Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Larry Rivers & Robert Weaver: Comparanda

We’ve seen a spate of Robert Weaver-related postings and comments here at Graphic Tales, and I wanted to round things up a bit and engage a question or two about visual patrimonies in illustration. In particular, you may have read a spirited back-and-forth in comment threads about the relationship of Weaver to other artists and illustrators, both qualitatively and stylistically. This is the sort of thing that lends itself to blogging, insofar as you can explicate such claims pretty directly while steering clear of bigger problems. So let’s have a go.

The indefatigable and opinionated David Apatoff has departed by degrees from he sees as the Robert Weaver Appreciation Society.

Among the ideas that David brought forward in his initial comment about the Super Tuesday post on Weaver and Kennedy: For me, Weaver's style in the Kennedy series for Esquire largely emulated the then-fashionable work of "fine artist" Larry Rivers.

Illustrator and blogger Bill Koeb took some exception to this, citing what he saw as Apatoff’s criticism of Weaver by said association. Moreover, he added, I think you are confusing style with technique. I see similarities between the two, but also between Weaver and Schiele, Cezanne, and many others.

Apatoff replied: Bill, I didn't consider my reference to Larry Rivers to be a "jab" at Weaver. I like Rivers, and consider some of his work to be superior to Weaver's. I think it is obvious that Weaver liked him too.

So what about Larry Rivers? Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times obituary (August 16, 2002) provides a host of tasty biographical details: he began his creative life as a Ukranian-American saxophone player named Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg. He was rechristened “Larry Rivers” by a comedian in the Catskills, studied music and smoked dope with Miles Davis, learned painting from Hans Hoffman, acted in a film narrated by Jack Kerouac, and designed sets and costumed for a Metropolitan Opera performance of Oedipus Rex. Kimmelman does not oversell Rivers’ achievements as a painter, but notes that Rivers created an important bridge between the Abstract Expressionists and the Pop artists.

Grace Glueck observed in a 2005 snapshot review of River’s work at Marlborough that he was “an artist to reckon with,” with a modest qualifier: “especially in his earlier paintings and drawings.”

These are the works which David Apatoff seeks to establish as an influence to Weaver. Does this claim hold up?

Close reading of Rivers’ work in relation to Weaver’s suggests a superficial connection which may involve significant points of contact. The work that brought Rivers to prominence was a reworked pastiche of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Rivers’ painting went by the same name and was purchased by MoMA. I have not found a very useful digital reproduction to post here, but for the sake of coverage, here’s the original

and here’s Rivers’ version.

The painting is a loosely organized and somewhat campy restatement of an old tradition. It provided a bit of tweakery to the Abstract Expressionists who had come to dominate American painting, and in that regard would have provided some comfort to the emerging Manhattanite tradition of Postwar “Expressionist” illustration later squarely identified with Weaver.

The Greenbergian dominance of painting-about-paint notions of advanced art foreclosed certain kinds of careers for young figurative painters in the 1950s. Many such people became illustrators instead, Weaver among them. Larry Rivers challenged that dominance, partly through his cheeky tone, and partly through his investment in figuration. The balance can be difficult to decipher, which is why Rivers’ legacy may not be sure beyond transitional footnotes.

Like many of the people who became significant players in Pop art, Rivers invested in the creation of surfaces. I mean this both in the visual and theoretical sense. The repainted Dutch Masters labels, Camel cigarette packs, and mock-informational works that Rivers produced during the 50s through the 70s betray an investment in the idea of superficiality, which in Rivers’ case is undercut by the painterliness of his touch. The cookie-cutter cunning of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, for example, is missing from Rivers’ more wistful takes on standardization and repetition. But these are flat things, atmospheres aside. The surface of the painting doubles as the surface of the image. There is more to say about this, but the basic point stands.

More study of Robert Weaver’s career will be required to identify the touchstones of his early visual and personal investigations. But beyond the potentially inspirational example of Rivers early work, the mature Weaver is after something else.

Weaver also invested in the idea of surfaces, and did so with more than a passing awareness of Pop. But in his case, there is no theoretical engagement with flatness in the Greenbergian sense. Weaver sees surfaces everywhere, and he is alert to the cultural threat such surfaces may pose to the individual. He is eager to expose the superstructures which undergird these surfaces. All the contraptions of display and elements of signage in Weaver bear our attention. It is quite possible to subject Robert Weaver to a thoroughgoing postmodern reading. On the whole, such exercises run out of gas after a paragraph or six, but miracles never cease. In the meantime, from my perspective I think it plain that Weaver was aware of the emergence of Pop and its implications, likely would have seen Rivers as a notable figure in the mid 1950s.

