albrecht dürer

2019.31 (Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve)

            I taught 2D Design as my first post-graduate school teaching job. All of those kids probably deserve their money back. If you’re honest with yourself as an instructor, you know this is true for the first year or two that you taught. Oh man, the poor kids I taught while I was still a graduate student. Oh man. I’m not going to give the money back to them, but the state of New Jersey and commonwealth of Virginia might want to consider it.

            I taught 2D Design without really having ever taken it myself. My undergraduate transcripts record that I did earn credits for “2D Design” but my teacher didn’t know what they were doing either. I was taught by a graduate student who apparently had no supervision or advisement as to how to what the class should be. They ran it like a drawing class. When I say they “ran it like a drawing class”, I simply mean that we drew the whole semester, charcoal on newsprint. Albers was nowhere to be found. When it came time for linear perspective, they said, “Who here knows two-point perspective?” Some of us raised our hands and the instructor said, “OK, well if you know how to do it, then go out in the atrium and draw it. Those of you that do not know it, stay here.” Can you imagine teaching anything else in that way? “Who here knows the proper medication to prescribe to a 6 year-old for an ear infection? Cool. Go do it. No, no, no, don’t tell me what it is. Just go do it.”

            Keep in mind, I was also taking a basic drawing class in addition to this 2D course. I guess everyone in there was as clueless as me because none of us ever thought to ask, “Does anyone know why we are taking two classes that cover the same material?” Somehow, we all survived. As an art student, you realize that you’re there to learn how to teach yourself. If you don’t figure that out, then you go study something else. I assume my students survived me. If nothing else, they learned the golden ratio.

            I started teaching long enough ago that we were still using slide projectors to look at images. It’s not really that long ago but to some younger people, that seems impossible. Like I read online last week, a guy said, “I told an 18 year-old that I used to get Netflix delivered in the mail and he called me a liar.” There are a lot of things in this life that I am desperately nostalgic for, but a slide projector is not one of them. I don’t miss the jammed slides, the bulb that burned out at the most inconvenient time, the carousel that spontaneously would drop half of its load out of the bottom. Most of all, I don’t miss slide libraries and having to keep lists of slides from semester to semester to assemble and return over and over again to teach the same presentations from one semester to the next…and have all of those images be compromised versions of what I really wanted to show. Slides of the wrong painting or slides so old that they predate a major restoration of a piece, etc. Some of you justifiably reject Powerpoint while sipping from your Edward Tufte coffee mug, because it’s not a perfect tool for every situation but for art history it is no worse than a slide projector, makes my life easier and makes it possible for me to show anything I want in class- which my students will tell you is a blessing and a curse. If you want to know what that means, ask my Intro to Art students why I waste their time talking about abstraction in relation to what a male turkey will attempt to have sex with. The answer is: because I can.

            If nothing else, I got a thing or two out of teaching this class. After all, my first time teaching it was my first time taking it as well so I couldn’t help but learn something. For some reason, we had to teach the students the Corel Painter software. Not Photoshop. Painter. If I had to guess, a school subscription for Painter cost a lot less than Photoshop at the time and that’s why we used it. It didn’t really matter because I had never used either before, so I was out of luck either way. My school couldn’t even get me a copy of the program to use at home so that I could teach it. I reached back a decade into my brain for inspiration and said, “Who here knows how to use Painter?” Someone answered, “Well, it’s a lot like Photoshop.” I then said, “Who here knows Photoshop?” Half the class raised their hands. “OK, if you know how to use Photoshop or Painter, get started on the assignment. If you don’t know how to use Painter or Photoshop…sit next to someone that does know how to use it and ask them.” Years later, I would read a David Sedaris book where he talked about teaching a writing class, but not really knowing how to teach a writing class, so they watched his favorite soap opera instead. I can relate.

