Archive for June, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)


This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.”  Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art.   There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form.  Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices.  By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.”    He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art.  The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers.  The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune.  Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics.  The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style.  Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists.  But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm.  A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one.  At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta.   Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife.  He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades.  One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or go all multicultural and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf.  During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located.  Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans.  To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone.  To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come.  Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law.  Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled.  Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings.  The police control the streets.  No unauthorized signage is allowed.  The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners.  For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame.  Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits.  The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names.  He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris.  Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces.  Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across.  All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity.  The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion.  But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape.  He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts.  As Mr. Brainwash, he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera.  Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines.  The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.”  In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be.   If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is.  The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive.  Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire.  Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters.  But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.”  The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.”  The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts.  The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art?  Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true.  He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone.  How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary?  All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis.  Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial.  It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening.  As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art.  What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes?  Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.”  An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other.  To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter.  Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else.  But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists.  They knew what they were doing and why.  But that was decades ago.  Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child.  He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others.   All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London.  He learned from Basquiat.  A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example.  You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans.  It will fall, making no sound.  Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility.  The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster.  Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight.  And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie.  His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene.  By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible.  But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed.  The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap.  There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Haring, who used white chalk on black paper.  The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants.  We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces.  Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components.  Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper.  All of this costs money.  Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist?  From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is.  He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place.  Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years.  But that does not answer the real question: is he making art?  The short answer is No.  The long answer is No Way.  Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art.  This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism.  I am not condemning the man.  I am simply describing how he works.  Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.”  But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra.  What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication?  Thierry Guetta.  Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion.  By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists.  If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits.  Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not.  Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world.  He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery.  Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition.  Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time.  They would give their art; the authorities would take it away.  Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act.  Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor.  The art could be seen but not for long.  It could not be owned nor possessed.  The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach.  The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop.  But it is Desire that creates art.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Doctor Who and Vincent van Gogh



When the forces of popular culture meets the immovable object that is art history, the latter always loses and accuracy is often a causality.  Those of us in the art history community, especially the classicists among us, have not forgotten the whitewashing of what was an actually a very colorful ancient Rome in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  Leaving aside the over-dramatized and over-romanticized movies, such as Lust for Life, some quite good films have been made about artists.  Surviving Picasso was marginal, Pollock was better, and Basquiat was quite good…give and take some dramatic license.  I am more comfortable with creating a story arc—-the rise and fall of the tragic artist—-as phony as it is, than with unnecessary historical inaccuracies.  Such was the case this weekend (in L. A.) on Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor.”

Touring Paris, Doctor Who and Amy Pond visited the Musée d’Orsay, home of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, once rejected and now revered by the French.  The guest star of the week was the wonderful Bill Nighy, playing a stuffy art lecturer to the English-speaking art audience.  I was hoping he would have been given a larger role, but that was not to be.  Examining one of van Gogh’s paintings, the Doctor and Amy spotted a monster in the window of  The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise (1890), one of his last paintings.  A monster in the window of a church, a church that Vincent painted as a writhing distorted contorted expression of the mystery that is Gothic—great concept, yes?  So where did the Doctor and Amy go to find the artist before he painted the church in Auvers?  Arles.

The couple found van Gogh (Tony Curren) in Arles at the  famous café, a place he painted twice, always at night: Pavement: The Café at Night and the more famous, The Night Café.  The artist is engaged in an argument over the money he owed the café, a chronic problem for the artist who lived on an allowance from his brother, Théo van Gogh, a well-known art dealer.  The physical resemblance between the actor and the artist was quite well done but the choice of accent was not the best.  Granted it would have been difficult to replicate van Gogh’s accent—-he spoke English with a Dutch accent and French with a Dutch accent—-but does he have to have a slight Cockney accent, the signifier of the lower class? That said, the actor did a very nice job with van Gogh, who, at this period in his life, was in one his quite times.  The crazy frantic bursts of emotion and the self-mutilation would come later in December.  If the accent is a bit off, the chronology of the paintings was seriously out of whack.