But Weaver’s engagement with reportage required him to invest in spatial depiction of far greater sophistication and range than Rivers needed past a certain point. Weaver’s use of signage, reflection, printed surfaces, and photocollage suggests more than a passing engagement with the ideas running through Pop, although he may well have accessed those ideas through the process of observation and reflection that were so basic to his process. He took words and images very seriously, and he was quite willing to use them against their authors.

I will try to return to the much more significant question batted about my Mssrs. Apatoff and Koeb: how to evaluate Weaver’s achievement in the wider frame of the history of illustration. In general, I concur with the position espoused by Bill Koeb and others that Weaver was a singular figure, not just a notable one. As always, I enjoy the contrary views of David Apatoff, but think that the reversal he suspects--that Weaver's reputation as an innovator is more a political position than an aesthetic one--may in fact be true in reverse. That is, that Apatoff's frustration with what he sees as reigning politico-aesthetic habits of mind in "the Art World" has bubbled over onto Weaver. But surely he will correct me if I deserve it...

Images: Larry Rivers, Dutch Masters, 1991 (a restatement in print form of earlier works); Larry Rivers, Parts of the Face, circa 1960; Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851; Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953; Robert Weaver, illustration for Esquire, 1959; Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1952; Andy Warhol, Brillo Box, 1964; Warhol, installation shot of same; Larry Rivers, Africa, 1957(?); Robert Weaver, illustrations for Sports Illustrated, feature on Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, date uncertain; Robert Weaver, Brief Lives, Pool Hall, date uncertain.


David Apatoff said...

DB, any time that someone with grace and class tells me that I am "indefatigable and opinionated," I have to assume that a more blunt person would be telling me that I am a "pain in the ass." Thanks for your gentle euphemism, and I will try not to jabber on too long here.

I don't want to overplay the Larry Rivers point. There are individual paintings by Rivers that to me look similar to individual works by Weaver, both as a matter of style and as a matter of technique. But that should not be surprising when you consider that both artists were working at the same time and shared an interest in illustrative fine art. I like Weaver and I did not intend my comparison as a criticism of Weaver or of Rivers in any way. It just suggests to me that they were both keeping their eyes open and exploring topical themes. (I also agree with you that Weaver, especially later Weaver, encompasses a broad range of approaches and cannot be characterized in any way as a Rivers clone).

As for your ultimate question, I see it as kind of a chicken and the egg problem. Am I tougher on Weaver than others because I disapprove of what you describe as the "reigning politico-aesthetic habits of mind," or do I disapprove of Weaver's habits of mind because I don't care as much for the art that results from that philosophy?

I don't claim to know the answer, but as a general matter my polar star is that a work of art has to be able to stand on its own, as a visual object. I am always happy to augment the image with background and context, but I don't believe that an inferior image can be resurrected by the sincerity or purity or intelligence of the artist. So when fans tell me that Weaver was great because he stood up against commercialism, or because he believed passionately in artists being principled commentators, or because he tried to make a picture a more intellectual exercise, my reaction is that those are all fine attributes and they may have contributed to making Weaver a great something, but not necessarily a great artist. AGAIN: I like Weaver and I concur with the compliments given to some of his excellent drawings you have posted recently. But pound for pound, I don't think Weaver was as good as Bernie Fuchs when it came to design sense or facility with color or even just plain drawing. Many Weaver fans will scream at this because Fuchs was a commercial crowd-pleaser. So I ask you: who is begrudging whom for their "politico-aesthetic habits of mind"? It's a chicken-and-egg problem on both sides.

Finally, as long as we are talking about the meta data surrounding Weaver's art, rather than the art itself, I give Weaver credit for the fine attributes mentioned above but I subtract points for his unwarranted certitude and his almost narrow minded, sanctimonious views about what can qualify as good art. It might have seemed the inevitable wave of the future to those who were swept up in the excitement of the fine art revolutions in the 1950s and the 1960s, but I think that path ultimately turned out to be more anemic and decadent than its pioneers predicted during that bright early dawn. The world turned out to be a lot broader than the 1950s / Weaver school of missionaries thought.

But in case I didn't mention it, I do like Weaver's work very much.

DB Dowd said...

David: I wasn't euphemizing, I was trying to be precise. Based on your writing in these exchanges, you are certainly indefatigable and opinionated, and I mean both without irony.

May I ask a follow up? The verdict on Weaver rendered in your comment is balanced. But you conclude: "[I] give Weaver credit for the fine attributes mentioned above but I subtract points for his unwarranted certitude and his almost narrow minded, sanctimonious views about what can qualify as good art."

