Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Picturing the Obamas and Kehinde Wiley

I can’t recall such an unending fuss about a presidential portrait. The hoopla at the 2018 unveiling of the portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery was fairly understandable, but then came the media blitz.

Every magazine and paper in the US celebrated the portraits. Likewise “The Obama Portraits Tour” visited eight US art museums from June 2021 to October 2022. That tour was accompanied by The Obama Portraits book. Now we have the Picturing the Obamas documentary. Enough already.

The Smithsonian Channel™ premiered the Picturing the Obamas documentary on Sept. 10, 2022. It focused on the portraits of former President Obama and the First Lady that hang in the National Portrait Gallery, the artists who painted them—Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald (respectively), and the public’s reaction to the portraits. When announcing the broadcast, the Smithsonian noted that the paintings “disrupt traditional presidential portraiture.”

“Barack Obama.” Kehinde Wiley. Oil on canvas, 2018.

While I agree with the distinguished institution’s assertion that the paintings are disruptive, my ideas as to why are different from the Smithsonian’s. Since the portraits were officially unveiled in 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery I have wanted to comment on them, now I’ll do just that. My essay focuses on Mr Wiley and not Ms Sherald, sorry, but there’s only so much love to go around. I will only say that Sherald’s painting of Michelle bore little resemblance to the sitter.

It was only a few years ago that the acolytes of postmodern art were insisting “painting is dead.” The postmodernist disciples proselytized that authenticity, cognition, and intellection could not be found in painting, but only realized in conceptual art, performance art, installation art, video art, land art, identity art, and the other sects of the postmodern congregation.

Kitsch was King and suddenly High art found itself a pauper. Artistic skill was said to be passé, beauty was a social construct, ironic and ugly works were cherished, and appropriation art—or what the rationally minded called plagiarism, was meet with acclaim. Into this morass strode Wiley, and he found himself instantly celebrated.

The director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Kim Sajet (pronounced Say-et), wrote an obsequious article for the February 2019 edition of The Atlantic titled The Obama Portraits Have Had a Pilgrimage Effect. She asserted that the flocks of devotees coming to see the Obama portraits at the museum comprise “a form of secular pilgrimage.” Keep in mind that Ms. Sajet considered this a positive.

Sajet actually equated the Obama “pilgrimage” to the Hajj, the annual journey to Saudi Arabia’s city of Mecca that every good Muslim must do at least once in their life. She claimed the museum had been transformed into “a communal gathering place,” and compared those traveling to see the Obama paintings with Elvis Presley fans traveling to Graceland. Now there’s a vision… a velvet painting of “Great Leader” Obama Presley.

Ms. Sajet is the first woman to serve as the director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, America’s repository of artworks focusing on famous American politicians, performers, scientists, artists, and other American notables. Her bio on the National Portrait Gallery website states that since she was “born in Nigeria, raised in Australia, and a citizen of the Netherlands,” she “brings a global perspective to the position.” It comes as no surprise that her bio says her interests include “identity politics.”

I have loved and respected a number of Black American artists in my life but Kehinde Wiley is not one of them. I view him as an unmitigated fraud. I have multiple reasons for thinking him a charlatan, but my primary critique is that “assistants” help paint his works.

New York Magazine let the cat out of the bag in its April 20, 2012 article, Kehinde Wiley’s Global Reach. The piece was ingratiating towards Wiley but writer Christopher Beam did expose one embarrassing detail. Beam visited Wiley’s Beijing, China studio, where the artist admitted that he moved there in 2006 to set up his first “global production outpost” where low-wage Chinese “helpers” painted his works. An article excerpt reads:

“There’s nothing new about artists using assistants—everyone from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons has employed teams of helpers, with varying degrees of irony and pride—but Wiley gets uncomfortable discussing the subject. ‘I’m sensitive to it,’ he says. When I first arrived at his Beijing studio, the assistants had left, and he made me delete the iPhone snapshots I’d taken of the empty space.

It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, he says. That they aren’t is public knowledge. It’s just a question of boundaries. ‘I don’t want you to know every aspect of where my hand starts and ends, or how many layers go underneath the skin, or how I got that glow to happen,’ he says. ‘It’s the secret sauce! Get out of my kitchen!’”

Wiley’s “secret sauce” is the exploitation of Chinese labor. The Chinese Communist Party controls all art in China (just ask Ai Weiwei). The CCP knows full well that Wiley is employing Chinese artists, it could not be otherwise as the communists maintain an iron grip on all economic activity, not to mention they run one the most advanced surveillance states in the world today. Wiley’s kitchen euphemism is better replaced with, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Beam’s article did contain a rather large misstatement. He said of Wiley using helpers to produce his paintings, “It’s not that he wants people to believe every brushstroke is his, that they aren’t is public knowledge.” That statement is just not true.

Aside from Beam’s article in New York Magazine, which radio stations, television broadcasts, newspapers, or magazines have reported that Kehinde Wiley uses assistants to paint his canvases? Has the Smithsonian mentioned this fact? Do the crowds fawning over Wiley’s portrait of Obama know this? Does Barack know?! People erroneously believe that Wily paints every brushstroke.

