Art Letter

May 2011 Archives

I have mentioned more than once that the art world is changing, and so are our perceptions of it. It used to be that the vast majority of artists worked in studios, on an easel. That morphed into artists working/painting alone and going out drinking at night. And now it has become more of a full-time, multi-disciplinary endeavor.

Mark Bradford, whose fine exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art is just beginning, is a splendid example.  His art is gorgeous, thick, meditative, relevant, about self-discovery, but easy to extrapolate from.  And perhaps, he is redefining painting by using tactile elements removed from his environment to be relocated onto his canvases. But more than that he is a full-time, art-engaged gig.

Bradford makes art; torn, scraped, repurposed, gouged.  He makes music.  He dances.  He collaborates with children.  He gives back.  Bradford is the kind of guy you want to hang out with.  He changes lives. He gets our existence in context.  He takes the pulse. He measures society.  He comments on his, and our relationship, to our environment, while observing that where we are is in a constant state of flux.

He incorporates artifacts from his culture in his art and freezes time as he goes.  A few years ago the signs he liberated were about cheap mortgages.  Now they are about DNA testing.  Times and economies have changed.  So has Bradford's art. 

Music, and references to music, and musicians, flow freely through his art.  The rhythm of his community is in his heart and in his art.  All this issues, concerns, perceptions and voices are one and inseparable in his life and artwork.

Art has always been something an artist does.  But it was normally in the studio.  Now it is everywhere. All the time. Integrated.  There is an agenda.  A need to comment and a need to foment change.

Thanks very much,

The challenge of succeeding as a visual artist appears overwhelming. Over 75% of art school graduates give up art within five years of graduation. What a pathetic statistic. It doesn't have to be that way.

I teach an online (and in-person) course to demystify the art world, make introductions and give artists the tools that guarantee a path to success.

Success is available, and can be accomplished by all artists. Consider the following:

Invariably artists are taking insufficient responsibility for their careers. Artists buy into the too-pervasive, American notion that artists are nothing but dented cans, misfits, underappreciated, overly creative oddities.

And while this perception may appear true in the macrocosm, it is blatantly false in the one-on-one, daily, microcosm. This really isn't any different than dealing with other prejudices; where common attitudes paint a large group of people with a single characteristic that no one in the group actually owns.

Each artist must take responsibility for his or her own career. This is not about joining a movement. To counter societal stigma, artists must distinguish themselves as special members of society and as different from all other artists, with artwork that is unique and special - on its own terms.


Beyond that artists must be knowledgeable, creative, interesting, conversant, enthusiastic and engaged.

It has never been sufficient to be the "starving" artist working in isolation in a garret. Artists need to live, to have experiences, emotions and something to say. It is the very rare artist who can exist solely on making good art. Good art does not readily distinguish itself.

An art buying audience is much more moved by liking / caring about a person, than they are by an object that gratifies solely for its aesthetic virtuosity.

If an artist does not take complete and thorough responsibiliy for their own career no one else is going to!

The artworld is not objective. All of us are aware of artists who are succeeding gloriously whose art we dislike. And most of us know artists who make art we love who have difficulty rubbing two nickels together.How great an artist's art is is no indication of how well it will fulfill the artist's objectives. This is actually very good news. Unlike almost all other fields that can be judged by statistics and objectivity, the artworld is about individuals and subjectivity.

Most artists want financial success, or at least solvency. But some prefer fame, notoriety or just that their artistic voice is heard. None of the foregoing is automatically attained by making good art. Or even great art.

For anyone to like an artist's work, they have to be exposed to it. It needs to be on their radar and in sight.

It's really about the numbers. If someone likes an artist as a person, they are going to have an increased attentiveness to that person's art. Real simple. The more people an artist exposes their art to, the greater likelihood that someone is going to respond positively.  It doesn't take a whole lot of numbers to make a huge difference. If an artist sells art to eight new collectors in a year, that artist's life is probably significantly improved. The question is how to get one's art in front of enough people that eight are going to emerge to alter the artist's life for the better.


And relationships. For an artist to succeed they need relationships. Relationships with friends, other artists, people they perceive to be better than themselves, with curators, art dealers, and collectors. All of which probably sounds impossible. 

