Archive for Rembrandt van Rijn

Leslie Lew’s Red Shoes

Posted in Artists, Leslie Lew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2010 by Park West Gallery

Comic books and Albrecht Durer. They formed the Alpha and Omega of my visual world as an only child immersed in the mysteries of art. In both I found superheroes.

Every now and then we encounter the ineffable, indescribable and unmistakable phenomenon known as “charisma,” a quality upon which the idea of the superhero was hatched. Whether we happen upon charisma in the physical presence of another human being or discover it in the fruits of their labors, their life’s work, it is undeniable. It may be something that “slipped in” from the “other side,” or came from another planet like Superman, as there is no explanation for it in this tangible world.

Leslie Lew has it in spades.

Leslie Lew, Morris ShapiroMe and Leslie Lew (notice her shoes).

My first encounter with the charisma of Leslie Lew was through her work itself. Funny thing about that… So many practicing artists reveal similar degrees of technical skill and render imagery of a similar nature, but few posses that immutable quality which resonates for viewers open to the aesthetic experience. The “it” factor. For me and Leslie’s work, it was a complete “no contest.”

When I first viewed one of her paintings, my eyes drank in voluptuous surfaces, and lavish, luscious colors, augmented by a textural relief technique (which Leslie invented, called “Sculpted Oils”) which was at once irresistible and formidable. The subject was “Wonder Woman,” and she appeared from the cover of a vintage 1960’s D.C. comic book (complete with a ten cent price button), leaping into action to save the day. Now most men my age, who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and succumbed to the lure of the “picture novel” (often to the overt distaste of our parents), and who are forthcoming enough to admit it, will agree that Wonder Woman was hot. Leslie’s “WW” is way hotter.

The contemplation of one of her paintings is a multifaceted experience. It’s difficult to discern which parts are most pleasurable as equally fascinating qualities of form and content compete for attention. For me (and many of her devotees) it begins with the reinterpreted nostalgia of her world. As represented to us through the unique prism of her own cumulative life and cultural experiences growing up as a child born in the early 1950’s, raised in the ‘60’s, artistically forged in the ‘70’s, paying her dues in the ‘80’s and emerging fully formed as a mature fine artist into the ‘90’s and beyond. This appeal appears to be without any boundaries and her work is savored by people from all walks of life, all ages and degrees of artistic sophistication. She seems to have that indefinable quality of the “great ones,” and certainly the enduring ones, of being instantly accessible and as “deep” as you care to go.

When I finally met Leslie, I encountered the other kind of charisma: the human kind; the kind of which everyone dreams and few posses. She is electric, magnetic and radiates an energy, enthusiasm and honest passion for her work and her life impossible to forbear.

Strike two for me.

Leslie Lew, Action #1 (Superman)“Action #1 (Superman)” (2010) by Leslie Lew

In my many years of discourse and interaction with artists of all cultures and ages, I’m hard pressed to think of another who was so comfortable in her skin, openly speaking of her art with an eloquence and insight that ran parallel to her artwork (as do the titles of her paintings). So many artists (no fault of their own) prefer communication to be visual. They are often uncomfortable speaking, especially to groups, about their work. To Leslie, it’s all “flow,” an opportunity to add another dimension to her already multi-dimensional artwork.

At an event that we both attended I watched her, for the first time, from a distance in her black and white designer blouse and red shoes. She spoke to our mutual clients of her life and work with a diffidence and approachability belied by her prowess as a painter and her extensive credentials. She invited the guests to come up and “paint” onto one of her mixed-media canvasses. I watched as they queued up, one by one, and saw the delight in their eyes and faces as they spun and twirled the brushes, and contributed their own impasto applications of color to areas and surfaces of the image, leaving their own mark on a slice of 21st Century art history. I couldn’t resist, had to partake, and that same night I got a healthy dollop of white paint on the sleeve of my black dinner jacket. Leslie had left her mark on me.

When I was able to finally spend some time with her, I was most intrigued by her “story.” For me as a dealer with an insatiable appetite for art history, it’s all about people, the tangible and concrete, the real lives of those who eschew the world of the “day job” and forge fearlessly ahead to conquer the problems of aesthetics.

Leslie is the eldest of four daughters of the legendary Chicago advertising executive Les Hopkins (she is “Leslie Jr.”), who was responsible for some of the most enduring ad campaigns of Baby Boom culture including, “Alka Seltzer” and “Sugar Smacks” cereal (he invented the Sugar Smacks Brothers) among others. Raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and inheriting many of her father’s gifts, she recognized at an early age her destiny to become an artist in the form of an epiphany while sketching Lake Michigan. Later, her father turned his back on his successful, but stress-ridden career, divorced, checked-out of the business world and moved the family to Oregon, where Leslie and her three sisters lived a frugal “hippie-esque” life. This in some ways prepared her for the hardships she herself would endure in years to come. She returned to Chicago and attended the prestigious school of the Chicago Art Institute to receive her BFA and MFA degrees. There she became part of one of most esoteric, but simultaneously unique and distinctive movements in the narrative of late 20th Century painting, the “Hairy Who.”