These paintings of the café were done before the artist had his breakdown and sliced his ear, placing the entry of the Doctor and Amy in the month of September 1888, just before the artist Paul Gauguin arrived in October.  When the Doctor and Amy go the “The Yellow House,” they find the house full of Vincent’s paintings.   However, there are many paintings that were done later or earlier or in Saint-Remy and in Auvers.  For example, the painting of Vincent’s bedroom (the interior of which was nicely produced for the show) was already hanging on the wall but it wasn’t done until October.  The Irises, now at the Getty and The Starry Night were both done while Vincent was recovering at the asylum.  La Berceuse, also in the house, wasn’t painted until January of 1889, after he had returned briefly to Arles.  No one in Arles threw stones at Vincent until that winter, when he was minus one ear and was fresh from his stay in the asylum.   And Doctor Who would have it that the artist did not paint sunflowers until he met Amy.  Sunflowers are a summer flower and van Gogh had already begun his many paintings of the bright yellow blossoms.

These mistakes with the art are easily avoidable.  There are thousands of books on van Gogh that can be referenced.  One can only assume that the set directors, prop masters, and the fact checkers decided that the audience needed to see all of the famous paintings in one room for the neglected genius of van Gogh to be fully signified.  The plot itself, about an invisible lost monster, which had been abandoned by its own kind on Earth and was flailing about, desperate and blind, was not too bad.  The trick was that Vincent could see and hear the monster and no one else could and he became, by default, a fighter of monsters.  The monster met its doom, poked to death by an easel.  Very nice.   It is always fun on Doctor Who to travel through time and watch him have adventures with famous people.  The conceit of the artist as being a visionary whose vision surpassed that of those all around him, including the Doctor, was a clever one.  One would like to think that the monster was a manifestation of Vincent’s depression and despair.   Of course the monster was real and of course it was vanquished; it was only a McGuffin.  The real story was the affection the time travelers had for the doomed artist who was in despair that no one appreciated his work.

The ending was quite lovely, because the Doctor and Amy took Vincent forward in time to the Musée d’Orsay and showed him a room full of his paintings.  The “room,” or the gallery, was not real, of course, as there were works that belonged to other museums on the wall, such as the Irises, dislocated from the Getty here in Los Angeles.  But never mind.  The fun was to see the artist moved to tears at the sight of his art in a museum. I felt that the writers missed an opportunity for Vincent to see paintings he had not yet done—-like the Starry Night and Crows in the Wheatfields and feel hope for his future as an artist.  Bill Nighy turned up again, still in the museum, but it would have been nice if he had been taken along for the ride back in time to Arles.  When the Doctor asked him what he thought of van Gogh, Nighy proclaimed Vincent van Gogh a great artist in what was actually a very nice little speech.  Van Gogh embraced the startled lecturer, who, of course, would never know that he had met his idol.  A sort of “what if God was one of us?” moment.  Answer—-we wouldn’t recognize her.

However, to conclude my concerns as an art historian: the conflation of Arles with Auvers was strange and unnecessary.  Nighy had been very precise with the Doctor: the painting of the church was done in early June of 1890, not long before the artist died.  But the TARDIS went to Arles in September of 1888.  But here’s an idea.  Surely the monster could have been relocated to a painting Vincent had done in Arles, maybe hiding out in The Night Café, a place the artist himself explained as horrifying:

I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin one’s self, run mad or commit a crime.  So I have tried to express as it were the powers of darkness in a low drink shop…and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace of pale sulphur….

Calling Richard Curtis, the writer of Doctor Who, you should come to me the next time you try using an artist in one of your plots. If  I were a monster, I would hide out in The Night Café.


The jury is still out on the New Doctor.  I like Amy Pond (Pond, Amy Pond) but her relationship with the Doctor is yet to be fully resolved.  Rose and the Doctor were in love, Martha was in love with the Doctor but he couldn’t love her back, the Doctor and Donna were the Odd Couple, friends who made each other better people, but Amy and the Doctor…..?   Still in mourning for Rory, she doesn’t seem to be as dazzled as his previous partners and treats him with disclaimers.  Part of the problem is one of imbalance.  Amy, I think, is fully realized character, completely inhabited by Karen Gillan, but I am still waiting for Matt Smith to find his inner Doctor.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

I am Love (2010)


I am Love could just as well be titled “I am Heavy-Breathing Melodrama” or “I am an Italian Soap Opera.”  Here we have the rich behaving badly and stupidly, throwing away position and trampling on privilege in the headlong pursuit of passion and losing everything in the process.  The story is Phaedre (1962) plus Damage (1992) in which the final moral is that old people should leave young people alone.  As a Greek myth, Phaedra was played like a tragedy, brought on by the fatal flaws of humans who could not control themselves—a favorite Greek theme.  Damage reversed the gender of the older lover but made the young woman into an adventurer with a predatory streak.   I am Love also begins with a predatory young male lover who destroys a family that is sunk in complacency and is ripe for destruction.

