Clayton Cubitt: “Once you see that ‘artisanal’ actually spells ‘art is anal’ you can’t unsee it.”
Clayton Cubitt: “Once you see that ‘artisanal’ actually spells ‘art is anal’ you can’t unsee it.”
“I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”
My favorite part of the documentary Basquiat: Rage to Riches is Fab 5 Freddy recalling how he and Basquiat started a “museum club”: every week or so they would cab up to The Met and walk around with sketch pads, pretending to be art students, looking at the paintings.
Here’s a clip of Freddy joking about how they thought Carvaggio was “gangster” for carrying a sword:
He also points out how white artists were inspired by black culture — Pollock listening to jazz while doing his improvisational drawings, Picasso stealing from African masks — and how Basquiat took their influence and reclaimed it back into his work.
It’s a good watch. If you can, though, check out Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child, which I think dives a little deeper into his influences.
For example, in that documentary you’ll learn that Basquiat loved to have a bunch of books around when he painted. Above are two comparison screenshots, one showing a page from Gray’s Anatomy (his mother gave him a copy as a child after he got hit by a car) and one showing a page of hobo signs from Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook (a personal favorite of mine). He also had copies of Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art.
My kids have obsessions. Deep, drawn-out obsessions. And sometimes, as with my 5-year-old and Kraftwerk, we get so far into the obsession that I can’t even remember when or how the obsession began.
Our 3-year-old’s latest obsession is drawing Edvard Munch’s The Scream. WTF?
So, my wife printed out a photo of the painting from the internet, and he immediately began copying it. (Copying is how we learn.) The above picture was drawn on June 15th.
Here’s a drawing from July 7th — four weeks later! He was still drawing the scream.
The next day, we took him to the Blanton Museum, thinking maybe we’d see some weird expressionist painting that would be a good substitute. No such luck.
So the obsession continues. Who knows how long it will last?
Yesterday, I was lettering the cover for my next book, over and over again. I tried to channel Jules drawing The Scream.
I kept thinking about how much of my work is just being obsessed. Giving myself over to things that interest me, not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for months and for years.
It’s thrilling to watch my kids have the time and space for their obsessions. To see where they go. They keep teaching me how to learn.
We took the 5-year-old docent and his brother back to the Blanton Museum this afternoon. My favorite piece was Lenka Clayton’s The Distance I Can Be From My Son (2013). In three short videos, Clayton films her son walking away from her until she can’t stand it anymore and runs after him. The videos were part of Clayton’s “Artist Residency in Motherhood:” an attempt to “allow [motherhood] to shape the direction of my work, rather than try to work ‘despite it’.”
In Hannah Gadsby’s devastating Netflix special, Nanette, she deconstructs how jokes work on a system of tension and release — the setup is “artificially inseminated with tension” and the punchline releases it. Each of these videos is structured like a joke: You see the son toddling away, and at the very end of the video, the mother bolts after him. Tension and release. Setup and punchline.
There are interesting layers here: Clayton is setting herself up to see how far she can let her son go, and she’s setting us up, too. (Gadsby points out that her job as a comedian is to build tension and release it and do that over and over again. “This is an abusive relationship!”) We watched the videos with our kids after spending an exhausting 30 minutes in the museum trying to keep them close, my wife restraining the 3-year-old from leaping onto the paintings. (Unfortunately, art museums do require “helicopter parenting.”) The joke, I think, is not on the kid, or the kid viewers: my sons laughed out loud during the videos — I think they were rooting for him to get away!
Then, you remember the news and the fact that our government has split thousands of families apart at the border. Suddenly, The Distance I Can Be From My Son takes on a completely different meaning. You laughed and now you want to scream.
Berger was a hero in my person pantheon of “writers who draw”:
Because he had been a painter, Berger was always a visual thinker and writer. In conversation with the novelist Michael Ondaatje he remarked that the capabilities of cinematographic editing had influenced his writing. He identified cinema’s ability to move from expansive vistas to close-up shots as that to which he most related and aspired.
One of the things Berger’s work taught me early on was the power of captions: How simply changing the text underneath an image radically altered the image’s message. Here’s an example from the book:
Because I first discovered it in book form, it took me a while to even realize that it was based on the 1972 BBC series of the same name. (It was Berger’s reaction to Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation series, which had a more traditional view of Western art.) At the momest, all of the episodes are available on Youtube:
For a fun update on Berger for the social media age, see Ben Davis’s essay: “Ways of Seeing Instagram”:
Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography… Technology has so democratized image-making that it has put the artistic power once mainly associated with aristocrats—to stylize your image and project yourself to an audience as desirable—into everyone’s hands.
Almost made this the title of my new book. Says it all.
Yesterday designer Jessica Hische tweeted, “I have it in my head that I should pursue an MFA in creative writing to be a better writer and find more space for writing in my life. Really, I should find a way to carve out time to focus on writing without paying tens of thousands of dollars to do so.”
