Saturday, 17 April 2010

A HAND, AN EYE AND A PIECE OF CHARCOAL

Last week we enjoyed the work of glitzy art superstar Jeff Koons, who employs a factory of artists to create his supersized art. Koons is famous not for his personal hand or eye, but for his "enigmatic otherness" which conceives wry social statements (which others then execute in the form of giant balloon animals).

This week, for a change of pace, we leave Koons and look instead at a talented artist.

This lovely drawing is by the illustrator William Oberhardt.



Oberhardt did not specialize in wry social statements. He did not write the specifications for teams of workers to produce huge ironic paintings. Instead, he specialized in taking a single piece of charcoal in his own hand and drawing portraits which combined sensitivity with boldness and vitality.



After my last post about Oberhardt, I was fortunate to be contacted by his family. Today's images are from their personal collection.



To get a sense for the strength of this drawing, take a closer look at some of the details:




You can't achieve this kind of power if you stop to draw the eyelashes.

In the next picture, note how Oberhardt's hand floated above the picture, alighting from time to time apply darks for emphasis. These strange jottings are the language of visual abstraction:



It's a language I like.

So much of contemporary art is dependent on concepts and ideas for its validity. Armies of critics, pedants and grad students armed with thesauruses compete to explain the meaning of such art (and thereby demonstrate their own sensitivity). If you linger too long in front of their carnival booth, they will trap you into endless discussions of why an object is different, or more complex, or better than it looks.

I confess I like some of that art, and have even written some of that pedantic persiflage myself. But when I step back, no matter how immense or shiny or expensive it is, art that must be propped up with words seems etiolated in comparison to what an artist can achieve with just a hand, an eye and a piece of charcoal.

The great Walt Whitman put verbal rationalizations in perspective:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and of the truths of the earth.