11 Things You Learn at “Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process”

Nighthawks doesn’t depict an actual diner, but there was a New York diner that inspired it. The diner is gone now, which is probably just as well since walking into it would feel like walking into the actual Cheers in Boston: “This doesn’t look anything like it does on TV!”

Edward Hopper didn’t like abstract painting, but abstract painters dug him anyway.

Hopper liked open-ended narratives, tableaus that suggested a moment or encounter but left the circumstances ambiguous. In association with Hopper Drawing‘s tenure at the Walker Art Center, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt have written a novella about Hopper’s painting Office at Nightit’s being published in serial installments.

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Hopper painted multiple offices at night, which is even eerier than diners at night because…what are people doing there?

Every detail of Hopper’s paintings was carefully chosen. In the drawings on display, you can see Hopper experimenting with different configurations of windows, figures, and furniture.

Hopper was way ahead of Minneapolis ad agencies in turning urban water towers into art.

The inn depicted in this Hopper painting does actually exist, in Massachusetts—and you can stay there for 85 bucks.

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Hopper’s work has been a major influence on filmmakers. Wim Wenders has said that with Hopper, “you can always tell where the camera is.”

Hopper was a late bloomer; his breakthrough as an artist happened in his 40s. Fortunately, more than half of his life was still ahead of him, and he continued to create major works until his death.

Hopper painted women gazing out windows in multiple settings, and it’s surprising how much the narrative seems to change based on whether the woman is looking out on a cityscape or a countryside.

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Almost all the naked ladies in Hopper’s work are his wife, with different faces.

Jay Gabler

Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process is on display at the Walker Art Center through June 20.

The Pros and Con of James Turrell

Pros:

By removing all or most context from his illuminated spaces, Turrell draws attention to light itself. That doesn’t sound very profound, but his work reminds us that light and lighting are integral to the experience of artworks from plays to paintings, and that lighting design is itself an art.

Entering a Turrell piece is probably as close as you’re going to get to being in Willy Wonka’s Wonkavision room.

It’s fun to be bathed in multicolored, slowly shifting light. It’s like a really slow disco.

Trained in the psychology of vision, Turrell demonstrates properties of our visual perception that we’re typically unaware of. Our eyes are fooled—whether by holograms or simply by contrasts of brightness and hue—and we’re aware of them being fooled, yet are still fooled.

Turrell is one of the world’s most acclaimed visual artists, but he’s not above making you a private little James Turrell love shack in your own backyard, if you’re into that (and if you can afford it).

When you support James Turrell, you’re supporting the construction of a massive new work that he’s carving out of an extinct volcano in Arizona. It’s about a third of the way finished, and he’s 70 years old.

Some of Turrell’s 80s pieces look like empty sets for 80s videos. Curators probably sneak back in after those drinky-dancey museum parties and jump around in their tights singing Flock of Seagulls.

Turrell finds the common denominator among spaces of contemplation: a sense of serenity, remove, and altered perspective.

Con:

It’s just a hole in the ceiling, man.

Jay Gabler

Ten Reasons the Watts Towers Are Awesome

1. They were created by one man, by hand. Minnesota’s pretty proud of our largest-ball-of-twine-rolled-by-one-man, but even we have to tip our hats to Simon Rodia (1879-1965), who between 1921 and 1954 built three behemoth towers and a series of ancillary structures alone, by hand, in his own Los Angeles backyard.

2. They’re super-strong. After Rodia finished his epic artwork and moved away, the city planned to demolish the structures on safety grounds. A neighborhood committee demonstrated the towers’ safety in 1959 by attaching a cable to each tower and using a winch to apply thousands of pounds of pressure. The winch broke, and the towers stayed.

3. They’re in an urban setting. There are local residents who remember playing around the towers as children while Rodia worked, and kids are still running and playing around the towers today. The towers are part of their urban fabric, not sequestered in a museum or sculpture garden.

4. They’ve become iconic symbols of their neighborhood. People from all over the world can see an image of the towers and say, “Watts.” Not just “California” or “Los Angeles,” but “Watts.”

5. They’re loved by their neighbors. The towers are now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and receive the attention of expert preservationists, but they’re most dearly prized by neighborhood residents who recognize them as a unique gift bequeathed by Rodia to the community.

6. They anchor the campus of an arts center. The Watts Towers Arts Center, which started its programming in 1970, has become a cultural force in Los Angeles and beyond, hosting art exhibits, literary events, music festivals, and even piano lessons for local kids.

7. They’re not Gaudí ripoffs. Many observers note the stylistic parallels between the towers and the Spanish architecture of Antoni Gaudí—but Rodia was primarily influenced by architectural forms he remembered from his boyhood in Italy. He didn’t become aware of Gaudí’s work until late in his life.