            It sounds selfish to say this, but one of the most profound shifts in my own work came from teaching this class. (Thanks, kids! I got a lot out of it!) In an effort to illustrate positive and negative space, I spent a lot of time looking through the slide library at the school. I think I started with Robert Longo charcoal drawings and Franz Kline paintings then worked my way back through the drawings and prints sections of the library, eventually coming to something I’d never seen before- the Albrecht Dürer ink study for his Adam and Eve engraving. I’m talking about a 10+ year old slide of this drawing that was probably a copy of a copy of another slide, so let me simulate what I was looking at before showing a clearer version of the drawing:

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 9.56.10 AM.png

             Looking at it this way, as a slide held up to the light, made the piece look so graphic and modern. The quality of the slide was so bad that it even looked like this when it was projected onto a screen. High contrast. Deep black shapes. No subtlety. It didn’t look 500 years old. It looked fresh. Sometimes you get a bastardized version of an original that gives you a different perspective than what other people are going to get. One of my favorite albums is The Grifters’ Ain’t My Lookout. My only copy of this for years was taped from someone’s vinyl. Unbeknownst to me, it played slightly faster than the original recording. That was the version I knew in my head. It took a year of listening to it on CD to forget my taped version.

            I saw The Sixth Sense in the movie theater when it was released, not knowing that it had a twist at the ending. The scene immediately after Bruce Willis is shot shows a collection of rowhouses with the text “the next fall” laid over the top. I didn’t read this correctly because the “l”s in the word “fall” are white text laid over bits of a white house. I read it as “the next day”. It’s like when my wife misheard “cash rich, time poor” as “cash bitch, time whore”. Stuff happens between the ear and the eye and the brain. But since I saw “the next day”, I immediately thought, “Oh, he’s a ghost” and spent the entire movie with that perspective. But it’s not like I was having a conversation about this with the other 200 people in the theater, so I thought everyone around me had that perspective. I thought we were all sitting there thinking, “Man, it is really cool how he structures these scenes with his wife, so it seems like they’re communicating but they’re really not”, etc. The revelation that Willis is dead came at the end and then I became the only one in the movie confused as to why this was such a surprise. I walked out and asked my wife, “Why was it such a big deal when he figured out that he was dead at the end?” She looked at me, justifiably, like she had made a mistake in marrying such a moron. Seeing a less-nuanced version of the Dürer drawing gave me a different perspective on it than if I’d seen it in person first. The questions I was asking about it were the wrong questions.

film still- The Sixth Sense

film still- The Sixth Sense

           A few years later, in 2006, the Morgan Library renovated and expanded their facilities, relaunching with an exhibition from their drawing collection: From Leonardo to Pollock. This show provided me the first opportunity to see the Dürer study in person. The drawing that had always been so modern and fresh to me now became even more so but in a much different way. Here is a better image of the drawing, close to what it resembles in person, next to what I saw so you can compare the differences.

simulation of slide experience versus seeing the drawing in person (better image below)

simulation of slide experience versus seeing the drawing in person (better image below)

Albrecht Dürer-  Adam and Eve , 1504, brown ink and white corrections on paper, 242 x 201mm, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum

Albrecht Dürer- Adam and Eve, 1504, brown ink and white corrections on paper, 242 x 201mm, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum

             My first encounter with this piece was that it was flat and graphic. It seemed appropriate because it was a study intended for a print. But this drawing is a true working study. It’s not a drawing, it’s an assemblage of drawings. Dürer set these figures up as examinations of his theories of human proportion and scale. Beyond that he knew that their placement had be just right for the Garden that would eventually fill in the negative shapes. What you can’t see in my original experience is Dürer’s mind and hands at work. When you finally see this drawing, you see that it is two figure drawings that have been cut out of separate sheets of paper and gently nudged into position, then glued down to a third piece to fix their spatial relationship.