Unsolicited, but here’s my advice for visual thinkers (and others) who want to be better writers:
1) Get Lynda Barry’s What It Is and do the exercises every day in a private notebook.
2) Start a blog and write something there every day.
3) Find or start a writer’s group. (I don’t have one, but I’m married to a fantastic writer and editor.)
5) I believe that the creative process translates across disciplines, so the real challenge to a visual artist who wants to write is learning to operate with words the way you do with pictures. (For example, my blackout poems started out as my attempt to write like a collage artist.)
6) Here’s cartoonist James Kochalka talking about creativity, and how if you can draw, you might be able to write, if you can write, you might be able to make music, etc.:
7) I don’t think most academic programs are set up to help creative workers make these kinds of cross-disciplinary transitions. (Some do or did exist: Carnegie Mellon, for example, used to have an information design program that helped designers learn to write and writers learn to design.)
8) One of the reasons I started the list with Lynda Barry is that she speaks of “The Image” (learned from her teacher Marilyn Frasca) — the thing that is alive in the work. If you can learn to work with The Image, it translates to any art form.
9) I should add that I went to an explicitly “interdisciplinary” college, so I was actually exposed to these ideas in an academic setting. (Lynda went to one too, Evergreen, and she is now a “Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity” at the University of Wisconsin)
10) Cartoonists, because their work demands work from two disciplines (writing/art, poetry/design, words/pictures), are highly instructive when it comes to visual people learning to write, writers learning to make art, etc. (Check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more.)
11) Read a lot. Write a lot. Repeat.
A few days ago in San Francisco we were having margaritas near the Presidio Officers’ Club when my son Jules bolted and disappeared around the corner. I found him admiring this Andy Goldsworthy piece, Earth Wall, which I had never seen. Goldsworthy has four pieces in the Presidio—Tree Fall, Wood Line, and Spire:
I was reading about Spire in the brochure about Goldsworthy and the Presidio, and I was struck by this detail: “The sculpture is fated to fade into the forest as young cypress trees planted at its base ultimately grow to obscure the piece – like the old forest welcoming the new.”
It’s Jules’ 3rd birthday today. He’s not a baby anymore. This morning in our hotel room I watched him drawing along to Super Simple Draw, and I felt, most definitely, that if I’m the spire now, he’s the young cypress, and I will be happy for him to obscure me.
Ever since he’s been old enough to walk, one of my favorite things has been to let my oldest son lead me around an art museum. Yesterday we hit the new chapel designed by Ellsworth Kelly, but my favorite part was browsing the exhibit of Kelly’s work at the Blanton.
O was most drawn to the piece above, Spectrum ColorsArranged By Chance V, which delighted me, as it’s my favorite series of Kelly’s work, and it has a special connection to kids: It was made in 1951 after Kelly was browsing a stationery shop in Paris and came across a special kind of gummy paper made for French schoolchildren. Kelly cut the paper into squares, made a 38×38 grid, assigned each color a number, and pulled numbers out of a hat to get the composition.
Kelly said of his work:
“I don’t invent… It’s not about my signature. It’s something about perception. My eye picks up things in nature; I’m interested in the whole thread of what you look at… I always feel I have to do something new. It has to hit me as something I haven’t seen before, and that gets harder as I get older. But I’m not searching for something. I just find it. The idea has to come to me. I find myself in nature–the roof of a building or a shadow, something that has the magic of life, fragments I can take out and build on…. I have trained my eye to play with images…. My eye is like a dictator for me. I don’t understand it, but it rules me. And it always surprises me. I might do a lot of curves, put them out and look at them. My eye tells me the one to use.”
O loves to read the museum labels next to the pieces, so we were soon discussing the words “spectrum,” “arranged,” and “chance,” and then roman numerals, as he’s newly interested with math and numbers. I love talking to him about stuff like this, as I either quickly realize how little I actually know about the subjects, or I articulate something I’ve never articulated before.
Here is writer Rumaan Alam saying the same about looking at art with his kids:
Talking to my kids about what we’re looking at helps clarify my thinking, much as reading aloud something you’re writing can sharpen a sentence. I have to articulate, in terms a kid can comprehend, what I see or feel or think about a piece of art. I find I don’t rush to my own judgment, even if I think I’ve already made that judgment. Looking at Carmen Herrera’s precise minimalist paintings last winter at the Whitney, I stumbled over explaining to my kids why I like them—their precision, the beautiful purity of her colors—and realized that was something I’d never fully explained to myself.
After looking at the Kelly pieces, O and I decided we could make our own versions when we got home. (We’re headed to the craft store later today to look for the right paper.)
Then as if on cue, history repeated itself…
…and the two boys re-staged this scene from about a year ago:
Again I say, if you want to enjoy art, borrow a kid.