So These Three Artists Walk Into a Jeff Koons Show... The Artist as CEO... and Why Skill in Art is No Joke

He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with this hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist. - Louis Nizer

Artists Steven Assael (left) and Mikel Glass (right) discuss some of Jeff Koons's Gazing Ball paintings on view at Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photo by F. Scott Hess.

Reading the Gagosian Gallery press release for Gazing Ball -- which was comprised of meticulous copies of classic paintings bolted to aluminum shelves containing reflective blue glass balls -- you might get the impression that Jeff Koons is a painter:

"Gagosian Gallery is pleased to present a new series of paintings by Jeff Koons entitled Gazing Ball."

Yeah right, everyone knows that Koons doesn't paint, as this revealing quote in a 2012 New York Times magazine piece -- "I Was Jeff Koons's Studio Serf" -- confirms:
I'm basically the idea person," Jeff Koons once told an interviewer. "I'm not physically involved in the production. I don't have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.
I'll say this about Jeff Koons: you have to appreciate his honesty and he does create employment for artists. The "top people" who executed the paintings in Gazing Ball were paid $18 per hour: better than fast food workers but far less than say air-conditioner repair technicians. Steven Assael, one of New York's most respected and gifted representational painters, walked into the Gagosian show with two artist friends, knowing full well that many of the "Koons" paintings were in fact painted by artists he knows or has trained:
Many of the artists who worked on the paintings are very fine artists in their own right and to my knowledge are not given credit. Many are former students from SVA and the New York Academy whom I know...
Having other artists make your work for you doesn't raise even an eyelash among top collectors these days. It's like saying that some top bankers should go to jail for their roles in the 2007-8 subprime mortgage crisis: it's old news and hardly anyone is interested, especially in New York. If you are hick enough to bring up any kind of objection to artists not executing their own paintings, you usually hear something along the lines of "Ah, yes that has been going on for hundreds of years: didn't Peter Paul Rubens have an army of assistants?"

The answer is "Yes, he did" but with an important distinction. Rubens was fully capable of making his own paintings, and in fact was the "master" of his own studio in every respect. The popular contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley is also fully capable of executing his own canvases, but gets help from China, especially the backgrounds. Koons is truly an "Artist as CEO" who, if anything, seems to enjoy showing off the fact that skill is something he can afford. It's the current American corporate model isn't it? Fight your way to the top of the pyramid, outsource your production to capable, affordable underlings and harvest the profits.

Looking one more time at the photo of Steven Assael in front of a Rubens-derived Gazing Ball paintings offers an opportunity to consider the full, weird cultural and economic bass-ackwardness of the "Artist as CEO" situation.

Steven Assael, a subtle and profoundly skilled artist, stands in front of a methodically-executed copy of The Tiger Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens, a Baroque master who employed assistants to work on his paintings. Assael recognizes that the Rubens copy was executed by friends and students he has trained, but the credit goes to America's most commercially successful artist (Jeff Koons - estimated net worth $500 million) who admits that he cannot paint. Steven, by the way, can't get any closer than 2 feet away to assess the paintings as the gallery guards won't let him to close to the super-expensive work.
Just how f***ed up is that? Maybe, just maybe, it's a good thing that skilled representation by friends and students of Steven Assael made its way into Gagosian gallery. Maybe one of these days it will be their work (not copies of old masters) and they will be the ones whose names will be credit. Maybe the arc of the moral universe will finally bend their way...

Among the painters I know, skill is a hot topic. Everyone seems to intuitively know what it is -- they know it when they see it -- and the implications of having or not having skill are generating lively, fresh conversations and opinionated writing.

Last July when artist/educator Scott Hess -- who visited the Gazing Ball show with Steven Assael -- posted his nerve-hitting blog "Is De-Skilling Killing Your Art Education?" it quickly went viral, generating thirty thousand Facebook likes. Airing out his concerns over the current "academic prejudice against skill," Hess asserted that "only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated." Hess believes that the postwar dominance of Abstract Expressionism -- and later Conceptualism and Post-Modernism -- diminished the centrality of skill in art-making and generated this widespread negative bias.

More recently, in a dense and thoughtful blog about the rise of "Post Contemporary" art, writer Daniel Maidman writes that "skill" is the first of three "pillars" (the others are creativity and empathy) that form the foundation of a new movement in painting that sees itself as reconstructive. "The unskilled genius may have the vision," Maidman philosophizes, "but he or she is condemned to failing it, without first acquiring the eloquence of skill."

Reading Dan Maidman's words might make you anxious or angry, especially if you love modernist-derived painting and abstract painting (as I do). Isn't Modernism the period in which traditional skill -- in the seemingly ossified guise of Academic art -- was challenged and bypassed because it had become an obstacle to new forms of expression? Have we forgotten that "skill" was often used in the past to advance and justify art we might now find politically reprehensible or spiritually void? Does Maidman's warning that being "unskilled' condemns an artist to failure imply that Jackson Pollock couldn't have been a "genius" because he didn't have the "eloquence of skill?" Does "skill" simply exist in the service of realism and if so doesn't that make the idea of skill extremely constrictive?

Those are some prickly questions with potentially divisive answers aren't they? There are about a zillion more that flood into my mind as the implications of discussing skill begin to unpack themselves. I think that there is a need to step back first and think through a primary question that hasn't yet been effectively addressed:

What constitutes skill in painting? 

In my view there is no single satisfactory answer and that some breaking down is needed. I would argue that there are two main types of skill (or skill sets) that are relevant in relation to contemporary painting.
1) Traditional Skill (aka Academic Skill) 
2) Idiosyncratic Skill
In a moment, I'm going to try to lay these out -- offering definitions that will be expanded as notes -- but first I want to make a few over-arching points. Skill, in any form, takes time and practice to develop: it needs exercise. I like the assertion Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book "Outliers: The Story of Success" that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field and I think of skill and mastery as inter-related concepts. Skill resides in the brain but comes through the body: it has a kinesthetic dimension, and technical skill without a meaningful connection to mind and spirit is mere dexterity.

