Saturday, November 30, 2013

American Illustration and Modern Art: Mind the Gap

Here is my letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books, in response to Christopher Benfey's article on Norman Rockwell ("An American Romantic," December 19, 2013). Since I've never had a letter to the editor published in a national periodical (and don't expect this one to be published either), I've decided to peremptorily blog it here.

To the editors:

[Norman] Rockwell's body of work will compare poorly with [Edward] Hopper's as long as it goes unremarked that the greatness of such artists as Hopper has largely been constructed in opposition to the popularity of artists such as Rockwell to begin with. The modern canon after all exists only in opposition to that which is outside the canon. Never mind Hopper's beginnings as an illustrator, or the fact that by now he can be relied upon to sell a comparable number of calendars. If you’ve seen six great Hoppers, you've pretty much seen them all; whereas you need to see several dozen Rockwells before you can say the same of his career. In other words, as important as Hopper’s view of America, it is rather simple if not monotonous (composed as it is of alienation, unfulfilled desire, and large empty voids, even when more than one human figure is present on a canvas), while Rockwell’s America is far more varied, subtle, and complex. It may be a largely contrived and sentimental complexity, in a Dickensian sense, but it is a complexity that can no more be grasped by the handful of images circulated around the holidays than the literary scope of Dickens can be fully derived from A Christmas Carol.

Alas, "the old battles" over canonical modernism have not waned nearly so much as Christopher Benfey suggests. As an art history instructor, I can report from the front lines that the most daring young researchers wishing to study American illustration end up getting diverted by their advisers from straight art history into "visual culture studies," a circuitous theoretical slog presented as tolerant and open-minded interdisciplinarity, but which in reality is a ham-fisted effort to defend and keep pure the realm of high art at all costs. It is a move sadly rendered necessary only because [Peter] Schjeldahl’s "gap" between illustration and high art is still reified as "a battle line," blinding art history to material the study of which clearly belongs in its domain.

This despite the fact that the conveyance of such narratives of exclusion has become increasingly untenable in the twenty-first century classroom. Fewer and fewer undergraduate art history majors today are equipped to grasp unaided the concept of print distribution, let alone any rationale for the exclusion from consideration of an entire class of imagery created for such bygone artifacts as mass-market magazines. Particularly when the work is as demonstrably fecund and accomplished (use of the word talented being forbidden) as Rockwell's. Many students, of course, will accept that Rockwell is "not an artist" in the modern sense if that is what they are told (and understand will be on the exam), just as many will accept at face value the narrative in which Maya Lin is the hero and Frederick Hart the villain of the 1980 Vietnam Veterans' Memorial competition. But those students who think at all critically (or simply for themselves) about such assertions, as we ask them to do, will see no more validity in academia’s blatant discrimination against proletarian (i.e., working professional and almost always representational) artists of the modern era than that suffered by females prior to Linda Nochlin’s 1971 "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," an essay that suggested for the first time that the problem may not have been with the quality of the art so much as with criteria that had been meticulously stacked.

It is only when the gap itself can be seen as entirely illusory that it may begin to close or completely vanish, and an assessment of the full spectrum of artistic practice in the twentieth century become possible. Until then, any history that picks winners and losers (as art history has so blatantly done over the past generation or two), instead of supplying an objective and critical account of what actually transpired, is a history unworthy of the name.


Donald E. Simpson, PhD
History of Art and Architecture
University of Pittsburgh

See also: The Withering Away of Drawing

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shakespeare on Allegheny Commons

Here are some shots from the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks production of Romeo & Juliet, performed on a luscious Saturday afternoon on the North Shore of Pittsburgh. The dappled light through the trees and the light, warm breeze made for a beautiful afternoon of outdoor theater, while screeching trains, barking dogs, and impossibly well-timed church bells added to the ambiance.

See my previous sketches of rehearsals: Part 1 | Part 2

Michael Mykita as Lord Capulet

Andrew William Miller as Romeo

Daniell Powell as Juliet greets a well-wisher

Director Helen M. Meade watches on as Charles Beikert, Andrew William Miller, and Bradford Sadler discuss Romeo's post-break-up blues

Three of my favorite photos of the couple being wed. Andrew, Danielle, and Ronald.

Nice color coordination by production designer Lisa Liebering (lighting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir)

Charles Beikert as Mercutio has at Adam Rutledge as Tybalt

Ronald Siebert as Friar Laurence

Andrew and Ronald debate the semantic implications of the word "banish-ed"!

Mike Magliocca as Paris waits in the wings

Gretchen Breslawski as Balthasar

Juliet laid to rest

Romeo enters Juliet's tomb

Jeffrey Chips as the scolding Prince of Verona brings the play to a conclusion

Some of the audience members, having chosen sides between the Capulets and Montagues, had to be kept apart as disagreements broke out after the performance!

Jeffrey Chips raises funds for more Shakespeare in the Park!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Colors of Shakespeare!

Okay, so I lied. I couldn't sketch Romeo and Juliet just once, so I went back Saturday for a longer rehearsal, using Prismacolor sticks and pencils to capture the Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks' production. It was another, final, glorious summer afternoon in Frick Park, and it was a privilege to draw these talented performers. Sketching is such sweet sorrow! But students flock to Oakland, and it is time to bid summer's follies and frolics adieu!

(Actually, I suggested that the Capulets and Montagues be updated to rival Mexican drug cartels, who off the Prince in Act I, but this idea was rejected, so you could say I am parting ways with the production over creative differences!! Just kidding.)

Warm ups: 50 jumping jacks!

More circle warm-ups.

The personalities of Chuck and Jeff emerge.

Street brawl in fair Verona!

Pre-rehearsal notes.

Chuck as a Falstaffian Mercutio.

Jeff Chips as the Prince following the script; Danielle Powell wondering, "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?"; and Mike Magliocca as Paris.

Ron Siebert as the Friar, harvesting his narcotizing blossoms.

Andy as Romeo; Andy and Chuck after Mercutio gets sliced.

Andy Miller as Romeo, Danielle Powell as Juliet, in the bedroom scene.
Previously, the Friar tells the banished Romeo to pull himself together!

Juliet dies, then Romeo dies, then Juliet dies again!

Michael Mykita and an overworked sketch of Danielle during notes.

Andy stretching out during notes.

Danielle during notes.
See also: Romeo ... Banish-ed!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Last evening I was invited to sketch the rehearsal of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks' forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet by Danielle Powell, who plays Juliet. It would take longer than two hours to get to know the various personalities involved in this intricate production, and these miserable scribbles barely scratch the surface or do justice to what I witnessed, but it was fascinating to watch the creative process unfold.

I used light blue and graphite pencil on white paper, and darkened the scans, giving some of them a greenish tinge, but you get the idea. I had barely gotten warmed up when darkness descended upon Frick Park, enshrouding us in the tender embrace of a warm summer's eve (okay, I'm no Shakespeare). Unfortunately, the school year beckons, and I won't get a chance to do this again, but I look forward to catching a performance! Thanks to the cast and crew for letting me sit in. (And the cookies were wonderful!)

A park bench serves as a balcony.

Jeff Chips runs lines for a scene in the Capulet household.

Juliet learns that Romeo is banished from fair Verona.

The agony and the ecstasy of the young couple.

Juliet warming up.

Performers warming up before rehearsal, and a cart.

Juliet laid out in the crypt.

A maid drops to her knees in grief; Juliet; Mercutio.

Danielle Powell warming up prior to rehearsal.

Helen Meade directs Yvonne Hudson as the Nurse.

Danielle going over how to drink the poison.