Archive for the VISUAL ART Category

Stray Thoughts on Andy Warhol (and Art and Celebrity)

Posted in Indie Theatre, Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by travsd

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a virus, a pseudo-living entity concerned primarily with self-replication and whose effect could be toxic, occasionally even fatal. Speculation that he was of alien origin would not be far-fetched, and may possibly be correct. America absorbed him like a virus, reflects him, emulates him, was altered by him, and now IS him. I am Andy Warhol; and so many people I know are Andy Warhol, and to one degree or another. It’s more than likely that you are too.

The subject of Andy Warhol is too great and complex to be approached in an essay form. It has too many entry points; too many simultaneous, overlapping facades. The shape is wrong; it wouldn’t describe him. So I am going to write about him in a shotgun blast of fragments, ideas, memories, observations. Many or most (but not all) will honor him by being completely solipsistic, as much about me, or how he affected me, as about him.

  • Warhol is vaudeville, a mighty act of self-creation. He was the son of Slovak immigrants; his father was a coal miner. But in a very real sense Warhol is the spiritual son, the product, of Pittsburgh tycoon Andrew Carnegie. It was not only Carnegie who wrote the influential The Gospel of Wealth, but also he who endowed The Carnegie Institute of Technology, where Warhol studied to become an artist. Andy Warhol, wealthy celebrity and artist, is the creation of humble Andrew Warhola, who through his own exertions (and the organized exertions of others), pioneered new fields, and built an empire.
  • Warhol remained a devout Catholic all his life. This is significant because Catholicism is largely a religion of forms, rituals, phenomena, and works. The religion influenced his art most deeply in the form of the mass production of silk screen paintings that fetishized pop culture and commercialism, which seems to mimic the generation of Christian religious icons (literal icons) in Eastern Europe.
  • I was deeply involved for a number of years with a woman whose parents were among Warhol’s oldest friends, fellow art students from Pittsburgh who moved with him to New York and were his first room-mates. I heard a lot about the early years from them. The person I was involved with was also part of the Ridiculous theatrical movement, which also owes its origins ultimately to Warhol. All roads lead to Warholia.
  • My dad was an aspiring commercial artist in his youth. It’s made me more interested than I otherwise might be in Warhol’s early art, which was strictly work-for-hire advertising consumer goods. My dad’s working class assessment of Warhol’s work was predictably dismissive (“Sure! Looks enough like a Campbell’s Soup Can!”) and is no doubt the prevailing opinion on Warhol in American mainstream culture, which I find hugely ironic but telling. On the one hand Warhol embraces, deifies their own culture; in return, the public scorns his work as crass, ignoble, and unworthy — a swindle. There is a hypocrisy to that stance, I think.
  • This produces the inherent contradiction of Warhol: in so many ways, no one is more democratic, “of the people”, or unpretentious than Andy Warhol. On the other hand, he is one of the elect, the wealthy elite. This makes him just like the movie stars, celebrities, and rock stars he fetishizes.
  • Since I was a teenager I’ve been obsessed with the 1960s and have been enthralled with the people who galvanized all that rapid cultural change: the Beats, rock stars, political figures, avant-garde artists. Warhol, of course was pre-eminent among these, with many tentacles radiating outward from his centralized monster-brain. There’s his project the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and Nico at its center, which then gave rise to Glam Rock and Punk (and even disco, which partially evolved out of the former). There were his underground films. I’ve gotten to know a few of his Stars over the years: the late great Taylor Mead; Randy Bourscheidt, whom I worked with at Alliance for the Arts; and the great Penny Arcade, who continues to be a generous mentor and inspiration. The films, in turn influenced theatre in the form of the Ridiculous movement, a chain that goes from Ronald Tavel to John Vaccaro to Charles Ludlam, to the many subsequent artists they spawned and inspired. John Waters and his Dreamlanders are also a major offshoot. The gaggle of friends and colleagues known as Art Stars has been principally influenced by all of these. My friend Rev Jen lives this life to a Pataphysical degree. Glam Rock, the films, and the Ridiculous all heavily incorporate drag performance, which of course ties in strongly to vaudeville.
  • For another tie-in between vaudeville and Warhol’s Factory scene, read my piece about a guy who played a role in both: Paul Swan, The Most Beautiful Man in the World.  
  • I’m told that quotes from my book No Applause were used in wall text in Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum
  • When I was starting my company Mountebanks, the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol was an influence, largely for its ornery and perverse defense of commercialism and capitalism, and his Oscar Wilde style provocative paradoxes.
  • Warhol also founded Interview magazine. I got to meet its editor Ingrid Sischy and Elton John once professionally. Read of that episode here.
  • In 2001, I reviewed a production of Up Your Ass, the play Valerie Solonas shot Warhol over in 1968. (He’s misplaced the only copy of the play, which she’d given him to read in hopes that he would fund a production. This made her very, very mad). At around the same time I also saw (not sure if I reviewed) Carson Kreitzer’s play Valerie Shoots Andy at the Present Company Theatorium.
  • I am an avid fan of Jean Stein (and George Plimpton)’s book Edie, an oral history about the troubled life of Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick. More on Stein and the book are in my tribute to the late Stein here.
  • For a real weirdie, check out the Warhol-produced movie Cocaine Cowboys (1979), an appropriate trash-fest, in which Warhol plays himself. He also played himself in an episode of The Love Boat. Life imitating art? Nay, delicious trash imitating a life that imitates art imitating life!
  • Some cool movies about the Factory: I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Factory Girl (2006). Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), in which David Bowie plays Warhol, is also highly relevant. I once played Julian Schnabel in a play that was produced in a Soho art gallery, and I believe that brings us full circle to myself, which is where I will now leave you, in hopes that it will inspire you to contemplate me. 
  • (worried expression). Um…gee! 