Finally, I believe that the skills and skill sets I am identifying can overlap and that in contemporary painting they are frequently hybridized. In my rather accommodating view, skill isn't a static term that relates only to meanings that were fixed centuries ago.

Traditional Skill:

Traditional skill refers to the mastery of all the elements and methods needed to render form convincingly, accurately and beautifully. It is rooted in Renaissance ideal of "disegno" which involves both the ability to draw as well as the intellectual capacity to invent and design subject matter and compositions. Traditional rendering skills are tangible and teachable, and include the mastery of scientific perspective, the depiction of form with line and shadow and facility with the tools and materials of drawing and painting: after the 16th century this predominantly refers to oil painting. The skills of imagination and invention are nearly impossible to teach -- some of us have vast imaginative capacities and some of us are born dull -- but the concept of disegno evolved partly to acknowledge and reward the level of imaginative drive associated with genius, which during the Renaissance was a relatively new idea.

The look and feel of traditionally skilled painting never stood still, as it evolved and changed in relation to new materials -- for example the introduction of new pigments -- and various masters took the whole notion of skill into new territories over time. Traditional skills constituted a kind of marvelous subtle toolbox that a few exceptional artists used with transcendent skill. In the hands of hacks these same marvelous tools gave birth to mediocre and worse works.

The invention of photography in the mid-19th century mechanized enough of the magical processes of painting that skilled naturalism began to lose its hold on the public imagination. The resulting bias against realism in painting remains strong today.

Idiosyncratic Skill:

Idiosyncratic skill -- a category of my own invention -- refers to skills that are highly individual. They may or may not derive from traditional skill, but evolve in concert with an individual artist's personal development and in relation to his or her aesthetic goals and concerns. Even among the oeuvres of artists we think of as traditionally skilled, there instances of idiosyncratic skill: Titian's heavily-brushed late works are one prime example.

Many modern artists had academic training in traditional skills which formed the foundations of their rebellious stylistic experiments. There is, for example, an exceptional knowledge of form underneath Picasso's distorted Cubist compositions, and a flair for disegno is clearly apparent in de Kooning's energetically abstracted figures. In my view, traditional skill was often hybridized in modern painting -- it morphed into idiosyncratic skill -- and the process continues to this day.

I see plenty of skill in modern and contemporary painting, but it is often far removed from the "traditional skill" that key schools and ateliers are attempting to revive. Skill in modern and contemporary painting is hard to objectify and I'm sure that many would disagree with me and say that "Idiosyncratic Skill" is a valid category or concept. To them I would say this: I know it when I see it. It is there in the practice, dedication and inner-derived vision and execution of strong modern and contemporary painting. It is the ingredient that is sorely lacking in "zombified" works and I will leave it to you and your eyeballs to pick out the works in which you find skill of any kind lacking. 

Skill in art is no joke, and whether you like your skills traditional, idiosyncratic or both -- and I like both -- I say it is time to reward skill and let the model of artist as CEO fade. I say bring on the Post-Contemporary painting and bring on the idiosyncratically skilled painting too: down with brand names and up with individual talent. The artists who currently work for Jeff Koons are being paid as "craftsmen" for doing meticulous copying. They and others like them need the attention of the market and collectors so they can show that they are -- hopefully -- much more than that.

Skill in art is no joke, and whether you like your skills traditional, idiosyncratic or both -- and I like both -- I say it is time to reward skill and let the model of artist as CEO fade. I say bring on the Post-Contemporary painting and bring on the idiosyncratically skilled painting too: down with brand names and up with individual talent. The artists who currently work for Jeff Koons are being paid as "craftsmen" for doing meticulous copying. In the universe of a CEO artist, where skill is bought and idiosyncracy is flattened and systematized, their artistic futures are being held hostage.

From my point of view artists like Steven Assael (and his friends and students) look better and better to me every day... and Bernie Sanders is looking pretty good to me too.


A recent interview with Steven Assael can be found at the link below:

Steven Assael at Forum Gallery

Beauty in a Whirlpool: Margaret Bowland and Her Models

Margaret Bowland working with Keise: Photo by Frank Turiano

Margaret Bowland -- whose recent paintings are dreamlike and a bit supernatural -- is interested in how children make sense of the world. "Children are born into the whirlpool of conflicting ideas making up the world in which they live," Bowland notes, "but they don't know they truth of any of it." As an artist, Bowland has kept her own childlike sense of wondrous confusion very much alive and for that reason her art generates a drama-filled parallel universe.

A sensitive, imaginative artist who has struggled both to make sense of and also to redeem her Southern Baptist upbringing, Bowland sees is fascinated by the idea of "damaged beauty." To create images exist apart from life's struggles -- while illuminating human vulnerability in the context of society and history -- Bowland works with carefully chosen models. Bowland's models are in a sense collaborators, providing the grace and humanity needed to center and anchor her stormy canvases.

 In order to better understand the paintings on view in Bowland's current exhibition, Power, I recently interviewed Bowland and four of her models to understand how they work together.

Margaret Bowland

At the outset of this I want to say that I work both from live models and from photographs. When I begin with a model many photos are taken. After looking though these photos I develop ideas. Then the work begins, often from the photos themselves. Of course, this is never enough and the models must be brought back in. I set up clothes often on mannequins I have acquired over the years. Sometimes I build mannequins from all kinds of things, from chicken wire and paper towels, even old dolls.

I am drawn to the tangle of life, the beauty and the grace I find in people who struggle but cannot finally be annihilated. I place my beloved characters in a world I create that reveals the particular struggle of his or her life and then I watch while the very truth of each of them rises to meet me or anyone else who cares to look back. The word "collaboration" is the best one to use for the way that my paintings are developed. But the collaboration is of an odd sort. The person being painted doesn't sit down with me and discuss his or her conceptions of the work. It begins by my fixation on a particular person.

