two sheets together stops me as I make my rounds. She holds out her sketchbook and points to a homework drawing that I’d refused to grade. I had told the class to draw a figure from one of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She had drawn a woman perched on a modern work ladder. She said, “I drew a figure from the Sistine Chapel.” I said, “I don’t think that Michelangelo painted a lady on a ladder. Show me the original.” She scrolled on her phone until she came to an amateurish copy of a section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling featuring an additional figure leaning on a ladder. “That’s a bad copy, ” I tell her. “A student must have done that and added the ladder woman for some reason. See how sloppy the brushwork is? Look at those flattened forms. And Michelangelo was painting Biblical scenes. Why would he have added a ladder?” She frowns. How could she possibly have been able to tell the difference? I say, “I’ll give you a B,” and walk away.

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Martin Mull, A Sincere Man

Study for Crossing (detail of a watercolor), Martin Mull

Ed played Martin Mull records in his University of Dayton dorm room. We drank wine on Friday nights and listened to songs like “Headin” for the Cumberland Gap”, a Disney style frontier ditty that sounded a lot like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. Mull’s version had a different tone: the lyrics discussed selling daughters to pay for a trip out west, the side benefits of herding sheep (“the next best thing to a wedding ring when it’s time to go to sleep”), and drowning grandpa when crossing a river (caught himself in the wagon wheels). Another song mused about the difficulties of sneaking out of a bedroom the morning after a drunken tryst. Another was a jingle for a fictional fast food chain called Bun n’ Run (“It’s not food, it’s just fun!”). And another recounted unusual methods of getting intimate: “whips, chains, Great Danes…”

I assumed that Martin’s heart had been dipped in acid as his appearances in movies and on TV in the seventies confirmed the impression received from his albums. He played everything with a smarmy insincerity so blatant that it became comical. He undercut his lines with a wink and sardonic smile that told me that everything is a sad joke, that nothing is true, good and pure.

I heard that he was an artist whose work had been collected by Steve Martin. I recently googled Mull’s artwork and found odd photo-realist paintings about suburban, “Leave It to Beaver” absurdities. These fit my original take on his personality. Later work, however, looked like it had been done by another man. Tentative marks, child-like figures, and haunted spaces dominated this body of work.

Dog Dream (detail, oil), Martin Mull.

I recently bought a book entitled “Paintings, Drawings, and Words” by Martin Mull. He relates that his main creative endeavor is painting, and that he decided to devote himself to art after a brush with death in the early 80s. Music and acting are his day jobs, but visual art is his true vocation.

He states that his current work comes about from an intuitive process that involves complex layering of imagery, erasures, preliminary studies, and searches for a genuine expression that moves him in unexpected ways. He believes in honesty, hard work and persistence.

His favorite artist is Matisse, and he had a religious experience while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He turned a corner and encountered Pierre’s masterpiece, “The Piano Lesson”. Time stood still as the canvas drew him into it’s influence, and it’s enchantments changed his life. Mull’s unqualified adoration of the French Modernist’s work is sincere, and he sites Matisse’s work as a foundation for his own explorations.

The Piano Lesson, Matisse

This story reminds me, oddly enough, of sentimental movies from the thirties. A bitter grouch unwillingly takes in a mop-top orphan, and his heart gradually softens and melts. Mull used to be a cynical curmudgeon, but “The Piano Lesson” thawed his bitter heart and made him a new man.

(Untitled) Christmas, Martin Mull

Revenge: Tales of Two Forgers

The art world creates value by declaring select pieces of artwork precious. Art historians and critics mold opinion by choosing objects to anoint from among thousands of paintings, drawings, sculptures and conceptual bits of flotsam (digital or otherwise). Standards for these choices have become increasingly confused with the arrival of competing schools, and reputations rise and fall according to arbitrary decisions made by an elite inner circle.


Two artists, Giorgio de Chirico and Han van Meegeren, played games to exploit the fault lines in the art world system of valuation. Their motive: revenge.

Van Meegeren painted in a realistic style in the early 20th century, and his work received sharply worded dismissals from critics busy promoting modernism. Han decided to take revenge by using his skills to forge paintings by Dutch old masters.