Here is a rough illustration of what is happening. I’m sorry if it’s not 100% on the money but I’m doing this from memory. My best memory is that the yellow lines I have drawn represent where Dürer cut the figures, at least Adam’s, in order to experiment where it would go in relation to Eve. The blue arrows reveal a lot of correction. There are white highlights in the piece now that show where he changed Eve’s elbow, adjusted Adam’s calves, tweaked hands, etc. Not that he would have cared, but these would have been less obvious during Dürer’s life. They add to the piece now, not unlike old Robert Crumb drawings where correction fluid remains a cool white even though the paper has aged and dulled.

image with my approximate diagram of the drawing’s construction

image with my approximate diagram of the drawing’s construction

            The background is not deeply saturated black like the slide suggested. It’s mottled and gestural, slow where it needs to protect the edges of figures, faster in the larger sections, such as the space between the figures’ feet. His methods for hatching and cross-hatching are quickly-rendered (by his standard) to study line direction, light and volume necessary for the final engraving.

            The differences between the drawing and final composition are notable. The figures are roughly the same height and will remain so, but Eve will be lowered in the picture plane. That move activates the bottom corner, whereas Dürer feels like he needs to pepper the bottom left with rocks to anchor the space. The move also drops her extended hand from the middle of Adam’s bicep down to the bend of his arm, taking advantage of the shape of her curved fingers and the divot of his arm. The one piece of fruit simultaneously in Eve’s hand, in the serpent’s mouth and touching Adam’s arm, placed near the center of the image creates an X of limbs that marks the spot. Dürer connects every central dramatic element. Where is The Fall? Right here is The Fall. If Eve had not been compositionally lowered that half of an inch, the center would be lost.

Side-by-side comparison with the Adam figures on the same plane at the same height

Side-by-side comparison with the Adam figures on the same plane at the same height

            Adam holds a piece of fruit in the drawing but is empty-handed in the print. In the drawing, the vacancy of the negative space allows this action to indicate the two figures are equally complicit. There is not much drama in “equally complicit after the fact” especially when you still have a serpent to work into the final plot. Instead, by the end, Adam is empty-handed, but reaching out. He wants the fruit that Eve holds behind her, although there seem to be other implications. She’s already physically succumbed to temptation, and even though he hasn’t taken ownership of the object, he has still fallen victim to the same trap. Between the tail of the parrot, Adam’s arm and Eve’s left foot, Dürer draws one axis of the X from the top left to the bottom right. Adam’s bent leg, the serpent and its branch and what seems to be a suicidal goat in the upper right draw the other axis.

            The drawing gets some of the X, but Dürer glued it down too quickly and missed connecting the dots by “that much”. He realized the error before the burin started cutting. It’s a working drawing for him, not a final product. For me, it was a missing link. The years between seeing the slide of this drawing and the real thing were incredibly fruitful. I taught myself how to draw by looking at books of Dürer etchings and engravings. I needed no other teacher for what I wanted. It severely limited my range, but I don’t regret that. Most artists will eventually limit themselves anyway. Instinctively, I started composing images by working from photos or working in Photoshop (I eventually learned enough of it) to arrange compositions. I superimposed Xs and grids to help order the picture plane. I nerded out occasionally and dropped a golden rectangle into the mix. It hearkened back to my childhood with superhero Colorforms. This pursuit of a constructed image is what I was subconsciously taking from Dürer while I was learning how to properly hatch, crosshatch and stipple. Seeing the construction and assembly of that Adam and Eve drawing in person made me want to drop to one knee, stare at the ground and say, “My liege!” It was all there. What I had been doing for a few years and would continue to do in one form or another was all there. I can still follow the same methods and use all of this work behind-the-scenes to compose a final image. But I will also pull back the curtain and make work intended for public view that shows this assembly or collage or whatever you want to call it. Do I look at Cubism or any other offshoot of it or Dada for tips on collage or assembly? Of course. It would be silly not to take advantage of those resources. Do I need them? This drawing would suggest that I do not. The rules are the rules and they have been for centuries.

