R.I.P. Ron Cobb

Ron Cobb (1937-2020) gave shape to the present and the future. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve seen his work. His cartoons from the 1960s are eerily prescient, describing not only the times but today; I’ve argued that we are in many ways reliving the 60s, and Cobb reinforces that argument.

Ron Cobb, 1966

Before I knew who Cobb was I saw his work on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, the band’s most daring and experimental work. The colorful, San Francisco-inspired plane stands out against an otherwise black-and-white landscape, evoking a hippie mix of something from Wacky Races (1966) mixed with a Rowland Emett cartoon and a dollop of illicit drugs:

Cobb’s art for After Bathing At Baxter’s

You know his future from the films he worked on. The cantina scene in Star Wars (1977) has long been a favorite with fans, and Cobb helped bring life to its alien inhabitants. The look of the Nostromo in Alien (1979) was in part a Cobb design. The DeLorean in Back to the Future (1985) also benefitted from Cobb’s touch.

Cantina creature, from Star Wars
Spaceship design for Alien

Cobb was able to retire after Steven Spielberg gave him a small percentage of the profits of E.T. (1982). Most Hollywood films don’t turn a profit, thanks to creative accounting, but E.T. was a blockbuster.

I wish I had more to say about Cobb, but his work explains itself. All I can add is emotion. How many ways has my imagination been shaped by Cobb designs, or by second-generation designs inspired by Cobb? I can’t count them. “Don’t try to touch me with words,” said the Airplane in “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” off After Bathing At Baxters. Writing about art is like touching with words: frustrating, at times revealing, adequate and inadequate simultaneously. Ron Cobb suffered from dementia in his final years, which robbed him of the awareness of his own greatness. We who survive him will remember for him, and treasure his impact.

I don’t know what will happen to his website, but for now it can still be found here. There ought to be a retrospective exhibit/book – perhaps something for George Lucas’s museum to tackle, or the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Union

Another shot of the author awkwardly posing at Meow Wolf

It seems a lifetime ago that I reviewed Meow Wolf Santa Fe, though it was February of this year, and through the pandemic haze news has trickled of their next installations, slowed or paused by Covid-19. I was, and am, enthusiastic within limits; Meow Wolf is a good idea, decently executed. For a first try it is quite the success, and I’m not just speaking financially.

But today I am writing to support the Meow Wolf Worker’s Collective, as they seek to unionize Meow Wolf’s employees. It’s been almost 2 years since I voiced my support for the New Museum’s unionization efforts, and since then there has been a heartening groundswell in such efforts at newspapers, magazines, museums, and elsewhere. Unofficial word that Meow Wolf’s management is unenthused about these efforts is disappointing. Artists are often preyed upon or misused at a business level; what other field does “exposure” appear as a substitute for pay?

A mural in the hallway by the restrooms at Meow Wolf Santa Fe.

I have asked my name be added to the Collective’s letter of support, wherein the public can stand with the union’s efforts. I suggest you do the same.

While I’m here, I also suggest you look at The New Yorker Union’s site, which is stylish and does a good job of explaining their demands.

Hero Pulps

While writing a science fiction mystery story recently, I hit a spell of writer’s block. I felt myself inadequate to the task of setting a mystery in an unusual context. To correct that I set out to read a variety of hero pulps, magazines in which the lead novel is always about the same character. Hero pulps really took off in the 1930s, and some lasted as long as twenty years, but their impact on pop culture continues to this day. After sampling some of the most prominent, I thought I’d share brief impressions of them. This is a random selection of issues, often chosen by availability; I make no claim toward any being “typical” or “classic.” Even the worst was enjoyable.