8. They’re beacons of community art. L.A. residents embrace the towers not just as unforgettable landmarks, but as testaments to the power of community creativity. Rodia didn’t go to art school; he was a manual laborer. The international recognition that has greeted his work is evidence that you don’t need permission or credentials to be a great artist, and in that sense Rodia continues to be an inspiration—in Watts and beyond.

9. They create a sense of intergenerational continuity. Watts has changed in many ways—demographically, socially, economically, technologically—since Rodia’s time, but his towers have been embraced by succeeding generations as a reminder of the neighborhood’s past. The fact that a sculpture created by a 20th-century Italian immigrant has become the symbol of a thriving 21st-century African-American arts community is testament to how the arts can build bridges among people and across time.

10. They’re just plumb crazy. Why would a man spend 33 years of his life building enormous, bizarre towers in his backyard—and then say, “okay, I’m done,” moving out of town and never laying eyes on the towers again? Simon Rodia had a vision. That vision was beautiful, but also—like a lot of great art—absolutely fucking nuts.

Jay Gabler

Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana. As a northerner traveling in the South, one thing you get jealous of is the area’s strong regional identity. A museum of “Northern” or “Midwestern” art wouldn’t have the same sense of coherence, and almost certainly wouldn’t be as much fun as this brilliantly curated collection, which pulls you room to room by stoking your curiosity—and also by occasionally scaring the bejeezus out of you. If you get there soon, you can catch Craig Damrauer’s wonderfully eerie installation After the Forest.
Ten Awesome Places I Visited on My Southern U.S. Road Trip That You Should Visit Too

Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana. As a northerner traveling in the South, one thing you get jealous of is the area’s strong regional identity. A museum of “Northern” or “Midwestern” art wouldn’t have the same sense of coherence, and almost certainly wouldn’t be as much fun as this brilliantly curated collection, which pulls you room to room by stoking your curiosity—and also by occasionally scaring the bejeezus out of you. If you get there soon, you can catch Craig Damrauer’s wonderfully eerie installation After the Forest.

Ten Awesome Places I Visited on My Southern U.S. Road Trip That You Should Visit Too

Exhibitors You’ll Meet at Your Local Art Fair

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The Zen Master. She creates objects to inspire meditation: little Buddha statues, braided tapestries, water elements. Fortunately they work, since she has a lot of time to meditate when she fails to attract any customers.

The Barn Dude. He paints barns. You want a big barn painting? You want a little barn painting? You want a daringly off-center barn painting? You want a barn at twilight? He’s got ‘em all.

The Photoshop Profiteer. She’s built an entire career around the correct assumption that millions of Americans don’t really understand what Photoshop is or how it works. She takes mediocre photos, applies simple filters (“brush strokes”), and charges ludicrous amounts for large-format prints.

The Crazy Proportions Person. You know he’s an artist, because he really thinks outside the box. He has paintings that are three feet wide by two inches high, and paintings that he’s sliced into strips, and paintings that he’s pasted onto globes. He knows he’s a little “out there,” but he’s come to terms with that.

The Junkyard Sculptor. Robots made of…license plates! Wind chimes made of…flatware! Serving bowls made of…hubcaps! This is the artist to patronize if you like to imagine yourself living in Waterworld, or Beyond Thunderdome.

The Wire Bender. You know how long it took him to make that garden gnome out of copper wire? A MILLION HOURS. That’s why it’s so expensive…but for fifty bucks he can do a Christmas ornament with your name in cursive, right there on the spot.

The Faerie Queen. This mystical maiden paints faeries—and perhaps also dryads, and fauns, and centaurs. Without fail, she also has an Alice in Wonderland series.

The Pervy Portraitist. A surly, overweight middle-aged guy surrounded by his impressionistic semi-nude portraits of 18-year-old college girls.

The Collage Maker. Armed with only a pair of scissors, an UHU Stick, and her grandparents’ basement full of old magazines, she creates whimsical collages in which, for example, the Golden Girls’ heads are situated on the slopes of Easter Island.

The “Artist” Who’s Not Really an Artist. No, he doesn’t have any barns or faeries—but he can totally hook you up with a Coach knockoff or a pirated Dark Knight Rises DVD.

Jay Gabler

Dear Glenn Beck: The 80s Called, and They Want Their Culture Wars Back

The 1980s were a long time ago. MTV has now been primarily about reality shows for twice as long as it was primarily about music videos. People born after the decade ended are now old enough to drink. Traveling back to the 80s would now be as much of a jump in time as it was for Marty McFly to go from the 80s to the 50s in Back to the Future.

And yet, the Republican Party continues to cling desperately to the decade. It’s understandable, of course: the 80s were a great decade for Republicans. Under the charismatic if daft leadership of Reagan, they locked up the coalition of voters that would hold Democrats at bay for the next three decades: wealthy tax-haters, conservative Christians, and rural and suburban voters who didn’t care to be told what to do by Starbucks-sipping city folk.

