Thursday, August 24, 2006

Touched by Fame, Untouched by Talent

One of the first shows I was involved with in my previous gallery gig life was to serve as co-curator for a retrospective of work from a retired faculty member of the local university. The key to that show had more to do with his background than his local fame or even the actual work. The significance of his training went back over sixty years, when he studied under Max Beckmann at Washington University in St. Louis.

Unfortunately, the artist I had to publicly present was not Max Beckmann. Not even close. This was a retrospective and I was stuck hanging early paintings of “puppy dogs playing with yarn” mixed with later works of “stereotypical Christian symbolism”. The most amazing aspect of the exhibition was that there was no improvement in the work over his sixty year span. Everything was completely devoid of technical skill. This guy made the most basic of mistakes with his use of perspective and cast shadow (he was trying to be a realist for some reason or other, so these comments are not off-base), yet somehow he was able to land (and keep) a tenure track professor gig at a southern state university. He came from a good school; he had a helluva a reference from a famous artist… of course he was allowed to teach art at the professional level. Now Washington University is a primo school and Max Beckmann was a living legend, so what was my artist’s problem? How did this guy seemingly learn nothing from these great influences? Could it be that outside authority can ultimately be meaningless… if it is purely professional… if no experimental living is done outside of the formal education? Did the famous Beckmann have any real influence beyond the few anecdotes that my artist told at the opening and in his newspaper interview? We all know the cliché that fame is not real; but ultimately, is fame ever more than a few anecdotes? – DN

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