Leslie Lew, Sugar Smacks“Sugar Smacks Box” (2009) by Leslie Lew

As a young art student growing up in Chicago (Leslie and I are the same age), I was also heavily into the Hairy Who. I adored the “twisted” but riveting imagery of Jim Nut (think George Grosz meets R. Crumb), and Roger Brown (who remains one of Leslie’s heroes), whose stylized imagery takes the naïve approach of someone like Grandma Moses and launches into a completely new realm of urban sophisticated-primitivism. Leslie knew both of these artists, exhibited with them and studied under another heavyweight of the movement, Ray Yoshida. During these years she honed her drawing skills (which are striking), and minored in art history, a passion which still deeply absorbs her.

The next phase of her life took her to New York, where she bore extraordinary hardship and sacrifices for her art, raising her young son Sean (now, a practicing musician and songwriter) as a single mother and supporting her small family solely as an artist. This was a defining time in her life, eventually materializing artistically in Leslie’s use of “Wonder Woman,” as a symbol for the superheroes women often become to deal with the challenges in their own lives. Her entry into the emerging, “East Village” scene in the 1980’s brought her early recognition, and formed the launching platform for her impressive reputation and the extensive art world credentials she possesses today.

Leslie is no lightweight. Her works have toured in museum exhibitions sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon Museum and the Guggenheim (upon whose walls her paintings have hung). She’s shown in the best “high end” New York galleries next to works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Man Ray. Her works have been reviewed by untold magazines, art journals and newspapers, along with art professors (NYU amongst them) and museum curators. She is featured in the recently published coffee-table tome on the Martin Z. Margulies Collection. Mr. Margulies’ legendary collection is one of America’s premier collections of modern and contemporary works in all media. Being featured and reviewed in this collection (destined for an exclusive museum residence) is a benchmark for any contemporary artist, as it positions them alongside masterworks by Picasso, Miro, Pollack, Rothko and Calder, among many others. Her works have been collected world-wide by a “who’s who” of celebrities and luminaries.

And yet with all of these “legit” achievements in an unbelievably competitive art world, Leslie seeks not to remain rarified. She told me, “I have always felt that art should be for the masses not for just a few of the ‘elite.’ I have worked and established myself…for over twenty-five years. Now is the time to have fun and do what I was meant to do…share my work with the world…and the masses…”

And the masses love it, from what I can tell.

Leslie Lew, Still Life with Fruit“Still Life with Fruit” (2009) by Leslie Lew

Leslie defines three artists as prime influences. She begins with Peter Max. Max is the consummate media master. He has seamlessly bridged the division between “fine” and “commercial” art. In Max’s world, no limit exists on the expression or manifestation of his art. He believes the artist can use the media of our times fluidly. He can create imagery which may be reinterpreted into a limitless number of incarnations and expressions. From the most sophisticated (paintings on the White House lawn) to the most common (ice tea bottles), he sees no separation in his quest to bring his art to the world. Leslie completely agrees. It is only a matter of time, in my opinion, until her work reaches a similar degree of exposure. For now, she creates paintings, monotypes (a lavish combination of painting and digital printmaking), deeply embossed cast paper multiples (also heavily hand-painted), prints, and even extravagant series of tiny matchbook covers, with hand-painted collages affixed. For the future, who knows? I can only imagine what her fertile mind will envision as the next outlet for her imagery.

Next is of course: Andy Warhol. There is an irony in Leslie’s admiration for Warhol, and it deals with the subversive contributions he made to the definitions of what is and isn’t art. Distinguished art historian and Professor, Arthur C. Danto viewed Warhol as the ultimate apostle of Duchamp, and saw his Brillo Box sculpture (1964) as the extension of Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” but positioned in a contemporary American cultural context, which was ultimately responsible for the creation of the “Pop Art” movement. Leslie has inoculated this “art for art’s sake” virus in her work (more on this later), but embraces the notion from Warhol (and many of the most permeated artists of the movement) of the appropriation of imagery from our culture. But the notion of discovering something (often pedestrian or banal) that exists in one cultural context and “elevating” it to fine art through the artist’s identification, isolation, ascension and frequent disparagement so common in the “Pop” idiom, has virtually no place in her canon. Leslie’s pursuit attracts her to subjects from our culture with the intention to elevate us and to remind us of an enhanced quality of life which her cultural signposts embody. She prefers to present the uplifting qualities and values of American culture. It is clear these endorsements often reveal an unembarrassed nostalgic view, but her perspective is focused on messages of optimism and hope. And this is where her third articulated influence appears (surprisingly to many): Norman Rockwell.

Few American artists have been (or will probably ever be) as polarizing as Rockwell amongst fine artists. To his champions he achieved the highest degree of capturing his milieu, his culture, his time and the “spirit” of his generation (in my mind, among the ultimate achievements of any artist–consider Toulouse-Lautrec). To his detractors, he was nothing more than an “illustrator,” whose accessible, often sentimental, and unabashedly narrative imagery reached too broad an audience to enter the realm of “real art.”