The setting is Milan and the family business of the Recchi family is textiles.  The family is wealthy and close-knit, impenetrable to outsiders. However, the son, Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) and heir brought an outsider into the family, his Russian wife, renamed “Emma.” (Tilda Swinton)  Emma has done her Catholic familial duty, giving up her identity, becoming Italian, producing two sons and one daughter and enduring the passive aggressive slights of her mother in law, an almost unrecognizable Marisa Berenson, transformed by plastic surgery.  “Emma” and “Edoardo” are at that married-but-estranged state, common after three decades of familiarity.   And there are other signs that all is not well among the males, who are jousting for position as the head of the family is coming to the end of his long reign.   At a Christmas dinner, his grandson, Edoardo, Jr. brings home a somewhat unsuitable young woman and the bad news that he has lost a contest to, of all people, a chef—a working class man.  Obviously, the grandson and heir is not worthy of all that should be coming to him.

Enter the snake into this suave Garden of Eden.  The “chef,” “Antonio,” courts the son, bringing a cake as a consolation prize to “Edoardo” and spies an even bigger prize, his mother, “Emma.”  “Emma” is beautiful, polished and bottled up, and so, like “Lady Chatterley” meeting the “gamekeeper,” she picks up on the young man’s interest.  All coiled up and hissing inside a box, the cake is the signifier of temptation, but it takes a while to get to the apple biting. The plot unfolds with glacial slowness, the frozen sexuality of “Emma” telegraphed to us by the thin layer of winter snow.  The patriarch of the family dies and leaves the business to his son and immature grandson.  The grandson, Edoardo, Jr. needs to prove himself and the chef sees his chance and draws the young man into financing and sponsoring his new restaurant.  “Antonio” is talented but needs useless rich people to back him, just as “Emma” needed “Edoardo, Sr.” to take her out of Russia.  Both should know better than to upset the social balance: they are dependent upon the rich, but they pursue each other.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been a favorite story ever since D. H. Lawrence wrote the scandalous novel of class differences and steaming sex scenes, which was banned in America and made into a half dozen films.  While Lady Chatterley is excused by her husband’s physical ailments, there is no excuse for “Emma’s” behavior.  The signifier of corruption is an art book “Emma” steals in an absent minded moment of passion.  “Antonio” finds her in the bookstore and takes her away in his pickup truck to the site of his future restaurant.  As an art historian, stealing an art book bothered me, but never mind, for the two lovers were off in the Springtime of their Love to the sunny top of the chef’s mountain lair. By this time (Spring, Summer, sometime warm), the colors are more intense and, if the audience hasn’t caught onto “Emma’s” sexual awakening, her orange pants provide a vital clue.  On this verdant site where  “Emma’s” son will invest in a restaurant, the doomed couple frolic in the grass, which springs to erect attention in a field full of blooming flowers penetrated by bees who will also like the ripe swollen raspberries jostling nearby.  There are lots of ants who crawl around the fuzzy close ups of writhing bodies and the equally overripe music of John Adams.  Adams, we are told is a contemporary of Philip Glass, a designation that obscures the fact that Adams composes music that “sounds like Philip Glass,” to quote a famous phrase.  The viewer is dragged through a linear progress of grass waving and flower shaking and violin scrapings, which warn, all the while, that the wages of sin are death.  But whose?

The elaborate plot meanders to include a pregnancy for “Edouard Jr.’s” girlfriend, “Eva,” who knows how to tie her man down, while the daughter, “Betta,” (Alba Rohrwacher) deviates off the marriage path, cuts her hair, dons masculine attire and acquires a female lover.  Hair cutting becomes a symbol of the freeing of female sexuality.  “Antonio cuts “Emma’s” long blond hair” perhaps because he did not like her prim Kim Novak chignon. The family politely ignores such developments—the suspicious short hair, the pregnancy, because they do not upset the order of things, and the lesbian in the family lives in London.   However, two events occur which do upset young Edoardo. First, his father sells the business he was supposed to one day inherit, depriving him of his future; and second, “Emma,” who was instructed to give the chef, “Antonio” the menu for a family dinner, provides him with the recipe for a beloved childhood soup.  The occasion is a celebration of the sale of the business to a global enterprise, so the poor young man is already upset. As soon as the soup is served, Edoardo immediately leaps to the conclusion that his mother has been having an affair with the chef.  The clue: Edoardo, who apparently had the eyes of an eagle, spotted a few strands of his mother’s cut hair at the site of the future restaurant.  Hair+recipe=affair.

