Thursday, January 19, 2017

How to Make A Fish Print the Picasso Way

I saw these photos at the Musee Picasso yesterday, of Picasso making a fish print in the 1950s.

First, eat the fish:

Next, arrange fish on surface with satisfied look on face (your face, not the fish's):

Finally, roll the fish with ink and press paper against it:

Thus did Picasso secure his plaice in printmaking history.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Accidents, by Susan Shaw

Just before Christmas 2016, I taught a short Journal and Sketchbook class at Lillstreet Art Center on Chicago. One of the participants kindly agreed to let me post a piece that she wrote in the class, along with an accompanying sketch.

I felt like an animal. An angry, sweaty animal-anger in my veins. I could hardly sit there.

"Do you feel depressed?" asked Dr. Cook, the shrink.

"Yes", I said. I was only 14 and already I was depressed.

"Well you can’t imagine what real pain is. I got hit by a car. The impact of that car - I will never forget it. Terrible pain. Crash! Right into my legs. You were probably wondering why I have braces and crutches."

"Actually, no", I said. "Can you give me some kind of medicine?"

"We're going to talk first, then maybe medicine. The pain was horrible. Thank god you didn't have to go through it."

Dr. Cook was freaking me out and I felt like smacking her with my hand. Probably my manic depressive hand.

My mother was out and called her chatty friend Peggy to pick me up in her SUV. She went on and on; the dry cleaners did a bad job, the oil crisis was ruining her life, restaurants had bad service - there was something wrong with everything including air and trees.

As she pulled away, I realized I had no key to get in. I rang the doorbell over and over. I was so hungry. I rapped on the little square windows that framed the door to see if she had maybe gotten back. Then I decided to just punch one of the windows. I punched right through the glass and I lost a chunk of my thumb. My mother finally came home and she ushered me in, wrapping my bleeding thumb in a dishtowel. She said I was an animal and asked if I liked the shrink.

We went to the emergency room. "I'm fucked", I said aloud. It was a week before my 8th grade graduation. Suddenly my dad showed up with a cocktail napkin wrapped around the bloody chunk of thumb that was left on the windowpane. He was so proud of himself. Always the hero.
The doctor sewed the chunk back in place.

Now I was really, really hungry and I could feel the depression descending on me. I was the one that got injured, so I thought I should pick the restaurant, but they decided on their bar that only served burgers with - get this: potato chips. No fries! Now I was really, really angry. I did what I always did since getting this way; I ran out of the restaurant but no one followed me. They were used to it because usually I would come back. Not this time. I walked home along the highway. I was so sweaty I could feel drops running down my neck. It was taking me forever to get home. My parents drove by and I gave them the finger before I started crying for food. Please give me some KFC or MacDonald’s or 8.00 worth of frozen yogurt-I mean c'mon here! I was injured!

"I'll make you some scrambled eggs", said my mother when I got home.

Oh God, how she annoyed me, always offering something she knew I didn’t like. I needed options.

"I want a deep fryer for graduation", I countered. We argued until bedtime and by then I was so hungry that I wasn't hungry anymore. So I put my 77 lb body. in bed and punched the wall with my good hand. And it felt really good.

The next morning my hands didn't feel so good but I went to school. It was a private school and we were all extra advanced. We took black beauties so we could so we could do our homework faster. We smoked pot morning, noon and night. Our lighter activities included slingshots and chipmunks, lacing milk with vodka and competing to see who could lose our virginity. It was a fine school indeed. When I told my friends what happened they said I was a badass.

Wednesday came again and I was supposed to see Dr. Cook. Again she brought up the accident.

"You never know what can happen", she warned me.

Somehow I kind of snapped out of it, as much as a 14 year old could.

"No you don't", I said.

"So why are you depressed?" she asked, but I was daydreaming, seeing the big black car on a sunny day driving right into her fat legs. She screamed and fell, blood everywhere. If that much blood could come out of my thumb, I could see gallons of it while she lay on the street, screaming. She was mangled.

She had to be rushed to the hospital and sewn up. It was terrible but I think her sad tale was just a way to distract her patients. I was determined to throw her off her game.

"What about the lithium?" she asked.

"Yeah, it's not working for me."

"Nothing worked for me after the accident either. What happened to your thumb?"

"Oh, I cut myself picking up a broken glass."

"Well just imagine the pain when the car---"

I couldn't take it anymore. Her whole story was just a way to distract me.

It was supposed to be about me.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

At the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

I'm in Paris, France, for three weeks, teaching on Columbia College Chicago's study abroad program. The students don't arrive until the weekend, so I'm just relaxing in the city and our rented apartment in Montparnasse, on an easy schedule of one museum per day followed by a nap and a light dinner (with wine, of course).