He discovered that a Dutch art historian had proposed that Vermeer must have had an intermediary style linking his domestic scenes to his late religious paintings. Van Meegeren bought old canvases, studied the chemistry of old master pigments and paint preparation, and painted a “Vermeer” in a style that bridged the master’s two periods. Han made thirteen more forgeries, some as would be paintings by Vermeer, and some as would be interiors by De Hooch.

His downfall came after the end of WWII. An allied art commission discovered an unknown Vermeer in Hermann Goering’s private collection. The sale was traced back to Van Meegeren, and prosecutors accused him of selling national treasures to the Nazis. Van Meegeren chose to admit that he had forged the Vermeer, and even painted a copy of a fake painting to prove his competence as a forger. The court cleared him of collaboration, but he eventually received a sentence for forgery.

De Chirico helped found an Italian avant garde group called the “Scuola Metafisica”, and art historians and critics saw his work as a precursor to the Surrealists. He eventually abandoned his proto-Surrealist style and began to paint Biblical and classical subjects in a thicker, more Expressionist manner. His new work gained no favor with the critics, and his reputation and income declined. He responded by making copies of earlier Metaphysical paintings. He signed and gave them earlier dates. Collectors ran into the problem of deciding which De Chirico oil came from the right time. A painting done in the 1920s had to be more authentic and worthwhile than a copy cynically painted in the 1950s. But which was which?

The Melancholy and Mystery of the Street , De Chirico, 1914

De Chirico compounded the collectors’ dilemma by making mash-up paintings combining elements of his early work. He passed these off as paintings from his golden period by signing and misdating them. De Chirico, in effect, forged his own oeuvre.

While he did permanent damage to his reputation as an artist and champion of Modern Art, he did achieve his tandem goals of thumbing his nose at the art world intelligentsia while exploiting the valuation system to make easy money.

Few artists have managed such feats. Bravo.



Students In(action)

Students In(action), graphite, 5×6″

1978

Speech class, first speech, and the guy down front yawns when I hit the half way point. I already hate my text as Marianne (secret crush who sits in front of me) has turned to the guy next to her to whisper and smirk. I falter, dying at the podium: soaked armpits, shaky knees. Merciless schmuck offers a critique after I slink to my seat: “He started off kind of slow, but then it was like he gave up and mumbled his way to the end.” Classmates nod in agreement. Professor ends the agony by calling out, “Next volunteer!”

1979

Ramsey leads us up a flight of stairs to a second floor conference room. We’re puffing, but the old prof eases into his chair and drawls in his flat monotone, “I’ve got a resting heart rate of fifty beats per minute and my blood pressure is 80 over 60.” After class, I imitate Ramsey for the benefit of a fellow sufferer. I imagine the professor in bed with his wife: “Ohh baby, I’m reaady fer youuu. My blood pressure is up to 90 over 65, and my resting heart rate is pummmping along at 62. Come to Papaaa.”

2006

Smart Ass (but not as clever as he thinks) comes to my table and sees me working on a drawing. Says, “Is that your real work–I mean, not a class demo?” I nod, and he burbles, “That’s really good. You’re talented. Maybe I’ll buy it at the end of the semester.” Bullshit. I nod and wait for him to go away. Next week he complains about the amount of homework assigned. Says, “I bet you think that your class is the most important thing in the world.” Stare him down to make him retreat while biting my tongue. Want to say, “Nope, getting laid on a regular basis is a lot more important.”

2019

Brush a stroke of gray onto a monochrome demo for a Drawing I class. Five out of ten students have showed up on time, and I can feel them willing me to stop. They want to be Anywhere Else, but cranky old professor makes them show up and draw. I refuse to stop, describe the next step and continue the demo. Turn to see Marianne staring at me hollow-eyed–a soulless child of the damned. Lorenzo’s Instagram page shines up at him from his phone. Heather studies the charcoal dust gathered in a heavy film on the ventilation ducts near the ceiling. I can’t find the right words and stutter over the wrong. Flop sweat.

Joey walks in as I go through my wrap up reminders (do this first and second, but never do this unless you want to destroy your drawing) but doesn’t come over to listen. Drops his bag at an easel instead. Comes over after everyone has begun to work and asks, “Hey, so what are we doin’ tonight?” “Painting with acrylic.” He waits for me to go on. Asks me, “So, we’re painting?” “Yup, we’re painting.”

Pull out a small sketchbook during break time and draw abstracted shapes: students slumping, staring, turning away. Bored and dull. The drawing makes me laugh. Karma might be a bitch, but revenge is mine.