I've seen a part-time artist who's been making art for 20 years, who worked full-time as a waitress, who declared bankruptcy just a month or two before signing up for my 12 week course. She was paying for the course over 12 months, but two-thirds of the way through the program she wrote me a check for payment in full because she'd just sold five paintings and was paying off all her debt.

The point is that success is within all artists' grasps. All artists possess the tools for success on their terms. All artists can succeed -- not all artists will. Success is a choice.

There's a lot to know. Stick with it 20 years and you might figure it out, or have enough bad habits ingrained that you need help getting out of your own way. But it is never too late. Success is within reach. It's right there in front of us. With the right strategies we can grasp it now.

 Paul Klein teaches a 12 week course to empower artists and delivery success on their terms. Klein Artist Works has another class beginning June 7th.

More public and corporate entities are stepping up their use of art- probably because they think it makes them look good and artists can be had for insultingly small money

Artists want opportunities, exposure and success.  That makes them prey to organizations that will manipulate them for the good or goals of the organization and the detriment of the artist. That bothers me.  

Specifically, the Grand Rapids ArtPrize has a hidden agenda of discouraging government support of the arts, promoting a right wing attitude of populist, not very provocative art, that appeals to a broad public base, is offensive to no one, and does not encourage artistic growth or significant social commentary. 1700 artists apply to ArtPrize, 100's get juried in, under 2 dozen divide $500,000 in prizes, mostly determined by a popular vote. Seem okay?  Even if 90% the artists don't get anything?  How about if you factor in that the combined efforts of all those artists has a 7 million dollar upside impact on the city of Grand Rapids? In an art gallery 50% of sales goes to the artists.  In the ArtPrize less than 10% goes to the artists.  Who is being served?

The Chicago Loop Open leaves me with a similar, bad taste in my mouth, though rumor suggests they may be learning from their mistakes. Too many artists running around hoping someone tosses them a bone.  It's embarrassing and unfortunate that artists get used to promote real estate and that the artists get disproportionately inadequate compensation.  And Chicago copying Grand Rapids?   Not good. Are we leaders or followers?

On the other hand, it is possible to create powerful win/win scenarios where both corporate entities and artists' purposes can coexist.  I was satisfyingly impressed with the Chicago Loop Alliance's sponsorship of Kay Rosen's beautiful, competent, fun and rewarding GoDoGood, located above the intersection of State and Washington Streets.  Not only that, the CLA has partnered with the United Way and together they are seeking 100,000 good deeds.

L1040782.JPGThis plays nicely with having a new mayor and the positive attitude that peculates with any new administration's beginning.


Rosen is creating positive social change.  She lives in Indiana and is a Chicago artist.   She has been significant for years, makes public art and has been collected by museums for decades.  It's great to see the Art Institute of Chicago participate in honoring Rosen and lend perspective to her Loop art by presenting pieces from their collection.

The moral of the story is that if artists insist upon getting what they deserve they are more likely to get it.  On the other hand, when artists go chase brass rings, they get led around by the nose and find themselves fulfilling other people's agendas.

Congratulations to Kay Rosen, the Chicago Loop Alliance, United Way and the Art Institue of Chicago for getting it right.

Thank you,
Paul Klein

I've been doing these previews for 6 1/2 years.  Some trips to galleries are just better that others.  I love it when an artist I admire breaks new ground and pushes their work into braver, stronger, more exciting territory.  And I love it when I'm afraid that I'm going to uncover mediocrity and instead find visual eloquence. 

Vera Klement is a senior citizen with the energy of a teenager. Most artists decades younger are reprising greatest hits.  Vera just keeps growing.  She is an underrated giant, genius and beautiful talent. Her work reads like scores of music, which is to say that her pieces are not monolithic compositions but fragments, visual notes, dichotomies and balances.  This particular body of works on paper, which opens at Printworks tonight is called American Sublime and references American art from the early to late 1800's when painters fueled our 'manifest destiny' of westward expansion.  Images glorified the landscape and the beauty, and downplayed the slaughter of Native Americans.  Klement is among other significant artists who are examining issues of and in America's past and bring new understanding to how we got where we are. 


Paul Nudd is an archetypal Chicago artist. My contention is that Chicago has always been a blue-collar city that respects hard work and downplays pomposity.  That's Nudd.  Though outsiders think of Chicago is clean, we all know our river is gross, our schools uncomfortable and that we have a coal plants regurgitating within our City limits.  Nudd is the poster child for an honest Chicago.  Wonderful, beautiful, hardworking, dirty and ugly. And what a good choice to present Rachel NIffenegger's glorious, grotesque, putrid blobs simultaneously in the Western Exhibitions show that opens tonight. 


