Wojnarowicz bio

Artist biographies are my Oprah. They inspire me, they arm me with art-world anecdotes that guarantee I’m the life of the party, and they have just enough educational value to make them guilt-free.

I don’t live in New York and I have minimal contact with “the art world,” so I especially enjoy detailed accounts of the lives of contemporary artists. I want to know what they eat for breakfast, who they date, and how they spend their free time. During the several years I spent writing about contemporary Taiwanese art for the Taipei Times newspaper, I tried to present the artists I interviewed as real people, rather than only focusing on their work. Of course the work is important, and I’m equally interested in process, studio practice, influences, and to some extent theory, but the story-lover in me can’t resist a well-rounded character.

Imagine how pleased I was to find three newish books about contemporary artists on Amazon: Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (2012), Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusuma (translated by Ralph McCarthy, English version 2011), and Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone (2012).

If you’re looking for something well-written, start with Kusuma, hold your breath through Fischl, and roll your eyes at Wojnarowicz. (Hire more editors, folks.) If you’re looking for content, I’d recommend Wojnarowicz first, then Kusuma, and Fischl last.

Wojnarowicz (“pronounced Voyna-ROW-vich” we’re told in the introduction) describes a terribly frightening period in modern history. It’s hard slash impossible for twenty-first century us to imagine a time when frequent, unprotected sex with strangers didn’t obviously lead to slow, painful death, and Carr conveys this very well. Spoiler alert: Everyone dies of AIDS. They die and everyone knows they’re dying because they get sores on their faces and become bed-ridden and helpless and obnoxious. Carr presents death and Wojnarowicz in a straight-forward way that made me feel I was learning about both.

I wasn’t very familiar with Wojnarowicz’s art when I began the book, though I was familiar with the 80s art market from books like Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat: A Quick Killing in the Art Market. Basquiat and Wojnarowicz rose to fame quickly, sparkled, and died. They shared a confidence in their work that allowed them to get a lot done in a short amount of time; I suppose that’s part of the graffiti background. It’s hard to imagine either of them staring at a blank canvas for very long. Of course Wojnarowicz didn’t typically work on canvas, and that’s an important aspect of his art and his time: Art could be anything. He used found images and objects, took photographs and video, made collages and sculpture, and painted directly on walls.

While reading Fire in the Belly, the former newspaper editor in me was slightly annoyed by Carr regularly referring to Wojnarowicz as “David.” Now I know why. After typing his family name about eight times, you’re pretty much done. According to the book, even “David” himself used the last name “Voyna” for a while, presumably for the same reason.

I’d recommend Fire in the Belly to anyone interested in Wojnarovicz, 80s New York art, or the AIDS epidemic, but I can’t say it was a “good read” as some of the writing was pretty much awful. I’m going to get a bit nit-picky here.

Page 108: “[Wojnarowicz] began with a new project called ‘Study of the Internal Anatomy of the Face,’ a visual record of places where something had occurred to effect his life, his consciousness …” This is egregious, and I’d think any trained editor would have caught the affect/effect mistake. The presumably missing editor might have also straightened out some of the regular clunky sentences. I didn’t read this book to search out mistakes, but often found myself rereading sentences about two males that included too many “he”s, or getting caught on silly errors like page 504’s quotation of Paul Marcus discussing a drawing game: “Then it grew into these other compartment.” Perhaps English wasn’t Marcus’s first language (“sic” would have sufficed), or perhaps it’s another typo. Either way, my forehead scrunched and I was pulled out of the story.

Kusuma bio

I read Kusuma second, and I found it much easier on the forehead. I suppose this is because a translator would by trade be more likely to pay attention to grammar and readability. I can’t read Japanese, but I assume McCarthy did a good job of conveying Kusuma’s sassy wit and unapologetic criticism of both American and Japanese conservatism. To be fair to Wojnarowicz author Carr and publisher Bloomsbury, there are typos in Kusuma too, but it flows much, much betterly.

As for Kusuma the person and artist, I’m a bit biased. As you see from the pic of the book cover, she dresses flamboyantly. When I lived in Taiwan I met a few artists, especially female artists, who considered her a hero. I attended an artist lecture at the 2009 Asian Art Biennial in Taichung,  and it was impossible not to notice that Kusuma was in attendance. I wasn’t very familiar with her art at the time, but I knew that she was “the obsessive dot lady who had checked herself into a mental institution,” and her dress and wig were similar to the ones she wore while posing for the book cover. It was one of those situations where everyone knows there’s someone famous in the room, and we were all trying hard not to stare. Partway through the lecture Kusuma got up and hobbled towards the back door. As she passed by, she looked straight at me with her big, sad eyes and smiled sympathetically. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for her since that moment.

Kusuma’s charm shows through well in Infinity Net. It reads a bit like a fairy tale and I liked it from the very beginning, where she describes herself as a provincial Japanese girl who became pen pals with Georgia O’Keefe before venturing off alone to New York.  O’Keefe later visited Kusama in her studio there. Kusuma describes the roots of her art and mental illness, her odd relationship with Joseph Cornell, and her flash-mob orgies with equal flair.

This is just what I want from an artist biography: good reading for the whole family. You don’t need to be interested in art to enjoy Infinity Net. I’m reminded of Borges’ reviews of books that don’t exist. Good writing is compelling regardless of the subject. I have no interest in golf, but I loved Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf. Carr’s Fire in the Belly was good for its Wikipedia factor; Infinity Net is just good literature.

Fischl bio

Of the three books I’m describing here, Eric Fischl’s intrigued me the most, so I saved it for last. The title had me hooked: Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas. The back cover features a quote about how Fischl “survived his dreadful childhood, conquered a nearly fatal addiction to booze and cocaine, [and] salvaged his marriage to the marvelous painter April Gornik.” In retrospect, I should have been more wary of a review using the term “marvelous,” which seems more appropriate for a circus or firework show than a landscape painter.

Bad Boy fits into a category of artist bios that aren’t quite literature and aren’t about anyone who leads a terribly interesting life. The sentences roll out in an easy-going, foamy flatness that may be a remnant of Fischl’s time at CalArts. He’s troubled by a childhood with an alcoholic mother, he goes to art school, he teaches, his first marriage isn’t successful but his second is, and when he becomes famous he drinks and snorts cocaine. His hitting-rock-bottom moment is an argument with a stranger on the side of the street next to a police officer. No one gets arrested or throws punches or dies. Fischl just feels like a douche, so he goes sober.

Page 211: “I made a vow that day never to take another drink or do drugs again. And since then I haven’t taken a sip of alcohol or a hit of cocaine. I don’t want to make too much of it. I know what alcoholism, addiction, and abuse are, and I wasn’t there yet.” And that’s the end of his “nearly fatal addiction.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fischl’s artwork. If I could choose one piece to hang in my living room by any of the three artists I’m writing about, I’d choose Fischl’s painting Sleepwalker. It depicts a naked teenage boy standing in a backyard kiddie pool at night, and you’re not sure but it looks like the boy is peeing or masturbating. (If you haven’t seen it, please look it up; I’m not reproducing it here because I try to stick to photos I’ve taken myself.) It’s crudely painted and hugely subversive, just my thing. It’s cheeky. I like art that combines humor and poignancy. I’m not nearly as excited about his later India paintings or the group portraits of him and his well-to-do friends yucking it up for the camera on sunny beaches, but he’s still a good painter.

Bad Boy has a few tasty anecdotes, particularly about Fischl’s rivalry with Julian Schnabel, but it seems that he holds back when it comes to the New York party scene. I guess I was hoping for crazy stories à la drunk, naked Jackson Pollock urinating in the fireplace at Peggy Guggenheim’s society party. Fischl describes his art very well though, with explanations of how he developed his painting processes and detailed descriptions of how he started and finished his most famous paintings. Painters will appreciate Bad Boy, as will fans of Fischl’s work.

I’m now enjoying Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror, a biography of Norman Rockwell. Maybe I’ll review it in a later post. In the meantime, let me know of any good art reading you come by. And if you like artist bios, check out my earlier posts touching on books about John James Audubon, Arshile Gorky and Gerhard Richter here, and Martin Kippenberger here.

2013.April.17, 9:09pm
Filed under: 2013.APRIL | Tags: , , , , ,
My first proof of 61 Pedestrians (Etching).

My first proof of 61 Pedestrians (Etching).

I love to try new things, and it’s tempting for me to abandon everything I’ve learned each time I begin a project. Experience has shown, however, that starting anew isn’t always the best way forward. My art progresses the most when I select what I like about a piece or a series, keep that constant, and limit my variables.

With that in mind, I decided that my first foray into zinc-plate etching should expand on something I’m already very familiar with — my Pedestrian Series (examples on my website).

As the images in the series are line-based, I chose to work with a hard ground. That means I coated my zinc plate with a thin, brown layer of waxy “ground,” let it dry, and then carved my image into the ground with a stylus called a Whistler’s needle. The lines that I scratched into the wax exposed the shiny zinc plate below. I then set the plate in an acid bath so that the exposed lines were etched into the plate, while the waxy ground protected the rest of the plate.

The delicate de-bubbling process.

The delicate de-bubbling process.

In the above picture you see my plate in the acid bath. The light figures are the places where I carved away the waxy ground with my Whistler’s needle, and the dark background is the ground. The reaction of the acid and the exposed zinc plate creates small bubbles that need to be brushed off with a feather, or else they’ll leave a small bubble pattern that will distort the lines.

After etching the plate in the acid batch and cleaning off the ground with mineral spirits, I had a clean zinc plate with tiny grooves etched into it. This was covered in ink and then carefully wiped off, leaving ink in the grooves, but not on the surface of the plate. I then set a piece of paper on the plate and ran it through a very tight press, pushing the fibers of the paper into the inked grooves, and wa-lah! — the image you see at the top of this post.

That's the spirits.

That’s the spirits.

It all sounds simple enough, but it does take time, especially while you’re inking and wiping the plate prior to printing. You can only run the plate through the press once, for a single print, and then you need to ink and wipe again, which takes at least ten minutes. Whenever you finish printing, the plate can be cleaned with mineral spirits and stored until you’re ready to ink-wipe-print again.

I have two more days in the printmaking studio at Golden West College here in Huntington Beach, and I plan to use them experimenting with different inking/wiping techniques. For my first proof I left a lot of “plate tone” to give it a must old-fashioned look, and I want to see what a print will look like if I wipe a little more for a cleaner image.

If any of you have etching experience, let me know if you have any suggestions. If you don’t, I wonder if my description of the process made sense to you — it’s all pretty easy if you’re doing it. Feel like you know how it works?

163 Pedestrians (Tread) - DETAIL 130x22 inchesInk on paper

163 Pedestrians (Tread) – DETAIL 1
30×22 inches
Ink on paper

I’ve been working on my Pedestrian Series since I moved from Taiwan to California in late 2011. So far all the pieces are ink on paper. I like scribbling out rough-looking figures and arranging them in neat grids, something like the looser styles of Chinese calligraphy. In my earlier works from the series, I lined the figures up in a very straightforward manner. Every figure in a piece took up the same amount of space, and they were placed in simple columns and rows.

Above and below are details from my latest piece in the series, 163 Pedestrians (Tread). The full piece can be viewed here. Recently I’ve been toying with patterns, and I came up with the layout of Tread while thinking about basic weave patterns. I like the way the picture plane looks three-dimensional from different angles.

163 Pedestrians (Tread) - DETAIL 2

163 Pedestrians (Tread) – DETAIL 2

163 Pedestrians (Tread) - DETAIL 3

163 Pedestrians (Tread) – DETAIL 3

163 Pedestrians (Tread) - DETAIL 4

163 Pedestrians (Tread) – DETAIL 4

Once I get a few more images of my newer work ready, I’ll compare the different patterns I’ve been experimenting with.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Francois-Henri, Duke of Harcourt, ~1769

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Francois-Henri, Duke of Harcourt (Detail 1), ~1769

I’ve been thinking of this painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard since I saw it a couple weeks ago at the Getty in Los Angeles (detail above). It’s certainly not the kind of thing I’d expect from the painter of The Swing and other cloying confections. The impasto brushwork looks more like something you’d expect from Goya or Rembrandt. And wouldn’t you know it, Frago admired and sometimes copied Rembrandt’s paintings, according to John Canaday in The Lives of the Painters. (By the way, the excellent-condition, four-volume, used hardcover Lives is by far the best US$4 I ever spent on Amazon. Think I may have overpaid — there’s a set on Amazon now for $3.64.)

Detail 2

Detail 2

Stepping back a bit the head emerges. I wonder if a less confident artist would have tried to blend in the four grey marks on the duke’s jowls.

Fragonard 3

Fragonard, Francois-Henri, Duke of Harcourt

Here’s the full picture, above. Don’t know if I would have been terribly interested to take a closer look if I’d just seen this image in a book. There’s an affected gallantry that I imagine the subject loved, but it strikes me as a little over the top. Glad I did though. The placard next to this painting notes that Frago spent “as little as an hour to complete each of the canvases” of the series that includes this work, which helps explain the “bravura brushwork of rapid, fluid strokes.”

I’m particularly interested in this Fragonard painting right now because I’ve been working on a similar effect in my Pedestrian Series. I discussed the difficulty of photographing my work and the importance of viewing my work in person in an earlier post. Below is a detail from my last work of 2012:

Blake Carter, 335 Pedestrians (Skull) (Detail 1), 2012

Blake Carter, 335 Pedestrians (Skull) (Detail 1), 2012

Recently I decided to try something that I’ve been knocking around for a while. I’ve been drawing figures with Sakura Pigma pens and Faber-Castell PITT Artist pens for a few years and feel I have a bit of control with them, despite the fact my process is reliant on a lot of “happy accidents” that occur while I’m scribbling. In the detail above you can see the variety of marks I use.

Detail 2

Detail 2

From the little distance of the image above (detail appr 2×3 inches), it’s obvious the marks in my piece describe individual figures. There are parts with heavier marks, and parts with lighter marks.

Detail 3

Detail 3

Now you see what I’m getting at. By altering the weight of the marks in each figure, I can use the smaller figures to create a larger image.

Carter, 335 Pedestrians (Skull)

Carter, 335 Pedestrians (Skull)

There’s the full piece, above. Nothing revolutionary. When I was in high school, the art teacher gridded out a Leibovitz picture of Jim Morrison and had her students each draw a small piece (maybe a foot square), then arranged them all and hung them in the lunchroom. Chuck Close also comes to mind, as well as every super-realist who talks about concentrating on the individual grids in an image and treating them as small, abstract paintings that add up to completed pieces resembling photographs.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s very important when looking at art, and paintings in particular. Any figurative or landscape piece can be broken up into an infinite number of smaller, abstract images. I’m currently reading a book about Alice Neel (Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban), who worked in New York in the middle of the last century, a time when critics and artists vigorously proclaimed allegiance to abstract versus figurative art.

They all seem a bit silly now. If I fail to see the figure of a woman in a painting from de Kooning’s Woman Series, is it abstract? What if I think Franz Kline’s work looks derivative of Chinese characters — does that make it more based in visual reality?

2012.November.12, 2:59pm
Filed under: 2012.NOVEMBER, SCRAPS | Tags: , , , , , ,

Killer bees attack (column 12, row 2).

Above and below are details from 255 Pedestrians (and Stroller), completed late last night. As in most of my recent works, I’m playing around with ways to make marks using Sakura Pigma Graphic and Sakura Pigma Micron pens. I’ve also been trying to push myself to draw more women. For some reason Freudian or otherwise, I tend to enmasculate females when I’m drawing. I figure it’s something to do with mirrors.  Regardless, I don’t often hear complaints that there are too many women around.

Shrunken-head Pablo (column 11, row 11).

Stretch pants (column 5, row 14).

This is one of my favorites from this piece. No pedestrian really, just scribbly swirls.

Some of these lines cut into the paper, so up close this almost looks like bas relief (column 6, row 8).

I wanted suggestion to play a big part in this drawing. Does this woman have feet? (column 1, row 2)

Eventually I’ll get an image of the final piece up on my gallery of finished works, for now it’s on my Facebook page.


In my previous post I noted how differently pieces from my Pedestrian Series look in real life and in photographs. Here are more close-ups, this time from 255 Pedestrians, a piece I finished yesterday. Watch the figure above as you scroll down. Starting with her, I zoom out to show the surrounding eight figures, then the sixteen figures surrounding those, and etc, up to the finished work.


The above detail is about 2.5 inches across. One thing my ongoing show in Laguna has taught me is that my current works look much, much better in real life than they do in photographs or on a monitor. The most basic problem is that the plane of our eyes’ focus changes constantly, and this is impossible to achieve with a camera. Even line art on the slickest vellum looks much better to the eye than it ever could in print. In a previous post I noted how happy I was that a friend and collector chose to hang my work at the end of the entrance hallway of his house; the pride of place was flattering, but I also know that people entering his door will see my piece from a distance first, and then their focus will change as they approach the wall on which it’s hung.

Below are five works I’ve completed since sending pieces for my current show to the framer. I’ve been experimenting around with my Pedestrian Series:

Now here’s what I love most about this series. Each figure is composed of rough, abstract lines and forms that together add up to the images you see from a distance. In a photograph, these forms are only visible in a close-up view:

In these details, you can see how the ink is sometimes jammed down into the porous watercolor paper, while at other times the pen has been roughly slid along the surface, and still others, the ink sits atop the paper in a layer:

I’ve been playing around with introducing color into these works. Below is a detail of a piece that includes marks using Prismacolor Premier markers, but I’m not sure if I like the way the ink soaks into the paper so easily. You can tell the difference between the thick orange lines (Prismacolor) and the fine red lines (my usual Sakura pens) flaring out from the figures:

Here’s another experiment. For this piece I coated the paper with a layer of black acrylic paint, and then scraped the white forms out with an X-acto blade:

Another view of the same piece, showing how the individual images look up close and further away. Only with the naked eye can you see both views of the same image at the same time.