Paul Colin: The Visual Spirit of Jazz Age Paris

Posted in African American Interest, Frenchy, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by travsd

June 27 is the birthday of the great French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985). A native of Nancy, Colin attended the École des Beaux-Arts and became a master of Art Deco style, incorporating earlier movements such as Cubism.

Colin had been living and working in Paris for over a decade when Josephine Baker arrived in 1925 to become his lover and muse. His most famous poster (above) is also the one that put him on the map. Baker and Colin promoted each other’s work; they became Parisian sensations hand in hand.

In 1927 Baker, all of 21, published a memoir, with illustrations by Colin:

From a 1927 event that drew 3,000 people:

Paris in the 20s and 30s was in the grip of Le Tumulte Noir, “The Black Craze”, and this inspired a series of works from him by that name, in which Josephine was not absent:

Exoticism was key to the fad; jungle themes were prevalent, as were depictions evocative of American minstrelsy caricatures. As a consequence, these Jazz Age images can be tough for us to unpack. Racist? Yet worshipful. The height of fashion? And yet animal, not quite human? “Negrophilia” — but how deep did that love run? As we say, Baker was his lover. If you’ll pardon the expression, Colin had skin in the game. The pair remained friends for life. But outside the nightclubs, cafes, and artist studios of Paris, racism continued to reign in French culture, as is it did throughout the Western world.

Colin had a wider scope of subjects, at all events. Here is an advertisement for the great clown Grock:

Here’s an ad for the 1926 Rene Clair film The Imaginary Voyage:

Colin advertised products of all sorts over the ensuing decades and turned out dozens of pupils through his “Ecole Paul Colin”. Before the dust had settled, he had created 1,900 theatrical posters, and numerous book, theatre set and costume designs.

James Montgomery Flagg: Lived Up To His Name

Posted in AMERICANA, Silent Film, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2017 by travsd

Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) was born on June 18. Flagg’s best known work (above) is especially timely — the Uncle Sam/ “I Want You” poster was created one century ago as part of the World War One recruitment drive. It’s so well known and so frequently parodied I used it as the inspiration for a publicity still around the time I was launching my American Vaudeville Theatre around 20 years ago.

Photo by Joseph Silva

Flagg designed a slue of patriotic pictures during the Great War. I liked his rendering of Columbia encouraging Victory Gardens so much I acquired the fridge magnet version:

My wife (herself an illustrator) and myself took in many of his works during our recent pilgrimage to the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport. RI. 

There are other good connections to this blog. For example, from 1903 through 1907, Flagg drew the comic strip Nervy Nat for Judge magazine. Nervy Nat is a tramp character of the sort that was popular at the time, and paved the way in some sense sense for Chaplin’s screen character a decade later

There is a 1904 comedy short called Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride produced by Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter, and starring Arthur Byron and Evelyn Nesbit, which is clearly inspired by the strip. It is available to watch on Youtube.

Flagg is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I have visited his marker! (I am not obsessed or anything. I was visiting ALL the stars. Have more to go, too).

Flagg was a prodigy. Originally from Pelham Manor, New York, he was already publishing magazine illustrations by age 12. He attended the Art Students League from 1894 through 1898, after which he studied for a couple of years in London and Paris before returning the the States to pursue his professional career. At one point he was the highest paid illustrator in America. One of his favorite models was Mabel Normand! He also painted portraits of prominent people like Ethyl Barrymore and Mark Twain.

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975).

Benton was the namesake and great grand-nephew of the five term Missouri Senator who was one of America’s prominent 19th century politicians, a Jacksonian Democrat and advocate for Manifest Destiny. The younger Benton was also the son of Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four term Missouri Congressman. Pressure must have been on follow a certain course in life (politics) but in spite of his name, Thomas Hart Benton followed his artistic bent with the encouragement of his mother, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Académie Julian. In the spirit of his namesake, Benton’s vision was populist and patriotic, but in the spirit of his own times it also took a leftist turn and expressed a deep sympathy with the underdog. His visions were epic and heroic, but also questioning and thought-provoking. Rural America and history were frequent themes, but today we thought it especially fitting to share word about an exhibition we caught a couple of years ago at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, which we thought would be of especial interest to our readers. It was called American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood. 

The jumping off point for this study is Benton’s painting “Hollywood” painted in 1937 and 1938, initially on a commission for Life magazine. It depicts the shooting of the John Ford movie The Long Voyage Home based on O’Neil’s Sea Plays. He chose to concentrate on the apparatus behind the film.