The young man storms out of the dinner party—very unprofessional and immature—and retreats to the family swimming pool for a good sulk.  Unwisely his mother follows, they quarrel and he trips over something or other and hits his head on the concrete and falls into the pool and dies unnecessarily. The young man is dead because of his mother’s bad behavior (but no one knows that…yet). The chef summarily disappears from the stage.  The family mourns its dead. The father, Edoardo, Sr. attempts to restore family order, implicitly signaling his willingness to overlook her possible transgressions, but “Emma” announces she “loves Antonio.”  Of course she is immediately ordered out of existence; the family, including her other two children, close ranks against her; and she runs off, surrounded by over-dramatic music.   End of movie.

The stunned and bewildered audience has to supply its own resolution.   “Antonio,” of course, has lost his restaurant, and goes off to find another mark.  Edoardo, Sr. remarries someone one-third his age and tried again to produce a satisfactory son.  We can imagine “Emma,” if we chose, getting a large divorce settlement from her husband and living happily ever after on her well-deserved alimony.  And we warn her to stay away from opportunistic young men…or to please remember that the operative word in “boy toy” is “toy.”

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Michael West: The Artist was a Woman



Newport Beach

June 5 – September 25, 2010

The Fifties.  According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist.  For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times.  The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead.  The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.”  Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist.  Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era.  Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants.  Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation.  Females could create only through motherhood.  Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three.  Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons.  This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism.  Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.

Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School.   Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague.  As a result, her art remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976.  She bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991.  The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler.  Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg.  Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative.  Finally, in the Twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.

It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world.  Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work.  West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art.  Her original name was “Corrine” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor.  Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light.  Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter.  As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of  her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over.  An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.

A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, but she chose to become a painter.  Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression, much less go to New York. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York.  In 1932, West was joined by artist, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson, and future gallery owner, Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition.  Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students.  Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later.  Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism.  Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter.  The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.

Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists.  Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism.  Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other.  Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock.  Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint.  The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students.  When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality.   Offended,  Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”

Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock.  Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women.  In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work.  What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky.  Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist.  In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”

This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career.  Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky.  Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.

Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard.  A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time.  The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent.  What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history.  Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York and the rest found themselves in Los Angeles.  The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York, sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery, Art of This Century.  For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky.  Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example.  West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life.  Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day.  How could Cubism become abstract?  Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted.  It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter.  In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead.  The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.

The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948.  The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties.  Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s.  What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect.  With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes.  Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas.  The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism.  But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.

Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight.  In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties.  By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty.  There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art.  American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art.  Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom.  However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.

Politics was removed from art.  This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda.  It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art.  In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art.  Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism.  American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department.  Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.”  An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism.   For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’  Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,

….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time.  Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area.  Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.

Not every observer was so sanguine.  By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee.  It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York.  This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war.  In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:

Rebel March 1948

Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing —
Money — genius —
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying —
Dismantled — disarmed —
the artist in society —suffocates —

During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing.  The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission.  This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology.  Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.

After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground.  Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction.  De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952.  West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy.  The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West.  The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era.  The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties.  What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions.  West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens.  Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time.  A Coke bottle green.   This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962.  As West wrote,

The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)

The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953.  In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell.  West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg.   Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists.  The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women.  By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce…

Rosenberg continued,

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.

So by the time of The Stable Gallery show, it was already too late for women.  Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history.  The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized.  Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters.  Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events.  The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.”  The independent  male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.

Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic.  Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.”   In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts.  Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles.  As “wives” and “mothers,”  they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent.   This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.

It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School.  By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years.  Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada.  She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.

In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock.  He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art.  Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism.  Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks.  Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.

West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale.  She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface.  The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms.  The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials.  Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out.  In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.

The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style.  Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body.   As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life.  The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear.  At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.

West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through.  The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage.  Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom.  Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on.  Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.

Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact.  Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.

The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books?  The answer, as was indicated, is two fold.  First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops.  Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.

The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage.  Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object.  All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism.  Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism.  The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers.   In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor.  The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.

Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman.  Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties.  But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology.  The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female.  Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons.  In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,

A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.

Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon.  The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female.  It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists.  Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


Ashton, Dore, The New York School. A Cultural Reckoning, 1973

Belgrad, Daniel, The Culture of Spontaneity.  Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading, 1975

Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence 1973

Frascina, Francis, ed., Pollock and After.  The Critical Debate, 1985

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.  Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, 1983

Lewis, David, “Michael West: More than Gorky’s Muse,” in Michael West.  Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 2010

McNamara, Chris, “By Any Name,” in Michael West.  Painter-Poet, n.d.