C650E8E3-7F26-418D-96EE-CEB4041DC910_4_5005_c

The Spider, August 1934

The Spider (1933-1943)

So! many! exclamation! points! If ever the phrase ‘breathless prose” fit a magazine then this is it. Millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth fights crime not only in his Spider guise, but in various other getups as well, and he seems to have an easy time of it, despite gunplay and so! much! hyperbole!
The plot of the issue I read, “Prince of the Red Looters” was inconsequential. There were bad guys. The Spider defeated them. Characterization, humor, were all for more expensive magazines. The prose, as indicated above, was workmanlike but overblown. Subtleties like character were left for more subtle outlets, like comic strips (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one)
Written by many hands over the years, most often under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge (often Norvell Page was the hand behind the pen) it managed to last ten years, fading out .
The Spider was immortalized (if that’s the word) in two Columbia movie serials in 1938 (The Spider’s Web) and 1941 (The Spider Returns). Columbia was one of the cheapest serial producers, and their formulaic methods and low budgets show all too well. Warren Hull, known largely for his radio work, was pleasant enough, though his portrayal is identical to his other performances – for example, his Mandrake the Magician, a Columbia serial from 1939. Later paperback reprints have kept the Spider’s fandom alive, though I really don’t see why. Perhaps I read a dud.

D5022122-7C78-4E80-984C-1C164A9959BD

A reprint of The Phantom Detective, February 1935

The Phantom Detective (1933-1953)

The Phantom Detective is another millionaire playboy (is it coincidence that the Great Depression breeds a generation of wealthy crime-fighters?), this time Richard Curtis van Loan. The weakness of the plot in “The House of Murders” (a family inheritance is at stake) undermines the story, as well as the Phantom Detective’s limited use of actual detective methods. He just seems to know things, or plot elements fall into his lap. Unlike the other pulp heroes here, the Phantom Detective never made it to the movies.
The cover to this and The Spider are both typical pulp: a woman in peril, the hero either present or observing.

07FF2ED1-50B5-4B6A-8DBA-63E26A854727

The Shadow, November 1932

The Shadow (1931-1949)

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” Thanks to radio and the movies, the Shadow has had a life well beyond that of his titular magazine. In fact, The Shadow began as a radio character, narrating mystery stories on Detective Story Hour (1930), and grew into his own magazine and eponymous radio series, a movie serial (another Columbia cheapie, though better than some of theirs), and a number of almost-forgotten feature films from the 1930s-40s.. The Alec Baldwin movie (1994) was not much of a success, though rumors continue to swirl about a new feature film.
Lamont Cranston is the Shadow’s true identity in movies, though in the magazine he is actually Kent Allard, and only sometimes impersonates wealthy playboy Cranston. The radio show gave him a love interest, Margo Lane, though her role is often more victim than paramour. The Shadow has some associates, but their roles are limited. On radio, the Shadow’s ability to cloud men’s minds allows him to become invisible; in the magazine, he skulks about, but cannot disappear. On the whole, it’s better (given a choice) to be the radio Shadow.
In The Five Chameleons, a group of criminals seek to gain a large sum of money by manipulating the banking industry in a couple of modest-sized towns. Some gunplay is added to keep it from being too dry. The Shadow must investigate when an innocent young man is framed for a killing connected with the plot. If my description is longer than the first two magazines, it’s because this story is actually memorable, when the Spider and the Phantom Detective novels were not.
There is a chapter wherein the Shadow sits in his bat cave (he had one before Batman) and researches the events so far. It does nothing to advance the story. You can feel the author (Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the stories under the pen name Maxwell Grant) worrying that his story will not meet the required word count.
The cover could be said to illustrate the novel, but the composition is so striking it doesn’t matter. That must have stood out on the newsstand. So far as I know the Shadow’s large, broken nose is never mentioned in print.

25659324-9990-407D-8B3C-5F4CC40F9E4F

Doc Savage, October 1939

Doc Savage (1933-1949)

Only some of the hero pulps have lasting fandoms, the Shadow being one due to its life on film and radio, but Doc Savage, despite a single, misunderstood film adaptation (1999), continues to appeal. Paperback reissues of many of the books were published, and there is talk of another movie.
I’ve listed these in order of quality, and Doc Savage is just about at the top. The author, Kenneth Robeson (a pen name – the majority of the novels were written by one man, Lester Dent) has a nice touch of humor that leavens the action and keeps pretentiousness at bay. What other pulp hero would be reluctant to take the NY subway, because people kept stopping and asking for his autograph?
Doc’s deficit, in my opinion, is an excess of sidekicks, which does keep Doc from being insufferable (he is always right, and I suspect he can walk on water) but you can feel the writer trying hard to squeeze them all in. Doc Savage frequently used fantastic elements in his stories. This one, “The Stone Man” involves a secret society of albino Native Americans in Arizona, trying to keep their hidden land from greedy white men. It’s no world-beater, but the action is quick and the desert setting (what little there is of it) enlivens the plot. As a recent (now former) resident of Arizona I was amused to see it presented as wild, untamed land, full of mystery – some of it still is!
One quibble: this cover is quite bland. Although it does illustrate a scene in the story, it gives little indication of the scope or unusual nature of the plot. Walter Baumhofer, who created many Doc Savage covers, was told to make Doc look like Clark Gable, but he ignored orders; his image of Doc, like the large-nosed Shadow, became definitive.

A18CDDC3-1ABC-41E7-8D36-B1339CA96D2C

Captain Future, Spring 1941

Captain Future (1940-1944)

Last but definitely not least, CF was the only science fiction hero to lead his own magazine, though Doc Savage dealt with futuristic and fantastic elements so often he almost qualifies. More to the point, CF for most of its run was written by one of the pioneers of the space opera subgenre, Edmund Hamilton. Hamilton was given the standard format for a hero pulp: stalwart, handsome hero, quirky sidekicks (Otho, an android grown in a vat, Grag the robot, and the disembodied brain of scientist Simon Wright) and he took it from there.
The origin of the solar system’s humanoid population (every planet is not only habitable, but stocked with humanoid species), spelled out in Star of Dread (Summer 1943) is remarkably similar to the explanation given in Star Trek: the Next Generation. I won’t specify what that explanation is. Read the novel or watch the TNG episode “The Chase,” from season six. There are non-human species as well; the intelligent ones invariably come from outside our system.
The cover illustrates the story and meets the pulp prerequisites as well. The clumsy, square robot is as described in Hamilton’s novel. Not the most photogenic menace, but at least it’s accurate. CF’s gun shoots colored smoke rings, a detail not described in prose, but rendered by several illustrators over the years.
Of all these pulps, CF is the one I wish had gone on, not only as a magazine (wartime paper restrictions shut it down) but each individual novel could be longer. So many adventures are packed into each novel, you could expand every chapter without padding. The 1978-79 anime series was a faithful adaptation, though I wish they had stuck to the 1930s-40s designs. A few new CF stories have been written by author Allan Steele, which seek to update the good Captain to more modern sci-fi style, but why? It’s fiction – the universe does not have to be scientifically accurate to be science fictionally accurate. But I wish Steele well; anything that keeps CF in the public eye is okay with me.

Movement

84564F28-7C83-4C1D-B338-EE3FC8717017

Eowyn and the Witch-King of Angmar by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

I was just the right age for the Brothers Hildebrandt‘s J.R.R. Tolkien calendars, which helped define Middle-Earth iconography in the 1970s. As time had marched on I still remain fond of them, but years of studying art have shown me holes in their compositions. Though most of this post is not about the Hildebrandts, this is the place to begin.

Eowyn and the Witch-King of Angmar is a good example. I could ask many questions – why are there so few dead soldiers in such a war-torn scene, for instance – but my eyes cannot stop staring at the Nazgul. He’s all wrong, not in his costume, but his pose. This is a seated model, probably photographed and adapted by the Hildebrandts. Perhaps the model was draped in some costume similar to the final figure. But there is no energy in the post. The sleeves do not billow in the wind; you could almost imagine the Witch-King swinging his legs and humming a tune. It’s an idle pose, and saps the scene of its drama. Of course Eowyn is going to win this battle – her opponent doesn’t look like he’s trying!

Photographing models is not new – Maxfield Parrish is a good example of an artist using photo references to fine effect. But when the Hildebrandts fail a character can seem separate, almost pasted in, unable to interact with others in the scene.

In contrast, I want to peek at the career of Jay Jackson (1905-1954), a pioneering African-American cartoonist and illustrator. Jackson’s a good choice because energy is central to his compositions. He most definitely did not work from photographed models. His people have their own shape, and move with their own swash and drama. Jackson does not have a Wikipedia entry (why not?) but you can read more about him here and here.

