A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 100: Speaking of Art

kandinsky circles

Wassily Kandinsky, Concentric Circles

“My kid could draw that!” “What the hell is that supposed to be?” “I don’t get it!”

Art can elicit a lot of emotions from people. The one that continually surprises me is hostility. Usually it comes when someone is confronted with what we might call Modern or Contemporary Art: an abstract painting or sculpture, a canvas with three stripes of color on it, an artwork made of found objects or something gruesome, offensive or just plain creepy. It is, of course, a broad generalization to put all contemporary art in this camp. But there has been enough of it over the last one hundred years to put a lot of people off a visit to the art gallery.

There is a part of me that understands the hostility. In fact, there are artists who have intentionally tried to piss you off, so if you are then…  job well done! But it is still a shame that there is a popular misconception about contemporary art. It is not all garbage nor does it exist simply for shock value; it is not a big con being pulled on an unsuspecting public; it is not a thoughtless and talent-less attempt at fame and fortune. Certainly, there are charlatans in the art world. But I suspect they don’t get very far before someone peeks behind their curtain to reveal what they’re really about.

Art is about conversation, a sharing of ideas, an opening of thought and imagination and feeling, an exploration of what it means to be human and why it matters. Art must be understood as being on a journey, one that will never end. But the journey is the thing, not the destination. Artists wrestle with big issues in their lives and in the world through what they create. They can be embarrassingly open and vulnerable; they can be intentional pains-in-the-ass; they can be sweet and warm; they can be angry or grieving or in love or seeking or lost. It all comes out in the art.

In an attempt to help bridge the gap between contemporary art/artists and those who view or experience their art, this post is a combination of images and words. Using the works of some of the giants of 20th century art along with their words, I’m hoping it opens a bit of a window into their reality and their motivation.

Artists aren’t trying to exist in a different world from everyone else. Artists are striving to make sense of the world they share with everyone else.

kandinsky composition VIII

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”

Pollack Autumn Rhythm Number 30

Jackson Pollack, Autumn Rhythm number 30

“It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”

the-tilled-field-1924 miro

Joan Miro, The Tilled Field

“The joy of achieving in a landscape a perfect comprehension of a blade of grass.. as beautiful as a tree or a mountain.. What most of all interests me is the calligraphy of the tiles on a roof or that of a tree scanned leaf by leaf, branch by branch.”

Collage with squares arranged according to the laws of chance

Jean Arp, Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance

“Art is a fruit that grows in man like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb.”


Willem deKooning, Woman

“I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea.”

les demoisseles d'Avignon

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoisseles d’Avignon

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”


Marc Chagall, I and the Village

“My hands were too soft.. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life.”

Warhol Cambell's Soup Cans

Andy Warhol, Cambell’s Soup Cans

“How can you say one style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling you’ve given up something.. I think that would be so great, to be able to change styles. And I think that’s what’s is going to happen, that’s going to be the whole new scene.”

Calder arc of petals

Alexander Calder, Arc of Petals

“The next step in sculpture is motion.”


Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending Staircase

“You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.”


Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas

“I’ve done my paintings well… and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they’ll interest a few people. They’re not revolutionary, so why do I keep on believing they’re combative?”


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent, and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition.”

broadway-boogie-woogie mondrian

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie

“I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects.”

four dark reds rothko

Mark Rothko, Four Dark Reds

“If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

petunia no 2 okeeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunia #2

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” – Georgia O’Keeffe


Henri Matisse, Joy of Life

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado 1970-72 Christo

Christo, Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado 1970-72

“The work of art is a scream of freedom.”

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 12: Chagall, the Real Asher Lev


Self-Portrait with Seven Digits, 1912-13

Artists inspire artists, art begets art.

As I continue to consider a crucial novel to my own artistic journey, “My Name is Asher Lev”, I was led to the real life artist that inspired, at least in part, the story by Chaim Potok. That artist was the Russian-French master Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Chagall was born and raised in modern day Belarus in a Hassidic community by devout parents. His gift was something so strange and unique to arise from his small-town, Jewish context. Chagall himself claims he didn’t even know what drawing was until he enrolled in a non-Jewish school.

The expression of his incredible gift was equal parts faith-inspired and  avant-garde. His use of color and dreamlike images influenced countless other artists, especially those of the Surrealistic movement. He and Pablo Picasso are considered by many to be the greatest painters of the Twentieth century. Picasso himself said, “When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” His use of crucifixion imagery in telling Jewish stories was revolutionary and directly influenced Potok’s story.

Below is a small gallery of some of my favorite Chagall paintings. See if you are observant enough to notice which painting inspired the musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” 😉


White Crucifixion, 1938



The Praying Jew, 1915


The Blue Circus, 1950


I and the Village, 1911


The Lovers, 1913-14


Solitude, 1933


A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 5: From Prick to Prophet


Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

“Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, not like you.”

This lyric can be found in the song “Pablo Picasso” by the Modern Lovers. It is b0th hilarious and, by all reports, completely false. Pablo Picasso could, in fact, be a real asshole, especially to the women in his life. Likely he was called that in multiple languages on multiple occasions. But that begs the question: Can an artist be a jerk and still create dangerously moving and powerful art?

My answer to that is a resounding, “YES!” But people have a really hard time with that. We want our artists – whether they are musicians, painters, actors, writers, poets, dancers, etc. – to live up to the beautiful, truthful, powerful and poignant things they create.

But here’s the rub: Artists can be selfish, petty and screwed-up. In fact, I would argue that many of the people we would label “genius” have some tremendous flaws of personality and conduct. Stories abound of relationship conflicts, racism and sexism, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. Artists tend towards depression and anxiety; they are often ostracized in society because of things like homosexuality or their political leanings. Yes, many can be and have been assholes. But many have also struggled in a world that doesn’t understand them at all, causing all kinds of anti-social behavior to ensue.

But does this lessen the power of their creations? “Guernica”, perhaps Picasso’s most famous work, should give us the answer to that question.


I had the opportunity to see this masterpiece in person at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. What strikes you first is the sheer size of the painting: It is 11 feet by 25 feet. As an art student who had only seen the painting in a text book, I found its scale to be, literally, breath-taking (I was a bit woozy upon seeing it the first time!). It commands your attention by its size alone. But the true power lies in the imagery and presentation, the shape and form, the movement and contrast. It conveys agony and brutality, death and destruction, and, in the form of a simple flower, at first hard to find amidst the chaos, hope.

Many have called “Guernica” the greatest painting of the 20th century. During the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain to create a painting that protested the tactics and alliances of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces. Franco was allied with Nazi Germany which used the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for its newest weapons and tactics. Though Picasso had not lived in Spain for many years, he was sympathetic to the Republican cause and very opposed to the Nationalist Franco. He began to work on an idea for the commission but he wasn’t satisfied with it. Then the news hit of what happened to the city of Guernica, the center of Basque culture in northern Spain. Picasso had his inspiration.

Guernica was targeted because of its importance to the Basque people, known for their support of the Republican government. It became one of the first cities to endure a horrifying example of the new modern warfare: Carpet bombing. The city had been mercilessly bombed from the air by German aircraft until it became a pile of ruins and dead bodies. Images of the event shocked the world and became a harbinger of things to come.




This event propelled Picasso to make his boldest and most enduring commentary on his world. Picasso’s subject matter usually tended towards the personal: his own inner life or his own experiences and points of view. He was not a political artist or a propagandist. But in “Guernica”, the man who could be a prick became a prophet. Through the painting, the world became much more aware of the war that was tearing Spain apart and of the role Nazi Germany was playing in the destruction. But the painting really took hold and became an enduring anti-war symbol when the world itself would have war brought to its doorstep just a few years later. As images like those from Guernica became more and more common, as the death toll went into the thousands upon thousands all over the globe, his painting came to represent the devastating impact of war on the 20th century and the fear of living in the atomic age.

When I consider this incredible painting and the brilliant yet deeply flawed individual who created it, I realize the profound dichotomy at work in making art of any kind. On the one hand, a work of art is intimately connected with its creator; the artist’s personality, experiences, quirks, humour, outlook, politics, hopes, dreams, etc. are infused into whatever they make. But on the other hand, a work of art takes on a completely independent life of its own,quite apart from the creator. It can take on much greater meaning and scope; it can challenge and thrill and inspire and infuriate far beyond any idea the artist ever had in mind.

To put it another way, art would not exist without the artist. But art doesn’t need the artist to continue to live on, to thrive, to become something great and meaningful. Art endures and gains strength quite often in spite of the fallibility and weakness of its creator.


Picasso working on Guernica


I take great comfort in these thoughts. As an artist, what I create is deeply personal because so much of myself has been poured into it.  I make what only I can make: It is as unique and distinct as I am. But I know I am flawed, not just as an artist but as a human being. It is a great relief to me to know that what I make can exist quite apart from me. In fact, it can even take on meaning and purpose far beyond my own life’s meaning and purpose. But I also take comfort in this as someone who enjoys the art of others. We have become people who almost know too much about our artists (especially the celebrity artists) and their personal lives. Often we cannot enjoy something that has been created because we attach it to that artist’s personality or some transgression or some inconsistency of behavior or thought.

I don’t believe that art of any kind was ever meant to be connected so strongly to the personal. Art is meant to be experienced, felt, seen, digested, touched, heard, enjoyed and engaged. It cannot exist without the very human beings who create it. Yet it exists not as an extension of those people. It exists as its own entity and, as such, is free to be loved or hated, praised or criticized apart from the artists. It exists to freely continue to speak to people in new and fresh ways.

Really, art is a lovely paradox, created by mortals but with a potential for immortality. In a way, art is the very best and worst of us transformed into the hope of eternity. Pablo Picasso may have been an asshole but “Guernica” is proof that even we humans, trapped in flesh, scrabbling down in the mud, have within us the image of the Divine.