Olds, Kirsten, “The New Mysticism in Art,” in The 1950s Paintings of Michael West, n.d.

Pollock, Lindsay, The Girl with the Gallery. Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, 2006

Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, 1959

Sandler, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting, 1970

Spender, Matthew, ed., Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof. A Life in Letters and Documents, 2009





May 23 – August 29, 2010

Jacob Samuel, a master printer and the art world’s “best-kept secret” has a life that many would envy.   He gets artists to think “outside the box.”  As publisher and printer of  “Edition Jacob Samuel,” he does exactly what he wants—publishing prints by some of the most famous artists in the world and producing highly regarded editions of original works, prized by international museums. With few exceptions he works only with artists whose oeuvre he has admired and known for at least ten years, and, if he finds that a project is not going well, he simply backs away.  Samuel, as the printer and publisher of his imprint, Edition Jacob Samuel (EJS), is completely in charge of his enterprise. After remaining discretely in the background, the printer is featured in the current exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum, Outside the Box, which displays his entire Edition. For two decades, he has enriched the art world with an old-fashioned medium, etching, working quietly at the service of the artists.  The exhibition currently on view features the total output of his publishing career, which has been jointly purchased by the Hammer and by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art.

The artists in Los Angeles have always independently produced what the trade knows as “artists’ books” and the city has always supported artists who wanted to produce prints. Print workshops such as, the Gemini G. E. L. and Tamarind Institute, are now world-famous.  East Coast artists, who wanted to make prints, such as Jasper Johns, came to Los Angeles.  Printmaking has been part of the West Coast’s artists’ fascination with materials and experimentation with process.  These printmaking workshops were founded in the sixties when Los Angeles was not on the art map, or at last not on the mind of New York critics.   Being on the Left Coast and far from the art game, artists in Los Angeles had the freedom to experiment without having to respond to an art market.  Although artists, such as the printmaker, June Wayne, from Tamarind, are mostly famous in L. A., book and print artist, Ed Ruscha, is internationally renowned.  Ruscha began his career with his series of laconic books, cataloguing the sights of the city, from palm trees to parking lots.  His self-published books, which, at one time, you could buy for five dollars, include Every Building on Sunset Strip and my favorite, Royal Road Test. Nowhere are the unexpected possibilities of printmaking explored more inventively than with Ruscha, who has printed with blood, spinach juice, carrot juice, even chocolate, instead of ink.

Samuel honed his craft  through a long-term collaboration with the Los Angeles artist, Sam Francis, who died in 1994.  In comparison to the exuberant and complicated prints of Francis, the aesthetic of Edition Jacob Samuel is more restrained and reductive.  Even though it would seem that Jacob Samuel’s selection of etching, which requires a certain level of exactitude, might constrain the artists’ inventiveness, the prints produced through Edition Jacob Samuel are full of surprises.  Ruscha’s work with the printmaker is a case in point.  The artist is famous, not just for his books and prints, but also for his paintings, which often feature signs.  “Signs” has two meanings with Ruscha, first the familiar advertising signs that guide us, and second, the semiotic sense of sign, that is: signs carry meaning. In one of his better-known paintings, he artist presented the word “hotel” in vivid orange with the letters arranged vertically. The meaning of the arrangement went beyond the word and implied that the “hotel” in question is a cheap one. An expensive hotel always writes out its name in horizontal elegance, while a cheap hotel uses garish neon, economically fixed to the side of the building.

The trademark of Ed Ruscha’s work is the combination of image with text, with the text predominating over the image, until the text becomes the image.  After decades of such visual-verbal puns and semiotic play, the prints Ruscha produced for the Edition, Blank Signs of 2004, take the play with signs one step further.  In this series of prints, the signs are road signs in the desert, a place where one would need directions; but the signs are blank.  The artist’s use of masking on the etching plate rendered the shape of the signs and their supports as ghostly shapes outlined against his delicate drawings of the desert terrain.  The traveler is lost without any clues.  Perhaps it was the desert winds, but the words are bleached away from the surface of the roadside signs, but the wit of the act of masking out the word play is clear to those who know the artist’s signature satirical style.