Let’s start with Jackson’s autobiography, published in Fantastic Adventures magazine for October 1941. Fantastic and its sister, Amazing Stories, were published by Ziff-Davis, and gave Jackson regular work during the early forties. Raymond A. Palmer, who edited both magazines, was a keen juvenile, slam-bang action oriented SF and fantasy, and his flair produced a visually distinctive, enjoyable, if not always inspiring or scientifically accurate, set of magazines.

70015322-7D85-4DD1-90F4-D754E54B556F

5CCEF7F0-F984-4775-9F91-D5F1E121742B

Legs are central to Jackson’s art. They channel the energy of the pose. His scratchy linework adds to the mood.

6CF23624-08C3-46A7-A5E2-DC3CF4FC5EA3_1_201_a

Illustration from Fantastic Adventures, September 1939

Even when his drawings are slapdash and unsuccessful (this one below is a prime example of lesser Jackson) there is energy to spare. (Thanks to my brother Richard for the scan of this one.)

622F14E7-190D-4E9F-B25A-FEE5ACE7D4E5

from Fantastic Adventures, January 1942

Jackson’s magazine illustrations are sketchier and at times more cartoony than his cartooning. Look at this postcard below – Jackson must have been a leg man.

48A70195-D997-4022-9F6F-1C4986F40068_4_5005_c

And the drawing below shows considerable polish – the art editors at Ziff-Davis seem to have preferred his line work, but this is as good as any of his contemporaries.

6F2B0BA9-6999-443C-9DDA-1AB62A016AA3_4_5005_c

To close I want to digress into a little rant. There is a trend in contemporary illustration that does more than suck the energy out – it renders illustration superfluous. You’ve seen them: a collage of elements related or tangential to the story, rarely depicting a single scene, but establishing a vague mood – visual wallpaper, I call it. In science fiction and fantasy this is a particularly egregious trend, as those genres regularly feature things outside our plebeian world – in other words, things that cry out for illustrating. Fortunately, this modern trend in illustration is resisted by a lot of genre artists. I often go back to magazines of the 1940s because my father read them as a teenager, so I have held issues in my hands and parsed their various artists with close scrutiny.

Jay Jackson was not the best illustrator Ziff-Davis used by far, but he deserves his time in the sun, both for the things he did well, and for the bad things he avoided.

Questions over Supper

F1C191D4-E474-46F9-BAED-09A9D6504371

Giampetrino and/or Giovanni Boltraffio, The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. ( © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Limited)

The news that you could now study a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and sadly deteriorated Last Supper set me thinking. This excellently preserved work, by Leonardo’s students Giampetrino (possibly Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, active 1495-1549) and/or Giovanni Boltraffio (c. 1466-1516) allows us to see detail well beyond the misty ruin that is Leonardo’s original. Giovanni Boltraffio is one of the most successful of Leonardo’s pupils, and is often mentioned as the true creator of the Salvator Mundi that aroused so much comment a while back (I blogged about it a couple of times – though the jury remains out on its true attribution, and will be out until we can get another look at it.)

While the Boltraffio’s have done a fine job recreating the fresco on canvas, their use of color is too limited, their skill in depicting fabrics is below the Master’s standard. However, they had the blessed luck in seeing the work when it was relatively new, and it allows us to gain a little more insight – or, in my case, raise a few questions as to Leonardo’s composition.

I’m also posting this painting below, another copy, this time possibly made with Leonardo’s own input – it appears to have been made from the Leonardo’s original cartoon, and was likely overseen by Leonardo’s pupil Andrea Solari, with the assistance of others, perhaps even Leonardo himself.

9D36B1F2-6807-4B79-B681-726E35B9BA83

Andrea Solari (and others?), The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1520, collection Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium

I know my images are not all that great, but you can find the Boltraffio online now, in high resolution.

Let’s set the scene: from left to right, Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot. Jesus has announced his impending betrayal, and the others are expression shock, dismay, doubt, and more.

