How To Do It, If You Want

Two shows I recently reviewed have, on reflection, something in common. It’s hard to think of two more dissimilar artists than George Bellows and Lois Dodd. Bellows was the wide-ranging social critic chronicling life in the early American century, and Dodd paints contemporary landscapes with cool passion and remarkable pictorial intelligence. 

The connection that occurred to me is this: both of them demonstrate How to Do It. If you wanted to learn how to draw complex renderings of people or places with dynamic composition, wonderful shading and skillful pencil work, the Bellows show is a place to go and learn it. You could do a lot worse than copying a few Bellows drawings to pick up some big-league drawing chops. 

Dodd is worth emulating as well, though not the same way. You wouldn’t copy her works to learn technique, although she has a sure hand. What you learn with her paintings is that she makes the composition and color coherent in special, unexpected ways. It’s a process of personal discovery fueled by skill and interest both in the subject and in the act of painting. Learning to do that won’t make you as good an artist as Dodd, but it will help you discover what good art is.

 There’s a compound irony here. Judging by the BFA show at MECA, there’s currently not a lot of interest in drawing or painting among students. Meanwhile, relatively small paintings, both abstract and figurative, are on the leading edge in New York art. Big spectacular installations and overwhelming events are becoming ordinary and tame (see Roberta Smith on the Carnegie International in the New York Times or any of a number of recent articles on the Whitney Biennial). Away from New York things do seem a little behind the times, or, as Willem de Kooning put it, when you see a bandwagon it’s too late to get on it.

By Ken Greenleaf 


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