I don't remember Kendall Carter's previous show at Monique Meloche, but I won't forget this one.  This show kicks ass.  Sophisticated, intelligent, grunt basic, purposeful and beautiful, with an agenda of using non-painterly materials in a painterly way, Carter looks into his own Blackness - in the eyes of other people's unconscious expectations. Yup he does all that and still keeps the work light and very fun. The opening is Saturday. 



It must be tough for female artists to address the objectification of women in their art and yet not push viewers and collectors way with a cranky diatribe. Paula Henderson does this beautifully in another exhibit that opens tonight - at Linda Warren.  Henderson repurposes images of too tall, too thin models into mandalaesque compositions that undermine our expectations and encourage us to cast off our old, tired ethics.


I'm impressed with Alderman Exhibitions, a nascent gallery, and its, enthusiastic and professional directory Ellen Alderman whose objective of growing, exposing and unifying art and artists in Chicago resonates nicely with my own.  Young, Chicago artist Thomas Roach begins his creative process of finding content by an odd, laborious exercise of borrowing scads of clipped magazine pages from the Chicago Public Library's archives; like a folder full of images of hands. He'll assemble and balance them in a grid.  Then, focusing on a detailed portion of one of those images, he'll use it as subject matter for an exquisitely created pencil drawing, that is so tight as to appear photographic. The process is slightly absurd.  The result is rather beautiful. 



It bothered me less when I had a gallery, but as a writer and viewer it is difficult for me to get a lot of group shows into a comfortable context.  Especially when there is a curator who needs to lay their thematic point of view on the exhibition and the artists therein who may have no agreement whatsoever with the context into which their work is placed.

I'm not saying this is the case in either of these two group exhibits I saw, but I am using these curated group exhibits as a jumping off point for a very short discussion about the role of curators.  At Rhona Hoffman the title of the show provides a clue - as well as being the genesis of the exhibit: Never Let Me Go.  Okay, think about that for a second.  Given the title, what could the show be about?  I looked at a few pieces and decided the show was about mortality and America's unacceptance of death, but clearly there were pieces in the show that didn't fit my erroneous assumption.  So I looked at the press release and read that there were significant works by seven artists who, by making 'figure' inextricable from 'ground' (and vice versa), engender the extraordinary and withstand alienation.  I have no idea if these seven significant artists are comfortable being in this show, and wonder how they feel about having their work defined this way.



L1040667.JPGAt Zolla/Lieberman is another group exhibit, titled Cinematic Bodies.  This time I went straight to the announcement card that states the curator's intent where  the selected works reflect my fascination with certain contemporary, figurative artworks... that appear to engage with aspects of 'the cinematic.  Yeah, much of the work feels cinematic, but a lot doesn't.  For me, the bigger questions are why is this trend of curators thinking they're artists not over yet? Why don't curators recall that their job is to enhance art and artists and not to use them as raw material for their own agenda?



L1040681.JPGArtists must take responsibility for their own careers or they can get manhandled, misconstrued, miscomprehended and misrepresented.  Again, I am not saying these particular curators in the foregoing exhibitions have done this, but I've seen it happen too often and perhaps you can tell it is a pet peeve of mine.

Enough for now.  There's some wonderful art on view.  Even I crossed the threshold into a new venue.  More often that not it is rewarding and provocative.  Try it.

Thanks very much,

Breadth on View, Depth in Mind
I am moved and challenged by the words Chicago artist, Titus O'Brien posted on my Facebook discussion about ArtChicago, which will guide me in my perspective going forward: 

This is the heart of the matter - art, truly, is not a commercial proposition. This is not "idealism." This is the truth. Art is life and death, nothing less. When it is less than that, it isn't art. Money is only one form of value, often acting merely as representative for more profound ones. True art patrons know this - therefore, they look to patronize art that clues us in on our fundamental humanity and core values. Artists are not entertainers. We're not fantasists. Richard Tuttle said only art can show the truth of our existence. I don't disagree. Ad Reinhardt called art commerce and art as entertainment a "suicide burlesque." That phrase crossed my mind more than once last Friday, strolling the fair. A carnival of the frivolous. I don't have the time. None of us really do.