Looking at these images, I kept stopping to wonder why Leonardo made certain choices. Yes, Judas (fourth from right, with his face in shadow) is clutching what might be a bag, perhaps containing his 30 pieces of silver – that is clear enough. He is also knocking over a salt cellar, something hard to see in the fresco, but evident in the copies. What I wonder about is Judas’s left hand, which is reaching out, across the table. I thought at first he was reaching toward the bread roll in front of St. John (sixth from left, just before Jesus), but the angle of his hand and arm are wrong. He seems to be reaching for Jesus’s glass of wine, which Jesus himself is doing also.

Jesus, it seems, is not reaching for the bread roll by his plate, but is gesturing toward St. James the Greater’s roll.

Bartholomew, on the left edge, is clutching something white in his right hand, a piece of fabric, perhaps. The tablecloth shows no sign of disturbance, and none of Bartholomew’s clothes are that color. Is he the only person at this table with a napkin?

It’s hard not to notice that not only is Judas’s face in shadow, but his skin is noticeably darker than anyone else’s. This is especially evident as he is placed close by John, whose pale skin and marked feminine features make him stand out. Were John sitting up straight, instead of examining Peter’s hand (why?) he would challenge Jesus for the viewer’s attention.

Thomas looks like an afterthought, popping his head around James the Greater to make sure he gets in the picture. Thomas makes an emphatic gesture with his right hand, the index finger straight up, but Leonardo chose to slip Thomas’s left hand into the shadows between James and Philip. There isn’t really any need to put that hand in; the whole composition is peppered with gesturing hands (silent movie acting long predates silent movies). Why then put in this passive, shadowy hand?

While I’m speaking of hands, let’s move down to the right, to the next-to-last figure, St. Jude Thaddeus. He raises his right hand in a gesture of surprise, responding as much to Jesus’s words as to the reaction by Simon the Zealot beside him. But look at Jude Thaddeus’s left hand. It lies on the table like something dead, his open fingers echoing similar poses by Simon and Matthew, but there is no energy there. Is Leonardo suggesting that Jude Thaddeus (scholars debate over whether Jude Thaddeus is one or two people) had a crippled hand? I don’t know of any legend that says this, but, then, I was raised Episcopalian, and the lives of the saints is more a Catholic discipline.

Jesus gestures toward bread and reaches for wine; appropriately enough, there are no flaws in his design. These copies allow us to see his feet, which were destroyed in the fresco when the monks cut a door through the wall in the 1600s.

Leonardo’s original is still there, despite centuries of weather and war, in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. As to my questions, only Leonardo could say for sure.

 

Ashes, ashes, (they) all fall down

8AC9EE5B-20F6-417A-82FD-212F8DD74064

Sebastiano del Piombo, 1485-1547, Portrait of a Man (possibly Christopher Columbus), 1519

Symbols can outlast their belief systems, or perpetuate them. Despite their catastrophic losses, the Confederate battle flag and the swastika continue to represent their hateful ideologies, long after surrender and the deaths of the original participants. Neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates still walk among us. Though rehabilitating the swastika has proved impossible (has it even been tried?) the Stars and Bars has been adopted as part of the myth of the “noble South,” that somehow was not based in slavery, despite statements to the contrary. Here’s Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, in a speech he gave in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter:

“[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

History, it is often said, is written by the victors, a sentiment attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Herman Goering, but is older than either man. My own version, “History is written by the survivors” pointed to Confederate monuments on Union soil as evidence. Now those monuments are rightly under siege, and I might have to come up with a better aphorism. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (In fact, Dr. King did not write this, but only quoted it. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker is the likely author, as it appears in a collection of his sermons from 1853.)

2B691FDB-BBB9-46E5-A38A-563C03FC58BC

Hungarians survey a downed statue of Stalin, 1956

The toppling of statues has a long history. Today’s iteration is largely a welcome one, a far better precedent than, say, the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, in March, 2001. History cannot be erased by being destroyed, neither can it be rewritten by images alone – the neo-Confederates are discovering that now.