Speaking as an artist, I would be ashamed to pay others to paint my canvases. Every brushstroke is mine. When the Smithsonian approvingly proclaims that Wiley’s Obama portrait is meant to “disrupt traditional presidential portraiture,” that is why you hear cynical laughter coming from my art studio.

It was also guff for Beam to say, “there’s nothing new about artists using assistants—everyone from Michelangelo to Jeff Koons has employed teams of helpers.” Michelangelo needed the help of assistants to paint his murals at the Sistine Chapel because it was a gargantuan task beyond the abilities of one man. Michelangelo’s hand and vision made those murals and no one ever doubted the fact. Whereas Jeff Koons creates nothing, his projects are entirely fashioned by paid assistants, and his only skill is self-promotion. It was rubbish to compare Michelangelo to Koons.

Mr. Beam stated in his article: “Producing work in China cuts costs, but not as much as it used to, Wiley says. These days in Beijing he employs anywhere from four to ten workers, depending on the urgency.” Beam also revealed that Wiley runs “several global production outposts” but only Beijing, Dakar, and New York City were named. Where are the other “global production outposts” where low-wage drones create Kehinde Wiley’s “original” paintings?

The soft-spoken Kehinde Wiley has the same outlook as Sanford Biggers, another Black American artist consumed by identity politics. Both have given themselves the mission of demolishing the “White supremacist” art world and work to interrupt and mitigate the “Whiteness” of Western art.

As a matter of fact on May 11, 2021 the Smithsonian Magazine wrote an article favorable to Biggers titled: “This Monumental ‘Oracle’ Statue in NYC Subverts Traditional Sculpture,” with a subhead insisting the Biggers’ installation “challenges the tropes of classical artwork.” Such “challenges” are a prerequisite for entrée into elite art circles these days. The article was so full of hypocrisy, contradictions, and inaccuracies that I was compelled to write a takedown of Biggers titled, Sanford Biggers Is Not An Oracle.

Wiley hopes to extirpate the sins of racism and sexism that he sees in Western art by painting “subversive” parodies of classical Western works and themes. Reimagining Old Master paintings is Wiley’s schtick. I loath the postmodern concept of reimagining everything in the Western world. The Old Masters don’t need to be reimagined, they just need to be appreciated for what they were.

Wiley’s conundrum is that his paintings are produced à la Photoshop and sweatshop, and his “subversion” reeks of racialism. One only needs to examine his horrid Judith and Holofernes paintings to see that.

I’m serious when I say Wiley’s paintings are the result of Photoshop. As a wave of criticism began over his Obama portrait, an anonymous person distributed on the internet a diagram examining the painting. With a series of colorful boxes outlining specific areas of the background, the graphic revealed that the foliage behind Obama was repeated again and again. I don’t mean a loose, casual repetition but an exacting, precise duplication of every leaf in a bunch—reduplicated over and over.

Diagram of Wiley’s Obama portrait shows background areas repeated over and over. Anonymous meme.

Anyone familiar with the Adobe Photoshop graphics application knows of its “rubber stamp” tool, which can fully replicate imagery with the click of a mouse, no drawing skills required. At first glance one doesn’t notice the repetitive duplication in Wiley’s painting, but once you see it you’ll always see it. It’s obvious that a “study” done in Photoshop was projected onto canvas and then traced in pencil. I’m presuming the “help” had the unenviable task of painting in all those blasted leaves.

Admirers of Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait always point to the background flower motif as holding profound significance. The purple African lily embodies his fathers’s Kenyan bloodline; the white jasmine personifies his Hawaiian birthplace, and the multicolored chrysanthemum symbolizes Chicago, where he became a State senator. How fitting those flowers were rubber stamped into existence by Photoshop.

Aside from the photoshopped flowers there is another oddity in Kehinde Wiley’s painting. Artists interested in realism must acquire and master basic drawing techniques that create the illusion of space, perspective, and depth on a flat surface; apparently Wiley missed those lessons.

In Wiley’s portrait Obama sits on a chair with its four legs disappearing into the foliage, sprigs of which overlap the backrest and seat. The chair has weight and one imagines its legs firmly planted on the ground, except… Obama’s feet are floating, there is no ground beneath them, they touch nothing. The foliage is suddenly a flat backdrop with no relationship to the foreground. This isn’t another one of Wiley’s “subversive” deconstructions, it’s not any kind of artistic statement—it’s simply his ineptitude as an artist.

This photoshopping of a presidential portrait meant to hang in the Smithsonian’s grand National Portrait Gallery, this imbecilic ignoring of perspective, indicates how far the once glorious art of painting has fallen. But it also points to the moribund state of art criticism and the news media, professions you might think would have an interest in investigating such an affront. “Disrupt traditional presidential portraiture” indeed.

Ben Davis, art critic for Artnet News, offered a very mild critique of Wiley’s Obama portrait in a Feb. 2018 article titled Here’s the Bad News About Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama. In his essay Mr Davis heaped praise upon Obama and Wiley, and aimed jabs at then President Trump.

Davis analyzed the mythos presented in the official oil portraits made of Thomas Jefferson (painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1805), George Washington (Gilbert Stuart, 1796), and George W. Bush (Robert Anderson 2008). What Davis wrote about John Singer Sargent’s official 1903 White House portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt I found most revealing:

“In my opinion, this is the most stylish of all presidential portraits. Its savvy artistic myth-making, however, only half distracts me from the small historical fact that Teddy Roosevelt was a ruthless imperialist.”

Davis didn’t call Obama “a ruthless imperialist” despite the 44th President sending 30,000 US combat troops to Afghanistan in 2009. In 2011 Obama launched a war against Libya without a Congressional declaration of war; he didn’t even call it war, he called it “kinetic military action.” The war obliterated Libya, its economy, government, army, and its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Al-Qaeda raised its flag over Benghazi, ISIS set up operations in the country, and slave markets began selling 1000s of Africans into slavery. Today Libya is still ungovernable… but I digress.

“Theodore Roosevelt.” John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas, 1903.

Whatever one might think of the “ruthless imperialist” Teddy Roosevelt, he did offer the following words of wisdom: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” Those on the Obama pilgrimage should take head of Teddy’s pronouncement, which also applies to the current resident in the White House.

At the end of his article Davis finally got to the Bad News about Obama, while still pummeling Trump: “Obama not only presided over the rise of drone warfare, but the extrajudicial killing of US citizens and the limitless extension of the NSA’s digital surveillance program—all precedents he passed on to his maniacal successor. When that became a crisis after the Snowden leaks, Obama enacted a shock-and-awe crackdown on whistleblowers, invoking the Espionage Act more than all previous administrations combined.”

Art critic Ben Davis barely touched upon Obama’s surveillance program run by the National Security Agency. Without warrants the NSA vacuumed up the emails and phone calls of every American with a phone or computer. But Obama’s NSA didn’t just spy on US citizens, it was also spying on French and German citizens. The NSA spied on 35 world leaders, and Obama personally approved spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Obama Department of Justice spied on more than 100 staffers of the Associated Press, eavesdropping on their cell, office, and home lines. Imagine if Trump had spied on the AP. Obama even tapped the AP line at the US House of Representatives. But the secretive, cloak-and-dagger activities of Mr. Hope and Change did not go unnoticed by the public.

“Super-sleuth Barack gazing at you through binoculars.” Anonymous.

Kehinde Wiley’s Obama portrait was transformed into dozens of uproarious and politically pointed memes. My favorite was super-sleuth Barack gazing at you through binoculars while partially hidden in the foliage of African lilies, white jasmine, and chrysanthemums.

Davis closed his article with this: “Somewhere, deep down, on the level of subtext and unintended meanings, this strange, strange political portrait ends up being about how the man must be abstracted from the nitty-gritty of his legacy to become the symbol that his followers desire him to be.” So we end as we began, with public desires and how they are manufactured and manipulated.

There’s no space between Duchamp’s The Fountain (a urinal exhibited in 1917), and Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an unmade bed covered with dirty clothes, cigarette butts, empty alcohol bottles, condoms, and the detritus of Emin’s life). In the postmodern way Emin conjured up a vague semblance of life, a simulacrum.

But Kehinde Wiley himself has become the simulacrum, a representation of an artist whose sole mission is redefining Western canon by way of plagiarism and identity art.

Wiley’s Obama is pure kitsch. I have no idea if low-wage Chinese workers labored on the painting, that’s Wiley’s “secret sauce.” But I’ll take John Singer Sargent’s Teddy Roosevelt portrait any old day.

The Mona Lisa Cake in the Face Raid

Long ago I visited the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France. I spent the day walking its many rooms, studying with my artist’s eyes its astonishing art treasures. One such gem was the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century oil painting masterpiece. Her smile still beckons; currently some 30,000 people per day visit her Louvre exhibition room to gaze upon her. Fawning attention like this is bound to attract a miscreant or two, which is another aspect of The Mona Lisa Curse.

On May 29, 2022 one such reprobate, a 36-year-old man disguised as an elderly woman, visited the Mona Lisa. He modified his appearance by wearing lipstick, a shawl, and a brunette wig. I have to say it wasn’t much of a disguise, but then I’m always assuming the gender of individuals. At any rate “granny” topped off his charade by riding a wheelchair in the Louvre, likely in hopes of getting a handicapped only viewing position in front of the Mona Lisa. As you will see this unidentified rat-bag, aside from being an exploiter of the disabled, is also a vandal.

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Security man wipes cake frosting from bullet proof glass protecting the Mona Lisa after May 29, 2022 attack at the Louvre museum in Paris, France. Photo: Twitter/@klevis007

The museum’s huge crowds as well as the guards paid little attention to the character wheeling about, until he leapt from his wheelchair and punched the bullet proof glass that protected the Mona Lisa. Unable to break the glass, he pulled out a large chunk of frosted cake he had hidden in his clothing and hurled it at the barrier, smearing creamy white frosting across the heavy glass. Blessedly Leonardo’s painting was not harmed.

At that point the ne’er-do-well showed himself to be a climate change activist. He shouted in French: “Think about the Earth. There are people who are destroying the Earth. Think about it, all artists, think about the Earth, this is why I did this. Think about the planet!” Mr. Climate Change says he did it for the artists—but he’s just another wackadoodle. I have been thinking about the Earth, just not the way the cake throwing extremist would like me to. Louvre security escorted “grandma” out of the room and rightly sent him to a police psychiatric unit for evaluation. I hope a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hangs in his cell.

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WackadoodleDoo. “Think about it, all artists, think about the Earth, this is why I did this.” Photo: Twitter/@lukeXC2002

The vandal somehow imagined that by damaging Leonardo’s painting, people around the world would suddenly realize that climate change will extinguish all life on the planet in a few years. That realization would initiate a revolution to sweep away the evil oil barons, resulting in free electric cars for all.

Things didn’t play out exactly the way he dreamt. Greta Thunberg will have to settle for a publicity stunt that was nothing more than tossing a piece of cake at a beloved work of art—and missing the target. Talk about lousy performance art. Climate activists will no doubt distance themselves from their cake flinging comrade. Still, the stunt revealed “an inconvenient truth.”

That inconvenient truth tells us the Mona Lisa is part of human heritage, and the attempt to destroy the artwork should remind us of the ISIS terrorists, who use bombs and sledgehammers to smash priceless artworks and archaeological artifacts to smithereens. They do this because their Islamic fundamentalist viewpoint sees art as nothing more than sinful idolatry. I believe a new type of zealotry is behind the targeting of the Mona Lisa, it’s called environmentalist fundamentalism.

If activists deem the act of destroying art as an acceptable way to protest, they will soon advocate other forms of violence as appropriate. I really do fear that we have reached such a dangerous point. While I have always considered myself environmentally minded, I do not go along with destroying works of art, or annihilating people. In 1821 the German poet and writer Heinrich Heine put it another way when he wrote in his tragic play Almansor: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

The Mona Lisa has been physically attacked a number of times in the past; in 1956 someone tossed sulfuric acid on the masterwork, but thankfully the painting was saved. I won’t list the incidents of vandalism because to me the greatest affront was a philosophical razing given by none other than Andy Warhol. In 1963 the Louvre loaned the Mona Lisa to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was the first exhibit of the painting in the United States. Over a million Americans came to see it, including the 35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy and the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. When Warhol heard that Leonardo’s masterwork was coming to the US he said: “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

That cynical remark was a downgrading of skill-based realist painting and classical European art; it forced open the door to the postmodern lunacy and deadwood that today’s art world elites have hoisted upon the public. However, some six million people from around the world visit the Louvre each year to see Leonardo’s masterpiece. Realist art still matters to the public. The assault on the Mona Lisa was a despicable crime.

Andy Warhol is Still Dead

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Tweet from Christie’s, May 9, 2022.

On May 9, 2022, Christie’s auction house in New York sold an Andy Warhol silkscreen print titled Shot Sage Blue Marilyn; it was the highest price ever paid for an American artwork at an auction.

Warhol’s 1964 reproduction of actress Marilyn Monroe has as its basis a publicity photo of Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, Niagara; that original still was shot by photographer Gene Korman. It’s funny how Mr. Korman is usually excluded from this history.

Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is part of a series of five Marilyn Monroe silkscreen prints published on canvas; all measuring 40 x 40 inches. Each of the five prints utilize Korman’s photo, and possess a different color scheme. There is a red, orange, turquoise, and light blue version, but the sage blue variant is the one currently getting all the attention because of its enormous price tag.

Alex Rotter, chairman of Christie’s 20th and 21st century art department, stated that Warhol’s Marilyn should be placed with Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as “categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time.” Aside from the fact that Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is not a painting but a silkscreen print, Warhol’s weak-minded pop bobbles don’t come close to the preeminence of Botticelli or Da Vinci. Even the worst Picasso surpasses the best Warhol. Rotter shouldn’t be a chairman for one of Christie’s departments, but a doorman for one of their auctions.

Gene Korman’s publicity still of Marilyn Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, “Niagara.”

Gene Korman’s publicity still of Marilyn Monroe from the 1954 film noir thriller, “Niagara.”

Don’t call me an out-of-touch reactionary for not worshiping Andy Warhol. For years a reproduction of his 1982 screenprint Dollar Sign has been hanging in my studio, and the morbid punk rock side of me is intrigued by his Car Crash silkscreen series. However, I was merely amused by these prints and never attributed weightiness, masterful skill, or staggering importance to them.

Like all of Warhol’s works they were throw away pop culture images.

The sale of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn marks the ongoing commodification of art at the hands of avaricious speculators and investors. The final price of the print was not $195 million but actually $195,040,000. To the average American eaten alive by record high inflation, rising gas prices, and food shortages (thanks Biden), that’s a lot of dough. US inflation hasn’t been this high since 1981, when Ronnie Reagan won the White House from Jimmy Carter.

The Washington Post—you know, where democracy dies in darkness, let the cat out of the bag with this remark: “The record sale was set as investors seek out safe-haven investments, such as art, amid uncertainty in global financial markets fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” Uh-huh, soldiers fall, stocks rise. In other words, for the oligarchs that have a death grip on the art world’s upper strata, the experience of art is no longer one of contemplation and the wonderment of beauty. No, it’s only a “safe-haven” for investments. Money laundering anyone?

Once upon a time in the early 1960’s a taxi cab company owner named Robert Scull thought himself a big wig in the art world. He bought art for peanuts from unknowns like Warhol, who at the time was a nobody with empty pockets. Scull purchased Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills print for around $2,500; it was Warhol’s first silkscreen print. In 1986 Scull’s estate sold it for $385,000. In 2009 Sotheby’s of New York held an auction where they sold it to a nameless plutocrat for $43.8 million.

"200 One Dollar Bills." Andy Warhol, 1962. Silkscreen, ink, pencil on canvas. Photo/Sotheby’s. "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." From: Warhol in his own words – Untitled Statements ( 1963 – 1987).

"200 One Dollar Bills." Andy Warhol, 1962. Silkscreen, ink, pencil on canvas. Photo/Sotheby’s. "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." From: Warhol in his own words – Untitled Statements ( 1963 – 1987).

There’s not much else to say about Shot Sage Blue Marilyn. The print has no hidden message or particular meaning, it advocates, reveals, and supports nothing—like most of Warhol’s works it is just empty fluff. As the artist once said: “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all its meaning.” The only interesting thing about the print is the tale of Dorothy Podber, who discharged a rather explosive critique of the print.

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s Ms. Podber was a kooky bohemian artist who lived in East Village, Manhattan. She told people she was a witch, a few considered her cracked because of her unhinged practical jokes. In the late ‘50s she ran in Beatnik circles that included the likes of Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and in the early ‘60s she helped run the Nonagon Art Gallery, where Yoko Ono first unleashed her conceptual art upon New York. In retrospect that might have been one of Podber’s deranged gags.

One autumn day in 1964 Podber and her entourage showed up at Warhol’s Factory studio on East 47th. Podber wore white gloves and was costumed in a black leather motorcycle jacket with matching biker pants. She asked Warhol if she could shoot the new Marilyn Monroe canvases stacked along a wall; thinking she was a photographer he answered yes. Podber took off her white gloves, reached into her purse, pulled out a diminutive semi-auto pistol, and began shooting the Monroe images in the forehead. When finished she placed the gun in her bag, put her gloves back on, gathered her retinue, and calmly left the Factory. A terrified Andy Warhol made sure the women would never again be given access to the premises.

For some reason Warhol didn’t file charges against Podber, but he did change the title for each of the five canvasses by adding the word “shot.” Red Marilyn became Shot Red Marilyn, Orange Marilyn became Shot Orange Marilyn, and so on for the turquoise, light blue, and sage blue versions. The only canvas not damaged by gunfire was the sage blue variant, nevertheless it received the “shot” title. Warhol had the damaged silkscreened canvasses repaired. The fact that the prints had been shot only increased their value. A strange world indeed.

So there you have it, that’s the chronicle of Dorothy Podber. It’s an exquisite tale, better than the story of how Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was produced, but I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for either. CNN, always a journalistic farce, naturally reported on the $195 million sale. Their story mentioned the methods Warhol used in making various portraits of Marilyn, stating: “‘Shot Marilyns’ saw the artist shooting portraits of the star through the head with bullets.” They falsely credited Warhol, not Podber, for the vandalism. Why turn to CNN for news?

Andy Warhol’s soullessness and lack of political insight can be found in his late ‘70s work for the dictatorial monarch Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, more well known as the Shah of Iran. In 1953 the CIA staged a coup that overthrew Iran’s elected government for having nationalized Iran’s oil industry. It was the first regime change operation by the CIA. In the coup’s aftermath the Shah of Iran became the country’s iron-fisted pro-West ruler. His support primarily came from Western power brokers and Iran’s small number of Western educated elites.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (Shah of Iran). Andy Warhol. Silkscreen on paper, 1977.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (Shah of Iran). Andy Warhol. Silkscreen on paper, 1977.

However the Shah faced opposition from anti-monarchists, social democrats, leftists, and the working poor. But it was the fundamentalist Shi’a muslim majority that posed his biggest threat.

To maintain control the Shah established a massive secret police force that used kidnappings, imprisonment, beatings, torture, and assassinations to eliminate opponents. That was the situation in Iran when Warhol decided to visit the country in 1976.

The purpose of his sojourn was to take photos of the Shah and his wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi. The two Royals had commissioned Warhol to create their portraits in silkscreen.

Warhol delivered his finished commission to the Shah and the Empress in 1977, and was pictured posing with Empress Farah in front of her portrait in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum was founded in ‘77 by Farah, who also inaugurated its opening and was responsible for it’s expansion. In the 70’s Farah had purchased classical and contemporary art from a great number of Western artists, amassing the largest collection of Western art outside the US and Europe with an estimated worth is $3 billion. The Shi’a of Iran living under the Shah’s brutality couldn’t have cared less about her museum.

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Empress Farah Pahlavi. Andy Warhol. Silkscreen, 1977.

Many in the West were vexed that Warhol collaborated with the Shah. In 1977 the Village Voice published an article written by Alexander Cockburn, James Ridgeway, and Jan Albert titled Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture.

They mentioned the “fascist chic’s recording angel, Andy Warhol, with his Polaroid and his tape recorder,” as being one of the “beautiful people” who supported “one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century.” A violent revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979, sweeping fundamentalist Islamists into power; they banned modern art and closed the Tehran Museum. The Islamists hid Farah’s entire collection in the museum’s basement for decades.

Ironically the Jihadi militants allowed a small number of works from Farah’s collection to be exhibited in 2021, the show was titled: A Review of Andy Warhol’s Works. It displayed Warhol’s silly soup cans, and his silkscreen portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and the founding leader of Communist China, Mao Zedong. The Islamists left hidden in the basement the portraits of the Shah of Iran and Empress Farah Pahlavi… something the poor fools who flocked to the exhibition were never told. I bring up Warhol’s escapades in Iran to drive home a point. He was a liberal, but his political convictions were as shallow as the happy talk pablum one could read in the self-published Interview magazine he founded in 1969. Having been to Iran he knew what the score was, but it didn’t matter to him. He was obsessed with celebrity and money, and the Shah and Empress Farah had plenty of both.

Empress Farah Pahlavi with Andy Warhol at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unknown, 1977.

Empress Farah Pahlavi with Andy Warhol at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unknown, 1977.

In the mid-70s Warhol was also trying to get a portrait commission out of Imelda Marcos, the clothes-horse wife of Philippine dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos.

At the time many people in the Philippines couldn’t afford footwear, but Imelda had a growing collection of over 3,000 expensive shoes—I’m sure that impressed Warhol. Unfortunately for him the commission never came through, as the people of the Philippines drove Ferdinand and Imelda from power in the “People Power Revolution.” Wow, Andy sure could pick ‘em.

Toward the end of his meteoric career, Warhol remained preoccupied with the celebrity elite, but his limitless portraits of them became ever more superficial, monotonous, and geared towards quick market success. He had become the living embodiment of his famed quote “good business is the best art,” only he wasn’t producing his best any longer. As his works slipped into mediocrity, Andy Warhol was transformed into a dead metaphor by the corporate press, which endlessly repeated claims of his being a genius; they continue to make such declarations today.

In his brilliant 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, Robert Hughes (1938-2012) interviewed billionaire art dealer and collector Alberto Mugrabi, a man who at the time had some 800 Warhol’s in his private collection. Hughes asked Mugrabi “What’s your opinion of Warhol?” The collector answered, “I think he is probably the most visionary artist of our time.” Hughes responded with, “I thought he was one of the stupidest people I ever met in my life…. because he had nothing to say.”

Robert Hughes took a stand against the commodification and denigration of art by monied elites, and because of that stance he was the only art critic to gain my respect. In 2009 he won the International Emmy for Arts Programming for The Mona Lisa Curse, yet his documentary film has been almost entirely scrubbed from the internet. It certainly is never mentioned by the gatekeepers of the art world, whose mega-profits are threatened by the truths Hughes told. For that reason alone you should watch the movie.

After receiving the award, Hughes’ final remarks during the ceremony were these, perhaps the best way to close this report: “Forget about the prices. Forget about what Sotheby’s and Christie’s has been doing about our perception of art. Just remember what the serious art is, and why, if we love it, we do love it.”

The Tragedy of Vessel, Staircase to Nowhere

Have you heard about Vessel? It’s a giant climbable sculpture at the center of Hudson Yards, the $25 billion real estate development that masquerades as a neighborhood in the far west-side of midtown Manhattan, New York City. The creation and demise of Vessel is a cautionary tale on the foibles of contemporary art, but it’s also a metaphor for the crisis of American urbanism, and how media passes off unworthy works and individuals as impressive and noteworthy. Vessel is the zeitgeist of postmodern art. Allow me to fill in the details.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project is the brainchild of New York real estate firm The Related Companies. Founded by billionaire Stephen M. Ross, the firm became an inexorable force in developing commercial properties. Hudson Yards is a city unto itself, but it should remind readers of the dystopian story The Hunger Games, where a class of frivolous and diversion obsessed elites attempted to rule over a ruined and fragmented society.

The official opening of Hudson Yards and Vessel took place on March 15, 2019. CNN’s pretend journalist Anderson Cooper moderated the affair. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer gave a frothy speech, and then Big Bird the anthropomorphic muppet joined with Cooper, Stephen M. Ross, Sen. Schumer, and Thomas Heatherwick (designer of the gigantic staircase to nowhere), to launch Vessel in a flurry of confetti. A gospel choir sang out praises, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performed. It was all quite the spectacle, and no one had a clue what awaited them.

The 28-acre Hudson Yards complex is a huge gentrification project that hopes to transform an aging neighborhood into an exclusive enclave for the affluent. In part it offers 16 imposing skyscrapers with classy office space for some 55,000 employees, plus posh apartments and condos for 5,000 au courant swells (apartments go for $9,000 a month and condos start at $2 million). There is an arts center named The Shed for swanks like you, innumerable chic boutiques, cafes, bars, restaurants, an exclusive hotel, plus “public space” and gardens for the voguish to stroll through… et cetera, et cetera. But the center of Hudson Yards is its massive “public square” where Vessel dominates.

The Related Companies felt a bona fide tourist attraction was needed to draw happy shoppers into their Hudson Yards consumer paradise and real estate scheme. You know, a special touch to put a human face on the commercial development, investing in the “public space” and all that. It was essential for the attraction to offer, or at least appear to offer, something for the city’s goldbricks, clock-watchers, and proles to unite around. An iconic object to inspire unlimited selfies and generate free advertising to attract customers like moths to a flame. Enter the celebrated English postmodern designer and architect, Thomas Heatherwick.

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Heatherwick was commissioned to create the attraction, and he delivered Vessel, an eight level, sixteen-stories high, tangled labyrinth of 154 connected staircases with eighty landings and 2,500 steps that go nowhere.

The 150-foot-tall structure was envisioned as an immersive design experience where people would socialize while getting a bird’s eye view of the megalopolis. The armature of Vessel is concrete covered with copper-colored steel.

But all of Vessel’s 75 enormous pre-fabricated steel pieces were fabricated in Italy because the miracle of globalism has nearly shut down America’s steel industry. Starting at its base Vessel is 50 feet across, and floor by floor it expands in width until it becomes 150 feet wide at its top level.

Vessel became an irresistible backdrop for selfies, but more than a few detractors rechristened it “the pineapple,” “beehive,” “wastepaper basket,” “pinecone,” “rat’s nest,” “Chalice of the Privileged,” “giant shawarma,” and other ill-favored nicknames.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

Personally I think it looks like the extinct marine arthropod known as the Trilobite. Some pretentious artsy-fartsy types said it looked like one of those impossible staircases by Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972). I am certain that suggestion would have displeased Escher.

I discovered Escher as a pre-teen and fell in love with his lithographs, woodcuts, and mezzotint prints. I studied them not for their impossible perspectives but for their technique and off-kilter realism. He inflamed my passion for printmaking. Escher considered himself not an artist but a mathematician. It speaks volumes that the art world basically ignored him his entire life; his first retrospective came when he was 70-years old (he would die at age 73). Who will Thomas Heatherwick inspire? Certainly not me.

Heatherwick’s whimsical joke of a building cost $200 million to construct, but no one is laughing. I realize pseudo-intellectuals and the terminally trendy say he is the new Leonardo da Vinci of design, but few noticed Leonardo’s Vessel had, shall we say… design flaws. For instance, those damnable stairs.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

I was privileged to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France before some idiot burned it down. Since medievalist engineers did not equip churches with elevators, I climbed up and down its stone steps to visit the rooftop gargoyles; those 774 steps were a real workout.

I visited the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, it was exhausting to climb up and down its 1,066 rough hewn steps to gain access to the rooftop view of the city. It goes without saying that the history of those two Cathedrals was more than awe inspiring.

Now imagine the Vessel’s labyrinth of 2,500 steps, and the herculean task of climbing all 5,000 to go up and down this “interactive” cardio nightmare of a sculpture. What is the point of all that marching up and down? Heatherwick must surely despise the elderly. Worse, the structure offers not a single bench or place to sit, and its one tiny elevator is exclusively for people with disabilities; nonetheless, the elevator only stops on floors 5, 7, and 8.

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Climbing Notre Dame Cathedral and Cologne Cathedral were well worth the effort, but the giant shawarma? I have visited authentic tourist attractions around the world, places like the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in Yucatán, Mexico, the ancient Roman Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the 17th century home of American patriot Paul Revere in Boston, Massachusetts.

These and other attractions I sojourned to are steeped in history and meaning; they are stirring points of interest. But what profundity does Vessel extend, aside from being a backdrop for smartphone photos?

However, Vessel has a much bigger problem than its steps. It is cursed by its railings. They are only 4-feet-high, even at its 150-foot-high eighth level. They are low enough for your average teen or adult to jump over—and jump they did.

The first suicide took place in Feb. 2020, when a 19-year-old man leapt from the Vessel’s uppermost deck. The second suicide occurred in Dec. 2020 when a 24-year-old woman also hopped over the railings at the eighth-floor to meet her demise. The third suicide happened in Jan. 2021 when a 21-year-old-man on the eighth-floor bounded over the railings to his death.

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A day after the third suicide Vessel was closed to the public so that “safety measures” could be instituted to prevent further deaths. Suicide prevention signs were mounted on the building and affixed to the railings. More security personnel were hired. Visitors were banned from entering Vessel alone, and though entry was once free visitants now had to pay a $10 entry fee (as if paying admission would prevent suicide). The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number was printed on the admission tickets. Everything was done to insure safety… except for raising the height of the railings, which is something The Related Companies refused to do, despite pleas from suicide prevention specialists. A “safer” Vessel reopened on May 28, 2021.

On July 29, 2021, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from the top floor of Vessel. That same day the building was closed, perhaps forevermore.

So there you have it, all that effort come to naught. London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), educated Thomas Heatherwick. That institute also boasts Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman as alumni. How can a prestigious institution of art and design like the RCA cultivate, encourage, and champion such charlatans? It’s simple really. Postmodernist dogma with its aesthetics of ugly, superficial, kitsch, reigns supreme in universities and art academies; museums, galleries, and art critics are also spellbound by the doctrine. Critiques of Heatherwick and his postmodern cohorts are negligible because they are favored by the ruling elites. Even though Vessel has proven to be a literal deathtrap, its designer is viewed as blameless. The art world reaps what it sows.

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the quagmires facing the contemporary art world—with its steady stream of horrid, silly, incomprehensible, and frightfully expensive thingamajigs, is its having become contemptuous of the public. Witness those workday-world New Yorkers who mocked Vessel as a “wastepaper basket,” “rat’s nest,” and “Chalice of the Privileged.” They were ignored by sophisticates who regarded them as uncultivated and artless. The corps d’elite simply doubled down on their Vessel nonsense. And the big payoff? Four tragic suicides, traumatized families, the $200 million Vessel closed indefinitely, and calls for it to be torn down.

I do not write the following to cast aspersions on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but since they promoted Vessel in a video and performed at its official opening they are open to critique. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform in Los Angeles years ago, and it is widely acknowledged the troupe has had an impact on modern dance. Still, I found their Vessel promo film to be regretful.

For the task of glorifying Vessel the dance company abandoned their autonomy and took money from The Related Companies, the multi-billion dollar real estate firm behind Vessel’s creation. The firm hired visual effects studio MILL+ to produce the Alvin Ailey film. The effects studio specializes in producing “immersive experiences” for entertainment franchises and product promotions. I hate to break it to the dance troupe but this is not art, it’s advertising. Related Companies has left its imprimatur on the legacy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and that’s a shame.

The MILL+ production with the Alvin Ailey troupe is titled The Film, and it opens with a morning scene in New York City. Troupe members are shown dancing their way through the cosmopolis; they undulate over cobblestone streets, and with fluid free-style steps glide through the subway, leaping up stairs and down avenues on a journey to an unknown destination. Eyes lift from sidewalks to tall buildings to see strange shadows of the climbable sculpture cast upon the edifices. Reaching Hudson Yards the group dances triumphantly; presumably they are dancing at the feet of the gigantic Vessel, even though it is never seen. In the final frames the troupe is observed from above gathered in a loose circle, arms thrust skyward as if in spiritual exaltation. Their bodies cast a growing shadow, the eerie penumbra taking on the shape of the Vessel.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

Though not shown in the video, all I could see were ghostlike figures jumping from the top of the shadowy Vessel, they were leaping into suicidal oblivion. That is what the Vessel has become… a grave marker for postmodernism.

None of this comes as a surprise, I have long felt darkness was falling over the art world. I was 19-years-old in 1972 when an unfamiliar character named Christo spent $700,000 hanging orange nylon fabric across Rifle Gap in Colorado. It wasn’t the first time I despaired for art, and it wouldn’t be the last. I felt the gloom when wrecking cranes destroyed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2020-2021, and when mobs began defacing and pulling down historic classical sculptures in public places during the summer of 2020 and beyond. Graffiti finding a home in art museums didn’t help any. But the implosion of Vessel was the last straw, it was akin to watching the final curtain coming down on the theater of postmodernism—and there was no applause.

It is said “art is a reflection of society,” but who shapes society? The people of NYC didn’t ask for a $200 million “wastepaper basket,” it was imposed upon them by a giant real estate firm and the city’s ruling Democrats. Society, such as it is, had nothing to do with it. But then again… New York City’s newly elected Mayor Eric Adams (D) approved legislation in January 2022 giving nearly a million non-citizens the right to vote in city elections. And the just elected District Attorney for Manhattan, Alvin Bragg (D), has downgraded armed robbery to a misdemeanor, making it a non-jailable offense. And that is why the city is called Gotham.

Perhaps Heatherwick’s $200 million “rat’s nest” really is the appropriate icon for New York City. As the Rolling Stones sang in their 1978 song titled Shattered, “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.”