Setting aside the arguments on both sides (as time will be the ultimate arbiter) there is no denying Rockwell’s ability to tell a story and to hold up a mirror to American life. Leslie has embraced this idea with a new vision, a new timeframe and a new zeal. Her milieu is a different America–one that emerges from Rockwell’s pre and post-war periods to the next generation’s cultural touchstones, and the personal experiences which shaped her own idiomatic iconography.

Leslie Lew, Animal Crackers“Animal Crackers” (2009) by Leslie Lew

Leslie’s imagery is fertile and apparently unlimited just like her energy. Her comic book themes (which along with superheroes) feature subjects like, Felix the Cat, Blondie, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Lil’ Abner, Little Lulu, Barney Google, True Love and Boy Meets Girl comics. Early childhood memories emerge in Dick and Jane kindergarten readers; breakfast cereal box covers, amusement parks and other family memories and holidays. She’s also struck a strong chord through her use of circa 1960’s “comfort foods (Leslie’s interpretation of the “Animal Crackers” box cover has been a subject of numerous media reviews) and familiar locations of interest in New York, Chicago and other locales etched in her memory. She includes supermarket and toy store interiors (displaying their products in the glory of fluorescent lighting splendor); and her own interpretations of singular places she’s remembered including her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s apartment and her art school supplies store. She has written and illustrated a children’s book which focuses on building esteem for children and celebrating each child’s unique differences. This is the stuff of her generation’s fabric, and it resonates deeply with her audiences.

Another aspect of her work (which appeals to me personally) is her integration of great artist’s works into her own vision, a by-product of her deep knowledge of art history. Works of the masters often inhabit her imagery. Van Gogh appears in a bedroom scene (a visual pun) among other artists occupying interiors, along with a moving interpretation of his “Irises” painting in the Chicago Art Institute. But in particularly powerful manifestations during the years 1988-1995, she created a series of four and five paneled screens (some as large as 60” x 120”) reinterpreting, in her alluring “sculpted oil” technique, the works of Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Japanese woodcuts, Kandinsky, Breughel and an unparalleled version of Picasso’s Guernica (which she told me she’ll never sell). Picasso has and will always be the paragon for me… So I’m “out”… strike three for me.

Beyond the unexpected impression Leslie’s physical presence and art has had upon me, I am fortunate to also know and to have known many world-class artists. In every case, when given the opportunity, I have spoken to them about the current state of the art world, and the vacuum that exist in the consciousness of our contemporary culture toward visual art. At a time when music, film, theatre, literature and dance remain ubiquitous in our society, and are publicly consumed at startling levels forming multi-billion dollar industries, we have to ask the question, “Where did art go?” It’s not hard to figure it out. When “artists” starve animals in public, slice up sharks and install them in formaldehyde-filled glass boxes, and affix dead flies to canvas in the name of “art,” there is little reason to wonder. Former Christies’ executive, Phillip Hook summed up this contemporary phenomenon succinctly in his book, The Ultimate Trophy (Prestel, 2009): “We live in an era which, more than ever before, equates novelty (emphasis mine) with quality.”

Leslie Lew, Art in America“Art in America” (2008) by Leslie Lew

In almost every case, I can attest that the artists to whom I speak, the “Aesthetic Olympians” like Leslie, sense a “collective consciousness” transformation occurring right now. It is found in the imperative to return to beauty, in the resistance and diminution of “art for art’s sake” and reflected in an awareness of the true hunger in the world once again, for the ideals that can inspire and enrich us, and amplify our lives and experiences. These artists identify with that searching, questing restlessness to answer the same age-old mysteries: “Why are we here? Why do we as homo-sapiens exist as the only species that can create, and what do our creations reveal?”

I was excited when Leslie informed me, as we discussed these issues, that she had chosen to align herself with Park West Gallery for these very same reasons, and had declined requests from some of the “heavy weight” New York galleries who had been vying for a contract with her. I asked her if she had taken any “heat” for it. She laughed and responded, “I love to push the edge…I have been tormenting my ‘fine art/museum crowd’ for years… but not with ‘anti-art, scary art’…but with making gorgeous surfaces, colors—but somehow using relevant concepts. Boy does this confuse them!”

I am certainly grateful to her for choosing Park West Gallery as her conduit to bring a new, expansive audience and greater exposure to her than she has previously experienced, but my elation was quickly tempered by a sense of heavy responsibility. Would we do her justice?

I was comforted however; when she relayed a childhood story to me (It could easily have appeared in a Dick and Jane reader).