5D40961B-F587-4460-8A63-658D68724228

Holographic recreation of the Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, after the original was destroyed by the Taliban

For those decrying the destruction, I have a few questions. Monuments are, in large part, ordinary, unremarkable artworks. I noticed that many of the news stories covering yesterday’s toppling of a statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia (photo below), made no mention of who sculpted it. Perhaps just as well, as no artist would find their reputation boosted by being tagged with that routine bit of sculpture. Suggestions have been made that statues could be taken off their plinth and moved to museums. Question 1: have you ever seen a commemorative statue worth saving for artistic reasons, and do you know who made it?

I make no apologies for Christopher Columbus; even in his own time, he was jailed for his barbarous treatment of New World peoples, and he was considered a poor manager of those territories. Ordinary statues of him are easily disposable, and probably should be, to be replaced by more historically uplifting people. I would balk if someone suggested destroying Sebastiano del Piombo‘s painting (at top) showing a man who might be Columbus. It is one of Piombo’s best portraits (did he use a live model, though Columbus died 13 years before?) and has become iconic as the accepted likeness. Though the painting has an inscription identifying the man as Columbus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, which owns the painting, notes in its commentary that “the writing is not entirely trustworthy.” Historians are nodding in agreement.

Toppling statues is cathartic, and why spend money removing one when angry protesters will do it for you? The empty parks and plinths lead to my next question: what or who would you put in place of that Confederate general or politician?

583DC127-34AE-4EAC-BD72-BA44B35C1601

Toppled statue of Jefferson Davis, Richmond, Virginia, June 10, 2020

A final note, on the title of this post. I drew it, of course, from the children’s rhyme, known in its oldest form as “Ring a ring o’ Roses,” which originated before the 19th century. 20th century interpretations tried to link it to the plague of 1665, citing the line “a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down” as children imitating falling ill and dying. The version “ashes, ashes, we all fall down” have been said to refer to cremation. These are theories only, and have no supporting evidence. I thought that in these days of Covid-19, when statues are toppled and sometimes burnt, a new version was called for. The plague of untruth spread by these Confederate monuments is being pulled down and purified by fire, and the myth of the noble South is burning (again) along with it.

My last question: when the falsehoods are torn down, where will you be – helping, or mourning the death of lies?

 

“How to be an Artist” by Jerry Saltz

CE2F97FF-7D3E-42EF-92C5-84D39FED1906

the dust jacket to the book

Let’s start by saying I read Pulitzer Prize-winner Jerry Saltz quite regularly, which does not mean I always, or even often, agree with him on art. However, knowing that he tried to be a visual artist before turning his skills to words made me eager to read his new book. That, and I could get a blog post out of it – so much for purely noble ambition on my part. What follows are my notes scribbled down as I read the book.

A note on usage: I’ve never met Jerry Saltz, but I call him Jerry here as that’s what feels right. Andy Warhol always seems to be Andy; Picasso is never Pablo to me. John Berger, who I quote further down, is always John Berger. I wear my quirks on my sleeve, next to my heart.

The book consists of 63 short observations on becoming an artist, both from personal and professional angles. A number of these are followed by exercises to spark or maintain creativity. To me these exercises feel like an afterthought, superfluous though potentially useful. I am looking forward to reading Sarah Urist Green’s You are an Artist, in which such exercises are the book’s raison d’être.

Some chapters drew very short reactions from me: chapters 24, 27, 39, 55, and 59 all have variations on “Hard yes” or “Amen.” These alone should make the book required reading for anyone wanting to make more of their art.

I read Chapter 25 aloud in its entirety: “Know what you hate…it’s probably you.”
My girlfriend Heather, a mental health counselor: “Um, no.”

Chapter 37, “Make Art for Now, Not the Future.”
I once met an artist who produced beautiful pencil drawings in the manner of Michelangelo, all musculature and contrapposto – but that’s all they were. Nudes without any present context, skill with subject matter but no content – Jerry clarifies the distinction in chapter 33. Reading this book reminded me of that artist’s drawings, and reminded me why I had not thought of them in many years.