Escape From East Berlin

Hans: Escape From East Berlin (color pencil)

Alapocas Friends Meeting, 1986

Hans sat back in his chair and answered a question from a friend: “Oh, I haven’t been here for the last two weeks because I had stents inserted into two cardiac arteries. I felt tired all the time and noticed that I got winded even when walking up a little hill. The doctors told me that I had blockages, and the next day I went to the hospital.”

A gray haired woman queried, “Why didn’t you let us know?”

Hans said, “Well, it happened so fast, and I didn’t think that anyone here could help. And my housekeeper brought me food after I got out of the hospital. I was fine.”

Weeks later Hans told us a bit about his history: “I grew up in Germany and lived in Berlin near the end of the war. Oh, yah, I was a Hitler Youth. We all were in the Hitler Youth. No one gave us a choice, and we knew better than to question our orders…We hid in cellars and had nothing to eat or drink when the Russians came. I got work after the fall of Berlin with a mechanic who beat me when he felt like it. Sometimes I worked too slowly, and sometimes I made mistakes. Sometimes he got drunk and wanted to hit someone, and I was the nearest. We could travel from East Berlin to West on the commuter trains, and one day I heard that they were starting to build a wall to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. I decided that I had to go but didn’t tell anyone. I packed a school bag with a book and an apple and got onto a train. I had a few marks in my pocket. I told the conductor a story about why I planned to visit West Berlin, and border agents went through the cars to check identification cards when we neared the outskirts of West Berlin. My heart thumped in my chest, and I was sure that they would pull me off the train. The secret police could make people disappear. The agent studied my cards and gave me a hard look, but then he handed them back and passed down the aisle.”

“I came to the United States in the mid sixties. A Quaker couple sponsored me. They advised me on colleges and helped me win a scholarship to MIT. I did well enough to graduate and found a job here in Wilmington working for Dupont. So here I am.”

Hans crossed his long legs and gave us a weary smile.

Sell Out

Puppy or What Is Puppy?

This color pencil drawing of a puppy is not cute. It doesn’t express the sentiment that doggies are wonderful. Instead, the drawing questions whether a canine image can supplant the paradigmatic construction of “dog-ness” in a viewer’s mind. The syrupy approach calls into question the fawning nature of all portraiture (the privileging of one person’s mien over all others within the gilded confines of the artificial, faux-precious canvas-in-frame space). A dog replaces a human face, thus devaluing the species-centric ascendancy of the homo sapien visage.

Artist as “Artist”

The artist pictured above is not a sell out for drawing said puppy. His choice of colored pencils (the medium of amateurs) self-critiques his role as a dominant image maker in a paternalistic art market. His apparent prostitution of his talents is a false maneuver, a coded rebellion against the strictures of the artist-as-revolutionary model. By drawing a greeting card image, he storms the dual citadels of Clement Greenbergian Flatness and Frank Stella’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get Dicta.

And while calling into question the pillars of post-war Modernism, he avoids the pitfalls of Post-Modernism. His straight forward, irony-free depiction deconstructs deconstruction by asserting the possibility of Sincerity. Even as he tears down traditional conventions of portraiture and the role of the modern artist, he builds (constructs) true possibility.

The puppy isn’t cute, and the image is not puppy-ness, and the artist has not made a signifying object of any importance. But the defiant act of wrapping himself in unapologetic triteness lifts him like Icarus above the binding gravity of professional integrity:

True artistic freedom achieved.

Abstract and Personal

I spent the day drawing abstractions using combinations of letters from my name and grid lines. The drawings progressed from left to right on the top row, then from right to left on the bottom row.

I woke up in a slightly depressed mood, but felt lighter and happier as the day moved forward. The drawings unintentionally reflect the gradual transformation from gloom to playfulness.

I’m going to use these examples in an abstract drawing class that starts on Wednesday. I’ll talk about the way shapes and patterns can be developed from simple sources to represent emotional states, thoughts and memories. I’m going to show examples from Paul Klee, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky and Thomas Nozkowski. They believe(d) that shapes, lines and colors can be used like musical tones, rhythms and harmonies to communicate.

I may bring my baritone ukulele and strum a few major, minor and seventh chords to illustrate the point that each musical arrangement evokes a different range of feeling.