Hunter Biden’s very first art investigation

Hunter Biden was first a performance artist, seen here in his “body art” piece titled Beautiful Things. His “endurance art” conceptual work titled Laptop from Hell examined the influence and limitations of his family name. Hunter finally became a postmodern painter, using a straw to blow ink around on paper.

On Oct. 14, 2021 Hunter Biden showed his stupefyingly expensive but unskilled artworks at Milk Studios in Hollywood, California. Soon after the show I wrote an unflattering review titled Hunter Biden’s very first art exhibit.

Hunter’s art career has certainly garnered much attention since then, in large part due to the efforts of Georges Bergès, the Manhattan gallerist who represents Hunter.

Bergès organized the Hollywood exhibition, where an anonymous buyer purchased five of Hunter’s prints for a whopping $375,000. The asking price for a few of Hunter’s paintings was $500,000—an inconceivable price for a fledgling artist at their first show.

It is not known if any of those half-a-million canvases sold, since Bergès struck a deal with the White House, to keep the identity of buyers secret from Hunter and the press in order to prevent “ethical issues.”

It almost makes one think anonymous buyers were acquiring Hunter’s amateurish scrawls just to curry favor with the “Big Guy” in the White House. But such ethics violations couldn’t possibly happen under the administration of good ol’ Scranton Joe. Why he promised to, ahem… “bring transparency and truth back to the government.”

Fast forward to the present and we have Hunter Biden’s very first art investigation. It appears that Hunter’s art world gimmickry has finally garnered the attention of scornful art critics at the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability—the main investigative committee of the US House of Representatives.

On Jan. 25, 2023 the Chairman of the House committee, James Comer, sent a letter to Georges Bergès, it reads in part:

Dear Mr. Bergès:

The Committee on Oversight and Accountability is investigating President Joe Biden and his family’s foreign and domestic influence peddling schemes. During the 117th Congress, Committee Republicans wrote to you requesting information regarding your gallery’s sale of artwork by the President’s son, Robert Hunter Biden. You did not respond to these requests, but you have since hosted another Hunter Biden art exhibit at your SoHo gallery. The Committee is reiterating its request for documents related to the Committee’s investigation of the Biden family and is requesting you appear for a transcribed interview.

For over a decade, the Biden family has profited from Joe Biden’s positions as a public official. Your arrangement with Hunter Biden raises serious ethics concerns and calls into question whether the Biden family is again selling access and influence. Despite being a novice artist, Hunter Biden received exorbitant amounts of money selling his artwork, the buyers’ identities remain unknown, and you appear to be the sole record keeper of these lucrative transactions.

For example, you have advertised that Hunter Biden’s latest artwork ranges in price from $55,000 to $225,000. It is concerning that President Biden’s son is the recipient of anonymous, high-dollar transactions—potentially from foreign buyers—with no accountability or oversight (other than you). The American people deserve transparency regarding certain details about Hunter Biden’s expensive art transactions.”

The Committee’s letter to Mr. Bergès proclaimed: “We believe you possess important information related to this investigation. As such, please produce the following documents to Committee Republicans as soon as possible, but no later than February 8, 2023.” The letter provided a list of seven documents the committee expects to receive from Bergès—including “Documents sufficient to show who attended the opening of Hunter Biden’s art shows,” and documents that “show who purchased Hunter Biden’s artwork.” Uh-oh.

The letter closed with an exhortation that Bergès should make himself “available for a transcribed interview with Committee staff” prior to Feb. 15, 2023.

The entire unedited letter to Georges Bergès from the Committee on Oversight and Accountability has been posted online by the House of Representatives.


UPDATE: On Jan. 26, 2023 art dealer Georges Bergès responded to House Oversight Committee demands for documents in a statement he made to Fox News:

“At the moment I cannot comment and I will refer you to my legal counsel but know that my singular focus has always been, and will continue to be, the integrity of our artists and the privacy of our art collectors.

I represent Hunter Biden because I feel that not only his art merits my representation, but because his personal narrative, which gives birth to his art, is very much needed in the world. His is a story of perseverance; Hunter’s story reflects what I believe is the beauty of humanity, judged not by the fall, but by having the strength to rise up, by having the character required to change and the courage to do it. Hunter Biden’s art reflects all of that and more. His art gives us hope; it reminds us that tomorrow brings a new day, a new beginning, a new possibility. Hunter Biden will become one of the most consequential artists in this century because the world needs his art now more than ever. In a world that beats us down, we need art in our lives that reminds of the unrelenting divinity within each of us.”

Karl Bodmer: Faces from the Interior

“Great Plains Indian.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper, circa 1833. Collection of “Art in Embassies” US Department of State. Judging by the diamond pattern on his Buffalo robe, I believe this man is Hidatsa.

As an artist, I see Karl Bodmer’s artworks as key to understanding America. I discovered his works in the late 1960s and have studied them every since. He was an artist-adventurer in the mid-1800s who travelled the wilds of North America to document the lives of indigenous people with sketches, water colors, and elaborate oil paintings.

I always found Bodmer’s portrayals of Native Americans to be dynamic and sympathetic. His depictions were not only gorgeous, but incredibly accurate. They were in fact so detail-oriented that historians and anthropologists have turned to them for a faithful look at the past. Remarkably, he is still not widely recognized in the US, but Karl Bodmer: Faces from the Interior, a nationwide traveling exhibit, might help change that. As I write this the exhibit is at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas, where it closes on Jan. 22, 2023.

Bodmer was not the only artist to travel into uncharted territory to paint tribal people. John Mix Stanley, Alfred Jacob Miller, and George Catlin did the same. Catlin’s impressionistic paintings captured the essence of his indigenous sitters, and he remains one of my favorite American artists of his day.

The Bodmer exhibit displays beautiful, highly detailed watercolors and sketches the artist made of Native Americans while traveling up the Missouri River between 1832 and 1834. The works portraying free and autonomous indigenous tribes have great historic and artistic significance. The artist was only 23-years-old at the time, and he gifted the world with a clear and unsentimental view of a bygone era.

“Funeral scaffold of a Sioux chief.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1840. Collection Library of Congress.

The tale began with Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867), who was the ruler of the small state of Neuwied, Prussia (now Germany). Maximilian was an explorer, ethnologist, zoologist, and naturalist, and in 1815 he organized an expedition to southeast Brazil that made tremendous contributions to the understanding of the indigenous people of that region.

When 50-years old, Maximilian organized a similar expedition to the US in 1832. His objective was to study and document Native American tribes living in the wilderness, as well as study the flora and fauna of the country. The excursion launched from the city of St. Louis at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Everything west of the Mississippi was “Indian Country” where few whites, aside from fur trappers, had sojourned. Maximilian intended to meet tribal people by traveling to the Rocky Mountains with frontiersmen and trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company during one of their fur-trading caravans.

“Mehkskéhme-Sukáhs (“Iron Shirt”) Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1833. Bodmer created this painting of the Piegan Blackfeet chief at Fort McKenzie. He wears a bear claw in his hair along with a small white ermine with blue beads for eyes. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

In St. Louis prior to his mission, Maximilian was counseled by the following men. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Major Benjamin O’Fallon, who was President Monroe’s Indian Agent for the Upper Missouri, Joshua Pilcher, a leader of the Missouri Fur Company that travelled deep into the Rocky Mountains, and John F. A. Sanford, government agent for tribes along the Missouri. They all cautioned against traveling with frontiersmen, arguing that mountain men avoided contact with Indians and encounters were usually hostile. The Blackfoot in the region were particularly warlike, they controlled trade in beaver pelts by forcing all other tribes out of the Rockies and killing whites who encroached on their lands. Plus, moving large scientific collections through perilous territory would be a daunting, if not impossible enterprise.

“Meach-o shin-gaw” (Little White Bear). Kaw Warrior, George Catlin. Oil on canvas, 1831. The Kaw, also known as the Kansas or Konza, lived in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Maximilian abandoned his plans to visit the Rockies. Instead Clark, O’Fallon, and the other advisors convinced Maximilian to travel up the Missouri River on the “Yellowstone,” a steamboat built by the American Fur Company to help facilitate the fur trade. The plan was to travel up the Missouri to the Fort McKenzie trading post, and then return to St. Louis. Along the way the steamboat would unload supplies at the company’s various trading posts were Plains Indians engaged in the friendly trade of furs for European goods. O’Fallon provided Maximilian with a copy of the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition map, a topographical depiction that proved indispensable.

The scientifically minded Maximilian desired meticulous documentation of Native Americans and their environs, so he hired the 23-year-old artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893). Bodmer was born in Switzerland and was proficient in the European traditions of classical art. Known as a printmaker skilled in etching, engraving, and lithography, he was also appreciated as a watercolorist and oil painter who created splendid landscapes. Also on the trek was a skilled hunter, taxidermist, and servant to Maximilian named David Dreidoppel; he had accompanied the Prince during his Brazil trip. In essence the expedition was three men; Maximilian the scientist, Bodmer the ingenious young artist, and Dreidoppel the efficient huntsman and master of taxidermy.

On April 10, 1833, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition began its hazardous trip up the Missouri River on the Yellowstone steamboat. It was the first “side wheeler” steamboat to operate on the Missouri; powered by two steam engines, its steel mechanical paddle wheels measured 18 feet in circumference. One was fixed to each side of the ship. The 144 ton ship was 120-feet in length, with three boilers, twin smoke stacks, and a crew of 24 men. Some 100 people were on board and they were mostly employers of the American Fur Company.

“The steamer Yellowstone on the 19th April 1833.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor, 1833. The artist chronicled the steamboat stuck on a sand bar on the Missouri river, early in the expedition.