Dexter Wimberly: Photo by Frank Turiano

Dexter Wimberly

I first met Margaret five years ago at the Brooklyn Museum at a hosted event on the topic of building a collection of African American art. We were both in the audience and during the panel discussion I made a statement, then asked a question. Margaret was intrigued and we spoke. As an independent curator, I had attended the event out of curiosity, but didn't know who Margaret was when I met her and hadn't seen her work before meeting her. When I then visited her home, I realized she was one of the best painters I had ever met.

As our friendship developed, I never even considered having Margaret paint me: I try to stay at bit objective in my relationships with artists. About five years after we met Margaret asked if I would be in a painting along with my son Dylan. I knew her history of painting young people and trusted that she would be respectful and mindful, so I had no issues saying "yes." I knew she could tell a different kind of story with a father and son, as Margaret has mainly painted women before.

Tangled up in Blue, 2015, Oil on linen, 70 x 98 inches

We started with a photo session in which I was covered in blue paint. I poured paint into my hands, onto clothing my clothing and moved it around so as to be covered in it. It was a bit extreme as I was wearing really nice clothing. Still, there was still a certain dignity about it that I knew would come through. The message has of the painting has to do with the passing on of knowledge and I think it came through in the finished painting. I really think Margaret said and did something in this work that she hadn't done or said before.

Justin Bullock: Photo by Frank Turiano

Justin Bullock

I met Margaret through a photographer who I met on a shoot for Faded Royalty, a men's clothing line. The experience of posing for Margaret was both intimate and graceful. Since I had never posed for a painter before, I was a bit intimidated. That being said, I immediately felt comfortable in Margaret's presence. She made me feel welcome, appreciated, and most importantly beautiful. She made me look very strong and powerful. Her imagery of me was especially poignant and I think she chose me as her subject for a specific reason: being Albino I experience racism more than most people do, from all races.

Margaret Bowland

In learning about his particular past, I learned that Justin is the child of two albino parents, I began by making drawings of him smoking. Then he observed a painting in the studio of a model covered in white paint and wanted to wear make up as well. I let him choose make up colors. First he chose gold and then I saw the Batman bracelet he always wears and I offered him a dish of black makeup. He put his hands into it and applied it where he wished. At first, he wanted to emulate Batman and then he kept going. I just tried to hang on and do the best I could to record what was happening,

I knew what I was painting was a painting about the complexity of race but I wished it to be a fact that the viewer arrived at through time. First you see this beautiful golden boy, then see that he has coated his hands in black paint and applied them to his body. Only after another moment do you begin to see that his features, the texture of his hair, convey to you that he is an albino African American. Through this process I want the viewer to think of what it is he or she really thinks about the relevance of the color of skin.

The issue of race, the color of someone's skin is one of the first visual facts our mind records. And in that second, a door opens and a rush of information fills our unconscious. The conscious mind must then fight past this onslaught to get back to apprehending the person standing before us. We may know these conditioned reactions to be false; we may despise that they exist, but we live within a culture that has created this as the very atmosphere in which we breathe.

Nakedness Has no Color and Knows no Border, 2015, Oil on linen, 82 x 70 inches

Matthew Davis: Photo by Frank Turiano

Matthew Davis

I met Margaret one day by Grand Army Plaza. I was cycling around the park with my friends Nickev and Sherquan and she stopped and asked if I was interested in modeling. She gave me her card and after I researched her I agreed to model. Honestly, at first it felt awkward but after awhile I got to know her better and I felt more relaxed. Margaret made me feel like I could be myself. When I saw the finished painting I was amazed, happy and shocked at how well the painting came out and how. Her theme has so much meaning in the world that we live in today: Power.

Margaret Bowland

One day I was walking in the Park near my house on Memorial Day and as I approached the path that would lead back to my house I looked up and saw Matthew Davis. I did not know his name at the time. He was just a beautiful young man on a bike and the way he looked back at me, his great height and the rise of the ground conjured up in my memory the way it felt to be on horseback looking across at another rider. I looked past his handlebars and there was his childhood friend, Sherquane, equally beautiful and mounted on a bike. The sight of them lifted me back into the great beauty of the world.

I walked up to the boys, asked them to model for me and we made a time to meet in my studio, with their bikes. I had a friend, Frank Turiano, come into my studio at the given time and photograph the boys as I directed and moved them and the bikes about. I did this two more times and was not getting what I needed no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much we interacted. I wanted that feeling of mounted riders and was not getting it. And then I found myself alone with Matt one afternoon while he was waiting for a friend. We were talking and then he turned from me as if looking out the window. When he looked back at me I could see that tears were streaming down his face and he began to tell me of the funeral service he had to attend that week.

Two months back, a kid he had grown up with had caught a stray bullet from a drive by shooting. Matt told me that he had been there and that the police and EMT trucks arrived very quickly. He then said he had stood there, pacing with anxiety while it took the ambulance 30 minutes to drive away. He looked back at me, his face full of tears and asked me why? "Why did it take them so long to leave?" I had no answer but the obvious one, Matt lives in a poor neighborhood.

His friend, whom he had talked to in the hospital the night of the shooting, whom Matt believed would be fine, never left the hospital. He died three weeks later of complications. Matt looked to me, an adult, for the answer. He was terrified of seeing the boy's mother at the funeral because Matt felt responsible. He kept asking himself over and over why he had not done anything? Why had he not spoken to the cops, the ambulance personnel and demanded that they get his friend to the hospital. I knew, of course, that no one would have listened to him that night.

And as I talked to him, trying to remove the guilt on his young shoulders and place it back upon the white establishment I represent, I watched as he shook his beautiful head, watched as his eyes darted in terror and then grabbed on to a smile, saying: "Thanks, I am better, that's just life." Then his friend came and the two left.

Matt and I live two miles from each other at most. A park separates us. The neighborhoods on both sides are mixed racially now, but as Matt was growing up, a black child, his mother had stressed upon him the fear of going onto the streets of the side of the park in which I live, even as I had stressed the same fear upon my children as to the danger possible if they ventured into his neighborhood. Matt is 6' 5inches tall. And yet the first time he came to my studio he had asked me to meet him at the park and together we walked the half block to my house. Even after living in my home for 28 years, this was the first time I really understood that the fear families on both sides of that park had were mutual.

