How Michael Jackson Influenced my Painting.

A few years ago the contemporary art world was making a big fuss over the artist Jeff Koons. Above is his ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. The prevailing wisdom was that Koons was making a tongue in cheek sculpture that broke lots of rules about what constituted "serious" art. Some art critics said Koons was exploring the monumental role played by entertainment celebrities in our culture like Michael Jackson. The scupture was a reference back to renaissance pieces of the Madonna holding the Christ child. Replacing Christ with Bubbles the Chimp was meant to illuminate the withering influence of religious iconography in our lives. So some said. 

I suppose one could say this sculpture is "so bad that it's good" with its strenuous attempts to go with over the top cheesiness. For many in the art world, one's ability to "get it" with Koons' work was a badge of honor. You had to be very sophisticated to like such stuff. 

Below is another area of Koon's art, a series of large scape photographs of himself and his then wife in compromising positions. Again the appeal of purposely choosing "bad taste." Liking it revealed one was in on the joke. Personally the photo seems a touch narcissistic, but perhaps that's my sour grapes.  Surely it wouldn't match any of my furniture.

A friend of mine had her father die recently. I've found myself thinking about how hard it is to face the painful emotions that stirs up.  When one is gripped by sadness, very few things strike one as funny. For the life of me I can't imaging experiencing real grief while living with either of the above pieces by Koons. 

The art I love the most is a friend and companion to me in good times and bad. That's one of the big reasons we have art- it's a comfort, a guide, and quiet enduring source of energy. At its best it's more meaningful than clever.

Sure there is a place for art that's humorous and even frivolous. I myself enjoy drawng cartoons of cats doing ridicuous things. The art world is and should be a wide open panorama of differing choices. But along with that comes the need to ask oneself what one likes best, what one would want to live with.

Years ago when I first started painting I knew almost zero about art history. And my drawing skills were rudimentary to say the least. But I found myself attracted to art that hinted at atmosphere and space like the big color abstractions of Mark Rothko (below). I imitated them, turning out dozen of simple acrylic color -oriented canvases. And I learned something about color and proportion. Looking back I realize I was taking my first steps toward a goal that would only reveal itself years later.

As so often happens, I first started catching glimpses of my future self in the work of other, earlier painters, especially in the romanticism of America's 19th century landscape painters. One was Worthington Whittredge. 

In his forest painting I felt at home. They reminded me of nothing so much as my boyhood growing up on the heavily wooded southern shore of Lake Ontario just east of Rochester, NY. Whittredge I think excels at suggesting a multitude of branches and trees by employing an overall color. Usually it's a gold/sienna or a greenish ochre hue that infuses every form in his far distance. In the above painting note how the only really cool color is segregated up into the immediate foreground's white birch.

Whittredge is interested in evoking the feeling of being in the special space unique to the deep forest. He's very careful not to overload his canvases with too many accents. In the painting above see how he restricts the darks almost entirely to the foreground archway that opens up to beckon you to enter the painting's space. The same device is even more stated in the following oil.

I think it would be terrible if everyone painted alike. Human experience is so diverse that we need artists to bark up all kind of different trees. And there are lots of people who honestly are going to like Jeff Koons' work more than what Worthington Whittredge did or what I'm doing today in my studio. That's really OK.

But I want to bang the drum for a differnt kind of painting that picks up the thread we saw in Hudson River School artists like Whittredge. Their sincere and genuine delight in the natural world led to some great paintings. And in my own time I'd like to take my artist's eyes that grew up on the likes of a Mark Rothko and cast them back upon the forests and seas. It sounds a deeper chord in me than anything else. And that's what I feel compelled to do.

One final note, I think Michael Jackson was an incredible dancer. I bet even old Worthington would have liked his moves.


  1. Hey Phil I just wanted to say that I like all of you writings but I think this one is particularly good. You wouldn’t know this but I wrote my graduate thesis on the Mind, Perception and Color and referenced a lot of Rothko. It seems that we have traveled similar but different roads to this place. I will link the Blog to my website because I think some of my friends should read this.
    Joe S.

  2. Thanks Joseph. I'd be interested to see your website.

    Rothko images seemed to be everywhere when I was just beginning to paint in the late 1960's, so his work was a logical place to start with trying to learn about color. I had just taken a good color theory/introductory studo class at Oberlin College and Rothko's work seemed to put into practice so much od what I'd learned there. Later on I grew hungry to learn about shapes and drawing, but color was a wonderful first enthusiasm. It's funny now as I feel I've come full circle and find myself thinking about color all the time now.

  3. Loved this. Perhaps the Koons series would go with the Lamborghini.


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