In a 1833 watercolor, Bodmer depicted the Yellowstone steamboat trapped on a Missouri River sandbar early in the expedition, its crew struggling to free the ship. Knowing his discerning eye, it was likely a very accurate depiction of the boat. Previously, on March 26, 1832, artist George Catlin travelled up the Missouri on the very same Yellowstone steamboat to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. This is when he began painting his canvases depicting the indigenous people of the Great Plains. Before his epic journey Catlin painted “St. Louis from the River Below” depicting the Yellowstone steamboat sailing up the Mississippi. It was one of the very first paintings of a city on the Mississippi.

“A Stop; Evening Bivouac.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor, 1833. On his way upriver with his travel companions, the party stopped to camp in North Dakota on the shore of the Missouri River.

On April 22 the Yellowstone steamboat first stopped at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, ten days later it reached Bellevue Trade Post in Nebraska; also known as Fontenelle’s Post. By the end of May the steamship arrived at Fort Pierre in South Dakota—the American Fur Company’s main trading post among the Sioux. At this point the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition transferred to the Yellowstone’s sister ship the “Assiniboine,” which continued upriver while the Yellowstone returned to St. Louis. The Assiniboine steamed out of Sioux territory and into the land of the Mandan; on June 18 it landed at Fort Clark (also known as Fort Osage) for a day before steaming on to Fort Union, where it moored on June 24. Since their departure from St. Louis, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition had been traveling upriver into Indian territory for seventy-five days.

“Pachtüwa-Chtä.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1834. Bodmer created this painting of an Arikara warrior who carries a “gunstock” war club with a painted metal blade. His chest is painted with a knife slash and gunshot wounds. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

Fort Union was a principal post for the American Fur Company. Like all the other forts it was not a military installation, but a privately owned, heavily fortified trading post run by the company.

The Yellowstone and Assiniboine steamboats stocked those posts with items like steel knives, hoes and axes, blankets, handkerchiefs, mirrors, combs, toothbrushes, soap, buttons, glass beads, bells, tin kettles, buckets and cups, yards of fabric and ribbon, thread, cotton shirts, awls, mens boots and women’s shoes, socks, tin spoons, pins, needles, razors, scissors, vermillion and indigo pigment dye, gunpowder, gun flints, and lead (to cast bullets), and much more, even tobacco.

White trappers came in to barter for supplies, but natives flocked to the forts to trade furs; buffalo robes and beaver, mink, marten, otter, fox, winter weasel pelts, and other furs were traded for European trade goods. Those items had a huge impact on native culture.

Being equipped with thread, needles, glass beads, and trade cloth was transformative enough, but trade posts also offered the North West Gun and other firearms to Plains tribes. The North West was a .62 caliber (20 gage), smoothbore black-powder flintlock that was light, sturdy, and easy to maintain. It could be loaded with a single large lead ball or with dozens of lead pellets. The North West Gun expanded a tribe’s wealth by increasing the amount of game that could be harvested, but it also changed the dynamics of inter-tribal warfare and the way Plains warriors battled whites.

“Magic Pile Erected by Assiniboin Indians.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1843. Image: Creative Commons.

After six days at Fort Union the expedition made a five-week, 650 mile voyage to Fort McKenzie in Montana on a “keelboat” named Flora.

While keelboat sailing ships had been replaced by larger and faster steamships on rivers, the keels continued to sail on tributary rivers or shallow waters where steamships dare not go, like the upper Missouri.

A keelboat was long and narrow, averaging around sixty feet long and eight feet wide; outfitted with sails, masts, and rigging, it could have a crew as large as 25 men and carry over 20 tons of supplies. The advantage of the keelboat was its ability to navigate shallow or otherwise tricky waters; a crew on shore could tie a rope to the boat’s mast, then pull the ship upstream. If river conditions grew dire in high water the crew could “bushwhack” the boat upriver by literally grabbing shoreline bushes and trees, and pulling the ship forward.

“Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, 1842.

The Maximilian-Bodmer expedition reached Fort McKenzie on Aug 9, and they would stay until Sept 14, 1833. Bodmer kept busy painting watercolor portraits of Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, and Assiniboine warriors and chiefs who came to trade; he also painted the wilderness surrounding the fort, as well as the compound itself.

“Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833.” (Detail) Karl Bodmer. 1842.

On August 28 Bodmer and party witnessed a ferocious battle outside the fort when hundreds of Assiniboin and Cree viciously assailed a Blackfoot encampment. All weapons came into play during the ruthless sortie; bows and arrows, lances, scalping knives, war clubs, and guns. Blackfoot warriors rallied and drove back the attackers, but not before dozens were wounded or killed.

