Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Mystic" Painters of the Misty Northwest

The jet airliner, internet, and all those other time and distance-collapsing innovations of the past 50 or 60 years might have contributed to a decline of regionalism in painting. That is, if indeed there has been such a decline; I haven't researched this and am relying on impressions as the assertion's basis.

Here in the often dreary, drizzly northwest corner of America we once upon a time had a "regional school" of painting. Because Life magazine said so.

Readers under age 50 might not realize that so-called "mass-market" magazines once were an extremely important part of the shared culture America once had. Publications such as Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Time and Life had huge paid subscriptions in a country with half its present population. Life was a fat, glossy magazine with an emphasis on photographic essays. While a recurring feature was a bit of fluff titled "Life Goes to a Party," it also contained articles keyed to the prevailing "middlebrow" cultural uplift ethos.

So the issue of 28 September 1953 had a full color feature on four painters working in the Puget Sound area (much of the magazine's illustrations were in black and white then, so color was a semi-big deal). The title of the piece characterized them as "mystics" because of their style, subjects and the local grayed-out climate. Naturally we locals were pleased with this important national publicity, Seattle being pretty much a backwater in those days unless one was in the aircraft-building trade.

The four artists featured by Life were Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Morris Graves (1910-2001), Kenneth Callahan (1905-86) and Guy Anderson (1906-98). A Wikipedia entry on "Northwest School" painting is here. Below are examples of their work:

Broadway 1936
This is an example of Tobey's signature "white writing" style. Here one can find recognizable images buried in the line overlay.

Patterns of Conflict - 1944
A later Tobey where the lines become virtually the entire subject-matter. Paintings such as this suggest to some that he influenced the later drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock.

This painting of a bird is representative of Graves' work which featured birds and other objects painted in a wispy style suggestive of Chinese painting with Tobeyesque overtones.

Callahan would often create a swirly soup within which he'd add sketchy human or animal figures.

Anderson's work was bolder and heavier than the others, as well as more purely abstract, as this example indicates. The "mystic" label sets uneasily upon him.

If I had a research budget, I'd put some effort into trying to determine how that Life article originated; for now, I'll speculate. And my speculation centers on the Seattle Art Museum which at the time was the creation and creature of geologist Richard E. Fuller. (A memoir about Richard Fuller by Thelma Lehmann is here.) For many years Kenneth Callahan was on the museum's staff to handle publicity. Callahan also wrote columns about art for the Seattle Times, the leading local newspaper. Given Callahan's public relations skills and Fuller's influence in the museum world, it is easy to imagine that one or both tipped Life editors to the idea for the article. However, this note states that the tip came from Seattle art dealer Zoë Dusanne (1884-1972). (I, along with some other art students, visited her home-cum-gallery not long before it was eradicated by construction of Interstate 5 through Seattle.)

So where do Tobey, Graves and Anderson come into the picture? They were friends of Callahan. Callahan had a wife, but the others never married and, as is suggested in this book, were at various times dear and extremely intimate friends of one another. Perhaps this explains why the not-so-mystical Anderson was grouped with the others.

All four artists matured during the period 1920-40, a time that interests me because it was a time of reflection after the onslaught of movements of the early 20th century and before Abstract Expressionism became for a while the dominant modernist school. In a nutshell, most artists were trying to figure out how to accommodate to modernism while the few true modernists were trying to figure out what next step modernism should take. This is why abstract and representational features intermingle in many works by Tobey, Graves and Callahan.

My rating of these painters? I think Graves was the best of the lot because he strayed the least from representation while creating interesting images. Tobey was the prime innovator. I place much less value on innovation and "creativity" than other observers, but feel Tobey should be given his due. Callahan's work tends to be forgettable as does Anderson's.

I should add that Guy Anderson was my art "instructor" once upon a time. In retrospect, it was probably an example of Richard Fuller helping out an artist in need. What happened was that, during my senior year in high school, the Seattle Art Museum held an all-city art class wherein each of the eight public high schools sent two students to it one afternoon a week. For a reason I do not know, I was one of Roosevelt High's representatives. There actually wasn't much or any "instruction" from Anderson. He'd mostly sit there in his turtle-neck sweater and tweed jacket and puff on a pipe while we students did whatever puttering around we did with our art supplies. The main things I got from the class were a crush on one of the girls and a date for my senior prom with another.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And the World's Best Ice Cream is ...

Actually, I have no clue as to which ice cream is the best on earth. But I do have a leading contender in mind.

Last year in Paris my wife and I became enamored of Amorino gelato, Amorino being a French chain of (currently) around 30 shops in several countries, but concentrated in Paris. We like staying just off the intersection of boulevard Saint-Germain and rue de Seine, which happens to be not far from an Amorino shop.

This year we were taking a crêpe break on the Île Saint-Louis and mentioned to the waiter that we really liked Amorino. Au contraire was his message. We were in serious need of trying out the Île's very own Berthillon ice cream. So we did.

(Berthillon's web site is here and the Wikipedia entry is here.)

The location of Bertillon's intergalactic headquarters is shown here, and there are a number of places on the Île where one can find cones and cups of the luscious stuff. Since the main store was closed that day, we sampled the ice cream nearby. Ditto a day or so later. On our final day in town the Berthillon store was open, so I over-indulged on a three-scoop cup of chocolate.

What is it like? Imagine a cross between chocolate ice cream and chocolate fudge; it's so thick and smooth the spoon meets resistance when you try to scoop some out.

Good for my waistline that I don't live in Berthillon's neighborhood.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Today Ray Sawhill (alias "Michael Blowhard") announced that the 2Blowhards blog was ending its eight-year run.

I was not one of the original Blowhards who gave the blog most of the charm and challenge that made it beloved by many. I signed on in 2005 after "Friedrich von Blowhard" found steady blogging too much of a distraction from time better spent on his family and business. My role was that of Second Banana to Ray, one that suited me just fine.

After Ray retired from the blog, I did my best to carry on. But there's only one Ray, and I could never hope to fill his shoes. Plus, I didn't want to post at a nearly daily pace, so letting 2Blowhards pass from the scene seemed a reasonable solution following the Great System Crash of 2010.

Art Contrarian will continue much of my style of 2Blowhards posting. That's because I've basically written to please myself, with the idea that a few others might also enjoy what I have to say. Political posting will be sparse or non-existent here and there might be a bit less in the way of historical and general cultural material than I produced at 2Blowhards -- this in deference to the theme of this blog.

Posting will be on the order of two posts per week plus or minus one or two. I notice that there are art blogs that do just fine at that pace, which means that readers learn to drop by a few times a week rather than daily.

Let me close by stating my profound gratitude to Ray Sawhill for giving me the opportunity to be a junior blogger on a blog I truly loved.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Getting Design Details Right

Guests are coming and my wife decided that today is the day to change vacuum cleaner bags. I had to deal with three different machines. And in the process got reacquainted with the art and craft of the machine-human interface.

All the detachable bags had the same annoying attachment feature -- a piece of cardboard stiffening on the bag along with a hole lined with rubber where the duct of the machine inserts. These are hard to deal with when it comes to actually making the insertion; a certain amount of aligning, pushing, fiddling with the alignment, pushing again -- with success usually coming after two or three tries. Since I'm asked to do this chore only a few times a year, I have no real learning curve to rely on.

I'm sure better bag attachments are possible, but the arrangement I found on three different brands of cleaners suggests that price of replacement bags was the most important consideration, so the arrangement was the cheapest one that would function passably well.

Hoover Portable Canister Cleaner

The little Hoover shown above had the best bag-changing design features. Even though the bag itself had the now-classical cardboard stiffener plus rubber-surrounded hole arrangement, the change operation worked smoothly -- almost.

It has a plastic connector piece where the cardboard could be slid on. Then all one needs to do is set the connector-plus-attached bag into a recess of the machine and close a hatch that has the waste hose attached -- it's aligned so that the hose connector inserts into the bag with no fuss.

But fuss there was. Not having the manual handy, I tried inserting the hose connection into the bag before shutting the hatch. The hatch refused to close. Repeatedly. Until I finally realized that the insertion was related to the closing of the hatch.