R. Crumb,  Sketchbook , 1971 courtesy of David Zwirner

R. Crumb, Sketchbook, 1971 courtesy of David Zwirner

Batman Colorforms like I had as a child. Courtesy of Amazon

Batman Colorforms like I had as a child. Courtesy of Amazon

2019.27 (Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay)

            It’s difficult for me to remember a lot of firsts. At best, I have an oldest memory of some thing or event but there is no guarantee that those are the first times I experienced anything. I could figure out the first 45 that I bought because we still have them all. I could just check release dates. It was probably “Watching the Wheels” or “Woman” The first album I bought with my own money was The Outfield’s Play Deep. Anything I had up until that point was a gift or mixtape. The first time I remember being in a movie theatre was when my parents took my brother and me to see Kramer Vs Kramer. I assume they expected us to sleep through it because I was 4 years old at the time. I know I was awake long enough to see Jane Alexander walking down a hallway naked right before my mother’s hand went up over my eyes. Mom would repeat this maneuver two years later to block the giant Nazi in Raiders of Lost Ark being chopped up by the airplane propeller.

            But what is the first unique piece of art that I saw? It had to be in our house, because, as I have previously established, I did not enter a museum until I was 17. I didn’t visit an art gallery until high school. We had prints in our house for a long time. My parents still have a series of what I think are offset lithography prints of northern European engravings that celebrate each month, like Breugel. Scenes of harvest, etc. They have four, one for each of our birth months. As family finances improved, unique works like paintings or monotypes showed up. My parents still have some Anna Jaap monotypes from the 1990s in their house- still lifes a bit more recognizable in presentation than the abstraction she has progressed to since then.

            There are strengths and weaknesses in the means by which you form a lifelong bond with a work of art. The biggest weakness seems to be the effort required to go see it. Music is everywhere. It goes with you and gets directly tied to wherever you are when it is playing. The Sundays were from London and wrote about British things, like losing a pound in the Underground, but their first album is forever burned in my brain by driving down Conference Dr near Rivergate Mall in Goodlettsville, TN in my friend’s very old, red Volkswagen Beetle that was in such bad shape that it didn’t even have floorboards in the back seat. If you sat back there, you pulled your feet up and hoped for the best because you could see the road passing underneath the car where your feet were supposed to rest. The heat for the car was broken in some way that prevented you from turning it off. It was on all of the time, even in the summer. No matter the season, the windows were always down, which does make for good cruising and listening to The Sundays in the spring evening. This relationship to an album is nothing that a band in that position could have ever predicted but that’s the strength of recorded music. This is art’s weakness. No one is driving around Goodlettsville, TN having an Albrecht Dürer moment. Dürer is not in the air. But this weakness is countered by art’s strength that when you stand in front of a painting, you are standing where the artist stood. There was a show of Leonardo da Vinci drawings at the Met years ago. A friend of mine and I were standing in front of a drawing, 2 feet from it, when we heard a woman behind us say, “You know, you can see it from here too.” My friend turned back and said, “Yeah, but he was standing where I am when he drew it.”

            I assume that most artists have had that moment early enough in their lifetime to nudge them a bit into the profession of making art: a person stood where I am standing and made the thing I am looking at and this is the only place you can stand to have this experience because  this is a unique object and I occupy the singular space directly in front of a unique object at this moment. The closest thing to a first for this experience that I can remember happened in my grandmother’s house. She was the caretaker of some of my great-grandmother’s art. I have little-to-no information about my great-grandmother. I should ask more questions. She lived in eastern North Carolina and was a hobbyist of art more than an artist. She taught some classes but what remains of her work are pieces that she copied, predominantly images from magazines. We have a small watercolor still life in the kitchen that she either set up herself or copied it. It’s a handful of red, green and yellow apples with a small glass dish. It lacks volume and light but possesses a nice washy quality. It’s also well-arranged, from my perspective because it’s a relatively-long horizontal and a quick scan of all of my work will reveal that I don’t consider myself to be good at arranging along a horizontal. I make verticals. I really need to work on expanding my range of formatting.

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

Edwin and Thomas Landseer, The Stag at Bay, engraving, approximately 1848, image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

            The work of hers that grabbed my attention over the years was the biggest surviving piece that the family kept. It’s a copy of Edwin and Thomas Landseer’s The Stag at Bay. It is unclear to me whether or not the original Landseer painting exists now. The composition is best documented by Edwin’s brother, Thomas’ engraving from approximately 1848. It depicts a stag in what I assume is a lake being attacked by two wolves. The winner and loser of the fight have yet to be determined but I feel like if the stag is in the water, then the stag is going down. It looks like it could go either way. There is a threatening cloud hovering over the composition with a bird of prey circling in the darkest section of the cloud. Despite the storm, broad rays of light streak from behind the cloud to illuminate the shoreline and forest in the distance. It’s a nice slice of British romanticism. Every element of the natural world is turned up to maximum volume.

            My great-grandmother’s charcoal copy of this print hung in my grandmother’s house and then came to my parents after my grandmother’s death. For the first few years of it being there, I considered it a hideous thing and rarely looked at it. But one day I finally had that “Hey, someone stood right here and made this” moment and my relationship with it changed. I think it happened because I understood that it was a relative of mine that made it. My father knew the person that made it. Now it was a mysterious object. I had no idea who Edwin Landseer or what Romanticism was or that my great-grandmother had copied this. I thought she made it up out of her head. Why would she do this? It seemed unlikely that she would ever see a stag attacked by wolves. As my eye developed, I graded it. Her drawing has space and light and proportion but lacks form. But she was seeing more than likely seeing this in a magazine so how much form did she have to observe? The horizon line doesn’t match up on the left and right side of the stag’s body. This is not a Cezanne move. It’s an error. The drawing’s importance to me grew as I grew. When we bought our first house, my parents unloaded a lot of my childhood stuff on me that had been in their attic. They gave us furniture they didn’t need. I asked for the stag and got it.

slideshow: Edwin Landseer- Night (Two Stags Battling by Moonlight), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Morning (Two Dead Stags and a Fox), oil on canvas, 1853, 56x103”, Ptarmigan in a Landscape, oil on canvas, 1833, 19.5x25.75” - images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art         

Once I started working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I dusted the frame of two large Landseer paintings every week. Other smaller Landseers were around, and honestly, it is a gem of a small collection of his work. Click here to see them. The Ptarmigan in a Landscape painting is a masterful control of earth tones and grays. One large piece I dusted depicts two stags battling at night. The partner of the same size depicted two dead stags with a fox and a bird of prey. Saturday night, Sunday morning? Not knowing Thomas’ prints, I was still able to look at these and my great-grandmother’s drawing and know that she was looking at his work. The composition of forms was too similar to not be him. That gave me enough to start searching. Over the years (this is early internet 2.0) I would occasionally search “Landseer stag” and find work similar but not it. After a year or two, I got an eBay hit on the print and the mystery was solved. Now I knew what she had been using as her guide and I could compare and contrast the original and the copy. The unsolvable mystery will always be where she saw it and what she was copying. She sliced off the right quarter of the composition, but maybe that wasn’t included in what she was looking at. Maybe the edits in her composition were not hers. She washed out the storm. It’s a clear day in her drawing. The landscape is downplayed. The true romanticism of the piece is negated just to focus on the subject. She nailed the shape of the stag and the antlers and the wolf on the left though. It’s a good copy. No wonder I wanted it up on the wall.

film still from  Bull Durham

film still from Bull Durham

            The drawing hangs above my studio door now. I’ve drawn it in the background of at least one piece of mine in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again. I see the print pop up on auctions, but I’ll never spend $5,000 on it. I found it hovering in the background of a bar scene in Bull Durham. It’s a nice steady reminder of art history as well as family history and that your children and grandchildren may latch onto an oddball thing you make as a keepsake that you were ever here. We have this drawing and some of my wife’s grandfather’s whittled oddities. You can hold those whittled piece in your hand in the same way you can stand in front of a Leonardo drawing and say, “This is the only one of these. I am holding it (or standing in front of it) and no one else can have that direct relationship right now but me.”