Bodmer watched the bloody melee from the safety of the fort’s parapets. He would base one of his most memorable prints on the conflict. Titled Fort McKenzie, August 28, 1833, the artist created the watercolor in a European studio once he returned home from the expedition. He composed the scene from memory, basing the painting on field sketches and character studies he made at Fort McKenzie. Rather than depicting the bloody fracas as he observed it from behind the trading post’s stockade walls, Bodmer brilliantly placed the viewer right in the middle of the bloodshed. After the skirmish, tensions remained high at Fort McKenzie. Believing there would be more fighting, the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition decided it was time to leave the trading post.

“Pehriska-Ruhpa, Minatarre Warrior in the Costume of the Dog Dance.” Karl Bodmer (detail). Hand-colored aquatint engraving, 1844. The Mandan called the Hidatsa, Minatarre. The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa-Minatarre became the “Three Affiliated Tribes” in 1868. Image: Creative Commons.

On Sept. 14, 1833 the expedition sailed another keelboat back down the Missouri past Fort Union, to spend the winter at Fort Clark (aka Fort Osage). That is where the expedition spent time with three associated tribal groups unlike any other living on the great plains, the semi-nomadic Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa. Bodmer created sketches and watercolors of their daily lives and rituals, homes, and environs, not to mention some very fine portraits.

“Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Chief of the Mandan.” Karl Bodmer (detail). Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844. This chief earned his name for charging enemies as if he were “four bears.” Image: Creative Commons

The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa stood apart from other plains tribes because they practiced agriculture. They farmed large fields of corn, beans (black, red, spotted, white), along with pumpkins and different squash varietals, sunflowers and tobacco. Plains tribes like the Sioux would trade fur and buffalo meat for fresh and dried vegetables from Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa farmers.

“Mató-Tópe, adorned with the insignia of his warlike deeds.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844.

As revealed to European anthropologists in 1917 by a Hidatsa woman named Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa harvested and consumed a black-gray fungus that sometimes grew on ears of corn, they called it Mapë’di.

It was removed from the ear of corn and cooked with corns, beans, and squash, or dried for winter use. I assume the Mandan and Arikara—closely linked to the Hidatsa, also enjoyed the fungus in meals.

That same fungus was harvested and eaten by the ancient Aztecs, who called it Huitlacoche (whee-tla-KO-cheh). Still eaten in Mexico today and considered a delicacy. I have tried tamales and quesadillas containing Huitlacoche. Despite its unsightly appearance, it has a rich earthy mushroom-like flavor.

The Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa lived in fixed villages of sturdy earth lodges. The semi-subterranean homes were circular, built with heavy cotton wood posts set into the earth, and covered with a woven shell of willow branches and dried grass; thick sod and clay covered the shell. Measuring up to 60 feet across, a lodge could house up to 20 family members. Villages were usually built on cliffs above rivers and surrounded by a high wall of felled trees to protect against hostile tribes.

Lodges were arranged in circular fashion around an open village center, where dances and sacred rituals were held. During the winter the tribes lived in their earth lodges, well stocked with dried meat and vegetables. In the spring until the end of summer, they left the villages to live in teepees while hunting buffalo and other game. Thanks to Hollywood films and an inadequate education in US history, most Americans have no idea some plains Indians were surprisingly sophisticated farmers that lived in villages of rugged earthen homes.

“Mandan Village.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1844.

During its travels the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition encountered the Sauk, Fox, Shawnee, Otoe, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Dacota, Lakota, Yanktonai, Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa (Minatarre), Kutenai, Plains Cree, Assiniboine, Piegan, Crow, Gros Ventre, Shoshone, Blood and Blackfoot tribes. Many had not seen whites before, only a few had exposure to trappers and fur traders. The indigenous were still living freely on the plains, and Bodmer would be the last to depict them as a wild free people.

“Mandan pipe.” Karl Bodmer. Watercolor on paper. 1834. Bodmer created this painting of a pipe its owner called upon for protection against enemy arrows. The holder was a spiritual leader who believed his pipe personified the great spirit’s human form, with the bowl being a head and the pipe stem serving as legs. Photo: Malcolm Varon/Source Joslyn Museum.

The expedition bartered trade goods to acquire hundreds of native artifacts. Items collected included leather shirts, moccasins, headdresses, leggings, dresses, buffalo robes, snow shoes, decorated feathers, drums, flutes, eagle bone whistles, war-clubs, knives, bows, arrows, quivers, war shields of buffalo hide, catlinite pipes, medicine items and personal decorations, ceramics, furs, bags, pouches and so much more. Most items were highly decorated with paint, carvings, feathers, hair, beadwork, and extravagant porcupine quill embroidery. Bodmer made accurate catalog drawings of the items entering the collection. A few of these collected items are on display in the traveling exhibition.

When the Maximilian-Bodmer expedition returned to Germany, Prince Maximilian published a two-volume book on the North American trek. The first edition would be published in 1839 under the title Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832-1834. French and English volumes followed. The book included Maximilian’s narrative of the trip, with his remarks on Native Americans and their culture, as well as descriptions of the untouched natural world they inhabited. Of the over 400 paintings and drawings Bodmer brought back, the Prince picked 81 for inclusion in the book; 48 would appear as full page engraved illustrations, the remaining 33 would be vignettes. Two versions of the book were offered, one with illustrations in color, the other with artworks in black and white.

“Interior of a hut of a Mandan Chief.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1839.

Maximilian gave Bodmer the task of supervising production of the engravings. The artist decided on combining engraving with aquatint, a technique that produces images that look remarkably like watercolors. Bodmer worked with teams of artists in Paris, Zurich, and London to produce a suite of 81 aquatint engraving prints that were translations of his detailed original watercolors. However, Bodmer and his assistants took the aquatints further. They produced the color prints by using the “à la poupée” technique. Multiple ink colors were applied to a single printing plate using a small rag ball or “poupee” (doll) for each color. After a print was pulled, Bodmer instructed artists in adding extra hand-coloring with applications of watercolor pigments. The completed prints were a towering artistic achievement. Presently in the United States there are only twenty original editions of Travels in the Interior of North America.

Travels in the Interior of North America became an authoritative record of Great Plains life. Bodmer’s paintings of native people and his exquisite landscapes showing animals, untouched rivers, plains, and forests, provided a look at a vanishing world. The costly book was sold by subscription, but it was not a big seller. Bodmer had spent ten years of his life on the North American expedition project, but by 1847 he transferred rights to those sketches, watercolors, and aquatint engravings to Maximilian’s estate. Eventually the estate would store Bodmer’s artworks at the family’s Neuwied Castle in Germany’s northern Rhineland-Palatinate, and left forgotten for more than 100 years.

After painting American Indians on the frontier, Bodmer moved to France where he became a member of the Barbizon School of landscape painters that included the likes of Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-François Millet. Bodmer exhibited his landscape paintings at three different shows at the Paris Salon from 1851 to 1863. He continued painting until his death, which came on Oct. 30, 1893 at the age of eighty-four.

“Idols of the Mandan Indians.” Karl Bodmer. Hand-colored aquatint engraving, circa 1836. Image: Creative Commons.

As fate would have it, Karl Bodmer’s artworks were rediscovered in storage at the Neuwied Castle after World War II. In 1959 the Maximilian estate sold the Bodmer collection to the M. Knoedler & Company art dealership in New York, along with Maximilian’s journals, notes, and travel diaries. The Northern Natural Gas Company of Omaha purchased the collection and wisely donated it to the Joslyn Art Museum in 1986. Bodmer’s works remain the core of that museum’s collection.

To accompany their traveling exhibit, the Joslyn Art Museum published a book titled “Faces from the Interior: The North American Portraits of Karl Bodmer.” It is the first book to focus on Bodmer’s talent as a portraitist, and it presents over 50 watercolor portraits of people from the various tribes he visited, plus paintings of tribal ceremonies and landscapes.

Photo of Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, taken 1877. Photographer unknown. Source, Library of Congress.

The Joslyn Art Museum entered an agreement with the UK’s Alecto Historical Editions to reprint Bodmer’s engravings using the artist’s original steel and copper plates. “Restrike” prints—later impressions made from plates already used to produced a print edition, are somewhat controversial.

A restrike is not an original print authorized by the artist, who in most cases is deceased. Original first edition prints have crisp, precise detail, while a restrike is of lower quality displaying softer lines from a worn etching plate. However, the skilled artisans of Alecto Historical Editions used the same exacting methods as the original artists. While lines may not be as sharp and the colors not exact, what Bodmer fan would not want one of these prints?

The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska has the largest collection of Bodmer’s North American works to be found anywhere in the world; they organized the exhibit in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The first leg of the traveling show took place at the Met (April 5, 2021-July 25, 2021). The exhibit then opened at the Joslyn Art Museum (Oct 2, 2021-May 1, 2022). The last leg of the exhibit is the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (Oct. 29, 2022-Jan. 22, 2023).

The Embrace Does Not Convey Greatness

The Embrace, a new sculpture dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, has turned out to be contentious rather than unifying.

“The Embrace.” Hank Willis Thomas. Bronze. 2023. Photo: Twitter / @KyleH4real

Black conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas won the commission to create the monument now displayed in the Boston Common of Massachusetts. What Thomas came up with is a headless bronze structure—a jumble of hands, arms, and shoulders meant to represent the historic couple. The fabrication measuring 20 feet long by 26 feet wide, depicts only the hands, arms, and shoulders of the civil rights activists. In the mind of this artist… The Embrace does not convey greatness.

The Embrace was dedicated and unveiled on Jan. 13, 2023, just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16, 2023. It sits in the Boston Common near the Parkman Bandstand. In fact it is located on the exact location where King gathered 20,000 people in 1965 to protest against segregation in public schools; the very first such demonstration in the Northeast.

On the morning of Jan. 14, 2023, my wife showed me a short video of the unveiling of The Embrace (shown below). I watched the plastic tarp drop to the ground to reveal something I couldn’t identify. My first response was to blurt out, “what IS that?”

The angle of the video presented a baffling jumble of hands grasping at… a lump, a blob, I didn’t know. Then a different angle offered an even more unfortunate view; apparently I wasn’t the only one to see it. Social media lit up with incredulous remarks that The Embrace looked like—and I’m embarrassed to say this, two giant hands holding up an immense flaccid phallus… either that or a prodigious turd. Surely this was an embarrassing blunder made by the artist, it couldn’t possibly have been intentional. Yet there it is, the perfect example of the bewilderment, confusion, and lack of coherency in today’s postmodern art.

“The Embrace.” Hank Willis Thomas. Bronze. 2023. The statue being installed. Photo: Twitter

Postmodern art is not a civilizing force, it is nihilistic and its mission has always been to remove the idea of beauty from art. The virus began in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp signed a porcelain urinal with the nom de plume “R. Mutt,” then displayed the toilet he titled Fountain in an exhibit hosted by the Society of Independent Artists. Beauty isn’t the only thing that has been stripped from art. We’ve reached the point where we can’t even produce a statue of a true American hero; the attempt only gets us a bizarre and ugly decapitated creature seemingly designed by a special effects studio for a schlocky sci-fi flick.

My criticism of Thomas’ The Embrace is in part based upon my respect for Martin Luther King Jr. To be honest, Martin deserves so much more. As a pre-teen I followed his activities closely. I was nine-years-old when I watched television news reports of Martin and 200,000 followers marching on Washington D.C. for jobs and freedom; it was there that he gave his most famous oratory… “I Have a Dream.” Martin was my entry point into the American Civil Rights Movement.

When I was thirteen-years-old in 1967, Martin began to speak out against the Vietnam war: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home—they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.” My generation listened, and we followed his vision that we could stop the war. I remind the reader that Martin’s words concerning the Vietnam war are still relevant, or haven’t you noticed that we are in a proxy war with nuclear armed Russia over Ukraine?

“The Embrace” was supposedly inspired by this photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hugging his wife Coretta Scott King on Oct. 14, 1964, the day Martin won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It supposedly took five years to make The Embrace, a 20-ton bronze constructed of 609 individual pieces, all cast at the Walla Walla Foundry in the state of Washington.

Thomas worked with MASS Design Group and Embrace Boston, non-profits in Boston with politically correct mission statements, to design the 1965 Freedom Plaza where Embrace is publicly displayed. Unbelievably, the “BIPOC Centric” Embrace Boston raised $8 million to produce the work and raised an extra $2.5 mil to preserve it.

Even more inconceivable is the idea that The Embrace project had to be approved by multiple state agencies before it could be realized. The Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, the Boston Arts Commission, Boston Parks and Recreation Department—all the people involved in the project did not see in The Embrace what millions immediately saw when it was unveiled.

It’s beyond belief that city officials of Boston are hoping Embrace will be a tourist attraction comparable to the Statue of Liberty. Squad member and Democrat Congresswoman of Massachusetts Ayanna Pressley, who was at the unveiling, told those assembled that people from around the world will visit The Embrace to pay tribute to the Kings. She’s positively delusional.

On the MASS Design Group website, the organization poses a self-righteous and hypocritical question: “How can we fill the voids left in America’s public spaces, once we have removed the memorials that divide us? How can we demand more memorials that unite us around our common humanity, love, and empathy?”

Starting in 2020 leftwing mobs graffitied or tore down bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Francis Scott Key, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass and other notable Americans. Are these the “memorials that divide us” that MASS Design alludes to? Who exactly wanted the statues damaged, destroyed, “removed”?

“Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Bronze sculpture on Boston Common. Photo: Mark Vallen.

I visited the Boston Common in 2019. I was stunned by the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a masterwork bronze sculpture by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Created in 1897 the sculpture commemorates the men of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a Union Army military unit of free black men who fought in the Civil War under the command of a white officer named, Robert Gould Shaw.

The 54th fought a hand-to-hand battle with the Confederates at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Captain Shaw was killed and 280 of his men were killed, wounded, or captured; the battle was lost but the courageous 54th joined the immortals. Saint-Gaudens gave them a proper memorial. It should be noted that on June 3, 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors covered with graffiti the granite base that holds the statue; they spray-painted the slogans “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “F**k 12” (F**k Police) and “BLM.”

Pre-Renaissance European artists created the school of classical realist sculpture—and Hank Willis Thomas, despite his postmodern Afrocentric vision, has not entirely abandoned that school. Over the years realist sculptors have created innumerable sculptures on the subject of people embracing. Women embracing their newborn babies, or mournfully embracing their dead warriors. Men embracing in solidarity and friendship, etc. These moving artworks express compassion, dignity, and a deep humanism; precisely what’s missing in the strange and freakish Embrace.

“The Embrace.” Hank Willis Thomas. Bronze. 2023. Photo: Twitter / @chipgoines

It should have been foreseen that the postmodern structure conjured up by Thomas would be met with ridicule; that’s the tragedy of The Embrace and postmodernism—the monument should have been magnificent, but instead it invites mockery. It reminds me of two other recent public art debacles. The postmodern architect Thomas Heatherwick designed a sixteen-story walk-through sculpture he called Vessel. Located at the center of swanky Hudson Yards in Manhattan, NYC, it opened in March of 2019. The $200 million edifice was touted by politicians and contemporary art aficionados… until people started to commit suicide by flinging themselves from the 150-foot-high building. The city closed Vessel to the public.

I’m also thinking of the Black postmodernist Sanford Biggers, who in 2021 was asked to create and display one of his statues at the Fifth Avenue entrance to Rockefeller Center, NYC. Consumed by identity politics, Biggers created Oracle, a massively preposterous 25-foot tall bronze statue that fused a gigantic African mask to a Greco-Roman female goddess. Biggers meant the statue as a serious critique of the “racist” architectural artworks that embellish Rockefeller Center, but Oracle was simply ridiculous.

To add insult to injury, social media is burning with sarcastic memes and scoffing comments regarding The Embrace, a few witticism from the Twitterati I include here.

“How long did it take Hunter (Biden) to complete this?

This is a laughable legacy to a wonderful man.

Is it really that hard to get a decent MLK statue?

He deserves way better than this atrocity.

What an insult to the man and the moment.

King had a dream. Boston Common has a nightmare.”

… and my favorite observation: “The West is no longer capable of creating anything beautiful.” Many see Thomas’ The Embrace as a work of genius, obviously I’m not one of them, but the art press certainly plays along. On Aug. 11, 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an address in Chicago, Illinois where he said: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.”

The same could be said about artists.



Jan. 14, 2023: Seneca Scott, cousin of Coretta Scott King, wrote an essay for the social-democratic website COMPACT. He wrote: “Ten million dollars were wasted to create a masturbatory metal homage to my legendary family members—one of the all-time greatest American families.” Jan. 15, 2023: The New York Post prints banner headline Woke $10M MLK ‘penis’ statue insults black community: Coretta Scott King kin. The NYPost quotes Seneca Scott: “The mainstream media was reporting on it like it was all beautiful, ’cause they were told they had to say that. If you had showed that statute to anyone in the ‘hood, they’d have been like, ‘No, absolutely not.'”

A Cowboy at Rest with the Rough Riders

Banner at the back entrance of The Palace Saloon. Photo: Mark Vallen.

In December 2022 my wife Jeannine and I fled Lost Angeles, California to vacation in the wilds of Arizona. The following impressions and photos will describe our adventures in the Wild West of the Union’s 48th state. We first visited Prescott, the historic city in Yavapai County. The population of Prescott is around 45,800 souls, which is just about the number of people who live on my block in the city of LA.

We arrived at the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza, to walk around the district and take in the sights. The plaza is actually a four acre park filled with 170 trees and a beautiful historic bandstand built in 1910 (Arizona became a state in 1912). A good number of monumental bronze memorial statues are found in the plaza, two of which I’ve written about in this essay.

The Palace, oldest saloon in Arizona. Photo: Mark Vallen.

Courthouse Plaza is smack-dab in the center of historic downtown Prescott. Adjacent to the plaza is “Whiskey Row” or Montezuma Street. In the mid-1800s it was a block of over 40 saloons that were constructed of wood. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, outlaws, and not so pure-hearted ladies of pleasure could be found there, along with an occasional wide-eyed traveler.

You could buy beer for a nickel with gold-dust accepted as payment. It all burned down on July 14, 1900, but almost immediately the people rebuilt the area in brick and masonry stone.

One notorious saloon on Whiskey Row was The Palace. Patrons of the saloon included Doc Holliday, Wyatt and Virgil Earp, and Big Nose Kate.

Rebuilt in 1900 after the fire, the building stands today as the oldest frontier saloon in Arizona. Tarnation! The wife and I had lunch there! As a sidebar, a scene from the 1971 film Billy Jack was filmed in the Courthouse Plaza, and director Sam Peckinpah filmed scenes inside The Palace for Junior Bonner—his movie about a modern rodeo cowboy with Steve McQueen in the starring role.

After lunch at The Palace we ventured into the Courthouse Plaza to view the bronze sculptures. One such statue was Cowboy at Rest by American sculptor, Solon Hannibal Borglum (1868-1922).

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze statue. The statue is decked out in Christmas wreaths for the season. Photo: Mark Vallen.