Can you cite a source, even an anecdotal one, for this charge? We know that Weaver and his generation rejected the Westport group. It is not possible to separate the cultural positioning from the aesthetic approach--those were years characterized by a kind of macro cultural pivot from a postwar, post-Depression sigh of relief to a new cultural urgency. Many things were changing, not just illustration. Music, fiction, politics, you name it; most of the advancing forces in many of those fields felt that something quite significant was happening. Such headiness can lead to excess and overconfidence, yes. But can you really say that Weaver somehow reserved to himself the declarative power of what good art was, period paragraph? Sanctimony? Certitude? Please elaborate.

Thanks for the exchange, as always.

Bill Koeb said...

Thank you for posting your analysis. I am really enjoying seeing the work and reading your blog. I had Barron Storey as an instructor some 20 years ago, and he studied under Weaver, and was friends with him. His stories of Weaver were mostly about his generosity and his commitment to seeing. I see in Weaver an artist who was committed to content over style or media.

Anyhow, Thanks again.


David Apatoff said...

DB, I will fish out some Weaver quotes for you, but don't be too quick to let Weaver off the hook for the way he "rejected the Westport group." Steve Heller's book Design Literacy discusses this view that Weaver's predecessors only had to "mimic a text." He quotes Weaver as saying, "Mine was no longer the era of Norman Rockwell where everything was easy, obvious and on the surface."

In my view, that's a pretty low class way to dismiss the work of your predecessors. Older styles have been giving way to newer styles since illustration began, but I don't recall Leyendecker or Maxfield Parrish writing off the work of their predecessors Howard Pyle or Edwin Abbey that way. When Leyendecker and Parrish were ready for their turn on the scrap heap, you did not hear Rockwell or Al Parker dismissing their predecessors' work as "easy" or "obvious." And then when it became time for Rockwell's crowd to step aside, you didn't hear Fuchs or Peak claiming they had a tougher job. As far as I know, they respected the seriousness of the artists who came before them, and were just glad to have their own turn at bat.

I admit, I do hold Weaver's apparent disrespect for his predecessors against him. I personally think he was wrong. But I must emphasize again(so I don't get lynched)that this does not detract from the quality of Weaver's artwork.

Bill Koeb said...

I think you are taking the quote from Heller's book out of context, misinterpreting it. But that's your take on it and that's fair. I think that Weaver was discussing the complexity of the times and referring to the types of assignments that he was given.

This whole comparing artists thing is silly. Kind of like comparing Pokemon cards. "My Ultra Power card is better than your Picachoo card." Who gives a rats who you or I think was a "Better" artist.

I think that traced, lucied, designy work is really old hat and always was. I think that it is fair for someone to feel that "In the old days, life was simpler" feeling. In the 40's it was good guys v. bad guys. In the 50's and 60's it was the Bay of Pigs and the Viet Nam war and race riots and not yo ho ho, let's go to the fishing hole. Even Rockwell knew that the times had changed. That's why he was dealing with racism and other social issues later in life.


David Apatoff said...

Bill, unfortunately Heller's book didn't give any more context. He offered only one other sentence from Weaver, to the effect that Weaver once had to illustrate the concept of being left handed. It is possible, as you say, that the quote is out of context.

I do think that there are useful ways to compare artists. By contrasting artistic visions and approaches, you can sharpen your perceptions in ways that you could not if you only consider each artist in a vacuum. Kind of like sharpening a knife against a sharpening stone.

I think the process tends to go off track when we start to focus on the artist rather than the art. Whether a particular artist is purer of heart, or more of a pioneer, or better looking, tells us about the person but not much about his or her art. As I said at the very beginning, some Weaver fans seem to have trouble separating his philosophy and his historical significance and his moral scruples from his drawings. Perhaps I should have resisted the temptation to push back. But for me, that is the point where the "Ultra Power card" problem can become a real distraction.

Bill Koeb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Koeb said...

I may have misread your comment David. Were you saying that Weaver had high morals or didn't?

David Apatoff said...

Bill, I definitely meant that Weaver did have high morals and standards. I don't see how anyone could question that.

My only concern was whether Weaver, like other strong minded people, could be overly judgmental and unforgiving.

If my introduction to Weaver had been like yours, and I was told he nurtured and protected younger artists, I would probably give him the benefit of the doubt on most other issues. However, my introduction to Weaver came from an illustrator who recalled sitting at the bar at the Society of Illustrators jabbering with other young illustrators who were happy to be there and excited about starting their new careers. Weaver reportedly intervened, saying "you actually LIKE being an illustrator??? I HATE it!" and proceeded to give them an earful about how no self-respecting artist would sell out by becoming an illustrator. I could tell that years later they were still shook up. Weaver may be Mr. Integrity, but I think he owed those young illustrators a little more milk of human kindness.