Ideally, a piece of equipment should be designed so that no manual should be needed, where everything should fit together only one possible way. That little Hoover comes very close to that ideal and is very nifty once one understands that final step. What's probably needed is a short message molded on the attachment plate stating that it and the bag should be placed in the bag compartment before closing the hatch. Perhaps newer versions than our three-year-old model fixed this detail.

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Insipid Penny

I'm not into coins and therefore was surprised when I glanced at the reverse side of a penny I received in change a few days ago. It seems that after nearly 50 years of having the Lincoln Memorial, the Treasury decided it was time for a redesign. (In 2009 a set of reverses were minted to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, but I somehow never noticed any of those coins.)

Here are the reverses of the main penny designs of the past century:

"Wheat" design: 1909-1958

Lincoln Memorial design: 1959-2008

Redesign for 2010 and future pennies

The U.S. Mint's statement is here, and the Wikipedia entry here.

I don't know about you, but I think the new design is about as insipid and ugly as any experienced committee of camel designers could ever have come up with. It's probably the worst coin design I've ever seen (and as reference, I've got baggies full of old European coins eagerly awaiting to be used again should the Euro meet its demise).

Bring back "wheat" -- at least its design is honest and fills the space nicely.

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards.]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mayfair Matte

Maybe it's happening in Palm Beach or the Upper East Side. Or perhaps in Beverly Hills, Malibu or Rancho Mirage -- though I was in the latter three within the last six months and didn't notice it.

That "it" is cars with matte -- rather than shiny -- paint jobs.

I noticed this in London's tony Mayfair district a couple of weeks ago, spotting at least three cars with matte finishes. And each of those cars was an expensive one -- the cheapest of the lot being a Porsche.

Here are some photos I snapped:

Yes, there's one. Parked in front of that shiny new Jaguar XF.

And it's a Bentley four-door saloon costing several times the price of that Jag. The license plates are British.

This is the unloading zone for our hotel. The tan-colored car in the background with a normal finish is a Maybach, what Daimler hopes you'll buy if you think Mercedes' are too ordinary. Closer to the camera is a Mercedes SLS gull-wing door jobbie painted matte white. Both cars carried license plates from the Gulf; the SLS's number was "333333" or thereabouts (I forget how many 3s there were).

Of course one wonders Why?

I have no answer at this point, though my first reaction was that it must be some trendy thing for a small subset of those who buy cars costing more than $100,000.

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards.]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The d'Orsay Adjusts to a Renovation

Paris' Musée d'Orsay, with its magnificent collection of (mostly French) art for the period 1850 to 1900 or a little later, is undergoing some renovation. The top floor or two are closed while work proceeds.

So what about the visitor spending mega-shekels to get to Paris to view all those goodies in person? Will he be disappointed? Feel cheated?

Probably not.

I entered the d'Orsay last Tuesday wondering about those matters, but a quick walk-around revealed that most of the important works were still on display even though a subset had been sent off to San Francisco for the duration.

Here's how they pulled it off. Galleries on the level above the main floor that usually are devoted to special exhibits were used to display paintings formerly found in the galleries on the highest floors. And it's possible that some paintings were re-hung closer together than previously in some other galleries (though a number of galleries seemed the same as they were last May when I paid my previous visit).

So, if you have tickets to Paris this summer or fall and want a good d'Orsay experience, you will find one.

[Cross-posted at 2 Blowhards.]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blogging Note

I am now in Paris and Internet access is spotty, especially because I'm (1) sightseeing and (2) trying to type this on a keyboqrd with a (éçèàù) French layout.

Normal blogging resumes after 16 July.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Blogging Note

Yr Obedient Blogger is in England (then Paris), and Internet contact is iffy. Which means posting may be light for the next couple of weeks.

I've been hitting the art gallery (that's what they call art museums here) scene pretty heavily and will have grist for future reports.

Also saw the new Andrew Lloyd Webber show Love Never Dies, in which the Phantom of the Opera goes to ... Coney Island?!? Kind of a so-what deal in my opinion. No take-away songs. Staging had some interesing Art-Nouveau touches. Probably lacks Phantom's legs.