Leslie Lew, Once Upon a Time“Once Upon a Time” (2004) by Leslie Lew

As a child Leslie was “pigeon-toed.” Her mother rejected the urging of doctors who recommended surgery. Instead, she proclaimed that she would study ballet, and conquer her affliction. She was enrolled in a ballet class only to be refused by the instructor (a woman who trained Maria Tallchief, renowned American dancer who performed with the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Russe and Balanchine) who told her parents that she had no talent, and would never become a dancer at any level. Undeterred, Leslie herself (even at such a young age), refused to accept this assessment and began a painstaking practice routine (for as many as eight hours a day) for more than a year, at the ballet barre she had asked her parents to install in their home. As an incentive, her mother bought Leslie some very “cool” red dancing shoes, in which to practice and ultimately perform. They were a joyful motivation amidst a formidable and serious challenge. A year later in a live recital, she performed a flawless Nutcracker, to the delight and approval of her previously unimpressed teacher and her parents with (it goes without saying) perfectly positioned feet. To this day Leslie often wears red shoes when she desires a shamanistic and symbolic “power source.” She was wearing some when I watched her for the first time.

When I heard that story, I knew I had nothing to fear. Leslie’s conquering of the Park West Gallery world and her determination and commitment was a “done deal.” We just needed to get out of the way. I’ve learned that contrary to popular belief, our childhood does often prepare us for whatever life throws our way.

Leslie Lew, Morris Shapiro, Park West Gallery, Wonder Woman“Wonder Woman-Making a Splash” (2002) by Leslie Lew

I finally asked Leslie who were her artistic idols. I needed to know. We all have them, those of us who can’t get enough of the glories of art. Those who savor and pursue the inscrutable mysteries of that “thing” that serves no purpose other than to thrill us, to inspire us, and to keep us moving toward revelations which can only be described as “charismatic.” She told me of her four artistic superheroes:

Fra Filippo Lipi (1406-1469), Florentine master and teacher of Botticelli, whose technical mastery at his time was unparalleled (Leslie studied in Florence during summers for three years as a student, where she fell under his spell).

Rembrandt van Rijn, Master of the Baroque, who’s depiction of the quintessential dramatic mood in painting is still without peer. Rembrandt’s experimentation with the qualities of painting and his delight in the nature of applying paint to canvas is still the stuff of legend.

Vincent Van Gogh, the “Father of Expressionism” and an artist who believed art was for everyone and never to be withheld for any reason, from any person. Van Gogh’s tactile application of paint, his textures, and surfaces, luminosity of color and sheer power of visual impact has surely been the “seed” of Leslie’s astonishing techniques.

And, ironically… Albrecht Durer, arguably the greatest draftsman of all time, and for whom I share the same admiration as Leslie…

…and for “Comic books and Superheroes…”

…oh, and by the way, Wonder Woman wears “red shoes” too.

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Csaba Markus, Aesthetic Olympian

Posted in Art Videos, Artists, Csaba Markus with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Park West Gallery

In the contemporary world of art a battle is currently raging. As the 20th Century clicked over to the 21st, it provided a convenient demarcation point for this struggle, but it has really been ongoing for at least 90 years. The conflict is about the search by artists of our time for the fundamentals of aesthetics which have long ago been “thrown under the bus.”

Csaba Markus, Veritas“Veritas” (2006) by Csaba Markus

The word “aesthetic” is derived from the Greek word “aesthesis,” which means “perception with feeling,” and in so simple a joining of two phenomena, the entire history of western art criticism has rested. Perception of course deals with the sensorial response to art: what we perceive and experience through our limited senses as we take in what exists before us for contemplation. Feeling, results in what we take from that contemplation and from whatever “information” our senses provide. That is, how the information affects the perspective we bring to the contemplation of an artwork. That perspective is made up of our emotions, our experiences, our education, our dispositions, our passions, our prejudices and the myriad other qualities that define who we are each individually.

All through the storied evolution of aesthetic philosophy two halves have formed the whole of the aesthetic experience. They are the “yin and yang” of art and their measure must each be taken to develop a true analysis of any work of art in any medium. “Form” is the physical body, the manifestation in concrete reality of the work of art before us. In the visual arts (for which we will confine our discussion here) form may include the medium employed, the size or format of the work, the use of line, color, texture, contrast, the composition of the work, or any number of other “physical’ attributes. “Content,” on the other hand, is what the work of art is communicating to us as we experience it during contemplation. All art has something to communicate, even if the communication is about the absence of communication.

In 1917, when French artist Marcel Duchamp created the first “Readymade” by signing with a fictitious name an inverted urinal and titling it Fountain, the true iconoclastic struggle of aesthetic “life and death” began. By proclaiming that something was art, because the artist claimed it to be, the aesthetic experience was transformed into a kind of artistic narcissism, a constant contextual rumination by art asking itself, “Am I art, or am I not art?”

For nearly one hundred years now, artists, historians, museums, art educational institutions, galleries, auction houses and collectors have embraced and legitimized these types of artistic creations and conceptualizations. It serves no purpose here to dwell on the embodiment of these “artworks.” We are all familiar with the dirty ashtrays, the sharks in formaldehyde, the crucifixes in urine, the Plexiglas boxes of trash and the thousands of other manifestations of what author Donald Kuspit in his book, The End of Art (2004, Cambridge University Press), has aptly named, “postart.”