That incident doesn't affect my great respect for his art, but I suspect it does color my receptivity to his philosophy of art ( just as your opposite experiences may color yours).

This incident seems consistent with the "sanctimony" and "certitude" that DB was asking me about before. Weaver explained why illustrators aren't really artists, as follows: "Until the illustrator enjoys complete independence from outside pressure and direction, complete responsibility for his own work, and complete freedom to to do whatever he deems fit-- all necessaries in the making of art-- then illustration cannot be art but only a branch of advertising."

In my view, most of the great artists throughout history worked without some of Weaver's "necessaries in the making of art." Rather than reflect art history, Weaver's view seems to reflect the more recent perspective of the "art for art's sake" crowd that was in vogue in the 20th century.

As another example, when Weaver was asked whether illustrators were "muzzled," he said, "Why put a muzzle on a dog that has no teeth? It is hardly likely that the artist of strong opinions would be drawn into a medium of expression that subordinates personal opinion in favor of the larger, corporate editorial image." I don't know what Weaver imagines it was like creating art for the pharaoh or the pope or the king, but a lot of great art was created that way.

When someone protested to Weaver that art directors at Holiday or Sports Illustrated "give the illustrator the freedom as well as the space he requires," he had to agree but said it was still not good enough: "yes, but I would like to bring the artist's eye to bear upon more dangerous and volatile aspects of our time." It's fine and dandy that Weaver thinks artists should focus on such assignments, but I have a broader notion of quality in illustration, and I give a lot more credit to illustrators that Weaver seems prepared to write off.

I could go on offering Weaver quotes, but frankly it makes me uncomfortable. I don't know how I managed to back myself into the position of a Weaver detractor-- I just felt that as a matter of personal accountablity, I had to explain the reasons behind my earlier comment.

I admire Weaver as an artist, and to the extent I have been negative, it is only to defend the quality artists that Weaver seems to dismiss unfairly. Having done so, I embrace your wise conclusion: "peace out!"

DB Dowd said...

Okay, so let's shake hands and go have a beer at the Society of Illustrators bar!

Rob Dunlavey said...

One thing either missing or assumed in this thread regarding art and illustration, is the very different qualities of the markets they serve. Either profession can serve both markets and be exposed to varying amounts of pressure, ambiguous danger and misunderstanding of the "Monday morning quarterback" variety.
The issues allowed in each discipline are very different. I believe that in Fine Art, those issues change and get recycled quite rapidly. Illustration is a bit more tradition-bound and conservative. Very different markets. Very different market pressures. The art may look similar or even identical but the moral and philosophical muscle brought to bear are different.

Thanks to DB, David and Bill for this discussion!

Bill Koeb said...

Hey David,
I can definitely understand why hearing those comments would give anyone pause. I am curious as to when they were made. I know that toward the end of his life, Weaver was not only going blind, but also had not had any work in about ten years. He witnessed firsthand, the muzzling of illustrators, and I can understand his bitterness. The art for art sake issue is one that the impressionists faced, and Van Gogh had to face. Michelangelo was restrained by the Pope, and most likely wanted to sculpt and explore abstraction a great deal more than the sistine ceiling allowed. You can see this in his sculptures and especially in later work.

Looking at art as an artist and looking at it as a patron are two very different positions. Did the painters of the Pharoah's tomb want to be there, did Goya want to be painting queens and kings, or was his art, the etchings on the cruelties of man. Patrons admire and hire for the skill of the artist more often than the mind. This is what I think separates personal, "Fine Art"from commercial art.

I am very skeptical of second hand accounts of quotes. I have stood in rooms with great illustrators and heard them quoted and misunderstood, and seen them happy and also bitter. I went to an art school that taught younger illustrators to ape the techniques of established artists and scoffed at anything new. I heard that David Grove, one of the artists most copied by students at the Academy of Art had not had work in over ten years. I don't know if this ever made him bitter or resentful about his stuff being ripped by younger artists who were making bank on his style, but I would be, if this happened to me. If any of my statements on a given day were held up to me as the end all of my opinions, I would most likely think that I was drunk or full of BS when I said this or that thing. I see a lot of illustration coming out these days. I think that some is good, a lot seems praised by CA or How or Print for the style over the content, though I am sure the praisers would disagree. There is a lot of bullshit in this industry, in this world. To talk openly about it is to be seen as being negative. Maybe after ten years of doing his own thing, he had a different view of being an artist than when he started. And maybe after teaching for so long, and supporting illustration, and not getting work, he had a bad day.

Cheers, Bill

David Apatoff said...

DB and Bill, it's a date!