Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Beat Up on your Art

A few years ago I saw a wonderful Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Phillips Collection down in Washington, D.C. Thiebaud was one of the very few realist painters you'd ever see reproduced in the art magazines back in the late 1960's. Probably because the editors thought his paintings of pies and cakes dovetailed with the then super hot Pop Art phenomenon, they figured they could show such stuff without being considered "provincial." (I love the art world, but it's not a perfect place. It sometimes worrys way too much about whether it is cool enough). Me, I liked Thiebaud because he created such brilliant light as in the painting of slices of pie above. Often his work is best viewed right before lunch.

This was the first really comprehensive show of Thiebaud I'd seen and it brought me face to face with many paintings I'd loved for years from having seen them only in reproductions. Frankly the show freaked me out.

Half the paintings were damaged, some very badly, with concentric cracks in the oil paint radiating out from impacts the pigment surface had suffered (Thiebaud's oils were particularly vulnerable to this as they were very thickly painted over stretched canvas. When they were hit hard, the canvas would stretch further while the dry oil paint wouldn't, causing serious cracking). And these same paintings had old and heavily scratched up frames.

The other half of the show had oils in perfect condition (zero cracks). These paintings had top of the line frames, sometimes elegant gold leaf and snazzy custom fitted hardwood combinations. There was nothing to distract your eye from the pure visual sensuality the artist intended.

It struck me, Thiebaud started out just like every other painter, an unknown selling his work at very modest prices. His good fortune was that his work caught on with enough wealthy art collectors that it started to be taken seriously. Grabbing more attention from art magazines, museum curators, art writers, etc. And of course his prices went up, eventually way up. When that happens, galleries start handling your work with white glove treatment. The work starts traveling around the country in museum quality crates built and packed by professional art handlers. People who know what they're doing.

Earlier in his career, Thiebaud was framing his work as best he could and doing this on the limited budget almost all artists face. And art galleries showing his work treated it pretty roughly often enough for it to show the painful scars so apparent in the show at the Phillips Collection.

This whole Thiebaud business made a big impression on me. 

One of the things I've worked very hard to do with my own work is see to it that it's professionally handled. My just completed show at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center was both my largest exhibition to date (50 paintings) and one of my best. PFAC hung the work in a way that said "this is important art." The walls were freshly painted, the lighting was well aimed, and the wall text informed the viewers about the art without getting in the way. I think Wayne Thiebaud would have been pleased to see his work treated this way.

Here are two photo's from the PFAC show:



By nature I'm not a very organized person (just ask my long suffering wife Alice). Some months ago I even wrote a blog post about how a certain amount of studio clutter helps me be creative. I seem to need to stumble across paintings I'd temporarily put out of my mind to do my best work. That's all well and good.

But an artist's job isn't done when they place their final brushstroke on a painting- far from it. So many times I've found overtaxed art dealers don't have time to keep good records of the work you've sent them on consignment. They may handle 30 or 50 artists in their gallery. Work is always being hauled out to show a client, hung and then re-hung in this and that show, and sent out on approval to potential collectors. It's sort of a musical-chairs-from-hell game. Most dealers try hard to stay on top of it and to not damage the artwork, but things happen. 

I'm fortunate in that many hundreds of collectors own my work all over the country and that the prices for my paintings have gradually risen. As they have, I've noticed my work seems to get damaged less
(perhaps we could call this the Thiebaud Principle of art handling).

But I confess in the old days, I didn't store my work as carefully as I could have and my record keeping was less than systematic. Gradually I've been doing better. And I'm spending a lot more time wrapping and packaging my art when I ship it out of state to another show. It arrives in perfect shape, and the care I've taken in wrapping it send a subtle message "this is valuable." 

Here's a photograph of my storage area in my studio. These are the 14 largest paintings included in the Unbroken Thread show that was just at PFAC. Next month they're being carried out to the Saginaw Art Museum for their Dec. 9th opening of this same exhibition. 



The racks are sturdy as all heck, raised up off the floor to guard against spills. They have vertical braces every five canvas or so to keep everybody from leaning too hard on their neighbor. I buy huge sheets of corrugated cardboard from Uline company to stack in between the canvases.

My storage area was a work in progress for many years- gradually getting more organized and safer for its residents. As I surveyed the finished project I said to myself "Now I'm armed for bear!"

Life is short, Art is Long goes the old saying. It's true, but only if someone takes care of the work. Viewing those beaten up early Wayne Thiebaud paintings traumatized me. It's not impossible to take care of work and ship it all around the world safely if you want to. You just have to think of your art as being like a stick of butter on a hot day- the most vulnerable thing in the world just waiting for the accident to happen. 




Above is an oil by the great 19th century French painter/printmaker Daumier of a collector examining prints I've always liked. Maybe Daumier imagined this collector was looking at his own prints. Artists have to realize they're part of a long chain stretching far back into history. All made work that reflects the uniqueness of their lives and their times for posterity. Daumier did, and Thiebaud and Rembrandt and all our great art fore bearers did. When you stand in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and look at their Rembrandt self portrait you're seeing a painting that old Rembrandt knocked himself out to paint, but also to protect and preserve. Art lasts because someone has loved and nurtured it into lasting. I'm really glad people started taking better care of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings. 

I'd like very much if they'd take care of mine as well. So I've gone to war against misplaced art and art getting damaged. Look out world!

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