“Post-artworks” have been included in exhibitions with great fanfare and have fetched in the auction and gallery markets dramatically high prices, especially when compared to works by artistic masters of the past. To some extent, these “works” have been derided and ridiculed in the popular press and have caused their fair share of controversy, but essentially they have continued to flourish unimpeded in their own elitist milieu, where they focus on lifting up those things which were once considered banal, meager, ordinary and even repulsive into the highest realms of “Fine Art.”

Csaba Markus, Dance and ConquestCsaba Markus “Dance and Conquest” (2008)

The Pendulum

A comprehensive investigation into the history of art ultimately reveals that if only one thing can be counted on, it is that artists (and consequently their creations) will react strongly to the art of their time. Often this reaction will be in the form of pushing back against the grain of the accepted art of the times, i.e. the art that is seen as respected, legitimate, important, and valid.

Even deeper investigation will often reveal that the polar opposites that drive the pendulum of art history from one side to the other are grounded in the artistic ideals found in form and content and these in turn can be seen as the overarching characteristics of the pendulum’s extreme positions. A good example of this can be found in the distinction between classical art, which is grounded in the principles of purity and adherence to nature’s forms, and romantic art, which is about imagination, myth, and mannerism. Again, this is not the appropriate place for a long discussion of these historical observations, but suffice it to say that the difference between Caravaggio (classical) and El Greco (romantic), is a good example. These artists existed in nearly the same time and yet Caravaggio, by embracing the notion of a kind of painting that was focused on a depiction of true reality (right down to the dirt under the fingernails of the subject), created a new form of art in direct opposition to El Greco’s flamboyant and mystical interpretations of another world that existed beyond the tangible one.

“So what does any of this have to do with Csaba Markus?” you might ask. Well, I have had the good fortune to have many discussions with Csaba about these very subjects. And Csaba is a true student of art history. Just by looking at his art one assumes this. And like every great artist I have met (and the great ones from the past that I have only read about), being well steeped in the history of art, and understanding their place in its context, is of paramount concern to them.

I am fortunate to have a life immersed in art. It surrounds me every day. I research it, buy it, sell it, talk to people about it, and teach others to speak of it. I hear the questions, comments and concerns of collectors, both novice and seasoned. And when I speak of these contemporary issues, of art which causes the viewer to scratch his head and say, “So what?” after contemplating the “postart” that has besieged our world, I get more often than not, the same response: “Please teach me something. Enrich my experience. Enlighten me through the labors of your art. Show me something about life and the world in which I live that I did not know before I experienced your creative spirit. Help me to walk away from the contemplation of your art and feel enhanced.” Sadly, in most cases none of these questions are answered or desires fulfilled. Here it once again appears (after 3,000 years of human artistic consideration): the cry for a true aesthetic experience, “perception with feeling”—and people are indeed crying out for it. They are deprived and starved for it.

Enter Csaba Markus. An aesthetic Olympian, a man whose entire existence is driven to create an art which elevates, amplifies and exhilarates those who encounter it. Csaba, through his art and his complete emersion in its creative processes, is at the forefront of this battle for aesthetic supremacy in an art world which has mostly turned its back on the ideals of beauty.

Csaba knows this. He sees the big picture. He senses that something big is happening now. He understands his place in the history of our time, and he is positioning himself and his art now to be experienced far into the future. He talks to other artists when he is brought together with them through the events sponsored by Park West Gallery. He sees a new way in which art is being brought to the world. A new way in which people who would never have previously had any inclination or disposition to even contemplate experiencing and collecting art, are now engaged and even passionate about the change in their lives brought to them through these experiences. When Csaba speaks of these things his eyes widen, his gestures become broad, his voice booms and he communicates in a bold and vivid manner that runs parallel to his art. A manner that makes him instantly recognizable as a champion, a gladiator for the ideals that formed millennia of masterpieces but are often eschewed and ridiculed today. The quest for beauty: Csaba sees the pendulum beginning to swing back the other way, and he is pulling on it hard.

Stand before a painting by Csaba Markus. At once you know it’s the “real deal.” Before your eyes is a work of art that immediately communicates to the viewer the technical mastery possessed by this artist. Csaba has “chops.” He has studied the techniques of Leonardo, Durer, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and one hundred other old masters. Likewise, he commands the compositional devices and nuances of the abstract painters and the expressionists. His intention, he has told me, is to create a work that bridges centuries of artistic stylization. And one that is beyond any categorization, any label or generality.

When you look at a painting by Csaba he wants you to bring your own experience to the work. He wants it to be the point of departure for your imagination as your eyes drink in the face of a gorgeous, timeless woman; an airy iconic space full of floating images, symbols and visual touchstones for poetic association; gestures of pure shape and pigment, tonal flourishes, fields of color, ribbons of linear arabesques dancing across the surface. Csaba’s works introduce an artistic world that is fully formed. They present an ideal and harmonic blend of form and content. They are rigorous in their artistic vocabulary and express themselves effortlessly, and yet they are also full of stories to tell, as long as our intuition, spirit and imaginations are willing to listen. To Csaba, the act of creating beauty is once again paramount. To leave the viewer with a sense of wonder and awe that the human imagination can be so potent, that miraculously from nothing but a blank canvas and some pigments, a work of art so evocative and powerful can be born. This is Csaba’s goal. To bring back aesthetic beauty into the art of our times is the reason why he was put on this earth.

Who can say how his work will be viewed in one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years? God willing that there are still people on this planet. And if so, I know that art will still be here. I know that people will still look at a Rembrandt painting and weep. I know that future generations will still be moved by the spiritual purity and sacrifices made by Van Gogh to create his art. I know that people will still attempt to grasp the protean genius of Picasso. I also know (or perhaps believe is more appropriate), that the pendulum will have swung back sometime in our 21st Century. And future historians my scratch their heads and wonder, “What were they thinking?” when they look back in the history books at the remnants of paintings made of spaghetti, sculptures made of old shoes lying in a sled, and “artist shit” in cans (Piero Manzoni). They may very well then set the book down and glance over at their two hundred-year-old Csaba Markus painting hanging on the wall, and be grateful for the artistic crusaders of the early 21st Century who brought back the love of beauty and set humankind and art back on the path of aesthetic glory.
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Click the player below to join me on a private tour of Csaba Markus’ atelier in Mission Viejo, California. During this segment, Csaba and I discuss the old masters who continue to so greatly influence his personal aesthetic.

Experiencing Rockwell

Posted in Art Exhibits, Artists, Norman Rockwell with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Park West Gallery

“I cannot convince myself that
a painting is good unless it is popular.

If the public dislikes one of my Post covers,
I can’t help disliking it myself.”

—NORMAN ROCKWELL

On March 8, 2009, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) opened its exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell. On the day of the opening, The Detroit Free Press “art critic” Mark Stryker (the newspaper’s music critic, who evidently was tapped to become the art critic after another round of Detroit business layoffs) penned his review. His opening tag line: “Love the show, hate the art.” You can save time by not reading the article. That tag line perfectly sums up Stryker’s opinion.

"The Art Critic" by Norman Rockwell (1955)The Art Critic” (1955) by Norman Rockwell

Online, a volley of reactionary comments to Stryker’s column lined up in the opinion blogs. They ranged from absolute venom (typical online stuff) to comments from readers who completely ignored Stryker’s opinion just to laud the show and encourage Detroiters to go see it and support the museum and its efforts.

Another part of the Free Press’s coverage was a side bar, “Was Norman Rockwell a Great Artist?” The DIA’s curator, a professor (whose mother modeled for Rockwell), and a well known Detroit artist weighed in. The artist, Charles McGee, expressed a prevailing attitude towards Rockwell’s work that dogged him during his life and has continued to this day: “I think Rockwell was a great illustrator. To me there’s a big difference between illustration and fine art. It’s not that each isn’t good in its own right, but one is selling a product as far as I’m concerned and the other is selling itself.”

I went to see the show with my 14 year old daughter, Amanda, who had written a biographical report on Rockwell for her history class a few months before. Her assignment was to write about an American artist, and when she asked me who she should consider (perhaps one of the benefits of having a dad in the biz) I replied immediately that it should be Norman Rockwell and expressed to her my reasons why.

Ironically, during her research for the report we as a family flew to Europe to attend a Park West Gallery collector event. One night at dinner we mentioned to a client that Amanda was researching Rockwell, and she proceeded to inform us that she had modeled for him when she was a child; her image appeared on a 1957 Saturday Evening Post cover. Big mistake to say that to me because I surely drove this woman “nuts” querying her about every aspect of Rockwell’s working process and his personality.

Amanda’s report included an interview with our guest – and she ended up with an “A.” Not surprisingly, Amanda was just as excited to see the show as I was. During the entire time she was working on the paper, her teacher was gently ridiculing Rockwell and needling her about her choice. His point was the same as Stryker’s and McGee’s: Not an artist, just an “illustrator.”

Where does this attitude come from? How can an artist who contributed so much to the culture and artistic identity of America (this is profoundly apparent when stepping into the final room of the exhibition and seeing each of the 323 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers he created during seven decades) be so pejoratively viewed by the art “establishment”?

The answer is obvious. There is a disconnect, a separation (more like a chasm) in the art world between the arbiters of what is and isn’t “art” and the American people. This was never more apparent to me than when we left the museum and I saw the lines of enthusiastic people; families with young children, seniors from my parents’ generation, and students. People of all races and ages, all queuing up for tickets and filling the galleries, anxious to experience Rockwell’s art – actually hungry for it.

Rockwell was keenly aware of his image as a mere “illustrator” and frustrated enough to address it many times in his art. Trained as a “fine artist,” he was well steeped (as all of the great ones were) in the history and narrative of his profession.

In one of the photographs included in the exhibition of him working in his studio (on the most important painting in the show, in my opinion – The Problem We All Live With, 1963), I caught a blurry image of Rembrandt’s etching masterpiece, The Hundred Guilder Print. It was in the upper left corner hanging on the wall amidst his own studies and drawings. This delighted me (I’m sure most people wouldn’t have noticed it) because I had just been marveling at the use of chiaroscuro in so many of the canvasses of Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell "Triple Self-Portrait" (1960)“Triple Self-Portrait” (1960) by Norman Rockwell

Rockwell’s Triple Self Portrait, one of the most popular and amusing of all his famous images, deals directly with this paradox of the power of his work and his popular image as a “commercial” artist. In it we see pinned to his canvas self-portraits of Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh as well as a Picasso Cubist head. It is well known that Rockwell greatly admired the old masters and was enthralled by Picasso and even Pollack. The painting, which reveals his astonishing technique in the masterful articulation of the fabric of his shirt, the mirror into which he peers, and the golden helmet mounted at the top of his easel, defies us as viewers to ignore or diminish his prodigious mastery of oil on canvas while at the same time casts visual puns about who it is he is portraying.

In another captivating work, The Art Critic (1955), a young art student examines a painting through a magnifying glass while holding his easel and palette (with real globs of paint affixed). The woman in this portrait (based on a Rubens) looks back at the student with an expression of surprise, as if to say the young man is too close and is staring at her bosom. Behind him is a painting of three 17th Century Dutch gentlemen (again a nod to Rembrandt) who appear to stop their conversation to peer with surprise at the young student’s indiscretion.

This is a great and amusing scene until one looks at the technique Rockwell displays. It’s as if he says to us, “Take a look at my ‘chops,’ those of you who question my artistic legitimacy. I can do Dutch and French masters as good as they did and use them in the background of my paintings.”

From my own experience, it has been an honor to work with Curtis Publishing, the owners of the intellectual rights to Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post imagery, and the Norman Rockwell Licensing Company, managed by the artist’s family, in the development of limited-edition prints created exclusively for Park West Gallery clients. More recently, these works have been realized as hand-drawn lithographs created at the same studio French artist Marcel Mouly used for the creation of his lithographs.

I’ve also had the pleasure of offering original Rockwell drawings and seeing several of them collected. It is truly a thrill for an art dealer to be a part of the joy experienced by someone who has the rare opportunity to acquire something of this kind of rarity and historic importance. Through this process and in viewing so many of his works, I have gained a deeper appreciation for Rockwell’s art.

Norman Rockwell produced over 4,000 works of art in his lifetime, a lifetime that he devoted to unfailing artistic discipline and committed to sharing his view of our world with an emphasis on humankind’s higher morals and enduring values. His messages of family, equality, freedom, tolerance, and even human shortcomings touched more Americans than any other artist with our shared heritage. His contributions to the American spirit during World War II are legendary, particularly in the way that he focused not so much on our soldiers fighting abroad but on the heroism and bravery of the everyday people who remained at home.

So once again, we have to ask: How can an artist of such power, possessing spectacular technical genius and an unparalleled ability to communicate and touch so many, be so often dismissed by those who claim to wield the power of judgment as to what is and isn’t “art”?

The answer is too long and complex to be addressed here. I have written about it before and continue to vigorously share my own views on the topic. It has to do with the long (and unfortunate, in my opinion) history of art that extends from Duchamp to Warhol and resides today in the likes of Damien Hirst, whose works fetched unprecedented prices last year for “sculptures” of cigarette butts in medicine cabinets, dead flies on canvas, and his “masterpiece,” a dead calf in a glass case.

It has to do with the fact that when people crave the experiences that art can provide such as elevation of the human spirit, a demonstration of the results of unflagging dedication to hard work and excellence, and a jumping off point into the contemplations of human thought and spiritual meaning, these works of “art” leave us cold, unfulfilled, perplexed, and often angry when discovering the sums paid for them by museums and collectors. There is no way we can know what the future will hold for this kind of art.

As I travelled the halls of the museum with my young daughter in tow, as we moved past the paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, and dozens of others who built on the narrative of the art that came before them, I couldn’t help but believe that as long as there are people on this planet, these works will be precious. They will forever be emblems of human greatness and our aspiration to reach for higher and deeper understandings of beauty and the miraculous around us. Thinking about Norman Rockwell, I saw him fitting perfectly into that same pantheon of masters in another hundred years.

We continued on to the contemporary wing of the DIA. We turned a corner and on the floor to our left we encountered a “sculpture” by Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama. The work entitled Silver Shoes is a clear acrylic box, encasing 23 shoes with cloth protrusions emanating from the openings, everything spray-painted silver. It’s a work, I am confident, Mr. Stryker would love. However, there was no line of people outside the museum queuing up to buy tickets to see it. No line of people behind the work patiently waiting to view it. No “audio tour” devices pressed up against people’s ears in contemplation before it. In fact, there was no one looking at it at all.