When Matt left my house the day that he had broken down he was not "better." What I had seen in his face was a reckoning with the truth that had resulted in the neglect of his friend dawn on his face and then get driven back down within him. His youth and his beauty supply him with the hope and sheer momentum now that keeps truth at bay. Just like all soldiers, who are always young and anxious to board planes to adventure, we know where those planes lead. I had just seen, twice, the movie "Straight Out of Compton" and as I sat there with Matt scenes from that movie and a Poussin painting in the Met where the golden armor of the soldiers feels oddly made of their own skin, collided and the first of the paintings of Matt was revealed to me.

The next time he and his friend Sherquane came I had them pour gold body paint upon themselves to emulate the Poussin soldiers, and had one wear a necklace made out of five dollar bills to resemble the gold braided necklaces worn in "Straight Out of Compton." Neither of these high school students has one thing to do with the drug trade at all. But I had come to see that they all believed themselves to be soldiers in a world in which they had been raised in an atmosphere of wariness. And the only way out is through gold, through money.

Both boys want to become fashion models and even as I work with them to give them photos for their "books" I know how brutal that world is and how easily it chews up and discards thousands of beautiful kids every single year. So I made my first painting about them and called it Gilt. Yes I am playing on the double meaning of the word but am also asking the viewer to see that even though the main character, Matt, is covered in gold, believing it to be a protective armor his face still shows you what I saw the day he cried in my home, great vulnerability that is not overcome but held in check. His eyes show you what this costs him and the sheer courage he is capable of finding within himself. He is a soldier on a battlefield that is a stacked deck.

For me, his courage amidst this tragedy that is real life, is Beauty. Beauty is being exactly who you are amidst all that the world does to fracture and destroy you. Beauty is courage that some people are born possessing. They do not even know that there is an option called giving up. They hold amidst it all. This is the common denominator in every person I paint. There are no common physical attributes, just this courage. This courage is grace and I know when I am in its presence. My job is to record it.

Gilt, 2015, Oil on linen, 51 x 74 inches

Julia Harrison: photo by Frank Turiano

Julia Harrison

Margaret is a friend of my family. She asked me to model for her, and I have been for a couple of years. Posing for Margaret is always wonderful because she is easy to relax around and has a big, warm personality. Being a (small) part of the creation of Margaret's artwork is also interesting; I feel as though I have learned a lot about her process just from listening to her and the photographer talking, and from being in her studio. Margaret has a very specific eye for detail; often she'll make changes in my posture or pose that feel miniscule.

During the opening for Power a lot of people asked me the question, "What is it like to be in a painting?" I had a lot of trouble responding to this because it has always been clear to me, especially upon seeing it, that it may be a painting of me, but it isn't a painting about me. I love the painting, but I recognize that the girl in the painting is Margaret's interpretation of my identity, and therefore the girl is more Margaret than she is me. That said, the painting feels very real and honest to me.

15 in 2015, 2015, Oil on linen, 60 x 60 inches

Margaret Bowland

I have known a beautiful child, Julia Harrison, for most of her 15 years. She has become preposterously beautiful. She is almost six feet tall, looks like Grace Kelly and is brilliant. This is a young woman for whom no one on earth feels anything but envy. A request for compassion for Julia would bring a smile to someone's face. And yet that very fact reveals the paradox of her need. Julia is like a niece to me. I have watched her develop into this paragon of womanhood warily. I know the world will weigh what she has been given and exact retribution.

I put white makeup on her fair face, just as women have been doing in every culture in the world for centuries. I had her hair arranged on her head in the manner of an 18th century lady complete with the white paint and powder that would have been placed on Marie Antoinette, or Josephine, or Queen Elizabeth the 1st. These women were all turned into blank slates upon which the crowd could project its needs, for purity, or lust or even what it thought to be love. But beneath this mask lived a real woman who was never seen, never known.

I then placed Julia in a turbulent sea up to her neck, her hand trying to pull away the ribbon that such women wore around their necks. The sea in which she struggles fades in deep space into the sea of Turner's The Slave Ship. in her hair are the flowers that would have been arranged upon the head of any great lady of the 18th century but they are made of 100 dollar bills. Those bills carry the image of Benjamin Franklin, the ambassador to France when women were so attired. Overhead are American fighter jets that are igniting the flowers in Julia's hair and fly over the slaves drowning in the water below. This is the world into which Julia was born. For all her good fortune, she still lives in a world that carries this baggage. She was born in this sea. The innocent die every day in wars we conduct and young women are still asked to become projection screens in order to be loved.

Margaret Bowland: Power
October 29 - December 19, 2015
525 West 25th Street New York, NY 10001

Margaret Bowland #newyorkacademyofart Now on my Huffpost blog #driscollbabcock

via Instagram

Click on the cover below to view "Heightened Perceptions" curated by John Seed for "Poets and Artists"

Steven Assael at Forum Gallery, New York

The subject matter of Steve Assael's current show at the Forum Gallery, New York is marriage. His paintings depict brides and grooms, each embodying the hope, fear, anticipation and resolve that make betrothal an important subject. "I usually start", says Assael, "with a visual, thematic idea - brides, for example - but the narrative evolves, its subtext articulated as the painting develops." Tenderly rendered, with an exquisite balance between form and detail, Assael's canvases radiate mastery and authenticity of purpose.

John Seed Interviews Steven Assael

Steven Assael: photo by Carole Newhouse

Steven, am I right that you work entirely from models?

Yes: I work from life whenever I can. I try not to use photography, but rely more on memory and experience. Photos can be helpful for general references, but I'm really more interested in how ideas are generated by memory and the synthesis of experienced perceptions. Also, I would rather not use the word model, sitter is better. I allow for the sitters' performance to interfere with my initial concept. I think of sitters as actors, revealing an outward formality and an inner history. As a director, being open to an actor's interpretation can change things around. I paint the human image in an effort to find and depict the individual nature of my sitter as well as the universal or general idea of being human.