Sometimes Republicans have had the benefit of gifted politicians to speak to this motley constituency and sometimes not, but since the 80s, Republicans have been able to lean on reliable wedge issues that convince single-issue voters—and voters who might be convinced to be single-issue voters–that the G.O.P. is the only worthy box for their ballots.

I’m talking about abortion, of course—and gay rights, and affirmative action, and tax cuts, and welfare programs, and gun rights. In addition, there’s the question of government support for art, which brings us to the very strange present moment when we have Glenn Beck trying to sell a urine-soaked Obama bobblehead on eBay.

Beck’s direct reference is to a painting, by artist Michael D’Antuono, on display in an exhibit at a community college in Boston. The painting, called The Truth, depicts President Obama in a Christ-like pose, wearing a crown of thorns. Beck’s stated point is that if you accept one potentially offensive artwork, you ought to accept another. The conservative pundit’s deeper reference, though, is to Piss Christ, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano that depicted a crucifix floating in urine. Serrano’s photograph became a lightning rod for criticism of government sponsorship of the arts, since Piss Christ won an art competition that was partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Those were the days! The Piss Christ controversy was one of the defining points of what became known as the “Culture Wars,” in which conservatives attacked liberals for embracing cultural norms that supposedly undermined the foundation of Western civilization. This included avant-garde art, of course, but it also included “values” like women’s rights and gay rights.

Conservatives continued to find the Culture Wars very much worth fighting through Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in the 90s; by the 21st century, the Culture Wars were losing some steam, but George W. Bush’s plain-folks demeanor reflected the G.O.P.’s reliance on those old tropes, especially as contrasted to the highfalutin John Kerry. Never mind the fact that Kerry was a war hero…look at him on that silly surfboard! Look at him reading the New York Times! He probably thinks Piss Christ is an important work of art, and that kind of thinking is dangerous for America. Right?

Bush eked that one out, but in 2012, when Romney needed some help from the Culture Warriors, he found it hard to come by. This was clearest in the second debate, when, pressed for his views on gun control, Romney whipped around and started talking about single mothers. It was a bizarre play—and an offensive one, given that Obama was raised by a single mother—but it makes sense in a Culture Wars context where the wedge issues are all lined up and everyone believes that they constitute a coherent political ideology.

People just don’t believe that any more. The 2012 election might prove to have been the last presidential election where nationally competitive Republicans took for granted that they could be against Roe vs. Wade, against gay marriage, and against immigration reform and be automatically embraced by both their base and by many swing voters. The social and political landscape is changing, and the era when “family values” meant Ozzie and Harriet—and when that seemed like a good thing to many voters—is long gone. (Jon Stewart likes to make hay about the fact that Republicans in 2012 actually still use that fictional 1950s sitcom family as a point of reference.)

American values are changing. Americans voting in favor of gay marriage this fall included not just the Culture Wars babies of the 80s, but many of their parents as well. The woman-blaming discourse about abortion is not going to work any more. Denying that minorities are becoming the majority is not going to work. Denying that the federal government ever puts money to good use except when fighting wars is not going to work. Suing a university for supposedly rejecting you because you’re white, or arguing that mass shootings illustrate the need for more guns, are…well, I’d better not speak too soon there, but the point is that the 80s are long gone and the Culture Wars are over. That’s not going to change, no matter how much piss gets auctioned off about it.

Jay Gabler

Types of Starving Artists

Starving because they’re niche. “My portraits of nude bus drivers just aren’t selling the way I hoped they would.”

Starving because they live like they’re not starving. “Wasn’t that huge catered party fun? Guess I need to sell another 28 sculptures today.”

Starving because they’re on drugs. “Wow, it’s sweltering in here! No, I’d rather not roll up my sleeves.”

Starving because they don’t want to go grocery shopping. “Fuck! I’m out of cigarettes! Guess I’ll buy some food while I’m out.”

Starving because of an ill-conceived day job. “Why don’t people realize their dogs’ energy fields need maintenance?”

Starving because they’re not in New York. “People who aren’t in NYC only come to gallery openings to peoplewatch and drink the free wine.”

Starving because they’re in New York. “People in NYC only come to gallery openings to peoplewatch and drink the free wine.”

Starving because they’re in a remote prison camp. “The junta probably doesn’t even realize that I’m a trending topic in seven countries.”

Starving because they’re performance artists performing “starvation.” ”What are you looking at? Haven’t you ever seen a gaunt man wearing a diaper and living in a glass box before?”

Starving because they’re bad artists. “Man, it is way harder than I expected to get a show at a coffee shop! Even the one my mom owns won’t respond to my e-mails. Do you think my JPGs were too big? I’d better re-send them.”

Jay Gabler

Photo by Raisa Maudit (Creative Commons)