Cowboy at Rest depicts a pensive cowboy at the end of his workday, stretched out in a prone position on a rocky hillside. With a slight smile on his lips he seems to be surveying the vast plains before him, his steed stands over him. The bronze is full of detail; the cowboy’s boots and spurs, an oversized bandana pulled backwards across his neck, a repeating rifle holstered in the saddle. My favorite detail though involves “woolly chaps.”

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. Note the “woolly chaps.” Photo: Mark Vallen.

“Cowboy at Rest.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. “A slight smile on his lips.” Photo: Mark Vallen

In the old days cowboys wore leather chaps to protect their legs from brush, thorns, and branding irons; some wore “woolly chaps” for the same reason. The woollies, made from thick-haired angora goatskins with the fleece left on—kept a cowboy warm in cold, wet conditions. Working cowboys today still wear chaps, and showy woollies are part of present-day rodeo.

While it looks like the horse in Cowboy at Rest is wearing “woolly chaps,” I think Solon’s cowboy hung his woollies to dry on the “stirrup fenders,” the wide leather straps that connect a saddle to the stirrups. I call this my favorite detail because Solon created in bronze the appearance of shaggy fleece, which is no mean feat.

Cowboy at Rest was originally created by Solon in 1903 as one of four small bronze statues depicting life in the West. In 1904 the artist produced a life-sized version in plaster that was exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that same year, and in 1905 displayed at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Cowboy at Rest was finally cast in bronze and placed in the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza in 1990.

Solon created another famous bronze found on the grounds of the Courthouse Plaza—the Bucky O’Neill Monument, also known as the Rough Rider Monument. Art aficionados have called it the preeminent equestrian statue in America. Sure as shooting, Solon thought it to be his best work.

“Bucky O’Neill Monument.” Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. 1907. Photo: Jeannine Thorpe.

William Owen “Bucky” O’Neill (1860-1898) was born in Missouri and in his youth came riding into Arizona on a burro. He settled in the territory and became a favored son. He was a miner, gambler, newspaper editor, lawyer, sheriff, a Georgist (look that one up) and the mayor of Prescott. Additionally, he gained eternal fame as a captain in Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Solon’s bronze statue is not a portrait of Bucky, but a commemoration of the Rough Riders.

Bucky was the mayor of Prescott when the Spanish American War of 1898 erupted. To fight the Spanish Empire in Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt helped to organize the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (the Rough Riders). Bucky organized the Arizonan volunteers who joined up, and he became Captain in a Rough Rider regiment. Highly respected by his men, Captain Bucky O’Neill was killed fighting the Spanish on July 1, 1898 in the battle at San Juan Hill.

“Bucky O’Neill Monument” (detail). Solon Hannibal Borglum. Bronze. 1907. Photo: Mark Vallen.

The Yavapai county government gave the commission for the Bucky memorial to Solon in 1906. On July 3, 1907 the Bucky O’Neill Monument was unveiled in the Yavapai Courthouse Plaza and dedicated with great fanfare. Rough Rider and Civil War Veterans paraded with a marching band, along with soldiers from Fort Whipple, which in 1898 had been a mobilization area for the Rough Riders. Some 7,000 Arizonans joined with prominent citizens and the fire departments of Prescott, Tucson, and Phoenix for the massive celebration. Today the bronze still stands in the same honored place in front of the Yavapai Courthouse.

Born in Utah, Solon Hannibal Borglum grew up in Nebraska and Omaha, and spent his early years as a cowboy-rancher. Due to his talent at drawing horses, his older brother Gutzon encourage him to pursue art as a profession. The young Solon went to Omaha to study with a former student of the great realist painter Thomas Eakins, but his formal art studies were scant when he moved to Los Angeles in 1893 to paint portraits and teach art privately. I should mention that Solon’s brother Gutzon ended up creating the most American of sculptures… Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Finding no success in LA, Solon traveled to Ohio in 1895 and entered the Cincinnati Art Academy where he took up sculpture. The school gave him a scholarship that sent him to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian; the French student’s called Solon the “sculptor of the prairie.”

While at the Académie he met one of its teachers, famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who gave Solon further guidance. Back from Paris, Solon gathered awards and commissions for his works depicting Cowboys, Native Americans, and life in the Old West. He established a studio in New York City, where he founded the School of American Sculpture in 1920; he lectured and taught there until his untimely death at the age of fifty-three in 1922.

Public statues like Cowboy at Rest and the Bucky O’Neill Monument, are impressive, and not just for the skills possessed by the artist. They’re a testament that Americans appreciate art that speaks to them directly in a visual language they understand—elite opinion be damned. They also preserve the nation’s history, which might be the biggest bug-a-boo to the memory-erasing mobocracy that have vandalized public statues coast to coast.

Solon Hannibal Borglum, America’s first cowboy sculptor, left the people of his country something that can’t be uprooted or broken. And for that I thank Arizona.