Apiim, 2015, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Given that perspective, do you think of yourself as a Humanist?

That term has many meanings and may not apply precisely to what I want to do. The experience of working from life is for me an inquiry into our human-ness.

Bridal Preparation, 2015, oil on canvas, 68 x 68 inches

Tell me about your commitment to representation and the figure.

I was raised and schooled in NYC. As a teen my artist friends and I would sometimes frequent the Figurative Alliance in New York. And most of the time arguments boldly ensued...Figurative artists then were the most oppositional people you could ever meet. Those times were inspirational to the feeling that being a figurative artist was in many ways a form of rebellion and I came to look at myself as going against the times... I still like to feel that way..

Fallen Groom, 2015, oil on canvas, 68 x 72 inches

How has your relationship to the art world evolved over time?

Well, the figure came back via Neo-Expressionism in the 1980s, but not in the way I was interested. Then in the mid-1990s video, installation and photography came on strong and painting was looked at by many as obsolete. In a post-post-modern era it's all up for grabs...Painting and the nature of painting is looked at as important again. I'm glad it is.. I can enjoy all kinds of painting...

Julie, 2013, oil on board, 18 x 24 inches

So that was the context of the 1995 protest that you organized at the Whitney, right?

The protest was a naïve expression in many ways, but understand at that time there seemed to be very little interest in painting, not just figurative painting but the act of making paintings. We were inspired by Edward Hopper, who in 1961 had launched a protest of his own against the Whitney. So ours was in some ways a homage..Looking back, it was a moment--and it did bring out the fact that painting and human experience were important factors behind the stroke and the mark... either in objective or non-objective painting.

Aslan, 2014, oil on board, 18 x 24 inches

There is a lot more representation appearing in the galleries right now. Do you like what you see?

There is a lot of technique and decoration, but little in emotive intelligence. What I mean... is that there is often a lack of the questioning and purpose of painting as an existential expression. Thats hard for some to understand. The revival of craftsmanship has in many ways become important, but I don't think that people are really focused on making or looking at things that have deep, lasting meaning, but instead enjoy being distracted by entertainment values. Unfortunately, a lot of the more serious painters today find themselves under the radar of what the mainstream art world deems valuable.

Apiim (Detail)

Detail plays such an important role in your work. How do you find the right balance of detail and form? 

The meaning behind an image has to do with what is allowed to be revealed and what is allowed to be concealed: it's a selectivity of sorts. Each part assumes a position in relation to the whole. Every part is important in its summation toward the whole. In optical and/or visual terms, the particulars can function in opposition to the whole but are never the less subservient to the whole: How we view symmetry/asymmetry and how details are related the the whole influence our spatial perception. And simultaneously the outlook of a picture is pendant to our viewing position. At a distance we see curvatures, rhythms uniting forms in space in symmetry.... at close range, angles and variations in asymmetry that provide tension and the individual nature of things. I think about symmetry as rhythms that intimate universals while asymmetry can express the temporal.

Forum Gallery
November 12 - December 31, 2015
730 Fifth Avenue 2nd Fl.
(between 56th & 57th Streets)
New York, NY 10019

Hell Has Frozen Over: Figurative Art Is Poised to Become the 'Next Big Thing'

A New York Times feature on "UNREALISM" from October 15, 2015
Image: John Currin's "Rachel in the Garden"

That's right: hell has frozen over, and pigs are flying too. After decades -- some might say well over a century -- of standing aside while Duchamp joked and Pollock flung paint, figurative art is about to step into the spotlight and become the "next big thing." Of course, nothing in the art world is a done deal, but when an alpha-dealer (Larry Gagosian) and an alpha-curator (Jeffrey Deitch) come together to "collaborate" on a show of figurative art called UNREALISM for Art Basel Miami the tea leaves are there for all of us to read and the reactions are starting to roll in.

Predictably, not everyone is happy.

Apparently the imminent rise of figuration has enough momentum that specu-collector/dealer Stefan Simchowitz felt the need to post this sarcasm-laced warning on his Facebook page over the weekend:
I love this new trend of figurative painting now. I mean, what a bunch of baloney media, collector driven pivoting, in reaction of Walter Robinson's utterly inane Zombie Abstraction, pseudo analysis of the state of the art. Well, every idiot who sidelines as a collector is after a painting with a figure in it. The circus has a new act, till the next intermission, and Miami will be that next act.
Simchowitz has a point: art world fashions can fade quickly, but I would argue that figuration, with its very, very deep roots may be rested and ready to surprise all of us. Schools like the New York Academy of Art and numerous ateliers have been graduating some extraordinarily skilled students in the past few decades and they (and their professors) are on the rise.

Keep in mind though, there is a really, really broad range of what one might call "figurative" or "representational" art and the news release for UNREALISM on the Gagosian website makes it clear that "academic" figuration will not be part of the mix Miami: "The artists featured in UNREALISM work within the figurative canon without becoming academic."

Really? There is nothing "academic" about the work of John Currin, whose "Rachel in the Garden" appeared along with the NY Times article? His work also appeared this May on the cover of Fine Art Connoisseur, which is the blue blazer "conservative" foil to ArtForum. Don't tell me there isn't some weird convergence in the air...

Speaking of magazines, it should be noted that the most widely read art magazine in the United States is Juxtapoz -- which features a range of representation from "Lowbrow" to Odd Nerdrum -- with a circulation of 127,000 more than twice that of ArtForum. Add to that: Jutapoz's star attraction -- Mark Ryden, the "Prince of Lowbrow" -- stands poised to burst past the gatekeepers and enter major museum collections soon.