But is making art for the present enough? It’s unavoidable; as the punk folk singer Dan Bern once sang in his song “God Said No“, “…now is all I have.” The past is memory told by the survivors, colored by their experience; the future is fiction, most of it unlikely to come true. Yet I cannot help but feel that there’s something more. Making art just for the present is no better than making it for the past. As often happens with me, a John Berger quote came to mind, from his book “Bento’s Sketchbook“: “We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
The pragmatist and the mystic must cohabit the same psyche, in my opinion.

From Chapter 43: “Nor have I ever met an artist who regretted being an artist, as difficult as the life can be.”
Neither have I. Art is something beyond compulsion or obsession, it is something at the core of being human.

Chapter 44 includes a terrible pun, which I loved.

Chapter 56 is entitled with a quote from Picasso: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
I would offer a D. H. Lawrence quote in response: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” I’m not sure if he’s right about the last part – what do you think, Jerry? – but the first rings somewhat true. Any time someone, including myself, tries to lump all people in a single group my hackles go up. Truthful artists, lying art is just as easy to find as their opposites.

In case I haven’t been clear, I enjoyed the book, though I had learned many of its lessons years ago. It will be especially valuable to artists suffering one of the many crises, internal or external, that they will face in their career. Suffering is a part of life, say the Buddhists; you must suffer for your art, says folk wisdom. Well, some suffering is unavoidable, but you don’t have to look for it. It will find you. Books like this will help you meet it head-on.

AFD432E0-BD3E-44F4-A202-A82217BA1AC7_4_5005_c

One question: why, Jerry, why did you pick (or approve someone else’s choice) of an instantly recognizable color scheme for the cover (not the dust jacket) of your book? Yes, the image above is a hint. Your love, if not addiction, to coffee is well known, as is your impish humor. But this – why?

Letter to Gene Deitch

B2C3816B-D11C-4306-9530-CD6FBC502F6B

Cover art for The Record Changer magazine by Gene Deitch

Dear Gene,

This is not the letter I had planned to write.

I bought your book, The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove, to lighten the stresses of this pandemic-riddled world. It arrived and I dove in. (P.S. I like it a lot.) Halfway through I decided to take a break and check social media. There I saw the announcement of your death. The letter I meant to write you changed.

The Cat is a document from another time, when jazz was king, and the hardcore fan a butt of loving jokes. You tossed in commentary on racial and political issues, and slipped references to modern art into your drawing – look at the figure at far right, second row from the top, in the image above. There’s Picasso in that figure. Do I also see hints of your cartoonist contemporaries, like Virgil Partch? I think so.

D38F1838-FBFB-41CD-B6C3-5D9D976DD961_4_5005_c

Like so many, I was introduced to your work via Captain Kangaroo, where you crowned your brief tenure as head of Terrytoons by producing Tom Terrific. This innocent, enthusiastic superhero, and his perfect counterpart, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, was a catalyst for the young imagination. Look at the two of them above, and feel the energy and personality in their poses! I enjoyed, many years later, reading your short-lived comic strip Terr’ble Thompson, which served as a first try. The book of Terr’ble’s adventures sits next to The Cat on my shelves.

You see why I can no longer write the letter I had intended to? I’m telling you things you already know, mindful that this letter will be read by a different, still-living, audience. Your Oscars, your years of supervising animated adaptations of children’s books, your audiophile (were you really the first person to record John Lee Hooker?), all these are things you know about. Whoever is reading this now, though, might not.

Speaking of your book adaptations, I remember you writing to me after the death of Maurice Sendak, whose Where The Wild Things Are you directed so faithfully. I had unwittingly been the first person to tell you of Maurice’s death (I never knew Maurice, but the living and the dead are on a first-name basis) and you followed up by writing about your friendship. You said that in later years Maurice suffered from depression, but you didn’t use that word – “melancholia” was what you wrote. I decided that my own depression sounded much more manageable, more capital-R Romantic, when called melancholia. I adopted the term.

By the way, I am doing very well. My melancholia has ebbed and rarely rears its ugly head these days.

