Thursday, December 29, 2016


I love the work of Denis Zilber.  His drawing ability, vivid imagination and
fun attitude make him one of my favorite digital illustrators.

Wishing you all a happy 2017, one that I hope will generate a little more love than what we experienced in 2016.

Thanks to all of you for your interesting comments and suggestions throughout the year.  You have broadened my experience and sharpened my vocabulary, and I appreciate it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I've argued on this blog that "fine" art tends to become silly and less relevant as investment bankers and auction houses distort the market, and critics shy away from normative statements about new art.  In my view, fine art today is often more commercial than so-called commercial illustration.

Following the election of Donald Trump, we've begun discussing art with a social conscience by artists such as Ben Shahn or Alan Cober.  What can it accomplish?  How meaningful is it today?

In my view, one of the most striking collections of such art in the past fifty years was a project by Victor Juhasz which was posted by GQ.   Juhasz spent three weeks with an army medevac unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan to witness first hand what was happening on the front lines.

He took his expedition solo, and on his own initiative.  His journal recounts several extraordinary moments, such as this effort by a Black Hawk helicopter to rescue casualties from an armored vehicle (MRAP) had been turned into a "crushed toy" by an explosive device.  Trying to avoid Taliban snipers, the helicopter with Juhasz came swooping to the rescue at about 160 miles per hour for a "hot zone" landing:
Foul-smelling smoke and ash from the burning MRAP, some of it still quite hot, poured in through the open windows of our Black Hawk, swirling and landing everywhere in the cabin as we drew closer. Bitter-tasting cinders filled my accidentally opened mouth. Edstrom banked the Black Hawk hard and almost on its side as he slowed to make a landing. A spot had been designated in advance, and Edstrom lowered the bird, but the ubiquitous red-clay "moon dust" kicked up by the rotor blades created a brownout. Edstrom lost all visuals and, unable to see where he was landing, aborted the attempt, doing another accelerating loop around the village and fields, in effect another roller-coaster ride, to come in for another try.
But the truly extraordinary thing about Juhasz's drawings and paintings was not the high speed or the explosions which dominate the art of "armchair" war artists.  It was the humanity of the individuals he captured in extreme situations.

Juhasz wrote, "A good drawing walks an interesting tightrope of being in the moment and reflecting on that moment, from the visual impact of a subtle gesture to the energetic desperation of concentrated activity."

I find his drawings beautiful and devastating.

His impressions showed me a side of the war that I never got from photographs.

Juhasz took his responsibilities as a witness seriously.  He wrote:"I leave with far more butterflies about my skills than over concerns about safety or injury."

You can find his poignant art from Afghanistan and from Juhasz's other military excursions on his website.

So what is the potential for such witness art today?  It is certainly a fitting tribute to the soldiers whose sacrifices might otherwise go unnoticed.  But beyond that, such images could be important for a culture that seems quick to pull the trigger but reluctant to do the hard reading about the causes and effects of conflicts.  A president elect who says he doesn't like to read details, and who says his equivalent of military service in Vietnam was avoiding STDs back home, could certainly benefit from studying these pictures. 

Thursday, December 08, 2016


The New York Times asked Alan Cober to illustrate an article on the conditions at the Willowbrook Home For The Mentally Disabled.  They commissioned two drawings.  He stayed at Willowbrook to make fifty.  

Cober didn't wait for a client to send him to homes for the aged.  He went there on his own.

He also visited prisons and drew what he found there.

A series of Cober's drawings from mental institutions, prisons, and homes for the aged were published as a book about abandoned people called The Forgotten Society.  

What did Cober hope to accomplish?  If he was a lawyer he might have filed a lawsuit.  If he was a politician he might have passed a law.  If he was a TV journalist he could have reported the facts.  Instead, he was an artist.  As the ancient philosopher Cicero wrote:
"Such strengths as a man has, he should use."
So, what strengths did Cober have?  Look at the way he presented this scene:

The faces and personalities of the human subjects have vanished into dehumanizing machines, with only a few pathetic limbs dangling out:

Lawyers or politicians could never convey the story of humans caught in the machine this way.

In this next drawing, Cober focuses on a person in a wheel chair to show us how different the reality is from our shorthand recollections:

You don't learn anatomy like this in an art class.

In the following drawing, Cober identifies a small point of irony...

... then prioritizes it by stripping away the rest of the world's clutter and placing the irony at the juncture of a long horizontal and a long vertical:

These are the strengths of an artist.  And such strengths as a person has, they should use.