On Wednesday, we went to the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, near the Place de l'Alma. Half of the permanent collection was closed, but I still saw some seminal twentieth century works. From the first third of the century, there was the giant canvas-mural La Danse, the second version, painted for an American patron in the early 1930s. Inside the vast room that housed the works, there were two small cabinet with some fascinating photos, such as this one of Matisse sketching the mural:

When you enter the hall where the paintings are displayed, you first see the sketched version:

On the right, you can just about see one of the museum docents, which gives you a sense of the scale of the piece. The sketch is particularly interesting in that you see the curtain pulled back on Matisse's process of creation, with its sure steady lines and its washes of thinned oil colours. On the other side of the wall, the finished version itself, cut in the shape of the wall spaces in which it was originally installed:

The colours are not as vibrant as the original version of La Danse --also a mural, designed for a Russian collector -- and the figures are more angular, the outlines sharper, It still ahs that Matissean flowing rhythm, though.

In another part of the museum, the Christian Boltanski room, an underground chamber with three of his installations from the lasts decades of the twentieth century. This photograph shows two pieces: a room of photographs of children lit by interrogation chamber-style lamps, and a room of shelves piled high with children's clothing, horribly reminiscent of the storage facilities in the Nazi death camps, where the Nazis forced the sonder commandos (press-ganged camp inmates) to sort through the belongings of the murdered to root out anything valuable.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Sending COALTOWN into the World

I made this short video for an application to an artist residency. It's a pan shot of the interior of my diorama COALTOWN, which I exhibited at Terrain Exhibitions in Oak Park, Illinois, in September. The idea was to show the motorized parts of the models, in a way that can't be conveyed by a still image.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Rare footage of Dimitri Shostakovitch in rehearsal

There are many people around the world who no doubt are looking at the USA and wondering what the hell is going on, and there people looking at Russia and thinking the same, and now we have the two countries on a collision course again due to the meshing of two authoritarians taking advantage of a sizeable lunatic bloc in their respective electorates (or "electorate", if you will). 

I'm so shell-shocked by the pace of recent events that I'm having to remind myself of how much of my artistic development was shaped by the art/music/literature produced by these two countries. Every one of the people in the following lists made works that hit my like a bolt of lightning when I first encountered them, some as early as my fourteenth year. You can imagine the worlds that were opened up to me as I scoured these books (et al) while reading in an underheated bedroom in a draughty building in a mining town in the north of England, during what seems in memory to have been the permanently grey and drizzly mid-1970s. Many of these artists are still people I return to for listening/looking/reading.

First, the USA:

Mark Twain
Herman Melville
Emily Dickinson
Henry James 
T. S. Eliot
Ernest Hemingway
Saul Bellow
James Baldwin
The entire history of blues music
The entire history of jazz music
The entire history of rock and roll/rock music
(All three were American inventions)
Frank Bridge
Leonard Bernstein
Joan Mitchell 
Willem de Kooning (technically a US artist, though he was a Dutch immigrant)
Andy Warhol

Russia/Soviet Union:


Let's not despair of these two countries just yet. They have given so much to the world, despite their contemporary aberrations.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Work by One of My Students

I teach several versions of the Journal and Sketchbook class: the weekend or one day workshop version, and the 15 week semester-long version at Columbia College Chicago. Part of the extra academic requirement of the latter is that the students must create a piece of visual art that is in conversation with their final piece of writing. The final presentations of those paired pieces, writing + visual art, ended last week.

So many good things were submitted, and I'll post images of some of them soon. I'm going to start with this piece by student Sulejman Karic, because it combines a reading and a visual equivalent in the same video. He was born in the USA to parents who were refugees from the Bosnian war in the 1990s. The memoir he began working on is, I believe, the first time he has explored that material at such length. The video still needs some work, but it's so impressive already that I want to share it as widely as possible.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
  1. Most of this is consumed by the central character, Jake, though the larger quantities (the 7 litres of wine in Chapter 15 or the 15 whiskies in Chapter 19) involve 2 other people. However, the 5 bottles of wine at the end of the book are all pretty much swallowed by Jake.
  2. I have almost certainly missed a few, though the list is pretty comprehensive.
  3. It's not recommended that you turn this into a Hemingway drinking game. A long time ago, some friends of mine tried to have every drink in "The Sun Also Rises" in order, and they were unconscious by the end of chapter 4.
Ch 1:
several fines (brandies)

Ch. 2:
a whiskey and soda
an aperitif

Ch 3:
2 bottles of wine
several liqueurs
a beer
a cognac
"a drink"

Ch 4:
brandy and soda

Ch 5:
a beer

CH 6:
a Jack Rose
"we had a drink"

Ch 7:
"a glass in her hand"
2 brandies
3 bottles of champagne
a bottle of brandy

Ch 8:
several glasses of liquor
"a drink"
several brandies
a whiskey and soda
a brandy

Ch 9:
"a drink"
a bottle of wine
"another bottle of wine"

Ch 10:
two beers
"plenty of wine"