Ed Ruscha, like another artist featured in the show, John Baldessari, is local to Los Angeles and can make prints in the city.  But what makes the work of Jacob Samuel different from that of Gemini and Tamarind is that artists do not have to come to his print studio; he can travel internationally, carrying his portable studio with him.  When an artist comes to the printer’s workshop, he or she is not at “home,” so to speak.  But Samuel comes to the artist’s studio where the artist has the full resources of the home studio at her disposal.  Through his portable workshop, Samuel provides the printing materials and the artist provides the inspiration and then the portable studio is packed up and the printer goes home.  A world famous artist is a busy person, Samuel states, and he respects the limited time of someone like Dan Graham, also in the show.  The printmaker and the artist consult on the final result at long distance.  The collaboration between the artist and the printer is that of the leader and the follower, the one who initiates and the one who carries out the instructions.  Samuel insists upon being humble to not just the artist but also to the materials themselves.

The delicate relationship between the artist and printer are on view with the prints of the German artist, Rebecca Horn.  For those of us in Los Angeles, our introduction to the artist was at her influential retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990.   Although she had been a leading German conceptual artist since the late 1960s and she had taught in San Diego in 1974, like many European artists she did not get her due in America until mid-career.  Her installations in Los Angeles were a revelation in artistic intelligence, but not every work could travel, for example, one of her most important early works, the Overflowing Machine of 1970.  Now owned by the Tate, the original machine included a nude dark haired young man, standing immobilized on a pedestal, surrounded by tubes (one of Horn’s trademark materials) through which red blood coursed.  The conduits of blood circulation ran up and down on the outside of his body, making the invisible visible.

Her recurring theme of blood reappeared in the series of prints made between Samuel and Horn.  The two had met on the occasion of her retrospective in Los Angeles, but Horn was not interested in prints.   She actively disliked the effect of the reversed image and said as much to Samuel who immediately offered to solve that problem.  The solution was to ask a local supplier of Gampi paper to invent a form of transparent paper.  The image could be executed and the print, on surprisingly strong transparent paper, could be flipped over, reappearing in a reverse of a reverse, according to the artist’s original intent.  Working in Horn’s large well-appointed studio in Berlin, the printer set up his portable studio and let the artist have her way.  Restricted to blood-stain red and to a paper the color of her creamy skin, the redheaded artist made a series of prints, one featuring blood cells, another with marks made from a log from her studio fireplace dragged over a plate, and still another “painted” with a bouquet of dried roses.  Like many of the artists in this exhibition, Horn is a writer and is as well known for her poetry as she is for her art, and the poems interspersed among the images preexisted the prints.

Just as Horn scored her plates with found objects, such as twigs, Marina Abramovic scratched her plates with her fingernails.  Discussing her Spirit Cooking with Essential Aphrodisiac Recipes of 1996, Samuel noted that Abramovic “performed” her prints, meaning that the process of execution became a performance for the performance artist.  Each artist brought his or her unique art form to the experience of making prints.  In 2004, Mona Hatoum used her hair as a drawing tool, with coils and strands placed carefully preserved on pieces of paper and then slowly slid onto the plate. The Anglo-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor, commissioned a very special set of colors, deliberately made to reiterate the soft velvety dry pigments of his early works.  The result was a set of prints with deep and profound colors that resonated and seemed to lift off the paper.  Meredith Monk sang to Samuel as she made her prints of musical scores, and close friend, Chris Burden, shared his many encounters with coyotes in Topanga Canyon, told in a school-boy’s handwriting for Coyote Stories of 2005.  Each series of prints presents a new but familiar facet of the personality of each artist.

Jacob Samuel takes pleasure in providing opportunities to artists.  His Santa Monica studio, located in one of the last un-gentrified blocks in the city, is clean and spare, but, in the window, floats a transparent print by Gabriel Orozco, a Lotus Leaf from 2003.  The transparent print ascends above the heavy and gleaming printing press.  Although he has an artistic degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in the Bay Area, Samuel insists that he “does not think like an artist” but thinks technically. (Collectors of his paintings would disagree.)  The son of immigrants from Wales—his grandfather peddled pins—he grew up in Malibu and Venice, when Venice was “Dogtown” and the “Z Boys” ruled.  A long-time surfer, Samuel was interested in the Italian Arte Povera movement of the Sixties.  Not unlike the post-war cinema of the Italian filmmakers who used ambient light and sound and untrained actors, the artists of the Arte Povera movement were fearless in striking out beyond the materials approved by fine arts at a time when painting ruled.