The May/June 2015 cover of Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine
Image: John Currin's "Blonde Angel"

The title of the Gagosian/Deitch show -- UNREALISM -- (yes, all in emphatic caps), reinforces a point that I made in a blog posted this January, that unadulterated "realism" -- which is not seen as avant-garde, remains taboo. Here is how I put it: "Generally speaking, the representational art that makes its way into the mid and upper ranks of the contemporary art field has to be credentialed as avant-garde in some fashion." Here is a slightly revised list of the credentials I have noted:
Outsider status can work, as can a reliance on subject matter that is "deconstructed" in relation to social, sexual and political issues. Perversity is good, and so are self-conscious strangeness, obsessiveness, and irony. Warholian strategies involving mechanical and technological methods of image making are helpful. Conceptualism, which I think tends mixes with representation very lamely, can also get you in the front door of the avant-garde academy. Sadly, a connection to wealth and/or celebrity can work too.
Currin's work is apparently "perverse" enough to be blue chip, but it is also "skilled" enough for Fine Art Connoisseur. I find that confusing: in a good way. Looking over the list of 50 artists included in UNREALISM is a confusing experience (Urs Fischer???) but the confusion is perhaps understandable since the show was obviously culled from pre-credentialed, mid-career or better gallery favorites. There are, as you likely know, scores of galleries and artists who have already been showing figurative art that has generated the "buzz" underneath this development, and it goes without saying that some of the very best figurative artists around won't be represented in UNREALISM. Next year, things could be quite different...

Calling yourself a "representational" or "figurative" artist right now is rather like identifying yourself as a "Christian" or a "Muslim." In other words, what those terms mean is so broad that they seem to serve as mere covers for an impossibly broad range of ideas and values. Why you make on your easel will have to be your actual statement of values. Even if you are a "realist," and you feel carefully screened out of UNREALISM, the rising tide of figuration may already be starting to float your boat. Maybe you won't have to sit at the fuddy-duddy table forever.

What in fact may be happening is that the top of the art market is beginning to figure out what the blogosphere has been saying for some time, and that is that there is a new respect for skill -- another very broad term -- and a hunger for imagery. Now the market just has to figure out that there is also a hunger for authenticity and sincerity, but I'm not holding my breath on that count. Whatever happens, figuration, representation -- whatever you want to call it -- is going to be hybridizing itself into some unexpectedly wonderful art in the coming years.

"I've seen a lot of prejudice against representational art since I began my career," says L.A. artist F. Scott Hess. "I would say that in the last 40 years it has never been better than it is now... We have made representational art for 40 thousand years. Gagosian is getting on the bandwagon a little late." 

Interesting times, don't you think?

Painters: Submit Your Memorable Paintings From 2015


Attention all painters:

Send me up to three images of your most memorable paintings from 2015 for possible inclusion in my year-end blog: Memorable Paintings from 2015.

New for this year: 

The paintings selected for this year will appear online and also in a digitally-distributed and print-on-demand issue of PoetsArtists, co-curated by John Seed and Didi Menendez. The publication of PoetsArtists will include works of ten artists selected by John Seed and Didi Menendez. Each curator will be choosing five artists. To view last year's Huffington Post blog: Ten Memorable Paintings from 2014


Paintings in all media -- including oil, acrylic, watercolor and gouache -- will be considered. All types of painting, including abstract, representational, etc., are welcomed. Painters from anywhere in the world may enter. Paintings will be chosen by John Seed, based solely on his judgment and personal opinions.


Your entries must have been completed during the 2015 calendar year. Only three paintings may be entered per artist. If you have already submitted work to Didi Menendez of PoetsArtists, please don't also submit to John Seed: Your work is already being considered.

Entries must be made directly by artists: Please no submissions from friends, dealers, family members etc. All entries must be received by midnight (Pacific Time) on Sunday, December 6th, 2015

The blog featuring the chosen works will be posted on or before Monday, December 21st, 2015.

No prizes or complimentary copies of any kind will be awarded: being included in the blog and in the publication is the only "prize" available.

Artists whose work is accepted for the publication will be notified before we go to print.

How to Enter:

E-mail NO MORE THAN THREE jpeg images to

The subject line of the email should read: "Memorable Paintings 2015 entry." Images may be no larger than 1000 pixels in either height or width. Please don't expect an email reply as I will be looking over many hundreds of entries.


Include a few sentences about yourself and/or the painting you are submitting. I'm looking forward to seeing your work!

Please share this blog via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Grace Hartigan: Works From 1960-65 at the X Contemporary Art Fair, Miami

Artists Grace Hartigan (left) and Helen Frankenthaler (right) in an undated photo
Image: Syracuse University Library Collection

Grace Hartigan, whose work played the range between abstraction and representation once told an interviewer: "Now as before it is the vulgar and the vital and the possibility of its transformation into the beautiful which continues to challenge and fascinate me." Hartigan's interest in incorporating an eclectic range of images into her paintings--including mannequins, coloring books, images from film, Old Master paintings, and store window displays-- vitalized her art but eventually caused the influential critic Clement Greenberg to withdraw his support. Greenberg and other influential figures of the time didn't understand what she was trying to do and the painter Willem de Kooning once reduced her to tears by telling Hartigan that she "completely mis-understood modern art." The rise of "Pop" art and a move to Baltimore in 1960 removed Hartigan's once top-flight career from the spotlight, and her reputation has never fully recovered.

Even if Hartigan can't be neatly labeled as an "Abstract Expressionist" her status as a pioneering woman artist at a time when men dominated the field invites study. Curator Michael Klein, who has been studying and assembling a small exhibition of Hartigan's works from the early 1960s, thinks a new examination of Hartigan's achievement is overdue, and he asks a powerful question: just where where does her art, and the art of other pioneering women artists of the 1950s and 60s fit into the "canon" of American painting? I recently spoke to Michael Klein to find out more about Hartigan, and about the exhibition of her works that will be on view at the X Contemporary Art Fair in Miami from December 1-6.

Michael Klein: Photo by Leonardo Mascaro

Curator Michael Klein on Grace Hartigan How did you become interested in and aware of Grace Hartigan's work? 

A few years ago I was introduced to a collector in Baltimore MD. In her house was a great Hartigan watercolor of three figures: I had no idea who the work was by until she told me. Being very taken with the work, I began to ask all sorts of questions. I knew Hartigan's earlier Ab Ex works but not the more figurative works from the 70s and onwards. Shortly after seeing this work and being re-introduced to her life and work I learned that Hartigan died. Later, I wrote a short piece about her work for the Art Section, an online journal.

