I admire the illustrations of Gerard DuBois: quick witted, inventive, lively but unmannered execution. If the blackboard piece is reminiscent of Rene Magritte, it’s in a friendly, in-joke sort of way.

More at gdubois.com.

DuBois [his website][New York Times 10/2/15]

New York Times

[illustrations lifted from The New York Times]



Years ago this engaging little “portrait of a miniaturist” in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco was attributed to Fragonard. Then it was demoted to “unknown.”


“Unknown” is rather a comedown from “Fragonard”, but the piece is just what it was before: briskly and confidently painted (how decisive the hair is–and check out the nose, the right sleeve). Except for the face, each color is modeled in just three tones–dark, medium, and light. The overall hit is cheerful and admiring. Fragonard or not, it’s just delightful.



When I’m at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco I always stop to admire Goya’s portrait of Don Ramon de Posada & Soto (1801). It’s painted in thin, flat washes, here and there showing hints of the red ground–a very spare rendition. But when you come to the medal on his chest, the handling is very free and bouncy. And the bottom of his vest–so freely done that it looks as if the artist used that area to clean his brushes.

P1010355 P1010358 P1010359























The recent San Francisco show of the great Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the first time I had seen so many of his works together. I expected them to be fine, and many of them were; what surprised me was the soft and not always satisfactory dividing line between his reality-based semi abstractions on the one hand, and his semi-abstract narrative pieces on the other.


This watercolor (sorry–I didn’t note the title) is describing something, but it almost doesn’t matter what. It functions on an almost purely abstract level.

One level more descriptive is this ship in a storm. The description of the ship is minimal, but it works in a very satisfying way because it’s of a piece with the romantic exuberance of the sea.

"Snow Storm--Steam Boat Off a Harbors Mouth" 1842 [tate ]

“Snow Storm–Steam Boat Off a Harbor’s Mouth” 1842         [tate.org.uk ]

 But things get awkward with the Disembarkation below. Sky and central water are freely and lusciously painted; the trouble is with the crowds in the lower corners. They are obviously crowds, but unsettlingly vague and misty. The sky, painterly though it is, reads perfectly well as sky; if the people were treated with the same degree of literalism they would be much more firmer and more in focus. It’s as if Turner wanted to prove that he could include people without resembling the devices of his more prosaic colleagues. Instead he comes across as rather namby-pamby.

"The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe" 1844 [tate.org.uk]

“The Disembarkation of Louis-Philippe” 1844 [tate.org.uk]

Then “Norham Castle,” which reads as a serene semi-abstraction until we come to that cow in the foreground. It’s a necessary firm bit to establish perspective and anchor the lower third of the composition, but it’s the most firmly drawn passage. We might not know without being told that the castle is a castle and not just a hill, but the cow is definitely a cow. It seems like a detail imported from another painting, never quite reconciled with its new home. Perhaps Turner was overcompensating for the wiffly figures in the Disembarkation.

"Norham Castle, Sunrise" 1845

“Norham Castle, Sunrise” 1845

When I think of Eugene Boudin (1824-98) it’s usually in connection with his lively and elegant scenes of vacationers on the coast.

Boudin-Beach at Trouville '64-5 [?]

These pieces are remarkable for their inventive groupings of costumes and furniture running tightly along the band of the sea, pressed between a glorious sky and a vacant foreground, with near and far artfully stitched together by those crafty flagpoles.

But Boudin is also remarkable for his striking, near-abstract studies, like this nocturne of a harbor

Boudin "moon" c.1875 [W'pedia]

Boudin “moon” c.1875 [W’pedia]

Monet "Impression, sunrise" 1872   [W'ped]

Monet “Impression, sunrise” 1872 [W’ped]


Indeed, the Boudin stands up very well to Claude Monet’s earlier take on a very similar subject.

Monet gets the fame, because his title, “Impression, sunrise” was what gave the Impressionists their name.

But for daring near-abstraction it’s hard to beat Boudin.




Boudin "study of sky" c.1888    [W'ped}

Boudin “study of sky” c.1888 [W’ped}







I first came across this delightful little piece, attributed to “the circle of Sebastian Stoskopff” (1597–1657), on the web, quite by accident. It’s become a favorite.



 Okay, the cat is cute, but it’s observed in a very even-handed manner along with the fish, the hay, the lantern, and everything else. What we have is a collection of objects of which the cat is one, rather than an adorable anecdote in which the cat is the star. Everything is presented with a rather flat, obvious touch rather than the overcharged, highlight-glinting style so common in genre pieces of fish and attendant animals. The different objects are on a visual par with each other. Even the book, egg, and onion, which appear to be falling off the table, are so undramatic that the eye reads them as needful and enlivening detail rather than incident.

In traditional visual art it’s the artist’s attitude and manner of attack (style) that distinguishes one piece from another. For better or worse, the object is self-explanatory.