One of the veterans of the 1967 movement, the Greek artist, Jannis Kounellis, stepped out of his comfort zone in 1999 and produced a series of prints for Edition Jacob Samuel that were surprisingly delicate and lyrical.  It is this fertile mix of Samuel’s interest in the historic discipline of prints, his reductive aesthetic, fueled by the concept of serial imagery of the sixties, and the willingness to be open to the possibilities of unexpected and unorthodox materials that gave rise to his imprint.  Many of the artists featured are also writers who produce poetry or narratives, which respond to the images, or vice versa.  Samuel employs a professional typographer to execute the pages of text, which have their own presence and yet are subordinate to the images.   The rows of small spare prints are elegantly presented in simple and pale frames, hung side by side and while the series is under the name of the printer, “Jacob Samuel,”  Outside the Box can also be thought of as a group show, featuring world famous artists.  Oddly, collectors have not been interested in these print works and ninety percent of the purchases come from museums, which support the publisher’s efforts.  For the art audience interested in the full range of an artist’s work, the exhibition, Edition Jacob Samuel, at the Hammer this summer allows the viewer a rare glimpse into the rewards of the collaboration between artist and printmaker.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Remember when Will Smith could be counted on to open the summer with a blockbuster?  From Independence Day to Men in Black, Will Smith always delivered.  Move over daddy, it’s the turn of another Smith for this summer. The Karate Kid defeated all opponents in its first weekend in the theaters, entertaining an audience that included the parents who remembered the original and their children.  In a summer in which the film industry has attempted to shovel mediocrity at the American public, there is finally a hit, featuring the appealing team of the always great, Jackie Chan, as the “master,” Mr. Han, and the very talented little Jaden Smith, as the “Kid.”  Although I had never seen the original, because I preferred the serious purity of Bruce Lee, I took my nephew, Nick, to this new version of The Karate Kid. This is a nice movie, thoroughly enjoyable for parents and children alike.  As my brother, who accompanied us, pointed out, The Karate Kid is essentially an adult revenge fantasy.  Who does not vividly recall all those schoolyard bullies who tormented us as soon as the teachers turned their backs?   Who does not still have to deal with adult bullies in the work place?  Revenge is sweet and victory is good and that is the message that The Karate Kid gives all of us, regardless of age.

However, I would like to suggest that parents be prepared.  The film takes place in China, which is great for scenic side trips but much of the dialogue is in Chinese, also great for a global perspective.  However, for the small child, the subtitles move on and off the screen too quickly for the little ones to read.  Also, the Chinese people in the film conveniently speak English with an accent.  For those of us who live on the Pacific Rim, an Asian accent is very familiar and we have no trouble with it.  For people in other parts of the country, particularly children, the accents may be difficult to follow.  While I applaud the decision of the Smiths to shift the site of the film to China, fully half the film’s plot is told through subtitles and accents.  Parents need to be alert and prepared to quietly help the young children keep up with the plot, which includes a lot more dialogue that action.

Like many other reviewers, I, too, had trouble with the slight frame of Jaden Smith.  While he may grow up to be as tall has his famous father, he now is petit, like his mother, Jada Pinkett.  Although the film stated that “Dre Parker” was twelve, Jaden Smith is actually eleven, a child still. The boys who played the bullies are at least three to four years older than the “twelve year old” and are much bigger and stronger adolescents, outweighing him by at least twenty pounds.   Even his love interest, “Meiying” (Wenwen Han), is much larger than he, as girls often are at this age.  I know nothing about how Karate tournaments are conducted in Beijing, but I would assume that there are categories, such as age, weight, belt color, and so on.  It is difficult to imagine that a very small twelve year old would be allowed to fight much older and much heavier boys in any kind of official contest.  It would have made more sense for the final encounter between “Parker” and “Cheng”(Zhenwei Wang) to take place where the fight began, in the schoolyard.

Unlike other reviewers, I have other issues: There were many “plot holes” in the script. Why did we have to take field trips to the Great Wall and to the Forbidden City, instead of taking the time to show “Dre” struggling in a Chinese school?  He began the film by refusing to speak Chinese and everyone around him is forced to speak English until he finally reads a letter in Chinese to Meiying’s parents.  It would have reinforced the open minded and global approach of the film to show the main character learning Chinese language and customs.  Women are also given short shift in this movie.  Did the film ever tell us whether or not “Meiying” got into the music academy?  We saw the audition, where “Dre” mistakenly disgraced her family by clapping for her performance; we saw the long interval when her parents would not allow her to speak to “Dre;” we saw “Dre” apologize to the family.  But, unless I missed it, the movie totally dropped the story line about the accomplishments of the little girl in favor of following the victory of the little boy. Which brings me to another point: outsourcing American jobs is seen in a totally positive light, but we never see “Dre’s mother at her work in the “automobile factory.”  Surely she must have performed a very vital function in the industry which had to be imported from Detroit, but we have no idea what she did for her job.  The last plot hole is the mystery of “Mr. Han.”  Did the back story of Jackie Chan also wind up on the cutting room floor?  We are told only that he killed his wife and child in a car crash and every year he builds and destroys a car in their memory.  But where does martial arts fit into his life?  Why is he a “handyman?”  Inquiring minds want to know.

