Lost © Robert Sommers 2023

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ye olde art critic

I got started buying and selling art in the mid seventies. My first company was called El Flechador Del Sol and sold primarily late 60's psychedelic and underground artwork.

I was an art architecture major in college and have drawn and painted for most of my life.  When my wife and I first started out in the business, we sold my paintings. Then the supply ran out.

I got sick with bladder cancer, the bane of many artists, in the mid 80's and had to give up the pigments. In the early 90's I started selling antiques and fine art full time.  I have been very blessed to have sold some very serious paintings including a John Singer Sargent that had been missing since 1913, a Joshua Reynolds, an important Maynard Dixon and a very good Charles Russell.  Along with thousands of other canvasses of varying quality along the way.

I don't handle living artists.  Wouldn't want the tsoris, responsibility or guilt if things don't sell.  When they come in to the gallery, I ask them for a note from their doctor to prove that they are really, really sick.  I sold an Ed Mell that was great a few years ago, a Matt Smith, a Bill Schenk, but it is a rare occasion when I get a live one.

I caught a little flack the other day privately for deriding the work of some contemporary titan.  Who the hell am I to challenge their lifetime body of work? Well that is what an art dealer does.  We make very subjective choices about what is good and bad. Art dealers without clear ideas about the difference do not last very long.  Now there is an ass for every saddle. You may hanker for big eyed kids weeping or dogs playing poker and who can challenge your taste? Fine. This is what I think.

 John Wayne - Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was a very sly guy who could adroitly pull very cold artifacts from the image bank. Cold people with cold cash could put said imagery in their cold houses. But after reamless riffs on the theme it got awfully stale. Sorry.

Very early on I realized that the paintings getting foisted on America by the art world were a crock of shit. There are and always have been tremendous painters in this country that could paint circles around Warhol and Haring and their cursed ilk. Most illustrators have more juju in their brush than Basquiat or Hockney or the media darlings could ever puke up on their best day. People like Brad Holland or Marshall Arisman. Or further back to Pyle, Leyendecker, Parrish and Wyeth.  Of course in art school you are told that if art is used to sell a product, it lacks the verite and cachet of "fine art." So we are left with some very sad work. And tired repeated cliches. And an inability to draw or handle a brush.

  David Hockney. The swimmer here is a case in point. Flat surfaces with juvenile rendering. Decidedly male interest thrust in your face. I was at a birthday party for an extremely wealthy woman in Tiburon once upon a time and sat with a couple who wanted to buy a Hockney. I actually knew where one was but made the mistake of trying to give them a good deal on the work.  They were seriously affronted.  They wanted to spend big money on a painting. Having a Hockney was like having a house in Aspen for them.  How dare I? Don't get the fascination.

Roy Lichtenstein had a cool idea once of blowing up comic strips and managed to make a career out of it. Now in the sixties there were lots of guys doing similar riffs, guys like Wes Wilson, Satty and Singer and Stanley Mouse, etc - of course they weren't connected to the New York art machine. Very tired.

 I have a friend that thought he had an early Claes Oldenburg maquette and I poured over about 650 images on askart of his work looking for a comp.  I was surprised.  The guy really could not draw very well. Dead on representationalism masquerading as art. But he was facile at blowing up objects out of scale.  I think some guys did the same thing up at universal studios with giant plastic rocks.  But is the ability to supersize something enough reason to give someone acclaim in our culture? Or covering everything in fabric? Apparently so. Another reason to hate humanity.

 Jeff Koons. Factory painter like Peter Max. Probably never touches the work.

Damien Hirst. If you're not the lead pig, the scenery never changes. Nuff said.

When I gloss through the modern art magazines or the contemporary museums, I often leave shaking my head. When I see great Thomas Hart Benton's buying in, and a joke of a Hirst bringing in millions of dollars of coin.  The glee when an Eli Broad is giddy over some new aquisition that is bathed in some delicious irony that we normal joes couldn't hope to understand. God must be working undercover to separate stupid rich people from their lucre.

I sell mostly impressionists from 1890 to 1940 but the later decades are starting to creep in. Not a lot of affordable great work from the 50's or 60's. For a couple of years now the bay area figurative movement has been coming up. Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, Elmer Bischoff, Still - great painters. But now the second tier is starting to bring real money, David Park, Roland Peterson, Wonner, Frame, McGaw. And except on rare occasions, the work is uniformly terrible. Or I don't get it. If they can handle a brush, they do their best to disguise it. I do like Roger Kuntz. Joan Brown. Frankenthaler. A few out there.