Tell me a few things about Hartigan's achievements in the 1950s, and about her friendships with other artists of note. 

Hartigan began her career showing with Tibor de Nagy and from the start sold works. MOMA purchased a work--The Persian Jacket-- from her third show. She was included in Dorothy Miller's famous exhibition 12 Americans and then was part of a major traveling exhibition--The New Americans-- organized by MOMA which toured in Europe. She was the only woman included among a group that included deKooning, Pollock and Kline.

Grace Hartigan and Frank O'Hara
Image: Syracuse University Library Collection

While living and working on the lower east side her she knew everyone: the Pollocks, the de Koonings, Franz Kline, Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers and Helen Frankenthaler were all part of her circle of friends and colleagues. Of course there was also the poet Frank O'Hara with whom she had a very close friendship.

Peggy Guggenheim with Grace Hartigan's Ireland, 1958
Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 106 3/4 inches, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection

As one of the few female Abstract Expressionists active in the 1950s, how was her work received by critics, institutions and the marketplace?

 Hartigan was a success. She sold all her work to the major collectors of the day, the architect Philip Johnson, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Peggy Guggenheim. As a result you will find her early paintings in collections such as the Albright-Knox, the Hirshhorn and the National Gallery. Because many of her early works are mostly in major museum collections across the country you don't see her works on the auction block for millions and millions.

Saint Valentine, 1961, oil on canvas, 84 x 80 inches

The exhibition you have organized features works from 1960 to 1965. Do all of the works from this era move blend abstraction and representation? 

Immediate answer is no: some of Hartigan's paintings of this period are pure abstractions such as Saint Valentine or Pomegranate; others like Grey Eyed Athena have a figurative element to them. It was typical of Hartigan to bring figurative elements into play within an abstract vocabulary and this is why the influential critic Clement Greenberg so opposed to her work. Hartigan was not aiming for a singular style but instead was exploring the options of what was available to her when it came to painting. This raises a question: why was it permissible, in Greenberg's thinking, for de Kooning or Pollock to make reference to the figure but not for Hartigan? Reistertown Mall seems a logical next step in an evolution of her works where by 1965 Hartigan was integrating figurative elements within the structure of abstract fields.

Reisterstown Mall, 1965, oil on canvas, 80 x 102 inches

Tell me about the role that dealer Beatrice Perry played in Hartigan's career. 

Beatrice Perry came into the picture in the 60s and there had both a working relationship and a friend ship. In the gallery archives I found many a long hand written letters by Grace to Beatrice one of which we will have on display in the show along with other memorabilia. Along with discussions about business, who is buying what and where works might be shown Hartigan expanded on her ideas about being a painter, her ambitions and her visions for her work. The gallery was short lived but the friendship endured. Perry supported Hartigan financially which is how this collection came to be. There are more works, some have been sold , but for the most part what was collected then is still together.

\What do you think were Hartigan's strengths, as an artist and as a person? 

I think the thing about Hartigan that I admired the most is her purposefulness in her work. No matter the economic realities or the ebb and flow of the art world she had a plan for her work and she stuck to it. Her journals are very useful when it comes to learning about her thoughts and ideas as well as the day to day struggles to make ends meet while trying to paint and build a career in New York in the 50s. Unfortunately I never met her but from what I have heard about her she spoke her mind, was fiercely independent and single minded in her efforts to keep painting. Her niece Donna Sesee is alive and has told me about her aunt and has collected many letters documents and momento s that Grace shared with her family.

Grey Eyed Athena, 1961, Oil on canvas 64 x 49 inches

Do you have a favorite Hartigan painting? My favorite in the Miami show is Grey Eyed Athena. Outside the show I would choose the Whitney Museum's Sweden.

Is there anything else that needs to be said about Grace Hartigan? 

Yes I think its time for curators and historian to rethink and retool the canon. The end of WWII which in most cases the the fulcrum around which the case is made for the direction of American art needs to be reexamined now that we are well into the 21st century. Where does Hartigan fit? Where do other women fit? Why are so many artists left out of these histories and how do you get them into the history books, into museum exhibitions and widen the terrain to be more inclusive of not only artists but different aspects of art making that overlap with the times. What might a painter, a photographer and a ceramicist have in common in say 1960? In my research as curator for the Microsoft collection and also as an independent curator I am eager to see under recognized artists like Grace be brought forward and also Hedda Sterne, Claire Falkenstein and Robert Mallary.

Grace Hartigan 1960-1965, the Perry Collection
Curated by Michael Klein
December 1-6
X Contemporary Art Fair
The Wynwood, Miami
227-247 NW 24th St. Miami, FL 33127

Patricia Watwood: 'New Narratives' at Dacia Gallery, New York

Patricia Watwood's current show at Dacia Gallery--"New Narratives"--features two large multi-figure narrative paintings that have been developed over a period of two years. One of them, titled "Orpheus Playing for Persephone and Eurydice in the Underworld" tells the story of going to the ends of the earth for someone you love, arguing that music, art and human relationships are the things worth living for. The second painting, "The Sixth Extinction," highlights the vulnerability and crisis of our earth in the age of anxiety and climate change. The painting's female characters are allegorical figures--Gaia, the primordial earth goddess, a caryatid and a naiad--all drawn from the history of art and cast to symbolize humanity's precarious position.

Patricia Watwood

John Seed Interviews Patricia Watwood Patricia, you have studied at the New York Academy and at two ateliers. When and how did you decide that you wanted to become a classically trained artist? 

My interest in painting and becoming an artist specifically grew out of my exposure to classical and perceptually based art training. I had been working in theatre design, and began to draw and paint simply to develop my graphic skills. When I got into my first class that taught academic techniques, it exposed me to a whole world that I was previously unaware of. The training in observational and naturalistic drawing was the hook that completely drew me in. After doing a workshop with Anthony Ryder, I decided I wanted to get a classical training in an atelier. Other forms of painting and visual art had not been of interest prior to that introduction to contemporary figurative art.

