Favorite artist

“Who’s your favorite artist?” That’s a silly question, isn’t it?  If you’re like me, you enjoy the work of many artists, so how could you choose? No, it’s a silly question.

It’s not that I’m easily pleased, or that I’m one of those inclusive types–hardly. I’m a tough grader; I’m judgmental. My time is important to me so why waste it on crap?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m always exploring and I always try to meet artists on some common ground. I’m not as bad as Braque who sent his wife ahead to scout new museums so she could steer him away from the bad stuff.  Because why?  The bad stuff would pollute his vision? Who knows. No, I’m not like that.

Two artists I don’t care for but with whom I have found some common ground are Alex Katz and Chuck Close.  Katz has a high design IQ and I like his bold areas that eat the canvas and lock the design in place. On the negative side, like his more talented peer Phil Pearlstein, Katz wants it both ways: he requires real-world subjects but treats them as mere design elements.  His insistence on two-dimensionality coupled with his cool indifference to subject matter seem old fashioned; his answers to these topics lost their energy long ago.  Worst of all, Katz’s hand is absolutely dead.

Close is more interesting. I very much like his anxious probing of real-world subjects that dissolves appearances into unexpected discoveries and more questions–more probings. A strong, first-rate mind is at work here. But, like Katz, his reliance on two-dimensionality and his cool indifference to subject matter seems unthoughtful. They both approach these topics lazily, like old married couples with nothing more to say. Is subject matter an interesting topic?  Are you kidding me?!?

I won’t waste time here on those artists who my wife would steer me past if she was like Braque’s wife.  The artists who make my AVOID list get there by rewarding my thirst with bitter fruit; that make me ashamed of my hunger.

An artist I like, an artist who I come back to time and again is Jacques-Louis David. David’s pictorial imagination is superb. He more than holds his own with that other titan of pictorial imagination–Rubens. While he lacks Rubens’ fecundity and sheer joy of invention, he makes up for it with his unsurpassed sense of drama.  Looking at The Death of Marat, you don’t need to know the history of the French Revolution, or who Marat was for that matter, to understand this painting. Death, untimely and tragic, has struck again. With simple-seeming means, the artist embeds his subject in that timeless place where words are exhausted and meaning begins.

Death of Marat by David

Death of Marat by David

David’s work is filled with drama and pathos. To understand his achievement, one need look no further than the maudlin work produced by his army of 19th-century followers. There pathos is reduced to bombast and drama devolves into sentimentality. David is never sentimental or maudlin.

Like Rembrandt, David uses negative–empty–space to great effect. In The Death of Socrates, the space behind and above the figures provides a counterpoint sturdy enough to hold the unfolding drama.  Socrates’ upraised arm–Socrates’ decision–divides the space pictorially and thematically.  David is very efficient and disciplined; nothing is allowed in that doesn’t serve his purpose.  When he punctuates his theme with some pictorial device, such as Socrates’ upraised arm, it’s shown to maximum effect.  His dramatic sense and control are unsurpassed.

Death of Socrates by David

Death of Socrates by David

As might be guessed, his painting technique is also efficient and disciplined–nothing is overworked. As with his designs, everything serves a purpose; when his purpose is achieved, he stops.  He never shows-off; his technique is forthright and direct, the opposite of self-conscious and precious.

Like that other artist who had an army of imitators, Raphael, other artists might be stronger in some areas, but none combines his virtues into such a perfect harmony of means and ends.

During his long career, David had many misfires. I am writing about one of them that is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Even in his misfires, he is always interesting and original. Like other great artists, his failures are more interesting than many artists’ successes.

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