Chuck Close "Fanny: Fingerpainting"

Chuck Close “Fanny: Fingerpainting”

Frank Auerbach "Face"

Frank Auerbach “Face”

Lucian Freud "The Painter's Mother"

Lucian Freud “The Painter’s Mother”

In conceptual art, the point is not the object–the vision, the insight–but the concept itself: Here is something you haven’t seen before, that only I do. And that, absurdly, seems to be the only requirement. Originality, rather than insight, is the aim. Which is putting the process of art backwards: look first, and experiment; if that process leads you someplace different, then your work is, by definition, original.

I suppose I should disclose at this point that I’m not generally enthusiastic about this stuff.


#1 #2

Sometimes, while pretty silly and definitely lo-cal, concepts seem to fall into the category of amiable jokes. Smile–you’re not expected to agonize.


Sometimes concept pieces are not jokes. This Ai Weiwei is 38 tons of rebar salvaged from earthquake debris and then straightened. A sort of “memento mori.” I’ve only seen this in photos; in the flesh it might be pretty strong.

Ai Weiwei _Straight_ [salon.com]













Sometimes, as below, concepts are merely pretentious. ‘Strontium’ is one image repeated 130 times, as if a ho-hum thought becomes profound if it is bellowed. According to the label, ” ‘Strontium’ continues the artist’s lifelong interest in the aesthetics of astonishment. . .” On some level I have to admit that it succeeds.

Gerhard Richter "Strontium"

Gerhard Richter “Strontium”

nyt 7_13_15 Danh Vo and Bert Kreuk's Battle

Here, cliche combines with rip-off as concept. Marcel Duchamp did “In Advance of a Broken Arm” in 1915. It was a novel and provocative idea then, but 1915 happened a hundred years ago.

Jeff Koons "Banality Series [es.com]

Jeff Koons “Banality Series [es.com]

Sometimes the concept is simply a variation on “the aesthetics of astonishment”: you wouldn’t have believed that anyone would make (or in Koons’ case, cause to be made) anything so inexpressibly icky. Or, as in the case below, so childishly, multitudinously repellent. Or dumb. But dare you expose yourself as a philistine by disparaging it? Many a glittering temple of art rises on the foundation of that simple bluff.


Maurizio Cattelan "Untitled" [artsehearts.com]

Maurizio Cattelan “Untitled” [artsehearts.com]

 But novel as all these pieces struggle to be, they are copies: copies of the concept of concept. They’re all alike in that they fall into the category of  the “look at me” bluster you’ve seen before and before and before, and doubtless will see again and again and again.

P.S. After posting this I encountered the following passage, a statement of purpose from 1967, by Ronald Guy Davis, the director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe: “The greatest error of the hippie movement is its amateurism, its innocence, and its ignorance. The result I presume of allowing everyone a creative soul. A good assumption under a strict artistic rule–but a bad one where all rules are discarded and all discipline, art, creation or tension are thrust away. The hippie generation with its acceptance of all with no values, no judgments, is impossible, nay stupid. To attempt to make no judgments is to deface oneself into a mere potato–just as the style of culture called entertainment does. The object is to produce mashed potatoes for mashed potato heads. All soft, thickly packed, soft, gooey and heavy. Where there are no standards or comparisons or judgments we achieve no style, we receive trash called art, superficiality called inspiration.”

from “They Marched Into Sunlight” by David Maraniss (2003)


For an earlier post on this subject, see “Nothing: It’s a Concept” in the archive, April 27, 2013.

I love the caps and lids I see along the sidewalk in my neighborhood. Nothing stays as it was when it was new; things wear and crack and sometimes almost disappear in all the wearing and cracking around them.












Notice the little brass loops:



Seams and cracks:




Robert Frank, who has the keen eye for the significant and often storytelling moment, has taken many arresting photos. Here the fascination is in the disconnectedness of all the bits of information–the naked child, the flag, the headline–the absence of any coherent narrative–the complexity of a moment in the world.


Robert Frank


photo: pinterest.com


One remarkable aspect of the work of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is his astonishing range—soDr. Pozzi at Home 1881 great that you have to wonder where the essential Sargent is to be found. His portrait of Dr. Pozzi isn’t the most vulgar portrait in American art (that would be William Merrit Chase’s “Miss Dora Wheeler”) but it’s in contention.

"Miss Dora Wheeler"  Cleveland Museum of Art

“Miss Dora Wheeler” Cleveland Museum of Art

Gardner 1888 Monet painting 1885 Siesta 1904

























And this from the artist who would paint the engaging “Isabella Stewart Gardner” (1888).






To say nothing of the brisk and decisive “Monet Painting” (1885), or “Siesta”, albeit twenty years later, in 1904.
































This post was stimulated by the New York Times review of “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: nytimes.com/2015/07/03/arts/design/review-sargents-intimate-portraits-of-friends-at-the-metropolitan-museum.html?_r=0