Orpheus Playing for Persephone and Eurydice in the Underworld, 2013-2015
oil on canvas, 72 x 108 inches

What is Contemporary Classicism? 

I have been in the habit of using "classical" in describing my work and training because I think that it conveys to the general public the same categorical idea as "classical music." If you tell someone you are a classical pianist at a cocktail party, they will have a quick general idea of your amount of training and kind of education. This is essentially the same in painting, though I appreciate that it's not as widely understood. I do also have a disposition toward classical design, as in considerations of composition, balance and subject matter. "Contemporary" is loaded in it's usage in art, but my use of it is simply to point toward the idea that I want my paintings to be understood as part of a current context and experience and not just a pastiche or nostalgia for other eras of painting.

Femen Flora, 2014, oil on linen, 28 x 26 inches

You have a particular interest in allegory. How did that come about? 

I've always loved any art form or intellectual investigation into archetypes and myths. Writers like Joseph Campbell, Daniel Boorstin, and Kenneth Clark were early influences in thinking about universal narratives and the persistence of myth and story telling. My background in theatre exposed me to Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Shakespeare and thinking about the universal truths in classic dramas. I'm also interested religion and sacred texts. All of these have in common their exploration of deep human emotion, and the desire to communicate our shared human experience through art.

I've always been most drawn to figurative art, and I think it's because of it's unique ability to convey spirit and shared emotion, and narratives over time. When I use an allegorical or mythical figure, I'm relying upon the cultural base of knowledge about general archetypes (like Venus, or Flora). Now that we have the internet in our pockets, it's easy to look up a character or reference, and that vehicle gives me a way to communicate my take on an a universal theme. I'm inviting viewers to slow down and look at the paintings and investigate the threads of meaning that I weave into the work.

The Sixth Extinction, 2015, oil on linen, 67 1⁄2 x 51 1⁄2" inches

Can you talk me through one of your recent allegorical paintings? 

The painting that I most recently finished for my show at Dacia Gallery is called "The Sixth Extinction." The title is taken from a current scientific concept (and the book of the same name published in 2015) that is showing with a great deal of data that we are already underway in what is the sixth major mass extinction of species in the history of the earth: one other famous extinction caused the extinction of the large dinosaurs. The question for all of us is: Will we transform our society and way of living on the earth quickly enough to avoid a mass extinction that threatens human life? Climate change has already created large visible impacts for us in super storms, droughts and floods. This issue is the great challenge of our time, and I've been increasingly focused on it in my subjects.

In my painting, "The Sixth Extinction," the central figure is Gaia-- the personification of the Earth, and great mother of all. The two other figures are a caryatid-- an female figure symbolically bearing the weight of civilization, and a naiad- which is an allegory for water. The figures altogether represent earth and humanity's collective vulnerability. Also in the painting are some extinct and endangered snakes and frogs, a bird and a dog--representing how we are interconnected with our fellow species.

The Sixth Extinction (Detail)

Gaia is painted with a prosthetic robotic leg. On one hand, this is showing how we are not so perfectly ideal, but fragile and resilient. It's also a metaphor for how science and technology (like the amazing development in prosthetics) can be empowering and liberating. However, our proper relationship to science and technology will be the key to our continued success. I also added other symbols, like the multiple hands of Gaia that are reminiscent of the Hindu goddess Shakti: divine female creative energy and agent of change.

Pink Sybil, 2015, oil on linen, 20 x 14 inches

What are the major themes of your show at Dacia Gallery? 

There's a new concept in ecology called "The Great Turning." It's an idea that our whole society is a the beginning of a paradigm shift away from late model capitalism to a sustainable culture that can live in balance with the planet. I'm very inspired by this concept, and want in my own way to contribute to it through art. With this show, I wanted to create a body of work that expresses both my feeling of vulnerability to our current world of change, and also points toward the human potential for hope and transformation.

In my drawings for the show, the women figures and the pictorial settings are all exploring our relationship to the world around us, and the figures are either bearing the burden, or becoming agents of change. The large narrative work "Orpheus Playing for Persephone and Euridice in the Underworld" has a imaginative landscape that is very similar in concept to "Sixth Extinction," but sunk in twilight. The theme of "Orpheus" is the power of beauty and emotion to be transformative, and is the story of going to the ends of the earth for the things you love in the world.

Fallen Caryatid I (snake), 2015
pencil, pastel, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 22 x 15 inches

You say that "Tradition has nothing to do with the past." Can you apply that to one of your recent works? 

When I think of "tradition" in my field, I mean the total body of knowledge of painting lore and visual communication that is the lineage of figurative art. Figurative art is a living form, and even in the 20th century, had an unbroken pedagogy from masters to students that can be traced back to the Renaissance. Painting lore is not just technical knowledge but the vast body of understanding about the language and expression of visual art. Honoring the base of intellectual accomplishment of the ones who came before us, and continuing that body of knowledge is an important part of any successful society-- be it art, literature, science or medicine.

 So, in "The Sixth Extinction," I'm using the traditional language allegory and characters you'll find in your art history book. However, the concept of "The Sixth Exctinction" is specifically a current societal concern. I'm using the traditional language of figurative art to make art that I hope points us toward the future.

Study for The Sixth Extinction, 2015
Sanguine, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 44 x 30 inches

What are your interests outside of painting? 

I have a family--I'm married, have two daughters, and a sprawling extended family-- so that's the greatest part of my life outside painting. I also love music, theatre and dance, and try to see performances regularly. I sing in a church choir, which is a joyful way for me to engage with making music and jump into emotional expression. The choir is great food for my soul, when I can engage in an art form that is not my "day job" but truly an "amateur". I'm an active member of my church community. I also love gardening and finding other ways to spend time outside-- camping, hiking, swimming, and maybe even some plein air painting!

View online catalog

Patricia Watwood: New Narratives
Dacia Gallery
53 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002
Nov 18- Dec 12, 2015