Suspend your reality, leap over the plot holes, and stick around for the improbable victory, featuring the famous crane kick.  The Karate Kid is a great summer revenge film.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger




Orange Country Museum of Art

Newport Beach

May 2 – September 19, 2010

“In the future,” Andy Warhol predicted, ‘everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.”

Then a few years later he said, “I’m bored with that line.  I never use it anymore.  My new line is “in fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”

It is rare that prophecies come true with such a vengeance.  In the Twenty-first century, “fame” is surveillance. Under the watchful eye of CCTV, we are all famous all the time.  We stop at the red light, mindful of the camera perched above, staring down at us, we walk in and out of a department store, watching ourselves on the television screen overhead, we enter a bank and we are seen.  We are all treated as criminals and potential terrorists.  If being famous means being photographed, at any given moment every day, we are famous.  The goal of the exhibition at the Orange County Museum is not to investigate what photography means after September 11th, but to look at the connection between fame and photography.  We, the common people, “know” famous people through photographs.  Andy Warhol, the original modern voyeur, photographed every person who entered the Factory.  According to legend, he asked all the men to drop their trousers for the Polaroid camera.  Some of these images became the basis of his silkscreened portraits of the rich and famous.   Although there is little of Warhol’s actual art in this exhibition, some of these Polaroids are on view, and  his spirit hangs over the proceedings.  Warhol, himself, was supremely uninterested in ordinary people, and tellingly, the curator, Karen Moss has also kept within the confines of the museum’s collection of famous photographs made by famous photographers.

The exhibition features many old friends, such as Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange, interspersed with a few rarely seen gems, namely Margaret Bourke-White’s portrait of Stalin’s mother and world-famous images, such as Korda’s hagiographic portrait of Che.  Although much smaller that LACMA’s recent show of Vanity Fair portraits, this show elicits the same pleasure of recognition at the sight of Einstein, by Johann Hagemeyer, or the very young artists, Betye Saar, Charles Arnoldi and Larry Bell by Arnold Chain.  Moss stretches the word “portrait,” from a faceless abstracted nude by Weston to the nameless women stalked by Garry Winnogrand and includes Harry Callahan’s iconic “Eleanor,” his muse and wife.  Also included, perhaps more under the sobriquet “famous,” is a selection from Larry Clark’s hard-to-look-at Tulsa, and a group of John Coplans’ studies of his crumpled hoary body. Indeed the whole exhibition juxtaposes the anonymous with the well-known and illustrate how the unnamed subject of the camera lens can become “famous.”  We would recognize Clark’s drug addicts anywhere and we know Winnogrand’s laughing woman with the ice cream cone as an old friend.

Far and away the greatest delight of the exhibition is a group of celebrity portraits by movie star photographer, Lawrence Schiller. Schiller’s trick photograph of Tippi Hedren is the leitmotif of the show. Hedren, Alfred Hitchcock’s successor to Grace Kelly, was his idea cold-hot blond.  Schiller posed Hedren, blond hair blowing in the wind, driving her Ford convertible down the wide-open highway.  And just as he popped up in all his movies, there is Alfred Hitchcock, round face framed in the rear view mirror.   On the same wall of photographs, “the man with no name,” Clint Eastwood squints and grips his cigar between this teeth, a young and beautiful Barbra Streisand is profiled near a Schiele drawing, “Butch and Sundance,” aka the late Paul Newman and environmental activist Robert Redford, pose in sepia. But most touching of all are Schiller’ inspired photographs of a luminous Marilyn Monroe, taken a few months before her death on the set of a film she would never finish, Let’s Make Love.  These are some of the best photographs ever taken of Marilyn, capturing her at her zenith, before the lights went out.  Glowing in the dark, bathed in artificial light,  the screen goddess splashes about in a swimming pool, a doomed and radiant mermaid, famous forever.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger