Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

Published in, August 2021

Norman Rockwell: Toward a Democratic History Painting

You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and is he refuses, kill him, shoot him down. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns. —Alfred Waddell

If the name of Alfred Waddell does not ring a bell, his sentiments certainly do. Waddell and his fellow white-supremacist Red Shirts initiated the massacre of blacks and a political coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina, in August,1898. Brandishing a White Declaration of Independence, they stormed and destroyed a black-owned progressive newspaper; murdered perhaps three hundred blacks; and invaded City Hall, threatening elected officials there with summary execution, and leading them to the train station with nooses tied around their necks and promises of certain death if they returned. They even threatened the governor with lynching, forcing him to hide in a train baggage car. A local historian praised the new Waddell administration:  “The men who took down their shotguns and cleared the Negroes out of office … were men of property, intelligence, culture …. clergymen, lawyers, bankers, merchants. They are not a mob. They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.” State officials appalled by the massacre tried to prevent a recurrence—by further disenfranchising the black vote.

The dark side of white supremacy that shocked the nation on January 6 is no longer hidden, no longer rationalized away as excess zeal by “good people” upset with bad economics or the theatrical she toys promulgated by right-wing think tanks: fake news, enemies of the people, caravans, the China virus, the ‘stolen’ election, critical race theory, etc. The demographic change now under way, the browning of America, has brought to light the fraud and corruption of those benefiting from America’s systemic racism and classism, and the lawless violence from those already exploited, fearful and angry, who are cleverly misdirected to seek out scapegoats. Current attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to roll back voting rights for minorities replay the measures taken by the Democratic South after Reconstruction to preserve white dominance and dominion from the egalitarian reforms promulgated by the Party of Lincoln. We are repeating the sad history of the late nineteenth history, with the parties’ roles reversed, and many Republican voters ignorant of the great polarity change in the late 1960s.

The Republican Party, for a century the party of Lincoln and Emancipation, reversed course in the tumultuous year of 1968, wooing the southern white vote that had deserted Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats after passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965). That bipartisan legislation, which passed with the votes of moderate and liberal Republicans, attempted to restore the minority-voting protections instituted after the Civil War, that had ben sadly eroded over time by state government houses, a complaisant judiciary, and the KKK—not a mob, of course. Now, two generations after Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the GOP has chosen to pursue and retain power without the ideological-cover code words employed by Nixon, and later Reagan.
Reagan, you may remember, began his 1980 campaign in Oxford, Mississippi, near the Philadelphia site of the infamous 1964 murder and mutilation of three civil-rights workers, with a speech championing states’ rights, the Confederacy’s genteel euphemism for its “peculiar institution” of slavery. The historically ignorant Trump has cynically returned us to the 1850s, and, to paraphrase The Great Emancipator, now we are again engaged in a great civil war, testing whether our democratic nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

What has this tragic and unfinished history got to do with Norman Rockwell, the artist-illustrator of homey Americana whose name was a mass-audience byword for half a century, and a joke for art-world sophisticates? Rockwell’s art has become associated with the glorification of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, partly fairly, because his myth of a benign and gentle small-town America proved so endearing to tens of millions, for decades, a gently humorous Dickensian prettification of the less attractive realities; and partly unfairly, because the artist was liberal in his personal convictions, although he did not always make them public, preferring to be considered an independent, and largely eschewing politics. “I was born a white Protestant with some prejudices which I am continuously trying to eradicate,” he said. “I am angry at unjust prejudices in other people or myself.” He voted in 1948 for Socialist Norman Thomas—Thomas’s platform sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders’—and preached through his paintings the New England virtues of tolerance and humor, avoiding the dark side of things because of his own predilection for the healthy and happy moments of daily llfe, and the dictates of George Lorimer, his longtime editor at The Saturday Evening Post, a self-made man who promoted individual self-reliance to an audience eager to believe in the American dream.

Over his long career, Rockwell produced 4000 images, including 800 magazine covers and paintings for 150 corporate ad campaigns. His laborious process involved creating a narrative idea and then outfitting it with props and posed, paid models—“real people” whom he scouted out among family, friends and even strangers on the street, who were happy to pose for the famous artist. He amassed props and costumes as had the illustrators he adored in his youth; when his studio burned down in 1943, he consoled himself for the lost art and artifacts with a characteristically wry sketch, impeccably rendered. Rockwell worked seven days a week and always had a considerable backlog; this seems to have been necessitated by his financial situation and his psychological conviction that unless he worked ceaselessly he would revert to the graceless, awkward ‘lump’ he had been as a child. 

All I had was the ability to draw…. I began to make it my whole life.I drew all the time. Gradually my narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes became less important to me. My feelings no longer paralyzed me. I drew and drew and drew.

A friend joked that “Rockwell’s hobbies are work and work.” Rockwell took pride in his hard-won fame and success as America’s supreme mythographer, succeeding his idols, Howard Pyle (whose work Rockwell would have selected for potential desert-island exile,along with a couple of Rembrandts); and his friend and colleague, Joseph C. Leydendecker, to whom he paid understated tribute: “Apart from my admiration for his technique, his painting, his character and his diligence, he didn’t have that much impact upon my work.” But while Rockwell's artistic superpowers and stamina granted him rewards, he never took success for granted, conscious of illustrator colleagues who had committed suicide when their work lost popularity; a younger colleague even telephoned his idol Rockwell after he had shot his family, only to shoot himself later despite the older artist’s pleading. So Rockwell took commissions that may appear to us unworthy of his developing talents, and always felt overworked and harried by deadlines (though he took a perverse New Englander’s pleasure in frugally not charging corporate clients what they thought he was worth).

Rockwell was often restless in what he saw as the subservient role of illustrator, even as he lent his magic touch to Hallmark cards, Boy Scout calendars, Sun-Maid raisins and McDonald’s hamburgers. He occasionally hankered for art-world respectability even though painting had long since eliminated drawing, which he saw as the touchstone of art, a dilemma which he neatly captured in a 1962 work, Art Connoisseur, with its well-dressed bourgeois viewer, his back to us, like the figures in a German Romantic landscape painting, contemplating Rockwell’s well-executed pastiche of Jackson Pollock. He also played with ideas about representation that artists and art critics might have accepted had they been less middlebrow and folksy and more ironic, as in Framed (1946), with its portly museum guard carrying an empty picture frame, and being framed by it; or Triple Self Portrait (1960), a reps of an earlier painting, Artist Facing Blank Canvas (Deadline) (1938), with the artist at his easel. Here, seen from behind, he contemplates his reflection, while his charcoal sketch avatar regards us quizzically, all three Rockwells equipped with painted pipes. If Rockwell considered himself primarily an illustrator, he occasionally referred to himself as an artist, or, more specifically, a genre artist; “that’s spelled g-e-n-r-e,” he explained to an interviewer. Critics have pointed out his stylistic ties to Dutch genre painters, especially the humorous ones, and to the realists painters of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. That humor and realism became taboo after World War II explains some of the disdain by the art world for Rockwell. Classism and snobbery may be a factor as well for some of the scorn and vituperation that they unleashed (“Gee-gosh-shucksism”) on the people’s-choice painter. Another factor is Rockwell’s determination that his works speak to the viewer immediately, without the need for intermediaries. The historian Paul Johnson speculates: “Critics dismissed Rockwell for the usual trade union reasons. They have nothing to say about pictures which explain themselves. Rockwell gave them no intermediary function.” Rockwell’s summation of his position: “I paint storytelling pictures which are quite popular but unfashionable.”

But occasionally Rockwell was able to escape the confining bonhomie of Pleasantville (Dave Hickey’s term, I believe) and his own desire to gratify his audience and employers. He painted the portraits of four presidents: Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. His stunning painting of John F. Kennedy exemplifies the energy and promise of the 1960s, as well at Kennedy’s cool intelligence; while his Nixon portrait, which he conceded was “no Rembrandt,” probably reflects Rockwell’s distaste for the candidate whom he had observed wheedling votes from two maids in a hotel hallway. Rockwell's hankering to tackle “big ideas”—like paintings a black man for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post—usually met with objections from his immovable editor, but World War II provided challenges to the illustrator’s ambition. Rosie the Riveter (1943) celebrates the heroism and character of American working women on the homefront who helped win the war of attrition against totalitarianism;  its mixture of admiration and humor—and Michelangelo—make this an icon of democratic and feminist pluck and determination. The Four Freedoms (1942) paintings illustrating President Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union goals, i.e. freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear, were printed as Post covers, with accompanying texts by eminent magazine authors, and then went on to be republished as postage stamps in 1943, 1946, and 1994, Rockwell’s centenary; to aid the wartime effort,  they were published as posters, raising $133M in war bond sales. The most familiar of the four is Freedom From Want, its multigenerational-family Thanksgiving dinner so optimistic even in the dark years of the war, and so enduring — when we are in a hopeful frame of mind. Almost as well known is Freedom of Speech, with its young Lincolnesque worker, standing up to voice his opinion at a town hall meeting, with his neighbors neighbors respectfully hearing him out; all the models, by the way, were Rockwell’s neighbors. In the 1960s, as Rockwell was entering his seventies, he started working for LOOK magazine, which afforded him more creative latitude. In 1954, the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of public schools; in 1960, Louisiana was compelled to comply by federal marshals, who escorted the six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class at Willam Frantz Public School in new Orleans; in Rockwell’s 1963 painting. published in 1964, she is shown dressed in white, toting pencils, books and a ruler surrounded by burly men wearing armbands, none of whose faces is visible; behind them is a wall defaced by a racist epithet and a smashed tomato. Bridges was the only student at the school for a time, the white students having been kept at home in protest. The painting was exhibited in the White House during the Obama administration. A year later, in 1965, Rockwell painted Southern Justice (Mississippi Murder), a passionate denunciation of Mississippi Burning murders by white supremacists of the young civil right workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, whose bodies were buried in an earthen dam by a mob sworn to secrecy on pains of murder for informers. Rockwell. who had often disclaimed his inability to paint “evil sorts of subjects,” channeled his rage into the tragic yet heroic depiction of the secular martyrs’ last moments. Andrew Goodman stands, illuminated by car headlights, facing the mob, which is invisible but for metonymic shadows and sticks, while a wounded James Chaney sags to his knees; the dead Michael Schwerner lies at their feet. Goya’s nocturnal execution scene Third of May, with its dramatic lighting and its angrily expressionistic paint handling is an obvious influence on this stark and nearly monochromatic image from which every trace of ingratiating humor has been banished; it’s a worthy successor to Goya’s masterpiece, and superior in its strong feeling to Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), painted a decade earlier. (Rockwell, incidentally admired Picasso.)

If this conjunction of the current political crisis confronting american democracy and the career of Norman Rockwell seem an odd match, they are arguably related. Rockwell’s nostalgic vision of small-town innocents was originally useful as a sort of creation myth for our polyglot country: a promise that the melting pot might result in an open,tolerant society open to all. Today, with the browning of America, we are all to aware of the dark, violent, exploitative side of WASP white supremacy, but we are also in need of a new sustaining myth to encompass the new realities rather than sugarcoat the electorate with the old fantasies of American exceptionalism. Late in his career, when he could, Rockwell moved beyond the sentimental but good-natured straitjacket that he had himself created decades ago. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened had he adjusted his aim higher earlier in his career, say, during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Ultimately, however, we can’t condemn him for not fulfilling the role of our beau idéal given his immense talents in popular storytelling—for ‘’democratic history painting,” to cite Dave Hickey’s term. Can anyone alive talk sense to the Trump mob? Rockwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Rich SIlverstein's "I Read the News Today Oh Boy" at Minnesota Street Projects

Rich Silverstein: I Read the News Today Oh Boy
Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco

What did you do during the pandemic? This is what I did. —Rich Silverstein

Aside from Ward Schumacher’s political word paintings at Jack Fischer Gallery, and some low-profile shows at nonprofit spaces, the Bay Area, famed (and disparaged) for its liberal “San Francisco Values,” has mostly failed to address the Trump Follies. It’s a sleepy town in some ways. Rich SIlverstein’s recently concluded show at Minnesota Street Projects, I Read the News Today Oh Boy, came as a pleasant surprise, then, when I ran across it unawares in July. If that title rings a bell, it’s from the Beatles’ epic collage/montage, “A Day in the LIfe,” from the Sergeant Pepper album; in its range of references and associations, it’s a psychedelic updating of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” an elegy to tragicomic contemporary life.

If the name of the artist also rings a bell, Silverstein is an award-winning ad executive who went at art school at Parsons and during his career served as art director of the countercultural San Francisco rock publication of record, Rolling Stone. Silverstein was not heretofore known as a fine artist (although he did a series on the Dubya administration, which was published online). He was inspired by the first Trump impeachment to create a large series of photographic collages, nondigital, it should be noted, of New York Times banner headlines that captured not only the events of the day, but the tenor of the times (no pun intended). The dispassionate, objective sentences, the typography, the off-white newsprint color, and the torn, deckled edges of each quote, individually enlarged and framed in black, like an obituary notice, become blunt, striking metonyms and metaphors for our long worse-than-Nixonian national nightmare.

85 Days, a sprawling installation of these excerpts, displayed salon-style on the gallery floor, covers the process of the first impeachment, beginning on November 25, 2019, and ending with 45’s supposed complete exoneration. The pieces are nonsequenced, so they can be arranged in any order; the random element suggests the collage-and-chance techniques of Dadaist collages and William Burroughs’ cut-up writing process  (which, incidentally, influenced Lennon and Macartney). Twitter Presidency, Gut Punch, Crazy Nancy, Sleepy Joe, Little Adam Schitt, No-Nads Nadler, Human Scum, I Would Like you To Do Us a Favor—a whole disgraceful era is encapsulated in a few pithy, pissy phrases. What’s in a few ill-considered words?

After the impeachment, SIlverstein continued creating larger-scale headline pieces as well as blowups of historically significant photographs, covering the 2020 election, the stop-the-steal warning signals from December, and the January insurrection. I Read the News Today Oh Boy, for example, mordantly juxtaposes the Beatles’ mundane record of facts (“Woke up, fell out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head.”) with the Commander-in-Chief’s blithe incomprehension of the facts of nuclear weaponry (“super-duper missiles”).  

Several untitled photographic diptychs—single photos individually framed but displayed together— achieve their effect by contrasting political ideality (what we expect) and reality (what we accept). In one diptych, we see the Trumps about to step into Marine One, dressed as the affluent Manhattanites they used to be; at right, in contrast,we see the covid-masked, post-Inauguration  Bidens embrace in the cold at the White House front door, which,despite the color guard flanking the First Couple, seems to have been unaccountably left locked.

In a second diptych, we see armored, helmeted SWAT teams at a Portland or Minneapolis BLM protest, backed up by an ominous LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) sonic cannon for additional crowd control and dominating the battlefield; on the right, Officer Eugene Freeman, of the Capitol Police, covid-masked, leads the January 6 insurrectionists away from their intended targets in a cell-phone shot taken by someone in the mob—and undoubtedly immediately posted to Twitter.

In a third diptych, we see, on the left, John Trumbull’s 1818 painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, for which he assiduously tracked down, over two decades, 36 of the 47 signatories,whom he painted from life; on the right, Trump exults in his escape from impeachment before an eager, jubilant White House audience of Republican allies.

In a brief interview at the gallery, Silverstein expressed hope that the show might someday be presented at—where else?—The New York Time offices. While that would certainly be fitting and poetically right, there is a better venue…. which, unfortunately, does not yet exist. In American Visions: A History Art in America, Robert Hughes describes the plight of JohnTrumbull, the artist obsessed with depicting the American revolution. By the 1820s, America no longer cared about its history, hits energies devoted to the economic development of the continent—and at the nominal spreading of civilization and liberty. John Adams, who disapproved of art as frivolous, took a pessimistic view of Trumbull’s patriotic enterprise:

I see no disposition to celebrate or remember or even Curiosity to enquire into the Characters Actions or Events of the Revolution, I am therefore more inclined to despair, than to hope for your success in Congress.

Adams was wrong, however, and Trumbull was commissioned by Congress to do four paintings, which were installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1826, the same year that Adams and Jefferson died (both famously on July 4, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration). Ironically and shamefully, they became mute witnesses to 2021’s barbarian invasion.

The historical amnesia of American culture is now at a level probably undreamed of by the Founding Fathers—although a debased version of it, in the form of white supremacy, is defended nowadays as if divinely ordained. America needs an independent museum of political art that could present work such as Silverstein’s—as well as the toppled statues of Confederate generals, and cartoons and videos by our wittiest, smartest commentators—in a historically thoughtful context; it needs a People’s Museum of History dedicated to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: warts and all, all the news that’s fit to print and illustrate. Whether the people and their representatives, or some of the billionaires with money currently burning holes in their pockets have the honesty and intellectual courage to face our national inconvenient truths and save the great experiment of self-rule remains to be seen. 

Art Films (reprinted

Art Films

“Velvet Buzzsaw,” the new artworld satire and /horror film, seems the film for the moment, given how nutty, if not quite murderous, the art world seems, at times. I have not seen it yet, so I can’t pass judgment, even if the online and print chatter so far has been mixed.