E9089948-5DF4-43C0-8302-1B2042B02533

You said you based Nudnik, the hapless (to put it mildly) hero of a cartoon series in the 1960s, on yourself, but that is hard to fathom. Nudnik cannot do anything right, while you had a string of successes, and seemed to bounce back from every failure. Just look at the first Nudnik short (an Oscar nominee for 1965) and tell me he’s you!

Since I am no longer solely writing to you, I’ll throw in a few more references. You wrote extensively about your career, your move to Prague in 1959, your happy life with your Czech wife, Zdenka, through all the years of the Soviet occupation os Czechoslovaki and beyond. My favorite is genedeitchcredits, which contains writings and video from throughout your career. You ultra-low-budget, fascinating yet slightly horrifying, version of The Hobbit, is explained here – andthe film itself now has a larger audience than it ever had or was meant to have!

Who would have thought?

C51E9EA4-B829-4604-B149-00E6BA53D200

Gene Deitch by Gene Deitch

This was supposed to be a fan letter, my observations on The Cat and well-wishes to you and Zdenka during the pandemic. Now it’s an obituary. When you first wrote me, thanking me for comments I had made about your Facebook posts, a wish was born with me that I might someday get to meet you. After all, you were not quite yet 90 then. Now, at 95, you are gone and that chance has passed for the rest of this life. But you have left so much behind that I cannot begrudge time for taking you from us. 95 years is a good run.

Thank you, Gene.

Sincerely,
Stephen

Required non-reading

Although I am not self-isolating, through a combination of a meager social life and an “essential” day job, my life has not been affected by the coronavirus in any profound way. I am very grateful for this, though being at risk in my job is a constant source of worry. Like many, many others, I have tried to find a topic that is pandemic-relevant without being repetitive. I failed.

What I have done is to provide my own little insight on a common resource: books. Yes, they’re fun to read, but did you know they are also art supplies? Here are a few artists who have used books in their work, without cutting them up – for that I would suggest you start with this post by Avi Abrams on Dark Roasted Blend, and then search for yourself.

30544DA3-AF92-46DD-B84A-194EDB5A21F9

My inspiration was artist Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project, which was introduced to me in this video from The Art Assignment – the image above is the cover of her book about the project. Stacking books with the idea of making an evocative set of titles – a poem, perhaps – can be done anywhere there are books. Her photographs of books are themselves good art, and preserve the juxtaposition long after the books have gone back on the shelf.

In my last post (almost a month ago – yikes) I mentioned the work of Mary Ellen Bartley, who has photographed books from a different angle, using the colored edges as building blocks towards near-abstraction. Her work stood out in my Albuquerque trip, and I’m still thinking about it. Here’s another example:

A1B57479-897F-4E99-A0D2-61CCACA82442

Summer Reading #4, 2019

Speaking of yikes, it was about 10 years ago that I donated some paperback books to the Wadsworth Atheneum, my former employer, to be used by artist Justin Lowe in his MATRIX installation, Werewolf Karaoke. The books were not photographed or read. Rather, they were the floor in one part of the installation: books set spine-down, packed together until they formed wall-to-wall paper carpeting. Full disclosure: I’m listed in the Thanks section at the end of the brochure, along with other donors. Walking on them was a peculiar experience: being paperbacks, you would expect them to bend and collapse, but they were so securely packed that the surface was firm. In a way, they were no longer books: no part of them could be read, and the colors suggested patterns without any explanation. Here’s an installation view, photographed by Atheneum photographer Allen Phillips; the distorting mirrors and the window make this view especially surreal:

0D283008-3FAC-48F9-937F-AB6EBD03964E

Let’s face it: I’m a bibliophile. I prefer physical books, which can be hefted in the hand, arranged on shelves for logical or illogical reasons, and even doodled in – though I’d never do that. Perhaps not every book is worth saving to read, sacrilegious though that sounds. Folded book sculpture is not so rare; a simple online search will not only show you examples, but how to do it yourself. Whether you are respectful toward books or otherwise, being cooped up at home is a good way to

I’ll leave you with one more image: a book sculpture by Canadian artist Guy Laramee:

64EAFF2F-4450-4C52-81D1-EEB724E8895E

Stay safe, stay well. Read books.