I wrote a few weeks ago about Steven Assael's work at Forum Gallery. But I didn't give you any context for my experience of seeing the work. What happened was that I went to the opening. Naturally I ran into several artists I knew; one of them was Dorian Vallejo.
Vallejo does a lot of kinds of work, but I mostly know his drawings, which share an elegant, light-footed sense of line and a sweet-natured sexiness with Gustav Klimt's drawings. I have heard that Klimt had several models in his studio at a time. This story goes that he would ask his models just to wander around, and when he saw one do something interesting, he'd ask her to hold for a bit. Similarly, Robert Henri talks about preserving the original impulse or insight throughout the representation of a figure. Vallejo's loose, graceful drawings seem to reflect a similar procedure. Discussing the drawing above, he wrote, "The drawing you picked was a quick one done while sketching with several friends. Often when I draw with friends I allow whatever is happening with the model to suggest a direction for the drawing. Referencing Steve [Assael], one of his points of instruction was to be mindful of maintaining the initial spark of enthusiasm and spontaneity throughout a drawing."
Vallejo himself is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet. You can tell right away, it radiates off him. Plus he looks like Superman's shy brother.
At Assael's opening, Vallejo was carrying a Strand bag and he was pleased to show me what was in it. Not a book from the Strand, naturally, but a book he had been given at a place called Michael Altman Fine Art. Altman is a dealer who keeps a place of business in a nice townhouse on east 70th Street, and the first floor was hosting a show of watercolors, drawings, and oil paintings by John Singer Sargent. This was on my list of things to see, along with Balthus at the Met, Vermeer at the Frick, Hammershøi at Scandinavia House, and Magritte at MoMA. Vallejo bumped Sargent to the top of my list by noting that a. the show was closing shortly, and b. they were giving out free beautiful hardbacks of the show. You go where the free art books are. So I went.
At the townhouse on east 70th Street, I had several beautifully appointed living rooms and parlors of the most dazzling John Singer Sargent work mostly to myself. But I didn't see the free Sargent books anywhere, so I asked the guy at the desk. It turned out they'd given away nearly a thousand, and were nearly out, and were hiding the rest. He gave me one, and I returned to the thing that was most interesting to me - a little portrait of a Spanish woman from 1879-80. This was the most interesting to me because I've had a copy of it hanging on a bulletin board for eight years:
This study is one of my favorite minor paintings. There is something about the way her eyes vanish into darkness that has always grabbed me. I have linked it in my mind with heroic resolve. To the left, there is light, and to the right, necessity. She turns to the right, to get done what needs doing. I have repeatedly incorporated the power of this choice, epitomized in this image, into my own work:
I never particularly thought about seeing this painting in person. But now here I was, and it was a physical thing, quite small and in a fancy frame, on a wall in front of me. It was at this point that I realized I'd simply been looking at a very dark print of it. You can *totally fucking see* her eyes. Sargent's darks are not especially dark in this particular painting.
Whoopsie. I tried to figure out what this meant for me. I guess it doesn't mean very much. The power of the image remains the same, but the image does not originate in the Sargent painting. Sargent is not mine; he was, and remains, his own man. Well.
I asked the desk guy if I could stand around a while and do a drawing of this painting, and he said sure, why not, so I did. For about an hour or so, I got to commune with Sargent and his paint, and the thoughts and character of his Spanish woman. Elderly art enthusiasts came and went; upstairs I could hear Altman (I assume it was Altman) on the phone, working out the sale of a painting. The desk guy and the door guy, both young, were friendly and light-handed in their hosting of the scene. Here's what I drew:
My encounter with the Sargent, and the divergence between my idea of the thing and the thing itself, left me with a contact high for a few days. It was more electrical than chemical in character. I buzzed, with ideas and impulses.
At about this time, I was trying to figure out what to do for Claudia Hajian's year-end art show. Many of those who life draw in New York will know Hajian; she is one of the great art models of the city. She is beautiful, but more importantly, she is striking. Her sense of the pose is wide-ranging and dynamic. One learns very rapidly from drawing her, and it is easy to learn. Hajian used to be a history teacher. Seeking a change in her life, she tried modeling for art classes. It was love at first sight, and she has never looked back. Fairly unusually among models, she also writes extensively, on modeling, art, and music, at her very popular Museworthy blog. She's erudite, funny, and generous, qualities which have kept her blog fresh over many years. Her writing is some of the key material I studied when I began to write about art myself.
At Museworthy, Hajian was hosting a year-end art show. She posted four photographs our artist friend Fred Hatt took of her, and invited her readers to make what work from it they would. She would post it all. Hatt himself contributed a portrait, one of his high-energy, high-chroma pieces. He has spent many years figuring out how to prioritize depicting what his subjects are like very, very slightly more than what they look like.
Fred Hatt's interpretations of Claudia: photograph versus drawing (aquarelle crayon on paper)
For my part, I was still buzzing from my Sargent encounter. I turned my mind to a particular Degas painting. I am virtually certain the reproduction I know of this painting has little to do with the original, because it's a very contrasty book-cover reproduction. I have the book in my studio:
What I like about this is the hard way the explicit outlines butt up against the rendering of light and volume in the interior shapes. And he just doesn't bother with the bits that aren't interesting to him. Knowing when to stop is important.
I've been thinking about this painting for a long time. The low-stress environment of working alone on a small painting from a photograph seemed like a good time to test out the principles I was admiring in the Degas. So I put some blue, some brown, and some white on my palette, washed some burnt umber onto a canvas, and let 'er rip. An hour and a half later - oh, I'm sorry, 38 years and an hour and a half later - I was done:
I really like this quite a lot. I like the outlines, and the forms, and the way the incompleteness is organic to painting, but maintains that most desirable phantom, the energy of drawing. I think I'm going to do some more with these principles at some point. Better still, Claudia liked it. It's included in her art-show post here.
All these things took place because I ran into Dorian Vallejo at Steven Assael's opening at Forum Gallery. And that took place because I impoverish myself to live in New York, where this kind of thing just happens.
ALL ARTWORK COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS
DORIAN VALLEJO ONLINE: http://dorianvallejo.com/
CLAUDIA HAJIAN'S BLOG: http://artmodel.wordpress.com/
FRED HATT ONLINE: http://fredhatt.com/