This blog is resting until the new year. 

Fuseli "The Nightmare" 1781

Fuseli “The Nightmare” 1781


Dylann Roof, convicted last Thursday in the murder of nine black parishioners who welcomed him to a prayer service at a Charleston, S.C., church in June, 2015, “. . . confessed—calmly, clinically, occasionally chortling—to killing nine people who he acknowledged could not have been more innocent.” (New York Times, 12/10/16)    



This blog is about art, and art is the selection of information for an expressive purpose. Roof’s selfie, below, is a font of information both about what he wanted to express, and also about what was going on in his head.

He wanted menace, clearly. Fearsome Dylann, like the ISIS fighters here: Scary weapons. Pitiless expressions. Conquest. Massacres. Beheadings.

By its formal ineptitude, however, his selfie conveys something very different than he intended. Attitude rather than resolution, but above all, muddle.

The center of his intended message is his face, and then the hand holding the pistol. But the face is almost lost in the clutter of puffy hair and sunglasses. The sunglasses might have conveyed an intimidating distance if he’d kept his head up, but he also wanted to fix us with his menacing scowl. Couldn’t choose. 

0 for 1.

The pistol is smooth and dangerous, his finger on the trigger. But his pale, bare legs and knobby knees–the biggest, brightest shapes in the pic–overwhelm his hand, while the pistol itself almost disappears into the shadows behind it and the tray of happy little flowers in front. 

0 for 2.

Then there is the Confederate flag on its little white dowel–too big to be simply a symbol, too small to be impressive–dangled off at an odd, half-lit angle, and muddled by those bright, shiny pots behind.

And those pots to his right and left–after his legs, the brightest and most coherent objects in the scene–were they there, and he just didn’t notice them, or did he pose them as visual buttresses? More distraction, either way. 

And that lovely suburban grass. Not the bracing environs that characterize your typical fearsome warrior.

So, while utterly inept, it is, ironically, the truthful image of a wacko. A murderous wacko.






It’s hard to believe that the same artist, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), painted two such different pieces.

Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway — 1851     40 x 60″

“Mount Washington” is a conventional “view” organized on a series of obliques (diagonals receding into space) beginning simultaneously at the lower right and left, shooting to the middle right, then swooping gently back and forth into the far distance. Clumps of trees on each side frame the scene and stitch the foreground to the far distance.

And then “Eaton’s Neck,” painted the summer before he died. It’s minimal but not simple. The big shapes of sea and sky are delicately but decisively modulated, the shapes of beach and spit active and inventive. The far promontory and white sails (look carefully) catch the eye in the huge, simple shapes that surround them. “Mount Washington” is busy busy busy, meandering among its rocks and trees and sheep and houses and squishy shapes in wavery light, but “Eaton’s Neck” is all tautness. It fixes the eye in one place, one moment. You can almost hear the silence.

Eaton’s Neck — 1872   18 x 36″


This post is a reprise of April 28, 2012.


The striking thing about the cartoons of Peter Arno (1904-1968) is their combination of bold formal decision with emotional complexity. His situations are vivid, his characters varied, closely observed, and full of attitude. His pieces are so dramatic because his characters have a pressing stake in the action he depicts.

“Cabaret” is a prime example. The women are your basic gorgeous sex objects, but the gent on the left is not your basic roué. He’s entranced, but observes, as it were, from a great, sad distance. He’s no longer in the game. The other members of the audience watch more tepidly. No one competes with the gent; his eyebrow is where the action is.

Formally, what is striking is that despite its richness, this piece uses only black and white and two grays. Features and outlines and a few major shapes are done in black; a middle gray is added loosely but tellingly for shadows; a darker gray folds the audience back into the far wall. 

Arno’s freedom of execution is both glorious and adroit dramatically. The gent’s round table is much too high and not level, but by truncating his torso it presses the eye up toward his face. Details–the glasses on the table, the background faces, the hair and necklace of the foreground woman–are descriptive as narrative elements, but never catchy enough to distract from the main action. Even the framing rectangle is rendered in the same lively manner as the figure outlines, with little irregularities and spillovers here and there.

A strong and wonderfully sophisticated work of art.







(I can’t recollect the source or find a date for this piece.)