Ch 11
2 bottles of wine
several swigs from a wine skin
one aguardiente
four unspecified drinks
a pitcher of rum punch
several bottles of wine

Ch 12
2 bottles of wine

Ch 13
3 bottles of wine
3 more bottles of wine
several drinks
several more drinks
"much wine"

Ch 14
a vermouth

Ch 15
a sherry
a gallon wine-skin
7 litres of wine
a bottle of anis
one "big leather wine bottle"

Ch 16
several glasses of wine
a bottle of Fundador
"a big glass of cognac"
"another glass of Fundador"
a bottle of Fundador
a glass of amontillado brandy
3 cognacs

Ch 17
a Fundador
a beer
"three more bottles of beer"
"another bottle of beer"
6 bottles of beer
a bottle of Fundador

Ch 18
several bottles of beer
"another big beer"
bottle of wine
several bottles of beer
4 glasses of absinthe

Ch 19
a bottle of Fundador
a whiskey and soda
15 whiskies
bottle of wine
glass of liqueur
2 brandies
a whiskey and soda
2 cognacs
2 martinis
"two more martinis"
"two more martinis"
3 bottles of rioja alta
2 more bottles of rioja alta


Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Centennial Day With Picasso

If you're not the sort of person who becomes obsessed with your favourite artists to the extent that you lap up even the tiniest details of their biography, then read no further: this post is not for you.

If, however, you get a kick out of that sort of thing, then here's what I want to talk about. Roughly twenty years ago, I found a short book that became a valuable addition to my collection of biographical materials about Picasso. It's called A Day With Picasso, and it came about when a researcher called Billy Kluver decided to track down all the photographs taken by Jean Cocteau during a single afternoon lunch session with Picasso, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, some time during WWI. You can read the full story in his own words in the essay that prefaced the book. A brief summary: photos like this one were known to biographers and cultural historians...

L to r: Kisling, Ortiz, Jacob, Picasso, La Paquerette.
... but no-one had tried to track down all the photos that Cocteau took that day, and no-one had ascertained even the year that the photos were taken. Kluver's method involved talking to collectors, biographers, museum people, and other related parties; hunting through archives; and most ingeniously of all, matching meteorological charts from the time to arrive at an exact day when a) all the people in the photos were in Paris at the same time, and b) to judge by the angle of the shadows what time of day the photos were taken. 

The result: Kluver named the day as Saturday, August 12, 1916, and the shooting time was from about 12:30 in the afternoon until about 4:00 pm. Cocteau met Picasso at the Rotonde on the Boulevard Montparnasse, where they were joined by the poet Max Jacob, the writer Henri Pierre Roché, the artists Moise Kisling and Amedeo Modigliani, and the model La Paquerette. A few other members of the Montparnasse artistic demi-monde dropped by at different times. Cocteau took a series of relaxed, candid shots of his friends outside the restaurant, at the junction of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail; inside the Rotonde; outside on the street again, fooling around next to a vegetable seller's cart; and (after Picasso had gone home) outside the church at the western end of the avenue.

Standing, l to r: Jacob, Roche, Picasso

L to r: Ortiz, Jacob, Kisling, La Paquerette, and Picasso inside La Rotonde
There's nothing particularly dramatic about the photos. It's entirely possible that the conversations, locked forever inside the silence of the still image, were about banal things like the price of coffee, or what they were doing for dinner later. They were almost certainly joking around about people they knew, art dealers they were struggling with, and perhaps talking about weightier matters like the terrible war that was taking place a few dozen miles away to the north of Paris. But it's precisely the informality of the shots, and the fact that Mr. Kluver tracked them down to a particular day in a particular order, that gives the extraordinary feeling of sitting next to people in a cafe, a whole century ago, as they go about the work of creating the milieu that lit the starting fuse for twentieth century art.

Some other related biographical information that pertains to the photos:
  • It's likely that the reason they were all meeting was because the artists had work in a show at the nearby Salon d'Antin. Picasso exhibited his 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- the first time the painting had ever been shown in public:

  • Picasso's studio was less than a kilometre away, next to the cemetery on the Rue de Schoelcher ( the red marker on the following map). I wrote a previous long post about Picasso's association with that address. The meeting and photos all happened close to where it says Vavin metro stop on the map:

  • La Paquerette was actually the lover of two of the people in these photos, neither of whom seemed to mind. She was a model for the fashion designer Paul Poiret, who in turn was one of Picasso's patrons beginning in the Cubist period of Picasso's work (about 1911 onwards).
  • In the second photo above, the chap in the military uniform is Henri Pierre Roché, a journalist who about ten years earlier had helped introduce Picasso to Gertrude Stein, who in turn became Picasso's first significant patron. Roché would later write a memoir about a thorny love triangle he had been part of, which in 1962 would be turned into the film masterpiece Jules et Jim by director Francois Truffaut:

  • I was born in 1962.

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