As the topic of art-world films has come up, however, I thought I would recommend a few films worth watching, films that I have chosen to see more than once. I do not make this statement lightly, as I consider many films worth watching once, but not twice or more. And some films are interesting in some ways—the subject or plot, especially if reality-based, and even the special effects—but annoying in others, e.g., glacially slow pacing, painfully bad dialogue or acting, and nonsensical storylines. I am sure that many of you watch, as I do, prepared to Fast Forward, in the immortal words of the Colonel Sanders character in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. There aren’t enough good satires on the art world, alas, so I am including some biopics and documentaries. Some of these are available online.

Best satire:

—Untitled (2009), a spritely, buoyant satire of the New York art scene, manages to be both wryly amusing about the vagaries of artistic and commercial survival, about The Work We Have Chosen (to quote Hyman Roth in Goidfather 2), and, curiously, warm-hearted about its cast of artistic characters, including artists, gallerists, and collectors, perhaps because its writer/director, Jonathan Parker, had previously been active in the contemporary music scene. I had the good fortune to attend its premiere in San Francisco in an art audience that loved the jokes, especially its sendups of the more twee variety of conceptual art.

 Best artists-only nonfiction-based dramas:

—Final Portrait, director Stanley Tucci’s valentine to the so-called existentialist sculptor/painter Alberto Giacometti, traces the laborious making (and Sisyphean unmaking) of a portrait of an American critic James Lord, whose book detailing the ordeal-by-sitting was the basis of the screenplay. Art civilians may find the film as tedious as watching paint dry, as one innocent film critic complained, but art cognoscenti will find Geoffrey Rush’s comic-anguish turn close to perfect, and the film’s recreation of the famous dusty Avenue Hipployte-Flandrin studio is remarkable, and even museum-worthy on its own. I reviewed the movie for VAS (use search box); it’s also reprinted at (scroll down to April 2018).

—Edvard Munch is Peter Watkins’ 1974 portrait of the Norwegian Expressionist artist as a young man adrift in the fin-de-siècle bohemian circles of Christiania (Oslo). This sober examination will be slow going, indeed, for many viewers, and depressing to some, with its flashbacks to scene of family trauma that were depicted in now-famous paintings, but it’s a fascinating look at how the free-love counterculture made (and maybe unmade, partially) the young, sensitive “doomed” painter—who went on to live an improbably long and productive life.

—Vincent: The life and Death of Van Gogh (1987), written and directed by Paul Cox, takes (if I remember aright) a first-person-camera look at the life of the Dutch visionary, with a voiceover narration taken from the artist’s letters to his supportive art-dealer brother, Theo, read by the actor John Hurt, whose gravel-and-velvet voice seems just right. (The camera-as-protagonist idea has been used before, to my knowledge: once in a Dick Powell noir, and once at the beguiling beginning of Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Also check out Andy Serkis’s spooky-mad Vincent—almost horror-movie-worthy— in Simon Schama’s series, The Power of Art. (Alan Corduner’s Mark Rothko in that series is also a bravura performance.)

 Best general-audience documentaries:

—The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) by Christina Clausen makes terrific use of videotaped footage of the young graffiti artist, entrepreneur and gay activist, finding his way in New York in his teens and twenties, before the scourge of AIDS. I found it extremely touching, and its use of found footage extraordinary; if only large VHS cameras had been around to record, say the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and The Ecstasy, however, still serves us —as does that other masscult biopic, Lust for Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.

 —Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006) is a six-hour, A-to-Z documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series by Ric Burns on the bewigged icon of affectless cool and prophet of media-based art. The artist’s ascent from small-town Pennsylvania to a career in commercial illustration and later to the heights of New York’s art world is fascinating, even if it was the filmmaker Emile de’Antonio who persuaded the artist to paint Coke bottles and other consumer products of desire in a flat, uninflected style, not in juicy, romantic Abstract Expressionese.

 —The Cool School (2008), Morgan Neville’s enthralling look at the origins of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene in the 1960s, focusing on the radical Ferus Gallery, and featuring interviews with many of the artists, critics, and dealers, including Edward Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Walter Hopps, and Irving Blum, with his limos, yachts, and eye-candy escorts.

 I am certain that I have unintentionally omitted some good movies, even some I may have watched twice (but not three times). Ed Harris as Pollock, Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, Timothy Spall as Turner come to mind for Honorable Mentions. And then there are the fictional artists: Alec Guinness’s and Robert Newton’s obsessed eccentrics in The Horse’s Mouth and Odd Man Out, respectively. Art is long, and life is short.

David Edwards: Biomorphic at Avenue 12 Gallery


David Edwards: Metal Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture

Avenue 12 Gallery, San Francisco

The word ‘biomorphic,’ in art-history-speak, means organically shaped, not geometric. The term originates in the Surrealism of the 1920s and 1930s, which advocated ambiguous, organic forms deriving from the unfiltered subconscious. The Surrealists’ interest in bypassing conscious intent with its limitations in search of le merveilleux produced art as well as literature (automatic writing) that exploited chance and instinct; the unpremeditated painterly gesture was one of Surrealism’s legacies to Abstract Expressionism.

David Edwards’ exhibition comprises four bodies of work: 1) abstract calligraphic paintings on paper and plaster, made with ink and tools fabricated by the artist, resembling manuscripts written in some archaic, unknown language; 2) metal drawings, enlarging these pictograms into wall reliefs in steel, cut with a plasma cutter, and painted in brown and black acrylic; 3) sculptures similarly based on the pictograms, but built into three dimensional bas-reliefs with styrofoam, Bondo car-body filler, epoxy and wax; and 4) botanical-looking structures resembling stems bedecked with seed pods, made from, of all things, black trash bags made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) transformed with heat and, one would suspect, skillful manipulations like a glassblower’s.

Painting #2 and Painting #4 display Edwards’ asemic (nonliteral) writing in square blocks of characters that suggest simplified human figures (as in cave paintings), sometimes seemingly in costume, flowers, eyes, fruit seeds, and even microscopic flora and fauna.  Edwards began drawing with a wooden rod dipped into India ink, then moved with a cast-glass dip pen before finding a more flexible solution by casting his own dip pen in another, slightly more flexible material—perhaps silicone, if memory serves.

The Metal Drawings, made from painted, cut steel, isolate and enlarge the characters. Edwards used a slide projector, decidedly old-school, to transfer his ink sketches to the steel, after which he employs the high-tech plasma cutter. The dialogue between the artist’s materials and the impulses controlling his hand—the ch’i,tor life force, in Chinese calligraphy—yields images of unpredictable yet compelling poetry. Fossilized primitive life—egg cases, tentacles, seed pods—though not expressly invoked by the artist, will certainly come to mind in these untitled ‘drawings’ that are reminiscent of the indeterminate living shapes in the paintings of Joan Mirò and the sculptures of Jean Arp.

More three-dimensional are Edwards’ wall reliefs and sculptures, built up and out into the viewer’s space, but still fundamentally conceived of as wall-hung objects, like trophy tools or weapons of unknown purpose. These mysterious artifacts mighjt populate a Parisian ethnographic museum, along with 1930s Surrealist works by Giacometti with whom they share esthetic DNA. Edwards’ Plastic Formssculptures, again wall-mounted, are symmetrical structures suggestive of seed pods, spines, thistles, and egg cases, technical tours de force that have been magically or alchemically wrought from lowly garbage bags, a battery of specialized tools (tubes, spray bottles, misters), and practice, practice, practice. The artist, who has a degree in Plastics Technology: “I always want to try out new things.”

David Edwards has always gravitated to abstract art made from compulsion and necessity, and ad-libbed, rather than preplanned: he likes to “not have any idea what [he] was doing; to just dive in and make marks.” At the same time he has a love of materials and their specific properties, from the thick oil paint used by Van Gogh, admired when he was beginning his career, to WInsor Newton India ink, which combines intense pigment with just the right viscosity, a choice that he made after considerable experimentation. His work combines an artist’s interest in instinct and gesture with a scientist’s curiosity about materials to create “drawings from the subconscious come to life,” “living shapes,” and darkly mysterious artifacts suggestive of amulets, charms, fetishes, fossils, weapons and tools. 



Fwd: Field of Words: John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher, Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco, June 5, 2021


A Field of Words

Jack Fischer Gallery

Visual art employing words walks a tightrope between the visual and verbal realms once thought to be apportioned to the right and left, or intuitive and logical, sides of the brain. This theory is nicely traced in Leonard Shlain’s 1996 The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which interprets human history in terms of male linear logic (the alphabet) and female intuition/imagination (the goddess), and remains readable and fascinating, even if the science has proven to be more complicated.

In looking at word art, similarly, we may regard them in two mutually exclusive ways: as pattern or calligraphy, or, even asemic (non-literal) faux writing, in the Dada mode, beautiful-nonsense graphomania with a hint of satire about the limits of speech and writing;  or we can imbibe the word or text, relegating the painting to a mere placard or sign, with the visual element insignificant: Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” In A Field of Words, John Patrick McKenzie and Ward Schumacher demonstrate that word art can be both verbally and visually evocative, with the viewer’s activated eye and mind engaging multiple points of view. The field-of-words metaphor suggests both the cascades of glowing, scrolling text, the Matrix coding beneath sensorial, blue-pill reality; the featureless color mists of 1950s-1960s Color Field Painting; and the orderly inscription of the soil with parallel furrows for agriculture, and thus culture.

McKenzie’s marker drawings on a variety of objects—paper, scavenged window frames, and glass bricks—have a graffiti energy reminiscent of Basquiat, but without that painter’s figurative imagery. The irregular rows of hand-printed phrases and sentences suggest the magical charging of objects by spells and invocations. In a drawing from 2008-9, 1980, the artist writes simple subtraction problems that seemingly solve for unknown people’s ages: 1980 - 950 = 30, 1974 - 1962 = 12, etc.  The artist’s tall, narrow numerals suggest op-art stripe patterns, with the blackened closed loops of certain numbers (0, 6, 8, 9) evoking computer-countable ballots and tests. Joyce DeWitt likes pink high heels, in white marker on black paper, suggesting a schoolroom blackboard, records banal or obvious celebrity information on actresses (Joyce DeWitt, Susanne Somers, Florence Henderson, Sarah Purcell) and musicians (Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney), including whether they are “still alive.” (Why not 2014 - 1933 = 81, for On Kawara, creator of the 1978 painting, I Am Still Alive?)  Equally cryptic are the random, stream-of-consciousness inscriptions on five wooden and aluminum window frames and glass panes and on three glass bricks, where the writing is so profuse, complicated with shadows and reflections,  as to be almost illegible. Words emerge here and there—e.g., radio, toilet, Swoosie Kurtz, taco shell, future generations—but the staccato markings suggest syncopated music scores or player-piano scrolls rather than script, an urgent profusion of mystifying words and phrases: Dada glossolalia.
If McKenzie employs writing less for literal meaning than to claim esthetic territory from non-art reality, Schumacher builds densely layered acrylic paintings on canvas of text, stenciled in black capital letters over gray and ocher backgrounds. The lettering is not clean and crisp, however, but deliberately imperfect, with blotches where the painting leaked under the stencil, and the texts layered in different colors, out of register, like Warhol screenprints, creating shadows or ghost images. The bleeding effect of the ’ink’  recurs in Schumacher’s works on paper, made on paint thickened with wheat paste, and bound in  books, several of which are on display by request. The lengthy texts recount the artist’s dreams and memories, “some fact and some fiction,” so the paintings serve as a kind of diary — perhaps of a fictional avatar escaped from an Eric Fischl painting. Russian Consonants (2020) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue on the fascinating oddments of Russian language and history, including Tsarskoe Selo, skoptski, Bolsheviki, and the lecherous mad monk, Rasputin. Horse, With Peonies (2020) recounts (with blocks of text reversed to white on black, as if poorly redacted) a dream of Freudian and Oedipal horror mixed with humor that is concluded by a mysterious equine visitor. Drawing Dirty (2021) introduces two young sisters who tempt the boy narrator with glimpses of nakedness and of dirty drawings for which he is unjustly condemned. Last but not least is I Need Do Nothing (2005), an eight-panel painting two feet tall by sixteen wide, with the walking-meditation mantra repeated endlessly, like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” in The Shining, but with more rewarding results. Peruse the sides of these eight panels—there were originally ten—and you will note that the writing continues perfectly along the sides — although, presumably, not the back. Remember Jasper Johns’ stenciled words going off one edge of the canvas and continuing on the other side, as if the painting had been peeled from a cylinder. Schumaker’s love of ‘overall’ abstract painting, i.e., without traditional figure or ground, as practiced by Pollock, Rothko and Kline, combines with his dreams, memories and reflections in these humorous, mysterious, semi-fictional artifacts, or manuscripts, or handmade faded newspaper clippings.