Thursday, February 14, 2013

Message In A Sculpture - Valentine Love Notes

If you've ever spent any time in the New York subway system, you've probably seen these little sculptures by Tom Otterness at the 8th Avenue/14th Street Station where the L train connects to the A, C, E line. These little works of art are not concentrated to one particular area, but spread throughout the station. It's one of my favorite places to wait for a train because I like to look at all of these little guys. On my way home from this part of town one night, I was feeling a little blue. Absently studying the sculptures for the umpteenth time in my commuter haze, my first thought was that someone strategically shoved a wad of garbage into the figure. When I saw the bright red shape, I realized it was a little scroll tucked into this special spot; a clever disguise hidden in plain view. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and pulled out the scroll. 
It was a little secret - like finding a message in a bottle from across the sea, or experiencing that moment of anticipation when you crack open a fortune cookie. The mini scroll was attached to a brilliant red heart made from a simple paperclip. The message felt like it was put there just for me. The arbitrary words were lilting, some lyrics from a song I knew. "I want to hold your hand - the Beatles". The memory of the song and its intent immediately brought a little smile to my face. I walked around the platform, and noticed another bronze figure bearing another note as if it were some clue to a treasure hunt. Another heart, more lyrics. And another smile. In the distance, I heard a train coming. I circled the platform quickly hoping there might be more mysteries to unravel. I found a total of five little "love notes" before my gritty steel chariot arrived. Somewhere in a recessed chamber of my brain, I wondered if the undercover emissary behind the simple goodwill gesture was watching. I hope they saw the big grin on my face for the long ride home.
My favorite one- in some small way, this little reminder is so hard to remember but so true.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


While studying in Venice, I became fascinated by the number of masks I was seeing all over the watery city and the history behind them. They were peering from behind curtains in small boutiques and appearing in the window displays of restaurants and antique shops with equal frequency. The workshops of mask makers were suddenly everywhere. I often saw the strange disguies in the paintings I was studying too. I discovered the work of Venetian painter, Pietro Longhi (1701-1785) while wandering through the Ca' Rezzonico Museum. With masquerade paintings like Clara the RhinocerosThe Tooth ExtractorThe Ridotto, and The Parlour, he quickly became one of my favorite painters. Below are some of my paintings from my days in Italy. In between painting on site, I tried to imitate the subjects of the old master painters while adding a little of my own colorful flair. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Collecting - Basquiat's Iconic New York Times Magazine Cover

This post commemorates a small anniversary. This article with the cover picture above, New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist from the New York Times 28 years ago (yes, 1985!) marked a defining moment in the New York art scene. If you love the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat as much as I do, then this photo by Lizzie Himmel showing Basquiat sitting pretty is probably very familiar to you. After moving several times, I feared that this memorable relic may have gotten lost or inadvertently tossed out. Having recently gotten my hands on it again, I have it hung prominently in my work area for painting (and blogging) inspiration. A special frame is coming soon.
Green-Wood Cemetery, 2002

I re-read the article to get a sense of the mindset of the art world in those days. The New York scene has changed so much since then. Many of the people and places are now gone. It chronicles the art market, changes in the players, the nightlife, and collector habits from the era of the Abstract Expressionists to the mid-1980s. The art stars were different then. Behind-the-scenes painters like Pollock and DeKooning were transformed into superstar personalities like Warhol and Haring. Popular artist venues like the Cedar Tavern were converted to the Mudd Club and Mr. Chow's. The article further describes rise and fall of painting in a booming art market. Everyone was becoming a collector. Surprisingly, artists often had waiting lists for their work. 

Basquiat was at the top of his short-lived career at the age of twenty-five. He was also a victim of his own talent and success; unsure of how to handle the grooming and attention of art world heavyweights, meteoric success, and unbelievable sums of money in such a very short period of time. Just five years prior, he was couch surfing and couldn't even buy his own art supplies. Suddenly his work was hanging in the homes of celebrities, collectors, and notable museums next to the previous generation of blue chip artists. Now, he was easily getting $10,000 - $25,000 for his paintings but he didn't even have a bank account. He suddenly had context in the art machine, people took advantage, and drugs eventually took their toll. 


Basquiat is buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery (Plot: Section 176, Lot 44603) along with other famous creative residents such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Leonard Bernstein. A thin wire frame that reads "SAMO©" sticks out of the top of the headstone. This was Basquiat's graffiti tag and alter ego that once covered a crime-ridden city, and also appeared in many of his paintings. He described it as "same old" in the form of a corporate logo. The irony is that he didn't have the street credibility of most graffiti artists (spray painting train cars at night) and his own paintings exhibited more of a formal (art historical-based) aesthetic with references to the mark-making of Cy Twombly, Dubuffet, and even the educated but raw primitivism of Picasso. Today, Basquiat's paintings sell for well over a million dollars - if you can even get access to one.

"Bold color and the sensuality of a richly painted surface returned, appealing to an art public that had been starved, baffled or bored for a decade." Gone are the glory days of the New York art world. Artists having household names is practically nonexistent these days. Personally, in this digital age, there appears to be a deep lull. I can only hope for a revival of painting and a resurgence in the cycle of a meaningful art market.

Happy (Lunar) New Year - Year of the Snake

Lion Puppets (Chinatown, New York - February 4, 2006)

According to ancient soothsayers, the Year of the Snake is associated with protection and prevention from starvation. A snake found in the house is thought to be a symbol of luck concerning finances, prosperity, and wealth. For people born under this sign or with occupational leanings towards the artistic (potters, jewelers, magicians and painters) it offers new hope.
With a big Chinatown in New York, the Lunar New Year is a big event for all New Yorkers. Colorful lions dance and shimmy in front of businesses wishing them success for the upcoming year. The sidewalks are more crowded than usual. Firecrackers snap throughout the streets and dim sum becomes a big dining event.

Happy Year of the Snake!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Manhattan's Hidden Picasso

Just off busy Houston Street and tucked away inside a sleepy central courtyard of apartment buildings in lower Manhattan sits a massive Picasso sculpture. I discovered the Bust of Sylvette (1967) one day when I was wandering around New York with no particular place to go after checking out the annual Armory Show. She is about 6 stories high and is made of a granular concrete with dark sandblasted lines. Picasso's famous Cubist method is rendered by three-dimensional folds allowing the viewer to have different points of perspective into one complete essence of the piece. These bends in the concrete allow shards of sunlight to play on and around the sculpture. I recently saw two small painted metallic mock-ups at the Black and White Picasso show at the Guggenheim. Here, those comparatively tiny models (just twenty-six inches high) have come to life. The giant reinterpretation was executed by the world-famous Spaniard in coordination with Norwegian artist, Carl Nesjar.
The two sides of Sylvette

The model for the piece, a young nineteen year old Sylvette David, appears in the work of Picasso's later years as the "girl with the blonde ponytail". After achieving fame across Europe for being Picasso's muse and for her striking good looks, she later changed her name to Lydia to validate her own art career.

The Brutalist style buildings surrounding the Sylvette sculpture in lower Manhattan are designed by I.M. Pei are part of the NYU Campus. The sculpture itself was a gift to NYU by Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil (philanthropist, patron of the arts, and notable lawyer) in 1968. A similar public sculpture was purchased by the city of Rotterdam. Picasso himself never visited the United States, but this giant artwork certainly makes his presence felt.