I think that for the most part, modern art is an incredible fraud foisted on a few dumb people that probably deserve it. There are phenomenal artists on the sideline waiting to be discovered by future generations. Robert's law says that it takes thirty years for art to be safe and palatable enough to hang over the average american couch. If you are thinking Warhol, let me offer my condolences.


Daisy Deadhead said...

That clothespin is ugly, ugly, ugly! Can you imagine working in that building and having to walk by that ugly clothespin every day? Or you look out the window to check the weather and view, and there is that ugly clothespin? I want to sue on behalf of the workers!

I confess I like the MJ-and-Bubbles thing, which is inspired. I like how Bubbles' face seems more "human" than Michael's, and their expressions are the same (chimp lipstick!).

The pig? Ugh, more dreck; what the devil is that?!

I have no class, and I have no principles. ;)

Daisy Deadhead said...

BTW, did you watch that 60 Minutes show (some years ago) about the art collectors? Lemme see if I can find it...(goes off to Googleville...)

No luck, but I guess they made a movie about them,
Herb and Dorothy Vogel.

Anyway, at the end of the show, they showed a piece of rope nailed to the Vogels' wall, put there by... (appropriate crescendo!)... Christo! They were thrilled beyond measure. (!!) (??)

I mean, it was ROPE, dude. A piece of rope! I was somewhat dumbfounded, being a clueless redneck out here in the provinces... people would pay for Christo to hang a piece of rope in your house, but not for ME to do it? (Hell, give me that amount of money, I will hang ropes all over creation.)

Dumb as dirt, if I may say so. PT Barnum, call your office.

Daisy Deadhead said...

(And you can shoot me for serial commenting, if you choose.)

What about Lawrence Weiner? The Vogels like him too! That stuff sucks!

My question is, do the artists themselves believe they are doing good things, or are they in on the joke?

Anonymous said...

Liked (and mostly agreed) with today's modern art segment.


Blue Heron said...

Thanks for the comments, Daisy. Daisy is my favorite blogger, folks, she is a great writer and has a robust following.

Re: the fraud that is modern art. I think that the art serves a great purpose - it allows rich people to separate themselves from we little people and somehow reinforce the notion that they have some super discriminating cognitive powers. So it serves a class function. But alas, you re not rich enough, you'll never understand it.

My brother and I once got kicked out of the contemporary museum in La Jolla when I did a deadpan 10 minute spiel on the conceptual merits of a broomstick that a janitor had mistakenly left leaning against the wall.

The artists themselves, are probably laughing all the way to their south of france estates, and over time, have deluded themselves into accepting their own brilliance, however grudgingly.

Bri Schlemmer said...

Pretty sure that a Fallbrook sculptor has had his 'hands' all over some Koons. HINT: BARKING BALLOON KNOTS. Is that considered ghost sculpting? Discuss and then let me know.

And this chick is proud of her rock period during my employ with Universal Studios. It was afterall, the 90s and I was fresh out of art school. It was fun taking those giant Flintstone 'boulders' and tossing them from the Psycho house in the general direction of the tourist filled trams. Yup - art school paid off BIG TIME.

Anonymous said...

tell me you cannot stand Duchamp. I have to hear it from your poison keyboard!


Blue Heron said...

Daisy I remember the Vogel story - wasn't that the humble postal worker and his wife? Oy.

The emporer's naked.

no, he's not. He's just sporting that cool new intergalactic cellophane body wrap.

Thanks for the Alice Cooper - it was alice, wasn't it? - always loved his voice and considered him majorly underrated - the albums totally stand up. Better with age, even.

Anonymous said...

I love modern art, but big words don't turn me on.


Blue Heron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I love small talk and the girl that goes with it. I hate Modern art and the idiot collectors that go with it. Usually they are the rich who have a need to part with their money, sorta like the Richard Pryor cocaine joke......

PS Bernie lost his garden statue a few weeks ago to thieves. Karma

grumpy said...

personally, i like David Hockney and Andy Warhol's work, what i've seen of it. am tasting a lot of sour grapes at the moment.

Blue Heron said...

Why is it sour grapes if I tell you why I think they suck. Hockney is a terrible painter. Awful. Warhol, a talented draftsman who did some very cool things early in his career and than went on a long dry spell without an original thought.

grumpy said...

i hear you; the clothespin leaves me cold, also; and the MJ thing makes me sick, actually; kind of like clown paintings; perhaps i'm too forgiving of David's technical shortcomings, and Andy's repeating himself; i just like the feel of their work; to me it was refreshing.

Blue Heron said...

key word - was.

grumpy said...

not to beat a dead horse, but you can check out Hockney's most recent show here:


...btw, i attended his "hand eye heart" exhibit of watercolors, at LA Louver, in 2005, and was totally knocked out...