They were all downstairs, Experiencing Rockwell.

A Detroit Jewish News Exclusive

Posted in News Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2010 by Park West Gallery

PLATINUM: Decor – Art & Soul
Peek inside the personal collection of Park West Gallery’s director

Morris Shapiro, Detroit Jewish NewsMorris Shapiro sits in front of Le Marriage by Marc Chagall, a wedding gift Shapiro and his wife, MaryAnn, gave to each other. “The couple stands under the chuppah and surrounding them is a visual feast of celebration — dancers, musicians, friends, family and children,” says Shapiro. “His drawing talent was one of Chagall’s greatest gifts, and this work, absent of color, focuses the viewer on his extraordinary draftsmanship.” Photo credit: GENE MEADOWS

Written by KHRISTI ZIMMETH • The Detroit Jewish News

A large work by Marc Chagall hangs in the front hall of Morris and MaryAnn Shapiro’s Novi home.

“It’s definitely one of my favorites,” the 56-year-old Park West Gallery director says of Le Mariage, a 1976 aquatint framed in black that depicts a traditional Jewish wedding. “We bought it for each other as a wedding gift.”

A tour of the Shapiros’ contemporary home reveals more than 100 other works, all with personal meaning. Hanging over the living-room sofa is a large contemporary piece by Miro; and nearby, the small gold-framed Portrait of Jan Lutman the Goldsmith is by Rembrandt. In the family room, a large piece by Detroit artist Marcus Glenn hangs over the fireplace. Other walls hold a Matisse-like drawing, works by 1998 World Cup artist Linda LeKinff and mysterious and otherworldly images by New York artist Robert Kipniss. Many share Shapiro’s Jewish heritage.

“I don’t have a traditional art collection, per se,” he explains. “I’m immersed in art. My collection is eclectic and based on personal experiences and relationships with artists. Each means something special to me.”

Working with Southfield’s 63,000-square-foot Park West Gallery has enabled Shapiro to meet many of the artists whose work now hangs in the home he shares with MaryAnn and 14-year-old daughter Amanda. Three other children – Mia, Myles and Mason – are grown. A family portrait by artist Peter Max hangs over the living room’s grand piano, and a tour of his collection is sprinkled with stories and reminiscences of artists he has been fortunate enough to meet and work with.

Contemporary artist Igor Medvedev, whose quietly elegant Late Fishing hangs above a cherry-wood Ello sideboard in the dining room of Morris and MaryAnn Shapiro’s Novi home, says that his work is about capturing “visual miracles.”

Working directly with artists is one of the best parts of the job, he says, and a dream since he was a child. Shapiro grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. His mother, he says, decorated the house with gaudy French Provincial furniture and accessories. “It was really hideous,” he remembers. “There was no art on the walls, so I made my own. I drew and painted in part to rebel against my parents.”

Thumbing through a book on the Holy Land one day in his parents’ library, he came across a woodcut of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer. “I was mesmerized by the contours and lines and Durer’s use of space,” he says. “From that moment on, I was smitten.

“He eventually followed Durer into drawing, going on to study at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While there, he shifted his emphasis from studio art to art history and art criticism, later working at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before returning to the Windy City to pursue another passion – music.

After playing the drums professionally for a time, Shapiro took a position as gallery director for Chicago’s Merrill Chase Galleries, where he worked from 1977-1983. In 1983, he came to Detroit to head Park West’s retail gallery, where he’s been ever since.

After 25 years, he’s still passionate about the company’s philosophy of bringing art to the public.

“In many ways, art has been taken away from the people and made less accessible,” he says. “It’s gratifying to be able to swing the pendulum back and to allow people to experience art firsthand.”

While Shapiro is serious about his art, not all of his art is serious. Another favorite piece in his collection is a drawing by animator Chuck Jones, dedicated to daughter Amanda. “It was really neat to meet him,” Shapiro says.

While eclectic, Shapiro says his collection reflects his interests and his life. He’s passionate about reading, writing and music and loves to travel. He participates in jazz jam sessions whenever possible and is currently collaborating with Amanda, a burgeoning singer-songwriter, on her first demo recording. He enjoys spending time with his first grandchild, Matthew.

A member of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield, Shapiro also is passionate about his family and his faith. He believes it “is about being appreciative of the blessings I have in life, the sanctity of family, the observance of and passing on of tradition,” he says. “My religion also provides for me a perspective of how short life is, how miniscule and insignificant we are, how God’s creations are miraculous and infinite and how fortunate [we are] for every day we are given. Each day is a gift of inestimable value.”

He believes others interested in collecting art should follow the same philosophy, allowing art to enhance their life, not just their wallets.

“Knowing what you like is the entrance into the art world,” he says. “People should buy art because they love it. It should be collected for its emotional and spiritual benefits, not its financial benefits. It’s really the only way to go.”
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