I'm impressed with the diversity of art on view in Chicago, which I find emblematic of Chicago. Since the 1830's Chicago has been a blue-collar town.  Men and women of divergent heritages were (ultimately) respected for their hard work.  And this work ethic imprints the artists who reside here.  I don't see a prevailing aesthetic.  I see well made art.

Jason Brammer is an artist with a rising trajectory.  He took my Klein Artist Works course and is on tract for significant accomplishments.  He has an opening tonight at Jackson Junge, which includes a live painting performance around 7 PM.  With hands like his, Jason could have been a surgeon.  He's a magician with paint, who explores trips back in time that include a projection to the future.  His ability enables him to incorporate artifacts and antiques in his art, which add a physical dimension that he then extrapolates and riffs from, to the extent that you can't tell where one ends and the other begins.  



Fred Stonehouse is a Chicago artist who doesn't live here, as he melds a vocabulary that is as much at home here as it is in his home state of Wisconsin. The swamp creatures in his work, opening tonight, reference his neighborhood, but could be drawn straight from our own Bubbly Creek.  It's great to see the wise and brave Catherine Edelman redefine her gallery, staying ahead of the curve.  As discussed here before, the internet has changed the artworld, yet most galleries remain mired in the past.  Not Edelman.  Her main two-person exhibit (Stonehouse and Tim Tate) includes no photography - a theme she says she will revisit occasionally to champion artists she particularly believes in.  And her inaugural Ctrl+P exhibit of Emiliano Granado presents images found while perusing/arousing the internet. 



On the far South side the Beverly Art Center is presenting 3 solid, longtime, Chicago abstract painters whose art is thick and/or detailed, which is the theme of this exhibit, opening tonight, with Jackie Kazarian, Sandra Perlow and Darrell Roberts,



Corbett vs Dempsey has always been a bit different, focusing predominantly on Chicago art from 1940 to 1970, as well as a smattering of contemporary artists who are invariably more solid than flashy.  Their style is more didactic and contemplative than mercurial, which lends a sense of permanence and substance to the artists they exhibit.  Saturday's opening of new work by Richard Artschwager presents a major American icon who is making new work in his 80's.  Not really an iconoclast, though one wouldn't be far off track labeling him one, he listens to his own inner voice and pretty much ignores the trends and currents of contemporary art.  Hard to pigeonhole him, but he's been called great more than once.


Just yesterday a joint presentation of Tony Smith's iconic wall unveiled at Wright Auction, in conjunction with Valerie Carberry Gallery   Beautiful and simple, it is either profound or mundane, depending on what your bring to it.  Context is relevant.  I saw it when the room was empty and I was moved.  Not sure how it'll feel with people milling around.

One of the two best shows I've seen recently, opened last week during the art fair, when I was too tied up to generate an ArtLetter preview.  They are sufficiently strong that I'm going to diverge from my policy of only doing previews.  Joe Amrhein is the director of the powerhouse Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn and a wonderfully unique, obtuse painter whose art comes damned near to undermining the artworld.  Trained as a sign painter his exhibition at FireCat yields a cynical commentary on the art world.    All the symbols of myriad currencies appear abstract through their confluence. In another, metaphor laden snippets of art critics' tongue-tying phrases are laid atop one another. Kind of hard for a critic to say much beyond a chortle of self-recognition, 



I've saved the best for last. Theaster Gates is a soft-spoken, gentlemanly, powerhouse of an artist and community activist, the precursor of a new breed of artist who engages his (sometimes larger than) local community to use art as a tool for social change. In the past 12 months Gates has gone from his work at the University of Chicago, to the Whitney Biennial, to a visiting gig at Harvard, to a national speaking tour, where he discusses his role as an artist in affecting community change.  Gates' Dorchester Project, on the South side of Chicago brings outsiders in.  The question remains, who is the outsider; the Black folks who have not experienced the prevailing 'cultured' culture, or the white folks who've not spent time in Black neighborhoods?. Gates purchased vacant homes, made them beautiful and functional and invited the community in. He ongoing exhibition at Kavi Gupta bears witness to his mourning of his heritage's suffering during the Civil Right's Movement, rife with beatings, hosings and sit-ins.  Powerful, relevant, beautiful work.  Theaster is a treasure. 




Thanks very much,
Paul Klein