As part of the project, he did this sketch entitled “Member of the Chorus” on the soundstage of a musical:

Benton also illustrated an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). His image “The Departure of the Joads” was used on posters for John Ford’s 1940 film version:

The exhibition also covered the entirety of Benton’s career, relating his lifelong penchant for mythology to that of Hollywood. But there is much room for overlap. For example there’s his eponymous painting inspired by the 1954 film The Kentuckian, starring Burt Lancaster. If you didn’t know the backstory, it would simply seem a typical Benton scene:

Benton’s 1948 painting “Poker Night (From  A Streetcar Named Desire)” may well be one of his best known images. It was inspired by the Broadway version (the film didn’t come out until 1951), but movie producer David O. Selznick liked it so much he bought it for his wife.

As we all know, those with a penchant for mythologizing frequently also have an unfortunate bent for stereotype and demonization. When World War II arrived, Benton began depicting the Japanese enemy in less-than-human terms, exaggerating and misrepresenting their features, and doing the same with his depictions of African Americans, a tendency which paralleled Hollywood’s depictions of minorities on film. (While this section of the exhibition was certainly germane, it had less to do directly with Benton’s relationship to Hollywood. His problematic relationship to race is a topic for another day.) At any rate, those images are certainly available to look at online; no need to perpetuate them here today.

Show business was a subject Benton returned to throughout his life. In fact, he died while working on this mural, “The Sources of Country Music”, in 1975:

Howard Pyle: Boys, Battles, Buccaneers

Posted in VISUAL ART with tags , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the influential illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911).

A mutual love of illustration was one of the first things that brought my wife and I together — our second date (our first official one) was a lecture on Charles Addams. Naturally she, whose entire life is illustration, has a much vaster knowledge and grasp of the form. But that it’s important to me at all, you must admit, is a genuine point of overlap in this world of American men who love nothing other than football, duck hunting, and chain restaurants that serve hamburgers with pizzas for buns.

"Ar! No you must walk the plank, me hearty!"

“Ar! Now you must walk the plank, me hearty!”

Anyway, books with Pyle illustrations were important to me in my childhood, chiefly The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and Otto of the Silver Hand (1888). Pyle was a man very much in tune with his times: his subject matter is almost all bellicose, patriotic, adventurous, imperialistic and male, mostly stuff about knights and pirates and battles. He was from a Delaware Quaker family — he seems to have rebelled not only by being an artist, but by letting his imagination roam to romantic, often violent, places. The Arthurian Legend was a major thread of his work, and he also collaborated on some books about American history with Woodrow Wilson (when he was still a professor) and Henry Cabot Lodge. His sister Katharine Pyle (1863-1938) was also an illustrator and children’s author; the pair collaborated on an 1888 book called The Wonder Clock, which had a tale for each hour of the day:


One of the myriad pleasures of fatherhood was getting to share Otto with my boys. Otto’s hand is a silver prosthetic because an enemy of his father’s chopped it off. The world is cruel, but Otto is good because he was raised by gentle monks. I always wanted a monkish haircut as depicted in Pyle’s illustration, which was also used on the books’ cover:


I was thrilled to see some Pyle originals at the National Museum of American Illutstration in our recent trip to Newport. Here’s one we saw on view there, from Tales of Pirates and Buccaneers:


Celebrations of America’s Diversity by that Famous “Cuck” Norman Rockwell

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

Today is the birthday of the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). It couldn’t be better timed, for his late work says forcefully what I firmly believe: American patriotism is deeply intertwined with the celebration of American diversity. And that’s a message that particularly needs circulating just now.

There is no greater indication to me of how stupid and boorish these alt-right thugs are than something like the recent Budweiser Brew-Ha-Ha. Everyone in America is an immigrant, and things like this Annheuser-Busch tribute, if anything, used to be the stomping grounds of the right, at least as much as the left. That was America’s brand of PATRIOTISM. It’s the kind of thing that used to get Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan and Georgie Jessel and Frank Sinatra misty-eyed. Every Hollywood movie’s World War 2 or Vietnam troop is always almost hilariously diverse, as though it were a study group from Model U.N.: “Roll call: Petrocelli! Bernstein! Robinson! Gonzalez! O’Rourke!” I mean, what the hell? It seems to me these alt-right people don’t want America, they want Idaho, so they oughtta just move there, build their feckin’ wall around themselves and leave the real Americans — the ones who have some understanding of American freedoms embodied by the U.S. Constitution and the Statue of Liberty — to flourish without them. The alt-right is a millstone around America’s neck.

Anyway, as you’ll all agree there is no one more “American” than Norman Rockwell, he was kind of the official artist of Americana for a good hunk of the 20th century. The derogatory click-bait term I used in the headline is obviously used sarcastically. A few inspirational images from his hand:



He leaves this one open to interpretation. To my eyes, it’s clear these innocent children are going to be friends in about five minutes



It’s hard to make out the words, but they are the Golden Rule of Christianity, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Pretty simple, huh? One might think.

%d bloggers like this: