Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jacob Collins in The New Yorker

This week, instead of the usual hectoring of the benighted Brooklyn Bohemians at Time Out New York (TONY), let’s focus our attention on a worthy publication and an important article that gets it (mostly) right. 

The New Yorker has been a beacon of intelligent reportage and arts coverage since 1925.  Reading The New Yorker after a steady diet of TONY is rather like drinking from a clean, clear mountain spring after living off of spunk water.   This week, journalist Adam Gopnik details his attempts to learn to draw and, in the process, profiles artist Jacob Collins.

My long-established admiration for Collins as an artist, an arts activist and a teacher is without bounds.  He has been at the forefront of a strong, pervasive and ever-growing movement to correct the course that art (and art history) has taken after its disastrous, dehumanizing collision with Modernism.  For Collins (like your correspondent and millions of others in an invisible majority), the break from the Academy was not an explosion of new freedoms, but an invitation to hollow, ridiculous and often offensive amateurism and self-indulgence.  Aside from the beauty of his work, Collins also joins such diverse figures as Graydon Parrish, Ted Seth Jacobs, Anthony Ryder and Ephraim Rubenstein as an important teacher to new generations of artists who aspire to virtuosity.

There is much to savor in Gopnik’s story, as well as much that induces the shrug of resignation that always greets comments from critics steeped in the Modernist/Post Modernist tradition.  Gopnik relates how he met Collins at a dinner party, but obviously does not know who he is.  For a reporter with a history of arts reportage not to know of Jacob Collins is rather like a music critic unaware of Simone Dinnerstein – but I suppose that’s not too surprising.  The line that pierced me to (and through) the heart, however, was the comment Gopnik records while learning to draw at Collins’ atelier: How do they do that trick?

This is the kind of misguided thinking that has made artistic technical virtuosity suspect while applauding the childish scrawls of Julian Schnabel.  Beautiful drawing is not a trick … it’s a discipline, it’s a skill, it’s a state of grace.  It comes only after a long, arduous and committed apprenticeship, and only to those with both talent and dedication.  The flight from beauty (to use Roger Scuton’s felicitous phrase) that reduces this sublime mystery to a trick is endemic of the Modernist mindset, and the enemy of art.

But, happily, Gopnik gets it in the end.  After a trip with Collins to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they view both the Bonzino drawings and doodles by Alex Katz, Gopnik finally comes to some détente with Collins on the idea of beauty.  He writes, “I had come to feel not just inadequate as an art critic, in the absence of any skill, but also alienated from art in its current guise.  Learning to draw was my way of confronting my disillusion with some of the louder sonorities and certitudes of the art with which I had grown up and for which I had once been a fierce advocate … Over the years, however, the absence of true skill – the skill to do something with your fingers at the command of your mind, which can be done only by a few, after long practice – unmanned my love, and that created a problem for me.”

Gopnik is also ready to entertain the notion that it is possible that the abstract approach might be, well, wrong.  “Jacob knew the score,” he writes.  “But what if he was right, and the whole thing had been a mistake, and we all had to start over from scratch, or at least from a sketch?  It was a possibility worth looking at.”

This article, I think, is an important moment in the reclamation of our artistic tradition.  The invisible majority mentioned previously is becoming more and more visible.  Perhaps the saturation of absurdity found in most pop culture has finally persuaded art’s critical establishment that it is a game without rules, and therefore not worth playing.  We’ll see.  However, I think the intellectual garage sale that has been Modernism (and all the pufferies that followed it) is collecting its last dime before closing up shop.  Now we just have to wait for galleries and the market they manipulate to catch up to the rest of us.

One last brief word about The Grand Central Academy of Art.  This is the school founded by Jacob Collins, located in mid-town Manhattan.  To quote their Web site, “The Grand Central Academy of Art … is built on the skills and ideas that have come from the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and through to the Beaux-Art tradition of the nineteenth century.   The Academy is a center for the revival of the classical tradition where a new generation of artists is supported in the pursuit of skill and beauty.”  Interested readers can learn more at:

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